What is going on with STREAKING IN TONGUES?
The father/son duo wasn’t an easy sell to me. Fellow music critic Justin Hilton of Spirit You All praised their brutally intimate 2016 record Life Support, which I was never able to finish completely. I really came around to them last year thanks to their sprawling and idiosyncratic Kindergarten Prayers. The band’s new record Oh My Darlin’ is probably their most imminently listenable and emotionally eviscerating. Yet, after hearing it for the first time, I was left with this lingering sense that I’m not picking up everything that this father/son duo is laying down.
So I listened again and listened more closely. I revisited Life Support. I scoured their website, press clippings, and music videos. I watched their trilogy of short films built around the music of Kindergarten Prayers. Then I listened to their debut double album Knocky-Boo (The Eternal Playground). Throughout this process, I became more convinced that there is a deeper artistic vision at play, but in other ways, I was even more confused and disconcerted.
What the hell is going on with STREAKING IN TONGUES?
To put it simply, STREAKING IN TONGUES is a difficult band to reconcile. In their music videos and album trailers, you might find a live performance from the band’s living room, home videos, clips from public domain animated films, or original visuals. The album trailer for Life Support lifts a ceiling-crawling moment from The Exorcist III. The Kindergarten Prayers short films move from quietly menacing self-piloting drones (!) to a terrifyingly convincing depiction of a child removing ten of his teeth with needle-nosed pliers (!!), to a story surrounding child abduction and threat of murder (!!!).
Their music is no less beguiling. Knocky-Boo boasts 28 tracks and a 2-hour runtime, featuring a different lead vocalist and writer on a great deal of the tracks and sounding almost like a completely different band. The DNA of the three following records can most clearly be heard on “Farewell OCD (You Pesky Bastard),” but then there’s the 9-minute instrumental “Crunk for Christ,” and the surreal and distressing “Babysitter in a Frog Suit”—two especially strange moments in a supremely odd record.
At the same time, I now understand why Justin called Life Support a “work of sterling quality.” It’s a brutal examination of grief and loss in the light of God’s sovereignty. It doesn’t pull any punches, but that’s not the only reason it’s also “a gauntlet of a listen.” The recording and performances are as raw as the lyrics, but in a way that can easily derail the record’s effectiveness based on the listener’s patience. Kindergarten Prayers cements the band’s experimentation in authentic creative expression rather than haphazardness, but it still sometimes feels long and a little tedious.
I was entranced in this journey. There’s a vital intimacy in the band’s songwriting. They tackle challenging themes in unequivocally unique ways both musically and lyrically. And, more than any other act I’ve covered in my years of music blogging, I felt that I needed to figure this band out. STREAKING IN TONGUES has literally kept me up at night. So, I decided to go to the source. I talked to Ronnie Ferguson and his 12-year-old son and creative partner, Elliott, to ask the questions that have been eating away at me for these past weeks.
(The following conversation has been slightly edited for clarity).
We Are Mirrors: As I was listening to your back-catalog, I noticed this intangible similarity between the mood of your work and Sufjan Stevens’ Michigan record, so I wondered if it had to do with your living there also. Have you always lived in Michigan?
Ronnie Ferguson: Yeah, I was born in Flint. Elliott was born in Jackson, where I was living at the time when his mom and I were married. Otisville, which is where we say things started with [STREAKING IN TONGUES], is a little country town of about 800 people around 20 minutes from Flint. We lived there about five years and moved to Marquette about three months ago. It’s in the Upper Peninsula. We can see Lake Superior from our house.
WAM: Do you feel that living in Michigan, specifically in Otisville, has been influential to your music?
Elliott Ferguson: Yeah, it’s the source of some of our songs and where they take place.
RF: Yeah, also the type of people we lived around—mostly our family and working-class people. But even more so, I would say that living in a small town and there being no place to play music—like, literally, no place—and really no other musicians or writers we knew of, Elliott and I were kind of our own writers’ group and our own support, for lack of a better word. I think in a lot of ways that probably influenced our work. Maybe it’s why recording has been our primary focus. We love to play live, but we don’t put a lot of energy into it. We’ll try to book shows, but it’s more about the document; it’s about the book we’re writing, and that’s what the album is. Maybe it’s also why our work is pretty insular or introspective.
WAM: Would you maybe call it “peninsular”?
RF: *laughs* That’s a new one for me, but I like that.
WAM: Forgive me.
WAM: Tell me about your creative process as a duo. How do you write and play these songs? How do you divide up tasks as a band?
