Page 1

SEE YOU INSIDE by Todd Tobias

RI01 tHPM02 PM03

LL17

F05 SG15 E14 Sgt.D07 MMHStWT13 WMA13

A08 C!11

MS10

G09


SEE YOU INSIDE by Todd Tobias


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Circus Devils in 2007: Left to right: Todd Tobias, Robert Pollard, Tim Tobias (photo by Rich Turiel)

Robert Pollard: (referred to as Bob in the text) voice, lyrics, album art, concepts and themes Todd Tobias: music, recording and production Tim Tobias: music

4


Table of Contents Preface..........................................................................................................................p.7 Introduction I.....................................................................................................p.11 Introduction II...................................................................................................p.33 Ringworm Interiors.....................................................................................p.41 The Harold Pig Memorial..................................................................p.51 Pinball Mars........................................................................................................p.59 Five...................................................................................................................................p.65 Sgt. Disco..................................................................................................................p.77 Circus Devils On Film............................................................................p.87 Ataxia...........................................................................................................................p.101 Gringo..........................................................................................................................p.113 Mother Skinny..................................................................................................p.123 Capsized!..................................................................................................................p.131 When Machines Attack..........................................................................p.141 My Mind Has Seen The White Trick....................................p.151 Escape...........................................................................................................................p.161 Stomping Grounds........................................................................................p.169 Laughs Last............................................................................................................p.177 Acknowledgments & Further Listening.............................p.183 Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers.............................p.189

5


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Preface

PREFACE

While playing in bands during my teens and early twenties, I grew bored with performing. Hitting the drums no longer brought a rush as I kept waiting for some new and unfamiliar feeling to take hold. The bands I played in were all fronted by my older brother Tim, who had bought his first electric guitar just as punk was in full swing in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. By then I’d already been messing around on an old Japanese-made drum kit that my mom had picked up from a neighbor. Whatever band Tim had going, I was always happy to offer my musical support, but something was missing. As the years passed, and we morphed from one band into another, whatever it was I missed brought an ongoing sense of frustration. I had visions of jungle ceremonies, campfires, pounding rhythms and wild-eyed dancers lost in a trance. The weekend bar shows we played for the same handful of friends month after month and year after year always came up short of the musical experience taking place in the dark woods of my imagination. My nagging dissatisfaction was nobody’s fault. It was just a side effect of my abiding sense of not belonging anywhere I happened to find myself.

7


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Whatever shapeless thing it was inside me that sat waiting to happen continued to rumble under the surface, waiting for its chance to erupt. Meanwhile I got on with life and another decade passed by. Still, there remained a sense of some untapped energy kept under pressure, still trapped in potential form. I wasn’t even sure if music would be the outlet for it. In the late 1990’s,Tim went into service with Robert Pollard; the tireless songwriter, performer, collage artist and captain of the indie rock flagship Guided By Voices. Finally, when the three of us (Bob, Tim and I) discovered a shared urge to explore the outer limits of rock and roll, we launched into a fit of musical and lyrical exuberance that lasted 16 years and produced some 270 songs. Every song we recorded made it onto the records save one. And we never once had a disagreement about the work or the presentation. Bob called our band Circus Devils; a name that hinted at the shadowy fun that lay in store. This book is neither a band biography of Circus Devils nor an attempt to give a definitive interpretation of song lyrics. Part of the magic of a Circus Devils record is that it cannot be pinned down and dissected without falling back on your own set of subjective reactions. Nobody’s personal take on the material is either correct or wrong. What I intend to share here are personal memories and reflections, including from time to time, my personal take on a theme behind a given song or album, knowing that it’s likely not the meaning Bob intended. What follows is a lengthy and meandering introduction in two parts focused mainly on my early experiences with music, followed by an overview of Circus Devils’ recordings, divided into 14 chap-

8


Preface

ters, one for each album, with an additional section focused on our video work. For those readers who are familiar with the band, I hope this piece will enhance your appreciation. For those new to Circus Devils, I hope to offer some enticement to explore our music without boring you with too many details. I still believe that once you gather the will to allow the band to invade your personal space, doorways will appear, leading to a set of small adventures, each belonging only to you.

9


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Introduction I

INTRODUCTION I

Turning back the clock to 1990, the unspecified discomfort I’d felt while hanging out and performing among bar crowds during my teens and early twenties led me to turn my attention away from performing and toward recording. My first milestone came that year with a visit to the Akron Music Center (now defunct), where I purchased my first 4-track cassette recorder. This was a big deal for me. Even then it felt like taking the first step on a long trip, despite the fact that I knew nothing about recording. My setting was the semi-rural outer edge of a suburb of Akron, Ohio. My older brother Tim was out of the house by then, living in nearby Kent, home of Kent State University. But we had both grown up there at the dead end of our street, surrounded by woods occupied by a surly local clan who marked their territory by hanging out dead animals from tree limbs. Did experiencing things of this kind influence Tim and I when it came to our music? Probably. My Starlight drum kit, along with an Ampeg amplifier and one of Tim’s cast-off Les Paul copies were already set up in the basement, so that was where I put my makeshift studio. A small Korg synthe-

11


Circus Devils: See You Inside

sizer was also on hand, but would soon vanish forever after I let a friend borrow it. Buying a couple of cheap microphones at Radio Shack consoled me for the time being. But what should I save my money to buy next? What would be the key to musical happiness? Should I replace the keyboard? Get a good quality microphone? Or should I replace my crappy drumset, which other drummers would snigger at whenever I hauled them off to play at the bars? One reason my drums attracted attention was that I had stripped off their original sparkly covers and refinished them with varnish. Another reason was their small size, which wasn’t unusual for drum sets made in the 1950s and 60s. In 1988 I had saved enough money to buy my own genuine Les Paul Custom (second hand). The seller was under pressure from his kids to take them to Disneyworld. When I showed up at his house, I found him wearing a hangdog expression. He handed over his guitar, explaining how he was forced to give up his beloved Black Beauty for a bargain price. I felt no sympathy for this middle-aged sad sack who had abandoned his rock and roll dreams. Once I had my prize safely in the car I could scarcely believe it. Now that I have two small kids of my own, I’m able to feel sympathy for the man who lost his treasured instrument. I wish I could have told him that his guitar would eventually be put to good use, and one day be heard on dozens of records. In 1996, almost ten years after buying my guitar, I would experience a similar feeling of triumph when I’d saved enough to bring home a companion for the Les Paul; a Fender Precision Bass, circa middle 1970s. At this rate, I told myself, I’ll have all my musical gear in hand by the time I reach 50.

12


Introduction I

College kept me occupied for a few years, but as I was so busy learning, I had no time to be bothered with choosing a major or thinking about a career. An interview for an office job left me horrified, so I went to work as a carpenter at a boys town-type facility in rural Stark County, Ohio. The place was more or less a small, functioning village where juvenile delinquents were sent to cool down, learn to care for farm animals and get their hands in the dirt. It was a Christian facility staffed by creeps, but also supported by state funds. Oh yes, and it also took in girls, who were kept in a farmhouse separated from the boys. Not long after I arrived, the facility was shut down after the director was caught with the underage girl he’d taken home to live with him, apparently as his live-in maid. After that weird episode, I worked as a house painter, then fell into a delivery job. At one point I thought seriously about applying for a visa so I could escape to the South Seas and live in a grass hut overlooking a lagoon and spend the rest of my life beachcombing and enjoying native girls. A terrible plan, when I look back on it. Next up on the agenda was learning how to be an audio engineer. I found the ad in the back of a music magazine, promising a quick course taught by “industry professionals.” The campus of this recording school, which will remain unnamed, was conveniently located in Ohio. So I decided to give it a shot. At the school I collected photocopied manuals and listened to the well-meaning instructors talk about recording, which in hindsight was not very helpful. The hands-on experience segment of the course came and went like a flash. All those knobs, buttons and faders left my head spinning. The one thing I did learn however, was how to edit tape using a razor blade – not a skill in high demand today, but which would come in handy once I began working with analog tape. Upon returning home from the course, I wondered why I’d wasted my time and money.

13


Circus Devils: See You Inside

What saved me was making music. Only I wasn’t doing much recording. Most of the music I made took shape in my head, where it stayed. Looking back on those years, I have to ask myself “What was I up to every day apart from my dead-end delivery jobs?” In fact a lot of my time was spent in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, either hiking or staring off at the space between trees. Today I can look back and see that I was still experiencing the world through a child’s eyes. Everyone around me seemed very busy, and very grown up and involved in the world, while I seemed to have missed the boat. At that time (the 1990s), Tim enjoyed being in the fray of the underground band scene in Cleveland, where he now lived. I was happy to stay away from the city, only venturing in for band practice and gigs. The entire milieu of brick buildings, endless concrete, grim apartment flats, urbane know-it-all hipsters and city bars always felt to me like a dead world. My wandering mind, blank expression and unresponsive manner prompted Tim to cover for me socially. While I appreciated Tim’s efforts on my behalf, my abiding instinct was to avoid the city, get away from people and get back to my books and to the woods, and eventually back to my 4-track recorder, once I’d gathered the courage to make the transition from imagining music to putting it down on tape. As my decades-in-the-making instrument and recording equipment collection took shape, I made some recordings I felt were worth sharing. Tim told me my stuff was pretty good. But I wasn’t satisfied. Something was still missing. Once again it was that nagging sense of untapped energy – waiting around for the day when the cork would pop on everything I had to offer. Finally, in 1998 I had enough money saved for my biggest and most important acquisition of all; an Ensoniq ASR-10 sampling

14


Introduction I

keyboard. Glancing over from where I’m now seated and writing these words, I see the old ASR-10 on its stand, still in operation and still helping me make my music. After installing this surprisingly heavy machine in my apartment, I could make homemade samples and store them on floppy discs; the now extinct storage medium. The ASR-10 would bring the next big step in my musical evolution, and serve as my ticket to endless fun with the 4-track recorder. The result was an open door to strange aural spaces, otherwise known as psychedelic music, though at the time I was not versed in the history of that genre. Soon I began working my samples into the customary rock arrangements of my instrumental pieces. There was nothing new in what I did, at least not new to the world. But to me, everything felt astonishingly new, thanks to the wide range of sounds I was now building with. The subterranean rumblings were now growing more intense. For the curious among you, a homemade sample (as opposed to an everyday run-of-the-mill sample that you can buy or download), is a piece of audio captured at home using any number of sources. For example, you can stick a microphone into one end of a long pipe and put your mouth to the opposite end and make animal noises. Once captured by the microphone, a sound could then be looped, run backwards, slowed down, or sped up. One day I put an old LP on the turntable and slowed down the speed to adjust the pitch. The album was a field recording of birds. Capturing the slowed-down bird sounds and messing with the captured audio kept me busy for days. Next I put on an old Martin Denny LP. After capturing a snippet of a song intro and loading it into the sampler, I was astonished at how I could turn it into something unrecognizable by cutting it up, adding distortion, phasing, delay and other effects. What had once been a banal musical pas-

15


Circus Devils: See You Inside

sage performed on a recognizable instrument – say a vibraphone or flute – now returned to my ears mutated beyond recognition. Once I’d discovered the fun of messing up other people’s music, I went to work on Ennio Morricone, Les Baxter, Bernard Herrmann and Black Sabbath, to name a few. The fruits of this sound manipulation can be heard on every Circus Devils album along with my solo work. The most productive sound collecting, however, came from looting classical music albums. Here I found musical passages containing isolated instruments of all kinds. Of course this entire time I was able to buy ready-made samples of any musical instrument known to man, but I was happy to ignore that fact. At the music store, the salesman in the keyboard department would come at me spouting his jargon, and I’d be like “Where do I plug in the microphone?” The great thing about the ASR-10 was that it served as a private music laboratory wholly disconnected from the world. Furthermore, the magic of floppy discs allowed me to keep coming back to the sounds I’d fashioned. No matter where they came from, they were now my sounds.

A sample of “homemade samples” Arctic Crash (cold and icy) / She-chord (as opposed to a He-chord) / Cave drums / Retarded Tam Tam (as in “dopey-sounding”) / “Bay-Bong” and “Ya-ooo” (primitive chants taken from field recordings of jungle natives) / “He-Hao” (a donkey-like noise, probably made by me) / The “Jeremiah” wind effect (it’s involved)

16


Introduction I

The ASR-10 reinforced my undiagnosed autism spectrum disorder by giving me the excuse to escape from the world. The more I fooled around with the sampler and the 4-track, the more I wanted to keep going. The excitement came from the surprise I felt when something I recorded grabbed my attention. It was like spotting an elf in the woods and following behind to see where it might lead. Whole days went by as I sat at the recorder – days when I sometimes forgot to eat. I might have been chasing elves, but this did not mean the results were magical. It was the process itself that mesmerized me – the work of building a piece of music by chasing down, or happening upon, its individual components. On lucky days I’d find myself inside a unique, aural space. In truth nearly all of it was crap, but it was fun crap to make. But when I did find myself inside an interesting soundscape, it made all the hours of stumbling in the dark worthwhile.

In the early 1990s I joined Tim and his high school friend David Megenhardt, serving as recording engineer and composer for David’s radio plays, produced under the name Toad Theater. My work was pretty rough, but Toad Theater proved a valuable training ground when it came to making field recordings, mixing, and yes, editing tape with a razor blade.

17


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Turning 30 brought a new sense of urgency. If I ever wanted my music hobby to take me anywhere, I told myself, I’d better get serious. Tim suggested sending my music to record labels specializing in instrumental music. Did such labels exist? I had no idea since I paid no attention to anyone else’s music. After a bout of research, I mailed out copies of my demo tape to every record label I could find that seemed friendly to instrumental mood music. When no one wrote back, I began to over-think the situation. Foolishly, I decided I needed some kind of gimmick to bring myself attention, for example an eye-catching stage name. I would go on wrestling with this idea for years, until finally in 2012, at the age of 45, when I finally released my first solo album titled Medicine Show, I settled upon the artist name Todd Tobias, and gave up on awarding myself a cool handle. In the meantime, as a recording act without a record label, I decided to reinvent myself. Since I played several instruments and would never be caught performing, I could pass myself off as a make-believe band. The one thing I couldn’t do, however, was sing. I’d already tried to give Tim some music, asking him to add vocals, but as he explained it to me, his musical brain was not wired that way. Melodies and words came to him in an organic way, out of an insular experience with the guitar. In the 1990s there was a revival going on of “exotica” music from the early 1960s by artists such as Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman. Now that I had the ASR-10, I could expand my range of sounds to include the marimbas, flutes and ethnic percussion I’d lifted from the old LPs. After recording a few tracks of my own personal brand of quasi-exotica, I decided to call myself Hank Miller and the Trade Wind Troubadours. According to the story, Hank and his combo were lounge performers of retirement age who’d been put out to

18


Introduction I

pasture, currently performing at hotels and tiki bars. I even designed an album cover that I fully expected to see on prominent display in the record shops once I hit it big.

The never to be released first and final album from Hank Miller

There was a certain allure and weird romanticism in being a washed up act from bygone years, but I knew I wasn’t good enough as a composer or musician to pull off the joke. At any rate a gimmick was not the answer, but I had no plan B. So I turned my attention to hardware and consoled myself with my next acquisition; a Fostex 1/4-inch reel-to-reel tape machine with 8 tracks; a big step up from the 4-track cassette recorder. With the ASR-10 and the 8-track machine, I launched into a period of more serious experimentation.

19


Circus Devils: See You Inside

My creative struggle was, and remains, an effort to enchant myself with music and sound. It happens very rarely . . . almost never. What keeps me at it is the process mentioned before – the effort itself – the immersion into a sonic space where enchantment may be possible. Even if I don’t succeed at bringing back anything special from that space, as long as I can feel the possibility of enchantment floating nearby, I am happy to continue, inspired by the act of trying. By the way, the music I’d been developing for The Hank Miller project would eventually be re-worked into a Todd Tobias EP released in 2015, titled Moorea.

In 1997, while in the midst of tinkering with my new recorder and sampler, the band Tim had been playing in during the past few years lost their bass player. So Tim asked me to join Gem; the four-piece band founded by guitarist Doug Gillard. As Gem’s bass player I was a half-hearted performer, but I kept at it with the hope that the band might go somewhere. When Bob Pollard enlisted Doug to play guitar with Guided By Voices, it was a big deal. Tim must have felt a bit jealous to see Doug go off to play in front of thousands of Bob’s adoring fans,

20


Introduction I

though he never said so. Soon enough Tim would get his chance. As it happened, Bob had seen us perform with Gem at some point and admired Tim’s energy and stage presence. Bob had a couple of vinyl singles in his collection by our old band 4 Coyotes, featuring Tim on vocal and guitar and me on drums, and he claimed to be a fan. It wasn’t long before Tim was playing with GBV himself, taking up the bass guitar. I was happy for him. I might have also been jealous if performing had held any appeal for me. Not being a drinker also seemed to disqualify me from the club. On top of it all, I knew almost nothing about indie rock. My most daring discovery before the musical doldrums of the 1980s was Devo. My box of cassettes in the closet was full of what was by then considered dinosaur rock from the 1970s. Indie rock was about as interesting to me as light jazz. I could perform it without getting annoyed, but I would never have listened to it by choice. Speaking of indie rock, my introduction came from Tim during a car trip to Alaska back in 1989, when the two of us spent part of a summer working in a salmon cannery in Ketchikan. Among the cassettes Tim brought with him on the road was a tape from The Replacements. The more I listened to that tape, the more antsy I felt. As soon as I heard the refrain on ‘Here Comes a Regular,’ I felt like breaking something. Not to single out The Replacements, but if I go on to list other bands I disliked it would only cause anger and hurt feelings. There was, however, another tape Tim brought on that trip that grabbed my attention, this time in a good way – a collection of songs by Tom Waits, taken from his albums Swordfishtrombones and Rain Dogs. These were songs I enjoyed warming up to. Once I got past what I assumed was Waits’ put-on raspy voice, the songs

21


Circus Devils: See You Inside

began to shine through. They carried an aura of long ago as viewed through a darkly romantic lens. Some of the songs brought to mind times and places in American history like the depression years of the 1930s. These were impressionistic songs that opened up a new wing of my imagination. I have Tim to thank for exposing me to this music, as he’d already been doing for years up to then. If I felt any envy for Tim in his new gig with Guided By Voices, it came from the fact that I was creeping toward middle age with no prospect of being more than an unknown music hobbyist. Further attempts to garner interest from record labels with my music experiments led to silence. While I had no desire to be a performer, I still hoped to become a known quantity as a recording musician. Being signed to a record label and having fans seemed like an extravagant wish at that time. But once again it was Bob Pollard to the rescue.

Before I begin to discuss the formation of Circus Devils, I’d first like to share something about my personal relationship with music while growing up. The music that first hooked me was the post-hippie hard rock of the 1970s. I may have been painfully slow to develop as a musician, but as a music lover I had an early start. After discovering my mom’s bedside radio at the age of five, I’d sit for long periods twisting the tuning dial back and forth until I settled upon something that grabbed my ear. First it was ‘Shambala’ by Three

22


Introduction I

Dog Night. Next I stumbled across Ritchie Blackmore’s fuzz guitar intro to ‘Smoke On The Water.’ At that instant I was done with Three Dog Night. I was five when music first lit up my brain, but even then I knew that a record was something you could buy and bring home and enjoy without having to stumble upon it by chance on the radio. So on our next trip to the mall in Akron, I begged my mom to buy me the 7-inch single of ‘Smoke On The Water.’ From the 7-inch I jumped to the triple LP set of the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar, then just released along with the movie. For a period of two years or so I listened to Superstar and not much else.

Tim and Todd, the hippie years (I’m on the right)

Drawings I made at age 6 depicting an imaginary three-piece rock band whose name I’ve forgotten 23


Circus Devils: See You Inside

During the next few years, my musical world can be summed up in two words; Led Zeppelin. This was the best band I could find on local FM radio, my only source of music at that time. Only later with Tim’s help did I discover all the music I’d missed out on up to that point, including The Beatles, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, The Who and all the other English bands everyone knows from that period. As the 70s gave way to the 80s, Tim was all about The Clash, The Sex Pistols and The Ramones. In later years Tim became less enamored of “new” music in general and returned to the Rolling Stones for inspiration. But during Tim’s punk phase, the new music eclipsed everything else. Punk was easy and cathartic to play and sing, so it became the music Tim and I bashed out together in the basement. Playing that stuff on drums was fun as a tension-relieving exercise, but as a listener, punk left me yawning.

Tim and Todd rocking in the basement, around 1978/79

24


Introduction I

Then one day in 1979 I believe, Tim brought home an album that left me conflicted. At first I rejected it. “That’s not rock,” I told myself. “What is that?” The album was Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! The more Tim played the album, the more it infected my mind. I didn’t want to like it, but I did like it, in spite of myself. At some point I stopped fighting it and said “Hey, this is cool!” So Devo became my new favorite band, knocking off Jethro Tull.

