Category Archives: those that have just broken a flower vase

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!


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: 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…


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.


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. .

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.


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.


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?



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.

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.

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.


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…

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.


CAL ROACH: So I read that your first album was produced by Jay Bennett.


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.


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.

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.]


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.


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.


  • 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?

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.


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.

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]


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!]

We’re # 91.7!


[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?


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.

Set lists for December 13, 2013

Here’s what you missed if you missed The Viper & His Famous Orchestra playing at the Underground Wonder Bar this past Friday night, December 13, along with John Peacock and Edward Burch.

And it should give you a taste of what to expect at our upcoming shows: Saturday, Jan. 11 at Martyrs’ in Chicago for the big Sousaphenia event; Saturday, Jan. 25 at Uncommon Ground on Devon in Chicago (with Jack & Ace); and Friday, Jan. 31, at  the Sugar Maple in Milwaukee. Details on our shows page at

Viper set #1

  1. Hey! Rounders
  2. Ukulele Rhythm
  3. I Love a Girl in Moscow
  4. Save Me a Krampus (for the Holiday)
  5. Pound It Out
  6. Heartbreak for Beginners
  7. Make a World (Brand New)
  8. The Viper’s Blue Yodel no. 6.02 x 10 to the 23rd
  9. Big Headed Small Minded Man

John Peacock

  • IL Central
  • Make Believe
  • Poor Alice

Edward Burch

  • The Neapolitan
  • I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus
  • There’s Always Tomorrow / Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas

Viper set #2

  1. My Seafaring Lassie
  2. The Winnebago Bay
  3. The Yodeler’s Christmas
  4. The Yodeler’s Christmas (encore — honest!)
  5. The Monsters Are Coming
  6. Transformer Man
  7. Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been… Blue
  8. Das Kapital
  9. Ludlul bel nemeqi (Body and Soul)
  10. Good Morning Irene
  11. I Left My Liver in Libertyville

As you’ll see from the actual stage set lists below, we cut a bunch due to time and a sense that the audience wasn’t going to go for a whole set of un-mic’ed on-the-floor washtub bass tunes. AND when John and I were putting the list together while sitting in a car on the way down stopped on the interstate for and hour-and-a-half outside of Northbrookfieldparkridgeviewgrovemette, we somehow forgot transfer some of our biggest crowdpleasers, including “Stopper in My Hand” and a season-appropriate “Mele Kalikimaka.” C’est la guerre.


Dropping science (dropping it all over)

The Viper and His Famous Orchestra performing The Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ and Stealin'” in the upstairs of the Channing-Murray Foundation in Urbana, Illinois in the Year 2000. I think this took place in July, shortly before I moved from Champaign to Turkey (we do a song in Turkish elsewhere in the set), and I think we were playing as part of a benefit.

click here to download the mp3

The instrumentation was sparse — no ukulele (I played the egg shaker — and eggs come from a chicken, not a bunny, dummy!). Just bass, trombone, and suitcase, and mostly just in the breaks. This was, I think, so we could roam as we spit. Most of the Adam Yauch lines seem to handled by Riley Broach, vocalizing with appropriate gruffness.

The show was recorded on a handheld analog tape recorder — I believe just through the built in mic — by Brad Allen. You can hear a little device-on-lap noise at the beginning. In digitizing it, I did a little bit of equalizing to cut out volume spikes but I didn’t otherwise  alter the original recording.



Remembering Jay Bennett: working his craft

see yesterday’s post for the background on The Viper and His Famous Orchestra’s recording sessions with Jay Bennett for our Everything for Everyone CD. Scroll down to the end of this post to see Edward Burch’s unedited comments.

Jay Bennett mixes Everything for Everyone while The Viper and His Famous Orchestra look off.
Jay Bennett mixes Everything for Everyone while The Viper and His Famous Orchestra look on. Photo taken by Edward Burch.

