Y Spy: Meklit Hadero

Meklit Hadero sounds like a lot of things: a full-throated jazz pixie, a guitar folk whisperer, a cool and self-collected slinger of R&B.  One thing she never sounds is boring, and I’d also throw in complacent into that mess of things Hadero is not.  A lifelong traveler, the Ethiopian-born singer has collected a vast swath of styles, mixing them together into “On a Day like This,” an album released last year in which Hadero sings of setting roots in San Francisco.

            But in talking with Meklit Hadero, one gets the strong impression that her musical ambitions – goals which are blatantly larger than sound – don’t begin and end with the recording of songs.  Having formed an artistic group of fellow Ethiopians known as the Arba Minch Collective, Hadero has explored and challenged her roots with an intensity that is hard to match.

 

Y Spy:  Let’s start with the basics.  Who are you, and what is your musical background?

 

Meklit Hadero:  I’m a vocalist and a songwriter originally from Ethiopia.  I was born there and grew up all over the States: in Brooklyn and in Florida and in Seattle.  I’ve been in San Francisco the past seven years.  The music kind of sits at the crossroads of three different traditions: the American songwriters, jazz, as well as bringing in some Ethiopian music and influence.  I primarily play with jazz instruments, plus I bring a lot of improvisation into the live shows.

 

Y Spy:  How has traveling around internationally as well as within the United States affected your musical perspective?

 

Hadero:  When people ask me what my influences are, I tend to think less about who are the artists that I model myself after and more about what the sounds are that I’ve absorbed growing up.  For example, living in Brooklyn for six years, the place I grew up in my childhood years, jazz was everywhere.  It was in the subways and in the streets.  So was early hip-hop.  That sort of soundscape, the streetscape, of New York felt like it was an important sonic ingredient.  Then, of course, growing up and having my parents play old Ethiopian cassettes.

There was a constancy of sound as a presence in one’s life, and how those sounds then get interpreted as songs, and where they come out, is something of a mystery.  But it does happen, and that was a big part of how I developed this particular approach to making music.

In terms of influences, though, I’d say that my biggest influences have been my voice teachers, people who taught me what the voice is and what its expressive power as an instrument is.

 

Y Spy:  How did you put together On a Day like This?

 

Hadero:  I wanted to make it as a tribute to my first five years in San Francisco, because at the time I wasn’t sure I was going to stay.  I had just done a residency at the De Young Museum and was about to go to Oxford for a few weeks to do the TED Global Fellowship, and then I was going to travel for three months.  I called it my cliff; I had no idea what was going to happen after this particular period of time.

It was just about two months before I left when I said: I have to make an album before I leave.  I realized that I wanted to capture the period of time that had happened.  So it was really about who I had been playing with for those five years of developing those songs, bringing together all these jazz musicians who I had played with and who were a big part of my musical community, but also bringing together a lot of musicians from a collective of classical artists called Classical Revolution that are all about changing the way classical is played, making it more accessible.  They have chapters in ten or twelve cities, but they started in San Francisco a few blocks from my creative home at the Red Poppy Art House.  That’s how I brought people together.

 

Y Spy:  As you’ve said, On a Day like This mixes together a lot of styles.  Was it difficult, considering this, to constrain all of these different directions to something as finite as an album?

 

Hadero:  I have real faith in multiplicity.  I feel like people have a lot of capacity for bringing together complexity than is offered in a lot of marketing.  Nobody’s really one genre.  It’s really hard to label anyone’s music.  The best descriptions of music are poetic.

I never thought of it as limiting; I thought of it as a window.

 

Y Spy:  Were there any styles that you do wish you had explored more on this album, or that you would like to explore more on a future release?

 

Hadero:  I have a few releases coming out.  I’m actually in the middle of two albums right now.  Gabriel Teodros is a Seattle-based MC who, with Burntface and I, went to Ethiopia in May as part of this collective that travels there annually to connect with artists, traditional and contemporary.  We just finished recording an album which we call our Ethiopian hip-hop space opera.  So I’m working with two MCs, and it’s all with beats, and in it Gabriel is a half-alien, half-human coming to Earth for the first time.  It’s a really theatrical, big production, and that will be out in January.

