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.

Jammin’ George: LOCAL HERO.

Jammin' George

The first thing I noticed when I met up with local comedian and surrealist Jammin’ George was that he had a bobble-head of himself sitting on his table. It wasn’t a total likeness; the sculpture reminded me of Harry Caray whereas George, a big man with close-cropped white hair and rectangular black glasses, looks more like Drew Carey. But the fact that Jammin’ George commissioned a bobble-head to be made of him is stunning. It’s one more way by which he crawls into one’s head and wreaks havoc.

My relationship with Jammin’ George is full of such brain-melting incidents. Earlier in the year, my cohort Shuggypop Jackson got a hold of me and delivered an urgent message: he had something he had to show me. His offering was Jammin’ George’s Land of Fun, an hour-long video in which George dances to music, reads poetry, does impersonations, and films his television. It’s one of the most bizarre videos I’ve ever seen, but the strangest thing is that I’ve watched it so many times that I’m no longer fazed.

The Sweet Shop janitor known on his paychecks as George Haug is a joyous man, quick to ham it up and not given to extensive self-examination. The one thing he isn’t is a one trick pony. Land of Fun, which was made circa 2006, is his newest project, but Jammin’ George has been around for decades. In that time, he’s also been a stand-up comedian, written his own newsletter, and released three comedy albums. His current goals are to get some of his videos up on YouTube and perhaps make it to the Twin Cities to do a few shows.

“I’ve been a comedian since the early 80s,” said George. “I started out writing newsletters, these ‘Jam Reviews.’ Then at Popcorn Tavern’s open mics I would get up and do a little schtick, little jokes, and they asked me to do more and more. [I usually perform] once a month, maybe once every other month. I haven’t done it for a while.”

George described his stand-up as such: “I do one-liners, but I also do impressions or lip-sync somebody, like Roger Whittaker’s ‘Wind beneath My Wings.’”

His influences, both in comedy and beyond it, range from the obvious to the surprising. George is a big fan of Chris Farley, John Candy, Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, and Bill Murray, but he’s also into surreal artists such as Jackson Pollock and Pablo Picasso. In reading his newsletters I picked up an affinity for Tracy Chapman and the Grateful Dead. The fact that he likes the expectation-shattering Andy Kaufman is no surprise.

He LOVES Alice from The Brady Bunch.

George’s newsletter, The Jam Review, captures the full spirit of Jammin’ George. The volumes which George brought to the interview ranged from 1989 to 2001, and were filled with one-liners, poetry, photography, and strange stories. One story described “The Weekend from Hell,” in which George had to deal with his shiftless brother-in-law, who drank heavily and stuck George with the bills. In one edition there’s an autograph from Danica McKellar, who played Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years. Her picture next to the autograph is in negative, giving the whole exhibit a disturbing quality.

“I had my dad’s secretary type them up, and I took them to the printer. I was taking them to RC Printing, down by WKBT. I had about 12 issues, about 100 or so [copies], and they’d have them at the Co-Op or Deaf Ear. It was kind of fun, but my brother goes: ‘You don’t think people are actually gonna read these?’ They were very odd.”

The Jammin' George Audio Collection

Jammin’ George followed this project up with audio recordings, beginning with a series of tapes and resulting in three comedy albums. In chronological order, they are Giving the Fans What They Want, The Joke’s On You, and Jammin’ George’s Buffet. The old tapes were mostly helmed by Chris Zobin or John Boyle, frequent contributors to Jammin’ George’s misadventures. Boyle also helped produce Fans, whereas Ken Eisler helped create the two latter albums. Though much of what I heard on the audio recordings consisted of one-liners, Jammin’ George attempted to translate his entire act to the albums. “At the end [of Buffet] I sing ‘Cheer Up, Charlie,’ and I’ll sing that song by Barry Manilow, ‘I Write the Songs,’ except it’s ‘I Write the Jokes.’”

A few smaller videos followed, filmed by George’s neighbor John Ross, before the pair created Jammin’ George’s Land of Fun. On the differences between recording an album and a video, Jammin’ George said: “When you’re doing a CD you can read the whole thing; you almost have to wing it in a video, but it’s the most fun.”

