Sunday, May 4, 2014

Overlays; An interview with travis (ONO)

travis portrait by Arvo Zylo, during an ONO practice, with a generous amount of wine

In 2010, I wrote an article  on the legendary band ONO, and from there, I decided to interview travis himself on the radio.  I ended up transcribing the interview and having it published in issue #50 of Roctober magazine.  In agreement with Roctober, I am sharing an abridged version of the interview here.  ONO have a new LP out called Diegesis

You started out playing piano as a child and you were getting yelled at for tying wooden blocks to your fingers and things like that. You were influenced heavily by gospel. What kind of music were you playing as a child?

As a child actually I was playing whatever my teacher told me to play. I had this teacher who was not particularly gospel oriented but she was what my mother considered a good piano teacher. I don't know what that meant but I did drills and drills and drills. Nothing that is memorable. And that was one teacher but my grandmother had a different teacher in mind and she did concentrate on not so much gospel but black music of the sort that was played and sung at Tuskegee and places like that. We had big choirs and a very formal piano behind it and of course none of it made any sense to me, but yes I did attach sticks to my fingers. I played the piano in my grandmother's parlor on Sundays. One day I attached these sticks to my fingers and made all this racket! It was fun for me but actually it wasn't fun because that was the end of the piano lessons for me. But there were other issues that led up to that noise and it had to do with how I was perceived and treated by males in the community that caused me to attach these sticks to my fingers. Just because I didn't care for music, because I didn't, and music didn't mean a thing to me then, doesn't now, but the other side of your question was the gospel. Yes, I actually collected anything that --- Somebody I recall, a black college student, came to our house and I don't recall where he was from but he was selling Columbia Record Club subscriptions that you could get, these free 33 1/3 records. And without my mother's approval or anybody's approval, I joined and got anything by Mahalia Jackson. Disturbed everybody in our household because suddenly these records started coming and imagine somebody had accepted my word for it; that I was in any position to order any of these records. And they wouldn't stop! Of course eventually they stopped, but by then I had all these great Mahalia Jackson records and that was--it was worth it.

That's funny, up into the 90s you were able to do that, order anything you wanted under the age of 18. It seems like you weren't particularly that excited about music as you were about sound even at an early age so I wonder how things culminated for you, what was the creative outlet of singing or music like for you in high school and how it sort of came to be sort of what ONO was and what your other projects were like.

As a kid, very early on, my great grandmother established this church, and this little community, called Carter's chapel. She and her Native American husband, and I was a child, 3, 4, 5 years old. And in Carter's Chapel what I did was sing in that church and I played any kind of sounds I wanted in the church and because it was a small church, a small community, now it feels as if I had my run of the place. But in doing all these things, it turns out that they liked the way I recited and so my school teachers would have me recite. At Christmas time I'd do The Night Before Christmas in it's entirety at the church and at the school and that was on one side of the family in Amory, Mississippi. The other side of the family was up in Itawamba County, which is much much smaller, not even 200 people there, even now. In that place you had a church and school that were pretty much combined and you knew everybody in it. I liked being in that environment because I could do lots of things on stage. The school had a stage, it was a large one-room school with eight grades in it. The fun of it was, the stage meant that I would do all these fun things but always by myself as I recall. It wasn't as if I were interested in the public because I didn't have any friends, I had no interest in anybody. I lived very much alone with my grandmother and my grandfather and he was away because he taught school elsewhere. So here I am in this environment in a school that has a stage, has a piano and all that, and I can make all of this racket with my voice. People would accept it and not say “NO, you can't do that”. Outside of that, I had no real interest in getting involved in things, musical or anything else because I was pretty much doing whatever I wanted to do. I was not a bad child, but I was somewhat undisciplined in terms of sound and what it meant. I was much more interested in ritual I think, because in my grandmother’s yard I created little churches and cemeteries and buried animals in my little cemetery and sang for the rituals and made sounds for the rituals. Now that was exciting! I liked that a lot!

That was before high school?

Oh yes, long before high school, because by high school I had to deal with high school kids. I was younger than all the other kids in the class. At first I had asthma and that came about because these people burned down a huge amount my grandparents' land, and I was really traumatized by that because the animals burned, the forest burned. It was a huge, to this moment, memorable fire, and I developed asthma out of that. This is before I was even 7 years old. After that happened, I had this asthmatic condition, all the women in the community gathered and had this midnight ceremony and they're all dressed in white in Carter’s Chapel church and they're making ritualistic sounds. They sound somewhat like Gregorian Chants, but they're of strange origin, I'm not sure what they were. And then they served me vinegar, and boiled eggs and egg shells that were burned. I've not had asthma since then. It was the strangest thing that night as they did this, as if they were doing their prayers and making these noises over my head and body; right there at the altar, and my whole body begins to shake and gush of mucus. It was very peculiar. I can go on about this. It's a clear memory even now. All these black women all dressed in white, with towels and linen and these eggshells, and the smell of vinegar and the green smell of herbal plants and all that. And I’ve not had any hint of asthma since then. I'm sorry, that's not your question at all!

Oh no, that's really interesting to me, because my initial question is how did you become a singer. So that's very interesting and it also makes me think of you using rituals and then all of a sudden there's this ostensibly Christian gathering which really seems a lot like a (pagan) ritual...

It is and it wasn't entirely Christian, because my folks you will remember were native and there's this strange overlay of black Christianity which on its own is very strange, and Pentecostalism and Native American ritual. Because my folks on that side of the family are Native American. And there are no images of crosses in this church at all. Only in the last decade or so have they put up crosses and the sign of deliverance in the Christian tradition. Everybody’s a singer there. But it's the ritual as much as anything else that I love. And I love Roman Catholic ritual for instance, even though there are some very strange counterparts and underlays, the idea of the ritual and how the ritual makes you feel and when I’m getting dressed for a performance. Dressing is part of the ritual. Making this transition from one facet to another or playing multi facets. That for me is very exciting. It appeals to me on a level that I probably don't like to think about that much; but on a level that I like to do because it thrills me through and through. 

photo by Tamara Smith

Yeah, that's a question that I would have asked, about your wardrobe, because you almost always wear white when you perform. I know that there's at least some level of symbolism going on, but I didn't know to what to degree.

