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Master of Destruction: Mike Wiltrout on Art vs. Art

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on September 23, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version.


This Friday night 32 paintings will compete head-to-head in the annual battle royale known as Art vs. Art at The Vogue. In anticipation of this celebration/destruction of local arts, Sky Blue Window sat down with the event’s longtime master of ceremonies, Mike Wiltrout. Wiltrout is the former front man of Indy’s favorite funky punks Johnny Socko and current lead singer of The Leisure Kings. “You know, I’ve been a professional musician for 25 years,” Wiltrout says. “If people come up to me and recognize me, it’s almost always for Art vs. Art, which is hilarious. I love it. At least they’re not recognizing me as the guy ran over their dog. I think it’s cool to be recognized for anything.” Scope the full interview below for an explanation of “The Dirty Sanchez” and other Art vs. Art essentials.

Courtesy of Art vs. Art

Courtesy of Art vs. Art

Sky Blue Window: How did you get roped into this gig?

Mike Wiltrout: That’s a great story. When they first had it, it was held at Birdy’s. I had gone to one, and I really liked it. I might’ve spoken with somebody about that. Back then it was being hosted by Russell Johnson [aka] Rusty Redenbacher. He was doing a really good job, but the following year he was sick and he took a bunch of cough syrup. I don’t think it was recreational taking of cough syrup. It was medicinal, but it kind of put him off his game as emcee. So, the following year, which was the first year they held it at Fountain Square Theatre, they asked me to do it, and I was really psyched because I really liked the event. I think mainly it was on the strength of having been in Johnny Socko for many years and being known as kind of a ham on stage. I didn’t actively campaign for the job, but being a game show host in any way, shape or form has always been kind of a secret dream of mine. So, I jumped at it, and I’m holding that job in a death grip.

SBW: Is there anything going on this year that’s different from years past?

MW: I think a lot of the stuff we change is such minutiae that people who haven’t been to the event before aren’t going to know what I’m talking about.

SBW: Explain the Wheel of Death to someone who hasn’t attended to Art vs. Art.

MW: Okay, so these paintings go up against each other head-to-head, and we have a decibel meter. The crowd cheers for whichever one they like the best. The one that wins goes onto the next round. The one that loses faces the Wheel of Death, which is an enormous, game-show type wheel that’s mounted on this big wrought-iron, scary contrivance. It has horns and skulls and I think a fog machine. It’s probably about 8 feet tall.

SBW: That sounds disturbing. 

MW: It is. It’s very disturbing. So, I spin that Wheel of Death and whatever section of the wheel it lands on, that is how the painting would die, if it were to die. Then they give the audience a chance to bid to save it with an auctioneer. The minimum bids goes up with every round. They’ve gotta lay up some pretty serious cash. In the later rounds, I’ve seen some paintings go for $800.

SBW: Do people get upset when their art gets destroyed? Have there been any rough reactions over the years?

MW: Nobody has ever thrown anything at me. It’s been around and people have known the drill for 10 years now. I think everybody that enters it understands that it’s an honor to get your painting destroyed on stage. People are cheering for that. I remember in the earlier years, there was a little bit of outcry. I think it was just one guy, so I don’t even know if that counts as an outcry. That’s like an in-cry. Somebody wrote an editorial in NUVOrailing against the destruction of art, but by and large it’s pretty embraced. People get into it.


Courtesy of Art vs. Art

SBW: You’re a musician. Have you ever played in the battle of the bands? 

MW: I’ve never played in a battle of the bands. One time, when I was down on my luck, I had left my old band and gotten a divorce and gotten off the road for the first time in a decade, I entered a karaoke contest. The first prize was 2,000 bucks, so not quite the $4,000 from Art vs. Art, but it looked like a lot of money to me back then. It was held at Metro, the city’s premier gay bar. It was fantastic. I remember going to it as a spectator the year before, and people would go all out. I mean, not just the singing but the costumes and the special effects. Karaoke wasn’t as widely accepted 12 years ago, at least not by me. I had been in a band for 10 years before that, and the thought of people getting up in bars and singing along to a track was lame. But the siren call was 2,000 bucks. It lured me in, and I actually won it.