RF: Usually I’ll come with a written song, and then once we start recording it, we work together on that. And then also, in live shows, we take our recorded version and experiment with it. When Elliott and I played our very first show together—our Kindergarten Prayers album release show—we had no idea how we were going to play a lot of those songs with two people because there were so many instruments. So we got a looper, and we got some different instruments all wired into it, and we just started experimenting with the songs. We tried not to be precious with them. Elliott started adding his interpretation, or he’d come up with parts to it. The first song we learned to play live was this instrumental piece “Kindergarten Daze.” Rather than start with the recording of it, we started with Elliott just improvising. So, that has become the song now; he creates this whole movement that leads into the part you hear on the record.
With Elliott being so new to music (I’ve played for about 20 years, and he’s only played just for a couple years), I’d rather him learn a few things at a time and just build on that and have it be really low stress and enjoyable. A lot of people learning the arts learn all these rules and different things that I think, in a lot of ways, straitjacket them for many years, and it takes a long time to get that off. With Elliott, I’m just trying to have him never put that jacket on.Kindergarten Prayers by STREAKING IN TONGUES
WAM: STREAKING IN TONGUES, the band, seems to have this continuous narrative—you might even call it a mythology—but I can’t quite figure out the place in the story for Knocky-Boo (The Eternal Playground). Can you tell me a bit more about that record? I know that Rob Hampton co-wrote and performed about half the songs.
RF: Yeah, exactly half. It’s a 28-track, two-disc album, and we blended it. I was playing in a band with Rob at the time. His band was called Oddkin, and I was the drummer and backing vocalist in his band. My band at the time was called The Storyboxers, Rather unfortunate title, but not my worst band name ever.
WAM: Dare I ask?
RF: I kind of liked “Ronnie and the Fergusons,” but my bandmates didn’t like that so much. My worst band name may be “When I Had No Legs, Darlin,” and I made sure they put the comma in there. Some people hate STREAKING IN TONGUES because it’s hard to say and we all-cap it, but I’m like, “It’s the best band name ever, and you just need to accept it.”
WAM: It is the best band name ever, and I regularly tell people that. I say, “You might not like their music, but you’ve got to respect the band name.”
RF: The band name is better than the music. Our whole band is about living up to that name, and we haven’t got there yet.
Anyway, in The Storyboxers, I was the guitarist and singer, and he was the keyboardist. STREAKING IN TONGUES formed from both bands. We were kind of like, “Let’s stop playing two bands. I’m sick of all these guys that play in a million bands. Let’s just make it one band and see how interesting that can be.” So we did that. Knocky-boo (The Eternal Playground), just as far as functionally, was an experiment to see if two different visions could coalesce and make a more interesting or unique vision. To me, I really like it, and I still enjoy that album. But I think, to a lot of people, it’s just sort of crazy. *laughs*
WAM: Oh, it is crazy.
RF: People listen to it, and they have a reaction as though it’s schizophrenic. As far as thematically, I think, though sonically it’s all over the place, it’s pretty unique and holds together pretty well. We thought of it as our sonic equivalent of Dante’s Divine Comedy or Hieronymus Bosch. It’s almost like an existential crisis put to music, you know? Musically, there’s quiet folk to hardcore industrial metal; it’s so all over the map. It was all recorded in Rob’s bedroom (he was living with his parents), and in my one-bedroom apartment, which I was sharing with three people.Knocky-Boo (The Eternal Playground) by STREAKING IN TONGUES
WAM: Rob has played on all of the STREAKING IN TONGUES records, correct?
RF: Yeah, he’s played on every one so far. In fact, the one we’re recording now he played on, too. Me and Elliott mapped it out, and we’re going to release all the stuff we worked on with other people, but starting at album seven, we’re going to draw a line and everything is going to be albums that only me and Elliott play. We’ll do everything ourselves. We kind of want to do it as a challenge.
WAM: So, you have three more albums of material already in the chute?
RF: Oh yeah, we definitely do. But the one we think is coming next, we’re still working on it. We’re taking our time with it, weeding out the stuff we don’t think is the greatest. It’s going to be a new thing for us. Hopefully, all our albums are a new thing, but this one after Oh My Darlin will step it up a little bit. We hope to do that with all the albums, but that’s up to the listener.
WAM: You’ve talked about making music as a lifestyle. Why choose music over a different craft or hobby?
RF: Well, it’s more about having creativity, and creating things, and sharing things, and responding to the world in a creative way. “The Creative Life” is the way I think of it, and music just is something I have experience with and we’ve enjoyed doing together, but probably no more or less than film. Even more so, sometimes, we enjoy working on films. I’m a grad student right now, and we’re working on hopefully doing a full-length movie this summer. It will be the first thing we’ve done on a bigger scale. We do film and music videos a lot, and to us, that’s just as important as doing a live show.