Also in January is a simultaneous release with an Oakland-based soul singer called Quinn Deveaux.  We’re doing soul interpretations of indie rock and art rock songs, with a few originals on there too.  Some David Byrne and Patti Smith, but really bringing the soul roots of that music to light through this collaboration.

I’ll continue to make the music that is interesting and inspiring to me, but I really don’t feel limited by style.  Collaboration lets you grow in that way.

 

Y Spy:  It seemed that in the old top-down musical model, musicians would release work every two years or so, but there wasn’t a whole lot of recording or outside activity inbetween.  Do you feel like people are becoming more open to collaboration now, being that the terms aren’t so dictated from the top?

 

Hadero:  That’s exactly what it is: the terms aren’t dictated from the top.  We’re also in a place where nobody knows what works, so there are no rules.  You might get pressures from all sorts of sides to be more defined and hyper-focused in your scope, but now nobody knows.  So try something!

Part of what makes me empowered is my relationship with Porto Franco Records, the label I work with.  They’re based in San Francisco, a father-son team, and they are ridiculously supportive.  They’ve helped me make these records, and they really believe in their artists – and I think they believe in artists in general.  That’s been a relationship that has made a lot of this possible.

 

Y Spy:  What do your recent touring plans look like?

 

Hadero:  As I mentioned, we were in Ethiopia and Kenya in May.  I’ve been doing some summer touring; this particular tour starts in the Bay Area and winds all the way up the West Coast.  I’m doing an East Coast tour in October, hopefully heading to Europe in November.  But right now, aside from these short tours, I’m trying to finish up these albums and gear up for January.  2012 is going to be really tour intensive.

 

Y Spy:  How did you go about gathering fellow Ethiopian musicians to form the Arba Minch Collective?  Were these people you already knew or people you sought out?

 

Hadero:  Kind of both.  There was a website called habesha.com that came out in 2001.  It started as a website to bring together Ethiopian-American and Eritrean-American artists.  It was at the height of the tensions between Ethiopia and Eritrea.  What they ended up doing was bringing together and finding Ethiopian-Americans, Ethiopian-Canadians, Eritreans, and artists in diaspora.  They started writing about them, they started compiling lists, and suddenly there was a place where you could find out what all these people were doing all over the world.  It kind of underlined this emerging generation.  On Myspace you started finding out about people, and then there started being conferences where people would get together.

This network of artists who were doing work that I really loved, that I had been paying attention to for quite a while, I started meeting them when I started performing a lot.  There was an awareness, you would say.  What happened was that I found out about something called the 1,000 Stars Festival that brought together 56 ethnic groups from the south of Ethiopia to play their music together.  They’re distinct ethnic groups with different cultures, different music, different food even, and they came together in this festival and danced and sang for three days, for 50,000 people from Ethiopia.  I thought: I had to go, but how much more powerful would it be if it wasn’t just me that goes, but a whole generation that’s in this process of defining itself and could really benefit and learn from going to this?  So the group started for a particular experience.  The festival was cancelled, and we went anyway and had an amazing time traveling throughout the country and connecting with a burgeoning artistic movement.  Our first trip was in December 2009, and our second trip was this past May, and we will continue to make annual trips.

 

Y Spy:  In America, culture seems relatively formless and changing, taking connections for granted.  What is the importance to you of having these connections with artists from your homeland?

 

Hadero:  In a way, it’s about reality.  What I realized is that, growing up in the States, my whole experience of Ethiopian culture was filtered through my family lens.  There were the stories that I would hear, experiences that particular people would have, but that’s such a small part of this grand picture of culture.  What I realized is that things are changing there, fast.  They’re changing extremely fast.  Every time I go to Ethiopia, it looks different.  Infrastructure is growing so fast, and I think it’s also in a process where there are huge pressures happening, too.  If I really wanted to understand what was happening, I couldn’t rely on these filters.  I’d have to go, but I had to go again, and again, and again, in order to have an accurate picture.  If I ask myself why, my tendency is to answer with almost intuition – because I have to know, because I have to learn.

 

Y Spy:  How does that compare with the artistic connections and your perspectives about and with America?

 

Hadero:  I read in the New York Times, ten years ago, that 70 percent of New Yorkers are foreign born.  That blew my mind!  For me growing up there, that was the norm.  Diaspora was the norm.  I know it’s not like that all over, and borders are real, and contested, and challenging.  But we also live in a place of multiplicity, and we can’t deny that.  That’s what the world is like, and if we want to prepare ourselves for interacting with the whole world, we kind of have to be a little bit curious.  And music reflects your times.

