Y Spy: Dredg Strips Down

Dredg has built a long career out of taking rock music to unexpected and panoramic heights.  Mixing anger with orchestration, sound with visual art, the band is nothing if not ambitious.  Last year’s “The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion” stands as one of the most forward-thinking and imaginative rock records in recent memory, and yet Dredg is by no means content to rest on those laurels.

Currently on tour supporting Circa Survive, Dredg is also making the final preparations for its newest release, an as-yet-untitled work which vocalist Gavin Hayes describes as more stripped down than Dredg’s recent output.  Yet if their choice of producer – hip-hop impresario Dan the Automator – is any indication, basic won’t equal predictable.

In our conversation, Hayes also discussed his recent status as Seattle exile, the band’s increased velocity, and stories of treasure hunts and fake cops.

Y Spy: What’s the status of the new album?

Gavin Hayes: We finished recording it; it’s currently being mixed and will probably be mastered and totally finished in mid-November.

Y Spy: How did it come together?

Gavin Hayes: Actually this was a much different approach than pretty much all our records.  I’ve been living in Seattle for the past couple years, so most of this record was written remotely by email and sending music back and forth.  I’d say about 80% of the record was written remotely.

We’re also doing this record with Dan the Automator, who’s an artist as well.  He had sent me some music as well.  I think on three of these tracks, if all three make it, it will be a sort of Dredg/Dan the Automator collaboration.  He wrote the initial music and then we added to it and I wrote and sang the lyrics.

We wrote it pretty quickly for us.  It was written and recorded within a year.

Y Spy: Were there any specific reasons why this one took less time to make as opposed to the spans between your past releases?

Gavin Hayes: It’s just the way things work now.  Our last record took so long, and I know we didn’t want to take as long with this record.  I think with the attention span of the masses now and how accessible music is, you have to expedite your material and your records.  I guess you can compare it to cinema; in the 80s or early 90s a movie would come out in a theater and wouldn’t come out on VHS for a year, sometimes longer.  Now with DVDs, it comes out right after.  You might as well get it out there and keep your name at the forefront.

Y Spy: Do you see yourselves releasing at a quicker pace from here on?

Gavin Hayes: I definitely do.  I’d like us to release another record after this one in early to mid 2012 depending on how things go.  We already have a lot of material that we wrote from this record that wasn’t recorded.  There’s already a starting point to a new record from some of this other material we didn’t approach.

I think we’re better at writing faster.  Writing remotely as we did on the record is almost more productive, because you don’t have four opinions in a room.  You have a solitary period of being by yourself and taking your time, and then sharing with everyone after.  The opinions come after the fact.

Y Spy: You’ve previously noted that there were a lot of songs written for The Pariah, the Parrot, the Delusion that didn’t make that cut.  Is any of that material coming out on the new album?

Gavin Hayes: We actually recorded two songs that were written around the Pariah time.  They were songs that were great but didn’t necessarily fit the record.  We’ve tweaked them a lot since, and they make more sense with this record, especially with some of the rhythm changes and other things we added to them.

Y Spy: How many new songs do you expect to not make this album’s cut?

Gavin Hayes: I’d say we have five to ten songs that we didn’t record, that are in about 80% complete format.

Y Spy: Many musicians seem to throw those excess songs away because when they record songs, they want them to reflect their current state.  Did you feel odd bringing songs back from the Pariah period?

Gavin Hayes: Initially, it did, but as I said we’ve tweaked them enough so they don’t feel the same anymore.  They actually work better with this album; it seems more fitting for them to be here.  One of them, especially, feels like a new song.  We updated enough to where it didn’t feel like we were backtracking.  They’re good songs, so why not share them with people?  They are recorded now; it’s not a guarantee that they’ll make the record, but they’ll be out there one way or the other.  Why throw something made away?

Y Spy: How have you advanced the band’s formula on this new album?

Gavin Hayes: Working with Dan the Automator, whose roots are in the hip-hop world and whose production is kind of in that vein.  We wanted to have it be a collaboration with another artist who brings something new to the table.  We’ve been friends with him for many years, and we’ve always talked about doing a record, and he’s had a clear vision of what our band can be.

We sound like a rock band still, but the rhythm section is a little more consistent.  It’s not as jumpy.  I’d also say this production is rawer.  We recorded this really quickly.  Drums were done in two or three days.  Everything was: let’s sound like a rock band, get in, and do it.  I feel like because of that, we’ve limited some of the overdubs we would do.  That was the goal at the beginning of this project: let’s take away instead of adding to this record and let each aspect of the band cut through.  Not blanket it with overdubs.  In turn, it sounds bigger and clearer.

Y Spy: It’s interesting that you’re working with a producer who comes from the hip-hop world, a style which is rife with sampling – especially in light of your previous stances against sampling.  Is there any sampling on the new record?

Gavin Hayes: There’s no sampling.  Everything’s live, but some of it has that feeling.  He constructed drums and made beats, but they’re not samples.  And even when there are loops, there are live drums with them.  All the instrumentation is performed.

Y Spy: Is there a story or lyrical theme to the album?

Gavin Hayes: This isn’t really a concept record for us, but to me a lot of it is about distance from loved ones and separation.  A few that I’m thinking of are about my sister who is in the Army, and me trying to relate to her situation as an artist touring for two months and coming back to my everyday normal life.  That transition is always a little weird.  So a lot of it is about her being able to confide in me on some level, and distance from family and friends.  That’s kind of the undertone to a lot of the material, a longing.

We didn’t want to restrict ourselves to a concept album and just wrote the best material we could.  But there’s definitely a feeling to the whole record which could be construed into an idea.

Y Spy: Are you planning any other creative aspects to the album?

Gavin Hayes: We’re working on the visual side right now.  We have a lot of ideas being thrown around right now.  We’re always very into the art and how it’s presented and making sure each album has an identity, visually as well as auditory.

We’re definitely going to do a video.  We want it to relate it to the album artwork.  We do have a few friends who make videos; one guy’s a photographer who has been experimenting with videos and doing creative stuff.  We don’t want to make a generic video this time.  We want to make something that stands apart.

Y Spy: How goes your current tour with Circa Survive?

Gavin Hayes: It’s going really well so far.  We recorded a day before we went on tour; I was in the studio at 6 a.m. finishing vocals.  The next day we had to go to our guitar player’s brother’s wedding, and then we flew out to Atlanta the next day.  So we were without rehearsal, other than playing together in the studio which is a whole other beast.  The first show, we were probably the most nervous we’ve been in years.  But it turned out well.  We did a little hippie acoustic jam in the back to refresh, and just went.

We’ve toured with Circa Survive before.  We’ve toured with Codeseven numerous times.  We’ve all been friends.  Animals as Leaders are sharing a bus with us, and they’re good people.  Because of that closeness, we’ve been able to bond quickly.  Beyond the music it’s kind of a reunion tour for a bunch of friends who haven’t played together in years.  That’s sometimes more important to me than what happens on stage.

Y Spy: Are you playing new songs on the tour?

Gavin Hayes: We’re playing one as of now.  We might add another one.

Y Spy: What’s the instrumentation for this tour’s show?  Do you have any guest musicians coming with?

Gavin Hayes: Not out East.  Out West, mainly in California, we might have a friend come out and do some backup vocals and guitar playing with us.  Nothing too fancy, though.  We didn’t have time to prepare anything crazy for this tour.  We’d like to present something a little more grandiose, but we’re just being a rock band on this run.

Y Spy: What are your touring plans after this tour?

Gavin Hayes: It ends December 5th in New York, and we’re doing some headlining dates on the way home.  We’ll take a break for the holidays, and if our record comes out as planned in February or March, we want a basic tour around that.  If we could get a great supporting slot, we’ll do that around the time of the record.  If not, we’ll do a headlining tour.  After that I’m sure we’ll go overseas.  The European market has been good to us, actually better than the U.S., so it’s important that we go back and forth between them.  After that, maybe a few more runs, and then hopefully we’ll have another record on the way.

Y Spy: On your website, you held a treasure hunt which promised 18 winners two lifetime tickets to any headlining Dredg show.  How did that go?

Gavin Hayes: It went really well, actually.  Some of the clues were really obscure, and I can’t believe that people found the treasure.  It was buried up in the Santa Cruz Mountains.  That’s where it ended, but there were a lot of places they had to go, all over the Bay Area, anywhere from into the mountains to behind a street sign near the beach to a library.  And people found it, and they got to name a song on the next record.  They ended up naming the song “Long Days and Vague Clues,” which I assume was based on what they went through.

I think our fans enjoy being interactive with us and doing interesting things like that, and we try to present something like that every time.

Y Spy: Also, there’s a video of you on stage getting busted by fake cops in Europe.  What happened?

Gavin Hayes: The time we were in Germany before that, we got in trouble for being drunk late at night, and we broke bottles or something.  We had the Berlin police send us a note saying we owed money.  It was the perfect setup for a prank, so Drew our bass player took that as a cue to set up a pretty elaborate prank.

He hired two actors to play Berlin P.D. and come on stage.  They looked so real, head to toe police outfits, and I was sold.  They came on stage and said we had to stop, and said that either we pay them 2,000 euro or they’re going to take us to jail.  So we got backstage and everyone’s laughing at us.  That was that.  Hardest I’ve ever been pranked, by far.

Y Spy: When and why did you move to Seattle?

Gavin Hayes: It was for personal reasons, family reasons.  That happened about two years ago.  I’m actually going back to California about early next year.  It was always a temporary move, but I like it up there.

