Interview: 180 Gs

Negativland Whoopie Cushion

Image by Mot via Flickr

As promised in the Our Favorite Things review, there would be more about the CD that comes with the DVD by the 180 Gs. It’s an absolutely jaw-dropping collection of Negativland songs covered by a 5-or-6 piece a cappella group. Every sample is sung, every um and er is included. And it’s mindblowing, even if you’re not familiar with Negativland. The album, 180 D’Gs to the Future, is also available separately.

A little history on the 180 Gs. Formerly the Singing Minnicks, David and his brothers Chris, Don, Mark, Peter and Dick Minnick started out singing in their church and at neighborhood concerts. In 2001, however, their direction changed when David found a copy of Negativland’s LP Points in their pastor, Rev. Al “Sugar” Sweet’s trailer. Rev. Sweet helped the group to become what we now know as the 180 Gs. After selling out concerts all over their hometown of Detroit, they went to The Closet studios run by Sophocles Jones and recorded their first singles. Negativland heard these recordings and contacted the Gs to put out their first full-length record on their own Seeland label.

I got to interview head G, David Minnick, about the project and the history of the band.

And remember, every number is 180; every letter is G.


Part the First

At this Moment in time, what is your favorite song?

David Minnick: I just found an LP by the “Korean Orphan Choir” which has a fantastic version of “O Susanna” on it.

What’s your favorite band that you don’t think a lot of people would have heard of?

David Minnick: Leisure Class (Mr. Unique and the Leisure Suits).

What, if anything, is on any particular wall (your choice) in your domicile?

David Minnick: I have pictures of Dick Sr. (our father) and all of my brothers arranged in a semi-circle on my largest living room wall. There’s a blank space at the top reserved for my gold copy of “180 d’Gs to the Future”.

What’s the strangest thing you own?

David Minnick: An Elton John T-shirt.

What are the five most recent films you’ve seen?

David Minnick: The film on my shower walls, the film on top of a 4-day-old cup of coffee left in a dark corner of the studio, the film on my glasses after hanging out in a smoky bar the other night, the film of dust on my TV screen, and the film of olive oil on the stove top after turning the flame up too high while making falafel yesterday.

What’re your top three movies?

David Minnick: Stranger Than Paradise , Blue Velvet, Koyaanisqatsi.

Do you own any original artwork, and if so, whose?

David Minnick: I have a lot of artwork made by family and friends in my place, but nothing by anyone famous.

What is your favorite game?

David Minnick: I’ve always enjoyed piñatas.

If you could say one thing to David Byrne, what would it be?

David Minnick: I don’t understand the question.

What are your five most favorite books in the world?

David Minnick: The Trial – Kafka, The Age of Reason – Sartre, Codex Seraphinianus – Luigi Serafini

(I think those are the only books I’ve ever read)

What is reality?

David Minnick: Read the 3 books mentioned above.

Part the Second

Do you have any vocal training, or are you self-taught?

David Minnick: All 5 (or 6) of the Minnick brothers were subjected to rigorous musical training from a very early age. Our father, Dick Minnick, Sr., was the music director at “Sweet Jesus of the Mountain in the Mornin’ Baptist Church” in Detroit from 1966 until his mysterious disappearance in 1999 (Rev. Al Sweet has been the pastor there for as long as I can remember). My brothers and I were required to join the choir as soon as we turned 6. It was in the choir that we all began to find our voices and develop a feel for vocal harmony. Chris, Don, Mark, Peter and I all still sing with the choir whenever we can. In addition, we were each required to study a different instrument (twice a week) with a member of the church’s band (drums, bass, guitar, organ, saxophone and theremin) Our father’s dream was that his sons would one day make up the entire band. Over the years we all became pretty good at our instruments. We even did play a few services by ourselves in the mid ’90s. At home, Dad taught us the basics of music theory and harmony and made sure that we practiced a few hours every day. He traveled a lot for his second job, but would always call to make sure we were practicing. He’d say, “If I don’t hear at least two instruments playing and two people singing when I call, I’m gonna bring home a world of hurt.” Dick NEVER stopped playing the theremin, so at least one instrument was always playing. Personally, I think the THEREMIN is the reason that our mother moved to an apartment across town in 1994. When I was 15, Dad took Chris and I over to “The Closet” recording studio and introduced us to Sophocles Jones. We helped out Mr. Jones in the studio for the next several years and eventually learned how to run the studio ourselves, but Mr. Jones would never let us in the studio without his supervision. We met a lot of Dad’s musician friends at “The Closet” who would become important parts of our career later on.

Have the 180 Gs ever attempted a Negativland song that you just couldn’t get to work?

David Minnick: Yeah, we had a few of those. We could have gotten them to work (in my opinion) but everyone just got impatient. For example: I had written out a transcription of “Potty Air” from Points, but while recording it, a few of the guys felt too silly reading through 5 minutes of fart noises to continue. I had to scrap it to keep a few of the guys from walking off the project (even though it took me over 100 hours of tedious work to transcribe it accurately)… I HOPE YOU’RE READING THIS DON AND PETER!! IT WOULD HAVE BEEN COOL!!!

