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Multidisciplinary artist Fred Stonehouse’s new album is a surreal experience

Improvisational music complements striking storytelling on “Accident Prone.”

Photo: A black-and-white photo depicts Fred Stonehouse, lower in the frame and slightly right of center, looking at the camera in a black shirt and splattered art smock. Behind him are several of his visual art pieces. Each of these pieces are cartoonish in style and feature young men with slightly oversized heads. One is in tears and one has “A dingus” scrawled across his forehead, another flies a kite.

Madison artist and professor Fred Stonehouse is known for his surrealist, mystical visual work that seems to pull dreamlike imagination into a framework of American and religious folklore. Painting is a form of storytelling for Stonehouse, who says that “if a story is worth telling it’s worth embellishing.” Fantastic, bizarre, and unexpected representations of characters and landscapes are clearly present in Stonehouse’s visual work, though in his oral storytelling serve as ornate enticement. He describes his stories as “mostly pretty visual… I think in those terms where language and image kind of connect for me.” 

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Album art for Accident Prone, which reads “He said he wouldn’t do it” on top and features a large, black Goblin-like head figure with blue eyes and two clouds. One cloud is drawn over the central figure’s mouth, raining onto another, larger cloud. The sky is a dark pea green and the background is comprised of a modern, abstract representation of mountains.

Stonehouse has developed a reputation among students and faculty as a storyteller. “When you’re in class, an art studio class for two and a half hours, you have a couple options: you can do nothing and be quiet, you can lecture [the students]… mostly, I just tell stories because if I don’t then I’ll just walk around pestering them while they’re working and that’s not helpful,” he says. A student once asked Stonehouse, “how do you have so many stories? I don’t have any stories,” to which Stonehouse replied, “You do [have stories], you just don’t think of shit that’s happened to you as stories.” Stonehouse, who has a tendency to remember much of his life in the form of a story, leans on subversion to turn his own random experiences into something imaginative and interesting. Like his visual work, his stories are surreal. Stonehouse says, “I am really interested in these stories that are like ‘where am I now, what does this mean,’ that leave you with more questions than answers.”

While actively showing his visual work—most recently at the Hofheimer gallery in Chicago—Stonehouse recently joined several local musicians in recording an album of his written stories. Titled Fred Stonehouse: Accident Prone, the album features stories that all have something in common: “either there are literal accidents or there is an accidental nature to how the story unfolds.” Stonehouse says that he “was very accident prone as a kid” and shares how growing up in a Milwaukee neighborhood wrought with socio-economic and racial tension led him to get “mixed up in a lot of silliness.”

“The stories I tell I think are funny, they’re funny and a little poignant and sometimes they’re sad. But they’re generally kind of dark. There’s no lesson to be learned at the end of my stories,” Stonehouse shares. This particular crop of stories, while at their roots were created to be told orally, were part of a writing project that Stonehouse has kept up with alongside his visual work. “I don’t consider myself a good writer but I have stories and I like writing them down and tinkering with them. I love writing, mostly because I love storytelling. I feel there’s a real connection with the way narrative works in my paintings and the way I imagine the world and these stories that are always floating around in my head,” he admits. 

The origins of Accident Prone as a musical project date back to several years ago in Sellery Hall, specifically The Studio Creative Arts Learning Community. At the time, musician and artist John Hitchcock and performance artist Marina Kelly were, respectively, director and program coordinator and asked Stonehouse to read a story to the students in the Sellery learning community. Hitchcock and Kelly improvised sonic accompaniment behind Stonehouse’s reading. Hitchcock, who plays lap steel on Accident Prone, ultimately decided to elaborate on this project with Stonehouse and got visual artist and musician Derrick Buisch involved as well. Buisch gathered fellow bandmates Jason Bank and Dan Fitch of experimental improvisation collective Threadmaker and between them and Hitchcock, established the band behind Accident Prone. [Full disclosure: Dan Fitch is an active Tone Madison contributor.]

Scrotum House,” the track that served as the impetus for the album, is as outrageous as it sounds. Listeners get an idea of Stonehouse’s experiences as a child—balancing goofiness and childhood fun with survival. Listeners might also catch the play between Stonehouse’s words and the musicians’ improvised reaction, namely upon hearing the words “bouncing testicles,” aurally illustrated by delayed lap steel descension while imagining said testicles “rolling down the street.” 

Stonehouse and the musicians behind the album worked with Lance Owens of nonprofit artist collective ArtWorking to record and produce the record. Owens’ private recording studio, Northern Gothic, is set up such that the musicians could be in one room and hear Stonehouse clearly in the next room reading his stories. While Stonehouse could not clearly hear the musicians until listening back, the musicians could deliver raw improvisation to Stonehouse’s descriptions. Buisch referred to this style as “show up and play,” which is the ethic around his project Threadmaker. Owens is in the process of producing the remainder of the record, adding tracks one at a time to Bandcamp as he finishes his production process. 

Dinks Stinks” was one of the first tracks Owens made available to listeners. It begins with an ominous rattle and rhythmic bass stab before Stonehouse begins the story. Stonehouse paints a picture of Dinks, a rough biker bar run by “a big bastard, grouchy all the time and drunk behind the bar most of the time.” It should be effortless for any bar-frequenting listener to imagine such a place, but maybe not such a story. Stonehouse continues among the ominous rattle and a lush, haunting wall of sound. The story begins as a relatively innocent account of Stonehouse as a young teenager with enough facial hair to get served a drink at a place like Dinks. After getting acquainted with one or two more characters, the story suddenly takes a dark turn and conjures up a sense of wonderment. As it progresses, “Dinks Stinks” emphasizes swells of guitar and synth-driven tension, courtesy of Bank and Fitch. Following the musicians’ ambient translation of their live reactions, “Dinks Stinks” ends abruptly with no resolution. 

Stonehouse reflected on the project after listening back to the finished recordings, saying “the combination of the kind of music they play and the nature of the stories I tell seems perfect together to me. When I heard [the recordings], I couldn’t imagine the music for it being better—it’s a little spooky, a little eerie, a little gritty. [It] creates the exact right atmosphere for the kinds of stories I tell.”

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