Perfect Sound Forever


left to right: Robert, Chris Nelson, Elliot Sharp, Willie Klein

The inside story by Robert Sietsama
(August 1997)

ED NOTE: For years, there was this mysterious downtown New York band that I loved which put out one remarkable record after the next. They were unpolished, very political minded (left-wing) and noisy but they were humane as all hell- how could you NOT like them? After not seeing anything from them for a while, I correctly assumed that they were no more. Luckily, I got to track down bassist (now food critic for the Village Voice) Robert Sietsama to get the whole story behind the band.

We regarded music as a form of socializing, and took a resolutely unprofessional approach. Only a few of us in the scene ever imagined becoming professional musicians. We were the stepchildren of the first generation of no wave bands (a term Chris Nelson coined in the New York Rocker, where I was a part-time photographer) like Mars, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, D.N.A. and the Contortions. We took pride in our facile and self-taught instrumental licks, and played music that was often hookless and even atonal. Our influences were broad, including jazz, African music, commercial jingles, and the English punk movement, especially the artier aspects. We avidly followed bands like the Fall (in its earliest incarnations), Wire, and X-Ray Spex, all of whom we were able to see at CBGB.

It was an era when the East Village was not the tourist trap it has become. There were few restaurants open in the evening, and nearly every hipster you saw on the street was carrying an instrument. Everyone was either in a band, or was a DJ or rock critic. Music was featured at loft parties, festivals, and impromtu neighborhood clubs. One regular Mofungo gig was on the roof of my building at 630 East 14th Street, where we threw a party every Fourth of July. We also formed an alliance with Chain Gang, a punk outfit from the Bronx, whose members made a living driving cabs and self-released a series of amazing singles.

For us, music was a kind of social club. Reacting against what we considered to be the worthlessness of contemporary rock, we at first completely abandoned regular song structure and strategy. It was partly that we just didn t know how to put a rock song together, and steadfastly refused to learn. This attitude is reflected in a lot of the early material, like on the Elementary Particles E.P., where the music sounds more like a third world religious cult than any modern form of pop music. The procedure for writing a song was: pick up an unfamiliar instrument and play anything you can think of over and over. I personally preferred strings of single notes to chords, since I had no idea how to put a chord together. Nearly everything was played by ear. Funk was probably the major influence from the contemporarly music realm. Our music had an absurdly deliberate quality, as if choices had been made that could have been improved on, but were not. We admired the punk movement in England, and several members of our musical set also doted on Iggy and the Velvets, although that music was never part of my personal musical experience. Since the mid-70 s, I d mainly been listening to jazz (like World Saxophone Quartet and Art Ensemble of Chicago) and 'ethnic' music from around the globe, some of which would later be tagged world music.

Mofungo was the successor to Blinding Headache, a group that formed in summer 1978 out of a running jam session that took place in the basement of the Brittany, an NYU dorm at the corner of 10th and Broadway. Original members were Jim Posner, Rick Brown (currently, Run On), Willie Klein, and Kym Bond. The band was named by Brown, a film buff, who had read an interview with Buster Keaton about the making of THE GENERAL, Keaton claimed that after he did a stunt in which he screwed up and landed on his head, he had a blinding headache for the rest of his life.

Eventually, Brown left Blinding Headache to join Information, a combo formed by Minneapolis expatriates Chris Nelson, Gary Larson, and Phil Dray. Meanwhile, the jam session in the Brittany continued. I occasionally participated, and this session evolved into Mofungo in the Summer of 1979 (Posner, Klein, Bond, Amy McMahon [now Amy Rigby], her brother Michael McMahon, and me). By the end of the summer the McMahons had left and the rest of us began gigging as Mofungo at places like Georgio Gomelsky s Zu House on 24th Street, where the house band (Zu) featured Bill Laswell and others. It was an amazing scene, where we played on and off for several years. Eventually, Georgio offered us a gig opening for Nico. After the shows, which were mobbed, Gomelsky informed us that he d given the entire door to Nico so she could buy junk.

The bands Information, Blinding Headache, and Mofungo were eventually featured on Tape #1 (1980), a self-produced and manufactured product. Mofungo also self-released a 7" e.p. called Elementary Particles, with virtually no vocals except for 'Ya Da,' whose entire lyric consisted of those two syllables. The song 'At the Shop' refers to our rehearsal studio on St. Marks Place, which still bore the sign 'Flora s Sandwich Shop' where Jim Posner was living at that time. We could barely fit the drums (I was the drummer, and used only two drums and one cymbal), instruments, and amps into the tiny room.

