By Jef Krohn
Photos by Miri Stebivka
Historically, the Saxons were a group of Germanic tribal misfits who became great conquerors, eventually establishing the kingdom of England. The unlikely bunch banded together to overcome insurmountable odds in extreme circumstances, and were ultimately extremely victorious. When we take Kyle Morton—lead singer and co-founder of Typhoon, a local band of twelve musicians—into consideration for admiration of such magnitude, the expectation, at least at first glance, falls short. He’s soft spoken, small in stature, extremely shy, and carries with him a seemingly fragile sense of innocence. When you listen to Typhoon, you can’t help but be drawn to the soft, timid, unsure voice he brings to the forefront of every complex and dimensional song. However, after taking a closer, less impulsive look, you find that Morton meets the criteria of a Saxon not simply because his high school alma mater is the South Salem Saxons—but because his hidden strength, determination, and blatant fortitude redefine the term.
His story has an ultra-ordinary beginning. Morton recalls a story his father once shared with him: “It started with my mother and father on a romantic getaway at the North Fork near Santiam, Oregon with candles, and…well, my father described it to me at one point, to my great nausea—and—well…here I am!” Born in Salem, Oregon in September of 1985, Morton had a fairly normal upbringing. His father was a passionate chef who owned and operated Morton’s Steak House (a fine dining experience of which this writer was very fond, growing up), and his mother was a loving, supportive elementary school teacher and later principal. He did the normal things kids do; his favorite childhood toy was a play tent. “We’d set it up in our living room of the first house we had, the house I was born in. I remember it very well—my sister and I would hide in the tent and my dad, if we could convince him, would pretend to be the monster and besiege the tent.” From a very young age, it seems Morton was unknowingly preparing himself for the battles he would face later on.
Music was always a part of Morton’s life, starting with piano at the age of five. “I started taking these huge group lessons that I hated. I liked playing the piano. I was always very much wanting to play, but there was too much talking… Then I took proper piano lessons at Weathers Music. I started taking guitar lessons, which is when I learned a lot.” He also had a flood of musical influences, thanks to his parents. “There are pictures of me as a baby naked and dancing around the house to Bruce Springsteen. I remember my dad had a big record player and stereo system and they were always blasting—like, I remember Annie Lennox, for two years, being blasted in the house…and Crash Test Dummies were another big one.”
At age 12, Morton was faced with his first epic battle. Bit by a tick and infected with Lyme disease—an infection which, if left untreated, attacks the central nervous system. Eventually organs start shutting down. As Morton explains, “It was several months before the infection was diagnosed, enough for it to progress through three stages of the disease. It’s a very fast progressing infection. The doctors were so clueless about the disease that it just flew over their heads. Once they realized what it was they were like, ‘Oh, it’s just Lyme disease. Here: take these antibiotics and you’ll be fine.’”
The infection was a part of Morton’s life, unknown, for several years following that. He grew up with constant illness in one form or another, until the lines between healthy and sick were so drastically skewed that he could no longer tell the difference. As he was growing into a musician and forming bands like any talented youth would, Morton was never completely healthy. Doctors thought they had cured the infection, but it lingered, taking on a different, more difficult form to detect, and leaving Morton sick and bed-ridden on-and-off for years. “What I think is most interesting about all of this,” Morton says, “is the parallels it has in life. With Lyme disease, the bacteria is very good at cellular mimicry: it will disguise itself against your own tissue. When that happens, the immune system goes chasing after it; kind of a cops-and-robbers situation, in which the robber kind of blends in and becomes a civilian. Then you have a sort of partisan warfare going on in your body: your body starts attacking your civilian population inside, your organs.” Morton explains that’s exactly what happened to him after years of symptoms, primarily misdiagnosed as genes or hormone changes typical of a boy becoming a man.
