Music Monday: Internet Famous, Vol. 2–An Interview with Kris Straub
Here’s the second installment of our special series Music Monday: Internet Famous! Last week’s interview with Scott Kurtz left no room for a following act other than that of his partner in crime and silly animations:
Kris Straub! Straub is a web cartoonist, most known from his comics Starslip, which has been completed after a seven year run, and Chainsawsuit. He also works with Scott Kurtz of Player vs. Player on their joint projects Blamimations and Kris and Scott’s Scott and Kris Show. He’s a man of many interests, as you’ll discover–just don’t ask him to do improv.
After my interview with Scott Kurtz, I milled around Bandland for a few minutes, collecting my thoughts and trying to catch a couple of other celebrities while I had the chance to ask them about an interview. Then I approached Straub at his merch booth beside Kurtz’s (and that damned annoying booth with the megaphone) and he invited me behind the table to chat. He still had to deal with customers throughout the interview, but he had many stories to tell me to make up for it.
Admittedly, I was not all that familiar with Straub and his work before speaking with him, but I’ve certainly seen the error in my ways. He’s a cool dude. The following is the transcription of my audio interview with Kris Straub.
Nukezilla: Now, if you had to describe yourself to somebody who had never heard of you before, how would you describe yourself?
Kris Straub: I would describe myself as an Internet Renaissance Man. And it’s also a curse because I’ve done a lot of different things online. I’ve done web comics primarily, I’ve written music, I’ve written short fiction, I’ve worked with Scott Kurtz on the Blamimations on Penny Arcade TV and the Scott and Kris Show on Penny Arcade TV as well. And I always have said that I’m just good enough at everything such that I’m not discouraged, which makes me want to do everything. And I don’t want it to sound like bragging, even though it kind of is, but it’s like, I never did, like, ‘If I want to do this, I’m going to try it….Oh, I was awful! I’ll never do it again!’ Let me think, maybe I’ve done that….No, improv. I don’t feel very confident about that one. I think I’m not the best at that one. But, I think primarily a cartoonist is how I would describe myself.
NZ: Now, you mentioned that you’ve written music before. What have you written?
KS: I’ve written….I really like pop-type music. I like those chord progressions, I like those melodies, I like harmonies a lot a lot. I like three-part harmony. My favorite band is Electric Light Orchestra for that reason because it’s so full. I really like that sound. And I think anything I’ve ever done I’ve tried to emulate that fullness, even though I’m not great at production. I’m not great at engineering. But that’s what I primarily try to mimic if I write anything.
NZ: So is there any music that you’ve written that’s featured anywhere? Do you have something on YouTube, or…?
KS: I wrote a song for the Scott and Kris Show called My Fandom Is Like Voltron where in the episode Scott and I are like, ‘How do we get viral? How do we take off? How do we become popular?’ And we were like, ‘The only way to do it is with memes and mashing fandoms together.’ And so that song simultaneously makes fun of that and upholds that idea. And I wrote it like a dance track. It’s got four chords, it’s not exciting. And it’s got auto-tune singing on it and…yeah. I think it’s very easy to mimic something and make fun of it that way.
NZ: Very cool! I actually did not know that you wrote music. That’s very cool.
KS: Yeah, and the other….I’ve written about three albums worth of stuff and I have it in my store online to download. I started in college when my friend would write music and I thought, ‘I wanna try! He’s doing it, I want to do it, too!’ I don’t know that I’m that good at it, but I like to do it.
NZ: So, now, if somebody was going to…well, I guess if you were going to turn somebody on to the music that you’ve written…
Random customer: Do you have 2XLs?
KS: I’m doing an interview right now, so…[laughs]
NZ: It’s cool, man.
KS [to customer]: I do have XL and 2XL, but come on back. I’ll hook you up.
RC: No, no! Let me pay, let me pay!
[KS and RC make a transaction for the 2XL shirt amidst screaming and yelling coming from that obnoxious goddamned booth nearby.]
KS [into the recorder]: I would say come to a convention where I make a lot of sales. That’s where you can come do that. [laughs]
RC: I actually didn’t bring enough t-shirts because I was planning to buy a t-shirt, so, like, this is my shirt for tomorrow.
NZ: I’ve done that too, yeah.
KS: That’s why I brought, like….They gave this to us, this shirt, after our [Kris and Scott's Scott and Kris Show Live] show Thursday and I’m like, “Ummmmm…I’ll wear it today, what the hell!