Well white is the symbol of Death and Transfiguration in West African cultures. Observe black funerals. In my performance, the white comes in via Kundalini which you mentioned (in a previous conversation). But Kundalini comes much later in my world, it comes in fact, while I was in Cleveland; I studied Kundalini Yoga. And there of course, Kundalini sieks always wear white cotton. And it's worn because of the relationship to your auric consciousness, expanding your auric presence, and it's very hard to hide true emotions because of that. Your thinking becomes clear to those who can read it. So, one only wears white cotton in the Kundalini ashram. I was on my way to give up my world, surrender if you will, because that's what Kundalini meant to me, relinquishing the will to a higher consciousness. White is what I was wearing daily, when I came here on my way to New Mexico to study with Harbhajan Singh Khalsa Yogi-Ji. And so, realizing how it works in the light and the sense of being able to, not conceal when you're wearing white. It appealed to me and the way that white works on the stage and in the light, is important to me, it's not just the white but because of the way most stage lighting works and the harshness of it, and how much else is working, your presence is magnified in the white light. I learned later at Rose Croix University in San Jose, CA, there are endless other uses of the vibratory values of color, but I like to consider those when I am outside, when people are undisturbed by for instance the kinds of lighting that you'll see on most theater stages. Not just theater stages but music stages. I studied theater just a tiny bit. It's a much more emotional lighting. But that's just the lighting, in terms of the costuming, I like to feel that when I'm on stage there's a freedom and a flexibility that I can explore, which gives me a level of fun, another way of looking at Character. Who are the people that I act. And the stage can give me that. I can be in a specific environment where I'm forced to be one Character. I can write many characters within say a 20 minute performance, and Character is very important to what I do as travis and to what I do with ONO. Another part of it is the frocks that I wear. I love wearing incredible gowns, and I have hundreds of them in my basement, not just gowns but costuming in general. But the gowns are specifically worn, not just because of what does it mean to the viewer to see this old black man performing whatever it is I'm performing, changing into that Character through that gown (overlay) and through those words and through all that noisy racket in front of you so that it allows a sense of concealment if you will. David Downs, with whom I studied Shakespeare at Northwestern, teaches that the Character resides in the spine. I'm sorry, I’m ranting.

Oh no, I'm satisfied with that answer. There are a lot of things that are peculiar about how things came to be. I hardly ever see anyone playing a tabletop guitar, things like that.

P. Michael forced me! I love the melancholy sound of the lap steel. Being from Mississippi, you hear it in Country/Western. Its origins have more to do with Hawaiian music. When I got to Chicago on my way to New Mexico and ran into Kathy Brooks via her mother at Northwestern University School of Law where they did not mind if I wore frocks, even then. Yes, I have video footage of yours truly running around, a supervisor wearing frocks, long gowns and wedding dresses at NU law school! That's another story. Another person who worked there was Amanda Wallace Brooks, Kathy’s mother. Over 6 feet tall. Wild, wild black woman. And Kathy had all this red hair that just stood out way out about a foot from her head, very hippie style; and she carried a gun; and she carried a machete and everything. Well Kathy would come visit her mother and she was incredibly fun. She wanted to know about me, she wanted to know all of my biz-ness! I had no choice but to tell her. I gave her my poetry and other stuff to read and she passes it on to her friend P. Michael Grego, and P. Michael immediately comes to the office and says “We are going to form a performing group to do this work”. Actually I was working on a piece called the “The Nigger Queen” which still isn't done, but P. Michael decided we were going to do all this stuff. On January 5th 1980, he starts the band. I provide the name ONOMATAOPOEIA, or ONO for short, because I thought: I'm okay with a band, except that I don't want to be limited by music because I am not interested in music, I don't like it. I don't care about it. I have no interest in doing it. I don’t want to compete with musicians. I do want to do some kind of sound environment that is Fun to do. I mean really Fun, and that I wouldn't be nervous about going out on stage at any time no matter what. I wanted it to be Fun, and it is still Fun, I'm happy to say. Then P. Michael called me at my office a few weeks later, “Okay, I want you to go to Clark Pawners and buy this”. He called it a dobro. It's not a Dobro, it's a lap steel guitar but it has Dobro tuning. (P. Michael responds to the tuning.) So, I go to Clark Pawners. I buy this lap steel, and he says “don't get lessons”. And that meant that I could play with making all this noise that I felt suited what the words were about and what the environment that we were creating was about. Kathy was a Shakespearean actress, and she would recite Shakespeare and I'd be doing travis words and all this racket and P. Michael would be making all this noise. It was a lot of Fun. That's how the lap steel comes in. Many years later I actually advertised at The Old Town School Folk Music, if anybody was available to give me some lessons. By then I had 5 lap steel guitars. This guy Ken Champion, a Cowboy, gave me lessons. He said if you pay this amount, I will come to your house every other week for an hour and that was many years after -- that was 1990. ONO had been using the lap steel guitar since 1980. He decided he would give me lessons on the Gibson. For me, Gibson, Fender, none of it made a difference. But for him, the Gibson was the one; and that's what I got the real lessons on. 

travis with P. Michael, photo by Tamara Smith

It didn't cross my mind until this conversation, but you were leaving from Cleveland on your way to New Mexico and you happened to run into P. Michael on the way, at a gas station or something like that?

(Laughs) Actually, it wasn't at a gas station, it was through Kathy. Kathy actually introduced us because P.Michael is a very dear friend of Kathy Brooks, and Kathy's mother was at Northwestern University School of Law as an administrator and she and I worked together. I had planned to remain in Chicago just for the summer, then I’d continue on to New Mexico. I figure I've got time, I'm giving up all my earthly possessions, this is my last hurrah, my last fling, my last look at the world. By that time I was quite happy with giving up everything. I'd studied Kundalini when I was in Cleveland I was completely immersed in things like ... I studied Kundalini but I also was studying Krishna Consciousness, studying KunTao Martial Arts at the American KungFu-Karate Federation, and I was attending meetings of the Theosophical Society and all this stuff about brotherhood and philosophy and comparative religion, and getting even further into Kundalini. I loved Kundalini, but the problems of Kundalini teachers, had as much to do with my world then as now and I had one issue that didn't make me happy. Everything about the study was great, but what I didn't care for, and I'm bringing this up because in the context in which you mention it, I wonder why no matter what happened with P. Michael and Kathy, why didn’t I just go on to New Mexico. But even as evolved as the Kundalini Sieks were, they thought I was thee strangest character on the face of the earth, and I didn't understand that. We had this ashram in beautiful Overlook Drive. Very upscale Cleveland community, very rich. This huge mansion we lived in and studied in. The teachers would put me outside to do landscaping so that neighbors wouldn't be shocked at seeing me. The sieks never understood why I wouldn't give up my job at the Kidd Computer Center, in Bratenahl, OH, where I was a supervisor of communications in a high security division of the Defense Department and I loved it. Still I would wear spike heel shoes, opened toed pumps with my Kundalini white. It disturbed the sieks. I thought, when you're that evolved, what do the other trappings mean anyway? And then they would ask “why did you do it?”, and well, you have to wear something, and I loved wearing high heeled open toed pumps and platforms. I wonder if that had anything to do with my staying here and finding a place on stage where I could wear anything I want, or nothing at all. I don't think that it did, but it does concern me that those frictions, almost fascistically, are applied religiously. Everybody gets a uniform I guess. Krishna had a uniform, Kundalini, there's a uniform. And then I was dancing all the time, in Cleveland, I was dancing every weekend in the bars wearing my own designs.

