By Susannah Wilson
Local Music Journalist
Smell Monsters Puppetry is the creative project of native Austinite Elliott “Smelliot” Lardon, incorporating hand-made puppet characters with interactive skits and whimsical folk-rock. I had the opportunity to work with Lardon in August, running sound for his show at KIVA for the San Marcos festival 2019. Recently, I called him up and we had a friendly conversation about his artistic progress as of late.
SW: Thanks so much for talking to me! I was wondering if you could just introduce yourself however you want to go by.
Smell: For sure! Well, my birth given name is Elliott Lardon but then in about middle school, everyone started calling me “Smelliott,” and that just turned into “Smell” in high school, so since high school I’ve really just been called Smell.
It started off as a bullying kind of thing, then my friends started using it, and it just became my whole persona. And that’s about when I joined a band.
We all had goofy names, one of them was Bonesaw, I was Smell, so it just fit in perfectly that I already had this nickname. So we toured for probably fifteen years or something like that, it was real fun.
I recently got married, bought a big house and stuff, kinda settled down, and the other dudes in the band weren’t as willing to stop touring, so I went okay cool, we kind of split ways. I mean everything’s great, love those dudes forever, but when that all stopped is when the puppets started to kind of swell in existence.
I’ve always been a singer-songwriter and wanted to perform in some way. Also, puppets have always been a fun thing to incorporate. That’s really how the puppet show sort of swooped in. I wasn’t really worried about getting paid out, because that’s what hurt the other band.
We all had wives and houses and stuff, so we really needed to make money on that front, so the dream of touring was kind of butting heads with that.
The drive for the money really took a lot of the drive and creativity out of the band. So with the puppets it’s like, if there’s money, there’s money, if there’s no money, we just want to do shows.
So that lends itself really well to getting booked, and that kind of snowballed into getting paid, so this whole year has really been a great surprise. It started off as something fun, and it’s still super fun, but it’s also fun to get a couple hundred bucks, and pay out the other guys.
SW: That sounds like a really awesome surprise for you! How long has it been since it really started picking up?
Smell: Well it started off with me and Tyler Serle. We started about two and a half years ago. Then, it was more skit-based, we wouldn’t do as much music as we do now.
We’d do funny skits, we’d take little perspectives on maybe a blind date with a chicken and a wolf, just different funny ideas that we had, anything. We had a whale that hosted a talk show where he’d interview different people in the crowd.
Whenever we picked up James Steadman, who lives in San Marcos, he’s the puppet drummer. He and his daughter Tearny are behind his kit.
At that point we’d do a couple songs then some skits, but we realized we pretty much have a full puppet band here, let’s try to incorporate real live shows. We were just kind of pretending to be a band.
It’s all just kind of new for us, but this whole year has been really fast. It’s great, we’ve had at least one show a month since January. James is real good at talking to people and putting us on bills.
I do all the writing and so much preparation goes into writing and production, so it’s great for me to love that part and for James to be good at talking to people and that end of stuff.
SW: I remember at your show you drew quite the crowd. I think it’s pretty unique, especially with your hand made puppets. Is there some sort of personal significance or satisfaction you get from making your own puppets?
Smell: I mean, I’ve always enjoyed working with my hands and crafting. It’s a great way to just express yourself. It kind of swooped in too, like now all of a sudden this puppet is performing on stage as myself in a band, and it really kind of took off more than I expected.
It’s kind of fun to make a character, ‘cause I’ve made a buzzard, I’ve made a whale, and I’ve made myself… the wolf that I have, I’ve had that puppet since I was, like, seven.
It’s just weird how life works out, how I’ve been holding onto this wolf puppet for thirty years, and then all of a sudden it comes in full force and it’s needed in the puppet show. It’s a vegetarian, it’s needed to bring consciousness to eating meat and all this weird stuff. It’s kind of the same thing with making them.
I made the whale puppet, he developed his character and it becomes a part of my essence, just like the buzzard character. I made her, and she talks about recycling and eating dead animals, and how sometimes your place in life isn’t glorious, but you’re super needed for the structure of the earth.
