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One-Man Band Series, #33: Esmerelda Strange

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Denver-based gypsy-folk and carnie punk one-woman band Esmerelda Strange has certainly been one of the one-man band scene’s standout acts during its noteworthy revival these last several years. With an accordion, a partial drum kit, and her wild voice, she creates a sound so completely unique that she can easily be deemed one of kind, not to mention decidedly more punk than some of today’s full punk bands. Her long, dark, wavy tresses, tattooed appendages, and unusual thrift store meets carnival punk getups somehow match her music perfectly. And to broaden her musical appeal even more she splits up her songs, singing some in English, and others en Espanol.

The first time I heard Esmerelda Strange’s music, it was on Rock N Roll Purgatory’s Attack of the One Man Bands compilation. “Que Viva Chava” was the song, which I later discovered was from her independently released debut album Introducing Esmerelda Strange. Instantly I was captivated by the crude accordion playing, the driving kick drum thumps, and her untrained yet very effective vocal delivery. Since then I have learned that she has released two other albums, the follow-up to Introducing…(2005) titled Strange Encounters with Esmerelda Strange (2007) and one as Esmerelda Strange & the Lifesize Mousetrap titled How to Defy Gravity with 6 Simple Machines (2012). Also I learned that she performs regularly, not just as her one-woman band but also as the sole musical component of Mark Perez’ astounding mechanical marvel and gigantic twenty-five-ton arrangement of bizarro carnivalia, the Lifesize Mousetrap. In addition to the Lifesize Mousetrap gig, Esmerelda has served as a supporting act for Cyclecide, the world’s only punk rock bicycle carnival with pedal-powered midway rides. And for more than a few years she played in Los Banos, the Cyclecide Rodeo Band.

Taking the aforementioned information into account, it probably comes as no surprise that Esmerelda’s one-woman band began in San Francisco, California, and that she initially picked up the accordion as her instrument of choice in order to assist some of her street performing sideshow friends. Since then it has evolved into something else, something more, obviously, and has managed to turn quite a few heads and capture more than few ears.

Today’s one-man and one-woman bands have really gone out of their way to provide fringe music enthusiasts with spectacular sights and sounds, handling many and varied instruments and homemade noise-making apparatuses, more often than not working them all simultaneously. In this way, each one-man or one-woman band—the notable ones, at any rate—has marked his or her own musical territory with the uniqueness, creativity, and ingenuity of his and her project, as well as fully impressed with his or her well-written and well-executed songs. Still, even in the one-man band scene, Esmerelda Strange is something of a rarity, not just because of her choice in instrumentation and peculiar sound but because she is a woman in a heavily male dominated practice. That is to say, there are only a handful of one-woman bands out there in the world today, such as Becky Lee and Drunkfoot, Molly Gene One Whoaman Band, Two Tears, Margaret Doll Rod, and Venus Fly Trap One Girl Band—brilliant artists, all of them!—and Esmerelda Strange isn’t just counted among them, she is arguably one of the better ones.

To begin, how about telling us a little about Esmerelda Strange, not just as an accordion-wielding punkstress but also an individual, an unique human being in this mad, mad world in which we live?

I’m not sure what to tell. In my mind I am pretty normal.

So you started playing the accordion as a means to help out some of your street performer friends. How exactly did that happen?

My best friend and her boyfriend were my housemates and decided to get into doing sideshow acts. Swallowing swords, bed of nails, throwing knives, eating glass, that kind of stuff. To debut their new skills they decided to have a backyard party. My boyfriend at the time, Tim, and I were in a band and we played mostly stoner type rock and punk. He was a drummer. I was playing bass. We decided to put together a little band for our friends' show. I had been eyeing a kids accordion in a pawn shop window and bought it for that band. I had never played keyboards ever, so my music was really experimental in the beginning. I don’t know if anyone living there would have had the patience for me to learn it if it wasn’t for their show...Haha. But I managed to write a few little circus-y sounding songs, and then could just never put the accordion down after that. It was really my street performer friends that helped me out, though, because they invited me to go out busking with them, and that really helped to build my confidence and experience.

