One-Man Band Series, #3: The Slow Poisoner
For this particular piece we will have to take a considerable step away from the harsh distortion, out-of-tune guitars, frantic drumbeats, and wild vocals that many of the underground one-man bands typically employ, as we will be dealing with the one and only Slow Poisoner (aka Andrew Goldfarb). As a one-man band, Goldfarb is an artist with a decidedly different take on the craft of solo songwriting and performance, a no less sinful and certainly no less strange take on it, to be sure, but a different take nonetheless. And that take consists of surreal rock’n’roll blended with traditional roots and modern pop, accompanied by bizarre comic book style visual arts, equally bizarre narratives, and his dark, traveling snake oil merchant persona, all carried out with an oddly-shaped electric guitar, a kick drum rigged with sleigh bells, and his strong vocals.
A DIY artist to the end, it seems, the San Francisco-based Andrew Goldfarb has self-released all of his Slow Poisoner albums to date on his own Rocktopus! Records. Granted, that is not altogether uncommon in today’s underground music communities, though the quality in which Goldfarb produces and releases his albums is second to none, with glossy cardboard gatefold CD cases, great artwork (drawn by his own hand, I might add), and superbly recorded songs.
The Slow Poisoner, with his black garments, dark Mediterranean-like looks, and devilish expressions, writes and plays songs surrounded by old-timey American imagery, the occult, the 50’s horror set, science fiction, esoterica, carnivalesque oddities, original mythological tidbits, rituals, swamplands, magic, and the altogether weird, among a host of other things. On his album “Roadside Altar,” for example, he sings at length about spells in the song The Hex, about headless roosters in Run Rooster Run, and about all manner of things that go bump in the night in the electro hobgoblin number Flaming Creatures (of Rock & Roll).
On The Slow Poisoner’s latest release, “Magic Casket,” he opens with From the River Bottom, which begins with a fiery revival tent preacher-like tirade on how man originated in the sludge of the world, equipped with gills and fins, “blissful and squid-like,” only to evolve to the extent that he left behind his sludgy, watery past to wander upon dry land under the harsh rays of the unmerciful sun. Goldfarb closes his tirade by calling for man to achieve salvation from the sun by recognizing this suggested past and taking the necessary steps to devolve into the sludge-dwelling and water-bound creatures he once was in “a glorious return to the old ways, free from the shackles of dry land.” And with a slight pause followed by the words “Think about it,” the weirdo rock of the song kicks in, with a steady beat on the kick drum, a repeating note pattern, and heavy focus on vocal delivery. The “Magic Casket” listening experience goes on with the album’s namesake track, which is a slightly psychedelic and pop-laden composition, complete with the kind of vocals one would expect from, say, early David Bowie. “Wood Full O’ Witches” is equally psychedelic and pop laden, though with more of an emphasis on his signature rock’n’roll sound than the former. “Listen to the Chirping Birds” has an undeniably mellow, trippy, late 60’s Beatles-esque sound attached to it. My two favorite songs on the album, admittedly, are the rootsy upbeat spiritual Thundering Fists O’ the Lord and the old school rock’n’roll song Swamp Gal.
Recently I had both the opportunity and pleasure of interviewing Andrew Goldfarb, The Slow Poisoner, for my One-Man Band Series. The following is the content of that interview in its entirety.
It has become typical of my interviews over the years to begin in an introductory fashion, so as to offer my readers a bit of information about the artist with whom I am working. Having conveyed that, I would like to ask you: Who is Andrew Goldfarb, not just as the one-man band act The Slow Poisoner, but as an individual, as a human being of this vast and crazy world in which we live?
I try to do my small part to keep things strange. In mortal combat with the blandness of modern life that creeps out of the strip malls and office parks and into our very souls, I spend my time playing outer-space swamp rock and drawing pictures of zombie gorillas. That’s been my mission since 1968, though I’ve only gotten the hang of it lately.
From what I’ve discovered about you, it seems like you were doing the full band thing for a while, only to eventually embrace the one-man band act. What transpired to cause you to take that step?