Jammin’ George isn’t in this for the money. George has released roughly a hundred copies of each newsletter, album, and video, and most of the time he gives them away for free. With his video, the reason is partly because he’s playing copyrighted music and filming television shows, so there would be an easy infringement case if he tried to turn a buck. But the greater truth is that he would rather someone find his work for free than not find it at all. An example came during my interview as George gave me a t-shirt featuring the Jammin’ George bobble-head, with no thought of repayment.

It’s one more way in which Jammin’ George sets himself apart from typically safe and fantastically average comedians. The current state of comedy doesn’t impress George much. “It’s pretty lame. Most [comedians] always tell the same [jokes],” he explained. The problem, in his estimate, is that it’s too easy to predict what a comedian will be like.

Do people know what to expect from Jammin’ George? After laughing long and hard, he answered: “Maybe, sometimes.”

Oh yeah. He has a bobblehead.

HorrorHound Weekend 2010: Armageddon

Horrorgasm.

Louise Robey, Actress, Joe Bob Briggs, Drive-Thru Master, Lloyd Kaufman, Film Legend, and the Gay Boy of Tromaville

Y Spy: Who are you and why are you here?

Louise Robey: I’m the Countess of Burford, and I’m here because I exist. [From here, Robey and Kaufman launch into an extended conversation in French. The only thing I can make out is when Kaufman mentions a Chevrolet Coupe Deville and Charles de Gaulle. I suspect that Kaufman might be bullshitting his French, but if he is he does so convincingly.]

Lloyd Kaufman: Next question!

Y Spy: So I write a review column called “Bizarro Masterpiece Theatre.” You can pretty much assume what it’s about. Turn me onto some movies.

Robey: I know Hugh Hefner, and I go to his Sunday night things all the time.

Kaufman: [Growing progressively more French] Hugh Hefner is a fucking dick! I hate Hugh Hefner! So fuck him!

Robey: Well, Dino de Laurentiis…

Kaufman: Oh, he’s cool…

Robey: He wanted me to be in a movie, and I turned him down. I was very young. I said: “It’s a bit naughty, this movie!”

Kaufman: Well, you had been in the Roman Polanski Quaalude movie, so I don’t blame you for turning him down.

Robey: How do you know Roman?

Kaufman: How do I know him? He tried to give me Quaaludes! I refused! I wouldn’t do it. I was 13 at the time.

Y Spy: You were just an innocent young lady.

Kaufman: I was an innocent young woman at the time. Gyno. We say gyno-american. Louise! What else have you been working on, besides your chateau? Chateau in French means cake, by the way.

Robey: It means very old house. I write songs, and I produce songs…

Kaufman: Wow! Here’s the young Gay Boy from Tromaville!

Gay Boy of Tromaville: I am the Gay Boy from Tromaville.

Kaufman: Tell us what’s new in the gay world of Tromaville.

Gay Boy: “The Killer Condom” is an inspirational movie, not only a philosophy but a state of life.

Kaufman: And who made the special effects? H.R. Giger, who made the special effects for “Alien!”

Y Spy: How does the Roman Catholic Church feel about killer condoms?

Gay Boy: Actually, I am Catholic. We feel extremely great about it! Couldn’t be better.

Kaufman: And thank you to the Pope, who has done so much to protect the children from the Catholic priests. He’s a real brave Pope. He and Hugh Hefner are the same hypocritical, well, anyway…

Robey: You want to be Hugh! You want to be him!

Kaufman: I wouldn’t shit on Hugh Hefner! The only reason I bought Playboy stock was because I was hoping he’d die and the stock would go up.

Robey: You bought Playboy stock?

Kaufman: Stupidly. And he won’t die! I lost a huge amount of money.

Robey: It’s bankrupt! You know that?

Kaufman: When I bought it, it wasn’t. And stupid me, because he’ll never die! God dammit!

Y Spy: What’s new in the Troma world?

