Quintron and Miss Pussycat: Homemade World

You don’t expect to hear Mr. Quintron discuss a water pump. The world of Quintron and his wife/percussionist/puppeteer Miss Pussycat is rarely so mundane, but while in New York City for a show featuring his new album Too Thirsty 4 Love and an art show of Pussycat’s puppets, the van broke down and had to be dealt with.

A more common context for Quintron and Miss Pussycat is theatrical, such as their performance in the Bingo! Parlour during this year’s Voodoo Music Experience. Dressed in a blue, sparkled jumpsuit, Quintron settled in his console–a small bank of keyboards fronted with a car grill complete with headlights and a “Quintron” license plate, along with a mess of less obvious homemade instruments and Drum Buddy, his light-activated synthesizer with its signature inverted coffee can on top. When he sat down, a droning organ swell rose, part roller rink, part Phantom of the Opera. He nursed the drone along, then brought it under control and started to frame it into a song. When the rhythm kicked in, Miss Pussycat stood beside him shaking maracas dressed in red and white cozies that matched the puff on her head. The drone becomes “Waterfall,” a ride-the-train dance party from the new album, and when it was over, it returned to the drone that spawned it and filled the space between songs.

“Waterfall” echoes the new wave dance rock of the B-52s, but it’s built on R&B changes and played with a punk rock emphasis on enthusiasm and personality. Precision’s good, but spirit’s better, and Quintron’s hair is shaken into his eyes almost from the first note. The physicality of his performance obscures the homemade technology that is central to his music.

The sound and style are so idiosyncratic to Quintron and Pussycat that it seems like it comes out of nowhere. The energy is positive and the sensibility is playful as if everything–from words to the music to the show to life itself–is a summer camp project, and no matter how things go, it will all end with s’mores and cocoa.

A busted water pump is about as far as you can get from witches in the club, but periodically dull reality forces its way into every wonderful world. By being as self-sufficient as possible though, Quintron and Miss Pussycat have done their best to blur the distinction between art and life.

“I’m not a real stickler for reality,” Quintron says. That’s not a big surprise coming from someone named Quintron. He talks about his past reluctantly and since everyone including his father calls him Quintron, he’s uninterested in talking about the name he was born with. His only comment on his real name is annoyance that someone online got it wrong and declared him Jay Poggi–MC Trachiotomy–and then only because he fears the error may detract from Trachiotomy getting his due. “Quintron’s a nickname from so far back that it has become my name.”

He only talks about the days before he moved to New Orleans–somewhere between 1993 and 1994–when it’s relevant to what he’s doing now. “My previous band, Math, involved drums and organ,” Quintron says. “At some point when I started performing as Quintron, it was all drums and electronics but no organ per se. When I moved to New Orleans is when I switched back to organ, but only organ.”

Playing as a one-man band was an aesthetic choice, but it was part of a larger philosophy as well. “I do not like to lead nor follow,” he says. “I like to decide whether I want to play an extra measure, I like to decide when to have the big explosive change, I like to decide whether to totally fuck the beat up and break it down and stop. I like to decide when I want to talk. As far as what I want to do musically, any democracy would water it down. It’s part of my vision–having the professional-ness or refined elements of music suffer as a result of struggling to get it all done alone, which is a metaphor for all these other things.”

That tension led to the look of the Drum Buddy, an instrument borne of necessity. The beats are programmed via holes punched in the sides of inverted coffee cans. He tried alternatives including a Plexiglas cylinder that could be fitted with cards so it could play more beats, but, Quintron says, “nothing worked as well as the coffee cans. Then that became part of the aesthetic of the thing.” The same sensibility extends to another voice-activated synthesizer whose primary interface is a cheap Radio Shack cassette recorder microphone.

“I either make or customize everything that I play. It’s not intentional as a conceptual idea that I need to be original therefore I need to build my own instruments so I don’t sound like anybody else. It’s more, these are the sounds that I want to hear. There’s nothing exists that can do that, so I might as well do it myself that. That’s how the Drum Buddy came about. ‘I wish I could bend with light Moog-style oscillator sounds while playing organ with other hand. How can I do that and not just have one of those woo-woo digital Theremins?'”

