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FOG! Chats With w00tstock and Learning Town’s PAUL and STORM!

Interview conducted by Lauren Berkley

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are more likely aware of Felicia Day and her Geek & Sundry YouTube channel. You might also be familiar with singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton – known as “JoCo” to his fans – who most recently made headlines when the FOX show “Glee” allegedly ripped off his rendition of “Baby Got Back.”

But this interview is not with JoCo.

It is with Paul and Storm, a musical-comedy duo who often tour with him.

Paul and Storm, along with Wil Wheaton and Adam Savage of “Mythbusters” founded the vaudevillian event w00tstock. They also just wrapped the first season of “Learning Town,” a web series on Geek & Sundry, where they take over a failing old-fashioned children’s show – complete with puppets, songs, and a very warped sense of humor.

I sat down with them via Skype to discuss their inspirations, what’s next after “Learning Town,” and what it really means to be a “geek” in today’s world.

Lauren Berkley: Storm, just because I’ve been wondering: how did you get the nickname?

Storm: It was a high school nickname from working at a produce stand that sold plants. The plants needed to be watered, I didn’t want to water them, and so I decided I would try to kill them by over-watering them. I didn’t have much of a work ethic back then – that’s changed. And it didn’t work. They actually needed that kind of watering. Short version is they just ended up calling me “Human Thunderstorm” or “Storm” and it kinda suited me at the time anyway. In high school, I was a bit brooding, so it stuck and by the time I hit college, it was my de facto name. So, it’s not a stage name, but it is a nickname.

Photograph by Lauren Berkley.  Storm performing at DragonCon 2011.

Alright, now, down to business.  Tell me about the humble beginnings of Paul and Storm.  I know you guys were in [a cappella group] DaVinci’s Notebook together first.

DaVinci’s Notebook started as just an ad in the local city paper from a guy looking to put together an a cappella group, and Paul and I responded to that, as well as 2 other guys who went on to be in DaVinci’s with us. We actually met before that. He [Paul] had auditioned for my college a cappella group, when he was a grad student at University of Maryland and he opted not to join us at that time, so we met, so it was funny when we met up in DaVinci’s Notebook.

And then DaVinci’s Notebook – the group that we had all joined broke up after a summer, and the four of us – Paul and I, Richard, and Bernie – formed DaVinci’s and that went until 2003-2004 when it ended and Paul and I wanted to keep making music; we wanted to keep doing a creative thing for a living. That fear of doing anything else led me to actually learn how to play guitar and Paul to learn how to play the keyboard and write a whole new slate of material and that was the humble beginning.

Why focus on comedic music?

It’s because we’re so funny and we just couldn’t help it. [laughs] Sort of.

Paul: It was something we just naturally drifted to. In the early days of DaVinci’s Notebook, the group was just like a cover band, we did, you know, doo-wop songs and a cappella versions of rock songs, and among the songs we covered were songs by the group called The Boggs [Academy], which is another a cappella group that’s been around for years, and they tended to do funnier original songs. The songs that we covered of theirs tended to go over really well because, among other things, it was the kind of music we all individually enjoyed, and it was something a little unique compared to 800 other cover bands out there. 

Between that – and the fact that they were received so well and the fact that Storm and I did most of the songwriting for that group, that was the stuff we really enjoyed personally growing up. None of us really were songwriters prior to that, but we said let’s give it a shot doing some of these on our own and some of the first few comedic songs we did were very well-received and it became more and more the thing that we did and the thing we were known for and so it was a gradual and increasing evolution toward that direction. 

It was never like we sat down and said, “Okay, you know what? We are now going to be a comedy a cappella band!”

Photograph by Lauren Berkley.  Paul performing at DragonCon 2011.

We definitely take the music part seriously…It’s all about just entertaining however you can and we found that people paid attention to us the most when we were goofing off. By the time we came around with Paul and Storm, DaVinci’s had really been a comedy thing more than anything else, and we just kept going with that and we have musical backgrounds…We’re not classically-trained or anything like that, but we’ve always done music to the point that we care that it sounds good and solid and interesting and that we can replicate sounds that we hear, like Weird Al.

In my opinion, part of what makes him a great entertainer is when you listen to his parodies – except for the early ones where it’s just his accordion, which are also great — he takes the time to make it sound exactly like the originals, so that you’re not distracted by the music — that you believe it.

How do you get the inspirations for your songs?

I wish there was a science to it, because then it would be a lot easier!

