Category Archives: embalmed ones

Milwaukee moon

From Milwaukee St. in Madison, to Madison St. in Milwaukee, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra bring you Michael McKean’s “Milwaukee Moon.”

If you would like, you are free to download the full mp4 file from our Google Drive at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1z6qKBhdywH3jB_y5WjIqSMJUeZTNiutV/view?usp=sharing

In the depth of the 2020 pandemic, and at what may have been the nadir of American political life, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra — dormant for nearly a year — were interpellated into an event that helped us find our way, find our selves, and maybe even find one another once again.

Yup!

This is a LONG post about that experience, presented in the form of a highly edited and artificial oral history. Is it worth it?

Nope!

Was I compelled by the forces of history and the internalized engines of my own demons to write it? Yes!

So read on at your own risk.

The Viper & His Famous Orchestra were invited to participate in a project organized by Kia Karlen that would be, sure, a fundraiser for the Madison Children’s Museum (ultimately premiering at 8:00 p.m. on a Friday night, February 19, 2021. 8:00). But it was also an occasion for many, many performers to declare their aesthetic and cultural allegiance to the aesthetic that had been laid out decades before by Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Parker Posey, et. all the frickin’ al, as part of the most sensational, inspirational, celebrational Christopher Guest televisual and cinematic multiverse. (Puppetational elements added later.)

You can see the full hour of performances here or here. And you won’t be disappointed. This is a who’s who of Madison sweetness and strangeness. Sort of a Midwest Night Flight on steroids. And, if you like it, you can donate to the Madison Children’s Museum here. (Note: sock puppets appear courtesy of SPAG, the Sock Puppet Actors Guild, and Seamsters Local Union No. 144.)

Our performance (see video above) tackled an earlier number by Michael McKean that first appeared in “Bus Stop,” episode 18 of season 3 of Laverne & Shirley, and was sung by the main cast at the end of a hot day on the stoop of the apartment building at 730 Knapp Street in Milwaukee. A really charming song and performance in and of itself; but the episode is notable not only for featuring McKean as Lenny Kosnowski, but also for its appearances by the other two members of Spinal Tap and the Folksmen: Harry Shearer and Christoper Guest. (Indeed, Guest would be credited as Nigel Tufnel for his guitar work on the Lenny & the Squigtones album released in 1979.) [Ed. note: my boldfacing in this post is feeling a little Jackie Harvey to me.]

Our version borrowed the pass-the-tune-around approach from the original clip.

Below, we’ll try to give a sense of the sights, the sounds, the smells of how it all came together for us. But enough of my yakkin’. Let’s hear from the Orchestra itself, in the form of this heavily re-constructed conversation I’ve pulled together from our various e-mail conversations over the course of the project.

Milwaukee Moon, Creepin ‘Cross the Sky

THE VIPER (ukulele, toy accordion, eyeball): Okay, Famous Orchestra. I suppose you’re wondering why I’ve called you all together here today. Well, why don’t we go around and say a little bit about how we each got involved in this project? Or, more to the point: why did you agree to do it?

ROB HENN (trombone, the phone): My friend Kia Karlen wrote on Facebook that she was interested in doing this project, and wondered if people would want to contribute.

RILEY BROACH (bass, violin, progeny): Rob sent us a message about the potential project.

TV: Here’s a bit of that message:

I just invited you to a Facebook group called “A Mighty TapWind.” What’s the deal? My friend Kia wants to assemble an online show with Madison talent, that would also have a virtual tipjar for the Madison Children’s Museum (which, like lots of places during the pandemic, has suffered big income loss). The theme? Covers of Christopher Guest movie songs. She would collect videos from the artists by early December, and then stitch them together into a longer video talent show that would be released around the holidays.

TV: Rob sent this out on October 30, 2020 so you can see we took our time with it. I, of course, was thrilled. Both for the relationship we’d built up with the Madison Children’s Museum, and with Kia in particular. But also because I’m 53 years old and a musician. Which means I know every line of Spinal Tap by heart. Even the throwaway lines: [Boston’s] not a big college town; We shan’t work together again; Bloody airplane, didn’t I? You know, you know! Oh, thank God: civilization!

RB: We tossed around some video editing ideas including replicating the style of the Democratic National Convention.

TV: That’s going to sound very strange to anyone reading that, but I promise we’ll circle back to it later!

RB: I loved the idea that we could create something even though we can’t actually see each other during this stupid pandemic. We should create more videos!

TV: And what about you, John?

JOHN PEACOCK (toy piano, stylophone, birthday muffins): Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] asked. It had been a while.

TV: For all of us! The last Viper event was a December 2019 rehearsal that got canceled. We were going to shoot a holiday special, and we were going to help Riley find his way back to his home planet!

JP: Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] made it sound easy. And to some extent it was. I think I was called in pretty late in the project development, so I tried to have my parts done within 24 hours of getting the final details and succeeded(?). I think in the end I was the first one in the group to have my work completed. I’ll be sure to drag my feet more next time.

TV: Shade. So we talked about a lot of songs, didn’t we?

RH: Many years ago “Tonight I’m Gonna Rock You Tonight” [from Spinal Tap] was a TV&HFO staple during shows — it was a favorite of mine because the trombone got to do the rockin’ guitar line, and I personally got to sing “you’re sweet, but you’re just four feet, and you still got your baby teeth…” So I thought we’d be a great fit, and could easily revive that number if we wanted. I talked to The Viper about it, and he got intrigued and started thinking about other songs — more obscure — in this world, and how we could do them.

