The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will be ruining the perfectly lovely atmosphere of two of our favorite venues in early November 2016 as we surround election day with shows on Saturday, Nov. 5 in the brewpub backgroom of the Parched Eagle in Westport, WI (just outside of Madison) and then on Wednesday, Nov. 9 at the classiest cocktail lounge in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, the California Clipper. (Details below.)
NOTE: With these shows, we’re welcoming the newest member of the Viper’s extended familial entourage: bassist Riley Broach has recently achieved proud father status with the birth of his daughter, Lyra Paulina (the “y” and “i” are both pronounced like a long “e”). So walk right up to him and give him a great big kiss when you see him.
Saturday, November 5, 2016 (7:30 to 9:30 p.m.) Parched Eagle Brew Pub 5440 Willow Road #112, Westport, WI 53597 | (608) 204-9192
The Viper & His Famous Orchestra are back at this Westport hotspot to rock the back room for this pre-election blow-out. Don’t miss it!
Wednesday, November 9, 2016 (10:00 p.m.) The California Clipper 1002 North California Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-2547
The Viper & His Famous Orchestra are back at this Humboldt Park hotspot to rock the front room for this post-election blow-out. Don’t miss it! With DJ Lawrence Peters and his vinyl 45s. $5 Cheap.
Early this past April, I met with 3 grades worth of musicians from the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestra program as part of my time with them as a composer-in-residence. We worked on things old, things new, things borrowed, and some yodels blue, and it was a great pleasure to hear some things I’d written brought to life in their capable hands and under the inspired direction of their teacher, Riley Broach.
I’ll be meeting with them again tomorrow, May 11, to start polishing up the pieces we’ll be performing together at their Spring Concert on Thursday, May 19. I’ve got some questions for them.
But first they’ve got some questions for me, which Mr. Broach was kind enough to pass along. So let me take a stab at answering some of them:
Why do you call yourself the “Viper”?
Ah… the age-old questions. Here’s the quick answer:
The story of The Viper
Do you call yourself “the viper” or “viper”?
Definitely “The Viper.” Otherwise I’m likely to be confused with the 80’s Brazilian heavy metal band “Viper.”
What instruments do you play?
I mostly play plucked string instruments: ukulele, guitar, mandolin. But an instrument’s an instrument: and if I can make noise on something, I like to play it — trumpet, clarinet, suitcase, ceramic jug, piano, washtub bass, harmonica, wax-paper-and-comb. The one thing I’ve found I pretty much can’t do is make any noise that sounds good on a bowed instrument. So I really envy all of you your talent!
How did you learn how to yodel?
I learned from my Mom, who learned from someone that she worked with in a cheese factory in Sheboygan, Co., Wisconsin in the early 1960s. When she’d drive my sisters and I around in the car when we were little, we’d beg her to sing “I Want To Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” until I’m sure she was quite sick of it.
How do you yodel?
You’re really just going back-and-forth between what trained singers (which I’m not) will call your “chest” voice (the one you use for speaking) and your “head” voice (the falsetto one you use to sound like Michael Jackson or Prince).
By thickening or thinning your vocal cords as you sing, you change the speed at which the air vibrates as you force it past your epiglottis, which is the valve in your throat that controls whether your air passage or food passage is open. If the column of air vibrates more slowly, the pitch is lower; if it vibrates more quickly, the pitch is higher. (This is the same way you change pitch on your instruments: a thinner string vibrates the air around it more quickly when bowed. And if you make that string shorter by putting your finger on it along the neck, then it will vibrate even more quickly.)
Then there’s something else that happens when you yodel that I don’t really understand but that involves the epiglottis opening and closing that gives the yodel that distinctive “click” effect as it goes from the chest voice to the head voice. So at that point, we’ll just say it’s magic.
For more on the technique and history of yodeling, I recommend Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World, by Bart Plantenga (New York: Routledge, 2004), or this how-to video.
How to yodel
What’s your favorite music?
Well, the music made by the students in the Orchestra program of Lake Zurich Middle School North, of course!
Beyond that, I really listen to a little bit of everything, with a particular affection for the popular and vernacular music of the early 20th Century: the jazz of Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, or Slim Gaillard; the American Songbook writing of George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter; Bob Wills’s Western Swing; jug band and skiffle music by the Mound City Blue Blowers and the Spirits of Rhythm; and the crash-and-burn approach to “serious” music by people like Spike Jones and Carl Stalling (who did the music for Bugs Bunny cartoons).
In fact, I’d say Bugs Bunny was my most important early music influence — you can ask Mr. Broach about the time we performed a version of the classic Chuck Jones take on Richard Wagner, “What’s Opera, Doc?”
Are you a professional performer? Why or why not?
I’m a professional performer in the sense that sometimes I get paid to perform. But mostly I see music as something that I do as a healthy part of a well-balanced life! There aren’t many people who can make a living just making music. But everyone’s lives can be enriched by the challenges, socializing opportunities, and creative outlet that making music provides.
Who have you performed with?
A gentleman named Riley Broach, who I hear is a pretty decent fellow.
But besides my current band, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra, some of the other bands I’ve played with were named (and this is roughly in chronological order): The Terrestrials, The Generics, Phlegm, Enzymatic Fly Vomit, My Cousin Kenny, Kissyfish, The Lovebirds, The Andrew Hipp Trio, The Beatles (really: that’s what we called ourselves), Gentlemen Prefer Hank, Half Slab, The Kennett Brothers, The Corn Likkers, The Prairie Mountaineers, The G.E.O. Brass Band, The Ancient Jazz Quartet, The Paint Branch Ramblers, and The Reds and The Blues.
