Interview by Max Gray
Place: The Henry Fonda Theater, Los Angeles, California. Time: Fall 2003. Motivation: Unknown.
The venue is sold out. The air smells of sweat and cigarette breath. Neil Schuh elbows through the crowd, limping and using a cane as if it were a machete and he were knee-deep in the Congolese jungle. He's followed closely by a friend. They manage to situate themselves in the front row as the opening band, Les Savy Fav, build toward their closing number. Schuh is excited; there's been a lot of buzz circulating about this show. But as he listens, the crimson stage lights reflecting off his dark-framed glasses, a bitter realization sets in. He doesn't like Les Savy Fav. In fact, he hates them.
Schuh yells insults at the frontman, Tim Harrington. Schuh's disappointment in the music, the act, and the crowd coalesces in a filthy string of mockery, and Harrington's eyes lock on him. His voice cracks. This mustachioed, crazy-eyed punk is yelling from the front row, only a few arms-lengths away, and it's becoming increasingly difficult to ignore him. Schuh only redoubles his efforts, managing to jab Harrington in the stomach with the butt of his cane.
His focus evaporates. In the middle of their last song, Harrington reaches down with a trembling fist and pulls him bodily up onto the stage. Schuh, shackled between the front-man's elbows, flails furiously, striking him in the shins with the cane. Face twisting in pain, Harrington lands a tremendous punch across his face. Schuh's glasses are sent to the stage floor and he drops the cane. In that moment, all he can think about is the awful migraine headaches he gets when he doesn't wear his glasses. Schuh retrieves them, and luckily they're still intact. The front-man tosses his cane into the crowd.
"Give me my cane! Give me my cane back," he screams.
The music has stopped, replaced by crowd murmurs and the infrequent puzzled shriek. They stare at each other hesitantly.
"OK," Harrington acquiesces. "Let's kiss and make up."
In an instant, he is kissing Schuh solidly on the mouth in front of hundreds of joyously confused fans.
"I attest it was the only male kiss in my life," Schuh admitted later. "It was pretty gross – this sweaty, bearded, haggard guy whose appearance, actually, probably wasn't that different from my own."
It was a far cry from the rural bars and cramped coffee houses of Steven's Point, Wisconsin. Yet somehow, the fight had a simple, almost elegant significance in the creative evolution of Neil Schuh, and in the story of Totally Radd!!, his awkwardly innovative contribution to L.A.'s underground bohemian scene.
Mario and Luigi's Long-Lost Ugly Bro: Bobby the Binge-Drinker
They're featured in the 2004 holiday issue of Electronic Gaming Monthly. A DVD is included with two of Totally Radd!!'s newest singles, and additional video footage of the group. It's a strange choice. How could any group with such visceral pathos and reckless disdain for the mainstream ever land in a widely-read, national publication like EGM? The answer can be found in the Schuh household, where on Christmas Day, 1988, four year-old Neil received the greatest gift of his life.
His uncle, a paratrooper in the U.S. Army, bought him a Nintendo Entertainment System.
"It was the coolest present ever," Schuh says. "My parents would never have gotten us a Nintendo."
During the most formative years of a person's life, every sensory experience is lucid, and almost every event will surely have fundamental importance in the development of the child. Schuh took it one step further. His Nintendo became an avatar of his childhood. Whereas some people claim little league baseball had a profound affect on them, or others may mention a favorite relative who influenced them, Schuh points to his NES. "I was really mystified by the whole concept. There was something magical about it. I wanted to be a videogame programmer for a really long time. I used to draw fake levels and design games."
Although videogames wielded a stimulating power over him, none of his family members would think to suggest they had a calming affect. "I sucked at them," he laughs. "I never had the patience to get good at any of them. I would try playing and just throw a tempter tantrum. My parents got me educational Sesame Street games so I wouldn't get pissed off." This kind of frustration would return in various guises. Eventually, like slipping a tea bag in boiling water, it would infuse Totally Rad!! with a vital element of creative character.
One of the new songs in December's Electronic Gaming Monthly is "The Best Christmas Ever," written by Schuh (like most of TR!!'s material), about the 1988 holiday season. Schuh is on the key-tar, with co-conspirators Tommy Schmitt on electronic drums, and Adam Villacin as the wildcard computer guru. The bright, synthesized melody is reminiscent of classic NES games, but there's an undeniable pop strain to it.
Totally Radd!! has been labeled "Nintendo-punk" before. Just don't say it to Schuh's face. Yes, videogames are a big influence, but Andy Wombwell, co-founder of Retard Disco (TR!!'s record label) signed them because he saw other forces at work. "They've always had songs about other subjects," he says, "and they don't want to be pigeonholed; there are other bands doing Nintendo-punk right now."
True enough, one of these includes the first band to sign to Retard Disco, 14 Year Old Girls. "They do songs exclusively about videogames," Wombwell says, "whereas that's only one thing that Totally Rad!! does."
