REVOLUTIONARIES: HOW THE SIZE QUEENS USE DIY TACTICS TO FLIP OFF THE INDIE MUSIC WORLD, A PROFILE BY CHIN-SUN LEE
“The Size Queens are double-sized or rather double-sided. I mean to say that they have double vision and double hearts. They are playful and serious, sparkling and sludgy, cruel, kind, capacious, intensely private and alone. World traveling, they perform in SROs. They haven’t seen King Tut’s tomb, but still they know what’s in it. They pick over stuff while talking to Salvation Army Gods.”—Mary Gaitskill
“The Size Queens already did the impossible: they made three arresting records in a row. I’m referring to Magic Dollar Shoppe (2008), III (2010), and Appetite for Redaction (2011), which is probably the best three-album stretch by a recent indie band I can recall.”—Rick Moody
If you’ve never heard of The Size Queens, it might be because their voices are too strident. In one of their first songs, “Goodbye Soldier,” released in 2006, lead vocalist Adam Klein sings these taunting lines: “Jesus brought the IED and the Twin Tower / So while you’re crying at the graveside / I’ll be pissing on a flower…” It’s one provocative verse from an entire record that deals with provocative subjects including religious fundamentalists, counterculture fugitives, military torture, and suburban xenophobia. All this in the aftermath of the WTC attacks and America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Considering the number of armed and civilian casualties already accrued by that time (a staggering 150,000+), a song like “Goodbye Soldier” could be seen as subversive and offensive. But “subversive” and “offensive” are concepts The Size Queens embrace; whether that translates in their music as gleeful parodies about paraplegic prison guards, NSA surveillance cameras, and chemical warfare, or epic manifestos concerning the homeless and disenfranchised, The Size Queens are equal parts satirical and sincere, as politically incorrect as they are politically engaged.
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Even the band’s name is a provocation, as is the title of their first record, Is It IN Yet? (Bitter Stag Records 2006). Both invite squeamish assumptions that, in our still-homophobic culture, can hardly be considered a selling point. Americans may have come around to accepting gay-ness as a condition, but aren’t quite ready to visualize its sexual aspect. Michael Mullen, co-writer and keyboardist, clarifies his interpretation of the band’s name and Is It IN Yet?: “That title for me was always shorthand for ‘Have we noticed how hard we’re being fucked [over] by these creeps, or does it need to get worse?’”
Klein and Mullen had collaborated in two previous bands, Glasstown and Roman Evening, but from the start, The Size Queens was different, looser, more lyric-driven, and with a distinctly radical personality. After years spent touring together with Glasstown, opening for emerging artists like Death Cab For Cutie, Grandaddy, Metric, and Stars, Klein and Mullen were disenchanted by the sustained and conscious effort to achieve a certain “legitimacy” in the music scene that ultimately seemed beside the point. By 2003, Glasstown had disbanded.
In March of that year, America invaded Iraq. In reaction to the war, Klein joined the Peace Corps and served in Bangladesh. His experience there recalibrated his perspective on global politics, especially pertaining to South Asia. He returned to the Bay Area, and for a brief period worked for federal programs assisting high-end Silicon Valley employees displaced after the first tech industry surge flatlined. Several years before, Klein had been running programs for the state to help people with AIDS get back into the work force. His long history of employment as a case manager during California’s boom and bust periods gave him a jaundiced view of enterprise and tech innovation. It also made him acutely aware of the instability in the underpinnings of our economic systems, and reinforced his concern for social inequities. All these perceptions would percolate and find expression in his future projects.
As Klein and Mullen contemplated their next music collaboration, they both envisioned a more playful, almost rudimentary project as a backlash against the polished production and “seriousness” of their former band. Instead of pursuing the “real” thing, they strove for a tongue-in-cheek amateurism (inspired in part by The Mekons, who were rumored to be incapable of playing instruments). They remembered one of Glasstown’s last performances at The MakeOut Room in San Francisco, when they’d handed out a donut survey to the audience. The survey asked questions such as: Would you prefer to watch the band with a projection of a donut on a screen behind them or on a scrim in front of them? and Does a band that offers donuts need to sell CDs? Some in the crowd were perplexed. More than a few felt insulted. Their vehemence surprised the band, but there was something powerful about tapping into the audience’s ire that Klein and Mullen wanted to redirect toward subjects more compelling than donuts.
