South by South Death Interview
John: So wait, you’ve never been to SxSW before?
(video starts mid-thought)
Toby: I was down there, you know, working on this new show, and we casted in Austin, we were rehearsing it in Austin, and I ended up staying with a friend that was attending the festival at the same time. And I’ve never been to South By in my entire life, and she was like, “you should probably come out with me a couple times, since you’ve never been. I saw a few shows… that’s it. *laughs*
John: Yeah, it’s easy to just kind of wander around.
Jared: I kind of got into a… Being a musician, having my own material, I applied to South By various times. It’s been a while since I’ve tried. I never got in, and I kind of got into a state of mind which was… if I’m not going to play, I’m not going to go.
Toby: I enjoy the food trucks.
Jared: But yeah, I’ve never been to Austin.
Toby: I’ve been to Austin a few times, and I think there’s something sort of interesting paralleling what’s happening in Williamsburg, where there’s still a corporatization of the Williamsburg culture, and in the same way a corporatization of the Austin culture. And my friends who have gone to SouthBy have reflected that as well. The idea that it’s sort of… the construct of what is cool, rather than the cool thing itself, in a lot of ways. That sounds a little weird.
John: Do you feel like that corporatization comes at the loss of culture?
Toby: Well, you look around Williamsburg, and you see these music venues that really aren’t that old, and you see them one by one getting knocked down in favor of the next wave of whatever this neighborhood might come.
John: Luxury apartments?
Toby: Yeah, or JCrew.
Jared: It’s weird because that’s the story of New York in a lot of ways. The real estate turnover is so crazy.
John: How long have you guys been in this area?
Jared: I’ve been in New York about seven years.
Toby: Eight years, something like that.
John: How long have you guys known each other?
Jared: Since I was probably about 11, he was about 13.
Toby: We grew up in Michigan, around Ann Arbor. We had played in some Jazz combos when we were young… we actually made more money doing Jazz when we were 15 and 16 than we do now.
Jared: I feel like it connects to a lot of themes of this show, you know? We had a gimmick as pre-teens playing Jazz. It was like: “Look at these kids, doing jazz! They’re so good!”
Toby: Doing… moderately fine jazz.
Jared: Whereas I see really incredible jazz players where you couldn’t be taken more for granted. And they show up and play this amazing stuff… and people barely bat an eye.
John: It’s funny how that works. You age out of as being seen as awesome as a musician.
Toby: It’s a theme that we explore in the show. This idea of how one gets attention, and the methods that one can take to get attention, and in what ways is it genuine, and in what ways is it not genuine.
Jared: What people respond to, whether consciously or not, it makes people just feel interested in something.
Toby: And how important is your personal integrity to that process? At what point do you say “alright, well, being a real person isn’t going to work for me anymore, so now I’m going to create some subset… whatever that might be.”
Jared: Both of us grew up in a town that had a lot of jazz, and we were musically inclined, and we started doing it, and at that point expanded our vocabulary, but I think both of us actually were kind of pulled back at a certain point. We didn’t want to go fully that route.
Toby: I didn’t enjoy reading music when I was very small. My teacher would always say “here, play this.” And I’d listen to her play and I’d just play it, because I didn’t want to look at the sheet music.
Jared: Did your piano teacher just give you jazz music?
Jared: I think my teacher knew that either I wasn’t interested, or I just didn’t have the personality type to drill on Bach.
John: I run into the same challenges in teaching my own kids. I have young students that I teach, and it’s so funny; kids will do a lot of things really well, but a lot of times they don’t want to read sheet music. It’s an interesting challenge navigating this.
Toby: I’ve found that it can even be governed by instrument, by genre, by context in which you’re playing in. I was a classical trumpet player, and the problem with playing sheet music there –
Jared: I did percussion for a while, and it’s fun: you sit there and rest for 70 bars, ready to go.
Toby: It’s the same thing with brass, you’re sitting and resting for 20 minutes, and then you’re expected to come in and play this big fanfare thing.
John: Talk about what the show is.
