Tom Lanham’s Panic Attack
By Tom Lanham
It was one of those rare, what-the-fuck moments where you stumble upon something so incredibly odd, so completely unexpected and incongruous, that it simply stops you dead in your dumfounded tracks. And it’s a story that simply gets stranger with each retelling.
First: A little background. For those of you out there in Chi-town who know nothing about me or my work, here it is in a nutshell — starting out in Indianapolis with my own rock mag The Not Quite Daily Dog roughly 30 years ago, I wrote for Night Rock News in your fab city before heading west to San Francisco in ‘82, ostensibly just to see my friends the Cramps play three Bay Area shows. I ended up staying. Freelancing local dailies, weeklies, glossy national publications, and eventually — via my connections with a sister publication BAM — back into Midwest circulation via the Entertainer. I was happy to sign on with ‘em. It brought things full circle for me, in a way, since I’d tried to weasel in the IE door as a teenage cub reporter and been coldly turned down. Alas. I started with a Metallica cover story and continued on with the mag through several editors, even more design changes. My most recent article — for anyone actually keeping score — was a respectful piece on that often-maligned outfit Panic At The Disco, who’d intrigued me simply with the remarkable maturity they displayed on their unusually enjoyable sophomore album. I’d helped the kids out, and that was that. That’s how it goes in the fast-paced world of rock journalism — on to the next story.
Or so I thought.
Late one dark and stormy night, I was — dare I say it? — ego surfing, scrolling through the various permutations my stories had morphed into on the Web. Strange enough, on its own — an artist discusses her time in a certain religious cult, my story winds up being reprinted on countless anti-cult sites around the world. But what I came across that evening was far stranger, indeed — a You Tubed video floating around of a rumple-suited fellow perched professorially in a poochy armchair, who announced that he’d be reading, for the next 10 minutes, my Panic article from the Illinois Entertainer. In its entirety. While a Mr. Bigglesworth-ish cat named Mr. Pringles sat beside him on the armrest with zenlike stoicism. Apparently, Mr. Pringles had witnessed such curious behavior around the house before. And it got kookier. After reading with James Lipton pomposity (and it’s not easy to communicate the mixture of horror and fascination with which I heard my own writing recited back at me), the narrator cut to quotes from Panic mainman Ryan Ross, but presented them in alternate takes, dressed in pink-wig-and-tutu drag and jabbering the words in a gum-chewing, BFF patter that was, I have to admit, totally LOL. Toward the end, a feline named Alleycat makes an appearance, tossed to the squirrely host from across the room. It, too, seemed accustomed to such offbeat occurrences. Then: The credits, with my own name in boldface. My first reaction? What in holy hell did I do to deserve this?
But as I watched the video a second, then third time, the question shifted from “Why?” to “Who?” This was a professionally done piece, complete with Panic video clips, goofy graphics, even a pie chart. And it was funny. Really laugh-out-loud funny. And anything that makes you bust a gut guffawing at yourself? Hey — it practically demands that you track down and salute its creators. Luckily, there were exhaustive credits rolling at the end. Alongside Alleycat and Mr. Pringles, Vee Sonnets was listed as the “Rocky Horror”-ish Narrator, and Ellie Maybe as the filmmaker. Turns out they’re two struggling — albeit a tad disgruntled — rock musicians on the Chicago scene, who not only room together but also do double duty in each other’s outfits, The Sonnets and the Ellie Maybe Experence (“There’s no ‘I’ in ‘Experence’,” deadpanned Maybe when I finally located her. “And it’s not a joke”). Naturally, they also possess rapier-sharp wits and playfully camp sensibilities (Maybe has already launched a wickedly subversive anti-Sarah Palin Web site, dressed up as cloying conservative adoration). After being assured that No, this wasn’t some catty payback prank on the IE’s part, they agreed to talk about their Panic-jab motivations, their own work, and Chicago in general.
IE: Why were you attracted to this article, specifically? Why was it perfect for spoofing?
Ellie Maybe: Well, to be perfectly frank, we came home from a bar at two in the morning, and Vee just picked up the article and started reading it, in a Valley Girl voice. And it sorta came together, like “Oh, we have to make a You Tube video!” And our dear friend Val helped us do wardrobe and film the whole thing, and I threw it together on iMovie in a few days.
IE: But Vee isn’t reading from the magazine — he’s reading from cue cards.
EM: From a teleprompter, on the screen of my MacBook. But there was just something very humorous about the phrasing.
IE: What feedback have you gotten so far from this?
