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The Wizard of Ass Has Spoken! 

Hal Robins - erudite comic of the absurd, underground cartoonist of note,co-host of the world's strangest radio program, early member of the Church of the SubGenius - has a new hit with the "Ask Dr. Hal Show." But he really could use a paying gig. Really

Wednesday, Jul 30 2003
It's Wednesday night, which means it's time for the "Ask Dr. Hal Show" at the Odeon, a dive bar in the Mission with walls that are painted black. The place is packed with people mostly in their late 20s and 30s; three men sit onstage, a beer pitcher full of questions at the ready.

The show's concept is simple: Write down a question, slip a tip in the envelope, and the resident sage of the Odeon, Dr. Hal Robins, will answer. The 52-year-old Robins looks a bit like Benjamin Franklin: He's rotund; he dresses in a frock coat, brocade vest, bow tie, and watch chain; and a few long, stringy strands of gray hair fall from his otherwise bald pate. But from the brain of this unlikely headliner come astonishing answers. No question is too big or small, ridiculous or academic, personal or crude for his wit and intellect to tackle.

Rob Cole, a 34-year-old in a Hawaiian shirt and pajama bottoms, works a synthesizer, tape deck, and CD player up onstage to provide musical accompaniment, a collection of strange noises and retro music he selects spontaneously to underscore the action. Cole, who's known more commonly by his DJ moniker, KROB, is impishly handsome, with wild brown hair and a goatee, but on one side of his head and face only. The other half is smooth and hairless, the result of a water heater explosion during his childhood. KROB cues up some schmaltzy roller rink music.

The theme of tonight's show is "Meat."

The third man onstage, pulling an envelope from the pitcher, is John Rinaldi, aka Chicken John, the bar's owner, a loudmouthed 35-year-old who's wearing a straw boater and an ascot. He reads the queries, berates the audience, and punishes those who ask stupid questions with a free shot of Fernet, a vile liqueur made from fermented beets.

"Dr. Hal: The black rhino sure looks tasty," Chicken John reads while KROB plays a burping noise. "Why hasn't it been domesticated yet for my consumption?"

"Well," chides Dr. Hal, "not every wild animal can be domesticated; that's why we call them wild animals. And, in fact, the rhino is known -- besides its penchant for stamping out fires -- for poor eyesight and a terrible temper ..."

The audience chuckles. Several heads are bent, scribbling questions.

"... and you would not want this rampaging ruminant as part of your domestic ensemble. It is thus kicking up its heels in the African veld, and not in your living room. Things are often ordered as they are for a reason. In this case, it's the reason I've just given."

Chicken John slumps in his chair, watching Dr. Hal quizzically from behind a pair of retro, black-framed glasses.

"Tiny rhinoceros babies, or rhinocerettes, are thought to be winsome, appealing, and cuddly," Dr. Hal continues. "But in a few short months, significant damage to the furniture, walls, and floor would disabuse you of these thoughts and feelings. But, in a few short years, genetic engineering may give you the equivalent of the Vietnamese potbelly pig, only in the form of a rhinoceros."

Though Dr. Hal never does touch on rhinoceros consumption, he nonetheless wins a round of hearty applause.

"I want to be the only bar on this side of the Mission with a small rhinocerette," says Chicken John loudly into his mike.

"Well, Chicken, your girlfriend is a scientist," says Dr. Hal, conspiratorially. "I'm not going to suggest how to proceed, but obviously it's important to get to work on this ...."

In its two-year run, the "Ask Dr. Hal Show" has amassed a following of people who crave Robins' obscure wisdom and absurd humor like a 1950s housewife craved Valium. There's a consensus among the intellectual hedonists who make up the show's fan base that when Dr. Hal gets on a roll, the mental fireworks can be psychedelic. Rare words like "effulgent" drop from his lips. Obscure facts about dinosaurs or Mormons or Shakespeare are ludicrously juxtaposed.

But "Ask Dr. Hal" is only one tiny piece of a long, bizarre artistic career. Its star is also a celebrated underground cartoonist, a radio personality, and a core member of a fake religious cult with a national following, the Church of the SubGenius. Barely known outside the cultural underground of San Francisco, Robins is an icon to those who see mainstream success as selling out. On this particular fringe -- amongst avant-garde artists, dada-ist performers, and the eccentrics who hang around with them -- Robins is the Last Great Wit. And, to them, it doesn't matter if not everybody is getting the joke.

