ONO - TO THIS DAY...
"To this day" is an expression that ONO lead singer (and occasional pedal steel player) Travis Dobbs (better known as simply "Travis") likes to use whenever he's talking about something that has survived a long time, or remained unchanged. If it made an impact on him twenty years ago, he will enthusiastically add that the feeling lingers to this day. This simple three-word phrase probably sums up the career of ONO, a floating collective of, for lack of a better term, art-rockers (their challenging drone/noise compositions have been called "art damage," their concerts have always incorporated performance art, and Travis is a fixture in Chicago's arts scene). ONO may have changed members periodically over the last three decades or so, but has kept two members at the very core: singer Travis and guitarist P. Michael (Grego). While the band seemed to have its greatest visibility in the early 80s, the two men insist that ONO is an ongoing concern that never broke up and never stops, right up to this day. So, if the way I keep seeing ONO every time I turn around lately represents anything, it isn't so much a revival as it is a resurgence.
Last year they came into my consciousness when Roctober contributor Steve Krakow (Plastic Crimewave) featured them in his "Secret History Of Chicago Music" cartoon in the Chicago Reader. Travis and P. Michael also began to sit in at Krakow's various Guitarkestra concerts (the psyche guru's local happenings that feature several dozen instrumentalists, mostly guitarists, wailing away on an E chord). Then I caught the whole band when they appeared on <1>Roctober's cable TV dance party Chic-A-Go-Go, as well as at a recent Nina Simone tribute at a Chicago venue called Elastic. There was even a brief radio shot, when WGN talk-show host Nick Digilio played their music on his show (Krakow has a featured spot on Digilio's show, spotlighting artists featured in his comic). Not bad for a band that long ago incited boos when opening for Naked Raygun at Chicago's Metro.
Krakow's strip wasn't the first time ONO made the pages of the Reader. In July '83, writer Scott Michaelsen wrote a full article on ONO, featuring a hysterical photo of the band (at that point, Travis, P. Michael, and Ric Graham) in choir robes That year, they released the first of two albums on the SST-distributed Thermidor label, "Machines That Kill People" (soon followed by another, "Nyenui"). And as diverse as the punk/new wave scene claimed to be, the guys in ONO really tested the crowd's patience, mixing and matching formulas like scientists gone mad. Travis was especially a sight to see and a sound to hear, going onstage in a full-on, triple-tiered wedding dress, crooning like Paul Robeson raised up from the dead. Reigning gospel queen Mahalia Jackson was a major influence - "Nyenui" included a jawdropping half-acapella version of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord," where Travis manages to sound halfway between Robeson and Bono (Sonny Bono, that is). And if you think it's shocking hearing him do this on record in 1984, you should hear him sing along in his own house in 2008. Man hasn't lost a step. I asked Travis what he thought Mahalia would say if she could hear him, and he figured she'd say "'MORE POWER TO YA!' She's from New Orleans, she'd understand!" Strangely enough, a lot of the scenesters didn't...
Although they were thrown smack-dab in the middle of the big postpunk explosion, they always felt like semi-outsiders, even though they were friends with some of the hipper bands in the scene. That didn't stop them from outdoing the competition with outlandish shows. Touring-wise, the farthest they ever got out of the Chi was an old brothel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (P. Michael: "we toured in our mind, but not in our feet"). One show had them playing in a Northwestern University law school classroom designed to look like a courtroom (Travis was a student there at the time); directly above, in Booth Hall, then-mayor Harold Washington was making a public appearance. "That was the night Ric's father finally came to see us perform," Travis now says. And then I come out in this incredible blue gown. Ric's father took his cameras and everything and never spoke to us again!"