Another inspiration came from a rock and roll mural at their rehearsal space on Polk Street; Klein and Mullen noticed that a figure meant to portray Jim Morrison instead resembled Julie Kavner (of Rhoda and Marge Simpson fame). They felt that mash-up a fitting metaphor for their desire to conflate the revered with the ludicrous.
The two formed The Size Queens in 2006 with Tim Mooney, former drummer of Sun Kil Moon and American Music Club. They’d met Mooney through Michael Belfer of early Tuxedomoon. For a brief period, Belfer and Mooney worked together with Klein and Mullen on Roman Evening’s first record. Belfer’s Tuxedomoon connection was a big draw, but additionally, once Klein and Mullen met Mooney, they clicked instantaneously. Soon after, their friend and former director of SF Camerawork, Chuck Mobley, would take on the role of unofficial manager. Is It IN Yet? was written, recorded, and mixed within a month, a feat that seemed remarkable at the time but would later be surpassed. Their speed owes much to the trust and shorthand of longtime collaboration but is mostly due to practical constraints of budget, time, and schedules.
Mullen resides in San Francisco, where he works for a legal nonprofit and is very active in the local music scene. Along with his solo project, Pocket Shelly, he is involved in other collaborations; he has recorded with Carlos Forster (For Stars) and John Murry (The Graceless Age), and toured with Murry last year. Klein (who is also the author/editor of four books) left the city for good in 2007 on a Fulbright to India followed by academic study in New York and teaching stints in Beirut and Afghanistan. Every summer he returns to the Bay Area for a few weeks to make another record.
Prior to recording, Klein and Mullen riff on ideas via Skype or phone, often at odd hours, different time zones, and in a spirit of jest. They take their music and politics seriously, but themselves, not so much. Both are blisteringly funny and committed to keeping their process amusing—and, despite the global dysfunctions they address, it’s important for them to keep the songs, as Klein says, “a little stupid.” This high/low approach is integral to the band, as is improvisation. As Mullen describes: “I’ll start playing something off the top of my head, and often there will be a comic exchange with Adam where he’s barking out “Faster!” or “Slower!” or “Sadder!” And I’m making adjustments trying to find the place where his inspiration and my inspiration can coincide. Both musically and lyrically, we throw out many more ideas than we keep.”
Most of the band’s themes and lyrics start out as Klein’s free associations over music, and after that, don’t alter much. As a result, there’s a strong element of the unconscious, and submerged autobiographic elements in songs that are ostensibly about something else. Klein is quick to clarify, however, that this should in no way imply that the collaboration is lopsided. “Let me make this clear: The Size Queens could not exist without Michael. What he gives me is the right to say and sing whatever I feel. And that is huge. Michael is the foundation.” I imagine such license couldn’t work if their politics and humor didn’t overlap—but Mullen is much more than an appreciative audience.
I asked Mullen to describe how he begins his melodies in their improvisational sessions, and he responded, “Most of my musical ideas don’t end up as songs. They get tried out and then they’re forgotten and thrown back into the Idea Pool where they swim undisturbed until my unthinking fingers call them up again much later and they get thrown into a net. There are some songs that are musically more characteristic of my idiosyncratic writing style than others… it’s like I’ve already played them in a dream, and when they bubble up in a writing session with Adam it’s magical for both us.”
When they sit down to write songs, they bring no notes. They play into a tape recorder, sometimes getting down as many as ten rough songs in a night. Then they sleep on it. In the morning they exchange thoughts and then Michael transcribes all the songs they want to develop from the tape onto lyric sheets (Michael types the way Glenn Gould played Bach inventions—very quickly). On average it takes them two to three days to write an entire record. From there they learn the chords, and then go into the recording studio. Recording usually takes a few, frenetic days, and then Klein leaves town. They each spend some weeks listening, absorbing, discussing, before scheduling another block of time to mix the tracks.
This July, I was able to spend time with Klein and Mullen during a mixing session for their next record, To The Country, at The Wally Sound studio in Oakland. Aside from the fact they’re both tall and have thick hair, neither looks the stereotype of a rock musician; they each sport expensive, large-framed glasses and if anything, look like writers.
Despite a tight three-day schedule, the atmosphere at The Wally Sound had a relaxed salon vibe, with friends drifting in and out, including musicians and artists who have collaborated with the band. Klein and Mullen were generally in agreement on what needed to be done with the exception of one track, “Alien,” that Klein wanted to tweak by adding an electronic drone. When he’d made the suggestion earlier, Mullen had shuddered.
