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Friday, August 19, 2011

Firesign Theatre interview 1999

This isn't about music, but when I was at, I was editor of the Comedy/Spoken Word section and got to interview some pretty amazing people. George Carlin twice! I've already put both of those up here. Talking to two of the guys from Firesign Theatre (over the phone, in separate conversations) was on that same level. Here are the transcripts:

David Ossman

How did the group reunite?

We got back together for our 25th anniversary. A performance was booked for Seattle, so we put together a show for that. We hadn't worked together for quite a while, maybe as much as ten years. We did a big and very successful, a big sellout show at the Paramount in Seattle in '92, and then we went on the road that fall with that same show. It was a little bit rough. We were booked in halls that were too large for the crowds we could draw, and so forth. So we kinda did it, we felt, this is the Beach Boys on the road, and we did what we could do. But it was very difficult to let it go. We've been living with Firesign Theatre so long that it was very hard to abandon it once it was -- more than just revived, because we work very intensely together. So when the opportunity came to do a new album -- some time ago, we started two-and-a-half years ago on Immortality -- it was like, okay, we need to be able to do in a series of albums in the late '90s what we did in the late '60s and early '70s. The decision was to really not do anything that was like the past, or re-do stuff aside from a mention here and there, but to really do something that was new and contemporary, and I think we succeeded in doing that with Immortality, which kind of gave us a launch platform to go that next step.

I see these two albums as very much like Electrician, which was a very contemporary comedy album in its own way, and How Can You Be In Two Places at Once, which was really an album about radio. We re-examined our radio roots in Immortality and yet it was very contemporary -- it still is. But in approaching Boom Dot Bust, we wanted to do something much farther out there in terms of writing and a non-linear piece which is more like Dwarf. It took us a long time. We started in November of last year, then really started writing in January, but then we had to go on the road in April.

It's interesting to know how much time you put into these things. I had a friend who characterized Dwarf as "four guys getting high on acid and free-associating."

[Laughs] I don't think the four of us ever got high on acid, certainly not in the same room at the same time. Maybe everybody did individually, but we never did that, we've always been very meticulous writers and really have worked on our scripts, worked 'em out. What we've developed now is a sense of how we work, we're much wiser about how we work. We know we can go in the studio and move things around, that we don't have to have a completely perfect script, because what we do best together is sometimes first take, or within the first couple of takes of a scene, because we can bring improvisatory freshness to it that gives it that sound of four guys high on acid free-associating. There is that free-association, that improv, but it comes right in the studio when the mikes are on.

The question of, as you said, not wanting to do things that you've already done -- what is it like to concoct these incredibly complex scripts and then have to perform them over and over again live?

Well, we've done two major shows that involved our first five albums. We did Anytown USA in 1974 that sort of put Bozos and Dwarf together and elaborated on them, kind of extended the albums to the extent that you knew why Clem was returning to the Future Fair, what his motivation was for trying to get to Dr. Memory and turn the thing off. And then, in a much straighter fashion, on that 25th anniversary tour and still on the last time we were on the road, we were doing Nick Danger, but there's -- when you're on stage, and I know Austin's a vigorous spokesman for this -- the audience needs a certain touchstone, and if we just went out with nothing but completely unfamiliar material, it would be difficult for them. So we always try to have a grounding of things that is like those tunes everybody wants the Beach Boys to sing. We've decided really that Nick Danger, which for us is throw-away-the-script-and-have-fun-onstage, is the most satisfactory one for doing over and over. We can bring a certain amount of freshness to that. I think we could do Dwarf again. It's like a play, and we adapted it into a play form. When we went out and did the Immortality material, there was quite a long debate on how much of it we were going to do. We started out by doing much less than we finally did onstage. Some things were quite difficult. I know it was very difficult for me to do Danny live, and finally we just dropped Danny from the show. He was difficult for me to perform on the album. Very emotional, very unlike me -- really an acting job. In the new show, I mean as far as Boom Dot Bust goes, I'm kinda looking forward to putting this material up on its feet. It always gives us a chance to gloss over the writing one more time. We've always performed, so it's nothing new, we've been onstage together since 1968.

Do you ever test stuff in performance before you record it?

