Monday, 15 October 2007
I interviewed Paul & Storm for the blog of the radio show, the Sound of Young America a few weeks ago. It just got published today, albeit in an edited version. Here's the full interview, unedited.
An Interview With Paul Sabourin and Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo of Paul & Storm
Together Paul Sabourin and Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo are professional singing persons Paul & Storm, who comprised ½ of comedic acapella group Da Vinci’s Notebook.
Da Vinci’s Notebook has been on hiatus since 2004 but still occasionally reunite for corporate events. Paul & Storm are currently on tour with noted troubadour and TSOYA guest Jonathan Coulton. Their latest album, Gumbo Pants, was released online on August 26. I corresponded with Paul and Greg via email and asked them some questions.
A: What made you want to get into the lucrative genre of musical comedy? You've listed influences on your MySpace page ranging from Tom Lehrer & Weird Al to Gilbert & Sullivan.
PAUL: The short answer: it was the only thing we were really good at.
The somewhat longer answer: we started out back in 1994 in an a cappella
group called Da Vinci's Notebook, which started as a little hobby group
that only did covers. The songs that seemed to be the most fun and get
the best audience response were songs by another a cappella group called
the Bobs, who did a lot of funny originals. So we drifted towards that,
and Storm and I fell into a writing partnership, as we have similar
backgrounds (children of the '80s and lovers of all pop culture) and
compatible senses of humor; so we started writing songs in a similar vein.
Before we knew it, we were the main writers for what had evolved into a
full-time comedy a cappella group.
When that group stopped performing back in 2004, Storm and I desperately
wanted to avoid getting real jobs, so we tried performing as a duo, and
with a good degree of adjustment (like getting comfortable with playing an
instrument and singing at the same time), it worked pretty well.
A: What's your writing process like?
STORM: We don't have a single set process. Sometimes an idea will strike
one of us out of the blue and the other will have just a few tweaks, or
add what Lennon and McCartney called "the middle eight". But more often
it's comparable to two people working a potter's wheel together. Generally
one of us will drop down the initial lump of clay (usually a comic hook,
song style, and/or a few lines), the brain wheels spin, and we shape it
until it's just right, adding more clay as necessary. Sometimes both of
our hands are on the clay, sometimes we alternate, and a lot of the time
the pot doesn't make it to glazing (chord structure/melody) or the kiln
(recording phase) at all.
P: Sometimes it's demand-side-based ("We gotta write a song this
week"); and sometimes it's supply-side ("Wow, we should totally write a
song about this awesome topic/idea/thing I just thought of/had/saw"). And
sometimes they can feed off each other. For example, we were going to be
on the "Bob and Tom Show" (a nationally-syndicated morning radio program)
a couple months back, and wanted to come up with one more new song the
night before. While noodling, Storm started doing his (awesome) James
Taylor impression; so we tried to find a way to make a relatively lame
thing (impressions in general) somewhat more interesting, so we thought,
"well, what if he were...I dunno, on fire?" Which led to our song "If
James Taylor Were on Fire", which in turn led to a bunch of other "If"
songs ("If Bob Dylan Were Hiding at the Bottom of a Well", "If They Might
Be Giants Were the Ice Cream Man", etc.). So the demand side ("We need a
new song for radio tomorrow") dovetailed nicely with the supply side ("We
do some impressions; how can we use them in a not-crappy way?").
S: Our process is definitely influenced (and helped) by Modern
Technology(tm). While we work fastest when in the same room together,
we've learned how to collaborate from our respective homes (Paul near
Philly and Storm near DC). We do a new song every couple of weeks for the
"Bob and Tom Show", something that wouldn't have been possible before
cheap broadband and unlimited cell phone/long distance minutes.
P: Well, it would have been *possible*, but it would either have to be
recorded/played over the phone, or one person would have to do all the
heavy lifting, recording-wise.
S: We'll send song draft e-mails back and forth with throughout the
day, and then discuss specifics of sound production over the phone.
Once it's 70-80% there lyrically, one of us will put down a skeletal guide
track (in general Paul if it's keyboard/vocal-based, Storm if
guitar/band). From that point we're both able to work on our vocal and
instrumental parts concurrently, with whoever laid down the guide tracks
acting as the traffic controller, adding the parts into the master and
mixing it down.
There's no way we could have worked this way even five years ago, and we
still get a "gee whiz" rush from it: after writing and recording a brand
new song inside of one day, finishing at 2 a.m., it's aired across the
country only a few hours later.
P: So follow that exact template and you too can write hit songs for
syndicated morning radio.
