Trainwreck to Narnia
US: Oct 2010
A few weeks ago I found myself standing in an elementary school parking lot in Sonoma, California, waiting for the shuttle to a video shoot for one of the cleverest, funniest and worst-named bands in showbiz: Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children Macnuggits. Let’s call them Bobby Joe Ebola for short.
About 40 minutes late, my ride shows up. Dan Abbott, Bobby Joe Ebola’s guitar player, is acting as the shuttle driver today, looking already exhausted behind the wheel of the band’s tour van. He yawns as he opens the van doors, taking off his fedora to wipe the sweat from his forehead.
“Sorry I’m late, it’s been a crazy morning,” he explains. “We’ve got a riot going on up the hill, they just killed Spiderman and there’s a guy humping a tuba full of whipped cream. Someone’s house is on fire. But I don’t think that was us.”
Up at the top of a grassy hill overrun with cows, the video crew is running on caffeine and willpower. If I’d expected a janky production, I couldn’t have been more wrong. There are cameras on stationary rigs, on a track, even one on a crane. The director yells through a bullhorn at a crowd of unpaid extras dressed as riot cops and protesters milling around, waiting for the smoke machines to recharge. Someone hands me a sign that says “Save the Snails”, and I’m drafted into the scene. The director shouts “Action” and everyone charges each other, bumbling around in the smoke until half of us are on the ground covered in mud and whipped cream and cow shit.
“Cut. That looked great,” shouts the director. “Let’s keep it moving – we’re gonna set up for the scene where the kids bury the murder weapon.”
Just another typical day for Bobby Joe Ebola. The shoot I attended was for the band’s epic sing-along, “Life is Excellent” a pernicious earworm of a song that’s been steadily racking up YouTube hits since it premiered in August 2012.
If your band already has the most ridiculous name in rock, you might as well have an absurdly oversized sense of ambition to go along with it, and Bobby Joe Ebola definitely has ambition. At this writing, they’re releasing the video for “Pacman and Pop Tarts”, their 11th video of the year. It’s all part of a marathon effort to do a DIY video for each of the 13 songs on their upcoming album, F.
The core of the band is the aforementioned Abbott and singer/comedian Corbett Redford, two buddies who’ve been hanging out and playing together for some 17 years. They started out in the East Bay suburb of Pinole as a joke band in 1995, and soon became infamous in the Bay Area punk scene for poking fun at everything, including some of punk’s sacred cows. Thinking they’d had their fun, the band broke up in 2001. But the urge to play together never really subsided, and when Abbot and Redford re-formed the band in 2009, they decided to shoot for the moon.
Since then, it’s been a blur of 12-hour days, fly-by-night tours and endless technical details. A lot of people think Abbott and Redford are crazy for reaching so far, but their growing popularity and multi-faceted appeal seems to suggest otherwise. PopMatters was able to reach Redford by phone on the eve of yet another tour, for a discussion about the essence of humor, the state of the world and gigantic wieners.
You guys are hitting it so hard this year.
I know! We’ve never been this we’re-gonna-make-it, we’re-gonna-be-famous type of band. But once we get it in our mind to create something—and right now it’s a lot of things—we don’t stop until it’s done. And I think some people are like, what happens if you guys don’t do well, if it doesn’t take off for you this time around? But there’s just enough happening to keep us going at the level we’re at. I think it could get to where if it doesn’t get a little easier to manage, maybe we’ll say, “Let’s scale back, let’s not do 13 videos for this album.” Like, next time we’re only doing four…
What kind of insanity led to this idea of doing 13 videos in a year?
It is insane! And mind you, we only raised funds for one of them. We did a Kickstarter for one video but all the others were either donated labor from our friends or our own money. That comes from odd jobs, or we’ll get real jobs for a little while and we’ll get fired because we have to go on tour. It’s kind of like going back to where we were from 1995 to 2001. Except we’re grown-ass men now!
Everyone’s like, “Why are you doing this, do you really have this idea that some band called ‘Bobby Joe Ebola and the Children Macnuggits’ could ever have like, a hit single? Is that what you guys think?!” And it’s like, we have no illusions to the fact that we’re kind of a hard sell—we’re even a hard sell in punk.
Stylistically, too, you guys are kind of all over the map
That comes from the idea of jumping genres, using satire, or sometimes we’ll be writing lyrics and someone will say, what if it was set to this kind of music? If there was a Bobby Joe Ebola sound it would be kind of folk punk, but the best of them are all over the map.
Well, you’re using the music to compliment the subject of the song
Right, we’ve got a song called “The Only Difference”. It’s like a doo-wop, Happy Days, ‘50s kind of song, and it’s about kidnapping rich people and throwing them in the trunks of their own cars. And it’s such a sweet-sounding song, coupled with this horrible subject. We played it in Marin once and people freaked out, just because they were really into it at first and then they realized what we’re singing about. So that’s fun for us.
You’re trying to tell stories though, right?
That’s it! That’s it. That’s what we consider ourselves. Every song has a story and they’re either based around experiences we’ve had or true stories or the ones that get all Edward Gorey. Like, we’ve got a new song called “Biological Imperative” and it’s about having kids… for dinner. It’s story rock.
