This month for Halloween, we ask Five Questions of Michael Buchmiller aka Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra’s resident mad scientist Professor B Miller and read brand new Strange Stage Stories from Tamar Berk, Audrey Callahan, Jim Basnight, Christopher Leyva, Troy Cook, Chris Collins, Dave Preston, and more!
Five Questions for the Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra
The most unique duo in San Diego? Hands down it’s robot-fronted rock band the Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra, this town’s only robot-human pairing to date. The combo of Professor B Miller (human) and SPO-20 (robot) is inspired, with an SPO concert always being a major event. As amazing as those shows are, where SPO truly excels is in their ultra collectable discography. The band is in the midst of releasing a series of 20 themed albums, each in amazing packaging with tons of extras, always a limited edition. Next up is number 6 in the series, a new financial-themed album called Balance a Checkbook, which will be released this month, on October 29, aka the anniversary of Black Tuesday from the 1929 Stock Market crash. It’ll be pressed on clear, laser-etched 12″ vinyl. In addition, “This one comes stuffed with a stack of our own currency in 10 and 20 denominations as well as two minted coins,” says Professor Miller. SDMA-winning singer Marie Haddad contributes vocals to the song “The Invisible Hand,” “which is sort of an exotica-noir tune,” Miller said. “Stylistically, the album doesn’t really fit into a single genre, but it’s all inspired by heist soundtracks. Liner notes by Rusty Blazenhoff, who has worked with some of the world’s most outrageous creators, including Peewee Herman, Children’s Fairyland, Burning Man, Boing Boing, Allee Willis, Dangerous Minds, and Archie McPhee.” The plan is for the next three releases in the series to be issued in 2022. Meanwhile check out their track “Goodnight Loudspeaker,” a radio jingle recorded for the beloved 91X-FM program, on the new compilation album, Staring at the Sun XIII.
You’ve worked with SPO-20 for nearly a quarter of a century – to what do you attribute your longevity?
We’ve gone in and out of waves of activity over the years, but I don’t see it ending any time soon. I look at the band as a work of fiction. But instead of a book that has a definite end, it’s sort of this ongoing, living thing. Each song is its own story. Then there’s a story behind the song. There’s the fictional story of the band a layer up from that. There are all sorts of creative aspects to explore, be it songwriting, performing, music videos, art, storytelling, merchandising, etc… It never gets boring. There’s always a new challenge, a new skill to learn, a new idea to realize.
How did you decide on EP themes? How far in advance is it all mapped out?
Some of the themes are dictated by the lyrics, and some are tied together by styles of music that revolve around a theme. Probably ten of them were clear right off the bat. Since then, I’ve created a list of 40 or 50 themes. I still add more from time to time. The first five EPs have already been released: “Stop by the Supermarket,” “Go Caroling,” “Conjure the Paranormal,” “Lost at Sea,” and “Race to Space.” As we’re recording the music for one album, I’m doing pre-production and writing lyrics for the next record.
Beyond these, I have the rest of the themes sketched out, each with at least a couple lyric ideas. But the further out it gets, the less realized it is. I want to leave some room for new ideas. Things might get shuffled around a bit, but for the most part I know where it’s all headed.
Will the music from these ever be collected on a comp or further album?
I like that they are all these self-contained pieces of art along a theme. Everything is being released digitally, so anyone who wants to listen to them can. But I’m only making as many physical records of each release as I know I can sell without really trying. The first one is already sold out. The other three will be before too long as well. I’m not making super limited editions to be exclusive about it or to make them impossible to find collectibles, it’s really for practical reasons. I want to focus my time on making stuff, not selling stuff. And with super small pressings, I can get really creative with the packaging and what it includes. For example, the “Conjure the Paranormal” record comes with a custom laser-cut planchette and Ouija board insert and the “Lost at Sea” record includes a sheet of temporary sailor tattoos. And they are all one-sided 12″ records with elaborate art laser-etched on the flip side. All this to say that at some point in the future, I might re-release them in some form to allow more people to be able to get them, but at this point I’m not planning on it.
How do you write the songs? Does one of you handle the music and the other the lyrics, or is it collaborative?
Right now, the process is usually the same for each song. I meet up with Nick Buchmiller once a week for a few hours. He’s helped write and record most of the songs we’ve done since the beginning. I come prepared with lyrics and some reference tracks so we are on the same page about what kind of song we’re trying to write. And then we collaborate on writing and recording the music. On a good night we’ll get through a whole song, but sometimes it takes a couple weeks. After the music is done, I go off on my own and record the vocals with SPO-20, using antiquated text-to-speech software on a virtual operating system. Sometimes we bring in other musicians, especially when the song calls for an instrument neither of us play. We had John Roy from Unsteady record saxophone on “All I Want for Christmas” and had Matt Rodriguez play guitar and mandolin on most of “Lost at Sea.” I’d definitely like to have more guest musicians in the mix as we continue to do this.
How hard is it to take your show on the road? Is it possible you will tour in the future?
For those who haven’t seen us play, it’s performance art. It’s me and a six and a half foot tall steel robot, plus a video projector that’s synchronized with the music and a light show. It’s a whole thing. We only play a couple times a year. And every show is different and requires a significant amount of preparation, planning, video editing, props, etc… Each show is a one-of-a-kind experience, and I like it like that.
We’ve played in Los Angeles a few times, but that’s as far from San Diego as we’ve ever made it. It’s possible we’ll play one-off shows outside of San Diego in the future, but the odds of a full-blown tour are pretty slim. If someone wants to see us, their best bet is to take a vacation in San Diego when we’ve got a show. And a surprising number of people over the years actually have.
