I can’t believe I’m writing this, but today marks the addition of our 200th band to The Weird List. I don’t think anybody, including us, thought we could keep at it this long…and honestly, without you amazing readers out there in Interweb Land, we wouldn’t have. So thank you. And now that we’ve gotten all that mushy shit out of the way…
We couldn’t make just any band our 200th. We had to go with a classic. And few weird bands are weirder or more classic than John Zorn’s Naked City, the whiplash jazz/punk/surf/lounge/thrash/ambient/noise quintet that blew into the world in the late ’80s and blew out again just five years later, leaving a trail of ringing ears, confused jazzbos and grotesque album covers in their wake.
Naked City grew out of an eclectic downtown Manhattan music scene in the late ’80s that coalesced around the original Knitting Factory. Punks went to see jazz combos; jazz musicians joined punk bands. You could see free jazz pioneer Cecil Taylor one night and Sonic Youth the next. Mike Doughty, the future lead singer of Soul Coughing, worked the door. If I had a time machine, right after I killed Hitler, I would go to the Knitting Factory circa 1990.
The ringleader of Naked City was an angry 36-year-old saxophonist named John Zorn, who had been active as an experimental composer and musician for over a decade. A fan of both avant-classical experimenter John Cage and cartoon soundtrack composer Carl Stalling, Zorn spent much of his early career devising what he called “game pieces”: essentially, highly structured improvisations featuring a mix of jazz, rock, classical and unconventional instrumentation. For some reason, most of Zorn’s game pieces had sports-themed names; here’s one, for example, called “Archery,” and another called “Lacrosse.”
To give you the best idea of how weird Zorn’s game pieces could get, here are two different versions of his most famous game, “Cobra”: first, from a 1992 documentary called On the Edge: Improvisation in Music; next, from a 2008 Zorn concert in Tel Aviv featuring Naked City drummer Joey Baron, jazz guitar god Marc Ribot and members of Mr. Bungle. In both clips, you can see Zorn “conducting” the game with yellow cue cards, which he mostly seems to use to whip his musicians into ever greater frenzies of atonal chaos.
In addition to his game pieces, Zorn also dabbled in experimental rock music (with Golden Palominos, among others), duck calls as musical instruments (most notably on The Classic Guide to Strategy), traditional Japanese music, and Ennio Morricone. But he was also listening to a lot of punk, speed metal and early grindcore—influences that really began to exert themselves on his music in the late ’80s, first with Naked City and then with even more overtly hardcore-influenced projects like Spy vs. Spy, his album-length tribute to free jazz legend Ornette Coleman, and Painkiller, his jazz/dub/grindcore trio with Napalm Death drummer Mick Harris and bassist Bill Laswell.
But enough about John Zorn’s lengthy CV. Let’s get to Naked City already, shall we?
Zorn founded Naked City in 1988 with fellow NYC jazz players Bill Frisell on guitar, Fred Frith on bass, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards and Joey Baron on drums. Borrowing the Naked City name from Weegee’s notorious book of gritty tabloid photography and the 1946 film noir inspired by it, Zorn seems to have originally envisioned the project as a chance to playfully riff on gangster movie soundtracks; the group’s self-titled debut album (which featured a graphic Weegee photo on its cover) included punked-up versions of the James Bond theme, complete with gunshots, and Jerry Goldsmith’s music from Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. But it also featured several hyper-condensed blasts of sheer noise, with titles like “Igneous Ejaculation” and “Demon Sanctuary,” often featuring the banshee-getting-a-prostate-exam vocals of Yamatsuka Eye of the Boredoms.
The band’s second album, Torture Garden, ditched the gangster-soundtrack angle entirely and just crammed 42 “hardcore miniatures” onto a single disc (including a few repurposed pieces from their debut). The shortest, “Hammerhead,” was just eight seconds long. The one that sounded the most like some kind of mission statement was called “Jazz Snob Eat Shit.”
Over the next four years, Naked City would release five more albums, each more bizarre than the last. By the 1992 album Radio, they were skipping with abandon from thrash metal to prog-rock to country to free jazz to Looney Tunes soundtracks, sometimes all in the same song. Their live shows became breakneck tours the last 50 years of popular music, often accompanied by the otherworldly shrieks of Eye or their other favorite live guest vocalist, Mr. Bungle’s Mike Patton.
