Photo by David Magdziarz
"ONO Is Gumbo": Chicago Industrial Revolutionaries ONO On Their Latest Release, 'Red Summer'
"I become black noise. I become that undesirable force on the landscape." That's what singer/spoken-word artist travis told me when describing his work with 40-year-old Chicago gospel/industrial/experimental band ONO. It makes sense when you listen to a track like "Tar Baby" from their new self-released album Red Summer. A tribute to the Haitian revolution, the song feels like it's composed entirely of echoes and serrated edges. Shannon Rose Riley, who has written a book about the erasure of Haitian culture in the U.S., provides digital saxophones which wail and weep as travis bellows "Toussaint betrayed! Now Half Dead in Jail!" He growls that "in jail" like a feral epitaph before bandleader P. Michael Grego turns the track into a stomping, squalling death march, a tottering blare of grief and defiance, noise and undesirable force.
Travis was born in Mississippi in 1946. He moved to Ohio when he was young and from there enlisted in the Navy during Vietnam over his mother's objections. While in the service, he was subject to racist discrimination, and a superior officer attempted to sexually assault him. The experience forms the background for Red Summer's "I Dream Of Sodomy," a song in which sexual abuse becomes a metaphor for racism, imperialism and colonial genocide.
After travis emerged from the service in 1969, he moved to Cleveland, where he began studying theater and Kundalini meditation. In 1976, he decided to head to New Mexico to spend the rest of his life in contemplation.
But the arts scene in Chicago seduced him. He began working at Northwestern and met Hallene Kathy Brooks, a six-foot artist and performer who carried a machete in her purse and would literally cut up the walls when she and travis would go to punk shows. Brooks introduced him to P. Michael, who was a St. Xavier medical student at the time, and the three decided to form a band. Brooks was originally supposed to be the main vocalist. But she moved on to other projects, and Travis reluctantly became the frontman for ONO, amidst a rotating cast of musicians that included Shannon Rose Riley on saxophone and keyboards.
P. Michael led regular practice sessions as well as mandatory excursions to see art films by the likes of Linda Wurtmuller and Pasolini. With roots in spoken-word and avant-garde performance, ONO's live shows were famously unpredictable. travis would sometimes hang a sheet of metal to bang on; he also played lap steel though P. Michael had insisted he play without taking any lessons. "Most musicians can't deal with what I do with music, because it's almost insulting," P. Michael told me cheerfully. "What I'm doing with music, it's very perverse." A video of a 1984 performance confirms that characterization; travis gives a stunning stentorian performance of the National Anthem by candlelight on a dais draped in a reversed flag, as a New Wave beat descends into chaos. In a 1982 show recorded for a promo at Chicago's Metro, travis wears a mask, dress and white gloves while P. Michael rocks out on bass wearing sunglasses and Shannon Rose Riley wanders by in the background playing the children's rhyme "The Animals Went in Two by Two" on her horn.
The group recorded a couple of albums with Thermidor—Machines That Kill People and Ennui—but by the end of the '80s had drifted apart. Their legend lingered, though, and in 2007 Steve Krakow interviewed travis and P. Michael for his Chicago Reader comic "The Secret History of Chicago Music." The experience inspired them to restart the band, and they began playing and recording once more. Red Summer is their fifth album since their hiatus.
The title, Red Summer, refers to the nationwide wave of racist violence in the summer of 1919. The album treats that one period as a metaphor for American history in general; the first track "20th August 1619" refers to the first slave auction of black people in the United States. Other tracks deal with ongoing racist violence.
"Syphillis," for example, is an intense meditation on the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on black men in the United States. Rebecca Pavlatos, a keyboardist and singer who backed some of travis' solo spoken-word performances and has been working with ONO since they reconstituted, starts the track with a dour recitation. "1932 to 1972 the U.S. public health service conducted the Tuskegee syphilis experiments." Then P. Michael's bass makes filthy, guttural protests as travis indicts president after president. "In 1932, Herbert Hoover gave me sy-phy-lis. In 1933 Franklin D. Roosevelt gave me sy-phy-lis." The beat drags and thunders on, with feedback and keyboard melodies and Pavlavos' vocals looped and repeating, severed bits of misery, rage, and tragedy sliding through history like sludge.
