by Holly Day
The Reptile 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, Minnesota -- a 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 their business 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-Sugarcubes member Siggi Baldursson on percussion, Seth Blair on cello, Biff Blumfumgagnge on fiddle, mandolin and balalaika, Doug Code on clarinet, 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.
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 roadside 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."
How would you personally describe/categorize your music?
Biff : Balkan Lounge Funk. No - Wanna-be Gypsies 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.
L-R: Seth Blair, Bill Feeny, Doug Code, Siggi, Anna Purnell-Vogel, Biff Blumfumgagnge
What prompted you to take this musical route instead of just being another heavy metal/glam rock/Seattle grunge band?
L-R: Seth Blair, Bill Feeny, Doug Code, Siggi, Anna Purnell-Vogel, Biff Blumfumgagnge
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.
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 first time 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 out the acoustic cello too, at least on some of the recordings.
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, Nash the Slash, Baris Manco, Michael Hurley, etc. He was always in these weird 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.
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. Loverboy opened that one - "Turn Me Loose," "Working for the Weekend," people! Early laser light production as well - that winged horse - it looked so real, so frighteningly real...
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 (http://cello.zoology.wisc.edu/beef.htm), am hired talent, & book the Reptiles locally. I also produce a late-night radio show - Mr. Hell's Eastern Lounge 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".
Have any of you actually traveled 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.
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 all our friends, lovers, wives, husbands, pets and children. Then, at the end, we all ascend to Nirvana.