JP: I remember seeing Waiting for Guffman at the 3 Penny Cinema in Chicago back when it came out in the mid 90’s. I didn’t really know who Christopher Guest was at that point, but I thought “Nothing Ever Happens on Mars” was hilarious.

TV: Riley (a middle school Orchestra teacher), had suggested “Teacher’s Pet,” from Waiting for Guffman. And Edward suggested “One More Time” from A Mighty Wind.

But I suppose the Milwaukee in me was really pulling for one of the songs from the era of Lenny and the Squigtones. You’ll find out if you watch their appearance on American Bandstand that they were first discovered playing outside of Milwaukee in a club called Peepers, just outside of Pewaukee. And this was the band that introduced the world to Nigel Tufnel (about 40 seconds into this clip from American Bandstand).

So the Squigtones were already experimenting with this improvised blurring of fake and real bandness, premised on some well-laid-out backstory worked out beforehand. And Spinal Tap would (not much) later take this to 11.

David Lander – who passed away during the time we were making this project – is such a master of the banter in this clip: I love how he talks about Penny Marshalls and Cindy William. It cracks me up.

David Lander as Squiggy and Michael McKean as Lenny: here’s a big Hello!

And such great songs across the seasons: the Shangri-Las-esque “Star-Crossed,” “Night After Night” (“a song about two nights in a row”), “The Look” — this is a really great song! — “If I Only Had Listened to Mama” — and… well, Rob, you tell ’em about the next one.

RH: There’s too many great ones. But while thinking about our options we uncovered another gem that I still hope we get back to. “You Gotta Strike While the Union is Hot” from the episode “Lonely at the Middle” proves that Laverne & Shirley was always great proletarian agitprop. I even wrote my first brief Twitter thread about the episode here, on the occasion of Squiggy actor David Lander’s death (though the Google link for the episode has since changed…):

TV: Great episode, and great song, with some solid Folksmen-style guitar work! Season 2, Episode 22, “Lonely at the Middle.” Here’s a clip:

“Strike While the Union Is Hot”

But the Milwaukee-est song of them all was “Milwaukee Moon.”

JP: Great song. Never heard it before, but it played through my head non-stop after first practicing my parts and stayed there for a good month. Though in my head, it often morphs into a medley with “Take the A-train” or the Viper’s own “Winnebago Bay.”

RB: Nope, I’ve never heard the song. Or if I did, I was probably just a baby as it first aired in 1978 – my birth year! Yeah, it’s a sweet song about love and Milwaukee, a perfect combo for a Viper song. As far as it fitting into the Guest universe, of course, Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] wanted to pull out some obscure reference for our participation.

RH: I didn’t know this one before The Viper introduced it to me, but as soon as I heard it my first thought was, “Of course! It’s a Viper tune already: sweet-hearted love song, check; Wisconsin themes, check. What’s not to like?”

Irene Jerving (violin, Vipersdottir): At first I thought you wrote it…

TV: Aw!

IJ: …until we watched the Laverne & Shirley episode right before the premiere.

TV: I wrote the following to John after bringing him into the project in January:

It’s a good one – I suspect it’s a very early (maybe even pre-Left Banke) Michael McKean tune written as a singing cowboy song about some other location’s moon, that he repurposes for Laverne & Shirley as Milwaukee. He has some good writing on his web site about growing up with early television and the various cowboy shows he liked, many of which featured singing cowboys.

Here’s a link to that — it’s really worth a read! I hope he writes a memoir. And here’s McKean playing Milwaukee Moon in 2016, when he appeared on the very-entertaining “Employee of the Month” program:


I’ve Been Such a Lonely Guy

The Viper: So now that we had the song, there was the question of how we were going to do it, pandemic challenges and all. We weren’t going to be able to get together and film it live, which is probably the default way we would have done it. And trying to do it remotely presented it’s own challenges: some of us had decent recording/filming equipment; some of us just had our phones. We considered Acapella style apps, or even trying it live through something like Zoom. But on November 24, 2020, I wrote to the band:

Ryan e-mail: I’VE GOT IT!

Rob e-mail: Is it catching? Because we’ve got enough of that shit going around.

Ryan e-mail: It’s catching like democracy! I realized our approach could be something like the roll call of States at the 2020 Democratic National Convention…

Told you we’d come back to it.

… we don’t attempt to pretend we’re all playing in the same place, at the same time, or with any attempt at visual or even sonic consistency. But instead, emphasize our mutual remoteness and situations and we each represent ourselves in whatever way we think will be interesting and different. Come for the traditional festival dress of the Northern Mariana Islands, stay for the Rhode Island calamari!

It could be mostly vocal performed against a backing track I’ll provide. Indoor, outdoor; close-up, longshot; created mise-en-scene, digital backgrounds, or just the living room couch or in the kitchen stirring up a pot of stew, wandering pets and kids in the shot welcome!

Here’s the full 34-minute of version of the DNC thing I’m talking about, and the full version is really fun if you haven’t seen it before

Band, what did you think about the way we decided to approach this?

Riley Broach: It shows that despite a pandemic, we can still make something meaningful.

John Peacock: I came into the project after the tone had already been set which I loved. It’s nothing like how I would have done it, which I found very liberating. Silly. Off the cuff. Imperfect, but with a vision. I embraced the vision.