P.Michael in the studio deliberately tries to create an air of spontaneity and confusion similar to ONO's live shows. He told me he sometimes will have the musicians play without hearing the other performers in their headphones, in order to keep everyone off-balance. In the studio he assembles tracks like collages, altering and layering to create shambling mutant songs. Shannon Rose Riley, who plays everything from candy wrappers to a sucker to percussion and keyboards on the album, said listening to the tracks is always a surprise because, "You never know if it's gotten in or out, the mixing is so overlaid." Pavlavos, who was trained as a classical musician added that, said the experience has been particularly disorienting and freeing for her. "With classical music you're performing within a specific parameter. Whereas with ONO, you have to be ready for anything, and react to it. Sometimes it's improvised, and sometimes there are improvisations within a structure. It's like a gumbo. ONO is gumbo."
Jordan Reyes, a electronic musician andone of the newest members of the band, also says playing with ONO has been transformative. He first performed with them at a New York gig in 2016. He told me that after the set "I was like, oh my god, this is the best I've ever felt in my entire life. This is the greatest high I have ever had. I've never had more fun. I've never felt more fulfilled." He also told me about a trip to Philadelphia, when the band was listening to a recording of spirituals. "Travis just started singing along in the back. And I was like, no longer listening to the recording, I was just listening, to travis sing. He has all this tradition inside of him. You really feel this trasference of soul, or of personhood, when he is singing."
Reyes, who was then 24, first met P. Michael and travis at a small show in Chicago in 2014. Reyes was wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and frilled jacket, and travis and P. Michael recognized a fellow eccentric. They ended up talking for hours about Samuel Delany's post-apocalyptic, borderline pornographic infamously avant garde novel Dhalgren. Reyes ended up helping to produce ONO's 2015 record Spooks for the Moniker label where he was working. He joined the band soon thereafter, contributing synths, and processed looped vocals, and becoming the band's point person for marketing and promotion.
Reyes had hoped that the band would be able to release Red Summer on a major indie label. But despite critical enthusiasm for Spooks, they couldn't find anyone to pick up the album. So the band eventually just decided to self-release it, doing the design work and marketing themselves. The record they ended up with includes an insert with a selection of travis' artwork—arresting, expressionist images of twisted, bodies outlined on deep reds or blues. One painting is of a woman's face in reds, oranges and yellows, with a body in white outline superimposed; it looks like the lines of her tears are turning into a hanging body.
Red Summer is haunted throughout by what P. Michael refers to as "the love that dare not speak its name, which is lyching in America." The first track opens with carnival music, evoking the festival, picnic atmosphere in which black people in the United States were often murdered. The last song, "Sycamore Trees," is a musical pun—the song is by David Lynch and Angela Badalamenti. "Sycamore Trees" was initially performed by Jimmy Scott in a famously surreal and disturbing scene in the television show "Twin Peaks." The slow, sparse decadent cabaret arrangement for the song in show suggested decadent exhaustion, and bleak woods transformed into an abandoned Vegas soundstage. 'll see you in the branches that blow/In the breeze/I'll see you in the trees/I'll see you in the trees."
ONO's version is bigger and saturated with a less quirky, more specific trauma. Travis' gigantic, gothic voice, reminiscent of Nick Cave or Screaming Jay Hawkins, provides an operatic anchor around which the rest of ONO pulses. Winds howl, metal scrapes, a disembodied chorus mutters, P. Michael's bass scrapes. It's part ambient soundscape and part lament, as if the agony in "Strange Fruit" were crushed and spindled until it could no longer quite be expressed in music. It's black noise; it's perverse; it's a gumbo of knives and grief and resistance. It's ONO.