Y Spy: How has the city affected your musical and artistic work, and is it difficult to coordinate with your bandmates?

Gavin Hayes: I made a lot of trips down to the Bay Area, so we did have weeks where we rehearsed and wrote together, but now we can trade music on the internet.  Me not knowing many people in Seattle, not having a group of people I hang out with, I didn’t do much.  From that side of things, I spent more time being creative and productive.

Y Spy: Do you generally work better in a state of exile?

Gavin Hayes: I definitely do, especially when recording vocals.  I love being on my own with my headphones.  It’s much different than being in a room and being on the spot, and trying to have everything be right.  But I like being in a room with the band and improvising; that sets the tone of the song and retains the energy of the band.  From there, I feel like it’s more productive to put it under the microscope and be on my own and focus on the lyrics and melody and make sure everything’s working properly.

Y Spy: As part of a band that has long established itself, is it easier to keep going at this point?

Gavin Hayes: I guess it depends on what you mean by established.  We don’t have a hit song or anything on that level.  When a band puts out a hit song, that follow-up record or single can be make or break.  We grew up with Papa Roach; they had a huge single, and then their next record did really well but not as well.  But now they’ve found the way to maintain their career.  Their records are still doing really well, they’re playing huge shows, and they’re still a very successful act.  If you do get to a certain level you’re probably going to have a certain loyal fanbase that you can rely on.  I don’t think it’s ever that easy to maintain it, though.  It adds more expectations and pressure to your project, or an idea of what your band is.

For a band like us who has been together for 15 years, stylistically things have evolved.  No matter what you do, things are going to change.  You still have fans whose favorite record is your second, your third, or your first.  That’s when they thought you peaked.  Or you have those who think that your last album was your best.  You have all these varying opinions and outlooks of what you should and shouldn’t be.  For our band, we’ve always wanted to progress and keep ourselves interested, and not regurgitate the same record over and over, to keep moving forward with who we are as musicians and people.

Y Spy: So at the moment, how do you view Dredg?

Gavin Hayes: I view our band as confident and aware of what we are.  I like where we are now as opposed to where we were five years ago.  We know who we are, and this is what we do, and we’re not trying to prove anything.  I guess it’s from all those years together.  There’s a certain wisdom of the business now, and just how shit works, and a distaste of the business, which I like.  We’re not flattered by anything in the music world – it’s almost more disgusted by it.  I think that’s a great outlook to have.  It’s allowing us to go down our path and make the records we want to make.  We’ve kind of always done [that], but I feel like we’re more adamant and confident about that direction.

Dredg plays El Corazon in Seattle on Wednesday, November 10th.

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Y Spy: Less than Jake goes to TV Land

TV/EP

On their latest release, veteran ska punk band Less than Jake has taken an amusingly odd turn.  As a title like “TV/EP” may indicate, this is a covers collection of 16 theme songs and commercial jingles, few longer than one minute, reformed into the Less than Jake style.  It works out really well.

Trombone and bass player Buddy Schaub described Less than Jake’s newest offering as in keeping with the band’s tendency to veer off into strange territory.  In our conversation, he noted other precedent-setting ventures from the band, including the Travolta-channeling ‘Greased’ EP, which would make an album like TV/EP feel inevitable, yet great fun nonetheless.


Y Spy: TV/EP is a brilliant idea.  What led you to make it?

Buddy Schaub: Back in our early days, we used to cover [the theme songs of] Laverne & Shirley and Happy Days.  We used to do that live at shows and at some point we recorded a few of them.  They were thrown together and half-assed, so for the last few years we had been talking about really doing it for real.  The idea kept escalating, and eventually it came to be what it is now.

The idea kind of came from how you can get those CDs that are all TV show themes.  I’m pretty sure that some other band has done this, but we tried to do a completist ideal.  The concept was like you were sitting on a couch in front of a TV, changing channels.  If you go to our website, we put a continuous stream of the commercials and TV shows that go with each song.  I actually did the video myself.  Having the videos go with the music was the culmination, the truest form of what the idea was.  It’s definitely more of a complete picture, and there’s a little teeny clip of us I snuck in there.

Y Spy: Why did you choose the particular themes and jingles that are on the album?

Buddy Schaub: I don’t know.  Laverne & Shirley we had done before, so we wanted to give that a fair shake.  That was one of the first ones, and while we were practicing we’d brainstorm ideas.  JR stays at my house when we’re doing stuff, and Chris came over a few times and we were going through YouTube videos.  Once you Google one old 80s commercial, 65 of them come up and you keep going through.  We picked songs that we thought we could pull off, stuff that was a bit of a variety and wasn’t all one time period.  Yet there wasn’t a completely methodical plan to how it went.

Y Spy: Was the making of the album a quick process?  There are a lot of tracks on TV/EP, but they’re all really short.

Buddy Schaub: It actually came together really fast.  I thought it was gonna take a little longer than it did.  Once we had taken what we were gonna do we worked it out at the Warehouse a little bit.  At a certain point we just started recording them.  We did it all at Roger’s house.  Once we got the drums down and started putting down the basic tracks it was really easy to start layering the other stuff.  You don’t have to worry about writing lyrics because they’re already there.

It was a great experience because the songs are short and the commercials are even shorter.  But they pack so much songwriting into that little bit of time.  There are crazy harmonies, still a verse chorus verse, a bridge sometimes.  They still manage to pack a full song into a minute, so it was really cool to get into the head space of people that write jingles and TV show themes.

Y Spy: Are you going to be playing these songs live?

Buddy Schaub: We’ve been doing a bunch of weekend shows and throwing them in there.  We’re not going to do the whole album or anything, but we’ve been playing four or five of the songs.

Y Spy: One of the great things about this album is that you’re not taking yourselves too seriously as musicians, and you’re just having fun.  Was the intention to get out of your usual mindset and do something a bit sillier?

Buddy Schaub: Yeah.  We were getting ready to write some new stuff, and we hadn’t done it in a while, and we thought it was a good way to get back into the swing of things.  We still had to do some sort of writing for this and make the songs our own.  It was a good warmup.

Y Spy: You’ve announced a new U.S. tour.  What are its details?

Buddy Schaub: We’re coming back in January after going to Japan and Europe.  It’s starting mid-January, we end somewhere in California in February, and we fly over to Australia to do the Soundwave Festival. It’s pretty much all over the U.S., and it’s with two bands called the Supervillains and Off with Their Heads.  We’re still figuring that out.

Y Spy: Are you preparing a full album?

Buddy Schaub: We’re definitely writing songs.  I’m not sure exactly what we’re going to do with them yet.  We’ve already got ten shelves of songs that we got done before this onslaught of touring that we’re getting ready to start up.  After we come back in January, we’re gonna either try to finish demoing out some of the ideas or see how far we can get with them.  I’m not sure what our plans are yet, but there will be new material.  Hopefully you’ll be hearing original music from us in the upcoming year.  Never fear!  There’s always new stuff to be written!

TV/EP is available now.  More information can be found at www.lessthanjake.com.

Y Spy: Tony Clifton – Free Hookers!

Mister Tony Clifton!

Tony Clifton doesn’t give a shit about your feelings.  He has no time for the open-minded and close-mouthed.  For decades, this comic genius, reluctant philanthropist, and International Singing Sensation has amazed and frightened his audiences with his Vegas-style musical renditions of popular music, his off the rails personality, and a mouth that would kill a hippie stone dead.  The Andy Kaufman biopic “Man on the Moon” recalled Mr. Clifton in all his chaotic glory, expanding his profile for a new breed of fans.  Though the time since has seen sporadic appearances by the man, his legend as a song and dance man hasn’t disappeared.

Currently, he’s back on the road, getting ready for a big new album, and being as wonderfully crass as ever.  In anticipation for Mr. Clifton’s Friday show at the Triple Door in Seattle – a show in which one lucky audience member will, no shit, win a free hooker – the man and I had a conversation about his long and storied career.  In the course of this interview, Mr. Clifton took no prisoners and was mercilessly funny.  It should be assumed that every one of his nasty, offensive jokes had me doubled over with laughter.

Not everyone will share my warped sense of humor, so I’ll preface this with a warning.  If you’re offended by, well, anything, you might want to sit this one out.  But if you appreciate comic brilliance outside of the acceptable lines, read on.  More importantly, go see Tony Clifton for yourself!

Y Spy: Your new tour is being billed as a return to the road.  Where have you been?

Tony Clifton: Well, I’ve been in my own skin!  I haven’t been anywhere!  I’m the same guy I’ve always been.  As you know, I’m considered the International Singing Sensation, so I work internationally.  For the last number of years, I’ve been over in the Third World countries performing.  I fill up soccer stadiums!  I do a little faith healing too, on the side.  People come in to hear some songs, I do some Sinatra singing and everything, but then people in the Third World countries will believe any damn thing.  So I get myself a plant here and there, make some people walk out of their wheelchairs, everybody goes crazy.

I don’t charge a lot of money.  Matter of fact, you could bring some canned goods to get into my shows – back in the Third World countries.

Y Spy: Not in America, though.

Tony Clifton: Oh, not here, no.  Here we wanna get the money from them.  That’s why, what is it, Friday night over at the Triple Door, 7:30 is gonna be showtime.  And I’m tellin’ ya, you don’t wanna miss this.  I’m not a comedian; I’m an International Singing Sensation.  This is a big Vegas type of show.  I got all kinds of musicians on stage; I got three horn players from New Orleans, they’ll blow the roof off and blow the door down at the Triple Door!

