By Jim Santo
"I had been doing the visual stuff in galleries in New York and then I moved to L.A. and did some performances out there," says Suran Song, leader of the band that bears her name. "I had some soundtracks I was using, but it was all canned music; 4-tracks I had made, more ambient stuff. The narrative is really concise and is accessible as a pop song, so I really wanted to get out of the white cube and put it into clubs."
Suran Song in Stag played its first show in January 1996. The original line-up included Ween drummer Claude Coleman Jr., who later produced Shiny Objects, the band's debut CD, released last October on their own Cruel Music label (a seven-inch single appeared in March 1997). The current band, with Jason Reynolds (X-Vegas) on drums, new guitarist Brian Sugent (The Blisters) bassist William Weis (Mr. Thumb, Nomen Nudum) and lyricist/vocalist/action-imagineer, Suran Song, made its debut last August.
In addition to their instruments and amplifiers, SSIS travels with four slide projectors: two for each side of the stage, one central projector and overhead that projects the lyrics of the song being played onto a scrim. Suran and her band dress entirely in white, forming a human canvas for the projections.
"It's really high low-tech," says Song. "It's amazing how minimal you can be in the terms of equipment and still have a portable theater. It's pretty guerrilla, actually."
"The central projection is all about the scale of my body," Song explains. "I also play with height; I perform on stilts that exaggerate my height to about 12 feet. A lot of my work is about ideas of beauty, or dismantling them or finding the absurdity in them. For example, in the song "Kissing Judice," I use the Kate Moss "Got Milk?" commercial -- her eyes are by my belly and her mouth is right where my crotch is. I'm feeding her with a glass that is empty.
"The Jim Leher image is another one I like to use; it's about the packaging of fantasy and of news and of idealism, and it's about working really hard and coming home at the end of the day and not having the energy to piece it together for yourself, so you let the media do it for you."
Song further alters her appearance with a variety of masks, including the lumpy, nipple-Covered headdress worn in "Fuquan." "I was teaching art out in Elizabeth, New Jersey, for a while," she recalls. "I had a student who was super-hard to handle, but he was really endearing because of that. He was seven years old and his mom was a crack addict; it was such an effort just for him to get to class every day. I made that headdress out of paper towelsit's about nurturing from spilled milk."
Heady stuff for a rock band, but Song points to successful precedents: "Look at the stuff that Laurie Anderson has done, or Bowie has done," she says. "I'm very happy with the response in clubs. People are more immediate -- it's a lot rawer.
In the coming year, Suran Song in Stag plan to play "as many shows as we can," says Song, indicating a desire to find bands "we feel we click with" and put together package shows. A new single is also in the offing, part of a strategy to develop Cruel Music as a self-sufficient, independent label in the mold of Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records. Song acknowledged the effort that will take, but insists she's up to the task.
"I put myself through grad school, working nights to pay for it," says Song, who holds a master degree in sculpture and now works as a web designer. "I got really used to working a lot and not sleeping a lot."