That’s a lot of bands! And I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of them.
Why the ukulele?
Why a duck?
Groucho and Chico Marx say why
What did you do in middle school? (Musically)
From 4th grade to 9th grade, I played trombone. Don’t hold it against me.
Where did you grow up?
My Dad was in the Navy, so I grew up in a few places: Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Great Lakes, Illinois; Newport, Rhode Island; and Libertyville, Illinois.
Do you have kids/are you married?
Yes and yes. My wife is named Ann and she’s a librarian. My daughter is named Irene, and she’s a Sixth-Grader who plays a mean violin. I used her to test out the parts I wrote for all of you! Here’s what she sounds like:
Have any pets?
A really horrible little dog name Louisiana, aka Loup Garou, or just Loup for short. Here’s what she looks like.
Loup Garou and friends
I also have a tank full of platys, neon tetras, zebra danios, algae-eating shrimp, and snail-eating “assassin” snails. But no one else in my family but me considers those pets.
Has your stage name always been “the viper”?
For about 20 years now. But in my high school band, The Generics, I was known as “Guitar.” In the Beatles, I was “John Lennon.” And in The Kennett Brothers, I was “Earl Wayne Kennett.” I hope to start a honky tonk band some day called Earl Wayne Kennett and the Rural Electrification Project.
Why did you write heartbreak?
The basic melody you all play in “Heartbreak for Beginners” is from way back in the early 1990s, and I originally imagined it being played with a slide on an electric guitar. But I couldn’t figure out what to do with this little melody until a couple of years ago when I had the idea of writing a song that would be a kind of a play in which the singer, feeling heartbroken and stuck in his own head about it, would be offered words of comfort by his band, and just the fact that they were there would make him feel better about it. And it really does make me feel better when I sing it with other people. So thanks!
There’s a songwriter named Jonathan Richman who has these little funny conversations-in-music with his band (and the rhythm and chord changes of “Heartbreak” are very Jonathan Richman-y).
But even more, I was probably thinking of the routine that the great soul singer James Brown would do at the end of his set. He’d pretend to be exhausted, and one of the people in his band would come out and put a robe on him and gently try to lead him off stage — but J.B. would just keep shaking off the robe and going back to the mic to sing. You have to see it! The routine starts about 50 seconds into the clip below, and goes on for the rest of the 6 minutes. It will change your life!
Jonathan Richman, “Down in Bermuda”
James Brown, “Please Please Please”
Have you met any famous musicians?
I suppose it depends what you mean by famous. But the musician I was most excited to meet was a drummer named Mo Tucker who used to be in a group called The Velvet Underground, who had played at Andy Warhol’s Factory “happenings” in the 1960s. My college band opened for her band, and I brought my trombone — don’t hold it against me — and had her paint her name on it at the show. She seemed a little confused by the request, but she was gracious enough to do it, and it still makes me feel great to see it.
Any other hobbies?
Right now, in my spare time I’m learning how to do linear regression, logistic regression, and classification and regression trees. Does that count as a hobby?
Do you play a sport?
When I was your age, I played a lot of soccer — outdoor and indoor, though just in recreational leagues. Now, I ride around on a bicycle a lot. That’s not really a sport, except when I pretend all the potholes on the streets of Milwaukee are really an obstacle course and I can win it.
What other places have you lived?
You already heard about Sheboygan, Great Lakes, Newport, and Libertyville in my answer to the where-did-you-grow-up question. After growing up — sort of — I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin and then graduate school in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. That’s where I met Mr. Broach and the rest of the Famous Orchestra.
Then I abandoned them and moved to Ankara, Turkey for a few years while I was teaching American Literature at Bilkent University there. After that, I lived for a while in Washington, D.C., and Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland before I finally came to my senses and came back to the Midwest to live in Milwaukee.
This is where I plan to stay; and it’s a good thing, too, because it means I can get to Lake Zurich in time for 9:05 orchestra rehearsal on Wednesday. See you then!
A couple busy weeks ahead for the normally pretty lazy Viper & His Famous Orchestra, across four towns in two states: Lake Zurich and Chicago, IL, and Milwaukee and Westport (basically, Middleton), WI.
The Really Big Shew!!! The Viper performs his material with the Lake Zurich Middle School North Orchestra under the direction of Riley Broach as the culmination of his time with them as Spring 2016 Composer in Residence. The evening will include the world premiere of a piece written especially for the LZMSNO, a concerto gross for ukulele and orchestra titled “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas.” Read all about it here. Open to the public.
Saturday, May 21, 2016 (7:00 to 10:00 p.m.) The Coffee House 1905 West Wisconsin Avenue, Milwaukee, WI 53233 | (414) 534-4612
The Viper & His Famous Orchestra with Andy Jehly, Mississippi Sawyer, Bill Murtaugh, Paul Smith, Sweet Diversity, and host Jym Mooney to close out the 49th season of The Coffee House. $10.00 cheap! suggested donation.
Saturday, June 4, 2016 (7:30 to 10:00 p.m.) Parched Eagle Brew Pub 5440 Willow Road #112, Westport, WI 53597 | (608) 204-9192
Google Maps will tell you this is in Waunakee, but if you’ve got a date with The Viper & His Famous Orchestra in Waunakee, we’ll be waiting in Westport — here! At the Parched Eagle! And Edward Burch will be there with us. Westport/Waunakee is right on the other side of Lake Mendota from Madison, and in good old Madison-area fashion, there is no cover. We play for your tips, just like we did at your Bris.
