* Scroll down for interview with Claudia Gonson.
An Interview with Keith Nelson, co-founder of The Bindlestiff Family Cirkus
Was starting a circus always a goal for you or how did you arrive at starting a circus?
Pretty much after I left college I moved to New York and while I was at college I learned to juggle and eat fire so I’d say that kind of laid the groundwork. And then when I moved to the city I met Stephanie and taught her how to eat fire and out of that we started meeting performers from all over the city and decided to pack everybody in the van and hit the road.
But you had a permanent place in Times Square for a while, didn’t you?
We sure did….and now it’s a big hole in the ground so they can build a skyscraper for Bank of America.
Have you ever performed on the street?
Yeah, absolutely. When I was still in college David Hunt, who is the rope-walker who’s traveling with us – he’s the one who taught me to juggle… We would travel around and do street performing and hitchhiking and that whole lifestyle.
Was that all over the United States?
All over the United States. This would have been in the late 80s.
So that was before the actual circus started up?
Yeah. That was before, when I was still in college and taking semesters off and stuff.
Did you accumulate any kind of a regular audience?
I wouldn’t say that performing on the street we did, but over the past 11 years with Bindlestiff we’ve had a very loyal, growing fan base.
And you performed at the Brooklyn Brewery for a while, right?
Yeah. We did two years at the Brooklyn Brewery.
I remember either you or Stephanie saying in an interview that during certain times it was easier to perform as a risqué circus and get away with things in other parts of the country, not New York… is that still true?
During Guiliani it was definitely true and Michael Bloomberg, the current mayor, has kind of upheld Guiliani’s policies…. You know, he hasn’t softened or backed down on any of Guiliani’s framework. So I would say that New York City has, in a sense, become like any American suburb with Home Depots and K-Marts and the past two mayors have done their best to get rid of anything that made New York New York.
So, is it easier to perform in places other than New York City?
It really depends on the venue. If they treat you well it can really make performing very pleasurable. Over 11 years we’ve also had an extremely dedicated fan-base in the city so although it’s taken quite a while, the city’s still our home base and we have a lot of folks who come out for any event we do there. But it really comes down to what the venue is, how they run it, who it is – you know, the teamwork between the performers, the venues, the promoters and all of that. And it changes from town to town.
Do you think the variety show is becoming more of a recognized art form? Has it been easier or harder to get funding?
Funding has gotten extremely difficult because the United States would rather send the money overseas and bomb the hell out of other countries for no reason and arts funding has been drastically attacked because of the current administration’s desire to spend anywhere except the arts. But I think the American population has been, on the other hand, over the past decade very much turned on by circus and the variety arts starting in the early 90s or late 80s for kind of a teenage population you had Jim Rose bringing the sideshow into vogue. On a more high art level Cirque de Soleil has opened minds in the past 15-20 years to a whole other realm of circus and it is no longer considered something that just grandparents take their grandkids to. If you go to a Cirque show you see very few kids and it’s something the whole population watches. Also, in the past few years you see that more variety shows have come on television. I think there’s been a major resurgence in interest in live entertainment and there’s been more rather than less vaudeville and circus.
That is very exciting that there’s been more of an audience.
Definitely, and there’s also been more of an interest from performers, from people interested in being burlesque performers or jugglers or trapeze artists. In New York places like Crunch Gym are offering “Get Fit Through Circus Arts.” Flying trapeze schools are starting up …. I think that Asheville is starting a circus school. I would say that over the past decade the variety arts have had a whole rebirth in the United States.
Could you talk a little bit about what the clown represents or what you see as the role of the clown?
I see the clown as a mirror of society. We take situations, both happy and sad that humans go through every single day and try to bring light to them and make it so people can laugh at their own mistakes. Clowns are there to help you realize what’s out there and they operate as a breath of fresh air…. Clowns take you on an emotional rollercoaster; it’s not all just ‘laugh, laugh, laugh.’ Some of the best clowns in history dealt with depression; they dealt with happiness. If you look at Emmett Kelly and Otto Greibling, who were two clowns who worked during the depression. They would go out there in the ring and find situations that people who lost everything could relate to.
Do you have any thoughts on the clown portrayals in films by Frederico Fellini?
Fellini’s been able to capture some of the great clowns on film, some of them in their later years of life, and many of them who may have had little recognition if it weren’t for him being out there with the camera. I think he was able to capture a lot of these clowns from kind of their own perspective.
Have you thought much about clowning or circus in other cultures or other countries?
Clowns historically have been very tied in with a spiritual world and religion. If you look at the Hopi clowns in the American Indian tradition, they were considered right up there and treated the way we treat ministers and priests. They were able to walk the line between this world and whatever the other world is and you would find that tradition going back to ancient times; clowns would walk that thin line. I think the U.S. has kind of dumbed down what a clown to the point that now when somebody thinks of a clown they think of Ronald McDonald trying to sell one million more hamburgers. But traditionally clowns are above the law, above religion; they’re considered very high creatures.
Do you have any favorite historical circus figures?
Favorite historical circus figures would include Emmett Kelly and Otto Griebling, who are my favorite tramp or hobo type clowns. P.T. Barnum taught folks how to advertise – I’d say the advertising world would be nowhere if it wasn’t for what P.T. Barnum showed them how to do. And, every performer who continues to hit the sawdust and go out there and entertain people in this televised world of ours.
I just have one more question: Is the Big Blue Bunny treated ethically?
