Doing The Baghdad Boogie
Voice Cried Softly
12:00 A.M. To 2:00 A.M. Thursdays
KFAI-FM (90.3 Minneapolis; 106.7 St. Paul)
Party Of One
Caught the Blast
If you've ever toiled as a courier, a taxi driver, a pizza deliveryman, or a tramp, you've probably wandered into the nether regions of the FM dial. It is here, in the domain of community radio, that the genres shift abruptly and the DJs often sound as though they were pulled in off the street. Especially in the wee hours, the most frequently asked question is, "What the hell are we listening to?"
KFAI-FM (90.3 Minneapolis; 106.7 St. Paul) touts itself as "a different radio station every hour." In the early hours of Friday morning, it might as well be a different station every five minutes. That's when Icelandic rap shares the bill with boozy jug music from the '70s. Running from midnight to 2:00 a.m. each week, Voice Cried Softly is a hodgepodge of psychedelia, punk rock, and utter weirdness hosted by a DJ who identifies himself only as "Eric." The name he uses in his band, Party of One, is Eric Fifteen.
VCS seems determined to keep its audience off-balance. The show's tag line says it best: "Your lonely psychotic revolution now has a soundtrack." The words "lonely" and "psychotic" seem only too apt: The DJ's milieu is by nature one of solitude, and the show's disjointed patter suggests that reality itself has been forsaken.
One Thursday in the middle of winter, I make a midnight visit to KFAI's studios, which occupy a handsome brick building on Minneapolis's West Bank. As I park nearby, vintage Pink Floyd is pouring from the dashboard: Voice Cried Softly has begun. Eric buzzes me into the building and greets me on the third floor. The studio is nicely appointed, not at all the rag-and-bone affair I'd been expecting. A broad tabletop sweeps around the DJ's chair in the shape of a boomerang. At its center is a mixing console and an expensive microphone suspended from a boom. To the right are CD decks, a pair of cassette machines, and two turntables. Thousands of CDs line an entire wall. These will go ignored for the next two hours as the DJ mines his private collection instead.
Listening to Voice Cried Softly over the years, I'd always pictured Eric as a lanky, disheveled guy in a flannel shirt--sort of like Thurston Moore without the trust fund. In fact, he is slight of build and neatly dressed, and he hardly looks to be in his mid-20s. After a brief comment ca va, he digs into a nylon gym bag full of CDs. In less than 40 seconds he will have to speak on the air and he doesn't have any music cued up. In fact, he doesn't appear to have any particular disc in mind. There is no computer-generated playlist at KFAI. Usually there is no playlist at all.
The clock reads 12:20 when Eric leans into the microphone. He whistles and makes spaceship sounds while an atmospheric track plays in the background. Long pauses and nasal laughter punctuate his delivery as he introduces the show and back-announces the selections. "That was Vapid...'Feeling Percussive'...Although their name is no longer Vapid. It's an ugly story, how they changed it and why...."
DJs are forced to work with a limited palette, their only two tools being sound and silence. Eric's long pauses remind me of Harry Shearer's on Le Show, and arise in equal part from comic timing and a loss for words.
"Basically," he explains off-mic, "my only goal is to finish a sentence. I learned to communicate by doing this show." His on-air spiels are often pocked with weird digressions. "Back in 1978, before I was born," he'll say, "I took a Popsicle stick and put it in a cereal box.... That's my little thing. If you'd like to tell me about your little thing, give me a call."
There are always a number of false starts and technical snafus during the show, despite the fact that Eric has been on the air since the mid-'90s. The scribbled set list--a work in progress--disappears. Eric starts the wrong CD deck. "I don't know what I'm on--I mean, what CD player I'm on," he says. As with several other vocations--figure skating, aviation--the wipeouts in live radio are more apparent than the successes. Eric turns the wipeouts to his advantage, mocking himself and others in the process. "I announced that song last week but didn't actually play it," he informs his audience. Circus music groans softly. "We all make mistakes.... Some people make more mistakes than others. Some of those people are leaders of our country."
At one point, Eric tries to explain his scattered state. Sort of. "I am sleep-deprived. [Pause] I was watching Smokey and the Bandit II the other night. [Pause] That has to be the only time Jackie Gleason drove a bus in his life. He probably didn't drive the bus at all. I'll bet you he had a bus double."