Klein made another attempt: “Michael, in that one part I really think—”
“No. It’s perfect as it is.”
Klein turned to me and muttered, “I knew he’d say that.” To Mullen he said, “It’s beautiful but I think it needs to be a little weirder. Just try it, you won’t ruin it.”
Klein continued to berate, “Try it, asshole, try it asshole…” while Mullen ignored him and stood in an open doorway, smoking a cigarette (a habit that Klein, who is asthmatic, barely tolerates). After several minutes, without a look or word to any of us, Mullen sat at the keyboard, cocked his head, and began to tinker with the NORD dial. He has classic pianist’s hands, with a wide span and elegant fingers. For a long stretch we were all silent, listening only to the variations of one sustained note coming through the speakers. Then Klein said quietly, “That sounds great.”
This kind of tacit resolution isn’t always the norm, according to their friend Nicole Brodsky, who played guitar on their first three records and performed in their video “Hot Frizz” (from III). “Oh god,” she said, eyes rolling, “those two can really go at it.” But their personalities seem to complement each other. Klein is forceful and full of biting, blasphemous humor, while Mullen is contemplative and amiable, with a sly, deadpan wit. Both consider their alchemy with each other unique. Mullen told me, “I think with other people I get hung up with quality control issues whereas, let’s face it, with The Size Queens, the stupidest song may be welcomed into the fold and the clumsiest lyrics with the worst scansion may be Adam’s and my favorites. The first time Adam and I ever got together in a rehearsal space, we wrote five songs. For some mysterious reason we’re really open with each other, and I’m very grateful for that.” His tuneful, nuanced melodies balance Klein’s often acerbic lyrics and voice—a voice that is untrained but remarkably expressive, ranging from falsetto to guttural, snidely nasal and then, unexpectedly, melancholy and moving.
Aside from Klein, Mullen, and Mooney, The Size Queens’ supporting players have included singer-songwriters Forster and Murry, as well as Terese Taylor and Hannah Marcus (The Wingdale Community Singers), Randy Walker (Carletta Sue Kay), bassist Danny Pearson (American Music Club), guitarist Mike Carnahan (The Green Door) and most recently,Ethan Gold and Brad Parker (The Tender Few). Coordinating other musicians is usually confirmed at the last minute, depending on who’s in town and available. Some come into the studio only for a day or a few hours. There are no rehearsals. Fortunately, most of them have played with the band before and are tasteful improvisers; some don’t even look at the chords.
Mobley says,“This is demonstrative of their process: engage with professionals, don’t overthink anything, don’t be a control freak, utilize whatever talent, tools, etc., that you have, trust yourself and others. It’s simultaneously stunning and thrilling to witness firsthand. The level of talent and confidence one must possess in order to perform and record that way is astonishing.”
While this scrappy methodology puts enormous pressure on the band, it also allows for the spontaneous, live feel that is crucial to their sound—a sound heavily influenced by seventies and eighties rock artists, especially outliers like Robert Ashley, Melanie Safka, Yoko Ono, The Buzzcocks, The Mekons, and Tuxedomoon. Their deep knowledge of classic rock icons is also evident in frequent lyric or melodic “tributes” to those artists’ songs.
Klein and Mullen were both kids during the cultural turmoil of the sixties and seventies, but even if they couldn’t articulate certain events while they happened (the Vietnam War; the Civil Rights Movement; the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and Malcolm X; the riots of 1968; the rise of the Weather Underground, Black Panthers, and Red Army Faction; Patty Hearst and the SLA; Helter Skelter and the Manson Murders)—it all seeped into their consciousness. It’s clear throughout The Size Queens’ body of work that anarchy and revolutionary acts remain of utmost concern.
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Sixties and seventies pop culture also permeates much of their second record, Magic Dollar Shoppe, a gimlet statement on the touted merits of capitalism, which addresses themes of cheap labor, cheap thrills, childhood traumas, and adult excesses. The CD came in a self-described “cracked shitty jewel case,” selling for $1 on Bandcamp. The title song, as well as “Skymall,” “Baby Prostitute,” and “Our Price,” describe 21st century commodification; and in a more subtle way, so does “Sweater,” the first Size Queens song that grabbed my attention. Aside from its infectious, propulsive, Velvet Underground-inspired guitar and drums, Klein wrote these scatological verses: “I’m so glad I found it/Gonna wear a big belt around it/And hold it up/Sweater… makeshift pants/Shit out the neck and wear the sleeves for legs.” It’s obscenely hilarious, but also, in the context of the record (a gag-reflex to the post-9/11 endorsement of consumerism as patriotism), offers this twisted take on democracy: even the destitute get to have a new outfit!