I'd like to ask what your feelings were about changing your name and taking out your last name, as well as making it lower case.
I am a bastard. My father’s name does not appear on my birth certificate. However, I was enrolled in schools, including the University of Akron, using his surname. Likewise, the military knew me by an alias. Although ONO never traveled internationally, we were asked to travel to some very controversial countries after the release of “Machines That Kill People.” I looked at US Passport forms, but did nothing. Finally, in 1987 I began to itch for travel as I had before joining the US Navy. The State Dept. noted my name conflict. I took the opportunity to name myself: Legally and officially my name is: travis
Lower case probably because of some sort of loss, denial or self-hatred. Curiously, it was so natural for me I didn’t think about it. I have no real sense of belonging. Mostly my world is silent and still. The legal details are visible via the Link at the top of my Web page:
Sure, there is a big, hairy paragraph about my day in Court. The story, with pictures, appeared in the Sun-Times and in all the suburban papers.

I just found out that you were writing poetry for an occult magazine in Cleveland before you left, and I wondered what your involvement with that was, to what extent it was. I obviously haven't been able to see the poetry, I mean these magazines are going for $500 or something like that.

I was answering somebody on Facebook last week, and wow what pops up! It was an ad for the Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick. I wasn't in Cleveland then. Both during and after I left Cleveland I was doing a lot of writing. I loved writing, and I performed my writing. There was all this stuff going on stage in Cleveland. Performances in the Eastman reading Gardens. Karamu House. Case Western Reserve University. When I got to Chicago and was still writing, I found this wonderful occult book store on Clark Street. And I was attracted to it because it was such a strange spot. It was a very odd place and I looked in to see what is it they do here, what is the work like? I ran into this wonderful poetry, and as I looked at the stuff I saw this beautiful magazine, the Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick on display. The calligraphy was beautiful. It appealed to me instantly. It turns out it was either their first or second issue ever. They asked for submissions, and at the same time, I was writing what I considered performance pieces. Actually, ONO still performs these pieces. This is 1977, I'd just arrived in Chicago in '76. And in '77 I'm up and down Lincoln Avenue which is where everybody read poetry. There were a million coffee shops, and the Great American Coffee House was the place to read because local politicians would even come and hang out and read. I submitted a poem to the Cincinnati Journal and they loved it; they loved my work. They asked “Do you have more?” and at that point I was writing in series. I had a series of 7 pieces called “Tango Delta.” They said “Send it all, we want to publish it!” After that, they asked for more and I sent more, then after that, they had a change of command, a change of editor. That turned into a very strange, peculiar situation because the old editor was uprooted, he wanted to take my poetry with him to his new magazine, the new editor said it belongs to the Cincinnati Journal of Ceremonial Magick and this went on for months. And then I gave up and put an end to it, I said okay, it gets published in the Cincinnati Journal. Then I gave another collection to the other guy to make him happy. So now there are all these very beautiful volumes out there, and they cost $500, I can't imagine that! I still have a hard time thinking that what I'm saying now is worthy of being on the radio!

1975 photo by Sandi Block, courtesy of travis

Well, I don't know, you're definitely a very interesting subject travis!

Well thank you! There were a lot of bars when I was in Cleveland and in coming to Chica

go looking at the differences, these dance bars. Mothers, The Orchid Room, Twiggy's because there were all these rock 'n' roll people located in the area of the current Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame; the Allen Theater, WMMS-FM and all that. But there were all these dance bars that I liked because I wanted to dance. And rock 'n' roll people didn't dance, they sat about and said “Wow Man” but they didn't dance – I wanted to dance.

This stuff is interesting to me because you didn't see punk rock and say “Oh this is what I need in my life”, you were already kind of---

To speak in terms of cliches, you were already thinking outside of the box...

I was lost! Very lost. I'm still lost, but Noise helps me.

I was told when we were in Columbus that you drive 90 mph and listen to no music at all, even when driving for 6 hours. Is this true?
I did not drive for six hours. I left my hotel in Worthington at 0830. I arrived 2113 E. 98th PL/Chgo at 1237. No music whatsoever during my drive. I find music tiresome. However, I LOVE! the sound of my automobile engine, downshifting. It thrills my groin. After I returned from the military, my mother gave me a Chevy (Automatic gearbox). I traded it for a 1967 MG(B)-GT. Manual transmission. Four-on-the-floor with Five Overdrive. And now? Sadly, although my new jalopy reaches 140MPH, it is silent in Sixth Gear at 4000 RPM. Damn!

I wondered if you ever had any interest in making dance music. I know that you had a friendship with Al Jourgensen while he was still doing dance music and I know that you were in these dance bars and stuff...

I have never wanted to do music. Ever. Actually P. Michael is the responsible party behind what I'm doing now, and I would probably be in the Ashram, but because he wanted to do sounds and environments that appealed probably to that same person I mentioned earlier who was on the stage in Mississippi or even in my grandmother's parlor with sticks on my fingers. And once I got to Chicago and started going to day and evening classes at Northwestern University, University College studying art, then all these possibilities opened up to me that I hadn't even thought of, thanks to Dean Louise Love. In Mississippi, in 1946, one would never think art or take art. Art did not exist in Itawamba County. But once here and looking at things, you can combine genres, and have sensibility as much as you dare. You pay the price but hey, if you want to do it, there's a place people will let you do it, and that's the fun part. In grad school I was doing overlays of sounds and vernacular architecture, and it didn't matter how I made these sounds anymore. And of course it shouldn't relate in a way to dance music. I'm sure that there are experimental approaches to dance music but I just haven't had the time or the reason to think in that direction. Maybe before I'm dead. The computers that I have and the sonic software that I have now; I would have fun with experimental dance music. But at the moment I really need a lot more stuff going on than music allows. Stuff like the words that can be heard. The sounds that aren't just easily measured but have surprise in them and have elements of concealment, elements that something fun is happening. I'm having fun!

I know that you mention “overlay” but I know that the ONO LP “Ennui” had no overdubs...

When we go into the studio it's actually like an ONO show, we do all these things straight through and when it's done, it's done. If somebody wants to do some overlays, then I'm willing to do so, but of my own volition would I say “go back and overdub and put in more tracks” I wouldn't. I'm done, I'm half way down the block doing something else and I think people should have fun with it, and in the meantime I'm thinking about how to put it on stage and have fun with the live version of it (overlay) because I don't want to have the live version sound like the studio.

1975 photo by Sandi Block, courtesy of travis
I've heard the story about ONO at the Cubby Bear, and if you have any funny stories about ONO performances, this would be a great place for it...