In your song “The Last Child Soldier”, the lyrics are funny but it’s also like, the saddest thing you ever heard. There’s an essayist named Steve Almond who’s said that funny is the new poignant, and the idea is like, when you want to get your point across you don’t say, “The world is shit, we’re all fucked, I want to die,” but you find the humor in it, and it’s a little easier to take.
Redford: It is. We’re serious about our silliness. We write pretty songs about awful things. We have songs where people are like, “Aw, man. What are they singing about this for? This is my Friday night, you asshole, I don’t want to think about this bad stuff.” And I think if we didn’t put that humor in there it wouldn’t work. But that song was inspired by Jared Dimond’s book, Collapse.
You know on Easter Island, how they cut down all the trees building grand monuments, and then the whole population starved to death. And I mean, now, we’re killing everything with this “Make more money! Make more money!”
There’s an earnestness to what you do. A lot of funny bands are actually more cynical because it’s like, who cares, it’s just a joke.
Thanks, yeah. You know we played with Kyle Gass from Tenacious D last year and that was really weird. He got up on stage and he played these Tenacious D songs about dick or something, or poop or whatever, and we have our fair share of those songs, but then he went into a cover of “The Green Eyed Lady” and then “The Boys are Back in Town”, and then he goes, “Can you guess what this song’s about? It’s called ‘Gigantic’.” And I made a motion with my hand like it was a wiener, and he looks at me and yells, “No! This song is about knowing in your heart that you can be gigantic, that you can be important to the world.” And he was serious!
I started laughing really hard, because I don’t think you can do that, make all these goofy jokes and then ask people to take you seriously.
Was it the Pixies song?
No, I love that song. I know what that song’s about, it’s great.
That song’s also about wieners.
Yup, it’s about a penis.
Hey, we should talk about “Pac Man and Pop Tarts”.
The new video, yes. It’s actually one of the first ones we started production on, but it’s pretty elaborate. Everybody’s either not paid or underpaid and a lot of people came together on it.
The song itself is kind of about my family. A year before 9/11, all three of my younger brothers all went into the military. And I’m obviously the cartoonishly black sheep, because I was not going to do it… My family is like Walmart culture. And they’ve been damaged by the military. On of my brothers, in Somalia, was trying to pick off a sniper and he hit a child accidentally, and held the kid in his arms and watched him die. So coming back, it’s just hard…
I left home early, like when I was 15, and pursued comedy and music. I’d come back to see my brothers and they’re wearing trenchcoats, getting high and watching Beavis & Butthead. There was no money for college, so it was like, you better get in the military.
So it’s about that, and about choosing to live differently. It’s also partly like, living with your ear to the ground, but that’s Dan’s thing.
I’m like the ray of sunshine in this band—for me it’s not about being paranoid but about choosing not to shop at Walmart and join the military and, like one of my favorite lines is “If you discover other people, there are things you must unlearn.” But the video is more fun, it’s like we’re coming out of the TV, telling this kid like, get off the couch, what are you eating? Go do something…
Then your evil video game avatars chase him all over town.
Yeah, but he beats us in the end. I think the director got really excited about the idea that we would be the enemies and the kid would beat us. He was like, “I just want to see you guys get knocked out.” So that’s where that came in.
It’s always weird when the band is the villain of the video. Like those ‘80s metal videos, Twisted Sister busts in through some kid’s wall, and they’re there to rock but they’re also the bad guy/
It is weird, they’re like tormenting everyone in the video. I can only hope… If we’ve achieved… I would be extremely happy if we came close to a Twisted Sister video. Those are some of the campiest, most outrageous videos of all time.
I’ve got to update my references. Are you going to have a big party when all the videos are out, and screen them all?
We are. The DVD’s called F the Videos. We’re going to have a film festival where we have all the directors come through, have some bands play. And there are so many people who have worked on this. There are so many people involved. When I get down and think, “God, this is hard, I’m so broke,” I think about how many people are rooting for us.
We don’t have the same support network we’ve always had. A lot of punks think our ambition is suspect. I understand all of that but there’s never more of a time when I get super happy as when there’s a weird idea that me and my friend Dan came up with, and it arrives into the world. It’s probably an addiction.
You’re lucky to have so many underemployed artist friends.
True, but Mike Foxall, who did our Bone Dagger video, he’s gotten two jobs because of it. And he animated it for free. And just hearing that is like, that’s the best thing we could hope for. We’re not super popular but if for some reason we can get someone a job, holy shit that’s awesome.
The videos are genius, though. You have that hook that brings people to the shows and gets them to know the songs.
Content is important. Everyone has ADD now—we’re like the microwave burrito generation, looking at our watches and yelling at the microwave to hurry up. So it’s like, “Is that what you want, modern world? Something new? Well, here’s something new. Here’s a lot of something new.”
We have a new LP, a new EP, four singles that are splits with other bands, we’re doing a songbook that has all our lyrics ad chords in it, and the read-a-long songbook that comes with the CD. If the world is asking for ideas and content, then we’re not short on that. We’re short on money, but not on that.