Elliott’s first artistic experience was an art show in fifth grade. He did 50-60 pieces, and that was before he ever played in the band. For me, even before I was a singer-songwriter, I worked in the theater, and I wrote poetry. I’ve been influenced by that.
WAM: Would you tell us some more about that art show, Elliott? Were there any other students involved?
EF: I was the only student. My school didn’t offer it, so I had the show in the community.
WAM: How would you describe your art?
EF: Most of the pieces in my art show started as drawings, though one was a painting I did in school. My dad noticed that I had a big collection of drawings, and he encouraged me to add color and show them to people. Most of the color was added digitally. We called the art show “Friends I Built.” And it was mixed-media.
As I started working on the show my dad challenged me in different ways, like to draw five things around the house or pause five movies and draw characters from the movies. He encouraged me to draw whatever I want but challenged me to try new things so that I could learn new skills.
My favorite piece from the show was “Wolfy” or “Love at First Sight,” a piece with a T-Rex and a Butterfly. I sold about 15 or so pieces mostly to family and friends, but also a few strangers who came to my show. We counted about 120 people that came to the show over the two days.
RF: Just by doing [art], we get a lot out of it. We don’t have to get anything more out of it, which includes even an audience. It’s great to have an audience, and we consciously work towards trying to play for people. We enjoy it, but our goal is not to make a lot of money or to be famous or anything like that. We don’t care about any of that. To us, this is more about being healthy and maintaining a sense of imagination. It’s doing something cool together other than watching TV.
WAM: What has it been like to see products of this lifestyle gain attention from strangers on the Internet?
EF: Weird. It’s weird that it’s possible for someone in Australia to hear our music and we’d never know it.
WAM: Yeah, I heard of you guys (from Michigan) through a blog based in South Korea while I was living in Washington.
RF: I love that. That’s one thing I like about the Internet: that you don’t have to be wealthy, and you can just get something posted on there, and it can get heard.
WAM: Your records have always seemed very deliberately sequenced, and Oh My Darlin even seems to have a three-act structure if you divide the tracklist into thirds. Was that intentional, or just a happy accident?
RF: That was definitely intentional. Elliott helped me with this. We try to find the perfect mix of implying a narrative arc but having it sonically interesting from beginning to end. I don’t know if it was Kanye West or Jay-Z, but one of them said, “I only sequence on sound.” In other words, what the songs are about is irrelevant. I used to be just the opposite and sequence on words and have the music follow, but I’ve been really trying to find that perfect balance.
A lot of [Oh My Darlin] was inspired by my relationship with Elliott’s mom. We had dated, we were married, and we divorced. So it’s an album about love, but also heartbreak. Quite a bit of the album was even written through that. When I started working on that stuff, I would talk with Elliott. It became a dialogue with a father and son about this life that he didn’t really know that much about because we were divorced when he was two. He doesn’t remember a time when we were together.
EF: It’s kind of weird to hear my dad, divorced with my mom, singing love songs about her.
WAM: I was curious as to how much of Oh My Darlin was autobiographical because the songs feel very true. Reading some of the lyrics made me squirm because they were so vulnerable and authentic. But I love the record for that. Thank you for sharing these experiences with us.
RF: It seems like it’s not fashionable to be confessional or to write about your own experience. It seems like people are more hesitant or you hear more naysayers when you write like that. Whenever I hear that, or I hear “Don’t write concept albums or long albums,” that’s a trigger that I’ve got to try to do it. I want to go away from the pack because I feel like they’re missing something. I just am not big into trends. It’s far more interesting for artists, rather than surround themselves with people just like them, to really learn to nurture their own garden, their own idiosyncrasies. That’s one of the reasons that, when I say it’s a lifestyle for us, music really comes out of our home. The biggest influence is our own lives. I think that’s probably true of a lot of songwriters, but I think a lot wouldn’t like to admit it. They like it to be a little more mysterious, but I think it’s mysterious when it does come out of your own life.
WAM: You guys dedicated this record to David Berman (of Silver Jews) and Daniel Johnston. What is it, specifically, about these songwriters that compels you?
RF: We’ve been compared to both of those acts in reviews, and I think that’s probably not a coincidence. I’m sure they’ve influenced us, particularly me as a songwriter. For a lot of people that came up my age, they were kind of like big brothers to a generation of people like me. They really broke open a lot of doors. You can’t overstate their influence—not just musically, but spiritually and aesthetically. It’s the idea that “all my favorite singers sing,” like David Berman always said—this idea that anybody can do this, you’ve just got to put your heart into it and pick up a Sony or Tascam or whatever.
