"Hi. We're the House Band Remains. We write songs about plays," says Lloyd King brightly. He's standing on the stage at Remains Theatre, managing to look not quite out of place. Behind him is the rest of the four-man aggregation, which plays a fluid blend of tarted-up jazz and dressed-down rock. King is the band's musical director; he plays flute, mostly, but works out on bass and guitar as well. He's got a thatch of hair that seems perched on his head, a mildly scruffy beard, and he and the rest of the band are dressed to the nines--this is theater, after all. He's the epitome of bebop cool--when he solos on flute, he perches his cigarette under a key and lets it bounce around as he blows.
King and the band do write songs about plays--it's the band's charter to capture some of the spirit of the two presentations that make up the current "Changing Nightly" program at Remains, which has a new home in the space formerly occupied by Bernie Sahlins's short-lived Willow Street Carnival at 1800 N. Clybourn. After ten years of wandering from theater to theater, the company decided to try out some new concepts. One is that all the seats are $10. The thinking is that a lower price--most of the city's major theater companies average about twice that--will bring more people in. The company also has two programs in repertory. One features The Making of Ashenden, Stanley Elkin's something-less-than-sentimental account of lost virginity. The second program includes two plays: Jack, a sort of modernist rondo elegy on the death of a person with AIDS, and Rameau's Nephew, an engaging philosophical dialogue by Denis Diderot.
Both programs also include King and his cohorts. On the first program, the band plays a selection of songs, followed by an intermission and then The Making of Ashenden. On the second, attendees see the short Jack, break for an intermission, and then hear 20 minutes of the band's jazzy improvisations on a theme by the French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau, whose possibly mythical nephew figures prominently in the Diderot play that follows.
The band and the theater company came together through a hipper version of the traditional old-school-ties story: King, Remains Ensemble codirector Amy Morton, and House Band Remains keyboardist and saxophonist Paul Mertens all went to Oak Park High. King and Morton even made some rudimentary sallies into something approaching cutting-edge theater. "We came from a very weird, freak-out, artsy clique," says King, and laughs. "We'd do things like a play that was a philosophical discussion over a Ping-Pong game." Morton went on to act all over Chicago; she joined Remains in 1981. King went into music, particularly jazz. He went to Marlboro College in Vermont, studying with flute guru Marcel Moyse, and got his master's in flute performance from Roosevelt. Having led a variety of ensembles over the years, he's a well-known figure on the local jazz scene. He spends a lot of his time composing and is now hard at work on a cycle of string quartets.
The idea for the House Band Remains came about rather collectively. Remains wanted some music for "Changing Nightly." King mentioned the idea to pal Mertens, who commented that the thing he hated about seeing music at a play was that you sit and try to make a connection between the music and the play--only to find out that there is none. The way to do it, they decided, was to make the connection. King assembled the band, the foursome sat in on the plays' rehearsals, and then they went home and started writing.
Jack, King notes, is so musical already that it didn't need any support. For the Diderot, they hit on the idea of taking a bow to Rameau and then letting the band's performance--simple expository solos ending in a free-for-all of crashing instruments and players--stand as a metaphor for the play's two characters: the reasonable Diderot and the cacophonous nephew of the title. The band had a harder time with The Making of Ashenden, mostly because the play's scabrousness doesn't easily lend itself to musical interpretation by anything short of a bazooka. The band takes refuge in a series of songs that might strike some as being a bit too literal (with the exception of a rewrite of the rock 'n' roll gem "Money" called "Honey"--see the play and you'll get the joke). But you do get to hear King and guitarist Johnse Holt sing ("It's the first time I've ever sung!"), and watch Nicholas Kitsos burn up the skins, looking like a smoldery Gene Krupa.
King and his pals also play around town occasionally, though his composing schedule doesn't allow him much time for playing out. There's a Lloyd King Trio and a Lloyd King Quintet, and you can also catch him and guitarist Holt at the State of Illinois Center, where they play in the atrium at noon on the first Wednesday of every month.
The two programs in "Changing Nightly" run Tuesday through Sunday on alternate nights, with double bills Friday and Saturday at 7 and 10. Shows start at 8 Tuesday through Thursday, and at 7 Sunday. All tickets are $10. Remains is at 1800 N. Clybourn; parking is free. Call 335-9595 for information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.