Given the option of having one sound to tell the entire story of their lives, Therese Workman would choose the singular intensity and drama of the Casio “orchestra hit,” while Tyler Wood, after painful consideration of the infinite possibilities, declares “thirty-two-piece pipe organ” for its often overlooked sub-bass capabilities. Workman and Wood, the multi-instrumentalists-come-producers of the Brooklyn-based band Oh My Goodness, released a self-titled EP in May and it’s since been lauded for its fresh compositions that weave together a combination of synth, original beats, soulful vocals, complex instrumentation, and meticulous mixing.
Part-danceable pop, part-fever dream, part-auditory adventure book, Oh My Goodness’s songs feature such dreaded moments as sharks in swimming pools, being stood up, a blackmail gone wrong, being too poor to get groceries, and waking up on a bus to find a stranger touching your hair. Go ahead and bop your head—but beware. Things might take a turn. Their music doesn’t easily fall into a genre, so Workman and Wood created their own genre of “excite-bike,” “worry core,” and “avant-pop-hip-hop.” But they’ll accept fewer hyphens and just go with “feral Huxtable children.”
I caught up with the pair over Skype to talk about the recently-released remix album for their EP, growing up in Maine, and what it’s like to be DIY in the music industry today. The night was cold and our radiators fittingly whistled, as the two recalled their first-ever collaboration in Portland, Maine in the winter of 2010.
The Rumpus: So what’s the origin myth of Oh My Goodness?
Therese Workman: I knew Tyler from college. But we didn’t really hang out in the same circles, I just knew him. We met there on dorm crew, which is where you clean toilets in bathrooms because it’s the best-paying job.
After college, MySpace happened—it was 2002 or 2003—and I was making ridiculous, embarrassing songs by myself. I thought that I was soooo witty to choose the URL of myspace.com/ohmygoodness, which was like a play on “this is my goodness.” I was just making these things—it was really just for friends who still cared, or for family.
One day I was on MySpace and I was like, I wonder what Tyler Wood is doing these days.
Rumpus: As you do with social media.
Workman: I found his MySpace page and he had a couple of tracks on there. One of them was a tuning forks piece; I remember that clearly. But Tyler had also made this really—I don’t even want to call it a beat, because it was a really rich track. I thought, This track is amazing, and it was one of the things that I heard of his that made me want to collaborate with him.
We’re both from Maine, so I wrote to him on Facebook with something like, Dear Tyler, I’m in Old Port, knowing he would know exactly what that meant. And he was like, I’m coming home for Christmas! We should totes hang out! Cause he said “totes” then.
Tyler Wood: Yeah, I was the first person to say it, actually!
Workman: It was really exciting because I’m an introvert, and I like the Internet because you can interact with people at a safe distance. But I was like, Oh my god! Yeah, let’s hang out. Did we work on stuff?
Wood: Yeah, we did “Hot Date”! There was a huge blizzard and we recorded some stuff on Therese’s GarageBand, which was her medium of choice. That song will probably come out some day, actually!
Rumpus: So your first collaboration happened in Portland in the middle of a blizzard? That’s very dramatic!
Workman: Yeah, it is dramatic! Actually, it was when the storm was gathering.
Wood: It was gathering, but I’ll always associate that song with a snowstorm because I put it on in my friend’s car right when I left. And there was a blinding blizzard as we drove.
Workman: Oh I was in my house, I didn’t know.
Rumpus: Where are you both from in Maine? Somewhere musical?
Wood: I am from the extreme north of Maine. It’s not near anything. It’s near Canada. But it’s probably about a five-hour drive from where Therese grew up. Maine is enormous. That being said, there are so few people and even fewer musicians, it’s not unlikely that we would know each other growing up. We just didn’t happen to.
Workman: And I’m from Central Maine, which is basically like the city.
Wood: Yeah, we were scared to go there.
Rumpus: So, Tyler, you were basically raised in the woods in Canada and Therese, you’re from the city of Central Maine. Did you get a lot of exposure to music growing up?
Wood: Yes, I was encouraged from a young age. I was put on the piano at age five—I started taking lessons then. But I was obsessed with the radio, actually. From a very young age I’d listen to the Top 40 every week. And then I became more jazz-oriented in my later teens and was a little more snobbish and closed off. I went to Boston and was exposed to hip-hop for the first time—like really exposed to it—and that opened up a whole new thing. Then it came full circle to where it is now.
But to answer your question, I had cardboard drums. I wasn’t allowed to get a drum set, so I made cardboard box drums.
Workman: I had the same sort of deal—piano lessons at five. I come from a family with a lot of siblings. Growing up, I had a sister in Queens and a sister at college. They were piping Soul II Soul and Lisa Stansfield and Rick Astley, so I was getting inundated all the time by sort of vetted albums…getting a lot of pop. My parents and siblings don’t play music, but I think that they’re musical just because they enjoy music. I think that when people enjoy music a lot, they’re just as musical. Maybe not skilled musicians, but I don’t know—I like that a lot.
Tyler and I also bonded about Service Merchandise. You go to Service Merchandise, and you go to the synth section—
Wood: It was amazing!