TV: And stuff came in all kinds of ways: landscape, portrait, good quality sound, terrible quality sound, location shots, living room shots, etc. And I really thought something about each of our personalities came through. It was like that scene in the Spice Girls movie where you see each of their areas of the tour bus.

And as stuff came in, I slotted it into a basic visual storyboard we had going: everyone knew what lines of the song they had, so those were laid out with intertitle placeholders like this until I got their material.

Intertitle placeholder for visual storyboard for “Milwaukee Moon,” planning nervously for its own obsolescence.

So at later stages, we could kind of see what the rest of us were doing, especially after I started posting “daily rushes” where I slotted the footage I had into the places it was supposed to go. But at the beginning, it was more a case of: here’s the mic, do what you like. So what’cha like?

RB: Being home all the time with my kids, all the time, I knew it had to include them. Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] said something early on about how our parts should capture our world and really the only thing on my mind lately includes things like: What am I going to feed my kids now? What doll do I get to pretend to be this hour? Is it warm enough to go outside? How many times can my youngest daughter run up and down the stairs?

Rob Henn: I honestly didn’t know what to do at first, and when I told a friend about the project she volunteered a My Little Pony outfit she had. (A “Rainbow Dash” outfit specifically, for all you fans.) I tried it on, it fit well enough, and I decided it would be a fun, ridiculous visual — along with the use of my bright red plastic trombone. From there I thought it would be nice to underscore the lyric content of the song, and so I filmed my main vocal part under a “Milwaukee Street” sign in Madison. The trombone part takes place at the Madison Children’s Museum, as an homage to this great Madison institution — and a reminder to all to fill that tip jar!

TV: Here it is again: thanks Rob! https://10059a.blackbaudhosting.com/10059a/Online-Gift—Thank-you

Rob warms up the Capitol Square area of Madison with a little street ponying. That’s a plastic trombone! The costume hood disguises his headphones.

RB: For the video on the floor with Lyra (4yo), I was singing the lines over and over for about 5 minutes prior while both Lyra and Hilde (22mo) were dancing with me. They began singing along so I seized the moment. I tried to get the whole family (Liz [spouse of Riley Broach] too) to lay down to look up at the camera and sing the lines, but Hilde ran off at the last minute with Liz chasing her. Luckily, Lyra stuck around to sing the lines with me. I had a hidden headphone in one of my ears listening and lining up to the scratch track Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] provided.

Riley and Lyra sing about the moon.

JP: After seeing the early cut with many of the segments, I went to bed brainstorming various scenes that I could do for my designated parts. I had a hard time sleeping because my brain was working with so many ideas (and thus my singing voice was a bit “tired” as I cut my parts the next day). I wanted each scene to have a purpose and didn’t really want to duplicate things Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] and others had already shot. I essentially came up with quick little scenes (like getting ready to go out – all dressed up) or blowing out a candle on a birthday cake (it was recorded a day or two before my birthday, but I didn’t have any cake and ended up using a muffin – perhaps funnier?), much like someone might see in a sitcom theme song montage. I also wanted to keep things simple and be able to record everything in my house with ease.

TV: Okay – that first bridge bit! I couldn’t tell what you were folding, but with the sharp tie & coat, it kind of looked like you were doing something to get rid of a body, which means I loved it!

JP: I was going more for looking like I was drying my hands in a bathroom before fixing my tie. But I like that the story is in the eye of the beholder.

John sings more about the moon.

TV: You created an amazing character in a few short sharp shots. I kind of felt like John and I were dopplegangers: my character was his after the bottom fell out. In sort of a Killing Joke way, I’m essentially John after having experienced one really bad day.

RB: For the short clip with Lyra & Hilde on my lap, I had not planned on that video making as I don’t think I was showered, I had on some dingy shirt, etc. But I had to strike it while the iron was hot! I was singing the short line over and over trying desperately for both girls to sing along, but all Hilde would do was continually say “no!” after each line. So that one stuck.

Hilde will NOT sing any more about the moon.

JP: Singing to the mannequin was inspired by the actual lyrics of the song and a recent Christmas gift my wife had received from her sister of 3 mannequin heads. “Jessica’s” hair covered her eyes, which made her the perfect partner for that verse.

I want to meet the archaeologist who has to explain this image in 500 years.

TV: I’m kind of interested in the technology you all used, since, again, we all sort of had to figure out on our own how we were going to do this. We all started with a backing track to listen to, but I’m interested in how you synched your efforts to it while still making interesting visual shots. In other words, I want to help Michael McKean answer this question he posted, really, the day after we’d completed the video:

JP: I used an iphone 8 mounted on a tripod for all of my parts, except for my first part, which has the phone mounted to the bathroom mirror with duct tape.

TV: The pan shot!

JP: The bathroom and living room had nice lighting as is, and I used some circle lighting that I have for online meetings via a webcam that I used for the close-up on the stylophone. In order to get the camera up close to the stylophone, my playing hand was precariously placed between the legs of the tripod. Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] pointed out that there was a weird lighting effect at the end of my stylophone solo, perhaps the camera was readjusting the color temperature or something due to an autofocus.

John’s stylophone is visited by a mysterious and unearthly glow.

I did some test shots with the candle scene near the end of the song. Actually for that one I just propped the camera up with a piece of wood. I had to do multiple takes of that to position the camera so that I didn’t blow directly into the camera microphone creating unwanted noise.

No edits, and no other humans involved.