During the next set of music, Eric turns away from the mic and discusses the show's development. "I don't really listen to a lot of music," he confides. What he does listen to, chiefly, is KFAI. "This station is pretty amazing," he says, singling out the program that follows his own, Pop for the Unpopular. Its host, Patti Walsh, arrives early this week and drops into the studio. Later, Eric will return the favor, lingering well into the morning.
"Some people at the station have told me, 'Eric, you should be more professional, more mature on the air.'" the DJ says. (He was briefly suspended by station management a few years back.) "One week I disguised my voice and pretended I was a woman, thinking I'd get more calls." Eric estimates his audience to number in the low hundreds. "I got zero calls," he says.
Still, there are rules that must be followed. The FCC requires that all radio stations identify themselves near the top of every hour. Eric takes this directive seriously, and adds one of his own: "I never promote my own band on the air. That's my number-one rule. It's totally legal but it's in bad taste."
On the subject of debatably bad taste, Party of One's latest CD, Caught the Blast (released by Britain's FatCat label), is a brutal tour of human misery. The song titles alone suggest as much: "Belgrade Sends Its Regards," "Snap You Like a Twig," "Baghdad Boogie." Even the liner notes are larded with dark humor, stating, "No human rights were intentionally violated during production."
Eric tries to clarify. The album, he says, "is about genocide and atrocities--it's just disgusting--so people think it's political. Most of the questions I get are people asking, 'Is there anything you like?' Usually I like to record and let people figure it out. But it's fiction; it's not a representation of who I am."
On the Tuesday following my January KFAI visit, Party of One are to play their last local show before heading on tour for shows in France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and the U.K. Lee's Liquor Bar--a roadhouse on the perimeter of Minneapolis's downtown--feels like an odd venue for a musical revue of torture and mass slaughter. Inside, the bar features a riot of décor: A stuffed swordfish hangs from the wall. Athletes and waterfowl are painted onto the faux-wood paneling. A collection of Elvis decanters looms over a doorway. In a distant corner, the neon Hamm's bear looks like he's been overserved: His huge white eyes leer crazily in separate directions. The lone bartender has little to do. Between drink orders he surveys the thin crowd and absently wipes the counter with a towel. He looks as if he'd like to close up now and have a few belts himself.
This send-off for Party of One sort of looks like a party for one. Though in its early years the band was largely a one-man show, the current lineup includes Terrica Kleinknecht on bass and Geoff McKusick on drums. The touring outfit onstage tonight has the Professor on bass, Mr. Bucket on drums, and Melissa Skluzacek on guitar. "Thirty Links of Chain" plays on the Lee's jukebox as the band sets up. Bustling about is a woman in a red down coat. Her face is drawn, suggesting hard miles. She's smoking vigorously, muttering, and hooting to no one in particular. She's easily the most excited person in the room. She removes her coat, then a sweatshirt, dancing all the while. Then they turn off the jukebox.
Moments later, without fanfare, Party of One segue from their warm-up routine into their opening number. The song features Eric's broken falsetto, a couple of dropped beats, and a sound mix that is not quite right. It seems that Eric is no smoother with his amplifier and effects than with the console at KFAI. The smoking dancer is alone on the floor, gamely trying to decipher the beat. The song ends uncertainly, and the band exchanges shrugs and smiles to a ripple of applause. They seem unfazed by the meager turnout.
So it goes for the first few songs as the band finds its footing. Twenty minutes in, they've hit full stride. "Nail Me to the Wall" is the show's highlight. It could be about crucifixion or lepidoptery--or both. Traces of Killing Joke and the Stooges are apparent enough, yet the song spills into uncharted genres, and the band seems to sense that they're on to something. Bass and drums throb insistently as Eric wails, "You can count on me, I'm so helpless and free." The smoking dancer is now down to her brassiere, her eyes shut in oblivion as she gyrates to the whole gorgeous mess.
Suddenly, Eric unloads a ridiculous solo. Bent over his guitar, he toys with the song's melody for a few measures before stomping on his fuzzbox. A tortured squall slowly gives way to the theme from "Greensleeves." The guitar solo is Party of One and Voice Cried Softly in a nutshell: witty and ramshackle, yet somehow bordering on brilliant. And, true to form, there's almost no one around to take notice.
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