Using Your Own Blues: SCR’s Exclusive Conversation with the Director and Stars of Diverseworks and Catastrophic Theatre’s Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood

On Friday, November 12th, at Diverseworks, the Catastrophic Theatre will debut the world premier of their adaptation of Pixies singer Black Francis‘ concept album Bluefinger, titled Bluefinger: the Fall and Rise of Herman Brood. Even as it the news broke that Director Jason Nodler rewrote the entire script just days ago, he and the play’s stars Matt Kelly and Michael Haaga were kind enough to answer a few questions for me.

SCR: Thanks for being available to us, guys. Like I told each of you separately, I left your rehearsals stunned speechless by the power of the music and the performances. But after a few days of refelction, I’ve got a few questions on how the play came together. Jason, one of the first YouTube videos I saw of Brood was him standing up playing a keyboard and singing at an outdoor festival in Europe. It struck me that this is exactly how Matt Kelly performs. Also, Michael Haaga has said for years that he’s a huge Pixies fan. So I think the casting is perfect, really. How did you choose to cast these guys in the play?
Jason Nodler: I’ve been a huge fan and good friend of Matt’s since around 1991, so of course I had the same thought the first time I saw Herman perform. I grew up in Houston but went away to school for four years. When I returned in ’91, I spent virtually every day immersed in the Axiom/Lexington scene, and all those guys were my best friends. I also lived at and booked Catal Huyuk — the place that was the Axiom after J.R. left — for a time, so I’ve always been involved with musicians from that era, and a lot of them have performed in our plays over the years.

I knew that getting Matt was a long shot because, though he’d performed in plays for us before, he’d never taken on something of this magnitude. Also, he lives in Austin now and has a great job that he loves, teaching high school children. So, though I knew he was perfect for the role, and he was immediately excited by the prospect, it took some doing. His school generously gave him a full trimester off to come to Houston, and his wife Marianthe, also a dear friend and frequent collaborator with my two theatre companies, was extremely supportive as well.

I should mention another reason I knew Matt was perfect for the part, apart from his apparent kinship with Herman, which was that he has always been such a soulful and committed performer that I used to literally send my actors to his gigs to learn from him. I’d say, “See that? That’s how you do it.” The work he’s done on this play has been a revelation.

As for Michael, though we only met personally in recent years, we’ve had all the same friends and we’ve been going to each other’s shows since the ’90s, too. And, of course, I’ve been a huge fan of his since the first time I saw him on stage. I mean, if you were in Houston in either the dead horse era or the Plus and Minus Show era, how could you not be? Between the two styles those projects represented, Michael was the first person I thought of to handle the quiet-loud dynamics that Black Francis pretty much invented. And I just got lucky. I asked, and he said yes.

With Matt, with Michael, with Scott Ayers — ex-Pain Teens, another huge band for me — with Matt Brownlie, and with each of the musicians and actors, I chose the artists I most admired and was lucky enough to have them each agree.

I am such a huge Pain Teens fan I couldn’t even speak to Scott Ayers when I saw him at the rehearsals. Michael Haaga was laughing at me.
Jason: I am awash in hero worship on this project. First was Black Francis, a guy who has blown my mind since he first appeared on the scene. Next came Herman, my newest hero and the one whose work and life I now take most personally of all artists. And then came signing each of my favorite local artists to the project, from the worlds of theatre and music.

I and my companies, Infernal Bridegroom and Catastrophic, have always put a premium on combining the best of both these worlds. And though this is different than any of the others, we’ve done it on Life is Happy and Sad, my second Daniel Johnston play, which starred Matt Brownlie and featured Roky Moon & BOLT, with whom we’ll be doing a new rock opera next year, Speeding Motorcycle, my first Daniel Johnston play, Meatbar, a play I wrote about drinking in Houston which featured a soundtrack of many of my favorite early ’90s musicians covering each other’s songs — find the record, Songs from The Meat/Bar; it’s great — The Kinks present A Soap Opera, a Kinks rock opera which we were the first ever to perform theatrically, Actual Air, a Silver Jews-inspired piece created by company member Troy Schulze in cooperation with David Berman, my very first play In the Under Thunderloo, which was another play I wrote, which was cast almost exclusively with musicians and starred an 18-year-old Carolyn Wonderland with music by Jay Maulsby of Fleshmop and The Joint Chiefs, and in which Matt Kelly spoke the very first line, and others.