You have clearly come a long way since you started out practicing and performing in the back of that twenty-foot, soundproofed box truck in San Francisco’s Bay Area. How did you hook with Mark Perez and Cyclecide and whatever other artists and carnival-like folks you’ve managed to perform for/with?

There was really a lot going on in San Francisco for weirdo performers, musicians and outsider artists in the early '90s. It was a very open and experimental environment. I started plying music pretty late in life and so I just wanted experience jamming with people and trying out a lot of different things. I met the head of Cyclecide, Jarico Reese at that same backyard party where I debuted my accordion skills. I was already really into bicycling and alternative bikes. I was a bike messenger for a year in New York City around 1990 and was in love with work bikes and pedi cabs, so I just fell in love with Cyclecide's choppers and tallbikes and pedal-powered rides

Cyclecide did not have a band yet so Jarico, Tim, and myself started jamming. That eventually turned into Los Banos, the Cyclecide band. Our practice space was in an old box truck that we lined with purple cardboard vegetable packing crates. The power came from an extension cord, and you would get shocked when it rained. There was a drum kit there and that’s where I first sat down on a drum kit with an accordion, while writing some percussion parts for a CD we were four-tracking with another project. That was my other band, an accordion and theremin band called Queen Macha.We played noise shows and regularly emptied bars all over the Mission.

I feel very fortunate to have been in a place to hook up with people who were doing such cool things at the right time to get involved. Everyone was very encouraging; it was much more about having fun and creating unique experiences than being polished or perfect. Los Banos, in the beginning, had a rule that anyone who wanted to play with the band could and we would have weekend-long jam sessions in the white truck. I think it was a real asset because some really skilled players would come and play, and I learned a lot from them, but the overall vibe was about being open and not being snobby or pretentious, which was very encouraging to experiment with new things.

Again, in the early '90s San Francisco was a special place. The art scene there was pretty unique, as it was strongly participatory and there was a lot of machine art from groups like SRL and the Seemen that worked with engines and fire, and then there was the Cyclecide/Mousetrap offshoot that was mechanical but more human-powered. There was also a really vital freaky art-rock scene. People were very accepting of weird and original, but the bar was also set very high as far as quality of spectacle and performance because there were so many really talented people across so many different genres doing just crazy things in art, performance and music.

I met Mark Perez through Cyclecide. He used to put on a giant Haunted Barn every year in a big barn where he lived that used to be a ship-building warehouse. Artists designed the rooms and hallways and performed in it, then there were bands out back. I started performing there and Queen Macha played there quite a few years in a row.

I got really into the one-man band thing after I moved back to the Bay Area from living in Mexico. My work schedule kind of made it impossible for me to play music with anyone else so I got a little drum kit and started doing my one-person band more seriously. (To this day I am thankful for a long string of understanding and supportive roommates and neighbors.) I wrote songs and four-tracked them but honestly thought the band would never leave my bedroom. One day I was walking down Valencia Street listening to my own four-tracks and ran into Mark. He asked what I had been up to and I played him some of my tape. He invited me to play a benefit for the Lifesize Mousetrap, and I agreed. When I saw the Mousetrap I asked him who was doing the music for his show and he said, “You are,” and I have been ever since.

Clearly you have played your share of shows over the years. With that in mind, I’d like to ask you: What have been some of your craziest, weirdest and/or more memorable tour/gig experiences?

I think the favorite show I ever played was at a place called Ace Junkyard in San Francisco. Ace was kind of the epicenter of much of the machine art/performance community and lots of big crazy events were held there. It was a really special place. This particular event was on Aril Fools Day. A group called the Cacophony Society that really influenced Cyclecide in so many ways has an annual event “St. Stupid's Day.” They had a parade and a big show after at the junkyard. I was really excited about my new song “Chula Bici” and to play it for all my Cyclecide friends. Since it was April Fools day I told everyone I was going to play a set of entirely new material, then I played the same song seven times, acting like it was a new song each time. My friends loved it, but people that didn’t know me were asking other people “Is she ok? Does she know she’s playing the same song over and over?” People were really worried about my mental health and sanity. It was pretty funny.

