Listening Post

CIRCUS CHA-CHA: The struggles musicians face when trying to start a band in this town are monumental. "Trying to find a tuba player," says Matthew Duncan, "for one, is a really hard thing to do. In fact, there were two occasions on which I was supposed to get together and run through some stuff with this guy -- actually two different guys -- and the night of, they would invariably call me up and say, 'Well, uh, I can't make it, and actually, I'm pretty much busy through July.'"

Where have all the great tuba players gone? Duncan can't find 'em, and when you've got a vision that supports not only the use of a tuba player but creates music that he half-jokingly describes as "Existential Circus Music with Oblique Literary References -- but don't look for that section at a store," musicians to support him are few and far between, at least in St. Louis.

Duncan's CD Human Cannonball is credited to M.C. Duncan's Dog and Pony Show. He's from St. Louis and lives here now but recorded the CD while living in Texas; instruments employed include trumpet, harmonica, trombone, saxophone trumpet, something called a "contraption kit" and Duncan's primary instruments, accordion and banjo. The CD is full of boundless surprises, a strange record that doesn't sound retro so much as it does out-of-time. For example, from the liner notes: "'The Last Cha Cha' contains a sample from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. 'Remember the Maine' contains humpback-whale sounds featured in National Geographic 1/79."

To give you an idea of where he's coming from, here's a snapshot of Duncan's brain: "I'm always surprised by what I would call a 'musical-collective unconscious.' Friends of mine -- other songwriters -- I'll come up with an idea that I swear is so deranged that no one else has ever thought of, and it's uncanny that I find out that around the same time they were also working on a song very similar in nature. Why are people suddenly writing songs about (tightrope walker) Karl Wallenda? There's no reason for that. He's not in the news. I've talked to two friends -- I was thinking about how I was going to approach the idea, and then I find out and it's like, never mind, you guys are taking care of it."

The record is kinda old at this point -- it was released at the beginning of 1998 -- but the music isn't dated at all. There are some old-timey cabaret sounds on it, a strange Tom Waits calliope vibe to it, a touch of swing. "A friend of mine had a small 16-track studio," Duncan says of the record's origin, "kind of in the middle of nowhere. Initially when I talked to these guys about doing it -- some of them were friends of mine, some of them were not -- I put up fliers and I called people. It was a hard project to explain to someone, so I had something like an organizational meeting the night before. I didn't tell them in advance the sheer number of tunes I was wanting to get done, because I didn't want them to just laugh at me. I wanted to do something like 18 songs. And these were all excellent musicians, so I had a hunch that, while they may not be happy with their first takes of things, I probably could live with them. No one heard anything together until it was done. I think for everyone involved it was a shock when they got the whole thing back. Like, 'That's what I played on? I don't remember that song.'"

The whole "existential circus music" thing isn't out of the blue, though. On the contrary, one of Matthew Duncan's occupations is teacher: "I teach a circus-arts program twice a week at city schools; it's kind of a weird thing. I juggle -- I perform down at the City Museum, and gigs here and there. And when that's not making me money, I do substitute teaching. This summer I'm working on lining up a whole series of circus camps: teach a little tightrope, a little juggling, a little this-and-that."

Because Duncan's vision doesn't jibe with the majority of distorted-guitar-playing clubsters, he's having trouble getting in touch with fellow travelers. "I think my ideal ensemble would include either a tuba or a string bass, a drummer, myself, someone who can play a guitar and banjo and then maybe a horn player of some kind, maybe a trombone player -- almost like a Dixieland setup, but not quite." You can grab a copy of M.C. Duncan's Dog and Pony Show's Human Cannonball at record stores around town -- or e-mail him at [email protected]. Highly recommended. (RR)

SLEAZY LISTENING: Long before Russ Meyer and John Waters became mainstream icons of film exploitation -- viewed through a lens of irony, their work has come into cultural focus -- rock & roll both paid homage to and tried to parallel cinematic sleaze. You can trace it back at least as far as those '50s and '60s juvenile-delinquent flicks, wherein some leather-jacketed band or poor man's crooner always seemed to have a cameo in the kids' hangout. At the time this signified pure rebellion, along the lines of Elvis Presley's hips. These B-movie greasers were rock & roll Ed Woods, taking themselves seriously, not in on the joke of their own artlessness.

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