There were a few other songs (“Oven Noises”, “The Playboy Channel”) that we nearly gave up on. Whenever we were close to giving up, we’d remember Dad’s last words to us, as he walked out the front door for the last time: “Don’t give up.” We’d collect ourselves, and get back to work. Dad also told me: “If ya get lost, you might have taken a wrong turn a few miles back. Just walk backwards a few miles and then walk forwards down another path and you might not be lost anymore.” I had no idea what he meant by all of that, until we had to scrap our first recording of “Oven Noises” and start over. The final result was much better, but it was painful to just throw away 2 months of work. It took a long time, but we eventually got arrangements that we were satisfied with for the songs we wanted.

Are there any unreleased 180 Gs recordings?

David Minnick: Yes. We did, on average, 3 versions of each song before we found the groove that worked. With a lot of songs, we’d go as far as we could go and then end up scrapping the whole thing. We’d come back a few days later with entirely new insights into the song we were covering and start over from scratch. About half of these earlier versions still exist, but I don’t think that any of us ever want to hear them again. We also completed versions of “Clowns and Ballerinas” and “Escape From Noise”, but the master tape with those 2 songs went missing around the same time that Dick Jr. went missing. I’m not saying that he stole the tape, but it’s just kind of a strange coincidence, y’know? We wanted to do Helter Stupid in its entirety, but it turned out to be too much work. We figured that everyone would get the idea after 4 minutes. I remember, at that point, that everyone was ready to move on. I imagine that there are bootleg live recordings of us performing any of our material that isn’t on the CD.

What is your favorite Negativland record?

David Minnick: I really like the OTE recordings; especially the California Super Station. Dick Vaughn’s voice sounds a lot like our brother Dick’s. We used to tease him about that ’til he got really angry one time and nearly beat the crap out of Don. That’s when we learned not to push Dick too far. Of Negativland’s full-length studio releases, I enjoy A Big 10-8 Place and Free the most.

Do you find that Negativland songs from a particular era (the earlier, more experimental based stuff versus the more song-based stuff of the later records) work better in an 180 Gs arrangement?

David Minnick: That’s really impossible to say because the entire concept of turning Negativland pieces into a cappella vocal arrangements doesn’t (or shouldn’t) work. Each song on 180 d’Gs to the Future was as difficult as the next. The more experimental, or speech-based pieces demanded that we make up our own melodies/harmonies while still being faithful to the original. In addition, the absence of regular rhythmic patterns in the original pieces meant that we had sing a lot of complicated, irrational rhythms AND not get lost. Our job, however, was to give these pieces a natural, funky “flow”. The more song-like pieces demanded that we come up with arrangements that went BEYOND the original so that we weren’t just doing straight cover versions. There was really no easy way to do this record and make it hold together.

Would the history of the Gs been different if it had been a different Negativland record you discovered in Rev. Sweet’s trailer?

David Minnick: Yes. I don’t know if any of my brothers have talked about this in interviews yet, but I think it’s time the truth was told. When I got home with the LP of Points that I had lifted from Rev. Sweet’s trailer I wanted to hear it right away. Dad had played us a few tracks from Escape from Noise years earlier, but that was the only exposure to Negativland that I had ever had. Dad had disappeared nearly 2 years earlier and we were still looking for things to remind us of him. I think that’s what possessed me to steal the LP. Inside the record sleeve with the LP was a letter in Dad’s handwriting, which began “Dear Chris, David, Dick, Don, Mark and Peter….” It was within this letter that we discovered Dad’s dying wish: “I want you boys to ask Rev. Sweet for the rest of my Negativland recordings. Listen to them day and night for at least 8 weeks… listen to them ’till you know every voice and every noise by heart. Listen to them ’till you can sing along! Then I want you boys to go over to “The Closet” and record sweet soulful versions of “Theme From a Big 10-8 Place” and “Christianity is Stupid” using nothing but your voices. Send the songs off to Negativland. When the time comes, you’ll know what to do next. You shall call yourselves The 180 Gs.” There was no doubt in any of our minds that we MUST follow our father’s wishes. I suppose the rest is history.

When you found “Points”, was it different than the other records Rev. Sweet had, or did he have a lot of experimental music?

David Minnick: Before the day we asked Rev. Sweet for our Dad’s Negativland recordings, we didn’t even know that he owned any records. We’d find LPs of sacred music or show tunes (checked out from the library) in his trailer every now and then but not much else. When we finally saw his record collection, it turned out to be a bunch of Dad’s records that he had borrowed years ago.

What other groups do you enjoy? Other bands like Negativland, or something else entirely?

David Minnick: I like a lot of different kinds of music. If it sounds like whoever made it put some thought and some effort into it, I’ll probably enjoy it. If it doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard, I’ll probably love it!

