You get the feeling that certain musical instruments—accordions, say, or ukuleles—are rabbitholes to somewhere else: obscure lands, seldom sighted from the shores of the mainstream, where people live by different rules and have access to knowledge not open to outsiders.
People who pick up these instruments become obsessed with them, are transformed by them, and find themselves in places only fellow players of their instrument will fully appreciate. They do odd things–for instance, they figure out how to play Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun” on the accordion. So-called “normal” people don’t do stuff that.
By the way, that installment of the “Stupid Accordion Tricks” series is brought to you by Rowan Lipkovits, of Accordion Noir (both the radio show and the festival) and “the jug band of the damned,” the Creaking Planks.
He sometimes goes by the moniker Blackbox Squeezebeard, even since he’s shaved. And his band has done some other similarly unusual things in their day: they used to do, for instance, a (relatively) faithful cover version of the Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer” – y’know, the one about wanting to “fuck you like an animal?”
That reimagining is eccentric enough unto itself; but after finding themselves “playing for a friend's unimpressed eight-year-old's birthday party,” Lipkovits explains to the Straight, the band amended the lyrics to be less profane: “Help me, I think I got a boo boo,” and so forth.
It’s even more entertaining to see than it is to read about–“our high watermark,” Lipkovits say-of the Creaking Planks’ kid-friendly version of the song.
Almost as memorable was the time that Planks ukulele player Lee Shoal, who sometimes goes by the name “Heather Jean McDermid,” talked to British publication The Wire about a Planks gig where, it is rumoured, members of the band and their devoted fans took canoes across to a famous floating vessel, derelict for years in Burrard Inlet, to perform a concert. Did the band really do that? Are there other notably strange concerts they’ve performed?
“I'm not sure the statute of limitations is up on the McBarge gig yet,” Lipkovits replies, “but when you're a weird band, the weirdest thing is playing normie shows. Playing dopey songs on accordion to accompany live sex acts on stage, or performing while people get inked in front of you at the opening of a tattoo parlor – that's all just par for the course.”
Lipkovits will be celebrating his 40th birthday at the WISE Hall Lounge, at the Second Voyage of the Ship of Fools. (He explains on Facebook that “I had a really cracking musical birthday party ten years prior and wondered if I could recapture the magic of turning 30 again by just throwing the same concert a second time”). It won’t involve the Planks per se – Rowan explains that most former members of the band have moved on to other careers, provinces, countries, or projects and that he (and sometimes Lee Shoal, who takes up the uke when she’s in town) have “Last Plank Standing;” but she can’t be there this time. However, various alumni of the band will be on hand – including the Minimalist Jug Band, whose “Dead Man’s Pants” the Creaking Planks have memorably covered. So attendees will not suffer for lack of entertainment.
The Georgia Straight pressed Lipkovits to explain a few things via email. We have preserved the Q&A style format, to retain the unique flavour of his prose.
So why the accordion, anyhow? How did you get into it?
I studied classical piano for 15 years, then moved out and my parents (who do not play!), bizarrely kept the instrument. I don't know if they thought they could lure me back for regular practice sessions, or perhaps they wrongly assumed they'd spare me the expense and hassle of moving a piano out only to have to move it back in when I failed to launch successfully (not that I ever did move back in, but nice vote of confidence in their job of preparing me for the world!) ...for several years, I kept my chops warm on such pianos in public locations as I could find (RIP, back room of the Grind!) while mulling over in my head the terrifying prospect of needing to make an expensive investment in some kind of (presumably electronic) keyboard instrument and not wanting to throw my scanty money away on The Wrong Choice.
This anxious paralysis kept me pinioned long enough that I eventually had a chance to stumble across the then-unknown Geoff Berner opening for Dan Bern in the Britannia School auditorium around the turn of the century, and a new keyboard instrument entered consideration and shot up straight to the top of my list. Despite growing up as the world's biggest "Weird Al" Yankovic fan, I'd never considered the accordion to be anything other than a kind of music-themed punchline, and it never occurred to me that it was an instrument on which it was possible to make serious art and explore the darker side of the human psyche (for which there was possibly no greater millennial spokesperson than Geoff), which were of far greater interest to the angsty youth that was me than the champagne music of Lawrence Welk. A couple of months later, I had an accordion in my arms – a student trainer model, limited to major chords and hence... suitable only for cranking out champagne music.
Stung by the hard limits of what my classical training prepared me for (eg. no improvising, couldn't jam, but boy could I prepare for a 2-hour exam! You want arpeggios?), I resolved to Work It Out Myself and only a year later, after a rare chance exposure to accordion performed on TV, did I realize my error and resume my self-directed studies, this time actually wearing the instrument the right way up.