Alas, it was all too weird to last. After 1993′s moodier, more ambient Absinthe, Naked City broke up and John Zorn went on to other, only slightly less nutty projects like his klezmer-inspired group Masada and the Moonchild Trio, his long-running collaboration with Joey Baron, Mike Patton and Mr. Bungle bassist Trevor Dunn.
But for awhile there, Naked City was truly, in the eyes of many, the Weirdest Band in the World. Naked City fans are a diehard breed, even among fans of weird music. This, from a 2005 review of the band’s complete recordings, is only slightly more extreme than usual: “Every time I move into a new place—even before I cart in the boxes—I set up a stereo and blast that [debut] LP in the living room: It cleans out the evil spirits and even clears out bad smells.” I’m gonna go out on a limb and say the guy who wrote that probably moves a lot.
We generally cater to short attention spans around here, and Naked City’s oeuvre offers plenty of material for the ADD crowd. So here’s 55 seconds of Zorn and co., with Eye on vocals:
But believe me when I tell you: To fully appreciate how truly, awesomely insane Naked City was, you need to watch all 93 minutes of this 1990 performance from a jazz festival in Switzerland. Or at least watch until about the 7:05 mark, when it takes Zorn longer to introduce the song “Igneous Ejaculation” than it does for the band to play it.
So to all you Naked City fans who read this blog: Sorry it took us 200 bands to get to them. And now, on to the next 200…
(P.S. Many, many readers have asked us to add Naked City to The Weird List over the years, but we have to give a special shout-out to reader Salvatore Intravaia for answering our call for 200th band suggestions on Facebook. Well-played, Salvatore! As soon as we get around to printing more T-shirts, you’ll get one.)
Let me just begin this post by saying: You people are awesome. And by “you people,” I mean not only our regular readers but fans of all the bands in our most recent Weird Band Poll. The response to this latest poll was unprecedented and finally led to a little band from Toronto called Barbara being crowned the winner, narrowly edging out the equally weird H-Beam from Nashville. So congrats, Barbara! And to H-Beam and all their fans: Don’t you worry. We’ve got a consolation prize in store for you guys. We don’t want to spoil the surprise, but we can tell you it’ s not a pony.
So who are these Barbara guys, you ask? They’re a brother duo named Tyler and Raynor Semrick-Palmateer and their music could perhaps best be described as pop music for schizophrenics. There are lots of distorted, layered yet occasionally soulful vocals, head-nodding beats and melodies that might have once been downright catchy before they got stretched like Silly Putty. It’s sort of The Residents meets “Bohemian Rhapsody” meets five episodes of Intervention all playing at the same time. They also appear to be partial to creepy-looking masks, which adds to the air of
Barbara haven’t released a ton of music yet; their one and only EP, Stuck to the Ground, is just three songs plus a handful of kooky little interstitial tracks in which a lady friend of theirs (Barbara herself, perhaps?) asks pertinent questions on behalf of the audience, like “Does anyone know who these people are?” and “Do you have any more songs?” The answer to that last one: Yes, actually. They have a non-EP dance mix of a song called “Fidelio” that, Tyler tell us, is comprised entirely of quotes from Eyes Wide Shut. And they perform a dance-off to it at the end of their sets. Here, watch.
Is it just me, or is the most unsettling thing about that whole performance the fact that one of them is carrying a briefcase?
Regular readers of this blog know that we can be procrastinators sometimes. We reply to comments days after they’ve been posted; we announce little things like bands getting new lead singers two months after the fact. Hey, a blog this good takes time to craft, okay? That and we may be easily distracted. Squirrel!
So please forgive us, dear reader Mike, for taking nearly two years since your comment suggesting that we add Renaldo and the Loaf to the Weird List to finally, you know, add Renaldo and the Loaf to the Weird List. We’ve been working our way up to it. (And yeah, we know, no Butthole Surfers yet, either. We’re working on that one, too.)
For those of you not familiar (and there probably aren’t many of you, since at least 10 other people* since Mike have also recommended them to us), Renaldo and the Loaf are a British duo best-known for a series of albums they released in the ’80s on Ralph Records, the label run by one of their biggest influences, The Residents. Using various tape delays and effects to distort vocals, guitars, drums and other mostly acoustic instruments, they created songs that unfurled like carnival music for lunatic asylums, full of oddly tuned guitars, funhouse percussion, nonsense lyrics, start-stop rhythms and a general sense of silliness that many a pretentious “avant-garde” recording artist could stand to learn from.
