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Carnival of Flesh

[whitespace] Idiot Flesh
Taking a Fancy: The performance-art troupe Idiot Flesh wants to shake up audiences' accepted notions of what art is and should be.

The avant-garde goes cabaret in the spectacle of Idiot Flesh

By Andrew Lentz

T HE MINOTAURS OF BAAL, Beefra the Cook, Helpy the Hamburger Bee and Mr. Punch--this entire dark roster of grotesqueries is at the disposal of any audience brave enough to experience the phantasmagoric musical performance-art troupe Idiot Flesh.

These actors are known collectively as the Filthy Rotten Excuse Chickens, a motley bunch that enhances the Idiot Flesh experience with a variety of acrobatics, dancing and pantomime. Whether it's ghoulish frontman Pin emerging from a strobe-lit box in pancake makeup or Hatcha and Datcha's dance of death, an Idiot Flesh show bathes audiences in a richly entertaining spectacle.

"We're primarily a theatrical band," says guitarist Captain Dragon (real name Gene Jun), one of the four core members of Idiot Flesh, which appears Tuesday (Feb. 3) at the Usual in San Jose. The other three are Pin, the Improver and Hyena Boy (Nils Frykdahl, Dan Rathbun and Wes Anderson, respectively). Surprisingly, Idiot Flesh incubates its outlandlishness not in a South of Market loft but in a bland Oakland warehouse. "San Francisco is too hip and self-conscious," Frykdahl says. "There's actually a lot more opportunity to do something different here."

The 12 songs on the Oakland band's new album, Fancy (Vaccination), are every bit as absurd and enthralling as its histrionics on stage. Fancy takes as its creed an excerpt from the writings of 19-century Scottish occult mathematician John Kane called "Towards an Understanding of Human Fanciness," a sort of Idiot Flesh manifesto that focuses on the "insatiable drive toward problem-creating, making simple situations insolubly difficult."

Call it complexity for the sake of complexity. "It's a useful idea because it allows you to escape from almost any situation," Jun explains. Maybe this cryptic answer is the best explanation of what "fanciness" means for Idiot Flesh: music as the ultimate charade, an escapist smoke screen.

In alternative music these days, it's trendy to throw every style and idiom into one big grooving stew of sound. All too often, however, the result is an amateurish hodgepodge. Idiot Flesh indeed brings together many traditions--WWII-era Berlin cabaret, avant-rock opera and comic-noir show tunes--yet each emerges clean and distinct in a kind of virtuosic cross-section of multiple genres.

"We're not like chameleons; we don't put suits on and off like John Zorn," says Jun, referring to the famous avant-garde musician.

"We use pastiche--it's the inevitable result of liking a lot of music, but it's not what we're about," Frykdahl adds. "Another comparison we get is to [Frank] Zappa, who dabbled in everything, which is fine, but the only thing that disturbs me about him is the sarcasm, the 'I know I'm funny, you know I'm funny' kind of thing. Irony is fine if it's done well, if you have a point or if you're going somewhere with it."

F RYKDAHL AND JUN both studied under the renowned composer Arthur Imbrie at UC-Berkeley. Despite their academic backgrounds, however, they did not pursue traditional classical music careers. Their education has made capable musicians of them, but Jun downplays their technical mastery. "We're not prog," he insists, alluding to the bloated progressive-rock bands of the '70s. "We're high-brow for low-brow sensibilities."

To get an idea of Fancy 's sound, think of show tunes run amok. "People in Your Neighborhood" is a nightmare version of the Sesame Street song; "Chicken Little" is a nonsensical funk version of the famous nursery rhyme. The cabaret component shines through in "Dead Like Us" and "The Idiot Song," coming from a love of Dogma Kraus, a German chanteuse and interpreter of Kurt Weill.

Frykdahl flexes his literary chops on "Straw," a setting to music of T.S. Eliot's spiritual lament "The Hollow Man," climaxing with a chorus of ringing falsetto voices fretting about the end of the world. "Eliot was talking about the great achievements of European culture, how it had reached its peak and was headed for decline, yet he was an American," says Frykdahl. "It's too bad he didn't see the good things about America, that pop culture could be considered a serious art form."

Idiot Flesh has also been influenced by such experimental '70s groups as the Art Bears, Henry Cow, Universe Zero and Art Zoid, which melded rock, jazz and chamber music. These groups were part of a larger European movement called Rock in Opposition, an informal collective of bands that defied the conventions of pop by drawing from global musics and experiments with "found sound."

Idiot Flesh has taken its cues from this ideology to form its own movement: Rock Against Rock. "It's not really a movement," Frykdahl says. "We just want to shake up the notion of art. Where does the interest lie in art? Is it the inner workings of a human being?"

"Or is it true at all?" Jun pipes up. The band is also disturbed by the universal idea that music is supposed to be pleasing. "I hate great albums," Jun confesses.

If Idiot Flesh has an overarching goal, it is to annihilate the ego in music. "We're making a deliberate attempt to get away from the cult of personality that you have in popular music, the writing of semiautobiographical songs," Frykdahl says. "We don't want to manipulate the audience."

Maybe Idiot Flesh doesn't manipulate audiences, but its sheer multiplex of performance art is such a deluge of sensory overload that it does leave people slack-jawed. Forget the fireballs and dry ice at the Kiss reunion, Idiot Flesh redefines "putting on a show."

Idiot Flesh and Horchata perform Tuesday (Feb. 3) at 8:30pm at the Usual, 400 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $6. (408/535-0330)

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From the January 29-February 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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