Portland, Oregon; Spring 2001: it's a Saturday night and we've crammed ourselves into a dank little bar in Old Town. The crowd has dyed-black hair, torn jeans, Betty Paige bangs, and four-season leather. It's a thrash night, and we've just learned that the guys we want to see are third on the bill. A shaggy teenaged boy opens; he stares at his sneakers and wants, obviously and desperately, to be a guitar hero. The crowd likes him well enough; maybe they remember what it was like when they were shaggy, desperate and obvious too. A twenty-something bunch follows, roaring, their fingers egg-beater fast on their guitar strings. The lead singer has a razor grin. Bass boils through the floor and the crowd roars back at the band, pressing close to the stage. This is what they came for. A mosh pit develops. Beer flows across the floor. Kids at the front glow, slick with pearlescent sweat. Then their set ends, the bar goes dark, and twenty minutes later, it's our turn.
The boys mount the stage in pressed white shirt-sleeves; ties; studded belts; horn-rimmed glasses. This is what we came to see. The crowd quiets a bit when the bassist steps up to his mike and begins to read from Parable of The Sower. Then the drummer raises a copy of The Sheep Look Up and also begins to read. Seconds later, the lead singer follow with The Lathe of Heaven, the guitarist with Dune. Around the bar, a dozen or so others are nodding and smiling along with us. When the reading is over, we, the die-hard dozen, scream our lungs out. A few drunken thrashers scream along with us, but the rest of the crowd seems a little confused.
Soon, the spotlight comes up again. The lead singer grabs the microphone. "This is Frank Bellknap Long!" he yells, and, feverish, launches into a lecture on Long's oeuvre. There can't be more than a handful of people on this earth who could get a beer-sodden thrash crowd to listen to an English Lit lecture. Thirty seconds later, the audience is sufficiently educated, and the guys begin to wail. Jake the singer holds the microphone over his head and belts out the song in a growling voice that's monster-movie low. "No reason! No corners!" he shouts. Two minutes later, they're done with the pulps and ready to move on to the New Wave. "Our next song is about Harlan Ellison!" Jake bellows, and the geeks, the hipsters, the metalheads, and the drunks let out a howl of mutual joy.
Blöödhag -- note the dual umlauts -- hails from Seattle. Describing themselves as "edu-core," the band performs nothing but two-minute thrash tributes to science fiction writers. Between songs, the band pelts the audience with paperback books, quizzes them on book titles, and demands that the audience show their library cards. Their motto: "The Faster You Go Deaf, the More Time You Have to Read."
Last month, we visited Blöödhag at the Seattle home of bassist Sir Zachary Orgel. Also present were guitarist Dr. J. M. McNulty and singer Professor J. B. "Jake" Stratton.
Strange Horizons: Where did the idea for the band come from?
Dr. J. M. McNulty: We made up the idea from a little thing that Jake and I would do just sitting around the house; we wrote a song about Edgar Rice Burroughs and we were joking about it, wouldn't it be funny if we did that. Then Jake started writing lyrics about this n' that and I actually started listening to a lot of metal at the same time.
Professor J. B. "Jake" Stratton: We were always a metal band. We wrote those songs and I just thought of every fact I could think about those guys. . . . Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tolkien, and Moorcock.
McNulty: A. E. Van Vogt, who was my favorite writer at the time.
Stratton: We just wrote those off the top of our heads with the basic knowledge I got from reading the books and the little biographies -- and it wasn't until we started doing the band that we went back and studied up--
McNulty: And my mom gave me a couple books about it, like "here's a big book about these sci-fi authors." Thanks, Mom!
Stratton: So our early songs didn't have nearly enough details about the guys. They were just funny little songs.
SH: Who were the first songs about?
Stratton: Van Vogt, Burroughs, Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, Kenneth Robeson, J. R. R. Tolkien--
McNulty: Joanna Russ
Stratton: Well, Joanna Russ was second era.
McNulty: I wrote Joanna Russ.
SH: So Blöödhag has always been Blöödhag?
Stratton: Under the name Blöödhag we've always been the same. Writing about authors was a hell of a lot better than the subjects that have already been written about.
McNulty: How much more can you write about your ex-girlfriend?
