Paul and Storm on George R.R. Martin, xkcd, and their next album
Musical comedy duo Paul and Storm, the comedy duo responsible for the viral spoof “Write Like the Wind (George R. R. Martin),” launched a Kickstarter last month for their newest album, Ball Pit—a title they say came from an xkcd comic. If that means anything to you, you’re probably in their target audience—an audience that has Kickstarted more than $100,000,which makes Ball Pit less an album and more like a comedy extravaganza.
Paul Sabourin—the short one—and Greg "Storm" DiCostanzo—the tall one—have made inroads in the geek community and Internet culture, from their short-lived Geek & Sundry series “Learning Town” to numerous appearances alongside geek icons like Jonathan Coulton and Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin himself, who let them know exactly what he thought of their impatience with his latest book in this tongue-in-cheek Comic Con appearance earlier this year:
Nothing shows how influential the two have become in their hallowed nerd community than their current Kickstarter, which ends today. The duo’s stretch goals have revealed surprises including “The PaulandStormonomicon” anthology, which features stories from Lev Grossman and John Scalzi and illustrations from Wil Wheaton and Neil Gaiman. Then there’s the $100,000 stretch goal: a holiday special featuring Homestar Runner creators Mike and Matt Chapman.
Oh, and the cover art is done by Randall Munroe, the artist and genius behind the iconic webcomic xkcd.
Are you feeling nerdgasmic yet? It’s a familiar effect to anyone who’s been following the duo since their days as part of the geeky a cappella group Da Vinci’s Notebook. As a part of the late ‘90s nerd a cappella scene—and yes, it was definitely a scene, as any old-school fan of Da Vinci’s Notebook or Moxy Fruvous could tell you—they got their induction into making music for the geeks early on.
We sat down with them to discuss how they’ve evolved from those early beginnings, what they’ve learned from geek culture and fandom—not to mention from George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones—and how xkcd’s Munroe gave them the inspiration for their fifth album.
What have you guys learned over the years that you’ve carried over from Da Vinci’s Notebook into today?
Storm: Really, the whole business side of music—that’s something we had to learn when we became professional musicians, which happened almost completely by accident. We were on the folk circuit a lot, and just understanding how networking works—understanding how having fun and finding other people ends up making more awesome stuff for everybody involved.
I wonder, too, if bands like Moxy Fruvous and Da Vinci’s notebook would be operating differently if they were around today and they had things like Kickstarter and Twitter to make their fanbase that much more visible.
Storm: We talk about that a lot, that if it had been around during Da Vinci’s days, [the band] would have spread much further. You mention Moxy Fruvous. At the time their whole model, the way you did things, was you’d travel to cities and you go back every 4-6 months and you just keep going back hoping you’ll stick. There was no other way to do it unless you were signed to a major label that had the money to promote you and put you on TV. I believe Moxy Fruvous, had the Internet been what it is today, would have been a much larger phenomena.
Da Vinci’s notebook also had a couple of early viral hits, too. Has that influenced how you’ve approached building a fanbase?
Storm: I guess it has, in that we learned from Da Vinci’s. I guess that’s what happened: successful bands that are using social networking are doing the same thing that successful bands did that grew grassroots fanbases. And this was advice that was given to us very early on, which is, if you develop your fanbase, if you keep in touch with them, you listen to them and not sort of be a rock star about it, then you’re going to have this loyal fanbase. Even if you become big and then crash again, they’ll always be there for you and you’ll have that center. That served us well. It used to be through an email list, and even sending postcards—we sent postcards, thousands of them, when we had gigs. And now it’s so much easier and cheaper. Twitter is our main platform now—we can literally have conversations with individual fans.
Did you always identify as a part of geek culture or was that a self-identification that evolved as you found your fanbase and as the Internet evolved geek culture?
Paul: We certainly always knew we were nerds, it’s not like we kept it secret or anything. Especially back in the Da Vinci’s Notebook days, when the Internet was still in its infancy, I think our content tended to have a little broader appeal, just because if you sing a song about the Tardis and try and get it on morning radio shows, you’re not going to have a whole lot of success. Since the Internet has become our primary method of getting word out about ourselves, we’ve been able to embrace that side of ourselves and that area of fandom, which has improved incredibly loyal, as Storm says. Our content has, maybe not narrowed, but altered its course more hardcore towards the geek realm and geek topics, just because now we know that we can write a song like that which makes it happy and it’ll also get to the people who will also enjoy it, so it’s not just getting thrown out into the ether where people shrug at it and say, ‘What is a Doctor Who?’
Storm: There’s really only been a cohesive nerd culture since the late 2000s. You had these islands that people were attracted to. We’d go to concerts and be like, ‘oh, yes, it’s our people,’ but it’s only recently that it’s been something you could get your hand around and say is a brand. Which is in some ways sad because you see it exploited a bit here and there, but I think it’s a well-enough established fact that it’s just a good thing.
When you write songs are you thinking about things that you yourselves love, or is it an equal balance of things you love and things you know your fans will love?
Storm: I think we’ve found that when you try to calculate and you say, ‘you know what’s hot right now? The kids just love Babylon 5!’—
Paul: The Pokémons! Let’s write a song about the Pokémons!
Storm: When you take it from that angle, people can smell a phony. And there will be some people who love that subject so much they won’t care, but for us, it’s always been, whether it’s nerdy or not, what makes us laugh. If we have an idea that we can make the other guy laugh with it, that’s a pretty good sign that other people will like it too.