Local boys make good, 1978

During those adolescent and teenage years as a Devo fan, I took my musical cues directly from them. The fact that they were a local band gave them added appeal. While the spud boys from Akron did not completely erase my love for 1970’s heavy rock, they expanded the field of musical possibility as it stood in my imagination – a field that first began to expand when I heard Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring. Not to compare Devo with Igor Stravinsky, but like Stravinsky, they also served to kick-start my musical imagination. Later on Brian Eno, Tom Waits, Neil Young and King Crimson would do the same. 25


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Twenty-five years later when Circus Devils was under way, I had to cast my mind back to that time in order to grasp the reason so many people had difficulty with our music. Just as I needed time to warm up to Devo, the music we made in Circus Devils also required time for most listeners to digest and appreciate. The trouble was, not everyone had a big brother around to force them to listen to music that made them squirm. So it took some effort on my part to feel sympathy for listeners who didn’t “get it.” But all I had to do was turn back the clock to 1979, and see my younger self seated at the dining room table where I was busy at my homework, while the Devo song Mongoloid played on the turntable (put there by Tim of course), and not knowing whether to bite my pencil in frustration or in excitement. Plenty of us are up for a challenging movie, hungry as we are for diversion and novelty. But challenging music? Not so much. Like food, we tend to prefer music that goes down easy and provides comfort and an immediate emotional reward. Perhaps being a raging Devo fan as a teenager made it easy for me to develop a hard line against those (like myself at the age of 12) who rejected “different” music out of hand. My knee jerk reaction was to judge these people cowards. As my reasoning went, if I could make the adjustment, why couldn’t they? So I began to look at mainstream music as the production of gutless narcissists seeking approbation and adulation from their equally cowardly fans, with everyone lacking the imagination to “Twist away the gates of steel,” as Devo phrased it in one of their songs. Of course such convictions are laughable and I’ve since put them aside. Truly I have.

26


Introduction I

The Ghost Sonata at JB’s Down in Kent, Ohio, including sister Jenny on bass. (1986, or thereabouts)

4 Coyotes at the Euclid Tavern, Cleveland: left to right: Todd, Tim and Mark Kunz. 4th coyote Chris Candio is not in the shot (1993, or thereabouts) 27


Circus Devils: See You Inside

The 1980s and early 90’s found me backing up Tim on drums in the bands The Ghost Sonata (including younger sister Jenny Tobias on bass) and 4 Coyotes (with Chris Candio and Mark Kunz), the band in which Bob Pollard first became aware of the Tobias brothers. When the Coyotes petered out, I told myself I was done with performing. Tim went on to join Gem, playing the #2 front man on guitar and vocals. In 1995, before I joined the band, Gem had a song that made local radio (Doug Gillard’s ‘Suburban Girl’). At the end of the 1990s as the new millennium approached, I drifted along oblivious to the direction music had taken. My sole preoccupation was to lose myself in private worlds of sound. “If I ever have the chance to make music people will actually hear,” I told myself, “Then I’ll do my best to offer listeners an adventure instead of simply striving to give them what they think they want. “If ever,” became a tired refrain as the years passed by. Then one day I woke up and realized I was 33; an age when most people already have their butts in gear. Seeing Tim away touring with Guided By Voices brought the point home. Even though I was unaware of it at the time, Tim and Bob were up for the same sort of musical adventure that I was ready for. Tim says he doesn’t remember this being discussed in vivid terms between him and Bob. I hope Bob will pardon me for speaking on his behalf, but I suspect he wanted to pull the plug on all the characters waiting to speak through him – characters that needed a special kind of musical vehicle to carry them. Apart from that he probably just wanted to stretch out as a lyricist and singer and have fun flying out of bounds. At some point Tim passed Bob a cassette tape filled with my homemade noises. One of those noises ended up on the Guided By

28


Introduction I

Voices album Isolation Drills. It’s nice to think that this cassette tape of mine marked the beginning of Circus Devils, but I suspect Bob was already nursing the desire to do something different at the time. Whatever the case, I do believe my tape acted as a catalyst, allowing Bob to go ahead and make plans to turn his imaginary band Circus Devils into something real. In retrospect I’m astonished at how little thought I gave to all of this at the time. I’d never been an instigator. So in a sense I was just waiting around for the day when someone would show me the green light and say “go!” That day came in 2001, when Tim told me that Bob wanted to do an album with the two of us under the name Circus Devils. “Okay, cool,” I said, before breaking out my tape recorders and instruments and getting to work. That was about the extent of my deliberation on the matter. It wasn’t long before I had fifteen new instrumental pieces ready to add to the older pieces I planned to include in our project. A batch of Tim’s music rounded out the album. In no time I had all the instrumental tracks prepared for what would become our debut; Ringworm Interiors, all sequenced and ready to send to Bob, who would then go on to add his vocals and turn most of this musical raw material into actual songs. Based only on the work I’d done on that first Circus Devils album in 2001, Bob decided to hand me the producer hat for his next Guided By Voices album, titled Universal Truths and Cycles. This, my very first assignment as a record producer working in a real studio, would be released to the world on a prestigious indie rock label. It was a big jump from my rinky-dink home recording set up. It felt like a trial by fire, and might have left me paralyzed with fear

29


Circus Devils: See You Inside

if not for Bob’s trust in me – trust I lacked in myself, but struggled not to show. In later years Bob’s trust also allowed me to perform on his solo albums, where I sometimes fleshed out songs myself, using only the foundation of Bob’s demo recording as a starting point. There was also a short-lived and enjoyable project Bob and I did together called Psycho and the Birds. So between the years 2001 and 2017, I became visible as a musician thanks to Bob.

Todd and Bob at Waterloo Sound during the making of Bob’s solo album Elephant Jokes (2009).

30


Introduction I

By the time 2017 rolled around, and we’d released Circus Devils’ final album, Laughs Last, I had little idea what had taken place during those past 16 years. Did we really record 14 full-length albums for Circus Devils alone? Where had all that music come from? Now that I listen back to what we did, I can see more clearly what happened. By becoming writing partners, Bob, Tim and I broke open the gates to hidden reserves of wild energy in the form of rhythm, exploratory noise, voices, characters, lyrics, coded messages, sonic atmospheres and last but not least, rock and roll. Speaking for myself, Circus Devils allowed me to yank the plug on all that rumbling energy I’d been sitting on during my early years as a frustrated drummer and bass player. The evidence shows that our unconscious intentions were clear. We were out to make adventure music. It wasn’t about being liked or enjoyed or gaining a big audience. In the process, we created spaces for a few adventurous listeners out in the world to get lost in for a while. In that I think we succeeded.

31


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Introduction II

INTRODUCTION II

Before I get on with the tour, I need to address a few of the issues people seem to have with the band and our music. “The problem with Circus Devils is they insist on being weird,” a miffed music critic once noted. There is a difference between trying to be weird and being weird. “It creeps me out. It must be evil,” someone else has been overheard saying. If you listen to Circus Devils you will hear a few sonic nightmares. That’s true. But you will also hear songs that are playful, funny, full of melancholy, celebration, angst, meanness and longing, among other things. Darkness and horror are important topics, however, and shouldn’t be swept under the rug. When you open channels to the unconscious, there is material down there waiting to bubble up to the surface. Some of that material takes on a dark caste because it naturally frightens us. 33


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Q: What should we do with that dark material? A: We should play with it. When the dreaming mind takes possession of that material, it can be played with and distilled into poetry, images, music and sounds. A person who has bad dreams is not a bad person. Anyone who has contact with the unconscious understands that the by-products of civilization can be harmful to the soul. So naturally there is dark material to play with. And playing with it is how we prevent the dark stuff from harming us psychically and spiritually. I believe that the natural state of human beings is the state in which we spent a million years of our existence – as creatures beset by wonder at the natural world, and wonder at the mystery of being and consciousness, in animals, in ourselves and in the entire observable cosmos. Civilization has banished that wonder and mystery from our minds, leaving us stranded inside a world jam-packed with man-made filth. If we want to see past the filth and get to the original mysteries, we have to discover them on our own. This is what makes a person weird in the modern context – the fearless drive to be genuinely human. The cave paintings from 30,000 years ago are a clue to the natural state of wonder that once saturated the minds of ancient people. During most of our history things like ritual, trance, altered states of consciousness and communion with inter-dimensional beings were a normal part of life, right along with food gathering, shelter-seeking, hunting and child-rearing. It was all one continuum of experience. This was true even in ancient Greece. Keeping all this in mind, what do we as civilized human beings really know about being human? “Excuse me, what does all this have to do with Circus Devils?”

34


Introduction II

It has to do with rolling away stones leading to tombs where forgotten things have been buried. In the dark places inside us sits a mirror where we can see ourselves and our world clearly. In that mirror, we appear twisted and injured – something like the image seen in the picture of Dorian Gray. Bearing witness to this is not a sign of bad intentions or evil. Now, onto the next objection. “Circus Devils music doesn’t do what music is supposed to do. It doesn’t coddle me and make me feel tingly and warm.” This is a fair critique. “It’s just brash and annoying.” To this charge I have no defense. But there are plenty of our songs that are not brash and even some that are pretty. “The songs are not proper songs. They come off as sketches that have been tossed aside. It’s too bad because there is potential here for something special.” This critique is fair, but it’s also beside the point, because when it comes to Circus Devils, the song is the scene and the album is the movie. No movie critic would complain that a particular scene in a film comes off as an “incomplete sketch.” As everyone knows, you can’t reason with people who don’t like the music you like. They will never be convinced. But let’s assume you are new to Circus Devils and the above discussion has vaguely sparked your interest. I can suggest a couple of good places to start. If you are skittish about weird or so-called dark material, try listen-

35


Circus Devils: See You Inside

ing to the relatively friendly albums Gringo, Escape or Capsized! On the other hand, if you’re already open to freaky music, try starting with When Machines Attack or Mother Skinny. One thing you’ll find out quickly about Circus Devils; just as the song gets going, it quits. Songs are not likely to pass the three-minute mark. Many stop short of two minutes. Once you catch hold of the idea that the album is the basic unit, the all-too short songs should cease to be a problem. As you let the music wash by you, something in the stream may tug at your ear in a way that makes you suspect that it might just grow on you once you’ve given it a chance. In that case repeat listening is the ticket. After the music sinks in, you begin to zone in on the words. What is the singer trying to say? My advice is don’t begin with the aim of understanding the lyrics. As with the music, allow the words to drift by, and see if a phrase here and there catches your ear. Fans of Bob’s other music already know the drill. Circus Devils is an exercise in impression, mood and atmosphere. In this sense the album was made to speak to you and only you, whoever you might be. Also, always keep in mind that no two Circus Devils albums are alike. For those who like adventure in their music just as much as they do in their movies or books, or for those who can get past their initial distaste for being led around dark corners, or past their resentment for not being coddled and reassured by the music they hear, Circus Devils has 14 trips on 14 albums, all waiting to take you to a different place. Each trip will strike you in a different way, depending on your age, your setting and how much weed you’ve smoked. Circus

36


Introduction II

Devils was never meant to be heard in a collective setting. Again, the adventure pertains to you and only you. “Hang on a minute,” I hear someone else say. “Wasn’t Circus Devils just a throwaway side project? Not to offend, but struggling to appear self-important after making a bunch of records that almost nobody knows about seems pretty lame.” Circus Devils was neither a throwaway project nor a call to art. If what we did was art, that’s for others to decide, not us. It’s not even a call to self-expression. Instead, it’s a call to play – the way small children play. In Circus Devils there was no ego at work – no self there busy at striving for self-expression. “Where did this come from?” was a question the three of us were just as likely to ask as a puzzled listener. That’s why I don’t feel embarrassed writing about Circus Devils and coming off as self-important. It was not an egocentric exercise, so when I speak kindly of our music, I’m not putting a spotlight on myself as an artist or musician. In Circus Devils the ego stepped aside to make way for the channeling of material refined somewhere down below the surface. Circus Devils was fun because it gave us the chance to play like children, allowing things to bubble up and break through with no thought of pleasing an audience or making statements, or radiating our unique brand of precious cleverness or even rendering our feelings. Like kids, we were busy surprising ourselves, which is the essence of play, and why children can spend hours doing it with no thought of the passing time. Our albums were molded by multiple hands, with each hand unaware of what the other was doing. The result was always a surprise to each hand that played a part. You’ll pardon me if I tend to harp on this point in the pages ahead, but for me the song as collective

37


Circus Devils: See You Inside

effort among writers working in isolation remains a topic of interest as I listen back to what we did. Those who have a knee jerk prejudice against people putting forth statements about their own work – especially self-congratulatory statements – should keep in mind that our work was a collective act. So if I seem to fawn over something we did, it’s probably my way of expressing surprise at some result that I could not have achieved on my own. Is Circus Devils for everyone? No. Then who is it for? It’s for people who can look at a shoebox diorama and for a few seconds lose themselves in the world that lies within, and even spend a moment believing it’s real. That’s the key to enjoying Circus Devils. You must give up your smug, know-it-all, grown-up self for a while and let the little elf lead you around the corner and into the dark woods.

38


Introduction II

39


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Ringworm Interiors

RINGWORM INTERIORS (2001)

“It’s the Ohio music factory with two branches; one in the north (Cleveland) and one in the south (Dayton). And no tours permitted.” - Robert Pollard “Feel try fury. Try it man. Blow up head. Do it man. Say it. What can be said? Feel it.” -from ‘Feel Try Fury’ “Rural plant surgeons sit tight for the meal ticket, hide from bursts of light. See them in the night – lumbering, no choice of morals, spiraling through some sort of network. The night lurks without a spine.” -from Buffalo Spiders

“The ocean is drowning. Messianic temples are falling apart. Icelandic oil birds frozen in human shit” -from ‘Oil Birds’

41


Circus Devils: See You Inside

I see our first album as an act of defiance – a sign above the door saying “Enter if you dare.” That’s a view I hold now, but during the early stages of making the album, I had little sense of what we were doing or what it meant to me. At the time Circus Devils formed, Bob was coming off a campaign by TVT Records to sell Guided By Voices to a more mainstream audience. This is conjecture on my part, but while Bob was focused on GBV, the push to become more accepted and popular may have awakened a contrary urge – an urge to sneak away to the freak tent when no one was looking. Tim, then a hired hand in Bob’s band, had always been up for something musically subversive. At some point after Tim had passed Bob that tape filled with my homemade music experiments, I received a phone call from Bob – or maybe I was the one who made the call. I don’t remember. Anyway, Bob was plainly excited about doing a record with us. And when Bob is excited about something, it’s contagious. As soon as Tim informed me of the band’s existence, I went to work. The procedure that carried us through 13 of our 14 albums went as follows. First, Tim and I came up with the music, each of us working separately. In the case of the albums Five and Sgt. Disco, I did the music alone. First I would flesh out all of my ideas, then turn to Tim’s guitar tracks and do the same, adding in whatever instruments were needed. After I had all the music mixed, I’d send it off to Bob, who then made his selections among the 40 to 80 or so instrumental pieces in the pool. “The more the better,” as Bob always said. With the music in hand, Bob then wrote lyrics in preparation for recording his vocals. So just as Bob had no idea what either of us was up to, Tim had no idea what I was up to, and I had no idea what Tim was up to. And neither of us could guess what Bob was up to. This mutual position of being in the dark kept us in a constant state of potential surprise.

42


Ringworm Interiors

In my corner, I began by choosing a starter instrument. If it wasn’t a guitar then it was drums or a homemade sample (aka: weird noise). From this foundational part I’d go on to build finished instrumental pieces with no thought given to what Bob might do with them. Tim worked exclusively on guitar, recording his song ideas on cassette. Once he’d filled up two or three tapes, he’d pass them to me. Sometimes I’d give Tim direction, for example, “Make quiet songs,” or “Do some hard rock.” This wasn’t done in an effort to exact my control. At least I didn’t see it that way. Tim says he appreciated the direction because it gave him something to aim for. Tim’s song ideas were always complete and intact, so all I had to do was bounce his guitars from the cassette over to my recorder, and then go to work adding in the rest. I always made a point of keeping Tim’s guitars in the final mix. An example of this on Ringworm Interiors was the main guitar in the song ‘Apparent the Red Angus.’ The music that failed to pass the audition was thrown out, filed away or submitted again (if I thought it deserved a second chance). Some of the pieces that were filed away were later re-worked for inclusion on my instrumental solo albums, which began to appear in 2012. As to what informed the music-making, once or twice it was inspired by a theme or concept Bob had shared with us beforehand, but mostly it was just Tim and I following our own leads. Because Bob was able to choose from among a large collection of music tracks, it gave him a hand in shaping the overall sound of an album. However, this was not the case with Ringworm Interiors, and for one later album called My Mind Has Seen The White Trick. For Ringworm, the instrumental tracks were sent to Bob already sequenced, so he had no choice but to make do with what he got. For

43


Circus Devils: See You Inside

My Mind Has Seen The White Trick (2013), Bob reversed the songwriting process and sent me his a-cappella vocal tracks up front, leaving me to add in the music later. But for the remaining 12 albums, we followed the audition process described above, starting off with a large pool of music tracks. Ringworm Interiors was the musical equivalent of a brainstorm before the real project begins. Only in our case, the brainstorm was exposed to the public. At the beginning none of us had a clear idea what Circus Devils might become. Bob had confirmed that he was up for the adventure, so there was no holding back from my end. Now that I think of it, that’s not entirely true. I did hold back in the sense that I hacked my soundscape odysseys down to size. The cutting was severe, like lopping off body parts and leaving behind a foot or an ear. This allowed for a quick glimpse of the thing. But in most cases a quick glimpse was all you needed. In other words I didn’t want anyone to have to sit through 9 minutes of goblin orgies if 20 seconds was enough to satisfy a listener’s needs. Including the deranged material was my way of testing the waters and finding out what Bob was game for. There was something of an unspoken challenge in some of the music choices, as if I were saying to Bob, “Let’s see what you can make of this.” There was nothing snotty about it. I just wanted the thing to erupt at full force right from the beginning, with no holding back. Thankfully Tim’s contributions helped to keep things grounded in rock and roll. After sending Bob the music, I worried. “Will he be freaked out? Will this spell the end of Circus Devils before it begins?” On later albums, once we’d fallen into the routine of auditioning the music to Bob beforehand, the worrying would be replaced with excited

44


Ringworm Interiors

anticipation as we waited for Bob to digest the music and write his lyrics. But on that first album, I had no clue what might happen. I half expected Bob to send the music back with a note attached that read, “Try again.” When I heard the finished tracks for Ringworm Interiors containing Bob’s vocals, and heard the way he’d turned most of that snarling music into actual songs, it came as a huge relief. At that moment I knew Circus Devils had come to life and would remain a going concern. Some of the messy musical secretions I’d sent were left untouched, so they ended up as instrumentals. This would serve as instruction down the line about what sort of music not to send – for example the kind that might serve as a soundtrack to monsters giving birth. For many who heard Ringworm Interiors when it was first released, it gave them their first bad taste of the band. Ten albums later and these same people were still reluctant to give us a chance based on that first unpleasant experience. Many times I’ve heard from fans who report the same story – about the years they spent refusing to give Circus Devils a proper listen, and how glad they were at overcoming their initial antipathy thanks to the pay off they experienced. I may not be an objective bystander, but I believe that prolonged exposure to Circus Devils can result in enjoyment, even among those who’ve been conditioned by mainstream music. The trick is getting people to stick with it. I believe the moment will arrive when things will suddenly click – the same way it clicked for me when I first became a Devo fan, and thought “Hey, I have no idea where this is coming from, but it’s kind of cool.”

45


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Some of you are reading this because you were one of the few who caught on right away. A few of you grew up on Circus Devils and took it as a natural part of the musical landscape. But for those of you haven’t already made the transition, I’d like to make a case for subjecting yourself to the trial period that leads to becoming a fan. At first when the songs fail to grab you, there may be a reason for your resistance beyond the primitive-sounding, annoyingly repetitious music, or the pushy vocalist who gets in your face. Maybe it makes you feel unwelcome. Or maybe it’s knocking the plaque off your frontal lobe and you’re scared, until you suddenly decide not to be. The temptation to project bad intentions onto those responsible for the musical mutation will eventually fade. At that point the judgment will be replaced by a nagging curiosity. “What’s going on here?” you might ask. “Where do these songs come from? Are the men responsible deranged individuals, or on some subtle level is there real meaning to be unearthed? Is there some guiding principle at work, or is it the musical equivalent of dried vomit on canvas? What sort of world does this music describe or belong to?” In fact that world is your world as seen through an unfamiliar lens. A psychedelic experience is what takes place when the unconscious mind invades conscious territory, or vice versa. Sometimes Alice falls down the hole into Wonderland, and sometimes the denizens of Wonderland rise up to meet her in this world. Either way the initial reaction is discomfort. (Note to existing fans: please bear with me as I go on lecturing the uninitiated).

46


Ringworm Interiors

Anyway, whether such a listening experience remains an annoying intrusion or turns into a stimulating adventure depends on your willingness to soldier past the initial stage of discomfort and revulsion. Do I really expect anyone to listen to this and take my advice? Not really. But I still believe it’s possible for people caught under the spell of the music they think they like to snap out of it and take up a new path in the forest. Lots of people are interested in dreams, including people who otherwise have no imagination. Think of Circus Devils as music from the land of dreams. Each record is a tightly packaged, fat free psychedelic experience containing jarring vignettes, confessions, testimonies and narratives, all bundled together by a liquid sort of logic. As in dreams, getting hung up on what it means will only rob you of the adventure. All the Circus Devils albums that you will eventually come to enjoy had their beginnings in this earliest experiment called Ringworm Interiors, made when the band was clearing paths in the jungle. For that reason I think it’s best to begin by joining the adventure on one our later albums, and then go back to Ringworm at a later time to find out how things evolved, as a sort of anthropological study. The fan favorites on Ringworm were the previously mentioned ‘Apparent The Red Angus’ and ‘Let’s Go Back To Bed’ – Bob’s call to inaction. Among my personal favorites are the creepy, sleepy songs ‘Correcto’ and ‘Peace Needle,’ and the more-or-less straightforward rockers ‘Star-Peppered Wheat Germ’ and ‘Silver Eyeballs.’ I also like the dreamy vibe on ‘You First.’