The impression I get is that there's kind of an "accordion underground," a subculture of people that are obsessed with the instrument. Is that something that you discovered when you got started—was there a community of accordion freaks that existed, to welcome you to the fold—or was it something you saw grow up with you, that you were part of the birth of?
With accordions, anything not part of the audience's very specific group traditions is outsider, so it's not hard to be punk when people will walk out of the room if you make the mistake of playing a Chicago-style polka instead of a Cleveland-style polka. There were local accordion freaks who blazed the trail for me–not just Geoff, but the blues rebel Ana Bon-bon, Celtic apostate Linda McRae, and the premature inappropriate-squeezebox-cover vanguard of I Mudder Accordion. Whatever other accordion contacts one could make at that time were just fading remnants of the instrument's 1960s old guard, epitomized by the now-defunct annual KIOTAC event in the interior, whose lack of appeal to me was matched only by their lack of interest in my squeezy realm.
But I understood that if I wanted to find community in a fellowship of accordion punx and share my hard-earned knowledge (like how to repair my instrument's wax gaskets with a stovetop-heated tin can lid–and hope to learn that there was an easier way!), I was going to have to go DIY and organize it myself. Fortunately I was hosting the monthly 57 Varieties open stage at the anarchist bookstore Spartacus Books at that time (decades of providing fertile ground, allowing curious and worthwhile things to flourish that could not exist anywhere else!), where I met the collective member armchair accordion historian Bruce Triggs (whose book, Accordion Revolution, is finally due out this year), who approached me about the ridiculous and improbable prospect of starting a weekly accordion music radio program with him... and the rest is history! Bruce opened my eyes to the punky, feverishly multi-ethnic alt-accordion scene of California's Bay Area, a vibrant ecosystem of unrelated musical traditions, which really showed us the kind of community we hoped to bring about locally.
When did the Creaking Planks form?
I had the good fortune to encounter Lee Shoal and Lord Eel [the band’s original banjo player, who shall remain pseudonymous] in the original Creaking Planks, formed to someday fulfill their (thwarted and now impossible) manifest destiny of performing at the microstage at Portland's Voodoo Donuts, at a January 2005 installment of Sarah Macdougall's "Raw and Cooked" showcase at the Western Front, while I was there to promote the "That's My Brain... And You're KILLING It!" group performance poetry revue. I guess my musical arrangement of Al Mader's "I'm A Lousy Lay" made a big impression on them, since three months later they had me performing with them at Blim's "Misery Loves Company" evening of sad songs.
Where did the name come from? Was there/ is there a philosophy to the band? (I always wondered if there was a connection between the name and music "piracy").
The name, volunteered by Olo J. Milkman, predates my involvement, but I gather that the brief idea was to follow the lead of eg. the Decemberists and form a folky pirate-themed band. But the band's overall vision was quite mercurial in its early years, and it turns out the pirate genre wasn't sufficiently appealing to commit to. (Then, once we abandoned it, we got invited to play the Pirates on the SeaBus flash mob.) Appeals to the wider world of music piracy (as we also, in our way, helped ourselves to songs written by others, not always treating them very respectfully) were largely an attempt to explain the curious band name retroactively, though for a time we did use the iconography of the torrent tracker site the Pirate Bay, conflating "home taping is killing the music industry" imagery with a four-master under full sail, on our poster art.
First time I saw the Creaking Planks, you were doing songs themed around zombies, after the first (or second?) Vancouver zombiewalk... do I assume that was pretty early on? What songs did you do? I remember, I think, Randy Newman's "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It") and maybe Fela Kuti's "Zombie." What else made that set?
Our Zombiewalk 1 show was Aug 27, 2005 (I keep good records!), at the ol' Video In. (Zombiewalk 2 Aug 19 2006 we played outside the VAG and to striking workers outside the VPL.)
Good memory for the songs! You're two for two, but missing Tom Petty's "Zombie Zoo", the Cranberries' "Zombie", Warron Zevon's "Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead", an unavoidable “Zombie Jamboree,” a couple of moments from the Rob Zombie catalogue, Sufjan Stevens' “Night Zombies” song from the Illinois album, Metric's "Dead Disco", "I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy" by Antony & the Johnsons, the Cramps' "Surfin' Dead", and ... I think we brought out “Thriller.”
When you start out from a place of "I'm going to be ridiculous, it's unavoidable," it's quite liberating because you can play anything without worrying if it's going to be a good fit. Rather: if it's going to be a train wreck, make it a big one! Before I joined up with the Planks my method was to meet every function with thematically appropriate songs I had just learned that afternoon, since even polished accordion wouldn't impress the haters and however things went, you could always say "at least I was relevant!"
What was your introduction to Al Mader? Anything you care to say about the Minimalist Jug Band?
