Iron Men

Seattle Weekly plays Jukebox Jury with Korby Sears and Mike Min of Seattle School.

It's actually good that no one can really describe what Seattle School's monthly Iron Composer shows are like. The point is to go and find out—in fact, the point is to go and actually become a part of the show. Conceived as a sort of songwriting/booze-drinking obstacle course, Iron Composer takes audience participation to its most illogical and wonderful conclusion while simultaneously undressing the stardom of pop culture and letting us all point and laugh at its underwear. But Korby Sears, a multi-instrumentalist who scores video games and hangs out in orchestra pits, and Mike Min, a self-taught composer and new media sound designer, aren't laughing at anyone, they're laughing with them. And when you go, so are you. Whether it's Tom Douglas showing up with a delivery tray of snacks, Reggie Watts showing his true colors, or your roommate, selected at random to go onstage and give the songwriters something meaty to write about, Sears and Min have been orchestrating the Iron Composer mayhem for over a year now. The trick—and the biggest clue to their genius—is that it never looks staged at all. And while it's clear that a lot of thinking has gone into every video clip and audio byte, the beauty of Iron Composer is that it's never bogged down with thinking. As we found out when the pair sat down for the Jukebox Jury, for two highly innovative and experienced performers, Min and Sears—who are also working on an Iron Composer television series—are not lofty about what they know and, perhaps more remarkably, they're not shy about what they don't know. Again, it's all about finding out.

Jello Biafra and the Melvins: "Islamic Bomb" (2004) from Never Breathe What You Can't See (Alternative Tentacles)

Seattle Weekly: How did you end up getting Jello Biafra and Wayne Kramer from the MC5 as your next guests for Iron Composer?

Korby Sears: Danny Bland at EMP used to manage the Supersuckers, and he's got a 25-year history of knowing everybody in the business. He called Jello on his cell phone and said "Hey, this is hilarious, you should do it." He has people that owe him favors, which is really cool. No one's ever owed me a damn favor in my life. So yeah, it's the same thing with Wayne Kramer, who I guess is a friend of his. A lot of our new booking now is from Danny's Rolodex, so we're lucky to have him. Having said that, we had a list of people that we wanted [for the show], and [Biafra] has been on it for quite some time. I always thought he'd be funny.

SW: And those guys are both coming to Seattle just to do Iron Composer?

Sears: As all people should, and all people will.

SW: How does that change things for you guys, to have these bigger names? Do you feel nervous, or . . . ?

Sears: No, no. You know, the older I get, the less I'm impressed with any kind of celebrity or whatever.

Mike Min: I just pity them actually.

Sears: Well, fame seems like a bitch, money doesn't. Money is awesome, but being known just looks annoying. I mean the show is pretty disrespectful to celebrities—that's kind of the whole point. Which can flip over; for instance we have Jerry Casale of Devo in the mix.

SW: What do you mean? For what?

Sears: Possibly Sept. 5, with Bumbershoot. Yeah, I'm like, "Great, Jerry's doing it," and then I'm like, "Wow, I kind of have to shit on Jerry Casale?"

Min: Because that's part of the deal.

Sears: I mean, how do you shit on Jello Biafra? You just do, because, I mean the whole show's like talking shit about celebrity. We don't care. Nobody takes themselves too seriously. So—nervous? I'm not. I could really care less.

SW: You did Iron Composer at the Crocodile Cafe for a while, but the EMP Sky Church's stage is a lot more imposing. You don't feel a little edgy about switching to a bigger venue?

Min: I don't think we've had time to feel anything. The logistics of this show have been so overwhelming that all of our attention seems to be on getting this show done, and I don't think we've had a chance to sit down and think, "Oh my God, we've got Jello Biafra."

Sears: Everybody who said yes to [participating in] the show has just been an affirmation that humanity's actually pretty cool. There's a lot of people that take the show too seriously, at a competitive angle. When somebody finally says yes it's like, wow, they're stepping into something that they don't understand. Especially people who have never seen the show, some people will step in and say yes, and it's pretty cool.

SW: Do you have a hard time explaining the concept to people? I have a hard time telling people about what you guys do.