47


Circus Devils: See You Inside

I was inspired by the way Bob was able to seize upon both the unsettling and playful qualities in the music. As the band name suggested, the album was both scary and fun. I was also pleased at how there was little sense of the funny bits wrestling or competing with the scary bits for attention. Taken all together it was one scary/funny thing. Being my non-expressive self, I assumed Bob understood that what he had done with our music was very cool, and that there was no need to tell him as much. This was a stupid thing to assume. My social awkwardness made it necessary for Bob to call and ask me straight out. “So, do you like it?” I tried my best to explain to him that yes, I liked it a lot. But it embarrassed me that he needed to ask the question. Yes, we were each working in isolation, which had enhanced the mysterious quality of the thing, but there was no reason we shouldn’t reconvene in the aftermath to offer an encouraging word now and then, for example, “I really dig what you did on this record.” Bob was always good about that sort of thing. In the future I would try harder to be more expressive, but I’m afraid I came up short. After the three of us regrouped and judged Ringworm a successful experiment, Bob decided our next release would be a concept album. This seemed ambitious, but Bob clearly believed in us. Following our second album The Harold Pig Memorial, we would keep our pre-production communication to a minimum. Often we wouldn’t say a word to each other about the work until it was finished. Hence the “No tours permitted,” comment – which also applied to the band members, especially while the work was in progress.

48


Ringworm Interiors

49


Circus Devils: See You Inside


The Harold Pig Memorial

THE HAROLD PIG MEMORIAL (2002)

“Sounds like nothing else on this planet. The Harold Pig Memorial and Pinball Mars are two concept albums that will change the way you listen to music and alter your conception of what can be accomplished by songwriting, performance and creativity in production.” - George Griggs “This was the ritual. Half on, half off. Half father, half son. How proud was he? In mountain hotels, counting the holes in the moon” -from ‘Soldiers Of June” “Peer into his handsome corpse and see the scars between his left ear and his spleen. His mighty, mighty heart. Connect them all and find a line that weaves itself inside” -from ‘Bull Spears’ “His phantom cell phone played Highway To Heaven” -from Tulip Review’

51


Circus Devils: See You Inside

52


The Harold Pig Memorial

I remember smiling and laughing a lot during the recording sessions while Bob laid down his vocals for Circus Devils. It wasn’t just Bob’s melodies and lyrics that made me smile. It was also the joy of being treated to the privilege of witnessing the songs being born right in front of me – born out of what was once a collection of instrumental pieces. The result was always unforeseen – putting a charge in the air of the studio control room while Bob conjured his words and delivered his melodies. What does it mean when two or more people throw in disparate elements that combine together to produce an unforeseen result? When it’s good, it’s called alchemy. When it’s not good it’s called shit. Sometimes the result falls somewhere in between. Looking back on Circus Devils, once we got things moving, there seemed to be some real alchemy going on. But at the beginning, before things came into focus, we had no idea. All we could do was make the effort, each in our own private creative space. After the controlled chaos of Ringworm Interiors, Bob decided to move us to the opposite extreme. Our second time at bat would produce a full-fledged concept album. The Harold Pig Memorial contained music written specifically to carry off the scenes containing Bob’s characters. This was the only time that Bob would spell out a concept before the music was written. It gave Tim and I something like an assignment to perform. If Ringworm had been a test for Bob, then Harold Pig would be a test for Tim and me. As Bob explained, Harold was a biker with a colorful story. He was also dead. The album would serve as a movie for the ears – containing a retrospective view of Harold’s life as brought to us by the attendees at Harold’s funeral. The challenge we were given both excited and frightened me. I’d

53


Circus Devils: See You Inside

never before made music for a purpose. I wanted to treat the album as a story-world while keeping things grounded in rock and roll. But I had no idea what the story was – not how it began and not how it played out toward its end. I assumed there would be some action, some danger and finally, some death. My method was to feel my way through these basic themes while resisting the temptation to think about it. Musically, Harold Pig was a stab at progressive rock. I enjoyed this challenge, again, as a way to find out what we as a band were capable of. One thing that disqualified me as a prog rock musician, aside from a lack of chops, was my ham fist. I believe Tim suffers from the same condition. A ham fist may be the result of a lack of thinking as we write and perform. Instead of using my cognitive brain function, I tend to feel my way through a song by responding to impressions and relying on the body The real Circus Devils and it’s energies. However, on Harold Pig, I put some thought into it, doing my best to beat things into shape with a sense of purpose. So while it might not have been progressive rock in the accepted sense of the term, in the context of our instinct-based music world, it felt like it.

54


The Harold Pig Memorial

The “dumb hands” Tim and I were stuck with became a big part of the Circus Devils sound. I can picture a self-respecting prog rock fan, or even an indie rock fan putting his nose up at the sort of boorish clatter we made on heavy songs like ‘Exoskeleton Motorcade,’ ‘Vegas,’ or ‘Indian Oil.’ It was the result of playing what felt right. For me the cave man vibe is always the right vibe. The musical element that binds everything together, so far as I see it, is the bass guitar. I always waited for last to put the bass on. This was done in an effort to delay the gratification of hearing a piece of music gel and solidify into its final shape. As a kid I’d started off as a drummer, but as time went by the bass guitar became the instrument I felt most at home with. Tim came up with the music for ‘May We See The Hostage?’ and ‘Last Punk Standing,’ two of the more musically dramatic tracks. The two of us pieced together ‘Bull Spears,’ which became a fan favorite. I picked up the harpsichord intro to ‘Alaska To Burning Men’ from Tim’s verse in ‘Last Punk Standing,’ with the hope of creating a musical echo within the album. I didn’t want to get too cute with reprising musical passages, but one thing I did want to do was begin and end the album with the same music. It helped to place the story-world inside a musical frame. Even though there was no conscious copying going on, at the back of our minds sat the blueprints of Tommy, and in my case Jesus Christ Superstar, which was full of musical echoes and reprises. Tim’s guitar solo on “May We See The Hostage” was one of only a handful of solos done throughout Circus Devils. Was there a reason for this? Maybe a lack of confidence? I had no prejudice against guitar solos. I’d soon be contributing a few of my own on later albums. Apart from the lack of confidence, maybe we thought it would be unseemly to break out on the guitar, like flashing a

55


Circus Devils: See You Inside

sexy leg. Now I’m making it seem as if we were hampered by our humility and conservatism. It made me happy that Harold Pig contained a full range of emotions and moods. The album opens with an air of mournful mystery. On ‘Saved Herself, Shaved Herself ’ the music and vocal alternate seamlessly between dreamy and jarring. There’s the giddy exuberance of ‘Soldiers of June’ and ‘Discussions In The Cave,’ and the creepiness of ‘Injured’ and ‘The Pilot’s Crucifixion.’ At times the giddy and the creepy get mashed up together in songs like ‘Vegas’ and ‘A Birdcage Until Further Notice.’ In addition to the freak rock, there are also moments of poignancy with ‘Festival Of Death,’ the lonesome organ on ‘Tulip Review’ and the piano on the album’s introduction and finale, prompted by Bob’s mention of a funeral or wake. Stuck in here and there, my little instrumental interludes serve as bridges between scenes. After making his selections from the music tracks we sent, Bob told us it was great and he was excited to get to work. This didn’t stop me from feeling nervous, just as I had before. Part of me was proud of the variety of musical styles, and I knew it wasn’t boring. I’d even done my best to rein in my exuberance when it came to the obnoxious bits featured on the first album. But my mind kept running off with the idea that Bob was just being polite, and every day he spent working on the lyrics was another day spent struggling through our hopeless music. Of course this was nonsense, but in the absence of news, I let my worries run free. The fact is that I was just as excited to hear the end result as I was worried. But the question “Is the music good enough?” was constantly at the back of my mind. I remember driving down to Dayton to attend the vocal recording session and having a bad case of jumpy leg syndrome.

56


The Harold Pig Memorial

If the music we did represented Harold’s dead body, then Bob’s lyrics and melodies breathed life into him and give him a soul. There at the vocal session I watched this magic trick happen in front of me. Right away on ‘Alaska To Burning Men’ and ‘Saved Herself, Shaved Herself,’ I heard Bob testify, delivering a vocal full of confidence and fire. Because of Bob’s intensity on tracks like these I can picture some listeners dismissing it as a big put on. But I didn’t see it that way. Instead I decided to believe in what I heard. It was more fun to believe than to chuckle and find it ironic. The more I listened to Bob’s bravado on Harold Pig, the more Ringworm Interiors began to seem like a lark. I still consider The Harold Pig Memorial our first proper album – when we all locked in together for the first time, each of us bringing up all the fuel we needed to make the album burn in a steady, consistent way from start to finish.

57


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Pinball Mars

PINBALL MARS (2004)

“I was always interested in automatic, pure unconscious and un-selfconscious expression. If there’s anything I can’t stand it’s self-consciousness, willful eccentricity and cleverness in music - it makes me sick. I’d rather hear a thousand dumbass, stupid rock songs from Bad Company or whatever than one overtly clever song from a ‘lemme-show-youhow-esoteric-and-well-read-I-am’ bullshit band like xxxxxxx xxxxxxx (redacted by the author). It’s musical masturbation as performed by eunuchs. I doubt Circus Devils could ever be accused of overt self-consciousness and that’s a feather in our cap. - Tim Tobias “Gargoyle City blows my head, takes me out, I’m too far fed” -from ‘Gargoyle City’ “I lost it. Fell about and slipped through a crack in anti-space. Busted a rib at the slaughterhouse. Lost the rulebook for etiquette. Wrecking the laugh shop, you don’t have to stop sucking on my account. Beating the bankbook. You don’t go to hell for humor.” - ‘(No) Hell For Humor’

59


Circus Devils: See You Inside

For the third album, I seem to remember us all wanting to do something more ragged and loose. Harold Pig had the feel of a rehearsed production, and there was a hint of being tested, at least that was true for me. This time we wanted to let things go and put aside all precision and focus. Bob’s way of doing this was to write out his lyrics as usual, but then perform them on the fly at the microphone without composing a finished melody. To me this seemed risky, but Bob had full confidence in himself. It was an example of allowing something to erupt forth as opposed to mapping it out beforehand. A good half of the music on Pinball Mars came from Tim. He would then sit out on the next two albums (Five (2005) and Sgt. Disco (2007)) and return again for Ataxia in 2008. I think Tim especially enjoyed the unhinged character of the Pinball Mars album, and the fact that it rocked. The next and fourth album (titled Five) would be almost rock-free. But this agreed with our unspoken aim to make a different sort of album each time.

Tim with Telecaster at Waterloo Sound 60


Pinball Mars

Bob approached Pinball Mars as a garage-rock opera, though he held back from giving all his characters different voices. To delineate the characters, Bob had the lyrics printed out like a script, allowing the listener to imagine the action taking place on a stage or movie screen. Pinball, the story’s hero, is joined by sidekicks Flush, Z and Eel, on a blazing romp through the city, all of them high on “pot and speed.” Thanks to the drugs, the city has been transformed into a psychedelic labyrinth. The name Pinball seems appropriate as we he hear his call to action on ‘Are You Out With Me?’ “Let’s go out,” he mumbles, spoken as if he’s stumbling around, bouncing between the walls and furniture in his trailer. Soon the mumbling turns to shouting. “Let’s go out!” he yells again and again, which makes me think he can’t find his friends, or that they aren’t listening because they’re passed out on the couch. Finally, they all tumble into the car and speed off to ‘Gargoyle City’ where everything seems just right . . . for them. In Bob and Tim’s ‘Sick Color,’ there is an interlude of lucid reflection on a troubled relationship. This is the one song from the album I’ve heard the most comment about from fans. I like the way it mixes together plaintive longing with tempered bitterness. ‘Inkster and King,’ as I discovered one day while driving in Dayton, is the name of a street intersection. A narrator, along with a group of peripheral observers, offers comment on the action from the sidelines. Among the observers are an alien and God, both weighing in at the start of act II (side 2). Here is where the drugs really kick in. I’m glad of the fact that no actual illicit substances were used in the making of an album that sounds as if it’s doused in drugs. The songs ‘A Puritan For Storage,’ ‘Alien’ and ‘Dragging The Medicine’ are about as psychedelic as Circus Devils gets. 61


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Toward the end, Pinball takes a bad turn and his manic trip lands him in a dark place where the city falls away and he’s left with a mysterious unnamed “voice” which repeats the words “Strange journey, see you inside.” Where has Pinball gone? Has he suffered an overdose? Has his car finally crashed? No! Fighting his way out of a blackout and back to the light, he comes out swinging, ready to corral his friends, rustle up more drugs and do it all over again. As with Harold Pig, I recorded all of my parts at home on the Fostex ¼-inch 8-track tape machine, with the input levels often going into the red, where they belong on an album like this. This is the album where I began to mess with tape speeds, in particular slowing things down. You can hear it on songs like ‘(No) Hell For Humor’ and ‘A Puritan For Storage.’ I would go on to do a lot of slowing down of the tape on the next album, Five. Once again Bob did the vocal session with John Shough at Cro-Magnon studio in Dayton. Bob may have winged his melodies at the microphone, but he would sometimes go back to fix a line or two. I always wondered what a stage production of Pinball Mars might look like. In my imagination I see Pinball and his gang jump into their beat up AMC Gremlin and go tearing through the city. I see hallucinations in the form of whirling projections, all permeating the stage, and the theater space as a whole. I see the action slowing down as the music slows down, with the characters moving in slow motion, and then speeding up again on the faster songs. Then I see the characters freeze completely as the alien and God take the stage in turn to offer their comments. The suggestion here is that when someone like Pinball ventures this far outside the bounds of normal human behavior, he’s likely to attract the attention of cosmic

62


Pinball Mars

watchers and overseers. Since the first three albums were big and brash, I thought we might settle down and do something more subdued. With Tim not joining us for the next album, it seemed even more of a reason to go off in a different direction. At that time I had no inkling that we’d go on to do 11 more albums. I even imagined that our next album might be our last.

63


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Five

FIVE (2005)

“If rock music is like the highway, this music is like the dewy, wild and animated forested areas that flank it. It was a helpful friend to me during a time when I was on a grueling, dry and droning stretch of track in early adulthood trying to reconcile with the fact that there might be nothing else but that road. I had lost sight of the trees. Then ‘Five’ appeared with a wink, and again to paraphrase Todd, I followed it into the woods, enchanted. Through repeated engagement with its iridescent, muddy, labyrinth-like terrain of mercurial elements, a part of my psyche I had no idea I was entitled to, began to develop and flourish. All of sudden it felt righteous to explore...and also to laugh – perhaps even laugh at having shit yourself, or for owning up to having explored your own shit, laughing. “We Taught Them Rock And Roll” hands you a poo ticket, and advises you to inspect it for gold flecks after the swipe. Looking back, there seemed to be no adult in my diminished sphere at the time that could even acknowledge this element of nature, let alone bestow the importance of having a relationship with it. Hence my gratitude for Circus Devils.” -Steve Hewitt (The No Real Need)

65


Circus Devils: See You Inside

“The eight count slide break wails in tune. The jesters of system await you. The children feel the need to pray. The shades of later drown the soundbird station seeking love.” -from ‘Dolphins Of Color’ “I goes without saying. Speech free. Animal motel. Sign on. Rams. Spider monkeys. Hair wolf colors. Shih tzus and lizards. In the rain forest. Living creatures, hooved and small.” -from ‘Animal Motel’

During his time away from Circus Devils, Tim focused on writing songs for his band Clouds Forming Crowns, in which I lent a hand on musical backup. Tim then returned to Circus Devils for Ataxia in 2008 and appeared on every subsequent album. I’m happy that the two albums Bob and I made back-to-back (Five and Sgt. Disco) bear little resemblance to each other, even without the added element of Tim’s input. When Bob told me the working title of our fourth album (destined to be named Five), it seemed to confirm my suspicion that the band might be coming to an end.

66


Five

“The title,” Bob told me, “will be Bird Maggot.” I remember laughing before telling Bob that I’d get straight to work. I don’t believe any more was said on the matter until after Bob received my batch of music. Privately, I had some questions for myself, such as “What would the music on an album called Bird Maggot sound like?” Just to warn you up front, in describing this album I’ll be mixing metaphors and analogies freely, so any slack you can spare will be appreciated. I believe Bob decided to change the album title to Five before he heard the music I sent, but I may be wrong about that. I thought the new title was funny, considering it was our fourth album. In effect it made Bird Maggot our de facto “lost,” fourth album. I enjoyed writing for Five because by now there was no worry over whether or not Bob could make use of a piece of music, no matter what shape it took. So I went ahead and got figuratively lost in the woods. I gave myself a tall order to fill by trying to share something of my private experience while making music, when I would hear a sound or combination of sounds and imagine that I was being confronted by a living creature or a mechanically animated creature with intentions and purposes all its own. So instead of the listener hearing the music and thinking of it as being composed in the mind of a musician, I wanted it to come off as something that came creeping out of a spaceship or crawling up out of the earth. I know this sounds wacky, but having this in the back of my mind was helpful because it allowed me to aim for things beyond the possible.

67


Circus Devils: See You Inside

At other times I would stumble into an aural space that excited me or unsettled me, or else put me in a pensive state of mind. An example of this is the music for ‘A People Thing.’ In the case of music like this, my aim was to define a piece of geography, or to conjure a space the listener could inhabit. Whether I came close to succeeding at any of this is up to the listener. As time went by the ground rules for making a Circus Devils record would be established, though we’d never speak of it, maybe for fear of breaking the spell. But at the beginning I was still questioning myself about what we were up to, and why it seemed to be working, and how it might be wrecked if I wasn’t careful. I became aware of an unwritten charter that provided valuable direction by making it clear what NOT to do. The charter went something like this: “You will not find refuge in the extremes of cute and clever on one side or darkness for the sake of darkness on the other, so help you God.” In time it would no longer be necessary to remind myself of these potential traps in waiting, since avoiding them became second nature. But it was important to state the dangers clearly up front, so I’d be ready in case I was tempted to fall into one extreme or the other while I worked. As suggested in Tim’s quote from the last chapter, so much of the new music we hear today amounts to reams and reams of cute and clever. By “cute” I mean self-consciously precious. Anyone who aims for an edge or who seeks to break new ground is likely to fall under the spell of ego. It’s a natural thing to happen, and nobody can be blamed for it. In striving for effect, ego employs both the cute and clever, as well as darkness for the sake of darkness. But if we disregard ego, and learn to see through its predictable, tiresome

68


Five

operations, we can allow the dream-mind, or id, or whatever you wish to call it, to take over. Suddenly the music and lyrics take on an elusive, uncanny character. “But why would you want to do that?” someone asks. My answer is that we do it in order to experience the payoff. For me that means enchantment, surprise, and a re-connection with the Cro-Magnon inside of me. I’m sure Bob and Tim have their own reasons. Bob was always a good example to follow when it came to avoiding ‘cute.’ He is expert at playing with words while steering clear of what is merely clever. His lyrics can be obtusely funny, but never self-conscious in a way that shines a light back on him personally in order to highlight his cleverness or gift for comedy. This is a trick not too many people appreciate because it’s not apparent on the surface. Once again it’s the artist as a childlike, ego-free transmitter. I’m not saying Bob has no ego, or anything similar about myself. I’m saying that in the realm of our creative expression, ego takes a powder because for whatever reason, we are keenly aware of its presence and able to banish it from the room, so to speak, so we can get on with playing and making things. Some people may assume Bob is being cleverly elusive in his lyric writing, and patting himself on the back for “fooling” the listener. Or maybe they assume he is jotting down random word jumbles while snickering to himself, but they miss the point. All we’re doing is playing the way children play. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the cute bands, we have the “evil” bands, of which there will never be a shortage so long as there are disturbed young people in the world who seek a reflection

69


Circus Devils: See You Inside

of their own inner, self-pitying worm disguised as a badass. I doubt such people would ever appreciate Circus Devils because we offer them no such reflection. What we offer is a different sort of mirror – a mirror they can walk straight through, and by doing so, leave the worm behind. The trouble is people who embrace the aesthetics of darkness put all their energy into feeding that worm. They don’t want to leave it behind. They don’t want to get lost and have real dark adventures of the kind they have no control over. Avoiding the use of darkness as a fetish was a lesson I had to learn on my own. Whatever is cryptic, surreal or shadowy will strike some people as ill intentioned. But there is a difference between the egocentric artist who seeks to enfold the listener in his own psychological filth on one hand, and the artist on the other hand who seeks to lead you around a corner, where you’re left in a shadowy place to discover things on your own. In this I took my cue from the film composer Bernard Herrmann (1911-1975), who was a master at conjuring aural spaces full of tension and surprise. I believe we also took our cue from certain filmmakers who made a career of leading us into the shadows instead of simply dumping the horror at our feet. Roman Polanski, David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick come to mind. My solution to the question of how to avoid the self-consciously cute and the self-consciously dark alike was simple. While in my creative zone I would stop thinking about it, and trust in the little elf I was busy chasing. Does this mean that all art informed by the unconscious is good art? No. In any case, this is not for the artist to decide. Only other people – the beholders of the work – are in a position to judge.

70


Five

Take a song like “No Wonder They Don’t Stand Tall.” If you pull this song off the album and let it stand alone, you might be at a loss to describe it. On one hand the music has a distinct personality, but on the other hand it’s so sparse and vacuous it seems almost on the verge of vanishing into thin air. Maybe it suggests a lonely, unfamiliar space touched by sadness. Bob puts himself into that space and becomes its mouthpiece as he testifies. The result is that it’s difficult to “see” Bob in the song, just as I am invisible as a musician. For one thing, what is the instrument making that sound? The song seems to live its own life in its own space. The song is quiet, and yet Bob is broadcasting at full force as he reaches down deep for the words. He’s crooning in a way that brings to mind late career Scott Walker – not in the sound he makes but in the approach he takes. Putting the words aside, the sound of the voice itself is arresting in its obvious conviction. The words add a new layer of strange. The song seems to be saying “Look here, these were the things that happened, and I need to tell you about them, because I’m sure that you – in whatever space you come from – have overlooked them.” Not to go on polishing the apple, but it might be a challenge to find a song like this anywhere else. I hear a blast of air through a set of nostrils as someone sneers, “Nobody wants a song like this.” All right, point taken. I don’t expect people to enjoy an album like Five. But there are opportunities here to be transported if you’ll allow it. To me it’s more fragile than the other albums – almost in danger of slipping back into the unfamiliar spaces it seems to come from.

