On November 8 at Joe’s Pub, multidisciplinary artist and Torah scholar Alicia Jo Rabins presented the world premiere of her one-woman show, the vastly entertaining A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff. After reading about Madoff when his Ponzi scheme fell apart and made all the papers in December 2008, Rabins became obsessed with the man and his story, spending the next several years poring over seventeen books about the case and meeting with people directly and indirectly impacted by the scandal. In the show, Rabins, backed by cellist and musical director Colette Alexander, percussionist David Freeman, and guitarist Lily Maase, sings, plays the violin, and shares personal anecdotes in a warm, involving, and funny way. She incorporates Buddhist sutra, an actual apology letter written by Madoff, and a Jewish prayer into the proceedings as she examines the situation from the points of view of an FBI agent, a credit-risk officer, a whistleblower, a happy investor, a therapist, a lawyer, and a monk. As she prepared for the second performance, taking place November 15, Rabins corresponded with twi-ny about mysticism, money, Madoff, her marriage to musical partner Aaron Hartman, and more.
twi-ny: The role of belief in things unseen (and often dimly understood) plays a large part in both finance and religion. Did you find anything in your background in Jewish studies useful as you explored the financial world and this story? What do you think it ultimately was that led to your fascination with Bernie Madoff?
Alicia Jo Rabins: I was fascinated to find that, as you said, there is this overlap between the bewilderment and allure of esoteric mysticism and esoteric finance. They both traffic in ultimate intangibles — the idea of energy and the idea of money. But more simply, I was fascinated by the simplicity of Madoff’s scheme, the fact that it wasn’t a complicated series of equations no one could have seen through but a simple lie that the SEC could have easily stopped at any point if they had checked to see if his hedge fund had ever actually executed any of the trades their records described. So it seemed to me that the whole story was more about the financial world’s desire to believe in Madoff than Madoff’s desire to deceive.
twi-ny: Regarding that desire to deceive, in the show you explore whether Madoff is a villain or just someone who got caught up in a situation that spiraled out of control. What do you think is the truth?
Alicia Jo Rabins: I think the gray area between those two is the interesting part of the story. That, plus the shared responsibility of those who should have known better but didn’t (I’m not talking about ordinary investors but about fund managers, financial advisers, the SEC, and huge banks), and why exactly no one stopped him for decades, is the area this piece explores. I suppose the piece itself, with all its contradictory viewpoints, is my answer to that question!
twi-ny: The opening performance produced a rousing ovation, and you will be performing it again at Joe’s Pub on November 15. How do you think the first show went?
Alicia Jo Rabins: I loved performing that first show — it felt incredible, and somewhat surreal, to be in a room with an audience after two years of working on this piece!
twi-ny: What are the future plans for it? It deserves to be seen by a lot more people!
Alicia Jo Rabins: Well — thanks! I’m already talking to a few producers about bringing the show out west and to Europe, in both museums and theaters — so I feel like the production will have a touring life, which would be wonderful.
twi-ny: Over the last four years, in addition to your Madoff obsession, you’ve gotten married, had a child, and released a pair of Girls in Trouble records. Has it been hard balancing all of these elements?
Alicia Jo Rabins: Oh yes, the balance is a constant struggle, and if it weren’t for my friends, my families, and Aaron’s unflagging support, there’s no way I’d be able to do all this. (And many days I can’t.)
twi-ny: What does Aaron think of your Madoff fixation?
Alicia Jo Rabins: I’ll have to ask him and get back to you. I can say that he did find it quite amusing that at one point our bookshelf had a full shelf of pregnancy and childbirth books, above a full shelf of my Torah teaching books, above a full shelf of books about Bernie Madoff.
Tony Hawk was nine years old when he first got on a skateboard; by the time he was twelve, he was skating competitively, taking off on a remarkable career in which he would win seventy-three events by the time he was twenty-five, then go on to capture fourteen X Games medals, including nine gold. Born and raised in California, Hawk was a key member of the Bones Brigade, a group of young skaters, including Mike McGill, Lance Mountain, Rodney Mullen, Steve Caballero, and Tommy Guerrero, who revolutionized the sport, coached by former skater and videographer Stacy Peralta (Dogtown and Z-Boys, Riding Giants), who documents the history of the team in Bones Brigade: An Autobiography. (The film is playing at the IFC Center through November 8 and is also being released today, November 6, on DVD and as a digital download.)