Sir Zachery Orgel: The first year we were together I had to write down all the authors I knew off the top of my head, then I started going through all my collections of short stories. I made a list of 150, 160 authors.
McNulty: We've got fodder for the next five years.
Stratton: We've got 35 songs? 36?
McNulty: Way more than that. Like, 40.
SH: When did you guys play your first gig?
Stratton: Our first gig was a party at the house where my girlfriend and I were living.
McNulty: '97? '96?
Stratton: I thought it was '95. We were just winging it, inflicting ourselves on our party guests. One of our party guests, our good friend Brent -- who wound up being our drummer a few months down the line -- he got us our first real gig, at the former all-ages place down in Pioneer Square, Area 51. That was the first time we wore ties.
McNulty: Did we wear ties at the party?
SH: Is that when your look came together?
McNulty: We decided if we were gonna do it, we'd have to do something out of the ordinary. Since Day 1, we wrote simple precepts about what the band was going to be. Science fiction, really short songs. We always threw books. Shirts and ties, everything.
Stratton: Having a stage outfit defined us as a band and also drove home the fact that we weren't just some other metal band.
Orgel: In many ways, we're a shtick band, but it's very liberating because we don't have to worry about what the song's gonna be about. It's gonna be about a science fiction author.
Stratton: Right, then it's up to me to find a resource that has enough information -- good information. Some biographies are thin, you know what I mean? A lot of time I'm writing about an author I haven't even read yet.
SH: Like who?
Stratton: Oh, I can't say. A lot of time I end up reading them as a result of someone in the band giving me the book--
McNulty: We're doing a Gene Wolfe song right now.
Stratton: Then I get these guys to give me the facts.
McNulty: Like the lyrics to Moorcock.
Stratton: Right, or some major storylines in their best books, and I see what I can come up with. Other than the personal interest, I try to put in information about their major themes and theories, book titles, anything like that. In the early ones we were trying--
McNulty: We were trying to be funny--
Stratton: We were trying to be funny, and we were trying to lampoon metal styles at the same time. I was actually learning how to play--
McNulty: and sing, and everything else. The early four-track shit is hilarious, it's so funny.
Stratton: He's gotten really good now.
SH: The Alfred Bester line about L. Ron Hubbard is really funny. "When Campbell fell under L. Ron's spell, Bester said, 'man, you can fucking go to hell.'"
Stratton: I try to have one funny line in there, at least funny to some nerd who's read everything about the guy, if no one else.
SH: Well, metal is like the nerdliest music.
Stratton: Yeah, most people who like metal are ugly loners.
McNulty: Rock-star metalhead guys don't like to think about it that way, but it's geeky as hell.
Stratton: I've said this before, but anybody who's particularly obsessed about any one thing is a nerd. It doesn't matter how cool you think that thing is, you're a nerd to somebody else. Like those hoity-toity record collectors out there. They're cool in their little world. Football nerds? Football players, they're nerds. That's all they can talk about.
McNulty: Baseball fans. Baseball is the geekiest sport of all.
Stratton: Even if it gets you girls, it's still nerdy.
Orgel: Not like Blöödhag really gets girls.
McNulty: Oh, don't say that.
Stratton: We're beating them off with a stick.
McNulty: No, not us. We're just sitting around on tour talking about different writers, making fun of them.
Stratton: Not making fun in a bad way.
McNulty: No, not at all.
Stratton: You sit and you think about it and you analyze it, you realize, aw, this shit's actually kinda funny.
McNulty: I think everything's humorous. I could be in a totally dark doom band and that'd still crack me up. That's why I like dark doom metal, because it's hilarious. The more serious they are about their music, the funnier it is.
SH: It's like you sprang fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus. You had the look, the tunes, the book-throwing. You see any change in direction, like including other kinds of writers?
Orgel: Our next album is for authors who are normally placed in the literature section but whom we consider sci-fi. Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, William S. Burroughs, Aldous Huxley, J. G. Ballard. Orwell, of course.
McNulty: That's Appetite for Deconstruction, our new record.
SH: Is that out yet?
McNulty: It's recorded. It'll probably be out by the end of this year. We definitely like horror too, though we're not going to write about Dean R. Koontz or Stephen King. Although we could do a song about Stephen King, but I kinda think he sucks.
