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What's Up For Today?

New York Cool - Ask Miss Wendy

 

New York Cool - Music

Elias Stimac Talks to
Jeremy X. Halpern

 

Jeremy X. Halpern is a man of many talents who thrives in his New York surroundings. Here is a partial list of his many accomplishments:

-- Halpern formed the multimedia performance group Verge in 1987, and they have been playing together ever since. The band melds music with humor, and has displayed their wry wit at NYC-area venues such as CBGB’s, the New Music Café, Tompkins Square Park, and even the New York City Marathon. Most recently they celebrated their 21st anniversary with a concert at Coney Island.

-- He is an avant garde composer who has composed for Verge as well as having scored many short films.

-- Halpern is the sole proprietor of 1-800-Weirdos, where he performs a live interactive musical reality Internet TV show daily at midnight on http://www.Weirdos.TV. Recent coverage included a road trip to the Burning man festival, which will be presented as a mocku-rocku-documentary to be screened at the end of the year.

-- As an actor, Halpern has performed on stage and screen. Credits include acclaimed Iranian director Amir Naderi's "Sound Barrier".

-- This past summer Halpern directed William Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew, which was staged in Central Park in July. Other theatre directing credits include Speak of the Devil (A Satanic Cabaret) and Battle of the Dead Celebs.

Halpern was born in Boston in 1965, and grew up with music being a major influence on his life. “The fun part is that I was born as the Beatles were getting big in America, and I was listening to ‘Sgt. Pepper's’ on an 8-track tape by the time I was five, right when the Beatles were breaking up. Boy, that was fast.”

His father brought him to Manhattan a few years later. “I must have been about eight years old. From that point on, I couldn’t wait until I could move there. I instinctively began dressing all in black... I understood the Bohemian lifestyle without knowing anything about it.”

Back then, Halpern was a self-professed “musical theatre geek.” He relates, “I'm somewhat ashamed of that now, as most musicals have made me cringe since age 15. But there are still a few that tickle me, most notably Sweeney Todd and the Brecht/Weill shows it was ripped off from. And Jacques Brel still shows up in my repertoire from time to time.”

At age 17, his family moved to Cleveland. “I hated it, but since there was little or no culture available to me there, I found myself in rock bands. I was in a band that covered Led Zeppelin and Grateful Dead songs, and consequently I played all of both bands' material before I ever heard the original versions. I also discovered David Byrne and Talking Heads, along with Brian Eno. Byrne in particular showed me that one did not have to have a traditionally ‘good’ voice to be successful as a rock singer.”

Halpern moved to New York and attended NYU, and that is where he saw his first Frank Zappa concert. “That pretty much did it. I always say I want to be just like Zappa when I grow up. Or should I say if...?”

While music is at the center of everything he does, Halpern knew early on that anything he did would have to be fully theatrical, and involve all of the media in a balanced way -- music, dance, poetry, visual arts, etc. Or as he describes it, “Like Opera, but less sucky.”

Following college, Halpern worked at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, where he incorporated technology into his work, and added video to his repertoire. His band Verge had been formed and done their first live interactive TV show, called "Reality.” It was a very clear pre-cursor to his current Weirdos.TV show.

“Verge became a cross between a theatre company and a band. We toured regular rock clubs like CBGB’s, and also presented full-length dramatic musical spectacles, including the Journey to Oz in 1989. That production saw the band balloon to 20 members, including a horn section, and the cast of actors and dancers was equally large. We celebrated our 20th Anniversary on June 7, 2008, and then performed for our 21st Birthday this summer at the venerable Coney Island Boardwalk.”

In the spirit of Zappa, Halpern calls the band’s music "Psychedelic Comedy.” “Although I'd say it's usually more psychedelic than purely comic. I'd rather confuse people, but making them laugh works for me, too. We use comic types of music, a la Spike Jones, as well as ridiculous lyrics similar to Monty Python. The costumes, lighting, and stage effects are all designed to give the audience the experience of tripping, regardless of what substances they may or may not have used prior to attending the performance.”

In 1995, the band decided to establish a retail outlet. “My long-time collaborator in Verge, Tom Ritchford (a.k.a. the ‘Meta-programmer’), suggested that a memorable number for the store might be 1-800-Weirdos. It was my good fortune to find that that particular 800 number was still available. The big bonus there was that people began to call 1-800-Weirdos -- not because they had any idea who we were, but just because they were making up 800 numbers and called that one. They were often shocked to find that the number really existed.”