TV: My own technology, for the more involved shots found me using an old unused phone I still had around as a monitor: no service, but in the house I could still use WiFi to access the backing track we stored on our Google Drive account (and outside the house, could download the track onto the device), which I kept in my shirt or jacket pocket and listened to through headphones while I filmed using my current Android phone. I also have a decent tripod with a phone holder thingy, so I could set up shots and test the framing ahead of shooting. So my trick shot where I come in through two separate doors and sing to myself took advantage of that: I set up the shot and left it rolling for both halves, and it was pretty easy to just layer the two shots on top of the other afterwards.

Schlemiel? Meet Schlimazel!

As the process went on, I found I only really needed one phone: I’d listen to the track for the part I was about to record to get the key and tempo in my head, and then use the same phone to record my part without listening to anything and hope for the best! It’s why my shots get shorter as the video goes on — it’s easier to keep a half of a line in tune and in rhythm than a whole verse. Like John, I pretty much did this all on my lonesome.

RB: Well, what I intended never really found fruition. I wanted to use my laptop to listen to the backing tracks Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] created while recording the video from my phone while setting up a microphone into my old MBox connected to my desktop. But this never happened. Instead, I made a few scratch tracks and I believe Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] said, “good enough!”

TV: I had you re-do the bass for the backing track sound to get the mic closer so there was less room noise. Videographers out there: turn off your external hard drives and, if you can, your computers! I found out the hard way how much hum I tune out in my daily life when I went back and listened to my first takes of my ukulele and suitcase tracks. Also: if you turn the forced air heat off in December/January to reduce noise, remember to turn it back on when you’re done or the rest of your family will get crabby.

Riley, what about your “mirror image” shot?

RB: For the duo violin, I really hoped to play a quartet (violin, violin, bass, bass) but turned in the duo to Ryan as an example of what I was thinking. I didn’t even intend for that recording to be the final one as I used my basic webcam for the video. I also forgot to change the mic input to the webcam, so what you hear is being picked up from my headset hanging about 3 feet away from me playing. It’s not the greatest sound, but Ryan thought, “Good enough!”

RB (afterthoughts): Was thinking more about my answers. Didn’t mean to wholly imply you said everything was good enough. I thought the takes captured each moment magically and anything else might not have.

TV: Good save, Riley! I have receipts: here’s what I actually said (e-mail from December 9, 2020. We were so young! Were we ever so young?)

Love the “Milwaukee Moon / No” footage. Perfect! Print it! It’s a wrap!

But all seriousness aside (this is a Guest universe reference, if anyone can guess(t) it), I thought it was really cool that stuff was coming in with a range of visual/audio quality as well as different looks, sounds, etc. Like, I love the way it goes from John’s intimate Henry James-like interior vocalizing to the epic theater Brechtian outdoor shouting of Rob swinging around the street sign. And then how we get to see Riley a la familia but also studiously gazing into his screen for his violin duet, with his Tolstoy beard and everything. At some point, we’d talked about trying to connect the shots, so that I’d throw my ukulele offscreen at the end of my shot and then Riley would catch his instrument at the beginning of his. I’m glad we didn’t do that — I’m a fan of the non-continuity cuts we ended up making.

And just for anyone who want to try something similar, all the pre- and post-production stuff I did using free and open source software: the backing track was put together using Audacity, the still images were created/edited using Gimp, the motion screen grab scene was done using OBS Studio, the lead sheets for the band and my organ/glockenspiel “solo” were created using MuseScore, and the whole thing was put together using OpenShot Video Editor! Some of these have a larger learning curve than others, but OpenShot is a pretty good program for putting together a relatively simple video like this: it allows you to build up and layer sound tracks, still images, and video clips; it’s pretty easy to move parts around and swap one thing for another; and because it works (until the point of rendering) by pointing to a file path rather than importing the file itself into the project, it meant that I could continue to edit the backing track and the title cards and the changes would just show up the next time I went to edit the video.

OpenShot storyboard for OBS Studio screen capture shot of solo orchestrated with MuseScore, layered over backing track audio created with Audacity.

But I Could Spend This Moonlit Night With You

The Viper: Any thoughts on the final process, results, watch party, or all that?

Rob Henn: We were each given free rein over our own shots, and none of us knew what the other was doing — so I was SHOCKED by how well our different visions gelled together. It ended up being the perfect mix of witty, sweet, and ridiculous. And somehow a portrait of life during the pandemic, too: Riley’s indoor shots with family, Ryan’s outdoor hike shots, and the feelings of being maybe just a little lonely and stir-crazy that permeate Ryan, John, and I’s contributions. A varied but coherent mix that speaks to the zeitgeist.

Riley Broach: I loved getting mini-updates every few days. It really kept the project in my mind and, not to seem cheesy or anything, it connected us during this shitty covid time. It was fun to see someone create an update every few days. It was like a window into each other’s lives. Of course, my kids liked the constant updates too.

RH: Every time I saw the updates, I got more excited. But I WANT SCREEN CREDIT AS “THE PHONE.” [Ed. note: see Rob’s first introduction near the start of this post.]

TV: People should know, that is, in fact, Rob whistling over my landline phone, recorded with my non-landline phone. We were talking about the project, had an idea for an insert, and did it! In tribute to the footage he had sent in by that point, it’s filmed in portrait so I could put the relevant ukulele chord charts on the wings. And it is, in fact, his phone number. Give him a call, ladies, gents, and circus elephants. It’s a pandemic!

Doxxed!

