Prop comics have always enjoyed a dicey popularity. From Rip Taylor to Gallagher to Carrot Top, there’s perpetually some exaggerated comedian with peculiar hair who is wielding mallets or throwing confetti or wearing a toilet-seat necklace in front of an audience. But what about prop bands? There are musical groups traveling the globe that have found modest success by manipulating objects other than guitars or drums. The New Duncan Imperials may be the most resilient of these acts, having toured the world for more than a decade giving instruments and party favors equal consideration.
“I’m not going to say, ‘Our music is more important than props. Our art is more than props,’ because that’s bullshit,” says guitarist-vocalist Pigtail Dick. “Every band has their props of various kinds. Whether it’s a pose or reputation or Billy Corgan’s head or Eddie Vedder when he used to jump off things, whatever — props are props. I wholeheartedly embrace our props. But I do hate to say that without our props we couldn’t play. Because we can play.”
Anyone who has seen the twisted hoedowns and Cheap Trick-like anthems of The New Duncan Imperials will attest to that statement. But audience members are just as likely to be drawn to the Chicago-based trio’s stage antics — props and all.
“The ‘velour beast’ has lost an eye. Somebody knocked it off the wall,” Pigtail says of the band’s usual visual centerpiece. “We don’t have anything big, like smoking dragons, anymore. We do have what I’d call ‘bits.’ (Bassist) Skipper is playing a mean balloon solo now — you know, the squeaky-balloon solo. I’ve been playing some pretty good solos with an oven mitt on each hand. I’m working on ‘Spirit of Radio’ by Rush.”
One of Pigtail Dick’s fondest “bits” involved a different kind of artistic medium. “We were playing a lot of liberal arts colleges, so I created liberal art,” he says. “I got this idea where Skipper and (drummer) Goodtime rolled out this huge roll of white paper behind us. During my solo, I took a bunch of tempura paint into my mouth and spewed it out all over the paper in different colors. Then we gave it to somebody in the crowd. It seems very Blue Man Group now. It was before they did it — or before I knew they did it. People loved that. But I don’t think it was real good for me. I had this kind of coppery taste in my mouth all the time, and I got kind of dizzy.”
Dementia seems to be par for the course when discussing NDI’s career. When not indulging in the mind-altering spoils of their Jagermeister sponsorship, the bandmates have been entertaining audiences since their first performance in May 1989. Named after the omnipresent ’70s yo-yo, the trio has issued 10 albums, made song contributions to MTV’s The Real World and Road Rules, and recorded collaborations with Mojo Nixon and the late Tiny Tim. (“Duets are a pain in the ass. God bless him, but Tiny Tim put us through the ringer,” Pigtail says.) NDI’s current release, Sticky, is a 30-track, two-disc set chronicling the group’s impudent history of worldwide sales totaling 70,000 records — not bad for an act signed to its own label (Pravda Records).
“What order to put the songs in was really the hardest thing,” Pigtail says of assembling Sticky. “We record really fast at this point in our career — five or six songs a day, some we barely even know. It took almost as long to record it as it did to decide what order the songs would be in. I wanted to put all the songs in a hat, draw them out, and just put them in random order…. It’s agonizing because it’s like, ‘What are people going to hear when they first put it on?’ It’s like you’re going on a blind date and you’re trying to figure out which shirt to wear. It doesn’t really matter, but it’s the first thing your date sees.”
In addition to providing promo items with each record, such as band baseball cards and rub-on tattoos, the group also offers a songwriting service. For a low, low price, the three will write and record a song based on a lyrical submission. The notion came in handy locally a few years back when the popular Radio Free Westport program on KYYS needed a theme song. NDI’s thundering theme supplied a memorable opener for the show — all for just $75. Pigtail recalls that it was one of the tamer topical requests the band has received.
“We got one song that was 15 stanzas about anal sex with this guy’s girlfriend. It was called ‘The Red Rosebud’ or something really horrible. We did this big, long epic about butt lovin’. It was really beautiful. They paid us $25 for it,” he says, laughing. “Another guy wrote this hate song to his ex-roommate called ‘Joe.’ He really hated him because I guess he boned him in rent. So he wrote this horrible, libelous song.
“I think that’s on Fried, which is a CD we put out a couple of years ago of really weird moments. There’s a Finnish interview (where) they asked us the questions in English and then they went back when they played it on the radio and put the questions in Finnish. It’s really weird because it sounds like we understand Finnish, and you can’t tell what the questions are.”
Speaking of the Scandinavian country, NDI’s members played what they consider their single worst gig there. “We did this show in Finland at a cultural center in Helsinki,” Pigtail says. “They set us up in, like, an art gallery. It was really echoey, and we were all jet-lagged because it was right after we got there. It was so awful. They didn’t like us. We didn’t know how to charm them because we didn’t know how to speak Finnish — I don’t think anyone speaks Finnish outside of Finland. Then we were so loud that we knocked this art off the wall. It involved these half eggshells glued into it. It ruined the work of art, and they wanted us to pay for it. It was way more ‘kronas’ than we were getting.”
But even considering their liberal art fascination, don’t make the mistake that Pigtail, Skipper, and Goodtime are irreverent when it comes to rock music. People don’t spend the best decades of their lives immersed in a profession solely to make fun of it; yes, The New Duncan Imperials respect rock and roll.
“Absolutely,” says Pigtail. “The stuff I like, I’m in love with. It’s not like I’m out to put a pin in (rock). It’s more like we’re out to celebrate its excesses and roll around in it like it’s a big rotten fish.”
Or as Rip Taylor would say, “Holy mackerel,” while waving a plastic fish filled with holes.
Contact Jon Niccum at 816-218-6782 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The New Duncan Imperials
with Fatback and Big Jeter
Saturday, April 29at Davey’s Uptown