SBW: Do you remember what you sang to win? 

MW: Well you sang three songs every round. It was ridiculous. It took place over the span of like three months. I think there were like, 200 people in it. People came from other cities. In the final round, I did “Come Sail Away” by Styx, and I did “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” by Stevie Wonder, and I did a piano and drums lounge version of “Gin and Juice.” I think that was the one that clinched it.

SBW: $4,000 is a lot of cash for the Art vs. Art winner …  Have the reactions been pretty crazy over the years? 

MW: Personally, I always thought people would flip out, but they’re always just a little bit stage struck. Plus, they have to slog through this event that goes for three or four hours. So, they’re a little glazed by the time they get up there. Again, these are people who are probably pretty introverted — most of them. So, it’s not a world they’re familiar with being cast in.

Courtesy of Art vs. Art

Courtesy of Art vs. Art

SBW: Any other crazy stories, disasters or awesome memories?

MW: Sometimes toward the end of it, when we’ve already gone through all the modes of death and a painting is going to die, I’ll mix in two different modes of death. One of them that’s really been popular over the years was called The Dirty Sanchez …

SBW: Describe The Dirty Sanchez.

MW: Well, you have a bucket of stuff that looks like feces. It wasn’t, but it was something they had mixed up from discarded paint and degreaser — I don’t know, it was foul. In fact, they kept the exact same bucket for a decade. They just put a lid on it.

SBW: So you’re telling me somewhere in Primary Colours’ basement, there’s a glory bucket of Dirty Sanchez material? 

MW: Oh, yes. Yeah. I promise you it’s there. So, when a painting gets “Sanchezed” if it’s a portrait, they use a paint brush and they paint the simulated feces onto it like a mustache. Then they end up just kind of slathering it all over. Well, I had the bright idea of combining The Dirty Sanchez with The Chainsaw. You know, just mixing it up. The chainsaw spit and sprayed what they call “the doo-doo butter” all over the place. I have a smoking jacket that I wore while hosting that year that still has little brown globules on it. It just got on there and dried. I mean, I’ve tried to have it dry cleaned. It’s not going anywhere.

SBW: I imagine the crowd was horrified when the doo-doo butter went flying?

MW: Yeah, I think we all were. It was a lesson in physics at the time when you least expect it.

SBW: Is there a formula for success in terms of what the audience tends to love over the years? 

MW: It’s always the weirder stuff. There is a formula. But it’s not hard-and-fast. It’s not 100 percent. If you paint something that’s cutesy, but then there’s an element to it that turns the cutesy thing on its ear — like, a cute, cuddly poodle, but he’s shooting heroine. That always seems to go over very well. That kind of a thing: Cuteness perverted seems to be a very common thread.

I don’t think enough art gets destroyed. That’s the only flaw in Art vs. Art. Maybe they need to raise their minimum bid prices, even if it’s only for paintings that really, just kinda suck. Maybe they got their friends to stuff the ballot box or whatever, but those paintings ought to be destroyed. There’s always somebody who’s the artist’s mom or uncle, and they’ll make the minimum bid and nobody else will bid on it, and everybody else is just furious at them. ‘Come on!’ … I mean, good for them because they got some money, but it’s a bloodthirsty crowd. You don’t want to disappoint them.

SBW: So, more destruction is your professional opinon?

MW: I think so. I think so.

Written by Rob Peoni


Curating songs from the outside in: Kyle Long on TedxIndianapolis

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on October 16, 2014. Some content, style and formatting may differ from the original version. 

Like most people attempting to earn a living within Indy’s music scene, Kyle Long wears a lot of hats. He is the cofounder of Cultural Cannibals with his partner Artur Silva. He pens a weekly column and hosts a radio show entitled “A Cultural Manifesto” at NUVO and WFYI, respectively. He’s the music consultant at Eskenazi Health’s Marianne Tobias Music Program. After next week, Long will add Music Curator of TEDxIndianapolis to his lengthy list of job titles.

kyle-longTo all of these positions, Long brings a perspective faced outward. “Whatever I do, whether it’s writing my column for NUVO or my deejay sets, it’s all about bringing what’s perceived as an outside musical tradition into the world of mainstream entertainment in this city,” Long says. This focus made him a perfect fit for TEDxIndianapolis’ 2014 theme of “Get Outside In.” Below, discover the eclectic lineup of musical guests, who will perform at Hilbert Circle Theatre on Oct. 21 and learn why Long chooses to hang his many hats in Indy.