Hey, what nationality are you?

Y Spy: Mostly Norwegian.

Tony Clifton: Norwegian?  Well, I don’t think I know one fuckin’ Norwegian joke.

Hey, what’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral?  One less drunk.

Did you hear about the Polack whose wife had triplets?  Yeah, he went looking for the other two guys!

Why is Aspirin white?  Because it works.

How do you stop little black kids from jumping on the bed?

Y Spy: I have heard this one, but go for it.

Tony Clifton: [Then] I’m not gonna tell you.

How do you stop little kids from playin’ in your yard?  Rape one!

What sound does a baby make when you put it in the microwave?  I don’t know!  I was jerking off!

[Noticing my constant laughter] You’re a sick man, aren’t ya?

Y Spy: I am a sick man!

Tony Clifton: How do you get a gay man to make love to a woman?  Put shit in her pussy!

We take everybody on!  Every nationality.

Y Spy: You’ve gotta come up with a good Norwegian joke.

Tony Clifton: You find one, you let me know!  Norwegian was the, whatchacallit, that was the big warriors, what were they called?

Y Spy: The Vikings!

Tony Clifton: The Vikings!  Yeah, the fuckin’ Vikings, man.  Vikings were crazy motherfuckers.  You’ve got crazy DNA!  Those guys were warriors to the end.  They’d wanna die a great warrior death.  Like that movie 300.

Tony Clifton - America's Viking

Y Spy: But those were Greeks.  Got any good Greek jokes?

Tony Clifton: Greek?  No, but I’ll tell you a pedophile joke.

Two pedophiles were sitting on a park bench.  One turns to the other one and says: “You know, I had myself a 12 year old last night.”

The other pedophile says “12 year old?  We’ve all had ourselves 12 year olds!”

He said “Yeah, but this one had the body of a 7 year old!”

Y Spy: Wow.

Tony Clifton: What’s the best part about fucking twenty six year olds?  There’s twenty of them.

What do you call a short Mexican woman?  Cunt-sway-low.

We have fun.  But seriously, the show’s a big musical show.  And wait till you see the Cliftonettes!  These are the top strippers that I have, right out of New Orleans.  So people come to this, and it’s not just music and jokes, but hot, hot chicks.

Y Spy: Speaking of which, I’ve heard that you’re offering free hookers!

Tony Clifton: I am!  This is what I’m going to do.  You know Dennis Hof, the show Cathouse on HBO?  Dennis Hof is a good friend of mine.  I was just over at the famed Moonlite Bunny Ranch.  He had a big birthday there; we were celebrating with him, me, Joey Buttafuoco, and Ron Jeremy.  We had a good time with all the young girls.  Matter of fact, I maintain a suite over at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch.

So what we’re doing is that everybody who comes to the show – we have to word this just right because prostitution is illegal in Seattle, [though] it is legal in Nevada, where the ranch is – we’re having a free raffle.  We’re not charging anybody for this.  Everybody puts their name in a hat, and that night we will have a drawing.  I don’t care if it’s male or female – whoever wins will get the hooker of their choice at Dennis Hof’s Moonlite Bunny Ranch, totally and fully paid for by yours truly and Dennis Hof.

So this is gonna be wild.  Some of those horny guys – and horny girls, maybe they got a little lesbian tendency – they will come and have themselves a time.  They can go to the Moonlite Bunny Ranch website now and start thinking and fantasizing about what girl they wanna fuck.

Y Spy: But you’re not paying airfare or anything.

Tony Clifton: No!  From Seattle, that’s a short flight anyway.  You go right to Reno, and we will put them up over at the ranch.  They will have VIP treatment and they will meet Dennis Hof.  I will be there, cause we will work this out with the dates.  We’ll get everybody there at the same time, and it is gonna be quite an experience.

And this is true.  There’s no bullshit to it.  But we’ve gotta do it as a free raffle.  We can’t be charging, or else we’ll get in trouble with the law.

But I’ll tell you my philosophy: you’re only as old as the person you fuck.  I’ve had a rule for the last 30 years: I will not fuck any girl that’s over half my age.  And that’s why I have all this fuckin’ energy, man.  I ain’t fuckin’ some old broad!  Some of these poor guys that are married and got fat old wives, what the fuck?  You’d wanna blow your fuckin’ brains out!  You need some nice young stuff there.  That is the fountain of youth – guys fuckin’ in their 80s, 90s.

Y Spy: Like Tony Randall, who had a kid at that age.

Tony Clifton: Yeah, that’s right!  Tony Randall!  Absolutely.  Gary Busey just had a kid; he’s 65 or something.  I’ll tell ya, there’s nothing like young pussy.  It keeps you young.  It keeps me going.  I’ve got groupies and everything; I don’t have to pay for it if I don’t want to.

Let me ask you a question.  What does an 80 year old pussy taste like?  Depends!

That cloth has been around. I'm sure of it.

Y Spy: So as a big Vegas-style showman, what’s your favorite thing about Vegas?

Tony Clifton: Well, Vegas is Vegas.  What can you say?  When I think back on Las Vegas, I think back to those days when I was a young man in the audience watching the Rat Pack perform.  Back then in the old Vegas, you had anything you needed.  You wanted hookers, there was no fuckin’ problem.  That’s when the Mafia ran the place – but they knew how to run that!

Now you’ve got that whole Disney crowd that moved in there.  Vegas is going through a lot of crap.  What hurt ‘em in the last few years with the economy going to Hell is the Indian gambling that came in.  When we gave all the Indians all that damn free land and allowed them to do the Indian gambling, that’s just killing these big casinos.  When we had a chance 150 years ago to wipe the red man out, we should have done it.  We had the Gatling gun then!  We could have blown them all out of the way and then we wouldn’t have people suffering today.

And another thing: those damn Injuns can’t even hold their liquor.  Liquor?  I hardly know her!  My doctor tells me I gotta get away from the booze.  I drink the Jack Daniels just like Sinatra drank.  Like Frank used to say, he felt sorry for people who didn’t drink, because when they woke up in the morning that was as good as they’re gonna feel all fuckin’ day.

People come to my show and this is big-time party.  We do all kinds of music, from Sinatra to Zeppelin, and since I got the horn players, I throw in a lot of Blood, Sweat, and Tears, and Chicago.  A lot of guys won’t play that shit because they don’t got the horns.  This is a great fuckin’ show.  The more people drink, the better I sound.

Y Spy: So the band is called the Katrina Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra.  How did you go about assembling it?

Tony Clifton: That charity organization put it together – what is it, Comedy somethin’ Relief?  They had the Katrina disaster up there, so a lot of people in the band are there.  A lot of dancers are from New Orleans.  And of course I got involved, not that I do charity work.  Fuck that.  I think charity starts at home!  Matter of fact, if some fuckin’ bastard comes trying to fuckin’ wipe my windshield, I’ll run him over!  I don’t go for that crap.

Hey!  What’s the best part about makin’ love to a homeless woman?  Her pussy smells just like her asshole.  What do you think of that, huh?

What does a black kid get for Christmas?  Your bike!

There’s a car going by with a black man and a Mexican in it.  Who’s driving?  A cop!

It’s rainin’ up in Seattle; I should do some rain jokes.  What’s Seattle known for?  Kurt Cobain, right?  Well, I’ll tell you a little something here, hold it!  You know I was in the movie Man on the Moon with Jim Carrey.  Did you know I fucked Courtney Love?  This is for real!

Y Spy: How was she?

Tony Clifton: Not too good!  Here’s what happened.  Cause she wanted to fuck Jim Carrey so bad, and Jim was going at the time with Renee Zellweger.  So when we’d be on location, you’d have the Winnebago there, and [Love] would come around looking for Jim.  Courtney, she got fucked up, and she’ll fuck anyone that moves.

So she came over to Jim’s trailer one day, and he was out on the set.  She didn’t know this.  So I let her in – Jim and I was real close – and we were drinking a little, and after a while I said: “I’ll tell you what – you wanna sleep with Jim, I can make that happen.  But I gotta be honest; I don’t bullshit people.  You take care of me right here and now, and I’ll put in a good word.  I didn’t fuck her, but she gave me a pipejob, a blowjob.  She wouldn’t let me cum in her mouth or anything like that, but she sucked my fucking cock in Jim Carrey’s Winnebago on the set of Man on the Moon.

Y Spy: So did you ever put in a good word to Jim Carrey?

Tony Clifton: Bullshit, no!  I didn’t say nothin’.  Her and I went through about a half bottle of Gentleman Jack.  I don’t think she even remembered the conversation.  But Kurt Cobain blew his brains out in Seattle, didn’t he?

Y Spy: Yeah!  So a good suicide joke would be called for.

Tony Clifton: Yeah.  I do some Michael Jackson stuff.  What’s the difference between Walt Disney and Michael Jackson?  Disney can still touch children!

Y Spy: I have one that’s similar.  What’s the difference between Michael Jackson and Peter Pan?  When Michael Jackson went to Neverland, he took the second child star on the right.

Tony Clifton: That’s pretty good!  You know what?  This is crazy; I was talking to somebody who was telling me that towards the end, that Michael really went through his fuckin’ money.  That’s why he wanted to do the tour and all that.  And he was living in Santa Barbara, cause that’s where that Neverland is, and somebody said about maybe three weeks before he started rehearsing that fuckin’ show, they saw him – with a bodyguard – actually shopping at fuckin’ K-Mart!