(Laughs) I hadn't thought of it. 1980 to 2011, what is funny now is very often only funny in retrospect. Meaning that you can look at tragedy with a comic eye. I've been along for the ride. Very often I will do or go where ever P. Michael says to go, as long as it sounds fun. “Oh the lights have gone out in the venue, and it's in the middle of winter! Oh well, ONO's still going to play because we've got candles that travis is going to make this huge altar out of. And of course there was the time when we had candles and created the altar for a film op, in fact, where Enemy [a live venue/loft space in Wicker Park] is located now, I created this giant altar, it was so beautiful with all these candles and white lace everywhere. And the wind came through the window and set the lace on fire. And it's all caught on video, of course we put out the fire, but there we are having this ritual. We've got all these mannequins and candles and suddenly BAM! This fire. It was so weird! And of course in Indiana we went down, with Mark, this very cool filmmaker and musician from Pile of Cows, down near East Chicago actually near those giant refinery chimneys with fire pumping out of them day and night. Not far from where I live actually. Mark wanted to film us, and we of course said yes. And all the fire's pumping, it's very toxic, and we're filming away, and it’s snowing, and security comes and throws us out, and they get it on film. Those kinds of things are the fun stories for me, and we got a lot more.

I'm imagining now, now we take for granted the fact that venues are going to be around, but in the '80s I think that the ability to play somewhere was more rare, and also you had a lot more adversity, there were a lot of people getting beaten up just to play punk rock. So you put ONO in the mix, and there's probably a lot more adversity, and plus you guys were playing in abandoned warehouses and in the ruins of abandoned buildings...

That's part of the fun.

It seems like a lot of fun, but as you say, it's easy to laugh about it when it was a long time ago, but the electrical stuff is dangerous right?

It is dangerous. However, ONO was never limited to conventional equipment. We loved Pile of Cows, who made their own instruments. Actually it was so much fun to play with the Pile of Cows person a couple of weeks ago at Empty Bottle Roctober party. That was very cool. Years since I saw him. But Pile of Cows had this building that was out I think it was in Des Plaines, and it burned, and what did they do? They organized their fun bands, and they considered us one of those and said “Come! It's burning and we're going to have a party!” ONO packs up our noise-making stuff and out we go into the ruins of it. There's a Cadillac that's still smoldering and the tree branches are still smoldering. There I am wearing all this white lace up in a tree with a length of chain and a metal garbage can cover reciting occult poetry. That kind of thing is much fun. You mention danger, there's always danger but by then I'd gotten used to danger. Remember, long before I'd gotten to Cleveland or even got to the military I've had life threatening issues all along, simply because, in the Black Community, if you look like travis, and act like travis, you get called names. Like PUNK! You're a “punk”! And being a punk means something different in the Black Community, and every Black Community I've ever been in than it does in your community. And even when I was in Mississippi, being called a punk was extreme, it meant, and still means, that your limbs can be broken. It also means that you have no right to live. People get killed. Men who are thought to be punks are thought to be men who wear womens' clothes who like men and don't like women. That is of course a limitation that's pretty far out, but that isn't even true in the wider Black Community, but it is a perception that you do not have the right to live. It isn't the over-arching Black Community, but every Black Community I've ever been in, the idea of being called a punk means that people can do anything to you, and they will not be punished for doing so, because you don't have the same right to live that straight people have. That has been there all of my life. My mother's friends used to call me very very bad names, punk being one of them, and I had to grow up with that. That also links to the story of sticks on my fingers. I went to church every Sunday, with a bible and the whole nine yards. I could recite the bible from one end to the other to these mean, mean evil black preachers who had very bad things to say to me – even though everyone knew their past, and sometimes their present bad behavior, but they would never consider defending me. This was before I was even a teenager, and they're telling me what a bad creature I am. I am not human. You don't get the respect of being called a human being. You are subhuman, when you are called this “punk” creature. So I would be called these wild and wicked names at school, and on the way to church. Then one evening, these guys much older than me, attacked me just blocks from my house, and I was protected only by my mother's best friends' son. He said “leave him alone”. They were going to strip all of my clothes off. They tied my arms to a fence. It was very bad. They of course knew they'd get away with anything, and I said nothing. Although nothing sexual happened, I was absolutely terrified by it. Two weeks after that, coming back from piano class, I go past the baseball field where they are playing and recognize one of the guys that did the bad things to me, and I had this complete breakdown. I'm sure it was a breakdown of some sort. I went up to him, something I would never have done; I went up to him and hit him with a baseball bat. I began beating him on the back, he fell and I just beat him upon the face with it until he bled and bled and bled and bled. People had very bad things to say to me about that. And then, my mother came home from work and her words to me were “I am going to beat your ass to a true perfection come Saturday morning at Ten O' Clock”, and she did. She beat my ass until I bled!

Wow... Well, for good or ill....there's something that is really admirable about you where you're a very free spirited person but you're also a very disciplined person, and it's very rare to see that.
I suspected that something like that may have happened to you in the military, and I told you I was going to ask you about that but maybe I shouldn't...

I spent 6 years in the military remember. After boot camp, the Navy sent me to Radioman “A” School in Bainbridge, Maryland, for Communications training. You need a high security clearance, they do big background checks on you and all of that. Even after my background checks, and my security clearance had cleared, I was pursued for 6 years because the Office of Naval Intelligence tried to convince me or themselves or someone that I had committed sodomy at some point in my life, and they never found any person or any instance of this. Of course they couldn't. I had not committed sodomy. But they were convinced, and I don't know who tried to convince them. In communications, you've got to have security clearances. If you have a top level crypto security clearance, you cannot be thought of as being queer, you can't have a record, there are a number of factors that are considered security threats. But for reasons that I have no clue, the US Navy decided that I had committed sodomy. They never found anything, any person or any instance of it, but it meant that I went through years of lie detector tests. It meant that I went through years of being followed, over and over and over. And, ironically, I loved being in the military. I had a great time in the military. But being followed and getting lie detector tests about sodomy over and over and over again was terrible! Especially since sodomy was something so bad in Mississippi … You would never even say the word sodomy. I joined the Navy when I was 17 years old. My mother signed. We got these papers in the mail, and it was really weird. When you joined in 1963, the Department of Defense sent you this batch of papers, and the last few questions were “have you ever engaged in unnatural carnal copulation with another person of the same sex?” And you have to answer Yes or No. “Penetration however slight, is sufficient to complete the offense”. (It's a great phrase. I've never forgotten that phrase. I love that phrase.) “If your answer was Yes, were you the active or passive partner?” That totally freaked me out, but I joined anyways, because hey I was 17, I knew nothing of sodomy and I wanted to see the world. And boot camp was great. I went to “A” school. After the Navy’s background investigations were completed, I got my security clearances, and then I got my choice of duty stations. I chose Naval Air Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And there, on my 19th birthday, I get called by the local office of the Office of Naval Intelligence for a full day of interrogation in which my body was strapped in with lie detector monitors, wires and cables. They tried to force me, or a single man tried to force me, I remember his name to this very day. I remember what he wore, what he smelled like. He tried to convince me that I was a sodomite. The word sodomy over and over and over. Have you ever or did you not on this or that day over and over and over, and all these machines are around me and they are gauging my response. This went on for one full day, and when I got back to the barracks that day, 6 of the communicators I was close to disappeared entirely. They have never been heard from since. Their beds/mattresses were turned back, their lockers cleared out, their names removed from all records. Imagine how that made me feel! It was like that.

