Mr. Transylvania plays Mercury Lounge, 217 E. Houston St. NYC tonite at 8pm w/Tredici Bacci, Godcaster, Eyes of Love and Starla Online.
Exchanging some words with/posing some questions to Mr. Transylvania (a.k.a Chris Shields, pictured above) earlier this month proved not only entertaining but enlightening:
There can be a sort of forbidding, cultish, almost paranoid self-seriousness to a lot of noise, latter-day electronic and/or experimental music. Mr. Transylvania definitely is like a refreshing tonic in the midst of all that. I bring up those genres just because those are the kinds of acts I’ve seen you play with. I don’t want to give too much away for anyone who hasn’t seen Mr. T yet/before, and I don’t know how this project has also maybe been developing and changing recently too. It is a noise project though…to a certain degree at least, wouldn’t you say? It has a deranged pop sensibility to it as well. It’s lyrical.
Chris Shields: I have always taken “noise” to mean a sort of catch all for types of music that don’t really fit other places. That’s what I consider what I do. Something that doesn’t fit very well anywhere else.
When I first started doing Mr. Transylvania those were the people I knew. I had friends in the noise scene and more and more my interests and the music I was listening to was going that way. I always had a little bit more of an interest in rock n roll and pop (particularly 50s/60s pop and garage rock) than some other people, and I think that influenced me a lot. I liked the extremity of noise and the freedom it offered. That somehow collided with my love of punk and rock n roll, and Mr. Transylvania was the result.
Ultimately, the ethos of noise and the kind of diy aspect of it seemed like the right fit. Shows could be anything, they could happen anywhere, and with any equipment or circumstances. I liked that a lot and it definitely helped form my ideas about music and what I could do.
Let’s take a closer look at some of your lyrics:
burnin’ in hell (x3)
what the fuck is that
god-damn smell now
In a video I saw of a recent performance of this song, you were on the basement floor of the venue performing in a puddle of really dirty-looking water that just happened to be there that night. So with that in mind, my interpretation of the song is that there is this character happening, who may or may not be the actual singer, but who is definitely going through some intense stuff: wondering perhaps about some life choices they’ve made that has lead them to this point where they’re suddenly freaking out, burning in hell. But at the same time, this burning is almost desirable…it’s badass, it’s provocative, maybe even fashionable. And what you’re smelling may actually be your own flesh burning—because you’re in hell—so you roll around in the dirty water on the basement floor because you’re trying to put yourself out.
Are a lot of your songs improvised?
None of my songs are strictly improvised. They are kind of ready made structures that facilitate the performance, the humor, and the physicality. Everything in between the songs is improvised and I try to be really open to what’s around me and who’s around me. That’s what makes it interesting and unique every time (hopefully). The songs give it all some kind of structure though. The physicality is improvised for sure, as well as the utilization of whatever materials are around. I like the performance to really be present in the space and present with whoever’s there.
As far as Farted in Heaven particularly as a song. Yeah, I’ve definitely had my ups and downs like anyone. That definitely factors into my songs. Being extreme and kind of hopefully crass but clever in my songs is my form of honesty. Life is kind of dumb sometimes and what’s profound shouldn’t really be mandated in my opinion. So I like to see what else is kind of meaningful, or maybe, could be. Also, it’s good for me, or at least natural for me, to make fun of the more difficult things in life. Just the way I am. I think most people are that way to some extent. Hopefully when I write a song, the melody and the lyrics work as an activator for the performance, so it has to really resonate with me on some level and allow the honesty to flow. It also has to be somewhat simple.
As far as rolling around in dirty water. I like to use whatever is in the space. I don’t want to ignore the obvious. I want the performance to be direct. The artifice that performer and audience agree upon is kind of silly to me. So if there’s water or like a cake or whatever, I want to acknowledge it. I’m also a huge fan of Jackie Chan, Jerry Lewis, and Buster Keaton, and their physicality and how they work with spaces and objects is a big influence. Also, if there’s water there, somebody needs to go in it–otherwise, what makes one show different from another. Let’s celebrate that there is a huge puddle here. Rolling around in water is not gonna kill me and it’ll make it memorable for other people. It also augments the performance and the songs, which, like I said, stay the same.
I saw Mr. Transylvania IRL the first time five years ago at a small show at a “D.I.Y.” venue that I’m pretty sure no longer exists. This was one of the more obscure places of its kind, while still being more than just someone’s living room. I don’t think there were more than ten people in the audience, an off-night. Nevertheless, there were a couple of local artists playing who I already knew as some of my favorites in New York; one solo project and one two-person band. Then, totally out of nowhere, your project appeared, not only holding it down/holding your own, as they say, but I actually left feeling like Mr. Transylvania was the most impressive overall, even when seen alongside my known favorites…for the sheer resourcefulness of it, the bizarre while also non-pretentious, minimalism…definitely a “stripped-down” aesthetic, and lest we forget the noise aesthetic somewhere deep in there too. It was dialed up to 11. And unlike the other projects that night, too, with Mr. Transylvania the words were actually audible.
I definitely appreciate it. That’s it basically. My attitude is kind of like “why not?” If I can do this, which is somewhere between nothing and something, then anyone can do anything. I like that opening up of things. It’s also just me, the way I am. It’s changed as a project over time, but it’s me. I’m my instrument and I change and hopefully become more capable and better at “playing” my voice and body and the space. But yes, the idea is super simple and hopefully potent because of that. I want to really change the feeling in the room and get people excited, but I also want to excite myself and see if I can get somewhere. Sometimes I can’t. I’ve definitely sucked some nights. But other times, it gets me beyond thinking. That’s when it has been good in the past. I think people feel that energy and it offers something different.
