The Weirdness is Us

monkee head talks pizza, doom scat, and performance art

When Shey Rivera, Susan Clausen, and Bert Crenca aren’t busy running one of Providence’s most beloved art establishments, they join forces and make music. Monkee Head is the name of their collaboration. You could call it a band, but that’s not quite right. According to a statement from the group

Monkee Head is a carnivalesque network of cannibal sounds from galactic jungles and gear-powered mountains, where space cowboys powwow with witchdoctors … Sound is our primary means of communication, not words. We are a sci-fi collection of beings living in our own graphic novel, broadcasting our language from some secret safe place, while projecting the future of culture.”

The group consists almost entirely of AS220 staff: Shey is Director of Programs, Susan is Property Manager, and Bert is Artistic Director. Chris Anderson (Media Arts Manager) and Ricardo “Dingo” Ferrer are current members, and other AS220 staff have been involved in the past.

Members of Monkee Head like to call themselves “Albert Monkee Heads,” which is a reference to the first monkey astronauts (Albert I and Albert II, launched into space in 1948 and 1949, respectively). Aside from primate-inspired experimental music, the group represents a broad range of artistic interests: performance art and visual art, poetry writing and cooking. Everybody brings something different to the table, and Monkee Head strives to honor and reflect this diversity of creative interests in every performance. Their aim is to move beyond the traditional definitions of “band” and “song,” creating art that recognizes “culture as an anthropological phenomenon.” 

When I sat down with Shey, Susan, and Bert in the AS220 break room, their conversation wandered from serious to silly, touching on everything from head cheese to pizza to martian landscapes. It turns out that Monkee Head’s playful, experiential creations are an outlet to express some profound insights about the nature of live music and performance art. Read on to find out more about space monkeys, “doom scat,” and the evolution of Monkee Head. Also, consider attending their FREE SHOW TONIGHT at Machines with Magnets! Performances start at 7 PM and last all night!

Tell me a little bit about Monkee Head. How did it get started?

Shey: Well, I guess [Monkee Head] started when I started working at AS220 and getting to know people here—getting to know Bert, getting to know Susan. They play music, too, so one day Bert and Susan invited us (us being … I think it was just me and Lou at that point) to jam at their house. We liked what was happening, so we just decided to keep doing it. And then Dingo, my partner, [joined] the band.

Susan: Now we’re a five-member band. Lou, the bass player, is gone and Chris Anderson doubles up on violin and bass.

Monkee Head has a lot of different instruments going on! What do each of you play?

Shey: I play drums and percussive stuff. Dingo plays harmonica, keyboards, and a little bit of trumpet.

Susan: I primarily play banjo and a single stringed instrument called a “canjo.” Sometimes I also play a cigar-box ukulele and some noise-makers and an old symbol and a wash-board with percussive stuff on it or a little bucket that I kick … So that’s me.

Bert: I play flute, percussion, mostly congas, uh, a flarinute, which is an invented instrument that is a mutant clarinet-flute. It plays up and down like a clarinet, and it’s very obnoxious. It’s not in tune with itself, it’s an animal unto itself. Sometimes it’s cooperative, sometimes it’s not. And most of us do some vocals.

How did you guys come up with your band name? 

Shey: Well an idea was thrown around about head cheese, but we decided not to do that … Then I remembered in the movie Indiana Jones when they were eating the monkey brains, and we started playing around with the idea of the rhesus space monkeys. I do a lot of the video—whenever we perform, we have video in the background because our stuff is very cinematic—and we had this concept where all of us were named Albert, like the first rhesus monkeys that were launched into space.

It seems like you guys do a lot of multimedia stuff. How did that come about? Or were you never really kind of a “traditional” band?

Susan: Never traditional. We get together, hang out, chill out, and then we jam. We eat together almost every time we play, so there’s a lot of down time where we’re just sort of hanging out.

Bert: Most of what we do is new work and comes out of improvisation, so we record all of our jams and our improvisation and then we go back and look and we see if there are pieces within that we think are worth developing as individual pieces. And we also bring in spoken word. And some poetry.

Shey: And food has definitely influenced our music. We have the “Pizza Song,” “Hungry Man,” and “Chicken.”

So this all happens pretty organically.

