The Masters of Indietronica, The Octopus Project, Chat with PopMatters
After a memorable set with Devo at Moogfest, band members relax for a chat with PopMatters.
Since 1999, the Octopus Project has been forging a new hybrid known as indietronica by happily expanding upon the quintessential rock quartet to include modern techno gizmos and vintage experimental gadgetry. Rarely relying on vocals to explain the soundscape, each member plays all sorts of instruments -- even switching to another mid-song. While at Moogfest in Ashville, North Carolina over Halloween weekend, the group was called upon to quickly learn a few Devo classics to play with Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerry Casale after Bob Mothersbaugh was injured. The very next day Toto Miranda plus married couple Josh and Yvonne Lambert sat down to catch their breath with PopMatters.
Do you believe in fate as a band? At the performance Gerry Castle of Devo talked about how fate can come down from the sky and change things. The Octopus Project landed a spot at Coachella thanks to a fan entering you in a MySpace contest, and here you’re opening up for Moogfest then you’re enlisted to be Devo’s backup band.
Yvonne: I do!
Josh: Personally I guess I just believe that we all kind of just focus on what we’re doing at any given moment and we try to stay really excited about what we’re doing which that tends to lead to good things?
Yvonne: We‘ve gotten really lucky . . . We’ve met so many amazing people and things have been good. I mean we’ve had a very slow but steady rise to where we are now which is better than where we started, although we’re definitely not at the top. Yeah we’re happy with what we’re doing.
Toto: I don’t think we’re fated to achieve anything in particular. But it seems important to focus on what you love to do and do it as much as you can--that tends to lead to pretty cool places.
Josh: When we started the band it wasn’t ever like, “We’re gonna to get famous! We’re gonna have hit songs! We’re gonna do this or we’re gonna do that!” It was just, “Let's write some songs that we really like and let's make the shows crazy!”
Yvonne: And have fun!
Toto: We’ve been lucky that every now and then someone comes along to say well do you want to do this? And we go, YEAH!
And that you would make an awesome backup band for Devo . . .
Josh: [Smiling broadly] That never ever crossed my mind as a possibility!
The OP seems to embody the next wave of electronic music with your mash up of instruments. I was wondering how did you arrive at that "indietronica" sound?
Yvonne: We started the band with the idea of just incorporating any and every sound: any toy, any instrument imaginable. There were no rules to making music when we started the band, which is one of the reasons why the Theremin ended up in the band. I learned what it was in 1999 when I saw the documentary on Leo Theremin so Josh and I bought one. I just happened to be the one who took to it more and have gotten better at it over the last ten years of being a band.
You play it so beautifully too—it’s like you’re dancing. How did you come about the instrument? I mean obviously you couldn’t buy it in a kit like it used to come.
Josh:We saw the Leon Theremin documentary and found out that Moog was making ones that you could buy and they were relatively cheap. It was 300 bucks for a totally crazy awesome instrument.
Yvonne: Already made!
Josh: We actually bought one that was signed by Bob [Moog]. We have that sitting at home, tucked away nicely.
Yvonne: We don’t take that one on tour anymore.
Your sound is such a total mash-up of electronic and real instruments--did you do a lot of experimenting electronically? Technically you’re a four-piece group, which is a typical rock band but you use electronic and acoustic instruments or whatever.
Toto: I don’t think we really distinguish so much between the two--they’re just all with different qualities. Sometimes the song needs more of this so maybe we could do that with drums or it needs more of that so maybe do that with a synth. It’s really just picking from a palette to assemble a song.
Yvonne: Working with what feels right for the individual song. Again, when we started as a band we didn’t have any intention of being an instrumental band but that’s kind of how it turned out. And it’s only recently that we’ve started incorporating vocals on some songs just because with those particular songs it seemed like it needed something more. And a vocal texture felt right so we started trying vocals ourselves.
Obviously there’s a lot of musicianship. That’s the first thing that comes across in the first 30 seconds of watching your band. So can you talk about your backgrounds for a bit? I mean are you music school brats?
Everybody: No, no, quite the opposite.
Josh: I think we all just grew up really excited about playing music on anything we could get our hands on. Separately--I didn’t know Toto when he was a kid. We were like, “Oh I like the drums so I’m gonna try to play the drums. Or I like guitar.” Anything we could get our hands on, I think we all were excited to play.
