By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
The novelty tune has a long history, going back to the inspired insanity of Spike Jones in the '40s. The form reached its arguable peak, however, during the '80s, with the advent of MTV. Suddenly, such eccentrics as "Weird Al" Yankovic, They Might Be Giants, the Flaming Lips, and the Dead Milkmen were able to score sizable hits. A kind of geek chic crept across the airwaves, stealing thunder from the arena rockers and material girls of the day.
By the late '90s, though, the novelty (tunes) had worn off. Sure, there were the occasional left-field hits -- see Cake, Soul Coughing, and the Presidents of the United States of America -- but radio programmers mostly chose bonehead metal and slick rap over dork-rock. If you wanted a chuckle, you had to laugh at artists, rather than with them. While David Lowery and Cracker may've suggested that we need another folksinger like we need a hole in the head, they didn't say anything about snarky goofballs.
But don't fret, yon smart-alecky listener: There just may be a savior right in our own backyard. Say hello to MC Lars Horris, a white, 21-year-old Stanford junior who raps about aliens, robots, and, um, Macbeth.
Thursday, March 18, at 8 p.m.
DJs M3, Mike Frugaletti, and Monkey Man also perform
Tickets are $7
Before you scoff, let it be said that Horris' debut CD, Radio Pet Fencing (released by the British indie-rock label Truck), has received airplay from prominent DJs on both sides of the pond, including Dr. Demento in the U.S. and the BBC's Steve Lamacq in merry ol' England. With his silly lyrics and exuberant live show, Horris could easily be the next "Weird Al," one the Bay Area can call its very own. But there's only one thing standing in his way. Himself.
"In my new material, I'm trying to move away from the novelty stuff," Horris says. "I don't want to be pigeonholed."
Houston, we have a problem.
MC Lars Horris, aka Andrew Nielsen, looks like your typical college student. When he shows up for our interview at a Haight Street cafe, he sports a Nintendo jacket and a slightly askew A's hat, his blonde mane poking out in all directions. He speaks hesitantly, until the conversation moves to something he's passionate about, like old-school rapper KRS-One or author Herman Melville, and then his eyes light up with a missionary's zeal.
Nielsen has been writing songs since he was eight, when he penned a tune about not wanting to clean his room. After hearing the "Weird Al" spoof "I'm Fat" at age 11, he took up guitar lessons. "I'd been listening to a lot of Nirvana, but 'Weird Al' made me realize you could be funny and rock," he says.
The aspiring comedian played in a couple of bands during his teen years, including one rock group called Horris (named after a horselike guy, "Horace," on the TV show Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman). Following the accession of Beck, Nielsen started messing around with his home computer, recording raps over guitar loops and techno beats. At 16, he received a homework assignment to "make fun of Macbeth," and concocted "Rapbeth (Foul Is Fair)," in which he fit the Bard's words over a 4/4 house beat.
Like a lot of suburban white kids in the '90s, Nielsen was exposed to hip hop through lame rap-rock hybrids like the Insane Clown Posse and Twiztid. It was only after he got to Stanford and scored a show on KZSU-FM (90.1) that he gained access to old-school LPs by Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy. (He still does his show, "Pandora's Beat-Box," every Sunday from 9 to 11 p.m.)
Hoping to marry this consciousness-raising rap to the geek-rock of Ween, Wesley Willis, and King Missile, Nielsen took up his stage name, adding "Lars" (from a 1995 fat-camp comedy Heavyweights). But the hip hop community wasn't quite ready for a white MC who name-dropped Mark Twain, bragged about his SAT scores, and rapped about anti-slavery advocate John Brown.
"Sometimes they hate on it, because it's different and because I set different standards for myself," Nielsen says. "I'd rather make a pun about Jello Biafra and Bill Cosby than cram 32 syllables into 16 bars." As for the suggestion that African-Americans might not want to learn about the evils of society from him, he says, "The argument that a white person can't educate people about racism is a difficult one for me to accept, because you don't have to be directly affected by racism to view it as wrong."
Interestingly, Nielsen found his most receptive audience in the Oxford punk community, when he studied there in early 2003. "The punk rock scene in England is a lot more open-minded than the indie rock scene, both of which are more open-minded than the hip hop scene," he says.
While there, Nielsen played 11 shows in three months, gaining the notice of Truck Records. Although the label's owners mostly devote themselves to lo-fi indie-rock, they took a liking to Nielsen. "His educated humor is undoubtedly American, but the sort of American character who is often hidden by the media's obsession with beauty and dumbness," writes Truck's Paul Bonham via e-mail. "Sure, MC Lars can be dumb, but behind the jokes are some very clever references to politics, literature, and global issues."