ONO is a band with a lot of history. Having released their first record Machine That Kill People in 1983, ONO has obviously seen a lot of change. The band originally comprised of P. Michael Grego and Travis blended industrial experimentation with sermon-like vocals. This continued the minimal industrial trend with the band's second record Ennui, which was very recently reissued and available in fine Chicago record shops like Permanent Records and presumably other outlets. But after these two records, the band went quiet for nearly thirty years.
Fast forward to a resurgence in interest as the band releases its third album Albino on the perennially fantastic Moniker Records in 2012. The band begins to perform once again and has their debut record reissued. ONO begins to feature more band members, however, and by the end of 2014 have begun playing with a rotating cast that may feature Shannon Rose, Rebecca Ono, Jesse Thomas, Da Wei, Jake Acosta, Adam Wolak, Mimi Ono, Ric Graham, Mark Berrend, Hallene Brooks, Harvey X, Brett Naucke, Ben Baker Billington, Hilal Omar Al Jamal, Yussuf Muhammad, and quite possibly more.
The band is about to see their 5th record Spooks drop on Moniker sometime soon as they see the final added touches to the record with guest musicians from far and wide (spoilers below)
This is an important band in today's musical climate, but they've always been important. The band we're familiar with today is still considered diverse, but to imagine the effect their industrial gospel would have had on audiences in the 80s is somewhat impossible for a millennial like myself. What I do know is this: we still have trouble with racism and discrimination in 2015. Having Travis, a Black man who might be wearing a dress, fronting an already subversive style of music in the Reagan era doesn't seem like a crowd-pleasing formula. But transgression is important, especially when done in search of liberation. And honestly, it's both brave and pioneering.
Today, ONO's legacy is felt far and wide in experimental, forward-thinking music circles and I am more than honored to present this interview.
Jordan Reyes: Travis, what’s your ring?
Travis: Oh, this is my undergraduate class ring from Northwestern, which I just realized about a month ago that I never take off. I've maybe taken it off two or three times in all those years. It was in 1990 that I graduated from undergrad and in 1993 that I graduated from graduate school and this has been on since then. Suddenly, my skin underneath was itchy and dry, and I had to use something called Eucerin to moisturize it. When I took it off, the skin underneath was an entirely different color than the rest of my body.
T: It’s the only jewelry I've ever really worn, I think, since I lost my High School ring. I didn't really lose it though! It was this woman I was seeing, this mean woman! I’m sure she snatched it because I took it off and left it and when I went back for it, it was gone. She didn't know where it went! Nobody knew! I haven’t seen it since. She’s a mean one. Reminded me of a country song. (Sings) “I have your class ring/That you gave to me.”
JR: I haven’t heard that one.
P. Michael: Patsy Cline? “She’s Got You”
|Machines That Kill People, ONO's 1st Record|
T: (sings) “I've got these little things/But she’s got you.” It’s wonderful. We may just do it.
PM: We’re doing a country show.
PM: Oh yeah. Not with the band that you know, but with a different version of ONO. We keep ‘em coming.
JR: Yeah, you really do.
PM: I was going to surprise you. So we now have a country band that we just put together.
JR: Who’s in that one?
PM: She’s the background singer. She’s the mean country woman. We got Alexandra too. She’s Slavic.
T: And she’s just got a great voice! We've been listening to Russian country songs.
PM: She’s got a huge voice and the lead singer for us. But she’s a spy!
T: This is so mean, but I’m hoping to use her as a spy. I’m writing. I have a blog as well. DJ PTSD. I've written about a 150-160 page document from 1963-1969 when I was in the military during the Cold War mess. I was in Cuba fifty years ago today in ’64 and ’65 when life was ugly and everyone feared the Russians! There was a Russian spy in every kitchen, under every bed, and blah blah blah.
T: I've written at least forty noise pieces about this. Individual ones that intersect with the writing and I’m hoping to collaborate on a piece with Alexandra where she’s the fabulous Russian spy who will speak Russian!
PM: That’ll be the ONO spy show! Well, you got a preview when we played with Yusuf. There was a little bit of spy in the words.