I like noise. I don’t listen to as much these days. But I have felt that it can get fairly predictable and rote. I like to be an alternative to that, to be like “but what about this?” Also, it’s nice to add some humor into a show.
The words being discernible is important for me. There seems to be an aversion to language and coherence in its traditional sense in noise. I think that’s great but there is also room for words. Words as a choice make me vulnerable. Once you state something, it’s stated, there’s less wiggle room to change it later. I like that. I think it’s important for me to be direct, because then people know what I’m about as a performer. There’s no risk of them “not getting it” which I think is an unfortunate side effect of some experimental music. I’m like, “No, that’s it, you got it. It’s that simple. It can just be that.”
Wetware pictured above at The Wallet, early ’16
How about some of the weirder places you’ve played at? Tours you’ve done? Other artists you’ve played with? Did you see that article recently about all the NYC D.I.Y. venues that have come and gone this past decade? Do you ever feel like…good riddance to some of them? An artist I follow on Twitter joked once that they want to organize shows where it’s free for the audience to enter, but then if they want to leave before all the sets are over they have to pay $10.
I’ve been lucky to play with so many great people. Jeez, it’s hard. It may be surprising but I’ve been doing Mr. Transylvania for like maybe almost 13-14 years. When I lived in Florida it was the ramshackle shows I loved. In Tampa, I was lucky to be part of something called Bloodfest. I believe it was organized by Cephia’s Treat records and they were generator shows that happened pretty much wherever they could do them. The performers would perform covered in fake blood in parking lots and under bridges, etc… Those were great.
I loved playing Death By Audio. The size of the space was always so fun to play with. I got to play one of their last shows and that was really meaningful. Also Port d’Or because there were just like cinder blocks lying around and I liked messing around with them. Great people there and some of my first New York shows.
I was honored to play with Arto Lindsay. That was big for me. He was so nice and asked me up on stage with him during his set.
I played great shows in Boston at places like Gay Gardens and Smokey Bear Cave. I loved playing Mark Johnson’s Raw Meet fests there. In Orlando, Uncle Lou’s was my homebase and we had a great scene there with A LOT of freaky stuff.
I played naked on top of a video store once. In a shower. On a staircase. In a bed. In a bathroom. It’s like Green Eggs and Ham with me. Would I could I with fox? Would I could I in a box? Yes, I can.
Notable bands and people I came up with are What’s Yr Damage? Skeleton Warrior, Triscults, Necros of the Gods and particularly the great Mark Johnson, who was a huge supporter of mine and really got me plugged in when I moved up north. Also, playing with Guerilla Toss was great. Peter put out my 7 inch and super grateful for that. Recently, my main cohort is David Drucker from Painted Faces, a great guy and a great act. We do a duo called Shecky together and a trio called Canyon River Blues with Danny Fernandez (I’m also in Alien Trilogy with him). I’m doing some shows with the great Tredici Bacci soon, and Simon Hanes is a big supporter and really helps me out.
Also, my bandmates Brian Sullivan and Patrick Cole from United Waters are big supporters. Eric Carden (Alien Trilogy) had been a big supporter as well. My girlfriend Sarah Fensom is very supportive and critical, which helps enormously. It has made life wonderful being with someone who “gets it”. Friend and filmmaker, Lindsay Denniberg, has also helped me. She put me in a couple movies doing my thing (Video Diary of a Lost Girl).
As far as venues I won’t miss…hmmm. I’ve been lucky that I don’t play super conventional places so I’ve really enjoyed most places and people. I don’t like coffee shop settings. I feel uncomfortable “going off” there, so to speak. People are just trying to chill out. I’m not trying to be antagonistic (maybe when I was younger) so I don’t want to force my yelling and goofing off onto people who didn’t sign up for it.
Oh, The Glove was great and Big Snow Buffalo Lodge. Both great places to play.
I like Flowers for All Occasions. I had a terrible show there because of ME. But now I’ve had two great shows there. But that was the coffee shop thing. I felt uncomfortable and I let it get to me. I felt I was bothering people. I’m always nervous. Everytime. I try to perform from within that nervousness, rather than getting past it. But feeling like you’re bothering people who didn’t sign up for something is different. Feels a little too egocentric for me. I’m already walking that line enough with what I do.
Last thing I wanna say: something else I like about Mr. T is that it is decidedly NOT materialistic. I mean, it doesn’t get anymore non-materialistic, really…so it’s kind of like your songs are all protest songs, in a way, crazy as that may sound! This is maybe just my pet peeve/problem I have. A lot of artists seem to just be the sum of their gear, which becomes ironic…they’re experimental consumers. Maybe I should stop there before I go too far out on a limb. I mean, I’m guilty of it too, and I’m sure you own an assortment of classic instruments and then fun electronics and software and everything. No one is all that zen. Anyway, I feel like this is maybe an interesting talking point to end on…your thoughts?
I definitely agree with the non-materialist slant. I don’t ever want to be about gear. I think using what’s around is more what I’m about. It yields more interesting results for me. If it’s about gear, it’s about money. I don’t even really want to take money for playing (I have a couple times, one time being one of the last Death By Audio shows). I think the more you can discard the assumptions about music and how and where music happens, I think that’s important. But yes, I play drums but I don’t even want a nice set of drums. It’s more impressive when someone can do something interesting and meaningful with almost nothing. I’m hoping to do something like that. Once you need too much to do your thing, it creates reasons not to do it. Also, I think you start getting boxed in by gear. People start to sound the same. I like when people really take away elements. There’s that Coltrane quote about playing a shoe string, like as long as it’s sincere. I like that a lot. I think there’s an unfounded assumption about what somebody needs to make music. I really don’t think you need anything. Just your imagination really.
Mr. Transylvania in-action at Bohemian Grove, October of last year.