WAM: Elliott, who’s been inspirational to you as a growing artist and musician?
EF: I’m not really sure, besides my dad.
RF: What about Kanye West?
EF: I like all kinds of music, no matter what it is.
RF: He hasn’t developed any snobbery yet, so he can appreciate any kind of music. I developed some snobbery in middle school when I started getting into rap. My first big albums were Dr. Dre’s The Chronic and Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle and that kind of stuff. That’s, to me, what was “cool.”
WAM: If you don’t mind the diversion, since he’s come up a few times now, what’s your take on the new Kanye record, Jesus Is King?
RF: We haven’t heard it. We’ve listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a ton. We just got hooked on it and listen to it a lot. Other than that, we’ve just heard some of his big songs on playlists. But I feel like Jesus Is King is an album I feel like we’d be interested in listening to from beginning to end.
WAM: Well, it’s only 27 minutes, so it’s not a huge time commitment. It’s interesting he came up, because his new record is very devotional and personal, and he’s getting some pushback for it. I think you hit the nail on the head when you were talking about how it’s not fashionable—at least in the mainstream—to be confessional. Kanye is being very honest and open about his current experiences with faith.
RF: And he’s being religious or spiritual, so he’s got two strikes against him there.
WAM: And the third strike is—
RF: He’s controversial. *laughs*
WAM: Yeah, all of the things that he says outside the music.
RF: Yeah, he’s a wild man. I kind of love that about him, you know?
WAM: Getting back on track, what have you guys learned as musicians, songwriters, and “co-workers” over these projects?
EF: The hardest part of making music is learning how a song goes for the first time. After I memorize the song, then it’s much easier to make up parts to go with it. My dad helps me but he also gives me freedom to play what I want and sing when I want. The easiest part of being in STREAKING IN TONGUES is making the movies. It’s so fun that it doesn’t feel like work. I really enjoy getting to tell stories with my dad.
RF: One of the things I’ve learned working with Elliott is that you don’t have to be precious with the songs. It’s so fun bringing Elliott in because I’ll think about things in one way, and I’ll try to come up with some lead guitar melodies or something. And he’ll come up, and I’ll be like, “What do you think? What do you want to try to add?” Then we’ll be playing the track back, and he’ll start playing something on the organ that I never would have imagined. It’s the coolest thing, like, “How did you think of that?” And it might only be two or three notes in a strange sequence, but it’s perfect. He does that a lot. He does it so often that we rarely play songs live exactly how we do on the record. We usually continue to evolve them. It’s not like we’ve got to do them different because we don’t have any choice. Sometimes that’s true, but even more so it’s like we no longer consider them just finished. We consider them these characters that we get to try on, and then we can do whatever we want with them.
It works for us because of how we come at it. I come at it as a musician. I can hum the melodies and the notes to everything we’re doing because I learn by ear. But he’s learning as a visual artist, so he thinks more in terms of feel and layers. I think that the balance adds an interesting chemistry that you don’t hear all the time.
WAM: What’s something you haven’t done on a record yet that you want to do in the future, either musically or thematically? What’s next for STREAKING IN TONGUES?
EF: We’re gonna make it groovy.
RF: We’ve been going in more of a physical direction with music. Maybe our bread and butter is folk or experimental, but I think we’re growing into doing some different stuff. Oh My Darlin has more of a rock edge, but some of the stuff we’re writing now—which won’t be released for a little while since we’re kind of emptying the vaults—some of that stuff is more dance-based and more groove-based. We envision our band in the future being almost like two DJs with a bunch of instruments. So, we’d do some of our stuff live, and some of it’s programmed. It’s like, put us in the middle of a house, and people can party. We like music that makes you move physically. We kind of like it for practical reasons, like for exercise.
Another thing—and we don’t want to give away too much—is the film that we’re working on right now. I’m working on getting a grant for it so we can shoot it this summer. We’re planning to do the music for the film, so it will be our first film score. That’s a big thing that a lot of people don’t realize about STREAKING IN TONGUES’ music is that the first music I ever recorded was scores for plays. I think that way about pop music. Like, “How can this be interesting as, like, a book rather than just a pop song?” To probably our fault, we’re not a singles band. Maybe we’ve got some catchy numbers, but we’re more interested in having a sustained thing that you can put on, and it will take you someplace. And it might take an hour—or with Knocky-Boo, it might take you two hours—but it’ll at least transport you. Hopefully, they’ll be something real we’ve captured that comes out of our own life and experience that could actually touch somebody. Hopefully, more than anything, it’s healing for people. As it is for us to make, and as it is for us to listen to, I hope that our music would be that for other people. My hope is that our music touches other people who might be hurting.