As a kind of home movie of socially distanced life during the interregnum, I was really happy about any happy accidents that showed up in the shots: in mine, I like that there’s at least one USPS mail truck and some good Kettle Moraine footage of what was really the first snowy day I experienced on the Ice Age Trail, on which I’ve spent a LOT of pandemic time.

Any happy accidents, unexpected obstacles, interactions with passersby, etc., that you all ran into?

RH: The day I took the main vocal shot, twirling around a street sign in a Rainbow Dash outfit, I got a LOT of attention from passersby. One was an aggressive sexual offer that I can’t repeat on this family-friendly blog. Another guy asked me if I had lost a bet, to which I replied, “No man, I won a bet. I’m out here living my best life!”

John Peacock: I did a bad job of not setting up the downbeat of my takes with a clap or something. Usually I was too busy closing mirrors or dancing with mannequins at the beginning of each shot. So an early edit had the stylophone solo in an entirely different beat placement (half a beat later if I remember correctly).

TV: It actually worked that way, too, though it would have driven you crazy until the end of time. And maybe beyond.

JP: The one time I did remember to tap a count-in to help with the sync was before my toy piano solo, which ended up being used as an intro to the entire performance.

TV: One of my favorite bits of this is that the video sets up your toy piano in the first shot, but it’s not until about two minutes in that we get the one-bar payoff. And, incidentally, that one bar of toy piano is probably the single thing I spent the most time on in editing. Because it has such a sharp attack and quick decay, the toy piano was giving the “smart” editing software the fits in terms of balancing the sound out without clipping, so we were getting these weird crackles on the video every time I rendered it (and that meant it was, like, 15 minutes going by before I realized that, once again, it didn’t work). I felt like Gene Hackmann at the end of The Conversation (which, incidentally, co-starred Laverne & Shirley’s Cindy Williams.)

The payoff for John’s toy piano – and just look at those lovely Milwaukee built-ins!

However, turns out, the real problem is that I am dumb and was using the wrong file path name – so everything I did to edit the sound wasn’t coming through, because I was setting myself up to fail. Story of my life! But as a great Milwaukee songwriter, Peter Stampfel, once wrote: life is short, art is long. So I was really satisfied when I finally vanquished that crackle and there was victory for the forces of democratic freedom. Ne me quitte pas!

JP: I didn’t reshoot anything, but I really miss Ryan’s original take of the first line of his verse, where he must have been singing without headphones, and thus was hilariously behind the beat. I would have kept it.

TV: My first two shots were just meant to be placeholders, to “see what this kind of thing would look like,” so any sound I recorded was pretty much accidental. I did keep my second shot of me running down the stairs, but this is one of two spots in the video where the original sound is overdubbed. Can you spot the second?

RB: I’m glad we cut [sic] the eyeball scene.

TV: This was the closest we came to an actual disagreement on this whole project! I was out shooting what was going to be some b-roll footage of the Allen-Bradley clock in Walker’s Point (AKA the “Polish Moon”), but singing the last line for fun (ended up using it). I realized the close-up of my eyeball when I turned myself to face me reminded me of the famous scene from Luis Buñuel and  Salvador Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou where you see a close-up of an eyeball with someone holding a razor to it, then a cut to a shot of a thin cloud moving across a full moon, then back to the razor “actually” slicing the eyeball. When I got home, I found the clip and added a little bit, including the actual cutting. It was two weeks before anyone noticed! And objected! Épater la bourgeoisie!

The shot that shocked a nation – or that one guy in Highland Park.

Here’s Riley’s real-time reaction:

1/12/2021 – 12:23 a.m. – Yeah, that eye-cutting scene freaks me out. Funny in a way, but you don’t think it steals some of the show? It’s all I’m thinking about now.

1/12/2021 – 10:52 a.m. – Not to be a Debby Downer but with that scene I feel a little weird showing the video to my kids (and potentially students) now. It seems a little too morbid.

Am I over reacting here?

TV: Anyway, I took out the gross part, though the cloud/moon is still in there as a little inside joke.

RB: I’m still not sure I believe Ryan [Ed. note: The Viper] when he said it was “just a joke to see if we were paying attention.”

TV: (shyly shrugs)

RB: What was it Ann [The Viper’s spouse] said when she saw it?

TV: She hated it and walked out of the room.

RB: I agree! Other than that, I wouldn’t change a thing.

RH: The Buñuel bit made me laugh a bit, in a dorky, eyerolling [sic] kinda way.

TV: You know me too well.

And how did we enjoy the watch party? We had our own pre-party, where we synch-watched and live-texted the L&S “Bus Stop” episode, and then later reconvened to watch the Waiting for Spinal Wind event itself. Some of us even stuck around for the Zoom afterparty! We kept up a pretty active commentary, both on the event’s Facebook page, and on our own text thread.

RB: The whole family loved watching Laverne & Shirley together. Lyra was totally into it.

TV: Penny Marshall(s) and Cindy William(s) are an axiom of television.

RB: Hilde mostly got up and down from the couch about 84 times and played with a tiny Robin (Kermit the Frog’s nephew) figurine. She likes to put tiny pink shoes on him. And then take them off. Then put them back on. We liked the texting history lesson you provided Ryan.

TV: (I sent actual pictures of the Pfister Hotel and 730 Knapp Street.)

JP: Hip Hop Vader [Darth Presley] and “Smells Like Soup” Guy [Andy Moore] were awesome.