Stratton: I try not to do too many songs where we have a really negative opinion. I felt like I was too negative in the Harlan Ellison song, I was negative in the Robert A. Heinlein song and I think that ultimately I did them a disservice--
McNulty: Well, it needs to be said, man.
Stratton: I'd just rather reach for something positive. What we want to do is look for ways we can expose Blöödhag to the rest of the world rather than switch up what we're doing. I still don't feel like we've done enough. We'll never get to play a stadium or anything like that. But I sure would like everyone to know about us. The other side of Blöödhag that's developed is the literacy program, playing the libraries. Even though we have a lot of fun with it, we're actually serious. I don't care what people want to read. I just want them to want to read.
SH: Tell us more about the literacy program.
Stratton: It's something we want to expand.
Orgel: A couple years ago, Jeff Katz, the young adult program coordinator for the Seattle library system started doing the "Shake the Stacks" series, getting bands to play the libraries, getting kids to see the library as a place to go, which was really very clever. So we played one of them--
McNulty: We were so excited to play--
Orgel: We just clicked, it was so up our alley. We did summer library tours two years in a row, with the contacts they gave me.
McNulty: A lot of stuff has happened because of that. We played at the library in Bellevue, and then it hit the fan and we were on NPR, Weekend Edition, and Bellevue public access. Also, we helped out with a guy who was doing a movie about James Tiptree, Jr. -- we do a song about her.
SH: Yeah, after the NPR spot, two of the editors at Tor mentioned you on their weblogs.
McNulty: Oh, really? Tor Books? That's really exciting.
Orgel: The library thing, sometimes it's good, sometimes it's a little bit of a bummer, because you're in this podunk little town, they look at it and go "huh?" but overall afterwards, it's pretty positive.
Stratton: The kids get into it, and a lot of the younger adults, after they warm up and get adjusted to the music. It's like being in cold water. Older people, once they've adjusted to how loud it is, they start to absorb what we're doing, and then by the end of it they see how the kids react, and they're into it.
Orgel: Next spring and summer, we're going to go on a tour of pretty much the whole nation, and I really want to do libraries. We've got dates booked at libraries St. Louis and Ann Arbor. I've been writing people at the American Library Association, but I haven't gotten a lot of response yet. Though the publicity we got from just doing libraries in western Washington -- we made a documentary about that -- it's been kind of amazing. "There's this metal band that's playing libraries!"
Stratton: Both my parents were librarians and library directors. My mom works on various literacy programs, and that's sort of where that came from, but it also comes from playing so many rock shows. People take home the books we throw, then come back to us a couple years later and say "I hadn't read a book in twenty years."
McNulty: And it happens more than you think.
Stratton: So we're all like, "this shit actually could work, you know?" So that's another angle, to make something worthwhile out of it.
Orgel: And we want to play cons.
Stratton: Why not play sci-fi cons? Although it's preaching to the converted, I just want to play to a room where, when you say the name of the author, everyone will go "woooow!"
McNulty: Well, it happens in San Francisco and Portland.
Orgel: I figure if we get into a con, it'll be worth it just to get someone to pay some serious attention to us.
Stratton: One of the reasons we haven't done half the shit we want to, is because we're lazy. We've all got lots of little things going. One of the things we want to get from the ALA is some kind of advance money so we can buy a new van or fix up our old one, or some kind of sponsorship. Exactly the same sort of thing we'd ask for from a record label, some kind of tour support.
SH: I wonder if Tor would be into that?
McNulty: I'd sell out to Tor Books like that. (snaps fingers)
Stratton: It's tough to get support. We're not super radio-friendly.
McNulty: That's kind of what I love about it, playing libraries.
Orgel: Yeah, it's brutal metal, but it goes over in libraries.
SH: Maybe you could play one of the parties at Orycon.
Stratton: Oh, that'd be great. We'll learn a bad cover song if they want -- "Born to be Wild?" Though we should clarify to people out there reading this thing: We're not a filk act, by any stretch of the imagination.
Orgel: Another thing we're doing is we're going to put out a split single with Thomas Disch.
