Toadstool Shadow's 'Folk Songs of the American Wood Elf' goes from book to album to movie
The Chillicothe-via-Yellow Springs 'elfcore' act will screen its new film, based on the band's latest album, at Studio 35 on Saturday night
About 20 years ago, Ohio musician Chris Till saw a book in a pile on the curb. It was a children’s book, and the cover depicted an anthropomorphic rabbit taking shelter from the rain underneath a red mushroom. Till rescued the book – I am a Bunny, illustrated by Richard Scarry – from the pile.
"That image of the bunny underneath the Amanita muscaria mushroom, which is one of the shamanic mushrooms, I just love that image,” Till said recently by phone from his home in Chillicothe, where he recently moved after living in Yellow Springs. “It's really peaceful — this little bunny taking shelter — and it was that image that sprouted the [band] name Toadstool Shadow.”
Scarry’s illustrations also kickstarted the idea for Toadstool Shadow’s 2020 psych-pop album, Rainbow Nights, which tells the story of a 7-year-old bunny who stays dry underneath a giant toadstool. “When the rain stops and night falls, he hops home alone through the rainbow night,” Till said. “There are seven songs — ‘Red Night,’ ‘Orange Night,’ Yellow Night,’ ‘Green Night’ and so on. And as he hops home, he keeps encountering bands of fairies and elves playing music all through the night. Some of them initially are quite pleasant and amusing, so it's fun to see these fantastical creatures. But then as the night goes on, it gets spooky.”
The journey set the tone for Toadstool Shadow, a self-dubbed “elfcore” band that doubles as a conceptual art project predicated on the idea that bands of fairies and elves are hiding in bushes and alleyways all around us. “A fairy tale opera was this 1700s/1800s French and German art form that's kind of defunct now, but they would tell serious stories through fairy tale characters,” said Till, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who last year hosted “New Elf City,” an imaginary music festival on the moon. “A theme through all of this stuff is that there's a hidden realm just out of our common awareness.”
The little bunny made it home safely at the end of Rainbow Nights, but the story wasn’t over. Part two of the fairy tale opera arrived last month with Toadstool Shadow’s album Folk Songs of the American Wood Elf, which catches up with the bunny years later, at age 19.
“He is an intense rabbit, sort of troubled, because he always remembers what happened to him as a boy. He had this fantastic visionary experience, but he has never really known whether it was real or a delusion or a dream,” Till said. “It was so profound for him, but it's not something you can commonly discuss.”
To resolve this tension, the rabbit goes back into the rainbow nights, but this time he brings along a video camera to document the experience, capturing the fairies and elves on film. Till and his bandmates also created videos to accompany these new songs, which serve as a taxonomy of fantastical creatures, including unicorns, mermaids, leprechauns and more.
Eventually, Toadstool Shadow, with the help of lead videographer Eli Bowsman, completed a movie script and shot enough footage for a 40-minute film, “Folk Songs of the American Wood Elf,” which will screen at Clintonville movie theater Studio 35 on Saturday, Sept. 11, at 11:30 p.m. (The film features two Columbus actors: LeoDavid Fernandez as a leprechaun and Mary Weilbacher as a mermaid.)
The late-night showing fits the vibe of the movie perfectly, said Till, who envisions the experience as a callback to 1970s midnight screenings of cheaply made B-movies. “It's amateurish,” he said. “We were just figuring this out as we went along.”
Despite the fairy-tale setting and storybook characters, the movie isn’t for kids. For one, this part of the story doesn’t end well. The rabbit brings his video documentation to a friendly but incompetent psychiatrist, who diagnoses the bunny with schizophrenia and prescribes psychoactive drugs.
“It’s about sanity and the nature of reality and what's really going on in the world. Is there really magic? Is there really another dimension?” Till said. “I personally believe that there is another realm, another world that is adjacent to ours that we don't notice.”
The bunny, though, is not doomed to a fate of psychoactive drugs and false diagnoses. His story is not yet complete. Like all good mythical journeys, this Toadstool Shadow epic is a trilogy. Part three, Journey to Glass Mountain, comes next.