By Mark Guarino
A rule: There’s nothing sexy about the mixture of politics and music.
Another rule: Unless you are Bobby Conn.
Over the last 12 months, many musicians have put their criticism of the war on terror, the Bush administration and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to music and the results have been what you’d expect: solemn or scornful or both.
But nothing is quite like “The Homeland” (Thrill Jockey), the fourth album from Chicagoan Bobby Conn. Set to flashy disco beats, squalls of heavy metal guitars and glam rock pomp, the music is to current events what “Dr. Strangeglove” was to the Vietnam era: satirical tragicomedy so over the top it skewers its subjects with high bravado and deadly potency. Instead of taking a literal approach to news events, Conn sets them in the backdrop of a fable with its main protagonist a “self-righteous, ideological, self-appointed prince” in the guise of Bush — or maybe Osama Bin Laden.
Conn said the album had an innocuous beginning. A speech on CNN last spring by Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz spelling out the administration’s case for invading Iraq gave Conn the seed for the album’s opening song, “We Come In Peace.” “I wrote the lyrics as an encapsulation of the speech he gave. Which is the idea that ‘we’re right, you’re wrong and if you’re complaining about it, it’s just sour grapes’,” he said. In the tight garage rocker, Conn sings “we have no fear of your disgust/you hate us ‘cause you’re jealous of success.”
“I wanted to capture the amazing confidence you have when God is on your side and there is nothing stopping you,” he said.
Conn was born Robert Kahn in New York City but moved around several places until his parents settled in St. Charles where he went to high school. Later, after dropping out of New York University, he moved back to Chicago in 1989 and got involved in the noise rock scene where he fronted a trio called Canducent, a mixture of Captain Beefheart and Can. When they broke up in 1994, he moved to New Orleans for a spell before returning to Chicago and deciding he wanted to be “Bobby Conn,” a mix between Sammy Davis Jr. and Freddie Mercury of Queen.
“I got really sick of ‘90s indie rock where it was very uncool to be excited while you played and if you were excited while you played it had to be this really emo thing where you were really distraught,” he said. “I really want to bring the audience back into the show as much as possible.”
In a city scene of jaded hipsters and avant gardists, Conn works completely in a world of his own making. His shows are known as a kind of surreal theatre, where costumes, makeup and shenanigans are on high order. Conn has ended shows by stripping to his underwear, crawling atop tables and incorporated the high intensity stage climaxes of his obvious forefathers — Prince, Parliament Funkadelic and David Bowie.
“I try to get to that point where I lose really any sort of sense of control,” he said. “I know what song I’m playing but I want to get beyond the music. I want to connect to it emotionally and directly. A lot of my favorite shows were inspired by Sammy Davis Jr. If he felt like the audience weren’t getting into it, he’d do card tricks, play the xylophone, juggle and do whatever it took until finally after three hours, he’s proven he’s the world greatest entertainer. I admire that desperate, maniacal energy. I feel if I don’t get to that point where I’m completely soaked and spent, I really haven’t done my job.”
Conn enjoys a larger audience in Europe which he tours at least once a year, sometimes to festival crowds numbering a thousand and more. One summer festival in Norway, he stepped on the stage of a hockey arena and remembered thousands of people “reacted as if we were Kiss.” “It was a fist-pumping rock show the entire time, I was completely blown away and thought ‘wow, this is actually kind of fun’.”
Conn credits Europe’s more adventuresome radio climate in getting the word out plus “they react to the humor of it.” “A lot of my records are about life in America specifically but Americans are not interested in it because of its humor and, I think, people don’t trust me.”
Despite the absurd backdrop, Conn’s music has all the elements of the serious post-rock artists he’s worked with (Jim O’Rourke, John McEntire of Tortoise): the music is complex in its arrangements, borrows from a variety of genres, and makes sly commentaries on mainstream tastes while using them at their fullest. While Conn is aware that sincere social commentary can take the form of spandex costumes and mayhem, he just isn’t sure anyone else is.
“One guy sitting on a stool in a flannel shirt with a acoustic guitar playing protest songs … is trying to deny the artificiality of the situation. There’s no give and take with the audience. To pretend you’re having an intimate conversation with that one person, to me, doesn’t seem very honest,” he said. “I feel much more honest when I’m dressed as an entertainer. If I went up in my street clothes, to me, that’s more of a put on.”