NZ: I actually wanted to catch the show on Thursday because we in the, uh…
KS: The Triple Door?
NZ: Yeah, we were at the Triple Door. We were at a press thing….
KS: Yeah, we have one Sunday, and I think there’s still tickets available for it.
NZ: Yeah, that’s what I heard, so I might try to catch that because that sounded really cool.
KS: Yeah, that’s new for us. Scott and I, we’ve done a lot of stuff like that together, but this is the first time where we’ve charged [for] tickets, like charged admission to come see us. Because we used to do a panel here at PAX late at night, and it got really, really popular over the last two or three years, and we wanted to monetize it, not just give it away, but essentially get drunk on stage.
NZ: Hey, if you do something good, you should never do it for free.
KS: Right, right.
NZ: So, your music, as far as what you’ve written–is there anything that you’re particularly proud of that, if somebody was going to get into the stuff that you’ve written, that you would say, ‘Hey, listen to this first because this is my best shit,’ or something like that? Like, what would they start out on?
KS: Okay, so I’ve got an album that’s on my website. It’s called The Precise Moment of Failure. I wrote it about, I don’t know, it might have been about 2004 or 5. But I feel like that’s got the most variety of writing that I’ve done. And it’s just steadily gone downhill and become formulaic. But yeah, that’s sort of the richest soil I was tilling, and now I haven’t done a lot of writing in the last, uh….Wow, okay, maybe two or three years. It’s just like, I vented it and it’s gone and I don’t have anymore. And I want to come back to it, but it’s not a priority. Like, comics are where I make my meal ticket from, so…
NZ: So how did you get into doing comics?
KS: I have always drawn. My mom likes to tell the story that, I was, like, three and she told my dad—and my dad is not an artist, either—but she’s like, ‘Kris doesn’t know how to draw anything! Show him how to draw something!’ And then I just didn’t stop after that. But I got into web comics in 2000. I did a strip called Checkerboard Nightmare, which was sort of a parody of web comics and that culture in general, and like, made fun of the idea of trying to get famous but not having anything to offer, which I really think is a fascinating cultural paradigm.
NZ: I think a lot of people try to do that.
KS: Yeah, and they’re rewarded for it! And I think it’s amazing that it actually works in some cases. Like, you can’t manufacture ‘I did nothing so pay me’. But I feel like some people do still try to do that. But I started in 2000, and at the time I was a programmer. I worked in that until 2004. I kind of segued into graphic design, and then two years after that my comics were doing well enough that I could stop and just focus on my web comics as my primary source of income. And I sell t-shirts and merch and I go to conventions like PAX, and that’s what I do now.
NZ: So, now, when you’re doing your either comic writing, or writing music, or whatever it is that you happen to be doing, are there any particular musical influences that you like to listen to?
KS: Gosh, um….I like to listen to the same thing over and over again, and I like to pick it apart as I listen to it. So, what am I listening to recently? Oh, gosh, my wife just introduced me to Ellie Goulding! She’s so good.
Random Customer 2 [laying an item on the table]: I want to buy one.
KS [caught off guard]: I will…buy you one. I will sell you one.
RC2: [laughs] You’ll buy me one?
KS: No. You have to give me the bucks.
[KS and RC2 make a transaction for the merch. RC2 chats with KS for a minute, then leaves]
NZ: So you said that you’ve been listening to…?
KS: I’ve been listening to Ellie Goulding. I’ve been listening to Tennis. They’re really great. I’ve started to get interested in this sort of disaffected California teen summer rock, like, this really kind of low-fi sound. And it’s, I don’t know why, like, I’m just interested in that form. Like, I get really interested in a form, and then I want to just absorb it and understand how it works. But yeah, I mean, it’s tough. I can’t listen to too much when I’m working because I get distracted in thinking about the music as opposed to writing or drawing. Drawing is pretty mindless, but writing, I have to have quiet.
NZ: Yeah, I’m a writer for a living and I can’t listen to anything with lyrics. Like, Scott [Kurtz] was actually saying the same thing [earlier in his interview], he can’t listen to anything with lyrics, so, yeah.
KS: Oh yeah, I know, that breaks it.
NZ: So, now, I’m assuming that you’ve played video games at some point in your life.
KS: Oh, absolutely! Yeah, at many points.