Y Spy: Really?

Tony Clifton: Yeah.  Boy’s underwears were half off.

Y Spy: That was a good setup!  That was a slow burn.

Tony Clifton: You were buying it!

Y Spy: So what else do you have planned for the show?

Tony Clifton: Well, it’s big musical numbers.  It’s a hot bit.  We got a couple of reviews on the road that said that this band, the Katrina Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra, could hold its own with the Boss’s E-Street Band.  People will come and be very surprised, so it’s a place to come and party, rock the fuck out.  People will get blown away by this band, let alone me, let alone the hot fuckin’ burlesque dancers that are part of this troupe.  This is a very colorful show, a lot of costumes, and c’mon, we’re givin’ away a fuckin’ hooker every fuckin’ night.

People have come to shows and said it was the greatest fuckin’ show they had ever seen.  Sometimes we go for hours and hours.  It’s gonna be fun.  That’s what life’s all about, cause people are too pressured now.

I’m not politically correct; the Chicago Sun-Times says that “Tony Clifton will say things that Howard Stern wouldn’t dare say.”

Tony Clifton does not give a shit.

Y Spy: And that’s one of the great things about you – you’re not predictable, and you don’t give a shit and go full-out, calling people on their bullshit.

Tony Clifton: There’s nobody else doing that!  Everybody is so politically correct; I could give a shit.  I’m an International Singing Sensation.  If America doesn’t want to accept me, I’ll get the fuck out of here, and I’ll be glad to.

Y Spy: But how many people in America are going to Africa and faith healing people?  They’re not doing what you did.

Tony Clifton: That’s right!  Additionally, I’ve sold more albums than Elvis and the Beatles combined.  Internationally.  Not here in the States, but internationally.  That is a fact!

Oh, I got a new product now.  Holy shit.  We will have an example of it.  I won’t get into details, but it’s called Tony Clifton’s Young Shaver.  It’s a little shaver for the girls that looks like a lipstick case, but when you turn it a shaver comes out of it.  This is for shaving those little delicate areas.  I tested it personally with over 500 young girls over at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch.  Their pussies don’t have any stubble or anything.  I’m actually going to show the clip of it being tested at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch.

Y Spy: One more reason to see the show.  You’ve got hookers, you’ve got videos of you shaving girls…

Tony Clifton: And I’ve got words of wisdom!  And I cut through all the bullshit.  I don’t get that political, but the main thing is that people gotta let it go, man.  I’m watching this shit with this New Orleans oil disaster.  85 days, people glued to the fuckin’ TV to watch some fuckin’ pipe underneath the fuckin’ ocean with bubbles coming out of it?  People, get a fuckin’ life, man!  People are throwing their fuckin’ lives away.  You live fuckin’ once; you go for the fuckin’ gusto.

We have no fuckin’ set list.  We don’t do anything.  I just sit there and I fuckin’ drink.  The more I drink, the crazier things fuckin’ get.  Everybody in the band drinks, and all the girls are fuckin’ intoxicated, too.  That’s how I get them to take their clothes off.  So people come to this thing and have a little fuckin’ fun in their life.  I’ve had people that fly out to all our fuckin’ shows.  They hitchhike to them.  They’re fuckin’ addicted to them, instead of the same old bullshit, night after night, that people see on TV.

Who the fuck wants to hear the Eagles one more fuckin’ time?  Not me, man.  Even Dylan, he goes on stage, the songs don’t even sound like the songs.  What the hell’s he singing?  It’s “Like a Rolling Stone!”  [Makes nonsensical Bob Dylan noises]

That reminds me: what’s the difference between Santa Claus and a Jew?  Santa Claus comes down the chimney.  See, I can make that joke.  Do you know why?  I had a relative who died in Auschwitz.  He fell off the guard tower!

We hear this over and over: this is the most incredible, fascinating show they’ve ever seen.  Cause you’re right.  I don’t give a fuck.  Sometime I might even drop my pants, shit in my hands, and throw it at the audience, like a gorilla in a fuckin’ zoo.

A man of distinction. A man of class.

Y Spy: I really hope that happens.

Tony Clifton: But you don’t wanna be sitting in the front row when I do that.  Maybe I should hand out sheets like Gallagher.

Oh!  Did I tell you this?  I got an album!  For that charity bullshit, I’m doing like Sinatra did with his duets album.  I’m doing a duets album.  Already we’ve recorded with R.E.M.; I laid down “Man on the Moon” with [them].  And, get this, we did a show back in May, four nights sold out at The Comedy Store, and there was a gentleman in the audience – I didn’t know who this guy was – named Billy Corgan from the Smashing Pumpkins.  Afterwards he came back and said that this was the most brilliant fuckin’ show he had ever seen in his life, and he would be honored to record with me.  So he’s coming out to my studio up here in the mountains next month, and we’re gonna do one of his songs, “Today.”

It’ll be a big fuckin’ album.  When you’ve got these titans of music like Smashing Pumpkins and R.E.M. wanting to have the opportunity to record for me, there’s something going on.

Y Spy: When is the album going to be released?

Tony Clifton: [Corgan’s] coming out here next month, and then there’s a few other big names that also appear on the album.  I can’t give you those names yet, but they’re all monsters.  I would imagine that we do the tour this fall, and then probably mix everything and get it all ready probably for next year’s fall tour.

Y Spy: So you’ve been doing this for over 40 years…

Tony Clifton: And I never age!  Because of the young pussy juice!  The sex with the young girls will do it.  They start squirting, and I’ll take it right then and there, down my fuckin’ throat.  I’ll rub it all over my face.  That’s why my skin stays so young.

Y Spy: So how have the girls changed over the years?

Tony Clifton: Well now they shave down there.  You look at some old porno; they still got the bushes.  Now they’re nice and shaved, and that’s good.

Certainly what is really a big change is I noticed over the years at the Moonlite Bunny Ranch, the brothels, more and more girls are coming in by themselves to fuck other girls.  You never saw that, years ago.  As a matter of fact, they never even allowed women in the brothels, but that has changed – and you see a lot of couples coming in.  And nobody goes: “She’s a lesbian.”  They’re curious!

As a matter of fact, you’ll meet Keely.  Keely’s my adopted daughter, and she’s in my show.  She’s hot as all hell; wait until you see this little piece of ass.  And I buy her pussy all the time.  She loves it!  And she wouldn’t consider herself lesbian; she likes it every once in a while.  And there’s nothing’s wrong with that!

Halloween’s coming up; let me tell you this.  What did one lesbian vampire say to the other lesbian vampire?

Y Spy: I have no idea, but I know it’s going to be amazing.

Tony Clifton: “See you next month!”

Y Spy: Nice!

My final question is: you’ve spent decades being an International Singing Sensation.  How do you sum up the life of Tony Clifton?

Tony Clifton: My career in total has been quite amazing.  I really do think that this is my time now.  Before, when Kaufman was alive, he would do impressions of me, and people would get confused.  What has happened – and I do have to thank Jim Carrey and Miloš Forman for “Man on the Moon,” putting that movie out there – that got a whole new generation of young kids coming to see me.  I thought it would be all old farts coming to see me.  Mm-mm!  Not at all!  I thought all people remembered was Taxi or Saturday Night Live, cause of Kaufman or shit like that.  No, no, no, no!  Who’s coming out?  Young kids, because they got a taste of me in “Man on the Moon.”

As a matter of fact, even though Jim and Paul Giamatti play me in the movie, that last scene, “I Will Survive” – which is my signature song – they actually had me do that myself.  So that’s me at the end of the movie.

The time is right.  People have sold everyone a bill of goods in this country, and the whole thing’s falling apart.  You got fucked over, cause the baby boomers took care of themselves.  I give the kids what they want.  They want pussy?  They got pussy.  They want booze?  They got booze.  They want fun entertainment, jokes that you’re not allowed to say anymore?

I’ll call, what are you supposed to call ‘em, Little People?  Little People my ass!  They’re midgets!  They’re filthy little disgusting midgets.  I’ll call ‘em Pea-pods!  I’ll call ‘em Shrimp!  I’ll call ‘em midgets!

The other day, somebody sent me a letter and was offended because I did “Walk on the Wild Side,” and it says: “And the colored girls go…”  They said “You ain’t supposed to say colored girls no more.”  Now get this!  James Brown did a song called “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”  Now they’re saying you can’t say black.  You’ve gotta say “I’m Afro-American and I’m Proud?”  It throws the whole beat off!  Have people lost their fuckin’ minds?  This is like book burning, this political correct crap.  I ain’t doing it; I fought in World War II, my friend!  I gave a leg to this fuckin’ country!

I say what I want to say!  This is fucking freedom!

Tony Clifton does not fuck around!

Tony Clifton plays the Triple Door in Seattle on Friday, October 8th.  The show begins at 7:30.  More information can be found at www.tonyclifton.net.

Freezepop: After Keytarmageddon

Freezepop: Liz Enthusiasm, Bananas Foster, Sean Drinkwater, and Christmas Disco Marie Sagan

Freezepop was created with the purpose of being a side project.  At the time of its inception, its three members – vocalist Liz Enthusiasm and producers/instrumentalists The Duke of Pannekoeken and “The Other” Sean Drinkwater – were wrapped up in other, more pressing engagements.  The original mission statement of the band was to play a few parties and have a few laughs.