71


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Once again I was impressed by the way Bob found his pathways into the music. It appeared almost effortless to me. On some songs Bob is like a tour guide waiting to greet you at the border of a country where nobody ever goes. Without your visit, the place stays in perpetual darkness. On other songs Bob is the personification of id in the shape of a disheveled, world-weary traveler who breaks out the old slide projector, bids us to gather around and serves up a slide show complete with narration, detailing the strange places he’s been and the strangers he’s met. On future albums, Bob, in his role as mouthpiece of the id, is more buttoned up and prepared more “on the record.” But Five shows the id caught off the record, pulling us aside one-on-one to say, “Hey, look between what’s going on!” It may be Bob’s way of preparing you for what’s coming, not only on this album, but on all the other albums that follow. Throughout Circus Devils you see Bob providing an oblique commentary on American life, past, present and future. It’s all there, waiting to be unearthed. Someday, a kid stuck in some Middle American backwater will take up this challenge and write a book on all the hidden codes found in Circus Devils songs – codes that take up where Nostradamus left off. There are light moments on Five, including the jaunty ‘Eyes Reload,’ ‘Strain,’ ‘Future For Germs,’ and what might be our most egregious stab at comedy; ‘We Taught Them Rock and Roll.’ This song mark’s Tim’s only appearance on the album, playing one of the troglodytes or yetis who hoots and leaps about with excitement after receiving the greatest gift civilization has to offer. In case it wasn’t obvious, this moment was inspired by the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes are sent into fits of ecstasy by the sudden appearance of the black monolith.

72


Five

The song ‘Word Business’ contains no sub-layers of meaning at all. Instead it’s a diatribe delivered by an embittered writer who’s busy throwing off the burden of his past. On the opposite side of the spectrum lyric-wise is ‘Headhunter Who Blocks The Sky’ (“The white circle of summer, false teeth in his breath pack. Young and exotic where land disappears”). One of my favorites on Five is ‘A People Thing;’ a song that possesses the solemn gravity of a prayer. As with Pinball Mars, many of Bob’s performances here were done on the fly after he’d written lyrics set in phrases or syllables that matched the rhythm of the music. One exception is ‘Dolphins Of Color,’ for which Bob crafted one his best melodies ever, in my opinion. The world of ‘Dolphins Of Color’ strikes me as a place of deep memory, where longing for things distant and gone has become institutionalized. If I had to pick one favorite Circus Devils song, this would be the one. I remember playing the album for Tim, who seemed less than enthusiastic. I think he may have wanted to ask “Where’s the rock?” In Tim’s estimation, we redeemed ourselves on the next album (Sgt. Disco). But personally I have a soft spot for Five. Five marked the first time Bob took the trip to factory north to record the vocals with me at the mixing desk at Waterloo Sound; Scott Bennett’s studio in Kent, Ohio. Scott lived upstairs and had the entire bottom floor of the house converted into studio space. In 2002, after bringing Guided By Voices there to record part of the Universal Truths And Cycles album, Waterloo became my recording home for the next five years, and where four Circus Devils albums were made, beginning with Five in 2005 and ending with Gringo in 2009.

73


Circus Devils: See You Inside

The unassuming Waterloo Sound recording studio in Kent, Ohio. (photo by Sjors De Vries)

When it came time for Scott to sell the property, he generously allowed me to move the studio to my home in Brecksville, Ohio, just south of Cleveland, where I am now seated as I write this.

74


Five

75


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Sgt. Disco

SGT. DISCO (2007)

“On Sgt. Disco, Todd and Bob are like a mutated, radioactive version of Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb after an ayahuasca experience in the rainforest, their polyester suits all crumpled and dirty, with a look of madness and the secrets to the mysteries of the universe written on their faces.” -Steve Five (The Library Is On Fire) “I’ve landed a job on the high-ass seas, you betcha Bob and yesiree, king of the wind, that happens to be me.” -from ‘Nicky Highpockets’ “Take me to the sun, and break my leg” - from ‘Break My Leg’ “Losing it. I’m out of style in my walking shorts and binoculars in heaven’s hotel. Hello.” -from ‘Swing Shift’

77


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Circus Devils’ big, fat double album began as a response to the defiantly unlovable Five. I seem to remember us getting little feedback on Five, not that any of our albums ever got a great deal of that in terms of attention from magazines and reviewers. We did have our champions out there, but they seemed not to show up for Five. I can’t speak for Bob, but creatively, I’d been gratified by that album. Today I can look back and say “Why did I care what anyone thought?” I would have enjoyed making more albums like Five, but we never did. There would be individual songs where the Five vibe returned, but not over the space of an entire album. Coming off of that album felt a little bit like stepping out of the wilderness and buttoning up for a new job in town.

78


Sgt. Disco

I also believe that what I perceived to be Tim’s cool reaction to Five influenced my approach on Sgt. Disco. Instead of using music to conjure homunculi or to delve into lonely places, I closed the door to that world for the most part. It was TCB time – get up and go time. So I picked up the electric guitar – an instrument largely absent on Five – and started making the sort of outgoing music heard on most of our later albums. Tim’s eventual return on Ataxia (2008), and his musical contributions would also reinforce this approach, leading to – I want to say more friendly music, but maybe friendly isn’t the right word. More attention-grabbing, let’s say. It was during work on one of Bob’s solo albums at Waterloo Sound – probably From A Compound Eye – when we discussed what was next up for Circus Devils over lunch. When I proposed a double album, Bob didn’t jump on the idea. I decided not to push the matter and just get to work on the music. In comparison with my work on the previous albums, it felt very free and easy while writing and recording for Sgt. Disco. To compliment the guitar-based music I was doing, I also began building pieces one track at a time using homemade samples as the foundation, similar to what I’d done on the Five album. Only this time the musical structures were more shiny and inviting. The feeling I had while assembling the music was buoyant and free of tension. It was like riding a wave. I’d always been able to enter a creative mental space and lose all sense of passing time, but now things were coming to me very fast. In a single bout of writing on the guitar or with the ASR-10 sampler, I might come up with 6 or 7 songs with all the arrangements finished in my mind. By this time Bob and I had full confidence in our ability to surprise ourselves. But apart from that confidence I’m not sure what or who was responsible for the help in terms of opening doors and

79


Circus Devils: See You Inside

removing obstacles. It wasn’t that all the music was great. It was just the speed and ease with which the ideas came, and how natural it felt to make real whatever popped into my head. This kind of free and easy music-building experience would continue off and on as we went along making albums, but not for such an extended period and not with such a large volume of music. If I remember correctly, there were at least 80 pieces of music in the audition pool for Sgt. Disco. Bob decided there was enough good stuff in there to go forward with the double album. Some of the unused pieces would make it onto other albums down the line. Sometimes Bob’s choice of music surprised me. There would always be a few pieces of music that I felt sorry for. These were like the runts of the litter. But I would always include them in the audition pool because I wanted to give them a chance. Some examples on this album would be the music for “Break My Leg,” “Nicky Highpockets” and ‘The Baby That Never Smiled.’ I could not have envisioned beforehand what Bob would do with them. In their unaccompanied stage they sounded slight and fragile to me. At first I assumed Bob would gravitate toward big, dramatic music, but he always made room for these understated pieces. From a sound engineer’s standpoint, I was very happy with the drum sound on Sgt. Disco - something I was rarely able to achieve, and not just because I had a crappy drum set. Like all my lucky turns as a producer/engineer, the drum sound was a happy accident with the microphones placed in fortunate spots around Waterloo Sound’s main recording room. As a one-man rhythm section I would like to have channeled Keith Moon and John Entwistle, but I was happy to settle for Bill Ward and Geezer Butler.

80


Sgt. Disco

Tracking drums for Sgt. Disco

Bob brought along Rich Turiel and Chris Slusarenko to the vocal recording session. Stationed with me in the studio control room, both guys served as Bob’s cheerleaders, creating a celebratory atmosphere that I was incapable of generating myself. We delighted in everything we heard as we got the very first glimpse of the songs while Bob worked through the tracks. Each time Bob peeked into the control room after delivering a vocal, Rich and Chris would shout “It’s a hit!” We were all high on what we heard. This was in contrast to the Five vocal session, where there was a bit of a solemn, eerie vibe in the studio.

81


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Bob looks over his lyric sheets

For me Sgt. Disco was fun and rewarding all around. Bob’s playful cover art is a great reflection of what you find inside. Like Five it’s a song collage, with each song defining its own world, but unlike Five, which is more like a labyrinth opening out into unfamiliar territories, the worlds of Sgt. Disco are all somehow neatly contained inside the funhouse – something like that building in Yellow Submarine where Ringo searches for the other three Beatles, opening doors onto alternate dimensions. The hallway is never far away when it’s time to get back there and open the next door. It’s still adventure music, but somehow you feel you won’t be harmed or stranded, not even in ‘The Assassin’s Ballroom,’ or in the catacombs with the dead guy in ‘The Winner’s Circle.’

82


Sgt. Disco

There is a beginning and an ending to Sgt. Disco. Dawn breaks on ‘Zig Zag,’ where we meet the sunshine of an L.A. morning. Right away we are pushed into Madonna’s Gazebo, where “other guys are wearing your crown,” then stumble dizzily into an empty field to accompany the hapless witness who tells us how ‘George Took a Shovel’ to scoop up the cream-filled object that fell from outer space. After riding the everlasting wave of ‘Pattern Girl’ we hear from ‘Nicky Highpockets;’ a chipper, bright-eyed sailor who calls himself “King Of The Wind.” Disc one contains a few detours into comedy by way of classic rock. While hearing Bob sing ‘George Took A Shovel’ and ‘Love Hate Relationship With The Human Race’ in the studio, I thought I might lose my mind. ‘Brick Soul Mascots (part 1)’ is an adventure inside an adventure on which I uncharacteristically allowed myself to meander on the guitar before settling into a driving riff. ‘New Boy’ and ‘Swing Shift’ are examples of songs that startled us a bit when they were finished. Disc two/side three begins with a pack of crazed harpies flapping away into the sky as if they’d been suddenly startled while eating a meal. Perhaps their meal is a confused fellow adventurer who took a wrong turn. With songs like ‘Happy Zones’ and ‘Safer Than Hooking,’ it’s clear we’ve entered a different sort of space – more claustrophobic and threatening. In general the feeling on disc two is unsafe. But we get a break from the tension on songs like ‘War Horsies,’ ‘French Horn Litigation,’ and ‘Rose In Paradise,’ which may be Circus Devils’ only love song. By the end of the record, you may be left feeling eager to escape like the poor fellow in ‘Summer Is Set,’ who’s stuck with the “heartless widow” and knows he won’t be making it back home. Songs like ‘Summer Is Set’ foreshadow the path ahead on our follow up Ataxia, where home is nowhere in

83


Circus Devils: See You Inside

sight and the adventure turns more dangerous and manic. Not all the songs on Sgt. Disco hit the mark, but taken as a whole I think it’s a wild ride whose joie de vivre and extravagance makes it worthy of a place in the psychedelic rock museum. Upon hearing the final album mixed and sequenced, Bob called and was beside himself. He told me that at certain points while listening, he’d been transported in a way that left him emotional. For the first time I think we’d made the full jump toward really surprising ourselves, which was after all the entire point of our experiment and what made it so much fun. It wasn’t about self-congratulation. Instead, we were celebrating the process of making music where the left hand is unaware of what the right hand is up to. The unforeseen result is what excited us and left us wondering at what we’d done. All I could do was hope that listeners might feel that same sense of adventure. When the mixing was done, someone (perhaps Bob’s manager David Newgarden?) sent the unreleased album to the guys at Ipecac Records. Whether or not this was at Bob’s urging, I don’t know. It turned out they dug the record and decided to put it out. Being signed to Ipecac was great news. It meant Circus Devils had a shot at winning fans who might not be familiar with Bob’s music. After all, we sounded nothing like Guided By Voices, so why not? After the album was released, reality sank in. We went on to make Ataxia fairly quickly, and I remember sending the new record off to the Ipecac gang with high hopes. We were very happy with the way Ataxia had turned out, so we didn’t foresee what happened next. One day I got a friendly email from Ipecac explaining how they really liked the new album, and furthermore, they liked it even better than Sgt. Disco. BUT, unfortunately . . . and the other shoe dropped. 84


Sgt. Disco

In essence we were being kicked off the label because no one had bought Sgt. Disco. My spirits sank, but not enough to make me want to quit. I just put it out of my mind and went back to the studio for the next bout of recording.

85


Circus Devils: See You Inside

“The watcher” from the Circus Devils-inspired film I Razor (2012)


Circus Devils On Film

CIRCUS DEVILS ON FILM

One band I enjoyed working with as a producer was The Library Is On Fire. One day during a conversation with the band’s founder and front man Steve Five, he told me he was a Circus Devils fan. I can’t remember if Steve volunteered his help with making music videos or if I asked him first. But making videos was something I’d been daydreaming about but saw no means of achieving on my own. Steve told me he had a camcorder and would be happy to jump in on any video project I had in mind. Picturing myself as director and cameraman, I asked Steve if he’d be comfortable in front of the camera. He would prove more than comfortable, sometimes putting himself at risk of mortification. Steve and I made our video shoots a perennial pastime from 2007 to 2017. Our course of action was the same on each outing. After meeting for an early lunch, we’d head to the nearest thrift shop where we’d collect the props and costumes to be used that day. Filming never took more than a day, and often that was time enough to capture footage for two videos. Our first two efforts (‘War Horsies’ and ‘Bogus Reactions’) combined live footage taken

87


Circus Devils: See You Inside

in Kent, Ohio with archival film clips gathered on the internet. Like the music-making process, the videos were playful exercises unburdened by conceptual thinking (for the most part).

The wanna-be fascist crybabies of War Horsies. Left to right: Tim Tobias, Steve Five, Chris Sheehan

Our very first video (‘War Horsies’) was an exception to this rule. Here we see cartoonish fascist speechmakers attract a small crowd. On screen the idea failed to come off as planned, but I think we succeeded at poking fun at the fledgling Nazis. As we know, in the real world such figures are much less courageous, hiding out on the internet instead of holding outdoor rallies in their neighborhoods. If we had a governing aim behind our video projects, it was to be ridiculous without being self-consciously cute. In that I think we succeeded. My inspiration came from Devo, whose early music videos show them celebrating in their roles as outsiders. In 2008 I found a mask on ebay that caught my eye. It was an old German-made cardboard mask depicting what I guessed to be a motorcycle cop. For all I know it was made during the Nazi period. There was something odd about that mask, and I knew I had to have it. As soon as Steve put it on, we had a solid character on our hands. While Steve was “trying on” the character, something clicked in his brain. He had an instant intuitive sense about the be-

88


Circus Devils On Film

havior and body language of this guy, who would soon be dubbed Sgt. Disco. The Sergeant is pure id – a child man who cannot speak, though he is a fine singer. In time he would become Circus Devils’ answer to Devo’s Boojie Boy. The original Sgt. Disco mask, which I still have, quickly became damaged by perspiration and general wear and tear. Part of our ritual on filming day included an arts and crafts session in which we used scissors, glue and rubber bands to make replacement masks from photocopies of the original.

Steve Five as Sgt. Disco

The Sgt’s debut arrived with a pair of music videos (‘I Razors,’ and ‘Get Me Extra’), both from the Ataxia album. Cory Race, a friend of Steve’s, played the role of the sergeant’s equally challenged side-

89


Circus Devils: See You Inside

kick named ‘Professor Salmon,’ whose look we cobbled together from thrift store pickings. Cory played the professor as the sergeant’s grinning shadow, the victim of a blown emotional fuse. The Sergeant and professor made a good archetypal couple in the tradition of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Arthur and Merlin, and Kirk and Spock. I was going to add in Beavis and Butthead, but I’m not sure the comparison fits.

The Professor (Cory Race) and the Sergeant (Steve Five)

It was encouraging to find out that Bob enjoyed the videos. A few times he cautioned against going too far, as if to say, “Now kids, let’s not get too diabolical.” This was actually helpful, since we were operating in a bubble, and not really taking the time to reflect on what we were doing. In the video for ‘Get Me Extra,’ the relationship between the Sergeant and the Professor came into focus. In the role of chief instigator, the Sergeant’s relentless curiosity and insatiable appetites lead him to a record shop, where he fills his arms with a stack of LPs.

90


Circus Devils On Film

After dutifully paying the shop clerk, he carries the records off to a nearby alley, where he proceeds to crush them with a brick.

The Sgt. enjoys his newly acquired record collection (I Razors)

The Sergeant’s impulsivity is countered by the sober silence of the Professor, whose magical powers give him a slightly scarier edge. The Professor also has better taste in fashion. The duo’s biggest moment would come in 2012, when we made the leap from music videos to a feature-length experimental film titled I Razor. For the curious, I Razor can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.

91


Circus Devils: See You Inside

I Razor movie posters designed by David Crunelle

Instead of starting off with video footage and writing a soundtrack to fit the visuals, I began with the soundtrack, and did my best to fit video footage to the music. Filming I Razor was great fun and largely painless because we had no film crew. It was just me with the camera, and the actors mucking around under natural light. My hapless method was simple: point and shoot, and worry about how it looked later on. Very little sound was recorded on set, as the main characters communicated telepathically. Watching the reaction of people in public places to the spectacle of Sgt. Disco, Professor Salmon, Mother Skinny and the Homunculus, was always entertaining. I’m surprised the cops never approached us.

92


Circus Devils On Film

The I Razor gang. Left to right; Shaka Selah, Joe Dennis, Todd Tobias, Brad Visker, Steve Five, Cory Race

As with the short subjects, I Razor was not intended to illustrate or offer an explanation of song lyrics. It was another example of big boys behaving like children in a figurative sandbox. The basic story involves the trials and tribulations of the Sgt. and Professor, whose perceptions have been irrevocably altered by a new and unstudied chemical compound that progressively mutates the brain of its users. On the street the new drug becomes known as I Razor. As it spreads, more and more “I Razor freaks� enter the twisted world shared by the Sergeant and Professor.

93


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Back story material for I Razor

94


Circus Devils On Film

Among these so-called freaks is a dark and powerful entity called “The Mother” or Mother Skinny, because she serves as the mother hen for all the scattered and lost street freaks. The Sergeant has a private stash of the I Razor drug, which the Mother wants to get his/her hands on. But soon enough the Mother’s boundless appetites lead her to hound the Sergeant with the aim of stealing his soul. A back-story never touched upon in the film tells how the Sgt. and Professor originally derived the dangerous drug from a plant they discovered while working together as scientists in the Amazon. Over two summers we got together on odd weekends and carried on in the usual fashion, raiding the thrift shops and motoring around to scout locations, only this time the logistics were more complicated, as we had a large cast of actors and dozens of scenes to shoot. Steve’s sister Dawn and her husband Gabe were a great help, offering their home as a base of operations. With no script to work from, we developed scenes based on the core ideas I arrived with that day. At other times a scene would take shape organically on the spot, with Steve, Cory, and the other actors throwing in ideas. The real work began when it was time to turn the mountain of video clips we’d collected into a finished piece of screen entertainment. In an effort to make things eye-catching, I became my own special effects technician. The results were amateurish but there was a certain rough charm to it that seemed to work with the material. The entire editing experience is a blur to me now. Arriving at the final cut meant sitting up every night for months hunched over my Macbook after my wife and two-year old daughter had gone to bed. I’m not sure I Razor can be called a good movie, but considering we had no real knowledge of filmmaking and worked without a crew under comically limited conditions, I think it turned out well. I

95


Circus Devils: See You Inside

think of it as naïve cinema, as it has the quality of naïve art, or perhaps a found object.

I Razor characters, left to right: the professor, the Sergeant, the Homunculus and Mother Skinny

Though Sgt. Disco came to a poignant end at the finale of I Razor, we weren’t quite done with him yet. However, Steve and I both felt it was time to bring in a new character. Using white face paint, snap-on teeth and a short-haired wig, Steve transformed himself into a certain Rodney Dreemer.

96

Steve Five as Rodney Dreemer


Circus Devils On Film

Rodney is a very earnest and good-intentioned sad sack who tries very hard to convey his intense feelings, but somehow fails to make a connection. Only slightly more conscious than the Sergeant, Rodney may be a failed mime or perhaps an ex-soap opera bit player who has slipped into deep obscurity, and remains tragically clueless about finding his way back onto the showbiz wagon. Perhaps a singing career will be the ticket? But one look at Rodney and you suspect he may have already resigned himself to the fact that his ship has sailed. Watch Rodney on YouTube in the videos ‘Hue N’ Dye,’ ‘The Night Of Anything,’ ‘The Liquid Observer,’ and ‘Time Trapper,’ and see if you develop a soft spot for him. On the other hand, he may leave you feeling icky.

The many faces of Steve Five

Other characters came and went, including ‘Carlo Sagan;’ a smarmier and scarier version of Carl, appearing in the video for “We’re Going Inside The Head (Of A Winner).’ A pointy-top, rubber hairpiece I found gave birth to Remeerd Yendor (Rodney Dreemer spelled backwards) – a sort of sour-puss,

97


Circus Devils: See You Inside

anti-Rodney who would make a cameo in ‘The Night Of Anything” before appearing in his only starring role, fronting a band of puppets in ‘Love Hate Relationship With The Human Race.’ I’d like to thank Steve for getting us started and for throwing himself into these projects with so much gusto. The video shoots were full of fun and gave me plenty of good memories.

