Rand Bellavia, Montante Family Library Director, Reflects on Other Gig, Ookla the Mok
Buffalo, New York – October 06, 2017 – Ookla the Mok have been staples of science fiction and comic book conventions, created the theme song to Disney's Fillmore!, scored the feature film Bite Me, Fanboy!, won numerous awards, and even had one of the most requested songs on Dr. Demento’s syndicated radio show where “Weird Al” Yankovic got his start. As if a superhero, Rand Bellavia could be one of the characters he’s singing about; mild-mannered director of D’Youville’s Montante Family Library by day, bombastic humorous filk rock star by night where’s he’s half of the band Ookla the Mok.
Bellavia’s master thesis, Panel Discussion, was a 250-page excuse to spend money on and research comics and gave him an excuse to research his passion for visual storytelling, something he translates into music. Bellavia and his partner in Ookla the Mok, Adam English, along with the 90s lineup of the band including Luis Garcia and Michal Malloy, recently reunited to record a live album, “Live at Windycon,” in Illinois. D’Youville decided to have a chat with Bellavia to discuss music, the College, and other random topics.
D’Youville: What was the genesis to name the band named after the lion-humanoid from Thundarr the Barbarian?
Bellavia: When coming up with a band name, we had two rules: it had to sound good, we wanted a name that sounded smooth and interesting even if you didn’t speak English, and it had to be a nerd culture reference. Believe it or not, back then singing songs about superheroes and Star Trek was a liability and we wanted to reach our core audience as easily as possible. Ookla the Mok was the best fit at the time. Of course, had we known the internet was coming, we might have chosen a band name that was a bit easier to type into Google. The band I really feel bad for is “The The” – they’re unGoogleable!
D’Youville: Were there any other names bandied about?
Bellavia: Two of the main contenders on our list of potential band names were The Nerf Herders and The Bearded Spocks. I bring this up because there are two pretty successful bands out there right now called Nerf-Herder, who did the theme to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Spock’s Beard.
Adam and I started playing open mics in Buffalo in 1992. We got bored of being referred to as Rand and Adam so I started a game where I would sign us up under a different name each time, and have Adam guess if that was us when we got called up. We performed under insane names as The Surfing Colonel from Apocalypse Now, The Sucking Chest Wounds, The Whirling Uhuras, Those Guys Who Sucks, Play Dough Republic, and Bubastis the Genetically Altered Lynx.
D’Youville: Did you have inspiration before or when you started, be it Dr. Demento, Weird Al, Tom Lehrer, Stan Freberg, etc.?
Bellavia: Music has been a huge part of my life even since I gained the manual dexterity to work a turntable. I was singing in my first band when I was 15, the other guys in the band were all 21. I was certainly a fan of Dr. Demento, Tom Lehrer, Weird Al, Frank Zappa, etc., but they were just one ingredient in the goulash for me. I grew up listening to everything I could get my hands on.
Adam and I met in college, but we were both in other bands at the time. I should add that these were both prog rock bands, we were taking ourselves much too seriously at the time. By the time we started writing songs together, the fall of 1991, we were both really into They Might Be Giants, and there was a growing movement of silly pop music coming out of Toronto, The Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous, and Corky and Juice Pigs being three of the most famous examples, they were all pretty influential on the early Ookla sound.
D’Youville: What were the Ookla the Mok early years like?
Bellavia: Strange. We were singer/songwriters playing at bars in Buffalo, which, certainly at that time, was very much a player’s scene. Which is another way of saying we weren’t very good guitarists. We were all about line and lyric ... crafting the best lyrics and composing the best melodies, and things like complex musical arrangement and solos were secondary considerations. Just as we were about to throw in the towel, mutual friends informed us that the songs we were writing would go over well at science fiction conventions. I was no stranger to science fiction, I’m a lifelong comic book reader, but I hadn’t really considered attending a convention, and had no idea that music took place there.
The music scene at SF conventions, known as filk, is a pretty thriving and intoxicating community of musician and fans who, we were happy to discover, are all about line and lyric. This is the kind of audience that not only will listen in silence during your performance, but will lean in to hear all the words, and if you drop a line, will ask you after the show what that missing lyric was. You didn’t have to draw Ookla a map!
