The Deadfly Ensemble is unlike anything you have seen before, possibly anything you will see again. Part band, part theatrical troupe, part Dada-inspired art collective, they like a fantasy of Berlin between world wars imagined by a team reared in the depths of the LA club scene.
Founded by Klaus Nomi-esque vocalist Lucas Lanthier, a performance artist/comedian well known for his work with post-punk-before-it-was-cool group Cinema Strange, and James Powell of Asyntax?, The Deadfly Ensemble also features former Scarlet's Remains members Marzia Rangel and Steven James (both currently playing Faith and the Muse) and hip-hop artist Dizhan Blu. Their shows have become a rare treat in town, as Lanthier is currently living in New York City.
The Deadfly Ensemble plays Eterno~Eternal at Roberto's in Chinatown Saturday night. We had the chance to interview the band by phone earlier this week.
What's the basic concept behind The Deadfly Ensemble?
Lucas Lanthier: When it started, we had a very specific, theatrical vision. The first incarnation of the project was James and I, as far as the music goes. We had a lot of actors involved and they were usually performing scripts at every live show. We tried not to do the same, actually, I don't know if we've ever done the same show.
James Powell: We never done the same live show.
LL: Except that we've done a couple of tours where it's been a variation on the same type of live show. In the first couple years, we had scripts, so there was dialog between songs and we had actors on stage doing everything from pantomiming to also having different lines. We were telling a separate story outside of the songs.
JP: It's a perpetual attempt at being touching.
LL: Touching, yeah, trying to get our fists into the ribcage of the collective audience, tear their heart out, feel the beat and put it back gently. That was for the first year or so, maybe. Then we started adding more ensemble members. We had Marzia playing cello, Dizhan playing drums and now Steve playing the other guitar, the more effective guitar, I would say, the more emotional guitar. Since the band has gotten bigger, we've sort of evolved from less of a script based show and more of a visual theme, although we did a script at the last show. We did an Old West, cowboy thing. I guess we still do the occasional scripts.
Theatricality is important. Telling a story is important. Most of the songs are story-telling type songs and they have a story-telling dynamic. It's not usually pop-type structures, although it is sometimes.
With the scripts, who handles the writing?
LL: We've all contributed to the dialog. I've probably originated most of them. In the early days, James and I co-wrote most of them. Nowadays, it's more of an idea and we all flesh it out together and come up with the finished product. In the case of the last script we did, the finished product was refined in the car on the way to the show. It was kind of a last minute process.
JP: When we tour, there will be a last minute idea we have and we'll do it five minutes ahead of schedule.
LL: For the last European tour, it was kind of a schoolhouse theme. One of the best parts of it were these drawings that we did in the car, mostly James. Those ended up being a major part of the production, the cartoons of these little boys licking ducks.
Theatrically, are there certain things that inspire you?
LL: I think that we have such a wide range of influences, with all five of us having different backgrounds. I think that every person is not just bringing a wide spectrum of stuff, but a totally different wide spectrum of stuff. It's probably a little better to say what doesn't influence us.
Steven James: Definitely a feeling of the absurd is in there. Not absurd in a ridiculous way, but just an odd take on things around you, more of a classical take on the absurd.
LL: I think Steve has it right. No matter what we're all bringing, one common thread is the absurd.
What comes first, the idea for the performance or the music itself?
LL: We definitely have a repertoire of songs that get reapplied for every performance, but sometimes there is music for a certain situation.
JP: I really enjoy the juxtaposition of songs with whatever we're doing. It doesn't really matter, just as many stories as possible all at once. We have the story of the show, which has nothing to do sometimes, and then other times does have something to do with the songs.
I guess the only people really enjoying that are us all here because we're the only ones who really know. If I'm in character in a particular way and I'm just thinking about whatever Lucas is singing, that will make me laugh harder, which enriches the performance for me. And I don't care about you as much as I care about how much fun I'm having. Maybe that's kind of a self-centered slant for performing, but it's all about that cross-context.
LL: You being self-centered makes for a better show. Ironically, the more self-centered and selfish you are, the more the audience enjoys the show.
I think somewhere early on in what he was saying, he addressed that the show themes are almost neutral, independent stories and then all of the songs get launched from that platform, a neutral platform.
J: Whether or not they color the songs is neither here nor there, but some kind of a side-effect.
L: One of the first shows, it was the first show that we ever did, we were playing these indolent, wealthy aristocrats and that definitely influenced the way that we played the songs. We played the songs in this lackadaisicle way, we have too much money and we don't care. We were eating fruit in the middle of the songs.