Then his kidney gave out. “So finally I was like, ‘Hey guys, I don’t feel well at all! I think we should go to the doctors and get some blood tests or something.’ So we went and had some tests done, and I actually went to band practice after that with some of the guys that are still in Typhoon (It was a band called the Mopps). So then my mom gets a call from the doctors, and they’re like, ‘You need to go to the hospital immediately!’ They’re like, ‘He’s showing death levels—you need to bring him in immediately.’ My mom says, ‘Well, I’m going to have to go get him, he’s at band practice…’ They couldn’t believe I was upright,” Morton chuckles, “And so, yeah, the infection wiped out my kidneys, so I went on dialysis for a long time—then I had a transplant, and that was pretty much it.”
Just as the Saxons of medieval times arose over the course of hundreds of years to take control of a kingdom, Morton eventually defeated his illness. And the truth is that Morton is tired of discussing his former battle with Lyme disease. “There’s almost too much discussion of the infection in almost every interview I give. It’s like sickness is romantic in a weird way.” But no matter how hard Morton tries to move from the subject, it is a huge part of who he is, having defined most of his formative years and helping to create the warrior we see today. It’s impossible not to discuss it while talking about his love for music. But Morton would like you to know: “As far as the sickness goes, I’m cured and as healthy as anybody else.”
After his transplant and subsequent treatments, Morton was cleared of the infection and ready to get on with his life. The Mopps were growing up and ready to get serious. Morton tells us, “The Mopps was like our punk rock band,” nothing too serious. The Widgets—the best band to ever come out of Salem—and include us in that—we saw them in a talent show, and it was so good that we came home and decided to get serious. We did our best to sound just like them.” Morton continued to grow as a musician and play as many shows as he could. “So we played several years in Salem at these open shows. We started booking houses and grange halls, there was like this vacuum of venues so we’d just start playing anywhere we could.” Along the way scooping up more and more talented members.
At that point, Morton started to see the spark of what would later become Typhoon. Morton tells us, “Eventually I realized we had all these talented people. Toby Tanabe, Tyler Ferrin, my sister Paige Morton who played violin, Devin Gallagher, Dave Hall, Jordan Bagnall—So, we just decided to start this recording project. It was this weird, all-encompassing, anybody-can-join, open-boundaries collective kind of thing that was never meant to be live. It was all about this recording I was making. I had it in my mind to do a soundtrack with them and maybe make a movie eventually. But Tyler Ferrin ended up booking us our first show at the Clinton Street Theater, without even telling anybody. So we practiced and did the show. It was a lot of fun. Most of our parents came out, and we met some really cool people up here. That was the birth of Typhoon, really.” A band made up of multiple members, some classically trained, some self taught. They were a group of misfits just as the Saxons were and forced together by fate to take on the musical empire.
In 2004, Morton crusaded north to Portland to start school at PSU. “You know, I didn’t really want to go to college,” Morton explains, “but with my health, I could keep my insurance as long as I was in school. That was the law at that time.” Health care was a driving factor, since Morton was still battling the effects of the transplant. But the band grew as a tight unit in those early years and started understanding one another’s roles. Morton, of course, being the slightly more responsible one of the group, describes it: “There were like eight of us living on the second floor of this old house—and I was constantly running interference between our neighbors who wanted to evict us, our landlord who wanted to evict us, and these roommates who really didn’t care.” Luckily, they were never evicted, but they did start making waves.
Officially changing the band name to Typhoon, the group started their own independent label in 2005 called Boy Gorilla. Shortly after, they released their first self-titled album in an extremely limited pressing. Morton explains, “We started Boy Gorilla because a lot of the bands we looked up to had their own record labels, so we just associated that with being cool. It was a very green thing with us, coming together making this collective. Our releases were all super limited to, like, 200 pressings, and anything we did was all hand screened. What was cool was coming from Salem, which is a much more insulated place than Portland; we didn’t think there was a caché of having our own label. We did it because we felt we could do it ourselves. Then we started to get write-ups, and you start to realize people are listening to you.”