The Hal Robins you see onstage at the Odeon seems to be stuck in the wrong era; his home proves the appearance accurate. Robins lives with a roommate in a Victorian apartment in the Mission that looks like a museum storeroom filled with dusty tomes and dinosaur bones. He reads constantly and can produce odd facts on subjects ranging from hallucinogenic toad spittle to the Bible to outer space to transportation. Some call him a "walking encyclopedia." Others find him infuriatingly unable to adjust to the modern world, often to his own detriment. Though his dress for the "Ask Dr. Hal Show" is Victorian, at other times he wears a fedora and resembles Sydney Greenstreet in The Maltese Falcon. He speaks in soft, baroque sentences and is shy and polite. For friends who come to visit, he keeps boxes of cinnamon candy in the refrigerator; he made it himself, from his grandmother's recipe.

Robins has no day job and supports himself by a variety of artistic pursuits. Since Robins was discovered by R. Crumb and published in the comic book series Weirdo in 1981, his dense, dark, detailed cartoons have appeared in collections with some of underground comix's biggest names, Spain Rodriguez (Trashman) and Gilbert Shelton (The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers), to name a few.

Others know Robins as Dr. Howland Owll, from the Church of the SubGenius, a dada-esque art project and fake religious sect started in the late 1970s. A cross between a club and a movement, SubGenius pokes fun at organized religion and authority through books, videos, pamphlets, and performances. It has devotees in cities all over the country.

Some insomniacs are familiar with Robins from his work on Puzzling Evidence, arguably the most bizarre radio show on the airwaves. Airing from 3 to 5 a.m. each Friday morning on KPFA-FM (94.1), the show is a schizoid montage of music, seemingly random noises, and stream-of-consciousness ramblings by Robins and two friends.

A live performer with a unique -- some may say peculiar -- vision, Robins has held one-man shows in which all he does is recite poetry. (He's particularly fond of the English Romantics.) He's spent an entire evening showing slides of Hollywood B-movie monsters while talking over them humorously. Most recently, Robins has forged an unlikely artistic partnership with the bellicose Chicken John, a performance artist and vintage car mechanic-turned-bar owner. After a string of chaotic performance art pieces that established Robins as a fixture in the underground scene, the duo hit on what is -- undoubtedly -- the most cerebral bar act in San Francisco: the "Ask Dr. Hal Show."

Constantly on the brink of financial collapse, Robins has somehow -- to the surprise of himself and others -- always pulled through. Many of his friends worry that his brilliance is wasted on esoteric performance art that doesn't pay and few will see. Others fear he'll be fully appreciated as a genius only after he dies. Robins kvetches about money, but only during breaks in his full schedule of nonpaying artistic commitments. In an age when artists often market and package themselves as strategically as fast-food restaurants, Robins makes career decisions based mainly on whether a project interests him. And the things that have interested him have been very odd indeed.

If you're awake at 3 o'clock on a Friday morning, it generally means that something is dreadfully wrong. Yet it's the hour when Hal Robins goes each week to the KPFA studios in Berkeley to do his live radio show, Puzzling Evidence.

Robins' partners on the show are Steve Wilcox, more often known by his Church of the SubGenius nickname, the Rev. Philo Drummond, and Doug Wellman, who calls himself (like the show) Puzzling Evidence. They're neatly dressed, normal-looking guys in their early 50s. On a recent Friday, Robins reads from an article on insects he clipped from a magazine, while Drummond launches into a stream-of-consciousness patter in a Southern Cracker accent.

Robins: In my 30-plus years in the bug business, I've seen some incredible bug infestations ...

Drummond: That little place where we had coffee and rhubarb pie ... could be next weekend ....

They talk over and around each other with competing nonsense, while Wellman -- a former radio DJ for U.S. forces during the Vietnam War -- layers strange noises behind and on top of them: a lighter striking; breaking glass; a snippet of dialogue from an old television program. His fingers constantly fiddle with knobs, buttons, and switches, playing with the mix. First he drowns Robins out, then Drummond. It's impossible to follow any one thought to its conclusion. Then everybody is drowned out by the ghastly wail of a theremin.

