The Cheerful Insanity of Biff Blumfumgagnge
Sample some of Biff’s music here.
Reptile Palace Orchestra CDs can be found here.
Get Kicksville music here.
When Robert Fripp and the Chamber Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists appeared at the First Unitarian Church on Friday, June 3rd, Fripp had a familiar face in the audience, Biff Blumfumgagnge. That was one of the few times Biff has not been working as a tech with Fripp or King Crimson and their many incarnations and tours both stateside and worldwide for the last ten years; just one of the many roles the Madison multi-instrumentalist, engineer, producer, road crew warrior, inventor, Madison Media Institute instructor and actor has played over the years.
Although Biff is recognized by most Madisonians as a member of the Gomers, he has a long history of projects that most of us are not aware of, or can’t remember. He pops up here and there on local stages but has also hobnobbed with some pretty impressive musical innovators. A cheerful sense of humor, a friendly demeanor, Midwestern humility and a taste for the bizarre are what characterize Biff but behind all that is a creative force marked by a fierce intelligence.
Contrary to popular belief, the members of the Gomers did not arrive in the same spacecraft as an advanced race of musical aliens. They are, in fact Midwesterners. Biff was born David Lee Morelock in Milwaukee. He moved to Madison where he attended Orchard Ridge Elementary and Memorial High School. He was, by his own accounts, a bully and a troublemaker who engaged in occasional vandalism. But one of his vivid memories is rocking out on his hoppity horse to the strains of the William Tell Overture that his mom would play. He was also hearing some Up With People and Frank Sinatra around the house.
In the fourth grade Biff decided to take up violin and really has never looked back. He took lessons from a neighbor, Lola Yde, who had a profound impact on him. “When she died,” Biff says, “I went to her service and someone played Lola’s violin. The timbre and character of that violin came back like a lost memory and I had no idea it would such an effect on me.”
When he was a young teen his Aunt Daisy gave him a Kay guitar, a big, semi-hollow body that he took an interest in. He took some lessons, some voice lessons and also took up bass, playing in the high school jazz ensemble. He would later take up drums, mandolin, manjo, polkalaylee, and sitar guitar. Biff has also invented musical instruments—like the Therolin, a 5-string electric violin with a theremin hiding inside and the Mando-synth, an electric 5-string mandolin with a synth pickup and a whammy bar.
One of his early bands was called Jeff Gross and the Grave Robbers. “We played original songs, death songs,” Biff says. “One was called ‘Die With Me in a Car Crash.’ We sang songs about seizures and weird stuff.” It was the beginning of a process of using stage names as band members and the development of his taste for the bizarre and the absurd. The Grave Robbers appeared on the Vern and Evelyn Show, a late-night local program hosted by two mice and created by Stu Baker along with Madison’s own Merry Pranksters Leon Varjian and Jim Mallon. Mallon would later became the executive producer of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Biff has been involved as an actor since the Stage Coach Players in the 1970s, and Shakespeare in the Backyard. David Lee Morelock actually sounds like a pretty cool stage name but he decided Biff Uranus Blumfumgagnge was a better stage name and he made it legal in 1990. “It mirrors my French/German/Dutch lineage, and translates to ‘Good Smelling Joke,’” Biff says of the surname. More recently he has been in Walmartopia’s Madison and New York City runs, Are We Delicious’ In the Beginning and Musical Rebellion shows and Broom Street’s Breakfast for the World. He’s been the fiddler in CTM’s A Christmas Carol, in I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change and in the Madison Ballet’s Dracula production. He spent a period of time in Chicago with fellow Gomer Dave Adler where they were involved with the Annoyance Theater and performed in the Real Live Rudolph as well as some midnight variety shows.