EM: Well, we’ve gotten a handful of very angry e-mails from these Panic At The Disco fans who lack the capability to spell or punctuate. And there was one user who said we were musically illiterate — musically illiterate for not liking Panic At The Disco.
IE: Well, the weird thing during the Panic interview [with Ryan Ross] was, I was really impressed with this kid, who’s only 21, who’s ardently, passionately researching his music. And it’s a really good record, so I treated it seriously. With James Lipton pomposity.
EM: Well, as I was downloading all the songs to put in the movie, I actually ended up liking a couple of them. Vee made fun of me for it — he actually accused me of replaying a particular scene because I liked the song that I’d put behind. But I’m a big fan of pop music and structure and hooks and whatnot. As long as it’s something that I can remember for a few days and not be sick of after the fourth, then I tend to like it. So [Panic] is not something that I would put in my record player and listen to voluntarily. But I haven’t taken it out of my iTunes player, if that counts.
IE: I love Mr. Pringles, just watching from the armrest.
EM: Yeah, Mr. Pringles doesn’t really care for the emo either. There were a few more that had to be continually edited out of there, a few more guest cat actors.
IE: Did you study filmmaking?
EM: No. IMovie came with the MacBook, and I tend to be pretty good with technological things. Technomological things. I has a very fine edumacation. It’s from growing up in the age of computers — I grew up with Photoshop, so it’s pretty easy to pick up on any of those programs after a few days.
IE: What’s your history in Chicago?
EM: I grew up here, and I’ve been playing music since I came out of the womb, basically. My father’s a musician, my mother’s an artist. My dad was in Heavy Manners, a big ska band in the ’80s. I started out playing woodwinds — flute, sax, clarinet, all those fun nerdy instruments, and got the crap kicked outta me and switched to electric. I started playing bass in high school, writing my own songs. And it all kinda came together. So I ended up writing all these silly songs about how much I hate other musicians.
IE: How old are you guys?
EM: I’m 23, Vee’s 41. And he’s not ashamed of it.
IE: Your favorite band, ever?
EM: Foreigner, to be perfectly honest. Love Foreigner. Nobody can write a pop song like Foreigner — “Hot Blooded” is my favorite song in the history of the world. And you can’t really hide something like being a Foreigner fan. Their songs come on often enough when you’re shopping in the drugstore and you start singing ‘em in the aisles. And people look at you a little funny.
IE: Vee, what’s your take on the Entertainer?
Vee Sonnets: Well, the thing about the Entertainer is, you know it has a stigma here, right? There’s supposedly a curse, which is if you ever manage to get on the cover of the Entertainer, you’re doomed. Like The Redwalls. Any band that ends up on the cover, they either get dropped or they end up fading into obscurity. And so that’s kinda the in-joke in town. But I read the articles just because I like to read about things, and I’m really horrible at doing interviews and knowing exactly what to say as a leader of a band. So I’m looking for any kind of tips, and when I read interviews I’m like ‘Oh! So this is what they talk about! And when I came across yours, I was kinda laughing because in some ways . . . well, Ellie and I have talked about it many times, how we feel bad for young bands who get signed too early and never develop any musical taste.
IE: What’s your history in town?
VS: I’ve played in The Sonnets for a long, long time. Actually, I think this is our 15-year anniversary. But we have a new lineup — Ellie joined two years ago — and the band has changed a lot since then. And I’m the one who started The Sonnets, so it’s always been my project. And I haven’t been this excited about the band in a long time. We were basically becoming a cover band of ourselves, so I just needed new blood. And I really like the way Ellie sings and plays bass, so it’s just a lot more exciting and a lot more fun.
IE: Is it tough for a young band in Chicago?
VS: The scene in Chicago is kinda like, it’s so particular that it turns on itself. Ellie and I were talking about it the other day, how genre-specific Chicago is, and you have to belong to a certain kinda scene or crowd to appreciate music. It’s very snobby in a way — certain scenes stick together, and they don’t intermingle well. It’s very clique-ish. And the people will let you know. The rockabilly kids don’t like it if you’re not one of them and you come to one of their shows, and they’ll make you feel like you’re an intruder. Same with the indie rock scene, same thing with the hippie, mod, alt-country, or punk rock scenes. And it’s very sad, because it suffocates everybody’s creativity, and everybody feels like they have to play a certain role. So you can be a big fish in a small pond here. But that’s about it.
The Ellie Maybe Experence’s Meet Ellie is out now on Horse-Drawn Records; they play 12/4 at Darkroom (2210 W. Chicago) in Chicago. The Sonnets’ Mystery Girl is out now on Failed Experiment Records.
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