Jared: Toby and I tend to hang out and spitball crazy ideas, and there was one night where we were having dinner and we were just talking about random stuff. You know, random ideas. I think I said, “Dude, what if there was a slasher movie set at a music festival?” Toby was like “Whoa!” And then Toby said “What if there was a slasher MUSICAL set at a MUSIC festival!” And then we just sat there for five minutes in shock, like “whoa”. But then, you know, we basically just continued talking about it, and very quickly, we suddenly had a core story and some sense of what the characters would be, and in what world they would live in; where they’d be coming from, what we’d be writing about. We were not serious at all, but half an hour later, we were like… are we serious? And it was interesting, because Toby writes musicals. He’s written a bunch. And I, at that point in my life, was like “I don’t even like musical theatre.” I hadn’t even really discovered the side of musical theatre that I now love, and which I now feel like I totally belong in as a writer. I don’t know if it was chance or what, but we re-approached it a week later, and we were saying: “Were we kidding about that… or should we do this?”
Toby: It was also interesting because I was also entering a fertile musical theater writing period, and had just signed on to write this show that was going to be up at a college during the summer, and was also about to start writing a show that was this mashup piece called Wicked Frozen, that has like a global warming satire… it’s actually doing pretty well… but I was in a headspace where what if that thing you just said was a musical?
Jared: I think you’re in that headspace most of the time.
Toby: Yeah, definitely lately. I remember being like, this could certainly be a thing.
Jared: So that was the genesis. And then over the course of a couple months, I came up with a bunch of characters. During these months, Toby was occupied with a whole other show, and I wrote two songs. But once I did that, Toby was like “WAIT, hold on, are we writing this?” I gotta write something!” So, we kind of snowballed each other, and created this momentum, just from trying to catch up with each other. Suddenly so much creativity came out of this idea, and it’s taken me a long time looking back to even understand why it spoke to us so much.
Toby: One of the things that it did speak to us is that Jared has this wonderful repertoire of materials that he’s done. I’ve recorded a lot of more pop-oriented music over the years, and there’s this long history of trying to crack the code, so to speak. Like, what is the thing that will get noticed or not noticed. Does that matter? Oh, I feel anxious about the fact that I care that it matters or doesn’t matter. You know, the artist’s condition–it’s not like we’re unique in this respect. But I think in retrospect there was this swelling of “Well, here’s a bunch of feelings we got, that we’re going to filter through this weird universe. There’s real at the bottom of the story. Even with all the satirical elements, even with all the blood and guts and goofiness. It’s really a story about artists and how to be an artist in the world, and how to be an artist in the world now, and the challenge in doing that.
Jared: What I think we barely even needed to discuss was that the show revolves around a couple of aspiring singer/songwriters that are trying to get noticed. I think we barely stopped to even talk about whether that was the right thing. It felt instantaneous and obvious to us. And then, they’re friends, right, and they’re all in this setting. There’s a murderer on the loose at the fictional Didgeridoo Arts Festival, set somewhere in a barrier island off the coast of the Carolinas. It’s called Crystal Reef Island.
Toby: Even though the festival is titled South by South Death, which was an irresistible title for the piece,
Jared: …also a no brainer from the first five minutes of the show. Toby dropped that one.
Toby: The festival is modeled less like the multi-cultural, interdisciplinary festivals like South by, and more like rural American music festivals like Bonnaroo. Hence, Didgeridoo.
John: What do you feel like the difference is between the two?
Jared: Didgeridoo, it’s modeled on more of a Bonnaroo style festival, versus, despite the name, a festival like SxSW. SxSW is in a city and built around these showcases. It’s really about the music industry coming together and having a place to scout out bands. There’s so much about music festivals, particularly SxSW, that I don’t really know or understand, but mostly because I haven’t gotten far enough in my career to cross those bridges, honestly.
Jared: But I have attended a few of the outdoor festivals that we’ve modeled ours off of, and I think that comes out of a different legacy like Woodstock, which has a bunch of hippies in the middle of nowhere, doing drugs, having fun, etc.
Toby: And I think there’s a bit of a segue here to the outdoor festival structure, the way it exists where you are in isolation, and there is a certain wildness to it that lends itself well to the genre of slashers. There are literally slashers set up in campgrounds and islands. We’re trying to bring a lot of these slasher tropes together. And the slasher thing is funny because Jared is really into slashers, and I am really not.
Jared: I’ve gotten him to watch a couple.
Toby: I’m getting more into the idea. I just have difficulty discerning between reality and movies so I’m like AHHHH VIOLENCE!
John: What is a slasher to you, if you had to describe what a slasher is?