Sears: Yeah. Danny is one thing, because Danny loves the show and he's a really good ambassador. With me, it's been varied. I mean, like Kurt Bloch, he's someone who's like, "Sounds fine, I don't want to hear any more about it. I don't need to hear any more details." Nothing we threw his way really bugged him. Other people want to nitpick, or the closer they get to the show they want to get out of it, or they ask that you don't do the booze or whatever. It's hard; it's very hard to explain. I was talking to my dad today and he's like, "So, how's the show work again?" I was like, dammit, I don't want to have to go through this. I mean, confusion is part of the fun.

Min: And TV will cure that.

Sears: Yes, it will.

Min: I think, really, if you boil it down to brass tacks, it's a couple people, some celebrities doing something, and then just a bunch of people fucking with their heads, and then at the end you get a couple songs. That's really it.

Sears: I've always thought Iron Composer is a big excuse for a party. We say it's a competition, but it's just a bunch of people, and it looks like a house party.

Min: Which is what rock and roll should be.

Sears: Exactly. I mean, once this thing goes to TV, it's really not going to be shots of the celebrity composers or the cast. It's just going to be a bunch of shots of the audience running around, which is why this is unlike any other TV show that's ever happened. It's this unscripted stuff.

Min: It's like [American] Bandstand, but different.

Sears: Yeah, but they're dancing, that's still form. It will be very scary, it'll be great. But it'll basically be the audience—that's really the point of the show. I don't want to piss off the people we book, but in the long run, that's what it really ends up being about.

Glenn Branca: "Symphony No. 1" (1981) from Symphony No. 1, Tonal Plexas (ROIR)

SW: I'll give you a hint: I read on your site that one of your influences is no wave.

Min: Glenn Branca?

SW: Yeah. I once drove around Northern California with my in-laws for a week, and this was the only CD we brought with us for the rental car. It turned out that it was OK to have it on while my husband's mom and our niece and nephew and everyone were with us. The whole family went no wave.

Min: I think I had a brief, one-week Glenn Branca period. I think that's the most anyone could take.

Sears: Actually, I had his "Symphony No. 3" in high school. It's like 30 guitars, and they all do this one chord, RRRRRROWWWW, and that's it for, like, 68 minutes, and the point was supposed to be overtones changing.

Min: And that's kind of borrowing from Morton Feldman, right? It's droning.

Sears: I think Feldman's point was more along the lines of length. [Feldman] was friends with Mark Rothko and a lot of the New York painters. He did a string quartet that's six hours long. It was finally recorded, like, two years ago; it was a big deal. We thought his stuff was neat because there was never a real beginning or ending to any of it. It seemed like we put the needle down in the middle, every time. It always just started; there was never any fanfare, so it was almost like this whole thing was a loop. Forget beginnings and endings, just jump in, for whatever reason. But everything was always so quiet in this stuff, it was always, like, I don't know—I have some of his stuff and I take it out once in a while and it's like, there's something here, but I don't know what.

Have you ever read [Feldman's] writing? It's interesting, but I'm just constantly chasing it. There was a week in which it all made sense, I actually wrote [fellow Seattle School member] Ben [Houge] an e-mail saying, "I got it, I got it!" But then I lost it. It wasn't making sense; a lot of things he said [were] hitting on something I said just like five minutes ago or something, I just had this weird, psychic thing with Morton Feldman.

Min: That happened with me [with composer] Brian Ferneyhough. I read a paragraph of his. It was [a] really insightful, extremely dense paragraph. I had to walk around the block six or seven times to digest it, and then I went "Yes!" But then I walked back in and lost it.

Sears: Ferneyhough [is] part of the "new complexity." We saw one of his pieces at the UW comp lab. It was a woman performing it, a solo flute piece, and certain notes would flutter and then dissipate into a word, and she would pronounce the word very emphatically.

Min: It was about extended technique or how to produce sound beyond the instrument or use the instrument differently, and I think just being completely athletic as a musician and trying to take whatever you have traditionally and expand the map, like, three or four times. It's amazing to watch. It looks like a sporting event when just one small woman is playing the flute.

