Adam Gregory Pergament couldn’t speak Chinese the first time he traveled to Taiwan, so he reveled in the pure sound of language.
Now he speaks Mandarin Chinese, “a smattering of Japanese and enough Indonesian to get myself in trouble,” plus teaches English as a foreign language part-time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But the excitement he felt soaking in meaningless syllables in Taiwan stuck with him. As a poet and the frontman of Madison’s Venice Gas House Trolley, he often dices language into sounds to take people “out of their usual way of listening to words.” Rhythm comes first.
“In my poetry, sound is privileged over meaning a lot of the time. Neologisms are taken apart and put together in disjointed ways,” he said. On the track “Come Clean,” for example, off the group’s new album “Synapse Lapse and Reblast,” he kneads the nonsense word “incindentalogous” like dough. On paper, it makes no sense. In his spoken delivery, it takes on meaning — although what that is exactly will differ from listener to listener.
Venice Gas House Trolley, named after a beatnik hangout in Venice Beach, Calif., is celebrating the release of “Synapse Lapse and Reblast” on Thursday, March 18 at The Frequency. The band layers Pergament’s spoken word over a jazz-funk-rock jam. The band covers Soul Coughing, Lou Reed and Gil Scott-Heron (“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”), but bassist Tim Peeters writes the majority of the music. Pergament, drummer Josh Pultorak and guitarist Nikk Cramer contribute to its evolution.
Cramer is newest to the Trolley, having joined after seeing the band perform for the first time in January. The performance gripped him.
“The energy in the room was electric,” he said. “It just blew my mind.” Since then, he’s been working hard to learn to the band’s repertoire of about three dozen songs.
Cramer and Pergament agreed that all the YouTube commentary, tweets and Facebook “Likes” in the webosphere can’t take the place of the audience-performance relationship at a live performance.
“There’s nothing like playing a song and making that eye contact,” said Cramer.
There’s “real value to expressing yourself in a public way,” said Pergament. “It’s a transfer of energy. That’s when you get into these transcendent kind of situations where everybody’s changed by what’s happening and everybody’s participating.”
Pergament even struggles with the divisive terminology of “performer” and “audience.” He got his start leading open mics at Steep ‘n’ Brew, where everyone in the audience eventually landed onstage, too.
“I’ve always tried to foster inclusivity,” he said.
The seeds of Pergament’s performance philosophy go back to his days in college baseball when he started reading “pseudo Zen/Buddhist” teachings on mental focus. (It’s hard to imagine him as a ball player now, with his spider plant of dreadlocks reaching halfway down his back. Yeah, he knows: “I’ve been through some changes,” he deadpanned.)
“All we can do is know our instruments, open ourselves up and hope that at some point music is played through us. I think that’s a noble pursuit. I think the idea of eliminating yourself from the equation allows a lot of possibilities to happen,” he said.
It all goes back to keeping an ear open to sound. On a recent summer trip to the Chicago Blues Festival, he noticed that every act, big or small, played “Sweet Home Chicago.” By the time he got back to the house where he was crashing that night, he was hearing it in the spin cycle of his friend’s washing machine.
It inspired Track Seven, “Blues in VI,” on the new album.
“You know it rained all day on Grant Park,” he intones. “I must have overdosed on the blues.”
Hear more from this interview, and a sample of Venice Gas House Trolley's music, on Wednesday, March 17 on WORT 89.9 FM between 6:30 and 7 p.m.
IF YOU GO
Who: Venice Gas House Trolley, Shapeless Symmetry
When: Thursday, March 18, 9 p.m.
Where: The Frequency, 121 W. Main St.
Cost: $6 ($10 for door cover and CD)