Sunday, June 5, 2016 (7:00 to 10:00 p.m.) The California Clipper 1002 North California Ave., Chicago, IL 60622 | (773) 384-2547
The Viper & His Famous Orchestra bring their hog-butchering style to a city that really appreciates it, in the fancy digs of this Humboldt Park neighborhood classic space. It’s a beautiful bar! Plus DJ Lawrence Peters, who’s a stand-up guy and drummer, too. In fact, The Viper first premiered “Big Headed Small Minded Man” some years ago with Mr. Peters on the snare. I believe it’s a $5 cover, which, in Chicago money, is about what it costs to convince someone to give you their already-been-chewed gum and then punch you in the gut.
Come Wednesday morning, while hale Helios wends his way across dawn’s sky-road, I’ll be shanksnagging it down highway 45 to Lake Zurich, Illinois for a 9:05 rendevous with destiny.
Why, you ask? Why not, I answer? With a question, even.
Why not? When it means I’ll get to meet for the first time Lake Zurich Middle School North’s Chamber Orchestra, Intermezzo Orchestra, and Prima Musica ensemble as their Spring 2016 Composer-In-Residence (under the direction of Riley Broach, bassist for another, more Famous Orchestra)?
It’s a great chance to workshop and then perform Viper music with some young musicians who can teach me a thing or two and, maybe, even lend a little class to the organization.
Up until this point, that burden has fallen largely on Mr. Broach, who has been coaching the students in learning some existing melodies by ear — “Last Call Waltz,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Hotzeplotz Calls” — then transcribing them onto paper and working out some basic orchestral arrangements.
Heartbreak for Beginners
The “learning outcome” is that these long-hairs get a taste of how most music in its vernacular form gets put together: “head arrangements” of a songs learned hand-to-hand.
When I meet with them, we’ll put it all together, polish it up, and get it ready for performance on May 19, 2016. (See more info here, along with Riley Broach’s take on the whole thing.)
I’m also pretty excited to hear something new I’ve written just for these students, played for the first time by humans, rather than the midi’ed “oohs” and “aahs” of my composing software that I’m used to hearing in my waking nightmares.
That’s right, y’all: it’s the world premieres of “Let Not Life Far From These Fingers Flee / My Dog Has Fleas”: a meditation on the fleeting nature of time, the seasons, life on this mortal coil, and proper pet care. And Lake Zurich gets to hear it first!
Tomorrow, I’ll talk with the students about how this piece came together, and we’ll use it to explore the idea of how music tells a story: not the lyrics, the music itself — sometimes (as is the case here) telling a story quite different than the one the lyrics would have you believe.
Wait. YOU want to hear my little ol’ story? Well, all right. Settle in, and I’ll tell it like it happened.
What had happened was this. It all started last Summer, shortly after Riley had talked to me about a plan to have The Viper work with his Middle School ensembles. Aside from having a string player or two join us onstage now and then, I’d never “written” for an orchestra. So I was feeling a little out of my element.
That week, I happened to go an outdoor performance of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen from 1692 (a mini-opera-slash-masque-slash-who-knows-what adaptation of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream). This was a really cool and interactive production put on last June in Milwaukee’s Lynden Sculpture Garden by the Danceworks Performance Company and the Milwaukee Opera Theatre, performed by an all-ages, all-sized, all-skilled cast who led us into the woods, over hill, dale, and stream, and in and around the sculptures to different “stations” where scenes would be played to an audience who could stand, sit, or lie down anywhere they wanted to watch, and who could take in the scenes and the play’s overall chronology forward or backward! It was awesome!
As is my usual process, I take my inspiration where I can find it. That is to say, I steal it, and then get it wrong: voilà! New song.
At this performance, one song opened with what I thought was a line that went “Let not life far from these fingers flee.” It didn’t, and I’ve searched in vain for the real lyrics (though my best guess is it was a song from Act IV called “Let the Fifes and Clarions”). Then the scene launched into a masque bit where performers from 7 to 77 years of age presented a song for each of life’s four seasons.
And I thought, a ha! I’ll write a nice little baroque-y song about what I thought that first line had said, stop time in its tracks by freezing it into the measured counterpoint of a potentially eternal song, and then perform it with some youths who will be amazed by it’s gravity and wisdom!
And then I thought, a ha! Again, a ha! What could be lamer than that! What could sound less wise to a 7th grader than some old Polonius (I know, wrong play) nattering on about the slide from cradle to grave and overcompensating for his ukulele-ness by trying to sound like a string quartet? Tempus fugit? Tempus fidgets! I’m fidgeting right now just thinling about it.
But there was one final a ha! yet to come. Taking note of the whole ukulele “fleas” and “fingers” connection (the name is Hawaiian, and “ukulele” translates roughly “as ‘jumping flea,’ perhaps because of the movement of the player’s fingers,” or so Wikipedia says), I realized we could make this a story about a story that falls apart in the telling.
While I’m getting all serious and playing my ukulele like a chamber instrument, the Middle School players would keep interrupting to turn their instruments to the side, strum them like ukuleles, and sing “My dog has fleas!” Yeah, we’re all going to be food for worms, and ain’t that a peach!
