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They've stopped their sets to stage poetry readings, inciting a near-riot at clubs like the Bottom of the Hill. They've shown up as squares dressed in alligator shirts for a gig at Berkeley's notorious Gilman Street punk club. They've played songs backward, just for the heck of it, or prerecorded entire sets, right down to the between-song banter, lip-syncing the whole thing. Then there's the infamous "White Ring" show, in which they doubled as hatemongering bigots who sang anti-abortion songs and "ministered" to the crowd. But while the members of West Oakland's Mono Pause are known as much for their humor and outrageousness as for their music, they do not want to be relegated to the "what are they going to do next" file -- even as they acknowledge that they've helped put themselves there.
"We weren't even intending on playing music as more than a joke in the beginning," says Mark Gergis, who in addition to Mono Pause does his own sound work and performance under the moniker Porest Sound. The band, which also includes Peter Conheim, Heco Davis, Erik Gergis, Brently Pusser, and Miles Stegall, had its first gig at Oakland's legendary, now-defunct Heinz Club in November 1993.
"We were based so strongly around tapes as the jumping-off point for all the source material that there was something performative about that in and of itself," says Conheim, the other founding member of Mono Pause, who also performs with Wet Gate and Negativland. "We never set out to play songs in the first place, so I'm not sure how it happens that we play songs now. We tried so hard to avoid it."
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Whatever you call the material, the group's eclectic shows have put Mono Pause in a bit of a bind. Now, says Conheim, "We have this performance problem. We got labeled "performance.' People come to see us expecting the next performance. It's a grave error on the audience's part, because at this point it isn't performance -- those are our songs. Our songs are physical elements."
To grasp the paradox, it's essential to experience Mono Pause live. Aside from its sight gags and hilarious set pieces, the band fuses music and action like no other in the Bay Area. The members dance, act, and even seal themselves in homemade "whale suits," all in an effort to break down the barriers between crowd and performer; they steadfastly refuse to be mere entertainment.
Meanwhile, the music of the group, as on last year's LP Peeping Through the Listen Holefrom Electro Motive, is remarkable in itself. Everything from Middle Eastern pop to Midwestern metal gets layered into a rich landscape of horns, organs, guitars, and the group's trademark found-sound loops. Mono Pause gladly dips into every genre of music, humorous or not, without playing it overtly for laughs. There is no deliberate cheesiness to the tunes, no winking at the audience like some lounge act. But despite the humor, it is a deadly serious approach, one that's also political.
"There would not be a White Ring if we were not in the situation as Americans we're in at this time," says Conheim, somewhat ominously, referring to the band's bigoted stand-ins. "You can't have a greater or graver self-parody than American society today. So you can't poke fun, you can't be Saturday Night Live about it. ... The White Ring can't be funny."
When putting together the White Ring, Conheim explains, "We had to embrace hate in a big way. We hated ourselves in the process of doing it, in a way. But we also, by embracing it, we did take great pleasure in it."
Though Conheim is Jewish and both Mark and Erik Gergis are half-Iraqi, the band plays the offensive angle to the hilt, passing out fliers at shows and providing a link on its Web site to a half-baked racist theory written with spot-on poor grammar. That sharp eye for satire was informed by Mark Gergis' and Conheim's fascination with found sound and radio spoofs, specifically the wickedly deadpan Coyle & Sharpe man-on-the-street routines that Conheim remembers hearing as a child.
"That's always been a part of what we do," says Gergis of cut-ups and tape loops. "It's been a very natural way to approach composition or expressing ideas. I've worked with found sound, or the tape medium like that, or pause buttons, since I was a kid, and I think Peter has, too. The earliest attraction was the correlation you could make between one sound and another, or one text and another, and how you could combine those elements and make them mean something else."
Soon after that first gig at the Heinz in 1993, Erik Gergis and Davis joined the band as steady members. Except for a couple of self-released tapes and a booklet ("Deep North") that chronicled a sojourn to Detroit, Mono Pause remained essentially underground until the release of Peeping Through the Listen Hole -- even then, the act was more a legend than a band. And that sense of mystery stems from their musical process.
"We've always been recyclers of culture," says Conheim. "We've always been these trash cans of culture, garbage disposals of -- not as much culture but [the] sonic stimulus all around us. Both of us grew up absorbing and recontextualizing the sounds around us, and used tape recorders or Super 8 cameras to do that."