A couple weeks ago now, The Viper showed up on May 17, 2018 and did his duty as Composer in Residence with the Orchestras of Lake Zurich Middle School North under the direction of Mr. Riley Broach.
You can read about this program and how we all approached it this year in my previous post, but in this space here I plan to turn the page over to the words of the 6th, 7th, and 8th-grade students (now about to become 7th, 8th, and 9th-grade students, some of whom I’ve worked with for all three years of their middle-school careers) who performed full string orchestra versions of Viper-made songs “Winnebago Bay” and “Another Day.” I really appreciated reading everyone’s comments, which — enjoyably gentle insults aside! — showed a lot of thoughtfulness and appreciation for the uniquely challenging approach Riley takes to setting up and teaching his orchestra courses.
So here’s the questions that Mr. Broach posed to them, post-concert, followed by a word cloud showing the words they used with the greatest frequency (as a group) in their responses. (You can find a fuller rendering of many of these comments on the LZORK page right here.)
Q: What did you learn from The Viper?
Q: How do you describe the Composer in Residence thing we do in orchestra?
Q: Tell me about the song you might compose over the summer!
Q: Write a message to The Viper!
Thanks again to Mr. Broach and to the students in the Orchestra program of Lake Zurich Middle School North for all their great work and tremendous patience with me this year. I’ll be back — but for now all I have to say is:
Middle school denizens of the Northern territory of District 95, Lake of Zurich, United State of Illinois: The Viper comes in peace but he comes with washtub, jug, and, probably a cümbüş (don’t ask) in hand. Beyond that date, there be monsters. But fear not: we’re just that good.
I’m looking forward to my second annual virtual residence with the LZOrk-ers for your Spring 2017 concert. Mr. Broach and I have some fun and challenging music planned for all y’all, and I hope you’ll challenge us right back.
Here’s a glimpse at what we’ll be doing. And if you’d like a deeper dig into just what this Viperity is all about, you can read here about what last year’s students (which includes some of you!) asked about what to expect and what I wrote back, in a post called “What Does The Viper Say?”
“Just That Good”
The Intermezzo Orchestra will be working with a little trash-talking piece I wrote as the type of thing that should take five minutes to learn and a lifetime to master. (Like Othello!) It’s about as simple as it gets — a twelve-bar blues in a ragtime/stride style — and our work with it should be a good example of the way most non-classical musicians learn and develop new music.
You’ll have a written template for the melody. But, truth be told, most of the “information” to be transmitted about this tune and its style is something you’ll have to learn by ear: you’ll hear me play the melody and “figure out how it goes” by playing it back and then memorizing it.
We’ll also try to work out ways, as a group, to produce bass lines and other accompanying parts and to introduce some development to this basic theme — including, if all goes as planned, a little “concerto mini-grosso” band-within-a-band bit for two washtub basses and jug. Whatever we end up doing, our performance will be a unique arrangement and orchestration of the piece — something that’s never been played quite the same way before, and won’t ever be played the same way again.
Here’s a “scratch track” version of the song as recorded by the group that Mr. Broach and I perform in together, The Viper & His Famous Orchestra. A scratch track is a rough-and-ready reference recording that a composer or a group makes in rehearsal — basically, so they can come back later and remind themselves what they figured out. This is faster than we’ll do it, but you’ll hear how this song works as a kind of conversation between all the performers.
“The Monsters Are Coming”
With the Chamber Orchestra, we’ll be working on a piece that has been described as “the worst song ever written” (it was described that way by me!) and one that, when performed before an audience of children, produced cries of “Liar!” (I had to explain to those kids that sometimes the truth hurts).
This is an example — or maybe even a parody of — a style of music that composers like Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass developed in the second half of the Twentieth Century under the rubric of “minimalism” (though, as we’ll talk about, their work echoed some parallel developments happening in popular music as well). The idea is that we take some super-basic piece of melodic material…
…and see just how little we can do with it and still end up with something that sounds like something that actually sounds like something!
The development might not be melodic — indeed, with this piece, the refusal to move away from the basic theme is really the joke — but instead might be in terms of the dynamics, or the sonority of the particular mix of instruments, or bowing/plucking techniques, or playing the melody backward (“retrograde”), upside-down (“inversion”), or, for the truly brave of heart, backwards AND upside-down (“retrograde inversion”), etc., and we will work this out in our rehearsals.
Truth is, even prior to the last century, there was a tradition of this kind of thing, whether we’re talking about monks chanting, or Indian ragas or Turkish taksims, or Beethoven’s meditation on a minor-third interval with a short-short-short-long rhythm in his 5th Symphony. But, trust me, Lake Zurich ain’t heard nothin’ like we’re going to lay on them with this.
