Ch. 12d, A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats.
With the moderate rise of popularity “gypsy punk”, “cabaret punk”, “circus punk”, etc. etc. etc.. there have been a whole slew of like-minded bands popping up over the globe. Was there much of a scene like that going on when you started the band in 1996?
XTAL CHAOS: “No, we were the only ones at the time. I get amused by the larger cultural emotional gushing over the bands that came after… and, I think Pete’s body of work should be easily as well-known, but, frankly, it is darker and moodier than the toss-’em back glee of a lot of the other stuff… and, of course, not as wry as the Tiger Lilies nor as commercial as Devotchka.”
Kika Von Kluck: The House of Yes is a terrific place for performances of all kinds.
The Bushwick Starr, Hi Christina, Rubulad, which happens sometimes, sometimes it gets closed by the police, The Madagascar Institute happenings, Fusion Arts Museum in the Lower East side sometimes comes up with great events. 3rd Ward in Bushwick, any event you can catch dj Small Change promises to be a good time, Chashama’s windows projects always is unexpected in Midtown. Galapagos art space in DUMBO is trying to become more performance art oriented. And various Roof top theater shows in Bushwick.
Apparently [Rubulad] got yet another complaint to the police and fire department and never reopened. Those guys have been the heroes throughout Giulianni’s times, for they stood up to authority for so long. That neighborhood though is so not welcoming of them.
They are in a tough block, right in the middle of the orthodox crowd. They tried so many times, but I guess people don’t know how to party in extremely religious communities. Or those communities are not willing to be put through temptation by those hedonistic monsters. Maybe too many of the hood teens picked through their curtains and started having ideas…The fact is that the Fire department and the local police precinct couldn’t wait to close that place. I bet they popped a hard cider in celebration of their eviction. But I know those guys will eventually find another place and continue with their community service, which is what those parties are. They should try to get grants…
From my perspective at that time the “scene” was very mixed in terms of medium. Freshly graduated theater kids from Bennington College, older painters and sculptors, the pioneers, photographers, circus people living in art colony buildings crisscrossing the families, pretty much like Bushwick and Ridgewood today. So the music was a little more eclectic, experimental, if you may, there was no way to pinpoint a style for a lot of them. Some played rock gospel circus stuff, others played cabaret punk electronic and others played all of the above plus a piano and tribal dancers.
Plus, there were way less venues to play around here. Lofts and parties was the way to hear bands. The great majority of the shows were in Manhattan and the WIFS traveled a lot.
The same thing was happening across the other river in New Brunswick at the time. The scene there was tinier maybe, but mighty indeed. I can’t count how many great shows we played at loft parties or basements. Sometimes the police would stop us on the third song or so, but it was still fun.
Now New Brunswick went even more underground and there is one good bar left as far as I know. The Court Tavern. I heard there are still a lot of parties there.
What sparked that initial interest for you into that Balkan music?
As a temporary assistant. Paul toofa, the drummer of Gutbucket was working for WNYC and they had gotten this isa papov record, Balkanology, on a cassette and it was like samizdat, people were copying it, recording it, and giving it to each other. “You gotta hear this, you gotta hear this.” So Eric brought in this cassette of isa papov and we put it on in the music room at work and I was like “oh my god” I’ve never heard anything like this.
So I made a Cd of it with a track listing and I was like Hess, you have to hear this. Yula, you have to hear this. And we went from there.
And you eventually started up this accordion centric gypsy/klezmer side project ‘Guignol’.
Yeah well we wrote the first couple of Guignol songs and they were actually pitched as World Inferno songs. My songs that became ‘Grifter’s Delight’ and ‘All or Nothing Machine’ I had pitched to World Inferno. I think Jack was sort of like “there’s just no room for me here” and so Peter and I started talking about putting this project band together to explore this interest that we had.
Then you debuted at that Tyler Fyre circus ?
Yeah, that was the opportunity for it. I cant remember the kid’s name who used to book the CB’s shows, he booked inferno a couple of times (he was doing Sunday shows at CB’s). He had this concept where he was going to do a night with the Coney Island Sideshow, every Sunday in January of 2003. He wanted to do sideshows with live bands backing them up. He asked Inferno to do it and that wasn’t the sort of thing that Inferno was going to do but Peter and I decided that this was going to be our opportunity to get this other project off the ground.
After I got deep into Inferno I started looking into other bands. What was the history of other bands that was doing other stuff like that. “Big bands with accordions and horns and alternative rock instruments that were bringing in all this ethnic stuff.”
Who did you find that you really liked?