Over the next few days, I rode my bike to my job enough times to work out the melody and lyrics (a lot of songs get written while I’m on a bicycle, behind a vaccuum cleaner, under a shower head, mowing the lawn, or feeding pets). And then I went out and bought this “I’m So Fly” notebook you’re seeing in these images, and I more or less sketched out how the plot would work.
After that, it was on to the 99% perspiration part of the process. But THAT’S a story for another time.
The Viper leads workshops at Lake Zurich Middle School North all the livelong day on April 6 and May 4, and then joins the LZMSN Orchestra for their Spring Concert on May 19, 2016.
Well, it must have fallen out of a hole in your old brown overcoat — true, they never said your name. But I knew just who they meant. Especially when they said it really loud, said it on the air, and said it on the radio. This’ll be the second part of a transcript I started many months ago (you can read the first part here) documenting a time in those blessed early days of 2014 when The Viper & His Famous Orchestra were broadcast over Marconi’s infernal wireless invention from the studios of WMSE 91.7. In the gathering place by the waters, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hosts Erin Wolf and Cal Roach welcomed us to their Local/Live program one evening of a February 11: we played, we talked, we spun some vinyl. On the radio.
You can stream the whole show below this paragraph, or download it as an mp3 podcast at this link. And below the really large picture, I’ve also broken out the songs we played into single-serving chunks, along with a text rendering of the interview half of the program. It gets pretty pretentious/portentous pretty quick, so if you’ve got a hat, hold on to it.
[VIPER’S NOTE: As of 2/14/16, neither this download link, nor the stream below, appear to be directing in the right place to WMSE’s archive. You’ll have to trust my typing, and enjoy the audio snippets throughout without their full context. Sorry!]
INTRODUCING THE BAND
ERIN WOLF: All right! You have it here. That was “The Yodeler’s Christmas” from Viper & His Famous Orchestra, live here in the WMSE studios.
That was pretty great! We heard, going back, “Yodeler’s Christmas,” “Heartbreak for Beginners,” “Hotzeplotz Calls,” “Ukulele Rhythm.” And there you have it. The boys are gonna be in here in just a moment to chat about their music with us. So hang on tight: keep it tuned here to WMSE.
[Station promo plays]
EW: All right! We are back. And, ah, we have The Viper himself, and His Famous Orchestra here in the WMSE studios. How are you guys?
THE VIPER & HIS FAMOUS ORCHESTRA: (overlapping) We are good! Great. Yes. Rhubarb. Rhubarb. Thanks.
THE VIPER: Famously good!
EW: Famously good!
ROB HENN: Orchestrally good!
CAL ROACH: You guys want to go around and introduce yourselves for our audience?
TV:(to John Peacock) Sure. Why don’t you start up there…
JOHN PEACOCK: I’m John Peacock, and I play miscellaneous keyboards and percussion in the group.
RH: I’m Rob Henn, and I play trombone, and backup singing, and jug, and other things.
RILEY BROACH: I’m Riley Broach. I play bass, and violin, and sing sometimes.
TV: I’m the Viper; I just sort of take credit for what the rest of them do.
JP: Rides on our coattails.
TV: I should say we have one member who’s not with us today. John is our kind of utility infielder. He can play anything, and does.
TV: We often have another, a fifth member of the band, who plays suitcase as well: Edward Burch. If you’re listening, Ed…
JP: We’ve left an empty seat.
RH: We’ve forgotten you utterly and we’re just… here.
CR: Tragic, really.
EW: Soaking it all in.
TV: So it means you don’t get to hear a lot of John’s handclapping skills, which are his real, his main instrument in the group.
JP: But it’s also difficult to see my dance moves over the radio as well. So it’s a loss all the way around.
TV: He and I are going to start learning — we’re going to learn tap, right?
JP: That is the plan, yeah.
TV: Incorporate some of that into the band — mad hot ballroom.
CR: Ooh! That’s exciting.
JP: These are things to look forward to.
RH: On the radio!
TV: Works very well on the radio.
CR: There’s a lot of sound coming from tap shoes.
TV: Yeah. Uh huh.
JP: It’s true.
THE VIPER — QU’EST-CE QUE C’EST
CAL ROACH: So…
THE VIPER: Thanks for having us in.
CR: Oh, absolutely. It’s our pleasure. Who is this Viper character? Where did that come from?
TV: The Viper comes from exactly where you wouldn’t want him to come from. So he comes from a Tiny Tim album.
ERIN WOLF: Mmmm…
TV: And it’s a routine that he does — which is actually an old joke, and you know it from G.I. Joe, or from camp. The Viper’s going to be here in seven days, then the Viper’s going to be here in seven hours, and he finally gets there and it’s the Viper: he’s come to vipe your vindows.
Tiny Tim does “The Viper.”
G.I. Joe does “The Viper.”
CR: Ah! Yes. I do recall that from summer camp years and years ago.
TV: And it’s also a bit of 1940s jazz slang as well.
CR: Oh, Ok.
EW: That is good to know.
CR: And knowing is half the battle.
JOHN PEACOCK: Well said.
AND WHAT ABOUT “SKIFFLE?”
ERIN WOLF: Yeah. Very cool. So, we want to know — for the audience’s sake too — what is skiffle, exactly? And are you guys trying to steal the term back from pre-British-Invasion-era UK revival, and are there any specific skiffle artists you would call major influences?
THE VIPER: Umm, I think I discovered skiffle after we’d already been playing for a while. So it’s like calculus or photography: it was sort of invented twice.