The casting is perfect and I feel very blessed to have all these incredibly gifted and incredibly cool people working so hard and showing such enthusiasm in pursuit of a common goal.

Matt Kelly: Jason Nodler put this all into motion — he pitched the idea to me and encouraged me to try to get time off work. And even though I don’t have much theater experience, I became interested in doing the show pretty quickly. Of course, I also have an astonishingly cool employer, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Upper School in Austin, who was willing to support me as I pursued this opportunity. None of this would be happening if it weren’t for them. And even though this project is different from my normal life, I’m surrounded with familiar faces and familiar places, and these things have helped to lessen the horror of trying to learn how to act in under two months.

Michael Haaga: Jason told me about the project quite a while ago. Then in August of this year he asked me to “audition” for the part. He felt that my vocals would work in the Black Francis style — “mellow then scream.” And I think he’s correct. I had to clear some scheduling. My work was very understanding and supportive. I had great encouragement from my wife, Carol.

Of course, I wanted to do it. I saw this as a opportunity to be in one of Jason’s plays. I’d been a fan of his work and work ethic since the In The Under Thunderloo period. It was a chance to be in a Rock Opera. I knew it would feel right to work with Matt Kelly again. I thought it would be awesome to work with members of the extended group of Two Star Symphony. Plus, I’m a big fan of the Pixies’ Doolittle album, and once I got the Bluefinger music, I quickly became a fan of it, as well. It feels like a Pixies album to me. It has the charm of Doolittle. I told Black Francis Black that it was going to be killer to sing “Discotheque 36” every night. Also, I love Amsterdam, and Europe, and this brings a little bit closer to it before the next time I go back.

When I was at rehearsals, I heard people talking about video being used on stage. I didn’t witness it, because I guess it hadn’t been integrated at that point. But I noticed that you’re really experimenting with narrative. My main question is: including all the experimental stuff, how can I understand the narrative structure of the play?
Jason: I’ve probably written 50 drafts of this play by now. I’ve been thinking about it and doing research since early 2008 and I’ve been writing it every day since the beginning of the summer. Herman’s life is a very complex and complicated story. And getting to the bottom of it, to what’s most essential to share with an audience, since we can’t share it all — that would take 54 years without sleeping — has been a wonderful riddle to solve.

We have been through wholly impressionistic versions and very straight-ahead versions, along with many in between. As of 2 AM on Nov. 2, through a lot of work, workshopping, and trial and error with the cast and crew, I feel I finally found the sweet spot there and arrived at the last draft. The narrative is emotionally driven, as I believe art of any sort is never so much the story of what happened as it is the story of how it felt, but it will be very clear to the audience. That’s not to say they won’t have wildly different responses to it, since the play is designed to be open to all sorts of reactions, but nobody should have too much trouble following the story.

Matt: I’ll give it a shot. Act I has a pretty linear narrative — it describes Herman’s formation of his own band, his relationship with his longtime manager Koos van Dijk, and his tour of America and its ultimate failure. Act II is more impressionistic, less linear — it has a few flashbacks/flash forwards — and more philosophical. It deals more with Herman Brood the artist and the man, though he does still play music in Act II. And though Act II is more abstract than Act I, you still get a sense of the trajectory of the last fifteen years of his life.

As far as the dialogue/music relationship — it’s not as clear as it may be in a musical, but Jason has done an incredible job of creating connections between the music, the dialogue, and Brood’s life story. Some of these will be more or less obvious to the audience, and many of them are more subtle. All I can say is that the attentive audience member, the one who looks closely for these connections, will be rewarded. It’s not my job to explain them, though…

Michael: Jason’s credo from the get-go was the song and lyric, “Taking Your Mouth Into Mine” [from Black Francis’ Bluefinger album]:

    I’m taking your mouth into mine, I take it in now…
    I take it in now, now, now, now, now…
    I’ve been waiting all my days to get on that… I’ve been waiting on my…

At first, it feels a bit hokey to say something so figurative. But we’ve all been absorbing Herman Brood and Black Francis for months and months and months, and some of us for years now…

We are taking it all in, and spitting it back out, and funneling that energy, from Herman’s legacy to Black Francis’ album to Jason Nodler’s script to our performance of the music… I mean, we’ve had input from Charles Thompson himself, Herman’s closest friends and business partners. We’re living and breathing the concept; it’s the audiences turn to take some away from us.