Ookla played at a con for the first time in 1994, and we’ve never looked back.
D’Youville: What have you learned in the nearly 30 years since you started as undergrads?
Bellavia: Clearly not enough. It’s been a weird time to be a musician. Our fan base has grown substantially since our late 90’s heyday, but as those numbers have grown, the number of humans who are willing to pay for music has shrunk at almost exactly the same rate. So, while the number of people who hear and enjoy our music has gone up dramatically over the last 20 years, the number of sales we make has stayed about the same. It keeps you humble, that’s for sure.
I’ve certainly learned a lot about the craft of songwriting, recording, and performing. But probably the most important thing I’ve learned is that you have to love doing it for the sake of doing it. Success, both in the sense of sales figures and audience numbers, is encouraging and great, but you can’t chase that, because you can’t control that, and nothing is more frustrating that setting goals based on things you can’t control.
Also, learn to take the craft of what you do very seriously without taking yourself very seriously at all.
D’Youville: How do you balance work-life at D’Youville or Adam’s life as a rogue artist and your musical celebrity life?
Bellavia: I’m a pretty big fan of compartmentalization. I don’t hide my work life from my life as a musician (or vice versa) but neither do I insist that they co-mingle. These days, I’m definitely a tourist when it comes to being a musician. I block out maybe 5-7 weekends a year to play out, usually traveling to cities like Boston, Columbus, Baltimore, or Chicago, so balancing it with my work life isn’t very difficult. As a younger man I traveled and performed a lot more frequently, but I also had a lot more energy, and a lot less work responsibility! Luckily, Adam’s life had taken a similar trajectory, so the amount of time we have to devote to the band has diminished pretty much simultaneously.
D'Youville: What connections do you and Adam see in your day jobs that connect with the music you’ve produced over the years?
Bellavia: I think being in an academic environment has encouraged me to continue to write for an audience that struggles with the big questions. Being an academic librarian ensures that I’m exposed to all sorts of new ideas, which often become fodder for new songs.
D’Youville: Who does most the songwriting and the musical direction?
Bellavia: Ookla is somewhat unique in that we have two creative visionaries. Adam and I have always worked hard to protect that about the band – that we have two singer/songwriters and two front men. When we record albums we’re both making sure that the album is divided as evenly as possible in terms of who’s singing what. Neither wants the other to take that John Oates slot. Adam says that the secret to Ookla is that it’s not Rand + Adam but rather Rand x Adam. And I’ve always said that what makes us continue to work together is that each of us is convinced that the other one is the real genius.
We decided early on to follow in the footsteps of Lennon and McCartney and publish all of our songs under both of our names, even the songs that were written entirely by one or the other of us. If Adam is working on a song, and it’s 90% there, and I provide that extra 10%, he might feel resentful giving me credit for writing half of it. Likewise, I may not want to help him make the song better if HE’s going to get credit for writing the song. Knowing it’s all going to be perceived as written by both of us is just so much less competitive, and it allows us both to focus on what’s best for the song.
The general perception of our fans is that Adam is the music guy and I’m the lyrics guys. This is wildly untrue, we both write music and lyrics. In fact, on our debut album, there was only one song where one of us wrote all the music, and the other wrote all the lyrics, and, in that case, Adam wrote the lyrics, and I wrote the music! But, this mythology likely stems from the fact that music tends to come easier for Adam and lyrics tend to come easier for me, so when being interviewed or speaking with fans, we tend to talk in those directions.
D’Youville: Is there any fights akin to the latter Beatles period? Yoko Ono moments?
Bellavia: For us, the older we get, the less we fight. Generally speaking, we find ourselves being less precious about things as we get older. As a young man, I would argue for my idea because it was my idea. Gradually, you realize that the “better” idea is much more important. And eventually, you come to the place where the “good” is fine. So, if we both have a good idea about what direction to take a song, does it really matter which way we go? Once in awhile yes, but more often no.