Most folks probably discovered R&L with their first Ralph Records album, 1981′ s Songs for Swinging Larvae. But Dave “Ted the Loaf” Janssen and Brian “Renaldo Malpractice” Poole actually first began making music together about a decade earlier, as they outline in the somewhat patchy autobiography on their official website. Fun fact: one of their earliest influences was
T. Rex Tyrannosaurus Rex, the early, psychedelic folk incarnation of the band that would later come to be known as T. Rex.
After they hooked up with The Residents, R&L cranked out a bunch of music, including reissues of some of their earlier material, three studio albums, and a collaboration with The Residents called Title in Limbo. But by 1988, they had decided to call it quits. Since then, both have continued to release music through various projects on their own: Brian Poole in collaboration with various artists under names like Fiction Friends and Shouting Hat, Dave Janssen mostly solo as Mr. Sneff, The Darkening Scale and The Tapeworm Vessel (the latter with Sylvie Walder). Janssen has also remixed a lot of old R&L material and posted most of the results on his website, where you can download them (along with his various solo efforts) for free.
In 2007, Poole and Janssen reunited to write some new songs for the soundtrack to an independent film called Kirk Mannican’s Liberty Mug. You can listen to one of the new(ish) tunes on Janssen’s website, buy the whole soundtrack (most of which, fair warning, is not Renaldo and the Loaf) or watch the whole film for a mere $2.99 on Amazon, of all places. Remember when you had to drive to some sketchy “artist’s district” and paw through milk crates full of old VHS tapes in the dimly lit back of an “independent” video store to find such treasures? Oh, Internet, you make our lives so hassle-free.
Renaldo & the Loaf fans are a technologically adept bunch, so practically everything the duo ever recorded has been uploaded on YouTube. But apart from the occasional fan-made video, very little visual accompaniment to their music exists. They never really cashed in on the whole MTV thing and their only live performance, in 1980, was not videotaped. (It was, however, recorded and just released on CD for the first time this year, along with a reissue of their first album, Struvé and Sneff; only 500 copies were made, but if any are left you can order one from this place called the Klanggalerie.)
Fortunately, however, we do still have access to a short film from 1981 called “Songs for Swinging Larvae,” based on portions of various tracks from the album of the same name. It is literally the All-Time Most Posted Video in Our User Comments, so most of you have probably seen it by now—but it’s worth watching again. By now, that little kid must be pushing 40. And he probably still has an irrational fear of hair rollers and hand puppets.
*Others who have repeatedly suggested we write about Renaldo and the Loaf: Hambu hodo, TommyTopHat, Melody Felicia-Baril McGinn, EThan and Frederson. Sorry it took so long, y’all.
So it turns out Moby was wrong. According to the latest song from Petunia-Liebling MacPumpkin, we are all made not of stars, but of monads. I had to look up what a monad is, and according to Dictionary.com, it can be either a “simple, single-celled organism” or “an unextended, indivisible, and indestructible entity that is the basic or ultimate constituent of the universe and a microcosm of it.” I don’t know about you, but I’m choosing the second option.
Here’s the new song “Monads,” uploaded mere hours ago to the Soundcloud page of MacPumpkin’s label, Electric Phantom, along with some tracks from the mysterious Rosewater Treacle Tart. The perfect soundtrack to a slightly hungover Sunday afternoon, don’t you think? (If you can’t see the Soundcloud player, click here.)
Even in the world of weird bands, The Residents have pretty much always hummed their own tune. So it figures that at a time when seemingly ever band on the planet is launching a Kickstarter to fund their next record, The Residents have basically decided to force fans to start their own Kickstarters just to buy their next record.
Did I say record? I meant box set. Wait, did I say box set? I meant MOST GARGANTUAN SET OF MUSIC EVER RELEASED BY ONE BAND IN THE HISTORY OF RECORDED MUSIC.