Not since the very beginning. I think the only show that we ever did onstage before we recorded it was How Can You Be. Nick Danger was originally written for a live performance, Giant Rat of Sumatra was much rewritten from things that we had done onstage. I think it would be very difficult, because really they are two very different things. In an album we care much less about a sequence of laughs, whereas onstage, well, you want to hear the audience laughing. So material is chosen or rearranged in such a way so that you keep the laughs coming. After all, that's what the audience is there to do. They're not there to see -- or they don't think they're coming to see -- a kind of modernist, surreal, experimental theater, which is kind of what I think we do when we're onstage. We certainly don't do stand-up comedy, and we never have done sketch humor. We've never done Saturday Night Live, we've never done any of those things people are used to seeing onstage or on television, that kind of format. It's always much, much more surreal or theatrical than it is sketchy or joke humor.

Which raises the issue of influences. Are there any in particular?

I guess everyone would confess various influences. For myself, I came to the Firesign out of a background of working in radio at the time. I had a very strong relationship with the golden-age-of-radio programs and with the kind of humor that one might have found in Jack Benny or Fibber McGee and Molly. I also came from a background as a poet, and I'd been in New York during the whole late Beat era and had been very much a part of that New York scene around '59, '60, '61. So I was very influenced by the contemporary American poetry scene. Peter too -- we met him after he had come from a literary colloquium in Berlin where he was working with Tom Stoppard. So we also have that European avant-garde, Waiting for Godot, Ionesco, in our immediate educational background. We were all college boys, so we come very influenced by that world. I translated a lot of Dada and Surrealist poetry, I translated French and Spanish poetry when I was in my twenties and thirties. So our influences were not ever a particular comic. I mean, I love Stan Freberg, and he certainly was influential on the medium. I listened to all those records of his, because they sort of freed up the medium, and that's one of the things I credit him for, bringing radio to records and really freeing up the medium for satire. But an influence, though? I'm not sure. I would say that mine come from the worlds of poetry, Surrealism, Dada, late 20th-century avant-garde literature. And finally, really, I think we've just evolved our own way of speaking. We are original. And it's the power of that originality that sold us all on the Firesign Theatre. We could all be wonderfully creative, but something would happen when the four of us were together -- are together -- that doesn't happen otherwise. That's really original.

Let's talk specifically about the new record.

One of the accomplishments, for me, of the new album is that we have at last learned really how to write for four people performing at once, which is quite difficult. "Two" scenes are kind of classic conversation, and "three" scenes are really comedy, ba-dum-bump. But it's difficult to write for four people working simultaneously. I think we've been very successful in the last two albums in putting us all onstage and giving us all an equal part. And also standing back and allowing the wonderful single pieces to work, like Ralph Spoilsport on the last album and Hal & Ray, which Proctor and I just fell in love with each other over. We could go on and do them forever. So you look for those kinds of relationships between us and among us that will spark these characters and bring them to life. B. Buck Bunnymumble, who does the money show, kind of a parody of one of those television shows, he just came together in that scene with Proctor out of the blue. I wanted to get it recorded, get it down, and my attitude was like that, you know? [forecfully emphasizing his words] So I just pushed him and pushed him and pushed him, and he had to respond to it, and it was great, because you come out of a take and everybody is saying it was fabulous because they'd never heard it before, so to give a really fresh performance to your pals, who are about as jaded in terms of our work as anyone, that's very exciting.

There's a lot of stuff that's not in print.

Almost everything, now.

Is there any plan to reissue that?

Columbia kind of folded up their tent, Sony, and has not allowed the license to be -- Mobile Fidelity licensed and put out the first five albums on CD in the late '80s and early '90s. Then the licenses were not extended, so everything is held in the Columbia vaults, and so far nobody's been able to shake any of it loose. We're hopeful that Rhino can acquire all of the early Columbia albums, but right now the only place you can hear the material on those early albums is through the live performances. This is a tragedy, of course, especially in the case of Dwarf and Bozos. They were in print for 30 years; for them to drop out of print is saddening. But I think they'll come back. I'm hopeful that Rhino can bring out a box set. I think they should all be out. It's not even a matter of money, I just think they should all be available.

You used to have a syndicated radio program. Are there any plans to do that again?