Strange Stage Stories
Life on stage can seem glamorous, but not everything always goes to according to plan.
Tamar Berk: Very early on in my Starball years, we were playing a very big show at the House of Blues. My guitar strings broke and I didn’t bring a back-up guitar. Somebody came out with a very heavy Les Paul and while I was trying to adjust it and tune it, which felt like FOREVER when you’re on stage, the drummer got mad and walked off the stage. I started crying. I suppose that’s not very strange, just sad. Ha ha!
Audrey Callahan: You know, I haven’t ever had anything too strange happen at an event. Is THAT strange? Ha ha. My performances these days are all virtual, so maybe THAT’S strange enough.
Jim Basnight: I think the most remarkable thing that happened was when drummer Brad “Mr. D.” Dolsen and bassist Mikel Rollins and I were in Belgrade, Montana on a miserable icy and rainy night. The parking lot of the club (the Belgrade Lounge) was filled with deep potholes of ice and slush and we had to load gear through it, which got us all dirty, as the snow and ice weren’t anything close to fresh and had been blackened by soot. So, we were dirty looking and suitably tired from a series of Montana one nighters, which consisted of doing a gig, going to the room, coming back to the club in the morning to load out, driving on often tough roads for as much as 300 miles, setting up and doing it again for anywhere from 10-18 days in a row, with a day or two off somewhere. So, this guy, with white blond hair, a big guy who looked like a cross between a lumber jack and a polar bear staggers up to my mic as I’m singing a soft part of a song. I think it was “Champagne Supernova,” one of mine like “Summertime Again” or “The Rooster.” He was wearing brand new white gym shoes with not a smudge on them. A 300-pound six-foot-five plus guy, stumbling drunk and right in my face. So, he starts howling, like drunks do before they get 86’d or keel over, with their eyes rolling around in their heads and amazingly it’s on key. We were stunned. It was hilarious. We called him, “The Howler” and continued to play as if he was part of the band. The bartender finally coaxed him to get away from the stage and sat him down and served him another drink, shocking in and of itself.
Chris Collins/Mod Fun: We went on tour and ended up playing a great gig at the Rock Palace in San Diego. We’d all recently seen the Three O’ Clock live and I’d even hung out with them in their dressing room at a gig in DC. We were taken with how much makeup they all wore when they were on stage. So, since the Rock Palace was a bigger venue with a lot of stage lighting, we thought we’d try that out ourselves. Unfortunately, we went waaaay over the top –especially me. I think I had some kind of foundation and maybe even eye shadow on in addition to my usual eyeliner. When we started to kick up the energy a few songs into our set and I began to sweat profusely, I really regretted choosing to wear all that makeup. It was dripping into my eyes, getting all over my clothes and generally making it really tough to play—or even see, for that matter. So, at the end of one song when I did a kind of signature flip of my drumstick, I missed catching it and it bounced off the rim of my snare drum and hit me square in the face. Not my most professional moment in front of an audience!
Troy Cook/Ready Set Survive: Back in 2005 my drummer jumped over his drummer at the end of our set and broke his collar bone! That was the end of that band.
Dave Preston: This is a trick question, because almost all of them are XXX rated! Being asked to sign a boob was a little weird, especially with my wife standing right next to me on stage. LOL. Plenty of bar fights, but thankfully not directed at the band, but boy I’ve seen some doozies
Christopher Leyva/Falling Doves: We were playing on the Wonderbus and we had a stop in the Gaslamp Quarter, so I jumped off the bus to play wireless lead guitar amongst the crowds on the street. I continued soloing and was getting ready to head back on the bus, when I grabbed onto a delivery truck that was at a stop sign and kept playing guitar while hanging off the back. It’s a good thing downtown traffic is so heavy and slow because that’s when the truck drove off, with me still attached. The sidewalk crowd was enjoying the show as I jumped off the moving truck, triumphantly. Unfortunately, my landing wasn’t so triumphant, and I sort of rolled into the middle of the intersection, guitar in hand. Everything sort of paused for a second. The band never missed a beat however and I got up and quickly made my way back to the Wonderbus to finish the song. The point of leaving the bus was to get everyone on the street’s attention. Mission accomplished. There’s a video out there, if you watch it you’ll get to see a real Falling Dove.
Satanic Puppeteer Orchestra: Usually all of the strangest stuff that’s happening on stage is by design. We once did a rock ‘n’ roll seance where we channeled the spirits of rock stars to pull off cover songs we didn’t bother to learn. SPO-20 officiated a wedding for the members of Burning of Rome and then we were at the reception band immediately afterwards. We smashed a pinata filled with rubber snakes. We made a call to Miss Cleo and the Psychic Network while we were on stage at a car wash. It’s tough to pick a favorite. Maybe the duet of a Neil Diamond cover between the robot and Spencer Moody of the Murder City Devils? That one’s pretty high on the list.
Stefanie Schmitz: While playing at the South Park Walkabout in front of a business, a couple walked inside the shop and left their two dogs outside in the front row facing us. Those adorable dogs sat motionless for an entire song. Our most attentive audience members yet!
Billy Tisch: I was up playing on the bar at Foggy’s Notion across from the Sports Arena, stepping between the drinks, and leaned over to play my saxophone to this pretty lady and there was a California License Plate that said “SAX.” It was then I knew that living in California was my dream come true and the crowd went wild!!!! And I didn’t spill a drink.