That was mild compared to other shows. P. Michael: "As we progressed, we had an R&B revue, except it was a noise revue! You'd get three acts and a dirty puppet show. It would feature two drag-queen dummies that had extra legs attached to them. We'd have a woman - sometimes a man - in blackface, and they would talk dirty about the audience. That would be the opening act, like Moms Mabley. And then ONO would come on and do their thing, and then (Chicago experimental No Wave/noise band) End Result would end the show. And that was our revue. Sometimes we'd add another band called Pile O' Cows." Travis picks up the story. "They were just the wildest white kids you have ever run across! There was this house on one parcel of land (in Palatine) owned by one of the members. And it burned! Before the fire was out, they had called up ONO and other bands and we were out there PLAYING! Did a whole series of shows in the ruins as it's smoldering! It was that kind of thing! These kids were so far afield, as only suburban white kids can be!"
For all of ONO's freeform tendencies, Travis insists there's a method to the madness: "All ONO's shows, they may seem like they're spontaneous and all that, but they are that and more. I always begin with a well-defined premise. There's a story being told. You don't have to see it, you don't have to know it, but it focuses all the members. It keeps us directed. When there is as much flexibility as there can be with a group such as ours, then you can go in all sorts of directions, depending on the number of people you have who just want to get crazy. No. No. Will not do. Save that for another day. I want focus on a sustained premise. Something is leading to something. That focuses all that energy in another direction." I got to hear some of that focus when P. Michael gave me a ride to Travis' Southside home to conduct this interview. He popped in a tape of an old gig that was obviously vintage - it was on one of those Sony cassettes with the orange and white label that always used to turn up in the eighties. And sure enough, we heard ONO in full freakout force, turning it on for a large room full of hardcore fans waiting for Naked Raygun to go on. And when the song was over, the cheers and the boos sounded about equal. At Travis' home the three of us pigged out on an organic, lo-carb stoned soul picnic prepared by the man himself that stretched from one end of the table to the other. We're talking California flatbread, donut holes, salad, raspberries, blueberries, cheeses, spring water, chicken soup, not to mention the chicken itself. Mo' napkins, pleez! Anytime I politely asked for another slice of cheese or piece of chicken, Travis laughingly told me: "Sure, you can have another piece, stop acting so polite! Pretend like you're in Mississippi!" Soon after, we soon got down to the business of discussing the wild, weird world of ONO:
Travis: I took piano as a child in Mississippi. My great grandmother, Jenny Carter, paid for my piano lessons, until the day...I would play on her piano in this parlor on Sundays. Then came the day that I just got completely out of order - but I was having a good time, as I always did - and I started playing the piano with sticks attached to my fingers (laughs) and making all this racket! It was crazy! My mother said (low voice) THAT'S THE END OF THAT! But nevertheless, I started piano lessons again later as a kid...I played this piano in the church and it was a lot of fun, but voice somehow took over from that. Piano sort of drifted further and further away, simply because playing with sticks attached to fingers was a lot more fun! After I went into the military - I was in Vietnam, I was in Cuba, I spent six years. But after that, I didn't pursue music at all. In fact, since then, I've wondered many many times do I really like music at all. It's there, but the things I like aren't necessarily music. I love an environment of music, of sound...after the military, I floated around to all sorts of things. I headed to New Mexico to give up all of my earthly possessions (laughs). On the way to New Mexico, I stopped here (in Chicago, ca. '79) for a minute, or so I thought, and ran into P. Michael via a woman named Cathy, his friend - an outrageous woman. P. Michael had this idea about doing performance and such, and said, "here, do this." And I said, "Oh! Okay." And I just lost my way! (laughs) I still haven't made it to New Mexico to give up all of my earthly possessions.
