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Full Transcript of Gregory Brothers Interview

Recorded via Conference Call
October 23, 2009
Jim Hopkinson, Wired’s Marketing Guy
The Gregory Brothers: Evan, Andrew, and Michael


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Hi, this is Jim Hopkinson, Wired’s Marketing Guy, bringing you the marketing trends that matter. Welcome!

Today’s topic is Auto-Tune, an interview with the Gregory Brothers from ‘Auto-Tune the News.’


Jim Hopkinson: Oh, yeah! [Auto-Tune] Hey everyone, this is Jim. Today’s episode is a fun one. I’ll keep the intro fairly short – there are three main points you need to know:

1. There’s a digital process in music called, ‘Auto-Tune.’ Think of it as Photoshop for your voice. Almost every artist makes small touches to enhance the product, while others use it liberally to radically alter the original product. You might originally know the effect from Cher’s 1998 Grammy Award-winning, multi-platinum dance song, “Believe.”

2. Modern artists like T-Pain have brought it back ‘big time’, not only award-winning songs, but also collaborating with Saturday Night Live for their popular digital short, “I’m on a Boat”; an auto-tune skit for Jimmy Kimmel on his show, and he has an iPhone app called, “I am T-Pain.” Just wait a second to find out what that is, and,

3. A Brooklyn-based band called, “The Gregory Brothers“, have made a hilarious string of viral videos called, “Auto-Tune the News“, which mixes political and pop culture news footage with a poppin beat and a happenin’ baseline all set to Auto-Tune.

I interviewed them today on the podcast. But as a service or a torture to my listeners, I’m going to show how Auto-Tune can take a hopelessly horrible singer like myself, and at least give you a laugh. I’ve done the hard work finding the top five songs I recommend for Auto-Tuning. I’ll give you a hint; there are some pretty high notes in these songs.

OK, first up, the 1986 classic “Your Love” from The Outfield.

At #4, one everyone likes to sing along to, “Wonderwall by Oasis.

At #3, put on your gloves, try “Eye of the Tiger.

At #2, you probably saw this one coming, it’s “Roxanne” by the Police,

and, at the #1 spot – hold on. Let me tell you what. Let me play the interview first, and, at the end, I’ll tell you my #1 recommended Auto-Tune song, and an example of how it came out when I sang a line of it. Here, we go.

JH: Ohhh, yeah [Using Auto-Tune]. Everyone, this is Jim Hopkinson. I’m on the phone today with the Gregory Brothers. The Gregory Brothers are responsible for the awesome YouTube videos, Auto-Tune the News, and a quite talented band, as well. So, welcome everyone.

Gregory Brothers: Hey, how are you doing, Jim? Thanks for having us.

JH: No problem. So, the background of you guys, the Gregory Brothers are a Brooklyn-based band consisting of three brothers, Evan, Andrew, and Michael, who are on the phone, as well as Evan’s wife, Sarah. Michael, you’re the drummer and Auto-Tuning talent; Evan, the oldest – vocalist and keyboards; and Andrew on guitar, while Sarah plays the bass, and also does vocals. Does that sum it up correctly?

GB: Right, as time has gone on, we’ve started to split our Auto-Tuning and writing, in that respect.

JH: So for those that don’t know what Auto-Tune the News is, I’ve seen it described as “newsicals”. How would you guys describe it?

GB: It’s sort of like your TV news as you always wished to receive it with a poppin beat and a happenin’ baseline.

JH: How did that come about? Who came up with the idea of, “Hey, let’s do this crazy thing?”, and mix political stuff and music and Auto-Tuning, and put it all together?

GB: Well, I’ve been an audio engineer by trade, and Auto-Tune mini singers – intentional singers, that is – from time to time. Some great singers, some that needed some heavy Auto-Tuning, so I’d be doing lots of post-production late night, and realized how powerful the software was. So, after I started doing some comedy videos on YouTube, I realized I could integrate that. Like Evan said, “It’s at a happenin’ baseline underneath”, and I’d take it to the next level. So it was kind of an evolution where we have this idea that we could apply Auto-Tuning or pitch correction technology to a spoken voice, just like you could apply it to a singing voice, and the result would be sort of unintentional singing, or the sound that we get in the videos. The first time it was really used was last year, maybe a year ago, when Michael was doing some videos related to the presidential campaign.

