Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Minimalist Jug Band and such

Al Mader and Petunia at Slickity Jim's Chat'n'Chew (RIP). Photo by Femke Van Delft. NTBRWP, eh?

Haven't been around much lately - I've been keeping pretty busy commuting to work, looking out for my Mom, and trying to keep abreast of daily life. Not that I've been entirely unproductive in my freetime: for writing, I've been working on articles for a Japanese magazine, a German one, Canada's own Mongrel Fanzine, and The Big Takeover (out soon!), and talking to Bison BC, Nomeansno, and the Subhumans, among others. It's been more than enough to occupy my free time, so it's just as well that I'm not getting laid. Locally, to keep my thumb in there, I've also been doing a bunch of odds and ends for the Straight - most recently a Minimalist Jug Band CD review and a wee note on Al Mader (said MJB) and (musical cohort) Petunia's planned train trip this summer. Al and Petunia play Cafe Montmartre on the 9th, along with a theremin, a singing saw, and a violin; in their honour, I will presently re-present my first-ever print-media Minimalist Jug Band article, written a few years ago for The Nerve Magazine ('member them?).

Lots of other shows coming up I'm excited by and hope to get to, mind you: There's The Furies this Friday (whom I have not seen for quite some time, and also did a wee Straight piece on, to complement my various online articles on them). Then there the Golers May 7th (of whom I have become a fan since drawing "Al Goes To The Cobalt" - part one here, part two here). There's Isis May 31st, Nomeansno July 1st, and the Melvins July 5th. People should also note that Susanne Tabata's long-awaited Bloodied But Unbowed movie premieres May 13th at Doxa, with various people in attendance; Doxa also hosts the documentary on Vancouver venue issues, No Fun City, which I imagine will largely focus on the tribulations of wendythirteen. That's shaping up to be a pretty cool spring, in terms of film and music, and will be about all I can handle, given work and life and such...

...but that's about all I can say for the moment. While I do hope to have a couple of fresh blog pieces up in the next few days, in the meantime, here's:

The Minimalist Jug Band: Any Reaction Will Do
(from 2006 or something)
by Allan MacInnis

There’s this guy on the stage. He’s got a homemade instrument – a stick, a string, and a washtub – and he is plucking at the string with great abandon. (It’s hard to describe him as “playing” it, since every note sounds pretty much like every other note.) He is grinding his way through an angry, self-deprecating rant, which happens to rhyme. Several of the members of the audience who are listening to his lyrics – quite a few aren’t - seem not to know what to make of him: his songs tend to get rather personal.

I’m having dizzy spells,
Things are shifting, turning
And every day
Well my guts are churning
And I ask myself, I mean,
What’s the answer
Is it a brain tumour or stomach cancer? And I take a walk
And I talk to the doc
And I see what the doc thought and he says,
“You’re making yourself sick”
I’m making myself sick!

At the end of the evening, he may well destroy his instrument, which usually involves breaking the stick over his knee; the effect is somewhat underwhelming, though quite funny. The man is Al Mader – better known as the Minimalist Jug Band, also referred to in one of his songs as “A Washed-Up Guy on a Washtub Bass.”

“When I first started performing I think people generally felt sorry for me,” Al shrugs. “Occasionally strangers would ask if they could give me a hug. Several times I've been heckled, and then after I finished the heckler will come and sit with me, which always seems odd... One time this young guy was heckling me at the start of the show and then by the end he wanted me to come with him and help him quit his job.”

Asked why he favours covering disturbing emotional territory in his songs, Al says, “Are they disturbing? Good!” He elaborates: “I often write as a way of grappling with ideas and emotions and have no intention of sharing. Those are usually the most worthwhile pieces. I have some that are still in limbo, either to protect myself or others... I am a very private person, but prefer art that shows vulnerability and has some emotional impact (and humour), so some sacrifices are required.”

Not all of Mader’s songs have a discomfiting confessional quality, however. “Dead Man’s Pants,” inspired by Al’s experiences buying clothes from thrift stores and wondering about previous owners, is more likely to make listeners laugh than squirm. Also, many of his songs mix fiction with fact, affording him a bit of privacy. Still, songs like “I’m a Lousy Lay” tend to divide the audience squarely: between those who tune Al out - embarrassed, annoyed, or just plain uncomfortable - and those who whoop and cheer and egg him on, hoping, he guesses, that he will “act out their repressions.”

Mader is surprisingly comfortable with both extremes his performances inspire. “As long as people are reacting one way or another, as a performer it gives you something to go on. I don’t need them to feel one way or the other, but I need them to feel.” Some audience members have told him after shows “you’ve got a lot of guts,” which, Al points out, “is a kind of mixed review, if you think about it.”

Fans of the Minimalist Jug Band’s first CD, For Crying Out Loud – produced by Chris Houston, with homemade cover art drawn on pieces of old cereal boxes – will be happy to note that Al’s sophomore effort, Thrift Stories, is nearing completion, and may soon be turning up at Red Cat and Zulu. The title was supplied by Mader’s poet friend Susan Parker; unlike his previous one-man release, the CD boasts a wide range of guest musicians, including Steven Nikleva, Ronnie Hayward, Ed Goodine, and Megan Rose. The country blues/ roots music artist Petunia (“an amazing singer, in the Jimmie Rodgers vein”) makes a particularly noteworthy contribution in that he actually plays a jug, on the song “Love isn't Blue,” which, Al tells me, “is sandwiched in between verses of his ‘My Gal’ song,” which Petunia has re-recorded for the disc. “He sings the first half, and then it segues into my song, and then there’s like a real contrast in styles, which is kind of startling... and then when I finish up he goes back into the second half of his song. I don’t know why, but he’s putting it on his CD and I’m putting it on mine, and it kinda seems fun.”

Before the collaboration with Petunia, the only jug in the Minimalist Jug Band was in the name.

Though “spoken word and theatre audiences are the most attentive” of the crowds the Minimalist Jug Band has played for, Mader prefers the challenge of opening for bands, and has had some cool opening slots – including British punk poet and humourist John Otway. “Otway was charming and gave me a copy of his autobiography, which is fascinating and hilarious,” Mader tells me. Another highlight was a gig opening for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. “They invited me to do more dates on that tour but I was moving to Halifax at that time.” Though Mader, who now makes his home in East Vancouver, often gigs at venues like the Montmartre and the Railway, he’s happy to play anywhere. “Sometimes the cabaret-style events are almost as fun. Doing shows with a stripping Elvis or recently with the Canadian yo-yo champion makes life interesting.”

Mader is a prime target for being labelled an Outsider Musician, but he isn’t entirely at ease with the term. “‘Outsider Music’ suggests a performer who is deluded and oblivious, who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. The performer is found art – you’re like a piece of wood that happens to look like something else, and it’s the person who ‘discovers’ you who gets to define you as an artist. You’re the soup can.”

Though Al is a fan of outsiders like eccentric rockabilly guy Hasil Adkins, he doesn’t think he has much in common with Wesley Willis. Still, he adds, “I understand how I fall into that category. When I listen to myself in the context of musicians, my first impression is ‘what an ass!’ But I do find something compelling in the tension that results. I don't create in a vacuum, which would seem to be an essential requirement for an outsider.”

Asked what pisses him off about life in Vancouver, Mader notes that while Vancouverites “may have passion towards kayaking or hiking or something, it seems like there’s a fairly small percentage of the population that is obsessed with art.” He smiles dryly when I ask how this affects him. “I try to be immune to it, I guess. And act as if someone cares.”

Al by Femke, NTBRWP.

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