Things really began to change when Biff joined up with ComedySportz in the 80’s. It was here that he ran into Steve Burke, Dave Adler, Gregg Rullman and Andy Wallman. They played music during the show’s transitions and this is the genesis of the Gomers. There was the Plaza 9 band that then became Emerald Choir. Emerald Choir recorded in the original Smart Studios, across the street from the now iconic location where Butch Vig and Steve Marker made history. “After rehearsals a bunch of us would just goof off on some weird stuff I had,” says Biff. “Music about antennas and the like. I came up with the idea of the Gomers from those sessions in 1986. We landed a last-minute gig at Headliners on a Wednesday night around Memorial Day when somebody cancelled. Tom Laskin’s experimental band Gargantua opened for us. From there we were given a chance at the Club de Wash and hosted the Rock-O-Rama shows on Tuesday nights which was the precursor to Gomeroke. We actually let people come up and play our instruments because, you know, it was Rock-O-Rama! Not the best idea.”
The Gomers were the house band for the first few Madison Area Music Awards presentations and started the ever-popular Gomeroke, the live band karaoke show at the High Noon Saloon. Their 2008 recording Mike Zirkel the Album featured performances by Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp. Much has been written and said about the Gomers over the years and they are easily one the most beloved bands in Madison music folklore. Sadly, bassist Gordon Ranney passed away earlier this year and guitarist Steve Burke is moving to Qatar so after twenty-eight years the Gomers will go on hiatus in July.
This video clip, a tribute to Gordon Ranney has some special Gomers highlights:
Steely Dane, a Steely Dan tribute band, also includes many members of the Gomers as well as members of the Tony Castaneda Latin Jazz Sextet, The Clyde Stubblefield Band, The Obros, Phat Phunktion, Gibralter Rockers, Chick Singer, Kyle Henderson, The New Breed Jazz Quintet, the Black N Blue All Stars, Freedy Johnston, Honor Among Thieves, Jim Schwall Band and Adam Isaac and the People, just to name a few. They are also much-loved around the city playing very difficult music but making it look easy. Encompassing as many as twenty members, the group’s dead-on reproductions are impressive and damn fun.
Another Gomers offshoot is the Zombeatles, a zombie parody of the Beatles that is pretty much the Gomers with fake names. Biff is Dingo Scarr. The group’s 2006 video Hard Day’s Night of the Living Dead gained international status when horror film director and musician Rob Zombie chose it as one of his top YouTube Halloween video picks of 2007, resulting in over a million views worldwide.
The Reptile Palace Orchestra was formed in 1994, also at the Club de Wash and has been a notable entry in Madison music history. A somewhat fluid group in terms of membership, RPO was started by Bill Feeny who was also in Yid Vicious and Appliances SFB. RPO specializes in lounge, klezmer and other Eastern European music. RPO has released nine albums, the last, Songs of Madisonia, was in 2012.
“What Did I Come in Here For? High Noon 8-28-2012
Biff is currently also a member of Kicksville, a progressive/alternative/theatrical rock group that sports numerous members from around the country and has released a very ambitious collection of recordings. They are one of the most underappreciated bands working out of Madison at the moment but look for some feature material and reviews on them in Local Sounds Magazine in the near future.
Other bands Biff has been in over the years include: Headpump – a funky, creep-rock band that included the Sugarcubes’ (Bjork’s band) drummer Sigtryggur Baldursson – Yammer, Jambeau and Fuzzy Logic.
For many years Biff rented space beneath a liquor store on Sherman Avenue. Dubbed Beeftone he used the space for recording, teaching and rehearsing. He rented the space to other bands to rehearse in as well. It was shut down in 2013. Currently Biff is using his recording and engineering skills at Clutch Sound Studios in the old Smart Studios location.
There are some little-known facts about Biff that may come as some surprise. Biff was the infamous Mr. Hell, host of the Mr. Hell Show on WORT. “I was Mr. Hell for about five years on WORT,” he says. “We had lots of local music, artists, and an interactive radio variety show called ‘Magic Fingers’ Mirth Mart’ which had talent from the Comedy Sportz crew back then.”