Sears: When she came out she took the sheet music and spread it out over two stands, and that got a laugh. She hadn't even played yet and it was like 12 sheets long. But part of what Mike's saying is awesome, it was her physically playing along to it, you know like she was eating her way through an ear of corn. That came up recently because Quake is trying to do a no-instrument concert in the fall.

Min: Quake is a local [ensemble and performance] group, and they get my vote for next best artists.

Sears: They're very physical, and they take spatial considerations [into] their concert stuff. They want to do a no-instrument concert. They invited me to be on their advisory board, and I was like, "Hey, I'm in." And I brought up that Frenyhough piece. I was, like, maybe somehow you could take the flute parts out and just do the word parts or something.

Min: Right. We have this huge theory about composers just writing to control body movement instead of actually producing sound. They write notes, but what they are actually doing is controlling the body movements that create the sounds.

Sears: As Mike once said, let's say you write a solo flute piece; someone rehearses it, practices it. Then remove the flute. What are you left with? It essentially becomes choreography of the body at that point. Seattle School has done some of this type of stuff before. There's this thing about controlling people to create music. We don't necessarily care about the end product of the sound; I just think it's more interesting performancewise to watch the construct, to see people struggle. Turmoil is a good thing. We don't know how it's going to turn out.

Min: Iron Composer is just one big musical piece. It's a piece, and that's why it's so hard to explain, because it seems kind of like a game show, or a sporting event.

Sears: One thing that's dear to my heart about Iron Composer, which I swear TV will make invisible, is the fact that the band is rehearsing the entire time. Whenever I hear the audio play back and the main thing is something going on with the judges and composers and that sort of thing, and in the background you just hear guys trying out their parts and stuff, and it's really cool, and it's really fun to hear. I guarantee somebody's going to ask us to stop that or take them out of the mike or whatever. But I think that's part of the whole throw-it-all-in-the-soup of [everything] happening all at the same time. But I'm sure that'll stop. Somebody's going to hate that. I mean, what precedent do you have for that? It sounds like that's the shit that you're supposed to take out, but that's what makes it funny.

Min: It's an ADD way of receiving and communicating information. It seems like the zeitgeist is more along the lines of periphery, you know? People are absorbing things. If you go straight at somebody, people won't understand it or won't absorb it. But if you go toward them in a side or a peripheral manner, than people have a better understanding of it. It's just kind of like speed-reading, kind of like ADD nation.

SW: Now, we're talking about when Iron Composer goes to TV, not if?

Sears: We go to L.A. in two days to a pitch meeting. We have five pitch meetings lined up. Tuesday is Showtime and CBS. A week from that is Bravo. And the 27th is the big day: Fox and Comedy Central, which are my top two. So yeah, we're pitching right now.

SW: You're going to infiltrate Fox?

Sears: Why not? Do they have more money than Comedy Central? I'm thinking they do. Well, we know that Comedy Central and Fox have money and are buying, so that's good.

Pierre Henry: "La Religion" (1970) from Fragments Pour Artaud (Philips, France)

Min: Is this Paul Lansky?

SW: No, Pierre Henry.

Min: Right, early electronic music in France. I don't really know much about him.

Sears: It's kind of like the zeitgeist now that Mike and I talk a lot about; we know of a lot more things than we have actually experienced. Like you read a lot of film reviews, but you don't see the movie. You read a lot of book reviews, and at a certain point that becomes a thing in itself. It's like the reading and the knowing of it should be something to itself. Mike and I were asked to do something for Open Circle Theatre and we've come to them with this idea that is kind of taking off on that. They originally asked us to do [The Rise and Fall of] Mahagonny, which was a Brecht [and Weill] piece.

Min: We had heard of it, but we weren't familiar with it. But [they] were going to give us all the stuff so we could do all the research on it, but we said, "Mmmm. No, I think that we could build a piece just from what we've heard about it." Why isn't that legitimate? Why should we do so much research? Why can't we do it off of a Cliffs Notes understanding? It's just as legitimate as completely understanding it.

