It’s easy to read too much into art. For example, in the video for electronic band Owl City’s huge breakthrough hit “Fireflies,” an old Speak & Spell toy is featured. Clearly an homage to Synth Pop pioneers Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark (OMD) who used the toy on their 1983 single “Genetic Engineering,” right?
“I must be an idiot,” says Owl City’s lone member, Adam Young (pictured). “I have no idea what OMD is. I know who ODB from Wu Tang Clan is though. Does that count?”
Whether he knows his ’80s Synth Pop or not, Owl City has struck a chord with everyone from Gen Xers to the tween set. From the humblest of beginnings he's built a 21st Century Pop juggernaut that's traveled the information superhighway on a meteoric rise to fame and acclaim.
Return with us now to the small Minnesota town of Owatonna, circa 2007. In the basement of his parents’ home, Young counters his shy nature by making music. On a whim he embarks on a flurry of creative activity while his folks are away for the weekend.
“Wanting to be loud and make some noise and whatever, I began writing versions of what became my first self-released CD, Of June,” he explains. “I put it up on MySpace the following month and didn’t tell anyone.”
It caught on, and soon his newly-minted fanbase was clamoring for an album. Owl City responded in March 2008 with Maybe I’m Dreaming. His major-label debut, Ocean Eyes, came out this past July and features the radio smash “Fireflies.”
Though Owl City is compared to contemporary groups like The Postal Service, echoes of Kraftwerk, New Order and OMD are evident, even if Young doesn’t know who the forefathers of Techno Pop are exactly.
Unlike much late-model electronic music, Owl City offers meaningful lyrics that sound good whether you’re grooving to them or just sitting back with the headphones on. Packed with hooks that stick like a piece of Velcro, each song is instantly infectious.
Interestingly, Young started out as a guitar player before becoming more computerized. However, he still makes sure the songs can stand on their own, much like Depeche Mode used to do.
“I start with music,” he says. “I write the whole song instrumentally, then write lyrics and add vocals.” He says his musical influences are largely instrumental acts like Unwed Sailor, The Field and Helios.
“I like writing on a whim,” he adds, “and experimenting with sounds as I go. I think it allows for much greater creativity and I love how a song rarely ends up the way I initially envisioned it aesthetically. I’m a firm believer that music writes itself.”
Of course Owl City will not always be limited to electronics. Conventional instruments are certainly not off limits.
“I like the idea of blending conventional and unconventional,” Young says. “I like the idea of mixing an acoustic guitar with a bent Furby (toy) or an electronic birthday card or something. I also really love the idea of using field recordings in music. There are so many sounds to be found, collected and altered. Sources of audio are endless.”
Still, for all of the adoration Owl City has received, there’s always been a bit of a knock on electronic music — “because it’s not really music,” as Chris Lowe of synth duo Pet Shop Boys once said. Owl City, though, doesn’t pick up on that vibe.
“Not particularly,” Young says. “I think electronic music has become incredibly popular and respected by the masses compared to what it was in the past. I think the quirky ‘dreaminess’ that often embodies Electronica is what interests me the most and, as a solo artist, I feel it’s a genre with endless possibilities. You can be an orchestra conductor without a symphony.”
During live performances, Owl City has some assistance from friends who provide drums, piano, cello and violin to the stage show. Of course, when it comes down to it, being the sole official member has its advantages.
“There are no arguments, heated discussions or fist fights and there never will be unless I become a schizophrenic,” Young says.
Creating music alone, Young never forgets the people that are enjoying his work. Perhaps it’s because he’s knee-deep in the social media groove thang that he doesn’t lose touch with his fans.
“The Internet has certainly been a wonderful thing for Owl City and I’m certain the band wouldn’t be nearly as successful without it,” he says, adding that social media itself has worked like a dream for the group.
In fact, those who follow Owl City on Twitter might have wondered if Young plans to branch out into comedy writing. Some sample tweets: “Massage therapy is a touchy subject,” “A man stole a case of soap from the corner store. The police said he made a clean getaway,” or how about, “Honeymoon salad is lettuce alone.”
Explain yourself, Mr. Young.
“I like puns,” he says simply. “People make fun of me. I still like puns.”
Opening for Owl City on its current tour is the lovely and talented Lights, whose birth name is Valerie Poxleitner. In a way, you could call her the female and/or Canadian version of Owl City. The similarities are striking.
Both picked up a guitar and started writing songs in their early teens before switching to electronics in an attempt to expand their respective sounds. They both owe their early success to the Internet and social media. Both are Christians and, while they are by no means Christian Rock acts, their faith is an influence. And most importantly, like Owl City, Lights creates catchy electronic music to which you can bop around or simply sit back and listen.
There are differences though. Lights is more consciously influenced by the synth bands of the ’80s like New Order and Human League.
“I’ve certainly drawn my share of influence from them,” she says. “In fact I just had a chance to see Human League play in the UK. It was really interesting.”
And nerds weren’t already imagining this lovely chanteuse as their Canadian girlfriend, there’s this little nugget — she’s totally into video games.
“Losing yourself in another world is kind of perfect for inspiration,” Pexleitner explains. “My job and my hobby are the same thing … you can’t take a weekend off, so I just lose myself in World of Warcraft.”
OWL CITY and LIGHTS perform Jan. 27 at the Madison Theater in Covington. The show is sold out. Find show and club details here.