T: Oh, yes! All the pieces that we did for that show were a part of DJ PTSD. This is one of the things I somewhat keep away from ONO because I don’t want them to feel as if I’m taking over their lives or that I’m interested in their lives at all, but P. Michael is a spy. He goes to my PTSD blog and soundcloud and Afropunk, which is such a bad word, and he said “We’re going to do this!” And now the pieces that we did with Yusuf are from there.
T: The cool thing is that having this blog is teaching me a lot about the period because it forces me to direct my energy to a specific period exclusively. This was the blackest, well I shouldn't say it that way, it was the bleakest and artistically darkest period. Of course, being Black, that tells me a lot about artists in America. But! It was the bleakest period in my sixty-eight years.
JR: Sounds like a lot of work. Have you had to do a lot of research, about what was going on?
T: The research is two-fold. Number one, I live very much alone. I have no wife, no husband, no piece of tail, no nothing. I live alone and it is very helpful because I have to deal with myself.
PM: It’s pretty much the same as me, except for my mother – she’s older and I take care of her, but she’s upstairs and I’m in the basement where I have all this stuff and equipment. I’m not bothered by a soul.
JR: Is that nice?
PM: Oh yeah.
T: It’s perfect. Well, it’s perfect for me. That’s where ONO started actually – in P. Michael’s basement.
PM: I moved back to take care of my mother in 2005. Before I was living in Humboldt, but yeah, I live in that same basement where ONO started.
JR: There must be a lot of history in that place.
T: ONO started there. End Result started there. At that point, ONO practiced Monday, Friday, and Saturday.
PM: They were tight.
T: It was insane, and P. Michael’s a fascist!
PM: Well, the new band’s not tight. I’d say that they’re sloppy and stoic, which is fine, because they’ll never be able to not be sloppy and stoic. So I work with their chaos.
|Ennui, ONO's 2nd album|
T: And that is part of why ONO means so much to me. When P. Michael started it, and even now, I’m not interested in music. I don’t ever intend to engage myself with musicians or compete with musicians. I am too old to be bored by what I dealt with in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
T: I was on my way to an Ashram. I had given everything up! And then P. Michael, on my way there, told me to stop in Chicago for the summer. Someday, he’ll tell you about the mean woman who actually produced us.
PM: I went to college with her.
JR: She was mean?
PM: She was crazy. Travis worked with her mom and I went to college with her. They were both crazy.
T: I got a job for the summer. It was so beautiful in August of 1976. I was driving to New Mexico. I had already given up everything – all possessions, all desire, everything – and off I go to New Mexico and it is so beautiful in Chicago that I stop for the summer and get a job at the College of Law at Northwestern and there’s this woman there, Amanda Wallace Brooks, and we were in the same office. She was the wildest woman ever! She and her daughter were brilliant!
PM: They were both a part of Mensa, but they were crazy.
T: In no time at all, my life had changed because of Amanda. The world was recreated each and every day. She worked for the Governor Dan Walker who lost his job. There was a big scandal.
JR: What was the scandal?
PM: Oh, money. It’s always money in a shoebox in a closet somewhere. Every governor we have usually has some money in a shoebox in a closet somewhere.
T: None of it mattered, though. My only interest was getting to the Ashram, but anyway, I got this job, which was a trip because nobody wanted to hire someone who looked like me. I had the whole Yogi outfit. One of Dan Walker’s staff people, Amanda Wallace Brooks, was brought to the law school because that’s where the governor went to school and his son was still at the law school. So Amanda Wallace Brooks comes to law school and every day the world was recreated.
PM: She was dressed head-to-toe in African-wear.
T: Yes, and she was very tall. The Illinois Arts Council sent her money to go to West Africa whenever she wanted to do her research. Then suddenly she loves me because of my writing! I was well-published back then all over the United States, my poetry. Bam! We are suddenly going to Hyde Parks to do readings with Gwendolyn Brooks, her husband, and others. Then we’re going to Mensa meetings and I thought “Damn! Why do I feel so much comfort with all of these insane people?”
T: So here we are in this office and every day something new happens. Our office just became chaotic and it worked. Every day there was something up. People called from all over the world to report in to her as if she were at the Governor’s office. She would know who’s doing what with whom and how, everywhere, all the time. And then she would go down to the State of Illinois and at one point she applied for both of us to go to West Africa. I was into it at first, but then I started reading about how I would have to live in this culture. I chose not to go even though it was a good opportunity to look at the Yoruba side of my family.