It's clear Totally Rad!! aren't exclusive in any form of the word. Totally Radd!! is not a Nintendo band, not a pop band, not even necessarily a band, but, damn it, they're something. To understand TR!!, you've got to know where they're coming from. In the mathematical formula for the group's success, the only constant is Neil Schuh. And he's been calculating ever since high school.
While attending Steven's Point Area Senior High in Wisconsin, Schuh performed with several different projects under various names. "It was all computer music," he says. "I was mostly interested in experimental music, or what was experimental to me at the time." His first year in high school he wrote symphonic computer-based compositions roughly comparable to such Intelligent Dance Music (IDM) innovators as Aphex Twin and Squarepusher. "I was doing shows with a bass guitar and a CD player," Schuh recalls. "At that time I was calling myself 'Swimming is Floating,' because everything in electronic music seems to be paired up with nautical themes."
The period elicits a certain disdain from him. "My high school experience was like playing stupid coffee houses with a stupid band, not really doing much," he says, "in this mindset where pop music was still taboo for me." Though scornful towards his early work, he remembers playing a bar on a back road miles away from Steven's Point, and being pulled aside by a local man, a regular, who felt pleasantly shocked by Schuh's performance. "I remember thinking, 'Wow, some redneck was not disgusted by it.' These guys had never seen anything like this in their lives."
Strangely enough, this type of reaction would only become more familiar after Schuh moved to Valencia, a suburb of L.A., to attend CalArts. Despite the typical wall-jarring college atmosphere, he managed to locate mental space for writing. He composed plodding, dramatically epic pieces in the style of politically-oriented rock orchestra Godspeed You Black Emperor.
Sometime during those first months as a freshman, Schuh discovered a passion-bordering-on-obsession for alcohol. "I fit into the whole status of problem binge drinker." His words emerge tentatively, as if he is coming to a realization. "That might have started the whole pop music thing. I really don't know what clicked in my mind when I wanted to start doing that."
The Backstory and the Vomit
An acquaintance from the University of Wisconsin had been schooling Schuh in the basics of experimental composition music. By the time he headed home for Christmas break, he'd come up with "Mike Tyson's Punch Out," a song incorporating samples from the NES game of the same name that would later appear on Totally Radd!!'s debut album.
"I'd been writing these 8-bit pop tunes, because I wanted to come out with an EP before Christmas," he says. "And so I did Shark Attack Day Camp (Retard Disco, 2004)." Initially written as a project for a class at CalArts, TR!!'s first album was nonetheless fated to make a big splash on L.A. hipster sonar. Sequestered in the bedroom he'd lived in throughout junior high, Schuh recorded the album in a marathon two-week session, and immediately burned copies onto CD.
"Shark Attack Day Camp was probably one of the most natural things I've written," he says. "Writing videogame pop songs was really me returning to something. Not conforming to a style. Just doing what I felt I had to do. That's where I actually started. All the IDM, post-rock, industrial music; that was all kind of derivative."
On the album, Nintendo collides head-on with pop. Throughout, there are samples of explosions from the NES game Life Force, specifically on "Video Store" and "The Greatest Battle." "Mike Tyson's Punch Out" notwithstanding, they're the only samples on the album. The rest are all synthesized similes.
Also during Christmas break, the "sci-fi backstory" behind TR!! began to cohere. He formulated a detailed, outrageous storyline to blend into his live performances. With just a bass guitar, he did a gig at a coffee house dressed in a women's Santa Claus nightie he found in Walmart. "Mike Tyson's Punch Out" was included in the set list. Somehow, it all tied together in the miraculous narrative he'd created for himself, which featured a virtuous figure who wanted to give a gift back to Santa Claus, the Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers' theme music, McDonald's signature character the Hamburgler, and a poison hamburger. "I puked all over the floor. At some point I was rolling around in it and dancing. It was pretty gross," Schuh says.
Back at school, it seemed everybody suddenly wanted a copy of the album. The burst of creative energy in his home town had sparked a fire, and everybody could see it burning when they looked in Schuh's eyes.
He bought a key-tar for $20 off eBay and played it at an especially outlandish CalArts show that would go down in TR!! mythology as "The Bobby Show." The acquisition of the keytar and the furious performances of "The Bobby Song" (another future SADC track) and an Iron Maiden cover all meshed in front of the biggest, most enthusiastic audience Schuh had seen yet. He did "the milk challenge" on stage, attempting to drink an entire gallon himself. The crowd remained obliviously exuberant through the entire act, even as he hunched over to throw up more than a quart of milk.
On February 14th, 2004, a motley cadre of Schuh's fans assembled in one of his regular venues, a back-alley club in downtown L.A. called the Smell. That night, Totally Rad!! made its debut as a three-piece band. Tommy Schmitt played electronic drums and Adam Vicello bent over a computer, lord and master of the play button.