JH: Mmhmm.

GB: We enjoyed it so much, and it kind of got a little bit of recognition, and we wanted to bring it back but in some way that could do it episodically, and that’s how we hit on the idea of, “Let’s apply this to current events.” We can write all the music ourselves, and then pull in video of current events, and turn it into a music video.

JH: So, take me through the process; I know our Wired.com listeners, if they’re like myself, they’re into music, and they’re very geeky. So, not only do I watch it for entertainment, but then I’m asking myself: “How do they do that, how do they bring it all together?” So, kind of take me through, start out, like where do you find the video clips, and kind of how you start with bringing those in.

GB: Well, a lot of the process of finding the video clips, you just have to. It has to do with being alert to what’s hot on the Internet at any given week, or what’s hot on the blogosphere on any given week. At this point we’ve gotten enough recognition that there are also people starting to send us clips that they think would work well in Auto-Tune, which is great. So that’s sort of the first step in the process; it’s just sort of figuring out what video clips might mash up together to be part of the video. Our goal is to get some sort of ‘red phone’ installed on the Senate floor, so that we can actually call in and say, “Senator Chuck Grassley, we really need a good segment for our next video. Could you start singing about dragons, please?”

JH: [Laughs] “Would you mind doing kind of a ‘dragon chart’ for us?” [Laughs]

GB: [Laughs] Right. So far, they’ve actually obliged without us making the request directly. But some day we may be in a pinch, and so what we’re hoping that we can kind of open those lines of communication.

JH: And then as far as inserting yourself in it, it’s ‘green screen technology’, correct? Describe that process.

GB: Right. So first, you go to your local fabric store and buy a green sheet. Then you put it underneath your bed; in our case, you don’t have any decent lighting, and you have a green halo around yourself. But, normally you’d want to light it all evenly so that all the green disappears and it looks like you’re on the background that’s left. Then we just put our bodies into the boxes opposite Ron Paul or Katie Couric, whoever we’re speaking with, and all of a sudden we’re singing duets. We’re all musicians, so we kind of do the music part first. It’s all about kind of creating the song and writing the lyrics, and singing along with the various pundits and newscasters. And then the final piece is to do the video where we make our own appearances.

JH: And then are you recording in an actual music’s recording studio, or just kind of like more of a home computer setup?

GB: If by recording studio you mean a single microphone underneath Michael’s loft bed, then yes.

JH: [Laughs] And what kind of software are you using to kind of put this all together?

GB: I do all the beat making and logic, and then we do the editing, the video editing in final cut.

JH: Got it, so then the Auto-tune comes in. I know they have a hardware solution and software.

GB: There are a bunch of programs out there that do the same effect. Now, we’re lucky enough to have access to a couple of those that are really strong. You have your Antares Auto-Tune which is eponymous with the effect. Auto-Tune Evo, we also have. Then you also have your Melodyne, which is more of a do-it-yourself thing from Celemony. But, we do not have a hardware solution; there’s not a magic microphone that you sing into to create new melodies for you. We don’t have a magic button to press or a wand to wave over Bill O’Reilly and Katie Couric to make them sing. It’s all a software solution for us, and so we kind of craft it all ourselves.

JH: It’s kind of my next question that, what makes a good unintentional singer? Is it just trial and error, or are there certain melodies or lines, or like certain vowels that really make it pop? What’s the key to really give it that effect?

GB: When you rhyme with yourself, you’re off to a good start, but it all lies within the tone quality of each person’s particular voice. If someone is speaking with projection and support in their voice, they’re going to be a good unintentional singer. If their pronunciation is clipped, or the tone of their voice is raspy or falling off, then they’re not going to be a good unintentional singer. As we were sitting here talking, Jim, I was thinking that you have a pretty good shot [Jim laughs] at getting some kind of record deal here. Honestly, as we’ve done this over a period of several episodes, we’ve gotten better and better at predicting who is going to be a better victim for us. A while back we kind of thought that some of the kind of ranting and raving that goes on on cable news would make for a lot of good unintentional singers, but that’s not necessarily the case. Sometimes it’s those folks that are calm, but enunciate and elongate their words really well that do really well in the unintentional singing business.

