Interview by Paul Remington
(Originally appeared in Cosmik Debris Magazine in November and December, 1998.)
[The following interview occurred between the dates of 9/24/98 and 10/2/98. Each member of the Firesign Theatre was interviewed separately, which allowed an independent thought process to unfold as each member freely answered questions uninfluenced by the presence of other members. The collection of these conversations forms the interview that follows. As Phil Proctor pointed out, 'Perhaps it's best to interview each of us separately. If you don't, it may quickly turn into a comedy routine.' Words of wisdom! - Paul Remington]
Cosmik: Previous Firesign releases have made use of family members. During the Joe Camel press conference on Give Me Immortality or Give Me Death, I hear a female yelling questions. Have any of you used your wife or children on this latest release?
Bergman: My wife and daughter both appear in the album [during the Joe Camel press conference], in the crowd. My daughter is one of the kids yelling, "Joe, Joe, you got to go!" My wife is in one of the general hubbubs in one of the crowd scenes.
Proctor: My wife Melinda is on the release, as is my daughter, Kristen. Melinda plays the reporter in the Joe Camel press conference, and her line, which isn't the easiest line to understand, is, "Where'd you learn to read hieroglyphics, Joe?" That's from the Boston Debabblizer. In the early days it seemed like everyone was a singer. Phil Austin's wife [Annake] was a singer, and so was Tiny, David's [ex]wife. So, we used them as the basis for our female chorus whenever we needed to have that.
Ossman: The voice that you hear on the press conference is Phil Proctor's wife, and her name is Melinda Peterson. She's a professional actress. Judith [Walcutt, Ossman's wife] is really a writer [and] producer. I think she's in the background yelling, "Joe must go!" Both my boys are there. Orson is the little boy voice in the first Unconscious Village mix. I forget what he says; "If it's not now, it's . . ." something. And then Preston, who's going to be six . . . does one of the station breaks. "If it's not now, it's in your dreams," which he thought of, and we thought it was so great we hustled him. [Laughs] But, I've produced a lot of things with Judith, and we've produced, written and directed things together. The first thing we did was back at WGBH in Boston. We did a production of The Red Badge of Courage, which I adapted and we co-produced. We did the 50th anniversary of the War of the Worlds, which she produced, and one again I adapted. It was fabulous. We were at Lucas Ranch. It was the first digital drama production I think ever done. Randy Tom, who was the recordist on it, had a DAT they had gotten in Japan. They still weren't available here. So it was a very early thing. But Judith is reluctant to do any acting. Melinda, Phil's wife, is a wonderful actress. She appears in regional theater, and movies and television. She works a lot.
Austin: Oona, my wife, has a phrase on the introduction to Night Whispers. I think we managed to get everyone on.
Cosmik: How did this release come into existence?
Bergman: A year ago at this time, I was on the phone with Danny Goldberg [CEO] at Mercury, and then went to see Harold Bronson [Rhino Records co-founder] with Phil Austin, and Harold said, "Yes," right away. We didn't have to pitch it. First I went to Danny--Danny's a great friend and a great man--and he turned me over to his "org," and we'd sent him some pieces that we did for Radio Today, or whatever the name of that service we did work for, and they weren't completely impressed with it. You know something: it's always a bad idea for the Firesign Theatre to send people any work in progress, or anything that isn't the album itself to tell them what we're doing because they just don't get it. But, Harold, the minute we walked in the office, we said, "We have a new album," and he said, "Okay." That was it! [Laughs] He didn't ask us what it was about, or how long it was, or how many songs, or whatever. He just said, "Okay." No convincing involved. Harold Bronson is one of the brightest people in the record industry.
Cosmik: This is your first collective release of all-new material since the 1980 release of Fighting Clowns, which was released 18 years ago.
Bergman: Yes, indeed. In fact, Fighting Clowns was a studio release, but it was based entirely on stage material that had been recorded. So in terms of actually writing a brand-new, fresh piece of studio material--I mean, from beginning to end, and highly producing [it], etc.--the fact is it's been Giant Rat , as far as I know, is the last one. I think 20 years is perfectly reasonable to say, since we went into this process. We've done other things that really don't mimic it, but this is it. Isn't that a good chunk of time? And here we are looking at, I think, our best piece of product. Other than the classic stuff, it doesn't get any better than that, except for this. [My favorite releases are] How Can You Be... and Dwarfs, and I find it to be funnier than most. I remember when those were turned-out, I could listen to them, particularly the first side of How Can You Be..., that whole trip is really great! In fact, you listen to it today and it seems very fresh. You turn that album out today and people would say, "Oh yeah, it doesn't seem dated at all." The whole college crowd would think that's the beginning of something.
Ossman: Yeah, we've been bandying about various dates. The last time we were all in the studio, and produced a studio album together, was in 1980, and that was Fighting Clowns. The last Columbia album that we did together reaches back into the late-Seventies. So, it isn't as though we haven't been working together and producing, or putting out product since then, but it really has been. It really has been a long time since the four of us were really allowed to spend six weeks writing and producing an album. It takes money to do that, and we have never been able to put together a record contract that would really allow the kind of time we need to do an original, from the ground-up. It is about a six-week to two-month process.
Cosmik: Have you noticed a change or maturation of your chemistry while coming together after all these years?
Bergman: Oh yes. We're a lot more efficient. We're tremendously more mature as collaborators; i.e., we've learned the "Not," "No," "But," and gone to the "Yes, and." So, the process is the same. All four people write, and all four people have to read before it goes out on the page, and . . . before it's a take. But, we are much more sensitive, more diplomatic, more polite, and therefore things flow a lot more. We wrote this album over a period of three months, but not meeting five hours a week, eight hours a day. We used to take that much time, plus we used to take six, seven, eight months of preparation. We were curing that stuff out of stone, and to get agreement out of that took a lot of work. We also had a lot more time on our hands. At that time, I don't believe any of us had a family. It was a different time. We were fighting a war, as far as we were concerned. We were an underground revolutionary platoon, although we would never have used those words. When you're in the Army, time is not of the essence. So, we worked long and hard. Now we worked much more efficiently, and I think got a better product. Also, we have been with each other long enough so now we can play to each other's strengths more easily, I believe, both in writing and in the studio. Particularly in the studio, I've used the metaphor of the jazz people who have played in the same jazz group together for 30 years. Where is there a jazz group out there that has the same membership for 30 years, or band, in general? The thing is, not only are we a band that's been together for 30 years, but we all write the songs, we all sing lead, and we all play the instruments. Therefore, there's no hierarchy in the Firesign Theatre. It's very unusual. It is an example of what is now called hyperarchy. Hyperarchy, which appeared as a concept in the Harvard Business Magazine about four or five months ago, [as] with hypertext, [is] the idea of everything being hot linked to everything else. Organizations are beginning to find that rather than working off the idea of the pyramid, where the CEO knows all the information, as you get down and down to the broader base, they know less and less, you have the sphere, where everybody is in contact at all levels and knows everything that is going on. That's how it is with the Firesign Theatre. We've always worked as a hyperarchy. We have always been hot linked one to the other. No one has any information that the other people don't have. We would never consider holding information back.
