Bobby Conn has a well-earned reputation for messing with journalists. He's gone to great lengths over the years to convince them that he really is, say, a self-mutilating ex-convict or a professional business-seminar speaker or the Antichrist. So when the notoriously flamboyant singer-songwriter-provocateur answers the door of his Humboldt Park home wearing a faded button-up and glasses, invites me into a living room filled with toddlers' toys, and proceeds to introduce the adorable silver-haired couple in the corner as his parents, I have to wonder briefly if this is another gag.
"I assure you it's not," says the former Jeffrey Stafford, taking a seat beneath a rather large oil painting of himself. He shares the house with his longtime musical foil Julie Pomerleau (aka Monica BouBou) and their two-and-a-half-year-old son, Augustus. "Between the house and the kid, I'm not nearly as strange as I used to be," he says. "Sadly, I'm actually pretty normal at this point."
Since going solo after the 1994 breakup of his neoprog band Condeucent, the elfin Conn has developed a persona drawing heavily on the psych-opera theatrics of Arthur Brown and the ribald excesses of filmmaker Ken Russell and backed it with a 70s-leaning melange of glam, bubblegum, metal, funk, and punk. The mix has always gone down better overseas: his last album, 2002's squalid, sex-obsessed The Golden Age, made a fan of David Bowie, who chose Conn to perform as part of the annual Meltdown festival in London.
Conn spent the bulk of 2002 on the road--playing more than 130 shows, mostly in Europe--but real life took over last year as he resumed his full-time gallery job. He and his family were forced to vacate their home for six months after the discovery of dangerous levels of lead-based paint; he also spent several months recovering from a serious bicycle accident.
Somewhere in there, though, Conn found time to write and record his fourth full-length. A sustained indictment of the American empire, The Homeland (Thrill Jockey) is a full-fledged concept album--continuing a tradition best known for its low points, from the Moody Blues' symphonic snoozer Days of Future Passed to Kiss's career-shattering goth opera Music From "The Elder." "But that's what I love about concept records," says Conn. "They're generally so ill-advised and rarely ever coherent or consistent all the way through. Most start out pretty solid, get lost along the way, and then try and tie it all together at the end--which is kind of what I did. But I love that too. I love when bands really reach for the brass ring and just don't quite get it."
Inspiration for Conn's song cycle arrived via CNN. After watching deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz predict an easy victory and a grateful reception for U.S. troops in Iraq, he quickly wrote what would become The Homeland's opening track, "We Come in Peace": ("We know we're right / Come to the light / Say goodbye to all your history / Come and join our family." "Once I had that tune," Conn says, "the other ones came sort of naturally."
He keeps the pointed satire coming for much of the album: in "Relax" George W. Bush explains the inevitability of his political rise, a Masonic conspirator gloats over his behind-the-scenes power in "We're Taking Over the World," and "The Style I Need" celebrates the surgically enhanced allure of American culture. Sure enough, the conceptual framework gets rickety down the stretch--"Bus No. 243" is a postcard from London, "My Special Friend" a riff-heavy ode to his infant son--but by the end Conn is back on track with the brutal valediction "Ordinary Violence."
To make the new record, Conn assembled his first regular backing group, the Glass Gypsies. Keyboardist and violinist Pomerleau, drummer Colby Starck, and guitarist Sledd (Marcus Ruecker) had played in Conn's touring band for a while; they were joined by Euphone bassist Nick Macri and keyboardist Pearly Sweets, who leads the trio Baby Teeth.
They tracked the album in a week last June at Soma Studios with John McEntire; mixing took another seven days. "This time out it was nice to have a solid band and be able to give them a CD of demos beforehand to reference," says Conn. "We went into the studio prepared to crack each other up with all the ridiculous arrangement ideas we'd come up with. And then when John and I mixed it we cracked each other up even more seeing how far we could push the whole thing."
The Gypsies determinedly test the boundaries of good taste throughout the album, particularly Ruecker, who overloads the mutant-disco groove of "Cashing Objections" with his epic mock-metal shredding, and Sweets, whose piano flourishes give "We're Taking Over the World" a prog grandiosity that Styx might find excessive.
Released late last month, the album has received glowing praise in Europe ("except in France, where I'm completely unappreciated," says Conn) and a more mixed response in America. Foreign reviews have largely taken the album to be a serious sociopolitical critique, while domestic writers have treated it as just another put-on. Conn sees this split as emblematic of the differences between U.S. and European mind-sets: "Over there they don't feel that if you have a sense of humor it necessarily means your record is a novelty album. Whereas here, if there's any humor in it at all, then automatically you're Weird Al."
Conn sounds serious enough when he says he hopes his new work will inspire some late-60s style insurgency among its listeners: "Right now is as fucked-up a time as it was back then. Our society is on shifting sand, and it could go either way. It's a time for people to get engaged." He pauses. "Not me personally, of course. I'm far too compromised to be a revolutionary. I'm a home owner."
Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies play a record-release show for The Homeland on Thursday, February 26, at the Empty Bottle.
In Memory of Chris Saathoff
Chicago musician Chris Saathoff, 26, was killed in a hit-and-run accident just after leaving the Ponys show at the Empty Bottle last Friday. Saathoff was the bassist for postrockers Chin Up Chin Up, who had just finished mixing their full-length debut the night of his death. As Chris Playboy he also played drums in a garage duo with Hot Machines singer Miss Alex White; earlier this month they released a fine four-song seven-inch on their Missile X label. Raised in Batavia, Saathoff lived near Ashland and Clybourn and worked as a Web designer in Lincolnwood. Services will be held Friday, February 20, from 7 to 9 PM at Moss Family Funeral Home in Batavia (209 S. Batavia Avenue; 630-879-7900). Saathoff's family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be sent to the Chris Saathoff Foundation, 8000 Fox Hill Drive, Longmont, Colorado 80501. Details on a proposed memorial concert are forthcoming. For further information contact Chin Up Chin Up's Jeremy Bolen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.