Bert: I also think of music as sculpture: There are things in the foreground, background, middle-ground … I am completely dedicated to improvisation and I think some of the greatest American forms of music—like jazz, for example—[came out of improvisation]. But in some cases that can get pretty staid and predictable. I don’t think there’s anybody in the group that is going to claim to be the greatest instrumentalist, but we all communicate and we all have sort of our own musical vocabulary.

And in some ways I think that’s part of our strength, that we’re not entrenched in classical training or any of that, so we allow whatever influence, anything that we’ve experienced, to come into the music or to the process.

It could be spoken word, it could be minimalist, it could be frenetic and noisy and aggressive … We costume ourselves, we have a video going on in the background, so we really make it visual. To me it’s really about an experience with a beginning, middle, and end. And no matter how theatrical it is, no matter how we entice and engage, we’re always there to create a stimulating experience for people.

Monkee Head Photo by Sounion Hong 2013How do you choose what kind of visual components to include in your performances?

Susan: I think of music as kind of a landscape a lot of times and I think narratively when I’m playing, about the rhythm of the landscape in general and just passing time and space.

Shey: Usually the video stuff starts with the monkey going into space, and then there [is] different footage like cartoons from the thirties, like footage from Susan’s trip to Mexico and Bert’s trip to New Zealand, or coal burning in the stove, or just really random crazy things like old cowboy movies … And as Susan was saying it’s very narrative and scenic, so it’s sometimes, when we’re –

Bert: Cinematic. I wouldn’t call it narrative.

Shey: Cinematic. Yeah, it’s not linear for sure. So sometimes we talk about our music in terms of color or feel. Like, “Oh, this feels like a Martian landscape.” Or, “This feels like a night jungle.” You know, it’s more about the environment.

So do you incorporate any of your own personal artistic projects into the music or into your shows? Or is Monkee Head a separate project?

Susan: Yes we do, especially Bert. He created a portable stage with all kinds of platforms and decorative elements that all screw into the thing. So it was a crazy environment.

Shey: And I incorporate the video. That’s what I brought to the band … Bert also brings a lot of the lyrics. In this new show, there’s one piece that’s very chaotic and  talks about time, which should be pretty fun and pretty amazing.

Bert: We were jamming on this thing and I started off with some very abstract screaming, which I would say is a new kind of scat singing, a more contemporary version–

Susan: (Laughs) It’s doom metal scat!

Shey: (Laughing) Doom scat! That’s so weird.

Bert: But then it runs into these lyrics like, “There is no time, there is no future, there is no past, there’s no need to plan. There is only now.”

So you guys all work together at AS220. What’s that like?

Susan: We have this policy that we stick to where we don’t discuss work when we’re playing. We try [to] keep that separate.

Shey: We do a pretty good job. Susan is one of the most amazing cooks on the planet, hands down. Susan and Dingo both cook, so we eat together a lot.

Susan:  But things do pop up. Our lives are blurred. Sometimes Burt and I are snippy with each other, like that married kind of bickering … but they get it.

Shey: We just let them roll.

Susan: But Shey and Dingo can do that in Spanish and it’s not fair!

What’s your favorite thing about being a band together?

Susan: Lack of self-consciousness, in what we’re doing or thinking or playing. And everyone has big ears and really listens. I really appreciate that.

Shey: Yeah, a sense of freedom … We have no fear, we can experiment and bring things to the table. We play with each other, like in the correct sense of play. And we have great communication and chemistry musically.

Bert: I think everybody in the band has a realistic perspective of this stuff. We do it for fun—and it really is a lot of fun—but we work hard at it and I really anticipate a very successful show on Saturday.

But for me it’s really about taking people on a journey, it’s about the composition of an experience. And this group is completely amenable to that; everybody’s on board. In and of itself, the band is a culture: We have habits. We do things together. We show up at events together. We eat together. It’s a mini culture, so that’s my favorite thing about it.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you as a group?

Shey: We all dressed up and had dinner and put a camera in the middle of the table and the camera would go around and around recording everybody.

Bert: We made our rehearsal kind of an experiential event.

Susan: The weird thing is that it’s so comfortable.

Shey: Dingo dressed up in a trench coat and a gas mask.

Susan: I wore my special hat.

Shey: I think the weirdness is us!