McNulty: It's him reading the first chapter of his book; a rap song by a guy called Saddam X who's popular like Britney Spears, but he's a totally militant Muslim, and militant Islam is really an underground popular thing--
Stratton: He's a twelve-year-old suicide bomber who lived and became a rap singer.
Orgel: On the flipside, we're doing our song about him [Disch], and a couple others. We'll package it like an Ace Double.
SH: Have any writers other than Disch approached you? Are you on any author's radars?
Orgel: I met Ursula K. LeGuin. I gave her the 45 that has her song on it. Someone else had told her about it.
Stratton: I met Octavia Butler. She must have thought I was a babbling freak, I was so nervous.
McNulty: She's got our gear, though, right?
Stratton: She's got our song about her, and our video. And we did talk briefly with someone who was really close to Robert Anton Wilson.
Orgel: I'm on his mailing list.
McNulty: Yeah, he's aware of Blöödhag.
Stratton: We were trying to put together something with him.
McNulty: It was you guys who were talking about Damon Knight, right? Down in Portland?
Stratton: I just read The Futurians on recommendation from my mom. That's the book about the early days in New York, about their little clubs, and their inter-scene politics back in the day, who was sleeping with who and whatnot.
Stratton: And Forrest J. Ackerman -- should we tell the story? I'm so embarrassed.
McNulty: We screwed up like three times. He was supposed to introduce our record, and he called my answering machine.
Stratton: He left a great introduction.
McNulty: He left two great introductions -- I erased the first one. The next one he did was so great, it was like Boris Karloff. Then my phone got cut off, so I lost my voice mail.
Stratton: We were too embarrassed to call him back and ask him to do it a third time.
McNulty: The next time we're down there, I'm bringing a tape recorder or something, and we'll get it for real. I love that guy.
Orgel: Have you seen his house?
Orgel: It's well worth seeing.
McNulty: You've gotta see it next time you're in L.A.
Orgel: He's got a whole Metropolis room.
McNulty: A whole Fritz Lang room.
Stratton: You go down in his book room--
McNulty: You just want to fall over.
Stratton: Everything you ever wanted. Entire collections of pulp magazines on sliding bookshelves.
Stratton: To answer the earlier question about whether we're going to expand -- I think doing this literacy thing is about as far as we need to go.
McNulty: I don't want to get off this science fiction and metal thing too much.
Stratton: I don't know what normal literacy programs do -- they have celebrities read to kids? We'll do that same thing. If we get tired of rocking it then we'll just turn it into a program.
SH: In the Multnomah county system down in Portland, they have a program called "Read To A Dog." They bring a nice dog in, and the kid goes into a room with it and reads to it.
McNulty: That's good, because it gets them over the fright of reading aloud. A lot of kids have that problem.
Stratton: They've got someone who isn't going to interrupt them, or lose interest.
McNulty: And it doesn't matter how long it takes for them to sound out a word.
Stratton: Good idea.
SH: We've seen you a couple times in Portland--
Orgel: Portland, we always have great crowds. They're so well-read there. We have this standing thing where you bring a book report in, and we'll refund your door price.
McNulty: We've gotten a couple too. We got one in San Francisco. San Francisco's the best town, it's like the most well-read punk-rock town in the world.
Stratton: We don't ask for much, like 200 words.
SH: The people who come out and see you in clubs, are they mostly thrashers, or are there a lot of science fiction fans who come out and see you?
McNulty: It's a combination of guys who thrash, are into metal and enjoy the metal scene, guys who are geeks and just like sci-fi, and people who know us and/or like the band. It's a bunch of people you wouldn't think would be going to a hardcore show.
Stratton: We get librarians and old folks and people who are into the various writers.
Orgel: The one thing I like a lot that we've heard is "y'know, I'm not into this kind of music, but you guys put on a good show."
Stratton: Yeah, it's a diverse crowd. The best part is that people are willing to brave these stinky rock clubs to see us, people who, you can tell don't belong there.
McNulty: The intellectuals.
Stratton: The intellectuals, you can tell they don't go out to rock clubs.