[Laughs all around]
TV: Mostly skiffle, the idea of it is you make do with what you have. Right? And it’s sort of… you can see why it’d be a very post-War British style of music. And it led into rock: you know, a lot of the people that you think of as the British invasion bands started their careers as skiffle bands: The Beatles were the Quarrymen, and Jimmy Page was in a skiffle band, and things like that.
Jimmy Page a-skiffling along
It only, in Britain, lasted for about four years. And you can get every single skiffle recording on a two-disk set — I’m not going to tell you where to get it, you know, or encourage you to get it. I’m just saying you can get it. .
There wasn’t that much recorded. It included one American, a guy named Alan Lomax, who was a big folklore collector from the U.S. but he was, during the McCarthy era, was in England, uh, avoiding the hammer and had a skiffle group there, too, that did some recordings. I think Peggy Seeger was in his group and things like that.
But it basically: homemade instruments: suitcases, jugs, you know, then whatever else you had around. Banjos. It’s why John Lennon played banjo to start with, and why Paul McCartney had to teach him how to tune his guitar like a guitar instead of like a banjo when they started playing together.
Various things: it was sort of a loose amalgamation of things that British people thought sounded American and old-timey. Country, jazz, and folk. So things that we think of as very much separate strains were pulled together in this style because they didn’t know any better. They didn’t know that if you were country you weren’t supposed to also be jazz.
One of my favorite skiffle performances: here’s the Skiffle City Ramblers in a very strange Soviet-era clip. Watch for the amplified & muted mouth trumpet solo!
EW: So is the Beatles song “Honey Pie,” would that be considered skifflish?
TV: That’s… well, that’s more music hall. But we do that, kind of. I mean, really, I used to call us vaudeville, and then I used to call us music hall, and then I settled on skiffle, because less people knew what it meant, and then I could define it however I wanted.
TV: So, yeah, “Honey Pie.” Like, a skiffle would be something like “One After 909″…
CAL ROACH: Sure…
TV: …right? Is, sort of, probably something that’s closer in that vein, if you can imagine it played on acoustic instruments.
TV: That kind of beat.
CAL ROACH: Your bio says that you write songs in the Key of B-flat. What’s so special about B-flat?
THE VIPER: Well, Rob, you tell us that.
ROB HENN: It’s also the key that the trombone is in.
CR: Ah hah! Interesting. That’s key.
RH: But really, there’s nothing special about it whatsoever. Especially in our songs, there’s nothing special about it.
TV: It just sounds good in a description. We should all live in B-flat. If you can’t be natural, be flat.
CR:(sarcastic laughter) We’re all slapping our knees here.
ERIN WOLF: I thought you were just taking cues from Stevie Wonder, too. Songs in the Key of Life.
[VIPER’S NOTE: She’s right, of course, and isn’t she lovely to say so. The bio describes us as playing “well-crafted songs about love, theft, buildings, bus routes, life in the key of Bb, and the work of skiffle in an age of mechanical reproduction.,” and the “life in the key of Bb” reference was directly to the classic 1976 Stevie Wonder album.]
CR: B-flat is the key of life.
RILEY BROACH: Wasn’t Homer Simpson’s quartet the B-sharps?
TV & HIS FAMOUS ORCHESTRA: Yes!
WHY A SUITCASE?
ERIN WOLF: That’s awesome. So, the suitcase being played as a drum. And you have a stylophone. I mean, I have so many questions regarding these things. But the ultimate question is: How many suitcases have you guys gone through? Playing the suitcase as percussion, I can imagine it takes quite the beating.
JOHN PEACOCK: Yeah, I know when I started sitting in with the group… and the group has had several life cycles, but the most recent, you know, forming around Milwaukee. The Viper and I live on the same street now, and I think proximity is the closest thing to getting into a band. But, ah, yeah, I didn’t have a suitcase, at least one that, you know, was worthy of hitting. They were all modern technology, with little wheels on them and things like that, so…
THE VIPER: Yeah, you can’t play, like, the vinyl coating, those don’t work.
JP: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then there’s got to be a hipness factor as well, you know. The guitar, you know, is 50-percent cosmetics, you know. But, ah… Yeah, so I don’t know. Edward is our sort of founding suitcase player. But there’s been various people playing suitcase in the band throughout time: Edward’s been the one constant.
TV: We’ll mention Kevin Carollo; we’ll mention Victor Cortez.
JP: And at times, we’ve had as many as three people playing suitcase onstage. And we’ve talked about getting an entire luggage set, perhaps, for the group.
ROB HENN: We had a song called “The Suitcase Boogie” — R.I.P.
JP: But, yeah, there have been many, many suitcases in the band, and many things that have struck them as well.
TV: Yeah, normally people… I mean, John plays them with wire brushes like a jazz drummer would. And other people play them with whisk brooms that can get you a thumpier sound. And that’s, sort of, where it comes from. I mean, it’s an old way of playing. And it’s not…
I first saw it, I think, in the Dustin Hoffman movie, Lenny, the Lenny Bruce bio-pic. And there’s just one scene that lasts about two seconds, where they’re in a hotel room at a party, and there’s a jazz band playing, and the drummer is playing on a suitcase with some whisk brooms and a piece of newspaper over the top of it to give it more of a snare sound. And I thought: A ha! So that’s a thing!