Now forty-three, Hawk is still one of the leading proponents of skating, through popular video games, tireless personal appearances, and the Tony Hawk Foundation, which builds public skateboard parks in low-income communities. The thrice-divorced Hawk has four children, including nineteen-year-old Riley, who is a sponsored skater himself; his other boys, Spencer, thirteen, and Keegan, eleven, skate leisurely. He also has a four-year-old daughter, Kadence Clover. Hawk continues to thrive in the spotlight; he recently even ate bugs with fellow skater Jason Ellis for a Ride Channel video. Hawk called in from his home in San Diego late last week to talk about the new documentary, making the cult classic The Search for Animal Chin, and eating crickets.
twi-ny: Several guys in Bones Brigade get teary-eyed near the end. What kind of emotions did you experience while looking back at this seminal period of your life?
Tony Hawk: My experience was a little bit different in terms of what affected me so deeply. I love that I was part of that group, but I knew that there was more that I wanted to do, not necessarily being a pro skater but promoting skating and possibly doing my own company as well. I don’t look at my days there as a springboard by any means, but I’ve been through so much since then, you know, in terms of the industry and success, so for me it was more my heartfelt emotions about what Stacy taught me in terms of handling myself and achieving and helping riders. What I took away from that time was that there’s such a good way to approach this as a career and to be a mentor to others by doing so. Stacy left before I left, and that’s when it became clear to me that I’ve got to go do something else.
twi-ny: Like the Tony Hawk Foundation.
Tony Hawk: That’s not something I had in mind back then. It’s just something that evolved with the success and with skating’s popularity.
twi-ny: Something the movie makes clear is how much you all wanted to make Stacy happy. Is there a difference between Stacy the coach and Stacy the director?
Tony Hawk: Well, I think the respect that he has for the subject and for the riders is absolutely the same. I mean, he’s not out to make some propaganda or some insulting piece about the people that he’s highlighting. You can see him as the director working differently just because in the back of his mind he knows the thread of the story. In coaching, he was trying to empower us. In his coaching, he’s just very encouraging in all aspects just so that you become the skater you want to be, not that he’s trying to direct that at all.
twi-ny: You guys made a lot of videos back then, but what was it like revisiting The Search for Animal Chin? Had you seen it recently?
Tony Hawk: I’ve seen parts of it. I haven’t watched the whole thing in a long time.
twi-ny: It’s kind of wild to watch today.
Tony Hawk: It was very fun in the beginning, but then the weeks went by and we had to do the sort of acting thing. We just wanted to do the skating, so there definitely was some tension among the team and between Stacy because it was, like, “Why are we doing this lame thing?”, like, this scene, and trying to act, and all we want to do is go skate. I mean, we thought it was a funny idea, but for us, the skating was more the priority.
twi-ny: There are a lot of personal revelations made in the film. Was there anything you learned that particularly surprised you?
Tony Hawk: I think, probably, about Rodney, that his home life was not ideal. I knew of his intense focus and dedication to skating, but I didn’t know how truly volatile it was, that he was at risk of being forced to quit so many times.
twi-ny: His story is probably the most powerful one in the film. Did he always gesture and talk in those roundabout, philosophical ways?
Tony Hawk: It used to be worse. I don’t know how to explain it. Communicating with Rodney used to be much different. If he didn’t know you, it was very hard to break through and understand him.
twi-ny: A few years ago, Spike Jonze’s skate videos were shown at MoMA, taking them to a whole new level, and now we have channels like Ride. How do you think things might have been different if there was a YouTube back in the ’80s?
Tony Hawk: It would have progressed faster, the information would have spread more immediately, and possibly it would have meant more global recognition.
twi-ny: Well, through the internet and the X Games, for example, you’re now heroes to new generations.
Tony Hawk: In the past, the only people who really appreciated skating were the ones who did it, and the X Games created a fan base of people who enjoyed it and came to understand it and appreciate it but didn’t necessarily want to do it themselves. I think that’s when we broke through a ceiling of popularity and established skating as something that was here to stay.
twi-ny: What do crickets taste like?
Tony Hawk: [laughs] They’re not bad. There’s a part two to that video where we eat scorpions and silkworms. Silkworms taste like dirt.
JOHN BALDESSARI: DOUBLE PLAY
Marian Goodman Gallery
24 West 57th St. between Fifth & Sixth Aves.
Tuesday - Saturday through November 21, free, 10:00 am - 6:00 pm
As John Baldessari and I sat down in the conference room at Marian Goodman Gallery to discuss his latest solo show there, “Double Play,” I realized that the cord on my old-fashioned tape recorder couldn’t reach the nearest outlet. Sensing the dilemma, the six-foot-seven, eighty-one-year-old artistic genius said, “Too bad you can’t use that,” and pointed behind me. When I turned around, I saw his 1997 Goya Series canvas “It Serves You Right,” a black-and-white image of a plug beneath an empty four-pronged outlet. Fortunately, the good people at the gallery were kind enough to find a long, orange extension cord so we could get down to business.