While doing a bit of research for this interview, I discovered that you can buy Mp3s of the 180 Gs album from Amazon using Pepsi Points — what do you think about that?

David Minnick: Personally, I think that’s just fine. I happen to like Pepsi a lot better than Coke anyway. However, I haven’t gotten any Pepsi points yet. I guess it’s a good thing I’ve got the master tapes of the 180 Gs album.

Why is Dick Minnick not pictured on the album sleeve?

David Minnick: If we’re talking about Dick, I’ll have to back into history a little bit: Dick (aside from his incessant theremin playing and his occasional violent temper) was just like the rest of us. We’d sing, we’d play music, we’d joke around, we’d argue from time to time… he was just one of us. Other people had told us that there was something wrong with him (being the 4th Minnick triplet) but we didn’t see it.

However, shortly after Dad’s disappearance, Dick began to change. He no longer joked around with us; he always seemed to be somewhere else. Dick, who was always the most relaxed and carefree of the brothers, suddenly became quite stiff.

It was around this time that he started a new job at T.G.I. Friday’s as a line cook. After working there for about 2 weeks, he started coming home less and less. Sometimes he would leave for work on Monday and we wouldn’t see him until Thursday. We’d ask him where he had been and he’d say that he ended up having to work a double shift.

We began to get strange phone calls at all hours of the night. If Dick picked up the phone, he’d go someplace private and talk for an hour or more. If anyone else picked up the phone, whoever was on the other end would hang up immediately.

One time, Dick and I answered different phones at the same time and I stayed on the line. I hated spying on my brother, but I had to find out what was going on. The person on the other end said that they were calling from WLND, a top 40 station in a place called Howland Island. They were calling to find out if Dick had considered taking the DJ position he had been offered a few weeks ago. Dick said he’d have to get back to them (I think he knew that I was on the other line). I could never bring it up and admit that I was eavesdropping on my own brother, and Dick never mentioned it, so it never came up again.

The night of the photo shoot for the 180 Gs album cover, all of us met at our mother’s apartment. She said she had a surprise for all of us. Once we were all there, Mom opened up the closet to reveal 6 sparkly “singin’ suits” (as Dad used to call them). Each had a letter “G” embroidered on the shoulder. They were the most beautiful thing I had ever seen! “Dad got these for you to wear on your record cover” Mom said. Somehow, they all fit perfectly.

As we were heading out the door to go to the photo shoot, Dick was still sitting on the couch with Mom. “You guys go ahead, I’ll meet you there.”, he said. When Chris asked him why, he pointed to Mom and said, “I have to show her the Sursiks”. This answer baffled us so much that we just went ahead without him. (It’s strange that 4 years after this, a band named “The Sursiks” asked the 180 Gs to sing backups for a few songs on their record and asked me to produce the entire album.)

We waited as long as we could for Dick to show up for the photo shoot. Finally, we had to just take the pictures without him. I was worried about Dick, so I went back to Mom’s apartment to see if he was still there. As I stood outside the apartment door, I heard a horrible noise coming from inside. Worried that something was terribly wrong, I burst right in without knocking. Dick was sitting on the couch, watching the jammed signal of the “Playboy Channel”. All of us had been caught doing THAT at one time or another. However, Dick was fully clothed, he had the volume turned up quite high, and he was furiously taking notes.

When Dick realized I was behind him, he scrambled for the remote, turned the television off, and quickly closed his notebook. He slowly stood up, smirked at me, and without a word, handed me a State of Michigan death certificate with his own name on it. He slowly sauntered out the door while I stood there gaping. That was the last I ever saw of him.

Have you and the other Gs been able to meet Negativland?

David Minnick: No. We were just in contact with them through email and telephone. They helped us out with transcripts of some pieces, and brought us back when we went conceptually astray. I think that Dad knew them pretty well though.

 

Do the 180 Gs have any other projects in the works?

David Minnick: The 180 Gs (as a group) have no new projects planned at the moment. I think that Don, Mark and Peter got burned out by the sudden fame of the 180 Gs. They’ve all said that they wouldn’t mind getting back into the studio to make another record, but they’d rather not perform live anymore. They just want to lead normal lives. The only other project we’ve even discussed is an a cappella version of the Captain Beefheart record Trout Mask Replica… If only it weren’t so long. Chris and I, in the meantime, have started a record label called Crabid Music. We’ve worked with a band called the Sursiks that makes music out of all sorts of unlikely things. The 180 Gs did some vocals for 2 songs on their 1st record I Didn’t Know I Was Singing back in 2006. I produced the entire album and did a lot of arrangements for it too. We also got to work with one of Dad’s old friends: a Blues Guitarist named Oven Mitt Johnson. He plays guitar with an oven mitt on his left hand (but he can still solo like Sweet Jesus on the Mountain in the Mornin’). It’s ridiculous; it’s not even funny. The other project (which I actually played on) is with a free-improv jazz trio called Zermos. If you’d like to hear what 3-years-past-the-expiration-date Mertz can do to 3 musicians, you should give it a listen.

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