P. Michael: I just grew up in music. My family was all kinda musical. My uncle played the trumpet with Duke Ellington. My father played saxophone, my cousins played piano, bass and guitar. Started out with piano (myself). I just naturally banged the piano while all the rest of the family could just walk to the piano and play by ear. It's natural. They did give me formal lessons, but I would memorize the piece and then pretend like I was reading it. She'd ask, "Where are you?" and I'd say, "uhhh, right here!" It was a nun and she'd smack me with a ruler. Although I can read music, I didn't like to. It made my feet hurt (laughs all around). I didn't like to read music, so I figured I didn't like to do it the right way, I like to do it my way. So I would make up stuff. I would always play the classical pieces but I would throw my own stuff in there. And I would give it a beat. So then I went to college, because my father had a degree in music, too. I decided to try and take harmony, but I would still memorize and play my own way. I knew how to write music and do harmony and all that, but I learned it for a reason - so I could unlearn it and tear it up. Know your enemy...so I knew I wanted to know music so now I can mess with my own harmonies, do my own thing, untune the piano, untune the guitar. So my grandfather played the guitar, he had like these old Spanish classical guitars. He gave me his guitar. So I went and taught myself how to play guitar in three months. I lived on a musical block (around 87th and King Drive) - (producer) Carl Davis lived on the corner, so that would be the whole Brunswick (Records) people like Jackie Wilson coming by his house. I would see all them, and they'd be playing in his garage for like holiday events - Gene Chandler, Mary Wells (not a Brunswick artist, but she dated Davis), Otis Leavill. On the other end of the block we had the bass player from Ramsey Lewis, which was Mr. (Cleveland) Eaton. And then next door we had Jim Randolph, who used to DJ on an early version of WVON. Across the street we had Calvin Carter, who owned Vee Jay with his sister Vivian, so they would play the Beatles and stuff like that. Next door, we had the vice-president of Motown's sister, which was Mrs. Abner. Curtis Mayfield lived around the corner. The Staple Singers and Howlin' Wolf, they used to live down 89th. The Five Stairsteps lived across the street from (what is now known as) Chicago State (University). I was aware of all that stuff, but then I heard the Stooges and the Velvet Underground. They used to play (their records) in the student lounge at Loop College (now Harold Washington College).
So how did a nice black kid like you derail from the Stairsteps to the Stooges?
P. Michael: Because I thought it sounded the same! (laughs all around). To me, the Stooges had a swing to them. They weren't like all the other rock groups. The rock groups didn't have that swing. I didn't know at the time that Iggy and them were listening to James Brown and playing the blues, but I could tell that this wasn't Grand Funk Railroad! Grand Funk didn't have that swagger!
And Grand Funk was from the Detroit area like the Stooges, and had the word "funk" in their name, so you wonder how the groove missed them...
P. Michael: They were just so white! They were so straight (groovewise)! But I enjoyed them, though they weren't soulful. (discussion of Iggy and the Stooges continues, to the point where all three of us are excitedly singing bass riffs from the FUNHOUSE album).
Travis: That is the period (of Iggy's career) that I love!
P. Michael: He was so nasty!
Travis: I never stopped listening to him!
P. Michael: I still listen to him!
Travis: For their show here in Chicago, I treated everybody I knew and we went!
P. Michael: And then there's the Velvet Underground. The bass player was John Cale. You could tell that they were listening to R&B. They only had three records in the (student) lounge - they had the Velvet Underground's first album, they had the Hollies, and one other group...I think it was Jefferson Airplane. And you could tell, between the three of them, who listened to black music. The Hollies were fun, but they'd be doing their 1-2-3-4, then the Jefferson Airplane would be (sings a SLIGHTLY funkier bass pattern), but they didn't have that (sings an all-the-way funky bass line, like the Stooges would have done).
Now what about your own bands?
P. Michael: They were R&B bands but they had a rock swing to them. We would do covers of King Crimson AND the Ohio Players. We played at strip clubs, we played talent shows, people would just open their mouths and go (starts gasping). We'd open with (Crimson's) "21st Century Schizoid Man" and then go into "Shaft!"
The strippers would be bumping and grinding to that, huh?
P. Michael: Well, the strippers would dance to the blues. We'd play some Barry White...
What was this band called?
P. Michael: I don't know, some teenage name...
But no records?
P. Michael: Nothing like that.
So, Travis, the 1960s were changing all while you were in the military. Were you shocked at the world when you finally got out?