JH: Now I find, and most people I think, find the videos hilarious, but you are dealing with political humor; has anyone been offended by it, have you gotten feedback on that, or has Katie Couric ever contacted you to either praise or criticize your work?

GB: Since most of the criticism that comes our way is done so in a vehicle of YouTube comments, it’s pretty easy to shrug it off. The typographical errors and misspellings generally undercut whatever criticism they might be levying at us. But we really haven’t had any criticism that I’ve expected from the unintentional singing superstars. I think just because they enjoy being pop sensations. I really did expect more feedback of maybe people being uncomfortable with it, but they’re probably being in their field so used to being ‘John Stewarted’, that this was a welcome change.

JH: Right. At least people are laughing with them, hopefully, on this one. Now, what about T-Pain? I’ve got the app, and I busted it out a party the other night, and people loved it. Did you get to work with him directly? I know he’s been in a couple of videos; have you been in touch with him directly?

GB: Yeah, his label reached out to us some time ago to, in so many words, say, “We gotta work with these guys.” Obviously, we have some things in common, not least of which is our musical style, but also our sense of humor. So we kind of pitched around some ideas about how we could collaborate from opposite sides of the country, and sent them some script ideas, and he was totally game – he was really great. We traded video back and forth, and then voila, he’s on a phone conversation with Michael in one of our videos. After that we collaborated on a Jimmy Kimmel video where he’s interviewing Obama and they’re singing an Auto-Tune duet.

JH: I saw that; so you guys helped put that together as well?

GB: Yeah, we did the audio portion.

JH: Great, great. Now it is kind of controversial in the music industry; what are your thoughts? I think, Michael, you said you do this full time, correct, so you’ve worked with artists. What are your thoughts on it in affecting the music industry?

GB: I’m neither pro- nor anti-Auto-Tune. I think you’ll always have good musicians with or without it, and listeners that care will be able to tell and choose for themselves. I think Auto-Tune will always be around because once you have that Photoshop-like software, everybody’s going to use it whether it’s for completely changing the original material or for minor touch-ups. But you can still recognize a great singer through the Auto-Tune, or if they skirt the Auto-Tune. It’s like being pro- or anti-Photoshop; it’s going to be a completely pervasive tool, but it depends on how you use the tool – whether it’s heavy handed, or used for your very subtle corrections and edits, and that sort of thing. Auto-Tune is being used in ways that you don’t even know on almost every pop singer that you hear. It just doesn’t necessarily have that robot sound that you’re familiar with on hip-hop and R&B records, etc. So, we’re not pro- or anti-; it’s just a tool and it depends on how you use it. It’s been fun for us to kind of use it in different ways in our videos, but we’re certainly not declaring DOA.

JH: Hmmm.

GB: Right. Yeah, Auto-Tune is also tagged to a few particular artists, mainly Little Wayne, Kanye, and T-Pain, but the reason their music has spread so much is not because of the Auto-Tune; it’s because they’re just harmonic arrangements. The melodies have been infectious in a certain way, and if it were very untalented artists that started with the Auto-Tune, then it probably wouldn’t have become trendy.

JH: Now you guys obviously are a very multi-talented family; how did you guys all get your start? Have you been playing instruments together since you were kids?

GB: Actually, the first time we really started playing together was just about two and a half years ago, Jim. Evan and I played together a little bit longer, but about two and a half years ago we set up a long tour that was going to feature Sarah as well, now his wife. Michael was able to find some time to take off of college and come with us on tour. So we sort of rehearsed and got ready to play together for the first time to play this long 90-day tour together.

GB: We’ve always played music. We’ve all been involved in playing music our whole lives, and it just happens that we kind of became an official quartet, maybe two and a half years ago, where it happened that all four of us were playing in the same band, as opposed to other people’s bands, or our own projects. Now, Andrew and I did have quite a bit of experience in our early years, kind of collaborating in pummeling Michael…

JH: [Laughs]

GB: …and there was some kind of shifting allegiances over the years, which kind of gives you the basis of an experience for being in a rock and roll band as well.