98


Circus Devils On Film

CIRCUS DEVILS VIDEOGRAPHY:

All titles listed below can be found on the Circus Devils YouTube channel.

2007: • War Horsies • Bogus Reactions 2008: • I Razors •Get Me Extra! 2010: • Mother Skinny • We Don’t Need To Know Who You Are • Shut Up! 2011: • Cyclopean Runways • To England The Tigers • Henry Loop

2012: • I Razor* (feature-length)

2013: • We’re Going Inside The Head (Of A Winner) • Bird Zone 2014: • Thin Escape • The Night Of Anything 2015: • Hue N’ Dye • Seeds Of The Craft • The Liquid Observer • Get On it • Easy Baby 2017: • Time Trapper • Love Hate Relationship With The Human Race

99


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Ataxia

ATAXIA (2008)

“Circus Devils has an intense cinematic vibe running through their special brand of freak prog. I listen to them to conjure scenes in my imagination for films that don’t exist, or films I’d like to make. Each song is a roadside stop off the beaten path leaving you with renewed morbid curiosity to forge ahead.” – Christopher Horn “Freedom’s monster is an unborn child. A mucous standing in water, hot water. All thunderous and a nice hot crown” -from ‘Freedom’s Monster’ “I need a new place to travel and a body that’s not an imposter. ‘I’m all ears,’ sayeth the Lord” -from ‘Stars, Stripes And Crack Pipes’

101


Circus Devils: See You Inside

After the dangerous funhouse vibe of Sgt. Disco, it was time to go somewhere even more dangerous. The lean, mean Ataxia incites a gamut of emotional responses. It’s a record that seems to know itself much better than we knew it at the time we were making it. Even now I have trouble pinpointing my feelings over some of what I hear (is this funny or scary?). What it conjures in the minds of listeners is hard for me to imagine. I’d like to share what it conjures in mine, but not because I think it’s the correct way to interpret what’s going on. Right from the start, even a casual listener who’s had nothing to smoke will suspect something is going on under the surface. ‘Under Review’ eases you into the unfamiliar space where the adventure takes place. To me this is one of our scariest songs, but scary in an unassuming way. The voice here belongs to the pilgrim or protagonist who is about to enter a dark place. He may be doing his best to downplay his apprehension over the trip that awaits him, but he’s also resigned to the fact that he must take that trip if he’s to have a chance at being well again. By the time we get to the album’s second side, it looks as if he might not be making it out alive. But is getting out alive the objective? Or is the objective simply to get out? Could ‘Under Review’ be the first chapter of a life review at the borderline between life and death? The term Ataxia means a loss of control over one’s body movements. Could the affliction be more than physical? Could it be his psyche that needs healing? If the pilgrim was a tourist in the world of Sgt. Disco, in the land of Ataxia he’s become a captive whose struggle is to break free. Break free from what? His own mind? His body? His bad habit? His life? My personal take is that the affliction is universal to everyone, by virtue of us all being born in a world bent on separating us from

102


Ataxia

our own interiors by infecting our unconscious minds with reams of filth. Another name for this affliction is civilization. I interpret the “tyranny of cracked wallpaper skin” Bob sings about as the affliction we all suffer from unawares as the result of being born into a deceptively insane world none of us had a hand in making, but which we are all expected to adjust to, and embrace. Even for those who appear to be well adjusted, getting to that point required certain sacrifices early on. Imagine rolling a large stone to cover up the entranceway to a cave or passageway leading to hidden depths within yourself. This is the big sacrifice we make in order to be “well” in the context of the world we live in. In effect we cut ourselves off from our own unconscious dimensions. As we abandon childhood we do this to protect ourselves, not only from personal traumas, but also from the mountains of trash we take in collectively – trash that accumulates day-by-day, year-by-year and century-by-century. In a word, we suffer unawares from overexposure. It’s bad for our souls. It’s not just inane entertainment and online chatter that weighs us down. It’s also the collective burden of all the deliberate and careless cruelty civilized human beings have perpetrated dating from the beginning of history. It’s all in there, inside us, whether we choose to see it or not. In simpler terms, the human animal was not designed to put up with all this shit – stuff that our species never had to face during 95% of its existence. Sure, we had a million years worth of ferocious animals, enemy tribes and unforgiving elements to deal with. But the psychic burdens of civilization present a whole new order of detriment that psychiatry has barely touched upon. For those of us who strive for an internal connection with the Self,

103


Circus Devils: See You Inside

but end up experiencing fear, confusion, sadness or anxiety that seems to have no specific cause or point of origin, the temptation is to abandon the Self altogether. Civilization stands by ready to diagnose the trouble and prescribe a fix. The message comes in loud and clear. “You are weak. You are hysterical. You are delusional. You are defective. You need pharmaceuticals. You need more yummy pre-packaged food. You need a better job. You need a religion. You need everything you see on TV. You need everything but yourself. Your Self is the problem.” The pilgrim who plays the starring role in this story has taken on the struggle by rolling away the stone and entering the dark place he is told does not exist because despite what humans have experienced since our days as Homo Erectus, civilization will not acknowledge it. What our troubled hero is about to do is a drastic measure, but all the other fixes he’s tried have failed. It’s now time to become the human being he is meant to be – his true Self. But first he must push his way through all the psychic rubble he’s collected and battle his way through a labyrinth filled with demons, both personal and born of collective denial and fear. His initiation, or path to freedom, will lead to a re-integration of the two halves of the Self – the conscious and the unconscious. In the ancient world, this process was coded in symbols and cloaked in ritual. In our world, where no value is placed on Self-becoming, we’re on our own. We must go in blind, with no guide and no signposts. “I’m up” the pilgrim states at the beginning of the adventure. “I’m fucking up.” The double meaning strikes us right away. We are eavesdropping on an interior voice. The mood is vaguely sinister. But it’s not intended to be unfriendly. The sinister undertone is more a product of the pilgrim’s own apprehension and a premature sense of defeat. He knows there is an ordeal ahead of him. He doesn’t want to leave his bed. He doesn’t want to leave his body.

104


Ataxia

He doesn’t want to get off the drugs or stop being a workaholic, or whatever he’s been doing to ward off the adventure. But at the same time, he’s committed to face the struggles ahead. If he has our empathy, then we can join him on the trip, not as a distant observer, but as a companion. The underworld is the ground of our initiation. We’ve rolled away the stone and we’re going in. Will it liberate us and make us stronger? For the pilgrim leading this adventure, the answer is yes. But first, he needs to be put through the ringer. “What’s the point of all this voodoo?” someone chuckles nervously while the primitive voices chant through the tail end of ‘Under Review.’ “I want rock and roll.” Rock and roll is on the way. But first let’s get back to the important matters everyone wants to read about. If we push all mysteries having to do with ourselves to the side and into a box labeled “esotericism,” then it’s easy to judge it as the collected delusions of malcontents who can’t take the challenge of living in the so-called real world. It’s true that talking about this stuff is problematic. If we have a genuine interest in what is regarded as esoteric, we can’t just come out and say so. People will think we are flakey, soft in the head, or in the grip of delusions. Bob approaches the topic in a playful, childlike, and sometimes irreverent way. In this way he avoids the snags less creative people get caught in when they attempt to express an interest in spiritual matters. Sometimes language is not the best way to explore a mystery. Sounds and images can also be helpful. The instrumental title track of this album is an example of a musical illustration. Both the album cover and the inner sleeve image are visual illustrations. On the inner sleeve you’ll see a picture of a smiling young woman resting among wild-

105


Circus Devils: See You Inside

flowers in a pristine meadow. In the background we see a bright blue sky above and a white-capped ocean below. In the top corner is a Roman numeral IX. This picture is a cool-colored counterpoint to Bob’s starkly arresting front cover image showing the big red skull. Everything in the picture is a code. But so is everything else you see each day as the world meets your eye, so long as you intend to see the connections. Along Ataxia inner sleeve with using music and words to create specific moods, pictures like these can also serve to communicate things and make unconscious connections. There is no correct or wrong way to interpret what’s going on. It’s enough just to take it in, and allow it to work on you in the way it works, which will not be the way it works on the next person. Now, on to practical matters. Tim was back on board, and gave us the psychedelic thumper ‘Get Me Extra,’ which Bob turned into one of our most wonderfully crazed moments. Tim also gave us music for two of the more instantly likeable tracks on the album; ‘Mayflower Brought Disease,’ and ‘He Had All Day.’ For me, ‘He Had All Day’ became the album’s emotional high point, reinforcing that empathy with the story’s hero mentioned before. As a listener, I need ‘He Had All Day’ to open the clouds for a moment and hit me with a ray of sunshine before returning back to the danger.

106


Ataxia

At the mixing board at Waterloo Sound, 2007

Tracking guitars 107


Circus Devils: See You Inside

In the music workshop, I decided to begin with drums this time, using a 4-track cassette recorder - one track for bass drum, one for snare, and two tracks for room microphones. My aim was to achieve a spare, compressed sound, something less open and natural sounding than the drums on Sgt. Disco. The result was a claustrophobic drum sound that compliments the claustrophobic adventure. After pressing the ‘record’ button on the 4-track and bashing away at the drum kit with no real purpose, I took the drum skeletons I’d collected and transferred them to the digital recorder. From there I filled in guitars for the songs ‘I Razors,’ ‘Backwash Television’ and ‘Stars Stripes and Crack Pipes.’ The song ‘Freedom’s Monster’ also began with a drum track, but instead of proceeding with guitar, I built it up with interweaving percussion, distorted keyboards and homemade samples. Among these was a sample of a wood block slowed way down in pitch, then multiplied several times over, creating what sounds to me like wooden statues clapping their hands. The same sound can be heard on the songs ‘Dolphins Of Color’ and ‘Pledge.’ The frenzied atmosphere of the song ‘I Razors’ was a happy surprise. I’m not a spaz by nature so I can’t explain what got into me. This is rock and roll delirium, marking the hero’s first plunge into the underworld. I enjoy Bob’s offhand swagger as he delivers the lyrics “Screw blue you. Forty years of blowing glass eyes . . .” ‘I found The Black Mind’ and ‘Lunatic Style’ began as brooding, atmospheric pieces that might have felt at home on the Five album. With Bob’s soliloquies added in, they take on a chilling quality that brings to mind something out of H.P. Lovecraft. The instrumental title track was assembled using two identical loops containing a series of notes played on a harp. It begins in a vaguely pleasant way, but soon enough the unfriendly forces creep in to gain a foothold, marking the plunge into the darkest portion of the album.

108


Ataxia

The remainder of the album’s music came from keyboard and homemade sample sources; some note-based and some percussion-based. ‘Hi, I’m Martha, How Are You?’ began with the descending jungle drum loop. ‘Nets At Every Angle’ and ‘The Girls Will Make It Happen’ are examples of starting with free-form ideas on the keyboard, and then building up the remaining tracks around the keyboard parts later on. The rolling undercurrent on ‘Nets At Every Angle’ was done with the unwitting help of Tony Iommi. In each case making the music was a building process, laying on different sounds over a foundation and seeing what might stick. The exciting thing was using multiple types of foundations as starting points, including drums, guitars, samples or keyboard riffs. As with Sgt. Disco and Harold Pig, Bob came to the vocal recording session with most of his melodies and phrasings prepared. Sometimes he would listen back to a cassette tape containing his melodies recorded at home and reproduce them line by line in the studio. The focus and deliberation in Bob’s vocal performances reinforced the deliberation and tightness in the music. The result was a kind of meanness, along with a sense of gravity, focus and purpose. The spirit Bob brought to the album is relentless and completely self-assured. For me, recording the vocal session was like being a technician in Doctor Moreau’s laboratory and watching the animals being turned into human beings – the “animals” here being the music tracks. Maybe it wasn’t quite so intense, but sometimes it freaked me out a little, and always in a good way. Like ‘Freedom’s Monster,’ ‘Fuzz In the Street’ began with a percussion bottom track, with the big guitar chords laid on afterward. I wanted the end of this song to mark a big, dramatic moment, with the action coming to rest after a build-up and crashing finale. Keeping in mind the introduction of ‘Under Review’ and Bob’s

109


Circus Devils: See You Inside

title Ataxia, that big crash might signify the liberating moment of breakthrough that comes at the end of the struggle. Now that he’s fought his way through the ordeal, the pilgrim returns to the surface to repeat what he said at the outset; “I’m up, I’m up,” he says. But this time he omits the word “fucking.” Wherever the pilgrim finds himself at the end, he is wide awake now, newly energized, unburdened and ready to get on with things. In contrast to the grim finale of Sgt. Disco, the finale of Ataxia is a happy one. As we wait for what comes next, we hear the voice of a craven child ask “Where did they go?” A nearby companion who is in the know answers back. “They went away. They want nothing to do with you.” The pilgrim has moved on to higher ground, leaving his demon tormentor behind. The demon who once seemed so terrible and forbidding has been uncovered. Exposed in the true light of understanding, he is nothing but a pathetic child trembling in fear – the true father of civilization. At the album’s tail end comes the slight surprise of ‘Rat Faced Ballerina.’ I call this type of song a “mountaintop song” because Bob seems to be the lonely figure calling out over the land. The pilgrim has broken through to the far side of the barriers that have held him captive. It’s time for a celebration, but he’s alone on the mountaintop. He’s probably just happy to be there, or maybe he knows we’re all watching and listening, so he’s keen on belting out his song. If the lyric does not directly reflect the glow of liberation arrived at in the finale of ‘Fuzz In The Street,’ then it does so indirectly. The automatic, lonely guitar and the gusto in Bob’s performance also mark a fresh start. After receiving the news that Ataxia would not be released by Ipe-

110


Ataxia

cac, and that we were being dropped from the label, I considered giving circus devils a rest – maybe a permanent rest. I even consoled myself with the thought that we’d made our best album, and weren’t likely to do any better. After all it’s never a bad idea to stop while you’re ahead. Then I realized that topping ourselves wasn’t the point. We may not have been able to do better than Ataxia in the future, but we could do something different. As long as things remained fresh, I was up for more. Bob has mentioned a few times that Ataxia is his favorite Circus Devils record.

Circus Devils promo shot taken for Ipecac Records, before the label dropped us (photo by Rich Turiel) 111


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Gringo

GRINGO (2009)

“Circus Devils became more than just a band to me through my coming-of-age years (16 to 23). It quite literally led to a call-to-adventure that got me out of my hometown and out into the world.” - Cal McNamara “Don’t you live on your neighbor’s garden” - from ‘When The Beast Falls Down’ “Come out to me in sing song. Me out to you in all take blues of children and women in ecstasy screaming come out to me. You’ll see.” -from ‘Letters From A Witch’ “Stars on all night to see where you are, you don’t have a fight. Down every road where nothing can go, you don’t have a ride.” -from ‘Stars On All Night’

113


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Bob had made a collage titled Gringo, which would become our 2009 album’s front cover. It showed a seated figure viewed from behind wrapped in a poncho or blanket. In the top left corner, a cut and paste sun of many colors (dominated by black) shines down – the focus of the figure’s gaze. The sun as reachable object serves as a symbol of the Gringo’s aspiration to reach the impossible – something we can all relate to. As I recall, Bob showed me this image before the recording was under way. Some years later he offered me the original framed art as a gift, which was very good of him. I now have it on the wall in my basement studio. The image and its title made our next steps clear. The way to change things up this time was to go acoustic. Strumming on acoustic guitars was a sure way to make people understand that we really weren’t warlocks and actually understood what real music was about. This was a tall order for Circus Devils, considering what we’d done so far. I did put an effort into making music that was more gentle and friendly, but there was no strain that came with the shift in style and mood. When Gringo was in the bag I thought we’d succeeded at making an album that went down easy. We might even have succeeded at astonishing a music critic or two who had previously written off Circus Devils as a novelty. That, as it happened, was wishful thinking. Once again the reaction was more head scratching. If unpredictability itself were attention-grabbing, we might have been tempted to follow Gringo with a metal album, followed by folk and country albums. But becoming a musical chameleon can be a trap in itself. I didn’t want to follow any directives, including the directive to do something unexpected. So instead of attempting to top ourselves with something even more uncharacteristic, we went back to be-

114


Gringo

ing ourselves. The result was a string of albums (Mother Skinny, Capsized!, When Machines Attack and Escape) that found us in the Circus Devils comfort zone, doing whatever felt right to us at the moment. Happily, we discovered that even without making a special effort to change things up, each of the records we made had its own distinct personality. Gringo, however, was a willful detour into the land of “What if?” What if we could make songs that girls liked? A question like this was none of Bob’s concern so far as I knew. But I thought plenty about it as I picked up the guitar and began recording for the new album. The music, as informed by the title Gringo and Bob’s impressionistic album cover image, conjured wide-open spaces, stark landscapes and unforgiving light and heat. While we made no outright attempt to copy Ennio Morricone, something of the flavor of his music might have seeped into the album. Musically speaking, it was an exercise in acoustic guitar, and a stab at old-fashioned musicianship using more conventional chords and melodies. Once again the first go-to machine in the toolbox was the cassette 4 track recorder, but this time instead of starting with drums, I laid down acoustic guitars. Tim did the same independently, coming up with the core acoustic guitar tracks on the songs ‘Witness Hill,’ ‘Bad Baby Blue,’ ‘Letters From a Witch,’ ‘Hot Water Wine,’ and ‘Ants.’ Unlike my clean, pure-sounding guitar, Tim’s guitar on this album has a rough edge. For ‘Bad Baby Blue’ he ran the microphone that picked up his acoustic guitar into a fuzz box to nasty it up.

115


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Among the music I recorded on my own were the more melancholy pieces ‘Ships From Prison To Prison,’ ‘Monkey Head,’ ‘Before It Walks,’ ‘When The Beast Falls Down,’ ‘Arizona Blacktop Company,’ and ‘Stars On All Night.’ On an upbeat note, there was ‘In Your Hour of Rescue,’ providing a needed moment of levity thanks to Bob’s lyrics (“Are you protected by the protection man?”). While my pieces were clean-sounding and mostly sober and austere in mood, Tim’s pieces were playful, earthy, drunken and raw. The internal tension between Tim’s rough-edged music and my refined sounds helped to give the album a sonic breadth and richness that would have been absent had only one of us been contributing the music. I haven’t yet directly addressed the fact that almost all of Circus Devils’ music was played by one guy, or sometimes two guys, but not in the same room or on the same day. Saying so may be disappointing, or come as a happy surprise, depending how you look at it. Providing the illusion of a performance by an actual band was something I aspired to. Never being lauded for our ability to pull this off was okay, so long as nobody called us out, saying that it sounded as if one guy were playing all the instruments. A comment like that would have taken the wind out of my sails. Tim at Waterloo Sound

116


Gringo

Bob had recently turned me onto Genesis – a band whose history I’d overlooked because I wasn’t a fan of the Phil Collins fronted band. I was only vaguely aware of the old Genesis since they were never played on FM radio; my only source of music during most of the 1970s. So as an adult, discovering this adventurous music was a revelation. The song ‘Monkey Head’ was my effort to achieve a dramatic effect similar to that heard on the Genesis song ‘The Musical Box.’ Bob’s ability to jump on a piece of music like this and give it a sense of gravity was an inspiration. The earthy, elemental nature of the music begged for analog tape. Once I had all the acoustic guitar sources ready on cassette, I transferred them to a Teac ½-inch 8-track tape machine (not to be confused with my ¼-inch Fostex 8 track machine). As a trivial aside, this Teac machine was the same model used by the band Boston to record their first album. The main acoustic guitar was assigned to track 6 (I’m not sure why it was 6, it just seemed like a good place to put it), or tracks #6 and #7 if the guitars were doubled. The remainder of the recording went forward, with all the other instruments added one at a time on the remaining 6 or 7 tracks. As I did on the Harold Pig and Pinball Mars recordings, when using the Fostex machine, I used 3 tracks total for the drums. This was done by putting the bass drum on track #1, then mixing all the rest of the drums into a stereo signal going to tracks 3 and 4. Having the bass drum isolated on its own track was more important to me than having the snare isolated, let’s say. This left 3 or 4 tracks open for other instruments. Much care went into building and shaping the music, especially with the use of percussion and keyboards. A limited number of tracks on the tape meant that space had to be preserved for the vocals. But there was no more space. What to do?

117


Circus Devils: See You Inside

There is a certain texture and sonic “stickiness� in a tape recording that strikes and affects the brain in different ways than digital recordings do. In perceiving digital sound, the brain is fast enough to pick up on the non-natural and non-linear nature of the sound, but the ear is not. The result is a trick on the ear (but not the brain) and what amounts to a slightly different qualitative experience between digital listening and analog listening. I choose to hang on to the romantic idea that natural, analog sound is better at reaching the soul. That’s why having digitally-recorded albums released on vinyl was so important. We can all thank Bob for that.