Manu Negra. Oingo Boingo. Karnak from Brazil. The No Smoking Orchestra was a big one. That was a real revelation. I really started exploring the Pogues for the first time in a big way. There was a band called ‘Think of One’ that we discovered in Belgium. We only discovered them because we played at the squat where they lived and then they gave us a bunch of records. They had another sort of electronic-y group from that same squat in Antwerp called Traktor. This was before Balkan Beat Box but it was that kind of thing.
There was just this whole galaxy of bands that were in the same world as World Inferno was. There were bands across the country that we would see on tour. We got booked with every band with an accordion that ever was, for a couple of years. Midnight Choir in Seattle. Circus Contraption. The Dolomites from Portland.
We played with the Dolomites at the Satyricon in Portland before it got shutdown. That famous old punk club. He had some pretty interesting tricks, speaking of fire tricks. He would play accordion sitting down and he had Vaseline on the side of his face and I said what happened and he said “well I was trying to blow fire with lamp oil, some of it got on my face, and I burned the hell out of my face” . Sounds terrible. So he would play accordion sitting down and to his left he had a 50 gallon metal oil drum that he had a low flame flickering in during the course of the set. Once in awhile to sort of punctuate musically, in the same way that Tom Waits throws the glitter out of his pockets, he would throw something into this drum and the flames would flare up! It was really dramatic and I was really impressed.So I went up to him after the show and asked what was his secret and he said : “non-dairy creamer”.
GC – laughs
He said its incredibly flammable. Just fill your pockets with it, throw it in the flames and it goes “woomph!”. Which I never tested actually! I thought it was a good enough detail and I took it on faith.
Guignol was a project band. There was a moment when the whole gypsy punk thing was happening and we were doing the King Gypsy Rocker shows that sXip Shirley was putting on. We were on the cover of the New York Times Entertainment Rock section and it seemed like Gogol Bordello was starting to blow up. A couple of us wanted to see if we can make that into a real movement and have the whole scene : a rising tide lifts all boats. We started a little Yahoo! Group and particularly Melissa, who was managing Nervous Cabaret, and I were trying to organize where we would have a merch table at Gogol Bordello tours to sell everybody’s cd’s, to start an online store, yknow a sort of Gypsy Punk Central. But there were too many people coming at that scene from really different angles. Like Slavic Soul Party and that whole world were basically jazz guys and were more business like about the whole thing. The Gogol Bordello people were basically single minded in their ambition, which good for them, but bringing the other bands along in that scene was not a priority.
Ah, the fued.
It was kind of entertaining actually. I have a friendly relationship with Eugene. I’ve seen him at festivals over the years but we knew each other through the King Gypsy shows. I saw him at Lollapalooza after Against Me! Played and we played a show together in Boston earlier this summer. I had also ran into him in a hotel in London a couple of years ago. Its funny, we were both down at the hotel bar and he was like “oh hey! I haven’t seen you in a couple of years, what are you in town for”. I said I was playing in this band called The Hold Steady, what are you in town for? Oh, I’m playing with Madonna tomorrow at Wembley. I was like “Oh. Well, you trumped me!”
I noticed that your other band, Walter Sickert & the Army of Broken Toys has been lovingly embraced by the Steampunk community. Your show was packed at the steampunk convention back in April. – Giant Cat
I personally am not a huge steampunk cosplay guy. I really enjoy some of the aspects of the Jules Verne past meets the future kind of aesthetic but I’m not normally involved in these conventions. But with that being said I couldnt believe the convention the Toys recently played. It was totally crazy. I couldn’t believe how many people were there and how many people were so into it. It was a lot of fun.
I’ve noticed that it seems like “steampunk” is blooming. There’s another convention in Seattle we’ve been invited to play. Another in the UK in September. This scene really seems to be co-opting “our scene”, which is great. I don’t necesarily think that Walter Sickert, HUMANWINE, or Mr. Fox specifically started as “steam punk bands” initially but we’ve kind of co-opted that scene as much as they have co-opted ours.
Yeah, it’s interesting that term is popping up more & more. It just blew my mind this huge convention happened so close to New Brunswick, NJ where there is a vibrant DIY punk basement scene but where there are very few traces of a vibrant goth scene in recent years.
I’ll tell you what . Even though “Steampunk” is sort of this very specific thing as far as a stylistic genre , steampunk in general has become like an umbrella term for a lot of people. Many different niches are identifying as “steampunk” even though maybe they are not exactly the original idea of what steampunk was. But I think thats cool because thats getting a lot of different interests together to celebrate something.
Yeah. This brings to mind that Sepiachord website. You sort of struggled earlier to describe the scene in Boston and New York a few years back. Cabaret punk, gypsy punk, circus punk, whatever. They try to unite the “genres that do not exist” but who share a few common threads.
Yeah we’ve gotten alot of support from them. I’ve been familiar with Sepiachord for years because they were also a big proponent for Reverend Glasseye. I cant speak highly enough about those people.