End of the World (1981) was our first attempt to make a real album. It began with a recording session in the old PASS studios (Public Access Synthesizer Studio--a project to make synthesizer equipment available to artists in an era when synthesizers were hopelessly expensive and bulky) engineered by Carol Parkinson, who eventually married Jeff McGovern, Mofungo s drummer at the time. These first four songs were later mixed by Chris Stamey of the dB s at 39th Street Studios, which was the first time we ever paid for a recording studio. 'End of the World,' 'Scratch House,' 'El Salvador,' and 'Just the Way' were the four songs. The album attracted a fair amount of critical response, and one critic, Bob Christgau, recommended it to Roger Trilling, who was the Rough Trade representative in the states. He passed the recommendation on to Geoff Travis, and that s how we ended up with a single released (again and again in one form or another) in England. Needless to say, we were astonished when that single came out, since we idolized the musical movement that Rough Trade represented.

There were five other recording sessions at various places that made up the rest of the End of the World tape, which we self-released with a xeroxed liner that we designed ourselves. Anamalously, there was no label indicated on the cassette, which appealed to our minimalist sensibilities. One number, '10-4 10-4' was recorded by Ann DeMarinas (then a member of the fledgling Sonic Youth) at the White Columns show, and event that was to define downtown music (well, almost) for the following decade. White Columns at that time was across the street from the Ear Inn, and the multi-night event was well attended.

During this era, Mofungo benefited from a number of big ticket gigs that were thrust in our laps, playing at Mudd Club, Peppermint Lounge, and the Ritz. With our determined unprofessionalism, we must have cut quite a figure, especially at the latter two clubs, which catered to name talent. The Ritz performance (opening for The Fall? I can t remember), was hilarious, with A.C. Chubb playing saxophone stage left. She (her given names were Ann and Catherine) had been recruited by Seth Gunning, keyboardist, a few weeks earlier when he spotted her practicing in an Indian-owned ice cream parlor on Eighth Street. In spite of her youth, she was already well-connected in the music world. One of her best pals was Kate Schellenbach, who was then drummer in the Beastie Boys and now plays in Luscious Jackson. At that time she was 'going out' with Elliott Sharp and taking sax lessons from him, which is how he eventually became involved in Mofungo. Anyway, here is A.C. nervously tooting on the stage of the rock mausoleum The Ritz, when somebody cascaded a beer down on her from one of the balconies. She stopped the song right there and began ratting out the guy who did it, as he sheepishly peered over the rail. The audience loved it.

I met The Fall when I did a piece on them for New York Rocker and we maintained convivial relations with that ever-changing group (or rather with Mark Smith, whom we admired--actually we admired the whole group, but found all but Smith to be rather uncommunicative) on several subsequent visits to New York. I think we played with them on a couple of other occasions, but I m not sure exactly where or when.

Later, we determined to make an album that would really appear on vinyl, and found a cheap studio on 34th Street upstairs in a building near the corner of 8th Avenue, whose ground floor held a restaurant called La Polpeta, or 'The Meatball.' It was a real sweatbox, with hardly any room to stand. The result was Out of Line (1982), which was a transition album, line-up wise.

Out of Line was our most professionally produced product to date, recorded by Cherina Mastrontones, a professional engineer who had connections in the art world. Seth Gunning had left the band to return to Ohio; Drummer Jeff McGovern was increasingly restless, dissatisfied, and devoting more attention to the new group The Scene is Now; so, too, was A.C. Chubb on the verge of leaving the band, soon to take up residence in a teepee in her ancestral homeland of Northeastern Connecticut. Eventually she moved to New Orleans to raise a family.

Yet out of this discomfort and ferment came an album with many of the hallmarks of the maturer Mofungo. Several durable classics occur on the album, which were later staples of the band s live shows: 'Three,' 'FBI Informant' (later known as 'He Sold His Soul'), and 'Migrant Assembly Line Workers.' The best cut on the album was paradoxically not recorded at La Polpeta, but rather during an earlier set of sessions at the Institute for Audio Research, a recording trade school on University Place that has since become part of NYU. These recording sessions were free to the bands recruited, and they were generally treated like guinea pigs. The sessions themselves dragged on for weeks--much longer than was needed to adequately record and mix the material. The students drove us nuts by their dullness and inattention, and the instructor (whom the students called professor) was so frequently out of the studio that we suspected he had a drug problem. We managed to record four songs, among them the early Mofungo number 'In Your Heart,' which dated from the Elementary Particles era. In addition, we managed to organize a horn section from among friends in the avant garde jazz scene of the East Village and Soho for a four-saxophone ensemble, including Philip Johnston and Dave Sewelson, and a visiting alto player from Italy who is variously identified as Alex Lo Dica and Alex DeLica on the liner notes. The idea was to have all four saxophones: bass, bari, alto, and soprano. The presence of the horns generated more enthusiasm in the students on the evening they appeared, and maybe that s why the recording turned out so good.