Before we had a chance to do anything with the tapes from the studio recordings that Jay engineered and produced in 2000, I took a teaching job in Ankara, Turkey. It wasn’t until I was visiting the Midwest on a research trip the following summer that we had a chance to get together again with Jay to mix and pre-master the tracks, this time at the Chicago loft where Jay’s band, Wilco, rehearsed and kept their stuff. You can get a pretty good look at the layout of the place in Sam Jones 2002 documentary about that band, I Am Trying to Break Your Heart. It should be noted that the summer of 2001 was a strange time for Wilco.


THE VIPER: So how about the mixing sessions we did with Jay in Chicago. What do you remember about the space?

ROB HENN: At least in my memory, the Wilco loft was this huge place, ragged blonde wooden floors that covered the whole of a rectangular room, and an impossible number of guitars stacked on a giant two-tiered rack that stretched far into the back of the loft.

RILEY BROACH: I remember thinking: Jay has an insane amount of guitars! There were shelves upon shelves upon shelves of guitars. I asked Jay, have you played every single one of these guitars? He responded something to the tune of, “yeah, some of them for only one song.” To which I responded, “why?” And he responded, matter-of-factly, “no other guitar makes that sound.”

RH: I remember seeing that every member of Wilco had a desk. Jeff Tweedy’s desk was notable in particular for the large number of books piled on the wall next to it; they were surprisingly literary and obscure, and for some reason I remember that a number of items were from Grove Press. I particularly remember you looking at this stack and remarking with mock-anxiety, “Oh no! Jeff Tweedy might be even more hip than I am!” You said nothing of the sort when a little while later Tweedy came into the loft briefly and we all met him.

TV: What I remember about the dynamic there was that everyone who used the place (Wilco band members included) was supposed to leave everything looking exactly as it had when they’d come in. In retrospect, that might have been an indication of a band having trouble. But at the time, this very much appealed to the anal retentive side of me, and I thought: hey! great idea.


What do you remember what we did there? I know we did at least of couple of last minute overdubs: some percussion for “Randolph St.,” some marching on a wooden equipment cart for “I Love a Girl in Moscow,” and Jay’s VERY last minute 8 bars of organ on “Pretty Is as Pretty Does.”

RB:  I’m not sure who thought of the idea to record the marching Red Army, but I remember searching through that enormous loft for something with a good “marching” sound. We tried out various objects, comparing the resonance, and settled upon the wooden crate/cart. Our process seemed almost scientific. I wonder if people listening to the recording actually think a Red Army is marching. Why did we include the marching in the first place? Why are they marching?

RH: For the organ on “Pretty Is,” I only remember that he did it quite quickly, as a lark almost. It was, I gather, typical Jay: a brilliant improvisation that added a lovely layer to the song, using one of the many instruments he could have chosen from. He remarked that he was drawing upon this particular organ in order to suggest an old time soap-opera sound, one that was perfect for that particular song’s (melo-) drama.

RB: It makes me think, old-timey theater. I know it was said that it sounded like a sappy soap opera theme. I suppose both interpretations capture that drama.

TV: I remember us standing around while he did his organ bit. I’m pretty sure this was literally the last thing we did on the whole record. And I’m still amazed, in retrospect, at the time and effort Jay put into this project. The organ bit is a good example. As quickly as he did it, he actually did about 4 takes where we thought 1 would have been fine, and then he mixed bits and pieces of the 4 takes into 1 on the spot. The rest of us were late for some dinner appointment (maybe even for playing a show that night?) and getting kind of antsy about getting out of there. But he wanted this backing bit for 8 bars of this track buried in the middle of this very local record to sound right!


RH: My chief memory of Jay from mixing was an argument we got into. Oy, it was frustrating! I can’t remember the content of the “dispute” at this late date, but only that I had said some idea about the recording that Jay heard wrong, and thence thought was a stupid idea; I then spent the next five minutes or so trying to clarify what I had said, but Jay was having none of it, and continued to be contemptuous of my supposed idea. He would not brook stupidity in the recording process! We were quite prickly with each other, and Ed made a nervous joke about it. Later in our time at the loft, Jay found his trump card: he heard and then played back, at length, this snippet of my vocal mic in isolation during some backup singing. I clearly couldn’t have heard myself at all in this part of the recording — it was a melody that was too low for me, and hence I was singing softly — and the mic revealed that consequently I was horribly, embarrassingly off-pitch. Jay just kept that part playing for a while, for everyone else in the band to hear and laugh at. Me included, though a bit more nervously than everyone else. Well-played, Jay, well-played.

