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Live from Wisconsin’s strangest place

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column. (Photo by Amy Meredith on Flickr.)

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

Every so often the House on the Rock gets a much-deserved turn in the wider pop-culture spotlight, and this week The Raconteurs released a music video shot amid the attraction’s overload of musical contraptions and demented gewgaws. The cantilevered Infinity Room featured heavily, as did the beautiful hills and valleys that surround it outside Spring Green. It makes sense that Jack White would be drawn to the House on the Rock: Much like Alex Jordan, White has seemingly poured a fortune into building a fantasy world, with effects that range from the genuinely fascinating to the just plain unsettling. One has an enviable collection of old Burma Shave signs and the other will sell you a new lunchbox turntable, but the spiritual affinity is there.

The Wisconsin State Journal‘s Samara Kalk Derby spoke with music video director Ben Chappell and pointed out that 10,000 Maniacs also shot a video at House on the Rock, for a 1997 cover of Roxy Music’s “More Than This.” I think Chappell’s video  for The Raconteurs does a nice job of capturing the eeriness and wonder that sets in as a person wanders the place, but for my money, the Maniacs’ video does more to integrate the band into House’s at once overpowering and jury-rigged world. Singer/violinist Mary Ramsey and bandmates are outfitted with pulleys, strings, and mechanical hands, as if they’re gradually being absorbed by the house’s ensemble of otherworldly music machines. One wonders how they got away with being so hands on. 

I also learned this week that one of Tone Madison‘s own contributors, Emily Mills, once had the privilege of playing live music inside the House on the Rock. 


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“Back in 2010 I was playing with a four-piece alt-country band called Little Red Wolf (along with Kelly Maxwell, Meghan Rose, and Laura Detert),” Mills explains. “It was also when dane101.com still existed, which I was serving as co-editor of, and one of our board members (and a friend) was Sarah Bartash. She worked as the events coordinator for the House on the Rock, and was somewhat single-handedly organizing a mini-con in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Neil Gaiman novel American Gods.” The event featured readings and even a costume contest judged by Gaiman himself.

Little Red Wolf got hired for the gig, and HotR staff set them up in the organ room, which also features heavily in The Raconteurs’ video. “It was basically the only patch of reasonably flat ground that could be found, within extension cord reach of power outlets,” Mills says. “We faced out to this big, bizarre landscape of pipe organs, and a narrow balcony that overlooked where we were—which was good, because it gave more room to folks who wanted to actually hang out and watch—again, not a lot of floor space in there.”

Mills was surprised by how good the acoustics were in the cavernous space, and while the band didn’t get to meet Gaiman personally, he caught some of the set and tweeted his appreciation.

“I was also nervous that people wouldn’t like us or wouldn’t get why an alt-country band was hired for the gig, but we gave the best show we could—and opened with [covers of ’80s pop music], which definitely helped get people on board for when we switched to our originals,” Mills recalls. “Between the fantastical venue, and the excellent energy of the audience, it ended up being probably my favorite gig of all time. Just really joyous and weird and wonderful.”

Mills claims that Little Red Wolf is the only band to have played a live set at House on the Rock, not counting all the coin-operated performers trapped in their for eternity. If anyone knows of any other bands who’ve performed there, shot a video there, or even written songs about the place, I’d love to hear about it.


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New this week:

A look back at Slander, the anonymously published zine that published outlandish allegations about Madison’s 1980s music scene.

Four Star Video Heaven has announced that it will move to a new location at 459 West Gilman Street.

Over on our Facebook page, we’d like to hear about your favorite Madison music releases of 2019.

There’s still time to support our fifth anniversary fundraising drive and get your hands on our fifth anniversary sticker pack.

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: Catch up on UW-Madison professor Jonathan Senchyne’s Eyes Cool PodcastCher is coming to the Kohl Center. A few tender demos from Madison band Like A Manatee.

This week’s Madison calendar: WUD Film hosts a very good LGTBQ film festival at the Marquee. Angel Olsen brings a string section to the SylveeAnd more.

Upcoming Tone Madison Events!

December, date TBD: Tone Madison Best of 2019 Listening Party

Help us raise $5,000 by Tuesday and set a Tone Madison record.

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