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Thursday, Sept. 13, 2007
Blue Man Group: Attack of the 'Smurfs'
Special to The Japan Times
Butoh dance, attack art and the band Devo have all had a role in influencing Blue Man Group — which is bringing a two-month run of avant-garde theater to Japan.
The fact that Blue Man Group are from New York City, which has a long tradition of innovative and challenging performance art, is no surprise. The fact that Blue Man Group have become an international phenomena is.
The idea that a trio of blue-faced, bald, alien-looking percussionists could find mainstream success is rather hard to imagine — especially given their taste for playing bizarre homemade instruments and creating paintings that involve spewing pigment-soaked marshmallows out of their mouths onto canvas. But true it is; in NYC, their show "Blue Man: Tubes" has run about as long as any Broadway hit, going strong since 1991. They've opened in London, Toronto, Amsterdam and Berlin; they've done clever commercials for computer technology maker Intel; they did the soundtrack for the animated movie "Robots"; and they've been cited in "The Simpsons" on four different occasions. Hell, their daily show at the Luxor casino in Las Vegas has even had a seven-year run.
Now the comedy-cum-performance- art group is coming to Japan, and with a roster of corporate sponsors including Avex, The Asahi Shimbun and Ticket Pia, they've even managed to get a Blue Man theater created for them in Roppongi, a 900-seat venue just a stone's throw from Roppongi Hills. There, the Blue Man Group will hold court for a two-month engagement, playing most nights from this Dec. 1 to Jan. 31 of next year.
Blue Man Group was in Tokyo one afternoon in July to do a preview live performance for the media. While only a teaser for their full show, it did feature a number of their classic routines. The trio of Blue Men held the front of the stage, while a full band in day-glo regalia backed them up. It was a mixture of musical performance, broad comedy and piss-take art — such as the previously mentioned marshmallow routine, with its target of modern artists like Britain's Damien Hirst. With their predilection for oil-drum and pipe percussion, you could take them for a ripoff of dance and percussion sensation Stomp — except Blue Man Group were there first. They also have a much more flamboyant visual sense — when they wail on their drums, huge torrents of cleverly illuminated paint flicker like flames from the drum heads.
After the show, Matt Goldman — who along with Phil Stanton and Chris Wink founded Blue Man Group in 1987 — managed to take his eyes off Blue Man fan and J-pop singer Koda Kumi long enough to chat with The Japan Times. The question that had to be asked was: Is it true, as a drunken Homer Simpson has charged, that the Blue Men are just a ripoff of "The Smurfs"?
Laughing, Goldman replied, "They started doing those jokes before we had even met any of them ("Simpsons" writers), and we had heard that it's like the ultimate compliment if they rank on (make fun of) you on the show — that means they really like you."
Some of the "The Simpsons" writers moved on to other popular TV programs, like "Arrested Development" and "The Drew Carrey Show," where they also wrote in major Blue Men appearances. While most groups these days tend to have a well-planned media strategy, Blue Man Group — in moving from its guerrilla street-theater origins to a global brand with about 500 employees — seems to have just struck a chord with people.
When asked if he's ever surprised by how his little project has grown, Goldman says: "I'd be lying to say that I don't wake up every day thinking 'How is this happening?' It's almost like living in some dual reality. (BMG) is artist-owned and operated, produced and directed. It's not a product of some giant entertainment conglomerate, or even a long-standing theatrical company that's produced a zillion plays. We have our one thing. And all we ever did was make a show that we wanted to see."
One thing that's worked in BMG's favor has been the way the project has grown organically, one level at a time, which has allowed the founders to maintain their creative control of the shows.
"We were lucky," insists Goldman. "Almost immediately, the first time we got bald and blue (way back in 1987), we knew we had something special. It felt special. And it was easier; we were serving the Blue Man, it wasn't about us, so we got to subjugate our egos, you know? And we knew we wanted to create in the Blue Man mode for decades.