The effect is that his instruments, like many things associated with Quintron and Miss Pussycat, seem to be two things at once. They’re science fair projects by look but high tech in truth, whimsically D.I.Y. except no one else would do them.

As high concept as Quintron can be, it’s all heard in dance music. “It’s a new fun thing for me to do is to craft these songs that vary by nuance as opposed to long stretches of noise. I’ve been really into that on the last three records because I love good songs. I want to make a good DJ record,” he says. “I don’t want to be Mars Volta on record. I want to have a DJ say, ‘I can play any song on this record’ at a dance party.” He’s become particularly good at it in recent years, whether in Swamp Tech’s electro-boogie “Swamp Buggy Baddass,” the roller disco “Jamskate,” the Sugarhill Gang’s “Apache”-influenced “Wild West Bank,” or Too Thirsty 4 Love’s “Waterfall.”

“That’s what my records should be because I’m a dance band.”

Miss Pussycat is less guarded about her past. She was born Panacea Theriac, and she got started doing puppet shows in the Christian Puppet Youth Ministry at the Southern Baptist church in Antlers, Oklahoma. Eventually, she got kicked out of church, but she didn’t stop making puppets. “This is the ultimate arts and crafts project,” Pussycat says. “It’s recording music, it’s writing, it’s sewing, it’s sculpture, it’s parapsychology, it’s a whole secret universe, and you can do it in a music club. And I like this world better than the art world. Then I can be around the people that I really like.”

Her most recent project, Trixie and the Tree Trunks, is now available on DVD. The series of 10 episodes was commissioned by Vice Magazine, which ran the story as a serial on its Vice.tv Web site. The plot summary reads, “The Happy Garden is a sad and miserable place after the devastating snow storm which froze the entire planet, but Trixie has some magical seeds and a good idea. Her psychedelic friend Marsha does not always understand Trixie’s plots and plans but she is a loyal friend (and future band-mate) and willingly goes along.”

It’s her most recent major project, but not her only recorded effort. Quintron’s Swamp Tech album was packaged with a DVD that included her Electric Swamp, and in 2002, her North Pole Nutrias debuted as a Christmas special on Cox in New Orleans.

In retrospect, it was a perfectly New Orleans answer to Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and its animated seasonal ilk. It celebrated the same holiday and with similar goodwill, but it was far more surreal and more playful. First, it involved nutria, not snowmen or elves, and the puppet design was personal, with far less concern for whether or not viewers could identify what species the characters were than making the puppets true to their characters. In it, Dusty and Treasure head to the North Pole to help save Christmas from the Virus Monster that was destroying the toys in Santa’s workshop.

“When it first came out, I got letters from kids,” she says. “I wanted to do this all the time. It took it to another level.” She still gushes with enthusiasm for Rick Delaup for encouraging her to do it and for shooting the show, and for taping Harry Lee’s voice tracks as the Virus. “Recording Harry Lee was probably the high point of my life. People love that movie because he’s a bad guy.”

Her work, like Quintron’s, celebrates the world they live in. The Mother-in-Law Lounge, Hubigs Pies, City Park and even OffBeat Magazine have turned up in her shows, and voices have been contributed by many of their musical friends and local icons. When Pussycat starts ticking off the names of people who have been in her shows, whether by intention or accident, she names friends no longer with us. In addition to Lee, “O’Neil [Broyard, the late owner of the Saturn Bar] did a voice for a puppet. He was a pirate,” she says. “Kelly Keller [the late co-owner of the Circle Bar] did the voice of a tiger in North Pole Nutrias. She had such a great voice.”

Her shows are also two things at once: documents of a life led in New Orleans and the people and things that passed through it, but they are first and foremost stories about characters, and the relationship between the puppets and their voices can’t be forced.

“They tell you what to do. They really do,” she says. For Trixie and the Tree Trunks, she wanted Andrei Codrescu to be the voice of a Neanderthal, and she had the Neanderthal puppet made. After recording Codrescu, she realized she had a problem. “He’s absolutely not a Neanderthal at all; he’s a warlock.” She remade the puppet accordingly.