Here’s a three-person version as performed by The Viper, Mr. Broach, and our colleague, Rob Henn. Now think of what we can do with a full orchestra!
The Monsters Are Coming, Var Gallery, Milwaukee, July 2016
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!
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…
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!
I have no gift to bring, except the gift of a history of Viper holiday recordings of heterogeneous provenance & widely varying sonic quality.
If you’re a “lay back” consumer of mass culture, then just click on the playlist above and let the sounds carry you off on their Valkyrie wings, like you’re listening to a Maxell cassette tape. Or just crank up the following YouTube playlist for a somewhat abridged version of this list.
But if you’re a “lean in” listener, then lean in, Macduff, and read about, listen to, and (if you like) download the songs in the rest of this post.
The Yodeler’s Christmas
Still something that the band considers a “new” song — and I guess it is, given the geological timeframe in which The Viper & His Famous Orchestra lives and breathes — this song actually had debuted at Nino’s Steak & Seafood, on December 21, 2010, at a solo gig that my Mom booked for me playing at the annual Christmas luncheon of the American Association of Retired Persons, Sheboygan (Chapter 338).
The video above is a rehearsal track recorded at the Viper’s home in November 2013, and the audio track below is from our February 2014 appearance on Milwaukee radio station WMSE’s Local/Live program (entire show can be listened to here, with my textual transcript of the first half here).
Written by my daughter, then 6, in a language more or less of her own invention (“Feliz” excepted), this song has been performed live maybe only once: at the same AARP luncheon noted above, where I attempted to lead a sing-along — always best attempted with a song no one has heard before in a language that nobody knows.
But the audio below is the real deal: triple-tracked Irene Vipersdottir in a nicely spooky round with herself.
The Vince Guaraldi Trio’s theme music from A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). The video above and audio below are both the same December 2010 performance from my lower flat rental on Hi Mount Blvd. in Milwaukee, but the audio version is juiced up with interface effects that seemed like a good idea at the time. Hope you like your Christmas music melancholy, because that’s what yer gettin’.
Play along with the bouncing music — right there on the screen! — in the video above, or just listen to The Viper & His Famous Orchestra playing this Hanukkah answer to the old-time classic “Hot Corn Cold Corn” live at Mike N’ Molly’s in Champaign, IL, in August of 2009 (recorded by Nick Hennies). The bowed bass solo is Riley Broach, the trombone is Rob Henn, and while the Viper plays cümbüş, he’s doubled on electric mandolin by Kip Rainey.
Maybe my favorite Christmas song (by Sammy Cahn & Jule Styne), the video and audio were both recorded on probably the same day with the same banjo ukulele on the same staircase in the same rental house on 59th Street, right off Milwaukee’s great Vliet Street. I interpolate a little bit of the Pogues’ “Christmas in New York,” because my motto is: if it ain’t broke, break it!
Every year in December, or November if it’s taking too long, my in-laws all get together to exchange gifts. Each adult is only responsible for one other adult, which is somewhat a necessity since my spouse is the oldest of 7. Last year, I drew the name of her brother Johnny, himself the father of an exceedingly large group of Hanlons. My gift was a song that I imagined as a Christmas song that the Hanlons might all get together and sing, called “The Hanlon Christmas Song.” It goes like this:
The otherVince Guaraldi song you probably know, also from the 1965 Charlie Brown Christmas special. But you’ve probably not heard it played on a thumb piano hacked to allow for a flatted 7th. Until now.
Though unknown to The Viper at the time, he and His Famous Orchestra were recording this homage to elf individuation for a holiday compilation that Edward Burch pulled together called “Santa Is Real,” featuring a number of Champaign-Urbana resident or affiliated bands and musicians. It’s a cover of a John Papageorge-penned tune from my undergraduate Madison, WI band, Kissyfish. Here’s both versions.
One of the two songs for which I’ve created a piano/vocal/ukulele sheet music arrangement (available here), this song tells the tender tale of the St. Nicholas fellow traveler who stuffs naughty children into a sack and steals their oranges.
download mp3 of “Save Me A Krampus (For The Holiday)”
I wrote this song. Or I wish I did, since people seem to really like to sing it. And here’s Irene Vipersdottir doing it in her inimitable style at age 5. The “Chocolate Rain”-like thing you’ll see her doing with her fingers is measuring the distance I’d told her to keep between her mouth and the microphone.