May 30th, 2011
Let's see if I've got this straight...
Once upon a time, there were some bizarre mid-80s songs riffing on the Beatles — something about the 20th anniversary of the summer of love. They fell into the glow surrounding Mondo 2000 magazine, and in a deconstructive burst of creativity, became a flexible vinyl record inside the printed magazine. Almost. But then the same creative team decided to do "something disrespectful and different " to the industrial and acid house music of the mid-90s's — and then somehow, Trent Reznor gets involved. (At the mansion where Charles Manson murdered Sharon Tate — but that's another story.)
Reznor's label ultimately signed "Mondo Vanilli", but then refused to release their first (and only) album, I.O.U. Babe. Nearly 20 years later that lost album suddenly re-surfaced on the web, crashed all the servers, and then continued falling through time. The whole album is now finally available for downloading for just 50 cents at BandCamp.com (which also offers a full preview), and re-visiting it all now is like an alternate history of the '90s. R.U. Sirius's original band "The Merry Tweeksters" gets reincarnated into "Mondo Vanilli" while resurrecting some lyrics from Sirius's forgotten '80s band "The Party Dogs" — and also in the mind-bending mix were a performance artist named Sim1 3Arm with some cool music composed by Scrappi DuChamp (and a crazy music theory professor lurking somewhere in the background).
But the band hoped to pioneered what every '90s visionary would later prescribe — virtual reality. Mondo Vanilli's shows dispensed with the cliched self-indulgent ritual of an actual performance, and instead inadvertently preserved what the "Unheard Music" blog called "A lost artifact from the heady cyberdaze of the 1990s Bay Area." And in another web miracle, the voices behind this virtual phenomenon have impossibly become real again. Just as mysteriously, R.U. Sirius materialized before me, and began explaining what it all means.
10 Zen Monkeys: You were eyeing a six-album deal with Reznor's label at one point. Was that as exciting as it sounds?
RU SIRIUS: Suddenly, we were confronted with the idea of a serious major rock career. Would I be the first mildly overweight, weird-looking lead singer to launch into rock stardom at 41 years old? Anything seemed possible. On the other hand, the contract locked us in to a record company for a long time and it looked ugly. So anything also seemed impossible.
10Z: But you were also looking at touring nationally as a breakthrough performance art "phenomenon". So what kind of cyber-fame visions were sparkling in your eyes?
RU: We were asked about touring. I don't believe there had ever been a touring rock band that eschewed ordinary performance in an absolute sense. Maybe The Residents, but they were sort of more outside traditional rock, musically. We began to daydream about something on a Robert Wilson scale and sent along a proposal for the theatrical presentation to the record company, which I'm sure scared the crap out of them.
If I remember, we also suggested that rather than tour like a band, we would tour like a theater group. So we could do a few weeks in San Francisco and a few weeks in NYC... that sort of thing. There was no context for any of this within the usual and very inflexible routines involved in promoting a new rock band. I'm sure it would have made more sense just to give in and get a bunch of supporting musicians together and just do an ordinary theatrical rock show with some non-ordinary lip sync-ish type elements in which the band completely disappears from stage for periods in favor of something else.
10Z: So ultimately you'd use virtual reality to become virtual stars?
RU: As far as cyber-fame visions and all that, it was all so experimental and seat-of-the-pants making it up as we went along that it was hard to really envision it all, but our agent was pretty experienced and thought we were going to be successful. And we were being asked to think about music videos, a conventional and popular medium that I think we could have used to great advantage. Some people thought Thanx! would be a hit. I may have been a one hit wonder... which, if you've ever had DMT, is all you need.
10Z: So will this music ever finally be released as a CD?
RU: As a matter of fact, a CD is going to be available in about a month, and if people drop me a line I'll put them on a list for it. (To this address: Sirioso @ Yahoo . com ).
10Z: Is Mondo Vanilli's music even more relevant today? Or if I said that, would you accuse me of just being polite?
RU: Conceptually, Mondo Vanilli might be less relevant in the sense that you've already had something like the Gorillaz… also Milli Vanilli has faded somewhat as a historical sign post and one of them committed suicide. Also, there's more hostility now towards the sort of reflexive irony and postmodernism that we were playing around with then. I don't think I would choose to do Mondo Vanilli now. I mean, I'll do it right now if there's a demand for it, but it's not something I would come up with today.
And some of the lyrics are dated. "President Groovy lobs another bomb / I'm gonna help Prince make a CD ROM / Sitting in the dark with my modem and my gun / We're gonna stay in tonight Rosey and make that data highway run."