Kaufman: We have a very good blu-ray we’ve just put out. Actually it’s a brown-ray called “Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead.” I’m working on my seventh book “Sell Your Own Damn Movie.”

[Suddenly, a round of applause bursts out behind us, and Joe Bob Briggs arrives on the scene.]

Kaufman: Hey! You should interview this guy! Bobby!

Robey: [To Briggs, taking note of his cowboy shirt] Do you ride horses?

Kaufman: He rides pen and pencil and paper! He rides words!

Robey: So do I! I’m a writer and producer.

Y Spy: Mr. Briggs, what does Troma mean to you?

Joe Bob Briggs: Troma is the essence of the three Bs: blood, breasts, and beasts. They have all of those three, in enormous quantities, in every film they’ve ever made. I can’t say that about any other company.

Y Spy: Were there breasts in “Cannibal: The Musical?”

Kaufman: Yes, but they were eaten! So you didn’t see them. But Joe Bob Briggs was very responsible for discovering Troma, many years ago, when we were shunned. We’re still shunned, but at least Joe Bob Briggs appreciated us.

Y Spy: [To Briggs] So what have you been up to lately?

Briggs: I’m here, doing the convention.

Y Spy: Any writings or film commentaries coming out?

Briggs: I’ve got 12 commentaries that I’ve done, and lots of books, and lots of other projects.

Y Spy: So what scares each of you?

Kaufman: Hilary Clinton scares me! I’m Lloyd Kaufman, failed filmmaker for 35 years!

Briggs: Lloyd scares me. [Lloyd screams.]

Robey: I don’t know any of these people. What scares me is my ex-husband, who wrote Shakespeare!

HorrorHound Weekend 2010: Ari Lehman

Ari Lehman

Ari Lehman, Actor, Musician

Y Spy: Who are you and why are you here?

Ari Lehman: My name is Ari Lehman, and I am the first Jason Voorhees from “Friday the 13th,” here, at HorrorHound Weekend in Indianapolis, because the friends and fans of Jason Voorhees mean more to me than life itself.

Y Spy: How did jumping out of a lake dressed like a half-rotted mongoloid affect the rest of your life?

Lehman: In fact, when I did it, it was a fun summer job. I was very fortunate to be able participate with the greatness of Tom Savini and Sean Cunningham.

Y Spy: How old were you at the time?

Lehman: I was only 14 years old. It was a great honor and a great opportunity. But let’s look at the image of the pond and the water, of all that decaying vegetation, of the mother image, of the girl in a boat image, the decapitation. There’s so much there. The first “Friday the 13th” is mythological, and it has so much room for expansion. I want to let all the fans know, there’s more coming to this story. Every story has a beginning, and that story will be told.

Y Spy: And how do you fit into that?

Lehman: I wish I could tell you, but let’s just say this: all signs are good, and all systems are go for something that will satisfy that need in the fans to understand the origins of this wonderful character. They’ve never told how he made this transformation, why he behaves the way he does.

Y Spy: Tell me about your band, “First Jason.”

Lehman: I’ve been a musician all my life. First Jason is a punk/metal band; we play all over the United States and Europe. I just returned from Spain, where we played at the Festival de Cine de Terror in Barcelona. I just did a singing presentation – a concert and a finale – at the Fantasy Horror Awards last weekend in Italy, where I presented gold awards to Dario Argento, Robert Englund, and many more. That was a lot of fun.

Y Spy: So when did you first learn to tickle the ivories like a mad motherfucker?

Lehman: Thank you! When I was a kid. The same time I was being little Jason.

Y Spy: What else has been happening?

Lehman: I’ve been participating in many independent films, most notably “Vampira: the Movie.” I did the soundtrack. First Jason has been an element, but working on soundtracks has been another. Also acting in independent films like “Terror Overload.”

Y Spy: What scares you?

Lehman: Alienation.

First Jason Album Cover

Ari Lehman can be found at www.firstjason.com.

HorrorHound Weekend 2010: Catherine Mary Stewart

Catherine Mary Stewart

Catherine Mary Stewart, Actress

Y Spy: Who are you and why are you here?