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More than their debut record, Magic Dollar Shoppe articulates a fully realized vision, tone, and identity for the band. When I consider Mary Gaitskill’s description of the band as double-sized and double-sided, it seems an apt metaphor, given that The Size Queens make not just rock records but rock albums. For those of us who grew up in the age of album listening, before the advent of streaming and even the iPhone shuffle, those albums spun narratives as compelling as any book or film. This narrative quality is present in most of The Size Queens’ songs and videos, and is in part, I believe, why their music attracts so many writers and visual artists. In fact, they consider themselves more a project than a band, collaborating not only with musicians but other artists and performers.
If Magic Dollar Shoppe is a concept album, III can be described as a literary album, with the pathos and poetry that implies, and for its long stretches of spoken narrative (by writers) in “Telephone Piece,” “My People,” and “Twenty Minutes.” III was recorded in the summer of 2009, in between Klein’s farewell to New York and arrival in Lebanon. The record reflects this transience with its themes of homelessness and displacement—but above all it is a bittersweet break-up note to San Francisco’s Tenderloin, a place and period Klein knew all too well.
The first track, “Tenderloin Hotel, 1991” immediately establishes a tone that is markedly different and darker than the first two records, a tone that prevails through fifteen tracks dealing with poverty, illness, AIDS; junkies, hustlers, drag queens; theft, remorse, and death. “Top of the Stairwell” and “Bone,” with their portrayal of abject poverty, also forecast the increasing trend of artists and bohemians being pushed out of cities they can no longer afford, a by-product of big-money development from investors in tech and financial centers like San Francisco and New York. Ironically, around the same time the band was recording songs about impoverishment, they were commissioned to write a soundtrack for Our Literal Speed, a traveling art exhibition and self-described “live pedagogical concept album.” The project was organized by Matthew Jackson, Associate Professor of Art History and Visual Arts at the University of Chicago, who had been a Glasstown fan, with funding provided by the University of Chicago and Princeton University—which is about as Establishment as it can get.
“Reading Rosalind Krauss,” one of the soundtrack songs, inspired two videos: one directed by San Francisco artist Patrick Hillman (selected by New York painter Amy Sillman in her Top Ten Picks of 2009 for Artforum); and the other, a text-driven video by post-conceptual artist Tony Cokes, who used it in his Retro (Pop, Terror, Critique) exhibition in 2012. “Reading Rosalind Krauss,” along with other songs from Our Literal Speed, address questions about gender performativity; what constitutes the body, the self.
Long before the days of RuPaul’s Drag Race and Logo TV, to dress in drag at the peak of the AIDS epidemic was to be an outsider. With Ronald Reagan in the White House, Jesse Helms in the Senate, and other conservatives in government who opposed AIDS research and condoned discrimination, sex was a political issue (as it has been for minorities and still is for women). In the era III describes, Klein was a ferocious, 6’2” 135-pound drag queen named Rena, who performed regularly at Club Uranus. Through that scene he met other performers, including singer-songwriter Justin Vivian Bond and the artist Jerome Caja, whom he would befriend and later lose to AIDS. Klein lost many, many friends to drugs and disease in those years, and III’s final track, the long, elegiac “Twenty Minutes,” is an ode to them. It starts off with the steady tapping of funeral drums and ends with an impassioned absolution given by performance artist/writer/activist and MacArthur recipient Guillermo Gómez-Peña as the God of Permission. The song, the whole record, is a soiled, glitter-encrusted testament to an era Klein engaged while others averted their gaze. It’s a rueful acknowledgment of having survived, a tender ballad for those who didn’t—and a fierce advocacy for dignity to the ones that society shuns.
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In September 2009, Klein began to teach at American University of Beirut. He had high expectations that were immediately doused by the university’s desultory administrative department, starting with its unhurried approach to housing assistance. Finally settled in an apartment on Sadat Street, he wrote in an email: I guess living on a street named after someone who was assassinated is a good omen? More disturbing was the palpable anti-Semitism he encountered, one that, in the Middle East, was distinctly more aggressive than what he’d ever experienced in America. A mango drink at one cafe was inexplicably called “The Hitler,” and at another local business, a poster of Das Führer was taped next to one of Che Guevara; the shop owner referred to both men as “freedom fighters.”
