An Interview with Reptile Palace Orchestra
Palace Orchestra has developed quite a cult following
throughout the Minnesota/Wisconsin area, and, with the 1998 release of Hwy
X (Omnium), their
popularity is spreading to the rest of the world.
Specializing in Middle Eastern music with occasional forays into blues and
even some rock standards, their live shows are impossible to sit still
through, unless you have absolutely no sense of rhythm at all. In fact,
the first time I saw them play was at the Cedar Cultural Center in
Minneapolis, a Minnesota club famous for having uncomfortable seats, a
no-smoking policy, and a hangout for "serious" music aficionados. However,
when RPO played, gyrating dance circles mysteriously appeared in the aisles
and areas generally reserved for through traffic, the usually-quiet crowd
laughed and sang along with the songs, and everybody got drunk on imported
beer and California wine.
RPO is also one of the few bands to conduct all of
though the Internet. They conduct all their interviews via e-mail, book all
their shows this way, and sell their CDs through their Web page. As all the
band members have careers that keep them from staying in one spot long
enough to talk on the phone, all interband communications are done through
rapid-fire e-mails as well. The current lineup of RPO consists of
ex-Sugercub member Siggi Baldursson on percussion, Seth
Blair on cello,
Biff Blumfumgagnge on fiddle, mandolin, balalaika, Doug Code
Bill Feeny on guitar, and Anna Purnell on trumpet. While
Anna is the
closest thing to a "frontman" the band has, everyone ends up taking a turn
on vocals at one time or another.
[H] Where did the band's name come from?
[Seth] So, there we were, needing a name, and Feeny and his Fab Five just
didn't quite make it, so we picked the title of a song of mine we were
doing. "The Enchanted Reptile Palace" is about a somewhat surreal American
attraction, and considering the band's peculiar and far-ranging aesthetic,
it somehow seemed appropriate. "Thanks for stopping at the Enchanted
Reptile Palace/ Thanks for dreaming of the Enchanted Reptile Palace".
[H] How would you personally describe/categorize your music?
[Biff] Balkan Lounge Funk. No - Wannabee Gipsies with distortion boxes.
Seth: We play what we like playing. Bill really set the tone with his
early selections, especially with the international music, but it still
comes down to that. There is no music that is automatically rejected, that
is considered outside our scope. I think we started as everyone's fun,
experimental band, and whatever we can do a good job with and that sounds
good with our instrumentation, well, then, that's what we play. The
audience plays some role as well (I'd say we've gotten more dance oriented
over time; it is fun to see them all jumping around), but there are few
things which we've totally dropped from our set list.
[H] What prompted you to take this musical route instead of just being
another heavy metal/glam rock/Seattle grunge band?
[Biff] Better food, better parking.
[Seth] From the perspective of the folk world, I think we ARE a glam band!
Anyway, there are those who, when presented with the chance of doing an
Icelandic mambo, run screaming for the hills. We, oddly, have the opposite
response. God knows why. Something genetic, maybe. Science has yet to
find a cure.
[H] What are all of your musical backgrounds? Is this your first group or
have you been in others?
[Biff] I personally have had my hands on a violin since I was 8 years old,
did the youth symphony thing, private lessons, etc. In high school I
rebelled against the classical music world by getting a fat red electric
arch top guitar from
Aunt Daisy and building a copy of an "MXR Distortion +" in the electronics
lab. Sprinkle in some Ted Nugent (Stormtroopers Coming people), an old Kay
amplifier that exploded during Music Clinic Jazz Ensemble (burned
transformer - what a stink!) and boom - suddenly I've got a 5-string violin
with a Theremin inside of it and am using it to play Turkish, Greek and
Macedonian tunes - who'd a thunk it?
[Seth] OK, with the exception of a couple high school rock groups (in which
I drummed, by the way), I have mostly been in the folk world. I am the
navel-staring sensitive solo singer-songwriter of the group, except that I
have a metaphorically surreal navel and I play cello, for some reason.