And then I found — same with skiffle — I found afterwards that this was a thing. That there were… there was great band from the 30s called The Spirits of Rhythm, who played tiple, which is a ten-string ukulele, and then they also had a suitcase player who was quite good.
JP: It’s great showing up to a gig and just having to carry a suitcase. You know, especially as a drummer, you know, not having to lug eight trips to the car with hardware and things like that. So I can haul the suitcase and have my stylophone and other miscellaneous toy instruments inside of there. So it’s a good deal for all.
WHY A STYLOPHONE?
CAL ROACH: Can you give a little description of how the stylophone works, exactly?
JOHN PEACOCK: Well, it’s… the common reference that we’d often use is already antiquated now, which would be it’s like a palm pilot, you know, that plays music. But, ah, that’s early aughts that I’m dating myself to there, so…
But yeah, ah, about ten, fifteen years ago there was a warehouse that was found that had a bunch of new old stock so I read an article about it and that’s what got me into the stylophone. But it’s a little metallic keyboard and you have a little stylus that’s connected with a little wire. It looks like I’m playing a DS or something like that.
THE VIPER: Or a transistor radio. That’s what it kind of looks like to me.
JP: Sure, yeah, yeah…
TV: Very 70s…
JP: What kind of people do you think are listening to this show, Ryan?
But, ah, yeah and so, I have all these kind of weird instruments that never really get used for much. And so when I get called to a Viper rehearsal, which would usually be about fifteen minutes before the gig, I would just show up with a tub full of stuff. And the stylophone sound really spoke to Ryan, so it was great for me to bust out my stylophone collection.
RILEY BROACH: We didn’t bring the bass stylophone, though.
[VIPER’S NOTE: Riley Broach is the band’s bass player. He’s very protective of that range of frequencies.]
TV: That one is nice. It has a very kind of Farfisa organ sound to it. And it can play the part of the trombone, it can play the part of a steel guitar.
JP: Well we’re working Ryan out… we’re working Rob out of the band. But, ah, by a bit it’ll be all stylophone. It is the future!
TV: And, like I said, the song people will know it from is [David Bowie’s] “Space Oddity.” You know, I think. And there are people that play it now. You can find plenty of people who play it on YouTube and things like that.
JP: But none quite like this.
TV: Don’t necessarily go there. I’m just telling you that they’re playing their stylophones. Rolf Harris, the Australian folk superstar, the guy who wrote “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”… I think you have some of these records, right? He did instructional…?
JP: Well, I think he was more of a…
JP: You know, it’s like putting your name on the box of something — I’m trying to think of a modern reference of that.
TV: He was serious though. He did, like, four-piece stylophone songs…?
See the four-piece stylophone song! With Rolf Harris!
JP: Right. I think he was often credited with inventing it, or something like that, and he was more of a spokes…
ROB HENN: The popularizer.
JP: But, yeah, his face is on all the old boxes.
PUTTING IT ON THE WAX
CAL ROACH: So I read that your first album was produced by Jay Bennett.
THE VIPER: Right.
CR: And how did you connect with him, initially? How did that come about?
TV: Jay Bennett, from Wilco — he was the guy in the movie who gets kicked out of Wilco, right? — he was a roommate of our other suitcase player, Edward Burch. In fact, they’ve recorded together as Jay Bennett and Edward Burch. I’m not saying you should look for their album, but…
CR: It exists.
TV: It is out there, right? It’s quite good.
So, he’d seen us play. And it’s very different from what he does. He’s known for, in Wilco, being the guy who tweaks everything and gets in and does bits and pieces and constructs these soundscapes out of little bits and things. And I think it was a nice vacation for him to just set up a couple mics in front of us and record us, and then just sort of work afterwards to try to figure out what he wanted it to sound like as the kind of soundspace.
And so, yeah, so he worked on that with us on that, and it was fun, and we got the visit the Wilco loft and got to see all the…
RILEY BROACH: Hundreds of guitars.
…hundreds of guitars that they hoarded and drove up the price of vintage guitars, you know, throughout the early aughts with.
ROB HENN: He does play on the album, too. A little Farfisa…
JOHN PEACOCK: a little Hammond solo on…
RH: Hammond. It was a Hammond. Yeah. Which one is that on?
TV: Yeah, on Everything for Everyone, on a song called “Pretty Is As Pretty Does,” which is by a Champaign-Urbana songwriter named Angie Heaton, he plays some Hammond organ on that, and it’s quite lovely.
ERIN WOLF: That is really cool.
BEHIND THE MUSIC #1 – “DAS KAPITAL”
ERIN WOLF: All right. We wanted to both ask you about a two separate covers, or songs that you do. This one in particular, it’s not really a cover, but it’s a take, it seems like, on something from The MusicMan, the song “Das Kapital.”
THE VIPER: Uh huh.
EW: Is it just a convenient tune to parody, or do you feel a particular connection to the narrative.
TV: Yeah. I think I started doing… a lot of my songs that I write come out of just learning another song, and then deciding – why bother to cover this, I could just write one pretty much like it. And so, this goes… I played at my mom’s 40th high school reunion in 2002… No, that must have been 1992. When was… I don’t even know. Doesn’t even make sense.
ROB HENN: Careful there! I don’t know if your mom wants this out.
[VIPER’S NOTE: First of all, Rob, I should live so long. Second, on further reflection, this must have been her 35-year reunion, and must have happened in 1997. Just so you know. Other songs from 1962 that became part of the Viper’s more permanent set included “Desafinado,” “Teenage Idol,” “I’ve Been Everywhere,” “When You’re a Jet,” and “Song of the Shrimp” from the Elvis movie, Girls! Girls! Girls!]