Klein stayed in Beirut for one academic year before accepting a position as Assistant Professor of English at The American University of Afghanistan. It was not a death wish. It was a job, one that paid a proportionally higher salary than he had earned before. Klein was still intrigued by South Asia, curious about Kabul, and gauged that the absence of social distractions could be productive for his writing projects.
He was right. Over the next two and a half years, while teaching creative writing and film courses at AUAF, he edited selected stories from students in an anthology titled The Gifts of the State: New Afghan Writing, released by Dzanc Books in December 2013. He met and interviewed the artist Amanullah Mojadidi for a critical essay on his photographic projects, published by SF Camerawork in May 2014. His recounting of a family’s quest to secure Afghanistan’s liberation from the Soviet Union appeared in the New York Times At War Blog in May 2012. He also published a Cairo dispatch in the Huffington Post, and pieces on Susan Sontag in Essays and Fictions, and “The Unnameable Poor In India and Bangladesh” in openDemocracy, respectively, as well as several short stories, one of which, “A Hardship Post,” received a Pushcart nomination from Fourteen Hills in 2013.
Living and teaching in Kabul enabled Klein to engage with Afghans on a more personal, intense level than servicemen or government officials could. He interacted daily with Afghan teachers and AUAF staff, and also befriended local drivers, shopkeepers, and restaurant workers. He was devastated by the Taliban attack in January 2014 that killed two co-workers, the owner, and most of the staff of a Lebanese restaurant he frequented. Despite his proximity to random violence and bomb threats, Klein had grown accustomed to living under heightened security and didn’t find life in Kabul unduly threatening. The presence of U.S. military at least in the city appeared minimal. His observation was that “war” in conflict regions did not always translate as occupation, devastation and shelling—but could also be defined by the euphemisms “nation and capacity building.” That said, he rejects the idea that the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was a failure and cites the opportunity for millions of former refugees to return to their country, women to return to universities, and for at least a tenuous power-sharing government to emerge.
Klein divided his summer break in 2010 between visits to New York and San Francisco, where he and Mullen began work on Appetite For Redaction (Bitter Stag Records), drawn largely from his perspective living in Afghanistan toward the end of that war. The record came in a manila folder containing a redacted dossier of suspicious travel activities and a set of wildly improbable “bylaws” of the band. Though they finished recording and mixing within the usual brisk time frame, they held Appetite’s release until September 11th, 2011, the ten-year anniversary of the WTC attacks. It was a statement, and a reminder—though one different in tone from the 24-hour cycle of somber retrospectives and sentimental tributes on air that day. While most of the nation seemed fixated on what had happened ten years earlier, The Size Queens were concerned with what came after.
Appetite strives to reconcile Klein’s dual existences from Kabul to New York and, beyond his personal experience, to portray the similarities and differences lived by citizens of both cities. It’s an ambitious record. Coming after the strength of III itfeels less thematically incorporated and doesn’t quite reach its conceptual ideal. Nonetheless, it marks an important shift in the band’s oeuvre toward broader global issues, with songs about insurgents, terrorists, minesweepers, drones, and surveillance. The latter was especially prognostic, two years prior to Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations. Appetite mourns the demise of liberal America’s 1960s and 70s activists. It also mourns our surrender to the financial, military, and prison industrial complexes that have become more intransigent than ever.
“Afghan Star” is the record’s touchstone lullaby, a surprisingly stark, reflective song that opens with Mullen’s simple piano against the sound of helicopters. The last refrain, “Would you recognize me/If I came home?” could speak for Klein but also for Afghanistan’s large population of refugees, and soldiers both native and foreign. It’s a contemplative contrast in tone from “Goodbye Soldier,” which I suspect can be attributed to his living in a war zone.
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The best song by far is the first on the record. “Revolutionaries” begins with playful joshing and a countdown homage to The Beatles’ “Revolution 9” (and Lennon’s later “Dream #9”), a straightaway nod to the sixties idealism referred to in the opening lyrics: “Revolutionaries don’t have names / But you can be certain that they’re not all the same / Except that their aims will likely remain unfulfilled / And that they’ll be unremembered if they’re killed / Which gives them a certain poetic dignity.”