Sky Blue Window: So, how did you get involved in TEDxIndianapolis this year? 

Kyle Long: That goes back to last year, where they asked me to deejay throughout the day during the intermissions. I did some collaborations last year as well, the most interesting of which was a collaboration with Oreo Jones and Time For Three, where we blended all of our unique abilities together for a cool little performance. I think they wanted to incorporate me last year, because what I do here in the community is pretty unique, and it didn’t necessarily make sense for me to do a talk. I’m not very fond of public speaking, and I’m probably terrible at it. So, they threw in the idea of having me deejay throughout the day and have some input on the musical performances. That led to a more substantial role this year. It’s a title that gets thrown on me a lot, which is “music curator.” It sounds really pretentious [he laughs], but I like it and it’s a cool, fun title to have.

SBW: How did you incorporate TEDxIndianapolis’ theme “Get Outside In” into the musical lineup this year? 

KL: I think the organizers, particularly Anne Laker, who is a great member of the Big Car team, felt like the theme of “Get Outside In” really aligned with my work. Whatever I do, whether it’s writing my column for NUVO or my deejay sets, it’s all about bringing what’s perceived as an outside musical tradition into the world of mainstream entertainment in this city. So, she made that connection and reached out to me, and I immediately recognized there was some substantial connection between [TEDx and] what I do in the scene.

Beyond that, I’m always looking for any opportunity to use whatever voice that somebody was generous enough to give me to spotlight artists who I think are doing really important things, but … aren’t getting the attention they deserve. We have a lot of amazing artists on this lineup who have achieved a lot outside of Indiana. Even though they might have a substantial base here, they might not have been given, in my opinion, the exposure they deserve.

SBW: Did TEDx give you carte blanche in terms of your musical curation this year, or did they offer input?

KL: It was definitely equal input, but they certainly gave me freedom to put my own spin on it. That’s what is great about working with Big Car; they focus on creativity. There’s nothing that’s going to turn them off in terms of being too experimental or this is going to freak people out — that’s what they want. They want to see those types of performers come in. So, yeah, I think we had an equal back-and-forth. They made some recommendations, and I made some.


LeeAnn Mueller / Courtesy of Stuart Hyatt

SBW: How does Stuart Hyatt fit in with the musical lineup?

KL: Stuart Hyatt is a Hoosier multi-disciplinary artist. He recently did a project, which you may have heard about, where he made a sound map of Washington Street. He traveled the entire distance of Washington Street, east and west, making field recordings of people he encountered. Then he took those recordings and created a musical composition out of them, which he called The National Road under the name Field Works. This is another interpretation of approaching music with this Outside-In concept. He traveled this road and traveled the Marion County region from the outskirts into downtown and back to the outskirts. And he developed this composition based on his experience. He’s going to present some sort of experimental version. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to shape up, but he’s going to collaborate with Time for Three and present some sort of interpretation of that work at TEDx. So, that’s going to be really exciting to see how he puts it together.

SBW: Can you tell us about the balance of musicians from outside of Indiana and local acts who you have booked for this event? 

KL: The Sweet Poison Victim performance probably speaks best to that. They’re probably my favorite local rock band. I go to all of their shows, and am just a huge fan of theirs. You have this group who’s made up of musicians from all sorts of backgrounds, from hardcore bands to guys who play Latin music. The central figure in the band is Kwesi Brown, who grew up in Ghana and came to the United States to get a PhD in Ethnomusicology from IUPUI. So that band sort of personifies this balance between people from outside traditions here and people who grew up Hoosiers and are doing traditional sorts of Indiana music.