Some of his least known accomplishments are his association with both Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp. Back in 1987 the Gomers landed an opening slot for Belew’s band the Bears at Headliners. He wrote Belew a letter. “I wrote him and I had heard he might need a guitar tech for the show and offered my services. He replied with something like, ‘Sure I could use someone to change all my strings and look after things for free!’” To this memory Biff laughs heartily. “We hit it off and he was living in Lake Geneva and working out of Royal Recorders in the Playboy mansion. He asked me to re-tool his rack. I was working with Al Jewer at Uptown Technologies in Whitewater, which was an electronic playhouse where I worked on Adrisn’s refrigerator-sized rack and did some other stuff for Billy Corgan and the like. Then he asked me to tech on a world tour that took us to Italy and other places.”
Belew thanks Biff: Somewhere Down South
Biff did two tours with Belew in support of the Inner Revolution album (to which he added violin tracks) and the Here album, which were released in 1992 and 1994, respectively. He took over mixing duties and even sang harmony vocals from behind the board. At this time there was a guy in Madison by the neme of John Sinks, who was the projector operator at the Majestic and who took up an interest in guitar tech-ing. Sinks wound up with Robert Fripp, King Crimson, the California Guitar Trio and Trey Gunn. He called Biff when he was going to go and work for Dweezil Zappa and asked Biff if he’d like to take his place with Fripp and his League of Crafty Guitarists. Biff accepted and that began an association which continues to this day. Biff recalls the first gig with Fripp:
“The first gig was in D.C. and Robert’s gear didn’t show up,” he recalls fondly. “He went onstage and addressed the crowd. He was being quite genuine about it and informing them that they would get refunds if they were unable to do the show. The gear did show up and the kitchen staff were helping roll it into the building when one of his key components, an Eventide 3000, got dropped. Here we are onstage, in front of the audience, unscrewing the rack and opening up the Eventide and replacing dislodged cards in it. It was the most stressful and nerve-racking thing you could imagine. But we got it going and the show went on.”
Fripp took a liking to Biff and in 2006 he toured with the League of Crafty Guitarists as the sound mixer, travelling to Spain and Argentina. Biff then joined the King Crimson tour in 2009-2010 which was the last King Crimson formation to feature Adrian Belew. Biff will tour with the newest formation of King Crimson starting this August. “Robert has me working with Mel Collins’ saxophones and calling the light cues. He’s a very special guy and I’m fortunate to know him. A reluctant superstar, perhaps. He comes from a very spiritual place. I think he’d rather play in churches than concert halls.” Which may explain what would seem an odd choice of venues in the Unitarian Church in Madison.
With Crimson Biff gets to hang with the likes of Tony Levin, Pat Mastelotto, Gavin Harrison, Bill Rieflin and Mel Collins, all of whom he has deep admiration and respect for, describing them as lovely guys with great sense of humor. He gets occasional calls from local promotors such as Tag Evers when a guitar tech is needed and has worked with Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, Lee Scratch Perry, Willy Porter and Marshall Crenshaw to name a few. One of his best memories is providing backup to Les Paul and Steve Miller when Paul was here in 2004 to receive the first ever Wisconsin Foundation for School Music Lifetime Achievement Award. “I never thought I would be on the same stage with Les Paul,” Biff remarks. “That is the highlight of my life, really. When we played “Tennessee Waltz” for him he was in tears.” Biff laughs heartily at the suggestion that given all he’s done that does not seem so far-fetched at all.
When pressed for any further details on what Madisonians might not know about Biff Blumfumgagnge he cheerfully retorts, “I am an aficionado of dirty songs. I like dirty limericks.” In the 90s Biff did some solo work and even a few solo performances. “I kept it under the radar,” he says. “I’m going to do more solo stuff now. I’m working on a project that is definitely out there.” When asked what it might sound like he gives an askance look and says, “It will be weird man, and dirty. I like weird stuff!”
