By ERIC SCHELKOPF
Chicago musician Flabby Hoffman has a lot to say on his latest album, the sprawling three-disc opus ''Coup De Ta-Ta's."
The heavily Frank Zappa-influenced album is a refreshing alternative to what the mainstream music scene has to offer. Through his weekly TV series on Chicago's CAN-TV, Hoffman, www.flabbyhoffman.com, also is a tireless promoter of local music.
I had the chance to interview Hoffman, who talked passionately about his music and a number of other topics.
Q - Great to talk to you. Not many musicians are doing three disc albums these days. What made you want to make one? Did it start out a three disc album or did the project get bigger as you went along?
I think one of the big problems influencing the shaping of our culture is that most of us seem to be hooked on people's words instead of their deeds. Politicians, for example, talk about their partisan agenda items to help define the supposed differences between the right and the left so they can basically divide and conquer us, and yet it seems to me that no matter which party is in control, the country continues on the same path towards more consolidation of power.
But we are so focused on what they say that we never pay attention to what is actually happening. My goal is to communicate messages to people through my actions as much as possible as both a metaphor for this idea and to try and help regain a focus on reality instead of spin.
So the first album I did, "Illegally Download This CD," was a single disc, the second album, "Flabby Road," was a double and "Coup De Ta-Ta's," our new album, is a triple. The next one shall be a four disc set and so on.
The message I am trying to convey is that life is about growth. We are all in the act of becoming. Evolving. Using our lessons learned to guide our choices going forward.
When your mind is held captive as ours are in America, and you're force fed as much phoniness, violence and treachery as we get from our relentless media, it's only natural to be fearful and pessimistic. That's how the process is designed to work.
To defeat that brainwashing, we must first recognize the big lie and see for ourselves that our potential is truly limitless. In the face of insurmountable odds, we can still rise above it.
Q - The project was two and a half years in the making. Did you ever give up on it? What kept you going?
Well basically what kept me going was I smoked a lot of meth. Not really. Doing what you love is a beautiful thing.
It helps you, guides you, empowers you...and even washes the dishes for you when you are pooped out. I'm just lucky enough to have found a path for myself.
Once you find that, it's all about allowing yourself to continue. The struggle is beyond anything I can possibly express, but I found that you can choose to embrace the challenge or live in denial of who you really are.
For me, it's as simple as a choice between being alive or being a zombie. The great thing is that the more intense it gets, the more fertile the results.
Here's the thing. What only a few people know is that the whole time me and the Flabby Trio were creating this massive album, I was also writing a book.
I self published that book a few months ago. It's called "The Avant Guardian" and at 770,000 words, it is the fifth longest book in the English language.
And here "the thing" part two. One of the theories I discuss in the book is the idea that COINTELPRO is not only still alive, but more powerful and effective than ever. I argue that there are mechanisms in place to keep people like me, with all my high minded anti-corporate ideals, from ever getting into the mainstream, you know cause it might throw a big fat dirty diaper right into the cogs of the omnipotent machine.
So one of my central beliefs is that I am never going to be allowed to be successful. Plus, I'm old...fat...eccentric and I spend every ounce of energy and time I can muster towards changing the world.
What kind of dumb lunatic bastard would sign me to a record deal, even if my theories on the control of the access to media are true? Have you seen what kinds of people they make stars out of these days?
It's nothing but eye candy, jailbait morons with a low center of intellectual gravity and an even lower threshold for personal integrity. I mean Ke$sha...are you kidding me? What the heck's going on when ever frickin' star they trot out in front of us and ram down our throats is emotionally infantile and spiritually disabled?
And yet, even knowing all that, I still try. Am I off point yet? Sorry...I rant a lot. I rant though, because I love.
Q - You seem to be heavily influenced by Frank Zappa, both musically and lyrically. Would you agree? Who are your biggest musical influences?
Well, the man was just so brilliant and vastly underrated in every respect - as a guitarist, composer and in his message. I consider it a huge compliment to have his influence show in my work.
His significance though is more for me than in terms of the musical process alone. You want to talk about a guy who follows his own creative compass wherever it leads and Zappa was the poster child.
Zappa never got a billion spins on radio like Bland Company, ooops, I mean Bad Company or the Heebie Jeebies, oops, I mean The Bee Gees, and he never gave in to any urges he might have had to sell out and compromise his vision.
That inspires me just as much as his jams do. But Zappa was really two guys.
After the murder attempt in England, he was never the quite the same and there were subtle shifts in the carriage of his content. Still brilliant, but somehow the scar tissue seemed deeply embedded in his process after that.
My biggest influence, however, is John Lennon without a doubt. He had so much intensity and power and spoke with such authority as a writer and performer. And here's a guy who was the biggest star in the world and was totally unaffected by it.