A: How did you end up doing "The Ballad of the Sneak" for Homestar Runner?
Was that the start of the two of you writing and performing apart from the group? I know that you & Storm composed & performed the "The Ballad of the Sneak", though it was credited to Da Vinci's Notebook.
P: DVN had all become fans of Homestar Runner quite early in their
evolution, and tracked down Mike and Matt Chapman (the creators) via the
Netterwebs (I have mad stalker skills), to tell them how much we dug their
work. Luckily, this was early enough in their career that they were more
flattered than creeped out, and we struck up a friendship, they came to
some of our shows, and such. Eventually they offered that, if we ever
wanted to write something for the site, they'd be happy to use it,
assuming it didn't suck. This was right around the time someone had
submitted a theme song for the Cheat (a character on the site), so Storm
and I went with an old-timey variation on that idea (in keeping with the
series of old-timey cartoon versions of the characters that they'd been
doing). Storm and I put together a demo of it and went a little nuts
over-producing it, because it was so much fun to do. We sent it off to
them, intending to eventually add the other two DVN guys to the mix, but
the Chaps loved the demo and decided to use it as is.
So while it was technically the first Paul and Storm "solo creation," Paul
and Storm didn't exist then; plus, it worked to our promotional advantage
to credit it to the group. (i.e., people would hear about the song, look
for DVN, and buy our CDs) At that point, Paul and Storm was still just a
thing we thought we might try if/when DVN ever broke up, but not something
we actively pursued.
A: What would you say are the benefits of distributing your music independently through online stores? Have either of you been approached by any labels since DVN or considered signing to one?
S: We feel that for relatively small-time artists like us, independent
online distribution is the way to go. We haven't been approached by any
labels (yet) as Paul and Storm, but in DVN we were, and it just didn't
make much sense for us.
In theory, signing with a label gives you wider exposure from the "push"
that an established presence can bring. The upside is that more people
will know who you are so that you can draw large numbers of people to your
live shows, be on the cover of magazines, and otherwise live the
rock 'n' roll dream. That's all fine, but you give up making money on your
actual music, and it means that to really make a living you have to be on
the road all the time. And while we're by no means geezers, we like being
home and not waking up every morning in a hotel room
wondering what city we're in.
So while we're not philosophically opposed to working with a label, we
haven't yet seen a structure that makes sense for us. The current record
deals are more a star system, interested in creating famous "brands" that
will generate torrents of cash. But in the dream world we're steadily
building, we'll have a nice-sized fan base that's large enough that we can
go out and work one or two weekends every month, write a new song every
week or two to keep people tuned in, release a new product every year, and
generally make a decent living from it. No pesky fame (fans excepted), but
just enough notoriety that every once in a while someone we run into in
Costco will recognize something we've done.
P: Labels have been historically good at three things: advancing you
cash to get a recording done, putting your record in stores, and
coordinating PR. But a) recording technology, home studios and such have
made getting a quality recording far more affordable than in decades past;
b) retail may not have been made completely obsolete by the Internet, but
it's getting damn near close; and c) you can hire a PR person
independently as you care to (since you'd be paying for the PR at a label
anyway). So it's far less necessary to be "signed" to achieve a reasonable
degree of success. We don't have an unquenchable ambition to be
ridiculously famous, so for us, the trade-off is worth it.
S: And while we are technically "independent", there are certainly a
lot of people and organizations we have relationships with that make the
P&S Machine run. We do have an agent, a physical product distributor, and
even an informal network of lackeys, toadies and well-wishers. I guess
it's a lot like when the Hollywood studio system collapsed--all of the
components that made the business work were still out there, but they were
no longer under the same roof.
A: Do either of you have a favourite song you wrote or performed?
P: I don't know if I have a favorite--you write a song you like a lot,
and then sing it a few hundred times, and the appeal kind of wanes. That
said, some songs I still find quite satisfying. "Opening Band" sucked,
really sucked, for a long time while we were writing it, until we finally
found the right combination of music and concept, so once that finally
came together, I was thrilled, and it seems to resonate well with crowds.
I think my current favorite to perform is "Nugget Man". It tells a nice
story, it's not something you've heard 3,000 times before, and while it's
not a belly-laugh-every-12-seconds kind of song, the big payoff at the end
("and to place his remains into small cardoard coffins/and bury the
pieces/six at a time") is worth the wait, and always goes over huge at
shows. I think it's also one of our most appealing songs, musically
speaking. I haven't tired of hearing it or singing it. (Yet.)