Cathy Braaten: Ride the Fader (1991) – violin
Willy Porter: Dog Eared Dream (1992), Falling Forward (1999), High Wire Live (2002) – violin
Cattleprod: Boost (1993) – guitar, vocals
Sigtryggur Baldursson: Bogomil Font Sings Kurt Weill (1994) – violin
Poopshovel: We Came, We Saw, We Had a Hot Dog (1994) – vocals
Arthur Durkee: The Western Lands (1994) – drums, violin
Reptile Palace Orchestra: Early Reptile (1994), On the Wings of a Skink (1995), Hwy X (1997), Live Field Recording (1998), Iguana Iguana (1999), XOPO! (2000), Official Bootleg (2002), We Know You Know (2004), and Songs and Dances of Madisonia (2012) – violin, guitar, vocals, balalaika, electric tanpura, mastering
Bradley Fish: The Aquarium Conspiracy (1996) – violin
Natty Nation: The Journey Has Just Begun (1996) – mastering,
Hannah Jon Taylor: Walk-In Angels (1997) – mastering
Headpump: Org@sm.com (1997) – violin, guitar, vocals
David Stocker: Moondog (1997) – violin
The Hillworms: The Hillworms (1997) – violin
Deep: Mobile (1997) – violin
Various Artists: Go to Sleep You Tiny Beast (1997) – violin, guitar vocals
The Gomers: Comin’ Atchya (1987), Basement Tape (1989), Sofa King Good (1999), Live Gome Boot (2001), Live at the Witz End (2002), Salt and Sugar (2004), Mike Zirkel the Album (2008) and Gomerica (2012) – violin, bass, drums, vocals, mastering
Everplastic: Aquagirl (1998) – violin
Ivan Klipstein: Scorpio Enviro (1998) – mastering
Marquess Bovre & The Evil Twins: Lonesome County (1999) – violin
Ritt Dietz: Collected 1999-2000 and After the Mountains (2006) – violin, mastering
Tom Hanson: Wake of the Moon (2001), Everything Takes Forever (2007) – violin, slide guitar, balalaika
Jim James & The Damn Shames: Jim James & the Damn Shames (2002) – violin
Genevieve Jereb: Say G’Day (2003), Cool Bananas (2004) and Jumpin’ Jelly Beans (2008) – violin, guitar, mastering
Pat MacDonald: PM does DM (2003) – violin, viola
Sara Pace: Self-Titled (2003) – violin
Michael Gruber: Yesterday Is Make Believe (2003) – mastering
Dangerous Odds: The Best of Dangerous Odds Vol. 2 1996–2003 – violin, guitar, vocals
Eugene Chadbourne: Doc Chad Banjo Book (2004) – violin
Die Warzau: Convenience (2004)
Dorothy Heralds – Projections (2006) (performed violin on “Inverno Rosa”)
Dafino: Deus Est Nullus Ex Machina (2006) – violin
Adrian Belew – Inner Revolution (1988) – violin, Side Four (live) (2007) – vocals on “Out of the Belew”
My Nightclub Act: Highway Gothic (2008) – violin
Zombeatles: Meat the Zombeatles (2009) – drums, vocals, mastering, All You Need is Brains 2009 (Documentary short) Hard Day’s Night of the Living Dead (DVD) (2009) – drums, vocals
Kicksville: Season 5 (2013), Season 6 (2015) – violin, vocals
Al Jewer and Andy Mitron: Transmigration (2015) – violin
Wilder Dietz: Child’s Play (2016) – mastering
Mascot Theory – Trust and Bones (upcoming 2016) – violin
Natty Nation: 2009 Middle East Tour – guitar, vocals
Robert Fripp: 2006 – present – FOH mixer, tech
Robert Fripp & the League of Crafty Guitarists: 2006–2012 – FOH mixer, recording engineer, tech
Adrian Belew: 2007 Tour – vocals, stage tech, FOH mixer
King Crimson: 2008 – present – tech crew
Doctor Demento Shows #89-35, #90-12, #02-16, #02-10
Creative Improv Method for Violin, Mandolin and Flute
Boricura 2004 (Biff plays bass in the Dave Adler-produced soundtrack)