I would say the Big Blue Bunny is treated very ethically. Whether he treats the audience ethically depends on the night.
Saturday, February 04, 2006
An Interview with Claudia Gonson
photo by Clay Walker. I have been a fan of the Magnetic Fields since my freshman year of college. The poetry of this band, as well as the other bands with Gonson and Stephin Merritt, is superb. Ms. Gonson sings and plays on 69 Love Songs, as well as on The Future Bible Heroes' Eternal Youth, Memories of Love and a few others I haven't heard yet. She also played instruments on the Magnetic Fields' first two albums is the manager of all the Merritt bands, I believe.
Below is an interview I did with Claudia today.
How did you meet the bandmates and start playing with them?
I met Stephin in 1983, when we were in high school. Our high schools were nearby. He came over to my house with my older sister, who attended the same school as him. We almost immediately began playing music together, in a bunch of home-studio bands and eventually we formed a live band.
How big were your first shows and where did they take place?
We played our first gigs in Cambridge and Boston, Mass, where we lived. The very first shows were fairly small, I'd say 20 people. After a few months we had larger crowds, probably 50. That was considered pretty good.
What kinds of places do you like to play best?
Places that feel intimate, which aren't always places that are small. It really depends on the acoustic space. For instance, the Mercury Lounge in Manhattan feels really warm and intimate, and it's fairly small (I think the capacity is about 200), but Zenkel Hall, at Carnegie Hall, seats 650 and also feels really intimate. Town Hall, which seats 1500, also feels pretty cozy because it was designed to be for speech makingand folk concerts.
Are you working on any outside projects or soundtracks?
Stephin is about to release "Showtunes" (in mid March 06, on Nonesuch). This is a compilation record of songs from the three musical plays that he's composed over the last three years, with director Chen Shi-Zheng. The complete scores from the three musical plays will also be available online for download. This fall, Stephin will release an album of songs he wrote for Lemony Snicket's "A Series of Unfortunate Events." There will be thirteen songs for the thirteen books in the series, plus two bonus songs. The band will be The Gothic Archies (which is basically Stephin, with Daniel- aka Lemony- playing accordion). That'll be out in October on Nonesuch.
Your songs with the MagneticFields and the Future Bible heroes sometimes seem to come out of a very fictional place. Are these scenarios that the bandmates make up together or do they come from one person in particular? If you or one of your bandmates comes up with a song that expresses some fictional scenario like a lonely vampire or retired rockette, does it take a lot of explaining to get it across to the other bandmates?
Stephin Merritt writes every last word and note for all his bands: The Magnetic Fields, the 6ths, the Gothic Archies, Future Bible Heroes, and all his theater and film scores. He rarely collaborates as a songwriter, or performs other people's songs. So neither I, nor any other musicians he works with have anything to do with writing songs for our band. We often even do not develop our musical parts; they are sometimes composed for us by Stephin, who does the orchestrations in advance on music paper, and we play them from sheet music. The only exception to this process is the Future Bible Heroes, where Chris Ewen creates the music backing tracks, and then Stephin develops lyrics and melodies on top. But your question about songwriting still only applies to Stephin. Sure, sometimes I think; "What is this song about?" And, sometimes I ask him about it. But, sometimes I just enjoy coming up with my own interpretation, and maybe even believe it's the rightone for two decades, until one day he says "that's not what that song is about at all!". This is fairly unusual, but it is not unusual for me to feel that a song is really moving, and then find out that he finds it comical, or vice versa. Not sure why that is.
If you had a weekend to just do whatever and all of your responsibilities magically disappeared what would you do?
Disappear. I really enjoy my life, but I feel burdened by afeeling that if I disappeared, to travel around or live somewhere else, be free of all contact or responsibility, it would really screw up my work with Stephin and his bands, which is an intense and ongoing process. We speak all the time, and are always brainstorming new projects, working on several things at once. Of course I would miss it intensely too, if I were to disappear, but I love the idea of just strolling around Barcelona, or becoming a potter, or living in Hawaii or something. Or working on a farm. Or hiking around mountains in Asia. Etc.
How have your ideas about musicianship changed over the years?
It's a pretty big topic! I guess I feel like the big thing that'shappened is the internet, and file sharing and the kind of access and community that it brings. Which is really cool. I am impressed with how easy it is for a person to make music without having a lot of money. It's like film, you can do it much easier and cheaper in the digital era. I'm not sure how much of it is good... but it's complicated for me to discuss this since I'm not really paying attention. I'm in that place that older people get into, if they're lazy that is, which is that I'm not really listening to new bands or new music. If I have one piece of advice for people trying to get going in music now, it's that there's no right or wrong way to do it. People call me all the time, seeming to feel that I have an answer to how they can make it. I really don't know how anyone makes it; I certainly don't feel we've officially "made it" . What we have done is stuck with it. It's always helpful to do something for a long, long time. If you can get along with your bandmates and try to define your roles well enough so that no one feels trumped or hurt or stepped on. Frankly it's no different from a personal relationship, like a marriage or a long term commitment of some kind. If you can figure out how to be compatable, work out your ego issues, goals, differences of opinion in a way that remains effective, then you can keep going. It's not easy of course.
Here's a nice little reveiw of Memories of Love: http://www.awrc.com/review/f/memories_of_love.html
And a little something from Neil Gaiman on Eternal Youth: http://futurebibleheroes.com/eternalyouth_neil.html