Darth Presley, “The Good Book Song”

RH: I’m biased because I’m friends with him, to be sure. But though I knew he was a great musician, I had no idea Andy Moore could also act and be so freaking hilarious. I’ve watched his “Smells Like Soup” maybe three times now and can’t stop laughing:

Andy Moore, “Smells Like Soup”

TV: I was cracking up everytime he gestured at us with his head to “come on, enjoy some soup!”

RH: More bias again, but my friends and bandmates Cat Capellaro and Andrew Rohn turned in this rocking, lascivious cover of “Big Bottom” that somehow, miraculously turns Spinal Tap’s original into a feminist anthem:

Catherine Capellaro, Andrew Rohn, and Matthew Sanborn, “Big Bottom”

RB: As far as the after party, it was like as close to I’ve been to a real party in over a year! It was great to see and chat with real human beings.

TV: Sounds like an ending. Fin.

AND NOW THE BONUS

The Viper: You’ve been with us so long in this post. So here’s how each of us says the word “Milwaukee” in this video:

THE VIPER: Mill-wah-kee (surprisingly, since in conversation I’m closer to Muh-wah-kee)
RILEY: Mell-waw-kee; Mill-waw-kee
LYRA: ( )-aw-kee; Muh-waw-kee
JOHN: Mill-wah-kee; Mill-wah-kay
ROB: We never get to find out!

The Greatest War – Sneak Peek

On November 11, 2019, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra will be in Madison to perform as part of The Greatest War: a multi-band, multi-media, multi-mood exploration of the legacy for Wisconsin and the world of the first World War and it’s subsequent, uneasy Armistice that also features The Kissers and The November Criminals.

The Greatest War: World War One, Wisconsin, and Why It Still Matters | Monday, November 11, 2019 7:30 PM | Shannon Hall, 800 Langdon Street, Madison, WI | https://thegreatestwar.org/

Here’s a taste of what to expect — from us at least — based on what we did at last year’s first, centenary edition of this event.

We’re lucky: we get to cover both the beginnings and endings of everything. The first shots fired happen somewhere between the closing notes of “It’s A Long Way To A World War” (to the tune of “Tipperary” with some new lyrics by show organizer Ken Fitzsimmons and The Viper)…

It’s A Long Way To A World War
Live! Nov. 11, 2018

…and the first banjo-string-flams on a bit of wishful thinking from the 1914 pen of Alf “Paddy” Ellerton called “Belgium Put The Kibosh On The Kaiser.” (Fans of Richard Attenborough’s 1969 musical Oh! What a Lovely War will recognize this song.)

Belgium Put The Kibosh On The Kaiser
Live! Nov. 11, 2018

Then it’s all about Paris 1919, as the Midwest welcomes back some young fellers who may have learned a thing or two overseas in “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?”

How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm
(After They’ve Seen Paree)?
Live! Nov. 11, 2018

And we wonder whether there might be any long term consequences to the way Mr. Weelson and the other world powers gathered in Versailles, Sèvres , and Lausanne to divvy up places like, oh, say, Iraq, Palestine, or Kurdistan as we wrap up our set with “They All Made Peace (What Is Peace).”

They All Made Peace (What Is Peace)
Live! Nov. 11, 2018

On all of these recordings, the performers are The Viper, Rob “Rose Brass Bell” Henn, and Riley “Riley” Broach. But this year, we’ll up the ante with guest Irene “Vipersdottir” Jerving on the violin for the second set. If you listen closely, you can almost hear her wistful grace notes now…

So listen in, enjoy, and then come out and see the show!

Just About 41

Saturday, June 29, 2019 (5:00 p.m.)
The Viper and His Famous Orchestra
Riley Broach’s Backyard (right next to the air conditioner)
Highland Park, IL 60035

Were you, were you, in Highland Park, IL, this past Saturday , June 29 to witness The Viper & His Olds Orchestra celebrate the 41st anniversary of a birth of a very special bassist known as Mr. Broach? “The older I get, the younger I feel,” didn’t say Riley Broach as he adjusted his age-appropriate flip-flops. Meanwhile, Rob Henn wore “ironic” dark socks and the Viper’s $7 glasses from Zenni helped him nail this C major chord.

Meanwhile, a new generation of Bermuda-shorted bass players said “put me in, coach.” And put him in, we did. And we were reassured that there was, still (and despite any tariff impacts), a farmer in the dell.

riley-birthday

On the radio, pt. 2 – WMSE, Milwaukee, WI

Part 2 of 2. For pt. 1, go here.

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!]

WMSE - The
WMSE – The “M” is for me!

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!

EW: Yes.

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.

John Peacock
John Peacock

RH: I’m Rob Henn, and I play trombone, and backup singing, and jug, and other things.

Rob Henn
Rob Henn

RILEY BROACH: I’m Riley Broach. I play bass, and violin, and sing sometimes.

Riley Broach
Riley Broach

TV: I’m the Viper; I just sort of take credit for what the rest of them do.

JP: Rides on our coattails.

The Viper
The Viper

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.

JP: Marginally.

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.

Edward Burch
Edward Burch

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.

EW: Yes!

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.

CR: Ah…

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. .

MI0002025904
Actually, you can get it right here! The compilation is a 2-volume set called Great British Skiffle: As Good as It Gets!

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.

EW: Ok.

TV: So, yeah, “Honey Pie.” Like, a skiffle would be something like “One After 909″…

EW: Yeah.

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.

EW: Totally.

TV: That kind of beat.

EW: Cool.

B-FLAT

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.

suitcase-thumbnail
Sketch of typical vintage suitcase for percussive purposes.

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.