Yet for the better part of a decade, the Freezepop trio’s hyper-whimsical brand of electro-pop endured.  The band’s appearances on rhythm videogames like Amplitude, Guitar Hero, and Rock Band – owing largely to the Duke’s day job at game developer Harmonix – gave it a much higher profile that certainly helped turn it into the main attraction.  But Freezepop wouldn’t have lasted this long if that’s all it had going for it.

The past few years have proven this point.  One of the greatest turning points in Freezepop’s history came with the departure of the Duke a few years ago.  With the loss of this core member, the entire band’s future was called into question, yet the band weathered the change, regrouped, and is now in the process of releasing a new album, titled Imaginary Friends.

“I wouldn’t have wished it this way,” Sean Drinkwater said, “though it’s turned out great.”

Liz Enthusiasm explained the circumstances.  “[The Duke’s] job is insanely demanding.  He hasn’t had time to tour with us in a couple of years, so he just needed to bow out of the day to day process.  He’s still pretty involved with the band in terms of back catalogue and is still on board doing remixes and surprise guest appearances.”

Still, it wasn’t as though the Duke’s bandmates didn’t see this coming.  “Six months leading up to [his departure],” Drinkwater said, “we were trying to make a record.  Our label Ryko, which had licensed [Freezepop’s third album] Future Future Future Perfect, wanted to hear our new music and offer us a more straight-up record deal.  Even at that time, the Duke didn’t really have time to do any of that, so we were forced to write all the songs at that time.  Liz and I came up with 20 songs over the course of a couple months and sent everything to Ryko, and they loved it, so we thought it would work.  The idea was to use six or seven of ours, and he’d come in with four or five to round it out, and we’d have an album.  But it didn’t work out that way.”

Drinkwater went on to describe the impact of the Duke’s departure.  “To lose your primary songwriter, your producer, your sonic architect – there were some questions as to what the hell we were going to do.  Luckily I happen to have those skills, so it wasn’t like we were totally left out in the dark, but the transition was a lot slower than I had thought.”

Part of the rebuilding process was seeking out the Duke’s replacement, yet Enthusiasm and Drinkwater went further and expanded the band’s roster to four.  Keytarist and electropercussionist, codenamed Robert John “Bananas” Foster, was an old hand on the job, having spent years filling in for the Duke when needed.  His promotion to official member was largely a formality.  Less inevitable was the recruiting of Freezepop’s new synth player and supporting vocalist, codenamed Christmas Disco Marie Sagan.

“Once the Duke told us he was going to go, we asked Bananas within a few days so we’d have that anchored,” Drinkwater said.  “We’ve been touring for 2½ to 3 years without [the Duke] at this point, and [Bananas] had been touring with us that whole time, and he was probably going to join the band anyway.  There was definitely talk of it being a four-piece with Bananas and the Duke.”

“As for Christmas,” Enthusiasm continued, “she was a friend of ours.  We knew that we wanted another person, and we knew that we wanted a girl, somebody who could do backing vocals, and she was on our shortlist.  We found out that she was classically trained on piano.  It just seemed to fall into place.

“We were kind of amazed because she had never been in a band at all.  She made her debut on stage in front of several hundred people.  It must have been really nerve-wracking, but she handled it pretty well.  She learned her parts so quickly, so it’s really been as seamless as one could hope for.”

Freezepop 2010

Following the reassembly came the practice.  “It was months and months of rehearsing,” Drinkwater said.  “It takes a while to get a real dynamic formed with people, to make sure that it’s the right thing, getting everyone comfortable and figuring out people’s roles.  Then we had to go back and revise the record a little bit here and there.  That’s kind of been the transition.”

“We did a mini-tour this April, going out with the new lineup to get things up and running,” Enthusiasm said.  “There are a lot of technical considerations now: we’ve brought in video, new person, new gear, different arrangements of the songs.  We did that week and a half in April to get going, and it went really well.”

On that tour – which included one reportedly bizarre night featuring the band performing at a bowling alley – Freezepop toured with its optimum setup, as described by Drinkwater:  “Christmas is playing video and doing vocoder and synth stuff.  Bananas is playing an actual v-drum kit where he sits down to play, and keytar as well.  I’m doing pretty much the same stuff; I play guitar on a few songs, but mostly play keyboard.  So there are certain songs where there are three keyboard players.  It’s nice because we can use fewer preprogrammed things, which we’ve always wanted to do.  Musicially, it’s a little bit more live, and the record reflects that a little bit.”

However, he admitted that Freezepop’s current west coast tour will be much lighter in terms of equipment.  “The problem is that we can’t quite bring the whole rig when we tour certain places.  We’re not gonna be able to bring the video screens, and we’re not gonna do the drum set, because we’re gonna fly out there and have to strip the gear down.”

“Now it’s getting a little more tricky because we do have a new person and different gear,” Enthusiasm noted.  “We used to be a lot more portable.  If we got an offer to do a single show, we would be able to do it.  We used to be able to fit in a car and go places, to be able to fly in and out of shows.  Now, maybe the four of us could fit in a minivan.  We’re going to figure out how much we can pare it down without going back to the old ultraportable setup.”

Still, there are advantages.  “Touring is definitely way more fun for me now,” Enthusiasm said.  “I like not being the only girl anymore.  It’s interesting stepping back and seeing the band through the eyes of somebody who’s involved with it for the first time.  [Christmas] gets so excited about everything.  She started out as a fan of our band, so now whenever we play super old school songs she gets very excited about it.  It’s not like we’re jaded, but we’ve played “Science Genius Girl” three million times.”

“There are only so many hands that [Bananas] and I, or the Duke and I, have had on our own,” Drinkwater added.  “It’s been nice to have a little more musical flexibility.  We actually have played a couple of songs just straight-up live without using sequencers, which we’ve done pretty uncommonly in the past.  It probably seems more complicated, but if we didn’t think it was worth it we wouldn’t have done it.  I feel pretty confident that this is the right thing to do.  In terms of the record it’s definitely the right way to go.”

That record, Imaginary Friends, is set for release in November.  When asked to describe its sound, both Enthusiasm and Drinkwater emphasized its advancement of the established formula yet also noted a completely different approach to the hows and whys of its making.

“[The Duke’s] compositional style is certainly characteristic of the band,” Drinkwater said, “and you don’t want to go too far and alienate everybody.  We were certainly making a Freezepop album; we were not making a new project.  That’s the reason we didn’t change the name.  It’s not like we were fighting our own instincts, but there is sort of a template.  We stretched it a little bit, but I don’t think our fans are going to be scratching their heads over it.”

“For a long time I thought it was like the second record, Fancy Ultra-Fresh, which is a little lighter than the third record.  But at the end of it that wasn’t as true as we originally thought.  It certainly has some hallmark Freezepop stuff on it; it’s not like we reinvented the wheel too much.  It’s a little more discoey in places, maybe.

“I think there was an effort to simplify it a little bit, to strip it down somewhat.  Rather than a lot of intricate, frenetic programming, there is a lot more playing, which is one thing we set out to do so it would work better live.  Some of the old Freezepop music, as much as I love the records, there are times when you start to play a song and it’s really tough to play and have it maintain any rhythmic balance.  For example: maybe “I Am Not Your Gameboy.”  It’s become a cornerstone because of the video game references and because it’s very synthy.  People really like that song, and they request it all the time.  It just never works live.

“With this, we tried to make it a little more direct.  That’s possibly the result of having played these songs before we recorded them, which we’ve never done before.  Normal bands write their songs and go on the road before they record; we’ve always had our albums manufactured before we went into rehearsal to take it apart.  This time we got to tour and figure out what was working and what wasn’t before we recorded.”

Though the new members make appearances on the album, the songwriting process was run entirely by Enthusiasm and Drinkwater, the latter having detailed each person’s role.  “Christmas sings on it a lot, which is kind of neat.  They sound great together.  [Bananas] sings on it a bit.  I sing on it a teeny bit – I’m probably less vocally present than I’ve ever been – but I just wanted it to be [Liz] on this one.  We all play on it a little bit, but mostly it’s Liz and me.  We needed that; we didn’t want to rely on anybody too much.  Hopefully the next one will be completely different, and we’ll do it in a much more collaborative way, but it wasn’t really time.”

This slow move toward a more band-like songwriting process doesn’t so much imply a disdain of democracy as much it shows the way the band has traditionally worked best.  “The Duke was the primary songwriter in the band,” Drinkwater began.  “My contributions to Freezepop had been sprinkled around here and there.  I don’t appear on the second album much at all, which is odd because it’s probably my favorite one.  The collaborations between the three of us had been few and far between.  It’s usually been one of us producing music, but the three of us collaborating is pretty rare.

“There was a time right after the first album where we tried to do it a bunch, and it didn’t go that well.  It was one of those things where if it’s not broken, don’t fix it, so I backed off and let him do his thing on the second record.  On the third record, he wanted to do some songs that I had, so I sent in a few things and we decided what fit well and recorded them.  We’re both credited on a couple of songs, but we didn’t sit down together and write.  We’re both production minded in that sense.”

Yet following the end of that routine, Drinkwater has stepped out from the Duke’s shadow and cast off his old role as “The Other,” helping to ready Freezepop for a new, unwandered phase in its existence.

“Not by choice,” he was quick to add.   “If he called tomorrow and said he’d like to be back in the band, I think it would happen.  I have enjoyed how it has been up until now, and when he left it was a bummer, but this is pretty satisfying now that I’ve done it.  I might have a slightly harder time giving it up.”

* * *

So with the ending of this transitional phase, will Freezepop’s next work come out sooner than the last?  Drinkwater made no promises.

“After every album, we’ve always said that the next one will be out sooner, but that never happens.  I would love to do a Freezepop record next summer, if we all got to go into a farm somewhere for a month and made a record really fast.  Even if it was a weird one in the catalogue, just to do it.  Will that happen?  Not very likely.

“We’re not insane perfectionists, but in terms of this it took longer because we were trying to make sure that it was pretty right.  We didn’t want to release three good songs and a bunch of garbage.  It had to be a real album or we’d be digging our graves, especially since we had lost a key guy.  If you’re not making your best album at this point, you better do something else.

“On the next one, will we be a little easier on ourselves and be a little more experimental?  I kind of hope so.”

Imaginary Friends

Freezepop will be playing El Corazon in Seattle on Monday, September 27th with Ming & Ping and Aerodrone.  Tickets are $12 in advance, $14 at the door.

Bill Hicks: Still Essential

The Hicks Family

There are more than a few great artists whose legacies might have been handled dubiously.  The easy cynicisms fall on the estates of Elvis Presley, John Lennon, and Tupac Shakur, whose copious musical output from beyond the grave can’t help but arouse suspicion.  That posthumous skepticism is wholly absent from the domain of comedian Bill Hicks, whose family he left in charge of caretaking his legacy.  Rather than cashing in on the fame that was still in the process of explosion at the time of Bill’s death in 1994, the Hicks family has spent the sixteen years between then and now as modest curators of a massive library of Bill’s work, neither opportunistic, nor starstruck, nor pretentious, nor shy about sharing Bill with any who ask.  Their most recent project is Bill Hicks: The Essential Collection, an extensive audio/video anthology which goes well beyond the established Bill Hicks routines.

In the course of speaking with Bill’s mother, Mary Hicks, and his brother, Steve Hicks, it became clear that both of these very warm and engaging people are enthusiastic about Bill’s work and treat the responsibility of preserving it as a humbling honor.

Currently living in Little Rock, Mary Hicks spends her time maintaining the Bill Hicks archives.  Before having children she worked as a teacher, but she stayed at home with the kids after their birth.  “Other than substituting,” Mary said, “I had not really done anything until after Bill died.  Since [then], I have been working with his material to be sure that it’s used correctly and that it gets out.”

Steve Hicks is Bill’s older brother by five years.  He lives in Michigan, works in retail, and is married with two kids and a dog.  “My life is very unexciting during the day, but on nights and weekends, along with my mother and sister, I also get to help manage Bill’s stuff.  It’s a labor of love, and it’s great for us to be able to share Bill with the rest of the world.  As long as people are interested, we’ll keep sharing what we have of Bill with them, and that seems to be the case.  Actually, the interest has increased over the years.”

Mary remembered Bill’s formative years as tumultuous, with the future Outlaw Comic developing his sense of insurrection.  “Bill was a sweet, loving little boy,” she said.  “He was that way until he hit his teenage years.  While we had some rough times, we had some fun times.  We could always find a laugh in there, but I would have liked for him to not gone down some of the paths he did.  But he was trying to find his way; he was not going the 9 to 5 route and he didn’t know what he was going to do.  We were trying to keep him on the path that we thought he should follow, which was to finish high school and go to college and discover something that he was interested in.”

Bill wasn’t keen on that route, but his parents forced him to graduate high school – sort of.  “The teachers loved him, but they did not want him in their class,” Mary said.  “He did what he wanted to do, which was mostly to sit in the back of the room and read.  Yet he passed, but just passed.  He knew exactly how many points he had, and how many he needed to make a passing grade.  But Bill was smart.

“He told me one time that he was going to drop out of high school.  I said ‘you’re going to graduate if I have to push you across the stage to get your diploma.’  Well, he did not go to his high school graduation; he went to the comedy club.  I think they were having ‘Pajama Night’ that night.  His dad and I went to his graduation, and it wasn’t too long after that when he went to L.A.”

“He had a funny joke about that where he’d say he graduated 481 out of 490, just ahead of the AC/DC fan club,” Steve added.  “But he did end up graduating.”

Being quite a bit older than Bill, Steve’s involvement with his brother came later.  “I think our time and togetherness moved in and out until we got in our adult years,” he said.  “I went to college when I was 16 and Bill was 11, so I’d see him on weekends when I came home and summers.  But I was finding my own way in life, and he was just a little kid.  But it was around that time when he told me to come down to the comedy club in Houston where we were living.  I went down there, and Bill was performing.  The place was sold out, and he was hilarious.  He must have been 15 years old.

“I got married three years later, and he was the best man in my wedding.  I often traveled to where he was performing to see him perform and to hang out with my brother.  There was a stretch of time when I lived in Austin, Texas with my family.  Austin was kind of a second home to Bill; he never lived there, but he was there often because he performed a lot and had friends there.  For those five years we saw each other multiple times a year.  He spoiled my kids; they loved Uncle Bill.  He knew all the cheat codes for the Mario games, so they’d sit up all night and Bill would show them how to beat the games.  He was a great brother and a great uncle.”

Bill Hicks: Nintendo Master

Both Mary and Steve admit to not following stand-up comedy outside of Bill’s work.  Perhaps owing in part to this, his choice in careers came as a surprise.  Nonetheless, both noted and supported his certainty in his calling.

“It was different,” Mary said.  “Bill asked me one time if anybody in the family had been in show business.  He would ask if anybody had done public speaking.  Well, there are some preachers way back.  He was always curious about why he was so led to do what he was doing.  It was like he couldn’t not do it.”

“He did it since he was 12 years old in some form or fashion,” Steve added.  “I think it’s pretty rare for anybody so early in their lives to find that thing that they wanted to do, and he never really wavered from that.”

Yet despite his unusual occupation, the comedian was treated no different from the rest of the Hicks family.  “Bill was a stand-up comedian,” Steve said, “so he had a job that you could go see, but what we remember most out of that were the times when he was just being that family member.  Our family got together for holidays, and whenever Bill was not on the road performing somewhere he would be there with us too.  Since show business wasn’t in our background it was certainly unusual that that’s what he did, but beyond that he was just a guy in our family that we enjoyed spending time with.”

As Bill developed as a comedian, he developed the reputation of a philosopher working with the courage of his convictions.  In his high-minded work as well as in the rest of his comedy, the Hicks family wasn’t spared from his wit.  In one of his pieces, for example, Bill calls his father to task for being a fan of Rush Limbaugh.  Yet when asked their points of view on Bill’s various beliefs, both Mary and Steve found very little they disagree with in total, and a lot in which they had common ground.  Furthermore, even within topics they disagree with, they praised the open-minded stance from which Bill advanced his arguments.

“Bill – and all of my children – are not that crazy about organized religion,” Mary said.  “I think they all are Christians and live that way.  To tell you the truth, I’m not sure that I’m crazy about organized religion either, but I am a Christian and I do go to church and I do enjoy the fellowship with people in my little Sunday school group.”

If there was one topic which she disagrees with, it would be Bill’s frankness about his drug use. “I’m not into drugs, and I don’t know that they do good or don’t do good.  I do know that there are people whose lives are ruined by them, but if marijuana really could help people who have cancer, then I think it should be used.  I’m not against using things to benefit people, but I would be against them if they ruin lives.  I don’t know how you’d know whether it would benefit.”

“I think it’s an individual thing,” Steve added, “and I think that’s what Bill’s message was.  He didn’t tell us to take drugs or not to take drugs.  He said find your own way in life, and here’s my story.”

Mary agreed.  “That’s exactly what he did.  He never encouraged; he just said his views that he had good times on it.  If he did, I’m glad he did, but I’m glad he got off of them and he said he was too.

“I liked what he said when he quit.  He said: ‘Mom, somebody came in and offered me drugs, and I looked at myself in the mirror in the dressing room and said that was not who I am.  And I quit.’  I liked that he realized that he was not that.”

“Bill and I were closer in age,” Steve said, “so I guess I wasn’t as put off as an older generation might have been at some of the stuff Bill said.  None of it really bothered me; I’m pretty open-minded like he was.

“I will tell you a story, though, how Bill and I might discuss things and disagree.  It’s probably the closest we’d ever gotten to a fight.  He was always checking things out, spiritual things.  He did sensory deprivation things, the drugs for a while, yoga, lots of things trying to tap into the spiritual side of life.  So one time he was at my house, and he was telling me that he had seen people levitate.  I said I don’t believe that; you think if people were levitating, you’d see it somewhere!  It turned into an argument, and he was adamant and wasn’t going to give up without me agreeing that it could be possible.  I was just as strong-headed as he was in my beliefs.  When I see someone levitate, I’ll believe they can levitate!  I don’t care if people levitate or not, but having someone tell me they saw someone levitate doesn’t do it for me.

“That would be an example of our discussions about philosophy, and we’d finish it and it would be fine and that would be that.  As far as his general philosophy of life and his key things that he spoke about in his comedy that resonate with so many people these days, I pretty much agree with most of that.”

Within his act Bill often mentioned unpopular beliefs – such as the idea that children are not special – which he claimed were responsible for keeping him an anonymous figure in American culture.  Yet after his death, Bill Hicks was anything but anonymous.

Considering the role of Bill’s death within the greater scope of his critical acclaim is a fair question to ponder, but the Hicks family doesn’t see his enduring relevance as a product of martyrdom.