It’s just a lot of perspectives I’ve already had, just built into puppets. It’s hard to explain how it feels like it’s always been the proper path for me but it hasn’t always been one foot in front of the other. It’s like okay, now I see why I’m a funny storyteller and my songs are all kind of bouncy.
I’d say 80% of the songs I’ve written were written before the puppet show but the show incorporates those songs and those energies a lot better than I could do myself, which is weird and really cool. Like you were saying, when people were at Kiva, something draws them in.
The other weird part is I can’t even see them getting drawn in until I get up. It’s like oh wow, there’s a bunch of adults here sitting and watching a puppet show. They aren’t kids sitting here going, ‘oh this is magic, that’s a real wolf!’
They know what’s going on,still in disbelief, but the songs kind of speak to them, which is cool and rewarding to me.
It’s neat to have the same kind of goosebumps with the puppet show as I would with the band, performing on the big stage and stuff. It’s fun to hit that same groove.
James is over there on the drums, Tearny is moving the puppet, Tyler is dancing with his wolf and I’m singing and we’re stressed and sweaty and it’s kind of chaotic but we’re all grooving.
It’ll be a backing track guitar solo, and the puppets pretending to do a real guitar solo, and people are like, woo hoo! You know, like it’s a real solo. It’s goofy, and it’s really fun.
SW: You mentioned you think it’s cool that adults will be just as enthralled by your show as children. Obviously in American culture, puppets are associated with children. Do you intend to resonate with any particular generation?
Smell: I definitely want my shows to be kid-friendly but I don’t want them to be directed towards kids. I think a lot of society talks down to children when you don’t need to talk down to them as much.
A lot of my rhyming and my songs are a lot faster-paced, maybe not so bouncy, kid lyrics but they can still be very understood by children.
I feel the lyrical content could be grasped by a kid for sure but it can also be grasped by an adult. Like it could move anybody. And that’s kind of what I try to do.
I want kids to dance, but I also want their parents to be like, ‘oh, that’s a cool thought.’ But I also want grandparents to be like, ‘that’s cool, how is he doing that?’ I want everyone to be there.
SW: I like that, that’s very unifying, and I think it fits very well with your environmental message. Would you say that’s kind of your main focus?
Smell: You know, I think my main goal is family. And I think family revolves around spirit,and mother earth, and I think all of that is really connected. So I think a respect for the earth is the key to all of it, and I think just an open heart and making people laugh is my main goal.
Then talking about the river, giving thanks for the moon and a pretty day…I think my main goal is to be thankful for things, and realize what we have. And I think that’s why we talk about the earth, we talk about the buzzard recycling.
Her perspective is that she’s a beautiful flying animal who cleans the earth, and we’ve got to love her for that.
She has a great place in this family we call earth. We’re all connected. I love nature, I want that to be a big part of it, but I also want to make my family and friends proud. It’s all combined.
So that’s one fun thing about it, you never really know what’s going to be the next song. I just wrote a song about my new job. And I wrote it as a human, but it’s also going to be performed by the puppet.
It’s about working hard, how you wake up before the sun’s up and you drive. It’s not going to be a funny song, the puppet’s not going to make it a joke, it can be presented very seriously. It’s a fun way to just go.
SW: I think it’s really interesting how you can write so authentically, but the songs are coming from puppets, so it’s almost easier for people to take these ideas from puppets.
Smell: Yeah, and you’re right. Maybe if I’m getting up and being like, ‘Hey everybody, make sure to be thankful for the river,’ people are like ‘Okay, settle down, you preachy dreadlock guy.’ But a puppet doing that, all of a sudden kind of disarms everybody, and they’re more willing to accept goofy ‘preaching,’ if it is.
SW: I remember during the show there was a little kid screaming at the puppets, and you made the puppet respond to the kid.