Ossman: No question about that. We've learned really how to get along because it is a very intense kind of collaboration. Phil Austin likes to call it an ongoing conversation that we have with each other. There are four completely different points of view, ideas, desires, and they're often expressed very strongly. Like, "I don't want to do that!" Or, "This is what we're going to do!" [Laughs] You know . . . So, the collaboration's always been wonderful, and we've learned over the 30 years how to smooth-out not really the disagreements, but how to build an agreement out of our four different points of view, because the four of us write everything. If you've ever been in a collaborative situation, you know how hard it is to give up. We all must come out of an album feeling that we're all equally represented in every way. [This has been achieved] in almost everything that the four of us have done together. That's the goal, and certainly on the new album. We had tremendous fun in the studio, in the writing process, although it was stressful, but all writing is stressful. It doesn't matter what it is. You sit down and it's intense, and at the end of the day you want to have a martini and go away and not talk to anybody again. It's very draining. But the studio work was not. It was liberating, and a great deal of fun for us.
Austin: Those changes--and there are a bunch of them--are entirely responsible for us doing this at all. It's entirely due to the fact that we are different than we were 18 years ago. We are more in the sort of situation as if we have realized that the Firesign Theatre is almost like an inherited business. I think, for many years, each of us in his own way looked at it as something that we have created. I think now we tend to look at it more as if it's something that's almost been given to us, because it didn't go away. Each of us, at one time or another over the last 30 years, has pushed the limits of seeing whether we could break away from it or whether we could break it down. It just gets to the point, after a while, where you begin to feel as if it has a life of its own, and it's not going away, and none of us want it to go away in our lives. That's a very different thing for us. We're very different people that way. So, it's more as if we are running a family business. I don't think any of us really looked at it that way for many, many years. That realization came with time, and is reflected to a certain extent in the album in the thinking about immortality, and thinking abut things that are, in many ways, new subjects to the Firesign Theatre since then, since the last 18 years have gone by.
Proctor: Yes . . . it's become more catalytic. Everybody has become more levelheaded and less frustrated by the need to subvert egotism in order to make the machine function more smoothly. In the older days we would hold more tenaciously to more individual conceptions, and it made for, sometimes, contentious writing sessions. Although we would always reach a compromise, and invariably the compromise would manifest most significantly in actual performance when everybody simply was able to do their own thing in consort with the rest of the group. As a result, there was really no time to intellectualize or agonize over choices. You simply made one, and people had to respond to it. We find, although the mechanics of the paradigm are still the same, we still will sit around the table discussing a point for a day, and not able to really move forward, much like writers in any literary circumstance may find themselves. When we get in the studio it comes alive because we're performing it. The characters are speaking. Traditionally, that is where the final polish on the writing happens, and we rewrite and improvise again and we rewrite and we improvise again until we're finally satisfied that we have a take that we like, and we move on. But the major difference, as I say, is a lot less ego in the process of writing. We're much more cooperative. We have much more faith in the "fifth crazy guy," as we call it--in the results of the four minds working together. We're much more open to everybody's input. What's interesting about the writing, of course, is somebody comes in with an idea then we contribute to the idea, and the ultimate result of the idea is always a mixture of four different minds; four different perspectives on a funny concept or a piece of writing. That's why it's so rich and so layered all the time. And we've discovered in our other interrelationships over the years, which is another reason why we work so well together even though we may not be sitting around the table as a foursome, we have always maintained some kind of professional relationship with one another. And when we had the opportunity, we've worked together in other combinations. Peter Bergman hired me, for instance, to work as a writer on a parody of MYST that he created several years ago called PYST, which internationally sold very respectfully. Although it went through many transmogrifications, and was certainly not the piece of work that Peter and I slaved over for almost nine months, it became much more simplified, and much easier to comprehend, and cheaper to make. None the less, it was one of these collaborative projects. David, Melinda and I have worked together. David has used our voices, and my voice on most of his radio productions as well as others, if they were available. So, we've kept our hand in. For one period of our career, Peter, Phillip and I worked together making albums when David was back in Washington, to kind of keep the Firesign rolling. But, the Firesign three-ater isn't the same as the Firesign foursome. It just can't be by dint of the nature of what it is we do. So, maturity in acceptance of the process has been the primary thing. Then the other wonderful thing is that all of us, over the years, have matured as artists. We've become better individual writers, actors, and voice-over artists. We really have! We've all strengthened enormously and have become more seasoned, and that's kind of put us on a much more even playing field than we used to have.
Like, when we first came together, Phil Austin and I were basically the professional actors of the company. Both of us had studied acting in school, and had a professional life. I'd done Broadway and Off-Broadway. Phil was a gifted musician, and I was a trained singer. I had come out to Los Angeles in a musical called The Amorous Flea, then I won a Theater World award for it back in New York. So, we came to the table with different things. David Ossman was a published poet and an established writer. Peter Bergman, besides being a lyricist for several musicals that I acted and sang in back at Yale--Tom Jones, and Booth is Back in Town, among others, written by Austin Pendleton. We had a great class. Sam Waterson was in my class at Yale in the class of 1962, and John Badam and Peter Hunt were in Peter's class--it was a great, great time for theater there. So Peter came out of a theater background, but he was also a Rhodes Scholar. His course of study was focussed on labor studies. It was kind of surprising that he became the hub of the wheel when he suddenly found himself on the radio as the Wizard of Oz--he created this whole Radio Free Oz thing, which evolved. It was originally a collaboration with another fellow and he dropped out and Peter continued it. Then one day Phil Austin and Peter met at a marathon to raise money for KPFK, and Phil got involved in the show, and then David, who was working at KPFK. Then I came out to investigate opportunities here in Southern California for myself as an actor, and we met-up, the event happened, and on we went. When we got together around the table, the thing that we had in common--even though we came from disparate backgrounds--was our ability to improvise and create fully realized characters on the spot with our voice, with our talents and our imagination, and to create a certain kind of similitude that made people believe that we were real. So we developed the art of the put-on. The entire Firesign Theatre ethos was the power of put-on, and it's worked effectively for us ever since we discovered it.