We tend to work on several songs simultaneously so that if we hit a wall, or can’t compromise on an idea, we can just move on to another song. Something that happens with alarming frequency is that we’ll get to a point where I’m arguing that it *has* to be A and Adam insists it *must be* B, and neither of us will budge, so we move on. Then a week later, we open up that song, and I let Adam know that I’ve been thinking about it, and realize that he was right, it should be B, but he’ll have reconsidered as well, and we’ll spend another half hour arguing the opposite points! The third time that happened was when we realized perhaps we were overthinking things and just picked a random direction and went that way. I think a lot of creative tension in young artists comes from a subconscious fear that they might run out of ideas. I don’t have a very mystical approach to the creation of art. The ideas don’t come from some spiritual/inspirational realm. For me, songwriting is about craft. You do the work, and the more work you do, the better you get at it.
But back to fighting. It’s important to distinguish between when you’re arguing for the sake of arguing and when you feel the need to stick to your vision. We’ve developed a “safe word” to use in these cases. If either one of us utters the phrase, “I feel strongly…” that’s a trigger for the other to think hard about whether this is the hill they want to die on.
Adam and I have done several workshops on creative partnerships, sharing what we’ve learned over the years.
And funny you should ask about Yoko moments. I’m currently recording a side project with my wife, which has caused a lot of our fans to ask if Erin is Yoko-ing up Ookla. The answer is no. In fact, one of the songs on the album is co-written by Erin, Adam, and I, and started with Erin and Adam getting together (without me) to work out the song form.
D’Youville: In your career, can you share any Spinal Tap moments that may have happened?
Bellavia: It’s endless. I’ve had amps fall on me while performing, had the PA completely crap out in the middle of a show, probably the best example was a con where the signals got crossed and either the sound guy didn’t show up, or he set up in the wrong room. At any rate, there we were, drums, guitars, and everything, in front of a pretty big crowd, with no mics or PA. Someone had brought a tiny little mic to record the concert, and we plugged it into one of our amps. It was just a little hand-held mic with the world’s smallest floor stand, so the mic was like two inches from the floor. Having no other option, I lay down on the floor with my guitar and sang into the mic, while the other guys played their hearts out.
D’Youville: How many albums does Ookla have? What’s harder, a studio or a live album?
Bellavia: Live at Windycon is our sixth real album, but it’s our 15th release. The other 11 have been EPs, singles, a b-sides collection, and various fan-club only releases, most of which were a limited release and are no longer available. Currently, we have seven albums, one EP, and one single available on CD or MP3.
A studio album is absolutely more labor-intensive. With the live album, it was just a matter of choosing the set, rehearsing, and then mixing and mastering. A studio album requires a lot of paid studio time to record, to say nothing of the time and effort it takes to write all the new material.
D’Youville: What preparation went into recording Live at Windycon?
Bellavia: The most exciting thing about this live album and, in all honestly, the main reason it even exists, is that it features the original 90s version of Ookla. By the end of 1999, our original bass player Mike (Mallory) was living in LA, and our original drummer, and third singer Luis (Garcia) was living in Seattle. Adam and I soldiered on, working with several talented drummers and bass players, but none of them ever really felt like true members of the band to our fans. So, when Windycon, a science fiction convention in Chicago, asked for Ookla to be the Music Guest of Honor and made it clear they wanted a reunion of the original band, the idea of recording the concerts for a possible live album occurred to me immediately.
The main preparation took place individually. The con wanted us to play concerts Friday and Saturday night. Normally, a two-night gig in a city is no problem, as you can just do the same or at least extremely similar show both nights as you’re going to have a unique audience each night. But, people who attend cons are there the whole weekend. We knew that most of our audience would be the same both nights, so we prepared two unique sets. That’s over three hours of music, and we only had above six hours of rehearsal time where we were all in the same room! Luckily, we all showed up prepared, and the shows went shockingly well.
For those who care about the tech aspects, we ran our instruments through effects processors, so they were able to go directly to the board, even the drums, as they were electronic drum pads, allowing for maximum separation between tracks. This is important because what sounds best in a mix for a live audience is not necessarily what sounds good for a mix of a live concert for an album. I also set up several microphones at the edge of the stage facing the audience, both to pick up some ambient sound from the stage to mix in with the individual tracks to get a good blend of the room and the band, also so that the audience sounded as present and active as they actually were. If you just use the board tracks, all the crowd noise is swallowed up, and it ends up sounding like you were playing in front of seven people.