Catherine Mary Stewart: I am Catherine Mary Stewart, and I was kidnapped, bound, and dragged here against my will.

Y Spy: I know you from “The Apple.” What was it like starring in the greatest disco musical ever, and participating in one of the most wonderfully strange film endings of all time?

Stewart: It was weird! That was my very first film ever, so I really had no clue what I was getting myself into as an actress. I just went along with it, thinking that it was kind of strange. When I saw it completed, I thought that my instincts were correct.

It opened in 1981 in the World Film Festival in Montreal, to a mixed review, I’m sure. But the guy who ran the festival said: “This is the greatest movie, especially if you’re stoned!” I can totally see that! For me, it was my intro to the whole business, so I have to say that it was the greatest thing ever.

Y Spy: What have been your favorite roles since?

Stewart: It’s such a hard question. Every movie that I’ve done has been so wonderful in a different way. I guess there are some that are more awful than others, and I have worked with some people who I didn’t necessarily like or get along with. Some of the most gratifying are some of the movies I’m representing here: “The Last Starfighter,” “Night of the Comet.”

When you’re shooting a movie, you have no idea what to expect. You do your work as best you can, and then it’s completely out of your hands. I’ve done a lot of movies where the end result is completely different from the script’s intention. Afterwards you put that part of your life on the shelf and move on. So when you get the response that you get at conventions like this, you never know what to expect.

There’s a whole generation of men and women that tell me how influential these movies are to them. You’re one of the odd ones out about “The Apple!” That was not a widely seen movie! It always takes me off guard. As an actor it’s so cool having a positive effect on people that they still treasure in their 20s and 30s. You don’t expect it at all, so you don’t take it for granted.

Y Spy: Do the unexpected reactions from fans come because you have such a diverse body of work?

Stewart: That’s something that I’m really thankful for, because as an actor you want to do as many different things as you possibly can. I live vicariously through the characters; I get to be a Mac-10 wielding teenage, or I get to be a sweet innocent girl, or I get to go into outer space, or I get to be a cowgirl. I’m thrilled to be able to do the different types of things I do, and I hope I’m not pigeonholed. And that attracts such a diverse audience.

Y Spy: What have you been doing recently?

Stewart: Recently I seem to be playing a lot of alcoholics! I’ve done two films recently, one for Lifetime and one for Hallmark, where I’m a middle-aged woman who drinks too much, which is actually a gas. I have so much fun playing that character. The Hallmark movie was called “The Class.” I play the wife of Eric Roberts – the unhappy wife of Eric Roberts, which drives me to drink. In every scene there’s a glass of wine in my hand. But of course I redeem myself in the end, because it is Hallmark, after all. I also just finished a movie called “A Christmas Snow,” which is a family Christmas movie, really a nice movie. I’m the lead in it, which is sort of unusual because I’m not the young little ingénue that I was. I play a character that hates Christmas, whose father left when she was young, which she’s never gotten over. Through the film you learn lessons of forgiveness and redemption, and in the end it’s a really lovely story. Not really a HorrorHound movie!

Y Spy: Is there a big difference between making TV movies and feature films?

Stewart: I have found over the years that it is less and less different. Movies can be made so quickly and for very little money, which is kind of great. A TV movie has always had shorter schedules. Feature films have always taken longer. But the great thing about digital these days is that they don’t have to worry about takes anymore. As an actor, there’s a lot less pressure. Making a TV movie still doesn’t feel as grand as a feature, but they’re becoming similar.

Y Spy: So what’s your take on the entirety of your career?

Stewart: I’m really thankful for it. I was so busy and had the greatest time in the 80’s and early 90’s. When I got married and started having babies, I kept working, but not as much. My priorities changed. My kids are now 13 and 16, and I’m really trying to get back into it again. It’s kind of a struggle to get back into it. Everyone thought I had just left the business, so you’ve got to work it to make the connections again. But I’ve had some success, and work begets work, so I’ve been doing okay. I’m so much luckier than so many actors.

Y Spy: What scares you?