T: Meanwhile, her daughter Kathy is coming to the office after hours. She was a Shakespearean and she would stand in these pews at the Riviera Theatre and she would break into her acts of Shakespeare. She was so tall that no one would say anything to her, and she carried weapons.
PM: She was six feet tall with red hair and carried a machete.
T: All this hair out to here (hands gesture to extreme size of hair) and she was a very strong statement. She would come to my house and pound on my window at two o’clock in the morning with this machete and say “Get up! We’re going dancing at La Mer Vipere.” And I would say “Yes, ma’am.” And we would go to La Mer and dance. And even when it got to the point when it closed, there were still giant gashes in the walls because when she would be dancing, she would also hack away at the walls with her machete.
PM: It was in Lincoln Park – on Armitage, not far from the Park West. I saw the Gang of Four there when they had changed it into something else much nicer.
T: She would be doing this crazy dance and reciting Shakespeare over this insane noise! It was perfect. Eventually she has P. Michael come to the office and he says “You’re going to be in a band,” and originally I wasn't supposed to be the vocalist: she was! But she never was stable enough to make it to a show.
T: One night after a show, I said “Where the hell is Kathy?” and I go driving to where she presumably lived in Lawless Gardens. Yes, there was a place called Lawless Gardens.
PM: It was a project. It was like on 35th by the Lake.
T: I’m driving down the road and on the corner of Lawless Gardens there’s this cauldron and a weird, weird figure. She always wore costumes. You never saw her in typical Western attire. And here was this figure with the cauldron and a fire on a corner and she’s stirring away and it’s Kathy making pig feet and pig ears!
PM: She’s selling them! She was selling pig ears and making money. Some dude told her that if she collected all the money, he would get her a watch.
T: We’re much nicer now than then. Our rehearsals were something else too. We’d go to Midnight Mass for rehearsals.
PM: And we’d see people like Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, Suicide, Sun Ra.
JR: You played with them?
PM: No, we saw them! It was rehearsal.
T: So Monday, Friday, and Saturday we sometimes started in P. Michael’s basement and went all the way up North to Holy Name Cathedral.
PM: To study ritual.
T: Yes. This was how rehearsal worked. And once, Kathy took us down 79th street to look at the lounges.
JR: What does that mean?
PM: A lounge is kind of like what nice people up on the North Side would call a Discotheque or a club. But a lounge has a set up. You get your liquor altogether. You wear a leisure suit.
JR: Wow! You guys had leisure suits?
T: I still have one!
PM: I used to play at the fashion shows though and wore a leisure suit. Polyester. You’d get your wah-wah pedal and a leisure suit.
T: So Kathy takes us down 79th street for rehearsal and I’m driving and eventually these two Black men cruise right up next to us and they were saying bad things to Kathy, and were going to say and do other stuff until Kathy politely gets out of the car and goes over to the sidewalk, picks up a brick, and puts it through their windshield.
JR: She sounds powerful.
T: Oh yes, we could go on about the woman.
JR: Changing gears, you guys have a lot of people on the new record.
|Albino, ONO's 3rd Album|
PM: Oh yeah, we have a lot of people on it. A lot of guest stars.
JR: I heard Al Jourgensen?
PM: Yeah, and Obnox, Hilal from Night Auditor, DR Shannon Rose Riley.
JR: Is there a theme of espionage or Cuba on this new record?
PM: Oh, yeah. This record is called Spooks. But it has nothing to do with Halloween or ghosts.
JR: I used to live by Vienna, Virginia, which is by where a lot of people in the CIA live and people used to always say “There’s so many spooks,” which meant spies.
T: Well, a lot of folks from my era in Cuba also went to Virginia. Down there as well is where a lot of testing for the background work for the U-2 aircraft and that sort of thing. At that time, the people in Virginia were doing a good deal of procuring that sort of thing and I was down in Cuba at that very same time.
T: You couldn't believe how weird it was to be in Cuba and watching what was happening between Washington and South America and the Caribbean while we were destabilizing government. What to do with ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier and what to do with [Juan] Bosch and what to do with Che Guevara and Castro.
PM: That’s what we’re talking about on this album. That’s why in 2015, the saying is “ONO is Ghost,” which means there is no such thing as ONO – it doesn't exist.