TV: So I learned all these songs from 1962. And, know, The Music Man came out that year, I think, as a movie. And so I learned “Trouble” — I love that song, I’d been in The Music Man as an eighth-grader, in the barbershop quartet. And then I also happened to be reading Marx’sDas Kapital that same summer, and I thought: this would be a good book to boil down to its three-minute version, and then put in the mouth of a shady character who speaks truth despite himself. And so that’s what that particular mash-up is doing.
CAL ROACH: Match made in heaven!
[VIPER’S NOTE: Sure is, Cal! And since we didn’t end up performing this one at the radio station, here’s an earlier performance of “Kapital” as performed by The Viper and his Second String at the Coffee House in Milwaukee in May 2010, fat finger and all.]
BEHIND THE MUSIC #2 – “DANCE OF THE 7 VEILS”
CAL ROACH: One of ’em, the one that really struck me was… opens the album, the cover of “Dance of the 7 Veils” by Liz Phair.
THE VIPER: Uh huh.
CR: What was the inspiration behind that one?
TV: I wanted to be able to say “that” word…
TV: …without getting in trouble for it.
CR: And if you want to know what “word” that is, you’ll have to look up that album up, folks, I’m sorry we can’t say it on the air, but…
TV: Actually, I think that came out, I was doing a show where I decided I wanted to do the whole Exile in Guyville album…
TV: …which I did, and a few of the songs stuck around for awhile, and that was one of them. I really liked it. And I like the way it sort of… A lot of ukulele players run as far as away from Tiny Tim as they can, but I love Tiny Tim, and I love the work he does with Richard Perry and the sort of… the collage of cultural elements that they throw together and make work, I think, in really interesting ways. And I like… that was sort of my homage to Tiny Tim’s way of doing things like “Nowhere Man” by the Beatles, or “I Got You Babe.” So that’s the closest thing we do to sounding like Tiny Tim. And I thought it was nice in the context of a Liz Phair… very dirty Liz Phair song.
[VIPER’S NOTE: We report, you decide. Here’s our “Dance of the 7 Veils” from Everything for Everyone, followed by an amazing version of “I Got You Babe” by Tiny Tim with Eleanor Baruchian from The Cake, as filmed for Peter Yarrow’s 1968 movie, You Are What You Eat. That’s the Band (then, the Hawks) providing backup.]
ERIN WOLF: It’s a refreshing version.
CR: Ever hear any feedback from Liz?
TV: No, I have not.
CR: No? That’s too bad. I’m sure she’d enjoy it.
ROB HENN: We’re out there trying to promote her. And is she grateful? No!
TV: Not “promoting her,” promoting her.
RH: No! Just, you know…
CR: She does exist. She does exist. She’s out there.
RH: …spreading the word of her existence.
THOSE WHO CAN’T DO, TEACH. THOSE WHO CAN’T TEACH, TEACH UKULELE
ERIN WOLF: So I was doing a little bit of reading up on you. You are a professor. You’ve written things about history, of our musical history, jazz musical history.
[VIPER’S NOTE: See…
Jerving, Ryan. “Early Jazz Literature (And Why You Didn’t Know).” American Literary History 16, no. 4 (Winter 2004): 648-674.
Jerving, Ryan. “Jazz Language and Ethnic Novelty.” Modernism/Modernity 10, no. 2 (April 2003): 239-268.
Jerving, Ryan, “An Experiment in Modern Vaudeville: Archiving the Wretched Refuse in John Howard Lawson’s Processional.” Modern Drama 51, no. 4 (Winter 2008): 528-555.
…because, honestly, who else is going to see these?]
EW: And also, you teach ukulele. I guess I wanted, since we’re a little bit short on time, more so, want to talk about you as a teacher of music. Because I’m curious to know, how long, generally, does it take someone to learn the basics of the ukulele?
THE VIPER: Ukulele is a very easy instrument to learn the basics of. And you can, within a few weeks, be playing well enough to strum along and accompany yourself on “Iko Iko” or “Jambalaya” or some other two-chord song like that.
TV: The kind of music that’s written, that’s sort of written for ukulele, or special for ukulele, all the Tin Pan Alley and stuff like that, turns out to be kind of surprisingly complicated. There’s a lot of chords, right?
TV: But if you want to stick to just sort of playing nice little folk songs and stuff like that, it comes quick. Because you can use all your fingers: there’s only four strings
TV: You don’t have these leftover strings to try to figure out what to do with like you do with a guitar.
EW: Right, and I’m imagining, like, between, you know, that and teaching mandolin, which has, you know, a few extra strings, ukulele’s probably more popular with giving lessons, because of its ease?
TV: Yeah, because mandolin is a more melodic instrument, so people who play that want to sound like a bluegrass player, right?
TV: But ukulele you can really just kind of strum and sing, and it’s great instrument for that.
TV: And that’s why it was as big as it was in the ’20s and why it was as big as it was in the ’50s, because it was very much an at-home instrument.
EW: Easy to pick up.
TV: You can play it laying down.
EW: After a big meal.
JOHN PEACOCK: Play it all over YouTube.
ROB HENN: Put some gasoline on it, light it on fire, do the Jimi Hendrix kind of thing.
