Virgens In Paradise: Money Mark Tells Us About Stop the Virgens "Band Camp"

Stop the Virgens director, Adam Rapp, and Karen O at the cast retreat in the Berkshires.

Late last week we debuted the much anticipated two-part documentary on the making of Karen O’s psycho-opera, Stop the Virgens. A deeply personal project that took Karen more than seven years to develop, the production pulled together a dream team cast of musicians, designers, and producers that included the likes of K.K. Barrett (Where The Wild Things Are), Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Sam Spiegel (N.A.S.A.) and legendary music producer Money Mark (of Beastie Boys fame).

Last summer, the core team members of the production convened in Williamstown, Massachusetts in the scenic Berkshires to bring the show’s music to life and integrate it with the visual design. The experimental and cross-disciplinary nature of the show made this period in the Berkshires especially creatively fruitful. Money Mark describes the experience as a kind of “band camp,” and cites it as a pivotal moment in the project’s development.

We spoke with him over the phone about his time in the Berkshires, his involvement in the show, and what he’s up to now. He also provided us with some gorgeous black and white photos from their retreat.

The Creators Project: How did you get roped into this psycho-opera?
Money Mark:
As soon as the rope came down over my neck, I was like, “You didn’t really even have to do that at all!” I was so game to do it. Karen, I imagine, called us all personally to put the whole team together because it was something she had been thinking about for a long time. She needed a clearing and a moment to do it, and she just made it happen with her spirit and will.

So how did she explain the vision behind the project? Was there a manifesto she presented you with about what this idea was? It is this sort of amorphous type of project, so I wonder how she communicated the idea to people.
I think for a project like this, there is no way to foreshadow. You can’t tell what it is until it’s all put together. She had an idea and a trajectory of what it would be like, but no one could really say what it would be. When it actually got put together, there were some levels of revelation. There was being up in the Berkshires—after that experience, we were all coming off a super high. In the Berkshires, the music got put together and all the designers were all in the same room. I think the whole ethos of the project was born when we were up there. It’s one of those things you can’t really see, like climbing a mountain. You can only imagine what the vantage point will look like from there, but until you’re there, you don’t really know. It was very holistic. We all had this amazing trust thing going on in the group, and it became self-guided after a while.

Wow sounds almost like a religious experience. What else did you guys get up to in the Berkshires?
We got the call from the organizers explaining what would happen—that we’d all be in the same room, that all the musicians would be going over the music, that we were going to immerse ourselves into the design of the show. Actually, it was a little like summer-camp, but we did bust our asses. It was like an improvisational performance we had done by the end of the week. But at that time, everyone’s energy was put into the pot. It was very democratic. It felt like everyone was open to everyone else’s ideas. We were all just gathering our ideas and we were able to submit ideas to designers, and designers were also able to be with the musicians. At that moment, we developed a core and branched out from there. It was an important thing to do and it was an important idea for all of us to be in a camp together, away from the city. It accelerated the whole process by all of us being together.

Musicians practicing the music for Stop the Virgens while on retreat in the Berkshires.

Were you playing your typical music producer role in this production, or something a little different?
I think everyone was able to do that somewhat. It felt like I could contribute whatever I wanted to, and I was creating my own boundary for myself because I have a natural tendency to organize things. I was really feeling like this was something self-propelled. It was a relief because I wouldn’t have to come into this project and fix things. I naturally make sure someone’s guitar cable is working, but I was just enjoying playing piano and listening to other musicians. For me, the experience was relaxing to do just that one job.

That’s great. It’s so rare you have the opportunity to do projects that are food for the soul.
Well not for me! I have so much gratitude for my situation. I could pick and choose the kind of projects I want to be on and I feel so lucky things have gone the way they’ve gone. But this one was a no-brainer. I didn’t even think twice about it. I would’ve bought my own ticket out there!

