Rock ’n’ roll has a humor problem. There have been funny videos, and funny rock-star presenters at award shows, and even funny reality television shows starring rock stars. But when it comes to rock stars actually making funny music, historically, there's been a deficit.
Over the years, there have been blips of funny: from John Lennon to Johnny Rotten to Gene and Dean Ween. And there is Weird Al, of course. Sometimes Dylan can be funny. When I was a kid, Axl used to make me laugh (but looking back, I think maybe he just made me nervous).
Unlike hip-hop or country, rock seems to be too obsessed with being cool or angry to crack a joke. Maybe this is because it’s a starter market, a commercial medium aimed at mainstream adolescents, and most adolescents aren’t in the market for laughing at themselves yet. Sometimes rock can seem ridiculous—KISS, Oasis—but these bands don’t really intend to fill the role of the clown, they just end up filling a void with their bombast and lack of self-awareness. And many of the rock bands that intend to be funny—Barenaked Ladies, Harvey Danger—usually end up sucking.
Which is why The Mattoid was such a revelation.
I first saw The Mattoid open up for the comedian Doug Stanhope at the Triple Rock in the fall of 2005. I spent most of the show trying to determine the nationality of their lead singer. A great big yeti of a man, with a bizarre singing style where he would pucker his lips at the mic and gurgle in a sing-song way strangely reminiscent of the Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef. But he would also hit these Meatloaf-quality arias—beautiful actually, and though they were filled with emotion, they were nowhere near as loud or over the top as the ‘loaf’s. And then there were The Mattoid’s lyrics: dark and full of drugs and sex, but somehow hopeful in a very simple, man-child-like way. The Mattoid counted off “1, 2 . . . 7, yeah!” and launched into what would become my favorite Mattoid song, “Funeral Party.”
The priest is here/and the casket is ready
Body inside/looks nice and steady
Let’s pray for the man/for the last time
Pray for the man/for the last time
Praise the lord!
And we’ve got to go on with the funeral party!
It was ridiculous. The Mattoid was the funniest rock ’n’ roll band I’d ever seen (way funnier than Doug Stanhope that night, incidentally). Their music was cool. It had this stripped down, Velvets sangfroid. Clearly The Mattoid is set to "who cares?"--and the lyrics were funny because they seemed to be tossed off as carelessly as the music. "We've got to go on with the funeral party--yeah!"--that's funny. But was it funny because the songwriter only had a rudimentary control over our language, and was simply latching onto an at-first-blush oxymoron? Or was it a double-switch--was he putting us on with the naïve foreigner routine, like a Borat or an Andy Kaufman, and smirking at our yeah! rock culture as we laughed at his pidgin English?
The whole band was staying at Ian Rans’ place that night. I ended up there, and was able to determine that The Mattoid’s lead singer—The Mattoid himself, basically—was Ville Kiviniemi, a Finn stuck in Nashville after blowing through Vegas and New York. The Mattoid shared his bottle of absinthe with me. The Mattoid gave me his masterpiece album, Hello. The Mattoid told me the most vital force in American rock was Toby Keith.
I stopped wondering if he was putting me on or not. I don’t think The Mattoid really even knew himself.
For the last three years, I tried to push The Mattoid onto my friends, but I was only able to get a couple of them interested in his strange Finnish brand of humor. At some point, I figured I would never see The Mattoid again, and I despaired that without the opportunity to see him live, nobody would ever know what I was talking about when I was blathering on about a Finnish lounge act from Nashville who sang about “Makee-makee-makee-makee/lovey-lovey-lovey-lovey.”
Then The Mattoid returned. On Wednesday night, it opened for another reclusive Nashville band, the Silver Jews. Most people were obviously there for the Silver Jews, but it was a late show and by ten o’clock, the room was full for The Mattoid. Finally, I thought, The Mattoid has risen, and I would have witnesses! These people would understand what I had been talking about for all those lonely, lonely years.
(BTW, the Silver Jews were playing for the first time in Minneapolis, and they probably deserve their own review. They played from an incredible catalog of slacker intellectual country songs that I’ve never heard before, but that most of the crowd was clearly there to hear. The Silver Jews’ lead singer is David Berman, evidently a poet/songwriter who tried to kill himself in 2003 by overdosing on crack in the Al Gore suite in Nashville’s nicest hotel. Berman looks like an alt-country Allen Ginsberg—he’s balding, has a big black beard, and wore this hipster western-trim sports jacket, along with tinted glasses that had thick plastic frames, and a fat belt buckle that read “Joos.” He sings in a strangely tentative baritone, and each song began with the most incredible first line: “Squirrels imported from Connecticut, just in time for fall. . .” or “I’m drunk on a couch in Nashville in a duplex near the reservoir. . .” Some of his songs were also very funny, in an incredibly sad, but too-deeply-ironic-to-be-maudlin, way.)
The Mattoid took the stage, immediately diving into a song about how he’s going to hunt a reindeer and lie with a “Ruskie girl” on the midnight sand. Ville has lost some weight and grown a triple-looped samurai-style ponytail, and his stage presence wasn't as alien as it was three years ago. He seemed to play to the audience more confidently, or maybe he was just in the mood to clue more of them onto the joke this time. He contorted his face into more obvious impressions of rock agony and ectasy, grunted more often, and cried, "The Fins built the pyramids!" to a gale of laughter. But the thick Finnish accent was still there, and he still used it expertly when introducing a song. There was an obvious detachment between those of us in the audience and The Mattoid. People were uneasy: they knew this big foreigner was ridiculing somebody--himself?--but they weren't sure who was the target.
He covered the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” but first, he scorned us for our love for “this band called the Beatles.” Then he called Eleanor a foul name, before singing the song about “all the lonely people,” rolling his eyes and editorializing throughout, “look at you!” Then there was a interminable intermezzo in a song about a drugged-out tourist trip to the pyramids. He had all of us holding our arms up and our hands together making pyramid points. When this proved to be too confusing, with only about 50% participation, he gave us an excuse: “It’s okay,” he said. “It was your first pyramid-along.”
After the show, I walked up and reintroduced myself. I asked him if he still thought Toby Keith was the most vital force in American rock ’n’ roll. “No, no,” he said. “Now Sarah Palin!” Then the Mattoid laughed. He was laughing at somebody, but I didn't know who it was.