Laziness, I think; I am a failed junior high-school cellist who never
learned a normal instrument. Anyway, I played (and still play) the old
navel-staring sensitive singer-songwriter coffeehouse church basement
circuit. Been in a few folksy sort of groups, most recently a duo with
Tracy Moore, the 6- and 12-string guitar wizard. But this is my
being more or less the bass player for a rock band, and it is very cool
indeed. Except that it's not a bass. Bass is tuned in fourths, cello in
fifths, and as I said I am lazy. So I play this crazy 6 string electric
cello, built by Eric Jensen of Seattle. Lovely thing. And I haul
acoustic cello too, at least on some of the recordings.
[H] How did you get together in this band?
[Biff] I blame Feeny & Code, the "traditional" dancers in the group who
brought in the bulk of the ethnic stuff. Bill Feeny (guitarist, band
"daddy") did the graphic art on an old "Gomers" release I did in Madison in
1987, and soon
began plying me with tapes he'd made that featured Bora Ozkok,
Slash, Baris Manco, Michael Hurley, etc. He was always in
ensembles that rocked out in odd times like 15 and 11. He drew me away from
the Glam and
Comedy Rock Forces I had aligned myself with. He's the Darth Vader of the
band, I tell you.
[Seth] I was on Bill's radio show to do a couple of my spooky halloweenish
songs (sometimes my navel is spooky). But the chance to do the folk dance
stuff was great; I've been listening to that stuff for awhile. My Dad and
I used to sit around in Greek restaurants trying to figure out the rhythms.
My dad was a physicist who was also the drum sergeant for the Keith
Highlander Pipe band. I am not sure what this explains, except that I
really like drones.
[H] Where has your best audience been?
[Biff] LaCrosse Folk Fest, last summer of '97. Actually, we have great
crowds all over. Backyard weddings also tend to be memorable. I had a
great time in the audience of a Suburbs concert at Merlyn's in 1988. I
smoked acid at a Kansas
concert in 1983, but everyone else was shooting pot and there was no way I
would do that. Lover Boy opened that one - Turn Me Loose, Working
Weekend people! Early laser light production as well - that winged horse -
looked so real, so frighteningly real...
[H] What do you do besides play music (hobbies, family, other creative
pursuits)? Is the band paying for itself or do you have day jobs?
[Biff] I run a CD Mastering / Recording Studio called BEEFTONE, am hired talent & book the
Reptiles locally. I also produce a late-night radio show - Mr. Hell's
on WORT 89.9fm Madison. So no, I have no real job.
[Seth] Well, see, I am a research biologist and University of Wisconsin
professor. I work on the developmental biology and genetics of fruitflies.
Especially their wings. I am also married, have a Dalmatian puppy named
Eno (we were hoping
for an ambient puppy, but he is more in his Baby's On Fire phase at the
moment). Anyway, the professor job pays my mortgage. Actually, I think
we've all had pretty low expectations about the band, money-wise. I mean,
not like we'd turn down the big bucks, but it's a Balkan lounge funk act,
after all. But on the plus side, that gives us a
lot more musical freedom that if we were trying to "make it".
[H] Have any of you actually travelled to Armenia or Bulgaria, or to any
other exotic location to experience the local music?
[Biff] Yes. I have been to Egypt, India, Greece, Pakistan, Holland (most of
Europe, really) and Turkey. I played a "singer/songwriter" style show in
Istanbul, Turkey where no one cared that I made up words to "Truckin."
Bought lots of super deluxe tapes and got inspired to play violin in a
non-western way; soon I fell in love with all those "eastern" notes hiding
between our "western" notes.
[H] Is there anything else you'd like to say about the band?
[Seth] The band is a perpetual surprise and joy. I hope that one day they
will invent a good sounding bass amp that is
louder than Siggi and weighs 5 pounds. I want the band to play some
gigantic, mythic folk festival where everyone,
absolutely everyone, dances their brains out. Including my all our friends,
lovers, wives, husbands, pets and children. Then, at the end, we all
ascend to Nirvana.
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