“I’ve got to say, I don’t like being labeled a California artist, or a Los Angeles artist, or a Conceptual artist,” Baldessari later pointed out. “I just like it to be artist.” For more than fifty years, Baldessari has been creating provocative paintings, video, and sculpture that combine text and language with art-historical and pop-culture imagery. He’s placed colorful circles over subjects’ faces and filmed himself posing in front of a camera and declaring over and over again, “I am making art.” He’s experienced a kind of renaissance lately, with a well-received traveling retrospective, “Pure Beauty,” that came to the Met in the fall of 2010, and two recent promotional videos that have gone viral, “A Brief History of John Baldessari,” a wildly funny biography narrated by musician Tom Waits, and a Pacific Standard Time short in which Baldessari’s giant head chases actor Jason Schwartzman through the streets of L.A.
For “Double Play,” Baldessari made inkjet prints of enlarged sections of works by such artists as Paul Gauguin, Honoré Daumier, Otto Dix, and Édouard Manet, painted over them, then named them after song titles by Waits, Kander and Ebb, Portastic, Johnny Mercer, and others. “Eggs and Sausage” reimagines Gustave Courbet’s “Portrait of Paul Ansout,” combining it with block type of the title of a 1975 song by Waits. For “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” Baldessari focuses on two of the women in Félix Valloton’s “Three Women and a Young Girl Frolicking in the Water,” making it look like they’re kissing, and adding the title of the song made famous by Shirley Temple.
A careful thinker who punctuates many of his statements with an infectious laugh, Baldessari is a gentle, unassuming man whose striking white hair and beard and mustache stand out in stark contrast to his black clothing. He spoke honestly and openly about art and life, encouraging more questions even as our time together was coming to a close.
twi-ny: You’ve spent part of the last few years looking back at your long career, with the “Pure Beauty” retrospective and a continuing series of Catalogue Raisonné volumes. Do you think that has directly influenced your current work?
John Baldessari: Well, I think it’s always valuable to look at the arc of your career, of what you’ve done and what you might do, and retrospectives can provide that. So do Catalogue Raisonnés. It all helps, to see where you’ve been and where you might go.
twi-ny: In putting together the two new series, you compare yourself to Dr. Frankenstein. How do you go about choosing the different elements?
John Baldessari: The underlying idea is that I always think of language and imagery as of equal value. So very often in my work I have both — sometimes not, but right now I do — but I consider the song title as valuable as the image. What I’m trying to do is not make it easy for people to make the connection between the image and the language, make it a little difficult. Which is impossible, because people want to do that, they want to hook up things together. A few of them, I just look the other direction, like the dog and “Feelings” — that’s like a Hallmark card. But on the other ones, I think, “Moon River,” I mean, come on. But a lot of them, I found out, I went through the list of song titles trying to hit ones that wouldn’t provide a ready connection. And as a result, I have five or more that are Tom Waits; he’s really good at that.
twi-ny: In “Feelings,” for example, you have a dog, but “Walking the Dog” isn’t with the picture of a dog, which confuses people.
John Baldessari: Exactly.
twi-ny: Are the selections random?
John Baldessari: They’re not random at all. They’re very well thought out. I mean, they’re very well thought out in trying to avoid a connection.
twi-ny: And people can make their own connections.
John Baldessari: Of course they will. But then it’s going to be a weird connection.
twi-ny: When I looked at “Animal Crackers in My Soup,” I’m thinking Shirley Temple, and you’ve got the image of two women kissing.
John Baldessari: And you’re gonna start thinking. I kind of played this “fucking with your mind” game.
twi-ny: In regards to Tom Waits, another National City guy, did you know him or his music before the LACMA video or “Double Play”?
John Baldessari: I’ll tell you how the connection happened. I was teaching in a community college, and I had heard that he had attended that after I had left. And then I mentioned it to my sister, and she said, “Oh yeah, he was a gardener for one of my girlfriends,” and I thought, Wow, that’s amazing. And then I was checking around some more, and it turned out he worked in a pizza restaurant that was located in a building that was owned by my father in National City before he began to get really well known.
Somehow I got his phone number — he was living in L.A. at the time — and I called him. I said, “Is this true?” and he started laughing and said, “Yeah, it’s all true.” You know, I’ve yet to meet him. But then, two years back, in Vanity Fair they had that thing in the back they called the Proust Questionnaire, and they had him, and one of the questions was “What was one of the most enjoyable times in your life?” and he said working in the pizza restaurant in National City, California. Isn’t that amazing?
We talk on the phone. He did send me a note, did a drawing about that movie, and he said, “These guys are making us famous.” And I said, “Tom, you’re already famous.”
twi-ny: You famously proclaimed that you “will not make any more boring art.” Recently you stalked Jason Schwartzman in a Pacific Standard Time video and you told him, “Art should be fun.” You seem to be having a lot of fun.