Wow. Did you see battle? Were you on the front line or anything like that?

I did not. I was not engaged in direct killing of human beings. I was trained to do so. In Cuba, during the Dominican Republic conflict, I was part of that. And the reason was, as a communicator, your first task is to make sure that communication lines are clear. So you get training in weaponry, marksmanship, even archery, which I loved. I kept my guns absolutely oiled and clean all the time! But the most important thing for me was my purpose, and my purpose was as a communicator, to make sure that those who were out there in the line of fire were protected by good communication. I liked being in that role.

Well, the question I get from that is, I wonder what your stance is on gun rights?

Well the constitution gives you the right to bear arms, and I do not speak against the constitution. There are a lot of things that the constitution gives you the right to do, and in terms of a personal opinion, I haven't formed one, and I like being in the position of being a writer who can observe and not have to take a stance. However, I have been very close to people on several sides of that question. One person, a lawyer, whose lectures I never miss when he's speaking publicly because it's a scream, he said, and says often, everyone should have the right to bear arms and not only that, he feels that you should be able to carry your weapon and not conceal it. He says that is the best way of reducing crime because each person will get a good sense of how long they would last because of the size of the other person's weapon where they can see it. I have a lot of trouble with that of course, but at the same moment, we don't know, at this point in history, why do people carry weapons? As a black person, I'm much more concerned that black folks do not understand that the revolution is not over. What can you do? How can you advance America's thinking without weaponry? As a Native American, I clearly see how far we are denigrated without the use of that form of force? How many ways are there to get your point across? Do we really understand language? And with the amount of cynicism that I see around me, that I find intriguing because people are doing and being the very people that the New World gives them the right to be and do. So, if they're killing each other off in droves with their concealed or unconcealed weapons, this is the world that we created, and we continue to create that world. This means that we at some point call a halt to what we consider the constitution, and say now we've got means of killing other people on the other side of the world without drawing a single weapon. Now, what are we going to do about the weapons that are on the south side of Chicago? Yes, those conversations will happen, but I think they only happen when people really want them to happen. And then we need to define the terms, and what people make those political decisions. We may think that art is not political, but all art is political, always. And so, there are ways of carrying your gun without having weaponry or bullets. You've got words, you've got sound. You've got all this racket. You can ask well, “what kinds of sounds do veterans make?” “What kinds of sounds do people who have fought wars make?” “What is it they are trying to say?” “What do they have to offer, what do they have to share with us?” I don't know, I have no sense of that. Would I carry guns if I felt I had the reason to, probably not. Simply because of the deaths that I've seen. And it does me no good to talk about how people die, and the fact that for every person who dies there's this mother whose reason we do not identify with mothers and what is the relationship that we share with women when we say that war should go on in the traditional sense. I don't know. I think that on one level, we will do what we will do. That seems non-philosophical because that's what always happens. Is there something that we want from what we do and can we define it over, say, short terms and advance the argument say five years down the road or ten years down the road? This is like marriage. Should you be married for ever and ever and ever? Is marriage a natural state? No it isn't. But then it's a sense of order. There are so many facets to it that in the end, for me, it's better to be able to observe it, and find my own piece of it, and peace within it. Although, I haven't found that peace within it, I'm just having fun creating with what is happening.

I'm also not a political person, and I've been trying to think of ways to explain this, because if you say you're apolitical then it must mean that you're apathetic. I don't typically feel that way, I just don't think that I'm particularly inclined to be an activist or someone who can change anything.

Well maybe you don't see yourself that way but I do. When I see your shows, such as the show that you did in Columbus, Ohio, or the show following that at the Viaduct Theater – Highly political.

Well, I had never thought of that. The idea of something being political, I always think of an outside force. For me those things were basically personal. Maybe it is political in a sense. I think in terms of environmental issues and societal concerns that I'm going to be who I am regardless of. Talking to some people who are politically involved in a more literal sense, I have a difficulty with that. People who will tell you “If you're not part of change, you're part of the problem” and stuff like that.

Well, being from the 60s of course, there were many many ways of being politically active, and I was out there in the thick of it. I was out there doing research, and of course, you couldn't say that that was not activist as well because the people who were behind the scenes sitting in the library digging up the numbers on the Department of Defense, behind the fence, which was the big issue of the day, and the Vietnam War. Well, I had been to Vietnam and I had been in communication, and there were many things I couldn't say because of my security clearances and all of those things. I did in fact go to Washington and get tear gassed and all that goes with that, and got rescued by the weathermen, the Weather Underground. I learned to respect groups like that as well. I don't see their art really as being any different from your wearing a mask on a stage that you're torching. It's a stronger statement to people who have looked at political movements. There are many of us.... Operation PUSH, it was wonderful to work with, for a minute. There are women who have thrown themselves down in front of 18 wheelers and all that, and men too. At the same moment one of my fellow members of Operation PUSH Choir, died after being dragged under a car driven by a hit-and-run driver, in his wheelchair; dragged up and down the street by people who didn't know that Operation PUSH exists. Their relationship is “We can't know what we do not know” and therefore when this person is in the position of making a statement for a group that he is to represent is the person who kills him, well I think it's no different from looking at our environment and saying well, the environment is going to hell, and it has been going to hell, and there's nothing I can do about it, but when you're on stage with a mask on and you've got a torch that you are torching this metal mask, you are making an environmental statement [I was actually only using a belt sander]. The only difference for me is that the audience is perhaps larger out there than you and me. But then, you define who is your audience, because your audience expands with each person who sees it and carries the message. And so those things become equally as important, and it becomes less important for me to make a political statement than it does for me to step out on stage in a full costume whether it be a military uniform or a 50 foot wedding dress and say “Here I am”. That is a political statement as well. So I don't see personal distinctions to be made. It depends upon what is your commitment to the cause and who is paying as well. The economics of political engagement are as important as what's said or done.

You know, I have to ask, did you have that opinion when you were in the service? I imagine you in your military uniform wearing women's underwear underneath just to stir things up, even if it's not your particular fetish or anything, just to contextualize a conversation you would have with some other person in that environment. It's somewhat inspiring to think that you draw those conclusions from some of your experience in the military. Instead being dumbed down or brainwashed into being a normal person, you sort of stepped out even further. I'm thinking about a person who faced a great deal of adversity even the sense of your spiritual study.