TV: Well, actually, I started playing ukulele because I wanted to smash things on stage, and I didn’t want to smash my guitar. And I smashed about four ukuleles, and stopped. I tried to burn one on stage, but it’s treated with some kind of chemical — hard to do that with.
EW: Yeah, they’re usually pretty shiny.
TV: So I started playing that one.
RILEY BROACH: While it was burning?
CR: Ukuleles are cheap. Hooray!
RH: They were.
TV: They were then. Honestly, ukuleles were $20 when I was smashing them. That’s not the way it is anymore.
ONCE MORE UNTO THE BREACH
CAL ROACH: Before we send you guys back out to play another set. Just wondering: you haven’t… It’s been since 2004 since you guys have put any recordings out. Any plans for anything any time soon, as far as recordings?
THE VIPER: We were so inspired by playing the WMSE-related Kneel to Neil couple — we played a couple of the events — that we decided we’re going to do a whole album of, or EP at least, of Neil Young songs to be titled, Hello, Young Lovers. In fact, the next song we’re going to play is from that set. John’s working hard at laying down, getting some tracks together for us, and…
JOHN PEACOCK: Making the band sound like they’ve never sounded before, and never will again.
ROB HENN: Which is to say: good!
CR: Uh, that’s exciting!
ERIN WOLF: Cool. That inspired you. I mean, honestly, that was the first time I’ve seen you, and you kind of blew my mind, too, with the Violent Femmes cover that you threw in there. Um, did you?
TV: I think if you saw the most recent one, I did play a Lou Reed song…
EW: Lou Reed!
TV: Because he had just died.
EW: Why did I think it was Violent Femmes?
TV: It’s a sim… It sounds like a Violent Femmes song…
EW: No. There’s no excuse for that mistake! But…
TV: They were big, you know, I was in high school in the ’80s, they were a big influence on me, they’re why I like drummers who stand up and play things that aren’t drums.
EW: It made an impression, nonetheless. And I was, like, “where did these guys come from?” So that’s exciting to hear that you’re taking that Neil Young experience and making a recording with it.
[VIPER’S NOTE: To date, Hello, Young Lovers has joined our McCarthyist musical, Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been… Blue?, my palindromic solo debut, I Love Me Vol. I, and our follow-up to Everything for Everyone, The Sharp Vinegar of Truth, as a project more in theory than in fact. But watch this space for any changes to that situation!]
EW: So aside from recording, you guys are playing… the next gig you have – you recently played the Sugar Maple – you’re playing… is it at a library?
TV: Yeah. Well, actually, the next show we’re playing is at a house show in Springfield, Illinois. According to advanced sales, there may be as many as 7 people there.
JP: I will not be one of them.
TV: The next time we’re playing in Milwaukee will be at the Anodyne Coffee Roasting Company, the Walker’s Point location. That’s going to be on…
RH: March 7.
TV: March the 7th. It’s a Friday night.
EW: What time does that…?
TV: It’s a beautiful space.
EW: Oh, it is. Yeah.
TV: We’ll start at, I think, 8:15.
EW: Ok. Cool. So, that, it’s an amazing stage, too. So, I think, many people might not know that the Anodyne in Walker’s Point does have a stage.
TV: Yeah, I think that they’ve only recently started having music.
CR: I didn’t know that.
EW: Yeah, so, they’re on Bruce Street. So 8:15, The Viper and His Famous Orchestra will take the stage there. Are you going to… I think they have a piano. Are you going to utilize any of the accoutrements?
TV: I tested it out. It’s pretty out-of-tune in a pretty awesome way. So I’m hoping John’ll jump back there, and…
TV: …add some Fessnicity to the proceedings.
EW: All right. Cool. Well, looking forward to it. Well, we’re going to send you back out, and you guys are going to kick it off with “Speakin’ Out.” So we’ll let you get to it.
JP: Thank you much.
EW: All right. The Viper and His Famous Orchestra on their way back out to the studio. We’ll be right back with them again, live.
[Station promo plays]
ERIN WOLF: Well, thank you once again to Ryan Jerving, The Viper, and His Famous Orchestra for coming in today to talk about the music and play some tunes, live. And, again, their next show here in Milwaukee is at the Anodyne on Bruce Street, and that is March 7th, at 8:15. And they’re going to play three more songs for us. I’m going to let ’em get to it without further ado. From the Bob and Genie Friedman live studios here at WMSE: The Viper and His Famous Orchestra.
[The Viper & His Famous Orchestra play “Speakin’ Out”]
THE VIPER: Rob Henn, I’d like you to pick up that jug over there,. and play on it a little bit. This song is called “I Got the World in a Jug (and the Stopper in My Hand).” Radio listeners at home, you all know how to play the jug, don’t you? You just put your lips together and blow, and it sounds something like this.
[And The Viper & His Famous Orchestra finish up with “The World in a Jug (and the Stopper in My Hand”]
ERIN WOLF: All right! That was The Viper and His Orchestra. Very, very cool stuff. “Stopper In My Hand” was the name of that track, featuring music from the Viper, and jug playing, and some trombone, and what have you.
[VIPER’S NOTE: I’ll have quite a bit, thank you!]
EW: So they’re going to come back in, and we’re going to get into the “This Is Your Song” segment. We’ll be right back.
And with that, we come to the end of Part 2. There is a short coda-like pt. 3 to come, featuring The Viper’s DJ song pick and some closing thoughts. Stay tuned!
the kind of music your great-great-great-grandparents warned your great-great-grandparents about