For their performance, they’re going to be collaborating with an amazing woman here in the community named Pam Blevins Hinkle … She’s very involved in music improvisation. She goes into women’s prison and teaches music improvisation to the women. She plays so many instruments and is one of the most creative people here in the music scene. At the introduction of Sweet Poison’s performance, she’s going to be doing a collaborative improvisational piece. Again, that’s another situation like Stuart Hyatt with Time For Three. We don’t know what it’s going to look like. We don’t know if they’ve really worked it out. It’s just very free-flowing and loose, and they’re going to come out and do something in front of 1,500 people that may be spectacular or everybody may be scratching their heads. That’s part of the fun of this event is the open-mindedness of everyone involved.


Polina Osherov / Courtesy of Sweet Poison Victim

SBW: Sweet Poison Victim, Salaam, and Jefferson St. Parade Band are home-grown reflections of your world music interests. Can you talk a bit about Indiana’s ability to foster local projects with such a panoramic world view? 

KL: Jefferson St. Parade Band is a really interesting group. It’s a marching band, essentially. Ben Fowler, who’s the leader of the group, has created a very diverse repertoire for them. They play some Mexican cumbia stuff. They play some Eastern European music that reflects the Roman or gypsy culture. They’re just loud and they make a lot of noise, and it’s sort of like a junkyard band that’s playing all of this really incredible music. When you see them live, they’re sort of dressed like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band making this loud noise with these great rhythms. So, they’re just an incredibly fun group. The marching band is such a part of Hoosier culture with the Big Ten conference here, but they’re opening it up to a worldly repertoire.

A lot of these bands have deep connections with Bloomington. It really speaks to the importance of the music school there. Salaam [another TEDxIndianapolis performer] is an Iraqi music ensemble based in Bloomington. They’ve gotten international recognition for their recordings, and they’re one of the few Iraqi music ensembles working in the United States. The group is led by Dena El Saffar, who is an extraordinary musician. She has toured with an icon of African music named Youssou N’Dour from Senegal. His biggest exposure in the United States or Europe was “In Your Eyes” by Peter Gabriel. He was the African voice on that tune … So she is somebody who has worked at this very high level, and has received lots of important recognition outside of Indiana, but her work doesn’t receive the recognition it deserves here because it’s such a foreign thing to people. That’s why I’m so grateful for the opportunity to present this music to a wider audience here.

SBW: How do you think music helps to further the other conversations that will be going on at TEDxIndianapolis? 

KL: Music just touches people in a very different way. It certainly can stimulate you intellectually, but there’s also this emotional and visceral element to it. It reaches you in places that are beyond words and beyond concrete ideas. It also provides a break of sorts from all of the heavier presentations that people will be seeing … It just switches up the mood for a few minutes and gets everybody recharged.

SBW: Can you tell us a little about the after-party event featuring Osekre? 

KL: I’m really excited about the after-party, because it’s free. Not to diminish anything that TEDx is doing, but the ticket price for TEDx can be off-putting for a lot of people. A lot of my friends are frustrated, because they don’t get to go and see all this great music, but the after party is free. So, we’re inviting everybody to come and get a sense of the music that we’re going to be presenting that day.

Osekre is much like Sweet Poison Victim — they’re a rock band led by a gentleman who grew up in Ghana. They mix ska and some elements of punk rock with the kind of traditional African sounds that people might’ve heard Sweet Poison play. I had been talking with the leader of the group, Ishmael, for a while about bringing them here. They’re based out of New York, and it just worked out that they were going to be around town at the time of TEDx, so we asked them to play the after-party.



SBW: What keeps you in Indy as opposed to working in a city that might have a larger audience for the type of music that you’re interested in? 

KL: When you take on these thoughts and immerse yourself in the struggle for social advancement in the arts — or whatever field you pursue — it can get a little bit depressing. Sometimes I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall here, but the reason I stay is because I think it’s important to make this progress here. I want to be a part of this immigrant community and their struggle to make their place here. I want to be a part of that. It’s very fulfilling to be a part of that.