In the control room at Waterloo Sound (photo by Scott Bennett)

A digital copy of an analog recording is still analog, so long as the digital resolution is high enough to convey the properties of the

118


Gringo

original analog sound (or so I tell myself ). On this album it was important to me that Bob’s vocal be recorded on tape. All of our records contain tape recordings at some stage, but somewhere along the way, the convenience of the digital recorder (an Alesis HD24) made it a necessary tool. I was fine with recording music on the tape machine, but for vocals it proved too cumbersome. What with all his other recording projects giving us hours of practice, Bob and I had developed an efficient method of punching in vocal corrections on the digital recorder. Sometimes there were Circus Devils vocal recording sessions that lasted no more than a couple of hours, thanks to the speed of digital recording. According to my optimistic theory, a digital recording can be reverted back to analog if transferred to tape, which does in fact have a smoothing and smearing effect on the digital wave-form thanks to the natural compression and distortion that tape provides. So that was the plan – to transfer Bob’s digitally recorded vocals back to a fresh roll of tape. This meant doing a separate music mix without the vocals, then blending the vocals with the music later on. The results were happy, and the album has all the warmth and texture that analog sound is supposed to have. For the music on this album especially, the ½-inch tape was the perfect match. ‘Every Moment Flame On’ has a breezy, 1970s soft rock vibe without sounding like anything from the 70s in particular. The instrumental solo was done on a piano processed with a chorus effect – my attempt to emulate the sound of the melodic piano heard in the song ‘Childrens’ Games’ by Antonio Carlos Jobim. The foundational loop in ‘Every Moment Flame On’ came from a piece of tape containing acoustic guitar, but I can’t remember who played the original finger-plucked phrase.

119


Circus Devils: See You Inside

I always enjoy working with a fixed, unchanging bed of music, such as a drone or loop, and then build upon it, so the final result is much richer than the fixed element itself. ‘Easy Baby’ and ‘Gasoline Drinkers’ are two other examples of using a repeating loop as a foundation upon which a dynamic, shifting piece of music was built. As usual Bob injected a soul into the music, bringing it to life by providing the inner voice of the Gringo. Once again there is a full gamut of emotions here, from unfettered exuberance to menace and melancholy. We get up close and personal with the Gringo, Bob at the microphones tuning in to his thoughts, feelings, memories, worries, hopes and regrets, all provided by the impressionistic radio receiver of Bob’s imagination. You can tell Bob has real empathy for the Gringo, and that’s what gives the album its soft glow of tragedy. This is saying something because it’s not customary for Bob to use confessional emotionalism in his songs. Somehow he manages to do it here, while maintaining his oblique aim at the heart. Once the mixing was done and I began to sequence the album, the songs came into focus as snapshots in the life of the Gringo. As I interpret things, the setting is the American Southwest in the early to middle 1970s. The Gringo is a dreamer and an outsider who can’t find his way in. He’s a larger-than-life sort of person stuck in a tiny world – bursting with energy, but unable to focus it and get

120


Gringo

his act together while buzzing from one fuck-up to the next. Something is missing in the Gringo’s emotional make-up – something that might have tempered his troubles and afforded him some stability. Maybe there were traumas suffered in childhood, or maybe he’s built up a store of guilt that he’s afraid to confront. Unfortunately he is unable to discover his own blind spot, and nobody cuts him a break. Along the way he gets mixed The Gringo’s first family photo up with some shady characters reveals signs of early trouble of both sexes, and can’t see his way free. In between his struggles and snags, he finds moments of tranquility and sad repose. In the end, the Gringo flames out into the sunset, refusing to go quietly. The instrumental ‘Yellow Cloud’ is his elegy. Gringo is an album I feel warmly toward. I like its big personality, and the way it manages to be mysterious and friendly at the same time. Had the album received more attention and served to break the ice with potential fans, I might have been inspired to carry on in a gentler musical direction. Instead, it was back to the factory, and another deep dive into the lower depths, where we dragged up something called Mother Skinny.

121


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Mother Skinny

MOTHER SKINNY (2010)

“Circus Devils is fun” -Robert Pollard “Kingdoms of Korea. To first born, angels sing. To my garden, a peacock. To my whore’s tongue, a lie. And whisper away dragons. In dead of gold not flashing. For dread of teeth and gnashing” - from ‘Kingdoms Of Korea’ “All the good ones are gone. Risen to the grace light of aerial forgiveness. Go ahead, they’re waiting. Forget your shiny apple, there’s no teacher” -from ‘All The Good Ones Are Gone’

123


Circus Devils: See You Inside

I think of Mother Skinny as the mad cousin of Ataxia (or the madder cousin, let’s say). Like that earlier album, Mother Skinny also tracks a figurative subterranean adventure, but the terms are more impersonal this time. Again, these are my own impressions, and not meant to serve as any definitive guide. As with Ataxia, this album conjures in my mind a sort of initiation – the sort of initiation that was once commonplace in the days of ancient Greece, where a hapless youngster would be drugged with herbal preparations, then placed unconscious into subterranean chambers, where he would then wake up in perfect darkness, in a state of complete disorientation and terror. All this was done in preparation for a symbolic death lasting three days, in which elders of the mystery schools would have great fun dressing up as spirit-beings and half-animals and basically go to work scaring the shit out of the poor kid, subjecting him to gauntlets and mad rituals where demons and gods vied for possession of his soul – the soul being that “far out” thing he carries with him underground, as mentioned in the opening track ‘Sub Rat.’ After the three day mock “death,” and the confrontation with his deepest fears, the young initiate would then be lifted out of the bowels of the earth– symbolically reborn and resurrected back into the light of the sun, in an age-old ceremony that has since been lost to us. After taking the solemn ‘Pledge,’ the initiate would then be urged to ‘Shut Up’ about what has happened to him . . . if he knows what’s good for him. Following his ordeal, getting back to his “home town” (ie: his carefree, comfortable life before the initiation) has been rendered impossible. If the above description sounds to you like a bunch of far-reaching nonsense, we can at least agree that outside the context of Circus Devils, Mother Skinny is pretty weird.

124


Mother Skinny

In another sort of world, as we say when we want to justify the existence of something unusual and destined for obscurity, Mother Skinny would simultaneously make the list of the top 50 weirdest, scariest and funniest albums ever. It’s at least as weird as Lumpy Gravy or Locust Abortion Technician – two albums that made the official top weirdest Inner sleeve detail, Mother Skinny list compiled by Mojo. Getting a handle on Mother Skinny is difficult. It comes off as a sort of wild beast that can’t be tamed, so maybe we shouldn’t try. I’ve described the music here as art rock made by mushroom-eating cavemen. As far as my own experience goes, the careful crafting of the delicate music on the Gringo album left me anxious to bash on the drums again. The same went for Tim on the guitar, as we hear on the songs ‘Wolfman Chords,’ ‘Hard Art,’ and ‘A Living Necklace Of Warts.’ As a listener to Mother Skinny, I picture myself hoisted aloft on an ancient-Egyptian style sedan chair, sitting atop the shoulders of a gang of surly, muscle-bound gnomes who usher me below ground and through a series of subterranean chambers, where we stop to enjoy the fun on the way to our final destination: the lair of Mother Skinny. Let’s switch the point of view to include you. Once you’re below ground, you’re told about a lurking insect. Next you’re amongst drooling, half-human monsters at play. Someone mentions pinching and liking it done hard. By now you’ve caught on that reas-

125


Circus Devils: See You Inside

surance and comfort are not the themes here. Whoever or whatever has cornered you, he or it is not prepared to take no for an answer. The topic of hardness continues on ‘Hard Art (Hard All Day).’ The Devo-esque ‘Get On It’ offers no let up on the harassment. After war is made fun in the musical romper room of ‘His Troops Are Loyal,’ a priCover for the ‘Mother Skinny’ 7-inch single; available only in North Korea mordial beast emerges from some deep, ancient mud and morphs into ‘Kingdoms Of Korea,’ before slinking back down to the depths again. ‘Bam Bam Bam’ is the hit single and for a moment the madness turns exuberant. The monsters return in ‘The Germ Circus’ to eat up all the kids, and on the final song on side one, the monster takes a new tack, enticing you with the promise of loving you with all eight of its legs. Are you still resisting? Why not give it a go? It can’t be all bad . . . can it? On side two, the sunlight is nowhere in sight as you’re taken deeper into places which offer no frame of reference. All you can do is keep alert and do your best to remain seated in the sedan chair while the vertebrae in your spine fuse Unused inner sleeve detail, perhaps best left together. The next thing unseen. Original title: “Son of Mother Skinny.” 126


Mother Skinny

you know, you’re in the lap of your hostess, Mother Skinny herself. Then, just as things turn truly dark, suddenly you find yourself back above ground, experiencing a shower of sunlight. ‘All The Good Ones Are Gone’ offers Bob’s most transparent take on the topic of esotericism, indirectly expressing his bemusement at the notion that the true goal of spirituality is to reach some ultimate stage of enlightenment where every last human struggle and aspiration is abandoned. It’s the old dilemma of coming up against the limits of imagination while struggling to fit the idea of eternity into a time-bound box to be stored on the shelf inside the structure of a time-bound consciousness. In the context of this world, what are the members of this club of goody-goodies allowed to do, having been perfected by the trials and tests of their earthbound lives? Under the grace-light of paradise, not even a game of chess would be permitted to ease the boredom, unless the rules were somehow changed to let everyone win. Otherwise a selfish impulse to be the victor might creep in and stain the picture, marking the end of holy perfection. But that’s nothing for us to worry about, at least not yet. In any case, I’m sure the actual holy truth renders all our efforts to reach it unworthy. Mother Skinny’s scariest song – arguably our all-time scariest – is the title track. The music was born from a guitar refrain from Tim that I slowed down to a glacial speed and reinforced with homemade samples. I thought the music was scary enough. But then I heard Bob deliver his vocal in that demented quasi-child’s voice. “Mother Skinny has extra skin. Why?” “Good lord,” I thought while listening at the mixing board, then I quickly broke up laughing.

127


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Cory Race as Mother Skinny, from the music video of the same name

Bob’s habit was to come up on a weekday afternoon to record his vocals on short notice, so Tim was usually not able to attend. This time, however, Tim had the chance to drop by for the vocal session. As usual there were smiles and laughter in the control room as we witnessed Bob give Mother Skinny its final shape, harnessing the naked energy of the music and wrestling it into something even madder than we could have expected. I might tell you to avoid the underground worlds of Mother Skinny if the songs weren’t cool and exciting, but I think they are. I remember reading album reviews and hoping to find a writer whose conclusion was that “getting it” and “enjoying it” were beside the point. Instead, the album was called “painfully obtuse and instantly forgettable,” “vision-less,” “rampantly self-indulgent,” “a

128


Mother Skinny

cartoonish disfiguration of music,” and . . . wait for it, “incoherent.” One traumatized reviewer described the album as “curiously uncreative.” (shrug) Not since The Harold Pig Memorial had we done a properly themed concept album. A nautical theme had popped up in Bob’s lyrics as early as Sgt. Disco with ‘Nicky Highpockets,’ and again on this album’s side two opener, ’17 Days On The Pole;’ a song sung by the ghost of a sailor who finds himself frozen to death in the ship’s crow’s nest. On our next album Capsized!, Bob would bring us the full story of Nicky and his ill-fated crewmates.

129


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Capsized!

CAPSIZED! (2011)

“Circus Devils is a living creature that exists in a realm that allowed it to keep moving forward and exploring its surroundings instead of being trapped inside a terrarium of ideas. Much like the ant will never understand the stomp of the boot, the listener will never fully understand the logic, purpose, and meaning of the creature. It’s the rarest occasion in art that allows you to truly, freely, wonder. It’s the musical equivalent of discovering a door in your bedroom you never knew existed.” - Tynan Cooney “Capsized! When your sugar bowl is empty, when your frog-eye is fogged in the crystal lined Finders’ Museum” - Capsized! “Our sanguine odyssey is full speed ahead. Release our seed at nonstop throttle” -from ‘Cyclopean Runways’

131


Circus Devils: See You Inside

“It’s such a coffin sailboat every day” -from ‘Legendary Breakfast Code’ “Past midnight. Moon is very bright. Suddenly a man comes out, and he wants your eyes” -from ‘Henry Loop’

Bob had not announced a theme or concept at the time I was recording for Capsized!, so I assume the finished music we sent him prompted the development of his seafaring theme – in particular the music that became the opening instrumental ‘To England The Tigers.’ If this is wrong, and Bob had the theme worked out beforehand, then it was a surprising case of creative synchronicity. The story is nautical gothic, detailing the troubled journey of a ship’s crew by way of expressionistic vignettes. We can tell things aren’t going well for the crew, but as to exactly what’s gone wrong it’s anyone’s guess. Time in this story is bent with flashbacks, some flashes going way back, perhaps to a previous century. For the listener who wants to go in deep, and believes there are clues to find and threads to follow, Capsized! is cinema for the ears.

132


Capsized!

As on Gringo, the music I wrote for Capsized! was sharply focused, sometimes austere and sometimes pretty. This was in contrast to Tim’s drunken counterpoint and gritty below-deck atmospheres on songs like ‘Nully Skully’ and ‘Double Vission.’ The voyage begins on a high note with the Tigers under way to England. The title track, with its jack-in-the-box menace (played on an actual jack in the box), smacks us in the face after we’ve been lulled atop a gently rolling sea. ‘Capsized!’ the song, forcefully hints at the travails ahead, but the crew is oblivious at this point. The conspicuously conventional pop nugget ‘Cyclopean Runways’ finds the Tigers riding high across the cold, deep, dark Atlantic – the song serving as a bracing wind at their backs. As I listened to the playback of Bob’s vocal in the studio, I noticed something missing in the chorus of ‘Cyclopean Runways.’ Instead of asking Bob to perform the Abba-style background “aahs” that I was hearing in my head, I had him sing a series of notes in the “aah” shape, which I recorded, then transferred to the sampler. With the various notes assigned to different keys on the keyboard, I was able to ‘play’ the backup vocal part in the chorus using Bob’s own voice without him actually performing it. It was a labor-intensive trick, but it gave the song the final push where it needed to go. Had the song been recorded in the early 1970s it might have been an AM radio hit.

133


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Video still from ‘Cyclopean Runways’

‘Legendary Breakfast Code’ marks the crew’s first wistful signs of homesickness. This song, along with ‘Plate of Scales’ and the album-ending instrumental ‘Safe On a Vegetable,’ were the product of a single recording session where I used an especially fortunate collection of equipment. First was an old Ampeg tube amp which had once been used (and abused) in a Guided By Voices studio session. The “amp drop” as Bob called it, was achieved by literally lifting up the amplifier and dropping it onto the floor with a crash, resulting in a big splash of spring reverb. This amplifier belonged to Scott Bennett (owner of Waterloo Sound), who might have had second thoughts about having his equipment treated this way. Anyway, that amp had a distinctive sound, perhaps caused by the abuse just described. To my ears it was a midrange-heavy sound, but not in a good way, so I rarely used it.

134


Capsized!

Capsized! hardware. Left to right; Chris Sheehan’s “no-name” hollow body guitar with flat-wound strings, the black Hagstrom guitar used all over Circus Devils, Todd’s drumset, and Scott Bennet’s “dropped amp”

One day, just for the heck of it, I plugged a guitar into that amp – a guitar that Chris Sheehan (of The Celebrity Pilots) had left lying about the studio, and wow - the sound had a presence, breadth and clarity that I needed to get down on tape. Then I realized the guitar was strung with flat-wound strings; a type of smooth string rarely used by electric guitar players, at least not in my experience. But the real surprise of that tracking session was the bass guitar sound. As always, I used the Fender Precision, but instead of playing it plugged directly into a preamp, I used a Fender Bassman amp head driving a small cabinet with a single 12-inch speaker. The speaker cone was ripped, giving the bass a warm, growly texture. When mic’d up with a sennheiser 421 and put through my Traynor spring reverb, the result was bass guitar magic. The tone can be heard clearly in ‘Safe On A Vegetable.’ Sadly the fortunate combination of sounds from this session was not to be replicated in the future. Shortly thereafter, the Bassman amp head was removed by its owner, and the speaker cabinet’s ripped cone came completely apart, rendering it useless. Nonetheless I’m thankful it happened, if only on that one session and for those three songs.

135


Circus Devils: See You Inside

On a performance note, the songs ‘Cyclopean Runways’ and ‘Legendary Breakfast Code’ contain the only two guitar solos I’ve performed that I’m proud of on account of their simple elegance. Just as we’ve settled into a friendly, relaxing, 1970’s soft rock groove on ‘Legendary Breakfast Code,’ we’re suddenly cast into the deep end of some ebullient madness with ‘Nully Skully.’ The celebratory vibe here brings to mind prancing deck hands drunk on grog. In ‘Aerial Poop Show,’ the astonishing (and fragrant) mid-air theatrics are left to the listener’s imagination. By now we suspect something unnatural is afoot. From here the story takes on the slight flavor of an H.P. Lovecraft story, with the beleaguered crew suffering madness and bodily discomfort. The person, ghost, monster, dark force or stash of bad soup responsible for their torments goes unnamed. The pensive, pounding beats of ‘Hangerman Suits’ (a personal favorite), and ‘Leave The Knife Curtis,’ and the eye-shifting disquiet in ‘Vampire Playing A Red Piano’ leave us with no doubt that the crew is struggling under some dizzying sickness of the mind or perhaps the soul. “Those boxes over there contain paralyzing secrets.” Who is saying this, and how do they know? “I’ll open them all,” says a curious onlooker. “One box contains a film: vampire playing a red piano. One says senseless. One is for passion and persuasion. One is marked ‘Give me the word.’ One has the book of the wet raven’s forlorn hope. One is empty. Which one is for you?” The present moment seems to be phasing in and out with some distant period in time – perhaps a time when the same ship’s crew

136


Capsized!

were together before, sharing a past life and a past adventure, fated to be repeated throughout time. Might the dead sailor who sings ‘17 Days On The Pole’ from the Mother Skinny album be a member of that lost crew? Maybe his ghost is the one who brings those boxes on the floor to the other mens’ attention. I wanted to make a Quay Brothers-style film short for ‘Vampire Playing A Red Piano,’ but it proved too ambitious. The image of the black-caped vampire seated at the red piano, busy soothing himself with somber music, is an image I believe most people will conjure in their mind when they see the title and hear the song. I rarely used movie-style sound effects to help bring a track to life for fear of making it sound tacky or overcooked. But there were two songs on Capsized! that begged for it. For ‘Vampire Playing a Red Piano,’ I added in the sounds of a sailing ship’s creaky boards and the gentle lapping of swash on the ship’s hull, compliments of the BBC sound library. In ‘Double Vission,’ Bob’s astonishing performance as a beleaguered crewman who suffers a violent stomach upset, would be enhanced by the sounds of hurled vomit. This time the sound effect was done in house. At first I wasn’t sure about the need to make things so vivid and lifelike, but eventually I said to hell with it and made some runny oatmeal and recorded the oats being dumped into a bucket of water. On the initial trial run I simply recorded cups of water being dumped into the bucket, but the sound wasn’t convincing. It needed thickening, I decided. It lacked a certain lumpiness. Speaking of sound effects, I might have had a field day with ‘Aerial Poop Show,’ but I kept myself in check. On the quasi-instrumental ‘What Wallace?’ the garbled chanting suggests that Wallace has undergone a serious change. The transformation might explain why the ship’s tainted food doesn’t seem to affect him. To me the sound brings to mind the warbling of

137


Circus Devils: See You Inside

confused souls trapped in the depths of Davey Jones’ locker. ‘Plate Of Scales’ finds the crew stuck in the doldrums, and one crewman falling prey to claustrophobia and more digestive unrest. On ‘Siren,’ Tim makes his second Circus Devils vocal appearance (after ‘We taught Them Rock and Roll’), singing lines he contributed himself: “Not of heaven, not of hell. So we threw it down the well.”

Stills from the Henry Loop music video

‘Henry Loop’ marks the album’s dramatic high point, as the shipboard ghost is determined to get back his lost eyes, even if it means stealing a pair of fresh ones from a living man. To me this song brings to mind old black and white horror movies from the 1930s. ‘Stiffs On Parade’ brings more ghosts on deck as the past merges with the present. One image Bob conjures shows the men dancing in the moonlight with the ghost of Nicky Highpockets, who first introduced himself on the Sgt. Disco album. If the threads of the tale haven’t already been spun by the fates, then what was it that happened on board the ship to cause the dark enchantment? Has the ship struck an iceberg and capsized as the title suggests, only the sailors failed to notice, carrying on as a crew of ghosts? Does the cargo hold carry a cursed object or some bewitched stowaway? Is a tainted batch of soup behind all the trouble? Or is it the eye-hunting Henry Loop? 138


Capsized!

Instead of getting a firm handle on things, we can enjoy the chance to seize upon sideways hints and to take small side-journeys of the mind. This is more fun, after all, than having the tale spelled out for us. Capsized! works, because of (and in spite of ) its glow of mystery, so long as you lower your rational defenses and allow the ghosts to come aboard. In ‘The Matter Of Being Good,’ what’s left of the crew is mustered and given a sharp talking to. The dark spell is broken. The ship is back on course. On ‘Gables Ear Wax;’ a slice of lean prog rock that blows in like a fresh breeze, the doom and dread is replaced by a cautious optimism. From here it’s smooth sailing to ‘The End Of The Swell;’ a song Bob seemed to know already before he heard the music, based on his free and easy melody. Finally, we’re sent off on a sentimental, nostalgic note with the low key instrumental ‘Safe On A Vegetable.’ Here I tried to achieve a Santo & Johnny vibe, only without the aid of a steel guitar. In spite of all the gloom and dark goings on, Capsized! manages to be an almost breezily enjoyable listen. Once again, Bob, Tim and I locked in together without ever speaking to each other about what we were doing. For me it marked a high point for us in terms of Bob’s ability to take a collection of mismatched, multicolored pieces of music and use it to conjure a self-contained world.