Drummond: Is that vampire music?

Robins: Vampire movies are too overwrought.

Drummond: What would vampire music be ...

Wellman: Cello slots.

Drummond: Jell-O shots? Off the coffin?

Robins: Vampires can't eat jelly, and if they can, it's not good for them.

An acquired taste, the show nonetheless has its fans and even groupies, many of whom call in. Those who prove themselves to be expert ranters are allowed to ramble, sometimes for the entire program. Dumb or boring callers are either verbally tormented or ratcheted down so low in the sound mix by Wellman that they register as little more than a murmur.

One fan, San Francisco neon sign repair shop owner John Law, once called in and was patched through to another caller. It was San Francisco performance artist Michael Pepe, who was on the other line fictitiously threatening to commit suicide. Law talked Pepe out of it on the air, with Robins officiating. Others have called pretending to be lunatic stalkers, which was encouraged by the hosts, until Robins attracted a real stalker.

For many, the appeal and explanation of Puzzling Evidence lie in its connection to the Church of the SubGenius. The hosts are core members, and Drummond was one of its founders. Much of their obscure humor is lifted from Church "doctrine."

The Church began in Dallas, in 1979, when Drummond and his neighbor, Doug Smith (aka Ivan Stang), dreamed up their own religion for fun. It was conceived as a giant spoof of organized religion and a way of poking fun at mass consumer culture. They chose as its figurehead and "Personal Savior" a fictional salesman named J.R. "Bob" Dobbs, an everyman type represented by a clip-art image of a 1950s Dick Van Dyke-lookin' guy smoking a pipe. The sect's first fire-and-brimstone-style tract read in part:

"If you are looking for an inherently bogus religion that will condone superior degeneracy and tell you that you are "above' everyone else

--If you can help us with a donation -- then The Church of the SubGenius could save your sanity!"

SubGenii were encouraged to reject the 9-to-5 work ethic and instead acquire more "slack," the part of your life outside your job, where interesting and creative things happen. Similarly, the consumption of low forms of art -- bad movies, TV, and pulp fiction -- was encouraged at the expense of "high" culture. SubGenius blessed eccentricity and sloth, and deplored the earnest overachiever. In the Church of the SubGenius, anybody could be an ordained minister. It both advocated, and was itself, art for art's sake.

Robins' involvement began in 1980, when Stang and Drummond sent their first tract to the San Francisco-based Rip Off Comics, where Robins was working in the production department. Stang and Drummond hoped to entice Rip Off to publish SubGenius-themed books and other fake-cult reading material. The boss threw the tract in the trash, but Robins' co-worker, fellow cartoonist, and roommate, Paul Mavrides, rescued it, and declared it the funniest thing he'd ever seen. Robins agreed. They became members, and struck up a friendship with the Texas founders.

Robins, aka Dr. Howland Owll, quickly assumed a major role in the Church. His psychedelic drawings and satiric writing appeared in the SubGenius books that were eventually published. In one poster, Robins depicted the SubGenius version of the seven levels of hell, with MTV personalities, music industry executives, and health nuts being roasted in eternal flame. (Fornicators and liars looked down on them from a heavenly perch.)

For a while, first in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the Church of the SubGenius achieved anti-authoritarian hipster status along the lines of Shepard Fairey's "Obey Andre the Giant" postering campaign or the Napster music file-sharing system. Although it's not currently the cool thing on college campuses, SubGenius continues to percolate underground, attracting people of all ages, genders, and professions who share a disdain for mainstream popular culture and a love of the ridiculous. Each July, hundreds of SubGenii gather for what's known as "X Day," in Brushwood, New York, to observe what has been famously prophesied each year by the fictional Bob Dobbs as the apocalypse. In September, Robins is being flown out by a local SubGenius group to preach at a "Devival" in Indiana. And in San Francisco, occasional SubGenius events persist.

Robins lives in the Mission District with his caustic roommate and fellow underground comic book artist Paul Mavrides. On the walls of their two-bedroom apartment, reaching up to the high ceilings, is the collected ephemera of a 20-year friendship. (They are, as Mavrides jokes, "trapped together by rent control," paying a total of less than $1,000 a month.) Framed comic book art, colorful plastic squirt guns, and a dusty altar crammed with little robots and monsters and dinosaur casts and fossils all function as bachelor pad décor.