My friend Artur [Silva], who’s my partner in this organization we created called Cultural Cannibals, he’s a visual artist. He just left to pursue an MFA at Cal Arts near Los Angeles in California. I went out there to get him settled when he made the move, and I was like, “Oh my God, I would love to be here on the ocean and do what I do in this beautiful environment.” There would be so much of an audience for [my work], but I really don’t think I would have the same fulfillment there that I would here. I think we need more people in this fight here. I’m very grateful to have been given opportunities to express myself here. I think it’s important to make the points I’m making and be a part of this community that’s trying to carve out a space for themselves … I don’t want to paint the picture that people here are close-minded. The opportunities that I’ve been given here are indisputable proof that people here agree with the essence of my argument that immigrant cultures deserve more respect and greater rights.

SBW: Is Cultural Cannibals on hold while Artur attends grad school? 

KL: That’s how I see myself. I’m not even a human being. I’m a cultural cannibal. That will never end, until they bury me. So, that’s definitely still going but it’s a little quieter than it has been in the past. Artur and I are preparing for a big mural project here in the city that will be a visual representation of the musical projects that we’ve done in the past. Right now, it looks quiet from the outside, but we’re getting ready to explode across the city when this project comes to fruition.

Written by Rob Peoni


A Frank discussion: Interview with Kenny Childers

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on October 27, 2014. Content, formatting and style changes may differ from the original version. 

For the third installment of Indy Film Fest’s Rock + Reel series featuring movies about music at White Rabbit Cabaret, attendees will be treated to Frank, a dark but hilarious comedy from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson. The film stars Michael Fassbender (12 Years A SlaveInglorious Basterds) as Frank — the masked lead singer of a struggling experimental pop band of misfits. The movie picks up steam when Jon Burroughs, played by Dohmnall Gleeson, fills in on keyboard and subsequently joins the band for the recording of its next album.


Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Over the course of the recording, Burroughs is forced to endure all of the pitfalls of life as the newest band member. Despite the film’s comedic surface, Abrahamson achieves an authentic portrayal of the political infighting and absurdity that comes part and parcel with any tight-knit rock band. It helps there isn’t a poor performance in the bunch, with Maggie Gyllenhaal threatening to steal the show as the manipulative synth player Clara. Frank culminates in a chaotic voyage to SXSW filled with misadventures that are not to be missed.

Prior to the screening, viewers will be treated to a solo performance from Bloomington’s Kenny Childers. As front man to Gentleman Caller, member of The Mysteries of Life, Old Flames and songwriting partner to Lily & Madeleine, Childers is, without a doubt, one of the premier songsmiths this state has produced in the past 20 years. He also happens to be a huge fan of Frank. Despite the fact that he rarely plays solo sets these days, Childers leapt at the opportunity to play alongside the screening. Below, listen to a playlist of Childers’ classics from the Musical Family Tree archive and read a short interview with him. Grab tickets to the Oct. 30 screening of Frank via Eventbrite, and don’t wait too long. Given the rarity of a Childers’ live performance and the strength of this film, those tickets won’t be around for long.

A selection of Kenny Childers songs from Musical Family Tree:

Sky Blue Window: The last time I saw you play was a Gentleman Caller show in Broad Ripple Park as part of MFT’s Listen Local series. Are you playing solo or as Gentleman Caller much these days?

Kenny Childers: Almost never. I may have played one show since Broad Ripple Park. Playing hard gets tougher and tougher for me. I just don’t care for it much and get really uncomfortable and anxious for days beforehand. I’ve also been busier with other aspects of music that are more rewarding for me, like writing, cowriting and recording. I take monthly trips to Nashville these days to write with other artists, and that takes up enough of my time, along with recording projects.

SBW: What made you hop on this Indy Film Fest gig? 

KC: This was a different thing for me. I am a huge movie nerd (though I’ve got nothing on Richard Edwards). I watched this movie when it became available online and then immediately watched it again. I just adored it. Hit home like nobody’s business.

SBW: When watching the movie, did you ever dream you might be able to play alongside Frank’s band “Soronprfbs?”

KC: I did not! I did, however, have a lot of fantasies about being in the band.