139


Circus Devils: See You Inside


When Machines Attack

WHEN MACHINES ATTACK (2013)

“With When Machines Attack, I entered the world of Circus Devils for good. The songs, all hits from a parallel universe, show, among other things, what can be accomplished with rhythm. As a fellow musician it’s very inspiring.” – Stefan Breuer (The World Of Dust) “The worst thing uncle Bob has done in a good long while” - Greg the music critic “Let us walk with monsters. Hand in hand. Arm in arms. Hands in arms. Heads in hands. Yes” -from ‘Let Us Walk With Monsters’ “Oh it may take weeks, and it may take years. But we’ll find the source of all human fears” from ‘Arrival At Low Volume Submarine’ “We shall soon discover where the trip leads, where the lip bleeds, why the tridents fly from the north. Life is an automatic golf course” -from ‘We Shall Soon Discover’

141


Circus Devils: See You Inside

A planet-wide invasion has taken place, but it’s no laughing matter. It’s not a big, noisy Hollywood-style invasion, but something more creeping and insidious. Those in the know see signs everywhere of some alien intelligence taking charge. Is it a homegrown invasion? Are the “machines” humans who have succumbed to technology? Or is this an alien intelligence – a case of some other civilization’s achievements in artificial intelligence gone wrong? This time the story is science fiction gothic, told from an array of perspectives, as if we’re hiding out in a bunker and adjusting the tuning knob on a shortwave radio dial and hitting upon forbidden frequencies. Tim and I agree that When Machines Attack is one of our best albums. I don’t often come back to it as a listener, probably because I like being surprised by it each time I do. The album has a special meanness to it. Even the funny songs are mean. The hard purpose at work feels effortless and organic. In other words, it’s not like the meanness of comic books or horror movies, where an effort is made by writers to produce an effect in the viewer. It’s the sort of meanness that never shows its hand – something similar to the sinister undertones that run through the movie The Wicker Man (1973). I’ve often thought of asking Bob what’s really going on here. The fact is, I think it’s more fun to put myself in the shoes of the listener and allow the lyrics to work on me without Bob’s help. This is what Bob’s lyrics provide; the opportunity for listeners to engage with themselves. If a real invasion of this kind were to happen, nobody would have the slightest clue about what was really going on. So in a way, the album is just being honest with you.

142


When Machines Attack

The world is in flux, with a new normal slowly taking shape – a new normal warped beyond all recognition from our point of view. Those of us who surrender to the new normal learn to “walk with monsters.” Is it better to fight and preserve what we once knew, or is it better to join the invaders? It’s a question left for each individual to answer. It appears to me as if much of the speaking here is done by the non-humans, who seem oddly human. Their mood is creepily celebratory. Is this the result of their discovery of us? Has something of ourselves rubbed off on them? Do the invaders mean to annihilate us and move along? Or have they set up permanent residence and established a bureaucracy? Do they mean to enslave us, destroy us, make us their entertainment, or make us their gods? Do they mean to teach us to become like them? Do they regard us with disdain, or have they learned to admire us? Have they grown jealous of us for the souls we possess, which they can only dream of having? Or are they themselves a species of alien soul born on a far off planet – a soul that is only adept at taking over and possessing our machinery? Are they a monolithic force, or have factions formed among them? Might a few of them suffer guilt at having destroyed their creators, and wish to become better-rounded individuals? The questions are endless, and for me personally, endless fun. Inner sleeve art, When Machines Attack

There is a hint of the machines becoming enchanted with humanity, and vice-versa. This is where the strangeness comes

143


Circus Devils: See You Inside

in. Might the machines take up the task of imagination, and eventually adopt a religion? Is it the case that the last frontier of imagination – including the artificially produced imagination of A.I. entities – is to reach a boundary line, beyond which is projected a “heavenly father,” or perhaps in this case a “heavenly programmer?” When Machines Attack brings to mind the everyday paranoia of the 1950s and early 1960s, when people dealt with the faceless threats of looming nuclear attack and the flying saucer scare, only here the dread has become institutionalized, as we hear expressed in ‘You’re Not a Police Car.’ The guy pictured on the album cover is doing his part to resist. He’s not waiting for news and instruction from the authorities. He knows the invisible enemy has already gained a firm foothold in his world. The album opens with the invasion already under way. In ‘Beyond The Sky’ we find ourselves in a sort of waiting room or bureaucratic office where a minder or operative gives a briefing. Is the speaker an invader or a human convert? The relentless music suggests movement and going places, but it’s really the sound of the alien mind translated into the human sphere, signifying for us nothing but futility and pointlessness. It isn’t long before the repetition turns menacing. What follows on the rest of the album, at least according to the movie playing in my head, is a kind of prolonged spasm as both humanity and the machines adjust to their new situation. As soon as we’re out of the office or processing station, we’re dropped into the passenger seat of a car whose driver can’t stop expressing his disbelief by speaking directly to the car behind him – not to the driver, but to the car itself which won’t leave him alone. “You’re not a police car!” he insists. “You’re not! You’re not!” he yells again

144


When Machines Attack

and again. Next you stumble out of the car and into a neighborhood of ‘segregated lots’ where fingers point, declaring you a “Bad Earthman.” What makes you “bad?” Only your “good” neighbors seem to know. From here there’s no way out of the Twilight Zone. In ‘Arrival At Low Volume Submarine,’ it seems the machines, who are able to survive in the vast frozen darkness of space between the stars, are huddled together and busy betraying their fascination for the pathetic, planet-bound humans they encounter. “Look at all the blood dummies!” they declare later on, speaking of us. “They have long lasting love.” This probably marks the farthest reach of Circus Devils’ horror/humor program, as the annihilation of mankind is observed taking place from the perspective of entities that regard the human soul as an object of fun and entertainment.

Tracking bass guitar in the new basement home studio (2012)

145


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Musically, the rhythmic exuberance going on here was prompted by an extended period I spent making percussion-based samples and loops. Some of the loops were rhythmic, but instead of using percussion sources, I used note-based sounds. An example of this can be heard on ‘Idiot Tree,’ where the rhythm is defined by a down-tuned electric guitar caught in a never-ending, rolling riff. The resulting texture is both organic-sounding and mechanical. Finding ways of blending acoustic drums with the loops was great fun. When it came time to flesh out the rhythmic song-beds with other instruments, the moods taking shape were both playful and unsettling. Examples include ‘Craftwork Man,’ ‘Let Us Walk With Monsters,’ and ‘We Shall Soon Discover.’ Tim’s music provided plenty of mood dynamics, with the plaintive pair of ‘Wizard Hat Lost in The Stars’ and ‘The Horrified Flower,’ along with the heavy rockers ‘Johnny Dart’ and ‘Centerverse,’ both of which began with Tim and I playing the basic drum/guitar tracks together – something rare for Circus Devils.

Steve Five as Carlo Sagan from ‘We’re Going Inside The Head (Of a Winner)’

146


When Machines Attack

If the sound on ‘Wizard Hat Lost In The Stars’ brings to mind early GBV, it was intended that way. I’ve never had a strong aesthetic attraction to lo-fi audio. But there are songs like this one where no other treatment works better. The introduction of the first movement of the three-part ‘We’re Going Inside The Head (Of A Winner)’ is a recording of a traditional Norwegian flute player warped by an effects processor called a vocoder. The resulting sound brings to mind the song of some giant, extinct bird. The heavy rock section, where “The Bubble King barely escapes” represents my attempt at heavy metal. The third movement brings us to the quiet, rural Midwestern home of George and Carol; a childless couple who’ve taken in a young nephew, whose name isn’t given. I picture the three of them figuratively huddled together as they pray for an end to the invasion. A pair of messages is received. One is for Carol (“Show me your lemon-pledged faith”), delivered by a gloating invader. The other message is for George, this time by telephone. The problem is, the phone that rings has been disconnected for months. The couple’s less than bright young nephew doesn’t know any better, and picks up. The impossible caller asks for George by name. “Uncle George!” the nephew calls. A sinking feeling seizes George’s stomach as he reaches for the receiver. Even before hearing the voice on the other end, George knows who’s called. A friendly, but mechanical-sounding voice informs him that his number is up. ‘Doberman Wasps’ is a slice of mean served up for anyone who still thinks they can hide. As we near the adventure’s end, ‘Centerverse’ contains an air of triumph. Someone is giving a serious testimonial here. In Centerverse there’s no need to “stray off the unbeaten path” as they face “un-endless possibilities.”

147


Circus Devils: See You Inside

On the penultimate track, who is it that sings “We Shall Soon Discover?” Is it a group of humans getting to the bottom of the danger they face, or is it the machines, getting to the bottom of the mysteries posed by human beings? The decidedly inhuman speaker on the final track (a reprise of ‘Beyond The Sky’) may provide an answer to the questions, if only we could decipher his garbled mechanical language and get at the message. At any rate, the very nature of this broadcast does not bode well for humanity. This time I think we reached another high mark in terms of Bob’s fabulism as well as our locking into a musical zone that helped serve the story. The alarming assurance in Bob’s vocals suggests he’s speaking directly from inside the world the album describes. The illusion can sometimes be disconcerting, which only helps to heighten the effect. An album like this one confirmed my belief in Circus Devils as a maker of story-worlds in music form. Here the illusion is complete – the seal is airtight on the world it contains. Part of what makes it a fun place to visit is the relief of getting back out again. Some of us will appreciate the chance to drill in preparation for the real invasion that’s coming. The album we released jointly with When Machines Attack in 2013 had an altogether different character thanks to a new songwriting method. More about this in the next chapter.

148


When Machines Attack

149


Circus Devils: See You Inside


My Mind Has Seen The White Trick

MY MIND HAS SEEN THE WHITE TRICK (2013) “Stop floating. You’ll float out of reach. I’m sorry I said “good job.” It was just a figure of speech” -from ‘Stop Floating’ “We’re making breakfast food for hungry nuns, dog meat de-boned to dust. Come in get stoned with us.” -from ‘Subway To Human Nature’ “I’ve got to find the nimbling Jewel rivers in Eddie’s mind . . . and cross them.“ -from ‘Eddie’s Derangement’

151


Circus Devils: See You Inside

My Mind Has Seen The White Trick is not just a strange album in a general sense. It’s also strange inside the world of Circus Devils. Most of the time the band is inviting you to enter a story-world. But this time it’s Circus Devils about town. Or maybe it’s the Circus Devils Road Show. As part of the traveling carnival, there is one tent unlike all the others. First you notice how small it is, barely big enough to admit a single person it seems. Also, there’s no barker standing outside, bidding you to enter. This fact alone draws your attention to the tent. Over the tent’s entrance you see an insignia – a symbol that shows what appears to be a creature with a snake’s body and a lion’s head. Surrounding the lion’s head is a solar crown, or intense aura of some kind. On one side of the figure is a crescent moon. On the other side a shining sun. As you pass by the tent, half-pretending not to take notice, your gaze fixes upon the symbol. You are curious, but apprehensive. Is it an exotic fortune-teller of some kind? As you take hesitant steps closer to the tent, suddenly a small man with an unusually large head and wearing a pointy hat jumps out from inside, startling you. The sudden appearance of this living Jack-in-the-box might have frightened you off, but instead you stand still, too stubbornly curious to move away. “One at a time!” the pinched-face little man yells in a shrill voice before ducking back inside. Wide-eyed, you look around, but no one else has noticed the commotion. It’s only you standing there. While waiting your turn to enter, you watch the person who’s gone in ahead of you, now exiting the tent. She looks vaguely stunned, but unharmed. When her eyes catch yours, she suddenly breaks up laughing. As she walks off to rejoin the crowds, you look down to see the little man, now smiling at you as he gestures, bidding you to enter.

152


My Mind Has Seen The White Trick

In every town it’s a different presentation, but there is always the same strict rule; one patron at a time. And no cameras. There’s a down-to-earth explanation for why My Mind Has Seen The White Trick is oddly unlike our other records. It was originally planned as the first album of a project set apart from Circus Devils, in which Bob switched up our songwriting method, basically throwing it in reverse. Instead of providing Bob with music up front, he would begin by sending me his a-capella vocals, to which I would then add the music. As a ready-made path to experimentation, this new writing method promised to bring new and unexpected results. Since we were all about making each album distinct from those that came before, it seemed a natural step for us to take, if only as a one-off. The trouble was, it was not meant to be a Circus Devils record. I took up Bob’s new challenge myself, asking Tim to fill in some empty spots with guitar on three songs (‘It Floors The Jane,’ ‘Subway To Human Nature,’ and ‘Great Orphan’). But as soon as I sat down to work, I realized it might be more of a challenge than I’d imagined. The best way for me to explain my difficulty is to use a travel analogy. There is a difference between going off in the car to follow your nose on one hand, and on the other hand following the GPS or directions from Mapquest. When I make music on my own, it’s more like exploring. I’m following the lead of intuition as I take my turns. If I’m making music to fit a pre-existing vocal, then I’m using the vocal as my road map and keeping to a designated route. The two writing experiences are very different. Whether or not the listener is able to pick up on the difference I can’t say. But for me the difference is not subtle.

153


Circus Devils: See You Inside

On my first bout of composing, I decided to tackle the more conventional songs, or at least those that struck me as more conventional based on Bob’s melodies and phrasing. These were ‘Deliver Ice Cream,’ ‘Great Orphan,’ ‘Subway To Human Nature’ and ‘We’d Be Alright.’ The work on these four songs took more than twice as long to complete as the album’s remaining 13 songs combined. My mistake was assuming that I had to put myself on top of the song, and force it into a definite shape. Having a narrow road to follow meant I had to think carefully about where to go, or so I assumed. Thinking led to tension. Tension led to jumpy legs and a stiff neck. Sometimes I threw down the guitar and got up to pace the room. This may not seem like hardship worth mentioning, but I wasn’t accustomed to discomfort or a sense of ticking time while making music. Usually it was just the opposite. I would lose all sense of time. I was reminded of what Tim had told me once after I’d asked him to add vocals to my music. He said that his brain didn’t work that way. I wondered if I should tell Bob the same thing about my brain not being right for composing music to raw vocals. Thankfully it wouldn’t come to that. But not before I’d made a few missteps in the name of experimentation. One sidetrack led me to disregard musical pitch and take a free form approach to notes and chords. The results were the musical equivalent of goulash, only without the flavor. One thing about Circus Devils; we never went in for free form jamming, not counting the song ‘Hot Lettuce’ from Sgt. Disco, where I “jammed” with myself as a joke. Our brand of psychedelic music was free of noodling, with everything kept tight and tidy. I was also never a fan of dissonance for the sake of dissonance, so I quickly put myself back on track and abandoned the unstructured approach.

154


My Mind Has Seen The White Trick

What ultimately saved me was tearing myself away from the project for a few days. After my brain had a reset, I was able to come back to the vocal tracks again with fresh ears. First I listened back to the very simple guitar tracks I’d wrestled into place on the four songs mentioned above. Putting those aside for the time being, I turned my attention to what I considered to be the weird songs, which made up the rest of the album. As soon as I sat down to work I was on a roll. There was no time for sitting around and being confused. I just went with it, and everything fell into place. What had changed? What was the key to the breakthrough? It came down to shutting down the internal judge that kept saying “No, no, that’s not right. It doesn’t fit.” During that first bout of nervous composing, I was constantly rejecting my ideas and angry at my inability to make things interesting. Even now, hearing those four songs brings back a body memory of my frustration. One factor that contributed to my difficulty was the character of Bob’s singing. When Bob has music to react to, his voice goes places. Since Bob had sung all his parts with no music to follow or react to, his voice kept an even keel. It meant there was a kind of sameness to the vocals overall, with little change in shape, color and intensity. I’m not blaming Bob for my troubles, only to say that bringing excitement to a song proved a challenge because as soon as I made the music jump in some different direction or had a new instrument pop out, or changed up the rhythm, it became a sudden distraction that overpowered the vocals. Once I got it through my head that my purpose was not to make things “interesting,” but instead to allow the music to support and compliment the voice without upstaging it, things began to flow freely.

155


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Also, on the weirder songs I felt less constrained by the process of matching chords to melodies, so it allowed me to be more playful. It wasn’t that I disregarded Bob’s melody, only that I was no longer locked into any mindset about what I had to do. For example, on one of the “difficult” songs ‘Deliver Ice Cream,’ I felt there was no choice but to make it sound like Blue Oyster Cult. However, on a song like ‘Bird Zone,’ I was able to follow behind my own rhythmic instincts and let things happen instead of standing on top of the song with gritted teeth and forcing things to happen . . . if that makes sense. Once I was able to break through my own constraints, the far end of the journey came into view. Because Bob sang his songs in a free form way, his pitches were not consistent. In order to maintain some consistency in the music, I felt it necessary to alter the pitch on Bob’s voice at times, which for some reason is embarrassing to admit. But there it is. Sending Bob the finished songs brought back the kind of nervousness I’d felt back in 2001 after sending him the music for Ringworm Interiors. On the phone Bob was supportive but seemed a little unsure. He did mention liking the songs ‘Lice,’ ‘Locomotion Blue Note’ and ‘Eddie’s Derangement’ in particular. ‘Eddie’s Derangement’ is an example of a song that came together quickly. As soon as I locked into that jaunty guitar groove, it was smooth sailing. As an aside, I remember hearing congas in my head, but all I had was a set of bongos. I recorded the bongos at a high recording speed, and when I slowed the speed back to normal, I expected to hear the bongos “grow” to the size of congas as the pitch fell. It was a good try, but to my ears it went about 50% of the way toward simulating the real thing. While we’re on the topic of ‘Eddie’s Derangement,’ the shimmery guitar sound was achieved

156


My Mind Has Seen The White Trick

by recording an electric guitar through an amp while recording the actual strings of the guitar at the same time, and combining the two. Tim made his third and final Circus Devils vocal appearance in the song ‘Android Dust.’ You can hear him at the tail end of the song, demonstrating how much he likes his “job in the sewers.” A final side note: I believe ‘Peculiar Smells’ will one day be the theme song for a TV show produced by John Waters in which he will introduce ‘Odorama’ to a new generation by wireless means as yet undeveloped. The show will involve pets, cooking and crime. I anticipated what Bob would say about the finished album; namely that “It sounds like Circus Devils.” So I went ahead and told Bob what I suspected he might be thinking. “It sound like Circus Devils . . . doesn’t it?” Bob agreed, which came as a relief, but also left me disappointed. On one hand, we had another record finished and ready to go, which was good news. But the bad news was that I had failed the audition, at least when it came to starting a new project set apart from Circus Devils. The message I took away was that no matter what I put my hand to musically, it would end up sounding like Circus Devils. Was this a bad thing? My unique experience with My Mind Has Seen The White Trick has colored it in a way that listeners need never bother with. These days I’m able to listen to it and enjoy the album’s humor, especially in Bob’s lyrics (“Wasn’t that an amazing funeral?”). My music also has humor in it, which I was pleased to re-discover. I also enjoy the

157


Circus Devils: See You Inside

found art Bob used in the album design – another element that sets this album apart from all the others. The moments I enjoy most here are those where I managed to lend a proper mood to Bob’s vocals. The queasy disquiet of ‘Stop Floating,’ the gleeful off-kilter swing of ‘Bird Zone’ the lilting dreaminess of ‘Mine,’ the two-minute journey from quiet menace to shimmering exultation in ‘Strained Ligature’ and the goofy swing of ‘Lice’ are a few high points for me. As to what, if any, theme is being explored here, that’s for you to discover once you step inside the tent.