Fifteen years ago, I was in Paris, reading a book called A Memoir of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which contained a chapter titled “The Slow Poisoners.” That struck me as a good name for a band, and since I didn’t have anything else to do for the next seventy-four years, I put one together. At first it was a quintet with two cellos. As time went by over the next decade the members slowly dropped away, one by one, but the band kept sounding better, so I didn’t replace them. Eventually it was down to a duo, with me on guitar and vocals, and on drums was Foxx Trott, who dressed in 1920’s aviator garb and smashed his kit after each show. That was pretty good, but I had a vision (delivered by an eight-armed octopus called The Rocktopus) of myself standing onstage with a kick drum at my foot, and I knew I had to go all the way and perform as a one-man band. So, I changed the band name from plural to singular (I simply scratched the last “s” off all the merch) and carried on. For singular intensity of feverish vision, the undiluted nature of the solo performance can’t be beat. Much cheaper, too.
You have been combining visual arts and original music for a while now. What relationship have you assigned to the two that make them, say, inseparable from one another…you know, two parts of a whole, so to speak?
The two are very much tangled together in the web of a big ugly spider. When I perform onstage I display painted placards that indicate the title of each song, an idea I got from the vaudeville days. Sometimes I hang the world’s largest shrunken head behind me as well. In my comic strip Ogner Stump’s 1,000 Sorrows, which I’ve been producing for ten years, I address a lot of the same themes as in my lyrics – sinister plant life, the hollow space inside the earth, etc. I’ve also written a book based around my song lyrics, titled The Ballad of a Slow Poisoner, which is published by Eraserhead Press. For my next record, a roots-rock opera, I’ll be illustrating the story with felt art.
Recent years have seen a notable rise in one-man bands around the world, especially in Europe, with many different artists approaching the one-man band form of songwriting and performing in many different ways. What are your thoughts on this on-going phenomenon?
We’ve all been in bands where the drummer didn’t show up for the gig. For many artists there comes a time when you just say “F*ck it, I’ll do it myself!” Plus with a one-man band, the ratio of performer to audience is always good! I think in general there is more of an interest in unusual music these days; people are tired of hearing the same old sounds, and even though the one-man band is becoming a more common sight, most have unique takes on how to do it – there’s often a mad scientist element in the way that the percussion apparatus is rigged together – and the result is that it’s fun to play and fun to watch. I’ve had a number of frustrated musicians come up to me after shows and say I’ve inspired them to quit their bands and go it alone.
When the Las Vegas roots rock quartet Yeller Bellies released their last album, “Here to Suffer,” and sent it to me for review, I immediately noticed the artwork, which I soon learned was contributed by you. Great images, by the way…the whole fire and brimstone preacher at his pulpit thing, and the different odd tidbits that accompany the song titles on the back! What else have you done with your visual art?
I have a comic that I draw called Ogner Stump, and I’ve also illustrated a children’s book (which isn’t really appropriate for children) called Slub Glub in the Weird World of the Weeping Willows which was published by Spunk Goblin Press in Oregon. Lately my main focus has been painting on black velvet – I’ve been painting lots of vampires and kittens.
What have been some of your most wild and/or memorable touring/gig experiences?
I did some shows in West Texas with my pal Warren Jackson Hearne; he rode out from Winnsboro on the Greyhound with a jar of moonshine and two black widow spider bites. We were playing a party that got shut down by the fire department (some fire-eaters got out of hand). Warren was hobbling in his boots because his shins had gone necrotic from the venom; he doesn’t trust modern medicine – plus the Internet had indicated that the only cure was to remove the surrounding flesh before the poison spread… So the gal we were crashing with came out with a kitchen knife and a lighter and tried to perform home surgery on the spot, but in the end the moonshine proved to be the cure. Then in Austin we were mixing vodka and coffee on the Fourth of July and someone got hit in the eye with a Chinese bottle rocket during my set. She was fine, though, and we all passed out in the graveyard next door. So Texas, plus fire, equals danger.
