Photo by Roy Groething
This interview was originally published on 3/4/20 and appeared in Bob Makin’s Makin Waves column in New Jersey Stage Magazine and The Aquarian Weekly. Bob Makin is a reporter for MyCentralJersey.com and the former managing editor of The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. And like Makin Waves on Facebook.
New Brunswick-based indie-rock veterans A Halo Called Fred will celebrate their latest release on Lump‘N’Loaf Records, “Go Home Drama You’re Drunk and Other Tales of Going through Hell to Escape the Evil Monkeys,” at their annual Freaky Mutant Weirdo Variety Show on March 21 at Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse in Dunellen. Pictured from left to right are bassist Tiny, singer-songwriter-guitarist Geverend, violinist-bassist Queenie and Tupperware percussionist Brushwood.
A long, strange, quirky trip along the space-time continuum, the psycho-geek Tupperware-pop madness of New Brunswick-based indie-rock veterans A Halo Called Fred is back with a new album, “Go Home Drama You’re Drunk and Other Tales of Going through Hell to Escape the Evil Monkeys,” and their annual Freaky Mutant Weirdo Variety Show on March 21 at Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse in Dunellen. The three-ring rock ‘n’ roll charitable circus will benefit the New Brunswick food justice and empowerment program Elijah’s Promise. In addition to the band’s music, highlights will include performances by their friends in The Eternal Frontier and Trio of Madness, as well as singing mermaids, puppets, sideshow daredevils, belly dancers, the illusions of Majik Mike and spooky burlesque queen Holly Ween.
On behalf of longtime violinist Queenie and bassist Tiny, A Halo Called Fred co-founders, singer-songwriter-guitarist-keyboardist Gweverend and Tupperware percussion master Brushwood chatted with me about their 28 years making music together, plus the wonderful weirdness of their awesome new album on the band’s highly influential label, Hillsborough-based Lump ’N’ Loaf Records. Enjoy! And may the Rock Gods bless a Halo Called Fred!
Who is Fred, and why and how is he a Halo?
Geverend: When The Halo began, there were three of us. Technically, there were two of us for the first few gigs or so, but we anticipated a bass player at some point. In geometry, three points can define a circle, so wherever the three of us were, the circle that was drawn through the center of our minds was the Halo, and we named that Halo Fred. Now that there are four people in the band, the halo has gained a dimension, and those four points form a sphere, which is now the Halo, reflecting the goodness of humanity. And as that Halo passes through the fifth dimension of time, we move ever toward the golden circle of floating perfection!
Why and how have A Halo Called Fred lasted 28 years?
Geverend: I think it’s a combination of our willingness to do anything and our inability to stop! We have four very different sets of very different but overlapping tastes, but all have a great appreciation for the absurd and unusual. Our drive to make that unusual a reality is what unites us.
Is there any end in sight to the band?
Geverend: Never! Our goal is to make music until we can’t make music any more, in whatever capacity we are able.
Have all four members been together since 1992?
Geverend: The original was just me and Brushwood. We’ve gone through several lineup changes, including two other bass players and a second guitarist for a while. Tiny joined in 1999 when our longtime bass player, Jim Bob, moved to Utah. Queenie recorded one song with us in 1998 and then joined full time in 2011 when we asked her to play that song with us live and realized that violin was the instrument we were missing on everything!
How did the original lineup come together?
Geverend: Brushwood and I were both in the WRSU radio production department doing comedy skits when we met. I had been trying to form a band for months and was having a difficult time finding people who wanted to take songwriting seriously. The bands I’d tried out were either cover bands or jam bands and were not terribly interested in taking the skeletons of songs I’d already written and fleshing them out to full songs. And then one day I was hanging out with Brushwood, and he happened to have a guitar and some drumsticks in his apartment. I picked up the guitar and played a few of my songs, and he picked up the drumsticks and started banging on a frisbee and electric fan he had lying around, and by the end of the night, we’d finished four songs — two half-finished songs of mine and two that were based on poems he’d previously scrawled in a notebook. That was when I knew this was the beginning of the right band for me! I’d auditioned for a cover band the day before, and the next day, they called me up to ask me to join them. I told them I’d found something else.
Have you ever encountered other band who played Tupperware and other unlikely percussion?
Brushwood: I’ve known no other bands who use any rubber kitchenware. Should there be? It’s like a percussive Fermi Paradox. There are certainly many with unique percussion right now. But none that use plastic ware and tins that fit in one hand-held plastic bin to approximate a traditional drum kit.
How has the New Jersey music scene changed since 1992, and what makes A Halo Called Fred worth pursuing despite those changes?
Geverend: The biggest change is that the bar scene is a shadow of what it once was. In the ’90s, bars would pay for unknown bands to play just to have someone, and generally all had their own sound guy and PA. Now you’re expected to bring your own crowd and often your own PA. We’ve adjusted quite a bit by shifting to a more event-based performance strategy. Rather than do smaller bar gigs, we opt to do larger festivals and events, which have the added bonus of having very enthusiastic fans! We’ve been a big part of the local steampunk community for several years now, and the fans are amazing!
Why did you want to release an anthology album at this point in time?