John Baldessari: Yes, I think that’s high on my list. You know, you should enjoy what you’re doing. Well, anyone should enjoy what they’re doing. Not everybody’s that lucky. They get trapped having to make a living; it’s not what they enjoy. I feel very fortunate I can do what I like doing.
twi-ny: Whose idea was it to put your face on the buildings?
John Baldessari: That was kind of a set-up, which I didn’t mind. They wanted to do two videos, one of me, and one of Ed Ruscha — I guess, the two senior artists in L.A., whatever — and I said, sure, what the hell. They went through various names and they said, “How about Jason Schwartzman?” I’m so out of the loop, but all of my staff, young artists, they went gaga. “Jason Schwartzman? How cool is that?” And I said okay. Jason Schwartzman it is. Then the filmmaker came to talk to me, and it was the son of Bob Dylan, Jesse. Then, the way he described it, with this face-to-face, Jason and I, in conversation, I said, piece of cake, I’ve done that. But the structure was all him. It’s brilliant.
twi-ny: In the digital age, it seems that everyone now can be an artist, a photographer, a journalist, a writer, a filmmaker, whatever they want. Is there a lot more boring art now?
John Baldessari: I think one thing, everybody carries a camera with them, in terms of their smart phone, and we never see any physical prints. There are no more photo albums. As a result of that, I’m not interested in taking photographs. I mean, only if I need to. I used to carry a camera around with me. But now I think, why? I have no need to because somebody is going to have an image of this. I don’t have to do anything.
twi-ny: It’s taken away the process of acquiring source material.
John Baldessari: The pleasure. I remember in 1970 I gave my Nikon to my wife and said, “Listen, I have an assignment for you. Go out and photograph — the whole thirty-six-exposure roll — the most boring things you can find. Now it’s not so easy. It’s interesting too, your question. When I was teaching, one of my colleagues was Allan Kaprow at CalArts, and he was very prescient. He said the artist of the future will be an art director. You don’t have to do anything, like Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, me — you just have the idea. It’s really conceptual art with a vengeance. With conceptual art, you never presuppose that there would be much physicality to it, but my god, it’s physicality overkill.
twi-ny: Getting back to “Double Play,” the range of works include Gauguin, Bacon, Dix, and primarily Courbet and Eilshemius. Were you looking specifically for images, or were there particular artists you had in mind?
John Baldessari: About two years ago, I decided I was going to start mining imagery from the history of art rather than from newspapers and magazines and TV, whatever, but going about it the same way. I wouldn’t try to get a good image of the work. I wanted it from the media. And then I’d have a huge library, and so I just started plowing through books, collections, individual artists, on and on and on. What I would be looking for would be something in an artist’s work that would be, in a way, inconsequential. There’s always a hierarchy of things in an artist’s work. If it’s a person, obviously you’re going to look at the person’s face, then you might look at what he has on or how he or she is standing. So I looked for something that seems to be the least interesting — oh, like this; that’s not very interesting, you know, that kind of thing — and then I would map out and isolate part of the image and say to an assistant, “Print all these out” so I could look at them and I would sort through those. I guess what I’d be looking for were things that would be visually interesting — to me, anyway, in a formalistic sense, not just in terms of subject matter — and then hopefully it will be interesting to somebody else, who knows. And then I start going through lists and lists of song titles, and then I play marriage broker in trying to get the two of them together somehow and in some way that provided some tension. You know, not an easy association, as I said, but something that was a little bit more difficult because I think one of the things I like to do is make things difficult for people, not in a burdensome way, but I think I got that idea once from reading Kierkegaard and he said, “My job in life is to make life difficult for people.”
twi-ny: To further the challenge, you don’t always take the most obvious part of the image.
John Baldessari: It’s a bit of an art history test. Yeah, some things are pretty obscure, so I made it difficult in that sense. But I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of the viewer, or the spectator, in having taught so long to support myself. So I couldn’t be so obtuse that I would lose people, you know, the students, or be so simplistic that I would lose the smart people. So I think I know how to be a little seductive but have enough there for the most intelligent person but not lose the average person. And of course, for me a model would be, like, Giotto or Matisse, where it looks deceptively simple but it’s not at all.
twi-ny: You mentioned your teaching. Some of your students have gone on to become famous artists themselves, people like Tony Oursler, who also has such an element of fun in his work.
John Baldessari: Absolutely. David Salle, another one, Matt Mullican, and on and on and on. Mike Kelley.
twi-ny: When you had them as students, could you tell which ones would potentially be successful, not necessarily financially but at least creatively?