Jared: There’s a lot of different types of slashers, but in general, there is a location–usually isolated in some way. There’s a group of friends who are young and having fun, whether they’re in high school, college, sorority, sleepaway camp. And there’s a character with a distinctive characteristic. There’s a million ways you can play it–there might be some sort of backstory, there might be a dozen red herrings, you might know who the killer is already. There’s a lot of gratuitous sex and violence, which is barely defensible from an intellectual standpoint. It’s kind of challenging when you’re trying to work with a more socially conscious piece that’s directed at a different demographic than your average slasher. But that was half the fun. How much of this do we want to keep, how much do we want to change? Where are we playing with these ideas to make a point? Where are we just like “I don’t want to touch that.” And I think that’s something we’re still figuring out. One of the reasons we desperately need to workshop our musical is that so we can figure out how this story plays out and how it’s perceived. Especially given that there’s this crazy confluence of things that we’re bringing together, and given that there’s elements of violence… we live in a violent world. What feels like an increasingly violent world. Toby and I are both sensitive to that, both in working on the show and also just personally. I’ve lost sleep at night wondering “why did I write this? What did I bring to the world by doing it? Is it too cartoony? Are there positive elements of putting that story together?” I don’t really know yet. I think there’s a reason people create horror. There can be something therapeutic about it. There can be something thematically rich about it.
John: What is that reason?
Toby: This is something that’s related. The world that we created, sort of this pivot–what is the thing that gets you noticed? And the heightening of what gets you noticed. We made this piece with a kind of “this is pretty outrageous… let’s put that in.” And what we’ve witnessed, and what’s been so fascinating and terrifying over the past two years, we’ve suddenly looked at different pieces and been like “oh… we didn’t go far enough”, because the world is reflecting what we put in, and the world is constantly one-upping us.
Jared: Even specific people that we might be playfully mocking… are infinitely more outrageous than what we imagined even two years ago when we started writing this.
Toby: And then what’s fascinating further is that where we were focusing it in the world of art and culture and music and all this stuff. That outrageousness, quite literally in the past year, has spilled over into the world of politics and the world of the larger direction of the country in some ways. So, you know, that’s not to say that our piece is a statement of everything that’s happening.
Toby: We created, in the context of a world that is spinning faster and faster, in the context of this outrageous cycle.
Jared: I was telling Toby on our way over here–it’s almost strange that we’re developing the show in this election year, because it’s like the stuff that we’re dealing with seemed really profound to us last summer… but now, it seems almost pedestrian compared to what’s going on. You know, these media cycles and outrageous behavior are playing out in the election, and it’s feeding on itself. And how the public responds to it, and sometimes the way the public responds is borderline nihilistic, and extremely disturbing. But there’s also all the people that aren’t that way, and it’s a crazy feeling.
Toby: And it’s also the feeling of the way the people respond, and either they respond with either the nihilistic sentiment, or they respond by numbness. But not even numbness where they’re sad, they just don’t react to it anymore. And I think we play with that sense a little bit in this piece, where, you know… “there’s a murderer on the loose!” and half the crowd doesn’t care. They could be at risk… but they’re there. It’s sort of like “oh… yeah. That’s a thing that happens.”
Jared: And our show is very cynical about that. I think it’s more cynical than reality dictates. And I think even more than past years that we’ve been doing the show, I think the public has started to develop an appropriate reaction to violence. There’s also been a lot of back and forth over what is the right reaction. The show is such a living thing right now because the world is changing at such a fast rate, and this is a very zeitgeist-y piece, and that’s one of the elements we’re still dealing with. How does the crowd react to the events that happened in the show, and how should they react? Which element of this do we really want to comment on? Because there are so many ways you can go.
John: I’d love to hear where you’re at now with the piece, and what you hope to do at National Sawdust, with our August Labs space.
Toby: We’ve put together a really great creative team, with a director that we really respect and that shares our vision and philosophical interests. He himself has a musical background-
Jared: Everybody involved has a musical background, actually.
Toby: We have this team together, and I think what we’re really excited to do is that we have a series of readings, and we have to take it a little bit out of our hands to let it get molded a little more thoroughly with the help of others and the help of a talented cast that we’ve put together.
Jared: We’ve done readings, and we’ve done a thousand re-writes. So I think we’re ready. We’re ready to take a step back and let some of it be developed outside of our control. And some of it, just see what it’s like, and who are these characters, and what do we really want to display with these characters and how much should we change?
Toby: I think in a place like National Sawdust, in its young history, a tradition of multidisciplinary programming and curating, the fact that we’re a musical, but we’re a musical that exists on the intersection between musical theater and this whole culture and world of the music industry. Pop music, rock, indie rock, everything. So I think exploring that border is something that we’re really interested in, both in the presentations here in August, as well as going forward. We’re also incredibly excited by the technical possibilities and interesting technical possibilities here, because it’s sort of a non-traditional theatre venue.
John: Maybe be a little more specific in what you think is going to happen in the space.
Jared: We finally get to put it on display!
Toby: In a real form.
Jared: It’s been a long time coming; we’re extremely excited about it. We have a lot to do to make this show and to promote it. Even just getting the performance, filming it, and having that to share is going to be a big deal. Inviting as many people as we can who are involved in the theater world, who might be interested in helping us take it forward, and having a space to put it on display.
Jeff: Has this been your primary artistic endeavor for the past couple years, or have you been working on a bunch of other projects?
Toby: So many things. Both of us have been. I’ve been kind of a crazy guy and have written six musicals in the last three years. But like I said, it’s been a fertile period for writing, and there have been spots in the course of development, which is fun, and Jared, I mean–good lord.
Jared: Well, I would just start with you, though. Toby and I have been making music together for a long time. We’ve played in each others’ bands. Toby’s written a lot of songs; he’s made mostly home-recorded albums over the years.
Toby: Yeah, that’s been my things.
Jared: He’s released a lot of music as a singer-songwriter, and I think he had a moment a couple years ago where he realized that he loves writing for musical theater, and he’s really, really good at it.
Toby: Thanks man!
Jared: There was this pivotal moment where Toby was struggling with how hard it is to be a singer-songwriter, and I, for one, was hoping that he would put more energy into theater. Once he made that decision, it was like *explosion*…This amazing outpouring of songs and stories that was kind of incredible to watch.
Toby: I wrote a lot of amazing musical theater when I was in college. I had this piece that I wrote and produced in South Carolina, in my early twenties which was like “YEAH THIS IS THE GREATEST THING I’LL EVER MAKE” and I felt like it was my magnum opus, you know? My first large scale musical work. And yeah, you know, I’m still proud of it–it was good music. The book was a total nightmare of whatever. And then there was this gap; I think in a lot of ways I’ve found the medium that I express myself both best and with the most efficacy. It’s the thing that I both get the message to the people that are seeing it or hearing it, and I like it the best.
Jared: But also, knowing that makes it easier to approach other forms of composing… and you’ll always have that, you know?
Jared: As for me, I’ve been writing music for a long time.
Jared: As for me, I’ve been writing music for a long time. I’ve made a few records as a singer-songwriter, and I’ve been hard at work on one this whole year. Like right now, I’m finishing it up.
Toby: She’s going to be incredible.
Jared: And also, I produce other artists. Most of my life is much more in live music and recording–especially recording.
John: Singer-songwriter is you and guitar?
Jared: I hop around.
Toby: He plays everything.
Jared: I’m kind of like a walking rhythm section.
Toby: That’s not a bad way to describe it actually. I’m going to remember that.
John: So, let’s take a step back. I’d love to get a stripped down take of what happens, without giving anything away.
Jared: So the place takes place on Didgeridoo Island. A group of friends arrive at the island. We meet our protagonist, Sarah, who is kind of our classic “final girl”, that every slasher has.
John: It’s always a girl.
Jared: It’s always a girl. There are reasons for that, I think.
Toby: They’re all there to see her ex-boyfriend, who has emerged as this nihilist pop-star named Wednesdays.
Jared: We’re still working out what that’s going to look like. But he’s got this whole ridiculous getup. He’s done almost nothing in reality, but he’s released some singles and he just posts all this crazy stuff on Instagram. People have responded to it. He’s blown up overnight, and he’s been scheduled at this festival, and it’s his first public performance. He’s never really done anything. Previous to that, he was living in New York before moving to LA, and was a singer-songwriter, and collaborated with another guy who was another big character in the show, a guy named Ken Margolese. They had a band together back in the day. So they were best friends, and now they haven’t seen each other in a long time. So this whole crowd of friends basically comes together. Sarah is nervous about seeing Ben, but sort of determined to not be too upset about it and not to be a party-pooper. Basically, a killer is on the loose wearing a Miley Cyrus mask. It takes a while for the details to emerge and for the public to pick up on what’s happening, but the killer starts making his moves and he takes selfies with his victims and puts them up on the internet and there’s a whole other side of the story where the people running the festival have to decide what to do, and there’s a whole subplot about the finances of the festival, and it goes from there. It follows a lot of things that you’d expect in a slasher. We try to make those happen. Some murder mystery. And it’s about these artists.
Toby: It’s also interesting that the festival is a reboot, sort of in the same way that there was a ’94 Woodstock, a ’98 Woodstock, that basically devolved into chaos as well. And the idea here is that 20 years ago, there was a mid-90’s previous Didgeridoo festival, and not to give too much away, it ended in cataclysm, and the festival was shut down and disappeared for twenty years. So this is one of the undercurrent tensions of the piece, which is sort of the reboot.
Jared: And there’s this whole backstory about the tragedy 20 years earlier. There’s all these urban legends about how the island was haunted, and then you gradually realize that some of the characters in the show were actually related to that story. They have their own connections to it.
Toby: AND THERE’S A HURRICANE COMING.
Jared: First a tropical storm. It’s called Tropical Storm Beyonce. By popular demand. The Weather Channel gave into popular demand and named it Hurricane Beyonce. And of course, Ciley Myrus is the headliner of the festival.
Toby: That’s a spoonerism, I think, when you switch consonants and vowels in words and names. That’s a conceit we play a lot with in the festival. It basically all piles along to a sort of Cataclysmic show at the end in a lot of ways.
John: What are some of the cool ways you’re going to use the National Sawdust space?
Toby: Technically speaking, we’re talking about doing some projection mapping, and trying to take advantage. A lot of the show exists in the world of social media. The killer’s making selfies, there’s a social media component. We’ve played with a billion elements of “how do we engage the audience with that aspect of the world?” So what I think we’re going to try here is to do it through mass visuals with projections. We played with making an app so that everyone’s phone would.
Jared: We have a lot of ideas for the $80 million version of this.
Jared: So, the killer takes a lot of selfies with his victim as opposed to Instagram. One thing we have to do with the show is project those images, so the audience can see them and react, and then we can see what the characters are reacting to. But there’s also a lot of other possibilities. There are a lot of things happening online that are affecting the show. We think about our lives these days, that’s the way we live. People are writing things online, you’re reading them, and you’re coming into their life. So we liked the idea, if possible, of having a constant feed of online chatter. Endless apocrypha about the events of the show; whether it’s like some blogger’s twitter momentarily appears on the wall. We’re experimenting with what we can do in the space and how much we can do in a very compressed timeline and limited budget.
John: So the audience will see a constant projection on the wall, behind the actors?
Jared: Exactly. We’re also hoping to minimize the need for sets and use projection as a way to evoke setting and tell us where we are. So one of the challenges of the show as a theater piece is that it takes place in a crowded setting. But while we are doubling down on an insanely large cast, ideally, it’s still hard to project the sense that we’re within this place with a huge crowd. So we’re hoping to kind of supplement what we see on stage with more environmental atmospheres.
Toby: The other thing from a musical standpoint is that this is going to be the first presentation of the piece where we are really expanding both the instrumentation (4, so the first time that it hasn’t just been piano). Also, because it’s a music festival, and because it’s bands, one of the jobs we have is how to evoke certain bands that show up on stage in different scenes that are stylistically genre-wise across a very broad map. I think there’s an endgame that we’ll get to–I don’t think we’re going to get to that here necessarily. But I think there’s a diversity to multimedia presentation… and we’ll see how much we can get away with.
Jared: Basically how much we can prepare for and afford.
John: So we’re living in the smartphone era. You’ve done shows for a while, you’ve started to see more and more people with screens in front of their faces when you’re on stage. How has this informed your piece, and how has it affected your world?
Jared: The most direct way it’s informed the piece is plot. Part of us writing a show that is about the current moment–our director joked that we’re deliberately writing the most dated show of all time, since it’ll need constant updates. But one of the moves we made was that we wanted to embrace what people’s lives were fully like right now. How much do people use their phones, and how much does it affect things? We worked that into our murder mystery plot as much as we could without taking away from the theatrical experience of seeing action and drama on stage. So that’s one way.
Toby: In the context of the world, as well, from the perspective of someone who’s been on a stage a number of times and looked out… I’ve been guilty of this too; the ability to not be present in a musical context. Sometimes there’s a song you’re less into, and you just kind of check out. When you’re up on stage, you look out, and it’s a disturbing feeling. It’s a sad feeling sometimes, but it’s also a product of us learning as a culture and as a society how to engage healthily with these devices in our day to day lives. I think that there’s lots of journalism and lots of studies about this already, obviously.
Toby: It’s going to be a very long process. I think it’s going to be a decades long process of us as a species learning how to work in a world where we can be elsewhere at all times, and yet also still be in the world. I’m not a guy that’s like “get rid of all your tech connecting devices”, and I don’t think Jared is either, but I think it’s interesting, as we watch what is healthy and what is still a growth period. I think that
Jared: I think that if you look at the whole of human history, and where humanity is, it’s like humans discovering and creating technology is so small. And now we’re entering this period of human history where we’ve found a sort of transcendence, where it’s only going to get crazier from here.
Toby: And it does reflect in the piece, in that we’ve talked about the cycle of one-ups-manship. In terms of “THIS is more exciting.” That cycle, as the technology gets faster, the cycle is speeding up as well. So that, even over the course of writing this piece, the things that we thought were outrageous a month ago are no longer so.
Jared: You think about all the sorts of predictions of technological development–it’s exponential, we’re going to have Artificial Intelligence, all these things–there’s a sense of a plane taking off to who knows where, and we’re on the runway. I think that our show doesn’t touch on that issue directly, but it has the feeling. There’s a fear that things are spinning out of control, and that we’re not in control of our own actions, and we have no idea where we’re headed. So there’s an apocalyptic sort of veneer to the whole thing.
Toby: There’s a song in the show called The Coming Storm which is literally about Hurricane Beyonce.
Jared: Sasha Fierce.
Toby: There’s this sense that there’s something coming. We’re not quite sure what it is, but we should be aware.
Jared: How smartphones and technology affect the live music experience is one thing, but I think the greater effect on the internet and technology–streaming, all these things–on the music world has been huge. The way things have changed since we were in high school, and Napster was happening… at that time it was so clear where someone like us would stand. “Whatever, we should all download music!” We weren’t making records, yet, you know? And now it’s so complex, and we’re trying to monetize all these different approaches to how consumers can get music while still being able to support a music economy. There’s been a real change in the attitude of musicians, which is basically that we’re all music listeners too! We listen to more music than anybody else. We understand, right? But when you’re on the flipside of this issue, it’s not that we’re saying that “hey, this isn’t fair!”, it’s that we’re watching how it’s affecting the music industry. One of the things that our show is trying to do, without being whiny, is to ring some alarm bells. We want to show that all of these choices, all of these changes, they affect the creation of art. They affect what’s possible, and I don’t know that everybody is always able to see that, and is really aware.
Toby: Without sounding like a Luddite.
Jared: It’s hard.
John: What do you mean by affect what’s possible?
Jared: Let’s say we’re talking about something like Spotify. Spotify can be great as a discovery tool, or as a way for a band to break out, if you fit a certain profile. But if you fit a different profile, it’s not going to help you at all. And that’s fine, but this has all happened in such a short period of time. Streaming has taken over this huge swath of the music industry and how people listen to music, which is a huge cut of revenue for artists. Also, labels are the ones who are negotiating these deals with the streaming services, so you see a lot of things–mostly online–where people will be like: “Did you know that artists will get paid .003c for every listen?” and people will be like, what? But most people in the world don’t have any intention to truly engage with that fact. When you’re making music, you’re starting to notice that people are leaving New York. You might be trying to record an album, and you see this growing sense of “Oh, you can record at home now. It’s so free and easy.” Yeah, but that’s mostly electronic music, it’s affecting music culture, because people listen to more electronic stuff now. If you’re not making that kind of music, it’s just as expensive as it was before for the most part. There are always more ways to cut corners, but that mostly just means working harder. There’s a tremendous burden placed on artists. And look, there’s always more artists. (audio finished)