Actually, there's a funny story behind the Prince and the CD ROM line. One of his "people" — a middle aged, very straight and uptight looking white dude with an attaché case, as a matter of fact — came up to Mondo 2000 to learn what he could about this whole "cyberculture" thing, because Prince wanted to make a CD ROM. This was after I'd already quit the magazine, but I happened to go up to the house that day to hang out and discovered this meeting would occur. It turned out that Madonna's people had been around just a few days earlier to get cyber hip.
Meanwhile, this was a particularly desultory period around Mondo. There was a super-weird vibe around. So the guy (who shall remain nameless, but let's call him Jasper) who was the point man for organizing this meeting with Prince's representative was drunk. And I remember sitting there with the rep after he'd shown up in the living room of this second Mondo house that had been established down the street from the original… and there were maybe a couple of other Mondo people who had come by for the meeting, but nobody came in to speak to the guy… they all went upstairs, and there were slamming doors and slurry words and weird noises emanating from above. And I just sat there in front of this poor guy just sort of smirking.
I think maybe after about a half hour, people came into the room and "Jasper" introduced himself and there was this sort of meandering and pointless conversation. It was pretty hilarious. I didn't say a fucking word the whole time.
Anyway, back to Mondo Vanilli… people seem to like the music more now than they did then. I think there might be two reasons for that. For one, people were much more purist about their genre identities back then… and we were all over the place. I actually thought I was being original when I described us as genre benders. It actually seemed like a real challenge to some types of subcultural conformity. Now, pretty much everybody's eclectic, probably because of this tremendous access to all sorts of music.
Secondly, people expected a certain thing from me back in 1993 or '94. It would either be a musical hacker manifesto or it would be groovy raver positivism, but it would have something to do with how they thought about Mondo 2000. And this album was off on a weird angle, lyrically and musically. I used to tell myself that it was a great album but it wasn't a match to anything that anybody wanted. I think that was probably true. It was an orphaned act of creativity.
10Z: You told one interviewer that most of the audience seemed to hate your experimental live shows. Some guy described one particularly amazing performance (in the comments on an article at Boing Boing about IOU Babe). He wrote:
I don't know if it was a Mondo Vanilli performance, since Sirius was the only name/face I recognized, but it was a trio of him, another man, and a woman, so chances are good.
… I think the second guy was singing, or yelling, or something, but it's a blur compared to what I vividly remember: R.U. Sirius sitting in a crib, clad only in a diaper, smearing chocolate 'poop' all over himself and crying for his mama. 'Mama,' meanwhile, had removed her pants and was plucking hardboiled eggs out of an Easter basket, inserting them into her vagina, and then 'laying' them on a plate outside the crib.
I witnessed this in silent awe, standing no more than 5 feet away from the players in this narrow little shotgun-apartment gallery with maybe 15 other young confused hipsters, for 20 or 30 minutes. When things looked like they were about to take a turn towards 'audience participation,' however, I quietly but willfully made a beeline for the exit.
It HAD to have been a prank performance, a spoof on the grand folly of bad performance art, because otherwise, if it was sincere, it was the wankiest pile of poo I've ever witnessed. But at least it gave me a great ' And that's when I realized I was truly in San Francisco' story.
So… do you remember that?
RU: Yes. It was Sim1's "Send Me To Paradise" performance at Art Attack. It wasn't an official Mondo Vanilli show. We didn't use Mondo Vanilli music, but we were all involved. Actually, the crib — which had spikes pointed inward — was on one side of the space, near the window, and Sim1 was several yards away in front of most of the audience, so she wasn't actually "laying eggs" in front of me. I don't remember much audience participation. I do remember that guys came close to Sim1 after awhile and started doing something… maybe fondling the eggs!
Sim1's performances were always funny… and that was their intention, other than the presentation of a sort of series of tableaus. It was like viewing a series of surrealist paintings, most of them involving sexuality or excrement.
Her crib remained in the Art Attack gallery window for a while and caused some protest from socially responsible types.
10Z: What other performances did you guys do that caused trouble?
RU: I think there were some bits of trouble that I've forgotten, but I don't remember much specifically. David Pescovitz (from Boing Boing) told me that a woman he knew was so offended by Sim1's part of a Mondo Vanilli performance at Café Du Nord that she kicked over a can of paint. I don't remember that happening, but I remember that this really valuable lambskin coat with a fur collar that used to make me look rich and dignified (which I bought for only $80 at a girlfriend's insistence. She kept on whispering to me that it was worth like $800) got soaked with white paint when I was moving stuff off the stage after the show. That single act might have wrecked my potential life as an elegantly wasted entrepreneur, now that I think about it.
We did a performance titled "Eat Cake" at the new age Whole Life Expo that went over like a lead balloon. I don't think anybody liked that one!
10Z: Will these stories be part of the MONDO 2000 History Project… and how is that going?
