Neal Medlyn, Wicked Clown Love, performed at The Kitchen in February 2012. All photos by Paula Court.
One Christmas when I was a wee freshman in high school, my older cousin surprised me with a large case chock full of CDs. A guest DJ had left it at the bar he worked at and decided to gift it to me. By teenage standards this should have been a treasure trove—Nirvana to Nine Inch Nails to Tori Amos, they were all there. Unfortunately, I was a late bloomer to music and didn’t quite appreciate what had fallen into my lap. What was unforgettable, however, was the awesome cover art for Insane Clown Posse’s The Great Milenko (1997). I popped in the CD and immediately popped it right out—and into the trash. Now, somewhere in a Staten Island landfill, a trove of ’90s music awaits a lucky treasure hunter.
Insane Clown Posse has once again resurfaced in my life. I recently went to see Neal Medlyn’s latest performance extravaganza at The Kitchen, aptly dubbed Wicked Clown Love. Full disclosure, I was a bit worried as the lights lowered: (1) I had never seen any of Medlyn’s performances, and (2) I still knew nothing about Insane Clown Posse. Despite having become a staple of the downtown scene, I never managed to see one of Medlyn’s productions that are described as part parody, part karaoke, and part homage to pop music. Reviews have raved about his clever investigation into the nuances of the music industry, leaving my friends to tell me that “You have to see for yourself.” And, as it turns out, seeing is believing.
Wicked Clown Love explores the myriad of characters who surface throughout the Insane Clown Posse’s discography. Less moralistic then Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the Dark Carnival includes the Amazing Jeckel Brothers, who juggle flaming balls, and the Great Milenko, who kills child abusers and rapists. Medlyn is a master entertainer and storyteller, brilliantly tapping into the intricacies of the group’s cult of followers—the Juggalos. This past summer, like a pop-style Jane Goodall, he conducted field research in a desolate corner of Illinois, in woods along the Ohio River, to attend the annual Gathering of Juggalos. In anarticle for Salon.com, Medylin described in detail four days of “horror rap, lots of drugs, women flashing their breasts, horrific sanitary conditions and Faygo soda.” However, despite his initial fear of attending the music fest, he felt part of an “unbathed family,” where Juggalos were safe to express themselves free of judgement or ridicule. Wicked Clown Lovewas scripted along these lines. The cast, as a family of fans, drank, spat, and sprayed Faygo all over themselves and the stage, tossed bags of Cheetos to the audience and karaoke-ed to songs about sex, death and drugs.
After the performance I walked to the train wiping my Cheeto-stained hands on my jeans. I knew I had to talk to Medlyn; he was gracious enough to indulge me.
Harry Weil What did you listen to growing up? Everyone remembers the first cassette they bought or were given. I think mine was New Kids on the Block.
Neal MedlynI listened to Michael Jackson, Culture Club, John Anderson … the local pop station Y99 actually had a huge influence on me. I had a cassette at the ready to record songs off the radio and practiced getting good at clicking “record” right as the DJ stopped talking and at the end before he came back in again. It was my art school.
HW Have you always been a performer? You seem so natural on the stage. Even as you are channeling Beyonce or Britney Spears, you are so straight-faced and deadpan.
NM I have been a performer for a long time. I’ve been doing my own work for eleven years and before that I did theater and experimental music. I’m actually very calm onstage; I get into a kind of exalted state when I’m there.
HW Where did your project of inhabiting pop star personae begin?
NM I had an idea long ago to do a show built out of this one Lionel Richie Greatest Hits CD I had, to do all the songs in the order they appear on the CD and somehow construct a show around that. I finally did it in 2005 and found that it smoothed out my conceptual process and then just kept going with that idea. It started to become a series in my head as a way to delineate it from whatever other type of shows I may someday imagine. Although I think it will always revolve around music and popular figures and ideas …
HW Why the Insane Clown Posse? What drew you to them?
NM Their mythology: the Dark Carnival, and the dedication and sweetness of their fans to each other really sold me. The idea that they spent all that time on a series of albums that were one big concept was fascinating to me, as was the fact that they created all of that, including an entire subculture, without MTV or radio or a major label contract. Also, the way they present class was something I’d long wanted to figure out a way to include in a show.
HW Actually, how do you choose the musicians you work on? Are they people you are interested in for the quality of their music, or the shtick appeal?
NM There’s something “off” about all of them, or at least maybe I project something “off” about all of them. They all represent something very schizophrenic about American culture. But really, I just sort of feel it out and respond to their music and commit myself to them and then we’re locked together for a while while the show is made.
HW How much background research did you have to do?
NM I did tons. I always do, really. I read books that their mythology and their form of community reminded me of, I listened to all of their albums repeatedly, I read Violent J, the lead rapper’s autobiography, watched their films, their music videos, read every article I could find about them, saw them in concert, went to the Gathering of the Juggalos. Tons.
HW In one of your blog entries on the making of Wicked Clown Love, you admit to singing along with a friend to ‘Landslide’ while on a car ride home. Are there any songs or artists you listen to who are a guilty pleasure? In full disclosure, mine is Celine Dion—give me that Titanictheme song any day.
NM I think all the music I listen to is a guilty pleasure except that I feel no guilt whatsoever! It’s always been important to me to make work out of this kind of stuff and not just secretly be into it and then do something more abstract. I feel like the material is important and I don’t want to hedge just so people think I’m smarter or more avant-garde.
HW In the same entry you talk about weird dude energy. How does that work into your performances?
NM Well this show is almost all weird dude energy. Frankly, before now I hadn’t really gotten to deal with all that … I did some with Phil Collins and some with an R. Kelly show I did with Kenny Mellman, but this was full immersion. I went down into the ashes with male culture.
HW What does the future hold? Are there any projects you are currently working on?
NM I’m thinking of ways to tour this show, hopefully to places in the U.S. that aren’t just arts communities and working on a sort of ancillary version of the solo material I do in the tent … Other than that, I’ve got my iPod on shuffle, waiting for the next star to come to me.
HW So, lets say you were asked to perform at the White House next week, what would you do?
NM I’d do Wicked Clown Love! That’d be my contribution to the current political conversation about income inequality!
HW And if you had to make a mixtape for your own funeral, what would be some of the highlights?
NM It’d be all stone-cold sex songs. Nine months later I’d want there to be a mini-baby boom of babies conceived at my funeral.
HW Okay, just one more—this is a Golden Girls reference—if you could invite two people, dead or alive, to a dinner party, who would they be?
NM It’d be me, Violent J, and Dolly Parton. We’d drink tequila and make the world’s craziest album.