Steve Five in ‘Bird Zone’

158


My Mind Has Seen The White Trick

159


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Escape

ESCAPE (2014)

“Escape is a head-scratcher that makes perfect sense when you’re half asleep. This is not a criticism.” - Mike Turney “To plant the flag. To buy her a blender. The result of a man in all his smiling splendor” -from ‘The Result Of A Smiling Man’ “Feet firmly planted in spoiled soil. Eyeballs in outer space. Hands on deck. A Captain’s activity. A young one’s nubbles” -from ‘Bouncing Of The Dolls’ “As quickly as a rainbow comes, it disappears. But caught inside a diamond it can live a million years” -from ‘Diamond Boys’

161


Circus Devils: See You Inside

It’s late summer, early autumn. In an old house somewhere outside of town, a band plays in the basement. The band has nothing to prove and nowhere to go – no egos waiting to be pushed into the spotlight. They have plenty of time on their hands, maybe all the time in the world. Half empty beer bottles and half empty bags of chips are scattered about while the band plays and sing whatever comes to mind. A tape recorder stands ready whenever a song comes into focus. As the day wears on the band members carry their guitars upstairs to the front porch. In the cool of twilight, they sit plucking the strings while gazing away at an empty field of tall, beige-colored weeds. Further off in the distance a dark tree line marks the boundary where some other place begins – a place they might have visited before, or a place they’ve only heard about. It’s a place they’re gathering the courage to run away to someday once they get up the urge to hit the big time. But in the meantime, they stay put and find comfort in songs that betray their longings but contain no sense of urgency. The deceptively slight Escape is an album that calmly and quietly explores the empty spaces beyond and in-between the tiny, compacted pictures of the world we occupy and cling to in our daily lives. When those empty spaces open to us, pathways appear, allowing us to abandon our tiny worlds, even while we’re seated on the front porch and gazing at empty fields and distant trees. In those empty spaces, contradictions come into view and begin to merge and blur. Shadow mixes with sunlight, past with future, longing with resignation, substance with void, and intimacy with distance. Escape is an album out of phase with time. The year might be 1969. Or it might be 2039. If the escape sought here is not a bodily one, then it’s an escape of the mind, toward that place where the disso-

162


Escape

nances that underlie our lives and keep us secretly frightened and trapped can be left behind. The point of all this is to keep ourselves in practice. We’re preparing for liberation. Like the band in the basement that practices for the big time, we all practice for the big escape – the final escape that comes at the end of our sojourn in the field of time. The illusion that all three of us are in the same room and performing the songs together is more complete here than on any other Circus Devils album. When I listen to Escape now, I have to remind myself that we were not in that basement and not on that front porch together, playing and singing while the tape machine rolled. Nonetheless it sounds as if we’re all being Inner sleeve art, Escape moved by the same energy and responding to the same atmospheres. It’s a testament to Bob’s ability to tune into a simple piece of music that suggests an uncanny state of mind, or a sense of calm loneliness and then become its mouthpiece. This is offhand music touched by an offhand melancholy. The songs contain a longing for difference in a world of perpetual sameness. But at the same time there is a lack of concern over what we wish but can never be. The unspoken message is that the act of longing is beautiful in itself. Ultimately, the fulfillment we imagine and think we deserve is beside the point. There is also weariness and a sense of winding down. This is not just the weariness of fatigue and emotional burdens. It’s a weari-

163


Circus Devils: See You Inside

ness that comes with a sense of time bringing everything into being while simultaneously bringing nothing to its proper conclusion. It’s a state of mind that runs counter to the way we experience life in the age of tight schedules and the constant drive toward accomplishment. The attitude of attentive vacancy, where the mind is no longer enslaved by time, is illustrated by the song snippet ‘I Am Looking.’ Looking is done here simply for its own sake. To hearken back to a Bob lyric on the Five album, the looker is seeing into those empty spaces “in between what’s going on.” The song bears a quiet glow of satisfaction, suggesting that it’s enough just to look and to feel privileged to be the sort of creature that looks. To me the most provocative song on Escape is Bob and Tim’s ‘Eat At Eat.’ Bob’s melody is so counterintuitive that its perfection escaped me at first when I heard him sing it in the studio. “Is he singing in the wrong key?” I asked myself. The song’s mysterious aura comes from being both full of determination and full of weariness at the same time. Again Bob is busy blending opposites. My contribution to the song came in the mixing stage when I added in a verse with the voice garbled, suggesting that Bob is under water, or halfway out of phase with our space and time. When the words come into focus, Bob’s gauzy voice seems to come from half sleep, but at the same time the message is delivered forcefully and full of self-assurance. Contrasts of this kind give the album its strange quality, only it’s a different sort of strangeness than what we’ve come to expect from Circus Devils. Instead of the ham fist, we apply subtle touches. The one technical note I’d like to mention here is the source of the big reverb sound on Tim’s acoustic guitar. It comes from an effects box made by Electro-Harmonix called a Holy Stain. We would use

164


Escape

it again on a few tracks on the Stomping Grounds album. ‘The Big Strong Sea’ tugs a bit at the heart while ‘The Night Of Anything’ brings a moment of light comedy while keeping us captive in a time outside of time. This is one of the “front porch” songs, where the singer strums his electric guitar through a small practice amp in rhythm with the rocking chair he’s in. Meanwhile someone in the background – maybe grandpa or a pet monkey – is busy tuning in radio spots from an alternate universe, or perhaps a possible future. ‘Hacking At A Hedge’ is another inter-dimensional comedic episode that seems to happen on the never-ending day ushered in by a gentle, calming, never-ending chord cycle. I’m not sure why, but this song makes me think of the mythical, sleepy Middle American town of Willoughby from The original Twilight Zone series, where you can trim a hedge while waving to a friendly neighbor, assemble a model airplane, swap baseball cards, chase pretty girls and steal a kiss, roll up your jeans and take your fishing pole down to the old mill, hear a band concert at the gazebo in town square, mess around with a short wave radio or build that mysterious thing in the garage that your neighbor Tom Waits wants to know about, and keep doing it for all eternity. The guy in ‘Hacking At a Hedge’ seems to have snapped out of it. As a denizen of Willoughby he’s had too much of a good thing. Once the spell is broken, he’s no longer waving at the neighbor. And the hedge trimming has turned to angry hacking. The lo-fi, basement pop of the the songs ‘Eye Mask Of Leaves,’ ‘They’re Not Real Honey,’ and ‘The Result Of A Smiling Man’ all contain a core of quiet contentment. I’m proud of these three songs for their dissimilarity in style and mood to anything else we did before in Circus Devils. The drums, guitars and bass were re-

165


Circus Devils: See You Inside

corded on 4-track cassette, with a few keyboards and samples added on top later on.

Video still from ‘The Night Of Anything’

‘Bouncing Of The Heads’ and ‘Bouncing Of The Dolls,’ both by Bob and Tim, bring some welcome tension to an album that sometimes seems strangely at ease with itself. In ‘Diamond Boys;’ another song by Bob and Tim, Bob reminds us in a candid, reassuring tone tinged with sadness that the eternal reflects the transitory, and vice versa. In mood, ‘Diamond Boys’ pairs nicely with the final song; the wordless title track (our third instrumental title track, for those who are counting, behind ‘Ataxia’ and ‘The Harold Pig Memorial’). The musical action of ‘Escape’ (the song) reflects the quiet smile of an elderly person who looks at things from the stand-

166


Escape

point of a contented outsider – the sort of outsider who breaks free while sitting still on the front porch. ‘Diamond Boys’ and ‘Escape’ might have marked an ending for Circus Devils and sent us off on a bittersweet note, but we weren’t quite finished yet.

167


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Stomping Grounds

STOMPING GROUNDS (2015)

“Full of off kilter brilliance. The perfect soundtrack to long, cold autumn nights” - Simon Workman “Hills of science. Bars of dead time. Damage done. This moment is my own. Things to do. Places to be. Great bird in a ribcage with nowhere to fly” -from ‘Schedules Of The Dead’ “The seeds of the craft are born to the sunflower king and his newborn children. The seeds of the craft survive. We are here to protect, you’ll not take us alive!” -from ‘Seeds Of The Craft’ “A boy of six pack lungs who loves the cutting girl. A hat of hair and brain. You hold the stomping ground” -from ‘Stomping Ground’

169


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Among music fans are those righteous purists who cannot abide pretentious deviations from the basic formulas of rock and roll established in the time of the heroes. I can sympathize with them but not for ideological reasons. For me it’s about the basic liberating effect that playing no-nonsense rock and roll has on the body, mind and soul. Side one of Stomping Grounds may not be our most adventurous, but it was probably the most fun to play. It reminds me of being in a teenage rock band, and going for the gut punch. By contrast, side two sounds very grown up and even world-wise at times. The contrast between the two sides makes me think the album might have been split into two EPs, each with its own distinct character. This time I checked in with Bob before the recording started, and he agreed it was time to rock. I have a reel-to-reel tape deck that I always wanted to bring into service, so I began by tracking electric guitar on tape, slipping into early 1970s Alice Cooper mode. It was the Gibson Black Beauty plugged into a Fender Deluxe amp, mic’d with a Cascade Fathead ribbon microphone coupled with a Shure SM57. As usual while playing I did my best to imagine a drummer playing along, which allowed me to add in a little bit of empty space around the chords and riffs, knowing I’d be filling things in with bass and drums later on. I was accustomed to sit while recording, but this time I thought I’d act like a proper rock guitarist and stand while playing. Did it make a difference? Only when I did the windmills in ‘Weed World.’ Meanwhile Tim sent me his cassette tapes filled with his directto-tape fuzz guitars for what would become ‘Seeds Of The Craft,’ ‘Where Hornsby Used To Live,’ and the rollicking acid-rock-

170


Stomping Grounds

er ‘Bumbling Reply;’ the song that best reflects Bob’s front cover image, which never fails to make me smile. Tim’s guitar work in ‘Bumbling Reply’ reminds me of the psychedelic vibe on Pinball Mars. On ‘Schedules Of The Dead’ Bob candidly decries life as lived by everyday folks who pass their days trapped in the humdrum. ‘Cold Joker’ is straight up heavy rock mixed with straight up humor, resulting in another song containing no second layer subtext. Circus Devils’ answer to Alice Cooper’s ‘Cold Ethel,’ the Cold Joker is a geezer who gets plenty of action from the “hot smoker” who reads him Bram Stoker, out loud. The vocal recording of ‘Cold Joker’ found me struggling to stay in my seat during Bob’s performance. He often warned me when a funny vocal was coming up by stating, “This one’s ridiculous.” Ridiculous is a term of endearment for Bob, describing not only what is funny or silly, but also what defies explanation. In the 1970s, the term might have been “Far out.” I interpret ‘Seeds Of The Craft’ as a defiant rejoinder to both religious people and atheists. Taken together they represent the detractors of the world’s mystical traditions. For those of us who are sympathetic to the spirit of the search if not to the letter of the traditions and institutions based upon the search, it seems as if the detractors (both the religious and the atheists) are operating inside a blind spot. There’s no need to choose between being a mindless follower on one hand or a smug know-it-all who demands that everything be understood on his terms on the other hand. The seeds of the craft survive, in spite of the efforts of both camps to wipe them out. As with all my other interpretations, I could be totally wrong about what Bob intended to say.

171


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Steve Five as Rodney Dreemer crooning ‘Hue N’ Dye’

Bob’s vocal performance on ‘Hue N’ Dye’ seemed tailor-made for Rodney Dreemer, our self-appointed video song interpreter. This one still has me guessing. ‘Girl In Space’ brings a gear change, reminding us that Circus Devils can be just as friendly as it is mean. ‘Wise Man’s Lament’ (“ I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know”) announces the turn toward more musically adventurous territory ahead. Side two of Stomping Grounds reaches farther afield. Vocally, Bob changes up his delivery to match the shifting musical moods. ‘Doctor Pompous’ is a good example of taking humor seriously. There is a poignant moment in the song ‘Sunflower Wildman’ (not to be confused with ‘Sunflower Wildman (Remember Him?)’) when Bob sings “No one connects to the call of all-consuming restlessness at all.” At that moment I always feel my eyes begin to tear up. Here we’re invited to feel empathy for a human being who was forgotten during his lifetime, and whose story might have gone differently if

172


Stomping Grounds

the world had found a way to accommodate him. The Five-vibe returns with the quietly ominous ‘Stomping Ground.’ In the song’s intro there is even an echo of a vintage weird noise used in ‘Artheroid Vogue’ from Five. Here Circus Devils is doing what it does best in an elegant and simple way. As the crowd chants “All the rage” in the song of the same name, we stand by for a glimpse of the wonderful thing we’ve been told is so amazing. Instead we hear a chorus of crickets. Then all of a sudden a monster crashes in. Two seconds later the monster disappears. Was that it? Was that the amazing thing? No, it was just a glitch – a temporary break in the wall – a false alarm. Along with ‘Hue N’ Dye,’ The gently swaying ‘The Liquid Observer’ marks one of the few times Bob sang an entire song in falsetto.

The one and only (genuine) Circus Devils 7-inch single featuring ‘Girl In Space’ and ‘Sunflower Wildman (Remember Him?)’

The shining star of the album is ‘Sunflower Wildman (Remember Him?).’ Music-wise this was one of Tim’s that I had fleshed out for use on a Clouds Forming Crowns album, but for whatever reason

173


Circus Devils: See You Inside

had been put aside. The result was a piece of “soft prog-rock” that put a strangely fitting finishing touch on the album. With this expansive music Bob found the opportunity to tell a simple autobiographical story about a grumpy old man from the neighborhood whose yard is choked with tall sunflower plants. The young bike-riding Bob and his school-age pals from the old stomping grounds challenge each other to rush into the old man’s yard and pick one of the sunflowers, knowing very well that the angry recluse is watching at his window and bound to come charging out his front door in hot pursuit of the sunflower thief. I remember being mesmerized while hearing Bob deliver his spoken word narration at the tail end of the song for the first time, partly because I was hooked by the story, and partly because I was surprised to hear Bob deliver a completely straightforward piece of narration. I never acted the cheerleader in the studio. But on this occasion I think I said “wow” into the talkback microphone when Bob finished the track. After tracking the guitars on the tape machine, I had transferred the tape tracks to the digital machine in order to fill in the rest of the instruments. The resulting sound was a bit sterile, I thought. I liked the guitar sounds we’d tracked on tape, but it didn’t mix in well with the digitally recorded accompaniment. So after completing the final mixes, I transferred the heavy rock tracks to yet another reel-to-reel tape machine – this one an ancient tube recorder built in 1964. I loved this machine, not only for its sticky sound, but also because I had rehabilitated it myself after finding it at a garage sale in very poor shape. The machine has since broken down for good, but I’m glad I was able to keep it alive long enough to do the tape transfer for Stomping Grounds.

174


Stomping Grounds

The Circus Devils poster designed by Bob, included with the Stomping Grounds vinyl LP 175


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Laughs Last

LAUGHS LAST (2017)

“For me, Circus Devils is to indie rock what The Twilight Zone is to television—you know that it’s people and equipment and sound and imagery that exists in the real world, but at the same time, it can just as suddenly open up windows and shift perspectives into something more infinite and mysterious. The perfect coda to the Circus Devils saga would be like at the end of The Shining, where the camera pans to a framed and dusty B&W print on the wall dated July, 1922, and there in the frame are Bob, Todd and Tim in full evening dress, smiling back at you clearly knowing something terrifying about the nature of reality that you don’t.” - Peter Quinnell (The Flower Machine)

177


Circus Devils: See You Inside

“Chastity was a lovechild. Daffodil is a dream. Better not use the guilt card. Narrow is the scheme. Vengeance is wrath, get hip. But first give me another dip” -from ‘End Of The World Ice Cream’ “Red carpet the highway bravado. ‘Rock and Roll,’ that’s our motto. Occasionally atmospheric. Chops, licks, chords and cryptic lyrics. Even the look . . . got it down” -from ‘Crucified by the British Press’ “Break out the drumbeat again, back on the diet of whips. Camera car moving so slow. Black is the motorcade in this nightmare parade” -from ‘Aerial Photographs From Alcatraz’

The internal tension that permeates much of the music Tim and I make is dampened on Laughs Last. There are no subterranean journeys or side trips to alternate dimensions. Even the more aggressive pieces have their edges smoothed over. Bob puts himself in sync with the subdued atmosphere, which allows him to settle in toward a place of calm confidence. He stops short of being confessional here, but that may be an illusion created by the coded lyrics. Only Bob can say for sure. He seems to be seeking a center here instead of venturing off into strange territory. I hear him testifying,

178


Laughs Last

sometimes loudly on things unresolved and overlooked. In other words, as the voice of Circus Devils, Bob is not about to go quietly before he’s had his say. At first glance Laughs Last seems to have no theme and no overall guiding principle. The music also comes in a patchwork of styles. In the opening track, ‘Get Out Of My Way When I’m In Town,’ Bob crashes in with confidence and bluster. As the album moves along, the spirit of defiance remains, but it’s a spirit that no longer craves a fight. By the end of the album the theme turns toward letting go, but not giving up and not giving in. My first work on Laughs Last was to flesh out a pair of guitar tracks from Tim, which became the songs ‘Farm Action’ and ‘To Each His Zone (Sunshine Baby Butt).’ As soon as I heard Tim’s guitar, the finished arrangements appeared in my head, so I went to work doing my best to approximate what I imagined. Inspired by the breezy, pastoral quality of these two piece from Tim, I wrote some guitar-based tracks of my own with a similar laid-back mood, a couple of which made it onto the album as ‘Do The Nixon’ and ‘Crucified By The British Press.’ When I think of Laughs Last I think of these four friendly songs, though the album is full of far-flung styles, sometimes veering into rock and roll exotica on ‘Teenage Rooster,’ Philosophy Bag,’ and ‘Aerial Photographs From Alcatraz.’ Many of the instrumental pieces Bob handpicked this time were cobbled together from unused music from past auditions that failed to make the cut. These were pieces I re-worked in the hope of giving them a second chance. Bob’s work here is easy and natural, making the songs sound as if

179


Circus Devils: See You Inside

they were written in a single sitting. Unsettling moments are kept at a minimum in favor of playfulness on songs like ‘ZX35 Pow,’ ‘Do The Nixon,’ and ‘Teenage Rooster.’ As the album moves along, a bit of seriousness creeps in as Bob begins to take stock of things on songs like ‘End Of The World Ice Cream,’ and ‘Time Trapper.’

‘Time Trapper’ video stills with Rodney Dreemer

A high point is Bob and Tim’s ‘Smoke Machine;’ a heavy rock lament with a pleading vocal from Bob in the chorus. Singing ‘Crucified By The British Press,’ Bob’s character shows a defiant resilience even while nursing the decades-old, smarting wounds inflicted by those hard-nosed limey critics who refused to give his band a break. Instead of lashing out, he’s taken a fatalistic view while still doing his best to let us know that his band was amazing. Songs like this, along with ‘Farm Action’ and ‘To Each His Zone’ help to make the album an easy and enjoyable listen. ‘Cockroach Whiskey’ marks a detour into familiar, shady Circus Devils territory, though the menace is tempered by a weary, wistful tone. The dark mood carries over to ‘Aerial Photographs From Alcatraz,’ with Bob once again in testifying mode, giving us the straight story in cryptic language.

180


Laughs Last

In ‘Asteroid,’ Circus Devils’ quietly unassuming final statement, the message comes from a soul at peace, content to drift through space for all eternity, having given up its dream to make a splash by dramatically colliding with some other heavenly body in a fiery explosion. Instead of lamenting its lost dream of fulfilling its destiny in a flash of high drama, the asteroid discovers a resting place within itself, calmly settling into a state of perfect freedom as it voyages through a dying universe, now content to quietly revel in the wonder of existence as it beholds all things gradually blinking out and merging with the darkness. An echo is heard from within the expanding darkness between worlds. “This is not the end.”

181


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Acknowledgments & Further Listening

Acknowledgments & Further Listening

To mark the release of Laughs Last and the farewell of the band, I had the idea of putting on a one-time event, maybe a Circus Devils show – which would have been our one and only live show, had we played it. The idea was to give Circus Devils a send off, and give ourselves and the fans a chance to celebrate the band. The event never happened, but writing this book has served the same purpose by giving me the chance to honor Circus Devils and invite fans old and new to join me.

183


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Thanks to David Crunelle, Johnny Savely, Jeremy St James and the gang from ‘Discussions In The Cave’ (the 2018 Sunday night Circus Devils listening party) for their encouragement and inspiration. More thanks to Sarah Zade Pollard, Shawna Tobias, Carla Ballestero Tobias, Scott Bennett, Chris Sheehan, Cory Race, Stefan Breuer, Cam Merton, Rich Turiel, Tynan Cooney, Brad Visker, Cal McNamara, Phillip Western, Steve Hewitt, George Griggs, Sjors De Vries, Peter Quinnell, John Shough, Kramies Windt, Mike Lipps, Simon Workman, Christopher Horn, Tom Erik-Loe, Matt Davis, Nick Mitchell, Rat Bastard, Pat Moonchy, Jenny Tobias-Winkler, Jeff Warren, David Heaton, and all the long-time Circus Devils fans I don’t have room to list here. A special thank you to honorary Circus Devils member Steve Five for all his support over the years, and for being the face of Circus Devils, and again to David Crunelle, for laying out this book for me. Most of all, thanks to Bob Pollard and my brother Tim for sharing the adventure.

184


Acknowledgments & Further Listening

Contact todtob@gmail.com Online circusdevils.net robertpollard.net toddtobiasmusic.bandcamp.com

Further listening Psycho & The Birds (Robert Pollard with Todd Tobias on musical backup) • All That Is Holy (2006) • Check Your Zoo (2006) • We’ve Moved (2008) Todd Tobias solo Discography toddtobiasmusic.bandcamp.com • Medicine Show (2012) • Night Above Ground (2012) • I Razor: Soundtrack (2012) • Impossible Cities (2014) • Impossible Cities II (2014) • Tristes Tropiques (2015) • Moorea (2015) • Gila Man (2016) • Massabu Evening Entertainments (2018) • Amialluma (with Chloë March) (September, 2018)

185


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Clouds Forming Crowns (Tim Tobias with Todd Tobias on musical backup) cloudsformingcrowns.bandcamp.com • All The Pharmacies (2004) • Clouds Forming Crowns (2005) • Race To The Blackout (2006) • Rough Giants And Cardiac Dippers (2006) • Shaking Your Train (2007) • CFC 7 (2008) • Ouija Board Taxman (2010) • Allowing Thunderhead (2011) Todd Tobias Collaborations Brother Earth (with Steve Five) www.brotherearth.bandcamp.com • West Branch (2008) • Pajama Party (2011) • Brother Earth III (2012) • Positive Haywires (compilation) (2014) Moonchy & Tobias (with Pat Moonchy) www.moonchytobias.bandcamp.com • Moonchy & Tobias I (November, 2018) The World Of Dust (with Stefan Breuer) www.tinyroomrecords.bandcamp.com • Womb Realm (2015) • Samsara (2019) Happy trails to all and thank you for reading. -Todd 186


Circus Devils: See You Inside


Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers

Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers by Robert Pollard

189


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Ringworm Interiors

190


Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers

The Harold Pig Memorial

191


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Pinball Mars

192


Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers

Five

193


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Sgt. Disco

194


Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers

Ataxia

195


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Gringo

196


Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers

Mother Skinny

197


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Capsized!

198


Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers

When Machines Attack

199


Circus Devils: See You Inside

My Mind Has Seen The White Trick

200


Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers

Escape

201


Circus Devils: See You Inside

Stomping Grounds

202


Gallery of Circus Devils Album Covers

Laughs Last

203


Circus Devils: See You Inside


© Copyright 2018 by Todd Tobias


Between 2001 and 2017, Circus Devils – the Ohio freakrock trio founded by Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) – released 14 full-length albums, each containing its own distinct sound and story-world. Remaining firmly under the radar throughout its run, the band provoked head scratching from music critics while providing fans with experimental cinema for the ears. In ‘Circus Devils: See You Inside,’ band member Todd Tobias offers a personal glimpse into the band’s playfully dark, psychedelic world.

Circus Devils: See You Inside  

Between 2001 and 2017, Circus Devils – the Ohio freak-rock trio founded by Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) – released 14 full-length album...

Circus Devils: See You Inside  

Between 2001 and 2017, Circus Devils – the Ohio freak-rock trio founded by Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices) – released 14 full-length album...

Advertisement