Sears: And I think we're not alone on that. I think that's where people are at right now. I mean there's so much stuff. It's kind of the zeitgeist, it's sort of where everybody's at. And I think that we should almost go in that direction more instead of assuming that people have time to sit down and totally absorb whatever the hell Mahagonny was about.

SW: There's so much information out there, so much to know. So you kind of know this one little corner of it.

Min: Right, but everybody has this pride in knowing something completely, which I don't think is better—first of all, you're never going to understand something completely. It's not realistic, and just because you have more knowledge doesn't necessarily mean a moment of pride. So stupid is good.

SW: That's great, because to be honest, when you first said Mahagonny, I thought of Diana Ross.

Erik Satie (performed by Nancy Lyric Symphony Orchestra): "Gnossienne No. 1" (composed 1888, performed 1999) from Satie: Orchestral Works (Naxos)

Min: This is Satie?

SW: Right. Earlier, talking about Glenn Branca, you mentioned you had one of the symphony pieces when you were in high school. When you were 16 and everybody else was listening to Led Zeppelin or whatever, were you totally into classical stuff?

Min: I was into Harry Conick Jr. Isn't that kind of sad?

Sears: Oh, that's so obvious. That's the only kind of jazz you get in Aberdeen? I didn't know, I had no idea.

SW: It could have worse—it could have been Kenny G.

Min: Yeah, that's true. I had friends that listened to Kenny G. You know, I have no problem with 12-year-old girls listening to Britney Spears and getting jazzed about it. Why not? Everybody has an entry point somewhere, so for everyone to like pooh-pooh different artists or target-market artists, it's just like, "What are you talking about?"

SW: Korby, were you into composers?

Sears: I was. Actually the first thing I got into—I hate to be clichéd, because I never really dug music—was soundtracks, Star Wars. I listened to the classical music station in Dallas, like, "OK, what is it?" Every movie I saw that had a classical soundtrack, I'd get [a copy]. Like The Thomas Crown Affair, from 1968, is brilliant. To this day I still think it's awesome. And then all these hormones kicked in and it's like, OK, I'm supposed to like rock and roll, so I'll buy Back in Black. I'm supposed to like this, I'm supposed to dig this, so let me listen to this again and again. But then I would just put on the soundtrack to Meatballs. I liked the soundtrack to Meatballs because it has orchestral cues in it that I thought were pretty cool. But yeah, any soundtrack I could get. I think the first people to make me really go whaaaaaaaat?!, was Oingo Boingo. My sister had "Grey Matter," which was off Nothing to Fear, and it's like this African thing. I remember hearing it in her room. So I took her album and totally fell in love with them because they had all these orchestral elements. That's the only rock band that I dug.

Min: I liked Sting for way too long.

John Cage: "Empty Words " (2005) from Subtropics Vol. 1: Breath (Elegua)

SW: This is one of those things Cage would do where he pronounced every syllable and every pause of the words, sort of out of context, to, like, Ulysses.

Sears: Wow. Actually, it's very sensual to listen to.

Min: We've explored some of that concept, too. I mean, we had an orchestra where we sang "A Whole New World" from Aladdin, but we had actually broken it down into consonants and vowels so one person would sing the consonant, and another would sing the vowels.

Sears: It was fun to rehearse.

Min: Did you hear about this piece where somebody had compiled all of George W. Bush's speeches or something and just cut out everything except his breaths and moments between his words so all you hear is just essentially this string of his [makes breathing noise] right before he's talking. But essentially you could hear the same message, or nonmessage, that he was communicating.

SW: You can hear how stupid he is without even hearing him saying anything at all.

Min: Right, it just permeates through; you don't even necessarily need the message to communicate. You just have to be there.

SW: It would be easier to transcribe, for sure.

Sears: A lot of Cage's stuff it's not really worth it to listen to. That's not really the point. I don't know if I can name one John Cage recording that I can recall by memory. I own CDs, but I don't know—there are a lot of albums that are sitting in my head, but there's no John Cage. It's more what he's getting at that's inspiring.

SW: And you would describe "what he was getting at" as . . . ?