Cosmik: Do you notice a difference in chemistry while operating as a splinter group with one or more of you absent?
[Pictured: Peter Bergman as Chump Threads of Radio Now.]
Bergman: Yes, there's a difference. There's less energy because the four of us create, really, the energy of five people, or maybe 16 people for all I know. When you split it into smaller groups, the energy goes down accordingly. It's not that the work that Proctor and Bergman have done, or Ossman and Austin have done, or any other combination have done, is not good comedy and good stuff for which we're quite happy. It's just not the same thing. It just can't get there. If you play piano and bass, it's not like piano, bass, saxophone and drums. It just isn't. To explain the Firesign Theatre, I spoke before the Atlantic group sales meeting in New York about a month ago, just a week before the album was coming out. Their average age [was] maybe 30 around the table, and probably of the 25 people I spoke to, maybe [there were] two who knew who I was of the salesmen. So I said, "Okay, Firesign Theatre . . . you don't know who we are. We don't want to send you out into the marketplace with an unknown group, so we're going to change our name [to] a name that represents our early hard punky roots and the kind of glam rock that's happening now. We're going as the Spice Pistols." There was a pause and a lot of laughter. I bet half of those people thought, "Ah, so the group is the Spice Pistols," a comedy group. [Laughs] So I told them, "Well, we took it to a focus group at Rhino and it fell flat, so we're going to stay the Firesign Theatre." But I think we could go out as the Spice Pistols, as a brand new comedy group! This is it! Brand new kids! Absolute fresh--FRESH--the Spice Pistols! [Laughs] There'd be Brainy Spice Pistol, and you'd have to have gun sized too, so there'd me Mag Spice Pistol, it would be completely mixed up. You wouldn't know where you're coming from.
Cosmik: That would be funny, but please don't do it. [Laughs]
Bergman: We could put it in the show though. We could do an hour on the Spice Pistols. [Laughs] A play on both the Spice Girls and the Sex Pistols--I like both of them. I like the Spice Girls and I like the Sex Pistols. I do! I like them both for almost similar reasons. They're both hard working bands. What's wrong with that? [Laughs] The Pistols have the edge and the Spice Girls are not suicidal, so they'll stay together. The worst they get is pregnant. They're not going to turn out a movie called, Ginger and Baby. [Laughs] But we'd say, "You'll love their movie!" I love it. Ginger and Rotten. I love their movie. [Laughs] "It's touching, it's corny; it's at home; it's at the end of a needle, it's at the end of a long day; it's Ginger and Rotten from the Spice Pistols!"
Cosmik: How did the concept of Y2K work its way so deeply into the CD?
Bergman: I had been giving speeches on Y2K before anybody went out on the field. I picked up on that three years ago off the Net. So I have a lot of material on the millennium, although Proctor was also talking for a long time about doing a millennium album. The whole idea of Y2K and the computer crashes I brought in, but what did the Firesign Theatre turn it into? The chip in the coffee machine, which is one of my favorite pieces [on the new CD], by the way. There's something so fabulous about bringing this whole crisis down to the coffee machine. I could never, on my own, have written that. For me, it's so deep, it just makes me die, because, [Imitates Hal and Ray] "Well, these machines don't care." It's like, help me! [Laughs] The fact is that the real challenge of the Y2K crisis is in the board, not just in the software. There's a thing called EPROMing, which is where chips are programmed. These are little program chips, and they've got the Y2K problem in them. So, [in] a 747, it isn't a matter of just changing the software of the tower that's sending it back and forth. They have tons of boards in those planes that have the Y2K problem. You can't pull that EPROM out and put another chip in because, of course, it's integral to a whole system. They're going to have to put a whole new board in. That means they're going to have to build it. It's an infrastructure change. Not only is it a software change, which is immense, but it's an infrastructure change. It shows the complete vulnerability of this society that has turned, overnight, into a digital-based society. We went in a matter of two or three decades from being analog to being digital. It took how many hundreds of years from being Catholic to being Protestant, and we're still fighting over that! We're not fighting over the digital. Look at the problem we're facing. So, we're making light fun of it. Mrs. Presky's car goes dead because the motherboard is going ones and zeros, and she's right in the middle of a freeway. It's the millennium, stupid! She's truly a victim because when she got her car she didn't ask, "Is there a Y2K problem with the motherboard?" She wouldn't have known what either of those meant. Motherboard, as far as she was concerned, was a group of moms that were running the school.
[Pictured above: Phil Proctor recording the character of Mrs. Presky.]
And, really, the album isn't really about the millennium, when you think about it, because one of the undernotes is that the millennium means nothing. These problems aren't made by the millennium, except for maybe the chips. All the rest of it is Ebola. Is the Ebola Virus about the millennium? No. But our first album, Waiting for the Electrician, the main piece on the second side, this guy's got the plague. [Beat] the Reaper. "You've got the plague." They're chasing him down. "Get him, get him! He's got the plague!" And he crashes through to some other place, and he's right back where he started. And now, we're wearing our yellow Princess Plague ribbons because now we've got to market it. When we started back with Electrician, there was no sense of marketing the plague, right? You just ended up on the game show. You got it as a gift on a game show, which is a kind of in-your-face surrealism, whereas, the Princess Plague ribbon is not in-your-face. It sounds perfectly right. You've got to wear it to keep those plagues from coming across our designer borders. Electrician starts at a border and ends at a border. Now, we didn't write that because we thought of that, and, in fact, borders have nothing to do with it. We just mention borders and move on because it's not that the album is being written unconsciously--it's quite conscious--but the unconscious elements are there. They just come in. We don't say "No" to the unconscious. It's there, and if it makes us laugh as we're writing it, we know it's going to get funnier when we get into the studio.
