Crash Crash Craft: Interview with Willo O’Brien and WilloToons

Crafts for Drummers, Drummers for Crafts. Crash Crash Craft features spectacular crafts made by and/or for female drummers. Enjoy!

Full name: Willo O’Brien
Nickname/pseudonym: WilloToons
Where were you born: Steamboat, CO
Where do you live now: San Francisco, CA
Musical instrument?: Drums
Day job: Designer/Illustrator
Crafts: Design/Illustration/Jewelry making/Painting (watercolor is my latest obsession)

Personally, I’ve always been wary of squirrels. I’ve never liked their presumptuous approaches in the park when you’ve taken your sandwich out of its brown bag (back off nutface!), or the coquettish way they swish their fluffy tails and peak their big black eyes over acorns, making everyone forget that squirrels are just no-gooding rodents, no better than the poor sewer rats getting all the haters. Just wait ’til a squirrel near you makes off with the brownie you’ve been looking forward to all morning (This happened ! Twice!!), and maybe then you’ll think twice about tossing the crumbs of your naivety at a creature with such OCD-like hoarding tendencies.
And then, I met Rock Squirrel, who rocks the drums like no squirrel has ever rocked them before–and even hangs out with babies! Your average squirrel would probably steal this baby and shove him into a tree trunk, just to be a jerk, but not this whimsical creation of San Francisco based designer, illustrator and rock fan Willo O’Brien.

Via her creative venture, WilloToons, O’Brien draws inspiration from the SF Bay Area’s geek and rocker scenes to create unique gifts: from a rockin’ pair of earrings to a whimsically embroidered “Cat Power” tee. And, to make matters more awesome, her line is entirely eco-conscious and sweatshop-free, supporting local small businesses as much as possible. Also, the line is currently transitioning into utilizing 100% organic cotton.

Alright, so now let’s find out what makes this eco-chick tick!

Tom Tom Magazine: You clearly have no issues with squirrels. Fair enough. So who is this “Rock Squirrel”, and why does he/she play the drums, as opposed to say…the banjitar?

WO: Well, I think we can all agree drums are way more rockin’ than banjitars, no? Actually, in addition to adorable woodland creatures, I have a love for the sticks myself. I am a huge fan of live music and while some may find themselves air-guitaring, I would always be air-drumming and watching the percussionists keep time and bring it all together. It was that fixation that led me to get a drum teacher, and I lucked out finding friend-of-a-friend local drummer rockstar, Warren Heugel.
Funnily enough, I have drawn a penguin playing a banjitar, but I picture a little more of a jazz/swing vibe coming off that group. Rock Squirrel is all about rockin’ the four-four time, with maybe some sweet fills in between.

TTM: Isn’t that a regular banjo? I’ll have to bring the judges in on this! Anyhoo, why’d you stop drumming?

WO: After taking lessons for awhile with Warren, some girlfriends and I decide to rent studio time and practice together. We said we were a band (we had a name and a website!), but really we just rented studio time and practiced covers with each other a few times. It was so fun!
In the end, I was so busy trying to juggle my business and had so many other creative endeavors I wanted to explore (eg my illustration and design, that led to me launching my WilloToons product line), I eventually just had to make a decision.
TTM: Do you think you’ll ever go back to it?
WO: I feel like drums will always be my instrument, but hard to say if I’ll get back to it. It takes a lot of dedication, no to mention assembling the kit every time. Whenever we rented the studio, everyone else would open their case & plug in and they were set! Drums are a labor of love.

TTM: Are you OG San Francisco?

WO: No, I’m originally from Steamboat, Colorado, which is a ski-town, much like Aspen or Vail. I went to art school in Denver, but shortly after left [read: escaped the land-locked, snow-ridden state entirely] and headed west… I love it! This year I’ll be celebrating 14 years here, and 7 in the house I’m in. Weird. It’s like I’m an adult or something.
TTM: What is your relationship to the local music scene, and how does it inform your work?