The hallways are gloomy; both men keep nocturnal hours. Robins' small bedroom is a worm's maze of book piles. Many volumes are old and gilt-trimmed. The piles move and grow, at times blocking access to his bed. He researches arcane topics and draws with his fountain pen until he goes to sleep at dawn.

Since R. Crumb first published one of Robins' cartoons, he's been a respected, if not widely known, figure in the underground comic world. His drawings are dark and dense, simultaneously Gothic and futuristic. The backgrounds are black, and the foregrounds pop with tangles of tentacled monsters, ominous hanging moss, mad scientists, giant ray guns, and scaly aliens. Robins sometimes collaborates with writers, but prefers to write his own cartoons.

In a recent strip for a collection called Legal Action Comics II, Robins drew one of his favorite characters, Professor Brainard -- a mad scientist with a giant brain who is, admittedly, an alter ego of Robins himself. Brainard bursts in on a clandestine, pre-9/11 meeting between George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, held inside a James Bond-like island cave hideout. When Bush and bin Laden attack the professor with the "gas of credulity" (designed to render victims susceptible to the leaders' propaganda), Brainard strikes back with a trademark-infringement-lawsuit-proof "Twvinkie" gun. The malevolent duo are sealed inside the cave by the snack cakes' creamy filling.

"He's definitely one of the best underground cartoonists around," says cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, with whom Robins collaborated in 2001 on a comic book called Alien Apocalypse 2006. Still, Robins suffers from underexposure, in part related to his pace of production. He works very slowly, entirely by hand, poring over every last detail, even if it's just for a flier somebody asked him to design for free for a nightclub act.

"It takes Hal so long to do his jewellike artwork, and nowadays, you can only sell comics as 100-page books. I can't imagine how long it would take to put something like that together," says Mavrides.

Robins makes just enough to get by on illustration gigs that are thrown his way. (He's currently illustrating a book for North Atlantic Books on a topic the publisher chose for him: "lost and mismatched socks.") He is unenthusiastic about bringing his work to a wider audience -- he doesn't have a Web site -- and usually just waits for his friends to call him with projects. Those projects, like a parody comic strip he recently finished for a volume on Christian fundamentalist comic book tycoon Jack Chick, are generally obscure.

"He will not deviate for the sake of just getting fame or money, seemingly," says his longtime pal, the syndicated crossword puzzle writer Merl Reagle. "It seems that he's not really happy unless he's appealing to just a small number of people. If he's appealing to the masses, those are the people who elected George Bush."

Robins had a literary upbringing: His father was a professor specializing in Milton at the University of Arizona, his mother a high school English and drama teacher. Graduating from a Tucson high school in 1968 at the height of, as Robins remembers, "fake surfing culture," the young artist cut an odd figure with his ruffled shirts and watch chains. But he soon found his niche at the University of Arizona, where he wrote and staged grand musicals and operettas as part of an ambitious drama group called the Invisible Theater.

When Robins and his drama pal Reagle moved to San Francisco in 1976, the underground comix scene was in full swing. R. Crumb and Bill Griffith (creator of Zippy the Pinhead) had established themselves, and Rip Off Comics was publishing Gilbert Shelton and other anti-authoritarian graphic artists. Robins made friends with local cartoonists and began publishing his own work. For two decades, he supported himself mostly via drawing and illustration, and, though he performed occasionally in the 1980s, was known primarily as a cartoonist.

Then he met Chicken John. Chicken dressed like a 1950s used-car salesman and displayed a knack for attracting freaks, staging spectacles, and getting audiences to come to them. Chicken and Robins met through the Church of the SubGenius and a dada social group called the Cacophony Society, whose members (for example) dress up as clowns and ride public transit, for amusement's sake.

In 1997, Chicken and Robins staged a series of interactive game show parodies with elaborate wooden sets they painted together in a China Basin parking lot where Chicken was living out of a bus. In the shows, Chicken worked the audience from the stage, while Robins provided commentary and acted out fake commercials. One in three of the shows bombed. "The Newlydead Game," featuring recently split couples, ended with one contestant in tears. All tested the limits of taste. Contestants in the pair's version of "1000 Dollar Pyramid" encountered the category "Racism," and were forced to guess words like "honky," "nigger," and "polack" in the surroundings of the politically correct Mission performance hall Cell Space.