Personally, it’s sort of the same thing as “Why do comedy?” It just sorta comes out of you or it doesn’t.

It tends to be driven by the lyrics or an idea more so than music, which is not to say that we never work on the music first, but usually just because of the nature of what we do that tends to sort of spearhead the rest of any given song. Sometimes, it’ll just be a concept like, “Oh, we should make fun of the fact that George R.R. Martin takes so long to write books!” or something like that. Sometimes, we’ll get a rough idea of a concept and we’ll see if there’s enough that we can say to sustain it for a 3 or 4-minute song and everything else tends to form around that.

Personally, I find when I’m sort of in a good mood and happy, that’s when good ideas come, but you can’t force yourself to come up with a good idea.

Is there a reason why you stay away from politics or celebrity/pop culture topics when you write your songs?

Part of it is that any material like that has a short shelf life, so unless you do that all the time like “The Capitol Steps,” neither Paul nor I are particularly political.

We do have political views, but it’s not – you have to choose to do that. You can only do that. You can’t be political and also just be a band that people enjoy.

Part of it, too, with Paul and Storm, was when we first started out, one of the things we did a lot was the Bob & Tom Radio Show, which is a syndicated show out of the Midwest that’s really huge and really helped us out in our formative years as Paul and Storm. Their audience was very much on that political divide, and if you did anything political, immediately you would be writing off half your audience, and these days that’s kind of true anymore anyhow.

It’s always been true: “You don’t talk politics”; it seems like it’s even more so now.

What’s it like working with JoCo (singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton)?

It’s horrible! He’s a taskmaster! He just punches all the time! [laughs] It’s so much fun when we travel with him. He’s as great a guy as he seems he could be, and we just have a good time.
How did “Learning Town” (Musical Web Series on Geek & Sundry’s YouTube Channel) come about?

We wanted to do a video project with Kim Evey [producer of “The Guild”] and Felicia [Day] for years. We’d always talked about, “Hey! It would be great!” when they were just doing “The Guild” – The Knights of Good was their production company.

We never quite found the right angle. We actually had put together a pitch video for sort of an office-based web musical that would have been like “The Office” plus “30 Rock,” but musical, and it didn’t quite have it, so we just let it drop.

Then when Geek & Sundry came around, it was like, “Aha! Here’s the perfect opportunity to kinda come back to it, see what we can do,” and it was actually Jonathan [Coulton] who…ok, we were trying to think, “Ok, we’ve got this idea, but it’s not quite gelling,” and he said, “Well, how about like a kids’ show?” and we thought that was a great idea and we ran with it and we brought in our friend Josh Cagan to be head writer to help us flesh it out and that’s really the genesis of it…so, really, because Geek & Sundry came about.

Photograph by Alexa Hahn

Will there be a second season of “Learning Town”?

We’d certainly like to. That’s above our pay grade; we don’t really know what goes on at Geek & Sundry and all the rest, but for sure, we really enjoyed doing this first season. We’re very proud of it. We think it’s weird and fun and funny and was just a really great experience, so we hope we get to, but we’re happy with what we’ve done.

When you went into “Learning Town”, was your market the adult geek crowd who grew up with those kinds of kid shows?  Because some of it is very “not for children”…

No, no! That was actually a concern of ours the whole time! We didn’t want people to think that it was a kid’s show, and sort of the unofficial tagline was “Not for kids.” We didn’t really have a target audience in mind. It was really, basically, “What do we think is kind of fun and funny?” We did consciously try not to put in too many things that would freeze out anybody, like, if you were under the age of, say, 35 or 30, and hadn’t really been familiar with that type of show that you wouldn’t feel like there were all these in-jokes about Mister Rogers or anything – like there’s no direct connection to any of them – but certainly the fact that that kind of show hasn’t really existed for a while probably has skewed the audience towards the more 35-54 age range.

Your songs – especially in “Learning Town” – span all different types of genres and influences…are those the types of artists and genres you guys like?  Who are your influences or inspirations?

How much time you got? It’s kind of all over the map!

You know, many, many people say it, but The Beatles are definitely the biggest thing for me, just when I was a kid and you talk about all the different styles, and I think part of that is from The Beatles. They weren’t one thing. They started out as sort of this other-era pop group and then evolved. And then for me, personally, a lot of classic rock, a lot of light rock, soft rock from the ‘70s.

