THE GAME OF POP MUSIC in Seattle today has certain rules. You get the band together, rehearse in various basements, score some live gigs around town, go on a potentially disastrous tour, come back home, get more gigs, attract attention from A&R reps, get signed, and suddenly you’re the next Nirvana/Presidents/Harvey Danger.
But not everyone follows these rules anymore, particularly in a market gone mad.
“It’s clear that the route of playing clubs till a label picks you up just isn’t working right now,” says John Osebold, half of the quirky local band Player King. “I know of too many instances of bands that are signed then fall apart before they can even get out an album. There’s one band I know who recorded their CD eight months ago and are still waiting to hear when it’ll be released, and by contract they can’t do anything until that happens.”
This is partly the result of the merger-mania of the last few years, which has reduced the myriad labels of a couple of decades ago to five huge record companies—down to four when the proposed union between Warner Bros. and EMI takes place later this year. “Someone like Warner Bros. runs into cash flow problems at some level, and all down the chain all the artists who are signed with them suddenly are in trouble as well,” says Osebold. “It’s disturbing to be at someone’s mercy when that someone is a megacorporation.”
Which is one reason Osebold and his musical partner Michael McQuilken have gone a different route with their band Player King—a route that has led them into the unconventional venues of Seattle’s fringe theater scene. And it’s been more than a slight influence on their latest theatrical show, Ballyhoo, a joyfully cynical broadside against a culture obsessed with promotions, advertisements, and putting a price tag on absolutely everything.
Osebold and McQuilken met in a drama class at the University of Washington and quickly bonded with a group of other students to form the theatrical troupe Nomadic Productions (best known locally for their late-night sketch comedy group the Habit). But the pair also found they had musical ambitions and quickly came up with a selection of songs, as well as a name for their band drawn from a character in Hamlet’s play-within-a-play.
Their first four songs were released in 1998 as a self-produced CD, Spondee, and they’d lined up a single club gig when the chance came to work with a local theater company, Open Circle. “Scott Bradley [Open Circle’s artistic director] was putting together this Warhol-themed cabaret called the Veggie Underground, and I had a day job where I would run into him,” recalls McQuilken. “I brashly told him that he should check us out, he did and asked us to join the show.”
Their eccentric debut was a highlight of the evening, featuring a collection of whimsical, jumpy tunes notable for a leaping percussive rhythm and their tight vocal harmonizing. “It came out of a bunch of different enthusiasms, pop and jazz and other things, and a sort of nutty sensibility that we share.” It also led to repeated appearances in theatrical shows as well as some club shows. “We spent some time rather unproductively chasing down club dates after that show, until one night we suddenly realized that it was smarter, both practically and in terms of our sensibilities, to try and find ways of using Player King to combine theater and music.”
TWO YEARS AND A SECOND CD (Enin) later, their efforts have resulted in the two-person “rock opera” Ballyhoo. The show, which was one of three chosen as an Artistic Pick of last month’s Seattle Fringe Theater Festival, is a Douglas Adams-like science fiction romp set in the far future where life as we know it has undergone some significant changes, partly through project “Pack-the-Earth-in-a-Massive-Container-and-Ship-It-to-a-New-Solar-System-Over-There.” There’s a covert war going on between the Friendly Joes, who are in control of the government, and the insidious terrorists known as “the Bellboys,” who are scheming to destroy the carefully constructed future utopia. Only maybe utopia isn’t quite as marvelous as it seems, seeing as there are definite problems with the Friendly Joes’ main product, “Pop-a-Doo,” not to mention the “new and improved” version of water now available (“It’s Back! How very blue it is!”).
The show has the two actors using spoken word and song for almost its entire length while they vigorously leap in and out of various characters, chronicling the rise and fall of the Friendly Joes while selling their audience on a plethora of bizarre products. Most audiences and critics responded enthusiastically, but the pair admit that some spectators found it rough going, partly because Ballyhoo is as much an imitation of the relentless onslaught of ideas and images delivered via TV as it is an analysis of them. “We want to show how we ourselves react to mainstream media,” says McQuilken. “These days TV film shots are on average three seconds, commercials average one and a half seconds. The energy of the show is all about this experience. It’s in your face, with just little snippets of information being given before you’re forced to move on.” The commercials that punctuate the show inevitably end not with a suggestion but the command, “Buy It Now!” “They’re no longer asking for your approval or offering you services, they’re now telling you what is good,” Osebold points out. “‘Obey Your Thirst.’ They say it, and most people buy into it.”
WHILE THE SHOW’S SUCCESS will enable a remount (July 14-August 5 at Open Circle Theater) and a CD release to coincide with the revival, the pair don’t see Ballyhoo as their “shot at the big time,” partly because large-scale commercial success is unlikely for a production that sends up the idea of selling out. “If the show’s not in your face, even sometimes hard to take, we’re not doing it right,” says Osebold. “We designed this show to be equal parts uncomfortable and enjoyable, to break our subject down. If we had to make it commercial, conventional, it would take that away.”
After the remount, the pair plan to take Player King back out for live performances, including club gigs where they can focus on the songs. But they see little reason to wait around for a major label bid. “Every artistic revolution is about the new,” says McQuilken, “but all this corporate-driven stuff is about what’s already been done, because the marketers are studying what’s worked in the past and who bought it. They’re just combining different elements that have proven successful instead of trying something that’s truly original.” And besides, their hearts remain faithful to theater. “Theater’s too good to die or continue to be ignored. There are more ways to utilize theater than are usually thought of, and that’s the direction that we want to continue in. Right now everyone’s being sold on DJ music because it’s inexpensive to mount and has got a beat you can follow for dancing. But there’s a connection between live artists and their audience, how they interact with each other, that both theater and live music provide exclusively.”