"The entertainment industry is so . . . 15 minutes of fame, shoot up, shoot down. But we just had a slow rising kind of curve. And a lot of the growth had more to do with what everyone else in the organization wanted and needed, even more than our own aspirations. . . . "And the control thing, we had so many people coming up to us and saying, 'Hey, we'll take care of the business, you do the art.' But for us, the business and the art are inextricably linked, and there's an art to the business, and it will be reflected on stage. And if the two things aren't totally in sync with each other, it falls apart. But in a million years, we didn't get into this to have 500 people working for us!"
Perhaps the moment that really broke BMG big was when they appeared in a series of hip television commercials for Intel, which beamed them into households all over the planet. "To do or not do Intel was maybe the single hardest decision we ever faced," says Goldman. "At the end of the day we chose to do it. We thought if we could just make really good 22-second mini-movies, we'd be all right; and if they're not really good, we'll regret it for the rest of our lives."
Despite the constant growth as an organization, Blue Man Group still displays its origins as a guerrilla, street-theater group. One popular video making the rounds (on YouTube.com et al.) shows the Blue Men doing a sketch in a subway station; and before their gig in Tokyo, they played a video shot earlier that morning on the streets of Shibuya with Blue Men interacting with bemused passersby.
When asked if this street-level aspect is still important to him, Goldman replies: "Hell, yeah! I mean, the three original partners are still the three original partners, and we're closer now than we've ever been. We also have so many people who've been with us for over 10 years. It's constantly this crazy balance of the original roots, the conception of the project, and reinventing yourself. The times that we've completely reinvented ourselves — like opening in Vegas, or putting out a CD — those are the parts that are both the scariest and the most freeing. Our fans are pretty forgiving, even if we mess up a few times."
The Blue Man Group is so idiosyncratic and creatively weird, that it's tempting to think they sprang out of nowhere. But, like all artists, they have their predecessors. Mentioning the mutant new-wave band Devo to Goldman is a shot in the dark, but he chuckles and replies: "All of us, Devo changed our lives. They were such an example of guys doing their own thing, doing something totally different, real cool, but yet so universal. Even if you didn't know anything about that kind of music, you could put on a Devo song and people could get into it. (In) my opinion, the best cover song ever made, period, is Devo's 'Satisfaction!' Without question."
Goldman also speaks of some Japanese influences on BMG, from the eerie butoh of the performance group Sankai Juku, to the taiko drumming of the internationally celebrated Kodo group, about whom Goldman says, "They showed me how through percussion you could express emotion." But Goldman saves his highest praise for San Francisco's mysterious eyeball-headed band, The Residents: "I can remember going to see them, and they were like (pauses) we could never be that cool, because they were just so f**king cool!"
Still, while The Residents were weird and disturbing, the Blue Men are weird and welcoming, which goes a long way to explaining their success. Goldman holds up two NYC bands, Talking Heads and Television — mainstream success and underground heroes — to illustrate the fickleness of fate. "You see how just a quarter of a degree difference in course, by the time you're 50,000 miles out, you're in completely different quadrants," says Goldman.
The hardest part of growing the BMG project is securing a steady supply of Blue Men. Goldman explains how they have five people on staff who do nothing but look for and audition new Blue Men. "You have to be a fantastic drummer," says Goldman. "You have to have great nonverbal acting skills, and you have to be a certain size and type."
When watching videos of various BMG performances, what's striking is how all the performers have perfected the same persona, with an unmistakable body language and poker-faced expression. "These guys go through a lot of training," explains Goldman. "But this is what happens: When you put the bald cap on, it comes over your ears and gets glued down by the back of your neck. So automatically, it changes the relationship of your torso to your neck. From the first time we did it, it just happens — that kind of movement. There's something about being in the costume that automatically puts you into a certain physical and mental state.
"There's a tremendous amount of training, but it's almost like untraining. Like a dog: Dogs don't think, they just hear a noise and just go. That's it, no intellect, no internal noise, very real, very natural. We get described as 'childlike wonder' all the time, and I think that's similar. So we also think of the makeup as a stripping-down of the mask. Like if you've got a hairstyle — get rid of the hairstyle!"