McNulty: Like this sci-fi writer guy who came out to see us, and brought his girlfriend with him. She was dressed up to go out, you know what I mean, and this guy dragged her along to this stinky rock club to see Blöödhag. And then I sat there and talk to him about science fiction and horror for forty-five minutes while she was sitting there, and I felt so bad. . . .
SH: How do the uninitiated react to the science fiction evangelism thing?
Stratton: Anybody who doesn't get it, they'll just yell for us to shut up the whole time.
McNulty: And that's great, because then we can yell back at them.
Stratton: A lot of people appreciate the enthusiasm we put into the show.
McNulty: Even if they get sick of our talking halfway through the set, as soon as we start playing, they shut up, and they're rocking. As long as we keep the music up, we're all right.
Stratton: We hear a lot of this at the show: "I don't read a lot, but I like you guys." That's the opposite of "I'm not into this music, but I like you guys."
McNulty: A lot of rockers don't think we're serious.
Stratton: They get there, and the first song is about Joanna Russ, the author of this and this, and everybody laughs. Some people laugh cause they know about Joanna Russ, and they know about the joke I'm telling, but most people laugh because they think the next song is about Satan and pussy. So they're like, okay, that song was about an author, but by the time the fifth song comes they're like, "oh shit, these guys are serious." And as soon as they start getting hit with books it's like, "oh, these guys really are serious."
Orgel: It's gotten Jake in trouble a couple times.
Stratton: I talked my way out of both of those fights.
McNulty: Either that or I have to actually fight.
Stratton: You never know what's going to happen. Seldom do we have no response.
Orgel: The cool thing about Portland is the books don't come back.
Stratton: Sometimes I have to give them a little lecture.
McNulty: We have actually stopped playing. I've walked offstage. In Phoenix, we both walked offstage.
SH: Is there anyone you're reluctant to do a song about?
Stratton: Like I was saying earlier, I don't want to do a negative song. It's kind of like, if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. I want to use the band as a way to promote these authors and get people to actually check them out, not just to talk shit about them.
McNulty: We're not going to do L. Ron Hubbard, we're not going to do Dean R. Koontz, V. C. Andrews, Stephen King, Michael Crichton. Why bother?
SH: J. K. Rowling? She would fly for the kids in the libraries.
McNulty: It'd be silly not to cash in on that. I like that shit.
Orgel: Pullman's better.
McNulty: I don't like that comparison. One's better? It's a totally different deal. One's this, and one's that.
Stratton: Whenever we can, we want to put together CD's of similar authors. Like for kids' authors -- we have a plan to do a CD with Roald Dahl, C. S. Lewis, Lloyd Alexander, Daniel Manus Pinkwater. Pinkwater, I actually corresponded with when I was a kid, I was a big Pinkwater fan. Got a lot of positive support from him. Couldn't speak higher of him.
Orgel: Then we're going to do a whole Eastern Bloc album. Lem, the Strugatsy brothers, and a couple others you don't hear all the time. Technically we could do Asimov, he was born over there--
SH: You guys are really into the classics, like Arthur C. Clarke--
McNulty: We're half and half, man, hip writers and classic ones.
Stratton: There's so many classic writers we haven't covered yet that to concentrate on the new guys--
McNulty: We try to do one and then the other.
Stratton: We did Neal Stephenson, but we still haven't done Edgar Allan Poe.
Orgel: You can get a lot of blank looks. You want to do those classics just for the name recognition. Fortunately, we've already done a lot of the big names -- Dick, Ellison -- we've moved past that, those are old songs now.
Stratton: The old songs are not as much fun to play.
Orgel: We've gotten better.
McNulty: We do resurrect old songs now and then.
Stratton: We go to rewrite them and every time we start rewriting them, we could do a whole better other song.
McNulty: There's so many writers out there.
Stratton: It's kinda nice, because other bands must face the problem of knowing people want to hear their old songs, and never wanting to play them.
McNulty: Could you imagine having to play "You Really Got Me" or something like Ray Davies has to?
Stratton: They can express themselves in their solos. There's a drum solo, a guitar solo. We don't have any solos. It's just the way we are.
McNulty: The problem is, we like so many different kinds of music, it'd be so easy to come up with "this is a punk song about such-and-such, and this is an acoustic song about so-and-so." We have to put boundaries on ourselves, because honestly I could play a space-rock song about Arthur C. Clarke if I wanted to. We could be a space-rock band right now. We all have the skills to do it, but that's not the point. The point is, when we made it up, we said, we've gotta stick to our guns here.