 

 

Meklit Hadero will play the EMP Level 3 Stage at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival at 9 pm on Saturday, September 3rd.  Her album, “On a Day like This,” is available now.

Y Spy: Michael Showalter: “Mr. Funny Pants” Wears Many Hats

Michael Showalter doesn’t come off as a person who can sit still for long.  Coming up with a comedic army in “The State,” he went on to star in many TV projects with various Statemates as well as starring in the cult classic “Wet Hot American Summer.” In addition to his work before the camera, Showalter has filled many roles behind it, most notably as a screenwriter and director.  He’s also a stand-up comedian with an album to his name (the aptly titled “Sandwiches & Cats”), an artist, and a teacher.  With the release of his new book, “Mr. Funny Pants,” he is now a published author as well.

In our conversation, Showalter made it abundantly clear that he isn’t a person who feels bound by comedic routine.  It was equally obvious that this sense of diversity isn’t so much in order to stay fresh in the public eye or due to any PR calculation.  Instead, it’s a sign of Showalter engaging in a more pure exploration of his abilities.

Y Spy: What is Mr. Funny Pants about?

Michael Showalter: Oh, boy.  It’s a book about trying to write a book, among other things.

Y Spy: How did you go about the process of trying to write a book?

Showalter: You sit at your computer and you open a file that says Book.  Then you start writing.  It starts with you and writing, and then you go from there.

Y Spy: How did it go for you?

Showalter: Well, it was a lot of trial and error, but it was fun.

Y Spy: Is there a lot of autobiography in the book?

Showalter: Yeah.  I talk about my childhood, and I talk about my career.  There’s a saying: “Write what you know.”  I sort of went with that.  I tried to write about what I know.

Y Spy: And what do you know?

Showalter: I know where I live; I live in Brooklyn.  I know that I like coffee.  I know that I like cats.  I know that I watch a lot of television.  Very banal stuff.

Y Spy: Is the book a mixture of comedy with that sort of “This is my life; I got up, and so on and so forth”?

Showalter: It’s mostly just “This is my life; I got up, and so on and so forth.”  I actually think that would be a great book.  I tried to be funny, but I tried to focus on stories that maybe had something inherently funny to me, or tragic, and in tragedy there’s comedy.

Y Spy: Not forcing jokes to make it a humor book, though.

Showalter: I think it could function as a humor book.  It certainly has plenty of goofy stuff in it.  There are stupid lists.  There are fairly long sections of the book that essentially are just humor writing.  So it’s kind of a combination of a memoir and a humor book, a joke book.

Y Spy: How much of your screenwriting experience came into play in the writing of this book?

Showalter: I talk a lot about screenwriting in the book, but in terms of actual storytelling, this was more in the vein of an early Steve Martin or Woody Allen book where it was basically odds and ends, funny stuff, bits and pieces, twigs and yarn of just humor, loosely tied together with a narrative.  I do talk a lot about screenwriting and the Hollywood system, so I incorporated those experiences into the book in the form of stories.

Y Spy: Are there any stories about pants in the book?

Showalter: No.  The name Mr. Funny Pants happened [because] I was giving them title suggestions, and for one reason or another they were rejecting all my title suggestions.  So out of frustration and completely as a joke, not thinking they would take it seriously, I said: “How about Mr. Funny Pants?” Why don’t we call it the stupidest title I can think of?  And they loved it.

Y Spy: On the Mr. Funny Pants tour, you’re doing both book signings and stand-up shows.  How much will the book tie into your stand-up?

Showalter: It’ll be kind of old stuff and new stuff.  At the signings I’ll be reading from the book, but on the tour I’ll be doing stand-up material.  Some of that material will be inspired by the book.

Y Spy: I’ve always had the impression that you’ve been a person who wants to explore as many different forms of comedy as possible.  Do you feel that you are actively chasing that sort of diversity?