JR: How does it not exist?
PM: It doesn't exist because it’s a concept rather than a band. It’s a theory. You never know how it will appear or what form it will take. It was a band, maybe, a long time ago, but not anymore.
JR: So is the version that I've seen is a “ghosted” version of ONO?
PM: It doesn't exist. It’s just a presentation. It’s a ghost.
JR: Does the ghost haunt?
PM: Yeah, it kind of leaves a memory.
T: I’m wondering, since Black folk see the world very differently than others, how do Black Artists deal with this simple human futility of day-to-day life? When people get old in the Black community, it is hard to keep them alive because they have no real reason to live. Time takes on a totally different aspect of your life once you retire. There are so many people looking for things, trying to find it perhaps in their grandchildren or great-grandchildren or in a religion or something. If anything falls apart or out of balance, suddenly your life and its value takes on a very different meaning. Time is not a concept that the old and young feel the same about.
T: I was actually talking to Fred Burkhart before he died and he was talking about activism with me and I said “Okay, Fred, you and I will be activists” and then a month later he died. Very unhappy about that.
T: When you’re older and you have to think “What should I do with all of these hours in the day,” when you’re used to giving them up to a corporation or an institution, your time and your skills have to take the forefront. Many companies don’t impart these skills to people – they simply want to get something out of employees rather than give anything back to them. Even I find that my best days, and I create every day, are when everyone is out of work and there’s no sense of celebration, like a holiday.
T: When they’re not, I’m thinking, and writing, which is how we get back to your question earlier of research. I go back to that very damning place on the 20th of September, 1965 when I was accused of having committed sodomy at some time in my entire life. The next four years they interrogated me endlessly and found nothing. That was difficult and still remains difficult, which is why I still do not answer the phone ever.
T: At 0800 hours on Sunday, the 20th of September, Special Agent Munson asked me. And after that I was strapped to lie detectors and other electronic devices to ask not only if I had ever committed sodomy, but “how did you?” and created these scenarios. As a Mississippian, at age 18, three days before my 19th birthday, I had no idea how I did pass the lie detector test. Because these questions freaked me out. And it was and still is very troubling and now I’m revisiting everything. It’s very difficult.
T: So every day on my blog there’s a new drawing about what that day and time was like for me between 1964 and 1969.
JR: That’s a long time in the military.
T: Well, actually, you sign up for six years because you have two years of duty as a reserve. But I really loved being in the military. It was one of the first times that I was in a male environment with all of this hardware. I got very good at shooting in Cuba.
T: We traveled all over the Caribbean, but when I was eventually interrogated of having ever committed sodomy, the last two or three were “Have you ever engaged in sex with another person of the same gender? Yes or no.” and then the next was “If the answer to the above question was yes, were you the active or passive partner?”
|ONO at the MCA|
JR: That’s a little intrusive.
T: Intrusive indeed. It then goes on to define what is sodomy, because, of course, you couldn't be in the military if you had been the passive partner.
JR: That’s so weird.
T: That’s your US government! And it was the norm at the time.
PM: And, on the album, the words “Have you ever touched a man’s penis for old time’s sake?” that’s the question he was asked.
T: One of them.
JR: When I saw you guys perform the song with that lyric, that was a very vivid moment.
T: A lot of people have that reaction.
PM: That’s on the album. That’s why it’s so dark. You hear the sounds of the electrodes in the background too, but then it becomes danceable when I turn on the drum machine, which removes a little of the heaviness.
JR: Sort of like the transition from victim to survivor?
T: At that point, it was not difficult to make that transition. As I’m thinking back on it, clearly I was more flexible than I thought. Perhaps people are more flexible than we give ourselves credit for.
T: Revisiting the research and revisiting the place makes me absolutely crazy, but it’s so vivid that it’s always there. When my phone rings fifty years later, it’s always, always, Munson, no matter what, and BAM, I’m back in Cuba. It’s always been that day since the very day it happened. That’s why DJ PTSD is the name of that character. He’s schizophrenic. So many Black folk are schizophrenic. We live absolutely different lives on the South Side than when we were in the military.
T: The other side of that, and there’s much more to that, is that the material I was involved with, in communications, much of that is online. I spend a lot of time looking to see what they have edited and what some of them have blacked out. But there’s so much information available that you have to choose. So I’m often reminded about how all of this went down. It makes my world easier because just thinking about it all the time makes me a little crazy.