As Typhoon started getting a little attention and a little momentum, Morton questioned their sound and their message. Like many great musicians and warriors before him, Morton went through a period of self-reflection. He realized he had a deep desire to find truth in his life and in what he was doing. Eventually, in 2006, he needed a break and took off to do a little soul searching. It was in that search that he found himself in a monastery in New Zealand, contemplating things in a new way. “At the monastery my perceptions of religion changed quite a bit. I had always grown up around this ‘spiritual but not religious’ mindset that was just very ambiguous, and I never really quite knew what it meant. But when I went to this monastery, some of the most intelligent men I had ever met in my life were just dedicating their lives to contemplation and acts of faith; it made me feel the frivolity of my life and the life I had known for so long. It helped me to understand the concepts of vanity and pride in the ways that I needed to relieve myself of them.”
Morton found a new influence in life and a renewed sense of understanding of who he was through deep contemplation. Just as the rise of Kent was found through great determination and sacrifice, Morton had found a new purpose and was ready for his next great battle. Unburdened and in control, he set sail back to Portland, back to his girlfriend, and back to Typhoon. Without wasting any time, he launched into recording some rough demos in his home. It was those demos that caught the attention of Jared Mess from the record label Tender Loving Empire. Morton recalls, “At the time we were just dicking around when Jared and Brianne Mess from Tender Loving Empire approached us. Jared took us out for drinks and was like, ‘Hey, guys, I want to put out your record.’ I was like, ‘Wow, okay, we’re not even really a band right now, but yeah, we can do this.’”
The result of this partnership was the album Hunger and Thirst, with which Typhoon really came into their own sound as a group—a sound that covers many genres and is very difficult to describe. Each song comes with its own musical adventure manifesto. Each one has what seems like five new beginnings, three different endings, while being void of any boring and unnecessary middles. It is in this way that each song takes on its own life, death, and resurrection simultaneously and usually within the same stanza. Unlike most conventional music arrangements with three parts and a repeating chorus, Typhoon takes a drastic leap of faith at every measure, with Morton’s melodic and insecure voice pulling magically and magnetically all the various parts and pieces together to form a singular assault of sound. A sound that can only be described as folk-infused-symphonic-rock with a prose of lyrical storytelling.
As Morton explains, “I think our first record and recordings were like, ‘We can make so much sound with all of us. Let’s just make it all at once!’ There was no direction and multiple songwriters—not really a clear voice. Also, to my own standards, I started writing much better songs. But I think the thing we really learned with Hunger and Thirst was space. We have all these players but only use them when absolutely necessary.” And it worked. Soon Typhoon was being carted around by all the big bands in Portland. From the Shins to the Thermals, Typhoon was the ultimate opening act which led to bigger and greener pastures, even landing a guest spot on The Late Show with David Letterman.
However, even when at this apex, standing on stage with David Letterman, Morton fails to recognize his own fame. Just as with any unlikely warrior, he could not see his conquests and victories when there were still so many battles yet to be fought. As Morton explains, “It’s such a nebulous thing. When you’re in it, in the center of it—when, as they say in the industry, your ‘profile is rising,’ you don’t think, I made it. You’re thinking, Well, we’re at this level now. We should be trying to play a little bit bigger venues. You get lost in the escalation.” Which explains their next album, White Lighter—Typhoon at their quintessential best.
In an open letter on the Tender Loving Empire website, Morton is quoted as saying, “When we started working on White Lighter, and I had reason to believe that it would be the last thing I ever did.” He later explained this to me: “There’s a couple of things to that. I kind of just thought that once I just really nailed it, in the sense that I really couldn’t do anything better than that, and then it would be time to quit. That’s what I was setting out to do with White Lighter, that’s the goal. It’s a little bit of a paradox, there. But when I finished it, it wasn’t the last thing I was going to do because, like with anything I do, I still had problems with it.” Morton continues, “But I have to go on record saying that White Lighter is the closest to making the record that I really wanted to make in all these years.”
Morton was born and raised in the most unassuming of places and conquered the most unlikely of misfortunes to find peace in the least expected of places; he’s overcome the most unrealistic of challenges and never ceased to amaze everyone who’s ever known him. He is a true artist, and the most unlikely hero you would ever expect to meet…but make no mistake: he is a Saxon man, bound by his tribe of musical extraordinaires. His greatest battles have yet to be realized, as he is a conqueror in motion, so keep your ears and your mind open. You’ll be hearing a lot more Typhoon.
Most albums mentioned in this article are available at:
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