Cosmik: Why was Radio Now selected as the concept for the new release?
Ossman: There are a number of [reasons]. We really returned to writing in the Now, so to speak, on a project for NPR. They asked us to do a little piece for the new year, I think it was for 1997. Shortly after that we were contacted to do some short radio pieces for a syndication program. There were going to be drop-ins on April Fools Day. We walked into the studio and we had written various things separately that we were going to bring in, and that's where US Plus and Unconscious Village showed up at that session. We all four ripped into them and re-wrote them. The original drafts were Austin's. Then everybody put in their two cents worth, and I think we did five commercial spots and maybe five newscasts. We were not using Hal and Ray, but we were using two newsmen. This was April, and we started working in November. So, we discussed themes that we were interested in, and characters, and a general outlook on how we wanted to approach a new album. I think we probably first agreed that we would like to do something millennial, and it wasn't too long before we agreed that the most workable for us--for a lot of reasons--would be to do the last radio broadcast of the millennium, in part because it returned us to our radio roots, in part because we had been working in the radio forum, and also because we felt that we had a lot of fans from the seventies that were now working in radio. We knew that for a fact. In public radio, in commercial radio, in syndicated radio, and we thought that maybe we could get some airplay. We had really started on the radio, and all of our beginning roots had been radio, and one way or another I think that we had all been doing radio. I certainly had, steadily, I mean, all my professional career has been in radio. So, we discarded all our other notions we had, and put them aside for a later date, as far as form goes, and said, "Okay, we're going to do this radio broadcast. Now, how do we get off the radio?" So we listened to things that happened elsewhere, and in the process of writing, we constructed scenes which the radio, for example, was turned-down in Joe Camel's car as he bought some gas and talked to a gas station attendant. We held on to ideas like that for quite a while, but finally found it was stronger if we never left the radio--the characters were stronger. It became a very character driven album by the time we were halfway through the writing. The notion of accessibility [in the release] was important. We knew that the album wasn't going to be a one listening comedy album, that we were going to make it as complicated as we could. Rather than trying to say, "Well, this is an album about a novel that happens on a foreign planet, and you see it's underground, and . . . " you know. Instead, "This is the last radio broadcast of the millennium." Okay, that's clear! You could explain that to somebody. So, it would be accessible to people who had no idea what they were going to be listening to, and who had never heard of the Firesign's work, or even been born [Laughs] when we did our last album. So, it was born out of all good reasons, which is why we decided to stay on the air throughout the album.
Cosmik: How did the concept of the eyeball hats come about?
Ossman: That's a funny story. We were writing, and as sometimes happens, we get weird catalogs in the mail. And this catalog, whatever it was, came in, and Phil Proctor said, "Look at this. Look at these eyeball hats." And we saw this picture of this gooney guy wearing this green eyeball hat, and it was just so funny. We immediately ordered four eyeball hats. [Laughs] We said, "We've got to have these . . . we've got to have these . . . these hats mean something somehow." So we ordered these four hats from the catalog and it just became something that entered the world of the album in many ways. "Eyeball" became "Ebola," the CBS eyeball, it just wrote itself in. It became, "Who are the guys in the eyeball hats? Who exactly are they?" Well, that's one of the puzzles of the album, is who the guys with the eyeball hats are. It's one of those unknowns in the album, because there's really no way that you can truly find out. We never reveal who the guys in the eyeball hats are. Actually, the eyeball hats are an extreme mud boarding sports [thing]. It's like a snow board thing, and they're made by a perfectly reputable company of young people in Colorado. I sent them a copy of the album saying, "I hope you enjoy it." They've got their eyeball hats plastered all over it. [Laughs] I don't know what they're going to think. I haven't heard from them, which kind of amazes me!
Cosmik: How did the four of you select the social and cultural concepts and concerns on the CD? I'm referring to the selection of Y2K phobia, Princess Goddess being a play on Princess Diana, Joe Camel, etc.
Ossman: Y2K . . . Peter brought Y2K to us. He's been, for the last couple of years, doing comedy. He's kind of a stand-up guru in his other life. He does humor for corporate meetings, particularly in the new technology field. So, he brought the notion of Y2K, and explained it to us, and it made us laugh; it was very funny. And, in fact, when we wrote the first Y2K piece, I think we were at Peter's house, and Phil and I started to improvise the thing about the coffee machine--Mr. Coffee. We just improvised it, and we reproduced it as well as we could in the studio as an improv, and everybody was just dying. Two nights later, on ABC Nightly News, there was a big story about the menace of Y2K, and it started with a picture of Mr. Coffee. We thought, we must be right on it. So that was clearly a Now thing.
Princess Goddess, indeed, when we had first started thinking about the album, Princess Diana was still alive. We were dealing with her as a live person, being a focus for media attention, which is something I felt had disassociated the public dialog--this was prior to the Monica Lewinski thing. Now public dialog is so dislocated that it's almost impossible to have. We knew we wanted to deal with celebrity as an element of this piece--the fashion of celebrity. And, in the time that we were first talking and we actually started writing, why, she was killed. Then she was transformed--apotheosized, you know, transmogrified into this creature. What was she? Is she alive? Is she dead? Does she exist on film? Is she really digital? What is she? All of those questions were in our minds, particularly since I play the character, I had to deal a lot with my own feelings about how I'm really very hostile to people who fall in love with celebrities. So, in order to become one, it was a little acting job [Laughs] of putting myself in this guy's skin, and dealing with the world he must live in. And so, it's a very real translation--it's as real as I can make it--of living in a world of dead people. The sub-sub-sub text is kind of a descent into hell in this album, which is not something that we have shied away from in the past. But, when he goes to this auction, and it's full of dead celebrities, all that stuff is really kind of a hellish place. We wanted to take people to the kind of hells of the late 20th century, and that was certainly one of them.