I've never given it a thought. It sounds good as you're saying it, but frankly it's odd. I feel as if I'm just living a life. I may be entirely out of control and I probably ought to have more control because I'm 65 years old and I ought to think about retiring and being nice in my old age and getting ready for death and all of that, but I don't care! But to answer your question, when I was in the military, I was pretty outrageous. Once I got settled into boot camp. The night I arrived -- I was in the Navy from 1963 to 1969, a very formative period in American history -- we get to boot camp (Great Lakes, Illinois) early in the morning, one, two o' clock. Five o'clock reveille, meaning you just got in; you slept; haven't had a shower or anything else, because they tell you five o'clock you're going to be up. Well, at five o'clock they start pounding hammers and actually garbage cans, it sounds like an ONO performance! These garbage cans and all this racket because they know you're new and it turns out that that very morning, all the hot water pipes were frozen, and I refused to get into a freezing cold shower, and that was the last time I ever refused. This big six foot tall Master At Arms (his name was Simon, I shouldn't say his name but I remember him perfectly), he picked me up … here I am a 136 pound shrimp, snatches all of my clothes off and deposits me into this cold shower, 6 shower heads spraying on me. And that is how I learned to say “Okay, what's next?” So I get to this environment of men. I'd never been around men before in my whole life. Suddenly I'm 17 years old and I'm in an environment where there are just these men and they're military people, and we're learning to do military things together. Well, at that point, I didn't have the tools of behaving normally. I was simply who I was, and I'm not sure what that was, but I was surrounded by all of these people and someone telling me what to do every day, what to wear every day... All of this stuff was happening, and I think it was because of my background in Mississippi that I absorbed it that way. I went on with what was happening and didn't even think twice about “How do I look and feel contrasted to the rest of the people?” It was after boot camp … and in fact, in boot camp, everybody is thrown into huge burning ships and you learn to depend on each other for life and limb and everything. So you learn this very close bond. After this you get to duty stations where a huge amount of that training remains. But at A School, where I went from boot camp, suddenly I had to think about graduation and all of that. It turns out, somehow, I loved A School, I became a communications supervisor there. So I had more of my way about just about everything.  Then aboard ship, it gets strange because, you're completely removed from the world that you knew for nine months at a time. Well, I was a great supervisor, and it turns out all the people that I supervised loved me, and so what wound up happening, is that yes, Arvo, we went, me and all my crew would go ashore and fuck together! We would go to French ports and have these French prostitutes who would wager about who could last longest with them. That's another life, another part that, who knows how it was happening, but I was in it, and so it wasn't as if I was being male or even queer or even bi or anything like that, I was in the moment. That was for me. I was doing some very very bad things with these sailors, in every port around the world ... Let’s just say I was a sailor in the traditional sense of the word, baby!

I appreciate your willingness to share these private things...

Well, you asked!(laughs)

Well there was part of that with the women's underwear and stuff, but it doesn't seem like you've discovered yourself, it seems like you've been this way.

I still haven't discovered myself, which is why it's so hard to answer your questions! It is this trip, this ongoing event. And I guess just as I haven't settled into “well how do I feel about this political organization or that one?” I don't feel that I have to discover myself because I want to be able to FEEL both sides of the … If people disagree absolutely with something I say or do, I want to be able to feel exactly what it is, and to hear them rather than to overlay them with what I consider to be a truth. Because I'm still changing too, the things I'm saying today will not be true in tomorrow. I mean, personal opinions about myself today and the way I feel about whatever will not be true in X amount of time. And I'm willing to be that flexible to change because I have to; because life has always been that way for me. I can't count on tomorrow.

You definitely strike me as an agent of change. You do inspire a lot of different opinions in people whether you seek out to do that or not. I've had 49 jobs in my life, so my career path is different from yours (not nearly as disciplined). You do have the spirit of someone who throws a wrench into things, and it's fascinating to think of how you interacted with people in the military that way, not specifically women's underwear but...

Had I any clue that it was easy to find them, I'm sure that I probably …. I love the feel of good fabric against ….[we both laugh for a while] But for so many things you know, the only answer is “I don't know!”. It's not difficult to say I don't know what I did or why, but I can tell you the environment around or how I see myself having moved into it from various perspectives. Why? Simply because people like you have asked me similar questions, and caused me to think about it. And I'm happy for that. Otherwise, I'm as lost as anybody else. And I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, I don't mind being lost. For right now, I'm able to learn so much that, it has been good for me, and I don't have regrets. “Well gee I wish I had or had not”, I don't have the time for that right now. I am doing things that are fun to do, and I'm not hesitant to say “I don't know why it works this way, let's go see what we can find out of it”! So you've had 49 jobs, you've learned a lot of shit, Arvo!

You've studied in the occult, you've practiced what you would call rituals when you were a child, and I have to ask, did you have the desire to change the situation around you, or was it more of a personal dialogue with yourself of just discovering different concepts and how they relate to the outside world? You're very adaptable, but I wonder, did you believe in magic? Did you want to pull strings on your personal situation if you're studying in the occult and you're writing in these magazines... I don't know to what extent your knowledge was, it could be strictly for poetic reasons that you're reading things like that but I think about someone getting out of the military and diving into that stuff, and I'm curious what your perspective was.

