A Locally-Owned and Independent Voice in the City
May 27 – June 9, 2005 Volume 4 – Number 4
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Talents
P.T. Barnum as rock star? The Mutaytor redefines entertainment.
A hundred years ago, if you wanted to run away and join the circus you might have needed an abnormal growth of body hair, a height problem, the ability to tame a lion or fly out of a cannon gracefully – or a really good relationship with your pet monkey, along with a penchant for greasy handlebar moustaches and stale popcorn. It required that you were a freak of sorts. Perhaps a cultural oddity. These days the circus has evolved beyond sweaty ringmasters, and rare genetic dispositions. Just ask any member of the performance group The Mutaytor. These days, running away and joining the circus might simply mean that you have a flair for hula-hooping while suspended upside down or a knack for lighting your leather pants on fire.
Photo by Pixie, pixievisionproductions.com
Los Angeles-based Mutaytor has ditched the animals and clown suits for pyrotechnics an Day-Glo, and traded the roasted peanuts and balloons for burlesque dancers, fire-poi spinners, and a stage overflowing with tribal drums. With more street edge and less dream theater, the lavish 30-person ensemble is a hard-rocking, urban-vaudville version (or “mutation” if you will) of the striped tent standard.
“I see our group as the Grateful Dead meets KISS meets Cirque du Soleil,” explains the Mutaytor founder and drummer Matty Nash, who counts composer Terry Bozzio, Keith Moon of The Who, and Animal from the Muppets among his influences. “We’re a crazy juxtaposition with elements of all those things. We reference so many genres in the context of our performance and our show that I think it gives it substance and definition.”
Substance, yes. The group’s acts are saturated with cultural allusion. But definition? No. Visually, the acts are surreal, organic, mechanistic, futurist, modernist, abstract and literal all at once. Musically, they are rock, techno, funk, tribal, jazz, and hip-hop fused together with a unifying, heavy percussive heartbeat. The Mutaytor experience is the intimacy of an adopted family, the swagger of a rum-loving pirate, the force of a rock band and the grace of trained dancers all in one intoxicating live show.
Emerging from the dusty, Black Rock City flatlands a the Burning Man festival, The Mutaytor took its first breath in 1998, with just Nash, a few drums, and a craving for musical identity. Soon Nash met other like-minded musicians Buck Down and Atom Smith, both driving forces behind the Mutaytor’s electronic grooves.
The band began playing shows and parties in LA’s tribal-techno underground, making new friends, fans and quickly expanding to include the exotic mix of performers, dancers, and visual artists that comprise the group today.
“The large-format show took off in 2002, but 2004 is when we really developed a formula that wasn’t just throwing it out there,” Nash says. “One thing that’s amazing is the speed with which the project moves, both internally and externally. One group motto is ‘mutation…because evolution takes too long.’ And that’s absolutely true. If we were sitting around waiting for things to happen or someone to notice us or for new songs and acts to be realized, we’d be here forever and none of us have that time or attention span.”
Well, the ADD sure has paid off. In the past year The Mutaytor has become the top-grossing concert draw for an unsigned band in all of Southern California, something unheard of for a group so relatively new. Others from the “underground” scene might cringe at achieving that level of success so quickly, but The Mutaytor welcomes it. And no, that’s not selling out. That’s the business of entertainment and the difference between whether or not you can afford breakfast.
“I’m amazed at the amount of interest and excitement we’ve kept with our underground community. Many times that’s completely lost with the transition,” Nash admits. “I think our audiences are rooting for us even more so now because they see this as a new, exciting art form that’s not done by world-class professionals but by an average person. We all have inspirations and dreams, and to see people – average people – actually living them gives others inspiration and ignition in their own lives like, ‘Hey, maybe I can do this too.’ The goal of the project is to inspire each audience member not only on the night of the concert, but throughout their whole lives to create change, get up and get motivated. I think there is a creative person trapped inside of each body and most people don’t get to fully realize that because of the way society operates in a daze.”
This emphasis on discovering the extraordinary in the ordinary is, in fact, what lends The Mutaytor its unique appeal. Simply put, The Mutaytor’s players are ordinary people who’ve refined extraordinary talent: many self-taught, all eager to collaborate and teach. Nash insists that one Mutaytor goal has always been to challenge the separation of art and audience and blur the line between observer and participant. Often times, a cast member’s initiation begins when they watch from the audience for the first time, catch a prop tossed offstage, and lend a helping hand loading gear after the show. The next thing they know, they’re hired. None of the cast has a private trailer, and, yeah, they still have day jobs.
“The collective Mutaytor resume is a phenomenon,” laughs Nash. “We have a chef, animator, stunt and special effects coordinator, graphic designer, go-go dancers, grips, and stylists. [Being in The Mutaytor] requires a lot of sacrifice, time and energy. It’s a big challenge because sometimes the last thing you want to do after a long hard day is carry drums around in the rain.”
Every performer knows that it’s tough trying to decide whether or not to splurge on that new costume when rent is due, but cast member Roo – who works as a grip by day but dances, spins fire and does aerial stunts with The Mutaytor – insists that there are perks to the whole job thing. “It can get in the way but having a day job also brings out each person’s skills,” she says. “Like Kenny, who does special effects and is our pyrotechnician, or the graphic designers who do our print advertising and the choreographers who help the dancers…all those things have helped the Mutaytor project become what it is. It’s about blending the two worlds.”
So there you have it, The Mutaytor is not a super-troupe trained from birth to distort and contort, being flown around the world in custom jets and guest-spotting on Oprah. If Cirque du Soleil is something of fantasy and daydreams, then The Mutaytor is something from the street – a tangible, primal and newborn entertainment aesthetic risen from the ruins of urban disillusionment and from the wreckage of a music and art community that has become more about franchise and less about…well, community.
“The difference between The Mutaytor and other shows is that people pay 70 bucks at other shows to just sit down and stare,” explains cast member Bryan Foley, a dancer and fire artist who joined the group two and a half years ago after teaching himself to spin poi using a pair of balled up socks on shoestrings. “People pay less to see us and they get that same entertainment, shock-and-awe affect, wow-factor but they also get to be sweaty and jump up and down. They’re watching the show but they’re also dancing. Our audience experiences the same [creative release] that we do. They’re actually a part of it.”
The Mutaytor performs June 25 at the Venice Beach Carnivale at 8pm, and July 22 at the Henry Fonda Music Box Theater. Check www.mutaytor.com for upcoming shows.
©2005 by Los Angeles Alternative LLC