Eventually, Chicken and Robins ran out of game shows to parody and had to make up their own, including "Make Me Puke," in which Robins' arch, Alistair Cook-style commentary sometimes provided the only clue as to what was happening onstage.

Hal Robins and Chicken John move in circles full of outrageous personalities -- perverted pyros, drug-crazed machinists, sadomasochistic clowns, fake nuns, real prostitutes who cover themselves with roaches onstage, people who poop in front of an audience then wipe their butt with the American flag. Through performing regularly as a foil to Chicken, Robins earned a reputation as a brilliant, literate, classy, and -- at times -- reasonable voice. He became the guy to call to add substance to an improvisational amateur theatrical event.

In the early years of Burning Man, its founder, Larry Harvey, called on Robins to host the event's fashion show. "He's imperturbable," says Harvey. "His timing is perfect. He can turn very little into a great deal. And on top of that, he's a perfect gentleman. I don't think we've seen a comedian who involves as much in the way of intellectual content since Mort Sahl or Lenny Bruce."

In the summer of 1998, Robins suddenly shifted from being Chicken John's sidekick to the main attraction when the two staged a Burning Man performance called "The Wizard of Ass." Using duct tape and newspaper, they constructed a 40-foot-high pair of ass cheeks sandwiching a blowtorch that farted fire. Robins sat behind the great ass and answered the questions of supplicants who were first forced to skip up to Chicken John on a strip of yellow linoleum. Robins' answers were esoteric and rambling. Or they were short and to the point: "You have wasted all of our time with a question of that caliber! The Mighty Ass has spoken!"

Little did they know that from the smoldering embers of "Ass" (torched at the end of the festival) the "Ask Dr. Hal Show" would rise.

When Chicken bought the Odeon in 1999, he was consumed with a machine he'd built to layer scrolling karaoke lyrics over hard-core porn tapes and broadcast the result over a local TV signal. "Porneoke" had a good few months, during which Hal Robins memorably performed "Monster Mash" in front of a tape of fornicating dwarfs. But the end came when the bar's Bernal Heights neighbors began picking up the porn/karaoke on their TVs and made a stink. Chicken refocused his energies, devising a platform for his favorite performer based on the success of "The Wizard of Ass." The "Ask Dr. Hal Show" was born.

In the beginning, "Ask Dr. Hal" had no stage, no KROB. It was Chicken flogging the audience and reading the questions, then Robins answering them. But it worked. A small cabaret (or, more accurately, dive bar) was the perfect setting for Robins to entice an audience to accompany him on intellectual tangents. And Chicken kept the show moving. "When Hal does it on his own, it's too slow," says Chicken. "He tries to open the envelopes without ripping them, so we can reuse them later."

On a Tuesday afternoon, Robins' wallet is stuffed full of expired membership cards to questionable organizations, including something called the "San Francisco Water Skiing Society," and a handful of bills. "This is all the money I have in the world," he admits, then adds hastily, "until tonight." He is alluding to the tips he gets from the "Ask Dr. Hal Show." And tips are the only monetary compensation the show provides; Chicken John can't pay Robins (the Odeon is allegedly running in the red).

Robins' friends worry about his financial situation; he has no health insurance and admits that a persistent cough and swelling feet give him cause for concern. Last month, he barely made the rent. He rarely calls people long distance, because he can't afford it. He once was late on sending a client some artwork, because he couldn't afford the $3 and change it cost to mail.

Robins is single and has never married or lived with a woman, though he has had girlfriends. "It's difficult to find someone who will put up with my many limitations," blushes Robins.

"I think he's an old-fashioned guy, and he believes that in order to marry or have a relationship similar to marriage, you should be able to provide a certain amount of financial security," says his sister, Martha, a teacher in upstate New York, "which he's never been able to achieve, because he's not interested in it."

"What he does is not exactly chick bait," says friend and fellow member of the Church of the SubGenius Kurt Kuersteiner.