“Punk” has its Maximum Rock n Rolls, its Epitaph/Fat/Hell-Cats, its Profance Existances, etc. Its got those networks in place so its rad that someone is trying to bring this particular network more together, at least via the interweb. Anyway, before Upping the Steampunx – How did you end up in this whole ‘Cabaret Punk’ mess?
When I was 20 I auditioned for Reverend Glasseye & His Wooden Legs, [who were] a Boston based band described as “Cabaret Punk”, or “Alt-Country”, or “Gypsy Folk” depending on the publication. Led by Adam Glasseye and Piet Masone, the band evolved into an eight peice ensemble performing music with elements of punk, gospel, New Orleans dirge, European folk, rockabilly, and spooky backwoods Americana. Also described as “Revivalist Rockers”, the band was known for over the top stage theatrics, “waltz pits”, and unrelenting fervor.” They were already a pretty popular band in Boston and touring nationally.
From a young age that had been a drive of mine – to be in a touring band. I didn’t really know anyone in the band but I had seen them a couple of times and was a big fan. I just kind of cold called the band leader and was like “hey. are you interested in a woodwind or sax player” ? So they had me come in and I helped write a couple parts to a couple songs in the first audition. I got a call the next day saying “Yeah, you’re in! ” . So I ended up touring with them all over the United States & Canada and appeared on 3 albums . It was awesome ; a really great experience. At the same time I also joined some other local bands. I was in this band called The Self Righteous Brothers (who also toured but not quite as extensively). Around that time I was also in a band called “The World’s Greatest Sinners”. Um, there was also this improv band called “The Ottomans”….which were pretty much kind of like thrash feed back exploring improv music.
Were you really The World’s Greatest Sinners?
Well we certainly were trying.
[Laughter] I was in another band a little before this that I should mention. When I was 18 I was in a band called Asiento in which [a pre-Dresden Dolls] Brian Viglione was also a member of. This would of been about circa 2000. Even though Brian was already a really amazing drummer he was actually the bass player of the band. He was a couple of years older but he was sort of in a similar situation as me where he basically just really, really wanted to tour. So he took the gig. We were only in the band at the same time briefly. I think we played one show together.
Oooo. There’s some info some Dresden Dolls fans would love to know! or maybe they already do and I’m out of the loop. What was the music like?It was grungier. It was more kind of like a Smashing Pumpkins or Nirvana- guitar/singer fronted kind of thing. But we had a cellist and I played tenor sax so it was a more arrangement-interesting band that was a little more experimental. I was hoping that we would’ve done a little more touring work (which is why Brian and I ended up leaving) then we did but it was fun.
So you guys went different ways and ended up starting two bands that really seemed to be the catalyst of the whole “Cabaret Punk” scene in Boston that is still going strong today.
Around 2000 Reverend Glasseye started but I wasn’t involved with them until ‘03. So they started, then shortly after came The Dresden Dolls when Brian & Amanda got together. They had another name for a few months but it was all around the same time. 2000/2001. At that time both bands had seen and were fans of World Inferno. I know this just from talking with them, so I know they were influential. It seems like it was a natural melting pot kind of situation for “Gypsy Punk” or whatever. Theres a lot of great musicians in Boston that lend themselves to the not straight ahead rock arrangement. Being that there are so many amazing instrumentalists with all kinds of different instruments around its great to utilize all these different sounds in a scene together.
I was just in Boston and was reading one of their Village Voice equivalents and there were pictures of Walter Sickert, HUMANWINE, Emperor Norton Stationary Marching Band, What time is it Mr. fox, etc. Seems like the scene is really thriving up there….
I would say that’s true. Again, things are kind of cyclical. In 2001/2002 there was this kind of Cabaret Punk scene, (if you want to even call it that) or Gypsy Folk. Whatever it was, there was that initial surge then. From ‘03 to ‘05 the Dresden Dolls were doing really well in Boston then in ‘05 Reverend Glasseye started doing really well in Boston & certainly better nationally. Then maybe in 06 or 07 HUMANWINE started touring outside of Boston more and Rev. Glasseye moved to Austin TX.
He’s sort of nomadic, isn’t he? He was in Slim Cessna’s Auto Club once upon a time too,huh? Yeah, he’s a bit of a nomad. Well he started out in Boulder, CO. Then Providence. Now he’s in Austin. He’s just been all over.
But yeah in ‘06,’07,’08 Boston was kind of more like a “Rock Town” that was getting back to its Boston Rock Roots. So yeah I would agree with you that within the last couple years the scene of all the bands that you mentioned have been kind of ruling school as far as the Indie scene in Boston.
Speaking of transitioning to touring bands, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing one of your new bands, “Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys” twice in the past couple of months. Care to describe what that project is all about?