Travis: What happens outside the military makes its way into the military. In the Navy, each year another America came aboard. The weirdness is, we would go to Europe and hear and see all the stuff that was going on. The music didn't matter to me at all. I did not care. I was interested in the performing aspect. What were they saying? What were the bands talking about? And most of them weren't talking about anything. If they weren't talking about something, there had to be something that moved me. Like Iggy and the Pink Floyd from day one! Then of course, after getting out of the military in 1969, this other world that was happening was incredibly fun for me. I had been in New York when the Stonewall riots happened. I was IN it! I had never seen such a thing in my entire life. It was outrageous, going to queer bars. Because for me, the deal with music at that time was, what could you do on the dance floor to it? Of course, it was forbidden to dance to so much stuff at that time. You had to sit back and go (hippie voice) "oh wow."
They had music at Stonewall?
Travis: The Stonewall was a queer dance club. It was a BAR!
What kind of stuff did they play?
You had Eric Burdon, the California sound of course. But the kinds of things that I recall were things that allowed me to do things on the dance floor. On the dance floor of these various bars, you performed! So that, for me, was what the music meant. I didn't care that much for most of the bands because they really weren't talking about that much. So they had to sound good. ? and the Mysterians completely changed my world!
Where did you see them?
Travis: I didn't see them, but from the first moment I heard ? and the Mysterians, to this very day I listen. I watch the video. Most of the other groups I saw - the Velvet Underground, all those people - before 1969, I was still in the Navy, but when the ship pulls into port, you can get all this culture. What kids in the Phillipines did with the Doors, for instance, blew me away. Kids who didn't even speak English could play every note the Doors ever played and sound like Jim Morrison down to the nth degree. You'd go to these clubs and they were floating walls. For me, that's what the music meant. It had to be more than just the notes. In a COGIC church where people are playing and rolling on the floor, and you're feeling something, that's when it pulls me in. Not because it was music. I don't like music! (laughs) There was just this other part of it where I could write these fabulous lyrics and have fun on the stage.
So when you and P. Michael got together and formed ONO, how did you choose the punk/new wave scene?
P. Michael: It picked us!
Well, it wouldn't have played at the High Chaparral (soul/blues club in south Chicago)...
P. Michael: We could have (laughter all around)...but we didn't! (does imitation of the local blues DJ who owned the venue) "This is Pervis Spann the Blues Man, presenting, on stage at the High Chaparral, ONO!"
P. Michael: ...and then we'd come out and do (Bo Diddley's) "I'm a Man" 'cause we used to do that too!
Travis: P. Michael would do all this stuff that I knew in the back of my head. Because me being from Mississippi, I heard all that, and my mother is a wild woman to this very day! And her friends were into everything Mississippi and Tennessee. They went up and down the road from Memphis to Tupelo. They were wild then and are still wild! So I was hearing not only Mahalia, but also this stuff in the background that P. Michael would play that I heard but didn't pay any attention to. Then it would come back and I would mysteriously know the lyrics from hearing it so much. So out of the blue P. Michael would say, "we're gonna do 'Gimme Fever!'" and I didn't even have to think about it!
P. Michael: We went to a disco once and we were playing our stuff and all of a sudden we went into "Daddy Rolling Stone!" We would play all this old blues stuff - this would come out of the blue. We were at a charity dinner in Evanston...we went into (both men sing the intro to Rufus Thomas'"Walking The Dog") and then we went, "baby's back, all dressed in black..." (everybody laughs).
Travis: At a wedding, you did this...
P. Michael: We did that at a wedding. It went over so well that they made us do it twice!
Travis: Yes! In this big house...these rich white folks! (laughs)
P. Michael: We were playing all this racket before that, and this poetry, and then all of a sudden...
Were the originals improvised on the spot?
Travis: Oh no no no no no. P. Michael insisted that we would rehearse Monday, Friday and Saturday. That's a lot of practicing.
P. Michael: We had tunes. In 1980 (when the band started), it was me, Travis, Cathy and Mark, the guitar player. We practiced like that religiously and then we did a little demo tape. Cathy kinda came in and out because she was busy having babies and selling pig ears on the pig ear truck.