SH: So who brought the metal influence to the band?
McNulty: We grew up on metal. I grew up on metal in high school.
Stratton: So many metal bands had sci-fi titles, art, themes, but most of the time they don't say "this song was inspired by such-and-such." That was probably the initial inspiration way back in my psyche.
McNulty: You know what my inspiration was? The metalhead that I used to sit next to in English class. He would read fantasy and I would read sci-fi. We liked the same bands, but I liked more punk and hardcore, and he liked metal. We would read while the class was going on, and we still got straight A's. That was my inspiration right there. That's what it's all about -- you don't have to be dumbass when you're a metalhead.
Stratton: We want to take the anti-intellectual slant out of rock and say, be smart.
McNulty: Be smart and rock and still not suck--
Stratton: It's not rebellious when the only job you can get because you're so fucking stupid is at the convenience store.
McNulty: And it's not rebellious to talk about drinking and fucking and Satan. It's not rebellious anymore. It's rebellious to talk about reading.
SH: What are you reading? What's your favorite stuff right now?
Orgel: Iain Banks. Jack Womack's Random Acts of Senseless Violence -- very depressing. Lots of non-fiction, stuff about the Freemasons, physics books. Philip K. Dick. Michael Swanwick, Dorothy Allison. Raymond Chandler.
McNulty: Iain Banks. A. M. Holmes, magic-esoteric. One crappy sci-fi pulp and one new or modern thing and then one esoteric.
Stratton: Autobiographies and biographies. History. The last fiction I enjoyed was Michael Chabon's Kavalier and Clay. I was a big comic collector for years, so that really spoke to me. I just read the latest Johnny Cash autobiography, the Dee Dee Ramone autobiography, Graham Chapman. I can't stop thinking about the minutia of other people's lives. One of my favorites is Akira Kurosawa's autobiography. I live a few blocks from the library, so I'll go in there and search up various people and see if they have an autobiography and then request it.
Orgel: Our drummer, what's fun with him is to turn him on to the classics. We're conditioning him. He's not here with us because he's got a gig with another band. He's very enigmatic.
SH: It's like you live the lifestyle, always reading.
Stratton: Well, my cable's out.
McNulty: I read constantly, three books a week. Not voraciously, but a lot.
Stratton: I kinda had the rebellious reaction to having librarians for parents. I got into comic books, movies, anything that wasn't regular books, though I never stopped reading, and I snapped back eventually.
SH: Finally, one more question, the most important of all: teleporter or time machine?
McNulty: Can the time machine go back and forward in time, or only back?
SH: Both ways.
McNulty: Cause if you go back in time and you can't come back -- I gotta be able to get back. But if I could go back in time, I'd already have seen the Velvet Underground and Black Flag at Redondo Beach and stuff like that. I would go everywhere, I would go back to all the places I'm interested in.
Orgel: I've been waiting, it's the year 2000, and where's my flying car? Why aren't we wearing silvery clothing?
McNulty: Where's my hoverbelt? They have the technology.
Orgel: If they wanted to make a flying car, they could.
McNulty: They got jetpacks, but I want a hoverbelt.
Orgel: That's why a teleporter.
McNulty: I'm not really into instant matter transportation.
More About Blöödhag
Several of Blöödhag's songs can be downloaded from the Web in MP3 or RealAudio format:
- "Jules Verne"
- RealAudio format
- "Octavia Butler"
- RealAudio format
- "William Gibson"
- RealAudio format
- "Neal Stephenson"
- RealAudio format
- MP3 format
Blöödhag has produced three short releases and one full-length album:
- G.L.O.W. (Gorgeous Ladies of Writing) (45 EP)
- Hooked On Demonics (Cassette EP)
- Dewey Decibel System (45 EP)
- Necrotic Bibliophilia (full-length CD)
- Appetite for Deconstruction (forthcoming)
- Hooked On Demonics (Cassette EP)
For more on Blöödhag, including their song list, ordering information for their albums, and concert schedules, visit their official Web site.