Ever dream of leaving the workaday world behind and liberating yourself from corporate control? Or have you ever wanted to put some of your life experiences to music, but it didn’t quite work out the way you’d envisioned? How about experiencing two full weeks of eating nothing but the best BBQ in the world? I sat down with Dave Smith to talk about these and other issues.
Mr. Smith is the author of “King Pignacious: A Swine’s Rise to Power,” a not-quite-rock-opera, decidedly multimedia entertainment extravaganza which chronicles a war between humans and pigs where pigs try to expose the hypocrisy of the for-profit health system and show average humans how their lives are being ruined by healthcare conglomerates and big business.
“King Pignacious: A Swine’s Rise to Power” has its third and final show at the Viaduct Theater this Saturday, September 11. The show starts at 9:30pm and the opening act is Fluid Minds. A portion of the sales will go to benefit CHIRP.
CHIRP: How did you come up with the idea for “King Pignacious?”
DS: The multimedia production that eventually became “King Pignacious” was a direct result of a two week trip I took to Tennessee a couple of years ago. I was looking for the world’s best BBQ and was told it was in this one specific area of Tennessee. I decided while I was there to travel around, sample as much BBQ as I could, and to make a documentary about my trip.
When I got home, I was working with Jeff Kowlakowski (Jeff plays keyboards in “King Pignacious”) and we wrote a song called “Tennessee” as theme music for the documentary. Basically, I never stopped writing music for my imagined documentary. Eventually, what I had was the beginnings of the rock opera/multimedia experience that became “King Pignacious.”
CHIRP: So it started initially as a celebration of barbecue?
DS: (laughs) Yeah, I guess you could say that. Although along the way, it morphed into something with political and social themes. The history of BBQ becomes very important. There’s a war between humans and pigs and the audience learns that BBQ actually came about because humans were torturing captive POW pigs by slowly roasting them and then eating them. Hence the slogan “Low and Slow” that you hear throughout the show.
CHIRP: Interesting. BBQ as torture. Are you a vegetarian?
DS: Surprisingly not. I still love BBQ.
CHIRP: I have to ask about any possible “Animal Farm” connection. The pigs and the political overtones—it seems very reminiscent of the book.
DS: Yeah, we all read that one in high school, but there’s no connection. King Pignacious and his Merry Swine try to liberate humans, not subvert other farm animals. So I guess he’s kind of a Marxist, but he’s no Trotsky.
CHIRP: Who exactly is King Pignacious?
DS: King Pignacious is not modeled after any specific character; rather, the character was inspired by the lyrics I wrote when I got back from Tennessee. It just seemed right to make him the leader of a revolution. As far as looks go, he’s kind of modeled on my English Bulldog.
CHIRP: Have you written any other shows like “King Pignacious” before?
DS: No. This is definitely my most ambitious project to date.
CHIRP: Tell me about the writing process.
DS: I wrote all of the songs myself, and recorded rough demos of the vocals and piano accompaniment. I played these tapes for people I was interested in working with and asked them to comment. Some people were excited about the project, others were not. Some were actually offended that I’d asked them to take part in something so “silly.” But those who were interested in the tapes are the people you see on stage in the show.
We’re all established musicians and we’re trying to do what we do and have fun in the process. We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the audience, so I think those who joined the cast made a good decision.
CHIRP: You said that the cast is comprised of professional musicians. Have you played together before? Do you play the same style of music? How did the other musicians’ backgrounds influence the sound of “King Pignacious?”
DS: Some of us have played together before—mostly in jazz bands. But we all certainly knew each other before the show began. The Chicago music scene isn’t that big. We play a large variety of music in the show. There are about fourteen to fifteen songs and they run the gamut as far as genre goes. There’s punk, reggae, jazz, blues, country, pop, etc.
I was definitely inspired by “Joe’s Garage” by Frank Zappa, at least in the initial phases of writing. But in the show, all of the songs are different and we even have multiple singers. Improv is a big part of it.
CHIRP: So there’s no guarantee it will be the same show every night?
