Oak and Gorski must raise $10,000 by this week (Oct. 1st).
They’re at around $9000. It’s pretty much an all or nothing deal. Please help them not fail. Thanks.
After you make your “contribution,” watch Ed shave his luscious locks and donate it to a charity of your choice. And/or have Ken come to your place during their tour and give you a private cello lesson. (No innuendo. It’s an actual cello lesson.) Hell…BUY Ken’s cello off him if you can. These guys have. no. limits. Nor shame for that matter.
Help them out if you can. Please. It’s for a good cause. =)
Originally published in the Daily Trojan. (No longer archived on the DT website.) This is also the unedited version I originally submitted. I didn’t have any problems with the changes my editors made…except for them altering the entire perspective of the article by changing it from present tense to past tense. (Also, they asked for 1000 words. I gave them 1900…so yeah…cuts/edits obviously had to be made somewhere.) But yeah…this is how it originally felt.
Ken Oak, in a white long-sleeve shirt, jeans, and slightly messy hair that covers his face a bit, sits in a dimly lit, small, cozy Los Angeles cafe near Koreatown, nervously fidgeting just a bit. Ed Gorski, his bandmate, dressed in a moderately wrinkled grey button-down, cargo shorts, and a scruffy beard, leans back casually in his seat, one arm hanging loosely behind his chair. Both have faint but noticeable bags under their eyes — effects of the successful release of their new album at the Hotel Cafe in downtown Los Angeles earlier this month.
They are waiting for this interview, and this article, to get started as the cafe barista very slowly prepares the three mochas. The drinks arrive, Oak sits up, Gorski remains in his casual pose, and the interview gets underway.
Being in front of them, up close, forces one to really stand back and take in the juxtaposition of utter stereotypes that this duo comprises. In many ways, the two of them are a couple of personified stereotypes: Oak the soft-spoken, reserved Asian who plays the classical, orchestral instrument and comes from a strict, demanding family, and Gorski, the outgoing, beard-sporting white guy and self-proclaimed “free spirit,” who plays the rock guitar. And both of their origins in music are not any less different.
Oak, 33, got started on the cello, and music, when a third grade music teacher hand-picked him for the instrument. Oak is quick to clarify the term “hand-picked.”
“It really wasn’t a very good school so it was easy to stand out. I was just doing good in spelling and math,” he says in a typical self-deprecating way.
Although he got hooked on music at an early age, perhaps reflective of the strict, ambitious Korean-American heritage that he comes from, his plan was never to become a full-time musician.
“That was never an option. My parents never said, “Hey, you can be a musician.” No one says that. I grew up thinking I was going to be a lawyer. That’s what my dad was, that’s what my sister was.”
So he set his eyes on law school — while keeping his love for music close by. He even convinced his father to allow him to study music at the University of Southern California, under the condition that he promise to apply to law school upon graduation. During his time at USC, he was actively involved in the music department for local church programs, where he cultivated and explored his love for music even more. By the time he heard back from schools like Michigan and New York University, offering acceptance into their law programs, he found music had formed too strong a hold on him.
“I remember a point where I felt I had to make a choice,” Oak relays while staring down into the coffee table. “I had to decide that I’m going to do music and not consider other options. It sounded really stupid to a lot of people but I think that’s what really got me going.”
That was Oak. Then you have Gorski, 27, who got his start in music in a more straight-forward, smooth fashion. When asked to recall what got him onto music, he immediately breaks out with a huge smile.
“I started playing guitar at 13 or 14. I was in a band in high school. We played crappy Nirvana and Metallica covers and whatnot. You know, the usual,” he relates in a tone that’s both non-chalant and humorous.
After college, he moved out to Los Angeles and delivered groceries, eventually miraculously getting a job at an independent record label. He and Oak met through mutual friends as Oak was looking into potential labels to sign with. Their meeting didn’t lead to a big record deal but it did lead to, according to Gorski, “quitting all jobs and then just driving around and playing music.”
Unlike Oak, Gorski’s family did not push him to become a lawyer.
“When I told them, ‘You know, I’m gonna start working as an artist,’ they said, ‘Okay, cool! Hope it goes well!’” And that was that.
But as stereotypical as they may be individually, the two of them working together as a duo make their act unique and they are somehow able to mesh with each other.
Fast-forwarding to the present, that chemistry has them preparing to go on tour to promote their latest release, Good Advice, Bad Advice, which is a record that significantly departs from the bare, stripped-down acoustic sound they’ve been playing for years.
“I guess we feel like we had explored the acoustic thing enough because if you listen to our three records you’ll see a progression,” Oak explains while taking the first sip of his coffee.
The pop-rock sound of the new record is still recognizable and is very much within their established identity; the duo is simply looking to branch out a bit more. But don’t get them wrong, both acknowledge and still embrace the relevance of their earlier work.
“It was cool,” Oak continues. “I think those albums were true to how we sounded but I feel that with this one, we wanted to go more commercial, more radio-friendly, more pop.”