Geverend: The goal was not so much to release an anthology album, but to do an album flipped on its head. Rather than sit down in the studio and record every song at once, we’d record one or two songs at a time and release them as singles, and when we had enough singles, we’d have the new album! The reasoning behind this was two-fold. First, it allowed us to take our time and release each song as it was completed rather than wait until we had time to record an entire album’s worth of material. Second, it allowed us to take our time with mixing and mastering the final album, without having to rush through tracking. The result was an album of mostly previously released singles, but all remixed, re-mastered and polished into one coherent album.
Which songs never have been released before?
The songs that have never been released in any format before are ‘This Song is a Time Machine’ and ‘Go Home Drama, You’re Drunk.’ Of the other tracks, the following were released as singles – ‘Zero Fucks,’ ‘If You’re Going through Hell, Keep Going,’ ‘It’s That Kind of Party,’ ‘Not My Circus, Not My Monkey,’ ‘Out of Respect for the Bronies,’ ‘A Little Bit Free: A Fascism Litmus Test’ — but have all been remixed and re-mastered for the album. Most of them were part of local music compilations This is their first album release.
‘The Essence of Comedy (2019)’ is a completely new arrangement and new recording of a song we did back in the mid-’90s, but appears for the first time on this album. ‘Zero Whistles (live on WRSU radio, ‘Overnight Sensations’)’ is our edited-for-radio version of ‘Zero Fucks’ that we did live on the air. These songs are also new, but are more ‘link’ tracks for the album than singles: ‘Go See A Halo Called Fred,’ ‘Your Circus, Your Monkeys’ and ‘Utz Utz Utz.’
What inspired the title track of ‘Go Home Drama’ and ‘This Song Is a Time Machine’?
Gevererend: ‘Go Home Drama’ began in exactly the same way many of our songs were written. One day Queenie was having a day filled with unnecessary drama and said, ‘We should write a song called ‘Go Home Drama, You’re Drunk,’’ on our group chat thread. And so we did! The name just unleashed a flood of all the unnecessary drama we’ve ever had to deal with, and the thought of ‘What if that drama was a person who was just always drunk? What would we say to that person?’
‘This Song is a Time Machine’ was a song that drastically changed between versions. The original concept was about a song that was literally a time machine and between choruses, there was a long spoken word rant about how the logistics of that time machine worked, how listening to the song would literally send you through time. But when we played it in rehearsal, the song REALLY dragged on and was too slow. Now I grew up watching ’70s and ’80s ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Back to the Future’ and am a lifelong fan of time-travel stories, so in wracking my brain about how to fix it, it seemed like the only solution was to not only change the song but to go back in time and prevent it from ever having been written that way to begin with. And, of course, as a fan of time-travel stories, I know how completely damaging that could be to the space-time continuum, and so the new lyrics had to be about how completely reckless the process of writing the song was and the complete chaos of uninhibited and unlimited time travel.
What inspired ‘Zero Fucks’ and why?
Geverend: Ya’ know? It’s funny. Most of our songs, I remember the exact moment the idea for the song popped up, and this one I just don’t. It may have been a single incident or just a general feeling based on hearing that phrase more and more often. The song must have been more effective than I realized since it erased my desire to even remember the inspiration! But the actual lyrics turned out to go a little deeper and be a bit more cathartic than the original catchphrase that inspired the song. In writing the verses, I dug deep and thought of all the people in my past who have been difficult or controlling or stressful, and thinking about how all the stress they’ve caused could have been avoided by just not caring, and how to release the power people have over you that they really just shouldn’t have.
What was your favorite feedback about ‘A Little Bit Free: A Fascism Litmus Test’ and why?
Geverend: I think my favorite feedback has been from conservatives who completely disagree with the anti-Trump aspect of the song, but love it anyway because of the ultimate message of free speech.
What impact has ‘Little Bit Free’ had and how has that made you feel and why?
Geverend: The response to the song has been overwhelmingly positive! We were hesitant to release it since we’ve really never done much in the way of political music, but as I’ve said, even feedback we’ve gotten from conservatives has been positive! Now I realize our sample is skewed. We’re playing primarily for East Coast artsy liberals here, so who knows what the broader impact would be if people listened to more music outside their comfort zone, but I keep waiting for the backlash that just doesn’t come! Maybe the world is a more open and free place than I give it credit for.
How did you become friends with John S. Hall?
Geverend: We first met John in the mid-’90s when he was doing a poetry reading at the Melody Bar. We ended up booking a bunch of shows with him during that era, mostly in the East Village with his band King Missile.
What impact has John had on A Halo Called Fred?
Geverend: He has definitely had a big influence on our songwriting. I first heard the King Missile song ‘Wuss’ when I was in high school and was blown away by its incredible bluntness and relatability. Then I heard ‘Jesus Was Way Cool’ on local college radio when I was driving to move into my dorm room freshman year of college, and it was such a different and unusual approach to songwriting. It really got me thinking that there were really no limitations on what a song could be, and King Missile quickly became a favorite band and a band we actively tried to emulate when Halo first formed. I think in that first writing session Brushwood and I did, we specifically decided to try to emulate our favorite funny alt-rock bands of the time, including King Missile, They Might Be Giants, Ween, and The Dead Milkmen.. If I recall that was the big four.