Stewart: You know what scares me? Tom Noonan scares the crap out of me! In “Manhunter,” that guy creeped me out so much. When I knew that I was gonna be [at a table] next to him, I was a little scared. But he’s a pussycat!

If I’m gonna watch a horror movie, it has to be at home with the lights on, with my husband, because I get scared easily.

Bizarro Gold!

Catherine Mary Stewart can be found at www.catherinemarystewart.net.

HorrorHound Weekend 2010: Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr.

Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr., after too many goddamn enchiladas.

Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr., Actor

Y Spy: Who are you and why are you here?

Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr.: My name is Miguel A. Nuñez, Jr., and the reason why I’m here is because I was blessed early in my career to have done two of the biggest franchises in horror and movie history, a “Return of the Living Dead” and a “Friday the 13th.” I also am a connoisseur, and horror has been my favorite genre since I ran away from home in North Carolina to go to Hollywood to be an actor. I said when I got to Hollywood I was gonna do horror movies and westerns. Well, niggas ain’t doing westerns unless they hitchin’ up horses, so I decided to do horror movies, and there I am!

And this place is off the chain! I had turned down so many of these in the past, and then Sean Clark talked me into doing one. I was so amazed at the level of genuine respect and admiration that the fans had for these movies. It blew my mind, and I decided that even if I don’t want to go, I’m going to go to every one that I can. I’m here, and I’m committed to the fans who love these movies.

Y Spy: Your best known roles in horror movies have a lot of comedy in them. Do you consider yourself a comedic horror actor?

Nuñez: Somebody said something a few moments ago: “When you got killed in ‘Friday the 13th Part 5,’ you were really frightened, you were really scared.” That’s how I played it. There’s a wee bit of comedy to all drama. In everything I do I add comedy, but there’s a fine line to walk. A lot of people don’t bring comedy to horror, but I can make somebody laugh and cry at the same time.

Y Spy: But it’s not slapstick.

Nuñez: Not at all. If you play it real in the context of the scene, it’s not slapstick. If you act out of the context of the scene, it’s gonna show.

Y Spy: And then there are your roles outside of horror, like Dee Jay in “Street Fighter” and Juwanna Mann. How did you approach these roles?

Nuñez: The one thing I never do is expect anything from a film. I try to go into it and do the best job that I can possibly do. If you’re doing a movie, you do whatever you would do for real in that situation. Then you never have to act.

Y Spy: For the “Street Fighter” movie, did you feel limited in playing an already established character from a video game?

Nuñez: Not only that, he was a Jamaican! But I was already a fan of the game, and I studied it. And remember that, in the game, they don’t really give you a back story. All they say is that he’s a Jamaican kickboxer. It was up to me to bring it all; whatever I gave them was whatever it was. I tried to stay true to the video game, and let the script and studio guys deal with that. And it worked out.

Y Spy: What is “Prince Def Rock?”

Nuñez: “Prince Def Rock” is an old school breakdancer who has to come back when he’s over 35, and join a dance contest. It was a movie I did with Jamie Kennedy [called “Kickin’ It Old Skool]. It was really fun, but hard because I had to dance and I thought we looked stupid.

Y Spy: Can you dance?

Nuñez: Oh yeah. I used to be able to do it better, but yeah, I can do it.

Y Spy: What have you been doing recently?

Nuñez: I just finished a Farrelly Brothers movie called “Hollywood and Wine.” I did a movie called “Black Dynamite,” and I’m doing a new series starring me and John Schneider from “Dukes of Hazzard” called “Back Nine.” It’s a half our sitcom about golf.

Y Spy: What scares you?

Nuñez: Nothing. I’m not afraid of anything. Anything!

HorrorHound Weekend 2010: Hare Krishna Zombie

Hare Krishna Zombie

Mike Christopher, Hare Krishna Zombie

Y Spy: Who are you and why are you here?

Hare Krishna Zombie: I’m the Hare Krishna Zombie from George Romero’s classic horror movie from 1978, “Dawn of the Dead.” I’m here because I’m here to meet the fans and talk about movies.

