What Just Went Down on 'Lost'? Well, Listen Up.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
The idea first came to Jeff Curtin and Adam Schatz the way so many awesome ideas do: in the form of a rock opera.
Last January, the Brooklyn-based musicians were considering crafting a sweeping, "Tommy"-style tribute to "Lost," their favorite TV show. But just before the ABC drama's fourth season, they had a thought. What if they wrote a new song after each broadcast that summarized the key events in the latest chapter of the stranded-on-an-island saga? What if they posted the tracks on their MySpace page? And what if they called themselves Previously on Lost, a homage to the plot summaries that precede each episode of "Lost"? Would people click and listen?
Since the concept involved quirky music, the Internet and "Lost," a series with a fat fan following in the 18-to-34 demographic, the answer to that question was a resounding "Dude, yes."
"I guess it was just something we tried for fun," says Curtin, 26, a Washington area native who, among other things, works as an engineer and sound designer for indie rock Web site Pitchfork Media. "But it caught on and people started listening to the songs, so we were kind of bound by a contract with the fans to continue."
What began as an online experiment has morphed into an attention-getting career move for Curtin and Schatz. After the band built a following for the "Lost" musical recaps, its summer included appearing on National Public Radio, performing in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, meeting "Lost" producers (fans, naturally), and selling the complete 12-track opus, "The Tale of Season 4 and the Oceanic Six," on iTunes.
Suddenly, a band that draws its source material from smoke monsters and actor Matthew Fox's ability to flash a sly wink finds itself with blogosphere buzz, a smattering of live gigs (including one tonight at Iota in Arlington and another tomorrow at the Kennedy Center), and a reputation as perhaps the best-known (though not the only) recap rock band in America.
"These guys really know music," says Alex Castex-Porter, who writes the Audibly Lost blog. "For each song they do, they manage to find a unique sound and a unique flavor. . . . It's not just a parody, it is its own thing."
What does the music sound like? There have been few mainstream reviews, but Gawker.com calls the result "Rockapella guest-starring on the toddler show 'Yo Gabba Gabba.' "
Previously on Lost's artistic process? On Thursdays, Schatz and Curtin watch the show separately, often multiple times. The next day they compare notes over the phone. Sundays they write and record. By Monday mornings the new track -- titles include "Be My Constant" and "The Island Won't Let You Die" -- is posted on MySpace.
Their favorite tune? "Ballad of Sayid Jarrah," based on an episode that flashes forward to show the former Iraqi Republican Guardsman, played by Naveen Andrews, working in Berlin as a contract killer and hooking up with a hot (but duplicitous?) woman.
"That episode was really all about Sayid and how awesome he was," says Schatz, who studies jazz saxophone at New York University. "And we thought he was awesome, so [we figured], well, we should probably just write an homage to Sayid in the same vein as the theme from 'Shaft.' "
Those sonic shout-outs eventually made their way to Carlton Cuse, executive producer of "Lost," who has seen YouTube video of PoL's live shows, which feature a seven-member band and instruments from keyboards to kazoos, plus a few faux palm trees around the stage.
"The fact that they have charted a fairly high level of popularity is kind of surreal, but also very cool," says Cuse.
If all this sounds bizarre and, perhaps to "Lost" neophytes, a little ridiculous, consider this: Previously on Lost isn't the only act doing this sort of thing.
In a pop cultural landscape where riffing has become an art form, it's no surprise that an Australian video editor who calls himself Barenaked Hurley takes existing tunes, like Bon Jovi's "Living on a Prayer," and pens "Lost"-related lyrics to go with them. Or that an Easthampton, Mass., band called the Others, named after the mysterious island inhabitants who routinely clash with the show's core characters, has been creating its own brand of desert island classics since 2006. They recap "Lost" episodes via song, too, with a lower profile. If Previously on Lost delivers the hipster, indie rock take on the show, then the Others are its more earnest, mainstream-sounding counterpart.
"They do their thing and we do something a little bit different," says Others bassist Tommy Foster, 29. "For me, there is room for everybody." (After learning of the Others, Cuse suggests the two groups face off in a battle of the bands at next year's Comic-Con in San Diego.)
While the Massachusetts group plans to keep rolling out the musical recaps until "Lost" ends its run in 2010, Previously on Lost's Season 4 salute may have been its swan song. Curtin and Schatz see the band evolving to create musical CliffsNotes of all sorts. For example, their Kennedy Center Millennium Stage performance for the Mark Twain Prize will recap one of recipient George Carlin's comedy routines (Previously on Lost has no connection to Carlin, but Twain event programmers read about the band in the college music magazine CMJ and decided the band fit in perfectly). And they hope to create a "Schoolhouse Rock"-style educational series on subjects such as photosynthesis.
"Lost" may have helped them find success, but they believe their musical careers could carry them beyond Oceanic Flight 815.
"We are a true recap rock band," insists Schatz, "not just a band that sings about 'Lost.' "