Formed in 1992 at Rutgers University in New Brunswick by Tupperware drummer Brushwood, second from left, and singer-songwriter-guitarist Geverend, second from right, A Halo Called Fred later were joined by bassist Tiny, far left, and violinist-bassist Queenie, far right.
Photo by JP Fitzgerald
How, why and when did you connect with Lump’N’Loaf Records?
Geverend: Lump‘n’Loaf has been involved with a lot of local bands, and in the mid ‘90s when Damian was starting up the label, he was in the band Splinter which we played with quite a bit.
Have you released all your albums on Lump’N’Loaf?
Geverend: Our earliest albums from the ’90s were self-released on a label we called Ludicrous Records, which was really just a label we stuck on our albums so they’d have one. 1999’s ‘Necessity is the Motherfucker of Invention’ was on Powerbunny 4×4 Records. But we took a long break from recording after that album, and by the time we started up again, that label was defunct. All our albums with the current lineup have been on Lump’N’Loaf.
What impact has the label had on the band?
Geverend: Lump‘N’Loaf has really gotten us to step up our game in terms of image, promotion, and taking ourselves seriously as a band. Prior to that, our anything-goes attitude was very freeing, but also limiting in that we never took things seriously enough to take off and improve ourselves. Lump‘N’Loaf is constantly getting us to think about how to promote and improve ourselves in terms of musical skill, writing and performance.
I believe Lump’N’Loaf is just a couple of years older than A Halo Called Fred. How and why do you think the label also has been able to last despite shifting mediums and playing fields?
Geverend: I think Damian’s desire to lift up local bands and getting them to realize their full potential is at the heart of what makes Lump ‘N’ Loaf work! The medium is secondary to the goals of the label.
How and why is Freaky Mutant Weirdo Variety Show a reflection of both A Halo Called Fred and Lump’N’Loaf Records?
Geverend: The Freaky Mutant Weirdo Variety Show was born out of a desire to combine talent from many walks of life in a way that made the audience be completely unable to look away! Lump ‘N’ Loaf’s desire to promote local acts and getting them to realize their full potential makes them a perfect fit! In addition to Lump ‘N’ Loaf Records, this year’s show is also being produced by a committee formed by several local steampunk organizations: COGS Expo, The NJ Steampunk Society, and The Roguish Rabbit, so between the ‘Heads of the Five Families’ as we’ve called them, there are a lot of great creative minds going into this!
Why is Roxy & Dukes the perfect setting for that, among other oddities?
Geverend: For anyone who has never been to Roxy & Dukes, you just have to take one look at it to know that it’s the perfect venue. From the old-timey red curtain on the stage to the incredible decorations spread around the place, it SCREAMS Freaky Mutant Weirdo!
How will Freaky Mutant Weirdo Variety Show be different this year than previous years?
Geverend: This year’s show we’re going with a longer format, which will allow for a greater variety of entertainment and experiences. In the past, we did the show as a single uninterrupted evening show. This year we’re breaking things up into two sections: an afternoon family-friendly show starting at 2 p.m., and an evening ‘Everything Goes’-type of event starting at 7 p.m. with a dinner break in between. We will feature some of the same steampunk, alien, furry, sideshow, puppet, dance, cosplay, and musical acts as previous years, PLUS the addition of burlesque dancers, a magician and more! We’ll have more interactive experiences, like tarot card readings on premises, and collaborative art for audience members!
How many years have you done the Variety Show, and what has been the most memorable moment and why?
Geverend: This will be the third Freaky Mutant Weirdo Variety Show. I think one of the most interesting mash-ups that sticks in my head is when we performed King Missile’s ‘Detachable Penis’ with Halo and Trio of Madness with I’ve Made Too Much Pasta the Raccoon on accordion, John S. Hall doing his vocal, and Karnevil sideshow performing what they call their ‘Banana-Cock Relay’ on the floor beneath with audience members participating as the contestants.
What will A Halo Called Fred be up to after the Variety Show as far as shows, videos and anything else?
Geverend: We’ve got a number of shows in the works, including some steampunk and fairy festivals. Plus, we’ve got one very special show where we’re covering an entire classic album, which we are currently not at liberty to announce, but with our own Halo spin on it. So that’s looking to be a good time! We’ve got two videos based on the album currently in the planning stages for ‘Time Machine’ and ‘Go Home Drama,’ and will be moving forward on those shortly after Freaky Mutant Weirdo. And, of course, we have existing lyric videos from the single releases of ‘A Little Bit Free’ and ‘Zero Fucks’ available on our YouTube page.
How do you plan to follow up ‘Go Home Drama’ and when?
Geverend: At this point we’ve got a pretty huge backlog of half-way recorded or unrecorded songs, so we’re hoping to hit the ground running and start recording some of those as well. We’ve talked about doing a mixture of live in-studio recording and piecemeal experimental recording and putting those tracks together and see what comes of it. As with ‘Go Home Drama,’ the plan is to release the next album as a mix between pre-release singles and new songs written exclusively for the album.