Seriously, this thing is ridiculous. It comes in a fucking working refrigerator, for starters. It includes everything The Residents have ever released in their entire 40-year history, including 40 LPs, 50 CDs, and approximately one metric butt-ton of singles, EPs, DVDs and God knows what else. It even includes an authentic Residents eyeball mask and top hat. Who knows, maybe even one worn by the actual Residents, since they’ve ditched the eyeballs lately in favor of an old man mask and what I’m gonna call Tusken Raider lounge singer costumes.
And oh by the way, here’s the most ridiculous part: Each Ultimate Box Set (UBS) will set you back a mere $100,000. No, that’s not a typo. You could literally buy a house in Pittsburgh right now for less than the price of this box set. I’m not even misusing the word “literally.”
There are only 10 of these things in existence and they go on sale Christmas Day. Wonder if anyone will give them as gifts? Wonder if anyone will have the balls to put this on their wish list? “Never mind the Xbox, Mom. Or college. Just give me a fridge full of Residents!”
After they’ve raked in a cool million from these box sets, The Residents will kick off 2013 with a bunch of tour dates celebrating their 40th anniversary as a band. After the dates below, stick around for an Ultimate Box Set infomercial starring The Residents’ lead singer, Randy Rose. Oh yeah, hadn’t you heard? The Residents “revealed” their identities in 2010. Apparently their names are Randy, Chuck and Bob. So now you know.
The Residents “Wonder of Weird” Tour Dates:
January 29, 2013 – Phoenix, AZ – Crescent Ballroom
January 31, 2013 – Austin, TX – Scottish Rite Theater
February 1, 2013 – Dallas, TX – Kessler Theater
February 2, 2013 – Dallas, TX – Kessler Theater
February 3, 2013 – Houston, TX – Fitzgerald’s
February 5, 2013 – Atlanta, GA – Variety Playhouse
February 6, 2013 – Carrboro, NC – Carrboro Arts Center
February 8, 2013 – Northampton, MA – Iron Horse
February 9, 2013 – New York, NY – Stage 48
February 10, 2013 – Washington, DC – Sixth & I Synagogue
February 11, 2013 – Philadelphia, PA – World Café
February 12, 2013 – Boston, MA – Institute of Contemporary Art
February 15, 2013 – Chicago, IL – Schubas
February 16, 2013 – Chicago, IL – Lincoln Hall
February 17, 2013 – Milwaukee, WI – Turner Hall
February 18, 2013 – Minneapolis, MN – Cedar Cultural Center
February 21, 2013 – Seattle, WA – Neptune Theatre
February 22, 2013 – Portland, OR – Hawthorne Theatre
February 24, 2013 – San Francisco, CA – Bimbo’s 365 Club
February 25, 2013 – Los Angeles, CA – El Rey Theatre
February 26, 2013 – San Diego, CA – Belly Up
February 28, 2013 – Santa Cruz, CA – Rio Theatre
Now here’s that infomercial. I could be wrong, but after watching all seven minutes of this thing, I’d swear The Residents must be Insane Clown Posse fans.
Someone suggested this week’s weird band to us over a year ago and I really have no good explanation for why we haven’t featured them sooner, other than the fact that for such a visually compelling band, there are amazingly few decent photos of them on the Interweb. Meet Hans Grüsel’s Kränkenkabinet, the greatest avant-garde German noise band ever to dress up like birdhouses.
Actually, that last sentence isn’t exactly true. HGK aren’t really from Germany, nor do they always dress up like birdhouses; sometimes, the lead singer (Hans Grüsel, I presume) dresses up like a tree trunk. Also, as you can see from the YouTube clip in that link—which kinda looks like it was shot in my middle school library—they’re not always that avant-garde. Sometimes they do Motörhead covers. They also do a mean version of “Tea for Two,” complete with tap-dancing. Hans Grüsel’s Kränkenkabinet is one of those bands that, just when you think they can’t possibly get any weirder…they get weirder. Even minus the goofy covers and eye-popping costumes, their music is a uniquely unsettling mix of hurdy-gurdy carnival music and migraine-inducing electro-noise assault. It kinda reminds me of the time I tried to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons with an ear infection and a vertiginous codeine high. Remember when they put codeine in cough syrup? Those were the days. But I digress….