When the Blue Men get going, with all their paint and marshmallows and flying liquids, things can get a bit sloppy. In fact, the first few rows at a Blue Man show are called "poncho seats," where the audience is requested to wear protective rain gear. Like the Blue Men's pipe-banging percussion, the drenching of the audience also seems to have been drawn from the industrial scene, where "attack art" bands would shower the crowd with paint, garbage, bodily fluids and worse. When asked if this was an influence, Goldman acknowledges it, but says: "I think our version is the opposite of attack art. The Blue Men are crazy, and without question, it's waste or art depending on where it lands, right? So there's that aspect. But we're trying to be totally respectful of the audience."
But like the attack artists, BMG's goal is similarly to break down the barrier between stage and audience, albeit in a much friendlier way. "I buy that," says Goldman. "The most important thing for a Blue Man show is to connect with the audience. The Blue Men look totally weird and intimidating at the beginning, but by the time we get to the finale, 'paper rolls' — where all this paper comes out of the back of the theater and covers everyone like a giant Christo installation — people are literally, physically connected for a moment, as well as figuratively. So the whole show is about trying to get to 'paper rolls,' and this euphoric ecstatic experience."
Blue Man Group play Roppongi's Invoice Gekijo from Dec. 1 through Jan. 31, 2008. Shows are daily, with Mondays and Tuesdays off. Tickets go on sale from Sept. 15 and are priced at ¥7,500 for regular seats, ¥8,500 for the "poncho seats." Available through Lawson Ticket, Ticket Pia. For more info, visit www.blueman.jp
Before there were Blue Men
DEVO: A band that sold 2 million records in 1981, but who are largely forgotten today, Devo were an abrasive, anti-rock 'n' roll conceptual-art group from Akron, Ohio. Clad in uniforms that ranged from chemical-protection suits to Boy Scout-wear with flowerpot hats, the group played convulsive music that, according to the band's bassist/ co-leader, Gerald Casale, sounded "like James Brown turned into a robot," most famously on their mutant-cover version of The Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction." The band members played the part of "de-evolved" humans, and concerts would begin with a 10-minute faux- documentary film on "The Truth About De-Evolution," based on crackpot eugenics theories about brain-eating apes. The band was big on wacky theatrical performance — a segment on Saturday Night Live saw "Jimi Hendrix" pop out of a coffin to play a guitar solo.
THE RESIDENTS: This San Francisco band remains shrouded in mystery to this day. Its four members were nameless and faceless, resolutely hiding their identities and only appearing in public in their costumes — Fred Astaire top hats and tails, with giant eyeballs for heads. (And when one eyeball was stolen after a concert, that member began wearing a giant skull head, presumably to unnerve the thief.) The Residents were a mixture of bad-trip psychedelia, surrealism and Captain Beefheart nonsense; their label, Ralph Records, fueled speculation by feeding the mystery, running ads that asked "Who are The Residents?" while keeping the secret to an extent that the Blue Men can only envy. (Many thought they might be the postbreakup Beatles undercover.) Coincidentally, the band released a deranged deconstruction of "Satisfaction," within weeks of Devo's version.
THROBBING GRISTLE: The original industrial band, born in the late-1970s from the detritus of the U.K.'s psychedelic rock scene and the radical '60s art movement Fluxus, Throbbing Gristle pioneered a conceptual and nearly psychotic approach to both music and performance that spawned an entire genre. Part of their legacy is attack art, in which performers assault audiences by flinging all sorts of stuff from the stage; perhaps their leading disciple in this was Japan's "Hijokaidan," whose performances nearly always led to riots that got them banned from almost every club in Kansai. Other industrial influences on the Blue Men include: Einsturzende Neubauten, one of many, many bands to pioneer using objects like oil drums and sewer pipes as percussion, and Z'ev, who created coiled-pipe instruments that he wore mounted on his body, almost exactly mirroring some of the BMG's gear.