Like most everything Schuh does, the decision to transform TR!! was basically a gut impulse. "Me and Tommy were actually just going to do it duo style, and were practicing," Schuh says, "and thought maybe Adam should just come around." The three were close friends and collaborators.
"Adam's the creative guy," Schuh continues. "He was just a friend. That's how he got in the band, really. Now we write lyrics together."
In the spring, hoisting their oddly unforgettable campaign slogan "I Love This School!" the members of TR!! ran for CalArts student government. The race would be tight, but ultimately they would win. The coup thrust them solidly into the limelight. By the summer, President Vicello, Vice President Schuh and Secretary Schmitt were riding atop the crest of the CalArts publicity wave.
A local Nintendo-band, 14 Year Old Girls, were familiar with Schuh. They mentioned the group to Andy Wombwell, co-founder of their parent label, Retard Disco. "We were like, 'You guys have to come see them,'" says Honey, from 14 Year Old Girls. "It was about Nintendo solidarity."
Wombwell attended a Totally Radd!! gig at the Silverlake Lounge. "We were blown away," he says, describing the reactions from him and his partner, Alex. "A really strong visceral response, like love at first listen, truly, but pretty much that night it all came together."
The Silverlake gig was a turning point. "It was amazing," Wombwell says, recalling the show. "There was one moment in my mind where there's no going back, and that was where they were doing the song 'Victory Pose,' and the entire audience was singing along."
Retard Disco, which holds distribution contracts with companies in the U.S., Europe and Southern Japan, would release Totally Radd!!'s Shark Attack Day Camp six months later. On their website, the blurb underneath the album describes the band as "electronic epic key-tar dance rock from the future."
Pat McHale, 20, is an animation major at CalArts. When he met Schuh freshman year, he was describing a night of wandering in the sewers underneath Steven's Point with a video camera. He has tentative plans to do a music video for TR!!
"One of the things that's really fantastic about the album and Neil's music in general," McHale says, "is there's obvious references to our childhood and people our age, and not-so-obvious references. For instance, 'Mumblety Pegs.' It's not about anything, but all the imagery brings back ninja turtles and free watches at McDonald's. He knows what he's talking about."
Schuch essentially agrees. "That's what's so great about it. Anybody who really remembers the '80s probably hated it," he laughs. "It's much more appealing on the surface than in reality."
With a new EP due out in the spring of 2005, Schuh plans on taking Totally Radd!! in a new direction. "I don't want to do a videogame record again," he says. "That was a record I wrote about being a kid. Why would you want to make that the crux of your band? It's stupid." The influence of videogames remains, of course. Schuch can't leave that behind any more than a tree can detach from its own roots and walk about the forest. But he mentions some tantalizing new prospects, including '70s French pop.
"I really, really really want to put out a progressive rock album," he says. "In the sense of pop progressive rock, not guitar noodling. I really want to make that record, but I don't think it's going to be the next one."
Such idols as Georgio Moroder, Sparks, and Hip Tanaka still hold sway, but some new spices are being tossed in the stew. Totallyradd.com's news section characterizes the upcoming EP as a tribute to the British pop artist White Town.
"I think the new material they're writing is amazing, the new album is definitely going to be a step forward," Wombwell says. "The stuff I've heard, sonically it's not that different; it's in the same style. I think the lyrics are changing a bit."
This year may allow for a peek into Neil Schuh's murky, beer-stained vision. They are planning to returning to favorite local hangouts, the Smell in downtown L.A., and the Echo in Echo Park, California.
Some venues can't handle the TR!! package. For instance, Schuh got a club night permanently shut down when he played at Murphy's Irish Pub in Simi Valley. "I played plastered, so drunk," he remembers. "Went onstage and couldn't plug my instruments in. I was just screaming into the mic. I was wearing this hip hop suit, an 'XXL' sweatshirt that said 'hip hop' on it."
He dropped his pants onstage, and the bartender threatened to call the police. The club night got killed, never to be revived. But that didn't stop him from coming back.
"I showed up two weeks later with a chicken head and a Santa nightie, dancing all crazy for this pajama party. I go get a drink. The bartender, the same guy, said he'd call the cops. I was like, 'What are you talking about, are you sexist? Look at what that girl's wearing!' And I argued with this guy. 'Call the cops. Do it. I'll be waiting here.' He talks to Seth. All these DJs start guilting me into leaving. I was like, 'Screw this.'"
He left, but the impression on Murphy's Irish Pub would prove indelible. The story is allegorical for Totally Radd!!'s mentality – rock, rock, rock, whether you like it or not. Schuh, usually in the driver's seat, is a huge part of the band's reputation, the good hype and the bad rumors. Consequently, the anger factor and the alcohol factor can't be ignored. But Schuh's unwavering dedication is what glues all the disparate pieces together. TR!! is a band that defies traditional conception.. TR!! takes the '80s, videogames, and your definitions of pop and rock and electronic music and puts them through a thresher. And while they're at it, maybe they'll toss you in too; it might hurt, but you'll love it just the same.
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