Ann Magnuson is a force of nature. The 61-year-old actress, musician and artist, whom you may remember from her time in the absolutely stellar band Bongwater, has a show at Trepany House's Steve Allen Theater on Saturday, March 18. The longtime Los Angeles resident (by way of West Virginia and New York City) has a new EP coming out featuring her 12-minute opus, “An Open Letter to an Open Letter,” which with its chorus of "Seriously, what the fuck?" (also the title of her show) is classic Magnuson.
Later this year, on Halloween, Magnuson will curate a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York paying tribute to Club 57, where she was the resident leader of mayhem in the early 1980s. “It parallels with what was going on during that time with Reagan and what we perceived to be the end of the world and the impending nuclear war with Russia," she says, comparing our current era to those dark days. "It absolutely provided fertile ground for creativity, which is not unlike what we have going on now.”
So seriously, what the fuck?
That’s really the question. I heard they’re replacing “E Pluribus Unum” with "Seriously, what the fuck?" Or is that was E pluribus unum means in English?
I thought they changed it to “E Pluribus Screw’em” years ago.
They definitely changed it to that in the Nixon era. Oh my God, you get to this age. How old are you, if I may ask?
So you’re still young. Full of hope and ideals. I still have some of those, too, but they're in an alternative universe.
I think a lot of folks are wishing for an alternative universe these days.
That’s where art comes in.
I’m hoping it [the MOMA show] will inspire younger people to see this is what you can do. When you’re in a recession and you have no money and you feel the end is near, you can make a club and you can make art. You don’t have to worry about branding yourself. There was no thought of making something into a brand back then — that’s what we were running away from. But inadvertently, capitalism always comes to call.
So you have a show on March 18?
I’m going to play “Open Letter” live at the Steve Allen Theater. I’m going to do a couple of Bongwater songs, and I wrote a couple of other ones, and “The Millionaire” by Combustible Edison. I guess the new ones are reactionary songs. We’ll see if we can get them arranged.
I think it may be one of the last shows at the Steve Allen Theater. They will be demolishing it for, wait for it, luxury condos. Just like everything else around here. This will probably be the last show I do there. I don't know if I'll be performing very often live anymore. There is so many great things about that venue. It's a home for so many alternative comedy cabaret/theater hybrid shows. There is not really a place like that in L.A. It's really tragic. They are closing in summer. This may be it.
That's a shame. What is the capacity there?
I think about 150.
Oh, it's intimate.
Yes, that's my preferred way of performing. The audience becomes part of the show. I like to feed off the audience. I leave a lot of room for improv. So that's rare now. The problem with L.A. is that all the spaces have been gentrified or the rents are so astronomical that it can't support the art.
How did you get into doing your particular brand of music?
Mad magazine and Stan Freberg records. We used to listen to Stan Freberg, ironically, over at the house of the Republicans in our neighborhood. I grew up with the kids. I think [his record was] called The United States of America. It obviously stuck in my craw. I think it is one reason why I’m drawn to using spoken word in music.
There are so many different ways of telling stories, I suppose. I grew up being exposed to things through television and being exposed to culture through television. My mother worked in local radio and theater. I grew up in West Virginia in a very hard-to-get-out-of-and-into valley, easier now, but [laughs] maybe not. It’s the Kanawha Valley, and the city was Charleston, West Virginia.
The outside world really came to us through television. Everything from Leonard Bernstein’s Concert for Young People, which my mother forced us to sit and watch, but I liked it. I think one of the first things children are exposed to is Peter and the Wolf, which is a narrative story using music.
We had that on vinyl when I was growing up.
Yes, I think a lot of families did. Although things weren’t divided so much into blue and red, back then. When I grew up, we had music in school. We sang songs. We sang “Froggy Went a-Courtin’.” I grew up in Appalachia. All the preachers … I got obsessed with that when I was in high school. Old-school, hyperventilating preachers. Then I got into Hasil Adkins and Jesco White, which gave you full license to be crazy. I think exposure to all these different elements became like, spin art. You put in a little red and a little green and you just have to be careful or it all turns brown.
