Helena Thompson was living in San Francisco in 1999. She had been making music for 25 years, but balancing her artistic ambitions with the rigors of a nine-to-five schedule didn't entice her. When Thompson saw an opportunity to join the Minneapolis Fire Department, she made the cross-country move. She may have to work 48-hour shifts, but it would also allow for time off to pursue her own creations.
Moving forward a few years, that ambition has spawned the performance troupe Purest Spiritual Pigs. The project consists of Thompson and a rotating cast of musicians and performance artists from around the country. Purest Spiritual Pigs released an EP in 2007 and the full-length Body Misses (which contains the entire EP) in 2010; to close out a busy year, December brings a rare performance titled "The Swine Show" to the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater.
Purest Spiritual Pigs was born out of a variety of factors. Thompson has been a longtime fan of performance and conceptual art, and she sought a way to incorporate all of her interests into a single, running artistic project—one that she could pace around her own life.
"I felt like if I were to just do music that I would be neglecting this other interest or desire," she explains. In addition, her work schedule, while ideal for creating art individually, is not very conducive to working with others on a regular basis. This way, "if I'm inspired to do something solo, I'll just do it," she says.
While Thompson writes all the songs and records them at her home studio, the entire collective has played a role in making them what they are today. Thompson has amassed a number of friends and fellow artists to play instruments and offer choreography, video, and other assorted disciplines. Her role is song craft: writing lyrics and percussion, and instigating collaboration. Her songs vary in texture from simple ones driven by traditional instrumentation to drum-heavy tunes layered with digital effects. She's adept at guitar and bass, but Thompson's passion is the drums, and it shows through the distinct beats that permeate the moody, atmospheric, and often dark songs. Throughout the songwriting process, the project is similar to a traditional band. However, once the songs are ready, Purest Spiritual Pigs incorporates additional conceptual arts, giving new breadth and even new interpretation to the final product.
With such a broad project, simply getting it off the ground has taken time. "When I wrote all of these songs, I never wrote them with how I would do it live in mind," Thompson says. "I really haven't been able to play out until now. It took this time to figure out what to do, who to do it with, and how many people to involve." Once that was decided, she had to reconfigure the songs to fit within the performing lineup.
The Swine Show will feature live performances from Body Misses with Thompson on guitar, Natasha Hassett (Revolver Modele) on bass, and additional depth triggered by Thompson's Roland TD-7. A separate act will include "Shreds Two." ("Shreds One" occurred in 2007 at Bryant-Lake Bowl.) Here, local choreographers, dancers, and video artists will utilize "remnant soundtracks" for an interpretation. Manipulation, distortion, and "butchering" of the original material are encouraged. In the case of "Shreds," Thompson herself won't see the final product until dress rehearsal.
Beyond the cathartic value of playing music, Thompson clearly gets pleasure from working with artists whose own work she admires. "I don't have any interest in sitting here and saying, 'You do this and you do that.' I feed off of what they're going to do and I'm picking people where I feel there's some sort of a common thread." By choosing her collaborators, she keeps the group's sound unified despite so many different players. "The other thing that keeps it together," she explains, "is I do the main singing on all the material to tie it all in." Thompson has, so far, handled almost all of the lyrics, vocals, and drums for the project. "I think of them as bookends," she explains, giving consistency to the band's sound.
"This is kind of the beginning. Now there are probably 20 to 30 collaborators. I'm hoping it will become the biggest band in the world," Thompson laughs. Of course, simply coordinating such an event has taken several months. After this weekend's run of "The Swine Show," Thompson would like to get on a stage more often, likely in a scaled-back band, and saving the broader artistic elements for a special showcase every year or two.
PUREST SPIRITUAL PIGS' "THE SWINE SHOW" takes place this FRIDAY, DECEMBER 10, at the BRYANT-LAKE BOWL; 612.825.8949