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Pop operas 

Wednesday, Sep 20 2006
In the five decades since Chuck Berry took a liking to that little thing we now call rock 'n' roll, the evolution of live performance has felt sorta slow. For every Flaming Lips flight into beach ball and dancing Santa fantasy, there's a band whose greatest extravagance is getting all of its members to grow matching handlebar mustaches. In an era of inflating ticket prices, the rise of the stage show hasn't followed, and for the most part that admission fee includes your basic half-dozen players and their amps and instruments. Oftentimes, that's cool enough — not every musician needs "Art Institute dropout" on the resume to fit the bill. Then again, at some shows a bit of extra oomph goes a long way.

At a recent Mezzanine gig, flamboyant New York electro pop act Fischerspooner finally exceeded the expectations of its grandeur, fashioning a random August night into New Year's Eve in Vegas. Casey Spooner, resplendent in his Cats facepaint, shined amid a full band (decked out in white suits), synchronized backing dancers (in gold lame), and multiple costume changes — and that's not even mentioning the cannons that shot slivers of silver confetti or the giant balloon drop. The crowd was transported to a magic disco palace in which our eyes received as much stimulation as our ears and our asses; the bang and the buck were, for once, a matched set.

San Francisco's Ming & Ping may not have Fischerspooner's Manhattan fashionistas clamoring for guest-list spots — their loyalists more often come from the "heard your song in a random snowboarding video" contingent — but the act is no less lofty in its conceptualization.

"I've never been the kind of person to just stick with my skill set," giggles Bao Vo, the Pasadena-based Wizard of Oz curating the synth pop performance troupe. The Art Center student giggles often, whether discussing his hopes for a Ming & Ping sitcom, organizing the travel plans for a Sept. 23 date at the Rickshaw Stop ("I have to get all these architects off work to come and play with us"), or explaining the role of the cymbal monkey. The latter is one of many costumed creatures sharing the stage with the Hong Kong brothers. "The monkey in Asian folklore is a deity who is really into practical jokes but manages to always save the day," explains the Vietnam-born Vo. "That was one of our favorite stories growing up; I thought we should take a bunch of old ideas and do them in a new way, just like with the music."

Ming & Ping's songbook hails from the airy, computer-generated and spearmint-scented ranks that perfumed the pop airwaves two decades back. Equal parts Eno, New Order, and a slew of one-hit wonders (Book of Love, Alphaville, you name it/forgot about it), the band's two discs of chilled electro beats and feathery vocals could soundtrack Some Kind of Wonderful just as well as they could please pals of the Postal Service. There's no glib irony to tracks like "(This Is) The Dream of Electric Sheep" and "The Bluest Grey"; instead there's a celebration of the pastel "palate of '80s music" mixed with what Vo calls "tacky Asian and European hits." from 2002 and last year's MP2 are standalone collections pulled from influences similar to those of Fischerspooner, minus that group's stylistic pomp and easy DJ smash hits.

But the genuine intrigue from this 4-year-old act comes from gazing into the larger Ming & Ping universe. Over the phone, Vo maps out a population comprising photographers, videographers, dancers, industrial architects, and costume designers — like Melodie Gore. ("She commissions and designs for herself and then gathers photographers and artists to build fictional worlds based on [the looks]," says Vo. "She has like 80 identities with very elaborate, gorgeous visuals.")

These individual pods snap into a larger matrix that in turn vibes with extractions of Asian culture. The live M&P exhibition includes an opening segment mashing traditional Chinese opera with techno (the "Ming & Ping Dynasty" phase, complete with emperors, warlords, concubines, and a dictatorship demanding a party in its honor) while also referencing the world of Visual Kei — a '90s Japanese movement Vo explains as "kind of like taking the Marilyn Manson live show and blowing it up to the point where the visuals outdo the music."

"One of the philosophies of our show is that it's not going to be a bunch of people on stage just performing to a bunch of viewers," says Vo. "We're trying to involve the whole crowd." To that end, all the music except the drumming is pre-sequenced. "We usually end up with the whole audience dancing — the performers aren't being forced to pay attention to their instruments, so more than half of their job is to engage the audience. Slowly the show breaks down into a party, and it happens progressively, so people feel like they're there to be a part of the whole musical showcase."

Vo drifts off into an explanation of the giant wall-sized Ming & Ping print hanging in his room. The poster is a visual reminder of the solar system he has helped grow, with pinpoints marking future fantasies of cooking shows, female Ming & Pings, and even energy drinks. In an era when everything from Diddy to hyphy to J. Lo connects to consumers through multiple material outlets, Vo's goals don't feel out of place, although his artistic grounding — and that occasional giggle — makes this brand feel much less crass than its mainstream counterparts. Of course, there's also the obvious issue that most people have yet to get hip to the Ming & Ping party. But as musical escapism climbs higher, that cult status could change.

"I think it's something that's so positive and unpretentious, taking pop culture and pop stars out of the realm of gangsta stuff and sex-dazed energy and bringing it into something where people can feel good about it," gushes Vo. "Which sounds kind of cheesy right now, but hopefully the way we execute it isn't cheesy. That's our secret agenda."

About The Author

Jennifer Maerz


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