A lost artifact from the heady cyberdaze of the 1990s Bay area emerges two decades later. After being hidden away since before the turn of the millenium, the album “I.O.U. Babe” by Mondo Vanilli (a k a M.V., Inc) has been officially released, and after being initially offered for free on Bandcamp, downloads of ‘IOU Babe’ have exceeded the site’s limit for free downloads. A conventional CD version of the album (with bonus tracks) will be released soon.
Quick history: A few years after a brief collaboration as the Merry Tweeksters in the mid-‘80s, cultural visionary R.U. Sirius (of Mondo 2000 fame) and Che Underground expatriate Dave Fleminger reunited to begin work on creating the world’s greatest cyber-band. Soon thereafter R.U. invited alien/artist Sim1 3Arm to join the mix, and Sim1’s boundary-pushing performance experience helped turn MV into a sirius triple-threat.
Says Fleminger, “At that point, I had literally no computer experience, and knew nothing of the music RU was referring to as a stylistic jumping-off point, but his ideas were quite inspiring to me and he said, ‘You’ll figure it out’ … so that was enough encouragement for me to give it a try.
“By that time I was pretty done with the art-school scene, couldn’t hack the gallery scene anyway, and painting itself wasn’t making a lot of sense to me anymore, so I reinvented myself as Scrappi DuChamp. Scrappi Doo was the fearless little cartoon dog with the big head, and Marcel DuChamp is one of my all-time art/philosophy idols who, for various reasons, all but ceased his painted output at around the same age I was in 1991. Combining those characters seemed to sum up my attitude about art and life, and it gave me a bit more courage to try something completely new.”
Recording platforms like Digidesign’s Pro Tools were just becoming available, along with music sequencers that would record and play back audio. The capabilities of these systems, at first limited to two audio tracks, then four, and later more, doesn’t sound like much these days but it was the first opportunity for home-recordists to work somewhat affordably in the digital multitrack realm. As the project continued into the mid-90’s Mondo Vanilli produced some rough videos on Apple’s then-new QuickTime format, including visual backdrops for their performances.
Mondo Vanilli’s own home-studio efforts (created on Scrappi’s 25-MHz Mac IIci with 16MB of memory) soon won them a six-album deal with a major label. (This interview with R.U. Sirius describes in more detail the story of a little virtual band’s initial brush with fame and later flush by obscurity.)
“In its purest form, Mondo Vanilli wasn’t really supposed to be a band,” Dave says. “We were going to be a franchise by which other performers could be us. … All these Holiday Inn bands could be Mondo Vanilli…but of course first we would have to show how it was done… and then we succumbed ultimately to doing all the work ourselves rather than simply branding something ‘Mondo Vanilli.’
“We called our first shows the ‘False Start Tour,’ and we’d literally get ourselves on the playbill somewhere but not show up. Ultimately we gave into actually trying to be a real band, with real shows, costumes, sets and even instruments. We battled with the baggage of creating authentic inauthenticity, and we even planned that in future albums we would create inauthentic authenticity — although of course there’s already a long tradition of questionably traditional roots bands cranking out inauthentic authenticity. In any case, while working within the art of artifice we really were sincerely trying to create something new and musically relevant, while all the time entertaining ourselves in the process.
“Working with producer Jonathan Burnside (Melvins, Steel Pole Bathtub, Consolidated) was an amazing experience. He did a fantastic job on the album and throughout the time I was working at his studio (Razor’s Edge in San Francisco) he graciously explained zillions of details that helped demystify the process. And I learned through watching what he was doing and noting the decisions he made along the way…how you can plan for an effect or experiment until you reach something you might not have expected. He generously shared that awesome musical playground he had built and I ran around in there for nearly six months. Talk about an education!!”
The band members of Mondo Vanilli later continued their adventures as characters in the ‘exploded post-novel’ “How To Mutate and Take Over the World,” and Scrappi went commercial, taking the skills he learned throughout the making of the album and doing soundtrack work for the computer and hardware PR industry.
“During the late-’90s tech bubble, there were plenty of budgets for promotional work, for the big players on down to companies that hadn’t even released an actual product. I created a ton of disposable soundtracks for tradeshows, presentations, parties, giveaway CD’s, start-up sounds, etc. And it seemed like just another step for Mondo Vanilli as we had always joked that we would have a Muzak-like, faceless company called MondoVani that would create such background, non-ego stuff. That’s why I put elevator sounds at the beginning of the song “Clones Don’t Want To Be So Cold”… I’d rather embrace the idea of creating elevator music than view it as a necessary triviality. I still really enjoy doing soundtrack gigs where I have to mimic a style — even styles I don’t even like — as it’s another color you can use in your palette later on … You don’t know when you might need that flavor.
“If we are all a product of our experiences, which last I checked I believe I am, it seems that when we set about ‘expressing’ ourselves we are still drawing from our influences in some form. And it stands to reason that drawing from more experiences might result in a better drawing. Admittedly there is a lovely purity to existing in a vacuum, and it worked for The Shaggs, but for the most part, vacuums suck. It’s that whole wheel re-creation thing. … While I certainly appreciate a great vehicle, I think it’s more about where your wheels are taking you than what you’re driving.”