Thus spake the Viper

Champaign-Urbana’s upcoming Pygmalion Festival (September 22-25, 2010) was recently featured in the 2010 Welcome Back Guide of the Daily Illini, the student newspaper at the University of Illinois.

Along with the festival’s organizer, Seth Fein, and Reese Donohue, of Butterfly Bones, the Daily Illini piece by Rose-Ann Aragon also features some choice quotes by The Viper, who will be playing the festival along with His Famous Orchestra on Saturday, September 25.

Despite my best efforts to unsettle her questions, Ms. Aragon did a nice job of pulling out mostly pretty straightforward answers — though I will point out that, where she had me saying “situational” in the following, I had actually said “situationalist”…

According to Jerving, his music doesn’t quite align with the indie rock genre that the festival is known for.[…] However, Jerving said this just makes the festival even more interesting and adds to the different dimensions of rock music. “It basically comes down to a situational analysis of context; we’re playing non-rock or pre-rock music for a rock audience.”

…and, of course, what I was really trying to say was “situationist.” Go Wildcats!

In the spirit of always leaving them wanting less, after the jump you’ll find a longer version of the e-mail interview than she was able to include (or, really, interested in including).


DAILY ILLINI: Please spell your name and your position in the group or any other people that should be mentioned and their instruments/position (unless its an orchestra.. then just the group name)?

THE VIPER: My name is Ryan Jerving. I am The Viper. (I even succeeded in getting my mother to call me that for a while, though she’s since gone back to just plain Ryan.) I croon, scat, and yodel; I play the baritone ukulele; and I write the songs that make the whole world sing.

The group as a whole is called The Viper and His Famous Orchestra. The orchestra can range from 3 to as many as 8 players. For the Pygmalion festival, we are 5. Rob Henn (Madison, WI) plays the trombone. Riley Broach (Palatine, IL) plays the upright bass. Kip Rainey (Chicago, IL) plays the electric lap steel guitar and the mandolin. And Victor Cortez (Savoy, IL) plays the suitcase and other assorted percussion, including a metal music stand.

DI: Describe the genre of your music. What techniques do you use to make your style unique?

TV: Though we have a very recognizable and familiar sound, it’s hard to describe it in terms of a genre without disappointing or even angering fans of that genre. We’re sort of early street jazz, sort of old time string band, sometimes calypso or Hawaiian, and sometimes straight pop. Sometimes I tell people we’re a skiffle band, though no one knows what that is. (Skiffle was a post-WWII style in which British amateur musicians tried to play American-style country and jazz. All the best 1960s rockers were in skiffle bands first — the Beatles, Jimmy Page, the Thamesmen, etc.) But basically it comes down to a situationalist analysis of context: we’re playing non-rock or pre-rock music  for a rock audience.

A lot of this effect comes out of our Do-It-Yourself approach to the instruments we play and the songs we write and perform. We like instruments that are cheap, or found, or out of date, or repurposed household objects: the washtub bass, the ceramic jug, the suitcase played like a drum, the music stand played like a timbale, etc.  And the songs are likewise repurposed: we’ll play songs by Nirvana, or Liz Phair, or Miley Cyrus but in a jarringly different musical setting. And our “originals” often sample bits and pieces of other songs and lyrics and edit them together to create something new.

DI: What do you want your audience to take from your music?

TV: Samples. Mash it up, comrades!

DI: Why did you decide to play at the Pygmalion music festival?

TV: We love playing in Champaign. Even though very few of us still have a real connection there, it still feels like home. And in particular, we love to play at the beer garden outside Mike N’ Molly’s. There’s a great natural reverb in between the ivy-covered brick walls. And there’s a drummer who lives on the 4th floor of one of those buildings who started playing Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” during the middle of our show last summer. We’re hoping he’ll start up again so we can join in.

DI: What is the craziest thing that ever happened to you during a performance?

TV: Mostly, the crazy things happen in the anxiety dreams I have about performing. Last week, it was a dream that it was 15 minutes until show time, and I still handed taught the band 4 or 5 of the songs on the set list. So I just decided to go with “Precious” by the Pretenders, which we could learn in 5 minutes and which, even though I didn’t know the words, I figured I could just mumble and make up as we went along.

One thought on “Thus spake the Viper”

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