Travis: She was a Shakespearean actress, she was outrageous and she was WILD! High yellow with all this hair, and always dressed in costume no matter what!
Did she ever go on to do anything else?
P. Michael: She works in public aid.
But no pig ears?
Travis: As far as we know, you never can tell with Cathy. Anything is possible. Way back in the La Mere Vipere days, she would come by my house at 1:00 in the morning - "GET UP! WE'RE GOING TO LA MERE VIPERE TO DANCE TONIGHT!" She'd be wearing a machete! She would go to La Mere and beat the walls in with the machete and no one would say anything to her (laughs)! It was crazy! After La Mere, she'd drag me to O'Banions.
So you guys got indoctrinated into that scene?
P. Michael: We saw it! But we weren't really part of it, we didn't dress like that or anything, but we understood it. 'Cause remember, we knew Iggy! And Iggy invented them!
Travis: I had another angle because I was going to all these queer bars and I was used to doing all these (snaps fingers) fun things that you see ONLY in queer bars - people go in costume and just pose up against the wall and jump off things and act like Iggy and all the rest of them! And this was pre-punk!
P. Michael: And all those bars that were gay bars became the punk bars! Because the punks couldn't have a bar anyplace, so the gay bars would have punk night. O'Banions used to be an old gay bar. We used to work at Medusa's which was (then) a gay bar that had Sylvester and all these disco groups. (It became better known later in the eighties as an all-ages new wave dance venue. --JP) Eventually, we put together a little tape and we went to Punkfest when the punk thing started. We ran into this guy that was skating that turned out to be Al Jourgensen. He was in the Immune System and then he left them and then he was going into Special Affect. One night they were playing with Naked Raygun. Somehow we knew Naked Raygun, probably by going out dancing. No, we hadn't played any shows at all, but Naked raygun saw us somewhere. Special Affect was playing at the Exit, and Naked Raygun was opening for them. They asked us to go on after them, like at two in the morning. So the first ONO show was me, Travis and Mark (ca. 1980). After that, we had gotten shows at O'Banions, Lucky Number. We played a lot of these old punk venues little by little. Mark eventually had to leave town; that's how Ric got into the band. Al, who by then had left Special Affect and was starting up a group called Ministry, his girlfriend was Shannon Rose Riley at the time. He said, "I got somebody that would really be cool for you guys," and he introduced us to her. She sorta played saxophone and the accordion. She was a character. She joined up with us, and Al said "I got this record deal. Thermidor Records (owned by Joe Carducci and Joe Boshard, distributed by SST) wants Special Affect singles. They had officially broken up, but he had told Thermidor Records about us. So they were interested. Al was going to go into the studio with us. We were gonna make a single. We were able to get a hold of Al and his engineer, which was Iain Burgess, so we went out to Chicago Recording Studios to record two numbers with Shannon, and Al was the producer. After we had done it, we had shipped it around to Wax Trax. They said because Al was on Wax Trax at the time, or he was working with them, they said "Let's hear it! We could probably do something if Al produced it." We played it, then (Wax Trax's) Jim Nash listened to it and said, "well, ah, well, ah, umm, it's really interesting." We said, "that's fine, we understand!"
As abrasive as a lot of Wax Trax records were, they rejected you?
P. Michael: They weren't THAT abrasive! (laughs) They were danceable! We didn't quite fit in with anybody!
Travis: I think that the real reason Al was attracted to us is because Al is, at heart, deeply Catholic. When we met, we met pretty much on that level. Then the Pope came to Chicago for the first time - we went, all together. Al, Shannon, P. Michael and me. It was one very spiritual event, unrelated to the Al that people in the music world know.
P. Michael: Thermidor Records liked it, they heard it, so there was a lot of correspondence. in Joe Carducci's book you can see a letter written by Travis to them asking them what their intentions were. In his books you'll see a lot of ONO memorabilia because he collected everything and then he stuck them in his book.
Travis: We're told that he is very happy about his relationship with ONO and moreso now because there is a lot of drama surrounding his relationship with other producers that turned out not to be what they thought they were. And still were as nasty as we ever were, today!