Sears: Well, obviously, the parameters. He's like, "All right, here's the front-end parameters," and then he put them somewhere, and then somebody else finishes it. Which is something that we've always done. That's the funny thing about Iron Composer; it's more John Cage than anyone will admit.

Min: Including ourselves!

Stereolab: "John Cage Bubblegum " (1995) from Refried Ectoplasm (Drag City)

SW: I picked this song only because I knew it would give me an excuse to talk about how Iron Composer takes the philosophy of Cage and mixes it with pop culture. There's nothing heavy or overly intellectual about the show. You take from it whatever you take, even if it's just a hangover the next morning.

Min: Yeah, if anyone hopes to learn John Cage teachings through Iron Composer, I pity them. The only thing they should do is just enjoy themselves. We put in so many things for people, but not everyone gets all the subtleties in the show. There's a lot of subtlety.

SW: I was pretty blown away by the visuals. The timing of the video stuff—all these images flying at you . . . they seem chaotic but also perfectly orchestrated.

Sears: Do you want to say that one more time into the microphone, so I can take home a copy of that and listen to it over and over? Yeah, I mean there's a lot of subtlety like these sideshows that Mike tries to orchestrate, [like] the Vernal Equinox show in March. Were you at the March show?

SW: No, I wasn't.

Sears: Well, the vernal equinox was going to happen three days later. So every once in a while, this thing would come on the screen and this female computer voice would say, "10 minutes to vernal equinox," and you could see the sun in relation to the Earth and slowly it kept cutting in, and eventually it caved in; vernal equinox complete. I mean it's just these little micro things that happen every once in a while—I don't even know if anyone got that one—amid the dildos and the clit storms and the booze.

Min: I think stuff like that is beautiful. I mean there's a counterpoint of noise in the show, but there's also a counterpoint of attitude or a counterpoint of humor. Along with sledgehammer shit, there's subtlety as well. And I don't think we ever get credit for it. There's a lot of stuff that we do that we're trying to do for one person, that one person who gets it. I am so not the person to be pedantic about anything. I mean, I have the business to run. I think of myself as a project manager with all these projects of folly that I kind of pursue that are interesting to me, and I try to exacerbate the interesting points of it, but I can't believe that anybody's going to learn anything of significance. Maybe an 8-year-old would learn something.

Sears: Wherever your head's at, that's more interesting to me. I'm into Abbie Hoffman, and I totally love Abbie Hoffman, and I know he's known as a political figure. But I'm not really interested in his content. I thought his form was very interesting, and he actually had a master's in psychology and was a practicing psychologist, among 2,000 other jobs, but his main thing was asking, "Where are people's heads at?" That's really what he was concerned with. I know that he's known as this leftist guy, but if you look at the stuff he did, he was just sort of like, "Where's the American psyche at? I want to know, and then we'll go from there." But he really, oddly enough, was not pushing a point. There was a brave thing he did that I considered a piece: In Times Square [in] '67 or '68, he got a bunch of people, and they ran in shops and yelled, "Hey, the war's over! The war's over!" And word got around, they went to all these shops, and people came out in the streets and it was like 1945, there were people dancing on cars screaming, "War's over!" The war wasn't over, but we found out that people didn't want their kids at war. You found out where the American psyche was. Now, that's a little loaded, but it's still interesting. I mean, you could say it was pushing a point, but people's real feelings came out. And at a lot of our shows, there are pieces that we do that are really trying to find out where you're at. I mean, that's more interesting than us saying, "Government sucks," or, "Bush is an idiot." There's something scary about, "What do you think?" or, "What do you want to do right now?" or, "If I give you this sledgehammer, who are you going to hit?"

The Residents: "Time's Up" (1979) from Eskimo (East Side Digital)

Min: This is cute.

SW: This is our last song—you know, time's up.

Sears: I haven't really listened to a whole lot of Residents.

Min: Yeah, neither have I. I've missed them live so many times.

SW: This is a fantastic record. You'd like the subtlety. And also, they're one of those entities that I think of, like Iron Composer, as being appealing to people for different reasons, in different headspaces.

