It's a cold January night in Manhattan, 2011, and a few dozen theater people are at the Chinatown Brasserie, the after-hours lounge for the Under the Radar theater festival. They stand in small circles, drinking their drinks, talking up their own shows, trying to get laid, and generally boring each other into a stupor. Three guys stroll unnoticed into this cocktail-party stultification—one Puerto Rican guy with a Mohawk and a trumpet, one Jewish guy with some drums, and one white guy with a tuba. Then they promptly blast the room into the stratosphere.
The drummer, "Jonny Ballz," plays punk—straight-ahead, one-two-one-two beats with occasional syncopation. "Disco Ronnie," the tuba man, toots out playful bass lines, some klezmer-sounding stuff, some New Orleans second-line style, some rock 'n' roll. But the trumpeter, "Smidge Malone," is the center of this storm. He plays his teenage-riot blues like there's a gale in his lungs (eyes bulging, cheeks puffed out), like he's trying to blow you over. He bares his teeth when he sings, with a power-gravel somewhere between Louis Armstrong and Glenn Danzig. The three of them are the Stumblebums, and they polarize the room. Most of the theater people edge away, looking a little scared and/or irritated. A few start dancing like lunatics. There is no middle ground.
The trio is loud and aggressive, but they play beautifully. Partway through the set, Smidge announces a GG Allin cover and moons the audience. Then he shoves a water bottle (from some festival sponsor) so far up his asshole that people wince. Fury and virtuosity—now that's theater.
After the set, I find Smidge on the sidewalk in the freezing cold, wearing nothing warmer than a T-shirt, smoking a cigarette. He's drunk, but not too drunk to sell me one of the band's CDs for a few crumpled bills and whatever change I can fish out of my pockets. It turns out that the record, Fuck You Lady Gaga, was recorded by New York titan Martin Bisi, who has also recorded Sonic Youth, Afrika Bambaataa, John Zorn, Herbie Hancock, the Dresden Dolls, and Brian Eno.
I e-mailed the band the next morning, insisting they come to Seattle. "I suppose we should get our butts to Seattle at some point," Disco Ronnie replied. "We just don't know any folks out there." This Thursday, the Stumblebums will introduce their butts to Seattle, on a layover stop before their third Alaskan tour. Alaskans, Ronnie said in a phone interview last week, "are badass... we're big in Alaska."
Ronnie explained the band's origins: He was born in New Jersey, studied music at conservatories (including Juilliard), and plays in lots of groups, from the opera and ballet to bar bands, plus a few odd jobs to make ends meet. ("I'm a scrapper. You want your toilet fixed? I'll fix your toilet.") Smidge grew up bouncing around foster homes and practiced trumpet as a kid on the New York subway, playing Louis Armstrong songs for tips. He is currently homeless and has been for a large chunk of his adult life. "And Jonny?" Ronnie says of the drummer. "He's in it for the girls." Jonny is also the only one with a serious day job, working as a cartographer.
When I mentioned the show—and the water-bottle incident—at Chinatown Brasserie, Ronnie laughed. That gig, he said, happened six months after Ronnie had introduced Smidge to the violent (and sometimes criminal) videos of GG Allin, the punk-rock saint of self-destruction. "It kind of backfired," Ronnie laughed ruefully. "Smidge let it all out there. He started showing his dick, showing his ass—maybe it'd be better if he were in better shape. But having some fat, sweaty Puerto Rican drunk out of his mind... Like any band, we go through phases."
The Stumblebums don't play many typical club gigs because the money is too bad. Instead, they "stumblebum," randomly going from bar to bar and asking to play a few songs. People typically say yes, and the trio gets money and free drinks. On a good night, Ronnie said, they walk away with $500 and prospects for future gigs. He said the band mostly plays its impromptu bar gigs and "hoity-toity" events (for art collectors or festivals like Under the Radar). "When those higher-echelon people wanna feel dirty," he said, "they hire us!"
And what's with the name of their record? What have they got against Lady Gaga? "It's not necessarily 'fuck her,'" Ronnie said. "But fuck the whole corporatocracy. People don't understand that behind her are 10,000 people working, packaging her, throwing a meat-dress on her—and that's that. She's polished, and we're raw and sleazy." I can't argue with that.