Now, Joe Camel . . . the idea that the government, in order to keep down the cost of public health, would . . . it's a very confusing issue, and something we felt we had to deal with. Here is a logo who represents everything attractive about the past. Joe with his shades and his cigarettes and his convertible and his broad, he's everything that our generation grew up with as attractive. And suddenly the government throws him out, and with him goes many of the dreams, particularly the male dreams of the pre-1990s. And so we felt that Joe Camel was a tragic character, as Princess Goddess was a tragic character. He had been dispossessed of his identity, even as people had been dispossessed of their cigarettes, or even their right to smoke cigarettes. There's kind of a civil rights issue here that, if you poke at it, it will squirm, you know. [Laughs] Actually, we wrote two or three more scenes for Joe than he ended up having in the album, but I'm so proud of Phil's really magnificent piece at the Homeless Stadium. That's just a wonderful performance, and he tried to deal with being dispossessed, as we all have to deal with the loss of our own history. It's like all those Communist revisions of history. The government has revised history. So, these were really deep seeded things that we really needed to talk to each other about, and that we wanted to put on the record so that people would think about it, instead of just saying, "Oh yeah, of course kids shouldn't be smoking, and yeah they're attracted to cartoon figures, so obviously there shouldn't be any billboards," which is kind of "let's not think about it, let's just pass this legislation" point of view. [All] of us, we all come from a time when we really began by testing the government on every issue on everything that the government decided to do. And, so here we are, I think, continuing in the noble tradition of these overnmental fiats, however well intentioned, and saying, let's think about what it actually does. Let's think about how we're actually trying to re-write history here, and pretend something didn't exist when it did. How much of our identities are tied-up in logos and advertisement imagery--a huge amount. Cigarettes are a huge amount of culture in this century, enormous! From, "Blow some my way," in the twenties, "Reach for a Lucky Instead of a Sweet," "Lucky Strike has Gone to War," sending packages of Camels to all the boys in the service, to private detectives, Humphrey Bogart dying of throat cancer with a cigarette between his lips, it's endless, the kind of references that come out. So, it was an important thing to deal with at the end of the century, at the end of the millennium.
Austin: Conceptually, it seems to me that we don't have much control over the final product. Whereas we have tremendous control over the details, and each of us exercise control over the details in one way or another, and although everybody tries to figure out what we're doing as we go along, conceptually we seldom succeed at predicting what it is we are going to do when we start out. What we seem to do, by just plunging into the day-to-day work of the Firesign Theatre is trying to make each other laugh, for the most part. We try to come up with things that amuse four people, instead of things that amuse just one, two, or even three people. It's in the detail work, eventually, we find ourselves looking about three-quarters of the way through this project and kind of going, "Oh, I'm sort of seeing what it is this is about, or what it is we're getting at." That process is going on right now, especially all these interviews we're doing for the release. We're talking more to people like you, and figuring it out as we go along. So, it's a little odd. I think our work tends to seem structured to a lot of people, and it feels as if we must come up with a concept and then realize that concept. In fact, we don't do that. We start out with a bunch of little things, and start cobbling them together. We tend to write and re-write, then type-up the improvisations, which then becomes writing, which then becomes improvised on again, which eventually winds-up with a take we wind up keeping in the studio. So, it's all writing, but it's like most writers, everyone has their odd ways of working, and we're in an odd situation trying to have four people write together at the same time. It's a nightmare! [Laughs] Nobody who writes really likes having anybody looking over your shoulder. In Firesign Theatre, you're not only expected to be an entertainer along with your writing, but you have three people looking over your shoulder all the time. It's such a unique situation that it has unique rules and unique working methods. But they are working methods, and they are ways of eventually getting it done.
Cosmik: How much of the writing was done in the studio as opposed to outside the studio?
Bergman: I'd say on this album, more than ever, maybe 15 or 20 percent [of our writing is done in the studio]. These things are fully scripted. Yes, things get done to it when we get [into the studio], but for the first time we actually wrote in the studio. We've never done that before. We've attacked, improvised, and changed radically, but we've never written [in the studio]. Here we have the computers and the printer right there in the studio, and so we have the time to take off and use that as our writing space.
Cosmik: Firesign's recording productions have always been of key interest to its fans. Describe the recording process. How did you come to select the various commercial music and bumpers?
Ossman: The music behind "Pull My String" is actually by a classical composer. Her name is Libby Larsen, misspelled on the album. Libby originally wrote that theme for us for a production on the Bill of Rights by Norman Corwin, which Judith and I produced for a huge worldwide broadcast back in the beginning of 1992. It was the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Norman had written a piece in 1941 and it was broadcast on all three radio networks, and followed by a speech by President Roosevelt. It was the second best known program of its time, after War of the Worlds. We were engaged in a process that ended with him writing a new version of that. There were a number of people who thought it would be very important to re-do it, but it had to be re-done from the ground up. So, Judith produced, and I directed, and [was] one of the very few people that Norman's ever let direct any of his stuff in 50 to 60 years. So, Libby Larsen wrote the theme music--quite a lot of lovely theme music. It is not available [commercially]. We actually stole it from the archives because I wanted something that sounded really special. Titanic had just come out, and the music from Titanic was all anybody could talk about. It was selling billions of records. So I thought, I don't want to do commercial needle-drop music here, I want to do something that is real special, and that is, indeed, what it is--it is real special music. Everything else is needle-drop. We used 30 or 40 pieces of music that we acquired from a commercial service, and they allowed us access to basically whatever we wanted, which was the reason for the price that we paid. We had a lot of CDs, and maybe 30 or 40 CDs of sports music, news music, and commercial background music. So we listened, we listened, and we listened, and as soon as we recorded the commercial, we dropped the music in. So, it's all Now music.
Cosmik: How many tracks were used during the production?
Ossman: We had two ganged ADATs . . . 16 [tracks], which is a lot fewer than we used in the past. But, it doesn't get crowded until you put in stereo sound effects. It was radio, once again, we were in a studio situation, so the most you'd get is stereo voices, and the most our voices would do is fill up 4-tracks, and then if you have music behind it, that's six, and you still aren't done with one 8-track machine. So, we really didn't run into any problems in the overdubbing, and it was a very convenient system [working] with ADATs. We did [the album] piece-by-piece. We recorded the first thing, and we recorded the second right after, and so-forth. The first thing that happens as we move from section to section is, the music starts--POW! The rhythm is a radio rhythm where there is never any dead air. So it moves very, very quickly. [There's] always a segue. We had about the first half written when we went in--a little bit more than the first half, I guess, when we went in. We started writing out of sequence, and our agreement was we wouldn't try to start at the beginning, we would start with what we wanted to write. When we had written enough so we had some shape, we'd move some things around in the script, and then in the studio if we needed something slower, or we needed a different rhythmic piece than we had in mind, we'd either substitute, or either write something else that would go in that spot. That happened several times when the next thing up just didn't work. It unfolded in the studio. We didn't know how it was going to end, although we had the drift of the piece, but we weren't sure what was going to happen at midnight at Homeless Stadium. There were a lot of theories about what might happen, but it wasn't until we actually got in the studio and started to record [that it unfolded].