I had the tracks from both shows dumped onto my portable hard drive, and away I went to the studio, in this case, Watchmen Studios in Lockport to mix it down. The final album is a two-CD set, about two hours long, which gave us the luxury of excising an hour or so of songs that were, let’s say, less than perfectly performed. We did a reasonable amount of editing making the banter flow a bit more, eliminating silences and drum clicks, etc., but we didn’t do ANY post-production performing, for better or worse, what you’re hearing is what we played and sang that night.
D’Youville: Any other guest appearances to pay attention for?
Bellavia: Our 1998 album Super Secret has a song called “Tommy” which is about a conversation Adam had with Luis’ son Tommy when he was six years old. Tommy, who is now 25, joined us on stage to play the guitar solo and sing on “Tommy” then sat in with us for the next few tracks, which was great fun. He’s grown up to be much better guitarist than Adam or I. Our friend and Ookla’s graphic designer and webmaster, Brian Platter also joined us on stage to play lead guitar for a few songs. Sadly, and through no fault of his own, most of the songs he played on ended up on the cutting room floor. Lastly, our good friend and famous comic book artist Art Baltazar joined us on stage unexpectedly and at my request, as you can hear on the album to blow into the melodica I was playing during a song called “Tantric Yoda.”
D’Youville: Did you pay them?
Bellavia: Pay? Them?
Any quests we bring with us to con shows – either as performers or as roadies – don’t so much get paid as they get a free weekend at a science fiction convention. Their travel, hotel room, and food are taken care of by the band and the con.
One of Adam’s hobbies is making costumes, and he’s gotten pretty scary good at it. Back in the 90s, his vision for the band was that we would dress up in costumes and act out the songs as we performed them. This idea would have worked out great except I’m just not a costume guy. I didn’t even like dressing up for Halloween as a child. Our compromise was to create the Nerd Circus, which is a group of friends of ours who travel to the cons with us and dress up in costumes and act out of the songs while we perform. It creates a great circus vibe and never fails to get the audience up and to dance. Best of all, the Nerd Circus do double duty hauling our gear and working our merch table!
D’Youville: This is funny question, asking if you’ll perform live to support a live album, but do you plan to tour to support Live at Windycon?
Bellavia: Not in the traditional sense. Adam and I will be attending a few cons over the next six months or so to get the word out and, of course, will have the CD available with us, but we’re not planning on getting the band together for any extended period. One of the greatest aspects of the SF con circuit is that all cons have a dealer’s room where vendors sell all sorts of fan-related stuff. And there are several filk dealers who will take your CDs and tour them all over the world at these cons, which makes it a lot easier for fans to a.) know that you have a new release, and b.) buy it while they’re at whatever con they’re attending.
D’Youville: What’s next and in-store for Ookla the Mok?
Bellavia: Honestly, I don’t know. I fear the age of the “album” is coming to an end, so we may just focus on putting out singles in the short term.
D’Youville: Any solo projects for you and Adam?
Bellavia: Adam put out a solo EP a few years back called Sketched Out, which was a pretty big hit among professional caricature artists. Apparently, he was seeking out a potential audience even smaller than science fiction fandom. The album that my wife Erin and I are working on should be out by April of 2018. The music is almost entirely recorded, and we’re going to start recording vocals in October or early November.
D’Youville: If you could offer advice to any aspiring musician who leans towards science fiction with all your years of touring and songwriting, what would it be?
Bellavia: Go to a con and seek out the filk room. They are a very nurturing community of musicians and fans who will absolutely encourage and energize you. But be sure to show up willing to listen as well as perform. The filk circle, the best place for new filkers to get their songs heard, is a place for all to perform. I know you’re excited about sharing your newest songs, but so is everyone else in the circle.
Trust me, you’ll learn more and be much more successful as an artist and a human being if you listen more than you perform.
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