NZ: Do you have one that particularly sticks out? Do you have a favorite?
KS: I’ve got a great tie-in for you! Okay, because we got [asked] this question. So Scott and I got invited to host the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia. It’s a night of video game music. And a blogger down there, Paul Verhoeven–super cool guy–he asked, ‘So what’s your interest in video game music?’ And so this was my story:
When I was little–younger, rather, like eleven–my parents got us a Nintendo, an NES, and the game Bionic Commando. I liked that game a lot, but what stuck with me about it was the music, and for the first time I thought about game music and how when you write it….I mean, now, you know, it’s a full orchestra, like, it’s not even like, ‘Is this video game music?’ No, it’s music. But back then, it was like, ‘We had a finite amount of room, the song has a duration of a minute [and] thirty [seconds] and we have a reduced instrumentation that we can use, and you have to be able to listen to that song for two hours straight.’ And I thought, ‘These constraints, it’s amazing to be able to write something that will stay with you and, like, be such a formative part of that experience.’ And I was so intrigued by the music in Bionic Commando and, like, the only thing at the end credits–and it’s all, like, mistranslated, you know?–and so I waited to see who wrote the music and it just says ‘Gondamin’. And that’s the name. There’s no, like, first name/last name whatever. And I was like, ‘Who the hell is that?’ And we didn’t have the internet so I could search for it. So I just held onto that name. And then later I found out who it was and it’s this woman [Junko Tamiya], but she wrote she wrote under all these pseudonyms. And it’s, like, so little is known about her and she wrote for Capcom and some other companies and, I don’t know, it’s just like this weird mystery that has just followed me around.
But, yeah, Bionic Commando is the first game where I sat up and paid attention to all of the music and thought about it. I think I remember recording it off the TV so I could have it. But, yeah, I think that’s the first time it got me. Like, you can write that kind of music.
NZ: You were talking about your musical influences earlier as far as, like, what you listen to while your working and that kind of thing. If somebody was going to get into web comics or something similar, maybe writing music or something like that, is there anything that you would particularly recommend for them to listen to to get inspired by, or…?
KS: I think you listen to–and this works for any field, not just music–you have what you like, and you think about why you like it and you really try to pick it apart. And that’s all I’ve ever done, is think about, like, ‘I like this music and this chord progression elicits some response in me, but why?’ And then I’ll notice that the same one is in another song that I like, and then [I'll ask], ‘So what is the difference?’ And then go learn that mechanic. Like, read about the, you know, 1 4 5 or whatever the progression is, and that’s all I did is just go out and learn more about it based on what I was interested in. I don’t think you can do it from, like….I’m not a huge fan of classical music, but if I were to try to learn those structures maybe I could, but they don’t interest me immediately. They don’t inspire me to seek out more information. But if you’re interested in it, go figure out why you’re interested in it.
NZ: Is there any either artist or particular song that you find yourself really coming back to whenever you’re doing your…?
KS: I’m going to come on back to Electric Light Orchestra and Jeff Lynne the songwriter because there’s some YouTube videos where, during an interview, he’s breaking apart why he wrote the song this way, and I thought it was super fascinating. Like, he has a song, what is is called…Rockaria? On his album A New World Record, like ’78 I think. No, ’76. And that song, I was like, ‘Oh, I like that song,’ but then later I found out, he’s like, ‘I wanted to write a twelve-bar song but not use traditional twelve-bar chords.’ He just wanted it to fit that structure but using a completely different chord set, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s amazing! It’s like a personal challenge.’ Like, ‘I want to make it work within that constraint but to make it sound different from every other twelve bar song.’ And I was like, ‘That’s so amazing, that’s so interesting!’
NZ: Is there anything you would like to add, to comment on? Words of wisdom, anything like that?
KS: [Thinks aloud for a moment] Just that….Learn things. Stay interested in things. That’s everything I’ve ever done. That’s the only reason why I’m doing this now, is because I was curious about it.
Editorial, Column, Music Monday Tags: A New World Order, Bionic commando, Blamimations, chainsawsuit, Electric Light Orchestra, Ellie Goulding, ELO, Gondamin, Interview, Jeff Lynne, Kris and Scott's Scott and Kris Show, Kris Straub, My Fandom is Like Voltron, PAX, Rocaria, Starslip, Tennis, The Precise Moment of Failure
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