John Baldessari: I had one sort of idea and I don’t even know if it’s true but I’ll share it with you. There’s always a kid in school that’s really smart, but I think because of that they’ve worked less hard, and the ones that are sort of a little bit way down, they work harder. Those are the students that seem to become successful.
twi-ny: One of the pieces you mentioned before, “Feelings,” is part of the Artists for Obama Portfolio, which also includes works by Frank Gehry, David Hammons, Jasper Johns, and many more. Why did you choose that piece for the project?
John Baldessari: I didn’t do it in any political way. I just thought, who doesn’t love dogs?
twi-ny: Finally, over the last several years, and in the video with Jason Schwartzman, you use cheese as a metaphor for appreciating art. What is your ideal cheese?
John Baldessari: You know, I think I said gorgonzola cheese because my father was Italian and that was the only cheese he would eat. And then I remember some perceptual psychologist writing about art and talking about tastes in art changing. I wish I had said it but I think it’s very apt. He said, when you start out, if you eat cheese at all, it might be Kraft cheese or whatever, and then you get tired of that and you sort of escalate and then you get to the point where smelly cheeses are all you can tolerate. And I thought that was a pretty good description of how taste changes.
Americana folk rockers Rosco Bandana introduce themselves with a shot of brash, bold honky tonkin’ on “Time to Begin,” the title track of their just-released, same-named debut album. Singers Jason Sanford, Jennifer Flint, and Emily Sholes trade vocals while the rest of the band plays hot grooves behind them, coming together to declare over and over, “Yes, it’s time to begin.” Indeed, it’s quite a beginning for the seven-member Gulfport, Mississippi, group, whose first record also includes the country-blues “Woe Is Me,” the infectious story-song “Radio Band Singer,” the ballad “Long Way Down,” the jaunty “Tangled Up,” and the foot-stompin’ “Black ’Ol Water” (which features a curiously placed apostrophe). Formed by childhood friends Sanford and drummer Barry Pribyl Jr. along with Sanford’s former girlfriend Sholes, the band added Flint, Josh Smith, Jackson Weldon, and Patrick Mooney at wine-bar open mic sessions. Rosco Bandana will be at the Rock Shop in Brooklyn on September 27 with Sasha Pearl and Mail the Horse and at Mercury Lounge on September 28 with Arit and Food Will Win the War. Sanford recently discussed the group and its origins in our latest twi-ny talk.
twi-ny: You’re the first band signed to Hard Rock Records. How did that come about?
Rosco Bandana: We won the Hard Rock Rising Battle of the Bands, and they decided they wanted us to be the first band on the label. They saw something in us that they found promising.
twi-ny: Are you worried about being labeled as a corporate rock band?
Rosco Bandana: No, we will always stay true to our roots.
twi-ny: There are seven members of your group, including three singers. What are the songwriting and recording processes like?
Rosco Bandana: Jason writes the songs. The recording process was a learning experience in which we grew tremendously. Greg Collins is the first professional producer we have worked with.
twi-ny: On your Facebook page, you mention that one of your influences is “other people’s music.” What “other people’s music” have you been inspired by?
Rosco Bandana: Elliott Smith, Wilco, Fleet Foxes, Fleetwood Mac, Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons, John Harper, Luther Dickinson.
twi-ny: You're going to be in Brooklyn on September 27 and the Lower East Side on September 28. What kind of expectations do you have for these NYC shows?
Rosco Bandana: We expect a good response, since new York is notorious for launching newer, uprising bands.
twi-ny: Dare we ask where the name came from?
Rosco Bandana: We wanted something symbolic of America. That’s where we got Bandana. We got Rosco from a Midlake song [“Roscoe”].
THRILL JOCKEY: 20 YEARS
Friday, September 14, Death by Audio, 49 South Second St., $13.50, 8:00
Saturday, September 15, Webster Hall Grand Ballroom, 125 East Eleventh St., $20, 5:30
For twenty years, Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records has been releasing some of the most exciting and challenging music around, from well-known bands and emerging up-and-comers, in multiple genres, often with highly sought after special limited-edition vinyl pressings. The label, whose wide-ranging roster includes such groups as the Sea and Cake, Oval, Eleventh Dream Day, the Fiery Furnaces, High Places, Future Islands, Tortoise, and Pontiak, was started back in 1992 by Bettina Richards, a major music fan who is still running things today. “Bettina is a shining light in the increasingly dark recording industry who still has an unwavering enthusiasm for discovering new music and championing the people she believes in,” notes David Halstead, who worked with Bettina at Thrill Jockey for many years and is now at Solid Gold in Brooklyn. “Her dedication to DIY music culture and her ability to make it work in today’s climate is nothing short of inspiring. Thrill Jockey never panders to the lowest common musical denominator, and she deserves massive amounts of respect for still wanting to take chances — even if she’ll never admit that ‘classic era’ Guided by Voices was nothing but pure genius.”