The album also manages to look forward to the next phase of Mofungo by including token appearances by Elliott Sharp (recruited by A.C. Chubb) and Chris Nelson. The latter, a longtime friend of the band and former New York Rocker Art Director (with whom I had worked as a photographer and writer) played trombone on 'FBI Informant' and would soon join Mofungo as a full-time member. The defections noted above left the band with only two members, myself and Willie Klein, and this was perhaps the most perilous point in the band s history since the loss of Jim Posner, one of the early theorists of the band s quirky sound and instrumentation. Along with Chris Nelson, Information associate and fellow Minneapolitan Phil Dray was also enrolled, with Nelson and Dray trading off on drums. Dray had actually been a professional drummer in the Twin Cities in a band with Andy Schwartz years before, so he brought a practiced flair to the tubs that was new to the band.

With this lineup we launched into the recording of Frederick Douglass (1985), the first installment of a three-record association with Twin Tone Records via the Lost Records label, started by Scene is Now members. This was the first album produced for the band by Elliott Sharp and it was our first experience at the Gowanus Canal recording studio of Argentine expatriate Martin Bisi, where side one was recorded. Located in a decrepit Civil War munitions factory teetering on the brink of Brooklyn s Gowanus Canal, the studio featured a funk-inflected sound that dovetailed nicely with the musical sentiments of the current lineup and Sharp s proclivities. The studio also featured the former mixing board from the Gambel-Hough Studios were the Philadelphia Sound had been formed in the early 70 s. The track list contains the rather verbose 'Don t Shoot That Junk Into Your Arm Again, Please', an admonition to a former band member who succumbed to heroin addiiction.

The following year we returned to B.C. Studio to record Messenger Dogs of the Gods. This record contained the first of the band s reworkings of folk material, including Woody Guthrie s 'Deportee' and Haywire Mac s weird original version of 'Big Rock Candy Mountain', where 'there s a lake of stew, and a gin lake too, you can paddle all around em in a big canoe.' The tracks on this record are self-consciously political with songs like 'No Pasaran', the title taken from a revolutionary slogan; 'SNCC'--which stands for Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, a black power political vehicle of the 60 s; and 'No Such Thing', an attack on creation science--altogether too wimpy a target, in retrospect. One of the strengths of the album, sometimes said to be Mofungo s best, is the plenitude of quirky numbers, like 'Toomus Meremereh Nor Good', a love song written by a school teacher from Sierra Leone. While it had been performed by two male members in concert, giving it a gay edge, on the album Willie s girlfriend (now wife) Heather Drake sung the response vocal. Another oddity is 'Strike from Within', a militant sounding number written by Information many years earlier, with ambiguous political content, but a rabble rousing song nonetheless.

The third album in the Twin/Tone series was End of the World, Part 2 (1987), also produced by Elliott Sharp. Sharp occupied a unique place in the band, since he was a professional musician and most of his income was derived from touring the world as an avant-garde performer. Hence, he was unable to attend the band's twice-weekly rehearsals (Tuesday and Friday, 6 - 9 p.m.), a schedule that had been in place for nearly the entire history of the band.

Whenever we had a gig coming up, he would come to a rehearsal or two, and, being a quick study, he'd develop these incredible parts which seemed to meld the songs together. He did little composing for the band himself. Most of that was done collectively during rehearsals. His contributions also had a loose quality that complemented the lock-step approach that Mofungo had used since the beginning. In the studio, we were glad to relinquish control to him and Martin Bisi, although we all contributed our two cents worth when it came to the sound of our own instruments and volume level in the mix. Sometimes I think the cuts could have been improved if we'd had less democracy in the studio- too many times the insistence that every instrument be heard got in the way of the mixes.

End of the World, Part 2 looked backward as well as forward. We featured remakes of a couple of old nuggets, "End of the World" and "Just the Way"- not because we were running out of material, but because these songs had changed so much and we still loved them. "End of the World" was probably the band's career-long signature, and I think the song had a big influence on the refrain of R.E.M.'s mega-hit "It's the End of the World as We Know It. " Songs that looked forward include "Science Song #1" which treated the problem of ozone depletion in the atmosphere: 'Ultraviolet rays come streaming down/When the ozone layer is gone it's fry or drown'; and the folk-music cover "Ku Klux Klan" to which Willie added a verse about William Rehnquist.