Klein sings of fallen insurgents and misguided terrorists, comparing bomb strikes in Kabul with “dinners and appointments” in New York. One great verse after another builds to this full, resounding chorus: “Every city is a prison with surveillance on the street/You can walk around in circles, the bodies under your feet/And the police come around and beat you down ‘cause you walked around/It’s suspiciously the same.”
“Revolutionaries” is a kickass song, in sound and content one of The Size Queens’ best. It inspired Jackson to feature the band in another installation of Our Literal Speed that took place at Princeton University in April 2011 and included Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates and critic/historian Claire Bishop. The song most successfully integrates all of Appetite’s predominant themes, and is an archetypal anthem for both the record and the band.
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In early June 2012, Klein was back in San Francisco, ready to start work on another record. He had a vague idea of spoofing the movie Tammy and the Bachelor, the 1957 film starring Debbie Reynolds. It seemed a particularly saccharine example of mid-century idealization, symbolic of an era that was actually pretty dismal for those outside the picket-fenced facade that inspired such nostalgia amongst conservatives.
Klein had also been reading the feminist economist Ursula Huws’ The Making of a Cybertariat: Virtual Work in a Real World and Donna Haraway’s essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto.”Huws considers how technology, rather than replacing human labor, in fact creates more jobs, though of lesser importance. Haraway blurs the distinction between natural life and manmade machines, suggesting that we are already cyborgs, dependent upon machines for everyday functions. These theories extrapolate into the idea of “consumption work” where we pay—rather than get paid—to do labor, as in self-checkouts and gas pumps, online shopping, tax filing, etc. Klein had also been thinking about the Aral Sea in Kazakhstan, dried up over the past fifty years due to a misguided Soviet irrigation project. A man-made ecological disaster, the experiment decimated the fishing industry, causing poverty, pollution, and climate change in the region.
These were the loose, unconnected fragments floating around in his head when he landed in San Francisco and prepared to start writing with Mullen. Then they received the devastating news that Tim Mooney had died suddenly of a heart attack. They cancelled their studio time and spent the next few days in a haze while the news spread throughout their community of friends and musicians. Mooney’s imprint on the first four Size Queens records had been huge, particularly as a producer. He’d possessed an acute artistic ear along with meticulous technical skill. He was a punk—opinionated, irascible, at times brusque. Not surprisingly, he and Klein had their occasional disputes, but more often than not, Klein trusted Mooney’s choices.
One memorable example he cites is “My People” from III. He and Mullen had written a conventional song with chords and melody, and Mooney wasn’t happy. He interrupted their recording several times to declare, “I’m bored.” Finally he got them to listen to The Clash’s “Ghetto Defendant” with Allen Ginsberg. He suggested they throw out the chords melody and try a version using spoken word. The final result is stunning and gritty, one of the record’s best tracks. Klein spoke of Mooney with blunt respect: “Tim was an artist. As a producer, he was almost—I’d say painterly about the songs, he treated them like canvases. He liked to record with the reverbs on so you couldn’t go back…you were forced to keep the sound, and layer on top of what was there.”
Without Mooney, he and Mullen were unsure whether they would continue the band—or if they even should. But Mooney had always been task-oriented, and averse to sentimentality; these were traits Klein shared, and in the end, that pragmatic side kicked in. He convinced Mullen: We’re here. Let’s try.
They spent one evening over a tape recorder, adlibbing a stream-of-unconscious fusion of Mullen’s melodies and Klein’s most recent obsessions. Mullen, remembering, said, “The spookiest songs for both of us are the ones we don’t write, we just play them, words and lyrics together. There’s no process at all. The songs are just waiting to be played in their entirety. “Afghan Star” was like that, and a lot of the “Tammy” record.”
He furiously transcribed what they’d recorded, a task made more challenging than usual due to the unprecedented, nearly manic amount of lyrics jammed into the songs. Learning how to play the songs was another challenge for the same reason, and also because there were no obvious musical verse lengths or chorus structures. Then there was the delicate and confounding matter of finding someone to play drums and function as a producer. Carlos Forster suggested they work with his first producer, The Wally Sound. Wally is a versatile musician in his own right, and has been their producer ever since. With Wally in place, Klein and Mullen assembled their core cast of musicians—Forster, Pearson, and Carnahan—and then, handling the massive lyric sheet, they recorded in one frenzied, extended take. Aside from the song “Crocs,” some overdubbing, and additional vocals and fiddle from Hannah Marcus, the record was completed in that one take. Klein remembers thinking at the time, This is either an insane mess or the best thing we’ve ever done. I think it’s actually both.