Y Spy: Who are you when you’re not a Hare Krishna Zombie?

HKZ: I’m an electronic music composer, an actor, and an auto detailer.

Y Spy: How has this role defined your life?

HKZ: When the movie was over I moved to Los Angeles to do laser light shows. From there I made synthesizers and drum machines. Then I colorized black and white movies, got into video post-production, moved to Florida, and was a graphic artist. Really until about three years ago the movie had very little effect on my life. Then I found out about horror conventions, and they came out with a plastic action figure of my character, so I started getting back into movies, acting, soundtracks, and stuff like that.

Y Spy: What’s your take on being in one of the most influential zombie movies of all time?

HKZ: Back then it was a very small thing that I did for a couple days. It was real intense; the time went by real fast on the set. It took about three days to film my part. The first day was establishing shots of my character, me walking around the mall with the other zombies. The second day was the stuff in the hallway with Ken Foree and David Emge. The third day was shot in George Romero’s office building. They had a set built there. None of the stuff that happens upstairs in the hideout was filmed in the mall.

After that I went on to do a bunch of different things, and it faded into my memory. Every once in a while I’d invite a friend over to watch the movie and talk about it for a little while. Since finding about the horror conventions and meeting all the fans, it’s become a fantastic experience. It’s amazing to learn that there are thousands upon thousands of people who really care about “Dawn of the Dead.”

Y Spy: Would you consider your role in “Dawn of the Dead” to be a supporting character or a glorified extra?

HKZ: At the time I considered it to like a glorified extra, but I realized that I got what I consider the best zombie role, because I got to go after one of the main characters. They called us lead zombies; it’s kind of somewhere inbetween.

Y Spy: Are you doing any acting or music projects now?

HKZ: Sure. I’m doing the soundtrack for “Bikini Monsters.” I was also Captain Nicholson in that movie. I was Crazy Old Guy in a movie coming out later this year called “Boobytrappers.” I’m a ticket scalper and audience member in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ new movie.

Y Spy: What scares you?

HKZ: The New World Order. International bankers. Politicians. Well, not actually politicians, because politicians reflect the apathy that’s going on in our society. The reality is more frightening than any horror movie I’ve ever seen.

Y Spy: If there was a horror movie about what’s going on today, what would it be called?

HKZ: That’s a really good question; I don’t have an answer to that. I guess the closest thing that comes to mind would be Jesse Ventura’s “Conspiracy Theory.”

Hare Krishna Zombie can be found at www.facebook.com/HareKrishnaZombie.

HorrorHound Weekend 2010: Matt Youngerman

Matt Youngerman

Matt Youngerman, Insect Artist

Y Spy: Who are you and why are you here?

Matt Youngerman: My name is Matt Youngerman, and a lot of people call me “The Bugman.” I sell framed insects and butterflies from all over the world. Taratulas, scorpions, scary stuff that I think goes pretty well with the horror genre.

Y Spy: How did you get into that?

Youngerman: When I was five years old, the Dayton Museum of Natural History in Dayton, Ohio had a summer program. There were different classes, and one was called Backyard Bugs. Since then I was always one of the kids who would carry a butterfly net around, catching bugs. My degree is in zoology, and in grad school I studied insects. I started my business of selling framed insects about seven years ago.

Y Spy: What’s the process involved in gathering and displaying your insects?

Youngerman: We travel all over the world and find villagers who raise butterflies and insects on what are called butterfly farms. They ship them to us all dead and dry, legs and wings folded up, and then we have to take each one and rehydrate them. Then I put them on special mounting boards and spreading boards, opening their wings up, opening their legs up. Then I let them dry for another day or so, and then I can put them in the frames.

Y Spy: So they’re otherwise as you’d find them in the wild.

Youngerman: Right. Because some of the colors are so metallic and so bright, people assume that we paint them or alter them in some way, but everything that we sell is natural colors. In the United States you don’t see insects that have colors like tropical insects do.

Y Spy: Do you get flak from people who claim that you’re exploiting insects?