And like Quintron, the high tech and low tech meet in her work. Two of the hallmarks of her puppet shows are the voices, whose sources are barely recognizable because they’re heavily processed, and the halting rhythm of her characters’ speech as there are odd pauses between lines of dialogue. One, it turns out, is the practical solution to the other. “I really want to have voices that are sped or slowed down or have reverb on them, so you have to have these weird little pauses so people can catch up to you.”

When they tour, they do a puppet show every night as part of the concert. When the rock ‘n’ roll dance party stopped for one during South by Southwest one year, the crowd looked at each other perplexed, then took two steps forward for a closer look. Quintron and Pussycat are never certain how the audience is reacting during the puppet show, but he remembers that the White Stripes’ audiences were great and really into it, but the Cramps’ crowds had less patience for whimsy.

The two have been associated with the Ninth Ward for the duration of their time in New Orleans. Their Spellcaster Lodge home/underground nightclub is there, their musical friends are there, and a community of bohemians with a finely tuned sense of rock ‘n’ roll theater and style surrounded them there. These days, Quintron’s less Ninth Ward-centric than he once was. “Katrina erased neighborhoods for me and any kind of boundaries or loyalty to one neighborhood or another,” he says. “It’s all the same thing now, and the ‘burbs. New Orleans is as crucial as blood to my music and my life.”

That doesn’t mean they’re disowning their neighborhood nor its institutions. They remain part of the Ninth Ward Marching Band, a post-high school marching band they helped start that comes together for Mardi Gras. It started as a punk enterprise, where spirit ruled, but it became musically stronger once members of Egg Yolk Jubilee joined. “They made us go from sounding terrible to sounding decent in a matter of one rehearsal with real horn players playing in unison.”

“I love parades so much, and I love being in them even more,” Quintron says. They took last year off, but are scheduled to march again this year and have a number of offers including one from Bacchus. Quintron has some anxieties about that, though, because of the band’s limited repertoire. In Proteus, they’re supposed to have at least five songs so they don’t drive the riders of the float in front of them nuts, “but we just have three classic rock songs that we play the shit out of.”

Mardi Gras is a perfect Quintron and Pussycat event, and it’s no surprise that she’s trying to get a Mardi Gras puppet show together with television in mind. Like their shows, their art and their lives, there’s a strong sense of shared play. We all play along. We all join. Stand at the back in shrewd, careful judgment and you miss it.

That choice to play is “the most beautiful thing about [Mardi Gras] that nobody will understand who doesn’t live here,” he says. “It’s the embrace of pointlessness. It’s like religion or nihilism, take your pick, but you’re having a good time on the way down.”

Their world is full of curious dualities/echoes. Quintron performed “A Certain Girl” by Ernie K-Doe–“my mentor”–on the back of a flatbed truck outside of the Mermaid Lounge, only to discover shortly after that K-Doe himself was performing the same song at the same time on the White House lawn for President Bill Clinton. For Pussycat, “The puppet world is a parallel universe, so things that happen there relate to the real world. Electric Swamp was finished a week before Katrina, and it was all about New Orleans being destroyed by the forces of nature.”

The two have done what they can to rub out the line between art and life, making each an extension of the other. Their art isn’t what they do; it’s who they are. “I never feel like I’m performing, even onstage,” Pussycat says. “I feel like I have to be completely genuine. And I think Quintron’s like that.”

As for art and life: “I don’t think there is a separation,” she says. “The most fun thing in the world is when you’re making something you’re really excited about; the feeling you have is great. Everything in the world looks beautiful and sparkly, or sometimes it’s horrible and dark when you haven’t had enough sleep because you’re so driven to record something or write something. It’s like an adventure that you go on. Sometimes I feel like Rambo or Harry Potter because you’re doing this thing, you’re on this adventure and meet people and go to these places and invent things. There are rivers and mountains and volcanoes and valleys and you’re flying in the sky in a helicopter. It’s great!”