Why were you so excited to do this particular project?
It’s the idea of risk, and that’s the challenge. I was playing with one of the biggest bands in the world [The Beastie Boys]. We were playing in front of something like 80,000 people at festivals in Europe, even 100,000 people, and from there, what’s next? Now I’m diversifying, but that is something, to me, that puts a lot of ideas together. In my personal life, I came from theater—studying different aspects of theater, from acting to dance groups. I get to be around the stage again, I get to be keyboard guy, I get to be with all these dancers. It was like a dream! And as I say all this, I feel like everyone had a similar kind of convergence. It was like a risk-taking thing—we were all talented and we can all just do this. It came at the perfect time; the stars and planets were aligned.

Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist and Stop the Virgens music co-director Nick Zinner.

Money Mark on the piano.

Do you think these types of hybrid cross-media collaborations are something we’re going to be seeing more of?
Definitely. I’ve recently been working on projects based around transmedia story telling. There are many ways of telling a story—there’s not just the narrative, linear way. As human beings, we can put things together in our heads so we don’t have to accept this line or convention. Breaking the convention is cool to do but is only successful for people who have done all of the other things. K.K. Barrett, for example—When Karen told me she was hiring K.K. to do design, I was like “Oh shit! Sign me up and I’ll just play tambourine so I can just be around him!” K.K. is also a musician, a keyboard player. He would come up to the music room and we’d jam on the keyboards together. He’d give me some ideas that I was going to do on the keyboards or piano, and it was linked into the design and visual part of it. It was very cool to have the hybrid-thing put into actual play.

K.K. Barrett experimenting with a new hat.

It’s amazing that after so many years of being a professional on the road, playing in front of 80,000 people, there are still things you can learn about your own craft.
It takes someone to have an idea that you’re open to. In my world, I call the idea a “trained child,” because I always go back to being childish and playful. A lot of the technique is awesome but isn’t always necessary. My actual performance in the psycho-opera is technically easy, but the journey of it was the difficult thing. That whole process may not be exposed, but part of it is and some of it isn’t.

Was this your first time collaborating with Karen?
No, I was on Show Your Bones. I wrote some of the songs and also performed on the record.

What was that experience like?
Well, I have to say my solo work is not as fulfilling as my collaborative work, so I was really game to collaborate with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They didn’t have to twist my arm to do it. They are a fabulous band, so that was an easy thing for me. But the psycho-opera is the ultimate collaboration. Back to Bones—it was pretty open. They would tell me to do whatever I wanted. After, there was some mining for ideas. They’d hone down my improv, which is a cool process when you’re just starting to get to know people. It wasn’t extraordinarily different from any other collaboration but we just had a mutual love.

So what are you working on now? Solo stuff, transmedia stuff you mentioned earlier?
At the time the opera was playing in DUMBO, I had a project that I had just finished with IBM—a film they had made for their centennial. It was a museum exhibit that was constructed at the Lincoln Center. I did the music for that. It was pretty cool to work with the IBM people—the CEO was right in the middle of it. I did some other kind of ad work, like Coca-Cola, who’s trying to re-launch their brand. After, I produced this horrible comedy. It helps to pay the bills, and because it’s a comedy, it is light and fun. I’m working on a solo record right now. I collaborated with a bunch of Latin bands recently. Today I’m going to a rehearsal to sit in with a band who’s performing at the Smoke-Out, which is a music festival in Los Angeles. I’ve also been scoring movies. Recently I did a movie called Getting Up, a film about a graffiti artist. I’m also going to perform a benefit in Japan to raise money for the earth-quake/tsunami victims. Additionally, I’m doing a panel at SXSW. I’m pretty busy!

Sam Spiegel of N.A.S.A., Adam Rapp and Karen O hanging out in the Berkshires.

Team dinner. From left to right: Karen O, K.K. Barrett, Sam Spiegel, costume designer Christian Joy, and Nick Zinner.

All images courtesy of Money Mark.