The pan-ethnic ensemble keeps slithering, plans celebration
A news release recently turned up in my in-box. It was different than many I receive, and artfully grabbed my full attention. Here’s a sample: “With a core cast of creative wizards, RPO has plunged the depths of the world and rock blenders, coming up with delightful concoctions again and again.” RPO is the Reptile Palace Orchestra, and if you’re familiar with this long-time Madison-based band, the description probably doesn’t surprise you. RPO also uses words like slithering, genre-mixing, and cacophony as it continues to paint a picture of their unique Balkan lounge sound. And while the musical styling makes an amazing story all by itself, RPO’s eight current members: vocalist Maggie Weiser, Robert Schoville on drums and percussion, Bill Feeny on guitar and vox, Ed Feeny playing Tambura, Seth Blair on electric cello and vox, Kia Karlen playing French horn and accordion, Greg Smith on clarinet and saxophone, and Biff Blumfumgagnge covers violin, guitar, and odd strings; create a menagerie of talent. It all supports what was started 20 years ago, and will be on full display during RPO’s celebration starting at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 15th at High Noon Saloon in Madison.
And just before the big event, Biff took time to answer some questions about the Reptile Palace Orchestra, its music, and the many projects of the members who make up this special group.
Teri: Biff, Reptile Palace Orchestra has quite an exciting mix of musicians and instruments. Can you tell me a little about everyone’s projects?
Biff: Like many of the members, I have a very Madison musical background. We often connect on symphony, rock band, school instruction and other local music levels. The Feenys were in Appliances-SFB. Kia is in the Cap City Band, Black Marigold, and Yid Vicious. Seth is a Seattle folk singer/songwriter star. Maggie is in 12 groups, bands like The Bin Men, Shakey, So Dang Yang, etc. Greg is in the Madison Symphony Orchestra, Velvet Crush, Yid Vicious, and probably many more than I can count on two hands. Robert began the Handphibians, and is in Emmetville,also several other groups. He does plenty of ‘secret’ musical work we’re not all aware of too, but it benefits the city. Kia & I are in Guided By Puppets and Yammer. I’m also with Steely Dane, Kicksville (with Maggie), The Gomers, Water Street Bridge, and I’ve been in the studio recently with NYC-based musician Freedy Johnston.
Teri: Are you all from Madison? What originally brought RPO together?
Biff: Bill Feeny got us together for a live Halloween broadcast on WORT, but then for a recording project done at Optisonic studio (Brian Daly’s place before he got DNA). He attracted me with some world music cassettes, which featured simply blazing violin playing – the tune was “Guiceveska Racinitsa.” Damn. I spent a couple of months learning that tune, and we still play it. It kills. We have members from all over, and often meet in strange ways. Seth is from Seattle, but is a Zoology professor here at the UW, where Bill also works as an illustrator. Maggie is from Stevens Point, and we connected with her way back when she was on the University Radio station there, as well as a bartender at Witz End. I think the rest of us are Madisonians!
Teri: Now, you’re celebrating RPO’s 20th anniversary. What an accomplishment and a great reason for a party! How have you held the group together for so long?
Biff: We’ve managed to keep it pretty simple, sane and fun, for the most part. We’re all pretty busy, but make it work. It has stayed vital, and continue to be a great ride. We’re really looking forward to getting some past members at the show, like Anna Purnell and Doug Code. They’ll help us do some numbers we haven’t in a while.
Teri: Speaking of numbers, how would you describe RPO’S music to someone who hasn’t heard it and want to check out your anniversary show?
Biff: We play Eastern European Dance music, amped up and rocked out. If you mash up Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box and Richard Cohen, that’s a pretty close dart throw to what we do. Which is to say, it is kind of gypsy punk music but a little all over the place; as much sublime beauty as there is energetic songs in 15/16.
Teri: And there must be lots of songs and recordings after 20 years?
Biff: Early Reptile was first. It originally came out on Boat Records, Dave Benton’s (Spooner, MadCity Music) old label. On the Wings of a Skink came next; half recorded at The Club De Wash, half at Gates of Heaven Synagogue.
HWY X and Iguana Iguana came next. Both of those with Siggi, our Icelandic superstar, who’s been the drummer for Bjork and the Sugarcubes. Then we did We Know You Know. And finally Songs and Dances Of Madisonia. It’s a live disc that was a little off the radar, but I think everything’s still available at CDBABY.com.
Teri: You are talking about a lot of music from RPO. You must be proud! Does anything stand out for you about the group’s success?
Biff: Well, the Reptiles have earned a basket load of Madison Area Music Awards, and at least one WAMI. We have fans all over the world. We are on a label that the Residents are on. We have made a very cool collection of records. I’m proud of all these things.
We’re also very proud to play for the Madison Folk Ball since 1995. It’s a particular experience that is always very gratifying. It runs every year during the last weekend in January at the Memorial Union.
Teri: Can you share any stories from the road? Anything ever surprise you about the industry itself?
Biff: I think the Reptiles opening for John Sebastian at the Blissfest in 2000 was a pretty crowning triumph. He was traveling with Jimmy Vivino, Conan O’Brien’s bandleader, so we met those guys and stayed at a little cabin by a lake. It was cool. I was also asked to go on tour with Killbilly after our first show; they didn’t have a fiddler. We’ve had lots of nice experiences in local venues, as well as on the road. Once you know that the music industry is a shallow hallway full of rabid dogs – and there is also a bad side (paraphrasing Steve Albini) nothing should surprise.
Teri: What are your thoughts on the music scene in Madison? Any suggestions or wishes?
Biff: I’d personally like to see more venues getting more risky with their bookings, by getting some of the more traditional/folky bands off the beaten path, in here to play. I have always loved the scene here; it’s up to the community to support The Frequency, Dragonfly, Inferno, High Noon, Kiki’s Righteous House, and ALL of our other music venues, and to keep the scene happening. (Here’s hoping they stop burning down.) The whole pay-to-play thing, while not truly noticeable, does appear as part of several local festivals and events. I’d like to see organizers re-consider the approach.
Teri: And finally, anything that may surprise your friends and fans?
Biff: We’re hoping to have some collectible, cool new things at the merch table, and our musical guests should be surprised and titillated!
Saturday, March 15th at the High Noon Saloon – Reptile Palace Orchestra’s Anniversary Show Facebook Event
Photo credit: Paula White