Showalter: Sort of, yeah.  A lot of it has to do with being easily distracted.  I think the comedic careers of people I was influenced by would be Steve Martin, Woody Allen, and the Monty Python guys, who I grew up on.  They worked in every medium.  They would do a movie, a TV show, a book, a play, an album, a tour.  It didn’t really matter, and that’s how I feel.  It’s interesting to explore the point of view in any of these mediums.  I do like doing all of it.

Y Spy: Has coming up with such a large comedic group as The State given you a greater freedom to pursue these different avenues than a solitary comedian might have?

Showalter: I guess.  I don’t know.  There’s a body of work there that gives you a certain credibility.  It’s always nice when the audience is already on your side, where you have fans or people who like what you did and have followed you through these different things.  You’re not needing to convince anybody that you’re funny, even if you aren’t, which I probably am not.  It is nice to have slowly built up people who have been with us.

Y Spy: I have a few questions about the status of some projects that have been mentioned in the past.  First, I heard you were planning on remaking Night of the Living Dorks. What’s the status of that?

Showalter: That’s something that was gonna happen a long time ago, and I don’t know what’s happening with it.  I’m attached to direct that movie, but I think it’s been in turnaround for a long time.

Y Spy: What’s the status of the State movie?

Showalter: It’s another thing that we’ve talked about for all these years that we’d love to do, but it’s just something where it’s hard to get everybody to commit to it.  I think people want to do it, but everyone’s very busy.  We’re also now pretty spread out and getting old, and now everyone has kids.  I just think it’s a logistical thing.

Y Spy: I assume I’ll get the same answer here, but Wet Hot American Summer II?

Showalter: Same thing.  I want to do it, but it hasn’t happened yet.

Y Spy: Are you planning to release another comedy album?

Showalter: I’d like to.  The book is on tape, which feels pretty comedy album-y.  I would like to do another comedy album, but I haven’t gotten around to it.  The people I did the first album with, we’ve talked about doing another one, and it’s definitely something I’d like to do someday.

Y Spy: The greatest and saddest thing I found in Sandwiches & Cats was the moment when you were so dismayed at being misidentified as Screech from Saved by the Bell. Would you care to expand upon those feelings about this mistaken identity?

Showalter: You know what I will say: I’m friends with somebody who did a show with him in New York.  I’m not sure what the show was, but it was some improv show that he was in.  I think he was playing himself, in the show playing Screech.  Apparently he’s not as bad as he’s made out to be.

Also, when he walks down the street people scream at him, everywhere he goes.  Like, “Fuck you, Screech!”  And I thought that was sad.  So I actually have sympathy for him because that must be very hard, being America’s dork.  Basically everywhere he goes, people scream at him and ridicule him.  That’s not right.

So I’m going to say I’m proud to be compared to Screech.

Y Spy: Does your sense of adventurousness and diversity, your leaping into different mediums and roles, come in any part from a desire to not be similarly typecast?

Showalter: If anything, it’s that I’m still trying to find a comfort zone and figure out what I want my career to be.  A lot of it is trial and error to figure out how I want to proceed.

Y Spy: Do you feel as though your direction has become clearer as your career has progressed?

Showalter: Just in the last year, I do think so.  I think there are certain avenues which I feel comfortable about not going down.

Y Spy: Like what?

Showalter: I don’t ever see myself being a big Hollywood person.  I think I’m starting to become more comfortable with the idea that I’m more of a New York niche person.  I like the idea of focusing on smaller projects.  I really liked writing the book.  I’m going to write another one.  I’m also working on an art book of my artwork.  I have another idea for a small film, and after that I’d like to develop something for a one-man show, or a longer stand-up act.  I’m feeling less compelled to conquer L.A., which is something that I have debated back and forth in my mind for a long time.  Do I want that?  I don’t think I do.

Y Spy: Do you think your acceptance and confidence have come with age and experience?

Showalter: Yeah.  You need to have the experiences to back it up.  I live on the East Coast; I like the East Coast.  I teach at NYU, and I get a lot of gratification out of that.  That’s not to say that I would not work in L.A.  I would.  It’s just that, bigger picture, I don’t know if that’s a universe I feel I’m being pulled toward.  I’m more interested in writing another book, making a small film, or doing something theatrical.  That’s more my truer self.

Michael Showalter will be in Seattle on Tuesday, March 8th, at the University Bookstore at 4 pm and The Triple Door at 6 pm.  “Mr. Funny Pants” is available now.


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.

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.