Having listened absorbedly to both of the albums you sent me—“Magic Casket” and “Roadside Altar”—and having noticed the merging of musical styles you employ to create your overall signature sound, such as rock’n’roll, folk, indie pop, dustbowl roots, neo-blues, and so on, I now feel compelled to ask what influenced your stew of sound?
When I started out with the quintet it was more European in style – a lot of Marc Bolan and Syd Barrett. But then I switched from drinking absinthe to bourbon and got more Americanized. We recorded a few songs at Sun Studio in Memphis, which put me in touch with the primitive spirit of rock and roll, and while touring in Louisiana I was really impressed with the sultriness of the swamps and the weirdness of old New Orleans, which further shaped the sound into something more evocative.
What other bands and/or singer/songwriters—and visual artists, for that matter—have had impacts on your creative output over the years?
My first visual impression of Rock and Roll was watching TV as a kid and seeing Jerry Lee Lewis set his piano on fire. That had a profound impact. The first recorded song I remember liking was Fever by Peggy Lee – sparse and spooky! So it was all about theatrics and minimalism from the get-go. In the mid-80’s I dug the rootsy weirdness of Los Angeles acts like The Gun Club and the Flesh Eaters and the macabre vibe of early goth bands like Christian Death and Specimen. Another of my favorite records is “Gris Gris” by Dr. John, which is steeped in Southern voodoo rhythms by way of late 60’s psychedelia. Aside from music, I’ve always been fascinated by silent movies and B-grade horror films; those have been a source of lyrical inspiration. Visually, I’d say Aubrey Beardsley and Basil Wolverton (a comic book artist who drew grotesque freaks for the early Mad Magazine) made big impressions.
What are your plans for The Slow Poisoner endeavor for the upcoming weeks, months, years, etc? And, to make this a two-part question, do you have any other projects in the works other than The Slow Poisoner?
I just shot a music video for the song Wood Full O’ Witches. We got some real witches and went into some real woods and filmed what happened. That should be finished this summer, and I’ll be on tour throughout the Southwest. Come fall, I plan to record my next album, which will tell a tale of ghosts and liquor and crime and punishment. I’ll be narrating the story between songs to accentuate the drama. Musically, my only official project is The Slow Poisoner, though there is a rumor that I dress up in a vulture costume as part of the noise/lounge duo Spider Compass Good Crime Band.
What kind of affect has San Francisco had on your art, both music and visual arts? I spent some time in San Francisco some years back, and what I remember most is I did not want to leave. It was a fantastic city. And I know for certain that my hometown, Philadelphia, has had a huge affect on my songwriting, writing, and other artistic endeavors. Also, I have found that one’s geographical location tends to seep its way into one’s art, whether consciously or unconsciously.
San Francisco has a long history of bohemian weirdness to draw on, stretching back to the 19th century and the era of the Barbary Coast (an area of brothels and opium dens near the water). Artists, writers and absinthe fiends lived in abandoned cable cars out by the beach; Ambrose Bierce (author of The Devil’s Dictionary) was one of them. The self-proclaimed emperor of San Francisco, Emperor Norton, printed his own money and wandered the streets making imperial proclamations. Later on, the beatniks and the hippies had their day, and there was a vibrant punk rock scene in the 70’s and 80’s (the Dead Kennedys, Flipper, etc.) that I caught the tail end of. More than any of this, though, it is the pea soup fog and the gender ambiguity that seeps into your skin around here, and it definitely has an affect on the brain.
Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover in this interview, or if you have anything
you’d like to express, talk about, etc, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Andrew.
I should mention that at my shows I make available my special patented Slow Poisoner Miracle Tonic, which is made from the finest Egyptian Oils and herbal ingredients. It’s proven effective in the treatment of Consumption, Women’s Troubles, Gout, Neuralgia, Wandering Limbs, Stoutness, Onanism, Disinterested Bladder, Elephantiasis, Cholera, Barnacles and Boils, The Fits, Excessive Abscesses, Necrosis, Lavender Fever and General Wasting.