It's inconceivable in today's paradigm. I would list the rest of my top influences as Dylan (up through "Blonde On Blonde"), The Who, The Last Poets (debut album), Stravinsky, Hendrix and John "Mahavishnu" McGlaughlin..
I also love certain vocal groups like The Fifth Dimension, The Lettermen, The Beach Boys (that little window from '65-'66), Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and the like.
Q - The album features an array of musicians. How did you go about choosing the musicians featured on the album? Did you have specific musicians in mind for specific songs?
Well, I've been networking with musicians through the live shows that I promote and my weekly TV series for the last decade or so, and that's one of the major reasons why I created the whole live/television thing in the first place.
I've been real lucky, because my instinct has been correct on a lot of occasions. It's a great way to meet musicians, because you get to know them through their chops and seeing them in action and it helps to get a sense if they would fit into what you are looking to do.
It's important for me to seek both style and compatibility. All the dozens of people in the Flabby Trio love music and performing more than a NASCAR fan loves a 12 car pile up on the last turn at Daytona. For example Baron Rugmunchausen, our main drummer, is without a doubt one of the most brilliant musicians of all time and unquestionably one of the best drummers I've ever heard.
I booked his main band, Lost In Blue, which is a real intense juggernaut of a band by the way, on a show. Planted the seed about playing with the Flabby Trio, had him on my radio show some time later and gave him some jams to listen to and he eventually came on board.
But it's both his chops and his support that have made him such a powerful ally. He helps network with musicians and really put up with some janky gigs while we were doing the album to keep a little fire in the tank.
All the guys who jam with us are profoundly cool people who are so empowering and groovy to hang with. Uh oh, now I'm getting all verklempt.
As for choosing different musicians for different tracks, you are definitely right on there. One of the fun aspects, for me anyway, of writing in different styles is the vitality. The change of pace flexes different muscles and keeps things from getting repetitive.
When you're off doing four hour long albums, battling listener fatigue is really on the front burner. So choosing a jazz drummer to play on "Sex In Public" to get the groove cookin', or picking a heavy hitting thumper to play drums on "Your Heart Can Take A Beating," were definitely the result of me trying to be a good producer and at least look to keep things from getting monotonous.
We cover a lot of ground with this band. Matching the talent with the material is of course a luxury and I really got lucky with that, but that is what I set out to do from the get go.
Another source of our diversity, is I have been writing songs since shortly before the cavemen started drawing on walls. In fact, a few of those drawings show me working on my one of my first songs called "She Gave Me Herpes Simplex While We Were Shacked Up In My Duplex."
Of "Coup De Ta-Ta's" 50 songs, most of them were composed fairly recently or specifically for the album, but there are a few tracks I wrote back in the '80s and '90s. One goes all the way back to 1981.
I was of course only six months old at the time. Yeah, that's the ticket.
Q - Do you plan on doing the songs live in the near future? Do you think the songs will be difficult to translate live, given the number of musicians on the album?
The toughest hurdle in getting enough of the musicians together to play this stuff live is that many of them are frequently under house arrest. What's really imposing is in the green room the band insists on having only brown M&M's in the bowl and my contract rider states that no one can jam with us until they take a dangerous amount of methadone with a baby aspirin chaser.
What helps is that I have three different incarnations of the Flabby Trio going right now, all built with different musicians and all doing completely different sets of music.
Two of them feature a mix of new material and some faves from previous albums and one is an improv group where we just make up almost the whole set as we go. I would love to start introducing new material soon to get ready for the next album soon.
In terms of the live translation of these songs, I've always been a huge fan of "Live At Leeds" by The Who. Not just cause of the pounding jams, but also because the group redefined their studio recordings in such an expansive way.
"Tommy," the album, is an acoustic driven vibe throughout. When these guys whipped out the Tommy tracks in the "Live At Leeds" era, it was a totally different animal.
Powerful, engaging, explosive. I love it. Stones did it too in their heyday. You listen to "Stray Cat Blues" on "Get Yer Ya Ya's" out and compare it to "Beggar's Banque"t and it's like a different song.
The studio version is jamming, don't get me wrong, but the live version is seductive and salacious in ways that the original version can't touch and really makes you feel that the whole band is up to no good.
This whole dynamic is a big part of what we've lost in today's music. With so much of it being canned, computerized, sterilized and pro forma artists don't reinterpret their music anymore, they just wear a different outfit. They barely even perform at all anymore and their live mics are usually turned down in the mix, if they're on at all, and a backing track is the bulk of what the audience hears.
Everything is perfectly coiffed and manufactured. There is no place in today's music for any humanity, style, expression or groove.
I mean seriously, why do you think none of these artists release live albums anymore? It’s a dead genre. There's no point in releasing a live album anymore because its all the same thing.
What are they going to do for the live version, turn the drum samples up a little more? Its all so weak.
Q - Tell me about what you do as an independent promoter of Chicago music and comedy. How did you start doing it and what do you love about it?