For over two decades Al has been a shining light of our "spoken word" community of poets and orators, always quite a bit outside the genre's hip-hop rockstar mainstream centre but with a resolute commitment to artistic integrity because his act is so out there you couldn't calculatedly fake it, and even if you could it would never occur to anyone to do so. He doesn't consider himself a successful poet but rather a failed songwriter, explaining the metered, rhyming verse/chorus structure of his poems, and this poignant dynamic made him a magnetic draw for the fellow underdog misfit defying all reasonable expectations and slinging an accordion. I would have given him a Nobel Prize before Dylan, but sadly I am not on that committee.
Who else is joining you for the WISE Lounge gig? (Why is it not a Creaking Planks gig? Why does the band play so infrequently these days?). Any special plans for that night?
The cliff off of which the Creaking Planks have fallen in recent years is simply that in this city of necessary side-hustles it has become impossible to find practice times, gig times (heck even "let's spend all that money we earned" times) that work for everyone (and, increasingly, anyone.) Some of us have children now, many of us have solid jobs waiting for us early in the morning, and a few of us have even been driven out of town, which makes things tricky. Suffice it to say that by the time we found a date everyone could make, I'd be celebrating my 50th.
So ironically, most of the returning talent from my 30th birthday party are the supporting players from outside the band–Monsterdinosaur artist Ehren Salazar and Al Mader–as well as a spotlight on the accomplished Planks alumnus magician Travis Bernhardt. He may wind up sitting in with me on his long-neglected steel guitar... indeed there are rumours of other Planks possibly being drawn into the whole unbearable nostalgic proceedings, but true to form, nothing sufficiently confirmed enough for me to actually promote. I'll definitely be playing songs on the accordion between the other acts, and odds are that cake will be boasting a couple flavours of icing.
Anything you want to say about Accordion Noir? When is the next festival? How much work do you put year-round into planning it?
The top two items of Accordion Noir-related news are that my co-host Bruce Triggs' long-simmering accordion history book, Accordion Revolution, will be hitting the shelves this summer, and that we have completed the campaign of migrating our incomplete collection of a dozen years' worth of back episodes (still over 600 hours!) to the Internet Archive, providing abundant grist for any other fresh squeezepunx out there looking for inspiration to fuel a strange scene of their own. (Indeed TC Costello of South Carolina was moved to establish the Swamp Rabbit festival in direct emulation of our own fest, itself the shadow of the platonic ideal accordion festival which takes place in Cotati every summer.)
We will be most definitely be producing another Accordion Noir Festival (the 12th!) this September, though details regarding locations, dates and headliners are still thin on the ground. (My predecessor Katheryn Petersen would have needed to have all of these particulars well established by the time last year's fest was produced in order to satisfy the crystal ball demands of grant-endowing entities, but I am free from the tyranny of organization imposed by financial support, which keeps things terrifying and exciting.) I will hopefully have more announcements to make on this matter by the time our all-day Accordion Noir stage goes up for the third year at the Car-Free Main Street festival June 16th.
It's hard to quantify the time spent doing organizing for Accordion Noir as the project not only includes the annual festival but the weekly radio program and the monthly Squeezebox Circle get-togethers ... among other side projects and co-productions. (My god, the May 4 Caravan presentation of the Duo Belem and Constantinople from Montreal is a must-see!) One way or another, several hours go into it every week.
I have seen your videos on Youtube and wonder if there's one or two you're proudest of, or one or two that have gotten a lot more attention than others. Besides the Creaking Planks, the accordion tricks videos, and Accordion Noir, is there anything else you do locally that I should mention?
My videos are deliberately amateurish in their production (surely no one winds up using Comic Sans in their title cards accidentally anymore, do they?) because they act only as proof-of-concept: that it is possible to hear (and indeed, play) song x on unlikely instrument y. They're all lousy videos of middling performances of great songs, but with the "Stupid Accordion Tricks" series I hope I just help to demonstrate the versatility of the instrument, to inspire people to pick up accordions without necessarily expecting that they'll be obligated to play the dead old repertoire. No -- play your favorite songs instead! That's the most motivating music education strategy I've ever experienced.
What I was proud of were the tooth-pulling run of late Creaking Planks videos, our final missive to the world before seizing to a halt: our renditions of the Virgin Prunes' “Sweet Home Under White Clouds” and Underworld's “Born Slippy.” They have achieved some recognition and reached their audiences, so I'm satisfied.
I have a very active sideline coordinating Mistigris, a cadre of vintage computer artists dating back to the slow cyberspace of the mid-'90s, but that is so unrelated to the matter at hand as to be actively distracting.
Is there anything I’ve missed?
I hope not, this ate through my entire morning!
The Second Voyage of the Ship of Fools, including Rowan Lipkovits, the Minimalist Jug Band, and much more, takes place April 14th at the WISE Lounge. More information here.