P. Michael: Our aim was always true!
Travis: The man was just too cool! We had complete control. He sent us the contract, and in it was everything we ever asked for. We went in the studio and did our own mix, our own everything. They put it out exactly as we wanted. I was blown away! They let us do everything. All of the design is ours - Ric is a graphic designer, so he does it. All of the calligraphy is mine. P. Michael and Ric had the final say as to how the mix went and it was really wonderful. I'm very happy to say that we got exactly what we bargained for.
So what was the scene like? This is when things get interesting? Did everybody react like those kids on the tape? (Earlier, P. Michael played me a vintage tape of the band playing at the Metro for a rowdy audience at a Naked Raygun show. The reaction to their freeform freakouts was mixed - and I'm being polite...)
P. Michael: Well, there was the University of Illinois, where they threw money at the act before us, and just booed and hissed them...
Travis: Every year they had this Festival of the Arts kind of thing - this was music - and so all these people played. This guy was doing all these incredible things. All these frat-type people would just hiss and boo and throw things at the stage. The guy before us just couldn't take it; all these missiles started at the stage. Then it was our turn. Thirty ONO fans sitting there, and this was in the lunchroom at the U of I. We did "Pyramid Of Drums" - we set up amps in this pyramid, and then I come out and put out these hubcaps and chains around the stage. In the meantime, there's these guys - BIG GUYS HANGIN' AROUND THE STAGE. After setting this up, we're introduced, and I come out on stage in this wedding gown with like twenty feet of train, and gloves. I've got my chains and hubcaps, and right there in front of them...in no time at all, that space was clear! (laughs) We started playing, and all this rush of noise, like a trainwreck - voomvoomvoomvoomvoom...
So were the thirty ONO fans you mentioned still there?
Travis: They then came up to the front of the stage. These guys (the big guys hanging around the stage heckling people) had shown how nasty they could be by intimidating the other bands. So we decided to have some fun. You want some action, I'll put yo' ass in traction!
P. Michael: We actually played everywhere in the city somehow, and I don't know how. We were pretty much residents at Metro. Joe Shanahan was really cool with us. We played all of Metro: Smart Bar (the downstairs dance room, still active), Joz on top (no longer there). Whenever people like Lydia Lunch would come to town, we'd be the opening act. We played Exit a lot. We played Cubby Bear one time. We did our Dynasty show, because the TV show Dynasty was really popular. We didn't want to miss it and we played at 8:00 at night, so we could watch Dynasty and have it play in back of us while we were doing our show.
Travis: Oh, but the fun part of that show was there was this big problem playing this show. The Cubs had been expected to win something (Metro is next to the Cubs' ballpark Wrigley Field), and they were out of town. They had cancelled our show before that, and all this other stuff had gone on. Eventually the show finally happens, our fans had come from out of town. We set up the equipment on stage, and we've got these TV sets showing Dynasty. We were playing in the background, and when Dynasty ended there was always this dramatic cliffhanging thing. At the moment that happened, then off go the TV sets and this insane noise starts - the ONO show is in full force! THAT was, for me, perfect, because it brought the idea of sound and performance together. The kids loved it.
P. Michael: We ended with "Darling Nikki" by Prince. Somewhere, somehow, we'd pack 'em!
So how much longer did ONO keep going?
Travis: Actually, it's still going! We never thought of ONO as having ended. We're still in good stead with all the old ONO members, so if they were to show up today, they could play next weekend!
P. Michael: Shannon just showed up at Chic-A-Go-Go. We hadn't seen her in 25 years, she just showed up!
So how did she know to show up in the first place?
P. Michael: She saw our Myspace website, she wrote to Travis. We told her what we were doing, and said she should come on down!
Travis: She had been away all these years getting her Ph.D in Indiana! She and her new husband drove into town and we played that (TV) show. If Mark were to show up, it would be time to play again. Ric says he's retired, but if he decides to show up, there's a place for him.