Well, I used to work in the talent agency business and it got me to realize that the creative industries were going about things in a bass ackwards way. We are letting marketing departments make the decisions about who and what gets produced.
It makes no sense. Why put the most dehumanized people in charge of a process that is driven by the quality and intensity of its humanity? I came up with a plan to try and create a grassroots, locally driven creative development network which serves as a kind of farm system for talent.
Having the live shows and the TV series were components of that vision to take as much of the business burden off of artists and give them opportunities to grow and develop based off their own creative instincts and give them the structure, the time and at least some of the tools to do that by encouraging their creative instincts instead of discouraging them like the Marketing Dept. version of mainstream media does.
So the idea was to create a TV series, a live series and other production components that functioned like a mini-version of what say a Live Nation/Clear Channel does and use that to help cross promote artists and provide them with venues to perform at, a TV series to build their visibility and resume, write ups on the performers to give them clippings for their press kits, video clips and so on all for free.
And I've done that the last 10 years, not always as effectively as I would have liked, but I've really been doing it all on my own and all as a volunteer…it's not really a paying gig. The business model has been slow in fully emerging, and I don't know if I've done enough to make a difference, but I am still working towards creating this system and on the verge of adding a radio station and computer/online media management components as well.
Once established locally, I would like to embed versions of what I am doing here in Chicago all around the country and then have a national version that skims all the groomed artists from all the local versions after they've had time to gestate and develop their creative personas and give them a national visibility.
That's how the system should be. Supporting and developing artists and letting the artists make the creative decisions, not having corporate lackeys create compromised opportunities and have artistic people try and shape themselves to fit in their frequently rotten production needs.
Q - How would you rate Chicago's music scene compared to other music scenes in the country? How do you see your music fitting into Chicago's music scene?
I would say that the creative community in Chicago is very powerful. It's a great proving ground for talent to develop.
In addition to having so much diversity and so many outlets for that diversity to showcase, the city has always been a challenging place to live with many hardships imposed on us and it's getting worse and worse.
Things like bringing in the private police enforced parking meter madness, closing 150 schools in the last 10 years, speed cameras hidden on every side street on the way and 15 Wal-Marts on the way to put every other store in town out of business and force everyone to work for below a living wage.
While they who are they are imposing these horrible conditions on us and making the city a frequently horrible and depressing place to be, the injustice of it all creates a strong inspiration for those who seek answers. I'm not saying it's "Gattaca" or "Hunger Games" time quite yet, but I'm not not saying it either.
The club scene across the country is really the last bastion of free speech we have. That makes them a prime target for elimination. Cigarette laws, drunk driving laws and pounding America's easily impressionable skull with a bunch of musical marshmallow fluff on shows like "The Voice," "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Sell Out" have all played a role at destroying the club scene.
Going back to the whole judging people by their actions thing from your first question, we see them enacting certain laws to manipulate our actions, but they are very selective in what they do to us. The speed cameras in Chicago for example.
They told us they were doing it to save the lives of "the children" and stated that the cameras were only going up around parks and schools. That's a pretty massive implementation. But what they failed to tell us was that there aren't actually a lot of kids being hurt by cars around schools and parks. There are many more kids that get hurt by wall mounted TV's falling down on top of them.
If that is really about saving kids, why prioritize spending, I dunno, millions upon millions of dollars to put up and enforce cameras near schools and parks before you solve the problems that are really hurting kids like falling TV's?
It’s the same reason they prioritize passing laws that help destroy the local entertainment scene. They know that when people go to be entertained, they frequently like to get buzzed. Bust them for getting buzzed instead of creating ways for them to attend events without having to operate vehicles, and you are acting to destroy and inhibit the club scene.
It’s a three dimensional attack, social engineering, economic darwinism whatever you want to call it. There are so many more examples of this, its ridiculous, but I'm off point again.
What I'm saying is is that the fight to protect the club scene, the local theater and comedy circuits is the final battlefield before they really shut the doors on us. They know what they're doing.
When Lenny Bruce used the club scene to try and expand free speech and consciousness, you saw what they did to him. Nothing has changed, they just operate in the shadows more now.
And they let you swear all you want to keep you thinking that there's nothing wrong, but where are the Lenny Bruces of today, the Hunter S. Thompsons, the Cesar Chavez's?
That kind of speech is a one way ticket to obscurity. Not that Americans have much use for free speech anyway...they seem to hate the privilege quite a bit.
You've got a long term problem though in that people don't go out to support local art scenes very much.
Additionally, I've noticed in Chicago, the bulk of the people that go out to clubs don't go for the music, they go for the party. They go to vicariously feed off their friends on stage and be part of their posse.
All too frequently, they don't give a damn about music.
Q - Any dream projects? Or did you just finish your dream project?
The next project is always my dream project.