To support the release, Chris Nelson organized a Midwestern tour for Mofungo in the summer of '87, and the band set off in a huge 26-foot recreational vehicle with Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo signed on as driver/roadie/auxiliary musician. He had a copy of Jane and Michael Stern's GOOD FOOD/ROAD FOOD clasped firmly in hand, and we ate our way as well as played our way across the country. Elliott did not accompany us, since the money wasn't good enough, and he had been on the road often enough that it wasn't going to be much of a thrill for him. We played in St. Louis, Columbia (MO), Kansas City, Minneapolis, Madison (WI), Chicago, and Cincinnati. We ate pig snout sandwiches in St. Louis and weird, chocolate-laced chile in Cincinnati. Sometimes the clubs would be mobbed with people who seemed to know much of our music, sometime they would be empty, except for a few befuddled observers. Chicago was perhaps the greatest triumph, where we played across the street from Wrigley Field on the evening of an afternoon game between the Cubs and Mets- perfect timing on our part. Ira was a big Mets fan, and we had to admonish him from screaming abuse at the Cubs out of fear for our lives.

We abandoned Lost Records when Elliott got us a recording contract with SST, which was the label of the Minutemen, one of the bands we most admired. The contract would advance us 3000 clams to record each album, which seemed like a king's ransom to us, and was more than enough to get each new record 'in the can' as we used to say. Perhaps more important, the new product would be released on vinyl, tape, and CD, a new medium for us, and the one that has kept our products in the marketplace until this day. I can't tell you how weird it is to see the Mofungo CD's Bugged and Work in HMV, the Virgin Record Store, and Tower. What a strange trick of fate! Of course, that doesn't mean we've seen a penny from either product, or received any accounting in years.

Bugged (1988), our first SST effort, is generally considered one of our best albums. It continued the practice of recording a couple of old folk songs (in this case "Forty Cent Meat" and the anarchist classic "Long Haired Preachers") in addition to original material. As in the last album, Elliott also contributed a song, the bitter-toned "Sold Again. " Political topicality continued with songs about the pope, Judge Bork, the air traffic controllers' strike and a paranoid rant about the use of aluminum in packaging material for food- then thought to be a major cause of senility, a state that the band continued to drift into. This album was also recorded at B.C. Studio, where, for each recording session, I would provide a sumptuous buffet of stuff carried out from cheap restaurants or that I made myself. One session saw us eating a West African buffet.

Martin Bisi's studio had gotten more expensive by the time we were ready to record Work (1989), so we retreated to another studio on lower Broadway, a cracker-box of a place called Baby Monster Studios, where the engineer was an old friend, Stevie McAllister. Standout cuts include the forlorn "Once It's Gone," and a Sonny Boy Williamson cover contributed by Elliott, "Fattenin' Frogs for Snakes. "

Work is Mofungo's last released product, but there is another recording which remains unfinished, with half of the songs having been finally mixed and half overdubbed, but only at the rough mix stage. This material was recorded at B.C. Studio without the participation of Sharp in 1990-91. It includes many of the songs from Mofungo's final live performances, including "Dance the Night Away," commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall; "Petroleum Addict, " an updated version of "Tobacco Road" entitled "Tobacco Boulevard, " and "Dis Disney, " along with six other cuts. Mofungo collapsed under its own weight in 1992 after 13 years. The last performance was in June at CBGB.

2005 update from AC Chubb:

Thanks for updating that article by Robert about Mofungo.But I still would like to complain that my given name is AnnCaroline Chubb, not Ann Catherine.(and yes AnnCaroline is one word.) Also...I was with the band from fall of 1979 to late fall of 1982 when me and Jim Posner moved to Connecticut together after a summer drive across Canada in his VW Vanagon with my dog Annie,(a drawing of whom is in the liner notes of Out Of Line, which I designed) to promote that Album at any and all college radio stations we could find along Highway one, including some in Washington and Oregon. Robert seems to have forgotten that I had already been in Mofungo for over a year when the infamous Ritz gig occurred. But I thank him for remembering my short tempered response to being heckled.I cussed the guy out and called him a wanker as I recall. What would my 17 year old daughter say? Hopefully 'right on!' Tell Robert she plays the bass....

Thanks for the memories of my 15 minutes of fame.

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