Cosmik: During the recording of Night Whispers, there is such a rich layer of voices all whispering various seemingly unrelated phrases. It takes multiple listenings to dissect that short section. Describe the creation of that piece.
Ossman: That's the produced intro to the piece. We wanted to do a poem at the beginning, and a poem at the end of the album. The first poem is when the mattress is opened [from Unconscious Village]. It is really a sound poem, when she says, "No, all my dreams are in there," and then the mattress is ripped open and all her dreams emerge. We love doing these purely voice things. Without being self-indulgent, we really enjoy producing them. We knew that that was going to happen at the beginning, and it was going to set a number of themes that you would hear, so buried in the mattress were a Pandora's Box-like [collection of comments that presented] all the many themes you were [going to hear]. "Pull my string," you hear, and all these things that you don't understand until later on in the album. We meant for it to be demanding listening in the beginning. I remember we finished the first mix of it and Peter said, "Well, that'll separate the men from the boys." [Laughs] We simplified it, actually, from that when we finished the album, and added some other elements and remixed it so it was clearer than our first mix. Essentially the idea was to do a voice collage poem there, and then we wanted to do one at the end of the album, so what is really the produced opening for Night Whispers, it's a similar poem. It's like drifting between sleep and wakefulness. It's that kind of drowsy lines running through your head. You can't quite remember what they are; you can't quite hear them--dreamlike. Then, of course, the scene with General Y2K, and the theme that follows is not like that, but it kind of then concludes with the hellos and good-byes, which is another species of sound poem.
Austin: My favorite thing in Night Whispers is my own line. It's "My cat pee toilet is a gateway to the dream world." [Laughs] For a long while I was trying to get everybody to use that as a title for the album, but I never got enough votes. [Laughs]
Cosmik: Was there any filming in the studio?
Bergman: No. There wasn't really any room for that kind of distraction. I think it would have been too self-conscious. We may begin filming next time because things were moving so nicely, I don't even think we knew anybody was there, and I wish we had it on film, but we don't, so, move on. We certainly got it on tape. [Laughs] We've got it on digital.
Cosmik: Do any of the creations of your past releases survive on film?
Bergman: Not really. Documented to a certain extent, but not filmed. We may film the next one. We're certainly going to film the tour, and it appears that the tour will open in February on the West Coast. We know the centerpiece is going to be [the new CD], and we know that we're also going to bring the goldies-and-oldies back because people do love them. We'll probably give them some sort of a modern format--we're going to do something with it--and we're going to do some of our Shakespeare. It'll be Immortality, some goldies, and Shakespeare--a big full evening. We're going to probably go out and try and play slightly smaller houses than big rock and roll halls, and maybe do more than one day in a place, so we can settle in. Rather than thinking of these as rock and roll concerts, think of them as evenings of rock and roll theater. It is rock and roll. I mean, it is. That's our roots.
Cosmik: Jim Guercio was brought on early in Firesign's history. Firesign was a comedy troupe, yet he was a rock and roll producer. When exactly was he brought on and for what reason was he chosen?
Bergman: Electrician was released in February of 1968. When we were ready to do our next album, we had only sold about six thousand albums. When it came time for us to do our second album, Columbia said, "We're not going to keep you on the label," even though we had a five-year deal. John McClure, from Masterworks, said, "If you take them off, I'll put them on Masterworks," and he was backed by Jimmy Guercio, who was a power producer at that point because he had done the Buckinghams and he already had Chicago. At this point the connection was Chicago, and that was so powerful. That was just a big deal. I noticed that his Poseidon organization is stamped on How Can You Be in Two Places at Once. I also believe he was stamped on Dwarfs, and he managed us. His organization managed us for a while, but he didn't produce our albums. He's the person who kept us on Columbia. Then How Can You Be started to take off and did reasonable numbers, and it was not an issue anymore. So, that was our relationship with Jimmy.
Cosmik: In past releases each of you have been known to try and make each other laugh in the studio, which would stimulate the writing process. Can you share any memorable moments during the creation of this CD?
Austin: Peter was telling me something the other day . . . In the Dr. Winquedinque section, on the particular take we ended up keeping, he did not know that I was going to point out that Dr. Winquedinque didn't know that ants could piss. And you can hear Peter slightly adjust to it very quickly. [Laughs] That just turned out to be one of those things we liked so much, we decided to keep it. We're free to do that. That's one nice thing about Firesign Theatre, unlike most performing organizations, we're allowed to do that way more than any other kind of performing work I've ever done.
Bergman: I can't really point to anything and tell you, "That's it!" Everything was just of a piece, and it was a good piece.
Proctor: Well, gosh . . . the whole thing was a memorable moment. I mean, it was so much fun to get back in the studio again and do this. In the living arts, when you're dealing with an audience, and you're dealing with other live people, and you're creating something at the moment, there is a thrill that comes out of the performance that is the motivation for all of the hard work that goes before. As a musician speaking at this conference that I spoke at, Gary Burton [jazz vibraphone player] expressed in his demonstration and lecture what jazz music is. A musician, or a group of musicians, spends hours and hours, and years and years in garages, rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing, and then they finally put it up in front of an audience. That's one way of looking at it [that is an] extreme. Basically, you rehearse and rehearse, then go in front of an audience, then rehearse and rehearse, then go in front of an audience, [etc.]. And, you learn, eventually, that once you're in front of the audience, you're not rehearsing in the garage anymore. He says that the mistake most young players make is that they've been rehearsing and working for so many years before they finally expose themselves to public scrutiny that they're playing for themselves and not for the public that they're in front of. It takes a while to learn that there's a give and take with your audience, and that you can interact with your audience.