Richards and Thrill Jockey are celebrating their twentieth anniversary with a series of live shows around the country and in London. The tour stops in New York this weekend for a pair of concerts, Friday night at Death by Audio with White Hills, Guardian Alien, Man Forever, Dan Friel (formerly of Parts & Labor), and Rhyton, followed by Tortoise, Future Islands, Matmos, Liturgy, D. Charles Speer and the Helix, and the Black Twig Pickers at Webster Hall on Saturday. In between taking care of her twins and blasting black metal, Richards discussed Thrill Jockey and the state of the music business in our latest twi-ny talk.
twi-ny: How did you come up with the name Thrill Jockey?
Bettina Richards: In 1992, I was working at Pier Platters records store in Hoboken while living on the Lower East Side. I also was an intern for Todd Abramson, the head honcho at Telstar Records; as a side, he also books many clubs today, like Maxwell’s. Todd is not only a serious music geek, he is a big fan of some B movies, especially, it seems, of a more delinquent nature. At about the time that I was planning on starting the label, Todd showed me an especially funny preview for a film called Speed Crazy. In this film a few hooligans disrupt a small town by behaving in a simply terrible fashion, being loud, driving their hot rods too fast, etc. As I recall it, the voice-over proclaimed that three thrill jockeys terrorized Mercerville.
I was printing the jackets for the Zipgun single that I did, and I had found a really cheap printer around 42nd St. (This was in 1992.) They were very friendly and chatty on the phone; they kept saying they did not work with too many companies run by women. I really did not think much of it at the time. I went to pick up the sleeves and discovered that the printer almost exclusively printed VHS cases for pornographic films. They said, “Great company name! We do not have many people that print soundtrack records for their films.” So, good record label name — perhaps. Great pornographic film company name — for sure!
twi-ny: What were your initial goals when you started Thrill Jockey? Did you ever think it would still be thriving after twenty years?
Bettina Richards: My goals were pretty much what they remain today: Simply put, to release music we love, and to treat the musicians as equal partners in our advocacy. I followed the model of Dischord and Touch and Go, two labels that I admire. While we work hard to keep ahead of technology and to be creative thinkers in the way we approach the business of music, I never much think about Thrill Jockey as an entity beyond a few years into the future. So the short answer to the question would be no, I never imagined the label at twenty years old.
twi-ny: What does it take to be a Thrill Jockey band?
Bettina Richards: It is very hard to put that into just a few words, but I will try. I think a common thread among musicians we work for is that they would all be doing what they are doing regardless of who was listening, that they are willing to take risks musically, and finally that they always have a certain aspect of abandon in their music. From one of our newest artists, Black Pus, to one of our oldest bands still recording, the Sea and Cake, they are all-in and uncompromising.
twi-ny: How has the Chicago indie music scene changed since 1992? Who are some of your favorite signings?
Bettina Richards: Everywhere has changed since 1992, considerably. I really do not have favorites among the records that I have released. I really do love them all. I could tell you a story about each and every release. While the label owes its longevity, in large part, to our better known bands like Tortoise, Freakwater, Trans Am, the Sea and Cake, the Fiery Furnaces, Future Islands, Wooden Shjips, and Liturgy, we simply would not be the same label without Oval, Radian, Eleventh Dream Day, Pontiak, the Lonesome Organist, Barn Owl, Sidi Touré, Jack Rose, or Gaunt. To borrow some words from John Coltrane, “It all has to do with it.”
twi-ny: You mentioned before that you are equal partners with your artists. Does that 50-50 model still work in the digital online era?
Bettina Richards: Indeed it does — extremely well.
twi-ny: What kind of music do you listen to when you’re away from the office, relaxing at home?
Bettina Richards: I have four-year-old twins, so you will have to refresh my memory as to what relaxing is like!
There is very little difference between what I listen to while at work and while at home, even to what I play for my twins. So aside from the records that we put out, I play lots of records on the always exciting Drag City Records, Blackest Rainbow, Experimedia, Immune, and reissue labels like Monk, Four Men with Beards, and Mississippi Records. I have lately been on a real heavy bent playing a lot of Watain, the Body, Mutilation Rites, Krallice, and Hell. While that has been my most recent tear, it has been peppered with a healthy dose of Charlie Parr, Elektro Guzzi, Joe Bataan, Porter Ricks, Duke Ellington, Cat Stevens, and music from the early twentieth century from India and Pakistan. (Yesterday it was an early recording by Ali Akbar Khan). Been getting into those Fugazi live recordings that Dischord has been posting. Always close to my record player are Fleetwood Mac, Fats Waller, Wanda Jackson, the Jesus Lizard, Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, EPMD, and Neil Young.