I got into groups like The Beatles a little later in adolescence, but I did finally come to my senses that The Beatles were awesome and did a lot of listening to them. Specifically from a comedy-music perspective, I grew up listening to a lot of Tom Lehrer and of course, Weird Al Yankovic, and Alan Sherman and Stan Freeberg…a lot of different acts like that. Not constantly, but regularly. I was a big fan of comedy music and those type of things helped sort of shape my own sense of humor.

I tend to answer the question by including comedians, as well, because they kind of go hand-in-hand, so: Weird Al, Tom Lehrer, Smothers Brothers, [Bill] Cosby, Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin – all the comics who were big in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I listened to Broadway musicals growing up, I was in the high school jazz band – I played trumpet for 14 years growing up – so I listened to a lot of things like that. It was a big sort of stew pot of musical influence. I should have a better answer for this, but it’s just his huge mish-mosh of a lot of different influences. To broaden it beyond that, I always had very supportive parents who always encouraged anything I was enthusiastic about, so that was very helpful. It’s not like I grew up planning or expecting or wanting to be a professional comedy musician or anything like that, but to the extent that they always encouraged my enthusiasms, whatever they were, so that helped.

Musically, for me, anything with a strong melody with harmonies, so all the bands like Styx, Journey – those arena rockers who have big, brassy harmonies. That’s a grab bag that gives you a good idea, but definitely, we like to try all different styles. We get bored; we don’t like to repeat ourselves. Like, let’s say we did a successful R&B-style song, we wouldn’t want to come back to that again unless some time had passed or we had a good reason to do it.

What do you geek out about?

Pretty much anything that I get into, I geek out about; that’s how I view it. I do enjoy certain video games. Certainly cultural things, like Star Wars and Star Trek, that when I get into them I geek out about them, but what I feel like makes me a geek is my approach to it, and that’s sort of all-consuming, to the nth degree. Sorry not to give you a short list of the things I particularly enjoy, but it shifts a lot and it’s great with Twitter, social media being able to be exposed to so many more things and always have something new to geek out about.

I’m a movie nut. I watch a lot of movies. I watch a lot of Turner Classic movies and to a lesser degree, American Movie Classics. I have a love of old Hollywood – ’20s, ’30s, ’40s Hollywood. I’m just fascinated by that whole process that just doesn’t exist – that whole studio system, you know, that whole bygone method of doing things. Not that I think it’s necessarily better, but it just sort of fascinates me. 

Also, lately, to a lesser extent, we’re very late to the game obviously, but we just got into “Magic the Gathering”. Jonathan [Coulton] actually taught us to play last year, and Storm and I both are sort of diving down the rabbit hole on that. We’re still very much beginners, but we are learning the intricacies of the game and all the intertwining strategies for building decks and playing, so currently right now – I wouldn’t say I’m obsessed – but I’m thinking about it a lot more than a 43-year-old man should.

You can write a song about that!

[laughs] They asked us – Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes “Magic the Gathering”, asked us to be – I think the word they used is “Spell Slingers” – at PAX East this year, where we were celebrity Magic players. We were at their booth at certain times and people came by to play “Magic the Gathering” against us. At first, we just didn’t want to embarrass ourselves, so we wanted to learn more about the game, and now at this point, it’s sort of taken on a life its own.

Photograph by Maarten deBoer

Tell me about w00tstock – how did that come about?

That was just us wanting to do a gig with some friends, where we were coming to the West Coast and we had somewhat-recently met both Wil Wheaton and Adam Savage [of “Mythbusters”] and we thought, “Wow! Wouldn’t it be fun if we just did this gig?” and then beyond that, “Huh! And if we did that, what if we had a couple other guests and sort put on a vaudeville-type show?” and it happened and it was just fun and immediately, it seemed like we tapped into something that no one had done before in the geek world – this sort of nerdy variety show. That’s really the whole of it.

How do you feel about Kickstarter?

Much like Twitter breaks down a lot of the walls between creators and artists and their fans and the public, Kickstarter and Indiegogo and that ilk democratizes the project-funding process to a crazy degree. It can also, unfortunately, increase the noise factor, so to speak, in that suddenly there are thousands of projects out there that people are trying to put together and that can make smaller, worthwhile projects harder to hear about in the rest of the noise. 

And personally, I fear – and this is just my personal impression of it – if you go to the Kickstarter well, you can only dip into it once or twice before people might get sick of you. Like, if you are constantly asking people to fund different projects of yours, I have a feeling you are going to get quickly diminishing returns, so I don’t think that’s something you can build your entire future business model on. But that being said, if you’ve got something you can’t get a hold of anywhere else or in some other fashion, it’s a really excellent tool, as far as that’s concerned. 