Eventually, Halpern took the best of the voice mail messages left on the 1-800-Weirdos phone line and set them to music, resulting in a series of 1-800-Weirdos CDs with the listeners as the lead vocalists. He later began an Internet radio station which played all of the music sold at 1-800-Weirdos in a long loop.

“When I worked out how to broadcast live on the Internet radio station -- which was at that time listed in the iTunes "Radio" section -- I began doing weekly live broadcasts. The idea behind these, as well as my solo album The Cheesequake State done under the pseudonym "P. Pularso Dumm,’ was to do things that were a lot less work than Verge shows.”

By the late ’90s, Verge shows had become huge events. “We generally rehearsed the shows for 6-8 weeks, and rented theatre spaces. This resulted in musical extravaganzas like Battle of the Dead Celebs and Speak of the Devil -- A Satanic Cabaret. We really only wanted to play shows like that, since our set up was too extensive to put up and break down in a single night.”

Conversely, with the 1-800-Weirdos material, he did very little preparation. “When I performed live, I used only small battery-operated devices, so that there was virtually no set-up time or gear to lug around. When it came to time to do a broadcast, I cleared my mind instead of planning anything. I simply turned on the machines and let it rip.”

This scaled-down approach to performing continues today in Halpern’s diverse slate of projects. “I have been working with computers and video since 1989, and began doing some video streaming in 1998. But while we had the ability, it wasn't really practical to stream video 24/7 until recently. In January of 2009, 1-800-Weirdos began live interactive video broadcasts nightly at midnight. In addition to the callers to the 1-800-Weirdos line, I began to invite viewers and guests with webcams to appear in the video stream along with me. Verge's founding member and drummer Bob Jakuc is a regular on his webcam, applying his own effects to his smiling face.”



Jeremy X. Halpern with his Airstream


 

Halpern has taken his shows on the road, and has discovered many new worlds in the process. “In order to spread the word of Weirditity and stamp out ‘normality’ once and for all, I purchased a 1965 Airstream Safari travel camper, and set off to discover America. Burning Man was my mid-point; I reasoned that every person there was in my target demographic.”

In addition, Halpern and company have done shows in Peru, IN, Cheyenne, WY, Reno and Las Vegas, NV, Basalt, CO, Forsyth, GA, and DisneyWorld in Orlando, FL. We have 2500 followers on Twitter and the same amount on Facebook following our progress and participating in the shows I do on the tour.”

The Airstream has been dubbed the "Weirdos.TV Mobile Research LABoratory,” and sports a huge sign on the back imploring everyone to call 1-800-Weirdos. Now it is safely back in New York City, where Halpern will be joining Verge.

“The band has been rehearsing in my absence to prepare for our next show on Saturday, October 31st in the East River Park at 4pm. We will be dressed as humans for Halloween; we think our costumes are somewhat convincing, but don't be fooled. The show will include our usual madness -- long hot jams and strange songs from the 20-plus years of material we have developed. And the event will of course be simulcast on www.Weirdos.TV.”

Halpern calls the Weirdos.TV show the "live interactive international improvisational musical multimedia mashup -- I use it as a forum to encourage everyone to find their inner Weirdo and express themselves freely. I have always been suspicious of the separation between ‘artists’ and ‘regular people,’ and believe everyone can and should create whenever they can.

As if he doesn’t already have enough projects to keep himself busy, Halpern is gearing up for three more assignments in the near future.

“I have just signed on to direct a very sexy Christmas musical with the suggestive title of Hot Babes in Toyland. We will be performing this bawdy holiday fable at the Players Theater on Thursday nights from Nov. 8 through Dec. 11th. Meanwhile, Weirdos.TV is preparing an ‘infomercial’ for national cable networks, featuring many special guests. And the next Verge spectacle is entitled Mogulopolis, a cross-breeding of Fritz Lang's Metropolis and Vincent Price's under-appreciated Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.”

For more information about Halpern and the Verge, please visit their web site at www.weirdos.com/verge. You can also check out their YouTube channel (search for verge999) and MySpace page at www.myspace.com/weirdosverge.

 



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