COUGAR THE MUSICAL
St. Luke’s Theatre
308 West 46th St. between Eighth & Ninth Aves.
Previews begin August 10 prior to an August 26 opening, $39.50-$89.50
Cougars are hot hot hot these days, and the same can be said for Donna Moore. A stunning fortysomething single mother of two, Moore has revamped her two-person cabaret show about older women with a thing for younger men into Cougar the Musical, a full theatrical production that begins previews at St. Luke’s on August 10 prior to an August 26 opening. The NYU grad, who starred on the children’s television series Zoom back in the mid-1970s, has teamed up with Tony-nominated director and choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett to present the sexy story of a trio of older women (Brenda Braxton, Catherine Porter, and Babs Winn) who have the hots for a series of young studs with such names as Buck, Twilight Dude, Bourbon Cowboy, and Naked Peter (all played by Danny Bernardy). The perennially upbeat Moore, who battled Lupus after giving birth to her first child, is also an affirmationist who believes strongly in the power of positive thinking, telling herself such mantras as “I love and accept myself exactly as I am,” “I am forgiven as I forgive others,” and “I am connected to the flow of life.” Moore discussed Cougar, young studs, Lupus, and more in our latest twi-ny talk. (For a chance to win free tickets to see Cougar the Musical, go here.)
twi-ny: You were a cast member on Zoom back in the mid-1970s. At the time, did you anticipate a future in the entertainment business?
Donna Moore: I started performing when I was nine as a modern dancer and all I know is that something would happen when I would get on stage — like this free spirit that was my higher self would channel through me and a nine-year-old was transformed into an ageless, graceful creature. After Zoom, I always knew I wanted to continue to perform, but I think I was more concerned about survival from my childhood fame in a city public school (I was beaten up and threatened on a daily basis in junior high) to think about my future as a performer.
twi-ny: Cougar the Musical goes back to a cabaret you performed with Danny Bernardy back in 2007. How did it develop into a bigger musical with a full cast and crew?
Donna Moore: “The Cougar Cabaret” came out of a co-creation with R. K. Greene (who is now one of my “above line” associate producers). I had a cabaret show about my divorce that ran for a year called “The unBalancing Act” and the eleventh-hour number was a song called “The Cougar” that I cowrote with John Baxindine. It brought the house down every night, and one evening R.K was in the audience with Olson Rhodes (my current and wonderful GM) and they discussed how if I wrote a whole show about the cougar, how R.K would get behind me and coproduce.
“The Cougar Cabaret” came ran for one and a half years with my beloved Danny Bernardy. We each played three different characters. (I also played his Jewish mother from Boca who wasn’t too happy her son was dating a woman old enough to be her sister, “my older sista . . . it’s just wr-aw-ng!”) The show got a lot of buzz and there were a number of Broadway producers who said if I developed it into a larger book play they would get behind me. It took threes years (a number of separate book musicals and thirty songs later) and my partnering with director and dramaturg Lynne Taylor-Corbett [LTC] to turn the two-person, six-character cabaret script into a fully fleshed (no pun intended) four-person script.
In cabaret and stand-up, you can talk to the audience, tell it like it is, but I had to work painstakingly and determinedly to show the character development and not tell. I do credit LTC with helping me become a playwright worth her salt.
twi-ny: What do you think of the whole Cougar phenomenon in general? What's the difference between a cougar and a MILF?
Donna Moore: I’ll start with the easiest and then get deep on you: A MILF can be a cougar but a cougar cannot necessarily become a MILF. A MILF is required to be a mother and it’s incumbent upon the young men around her, who are friends with her teenage child, to desire this older woman, so it’s a “passive” term. A cougar is not necessarily a mom, and her cougar status has less to do with a young man desiring her as it has to do with the empowered woman desiring the young man.
I’ve been working on this project for eight years and have been interviewed by national magazines and newspapers as a “cougar expert” because of my cabaret show, lol, and there have been so many twists and turns but one thing that remains the same is my take on this cougar phenomenon. I believe the sociopolitical reason we are fixated on the cougar/older woman is that as a collective whole, we are yearning to embrace a more matriarchal system after a millennia of patriarchal dictation. And the “cougar” represents the medicine woman and the intuitive healer that older women used to represent in older societies. I believe that women have a chance to say “yes” to their innate sacred power and the access to that is to “embrace the sacred feminine” in all of us.
twi-ny: Speaking of sacred power, you are a strong believer in the healing properties of affirmations. Why do you think they work?
Donna Moore: I believe that life is holistic and metaphysical and that our experience is made up of mental, spiritual, and physical components that all exist as one whole. The thoughts you think create results, the context of which one thinks creates an attitude that serves well-being or shoots you in the foot, literally.
