Chris Slusarenko is a singer and songwriter whose career spans 30 years. Now in Portland super-group Eyelids (which features members of The Decemberists, Elliott Smith’s band, among other notables), they have teamed up with John Cameron Mitchell, best known as the creator of the play and movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch, to record an EP of Lou Reed covers called Turning Time Around. The proceeds will benefit Mitchell’s mom, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
KEXP's Owen Murphy was lucky enough to catch up with these two via Skype — Chris in Portland and John in New York City — and they shared stories of meeting Lou Reed, interpreting his art, and Mitchell's mother pre-dementia. Log onto their BandCamp page for more info and to support the care of Mitchell’s mother.
KEXP: John, what was your mom like when you were growing up?
John Cameron Mitchell: She was very charming. She's Scottish. She was a painter. She was a teacher. She was very conservative. She was an anti-abortion activist. She was fun. She was difficult. She was a victim. She was a little girl. She was like me. She loves a crowd (laughs), you know? She wasn't always good with the one-on-one. I had to learn that myself on my own. And, you know, coming from Scotland, she had it hard when she was young during the war. When I would complain about not getting to borrow the car, she would yell, "I never saw a banana 'til I was twelve!" So, she was difficult, but really fun.
My dad was warmer. He was a general in the Army and he was a sweeter guy that was very beloved and even-keeled, though he had his own demons. He was much more accessible when he had Alzheimer's, too. And now, you know, mom is my kid, and I've got to raise money that's the equivalent of going to Harvard without financial aid. But, you know, we do what you can.
What was it like tackling the work of Lou Reed?
Chris Slusarenko: The cool thing about Lou's songs is you find all sorts of sensitivity and anger and strangeness and love in the weirdest places. And it really helps you make it your own. When you think about Lou Reed, he's so iconic. Our version of the song "I Found a Reason" is really beautiful on the EP. We slowed it down... and it's just hypnotic, you know. So, it was really freeing and... I think we all enjoyed the danger of of trying something new with it.
John, you met Lou before Hedwig, right?
Mitchell: He lived on my street in (New York City's) the Village and I would see him around. And before Hedwig, I followed him into a very small optician on Bleecker Street. And, you know, he's trying on the steel rim, bulletproof readers, and I'm forced to try on the giant lady's glasses because that's the only thing that I can find in my corner of the store. And then, wearing some giant upside-down glasses, I turned and fake-recognized him in the moment. "Oh, hi. I was just listening to the Blue Mask," and he's like (grunts) "yeah." I said, "It's very important cause my boyfriend's trying to quit drinking and then he loves this album, and it's your sobriety album." He goes, "It's my best album." I was like, "Yes, I know." And then he turns back to the bulletproof glasses. And I pretended to look some more at pink frames and then hightailed it out of there. So that was my initial interaction with him. And then he came to see me in Hedwig and the Angry Inch off Broadway and walked up the six flights to our tower dressing room and said to me (imitates Reed), "You were beautiful." And that just, you know, made my life.
Tell us about the song "Turning Time Around."
Slusarenko: It is such incredible love letter and question about love. My favorite music is the stuff that on a certain day you listen to it and you just lie in the sorrow of it and the anguish of it, and then the next week, you are celebrating the same song in a joyous way. And I think, Lou, and certain bands like Teenage Fanclub, could really walk that line, and so the song was open to your own emotional interpretation.
John, what is your mother like now?
Mitchell: She's actually very happy and healthy and in a kind-of childlike way. And, as you know, our country doesn't really take care of its own, and although my dad was in the Army and her actual doctor's stuff is taken care of, it's the caregiving is what kills us all and the amount of 24-hour care needed for someone in that state. And so it's really been challenging for me, but you know, I work for her, you know, so I've been doing I've been touring with a show called The Origin of Love, which is the songs and stories about Hedwig, about making Hedwig, which I've been doing here and there. And we got a West Coast arc going, starting in February. So that that was for mom, even though I was going to hell for wearing the wig, according to her. Now it's paying for her rent. Isn't that funny how it comes around? But, you know, she used to be very religious and that would separate us and we all know the weirdness of separation that politics has done in families, where people aren't talking because, you know, we've been advertised into one category or another by Fox News or MSNBC, like we have to believe certain things and we have to cancel those who don't. That's not my style. It's very disturbing. But weirdly, Alzheimer's has disolved all of those barriers, so in the end, it all evens out. And the love wins out.
Turning Time Around EP is out now via BandCamp, with all proceeds going to the immediate health care costs of John Cameron Mitchell’s mom, Joan. Mitchell will bring his The Origin of Love tour to Seattle on Thursday, February 27th at the Moore Theatre. Eyelids will release their next album The Accidental Falls on February 14th via Jealous Butcher Records.
Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part of our Song of the day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJ’s think you should hear. Today’s song, featured on the M...
Every Monday through Friday, we deliver a different song as part of our Song of the Day podcast subscription. This podcast features exclusive KEXP in-studio performances, unreleased songs, and recordings from independent artists that our DJs think you should hear. Today’s song, featured on The Mi...