SpiritsOfRhythm
The Spirits of Rhythm, with Virgil Scoggins on the suitcase (interestingly, turned on its end, with what looks like a piece of newspaper tied or taped to the top)

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…

tumblr_m90v59NyZf1qeoqe0o1_500
The Stylophone – as promoted by Australian folk hero Rolf Harris

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…

TV: Popularizer.

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?

Jay Bennett mixes Everything for Everyone while The Viper and His Famous Orchestra look on.
Jay Bennett mixes Everything for Everyone while The Viper and His Famous Orchestra look on.

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?

Not the organ Jay Bennett played on "Pretty Is as Pretty Does." Photograph stolen from Rachel Leibowitz
Not the organ Jay Bennett played on “Pretty Is as Pretty Does.” Photograph stolen from Rachel Leibowitz

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.

CR: Yeah.

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 Music Man, 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’s Das 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.

capital
The viper’s well-worn copy of Karl Marx’s Capital, vol. 1. Just look at those fat cats!

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…

CR: Ahhh.

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…

CR: Wow!

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!

CR: Unbelievable.

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.

jambalaya-lesson
Q.E.D.

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?

EW: 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

EW: Yeah.

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?

EW: Right.

TV: But ukulele you can really just kind of strum and sing, and it’s great instrument for that.

EW: Yeah.

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.

EW: No.

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.

EW: Awesome.

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: Awesome.

CR: Cool.

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…

JP: Salivating.

EW: Excellent.

TV: …add some Fessnicity to the proceedings.

1795494_10202672972081520_1750401060_n
Riley Broach gets in his Anodyne mental space.

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]

SECOND SET

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”]

Right click to download the mp3.

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”]

Right click to download the mp3.

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!

 

On the radio, pt. 1 – WMSE, Milwaukee, WI

Part 1 of 2. For pt. 2, go here.

Well, this is how it works: You’re young until you’re not, you love until you don’t, you try until you can’t, and you do it all on the radio. This’ll be the first transcript I’ll attempt of The Viper & His Famous Orchestra in their appearances on Marconi’s infernal wireless invention — in this case, from Feb. 11, 2014, from an hour-long profile & performance on WMSE (91.7 on the frequency modulation band of your radio dial in Milwaukee, Wisconsin), for the show Local/Live with hosts Erin Wolf and Cal Roach.

The whole thing can be listened to in its entirety in the stream just below this paragraph, or downloaded as a mp3 podcast at this link. Full transcript of the show after the really large picture.

[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!]

wmse-football-photo
We’re # 91.7!

TRANSCRIPT

[Music plays]

ERIN WOLF: All right! It is Local/Live. For this Tuesday.

CAL ROACH: Good evening, Milwaukee!

ERIN WOLF: How are you tonight, Milwaukee? We’re okay, I think.

CAL ROACH: Yes, doing well.

ERIN WOLF:We’re doing well. [Laughs.] So this evening in Local/Live, we have a really awesome…kind of a change-up of things from last week to this week. Last week we got to hear the brutal metal of Shroud of Despondency, and this week we’re going to switch it up and do a skiffle band. Holy cannoli! It’s going to be very different.

Shroud of Despondency

CAL ROACH: Yeah, very old-timey, very acoustic-based stuff this week, and it’s nice to switch it up every once in a while. This is a band, I don’t think we’ve really had anyone like this on before, at least not in a while.

ERIN WOLF:Well, yeah. Definitely not while we’ve been here. This’ll be fun; I’m really looking forward to it. This band that we’re talking about is The Viper & His Famous Orchestra. And the first place I came across Viper & His Famous Orchestra was at the Kneel to Neil event, which happens every year at Linneman’s, and they did a bang-up job of covering Neil Young, and managed to throw a Violent Femmes cover in there, too, as well.

[VIPER’S NOTE: As you’ll hear in the interview later, this was actually a Lou Reed song called “Dirt.” Reed had just passed away that week, so there was some license to mess a bit with the all-Neil-Young format of the Kneel to Neil event — heck, even Neil Young was playing Lou Reed songs at his Bridge School benefit concert that week! Erin wasn’t wrong to hear some Violent Femmes in that performance, however; Gordon Gano was an important vocal model for me when I start singing with bands in the 1980s, along with the whole idea of playing sweet-and-sour, slash-and-burn music on instruments that had gotten somewhat folked up by that point in pop history. And this particular Lou Reed song has a discursive style of development that is very “Kiss Off” like.]

And I was like, wow! this is crazy. And there’s some ukulele going on, and old-time, like ragtime, jazz influences. And it kind of blew my mind and I was, like, I need to see these guys again! They’re really talented, and really fun. And they have a host of instruments that are not typical to many bands. So this’ll be a fun night.

CAL ROACH: Yeah, definitely. You’ve got Ryan Jerving on ukulele, lead vocals; Rob Henn: trombone, backup vocals; Riley Broach: upright bass, backup vocals; John Peacock plays the suitcase (it’s kind of their percussion) and also toy piano, and backup vocals as well.

And, ah, I like what their website says for their bio. They say, they “play the kind of music your great-great-grandparents warned your great-grandparents about.” You get the idea that it’s very old timey. They refer to the term “skiffle,” and, ah, you know, it’s kind of a… it’s known for using a lot of homemade instruments and stuff like that, so that’s kind of in keeping with the suitcase and the old-timey style. You might… You can recognize, kind of… if you ever listen to very early Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire type material, or Squirrel Nut Zippers, they kind of touch on a similar, a similar kind of style as some of that stuff, too. Those guys kind of got lumped in with a “swing revival,” but I think there was a lot more going on in terms of, like, the old-style folk, and almost kind of a skiffle type of sound with them too. So, should be a… should be a fun time.