“I look at it this way,” Steve said, “I think a lot of untalented people also pass away, and their legacies don’t live on.  Then there are talented people who don’t pass away, and their legacies don’t live on.  While there may be some importance to Bill passing away, I think that his material is so relevant to people years later.

“I always think about Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, locked in time.  You don’t know what would have become of their lives later on.  There’s certainly some of that, but I tend to think that there’s something about Bill’s material and the way he presented it that resonates with people.  If that wasn’t there, I don’t think it would go on like it does.”

“If what Bill said did not have meaning and were just jokes,” Mary added, “I’m not sure that we would be where we are today.  It just so happens that he had some profound thoughts, and he got enough out there that these people come up and send letters and emails telling us what Bill meant.  Bill’s been gone 16 years and on the day of his death I still get emails from people who say they are remembering Bill.  [He] had some points that are going to be relevant till we all die.”

Steve continued: “I think something that’s important is when we meet fans – and this past 18 months we’ve had a lot of opportunity to do that because we’ve been traveling to film festivals to support another Bill project, a film called American: The Bill Hicks Story – what we hear echoing and in everything we get is that people don’t say: ‘We wanted to tell you how funny Bill was.’  What they say is: ‘I wanna tell you how Bill changed my life.’  There’s some way that Bill reaches people on a big level.  Alive or dead, if that wasn’t the case it just wouldn’t have grown into this legacy that it has.”

Taking the question to a close, Steve described a shocking phenomenon within Bill’s renown.   “We still will occasionally – maybe a time or two a year – get an email from somebody finding out about Bill for the first time and asking us for his address, so they can write him a letter, not realizing he’s dead.  What they’ve seen is something so relevant, and current sounding, and moves them on a different level that they want to get in touch with him.  That’s not a frequent occurrence, but it does still happen.”

In compiling the hours of material which comprise The Essential Collection, Bill’s family rewards the dedication of his fans with an in-depth look into his life and work.  The family spared no effort in making this a unique body of work, featuring bootleg videos, a goofy B-film, and a collection of guitar ballads in addition to familiar audio recordings.  Steve summed up the box set’s purpose as such:  “We wanted to have things that fans could discover and see something new about Bill.  That’s how we went about the box set.”

Steve went on to explain its production: “With The Essential Collection, Rykodisc, the label that Bill’s stuff has been on all these years, called us and were interested in putting out a box set to commemorate Bill.  They thought it was time.  It was funny because they asked if we had some unpublished photos sitting around, because fans really like to see things they haven’t seen before.  Yeah!  We’ve also got several hundred hours of video and several hundred hours of audio.  They were very excited about that.

“What we proceeded to do was go through all of this stuff and decide what we wanted to put in this box set.  Our criteria were a couple of things.  We wanted to avoid as much duplication of anything that’s out there commercially, especially on the video side.  We went back through some of Bill’s DVDs, Sane Man and Relentless and Revelations, and tried to pick things that weren’t shown on those DVDs, even though they might be familiar bits off one of his albums like Rant in E-minor and Arizona Bay.  That’s what we did for the later years.  With the early years, the first DVD out there of Bill was Sane Man, and that was 1989, so we focused on the years from 81 to 86, because that’s stuff that hasn’t been seen much.

“We were real excited to find these songs that Bill had recorded.  We went over to Abbey Road Studios in London and had them remastered to include on this download card in the box set.  I think some people know Bill played guitar on Rant and Arizona Bay, but someone who had written and recorded songs, I don’t think people were expecting that.  That was a real bonus discovery.”

As well as working on this ambitious project, the Hicks family opened their vaults to the makers of American: the Bill Hicks Story. Calling this “the definitive documentary of Bill Hicks,” Steve described the making of this film.

“These guys, Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas, are directors of this documentary.  Bill is huge in England, and for a few years Matt Harlock was doing tribute nights to Bill on the anniversary of his death in London.  The things would sell out, and he’d send the proceeds to the Bill Hicks Wildlife Organization.  Somewhere along the way he got in touch with my mother and father, who was alive at the time, and started communicating with them.

“It just evolved into Matt wanting to do a series of 30-minute documentaries about comedians, and he was going to start with Bill.  That led to him coming over to the States and going to Little Rock, Arkansas to start going through all this stuff.  We just opened everything up to these guys.  I think when they found out how much stuff there was, this thing turned into a four year project.  We support them 100%.  It was their vision, and we would occasionally give them feedback along the way, [but] we didn’t micromanage anything.

“It’s very, very well done, and we’re proud of it.  They’re even getting some notoriety because they enhanced an animation technique they used in the movie to work from all these still photos.  Beyond the fact that people love the documentary because of the story it tells, Matt and Paul are getting an awful lot of interest because of the techniques they used to tell the story.  It’s been showing at film festivals around the world, and it’s won two awards.  They released it theatrically in the U.K. over the summer, and it’s the second-highest grossing documentary of the year.  The DVD is coming out later this month in the U.K., and it probably won’t come out in the U.S. until next March or so.

“On the DVD, they have five hours of extras beyond the documentary – a lot of extended interviews, and only about 30 extra minutes of Bill performing – but even with that we collaborated so there isn’t duplication between that and what we have in The Essential Collection. They really do stand alone and they expose different things about Bill.  Both projects were done from an extreme position of love and respect, and I hope people will enjoy them both.”

If these projects are any indication, Bill Hicks the comedian is as powerful as ever.  But my final question to the Hicks family was what their favorite things were about Bill Hicks the man.

Mary was quick to distinguish between the demeanor of the two.  “I think a lot of people do pick up on the fact that he was – somebody called him a humanitarian.  I asked Steve when he first started seeing Bill before we did what he was like, and Steve said he’s nothing like he is at home.  He was different on stage.  [At home] he was quiet, he was serious, he was very considerate.”

Steve agreed, using a specific example to illustrate his brother’s good nature.  “I’d use compassionate to describe him, not only to his family and friends but to strangers.  When he would come to Austin around Christmas, there were at least two years where we went down to the main drag where the homeless people were, and Bill would hand them five dollar bills and look them in the eye and say Merry Christmas.  He was just a good guy.  Even though his comedy style was in your face, that came through.

“I think that’s what resonates all these years later – there was soul and heart and passion to this guy.  Beyond the iconic comedian, he was just a really kind-hearted, intelligent, passionate guy that made you feel important when you were around him.”

Photos Courtesy of the Hicks Family

Y Spy: Vienna Teng Is Vanishing

Alex Wong and Vienna Teng

This weekend’s Bumbershoot Festival in Seattle will serve as the last performance by pianist Vienna Teng before she leaps into her new life as a graduate student.  The music world would do well to be envious.  Over the past decade Teng has amassed a catalogue of heartwrenching songs spanning the gaps between pop, folk, and classical music.  With producer Alex Wong being made an equal partner, the duo recently released The Moment Always Vanishing, a magnificent live album which expands Teng’s established songs into full-live orchestrations.  It’s a fine (and hopefully very temporary) stopping point.

With Wong popping in to expand upon a few points, Vienna Teng discussed the formation of their team, making the live album, and walking away.

Y Spy: As opposed to your previous releases, The Moment Always Vanishing is credited as Vienna Teng and Alex Wong.  Is that a permanent change?

Vienna Teng: I’m actually going away from being a full-time musician right after Bumbershoot, so I guess that is an open question.  I’m gonna be starting grad school about two days after we play.  I would say yes in the sense that Alex and I definitely intend to keep working together and to make music together, but we’re also independent entities.  He definitely has his own projects.  It was more a recognition of a collaboration of peers.

Alex Wong: It’s definitely something that we talked about.  The show became more of a collaboration, and it felt appropriate. We’ve talked about other collaborations that we would like to do, something outside of the pop world, maybe more of a theater-type show.  The live shows are going to come to an end, but we’ll definitely be making stuff for a long time.

Y Spy: How did you come to work together?

Vienna Teng: We actually met at an open mic long before we started working together.  We became friends, and I was a huge fan of his band that played that night, the Animators.  We stayed in touch, so whenever our paths intersected we would do a show together.  Eventually it became an annual thing that for the holidays, since we both grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, we would both end up at home with our parents and we’d play a show in San Francisco together.

About three years ago, his schedule opened up and he offered to play with me, which was really exciting for me.  He’s a really imaginative live player as well as a good producer, so I wanted to see what the songs would be like if he got to reimagine them from his perspective.  That’s what we’ve been doing for the past three years, and people have really been responding to it, so we wanted to make a live record to commemorate.

Y Spy: How has Alex’s presence changed the live show?

Vienna Teng: I played solo for pretty much the entire first year that I was a full-time musician.  That’s where I was most comfortable for a long time.  Alex is the first person I’ve collaborated with; it has become a very solid partnership.  I’ve gotten to be comfortable with this other person on stage and feel completely in sync.

We’ll be playing Bumbershoot as a duo plus extra firepower, which is inaccurately named the Vienna Teng Trio.  Alex will be playing a custom percussion setup that he’s developed for the show that we do.  He plays a lot of acoustic instruments that he hooks mics on and then runs through different effects.  It creates a really cool half electronic/half acoustic sound.  He also plays keyboards and guitar, and a lot of exotic percussion instruments, and he sings as well.  What’s really cool about what he does is that he multitasks, so he’ll be playing drums and keyboards and a percussion instrument at the same time.

