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The Weird World of Rotten Milk

Wildcats, balooon animals, the safe exchange of power--it's been a busy month for Dave Pecoraro.

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Last Saturday morning was Dave Pecoraro's first day of work as an animal handler for a petting zoo. An African wildcat swiped his face in front of a large group of 6-to-12-year-old girls and their mothers at a Catholic school in suburban Indiana. The little girls screamed. Luckily the animal was declawed, or "it definitely would have torn my eye out," Pecoraro says. That might have ruined his plans for the evening, but by 10:30 PM, local fashion designer Stephany Colunga was cutting Pecoraro's thick red hair and beard while he coaxed crackly, irritating noise out of radios run though effects pedals onstage at Buddy, where he lives.

Pecoraro, better known around town as Rotten Milk, is a connoisseur of weird. He paints faces and makes balloon animals at his other day job, as an entertainer at kids' parties. He's been the music director for Northeastern Illinois University's free-form radio station WZRD, where every DJ is anonymous. He cohosts a Sunday-night BYO music series at Lava Lounge where anyone who shows up with records or CDs can sign up for a 30-minute slot. He cocurates a night of live experimental music and DJ sets every Tuesday at Hotti Biscotti. He's part of a semianonymous, collectively run zine and CD-R label called Terry Plumming that's released work from the likes of Fred Lonberg-Holm's elaborately experimental Lightbox Orchestra, Eleanor Balson's electro-noise outfit Soft Serve, and a fortysomething cabdriver named John Polachek. And during his off-hours he dresses like a cross between a hooker and the Latino guy from Hackers.

In the past few weeks Pecoraro has put together two parties at Buddy, a DJ set with his friend Janina Bain (aka Castration DJ) at Rodan, and a Terry Plumming release show at the Empty Bottle featuring himself and a friend who goes by Bubblegum Shitface playing noisy machines and electronic instruments while screaming (Shitface) and yelling (Pecoraro).

By the time I arrived at the Buddy show last Saturday, local duo Carpet of Sexy were rolling around on a nasty ol' rug, unintelligibly screaming in falsetto over firecracker beats. Though they were much better than the last time I saw them, I'm still creeped out by CoS member Nick Bahr, to whom I used to be related. While my aunt and his uncle were still married, he tried to convince them to throw a party and invite us both--my aunt said he had a crush on me.

Also on the bill was Leslie Keffer, who lives in Athens, Ohio. It's refreshing to see a woman perform full-on noise music and not make a big fuss about it. No costume, no vamping, no shtick. While most noise artists turn knobs like they're cranking a gear in a Victorian factory, Keffer casually twisted them, flicking her wrist as a DJ does when letting go of the record, taking time to step back and enjoy the crashing tide she was creating from AM static coming out of an old Walkman. She'd gently blow kisses into the mike, then shyly lean against the stand, never seeming coy or cutesy.

N-Tron, the guy Keffer was touring with, was more pretentious. Though his setup was unique--seven old cassette decks he'd modified himself, some with an extra head, some open so he could manually loop the ribbon--he sat hunched over it in the middle of the floor so we'd all have to sit down too if we wanted to see what was going on. "You gotta come in really close," he said, "'cause this is quiet." He pulled out a wand he'd made out of PVC tubing and a tape head and proceeded to scribble over some ribbon. Like a bunch of fourth graders, everyone started yelling "Ssh!" and "Shut up!" so we could hear the barely audible scratching. But once N-Tron got going, yanking tape out of and slowly threading it back into one tape deck, cuing up another, and adding soft layers of reverb, he seemed less gimmicky and more like a conductor of sweet chaos. With Bain spastically controlling the dimmer to the overhead track lighting, the performance felt like watching a thunderstorm when you're inside under the covers.

At Rotten Milk's Buddy show on January 7, local performance artist Moira Cue played her last set before she moved to LA to be in "the epicenter of entertainment," as she told me before the show. Hours before her set she'd slathered on her stage makeup--a thick, crackly gray-green facial mask, red lipstick, and large, uneven blocks of black eyeliner topped with crooked false eyelashes--and wrapped a glittery boa around her head like a turban.

She came out wearing a slinky black minidress and six-inch Lucite stilettos, checked the mike for an uncomfortably long period of time, then told the DJ to hit play on her CD. Consulting the yellow legal pad she'd brought with her, she screeched and mumbled her self-deprecating lyrics about longing for love ("I pity the fool who falls in love with me"), occasionally growling like an R & B diva, over repetitious swirls of acid house. Throughout, she shuffled like a sexy grandma afraid to break a hip.

When she asked for volunteers to be part of a dancing game in which everyone onstage would copy the moves of a chosen leader--"It's about a safe exchange of power," she explained--someone in the audience yelled, "I love art!" Soon Rotten Milk, my friend Joe, and some other guy had decided to test the limits of safe power exchange. They brought their dance-off A game to the stage, humping the ground on all fours, doing donkey kicks and backward somersaults, and trying to mimic team leader Rotten Milk's signature dance style, where he whips his body around frenetically and bends at awkward angles. Cue balked, whining, "Oh no, oh no!" Finally she did a half-assed rendition of Rotten Milk's moves, trying hard not to flash her panties. I almost felt sorry for her.

Later, the show turned into a dance party, complete with pop music, slutty girl-on-girl dancing, and a round or two of boob flashing. Just as we were all getting into it, some frat-lookin' dude in a hooded sweatshirt walked up to the mike with a bottle of Rolling Rock in his hand and impatiently told us, "Anytime you're done." He handed the DJ a CD and asked if he could pleeeeease sing just one song. I suspended judgment for a minute--the most meatheaded people can surprise you with moments of brilliance. The DJ cued Weezer's "Undone (the Sweater Song)" and the dude just started thinly singing along.

I'm actually glad I got to see that. The guy represented my favorite kind of crazy--a combination of hilarious, weird, brave, and what-the-fuck you don't see too often, except in Rotten Milk's world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Beno.

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