Paul: Even when we’re writing something that has high nerd content, it’s one thing to write a song that has a high number of references. We hope that it has something behind it, where you’re making references for a reason or working towards some sort of goal. Like the George R. R. Martin song, though we certainly share the desire of many many people that he finish the damn books, the song itself was written and intended to be written of mocking the person whining and complaining on the Internet for him to finish the books than it is mocking George R. R. Martin himself.
We’ve all been that frustrated reader. My best friend in college was a huge Robert Jordan fan.
Paul: We actually pulled up in the lyrics. A lot of people have said, "Oh, you didn’t mention Robert Jordan," and we deliberately did not because we felt like that was crossing the line.
Storm: And while it’s good to have details in your song, you don’t want to have so many details that it’s alienating people.
Well, it’s also the stereotype of the nerd, that they’re laden with trivial details no one cares about.
Paul: That’s a funny thing, too: if there’s some esoteric point that wasn’t exactly spot on, you will get the torrent of tweets or emails, whatever it is. At this point I just take that as a compliment. They’re really engaged and paying attention.
Has your understanding of fandom evolved as you’ve moved further into geek culture?
Paul: We’ve certainly gotten a more detailed appreciation of it. The beautiful thing about the nerd fan, if you can generalize that way, is that they tend to be smarter than the average bear, they tend to be friendly, open, and happy people, and they tend to be very loyal. Those are all things that it’s really nice to have in a fanbase.
Storm: We have friends who are rock stars of some stripe or another, and we often get a sigh from them. ‘How nice that must be to have this fanbase that is really appreciative and are very thoughtful.’ It’s pretty great.
You said in the last interview we did together that your music has evolved creatively over the years. How has Ball Pit evolved?
Paul: We didn’t set out to say, okay, this one’s going to be the jazz oddyssey, or to say, “Okay, 20 percent of our fans like Doctor Who, so we have to do a Doctor Who song.’ I’d say for our existing fans who’d be familiar, we have broadened ourselves. Some of our newest songs have more of a narrative tone, sort of like Jonathan Coulton songs. We get bored, we don’t like to repeat the same song style or the same theme twice.
I was listening earlier to the clip you posted in the Kickstarter of “This Song,” and thinking that you guys had really gotten the Arcade Lumineer Dragon Fire sound down. Did you listen to a lot of unison choruses and drum-banging to get that effect?
Storm: I listened to every song that had a ‘hey’ or a ‘ho’ in it being shouted by people in the background of the recording studio. There was a good deal of research. It’s kind of amazing how that particular kind of song has just wheedled its way into every self-serious commercial out there.
Paul: Going to that is really a page from Al Yankovic’s playbook. Everybody knows his parodies very well, but also his original songs. You do a style parody, where you take what’s hot. Thankfully, music changes every year or two. The meta-song is something we’ve always done. You can actually trace a direct line from Da Vinci’s Notebook’s “Title of the Song,” a boy band parody, to “This Song.”
Are there any other influences from specific people and artists that show up in this album?
Storm: Certainly. We have both comedy influences and musical influences, and sometimes they cross, like Al Yankovic. Paul, you often cite Tom Lehrer, that smart song construction. One of our new songs is very much an Eagles style parody. They are not comedians—
Storm: They don’t intend to be comedians. Maybe Joe Walsh every once in a while.
Paul: That’s another thing that I think has evolved over the years—our ability to construct songs. What makes a song sound like an Eagles song, and how do you recreate that? We like to think that we’ve gotten better and more thorough at that. When you’re trying to do something satirical, the more you can set it within its original setting, the easier it is to settle into people’s minds so that the satire will strike them that much stronger. They don’t have to work to appreciate it. If more Eagles-like you can make the arrangement, the quicker they get it.
Storm: I was having a conversation with [Nerdist collaborator] Mike Phirman and we were discussing how as comedy musicians you really have to be a super-musician. You have to be able to understand and imitate the whole world of music. Which is very fun to do. For people who get bored easily, it’s perfect.
Is there a musical highlight your fans should be listening to?
Storm: It’s all perfect. I’d say in addition to working with some really great musicians on Ball Pit that we’ve been getting help on mixing from Furman and some others. Just the production to appreciate that. We mentioned the Eagles-style, we have one that borrows from Barenaked Ladies. In general we try to make our music interesting even without the comedy lyrics.
Have you learned any wisdom from Randall Munroe? I assume he exudes it.
Paul: He is maybe the smartest person I know at this point. He came on Jonathan Coulton’s Cruise Crazy last year and it was the first time we’d really had long stretches of time to hang out with him. It’s not obnoxious how smart he is, but you just marvel—he’s one of those people whose brain obviously works at such a different level, you have to sit back and bask in it.
Storm: He’s a big part, if not the reason, why the album is called Ball Pit. On the cruise last year we got to talking about it because one of his more famous comics is about having a ball pit in your apartment. We got to thinking, ‘Huh. A cruise ship! Wouldn’t that be an interesting place to have a ball pit?’ and now it looks like we’re actually going to do it on the next JoCo cruise, and that just became a running theme with us: that spirit of fun that evolves out of something that has no practical purpose. There’s a lot of practical skill that’s required to make it happen, but there’s no practical reason to make your apartment a ball pit. But there’s joy to it, nonetheless.
Since George R. R. Martin has still not produced the sixth [A Song of Ice and Fire] book, will there be a song on this album urging him to write like something that is faster than the wind?
Storm: I believe that score was settled at W00tstock.
Paul: He’s been a remarkably good sport, to the extent that he came to our show and stepped on Storm’s guitar.
Hopefully he gave you a new guitar.
Paul: The backup guitar was poisoned.
Paul and Storm’s Kickstarter ends Friday. Ball Pit is due out in early 2014.
Photo via dancoulter/Flickr