Consumption Work: Tammy, Cybertariat, At the Aral Sea premiered as a full-length video album on The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review website on Election Day November 6th, 2012. The band also released the album in a deliberately annoying format as an uninterrupted single MP3, forcing listeners to acknowledge it as an album while remaining true to their ornery instinct of not conforming to music industry standards. Prior to its premiere, the band had started what was intended as a faux Kickstarter campaign (to their surprise, they exceeded their goal) to raise funds for post-production and promotion costs. In homage to the album’s title, they offered contributors DIY incentives of chore-based rewards, including assembly kits of blank CDs, cases, chapbooks, and digital materials. Contributing to the project were Tomaselli, barcode artist Scott Blake, and installation artist Michael Rackowitz, reiterating the band’s respect in art and literary circles, a success their peers in music barely recognize.
Consumption Work depicts a surreal, plague-ridden world where climate disaster is inevitable and not so far off in the future, as environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth predicts in his Dark Mountain Manifesto (Klein read it two years after he recorded the album). It’sa world inhabited by automats, Coinstar machines, factories, and an ever-reincarnating protagonist, Tammy, who journeys through different dimensions of time and space, mortal life and the afterlife. Listening to it on its own feels like fast-forwarding a Terry Gilliam movie, or reading a Pynchon novel, or moving through a low-dose acid trip. The video, assembled almost entirely from archival footage by Mobley (who has created many of the band’s videos, including “Tenderloin Hotel” and “Old Skin”), adds a distinctly retro Americana tone, an ironic reference to the past in poignant contrast to the dark future described by the lyrics.
Consumption Work is a difficult, dense album. One wonders what Mooney would have made of it. His absence is palpable (there are hardly any drums on the record), but Klein said, “There was no way Michael and I could have attempted it without having had Tim guide us through those earlier records.” Perhaps they felt they had nothing to lose. Regardless, when I listen to what they produced, I sense that Klein and Mullen tapped into some freakish thrum of pure creative dynamism. The result is a tour de force.
Things lighten up somewhat with The Size Queens’ sixth record, Save The Plant! (released by Bitter Stag Records in March 2014)—though not by much. While many of the songs sound upbeat, they address some fairly grim subjects, including incarceration, arson, and chemical warfare. The band’s concerns this time focus around themes of safety (or the futility of searching for it), and freedom, portraying those who are shackled and those who try to break away, whether from parents, prisons, governments, or their own inhibitions. The record deals explicitly with the prison-industrial complex and a contracted labor force financing suppliers, food services, medical facilities, lawyers, probation groups, and lobbyists. The CD cover is a disturbing work of art titled “See What I See” by Jose H. Villareal, an inmate at Pelican Bay State Prison. It depicts a large red-rimmed eye, bloodshot with renderings of anguished faces and the word “torture.”
One of the more pensive songs, “Airport Sleepers,” is inspired by Edward Snowden’s clandestine flight to avoid incarceration (and possibly more dire punishment). “The audience is sleeping in the airport terminal,” is repeated steadily, with “audience” suggesting both the rapt attention Snowden captured and continues to command, and the surveillance he highlighted.
“Fifty Shades of Pale” describes a different kind of escape, through drugs and sexual fantasies. The song is a trippy satire, a Petri dish of lifted references, from its title merging E. L. James’ housewife-porn bestseller with Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale,” to the Dylan-esque vocals with their dipping modulations. The lyrics also allude to a literary porn sensation from an earlier era, Pauline Reage’s Story of O.The 1975 movie version, with its dreamy cinematography, lush score, and kitschy scenes of glamour bondage, romanticizes the dominant/submissive themes in the book—but it still enraged feminists at the time. Klein, however, found its stylized effect inspirational, as did Mobley, who is a huge fan of Udo Kier, one of its stars.
Mobley has also been a longtime fan of Justin Vivian Bond, and snagged her for the new video he shot for “Fifty Shades of Pale.” In classic Size Queens cyclical fashion, Mx. Bond’s cabaret character from a decade earlier, Kiki DuRane, had made a cameo appearance in their song, “Can A Woman” from Magic Dollar Shoppe, who Klein cited as one of “the only women I know who can go publicly insane.” Here she gets the starring role—and instead of portraying an aging, alcoholic chanteuse prone to rages on stage, she’s a glamorous, bored, drippingly wealthy femme living in sun-drenched Rancho Mirage.