Smell: Yeah, that little kid, Tommy… we heard his dad, after, and this was just the perfect thing to hear. He’s holding his son, walking out, and doesn’t know we could hear him.
He asked, “What did you think of the show, Tommy?” And the little five year old goes, “Best show of my life!” And I’m just like, Oh my god, that’s so magical for so many reasons!
‘Best show of my life,’ it’s so sweet and thoughtful, and has some depth to it because he’s thinking of the future and the past….I don’t know. I was like, wow. That is so funny. I’m so glad I got to hear that.
We were laughing too, because a couple days before that we were looking at websites and how to promote the puppets, and one of the websites had quotes, and I said, “That’s what we need, funny quotes from fans.” And then two days later– Tommy, 5: “Best Show of My Life!”
SW: Speaking of that show, do you have any shows coming up?
Smell: So, Kyle community center is doing a show for Halloween and we’re doing two volunteer shows for that. Just little 15-minute things. After that, we’re doing a festival called the Hill Country Fair.
They asked us to come Nov. 10th in the morning so we can perform at the pancake breakfast. Our next big public show in San Marcos is on the 23rd of November at Tantra.
SW: Are you based in San Marcos?
Smell: We live in Kyle. Born and raised in Austin, out in Oak Hill. Been in Austin my whole life, and my little sister and my cousin both went to Texas State. I would go down there every once in a while, but I never really spent any significant time there, so it’s been nice when we moved out here to start hanging out. Every other weekend we spend just kind of doing stuff.
San Marcos is such a great little community of friendly people. Austin claims to be so artistic and so many weird things, but it’s just not anymore.
I think San Marcos is holding on for dear life, but it has a lot of those things Austin used to have. San Marcos is where all the weirdos are.
There are a bunch of really cool, creative people doing unique things and helping each other out. That’s what Austin used to be. It was a bunch of weirdos that played music and created art, but they also did it together.
It’s refreshing to see San Marcos doing that, cause I remember when Austin had a better scene.
It’s tough to be an original artist in Austin these days. There’s a lot of, I want to succeed, and for me to succeed, you can’t. And I don’t like that. I don’t want to be a part of that anymore.
SW: It’s not positive.
Smell: No, it’s not positive at all. I don’t see how it could result in any positivity for anybody.
SW: Do you have a social media presence where people can find you?
Smell: Not really, just Smell Monsters Facebook, and I have a website. I should do better, but I’m just not good at that stuff. I tried to do a page on Instagram, but it was hard to create the same positive magic. It sometimes feels inauthentic.
SW: I totally understand, Instagram can be very toxic. I’m going to wrap this conversation up with a question I’m just personally curious about, and I like to hear different peoples’ perspectives on. What is your definition of art?
Smell: Just creating. I think if you can use your mind to create something. Whatever it is, if you make a pile of rocks and pile it a certain way. I think it’s just expressing yourself, and using the brains that we have to make something out of nothing.
I think that’s what I like so much about songwriting. It’s a whole new thing born out of just thinking. Maybe that’s what it is–something born from thinking. Art! Haha.
SW: As a Sound Recording Student, I was wondering, how do you produce your backing tracks?
Smell: I have ProTools, and a little interface, but my knowledge of it is so basic that it’s sad. So this whole year I’ve been just trying to hone my skills as far as production goes.
I’ve got a little keyboard that I use for MIDI sounds, it’s not even a MIDI keyboard, I found it in my old apartment where someone left it next to a dumpster! I thought, this works great. I just put a mic next to the speaker.
SW: I guess things just come up fortunately and you take what you can get.
Smell: Totally, I totally agree. It’s something about how if you think about a yellow car you see one, and if you think about positivity that’s what you see, and I truly believe that’s how you should live your life.
You think about what you want and who you want to be, and that’s who you become. Sometimes you have to talk about it out loud to people because it forces you to be more serious. But sometimes just saying it out loud to let the universe know you’re serious, that helps.
SW: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for talking to me!
Smell: Of course! I was stoked to do it.
Featured image by Smell Monsters Puppetry.