JR: Do you guys ever get to tour?
PM: We did! We toured the East Coast last June. The month of June is our tour month. The first part had us going to Madison and Minnesota, but then we went to Philly, Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, and Pittsburgh.
JR: Had either of you guys lived out there before?
PM: I lived in New York and have some family there, but I've also lived in LA, San Francisco.
JR: That’s a lot.
PM: Next time we’re hoping to go to California.
JR: Maybe I’ll have to follow you guys there.
PM: We’re pretty well known in San Francisco because that’s where some of our records were originally released.
JR: Like, Machine That Kill People?
PM: Yeah. So out there it should be a good deal.
JR: Did you guys get lumped into the industrial genre back in the 80s?
PM: Yeah, we did, but people don’t really know where to put us.
JR: I don’t know where to put you guys.
PM: It makes it difficult for promotion because there’s not necessarily a genre.
JR: It makes for good bills that you guys are on, though.
PM: We’re like ghosts. Ghosts can go anywhere they want to go. They play with pop groups and noise. That’s the way I prefer it.
JR: That’s the best way to make music too – to have no label.
PM: It was much harder back in the early days, but now it’s a lot easier. People now can be all over the place. Back then, if you didn't have a place, you might be ostracized or ridiculed.
JR: Were you ostracized?
PM: Well, people looked at us in a curious manner, but we didn't really care. We were not only ostracized, but we were mean about it. We went and did what we wanted to do anyway. Even if we weren't wanted, we’d go there and do what we wanted to do anyway, maybe even uglier than how we had planned it.
|Digesis, ONO's 4th Album|
T: We didn't come for your money.
PM: You can’t threaten us that you won’t let us play here again because we don’t care, and turns out, we would play there again. We were underground and never really talked about, but the people who wanted to know ended up knowing. A lot of the people who saw us were damaged, though, extremely damaged. A lot of people on heroin. They would do heroin at our shows – sit down in the front row and shoot up and veg out.
T: They didn't always go away either. One time we did a cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin” and, God, this must have been 1983 or 1984, and I was playing Lap Steel Guitar. This kid – obvious North Shore, Rich, White kid – came up to the stage in the middle of this very tragic song and put his needle on my steel guitar and didn't do heroin again.
PM: Back then there weren't many indie or DIY places so we played at clubs and we did all right at clubs without advertising. When we got written about, we did drag the artistic underground people who were out for something weird and hadn't yet found it. They got it.
T: The reader was different back then. Scott Michaelson wrote this article in the reader, which blew even me away. We did this show in an art gallery ran by a man named Hudson, a legendary place, where people talked about the performances put on by this man Hudson for years. People hanged themselves above the freeway where the gallery was.
PM: You know where the Kennedy begins with the flame?
JR: Yeah – wait, so people killed themselves in front of this place?
T: Oh, no.
PM: They crucified themselves.
JR: But they didn't die, did they?
PM: No, they’d eventually get taken down, but for a while they would be naked and crucified above the freeway. This was a different time. You can’t do it now.
T: One woman buried herself and someone chanted over her in the whole. One woman gave birth to Jesus and Jesus was this puppet of carrots and tomatoes. She took it out of her vagina eats it. It was really strong stuff that you can’t get away with now.
JR: I haven’t seen anything like that! I try to see the weirdest stuff I can, but it seems tame to what you guys are talking about.
PM: Yeah, that’s what we’re hanging out with back then.
JR: So was that commonplace with musicians and artists back then?
PM: In the underground, but not in the mainstream. The mainstream was like Naked Raygun and Effigies – more in the punk rock style, but the underground had all the weird stuff like us and a couple others.
JR: What were some of the other groups?
PM: Algebra Suicide, Burden of Friendship, End Result, a whole bunch of stuff like playing with auto parts and noise.
JR: Travis, you cut your hair off during the David Bowie MCA performance, right?
T: Well, the show was a requiem for David Bowie, and P. Michael decided we should do that. So the piece had eight movements and the fifth movement was where I wrote a formal haircutting ceremony. For that certain movement, thirty-four years of hair growth went like that.
JR: Did you have to get smaller hats?
T: I immediately bought thirty-five of these small hats.