Well, we're very much the same way. The benefit that we have is that even though, supposedly, we're working in a recorded form, without a live audience, because that's not the nature of what we do. We are one another's best audiences. In essence, all of this theatrical art is based on that. If you're working with a bunch of actors, and you're working very hard on your own, every actor will tell you that the best actor is the actor that listens best. So right there you have the big secret to all of this stuff, which is that you're always working for an audience, in a sense, or you'd be living in a cave. Everything that we do cannot be isolated from its societal interaction. We know that. When we sit around the table and are writing material, we love to make one-another laugh. We love to laugh ourselves. We're there to find the humor, to find the non-seriousness in the most serious of issues, and to find that which we find universally funny to the four of us. Of course, we can pretty much count on the fact that there's enough dumb comedy out there to keep people going well into the 21st century, but there's not a lot of bright comedy out there. This harks back to our audience. I think there's enough people who are interested now in pursuing brighter comedy. Comedy that stimulates them and challenges them on a higher level than they are than they are used to rather than in just pursuing more dumb comedy. There's plenty of good dumb comedy out there. It's great!
Cosmik: That's what makes your comedy different. You can listen to it so many times, and it's endless.
Proctor: It's the same for us. When we go into the studio and we're doing the material, we're performing it for one-another. There's always an audience there. Therefore, that stimulates us, when we're rewriting the stuff on the spot, or improvising on the spot and finding stuff in character, we want to find something that's going to surprise, enlighten and tickle our partner, the guy you're doing the scene with. We know that there's such a great give and take between us, like jazz musicians riffing off of one-another, that whatever we throw out is going to come back.
Cosmik: When I listened to this CD and the parts that you play, the part that I enjoyed the most is the interaction between the newsmen, Hal and Ray, especially the segment where you discuss the news drought and the coffee maker.
Proctor: Oh yeah, the coffee maker. That was basically improvised. We kept talking about, is there a Green room, is there a back stage to this thing? Is it only going to happen on broadcast? Is it only going to be the concede that this is what you hear on the radio? When we first wrote the album, we wrote a whole life of the influence of the radio and the people in the world--we had scenes that were in the world. We also investigated the idea of having backstage scenes, although we had never written one. Yet, the whole idea of just thinking about the backstage world, thinking about the life of the radio studio, naturally meant that there was a Green room with a coffee machine, and one of those machines had snacks in it, and you know, what's that world like? So, when we had to improvise a scene at a particular point as we built this record, we decided to rub those two things together--the fact that they were going to have to go on and do the news, and that there wasn't any, so they had to talk about their backstage life. And it worked!
All of that timing and playing was just between David and me. We established these characters back in the seventies, when we did our record, which I hope will be re-released, because it's still extremely pertinent, Everything You Know is Wrong. Ray Hamberger and Harold Hiphugger were the newsmen on the station--I forget the name of the station. K- HOT, or something. The Hooker Heater Hellmouth television station. They were television anchors. You can get the movie that we made based on the album, Everything You Know is Wrong, from LoadsTone. I would advise [everyone] to get it. It's almost everything that's on the record, except for the Carlos Castenada section. What we did was, Columbia gave us about $3,000 to make a promotional film, and so what we did was we figured out that if we lip-synced to our previous track, we could shoot the whole album, and we did. We visualized the entire album by just lip-syncing to a playback [Laughs] of the album itself. So you get to see Ray and Hal. Again, it happened totally organically. We had not written Ray and Hal into the album when we went into the studio. But we realized that we had to have a newsbreak at a certain time, and we had written other characters. We had written remotes for other characters, and we said, this should be Ray and Hal. We've got them, let's just put them together. Once we did, we realized that Ray and Hal in the 1990s were probably a gay couple living together. We wrote this back-story. We had been improvising and kind of playing that. I don't know why necessarily, just because they had been together so long. This back-story started coming out that they had been living together in this condo, and that they haven't necessarily come out of the closet yet. He makes reference to that later in the album. That all came out during improvisation. We were making one-another laugh because we were kind of implying that they were committed to one another for life, and they were living together, and treating all that with complete respect, as a normal aspect of the end of the century in American society. And so, there they were. They came alive that way, and then they became an integral part of the album. So, go figure; that's the nature of the work.
Again, going back to what I was saying about how exciting it is to do theater because you're going to have an opening night. You're going to do previews in front of an audience, then you're going to have an opening night, and then you're going to run it. Every audience is going to give you a different thing, and it's so much fun once you've established what you're going to do, to do it. Well, in a mini-way, that's what we do with each scene in the Firesign Theatre. We've written it, to a certain extent, we try it out in front of the audience--us--we listen to it, we rewrite it right on the spot, we improvise off of it and rewrite it again. We're constantly trying it out in front of one-another. We might take a break and say, "Austin, that line that you just did was really funny. You didn't do it in the last take, you should put it back in." And everybody else says, "Yeah, yeah, that was really funny. You should do it." So he says, "Oh, okay," and he'll put that line in. Each time, we get a firmer feeling of what the characters are, what their interactivity is, what makes one-another laugh, even though you might not laugh at the moment that you're doing it, because you're in character. You know that it's funny [when it] had a funny effect on somebody. And ultimately you get the take where it's all-together. Bingo--we got it! Everybody's happy, and after the take is over, we're all laughing because you know we've all been listening to it, and it's funny.
Cosmik: It must be great to listen to the playback of each segment. Then you can let loose. You're not in character.
Proctor: Exactly! Exactly! That's when we hear things. We go, "My God, that's funny!" My favorite track on the album is actually Harold Hiphugger, Night Whispers with General Y2K. That was essentially written and improvised on the spot. Initially, we had created a character, the Paranoid Patriot, [who] was the guy that ran the show, and we couldn't come up with a name for him. But, anyway, he was the Paranoid Patriot, and he was going to interview General Y2K, or whoever it was. We didn't even have a name for the General. We didn't call him General Y2K. But he was going to interview himself, as it were, in another character. When we got to the point of doing it, it became very clear that Harold was the only one that could do that. So we set up this whole thing that he has to do an interview. We planted the seed early on in the album. When it came [time] to doing the interview, I had not written the General's character. So David and I had kind of got in the studio and started playing.