Youngerman: Not really. Sometimes when they first come, [people] are upset because they think that we went out with bug nets in the rainforest and caught a bunch of insects. But they’re raised on farms, so it’s sustainable, and the primary purpose of butterfly farms is to supply zoos with living butterfly exhibits. My dry insects are what they do with the extra insects that they don’t sell living. Most people understand that, but you always have people who don’t agree with that. That’s fine; as long as I can educate them as much as I can, they can make their own decision.

Y Spy: The insects don’t have long lives, so it’s not as though they have to be killed for your exhibits.

Youngerman: Right. Most tropical butterflies only live in the wild for three weeks, as a butterfly. Most of their lives are spent as a caterpillar, eating leaves. Butterflies can only mate one time, so really their only purpose once they have wings is to fly around and find a mate. Insects, compared to other animals, have a very short lifespan.

Y Spy: How do the tarantulas and scorpions work?

Youngerman: That started with people raising them for the pet industry. For the tarantulas, male tarantulas on average only live three years. Female tarantulas live a long time, 20-30 years. I only sell male tarantulas, because the way that the breeders work is that they’re not going to sell or kill their female tarantulas. They let the males and females breed, the males die, and they prepare them and ship them out to me. It’s really the same with scorpions.

Y Spy: How does having a pet like that even work?

Youngerman: I honestly don’t know, because I’ve never had one. I wouldn’t want it to get out and not be able to find it. A lot of people do, though. I ask them how it is, if they can play with it. A lot of people don’t even play with it. It’s more or less a living piece of artwork that stays in the cage. But that’s okay, because tarantulas and scorpions in the wild never move very far from one spot. They’re perfectly happy in a cage, as long as they get food. In that sense, it’s not as though you’re torturing them.

Y Spy: Are they dangerous to own?

Youngerman: Some are. A lot of the ones in the pet trade aren’t dangerous, but there are some that you can mail order that you wouldn’t want to get bit by. That’s what freaks a lot of people out – you don’t know. Even if it’s a relatively harmless tarantula or scorpion, you don’t know how you’re going to react to that venom until it bites you. It might not be dangerous to most people, but if you’re allergic to it, what are you gonna do? I’ve never had one, which might sound weird. Maybe it’s because I know enough about them, and I see them all the time in the wild, which is pretty cool.

Y Spy: So your sign says that you’re donating some of the proceeds you make at the convention?

Youngerman: The countries that have butterfly farms highly regulate them. The farmers have to pay a certain tax to become farmers. Those proceeds go to these countries’ fish and wildlife departments. They use them to buy and maintain parkland, which in return helps protect land for wild butterflies and insects. It’s actually a pretty big business. Whenever I buy insects from another country, I usually have to pay an export tax to that country, and that money is usually used for the same thing. It’s not necessarily an individual charity.

Y Spy: What are your environmental beliefs?

Youngerman: I’m really big on conservation. That’s why I only work with butterfly farmers. I understand that people are always going to want products like this, but I think it’s really important to find the best way to give people these products without taking them from the wild. I’ve been to over 30 countries, and some of them are in desperate need to protect their land. It’s really sad and bad, and there are so many animals that have been lost forever because they haven’t been protected.

Y Spy: So is this all you do?

Youngerman: Yeah. I used to have real jobs; I say real jobs because people look at what I do now and say that it’s so cool. I started this seven years ago, part time, and turned it into [what it is now]. I travel all over the country, go to different shows, I have a storefront in Ohio, sell online.

Y Spy: Is it a profitable business?

Youngerman: Yeah, it is, and the reason why is because I actually go to the countries and find the farmers. There’s no middleman for me. A lot of people who do this as a hobby buy from people like me, and it’s not as profitable.

Y Spy: And you’re offering a physical art form that can’t be duplicated.

Youngerman: Every butterfly is different and unique, even if it’s the same species. There are so many different insects and butterflies that you could collect for years and come nowhere close to having everything. It’s a very unique product, and if done right, it’s a good business.

An Example of Work.

Matt Youngerman can be found at www.theinsectkingdom.com.

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