I didn't have a perspective. I thought, when I started looking at the occult writings and such, it just fit what I was already doing. Religious rituals I've always loved and being a part of it in church. The idea that the occult has this wonderful language that has many layers and many meanings always appealed to me. But what it actually does, what the practice of the occult does is as foreign to me now as it was then. The Cincinnati Journal and the people attached to it did great rituals and all of those things. What the outcome of the rituals were intended to be, I did not know, I was not at all interested in. I was interested in the words, and how the images in the words transform me rather than say, what would be the outcome of rituals at New Year's Eve or rituals in parts of the world, because they were literally everywhere. The reason why I think that I was not as interested in causing phenomena, if you will, is simply because I've always had phenomena around me. I mention briefly the event at this church, when I was asthmatic, well for me that was phenomenal, in the sense that whole ritual, and the result of all of that... Would I try to create such events in other environments? No, because I am not permitted at this point. Would I later in my life? Who knows? But also, I see a path between my study in Kundalini and the relation... physical phenomena; emotional phenomena; phenomena caused by breathing techniques and/or diet. I was studying Kundalini, reading with the Theosophical society and with various other groups, and not the least of which was Kung Tao, martial arts. And all of those things should be seen as one whole for me rather than say just the occult, because I see them all fitting into my interests of the day in how I was defining my world. Once I got out of the military, in 1969, the world is all in all, a very dull and boring place. When you don't have a theater of war or some extreme and exotic place that you have to be, that you have to do something very specific in, and that you have a communications task in, or [you don't have] something that isn't related to the military or international affairs... If you're in an ordinary city like Chicago or Cleveland and you're back from 6 years of military responsibility in places like the South China Seas or the Middle East, what do you do? What do you do to make your life interesting? There really isn't that much reason to live in an environment unless you give it a reason. And what kind of reasoning do you give? I wasn't thinking of it at the time, but I went back to Akron University and discovered that jeez, I'm very very bored here. Off I went to Cleveland, Ohio. Then between Akron and Cleveland, all of these things, these 1960s people are now transforming themselves. I run into this music community and these INSANE people in Cleveland who are doing all of the things that people talked about years ago. Peter and Krokus and Billy Bass and all those folks are in the neighborhood. And on the weekends, you're going down to Mayfield Road and designing new costuming to dance in. It gave me reason, fun and excitement, and interest, in my life. Very often military people do this: “I need to become a responsible citizen, I need to get this degree or to do that” and people do that, but I did not, and I don't know why I didn't do that. It's very irresponsible on my part because I could've gone directly into schools and done lots of incredibly wonderful things, and still got immersed in all of the madness that was going on in Cleveland, instead of going to anti war rallies. Remember I'm immediately out of the war, but still now I'm going to anti war rallies in Washington DC and places like that. It is logical on some level then, for me to get involved in Kundalini, because it is this wonderful Yogic system. In fact all Yoga systems are based in Kundalini and the idea that I could learn surrender, that's what Kundalini is about at root, learn surrender. It took me down a very different path. So suddenly I find myself in Kundalini and Krishna Consciousness and I'm “in it,” and I love it! I'm suddenly in this other world and I'm still going to anti-war rallies, I don't know why I was doing this. I was probably out of my mind then, probably still am, but those were the things that were exciting and important to me personally. At that point, I had no idea about art, no concerns. It was not even on my radar, but somehow I got there. But those things come in a certain.... You're forcing me to think about cause and causality, and that sort of thing, and I can't say that I have any reason, and it's embarrassing to say but I don't have any reason for writing in occult magazines, except that it was an expression of beautiful things. I mean Beautiful writing! And they rendered it in beautiful calligraphy! And once that started I got published in 20 other magazines. It was beautiful work; the words were beautiful, meant to be read aloud. That was important, and it's still important. Later, in Evanston, I studied Calligraphy with Peter Fraterdeus. It's almost like putting on layers of clothing. After the military I was putting these other layers on. And I'm where I am now, and who knows what that means. But I can't say that there is something I was hoping to get out of occult writing, but it was good for me in terms of my own writing, and publishing in these beautiful magazines. That kind of beauty has always been, for some reason, important to me. I don't know why any of this is important to anybody on the radio, Arvo!

If I remember correctly, you were a very good student, so you're going to anti war rallies and you're studying these obscure spiritual concepts, and you're doing sound experiments, and I don't know anyone else who has done that at the same time. So it's fascinating to me, if it's not fascinating to other people, I don't care!

There, now take that! [Laughs]

I'm kind of alarmed by your humility, but …

Well, it isn't humility, it's just that I don't know … I'm not going to pretend that there's a … I have no plan!
My life isn't about plans. If you met my mother before she died, you would've seen what my mother was like. She was a motorcycle biker. A diesel dyke. The woman was insane! She was mad! She was crazy! We even look alike, except I have more facial hair. In fact, just before she died, she said, “Okay, it's time!”, and that was the end of that. She had paid for everything: the burial, the vault, the casket, the long gown that she was buried in, with pumps to match, and the Sheriff's escort on the way to the burial. Everything, and she said “Okay, I'm dying now!” that's it! That's my momma!

I hate to give you the impression that I'm asking about the causality of your life, I'm more just intrigued about what it was like. As much as we can dig into ourselves, a lot of us can't uh....

Well, you're causing me to actually think about things that without this kind of talk... I don't... you've been to my house, you know that I was not likely to put them together otherwise, but you said we're going to talk about maybe art, maybe bars, maybe... and then I said “Oh gee, okay, well let me think about some of these …Then I started thinking about it, and it forced me to look at “Well gee, what a dismal failure my life has been!” But how much fun I am having living it!

Well, I wouldn't call it a failure...

Well, come down to my part of town!

It depends on how you measure it. That might be part of how you've achieved so much. With another interview that I did, I spent a lot of time, I typed out all of the questions, I had 6 pages of questions. With this one, I have some notes. I know I don't need to plan it that much out. I could've helped you prepare better, I guess, but it seems to me that maybe I should've helped you prepare less!

Well, maybe, but when you said “Ah, we'll talk about some things...”It's almost like focusing your brain, or channeling. So there are all these things on my mind now that were not in particular order before you said that you wanted to have this chat. And for that I am happy, because it means that probably this summer, I'm going to get together soon and say “I think we should make a little dance piece, you and me, using computers, something that I would like to dance to” because Arvo asked me about dance. Because I love to dance! Until I got here on the south side (of Chicago), and people down here don't dance. Isn't that ironic? It makes me crazy! So I have to do my own dance, I just pump up anything that I can find and dance around in my silk panties.

I have to admit I'm one of those people that don't dance, unless it's to make myself or other people laugh. You know, I don't know if I've ever told you this but I started out with electronic music trying to make a kind of industrial dance music, and I just failed. I failed terribly, and it became a sort of experimental noise music, before I'd ever been listening to noise music. If I were to be influenced by something that caused me to start making noise music, it would be something like Atari Teenage Riot or KMFDM or something. I do have a history with dance music, but not a fruitful one I guess.

Well see, I don't necessarily mean traditional dance music either, because I like to experiment as much on the dance floor as I do with sound. Waves and waves of long, long, years ago I actually did some classes with Laban Movement, this German concept. Laban was this very odd movement that is not at all beat driven, and it's really wonderful. And remember also, back in the 60s, when I was going dancing in these gay bars in Cleveland and Akron, it wasn't about the beat and all; oh no no no no! It had much more to do with what people now called “vogue”, but without necessarily putting electronic music to it. We danced to juke boxes. And you entered! the dance floor. You entered! the club or bar. For instance, in Cleveland here was Twiggy's and the The Orchid Room right down Prospect Avenue from me, and I designed a new outfit every weekend, and I “arrived” in the room, to whatever was playing. You moved to the ambience of the room. It wasn't to the beat at all, and that I love. In fact, I love this phrase: “All movement is dance”. I started doing this stuff, Kundalini, Krishna and Kun Tao (Kundalini Yoga has all of this wonderful movement), as dance in a staged environment.

I consider myself fortunate that someone introduced me to Butoh, when I was 20 or 21 or something like that, because I find it really fascinating.

Yeah! Well see, good thinking! Now look , it's midnight Arvo, we're going to have to continue this another time because I have to be up and working in 5 hours!

Can I have 2 more questions?


One is “When did art come into play?” And the second one is “I know that ONO did the soundtrack to Alice In Wonderland, and I wonder what the motivation or the approach to that was. Did you think about The Mad Hatter when you were making the music or anything like that?”And then you can leave it however you like.... And I want to thank you for taking the time.