Man, thanks. That is really cool. And as a matter of fact, it’s exactly what I took away from my time at your rehearsals. I wrote about it in my previous piece here in SCR. I was struck by the differences in the two bands, and even though I explored that, too, in my first piece, I wanted to ask you each, personally. As you all perform them onstage, what are the differences between Herman Brood’s songs and the Black Francis Bluefinger songs?
Matt: The songs are performed by different bands, though both bands play on a couple songs, and the Bluefinger music, in general, fulfills a more dramatic/theatrical function — you know, they contribute to the narrative or add dimension to the meaning of various scenes — whereas the Brood songs tend to be more about Brood and his band rocking out for a crowd; in other words, they are the scene.

Michael: Black Francis covered one Herman Brood song, “You Can’t Break A Heart And Have It.” It’s on the Bluefinger album. I think it’s in the play. But that is the song that spawned Francis to later record an entire record dedicated to the man. During the play, Francis is sort of the troubadour/narrator observing and “troubadouring” and speaking through lyrics and songs. Often, both bands will join on songs, both of Herman’s and of Black Francis’.

Yeah, I got to see some of that where the bands bleed into each other, and it’s indescribable. I told Matt that day I was stunned speechless, and when I went back to look at my notes I found that there were none. Those moments are really successful and innovative. It’s going to play well in any city in the world.

We at SCR have been talking about how wonderful it is that this is happening first in Houston. I’ve seen some press clippings where you’re getting mentioned in newspapers overseas. How much interest are you hearing about from around the country and around the world? I mean, you can’t Google Frank Black or Herman Brood’s name without this play coming up. It’s all over the Internet already. And, in English, your play pretty much represents 100% of the information there is out there about Herman Brood.
Jason: Yeah, that’s true. Though there is a ton of information on Herman out there, there’s precious little about Herman online or elsewhere that provides access to non-Dutch speakers. Charles [Thompson, aka Black Francis] told me the last time we were together that I was probably now the reigning American expert on Herman. I thought that was funny then, but I guess that title’s probably mine just by default. Hopefully that will change after the play premieres. This is one thing I most hope the play — and, of course, Charles’ beautiful album — helps to do: to raise awareness about this incredibly special man and his remarkably unique life.

As for interest from outside of Houston, we’re getting a lot and from a lot of different sources. There has been great coverage in the Dutch press, of course. But people are also talking about it all over Europe and the U.S. as well. For a particularly bizarre one, I understand we’ll be featured in an upcoming issue of Women’s Wear Daily. Weird, huh? This is what happens when you team up with one rock god to tell the story of another.

Is there anything Frank Black told you that we can report that hasn’t already been written about elsewhere?
Jason: Sure. Lots. So much, in fact, that I wouldn’t know where to start. The main way that Charles contributed to the play, besides the album itself, of course, which was the inspiration for the whole thing, was to be very generous and open about what Herman means to him and which parts of Herman’s life had the most profound impact on him. Everything he told me is in the play in one way or another.

But watching the play, you wouldn’t know what came from Charles, what came from Herman, what came from the many friends and associates of Herman I had the pleasure of meeting while conducting research in The Netherlands, what came from watching the performers themselves in rehearsal, and what came from me. We are all in the play, in one way or another. Herman’s manager Koos van Dijk gave me great advice. He said, “use your own blues.” We have certainly done that. END

Photo #1: Matt Kelly, Michael Haaga, & cast. Photo #2: Matt Kelly, Michael Haaga, & cast. Photo #3: Matt Kelly sitting down. Photo #4: Matt Kelly & another cast member. Photos by Creg Lovett.

Feature photo courtesy of Catastrophic Theatre.

[Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood opens November 12 and runs through December 18th, Wednesday though Saturday at Diverseworks Art Space.]

Interview by . Interview posted Tuesday, November 9th, 2010. Filed under Features, Interviews.

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2 Responses to “Using Your Own Blues: SCR’s Exclusive Conversation with the Director and Stars of Diverseworks and Catastrophic Theatre’s Bluefinger: The Fall and Rise of Herman Brood

  1. SPACE CITY ROCK » Dead Horse Reunion Scheduled — Lead Singer Controversy Developing on December 13th, 2011 at 9:41 am

    […] of Herman Brood for Catastrophic Theater at DiverseWorks. (See our coverage of that up over here, here, & here, by the […]

  2. SPACE CITY ROCK » Bluefinger: Starting Tonight! on June 18th, 2012 at 10:27 pm

    […] out Creg’s articles here and here for more, and hey, John Lomax has it covered pretty nicely in the Houston Press, […]

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