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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


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


Interview: Pokey LaFarge chats

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on defunct, Central Indiana arts website Sky Blue Window on May 15, 2015. Some formatting, content and style changes differ from the original version. 

St. Louis songwriter and Illinois native Pokey LaFarge will take the stage at The Vogue Saturday to promote his latest album Something in the Water. With seven albums under his belt, the gifted musician, born as Andrew Heissler, has established a loyal following through his ability to amble admirably across the landscape of early American music: ragtime, jazz, pre-war blues, traditional country and more.

As LaFarge crosses genres and timeframes with ease, his old-timey sound and lyrics remain rooted in the Midwest. “My Hoosier girl so fine / shake the watermelon off the vine / She’ll blow you a fist / blow you a kiss / and you’ll thank her every time,” LaFarge sings on the title track of his new record.

We caught up with him on the phone this week ahead of his show to talk about his influences, which include Indy blues greats Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell, his new album and his plans for the future. Watch the video for Something in the Water and then grab tickets to tomorrow night’s show via The Vogue.


SBW: Your music contains such a patchwork of influences from all of America. You have traveled extensively. Yet you’re a Midwestern guy. Can you talk about any sense of place in your songs that’s more specific than America itself?

Pokey LaFarge: Well, I don’t know if you heard the last track [Knocking the Dust off the Rust Belt] on the album. That’s pretty regionally specific. Goodbye Barcelona I would say it’s not American there. So yeah, I don’t know, I think there’s world experience that’s made its way into my tunes.

Also, it’s like the context that both plays with each other, the compare and contrasting all the places that we go to. It’s sort of a mish-mash in your mind. You like to think that you know what some things are about and so you, maybe even for the sake of a song, will take an idea that you have about a place, a feeling, a people and an experience and write a tune about it.

Courtesy of Pokey LaFarge

Courtesy of Pokey LaFarge

SBW: You worked with Jimmy Sutton on your new album. How’d you come to work with Jimmy and how’d he put his stamp on this LP? 

PL: Jimmy is a well-known figure in music, especially on the underground rockabilly and early rock n’ roll, blues music scene. Obviously, he’s had his most recent acclaim with playing bass with JD McPherson. From a producer role, he produced JD’s last album Signs and Signifiers, which has done really well for him. Working with Jimmy, knowing his catalog over the years and him as a person, I knew that he would be a perfect fit. We got together and started talking, eventually pre-production stuff, I just knew that we were hitting it off and we were gonna do well together. He’s got a good style. He’s got his own style. He brings it, and I think you can hear that through the record for sure. He’s also easy to work with, and helps you go through the process, which, of course, is important.

SBW: Your latest album was released on Rounder. Why the switch from Third Man Records this time?

PL: Rounder was interested in me being a part of a new identity with them. Obviously, them signing JD [McPherson] was a part of that as well. Trying to take blues music into the future. I felt respect for that, and obviously there were some business dealings in there that were favorable as well. It just seemed like a good fit.

Courtesy of Pokey LaFarge

Courtesy of Pokey LaFarge

SBW: I caught your recent interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. You played a song by an Indianapolis musician, Leroy Carr, for her. I was wondering how you came to know his music and why it spoke to you?

PL: Yeah, Leroy Carr and Scrapper Blackwell — his guitar player. Well, you know, just the same way I found a lot of music. You look at a record, or a CD, or a tape, or even a YouTube video, and you look at the next thing. You look at the discography. You look at the label or what the YouTube thing suggests, right? And I write things down into notebooks as I always do, and you dig it up. So, that’s simply how that happened. The specific labels I would listen to, and I would dig through in-depth as a youngster was Yazoo Records and Document Records specifically. They re-mastered and reissued hundreds and hundreds of titles from the pre-war era.

SBW: You’re an artist who wears his influences on his sleeve. When did you began to feel confident enough to feel you could offer something unique to such established, traditional forms? 

PL: When did I feel confident in it? I don’t know, I think I’m still gaining confidence. I think that confidence is something that wanes. It’s something that increases. You try not to let it brim over. You try to keep it in check. I certainly have more of it now than I had before. I didn’t really think of it from a confidence standpoint. I just thought of it from you do what feels good. You listen to music that makes you feel good. You make music that makes you feel good. You sing what makes you feel good. You write what makes you feel good. As you get older you challenge yourself, and there’s a lot more things in your brain that it’s kind of harder to get to some of the things that just simply feel good. There’s a higher bar set now for what is good and what is not, in my mind. So, I’m writing even more now, but I’m releasing and performing less. There’s a lot of stuff that ends up under the table out of experimentation.

SBW: Your live shows are notorious for a lot of dancing. How has your audience’s appetite for kicking up their heels shaped your songwriting? 

PL: I guess, unless when you play in Cleveland. If the youngsters come out, it will be a rowdy time. We’re very honored that we have a somewhat accessible music that transcends the age groups. So, we’ll get a decent amount of older people that I wouldn’t say are so much into making noise and dancing – quite the contrary really. We want to make sure that people can come to the show and express themselves. So, we would want to stress that no one can tell anyone else in the crowd to be quiet and stop dancing.

SBW: You’re heading to Europe for a couple of weeks following your U.S. shows. Have you toured in Europe extensively in the past? 

PL: We have. We actually do better in Europe than we do in the states.


Courtesy of Pokey LaFarge

SBW: Can you tell us about the difference between audiences overseas versus back home in the states. 

PL: I don’t know, I think that they, perhaps, appreciate the classic sound. I think that they appreciate the refinements in the form, more so than Americans do who are more often than not trying to chase a fad. I think it has to do with the wealth of music we have over here. Not saying that Europe doesn’t, but I don’t know that Europeans think about forms in the same way that we do. They don’t attach the same sort of buzzwords to it. Their stimulus, it’s not hindered really. Again, they just do what feels good.

SBW: What’s next for Pokey LaFarge? 

PL: Well, thank you for asking. I know that it will be a pretty busy touring year, all the way through the spring of next year. In August, I look forward to the opportunity to get into the studio and see what a few months of steady writing will bring to me in the studio and maybe do some demos.

SBW: Anything to add? 

PL: I will just say that we’re definitely coming to Indiana in support for equal rights. For people to practice whatever religion that they want to, and sleep with whoever they want to and marry whoever they want to, and to not let people’s use a fictional guy in the sky to defend their own ignorance or their intolerance. We’re just happy to come to Indianapolis as always. We love Indiana, and we’re happy to play for the good folks there. It’s gonna be a great time, and I thank you for taking the time.

Written by Rob Peoni