I had thought that Jay and I had gotten off to a truly bad start, then. But within a year or so (I think), I went to see him and Edward play at a record store in St. Louis when they were just beginning their tour in support of The Palace at 4 a.m. (Part 1). I was standing next to a CD rack in the crowded store, and accidentally jostled a few CDs in those long plastic trays. The CD trays came clattering down in the midst of some of Ed and Jay’s banter between songs. Jay stopped what he was saying and singled me out: “Nice going, ROB!” he said. “Way to ruin the show, man.” Or something to that effect.

This may sound like another attempt to embarrass me, and it was, but it was more like razzing from a big brother than anything else. He used my name with an affectionate tone, and was clearly marking me out to the crowd as a friend of the band. It was a gesture of kindness and welcoming at an embarrassing moment. Whatever he had thought of my stupid ideas previously, he now seemed to recognize me as a friendly acquaintance, someone he could kid around with in public. Thereafter, at every show I ever saw him, he would say hi as if we were the oldest of friends.


TV: We all like this picture at the top of this post a lot. Though I have to say that most of our commentary on it over the years has been about “smoldering passion shared by Ryan and Riley” or the two rubber ducks in the upper left corner. But what do you think Jay is thinking about in this picture?

RB: Perhaps, we were listening to an adjustment that Jay had just made and were thinking (in our giddiness of recording with Jay) that it sounded magnificent. You can tell by our perfectly timed smiles which was probably timed with a magical moment in the music. Whoever took that picture has impeccable timing. [That would be Rachel Leibowitz.] Jay, on the other hand, is probably thinking to himself, “ooo, that sounds terrible.” You can see his mouth in the “ooo” shape.

VICTOR CORTEZ: “Needs more toy piano…”

RH: I want to say something clever here, but honestly all I can imagine is the most mundane answer. I suspect it’s true, too: in this photo Jay is passionately, manically [maniacally?] puzzling through some kink in the mixing process, working his craft, trying to perfect even a small detail of sound for a tiny and unknown band from east central Illinois, as if it were as important to him as Summerteeth or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Nothing is stopping his concentration, and he’ll get the result that he wants, the result that is right and necessary for the music. He’s out of focus in this shot. But oh, it’s a picture of him, definitely.

And, as promised, here’s the unedited text of Edward Burch’s comments.

Jay agreed to do our CD because I had dirt on him, so it was a total hush deal. Actually, it was because he found what we were doing (and by “we” I mean you orchestrating the orchestrations of the Orchestra) to be so inspiring that he wanted to do whatever he could to help get the music recorded. It didn’t take much convincing. I thought his production on Everything was very Rubin-like, in the sense that it was an attempt to capture, as unmediated as possible, what the band sounded like in the room. I remember it was Jay’s idea to leave the false starts and tails on some songs, although it could have been Adam [Schmitt] and me who decided during the mastering to leave them in. (Sorry ’bout that.) Those are among the few points on the record that the mode of production draws attention to itself. So, depending on what you consider the role of the producer to be, Jay was doing most of it — got us the room at Private Studios, picked the engineer (that is to say, himself). He couldn’t have picked a better engineer, because Jay’s knowledge of the choice and placement of microphones were, I think, very key to the album sounding as good and as “natural” as it does. For me, it was certainly a treat to work with him on Everything for Everyone in a context where Jay and I were not working on our own material, just to have him guiding the session, such that he was freed from having to be concerned about the recorded output as “his” record (as he often did with Wilco or with Bennett-Burch material), but instead could focus his energies purely on someone else’s work. He often liked to comment to folks with whom he worked, “See, you really could have done this without me.” But truthfully, there’s no way we could have made the album we did without him.