What I had was, I had a list of military language that I collected when I was doing voices for Saving Private Ryan. One of the other things that I do in my life is do voices. My voice appears in the very first segment, when Hank's landing ship is coming in to the Normandy Beach, and the pilot turns around and says three lines to the men. Something like, "Keep your heads down," "Good luck," and "God be with you." That was an Irishman. They filmed that in Ireland. So he had an Irish accent. So we voiced him with a New Jersey accent. There's a whole bunch of voices. I do the priest who's giving last rights, lots of voices. I hear myself in different languages. I did Russian, French, German, and all kinds of stuff. But that's one of the things that I do for a living. In any event, when we were doing the voices of the soldiers throughout the movie, the military advisor on the film, who's a fellow named Dale Dye, he was there to give us military language, and make sure what we were doing was correct. He gave us background on the thing, and all that. And this guy's a terrific character. He really is. He's the guy that put the stars of the movie into two weeks of boot camp, and he appears in the movie. He's the blond soldier in the scene where the Commander in Chief--the General--reads the letter. When he worked with us, he used the most colorful, funny military language. He was insulting us all the time with a sense of humor and Marine-like camaraderie. "That didn't exactly suck, Puke!" He used all that stuff, and I wrote it all down. That's why I gave him a credit [on the CD]. "Military language advisor, Dale Dye."
When I came in to do that scene with David, all I had was my hand written collection of his language--of his funny, funny expressions. "We nuked 'em 'til they glowed and shot them in the dark." He was saying things like this during the eight-hour day that we worked together over at Warner Brothers, and I was writing them down. So, I constructed that character on the basis of some of the material I had written. Like, "They slipped a chip in my ass in the Gulf War swimdrome." That was really early writing on this character, based on the whole right wing, paramilitary, paranoid thinking. Then, I just interjected Dale Dye's stuff into it, and the character came alive! It came to life. And David didn't know what I was going to say. He didn't know I was going to throw this stuff at him. We kind of just built it on improvisation. I'd look at my list and find something funny that I thought was appropriate. Once David caught on to what I was doing, and the other guys caught on, they helped me to shape it, and we ended up with this very funny [Laughs] piece. "What's a survival yo-yo?" We had the components for it. We had the DOA Ant Farm from another writing session. We had all these components, and they just all came together at that particular moment in this improvised writing session. So that's the way we work, and it's very, very, very unique. I don't know of any other group that works like we work. It's part of the magic that we're able to accomplish.
Cosmik: Bebop Loco is a well-portrayed character that seams together the content on the CD. How did you define the character of Bebop Loco into a developed character, rather than a character defined by words on a script?
Austin: There are two things that are unique to him. One is he's Latino, and two he's almost entirely accompanied by music. So those two things allow him to kind of almost sing his way through the album, and that's something that I'm always interested in in the voice work that I do. There's a fine-line that I've often felt with all four of us that what we do, in many respects, with the technical stuff we do with our voices, is in many ways closer to singing than it is to acting. If you're able to combine it with actual music, every once in a while you can hit something really nice. And Bebop turned out to be something that could really sustain himself for the whole album. I don't think any of us [knew], when he started out, [that] he was essentially kind of a morning man. And, in fact, we were planning to phase him out about half-way through, and every time I would do him, a lot of what he did I would not tell anyone what I was going to do before we would walk into the studio. They would just kind of say, "Oh, Austin's gonna do something here. Bebop's gonna say something here." And they would allow me to surprise them a lot of the time. So, I would kind of keep him where I wanted him to be, and what he wound up being was a kind of host for the album, in many ways. He had to be a friendly person all the way through. I needed to have him involved in the station in a way that's a little different than all the other characters. Chump winds up going through a plate glass window. Danny winds up jumping out of a helicopter, Happy's drunk--very little happens to Bebop in terms of the album, except that they send out for steaks and he has a little too much champagne, and then out of the blue somehow, he decides to shut the place down, and everyone decides to go along with him. And I don't think that was something that was planned by any means. It's part of the writing as it went along. I don't think we would have had him be that kind of guy if I had to pin him down too early in the process. Everybody very nicely allowed me to kind of come in at the last minute and allow him to kind of develop on his feet, so that's what you hear. He's really fun to play. He's like some guy I know. I grew up in Fresno, California, and then I lived in LA for thousands of years, and there's an LA Latino accent that is to me almost the most natural way to talk that there is, and that's the way he talks. That's what he means when he says he's speaking Spanish. [Laughs]
Cosmik: The group's material crosses many mediums: recordings, movies, live performance. Which do you feel is the most perfect medium?
Austin: Speaking in terms of the Firesign Theatre I think what we do particularly well are these audio projects, these records, these albums. They are far and away the best thing that we do, and the thing that is the most enjoyable thing to do with everyone as well. That's very much where I'm happiest. We haven't done enough film work or video work to have ever achieved the same easiness that we do with audio work. Film work, we haven't had enough money to work with, haven't had a big enough budget. You need a much bigger budget in that kind of work. It doesn't adapt itself well to this kind of primitive technique we use where we don't work out of sequence, for instance. In our audio work, we start at the beginning. The second scene we record second, then we tack it on to the first scene, then we listen to those and we decide where to go, and then we'll go to the third. In film and television, nobody works that way. It's so much more cost effective to say, "Well, we'll shoot all the scenes that have got the green lawn, and then we'll shoot them all in the same day," for God sakes, rather than dragging everybody back to the green lawn every fifth day, which is going to eat up your budget completely. So, therefore, doing film work just pushes us into a different writing technique, and I don't feel the results have ever been that strong as our audio work. Sometimes in our video work we can hit some really nice moments, but never really sustain a 45 minute in-depth kind of piece the way we can do in audio.
Bergman: I would say that our most perfect medium is our audio recordings. That's our most perfect base. I think our second best place for us to be, or has been our best place to be, has been live performance. We have done very little film and very little TV. That doesn't mean we won't do film and TV. In fact, I've been playing with an idea for a film that I've presented to the guys, almost a kind of Dinner with Andre, almost a kind of Dinner with Firesign--along those lines. Something simple and fairly talky, because we're fun to talk to. So, it's not unheard of.
Ossman: We're naturally audio-people. We've done as many other things as we can do in order to make a living and keep a career going. It isn't that we haven't wanted to make movies or do things in the visual realm. We've had a very difficult time landing there because we are so audio oriented. Speaking for myself, radio has always been my business. I just have been in audio all my life--written for it, spoken it, announced for it, and I continue to do that kind of work today. None of us as individuals have come up with a career in film, although we have made a couple of videos, which I think are really good, and that we look really good in. So it isn't that we can't do it, or won't do it, or wouldn't want to do it, it's just that those opportunities haven't come along for us. We hope that they will. We stand ready to do those things when they do.
© - Paul Remington 1998
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