We’re also joined by a guy named Ward Williams who plays cello and electric guitar and sings.  It’s really fun creating that much sound with three people.

Alex Wong: Since we’ve started working together on the live shows, we’ve definitely spent more time deconstructing songs and trying to reconstruct them as duo.  There’s a lot more attention to layers and sounds, and how to tell the story with more interesting arrangements.

Y Spy: How did you go about making a live album?

Vienna Teng: We decided to record in what we call our two hometowns: San Francisco and New York.  We did two shows in one night in New York, in a place called Joe’s Pub, and we did two shows in San Francisco at the club where we’d have our holiday shows, The Independent.  We just wanted to capture the energy of those two cities.  We caught the best performances of those four shows and made it into a single show.

Alex Wong: The show had been developing for the last year, year and a half, before we recorded it.  We both had been evolving our parts and setups for this live show, and it became this thing that felt pretty unique, and it started to become farther removed from what was happening on the studio records.  We wanted to have something that represented what we did together live.  A lot of the songs are different in arrangement and sounds, and there were a lot of people who were asking for that version of those songs.

Y Spy: There’s a lot of back and forth between you and the audience, and you explain a lot of what’s behind your songs.  Was that always the plan?

Vienna Teng: That was a fan request.  We put a live DVD of a special show in Philadelphia where we had a bigger band that we never toured with.  People enjoyed that, but they did say that there wasn’t any talking on that DVD.  We had cut it out because we thought that I’m just talking, just blabbering, so who wants to have that?  But for some reason that was something people said that they enjoy about the show, so we decided to include it.

Y Spy: As opposed to a lot of live albums, yours put the stage talk into separate tracks, giving the listener the opportunity to keep it or skip into the action.

Vienna Teng: We kind of went back and forth with it.  We didn’t want to put all the talking at the beginning of tracks, because that’s a lot to fast forward through.  We’ve also heard albums where they’ve put the next song’s intro at the end of the previous track.  We just made them separate so that people could create a list of just songs.

Y Spy: One thing that stood out on the live album was the extensive use of loops in “The Last Snowfall,” which contrasted with a lot of songs which sounded more straightforward.  Was the idea to bring more electronic and production techniques to the live show?

Vienna Teng: There is a fair amount of electronics going on in certain songs.  Other songs are “No Gringo” and “Gravity.”  There’s a little bit of looping or sometimes effects that Alex, Ward, and I are using.  Hopefully it sounds seamless most of the time, and people wonder afterwards where all that sound was coming from.

Maybe “The Last Snowfall” was the least subtle.  Because on the studio album it was five or six people singing, I knew I couldn’t perform the song unless I had some other way of doing it.  I bought that looper and was experimenting with it, so that arrangement came out of buying a new toy and figuring out how to do that song which would be impossible to do otherwise.

Alex and I have one rule: that we don’t want to include anything prerecorded in the show.  We think it’s really important to create something where the audience is aware that all of it is happening in the moment.  There is that tightrope walk, that whenever I do “The Last Snowfall” all of the lines are being sung in front of everybody.  It’s not like I had a bunch of backing vocals that are prerecorded and are never wrong.  There’s something about the organic nature of creating things live, even if you’re creating and recording them live and then playing them back.

Y Spy: How did you release The Moment Always Vanishing?

Vienna Teng: We have a very generous record label, Rounder.  They said that live albums don’t sell nearly as well at retail.  We truly understood that they didn’t want to throw all their firepower behind it, so we said that we wanted to make it for our fans, and asked permission to print a set number of copies and sell those at our shows and online.  It’s not an official Rounder release, but it definitely came out with Rounder’s blessing and a bit of their support.  We’re very grateful for that.

Y Spy: How did going on to grad school and putting your music career on hold come about?

Vienna Teng: The program I’m going into is basically Sustainable Enterprise Studies, so it’s a dual degree in Environmental Science and Business, an MBA and a Master’s.  It’s something that has been a dream of mine as long as pursuing music has been.  It just felt like the right time to go.

I was recently thinking about how much joy I get from running away to music, rather than having it be my full-time pursuit.  I think that a lot of good music will come out of procrastinating on homework assignments.

Y Spy: Have you had other moments in your career when music wasn’t your top priority?

Vienna Teng: Only in the very beginning.  I’ve been super lucky; pretty much from the time I quit my software engineering job in 2002, I’ve never had a day job.  [Music was] the thing that paid my bills – sometimes barely paid my bills.

Y Spy: Are you still gathering new songs?

Vienna Teng: Yeah.  Recently I was at home for a while and started writing again.  I have this idea for an album that’s in its very starting stages.  I’m a very slow writer, so I think it’s gonna take a couple of years for all the songs to take shape.  There will be a studio album in the future, but not yet.  Maybe in the meantime I’ll release something a little lower pressure, like a holiday album or an album of covers, or a bunch of assorted songs that were co-written with friends over the years.

Y Spy: Alex, because of the level of work you’ve done together, will it be hard to adjust to music beyond Vienna Teng?

Alex Wong: Definitely.  I really enjoyed working with Vienna.  She’s an amazing talent.  I will miss playing with her.  This project has consumed more of my time than anything else over the last couple years.  There will definitely be some withdrawal.

Y Spy: What else have you been working on lately?

Alex Wong: Most recently I did a track on Elizabeth and the Catapult’s upcoming record.  I just finished producing Ari Hest’s upcoming record.  I produced The Paper Raincoat’s existing record, which is also my band.  I’m singing and playing guitar in that project; it’s a duo with Amber Rubarth, who is another singer-songwriter.  I will be touring with the Paper Raincoat and working on some more production and writing projects in New York.

Y Spy: Vienna, as you’re about to take this big step in your life, how do you feel about your musical career to this point?

Vienna Teng: I feel really good about it.  It’s one of those paradoxes in that I feel that I couldn’t leave music unless I felt like I had gotten where I should be, but at the same time when you get there, you think “Why am I leaving?”  The only answer I can give is that, somehow, music gave me permission to move on.  That’s how it felt.

Y Spy: Was there a certain point when you felt that you had achieved everything you set out to do?

Vienna Teng: No.  I don’t think so at all.  I don’t think I’ve checked everything off my list.  There are people I haven’t gotten to collaborate with yet, instruments I haven’t learned to play.  I’ve never completely self-produced my own album, which I hope to do someday.  Bumbershoot is definitely a big thing that I would have had on that list to check off, so it’s nice that that’s happening right before school starts.  There’s still a lot of exciting stuff in music that I would like to do, but I think it crossed over into “That would be nice” rather than “I can’t give up until that happens.”

The Vienna Teng Trio will play Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival on Sunday, September 5th at 8:30 pm. “The Moment Always Vanishing” is available now.  More information is available at www.viennateng.com.

Y Spy: Here’s Johnnie/Haf-Sac

Yes it does.

What: Here’s Johnnie/Haf-Sac

Where: Plan B, Bellingham

When: Friday, August 13th

The real star of Plan B’s Friday the 13th show was Billy Dee Williams.  Lurking in the shadows of the bar’s stage, the cardboard cutout of the Colt 45 spokesman managed to make its presence felt throughout the night.  While the show’s two bands tore through pop-punk (with a twist) and acoustic rock (again, with a twist), Ol’ Lando presided over the festivities, benevolently giving the night his blessing.

Here's Johnnie

After years of plying their grownup breed of pop-punk around the bars and basements of the Midwest, Here’s Johnnie has brought their game to Washington.  Their first show in their new home took place at the Plan B Bar, playing to a full crowd.  Whether singing about the living dead or breaking out drinking songs, Here’s Johnnie kept their intensity bright, yet throughout their set, the band mixed party chords with clever parts, with at least one member of the group left-fielding their role at any given time.  They weren’t afraid to leap into solos, play with time signatures or key shifts, or let songs go beyond standard single length, all of which snared those lured in by their catchy hooks.   “Get Right” was the night’s best example of how much the band could both honor and subvert genre conventions, its complex bassline leading the wails, speed, and smashing.

The set was much more than your average teen-baiting pop-punk.  Instead, Here’s Johnnie offered music set to appeal to those who at the very least can buy a beer.  Avoiding the expected route served the band well, and Here’s Johnnie made an excellent first impression.

Haf-Sac, Lando

The beatboxer who serves as Haf-Sac’s drum section was amazing, and without a doubt he is the group’s main attraction.  Still, as the show went on, the remaining members of the trio – the band’s bassist and its singer/acoustic guitarist – balanced out the act.  Though the beatboxer certainly lent the band a sense of the unusual, Haf-Sac boils down to an acoustic rock bar band that carried its performance with covers and irreverence.

If inserting the chorus of Cutting Crew’s “Died in Your Arms Tonight” wasn’t enough evidence of this, Haf-Sac offered up the Violent Femmes’ “Blister in the Sun” to excite the crowd.  It was pulled off well, though the beatboxing became unhinged in the fills.  Their original material included “The Beer Trilogy” (its conclusion being the wonderfully-named “Beer Shits”), and their final song was a moody audience participation number titled “Pussy Whipped,” where angry young men beat their belts against the ground.  And, bowing to Lando’s presence, Haf-Sac played “The Imperial March.”

The band put on a fun show, and its premise is both interesting and well executed, but some points in the set – especially toward the end – seemed to float by and didn’t stand out.  As a whole, the band didn’t really kick in until “The Beer Trilogy.”  After that, they kicked back and enjoyed the show, and that worked well enough.

Lando approved.

Damn Right.