PM: Travis had small one or two inch twisties for hair when I met him and he hasn't cut his hair since.
T: I would cut occasionally but never the entire length. What people didn't understand was that the hair that people generally saw braided was actually below my knees. My days have always started with a very long bath. Since the military, I refuse to shower. I’d just make a part of that bath be a washing of the hair, and it would take about a half hour to braid it.
T: People would do all sorts of stuff to my hair: they would put perfume on it or set fire to it, so I would tie it to avoid that. There were two ideas to the David Bowie piece. The first of which is that I have no patience for the ritual of hair-cutting. In the Black community, there’s a lot of emphasis on hair – hair types, hair colors – and you must remember in West Africa that the body itself is art from the things on the body to how the hair is done – straightening, and coloring.
PM: Have you seen the movie School Days by Spike Lee? It’s got these Jiggaboos that come out and talk about the different types of hair while doing a dance. They put whiteness on their face and redness on their lips and begin dancing.
T: There’s a whole body of information of what a person is expected to do with his or her hair in West African communities. My thing was not like that. There’s so much animosity even in the Black community with good and bad hair. That’s a whole ‘nother story in the Americas.
T: What I wanted to do in my specific case was to see my own hair in my own hand as it was growing on my head. I realized that many people don’t and I wanted to hold and look at it. Once that was done, it was such a habit just not to cut it. Now that it’s not there, though, there’s a sense of disconnect even when I think about washing it – there’s nothing to wash – I only need to wash my head. It’s a different way to look at the body for me.
T: The idea of committing to the performance was necessary to this movement as well.
PM: So when you see ONO, you’re kind of getting theater, but you’re also getting me as a DJ doing interludes that relate to the story line that could be comedic or musical. They’re partially there to serve as gaps to change moods for the piece.
T: And also as cultural reminders. P Michael is Italian. I’m African and Native-American. Other members of the band are from all over. There’s a lot of cultural influence in there. How much can we teach an audience about culture from an ONO show?
T: If we end up playing songs you’re familiar with where you know when the chord changes come that is fine, for some people. It is not enough for me. I could be in an Ashram. But, this takes the ONO experience to an educational level whether the audience knows it or not. The costuming and changes is important to me too.
T: There is also the ugly reality that I've had to deal with since the 20th of September 1965 when I was accused of sodomy. What does that mean? And in the Black community it was a strong statement because even the briefest mention of the idea was completely out of the question. There’s this idea of being “punk” and it was completely different. “Punks” in Mississippi are presumed to be more girlish or girl-like, which is perpetrated by bad preachers, and I can name some who at that very same moment were trying to hit on me. I have never allowed that to happen because it was such a taboo that in some churches you can actually be killed and no one will support you, the victim or the family, but will support the person who killed or victimized you. It is good for the community to be rid of such a person. Is this changing? I do not know, but I know that’s what it was.
T: I think some things are changing due to the ubiquity of the internet, information, and the desire to communicate with people outside of a small community. Considering all of this that has had an impact on me, being on stage, and knowing that somewhere on the South Side of Chicago, Black kids who are transvestite or transgender or trans-inquisitive are being killed and nothing is being done about it. When Black men, those so-called exclusively heterosexual macho Black Men see me in a dress then there’s the immediate threat and I’m okay with that. Step right up. Your US military taught me how to kill.
T: A year or two ago, two Black men side-swiped my car. Bam. And then went off. My car does 140 mph in 6th gear. I chased them down at a high speed on the Bishop Ford while on the phone to the police, forced them off the road at 111th street. This went from 95th to 111th. And I get out of my car after having come from this event and they were freaked. And I made very clear that I could put their ass in front of traffic with ever-so-much-ease. We’re on the side of the road now. Even though my bumper is torn off part way after this high speed chase, I had to remind them that they should know better than to fuck with an Old Black Man wearing a dress. If you don’t know, then you had better ask somebody.
JR: I know now. But I think I knew before. (Laughs).
T: (laughs) So yes, the costume and scene change reinforces the text of the performance. There’s a premise that is proved over a song or a series of songs. The costume is part of that too. The image that you see or deal with is an old Black man in satin panties and satin dress and all the rest that goes with it. That becomes the scenario. The performance is everything. And if the hair must go, then it will go.