When I get to Chicago, I'm at Northwestern University School of Law, and P.Michael, Kathy and I are practicing/reading ONO stuff. I meet Mark Berrend as I'm rollerskating home from my office at the law school, and he's this huge German kid crashing into everything. We meet at the water fountain at Diversey/the theatre building. And he says [with travis's impression of a German accent] “I have no one to skate with me, do you want to skate with me?” Sure. It turns out Mark has this art show up. I bought my first piece of art; $450 for this piece of art, wonderful piece. “Sir Edgar Ravenswood Enters The Room From The Opera Lucia di Lammermoor.” We then become roommates (never lovers, as some people thought). P. Michael had at that point decided that he and Kathy and I are going to... Well, P.Michael convinces Mark to buy a guitar and not take lessons. So we have Mark, P. Michael and me, because Kathy just disappears... She keeps in touch, but she has an extraordinary lifestyle. So Mark, as an artist, his whole family are artists, decides we are creating Abiogenesis studio. Okay. Suddenly I'm dealing with artists. And it didn't matter at that point to me personally, except that whenever there were art festivals and art events at Northwestern’s Evanston Campus, or Chicago Campus, we played. And then later... Skip ahead, because I create art with Mark, and in fact we create Abiogenesis Studio, P. Michael, travis, Mark and it's in our house and it's really fun because Mark knows all of this stuff, I know nothing. P. Micheal is at the School of the Art Institute so it worked very well, except that I was often disagreeable about concretizing an image, for instance. I was always wrong. Later, in 2001, by then I was going to Paris regularly. I go to Paris, and I'm at the Picasso Museum, and various other places, and then suddenly it hits me in Paris, where they show you the evolution of modern idioms, including African masking and where Picasso's concepts originated, I thought “Damn, this is mine!” I got on the next flight; came home; bought $100 worth of art materials at Utrecht, and the next morning at six 'o' clock, I started painting. It was as simple as that. 2001. And I've been painting ever since, religiously. Every morning I do art stuff. Now my work is exhibiting in Tokyo. My Tokyo solo show just came down last week, and another one man show will go up in Tokyo next April, that's fun. I have another show in Europe at the end of this summer. My interest in art has much to do with concepts that I grew up with in Mississippi. There, art is decadent. Art for art's sake really has no bearing on life to a Mississippian, a black Mississippian. That's how I grew up. Any art work that you find from Mississippi black artists are functional items. But that work became known as Art outside of Mississippi. In Mississippi they're functional objects. So that has everything to do with why my art looks the way it does rather than “this is a piece of work that is art for art's sake” not at all. And I like doing that although I think that art for art's sake is much healthier, because a thing can be its own good, rather than a function. Its own good becomes its function. I think that also with black art, the nice position to be in right now is evolving an idea about what does black art mean? Why should it look like Eurocentric art? Because your world is different, why shouldn't your art be different? If your world isn't different, it's cool. Why force it to be? My experiences have been fun in a different fashion than Eurocentric artists and I would like to be able to represent that as well.

I'd like to know more about your urine/sheet metal art pieces [travis has had several pieces of sheet metal , and your garden installation. I'd like to know if something significant spurred these ideas or what your motivation was for it or what you are trying to say with it or anything like that.
Art For Art’s Sake is not a value in my background. Art historically, Black American art Objects and Ideas that are, these days, recognized as “Art” served a functional, utilitarian purpose. My Piss Pieces, like virtually all of my work, seeks to define and limit my creative boundaries. Despite “l’art pour l’art” art historians base entire oeuvre upon “meaning.” My life is, so far, meaningless.

What other artists where you inspired by?

I’m too new to art to be tethered to “inspiration.” Every morning at 6AM I rise and I create for an hour. Period! I don’t wait for inspiration. I’m unsure I would recognize Inspiration if she kissed me. Although I am careless, I recognize that I need discipline. Of course, I also need to pay my mortgage.

I know there's Velvet Underground, ? & the Mysterians, The Stooges, Sallie Martin, and so forth. Perhaps there is more that made an impact on you?

Mahalia Jackson. James Cleveland. Thomas A. Dorsey (I carried flowers at his funeral). Brother Joe May. John Hampton (my mother’s husband). Chopin (var. Polonaise). Stravinsky. I got to these performers not because of their music alone. Their presentations were dynamic! And old Black women singing highly emotional vocals in Mississippi took me there. I spent my earliest years with my maternal grandmother, Finous Mary Magdalene Wall Stegall. She had very little to say about most day-to-day events, but she Hummed (always SLOWLY) nonstop. Itawamba evenings often echoed with Hum singers projecting from front porches. You could feel the train ‘a comin’ half-a-mile away. Seemingly secret sounds wafted across a gulch, and met contrasting Hums house to house. Sometimes recognizable spirituals; sometimes deep, guttural chants that I channeled as emotions, as the words were unrecognizable. People in Itawamba identify, deep into their bones, when I present, say, a Con Ta Te or a Kyrie, etc., in Latin. The word meanings occupy a separate realm entirely. The Call/Response of academic lore is not the Call/Response I experienced. There was, and remained until recent years, an idiosyncratic sonic/rhythmic/metric disconnect that was jarring and NOISY to outsiders.

Now, the sound that we used for Alice in Wonderland. James Fotopoulos, the filmmaker, saw ONO do “Heroin”, Lou Reed's song “Heroin” in Go-Go Town, a venue in Bridgeport, the first time he saw us, and I cannot believe that there I was doing “Heroin” wearing this long, frilly dress and frightening people because I had a machete' and I absolutely hacked myself out of this dress with this machete' and people thought that I was losing my mind. But I was in it! The noise accompaniment was PERFECT! (The song has always had a very strong meaning for me. I met people in Cleveland that used uncut heroin. Somehow, they felt they could tell me all their biz-ness! and I would understand them. I didn’t, but I listened, and I watched their behaviors and their logic.) That's when James Fotopoulos decided ONO should do a part of his soundtrack. So after that we get the script and look through what is happening and the concept is a really great concept. And it goes off to P. Michael, and P. Michael says “Okay, here's what we are going to do. And then it turns out, we played this studio, Swing State in Lake Villa, IL. Near Wisconsin, and out of the blue, we had been pouring over it in rehearsal, and thought “Why not now?” We did this, and then it became a matter of editing. Shannon Rose Riley out in California then edited what we did, and added her overlay, because as you remember, she was one of the original ONO members and so that's how it came to be. It's actually a lot of fun, and you may have heard that we're going to be performing the soundtrack this summer.

Yeah, I'm looking forward to seeing it, I didn't get to see it at Elastic Arts last time.

This actually will be the whole of it, and besides it's going to have James Fotopoulos’s film screening either behind it or at least with it depending on how the space works. That will be fun. Okay! You are an insomniac, you love to be up, I am not an insomniac, I am going to bed. It was wonderful to talk to you darling, but I have to go! Bye Bye! Thank you!

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