Occasionally, almost in spite of himself, Robins lands a gig that pays real cash. For two seasons, ending last year, he appeared as the announcer on a TNN cable talk show called The Conspiracy Zone, hosted by Kevin Neelon, formerly of Saturday Night Live. The show had a format similar to Politically Incorrect, but for the Zone, public figures like Ann Coulter came on to discuss conspiracy theories. And in 1998, Robins performed many of the voices for characters in the extremely popular video game Half-Life.

But most of Robins' endeavors are decidedly off-Broadway and unremunerative. "[The people I perform with] are amateurs. And if you parse the word 'amateur,' it means 'for the love of it,'" says Robins. "They do what they do not to make a killing or retire on it, but out of urgent necessity, and a knowledge that life is too short."

Robins' friends are forever receiving little handmade fliers for readings or recitations or shows where, sometimes, seven people constitute the audience. In August, for example, Robins will recite Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (which he knows by heart) on the decks of a life-size Spanish galleon in Nevada's Black Rock Desert, where Burning Man is held. The Xtra Action Marching Band, a Bay Area performance group, will play an original composition between stanzas. All the while, the boat -- on wheels -- will carry the cast across the desert, acrobats will tumble from the riggings, a fog machine will puff, and cooks from a Gypsy restaurant located in the Excelsior District will serve dinner.

"I don't know what you would call this stuff," says Scott Beale, founder of the Squidlist, an online e-mail list that tracks the San Francisco underground arts scene. "We don't have critics reviewing it. I thought 'Wizard of Ass' was hilarious, but this isn't Matthew Barney."

Robins says he performs in free gigs in hopes they'll lead to paying ones. The reasoning breaks down when you consider that his lucrative opportunities -- The Conspiracy Zone and Half-Life -- resulted from personal connections. (Scott Carter, one of the producers of The Conspiracy Zone, was a high school friend; Marc Laidlaw, a writer on Half-Life, knew Robins through the underground comix scene.)

Though Robins says he's now focused less on illustration and more on performing as a career, he has never had an agent. "I suppose I should get one," he says reluctantly. "But I really don't know how I would go about doing that."

There's a SubGenius saying that a member of the Church will always "snatch defeat from the jaws of victory." This seems to apply to Robins, as his total cluelessness in business matters is, at times, self-destructive. For instance, Robins often gives clients his original artwork -- the equivalent of a photographer giving away her negative -- without drawing up a written contract safeguarding its return. As a consequence, he has often not gotten the art back. Some complain Robins is whiny, and -- at times -- sophomoric. "It's easy to hate Bush, hate punk rockers," says Reagle. "I wish there was a way for him to use his gigantic talents on a greater level."

But if Robins were to have success, what would it look like? What market is there for somebody who can recite hundreds of hours of romantic poetry by heart, who looks like Benjamin Franklin, and who comes across as Samuel Johnson?

"It seems unlikely that any corporation that's not psychotic would let Hal have his own show," says Robins' roommate, Mavrides.

The following week, Robins receives word from his friend Scott Carter, the producer from The Conspiracy Zone, that two of Carter's entertainment industry pals are flying up expressly to check out the "Ask Dr. Hal Show." Implausibly enough, it appears that Robins' philosophy might be panning out: Hollywood is actually coming to him, at the Odeon.

A few hours before the show, Robins doesn't seem too concerned. When asked over the phone if he is boning up for his answers, he replies from his apartment, "Should I be? I don't even know what tonight's theme is." Nor does he have any idea what exactly the two men are coming to see him for, what he should be pitching them on.

"I don't know what they want," he says with a note of exasperation in his voice. "All I know is they're flying into Oakland, and Chicken has offered them a room in his loft. I think they might be used to better surroundings, however; they're from Los Angeles, they could be allergic to [Chicken's dog] Dammit."

The theme of the evening's show is, appropriately enough, "Dreams." The guys from Hollywood arrive as planned; they are dressed in chic suits, sit at a table near the stage, and laugh appreciatively at all Robins' jokes. One is Ken Crosby, a producer on Real Time With Bill Maher. The other is Paul Tompkins, who hosts a live variety show at the Hollywood nightclub Largo.

"We came down because I wanted to see if what Hal does could possibly work on my show," reveals Tompkins, while waiting to use the facilities. "I think it could, though maybe in a simplified form."

He adds with a rueful smile, "It doesn't pay anything though."

About The Author

Lessley Anderson


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