As musicians, we have an advantage over others in that we have an actual product that we can sell as a physical thing that people are used to purchasing. So, we always have the option of saying – our friend Jonathan Coulton did this with his last CD – where rather than doing it as a Kickstarter, he sold different types of packages of his CD. I mean, it’s sort of the same thing. Maybe it’s a semantic difference, but it was a matter of people joining a club, so to speak, as opposed to banding together to fund a project. Plus, he basically had already completed the CD, and then sold these packages, as opposed to raising all the funds ahead of time through Kickstarter. 

I’m not even sure exactly where I’m going with that other than as I said, we have this product that people are already used to purchasing, as opposed to putting together a movie or a series that people don’t have a thing in their hands when it’s done; they just merely have the pride of helping to create this “thing,” whatever it is. 

It’s certainly a very handy extra tool and method that’s available to people, and I’m all for it.

I had a hard time wording this question, but here goes: it’s now cool to be a geek.  Geeks and nerds are being catered to or having stuff sold to them – “Big Bang Theory” and “Community” and stuff like that.  Even though part of being a geek is about being inclusive, since most of us were not included in things growing up, do you feel like the, “Oh it’s cool to be a geek now,” the whole commercialization of it, do you think that takes something away from being a geek?  Like, originally, before it was cool?

Paul, you first.

The term geek, even to the extent that it never had one, has lost its definition, to a degree. Like, for me, at least geekdom or nerddom is really just about enthusiasm for a thing, whatever that thing might be, and that’s sort of always been around, it’s just that there have always been more acceptable forms of it. 

At this point, talking about geekdom is like talking about guitar music – like, it’s a not a genre, it’s more of a medium. There’s all kinds of guitar music: There’s rock ‘n roll, there’s classical, there’s jazz, there’s ethnic music of 80 different stripes – so to just talk about being a geek anymore…I don’t mean to say it’s meaningless, it’s just you’re not talking about a single thing or a single category. I mean there are cosplayers, there are Dungeons & Dragons people, there are computer-gaming nerds, there are tabletop gaming nerds, there are people who are just into building electronics or making robots or building models. There are countless different stripes of it and it’s really just a matter of what has become somewhat more or somewhat less socially acceptable in the recent years, I guess. 

With any group it’s a natural inclination, especially any group that has been ostracized to some degree, there’s a sense among that group to band together and circle the wagons and yearn for self-protection, I guess, and part of that, for better or worse, often comes with a degree of exclusionary, like, you know, “We can be in this group but you can’t be,” aspect to it, and I’m…I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. 

Traditionally people say Jocks and Nerds – there’s no meeting ground between the two. But you look at folks who are, say, into fantasy football leagues or who really follow baseball — that’s really nerdy! The way you get into the statistics, the way you cross-compare, the way you argue, you know, “Which is the greatest of all-time?” and then having your arguments. Bodybuilding — that is phenomenally nerdy, in its own way. The way you have to be disciplined and learn about physiology and everything to accomplish your goal, so I think that there is a mindset that it transcends any particular thing, but I do think that the difference between “geek” and “nerd” is that to be “geeky-nerdy”, it has to do with things that are more in the realm of the mind or the imagination, otherwise everything else in the world could be considered “geeky,” so that’s where I draw the line.

I’ll say this: The internet, especially, makes it far easier to find people that share your enthusiasms and to find the things you’re enthusiastic about. And there are people who claim that the fact that this is so much easier than it was 20 years ago – like, you don’t have to go rooting around bulletin boards or haunting the one comic book shop in your town or whatever to try and find people who were as excited about Dungeons & Dragons as you were or to try and find the single issues of some comic book that you’ve been searching for forever. The fact that that’s become easier, some people think that it sorta diluted the experience, and I suppose in some way, it’s kind of maybe just sour grapes that people don’t have to work as hard as older people did to find people that share their enthusiasms, but I can only find good to come out of the fat that it’s that much easier to find your community, I think, so to bring it back around to your original question, I don’t think it really takes that much away from being an “original geek”, quote-unquote, the fact that it’ s more socially acceptable and more popular in mainstream culture these days and it asks the broader question of define your terms, like “what makes a geek?” because it can be so meaningless anymore, depending on what you’re going to talk about. If you’re talking about people who are into the whole furry thing – which is not necessarily limited to geeks, but it is certainly always generally associated with the geek subculture – you know, from their perspective, it’s only a great thing that it’s become easier to find people to share their enthusiasm.