WO: Wow, this is a great question, but almost hard to answer. Where do I start? First I will say, I absolutely love San Francisco’s local music scene! You can discover some of the most amazing bands in the small venues around San Francisco, and I feel fortunate to be friends with some incredibly talented musicians. Come to think of it, a large portion of my friends are in the industry in some shape, way or form, and in many ways my designs are inspired by my friends, aka the geeks and the rockers. My friend Ted Leibowitz runs his own internet radio station, called BAGeL Radio (, and often DJs a local indie rock event, called the Rumble, as well as a lot of the Noisepop shows. Even some of the more tech focused friends of mine have deep roots in music, by either working on a music related site or being one of my main live show pals. Years ago I actually used to cull my own list of ‘must see’ shows around the city, and published a calendar for the locals. Thankfully a fellow music fan – now, good friend of mine – Gabe Benevieste, launched a site called SonicLiving, which scours all the venue’s sites and matches it with the bands that are in your iTunes library or in your tracks, making it easy for showgoers to cull their own lists and share them with their friends. Basically my dream come true.
Most all of my friends are on there, and so we end up hitting a ton of local shows together. Then every March we descend on Austin for SXSW. This year we’re actually renting lofts on 6th street where almost 100 of us from San Francisco will be staying under one roof, now deemed, “The SF Embassy.” It’s going to be awesome!
SXSW is the perfect venue for WilloToons, because I go for both Interactive and Music, which is basically my tagline: where geek meets rock ‘n roll! Whenever anyone asks me the infamous line of “What do you do?”, I can just reply, “I dress the geeks & the rockers… and their babies.”

TTM: Is Rock Squirrel going to steal my brownies organk my beer if I let him/her crash at my pad?

WO: Well, brownies are pretty irresistible, so you really can’t blame a squirrel if one or more happens to find it’s way into that cute star belly. Beer, though, he’ll ask first. Even if it is one from the 6-pack he brought over as a thanks for letting him crash.
TTM: Why is having your line be socially conscious important to you?
WO: There’s a lot of crap being made out there. Between fashion disasters and meaningless one-off shwag, it’s hard to see so many things manufactured all to go straight into the trash and landfills. I knew that if I was going to be adding more stuff to our world, I wanted to leave as small of an environmental footprint as possible. That means not only thinking about how it’s manufactured, but the entire process – from the growing to the making to the purchasing, packing, and shipping. All of this is especially important for the children who wear my clothing, as they are most vulnerable to toxins, and in the end, they’ll inherit the planet we leave behind.
The best part is, the more people aware of WilloToons’ commitment to sustainable, environmentally friendly products, the better the opportunity we have to spread that awareness globally.

TTM: Don’t Rock Squirrel’s arms ever get tired, holding them up like that? Does Rock Squirrel have a destiny other than his/her current status as apparel-hugger/baby-lover?

MO: Rock squirrel can rock around the clock and NEVER GET TIRED. That’s his destiny. As far as the illustration of him, it maaay see it’s way on to some other homeware products later this year… but you’ll just have to stay tooned. 😉

TTM: And finally, here’s your chance to tell Tom Tom readers for yourself why they should buy your creations. Go for it!

WO: My goals in creating WilloToons were to promote expression, individuality, and to celebrate whatever it is you’re super geeked on. I myself am super geeked on illustration, technology, music and the environment… hence my eco-friendly line of illustrated apparel where geek meets rock ‘n roll! If that strikes a chord with you (or, maybe I should say, a beat), then something tells me you might like the wares on
Whatever you do in life, be passionate about it.
TTM: Thanks so much for your time Willo, and for this sweet discount available all month long exclusively to Tom Tom readers: use the discount code TOMTOM for 15% off your next order! Expires 5/31/10

Interview by: Leslie Henkel. Leslie curates the “Crash-Crash-Craft!” series, mostly because she is nosy and likes crafts/crafty people. This is also why she is a member of “Bags For The People,” a rad non-profit that hosts bag-sewing workshops all over New York City. She also books folk/country/jazz/bluegrass acts at the Brooklyn Rod and Gun, and writes the Tight Pantsy Drew Mysteries, serialized cozy mystery zine set in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, starring hipsters, anarchist freegans, “Chad P.”, and super-sleuth Tight Pantsy Drew–who also editorializes over at A Mutual!

Photos: courtesy of Willo O’Brian

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