Michael Farkas has tin men, flying monkeys and wicked witches rattling around in his head — and he knows you do, too.
“This is something that has been really digested in the American psyche for a lot of decades,” says the 47-year-old founder of eclectic indie band The Wiyos in a recent phone interview. “Everyone knows the characters; they've become so iconic.”
It's a bit too clichéd to say The Wiyos aren't in Kansas anymore, but it's also the truth: The seeds for the band's latest album, “Twist,” grew from a production at Wichita State University.
“The Wiyos toured quite a bit in Kansas, and a friend of mine at the university in Wichita wanted us to work together,” says Farkas, who currently calls Cold Spring, N.Y., home. The result was the “Wizard of Oz”-inspired show “The Wiyos of Oz.”
“I thought he was nuts, but somehow he pulled it off, and the band ended up playing live for a lot of shows,” Farkas says.
The idea of a theme album, a song cycle loosely based on L. Frank Baum's classic tale of Dorothy Gale and her quest to find a way home, took root for Farkas and bandmates Teddy Weber and “Sauerkraut” Seth Travins.
“It was a slow process, but it started running downhill and gaining momentum,” Farkas says. “We weren't trying to reinvent ‘The Wizard of Oz'; we were using it as a stepping stone to have a conversation.”
Starting that conversation was a natural fit for Farkas, who knows the wandering and longing of the “Oz” characters. Playing upward of 200 shows a year, he has seen the “really disparate set of belief systems” across the country on his travels.
“So that certainly shaped my experiences as a human being and a musician,” he says.
“The whole idea of the American dream ... became like a framework” for the album.
The album: “Twist” mixes a variety of traditional American genres into 14 tracks.
“Our root systems were deep in the American roots music coming from New Orleans and the jug band tradition and the jazz and swing world” that spread north, Farkas says. “Teddy and I wanted to just shake things up a little bit” and craft a more polished, focused album than the band had ever done before.
“We tried to just be adventurous,” he says.
The songs segue from bouncy and playful to moody and atmospheric and back again, an emotional journey for listeners.
“Shifts in tempo and design and color are so commonplace in someone who spends years on the road; in our lives, everything changes completely from day to day,” Farkas says. “So we tried to put those shifts and feelings in the work.”
The complexity is intentional in another way, too; the album draws listeners in with jaunty tunes and captures them with thoughtful lyrics.
“It was approached more like a painting, so there's a lot of layers happening,” Farkas says. He describes the album as a canvas, “something that the listener approaching it for the first time might think ‘oh, I'm not really getting this,' but the second or third time, there's a lot of nuance.”
The frantic pace of the modern world — a contrast to the more leisurely journey of Dorothy and her companions — provided a bit of inspiration.
“It seems like something's always competing for our attention now in the world, all the time,” Farkas says. “But there's depth in that moment and change.”
New depths: The experience of working on “Twist” helped Farkas find new depths in himself, as well.
Having a theme “crystallizes my focus: ‘Oh, I can't just write about anything; I have to write about this,” he says. “‘Twist' for me is that album. I couldn't have made that album eight, nine, 10 years ago. .... I didn't have that ability as an arranger, as a musician.”
But when the right pieces come together in focus, “you come across some things that you didn't know you could do,” Farkas says.
Reaching such points isn't a reason to stop, though; another adventure is always waiting.
“I would love to be able to perform that material with a really full band, almost an orchestra in some cases,” Farkas says, as he discusses the changes playing as a trio requires for the band's live shows, which currently feature about one-third “Twist” and two-thirds other works, including some new arrangements of The Wiyos' older material.
He also has his eye on a new journey these days. Could a second theme album be around the next bend in the road?
“We have been talking about writing a body of work based on trains and train travel,” Farkas said.
It's a safe bet that smart listeners will be ready to go along for the ride.
See The Wiyos
The Wiyos will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 2, in the Wagon Shed concert series at the hall adjacent to the Stringed Instrument Repair shop at 109 N. Second St. in New Freedom.
Tickets are $20 and are available at the shop or online.
For more information about the concert, call (717) 235-7465 or visit www.wagonshedconcerts.com.
For more information on The Wiyos, visit www.thewiyos.com.
— Reach Mel Barber at firstname.lastname@example.org.