You have to be careful with that spin art.
One thing that was great about being part of that downtown [NYC] art scene in the late '70s and early '80s was that it was a lot of freedom to do anything. If something didn’t quite work, it didn’t matter. You’d do something different the next day. Artists were forming bands and people in bands were doing art. I think all of the stuff just blended together.
My fourth grade teacher brought in Peter Paul & Mary records. There was exposure to people like Burl Ives and all the country music that I was exposed to in West Virginia. My grandfather was a Swedish evangelist. I didn’t know him, he passed away before I was born, but my grandmother would play hymns on her out-of-tune piano all the time.
My grandmother was crafty. They were very poor when my father was growing up and my grandmother never threw anything away. It always felt like it was permanently the 1940s when I went to her house in Morgantown, West Virginia, when I was growing up. She made all these bizarre dolls for her grandkids, before I came along, in the '50s and one of them ended up on the cover of Dream Girl [Magnuson’s 2016 record]. That sort of represents the traveler through the subconscious, which is what Dream Girl is all about.
What was Grandma’s name?
Grandma [laughs]. Grandma Magnuson. Olga Marie Lindbloom Magnuson. She was Swedish. She made amazing cinnamon rolls.
Do you still have the recipe?
No. If I ate those things, I’d be the size of a house. I remember eating so many. There was one summer I put on 10 pounds just being at Grandma’s house. Gluten and sugar. I try not to eat those things anymore.
I remember showing Grandma the ad in Rolling Stone for the New York Dolls' debut album one year. I knew I was going to get a rise out of her. I said, “Grandma, what do you think of these people?” She really lost it. She made me promise I wouldn’t get anywhere near that. I probably had my fingers crossed behind my back. When I finally got to New York, just seeing Jerry Nolan and Johnny Thunders walking around the East Village made me feel like I’d died and gone to heaven.
That’s awesome. Tell me about Open Letter to an Open Letter.
It really became a Facebook post that happened after when Sinead O’Connor wrote an open letter to Miley Cyrus. I think it was two years ago. Sinead was chastising Miley Cyrus for her antics at the Grammys. I wanted to write an open letter to an open letter. The concept of taking people to task on the internet has seemed to become the preferred mode of communication, and I’m not sure it really contributes much to the evolution of human beings. I just fooled around with that and it kind of went around to various folks and I decided to record it.
Where did you record?
At Catasonic in Echo Park with Mark Wheaton. It’s been there for a while. He really helped me. I went in there just on my own. I’d written a couple of songs on the guitar for Dream Girl and I just wanted to go in there and have fun, like I did with Bongwater, or when I was a kid with no ulterior motives other than to have some fun. I wanted to be my own producer and just be able to find my own voice without any interference.
I had so much fun with Mark. He’s just so encouraging. He gave me so much freedom. It just grew and grew. When we did “Open Letter,” it didn’t really fit on Dream Girls and there was too much stuff on it already, so I held it back. I feel like it is time, now, to release it because it speaks to the chaos and the madness that is going on now. I hope that isn’t too pretentious of a statement.
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I think our supreme leader is rewriting the definition of "pretentious" on a daily basis, so I think you’re safe.
[Laughs] All bets are off. Chaos. Isn’t that what [Steve] Bannon wants with his Darth Vader vision of the future? I think as one gets older, you realize that stability is what you want. Nature and other forces beyond our control will hand us chaos. You don’t have to generate that.
The desire for chaos could only come from somebody in a privileged position. It’s amoral.
Didn’t Trump recently say something to the effect of there was no chaos happening?
To which the inevitable reply is, “Seriously, what the fuck?”
Ann Magnuson’s "Seriously, WTF?! — Dream Girl Reacts to the National Nightmare" comes to Trepany House at the Steve Allen Theater on Saturday, March 18. Tickets and more info.