A lot of people compare Walter Sickert to the Rev. Glasseye stuff but I think the similarity is mainly in their mustaches. Actually, they’re pretty different but they do have the same mustache…which may of actually been lifted from Franz , I’m not sure.
[laughter] … who of course was the first musician in history to have a handlebar mustache!
Yeah, he invented the genre. Where were we? oh yeah…..they’re definately in the same theme. They draw from the same influences. Sickert I would say is a little more of a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins-kind-of-creepy front man kind of situation. That band started out as just a duo and it was a lot more of a performance art exhibition. The full name is “Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys” and initially the “broken toy platoon” was massive. A whole big part of their performance was that the stage was filled with all of these decrepid 50’s menial toys. Like wind up toys, cymbal banging monkeys, and weird trains. So often the noise of these toys were a big part of the whole performance. So other than the toys it was just Walter and Edrie, who was supposed to be some sort of fictional character of Walter’s mind. It was all very performance art heavy and not as specifically singer/songwriter band heavy. Over the years they just kept adding musicians and the musicians have replaced the toys. The Army has swelled over the past year, what started as a duo leading an army of literally broken toys, has transformed into a circus like cavalcade of musicians and performers. It sort of just bloomed into this 10 to 15 piece circus band that is really fun.
There is the 8-10 peice band ( strings, winds, grandpas guitars, mandolin, accordian, uke, piano, upright bass, drums, and lots of toys of course ), we travel with 2-3 dancers often led by the explosive Katrina Galore, living puppet troupe ‘The Grindhouse Marrionettes’ and a squad of band ‘bunnies’ (performance artists) who perform onstage and throughout the venue.”
You played a special set at Galapagos in Brooklyn. What was the production all about?
Walter & Edrie had gone and done the “RPM” challenge which is where WNPR has been challenging people all over the world to create an album entirely just within the 28 days of the month of February. You couldn’t write a note of it before February 1st and it has to be all tracked, finished, recorded, artwork done by February 28th. When the Toys were first starting 4 years ago, that was the catalyst that got them working together and that’s how they created their first album. Four years later they/we have this huge entourage of musicians and so Walter had the idea of creating this radio play.
Its pretty cool. The radio play features many members of the the band voice acting, and a lot of original songs . There’s also a bunch of commercials, post apocalyptic radio commercials. That is my favorite part.. We got to stretch out our skills a little bit as none of us have ever done anything like this. We just went for it and it came out very well. I think its available for free at Walter Sickert’s bandcamp account. The play is called ‘28 Seeds’ and its basically a post-apocalyptic message in a bottle kind of story that is told after the end of human civilization. In the final minutes of human life, a transmission buoy is launched into space containing the story of our final years in the hopes of explaining to whoever in the cosmos, who Humanity was and why we no longer exist.”
Actually both my [current] touring bands have gotten really good support from Sepiachord over the years. I met the people that run Sepiachord at the Steampunk World’s Fair and was able to talk to them a little bit. I know there was some Sepiachord CD Compilation we were on along with HUMANWINE and a bunch of other bands. Also, recently a Ketman (my other band) song was the “Sepiachord song of the day”. Its really cool because Ketman is not as much in that scene as Walter Sickert and all of these people who may be more familiar with my other band were excited about the Ketman stuff.
Does that help with what you bring to the table as far as song writing goes? Sax for one band, clarinet for the other?
Its generally true that at a Ketman show I’m playing sax and a Walter show I’m playing clarinet. I played both w/ Rev Glasseye. As far as song writing, each band has it’s own formula. With Glasseye, things were very collaborative, it was not uncommon for the bass player to write vibraphone parts or for the horns to make song structure decisions.
A couple of weeks ago Walter Sickert had the awesome experience of playing Davis Square at the Art Beat Festival in Somerville, Massachusetts. Art Beat this really long standing outdoor arts & music festival. Its a few days long & there’s multiple outdoor stages. Growing up in the area, I used to go to this as a kid so its totally something I’ve always wanted to do. So i got to play for like an hour on clarinet for like a thousand people then immediately drive across town to play a set on saxophone for another band called ‘92 protons’ which is just a straight up thrash band. It was so awesome though how I got to play all these beautiful Walter Sickert tunes on clarinet then go across town to this dingey little bar and just fucking thrash out on sax. I’ve done a lot of double duty but its never been that opposite.
On one hand for the festival it was tons of people, high exposure and all ages. We were playing for the worlds’ littlest mosh pit. Literally there was like thirty 7 to10 year old kids just right in front of the stage running around and getting in to the music. This was totally great, I never get to play for kids…but meanwhile a few hours later I’m drunk off my ass playing filthy music for filthy people in a filthy bar.