Yes, we've been talking quite seriously about going back on the radio. There are very likely plans to be afoot for something, maybe coming out of Los Angeles, maybe next year. I think it would really be great to go on the air. We're talking about a two-hour show in the Garrison Keillor fashion, it would have some variety aspects to it. We did a show up in San Francisco last year, and we had so much fun, as we always do when we're on the air. It's also very good for us to develop writing that way. You were talking about doing things onstage first -- on radio first is how you can really bring in individual material and hand it around or do it yourself, and that can be very effective in gathering early thoughts for the next album.

* * * * *

Peter Bergman

I hesitate to ask something so mundane, but what does it mean? What does Boom Dot Bust mean?

That's a very general question, but I suppose it's a snapshot of America as it heads into the next millennium. It officially takes place on the Fourth of July, or the Fourth of Julie, the year 2001, in the town of Billville, which is somewhere in Ohio, and it's a town that thinks big-big-big. It's got a corrupt administration run by the four lead characters of the story: Mayor P'nisnose, Doctor Infermo, Coach Swatt, and Bill Sprawl, and around them the world circulates. It's about the American bubble and the pricks who live inside it.

Of the four main characters, only the mayor gets developed much.

Yeah, the mayor is the lead character in this album. Firesign Theatre has a tendency to have a lead character in each of its stories, you know? Just as Bebop Loco was the lead character in Immortality. And usually in most of the classic stuff Firesign does, there's a George Tirebiter or Babe or Clem, some character who carries us through. Although the mayor's the most developed, there are other characters who move through the story. And unlike Immortality, which took place entirely on a radio station in the period of 24 hours, I don't know how long this this takes, it could be almost the same instant and before you know it, everything's happened.

The last track is particularly confusing. I guess it's one way to wrap it all up.

It's a fairy tale, or a fable. You have to go back and listen to it a couple times. There is no bona fide answer. I can't give you a Firesign-guaranteed with a stamp that this is the way you should interpret the overall album, everyone has their own way of coming out of it.

It's definitely apocalyptic, which carries on from the last album.

Yeah, it does have that sense. In a way, it's apocalyptic, but guess what, the apocalypse is over and here we are. [laughs] I guess it's the both of those, for sure.

I guess the most apocalyptic part is the Devilmaster section.

You know, I love the Devilmaster. As he says, "we're doomed." One of the things we say in Immortality when we say hello to the next millennium, "Hello to increased demonic activity." I suppose it carries that theme along.

There was a reference in the beginning to the doctor poisoning the town.

Poisoning the water. "Give me shiny shiny water." It looks good, i.e. we do anything in our society to make things look good regardless of the environmental impact. Shiny shiny shiny, big big big, win win win. The coach is putting hormones in, he's hormoning the high school football team so they can be big big big and win win win.

Sports has been one of the ongoing themes, sports and its competitiveness.

Yeah, I think that the influence has been Phil Austin and myself, we both follow sports to a certain degree. Phil is a swimmer, I'm a biker, and David Ossman and Proctor are very aware of the concept of mega-personalities and mega-stars. When we deal with sports, sports is very personal, you know. It is one of the few industries that's completely personal, probably more personal than motion pictures. Sports is a live spectacle, and we feel that's a great energy to latch onto as a means of riding through the culture.

There's also a lot of wordplay, of course, with the invention of new terms like "cheese stamp" and catch phrases like "lick my zipper."

One of the things Proctor loves to do is bring in books that describe regional languages. I think "lick my zipper" is full Firesign, but it's inspired by two or three other regional languages that we included in here. We published the full script, annotated, on maybe the DVA of Boom Dot Bust and certainly the DVD. Those have both been mixed into a DVD video with full animation, a desktop version of Boom Dot Bust. Boom Dot Bust is the first audio piece being produced and mixed in DVD 5.1 Surround. It's turned out to be the perfect medium for Firesign Theatre, we're really enthused with the mix. It will be released by Rhino in February.

One of the things Firesign does is take the icons and buzzwords of our culture and turn them upside down. And when they mix together, they make perfect nonsense. You understand things through their nonsensical value sometimes, because that's what's hidden in them psychologically when we're pounded by all this material. You may get a single icon, but behind it is all kinds of other material, and we mine it. It's really our job.

That sort of information overload approach is something you pioneered over 25 years ago.

That's right, we do overload you with information, so it sets off the circuits -- it doesn't short-circuit you completely, it re-circuits you.

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