Being the house band for a 50,000-pound Rube Goldberg chain reaction machine that crushes things with a safe dropping from a 30-foot crane has created quite a few memories also. I really am pretty spoiled, as watching a car get repeatedly crushed by a safe is “normal” to me. Once for a Halloween show someone donated a 1,000-pound pumpkin to be crushed by the Mousetrap. That was pretty special.

In recent years there has been a marked increase in the one-man band revival scene, not just in America but all over the globe. Nearly every genre and subgenre is represented, to a point. And the phenomenon is starting to turn a lot of heads and capture a lot of ears both in and out of the fringe music community. What are your thoughts and feelings regarding the one-man/one-woman band scene at present?

I think it’s great because it’s one of the few places that I actually fit in! I love seeing all the directions people go with the one-man band concept. I am really thankful the community has been so supportive and accepting of my one-man band. I hope that it stays open and supportive to all the newcomers despite the increased popularity of the form.

What bands and singer-songwriters have influenced you over the years?

Every song I ever heard has influenced me. Seriously. There isn’t much music I can’t find something redeeming or to enjoy about. Except for Coldplay. I am the anti-Coldplay.

I am definitely a punk child of the mid '80s. All kinds of old punk rock: X-Ray Spex, New York Dolls, Nina Hagen, Siouxie and the Banshees, Patty Smith. I spent my teen years going to shows in the DC area, so Rites of Spring, Government Issue, and Beefeater were my favorite local bands to go see. I’m a fan of Eartha Kitt; I love her attitude and was trying to model myself after that for a while. When I started playing accordion a whole new world opened up to me. I found Celso Pina and Cumbia, Negra, Queen Ida and Boozoo Chavis are my favorite Zydeco players. I have also been really influenced by all kinds of art-rock. I am a huge Butthole Surfers fan, and I love The Residents. I like a lot of old folk and traditional music, too. It’s really all across the board.

So far, what has been the general response to your music and performances?

The response to my music and performances has been really mixed. I mean what I do is really different and doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre at all. Plus, I am not formally trained. And I am female. I think sometimes my music is a little obscured by all of that weirdness. People tend to get angry when confronted with things they don’t understand or that they can’t put into a box.

The good thing is the other musicians in bands on bills that I play on are usually blown away by my show and very supportive of what I am doing. My favorite part is after almost every show there are a couple of girls coming to talk to me about how they want to be in a band and that I really inspired them. That always makes me feel really good. I didn’t start playing music until so late because I was encouraged against doing it because I am a girl. I always thought I was that person who had no rhythm and would clap off time. Turns out according to my last sound engineer I am more like a metronome than I even knew. I prefer to play all-ages shows or shows with rock or punk bands where I will really be a mind bender. I tend to get lumped in with a lot of jug bands and folky singer-songwriter acts just because I play the accordion, but in my mind I am not that great of a fit with those kinds of groups.

Apparently my kids CD is like musical crack to four year olds. Which makes me happy, but it’s a little weird when I have their angry parents telling me this: “My kid won’t let me play anything but your CD. I’m really sick of it.” How am I supposed to respond to that? “Sorry?”

Anyone that has listened to your albums knows well that you sing some songs in English and others in Spanish. Why did you choose to do that? Are you honoring your roots by doing so, or is it simply because the Spanish language is rad?

Well, I lived in Mexico for a year and most of those songs were written around that time, so I’d have to say it would be honoring my history more than my roots. And the Spanish language is rad.

Any endeavors or events of note coming up in the near future, such as recordings, releases, collaborations, tours, festivals, etc?

I probably won’t know until right before it happens! Touring season for the Mousetrap is from May to October usually and I always do that. Otherwise my priorities right now are getting settled in Colorado. I doubt I will be doing a solo tour for a while because they are really difficult and work intensive. I do all the booking and promotions and driving and performing and usually lose money. I’m sure in the spring I will be playing more shows in the Colorado area. Denver has a really awesome music scene. People are very friendly and supportive so I’m really excited to be here.

Lastly, if there is anything I failed to cover, or if there’s anything you would like to convey or discuss, please feel free to do so. The floor is all yours, Esmerelda.

Thank so much s for interviewing me...and the nice article!

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