S: In general my favorite song in live performance is whatever our newest
"ace up the sleeve" song happens to be--the one that was most recently
written, that we know is funny, and that we haven't done one hundred
times. We're not like a "regular" band or singer-songwriter in that
we're primarily aiming to make people laugh, and once people know the
punchline, there's not a lot of reason to return to some of our
material. So we have to constantly add new songs to keep the set
interesting for both the audience and ourselves. If I absolutely had to
narrow it down to one song I enjoy most in live performance, it would be
"The Captain's Wife's Lament". Not because it's the funniest song we've
ever written, but because there's a lot of room in it to work the
audience. It's basically a sea shanty/jig based around a horrible/crude
pun (seamen/semen), but it's a good excuse to make the crowd talk like
pirates, which they really seem to enjoy doing. Even if they've heard
the song before.
That being said, as far as writing goes I'm most proud of our songs that
have meat to them beyond the jokes. A good example of that would be
"Nugget Man", written mostly based on the obituary of the man who
invented the salient technologies behind the chicken nugget (among other
foods). While it does go for laughs, I think there really is an
emotional genuineness that underpins the song, making it more evergreen.
A: Of your three albums, Gumbo Pants is probably your most cohesive album. It lacks alternate versions of songs and the songs are sequenced by topic for a better listen. Do you feel any need as musical comedians to try to construct an album-length statement or is it more of a "throw a bunch of songs you think are funny and well-written" in order?
P: Interesting question. Our first CD, Opening Band, was very much a
result of our wanting to put out a full-length disc as soon as it was
feasible (without completely ripping people off); so we threw everything
we had onto it, and tried to add other material (like directors'
commentaries, which we thought was a funny/interesting idea for an audio
CD) to help make it more appealing, and truth be told, pad the length out
a bit more.
The second CD, News to Us, is a compilation of songs we wrote for Bob &
Tom, and we used a lot of the on-air audio for that one. Now, the Bob &
Tom cast laugh during songs a lot--partly, I think, because it creates a
bit more of a friendly, party-like atmosphere, and also because theft is
rampant in morning radio, and "marking your territory" with laughs like
that helps prevent others from using your show's stuff. Now, some people
find the laughing annoying (according to some emails we've gotten,
incredibly so); but others seem to really appreciate it. So we tried to
cater somewhat to both crowds, by including "clean" (non-laughing)
versions of some of the songs (the ones we thought had the most widespread
appeal). So that one's a tad disjointed, but it was intended mostly for a
specific audience--Bob & Tom listeners--so we don't feel too badly about
With "Gumbo Pants", while we didn't have a specific overall cohesive
"vision" for it, we did go into it wanting to put only stuff we really
thought deserved to go on a record, as opposed to just shoving out
everything we'd written in the past 9-12 months and hoping for the best.
And I think for the most part, we've succeded; its certainly the disc I'm
proudest of so far.
Plus, we as an act don't have a particular "thing" or hook to build
around--like, say, God's Pottery (lampooning over-earnest Christian
music), or Tenacious D (delusional acoustic rocking), or Richard Cheese
(swing versions of rock and rap songs). So there's no particular vision to
remain true to (other than to try to be as funny as possible), which to me
is almost a relief. I can respect someone's commitment to a concept or
vision--for example, Luther Wright and the Wrongs did a song-for-song
country version of Pink Floyd's "The Wall" that holds up far, far longer
than one might think it would--but in the end, if it's just not very
funny, then to me it's failing at the main purpose of what you're doing in
the first place.
S: Your second question really melds into the first for me; it all feeds
into how we do or can hook people with our humor and music. We really
don't have an overarching thread or theme to our comedy, and that's
definitely reflected in the piecemeal nature of our albums. Part of the
reason is that we are very consciously and constantly trying to write
songs that Bob and Tom, podcasters or the Internets at large will play
(the closest thing these days to a "novelty hit"). We also enjoy trying
new musical styles and hate repeating ourselves, which keeps things
fresh but does make it more difficult to have a defined sound or style.
Long ago we did talked about creating fictional stage personas (like
Flight of the Conchords), but realized that it wasn't something we
really wanted to do (and that we may not be capable of doing). We've
also discussed doing a Fireside Theater or Monty Python-style recorded
project, but have passed it by for the same reasons.
So to answer your ACTUAL question: yes our albums really are just
collections of funny and well written songs; yes, I feel that we'd be
more marketable (both for albums and as an act) if we had a "thing",
"hook" or "concept", and; no, I have no idea how to make that happen in
a way that would be natural for us. Yet.
Special thanks to Jesse for setting me up for the interview and to Alex Erde for the photo.