JH: That’s funny. So are you moving forward full force on this? Is the end goal to become a full-time musician and make that your career, or do you still have some side jobs?

GB: We’ve all, over the last couple of years, worked a variety of hilarious day jobs, Jim. Evan’s worked as a computer consultant, Michael and I worked as SAT tutors, all sorts of other gigs. But, I think that is the goal that in the next couple of months, and next couple of years, to just sort of say, “How can we make something like ‘Auto-Tune the News’, or how can we take something like our ‘The Gregory Brothers’ and make it sort of a full time thing?”

JH: Are you connecting the two? Have you found that doing kind of a cool viral video, like Auto-Tune the News, has raised your awareness as a band and brought fans over to see you as a band?

GB: Yeah, the two are not isolated; they are definitely recognized as being their own thing, two different outlets for what we want to do creatively. But people who are fans, are of either one of our efforts, be it videos online or our original music; they want to know more about us, and in turn, they find out about all our other projects. So Auto-Tune the News, as it’s gotten popular online, had driven hundreds of fans to our music and half of those people say, “Oh, my gosh, this is so different, but I love it; thank you so much”; and, the other half of the people say, “Shawtee, what is this, I don’t understand, not anything like Auto-Tune the News.”

JH: [Laughs] Is there a percentage of fans that come away disappointed because they see Auto-Tune the News, they’ve got one, kind of hip-hop view of what’s going on, and then your music is actually a lot different from that genre.

GB: We all bring a lot of different influences to the table, from me to Andrew, to Michael, to Sarah, and there’re just several different ways that we’d want to let those out. We’ve kind of let them boil around; if we want to make a video that has one kind of musical influence and a record that has a different one, we don’t have a problem with it. So people will pick and choose what they prefer and what they think is cool, and we might mix and match our projects or keep them separate. It’s all just how it strikes us in the moment.

JH: Well, I know promoting a band is very difficult, so anything that you can do to raise your awareness, good or bad, and get people to see your music, to learn about CDs or gigs that you got going on, it

eventually works out, and most of the time they’re going to like it. So, I think that’s great.

GB: And, we’ve got a great plan going forward; Evan’s building a balloon and I’m going to hide in the closet, and I think you know the rest.

JH: [Laughs] Well, if people do want to learn more about you, where can they find more information? Where can they buy your CDs, and what kind of things do you have coming down the line?

GB: You can pick up our CD on iTunes, or a physical copy at our website, Thegregorybrothers.com. We’ve got all the videos posted at Autotunethenews.com, or of course, you can dig them up on YouTube. We sell all the backing tracks and audio version of all the videos at a site called Amystreet.com too. Yeah, we have our calendars up on MySpace and Facebook, and that’s how a lot of fans keep up with our live performances, but we play quite a bit in the city, once every month or so. I think we’re trying to work out a possible showcase of our videos in a live forum for the month of November.

JH: Well, great. I really appreciate you guys taking the time to come on. I appreciate the entertainment that you’ve provided for people around the office. I’m going to try maybe using the T-Pain app to Auto-Tune my intro to podcast this week, and see how that comes out.

GB: [Laughs]

JH: And, maybe I can ask you guys for some pointers once I complete that.

GB: [Laughs] Great, you got it. You got it.

JH: Alright, thanks guys, I appreciate the time. 

GB: My pleasure, Jim, thanks for having us.

JH: ‘Ohhh, Yeah!’ [Using Auto-Tune] OK, hope you enjoyed that folks,

My number one Auto-tune song is, “Don’t Start Believin” by Journey. Now, here’s what happens when you take a terrible singer like myself, add the ‘I am T-Pain’ Auto-tune application for the iPhone, and sing the first line, “Just a small town girl, livin’ in a lonely world, took the midnight train going anywhere!”

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­This has been the Hopkinson Report Auto-tune podcast. I’d like to thank my special guests, the Gregory Brothers for coming on the show. Remember you can check them out at Autotunethenews.com or the Thegregorybrothers.com.

You can check out my other podcasts on iTunes, or at Thehopkinsonreport.com. Thanks for listening, Shawtay!

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