Originally published by SF Weekly September 12, 2001
©2001 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.

Giving Pause

West Oakland's Mono Pause is the Bay Area's most
adventurous rock band you've never heard of

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 of 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 Afterworld Lounge (once the 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."

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 Hole from 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 CD/magazine by the Gergis brothers' spin-off group The Twelve Steppes, 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."

The bandmates continue to use the sounds around them in new ways. "We sample ourselves a lot of the time," says Mark Gergis. "The LP, for instance, there are songs on there that contain one piece from 1994, another from cassette tapes just blocked together and re-edited and recontextualized."

"But we don't even think about it anymore," says Conheim. "The record is drawn, as Mark said, from all these different tapes. Compositions are written based on something that was recorded years ago, and humans can be replaced, of course, easily, so if a human makes a sound on a tape then they can be frozen in time on that tape and reused, or someone can learn their part. You know, we come and go, but the tapes endure until they flake apart."

Beyond found sound and self-sampling, the group also draws from a wide array of musical traditions. Reimagined or fed through the Mono Pause machine, the resulting collage is what the band members call "world beating."

"I'm a radio anthropologist," says Gergis. "When I travel, I listen a lot and record a lot of AM and shortwave radio, and pick up bits and pieces here and there. Sometimes we've actually reworked these unidentifiable bits of music as a basis and then changed the lyrics and changed the arrangement, and turned it into our own piece."

Those "bits and pieces" come from all over the world. Gergis has made several trips to Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe; most recently, he visited Thailand, Syria, and several other out-of-the-way locales with Erik.

"Mark and Erik have done most of the archaeological footwork, that's definitely true," says Conheim. "It's also true that we've learned that we share such incredibly similar interests in ethnographic pursuits. Generally, when a piece of interesting cultural, international detritus floats by and one of us grabs it, we all have the same response."

"Which doesn't mean we have to incorporate it into our music. We all just enjoy listening to it," says Mark Gergis. That said, he continues, "Inherently it does make its way into a fraction of what we do."

Another factor that has influenced the band's attitude and approach is the neighborhood in which the members practice and live: the gritty slice of West Oakland that runs alongside the elevated BART tracks. From Mark Gergis' Seventh Street flat, the trains are extremely audible. Once a vibrant, diverse community of artists, this section of town was essentially destroyed by BART and freeway construction. Although gentrification has begun to creep in, the area remains caught in a time warp of weirdness, crime, and relatively affordable rents -- it is, in other words, a breeding ground for current and former unusual acts like Thinking Fellers Union Local 282, Toychestra and Fibulator, among others.

"West Oakland permeates every aspect of Mono Pause in a lot of ways," says Gergis. "Those BART trains careening through our front yard here define the West Oakland sound. Those artists who record in West Oakland, everyone knows that you have to wait for the pauses between the trains or you have to make the trains part of the music. You allow the trains to become part of the recording process."

In addition to inspiring and informing Mono Pause's sound, the odd mixture of noisiness and sparseness in West Oakland has allowed the group to rehearse and record in Gergis' flat (or in bandmate Heco Davis' even more cavernous apartment across the street). The sextet needs the time and the space, as it often takes months for Mono Pause to prepare for a gig. The aim, Gergis explains, is "transcending a stage performance, trying to imagine how you can take it into an alternate place, whether it's through reverse movement [i.e., playing the set backward] or a physical improvisation or [movement] that is choreographed, like our dance piece. We're really interested in finding ways to transcend being onstage, [to] transcend your physical reality."

All this "transcending," however, seems to feed back into the "what are they going to do next" attitude that Mono Pause tries to resist. (In fact, the band is so furtive about its latest performance wrinkle that it has sworn me to secrecy.) True to form, the Mono Pause members are unable to stop performing even after the interview has concluded: With the tape recorder still running, Conheim leans down to the microphone and whispers, "This entire thing has been a fraud. Don't believe a word of it."*

* post-publication corrections and recontextualizations provided by Mono Pause without permission.