DS: Exactly. We wanted to make it kind of like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book for the audience. What the audience reacts most to is what we play up. Plus, the show itself has evolved with time. For instance, I even added a song called “H1N1”. As the show keeps evolving, I hope people will come back and see it again because it really won’t be the same show they saw six months or even three months ago.
CHIRP: With the improvisation and the multimedia experience, would you say that “King Pignacious” is a little jarring to the senses?
DS: Well, we wanted it to be as over the top as possible. There’s a giant pig’s face that images are projected onto from multiple projectors, while at the same time, the pig’s eyes are old school television tubes that play other images. And we kind of mess with the images in the pig’s eyes using magnets to warp the picture and sound. Obviously, there’s music. There’s narration. There are sound effects. The experience could be considered jarring, but that’s kind of the goal. And it’s not jarring in a negative way. Like I said, we’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from the audience.
CHIRP: So now that you’ve written and are performing your first multimedia show, what are your future plans?
DS: I want to construct my own city of pigs. Not actual pigs, but pigs as they are portrayed in “King Pignacious.” People who are tired of corporations running everything in their lives. People who want to live off the grid. People who are tired of dealing with “The Man,” as it were.
CHIRP: Where would you build this city? Could anyone live there?
DS: Sure, anyone could live there, but at first it would probably just be the band and their loved ones. It would probably be out somewhere in Wyoming or Montana. Someplace without a lot of people. Actually, I think Montana would be best. It’s a much prettier natural environment. Wyoming is too desolate.
Sam Amidon is an experimental folk artist. His newest album I See the Sign has been praised for its unique interpretations of traditional folk songs. The album was produced and recorded by Valgeir Sigurdsson and features contributions from Shahzad Ismaily, Nico Muhly, and Beth Orton. Performing this Friday at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Sam took some time to answer some questions for CHIRP Radio.
You were born in Vermont but have been living in New York City, still making folk music. What’s folky about New York City?
New York City is like 40 little teeny villages off in the mountains all piled up on top of each other. A Village-Tower.
What do you see is the relationship between traditional folk (choirs, untreated guitar, vocal groups, etc.) and the recording studio? Is there a conflict with what you grew up with and technology?
No, because my sense of traditional folk has a lot more to do with what the songs are and how people interact with them, not so much what the sound of folk music is. The significance of technology in folk music is way more about how it affected the way people heard and learned and shared music. So the main thing is that once radio was invented, you didn’t need to play music in order to hear it.
And the other thing about it is that it took memory and its attendant faults out of the process. So with music that was learned by ear and not written down, i.e. folk music, the songs were created through this wonderful series of accidents and forgotten verses, which is less true now that you can go back and check the recording.
Your new album has been praised for its reinterpretations of other people’s songs. Can you respond to that? Was making these songs something else intentional? If so, how do you go about recreating something like that? Can you talk about one song in specific that you are most proud of and why?
The main thing about the folksongs is that they are not “other people’s songs,” they are songs that are slowly created by many people over time, including whoever is singing them at the moment. I do tend to change them around, and partially that’s to make them more personal, but in a way I don’t stress about that too much – if I realize I just prefer singing the song as I learned it, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But sometimes I work backwards – I will write a guitar part or some chord changes, and then realize that a folk melody will fit on top, or won’t quite fit, but that’s nice too.
R. Kelly has, despite his dubious personal life, remained revered in both pop and indie circles. On your new album, you cover his song “Relief.” What about him appeals to you? What about that particular song?
He’s the most prolific and most insane and most melodic songwriter of the decade! I guess that would make him our Bob Dylan. And if he is our Bob Dylan, then that is his “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
How are you dealing with the changing landscape of the music industry? Have there been any particular things you used to do that you can’t anymore? In general, are the way things are changing good for you?
Well, the Internet has made it much easier for my music to be flung farther afield – because of that I was able to start traveling to Europe much sooner than I would have otherwise, I think. And anything that results in traveling to far-fung places is good!
What were the last three records you purchased or downloaded?
“Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, Vol. 2”; John Coltrane, “Ascension,” The-Dream, “Love King.”