ERIN WOLF:Absolutely! And, we dig a little deeper, and find out that the leader of the group, Ryan Jerving, has kind of steeped himself in this music and culture. He is a professor, and he teaches writing, and he’s also written about musical history, particularly jazz, which is really interesting. And he, I think, uses a ukulele as a teaching tool in his classroom which is, really cool!

[VIPER’S NOTE: It is really cool! Technically, though, I’m not a professor these days, except in the more-or-less accepted way that Erin is using Professor/Doctor interchangeably. (The distinction is that a Doctor has a degree, but a Professor has a job!)]

The Viper attempts to give Vladimir Mayakovsky a little face time with the camera.

This is a band with some character (laughs), so it’ll be a lot of fun to hear these songs come to life. It’s storytelling music. So, I think it should be a fun one, just to say briefly.

CAL ROACH: Yeah, definitely. So, ah, should we give ’em a taste of what they might be able to expect? We’re going to play a track off of the 2002 release, Everything for Everyone, it’s a bunch of covers that they recorded, and, ah, very wide range of different stuff on there.

[VIPER’S NOTE: Actually, the one with all the covers is the 5-song EP called A Song for All Seasons, which I’ll take the opportunity to plug here!]

But what’s the one we’re going to play?

ERIN WOLF: Well, we’re going to play a track. Per their request, we’re going to play “Hey! Rounders,” because we couldn’t play the Liz Phair cover (laughs).

CAL ROACH: No, unfortunately.

ERIN WOLF: For many reasons. For many, many reasons.

[VIPER’S NOTE: Really, probably just for one reason — the offending party being the fifth word or so of the bridge.]

But this one, we’re going to play. So, without further ado, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra, from Everything for Everyone, released on Trouble-with-a-Capital-T records. This is “Hey! Rounders,” here on WMSE.

[“Hey! Rounders” plays]

ERIN WOLF:All right. That was… [interrupted by recorded inter-track banter and mild obscenity from CD as it continues to play] NUTS! NUTS! That’s what happens when you don’t look at the CD player to see if it’s still going. Bah-dum-bump-CHING. Anyhoo…

CAL ROACH: Chatterboxes.

ERIN WOLF: Cal! So, “Hey! Rounders”: the name of the song from The Viper & His Famous Orchestra.

CAL ROACH: Yeah, you get a little bit of that blues feel, a little folk, a little jazz: all those elements kind of swirled together in that… that tune, and that album.

ERIN WOLF: Mmmm-hmmm.

CAL ROACH: Really, there’s a lot of different stuff. They even do George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” on there: very, very entertaining. Yeah, you might even hear some yodeling tonight. Never know what they might throw in.

ERIN WOLF: Yeah, I’m excited to get this rolling. And they’re going to go live on the air in about… less than a minute, so we’re gonna… gonna get that rolling into your ears. But first, the official opener spot, to make it all official, from our fine friends at K-Nation. We’ll be right back.

[Promotional spot plays]

ERIN WOLF: So, again, if you’re tuned in just now, you are listening to WMSE’s Local/Live, and we’re going to be graced with the sounds of The Viper & His Famous Orchestra live here in the WMSE Bob and Genie Friedman studios. So, without further ado: The Viper & His Famous Orchestra live on WMSE.

THE VIPER: The Viper & His Famous Orchestra live on WMSE. We’re going to play for you the “Ukulele Rhythm.” And this one starts with a poëm:

Modern science tells us
That everything around us
And everything we’ve found us
With patents can be bound us.

But I’m here to tell you, Icky Jeff,
That some things can’t be owned
Like soybeans from Monsanto
Or rGBH.

[The Viper & His Famous Orchestra play “Ukulele Rhythm”]

right click to download mp3

THE VIPER: All right, for our next song, we’re going to take you somewhere very far away: we’re going to take to you to Hotzeplotz, because Hotzeplotz calls. Hotzeplotz is somewhere past Beluthahatchee, which is somewhere past Zar, which is on the other side Far. Rob, why don’t you take us there?

[Then, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra play “Hotzeplotz Calls”]

right click to download mp3

THE VIPER: And now for something completely different. The Viper & His Famous Orchestra play “Heartbreak for Beginners,” featuring John Peacock on the stylophone, one of the greatest stylophone players since Rolf Harris, playing one of the greatest stylophone compositions since David Bowie’s “Space Oddity”: “Heartbreak for Beginners.”

The Viper & His Famous Orchestra are no strangers to heartbreak. If you are, then count your blessings, because this song is for you.

[Next, the Viper & His Famous Orchestra play “Heartbreak for Beginners”]

right click to download mp3

THE VIPER: And for our final song of this live radio set on WMSE, in Milwaukee, streamable around the world, we’re going to bring you a song fit for the season. Yes, it is the season, and that’s why The Viper & His Famous Orchestra bring you “The Yodeler’s Christmas.” You ready, fellas?

RILEY BROACH: Yup.

JOHN PEACOCK: Born ready.

THE VIPER: All right.

[Finally, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra play “The Yodeler’s Christmas”]

right click to download

Part 2, featuring the interview with The Viper & His Famous Orchestra, and more live performances, now available here! Tune in, turn on, drop D.