Casting Mx. Bond in a female (versus drag) role adds another dimension to the band’s continuing examination of gender and performance, the body and identity. Mx. Bond identifies as a transgendered (as well as transgenre) artist. These themes had been explored before with “Reading Rosalind Krauss” and other songs and videos from Our Literal Speed. For The Size Queens the body is malleable, whether blurring distinctions between genders or, as Haraway’s cyborgs, between humans and machines, or through reincarnation and metamorphosis.
Save the Plant!, makes pointed references not only to Snowden but also to Squeaky Fromme and the Baader Meinhof Group. The common link between them all, of course, is anti-government action—though Klein despairs that the hard rightwing, like Cliven Bundy, seem to have appropriated all the fervor the left once owned. Klein rails about the complacency and overthinking of today’s liberals, their disproportionate desire to appear “reasonable” in the absence of reason. Perhaps this accounts for the band’s predilection for what some might consider songs “in poor taste”—which seems as good a segue as any to discuss “Onomonokanamana.” Both an homage and parody of Yoko Ono’s “primal chanting,” it subverts her messages of peace in a satire about hate, sung in a choppy Asian accent: “I join Shinrikyo, I make sarin gas/Put it on the Tokyo express, no looking back.” It is a horrible song, wrong in every way. It should be offensive. But it’s just too funny and smart and also, too eerily topical.
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Klein wrote and recorded “Onomonokanamana” two months before the sarin gas attacks in Syria. The attacks spurred a national debate about possible U.S. reprisal, which did not happen—a decision (popular at the
time) that has since been criticized as enabling ISIS. Klein remembers feeling truly awful seeing the sarin victims in Syria, and more than a little freaked out by his foresight. The song also evokes pandemics like SARS and avian flu, precursors to the present, politicized outbreak of Ebola.
The record’s title, Save The Plant! is an obvious pun on the rallying cry “Save the Planet,”a mission that seems hopeless in this verse toward the end of “Spinning World,” the last song on the record: “Take the world, throw it out / Like it never had a name / And it never did exist…”
As a finale, it’s not exactly comforting. But by now it should be evident that one does not seek out The Size Queens to feel sheltered or comforted. This then begs the question: why should we seek them out? To that I would answer: because they are musical documentarians—by which I mean they document the world we live in through their music. As much as any other medium, their work substantiates that pop music can still powerfully define the societal upheaval of our times. While so many forms of entertainment serve to disconnect us from reality, The Size Queens provoke us to examine it.
It feels imperative that we evaluate the last decade of The Size Queens’ output, not only because they’ve focused their work on the perverse contours of American political and popular culture but because they’ve been uncannily prescient about it. I can’t think of another band that produces such weirdly incisive and political music, or one that is so deeply invested in dissecting what has happened to this country in the twelve years since we’ve been at war.
We are left with the question of where to go from here, and how. If we are indeed on the edge of another social collapse, why stare down at the precipice? Why attempt to chronicle what we may not be able to save? Because that is the artist’s job. When I consider why that job is necessary and significant, I remember something Klein said to me once about The Size Queens’ penchant for championing the underdog, and those who disrupt the status quo: “The revolutionary’s instinct is to stand behind some kind of cause, despite the inevitability of failure.”
This doesn’t necessarily make revolutionaries heroes. It’s apparent that The Size Queens don’t really believe in heroes; nor should they, or we. But the credence of standing for something, regardless of outcome, is one that, as a band, they seem to embody. How else could they have survived for over a decade making songs and art on their own terms, without outside financing and scant attention from the music press? There’s something to be said about a band that can exist for so long outside the fringe and still find a cadre of dedicated listeners. Their talent is prodigious, but so is their perseverance.
They write about serious subjects with irreverence, creating songs that make for some active and addictive listening. What they sing about should make us cry—and once in a while, we do. But thank god they also make us laugh, even when we think we shouldn’t. The humor they employ in their songs doesn’t compromise their scathing observations about the hypocrisies in our power structures. Rather, it illuminates them. And sometimes, acknowledging these difficult truths through inappropriate laughter is the only way to make them digestible.
Chin-Sun Lee’s stories and essays are forthcoming or have appeared in The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, SLICE, Shadowbox Magazine, Art Faccia, and SLAB. She is also a contributor to the anthology Women In Clothes (Blue Rider Press/Penguin 2014), edited by Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton.