The sheer number of bands coming out of Austin these days scares me sometimes, especially because I know that for every group that gets recognition outside of the city, there’s like 100 that do not. I wonder just how many great bands get passed over each year. Luckily, for those of us who like our beats eccentric and danceable, The Octopus Project is on the national circuit for keeps. Composed of husband and wife duo Yvonne and Josh Lambert, friend Toto Miranda, and beloved newcomer Ryan Figg, the band produces a unique blend of wordless electro-pop with crazy instrumentation and a whole lot of reckless abandon.
I sat down with all four of the band members in October at their show at the Black Cat in DC, discussing their history and their music. Though devoted to their music, they find time for quite a few silly things, including a love of Riverdance and a propensity for mask-making.
Yvonne, how did you learn to play theremin? That’s a pretty rare instrument.
Yvonne: Josh and I saw a documentary on Leon Theremin in 1999, and we both found it very exciting and liked the instrument’s history. We bought one on the internet, and I just happened to be the one who took to it. When we started playing together, we brought it in just to make weird noises. It took me two or three years for me to become comfortable playing melodies. I spent a lot of time with a tape recorder and headphones trying to mimic classical pieces that I was familiar with.
Your live show involves a lot of switching instruments. Did you all come in playing your instruments, or did anyone learn a new instrument to make that switching possible?
Josh: Everyone came in with their instrument, but Yvonne learned how to play guitar.
Yvonne: Still working on that one!
Toto: It’s also a product of our songwriting process. When we play a new song, it could be one person with a little snippet of music and an idea about where to go with it, or it could be a lot of people playing a lot of instruments. When we tour, the four of us, we have to work out the logistics of reproducing that sound. The switching really grows out of necessity — if in a song we want two guitars in the beginning, but a bass at the end, one of us has to run over to the other corner of the stage so we can do it.
Did you all grow up together or did you meet because of the music?
Josh: We’ve known each other since high school. I met Yvonne on my 18th birthday.
Yvonne: Toto and I grew up in the same neighborhood. We went to church together. Actually, we went to Sunday school together.
Toto: Well, we were both present when Sunday school was occurring. I wouldn’t really call it “going” or anything like that.
Yvonne: We weren’t particularly close then. I suppose we were as close as any 11-year-old boy and girl can be. Toto’s like my brother. But we all grew up in Houston. Ryan’s been with us for about a year now, and he’s the only true Austinite.
Toto: He gives us cred. That’s how we get into all the cool places in Austin.
Austin can be, for lack of a better word, sort of a clusterfuck of music. How did you break out of that bubble and into the national circuit?
Toto: For me, it really came from wanting to tour. When Peek-A-Boo decided to put out our first record, our producer was like “We’d love to put it out, but you guys would have to tour” and we were like “Have to? Golly gee, let’s go! Sounds like fun!” It’s something that we’re motivated to do for its own sake. It’s a boundary-expanding kind of adventure. Touring nationally did a lot for us as a band and helped us to focus our sound. All those different environments night after night really force you to figure out what’s going on specifically in your music.
So, touring is a highlight for everyone.
Josh: Definitely. It’s really cool to meet all these different people. When people come to shows and like it, we feel really good.
Your collaboration with Black Moth Super Rainbow came somewhat soon before your latest album. Do you think it had any influence on the record?
Toto: Maybe, just in the sense that we were part of it. We did those songs in a very similar way to how we do our songs. We take a bunch of different elements and layer them together, so in the case of the Black Moth stuff, it might be some of their music rather than one of our members playing something. Black Moth sent us a bunch of bits of their songs and we sent a bunch of our bits. When it came to actually doing the songs, instead of reaching for a guitar or drums, we would reach for a piece from Black Moth and stick that in the song. It was neat to use that to expand the palette of songs. I think in that way it certainly whetted our appetite to experiment with some new sounds.
So the entire project was over the internet; you never sat down together to make songs?
Yvonne: Completely. We didn’t even meet them until after the record was done. Technology is amazing.
As both an isolated phrase and a song title, I think “Copying Soup Onto Sexy Birdy” is one of the best combinations of words I’ve heard. How did that name come into being?”
Toto: It’s really a boring story. You would be disappointed if I told you. It’s better if you imagine it as being mysterious or something.
Josh: It’s not that bad! It’s pretty funny, I think.
Toto: Okay. There was a computer with a hard drive named Sexy Birdy. There was a song called Soup. When we dragged the song onto the hard drive, the little status window popped up and it said “Copying ‘Soup’ onto ‘Sexy Birdy’.” So that’s the story.
What do you think the absence of words in your songs adds to the music?
Josh: It challenges us to make things that are interesting to people who like songs with singing. And at the same time it makes things very easy. None of us have ever been the singer of a band. Well, except Ryan.
Ryan: It was in high school. It didn’t count.
Josh: It’s nice not to have the dynamic of one of us being the frontman, that not-really-collaborative arrangement where it’s supposed to be equal but the singer ends up being in charge anyways. It was never a decision to leave out lyrics; we just never felt the need to put them in.
Why did you start using masks in your videos and shows?”
Toto: We just went through a mask phase. The first one came from a Perez Prado record that Josh and Yvonne had. The cover was just this picture of his face sort of like [strikes school portrait pose]. We thought it was pretty funny, so we made masks out of it. The next one was Josh Xeroxing electrical outlets and blowing them up to face size. Those were the most successful.
Yvonne: That one stuck with people the most, and people gravitated towards it. After all, it is like a little face, so people could relate to it. Last night, someone came to our show with a homemade sparkplug mask around his neck. It was nice.
Josh: Sometimes a whole group of people will show up with masks. It’s pretty amazing that people are paying any attention at all in the first place, let alone enough to take the time to do something like that. To see someone wanting to show that not only are they paying attention, but they really like our stuff and know all the details is pretty impressive.
Can you think of a band that you’d be willing to do that sort of thing for?
Josh: Lord of the Dance, definitely.
Yvonne: That white shirt!
Josh: I’ve actually never seen them. But I’d still do it.
Does this mean we can look forward to another collaboration? The Octopus Project scores Riverdance or something along those lines?
Yvonne: That would be so much fun! We could get some dancers for our shows.
Josh: I guess we could make it happen. We’d need Riverdance though; there’s that little problem.
Toto: Yeah, it takes two for that tango to happen.