After the birth of my first child (who is turning twenty-two in November), I was diagnosed with Lupus, a horrible autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your body and sees itself as a foreign threat. I was very sick, with horrible joint pain, unending fatigue, and depression. I had to crawl up the stairs and had no energy to do anything but sleep. I was only twenty-nine. I decided to take a spiritual approach and rid myself of my dis-ease. I refrained from any sort of gossip, I started to eat organically, and I submerged my consciousness with 100% positivity. I actively repeated affirmations of self-love and acceptance, ones that viscerally changed my state of being, and, happily, I was able to cure myself of Lupus. The ANA antibody is no longer positive, I was able to have a second child, and I have not experienced symptoms in over twenty years.
So yes, I believe affirmations are a powerful metaphysical medicine . . . or for those who may not be as a open-minded, it is a way to change your state into one that supports growth and happiness.
twi-ny: You are a vivacious fortysomething mother of two, prime cougar territory. Do you have any personal cougar stories you're willing to share?
Donna Moore: I did date a man nine years my junior on and off for eight years. However, I never felt like I was older than he. . . . We were just two people who connected.
Saturday, July 28, and Sunday, July 29
Weekend passes $179.99, day passes $99.99
Dave Foran is hoping to achieve what no previous event promoter has done before in New York. Over the years, such outdoor music gatherings as the Fleadh, Lollapalooza, Across the Narrows, and All Points West have each failed to maintain a lasting presence, something the Dublin-born Foran is planning on doing with the Catalpa Festival. Taking place July 28-29 on Randall’s Island, the two-day inaugural festival boasts a diverse lineup of live acts, including the Black Keys, TV on the Radio, Umphrey’s McGee, Hercules and Love Affair, and Zola Jesus on Saturday and Snoop Dogg, Girl Talk, Matt and Kim, Cold War Kids, and Matisyahu on Sunday, among many other groups. In addition, Catalpa will host such special installations as Arcadia’s fire-shooting “Afterburner” and the Silent Disco Tent, where people can dance to wireless music beamed into their headphones. A former professional rugby player whose father was a promoter as well, the twentysomething Foran started his promotional company, Frisky, in 2010, with the goal of putting together “mind-blowing events.” The University of Sydney graduate recently discussed the genesis of Catalpa with us as the festival grew near.
twi-ny: What was the selection process like to come up with the roster of musical and visual artists participating in the festival?
Dave Foran: I didn’t want to pigeon-hole Catalpa in its first year and really wanted to create a diverse and slightly eclectic assortment of artists that I really feel had quite a bit of substance, their own style, and collectively a personality for the festival that I hope will be attractive. I did not set out to create a pop festival at all, but you do need some big names to get everyone interested. The Black Keys were my first-choice band for Catalpa. I really think they are amazing, and their recent explosion has been built on a solid foundation of developing a following year on year from creating incredible blues-rock; to me that is the epitome of what I would like Catalpa to represent.
twi-ny: How did the decision to hold it on Randall’s Island come about?
Dave Foran: There really are not that many large green-field sites in NYC that can hold a suitable capacity and which are tried and trusted. In my view it really is the best of the bunch. Governors Island is landlocked and a logistical nightmare. Liberty State Park is in Jersey and that has its own problems with getting people over there from Manhattan and Brooklyn; people don’t like going across that water too much!!! Liberty State Park is also an old landfill with terrible drainage, and I think that is where a lot of problems with All Points West came from, as they were very unlucky with the weather.
twi-ny: What is the most difficult part of putting together a festival like Catalpa in New York City?
Dave Foran: The hardest things I have found so far is trying to make noise about a new event like this in a place so busy and difficult to get heard like NYC. You either need to be very clever about it or be willing to shovel over huge amounts of cash to get your brand out there. Also, booking a first-year festival as a relatively minor event producer from Ireland is not easy at all. I am not Live Nation or AEG, and a lot of talking was necessary to get some of the big artists I wanted.
twi-ny: Over the years, New York City has seen a slew of outdoor festivals come and go. What do you think the key is to make Catalpa work where others have failed?
Dave Foran: I am aiming for Catalpa to have a much more eclectic, left-field, and experience-based slant to it than other regular bar and stage events. I really believe that what keeps people remembering a good festival is not just the live acts they saw but also the subsidiary experiences they had. I am trying to bring this heightened dimension to Catalpa through elements such as Frisky’s Church of Sham Marriages, where a pimp pastor will marry couples, groups, threesomes, whatever, in an outrageous ceremony. There are also things like the Silent Disco and the High Times Reggae Stage, surrounded by hammocks where famous HT writers will be giving speeches on related topics. There are a lot of art installations, various site artistry, the world’s smallest nightclub (you need to see this!) etc. In my view it is these elements which also give a festival a life of its own and ultimately lead to its longevity.