Min: It's getting out there. This is good.

SW: I like what you were talking about before that you don't have anything that you need to teach people with Iron Composer. Do you feel that way with Seattle School in general in terms of not necessarily having an agenda that you want people to leave going, "Oh, I get it"?

Min: I think we have a lot of esoteric and cerebral pretentious theories that we're kind of mulling over in our heads, and I think that manifests itself in a pop form in Iron Composer and other pieces that we do. I don't think we're pushing that, you know, 'Get to Know My Theory' thing. That's the whole thing of having the name "Seattle School"; it's kind of a parody of the notion of transferring of knowledge, which is very midcentury New York School or whatever. We're just parodying that and supposedly we have a school of thought [in] which . . . there is none.

Sears: The only thing I can say is that we're very physical. If I had sum us up, it's like we're bringing physicality back to the table because that's not what's happening right now. We do chamber music concerts that are physical, and we do these shows that are physical.

Min: I like the notion that we are doing live performance that requires you to be there. I'm just tired of recorded media. I'm not saying that it doesn't have its place or it isn't an art form or anything, but the only reason that you get your fat ass off the couch and go to a show is to see something that can't be replicated on another type of media.

Sears: I know that we're taking up real estate in people's heads, and that thrills me more than anything else.

Min: And it's good that it's kind of like falling memories, maybe that have nothing to do with anything, they don't necessarily yield any knowledge—

Sears: This is just the starter kit for something that grows in the head five years later. Not saying this isn't interesting, it actually is very interesting. You know, I just found the original e-mail that Mike sent that led to all of this. We had a show to do and our original idea was rejected and it was like, what are we going to do? So Mike sent this huge e-mail of all this shit, it just rambles forever, and in the middle of it there's like two sentences about two people with guitars and we call it Iron Composers. Then we interview someone for five minutes, and whoever wins has to drink a six-pack of beer and if they don't vomit, they keep it, and if they do, the other guy wins. Then it goes on and I was like, whoa, this little thing in the middle, this is kind of funny.

SW: But of course it's a little more complicated than that now—it's like a goddamned zoo.

Sears: Mike is the minimalist and I am the maximalist. It's not really good or bad, though Mike's [method] is a lot cheaper, a lot easier to do. My tendency is always, "We'll get a horse and we'll get 15 people all wearing green and blah blah blah," to just throw everything together. I was actually thinking about this the other day, too. All the bands that I liked as a kid were always huge, like Oingo Boingo and the Specials and Fishbone, they all had seven or nine people in them, and they were the maximalist mass-ethos kids. But as much work as it is and as expensive as it is, I think that's kind of what makes it interesting. There were two productions at Annex in the '90s that I loved: The Yellow Kid and Cat-Like Tread. Cat-Like Tread had a chicken and two dogs in it. And when you went in there, it was like a whole world onstage, it was overwhelming, and I think really since, like, the NEA fallout the whole tendency has been toward art minimalism or solo shows or one-man shows. That's why we stand out. What other maximalist thing is out there? I mean, we're kind of it.

Min: It's a pain in the ass!

Sears: Yeah, it's hard. It's a lot of money, it's a lot of time, it's a lot of logistics, it's killing us, but you know, the day of the show is great. The day of the show you have a blast. And then it's over with, and you get the broom out, and you're sweeping up the clits, and you're sweeping up the confetti. Were you there in January for Clitstorm?

SW: I missed that—what was it?

Sears: It was a big Emergency Broadcast System thing. It was a full 60 seconds. I threw these bags of pink packaging peanuts while Mike had a leaf blower. Pink packaging peanuts just rained on people while you heard the sound of a hurricane and a women's orgasm. And it just shut off after 60 seconds, and you know what? People loved it. Women loved it. And actually our set manager, Shawn Connaway, had a great quote: "I think any woman is just happy that a man knows what a clit is." It is an educational thing. Seattle School knows what a clit is.

Seattle School presents Iron Composer featuring Wayne Kramer and Jello Biafra at EMP Sky Church at 8 p.m. Fri., June 17. $8 members/$10.

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