I also don’t think it [the “real geek” argument] matters, and here’s why: Yeah, pop culture at large can take a snapshot and say this is what it is to be a geek, to be a nerd – “Big Bang Theory” is what it is – and the writers, they are nerds and they put in real content in there that does, I feel, reflect what Nerdness is about, but that it’s always evolving, and we don’t know who the nerd 5 or 10 years is gonna be. I think you just need to look and see, “Alright, who’s really enthusiastic about something, but who is dismissed, who is, if not ostracized and outcast, but looked down upon as lesser, because they enjoy something or that’s silly”. And maybe that doesn’t exist now, because of the internet, that people who are into their subcultures can find the people that are also into it, so they never feel like they’re outcasts or outsiders, but I believe that there still is and you can’t predict what it is. Like, I think the Bronies (male “My Little Pony” fans) are a great example of something that before the internet or before it was as robust as it is now, that there would have been people who may have watched it and enjoyed it but never told anybody. And then maybe only years later, once the internet came around, it’s like, “Oh my God! You like that, too!” So, we’re seeing it happen in real time, instead of people re-discovering things.

I mean could you imagine trying to find other furries in 1974?! I don’t even know where you would start!

Photograph by Alexa Hahn

Along the same lines: do you think women are unfairly discriminated against?  But even more to the point, do you think that’s also the “geek culture”?  Like the comic book covers featuring super-hero women versus the covers that depict male superheroes…is there something that needs to be fixed?

I do think, as in the culture at large, that women are often objectified and portrayed in ways that are not good for individual women. How people are portrayed in culture does affect how people live and are treated personally. I see increasingly – it’s becoming less so – and that it’s helpful for women to get out there and to do their thing and to show people, “Hey! I’m a woman and I’m not this thing on the cover,” and this is something and it’s good.

I do think for a long time – you bring up comic books – there were very few channels for culture to get out there and now with the internet, when it first started, it was a reflection of the culture as it was, when it started, and that now, and it’s taken some time, that there are more women who feel like they can get out there. Like, in our crowd, there’s Molly Lewis and there’s Marian Call and there’s Garfunkel & Oates, and we’re always looking for “the next” – and not just of women, but particularly with women — and I think with non-white people, as well, you don’t seen nearly as many faces in geek and nerd culture and they’re out there.

We are actively looking, like with w00tstock and with the cruise [JoCo Cruise Crazy], for folks that would just be great for the larger geek/nerd culture to geek out about.

What’s next for you guys?

All kinds of stuff! We’ve been doing a lot of conventions, which we really love.

We want to try and keep that pattern up, because it’s been working out very well for us. So, that’s one of the main thrusts of 2013 for Paul & Storm is to try and increase our convention visibility.

We’re working on a couple of secret projects we can’t talk about right now. None of them are particularly huge or anything, but some fun little things that are coming down the pike, and then beyond that, we’ve probably got about half an album’s worth of songs that we’ve written over the last year and a half or so and our next task, really, is to try and finish that off to have new material and a new CD out.

At this point, the last episode of “Learning Town” is up, so the first season is done and then we’ll also probably get a CD… you know, we’ve been releasing the singles [on iTunes] as the episodes have been coming out and now that they’re all going to be out, we’ll recompile them into album format and we’ll probably release a physical CD version of it, just because lots of people like to have ‘a thing’ in their hands still, so we’ll make that available.

We want to do more video. We did a video for our George R.R. Martin song [“Write Like the Wind”], which did really well, and I think that is a really good way for us to go. It’s a better infection vector, to have something on video than just to release a song.

We want to do more w00tstocks or other shows like it. We do a show with Wil Wheaton called “Wil Wheaton vs. Paul and Storm.” We love doing shows where we can involve our friends, especially if they’re not bands. We like working with other bands, of course, but this idea that you can take an author and an actor and a scientist and put on a show that would be entertaining and fun. The JoCo Cruise Crazy that we do with Jonathan every year, that’s become a thing – it’ll be the fourth one coming up next February (2014). I feel like our job is to be interesting and to be out there just doing things, so we’ll do whatever people will pay attention to us doing and that we will get paid for.

Be sure to follow Paul and Storm on Twitter @paulandstorm and watch Season 1 of their “Learning Town” web series on the Geek & Sundry YouTube Channel!
Visit Paul and Storm’s Official Website HERE

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