Workman: Right? You go to the Casio section and go through all the sounds, and you have access to all these synths. It was just weird and cool to do that in Maine. I grew up in Waterville, too, so we had Colby College radio station. College radio exposes you to a lot.
Rumpus: Yes, it does! College radio can make every high school student feel like a connoisseur.
Workman: So Casey Kasem’s Top 40, college radio, Service Merchandise, and piano lessons.
Rumpus: That blizzard was in 2010 I think—it made national news. What were you both up to before you began working together?
Wood: Well, I had been a keyboard player with any number of bands. But I also had a parallel career growing in New York. I was doing more mixing and recording engineering and production stuff. I was working with a band called Glass Ghost at the time, who I still work with. And I was touring with this band out of LA—Chester French.
Workman: Tyler’s one of those people that can do it all. It’s not common for someone to be as amazing as he is as a musician and equally strong in all aspects of music production. I was in grad school for education, and didn’t have intentions of being in the music industry at all. When I got my laptop for grad school, it had GarageBand on it. I was making these things on the side while I did my school work.
Wood: She had stuff that could have easily been released on the radio, when I met her. Her music, when we did that first MySpace exchange, blew my mind. She’s totally fearless and has a beautiful combination of a very serious sort of aesthetic combined with complete self-mockery. I loved that. I felt like I’d found someone I could totally relate to! It was music that was completely made from within someone’s deepest personality with no filter. I loved it.
Rumpus: So you just knew.
Workman: It’s so funny, I would have never made that type of music knowing that Tyler Wood was looking at it. It was just paint on the wall! Like, I’m gonna sing about Chapstick for twenty minutes, I don’t care! When Tyler wanted to collaborate, it was terrifying. When someone takes you seriously, you have to take yourself seriously, which is terrifying a little bit.
Rumpus: Had you not been taking yourself seriously before?
Workman: I mean, I always wink at myself. But I didn’t really know what type of future my music would have. It could have been something where it was your passion, but it might have to be your hobby. You know?
Wood: The initial discussion when we first started talking was, “Tyler, will you master these things for me so I can release them?” And I was ready to do it because they were that good. But then I was like, “Really, I would actually rather make a record with you.”
Workman: It was like, wait a minute, this could actually be more than just fun stuff on MySpace! It was exhilarating and thrilling and also gasp!
Wood: Five out of the six songs on the EP started as Therese’s GarageBand songs.
Rumpus: Tyler, I’ve seen you mention DIY in reference to Oh My Goodness—
Wood: Yeah, that’s been a theme with us: we’re both total DIY types. We kept that philosophy going with this project. We just did it all, just the two of us.
Rumpus: And you’ve both obviously been making music in a variety of ways for many years, but have you two, either independently or as a band, had to deal with a lot of shifts in the music industry? I remember being a teenager with friends in bands in the ‘90s and the holy grail dream was that you make a demo tape, send it in, get discovered, and make a million dollars.
Wood: The industry peaked in ‘98 or ‘99, and that was when we were just about to start existing as adults in that world. This EP that’s out now was going to be our demo, but then we were like, “Wait a minute, that paradigm is ridiculous. That’s just not how things are happening. So why not just make an album and then release it?”
I never knew the glory days of the ‘90s that everyone cries about. I have friends that caught the last whiff of the major labels and then got dropped two years later, so I didn’t really want to dive into that whole world because it seemed really frustrating.
Workman: Maybe I had a secret dream, but I don’t think it’s coincidental that at the end of the boom, when all of the big labels started to crash, there was suddenly all of this free software—GarageBand, free Pro Tools. With the decline of the labels came the rise of the individual producer. Which is hard for the major labels, because there are so many people making record-quality songs now. Before, you had to hook up with a producer, or someone who could master, and a studio, to get something that sounded radio-worthy. But now you can kind of get close from your laptop.
Wood: You can do it from your laptop, really.
Workman: DIY brought a lot of immediate gratification, too. I could go home from work and actually make a song. But that DIY culture didn’t sound “crafty,” it sounded polished. So things you were putting on MySpace, or wherever, sounded closer to what people would actually buy and started getting more attention.
Wood: I think that’s a lot of why major labels are struggling. For that matter, the big, expensive studios, too. Traditionally, they’re throwing huge amounts of money into these studios and there’s a huge amount to recoup. But everyone’s realizing that you don’t need to go to the studio that costs $2,000 a day to make records anymore.
Rumpus: I think that ability to be more tactical is true across a variety of industries—it’s definitely easier as a writer to get your work out there than it was before the Internet. I wonder, though, how the more tactical, DIY approach bumps up against the very real problem of needing to pay bills in the absence of major industry earning potential.
Workman: Well, say you get signed to a label—they can sign you for a couple of albums, or whatever the contract is. They give you an advance, but you have to make good on it. So it’s like a loan.
I mean, I have world-class gear in my studio, but I might have one of something instead of fifty. So because I also work as a studio engineer, I’ve been able to make a niche for myself where I’m not quite DIY, but I’m not going to charge what the huge studio does. And that’s where all the money is going. Into these mid-level project studios.