RU: Absolutely. I'm sure there are some funny stories that other people can fill in. The History Project is going pretty well. I think I can complete it within the two years deadline I set for it. I recently had a breakthrough regarding how to write my own memory fragments… Basically, if I give each memory fragment a colorful title, it inspires me to tell the story as a story and to have fun with the language. I just figured that out a couple of weeks ago.
10Z: Why do you think Trent Reznor wanted to sign you guys to his record label and why do you think you never heard from him after the whole thing crashed?
RU: Well, I should mention that he'd taken shrooms at the party so that might have entered into his good feelings about our demo tape and promotional package. The promo package was pretty audacious and absurdist. He might have been swayed by the affected arrogance and the real disrespect for record industry conventions. And it was a good demo tape! It had versions of Thanx!, Love is the Product, and Wraparound World on it. It was good shit.
He was still excited about us after the psilocybin wore off.
Who's to say what happened after, aside from the situation with Interscope, which I don't blame him for. Maybe he didn't really get the album, as a whole. We heard he liked some of it. He also went into a well-publicized… ahem… downward spiral around that time. And we did make merciless fun of him for a few years after it all happened. He may have seen the "Keane painting" that Scrappi made of him, which we had online. Sad big-eyed Trent, with the text "Take a walk down lonely street" on it. We were pretty mean! (Laughter)
10Z: You're a pretty big Reznor fan, aren't you?
RU: I'm a medium-sized Reznor fan. I really loved Pretty Hate Machine and The Downward Spiral. But to me, all the stuff since then seems like more of the same. I know that fans and critics all say, "Oh, he's changed so much," but I don't see it. Scrappi used to say that he should show some real flexibility and do an album that's totally pop. I think he could do a great one. That would be really interesting.
10Z: Is there anything about your dealings with Nothing Records that you would add to your previous interview on Unheard Music?
RU:Yeah, the weirdest thing was what happened after the record was completed and the Nothing management suggested that we should have a manager. So after we approached a few people we knew who turned out to not be available, we asked the record label for advice. And they put us in touch with Olga Girard, who was the ex-wife of Trent's road manager, Gerry Gerard! She was managing Monster Magnet at the time, and maybe a few other bands... I don't remember. But she went to L.A. for a couple of weeks, and it was either right after or during the time when we were let go by Nothing Records.
And when she returned, naturally we were hoping she could use her influence and do some battle for us. And she told us something had happened in L.A. that made her decide to quit the music industry entirely. She wouldn't say what happened, but she said it didn't have anything to do with us. And she did quit the music industry, totally, and wouldn't really communicate with us at all. A total paranoid breakdown. Maybe the Illuminati got to her! They're tryin' to keep R.U. Sirius down, man!
10Z: Isn't it weird how the actual music industry has changed so much (with people downloading individual songs from iTunes, listening alone on their iPods...)
RU: It is all very strange. Is this what we wrought? I like the idea of an album. A song like "Free From Head" probably doesn't have much resonance unless you're listening to "IOU Babe" in its entirety. I mean, it has a nice jazzy feel, but what the fuck is it? If you're listening to the whole thing though, it's an important part of the atmospherics and the gender dialectics.
But I think there are a lot of generous open-minded people out there now who will listen to an album as an album if you tell them that's your intention. I remember maybe about 10 years ago, Lou Reed was ridiculed for telling people that his latest album release should be listened to as an album and not just scavenged for songs. I think more people are much more willing to be appreciative of what someone is trying to do now. The knee jerk snarkiness of generation X has been modulated a bit... no thanx to Mondo Vanilli, of course!
10Z: What would've happened if Mondo Vanilli had gone on American Idol? (Or America's Got Talent...)
RU: Many televisions would have bullet holes in them.
10Z: Are you surprised that downloads of the 20-year-old album have exceeded the bandwidth capacity at the web site that had been hosting their big comeback?
RU: It was a shocker when the release on BandCamp went onto Boing Boing and we discovered that we couldn't give everybody the free copy we'd promised. Now we're used to it and growing fond of the 50 cents apiece. Hmmm, 50 cents. Maybe "Get Sick or High Crying" should be the name of the Mondo Vanilli comeback album.
10Z: How do you feel looking back on it now...
No, actually Mondo Vanilli was a lot of fun. There was a whole lotta laughing going on. I do think I should've been a rock star. I'll just say that flat out, even though it's both a cliché and a bit of a taboo within countercultural circles. I think it fits my personality.
I think the world would have gotten more from me, in the long run, if I could have been even more self indulgent!
Meeting Trent Reznor on X at the Sharon Tate Horror House
Hear Mondo Vanilli on BandCamp
The Mondo 2000 History Project
Introducing the Mondo 2000 History Project