Ed quickly adds, “While, of course, keeping the same string-based sound.”
But neither of them will ever hide the fact that they had doubts and some hesitancy when Will Golden and Al Sagro, who served as both producers and musicians on their latest album, approached them with the suggestion of adding more instruments and a bigger sound to their music.
“We were kind of still humming and hawing about it and weren’t really sure if we wanted to take that step,” Gorski says in between sips. “And we were just like ‘Yeah sure, we’ll see how it works, we’ll try it.’”
Both pause and glance at each other, both seeming like they each want to rush to the next point in the conversation.
“And then we did like three songs…and we were like ‘Whoa…okay, let’s do this!’” Gorski says with a chuckle.
In a previous conversation from a year ago, before their current album was even on the radar, both artists were asked, as they were loading equipment into their mini-van after a show, what their motivation for making music was.
At the time, their reply was something along the lines of: “We just want to make music for as long as we can.”
This question seems relevant enough to be asked again but Gorski sees it coming before it even has a chance to fully form.
He puts his cup down mid-sip to blurt out, with an utterly dead-pan expression and tone, “No it’s totally different. We just want to make money now. Screw music.”
Both let out a loud, extended laugh before Oak continues.
“Well at that time, we probably said something more like ‘We would like to make a living making music.’” He pauses to straighten up in his seat. “And at this point, I think we’ve realized that in order to make a living making music, we’ve got to change the sound like we have with this album.”
Ed puts both feet on the ground and moves up closer to the table to elaborate.
“It’s trying to keep the old with this new thing that’s going to help us move in different directions and maybe get into more film and TV placements.”
He sits up even closer as he explains, “Okay so there are certain groups of people who like a lot of just the acoustic sounds — like the guitar and that ‘singer-songwriter’ type of stuff. And that’s a small set of people. Most people would be like ‘Oh that’s a little boring, I can’t really listen to a full record of this.’
Gorski picks up his speech even more, with Oak sitting back and nodding in agreement. “And at the same time, there’s this whole group of people who simply like music that’s good to listen to and that’s what I think we were already doing,” Gorski continues.
“But I think what we’re trying to do now is make music that’s –” He pauses to take a breath before going on. “Music that’s — more people.”
With a final nod, Oak consents to the assessment. Both of them put their cups down and sit back in their chairs during a short break in the conversation.
Amidst all this talk of “progressing” in sound and opening up to “wider audiences” there has always been one dominating constant in their music that neither of them has addressed yet — and that’s the cello.
The band’s first album, Symposium, was a very somber, moody, and relatively dark album that had a sort of brooding tone to it, which the cello seems suited for and did indeed match well with. But as they shifted in sound with brighter elements on their second album, Vienna to Venice, and with the more or less straightforward pop-rock on Good Advice, Bad Advice, the cello has surprisingly maintained its spot at front and center, never at once feeling out of place or forced.
The versatility of the cello is something that neither of the musicians ever expected. In fact, they were just as surprised as anyone else at how well the instrument has gelled with everything they’ve thrown at it.
Oak pauses to think for a moment before recounting, “When I first got plugged into the singer-songwriter/acoustic scene after college, that’s when I first broke out the cello — when I was backing up people — and I realized that it worked well in that folk kind of scene. But I didn’t realize it would have so many different applications, like in this rock setting for example.”
There is one more thing besides the cello that has remained a constant in their songs. It’s the lyrical themes and inspirations.
“The songs are about drinking and crazy girls,” both say, almost in unison. They go on to claim that this long-running theme of theirs actually helps them in their goal of appealing to more people. Oak adds while in the middle of muffled laughter, “You either deal with them or you are one.”
Orski then takes the lead. “Well, they kind of go hand in hand,” he quips. “Because crazy girls like to drink and if you have a crazy girlfriend you drink–
“I think it’s really cool that you automatically get that support from your alma mater,” Ken says solemnly with no trace of the laughter that occurred just a few seconds before. “I think it’s awesome that we always have support there with whatever new stuff we’re doing.”
“And every time we play on campus,” Gorski adds. “Which unfortunately didn’t happen this year, the turnout is great and we’re always thankful for the welcome we receive there.” (They could not get a Tommy Trojan date this year because we were all booked very early.)
With that, the coffee cups are sipped from one last time, hands are shaken, thanks are exchanged, and the interview winds to a close.
The two of them walk out the back door and up the short alley back to Oak’s house, which is the band’s main hangout. The duo heads inside to get some last minute preparations done before they hit the road, once again, in their mini-van — hopefully finding that wider audience they now seek.
A few selections from the catalog that illustrates the trajectory in sound:
Ken Oak – “Analog Girl” (from one of Ken’s first recordings as an artist, End Credits EP)
Ken Oak – “Analog Girl” (from his first studio release, Half Step Down)
Ken Oak Band – “Analog Girl” (from Vienna to Venice)
Oak and Gorski – “Little Miss Blue” (from the latest album, Good Advice, Bad Advice)