SBW: Despite the ridiculousness in Frank , I thought there were some elements, particularly the relationships between the band’s members, that rang true. As a longtime musician, what parts of the film rang true for you?

KC: Oh, soooo much rang true, especially the ridiculousness. Being in a band is pretty ridiculous. It addressed the particular kind of collective madness that creeps into projects, when you are inside them. It’s what infuriates me regarding the concept of a “music critic” and why I try not to read too many reviews of projects I really care about. Very few people know how emotionally difficult it can be, or how crazy you can go making these things. It’s giving birth. When I read some half-assed, poorly written lukewarm review of something I’ve been involved in, I remember Richard Edwards curled up into a painful ball on the couch with his sock hat over his face, or Madeleine wringing her hands, squinting and working so hard to get the things they feel to their core to come out.

The other concept that really got me was the intersection of music and mental illness. As a person who kind of lives at that intersection, I think the movie does a great job of exploring that. Does one make the other better or worse? While Frank’s giant fiberglass head seems silly on the surface, I immediately thought “what a great idea!” As a person who has some real anxiety issues, wearing a giant mask you never take off seems like kind of a good idea. Wish I’d thought of it. But I suppose we all wear a mask of some sort. Who wants to truly be known?

SBW: What do you have planned for the set at White Rabbit?

KC: A lot of new songs, a lot of which are more naked lyrically than I have typically been known to write. A lot of new spiritual crisis songs I guess!

SBW: Have you ever played SXSW? If so, talk a bit about that experience.

KC: Yeah a few times, but before it has become the gross industry schlock fest it seems to be these days. I mean, I got to see Richard Buckner play in a little ballroom, half full. Wayne Coyne did a performance art, fan-interactive experiment in a parking garage. It was more a festival of fans then, and was so much fun. Now it’s become more like a showcase series for insiders. I’m sure it still has value, obviously, but doesn’t much appeal to me as a fan or musician any longer, not that they are knocking on my door asking me to play it!

SBW: In some ways, Frank is a caricature of the gimmicks required to get noticed as a musician these days. Have you ever been reduced to sporting a costume or other similar gimmicks?

KC: No, but not because I’m above it. If I could do it in an artistically fulfilling way, Ziggy Stardust-style, I totally would, but conceptual presentation ain’t my long suit. But I want to note that I see Frank as more than that — it looks like a gimmick, but it’s actually protecting something very real, and masking some real damage. Like I said, his giant fiberglass head didn’t strike me as ridiculous at all. It reminds me of when LonPaul [Ellrich] used to show up at the studio wearing a wig, and became genuinely upset when someone mentioned or giggled at it. He just felt like being someone else that day, was the way he saw it.

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

SBW: You have a role with Lily & Madeleine, a band who caught a relatively big buzz early. Talk a bit about that experience.

KC: It’s been tremendous for me. They are lovely people to work with and have an incredibly supportive family. That’s so rare, and I feel lucky to help them realize their songwriting potential. We’ve been working together since they really became serious about this two and a half years ago, and their growth into brave young women with a really genuine artistic drive has been beautiful to watch. It’s also lead me to an ever increasing cowriting career with other folks around the country, which is something I’ve come to realize I’m pretty good at. They’ve helped me so much, and hopefully I’ve helped them too.

SBW: Are you touring with Lily & Madeleine in support of their new LP?

KC: Not at this point.

SBW: A lot of Jon’s character in Frank deals with being the new guy in a band and figuring out where you fit in the group’s dynamic. Talk about a time in your career when you were the new guy.

KC: Hmm…, that’s been quite a long time ago. Probably the last time I joined an established band as the new guy was The Mysteries of Life, and I wasn’t alone — LonPaul joined at the same time. It wasn’t scary like it was in Jon’s case. Jake, Freda and Geraldine were such normal-seeming, polite sweethearts. With LP and I joining, it was probably more like if Frank and Clara had been the new guys in Jon’s band.

SBW: Anything to add?

KC: Nothing much, just sooooo looking forward to seeing this movie on a screen with some friends after going on and on about it for over a month!

Written by Rob Peoni