I think that for us, because we have a studio available to us that’s ours, we could potentially make more if things catch on, than if we had a huge debt to a label.
Rumpus: That makes a lot of sense. So, do you think that projects like yours—the more homegrown, but polished EPs—are changing the music landscape?
Wood: It’s weird: it’s actually created some stylistic shifts with what listeners want to hear in terms of fidelity. A lot of fancy studios are having to sort of destroy the audio a little bit to get it into this sonic space that people are actually getting used to hearing, which is this sort of DIY digital sound.
Rumpus: So it’s becoming a taste thing!
Wood: Yeah! People are like, “Oh! I kinda want that nasty MP3 sound.” It’s part of the palate—you kind of need to know how to do that now as a mixer.
Rumpus: I follow Oh My Goodness on Facebook and Twitter, and it feels like you two have a pretty lively schedule. There’s always something going on, whether it’s a new video, a song, or just some hilarious pictures that Therese is putting up. Are you two gearing up to play live shows? I would imagine it might be difficult given how layered and complex the EP is.
Workman: It’s really fun! Fortunately, we can both play multiple instruments, so we’re doing a sort of football play strategy like, Okay, I got this, can you get that? Part of it’s like we’re both sort of octopi.
Wood: It’s a wild ride seeing the two of us!
Workman: We’re trying to figure out how we can convey the album live. It’s a fun puzzle.
Wood: A sort of theme on the record is blurring the lines between what’s a human and what’s not.
Workman: But even the samples are live performances.
Rumpus: So even the grunts and clicks are performed.
Rumpus: Tyler, you mentioned some of the bands that you’ve played or worked with, and I know, Therese, that you’ve collaborated with a variety of other musicians—Sontiago, Alias. Do you have thoughts on the role of collaboration in your work?
Wood: From the very beginning, I was making records with my older brother—I think our debut was when I was five and he was eight. I thrive when I have the constant feedback flow of a trusted collaborator. Therese is the ultimate example of this.
We took the making of the EP as an opportunity to deeply explore collaboration, and that was both a huge honor and a huge responsibility for me. Therese already basically had a solo album of GarageBand amazingness that was ready to be mastered. But we decided to take it to another level, and that was only possible through deep, mutual trust, for which I’m very grateful.
Workman: Collaborations are experiments with instincts. Opening up the creative process to collaboration is both liberating and scary because you make yourself vulnerable to critique, while also getting your mind blown by someone else’s process.
I think that collaborations and communities are critical if you want to keep getting better at whatever it is you do. Surrounding yourself with people and things that inspire you and challenge you is really important. For one, if you’re working on something for a long time, it’s hard to get out of your own head.
For example, I learned a lot about human touch from co-producing our EP. Because when I was making GarageBand mock-ups, it was a lot of repetition that GarageBand did for me. When you put something that’s automated up against something that’s performed, even if it’s the same sound, that imperfection is fresh and new. I didn’t know, as a listener, that I was having that experience. I listen to songs differently after having produced our album.
Wood: And after having the one overarching rule of our EP being that we’d do it all ourselves, the remix album was the best way to do exactly the opposite. We’re blessed to have incredibly talented friends, all of whom generously donated their work, and it was a huge donation, indeed. I always say, it feels like having your music remixed is like having your caricature drawn, but these were more like extremely flattering glam portraits! Being able to tap into that insane pool of talent was literally priceless, and I think we would not have had the opportunity if the two of us hadn’t been a part of such a rich community.
Rumpus: You’ll often hear writers talk about being in a “writing community” and how that’s so important, both creatively and professionally. I would imagine the same to be true of musicians.
Workman: Yeah! I feel really lucky to know so many visual artists, musicians, writers, filmmakers who are creating amazing work. The remixes and videos and artworks—these were all opportunities to work with people we already loved. Another function of collaboration is that we get to introduce our fans to someone new—and also get to meet our collaborators’ audiences.
Rumpus: So, all holy grail dreams of major label stardom being in check and whatnot, what would you do if you suddenly hit it big and made a million dollars off your album?
Workman: Student loans!
Wood: Get out of debt! And if we have anything left…
For me, the biggest thing we need right now is time. And perhaps a big space that’s larger than our little walk-up apartments in Brooklyn. When we recorded most of the EP, we went up to Maine and did it in a barn. We had total free run of this barn, and we were out in the woods, and no one could hear us, and we weren’t bothered by anyone. Off-and-on for a couple of months. Therese had to work some.
Workman: Honestly, I think if even if we had all the money in the world, I’d still do a job that’s not music. For some reason, when we were in the barn and I had to go back to my temp job, those strict parameters made going to the barn feel so much different. There was a contrast. I think my personality is such that I like a structure to deviate from, because a blank canvas is really intimidating. A lot of my songwriting comes from that. If I didn’t have a nine-to-five, I don’t know what I would have been angry about!
I think creativity comes from a little bit of discomfort.
Images of Therese Workman and Tyler Wood © by Shervin Lainez.