Toto: I took piano lessons as a kid and totally hated them, as valuable as they may be in the back of my mind now. But was more excited about making weird tapes when I was younger, rather than playing the piano.
So no formal training?
Yvonne: I’ve actually never had a music lesson.
And what about your other band member, Ryan Figg?
Josh: Ryan actually had some training.
Toto: I think his answer to this question is that when he was younger he decided he was going to get really awesome at guitar so he really pursued that. And it worked.
Yvonne: And he’s an amazing pianist.
My next question is about switching instruments; there’s such a choreography going on onstage during your show. Did that happen in the studio and you took it onstage? Was it something that arrived organically because the music needed it, even to take off a guitar to program something on a laptop? It seems to adds to your stage show so much.
Toto: It’s kind of the way the songs get written: one person might write a bunch of different parts with different instruments for different songs. So we just kind of apply that to how we can do that I guess.
Yvonne: It feels like the only way it could work, to play the songs the way they’re intended to be heard, is for each of us to play the specific things that we play in what was written for the different parts.
Josh: It makes the tour a lot more fun…
Yvonne: It does!
Josh: To get up there and be like, oh I get to do this and that and this!
Yvonne: I do keep notes onstage and never drink before a show. [Laughter all around]
And how do you write, does it begin with the instruments, a backbeat or melody?
Everybody: Every song is totally different . . .
Josh: A lot of the times we’ll be messing around just recording sounds and stuff. Then we’ll take a one or two second snippet that sounds really cool and build a song around that. Or sometimes you’ll just be sitting playing guitar and come up with a little thing you like and then build a song around that or just play drums and write everything on top. It’s different.
Yvonne: Yeah, it’s different.
And it’s totally collaborative each time?
Josh: For the most part, yeah.
Yvonne: There are some songs that Toto wrote and then we learned the parts, maybe putting our own spin on things. But there are also some songs that were mostly written by one of us, but only a few I think for the most part.
Toto: I really like the ones where one person will take someone else’s idea and chop it up and do something different with it. We do a lot of handing off saying, “Well I got these ideas but I don’t know what to do. Here you go!” And then someone will take it to the next step.
Josh: Then back and forth again.
Toto: We don’t usually learn to play it until after it’s written. It kind of gets written in the recording process. And then we’ll stand back and say well I can play that then you can play that.
It definitely looks collaborative. The new CD Hexadecagon is more of a concept album, less song-driven as the others. How did that come about?
Josh: I guess we were listening to a whole ton of ambient music and repetitive minimalist stuff in the van while touring. Its just awesome put it on and start driving and just focus for an hour or whatever to get lost in your mind.
Toto: [Jokingly] WHERE AM I?
Josh: [Laughs] So we were listening to a lot of that kind of stuff and thought that it might be really awesome to take those ideas and expand them. The original idea was to have a surround sound kind of like thing as an experiment.
Yvonne: All encompassing!
Josh: We wanted to have music and sounds spinning around people--moving all around in all different ways and then have video also interacting with that, totally synchronized. We had no idea if it would actually work but after we got home from our last tour we just really dove into writing the songs and figuring out the technical aspects of it. So we just put all these songs together and they seemed to work really well as a whole. When we started it we hadn’t thought about making a record or anything, it was let’s just try this thing because it would be really fun to do. Afterwards we decided that we really liked these songs a lot and the way they flow together, let’s make a record.
Toto: It’s a concept record in that the concept for the show was in place and then we wrote the songs to go with that. So they were all under certain constraints that ended up really helping us creatively.
Then it became a hit in your hometown in Austin at South by Southwest last March, what was that like?
Toto: We decided to do it then because we knew there would be a lot of people from all over the place in town and we’d probably have a good audience. But we were definitely not expecting as many people to be there. It was kind of overwhelming when the show actually arrived and there were 3000 people in the parking lot.
Josh: We could only fit 600 under the tent so we just opened up the sides of the tent.
Josh: More touring. We have a bunch of songs that we’ve been working on for our next record.
Toto: We want to get to that pretty quickly but also we'll stay busy touring in 2011--so those two things.
You already have something started?
Toto: We’re really excited about the record we have out but I think everybody’s also ready to move on to the next thing
Yvonne: We’re so ready to start working on a new record, even though this one’s just come out.
Josh: We’ve literally been working on these songs and this whole idea for like a year nonstop, so it’s like let’s do something new!