The lunatic behind the Krankenkabinet is not, in fact, Hans Grüsel (at least not on his birth certificate), but a Bay Area composer named Thomas Day. Members of fellow Bay Area psychedelic noise wackos Caroliner are (or were) probably also involved in the project; certainly both groups share the same fingerpainting-on-acid design aesthetic. Another SF eccentric named Liz Allbee may or may not have been in on the action. But as far as I can tell, the exact identities of Day’s collaborators remain shrouded behind the myth that Hans Grüsel was a great but semi-forgotten enfant terrible from East Germany.
Day’s first Krankenkabinet release was 2001′s Das Boot, which purported to be a compilation of Grüsel’s “early works” and came wrapped in hand-painted cardboard, again a la Caroliner. One collector site describes the liner notes as looking “worm eaten,” but I’m not sure if that’s because someone stashed it in their basement too long or if the disc just came that way.
Over the next eight years or so, Hans and co. appear to have been semi-regular fixtures on the Bay Area underground art scene; they even toured occasionally. But from what I’ve been able to glean in my research, 2008′s Blaue Blooded Türen was the project’s last release. Since then, HansGrusel.com has been taken over by Asian cyber-squatters and those birdhouse and tree stump costumes have presumably been stuffed into a dark corner of Thomas Day’s closet—although they did make at least one return appearance in Seattle in 2011. The article about that show describes HGK as a “husband/wife duo” and says the dude in the tree-stump costume is a Seattle singer/guitarist named Sean Curley, who I suspect was recruited for just this one show. Whether the husband/wife thing is true or not, I have no idea.
It’s hard to sum up the weirdness that is Hans Grüsel’s Kränkenkabinet in just one video, but this clip capturing them in full electro-noise-freakout mode comes close. Is it just me, or does whoever’s playing ol’ tree-stump Grüsel (at the 1:30 mark) kinda look like Mr. Peanut’s angry, coke-addled brother?
This week’s weird band was suggested by one of our newest readers (at least we hope he actually reads this site; he might just look at the pictures and yell “Party!” a lot): Andrew W.K. Andrew sent us a tweet last month in which he name-checked a bunch of bands we haven’t covered yet (but hey, dude, we did not forget TG). Turns out Mr. Party Hard knows his weird shit. Pretty much all the bands he mentioned are indeed freaky deaky. But the freakiest of the bunch, in our estimation, has got to be Wolf Eyes.
In a nutshell, Wolf Eyes are a noise band from Michigan, but there’s more to them than meets the bleeding eardrum. A lot of their stuff is so abrasively noisy that even many noise fans can’t really take it. They also go way beyond the usual rock band format of most noise acts, with lots of sax, electronics and non-traditional instruments. If my partner Andy was here, he’d probably describe them as a sort of John Zorn meets Boredoms meets Whitehouse deal, but really, they’re on their own trip. They’re also fucking terrifying. Not in an obvious Saw VI kind of way. More in a “you might actually go insane listening to this” kind of way.
Here’s the other thing about Wolf Eyes: They are stupidly, exhaustingly prolific. In the time it takes you to read this, one or more of the dudes in Wolf Eyes has started a new side project and probably recorded at least five minutes of feedback experiments and backwards tape loops. Their Wikipedia page lists 20 releases in 2006 alone, not to mention an insanely long list of related bands with such awesome names as Have You Seen the Shining?, Scare Supply and The Man Who Ate Himself. These guys eat, breathe and sleep this stuff, and they probably poop D.I.Y. limited-edition cassette tapes.
Random factoid: Apparently this song was featured on an episode of The Office. Which actually makes sense, because in the right context, Wolf Eyes is so over-the-top sonically horrifying that it actually becomes kind of hysterical.
Second factoid: two-thirds of Wolf Eyes, founder Nate Young (that’s him rocking out in the photo above) and sax/electronics guy John Olson, have a newish band called Stare Case. They sound, not surprisingly, a lot like Wolf Eyes.
Third random factoid and then I’ll leave you with the most random, WTF Wolf Eyes video we could find: Nate Young also releases solo material, mostly as part of an ongoing project he calls his Regression series. You can hear a sample of it here. I bet our buddy Richard from Army of Gay Unicorns will be all over this like Mitt Romney on an offshore bank account.
Okay, here’s that random video I promised you. They’re like the world’s most avant-garde biker gang.
And here’s your reward for making it through all five minutes and 53 seconds of that. No cheating!