Wednesday, April 4, 2012
JOHN ERLER is the master of
the Alamo Drafthouse’s Master Pancake Theater,
the singer for Journey cover band Odyssey,
the host of KOOP Radio’s ‘Elk Mating Ritual,’
and he, ah, teaches Latin at Texas State University?
PHOTO BY JON BOLDEN
Uh, no, actually. At least, not lately.
He used to do all those things, yes, but ~
“I’m not still teaching Latin,” says Erler, squinting as the afternoon sun, suddenly unclouded, reaches through the window to stab his eyes and glint off the side of his freshly shaved pate. “And the Journey cover band Odyssey doesn’t exist anymore,” he says. He shrugs, almost apologetic. “I don’t know if that ruins the whole dramatic structure of your story, but ~”
Well, of course it does, Erler.
The entire goddam arc is shattered now,
the whole narrative is nothing but a sad shambles.
Sweet bleeding Christ, Erler.
No wonder Mister Sinus Theatre, the live version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 that you created with Owen Egerton and Jerm Pollet and performed with such fierce energy and hilarious antics that it became one of the brightest gems in the early Alamo Drafthouse Cinema crown ~ no wonder that zany brilliance, wracked by personality conflicts, ended in so vitriol-laden a manner that litigation was necessary and Pollet left for Brooklyn so he wouldn’t have to put up with your dramatic-structure-ruining ass anymore.
And now here you are, Erler.
No longer teaching Latin
or singing & playing bass in that Journey cover band.
Just. To. Fucking. Thwart. My. Story.
I should’ve known.
But let’s just pretend that isn’t the case. Let’s pretend that you didn’t do this on purpose because you’ve always fancied yourself a sort of real-life Victor Von Doom and figured to use me as your own personal Reed Richards here, okay?
Why’d you ditch the Latin?
“Master Pancake was just taking up too much of my time, and I felt I had to devote all my energy to that,” says Erler. “Not just because it pays the bills, but because it seems like more of a calling than Latin. As much as I love imagining that I’m some kind of a Renaissance Man, I just, y’know, I was traveling to San Marcos, teaching at Texas State two days a week to a group of five kids ~ which I loved doing, I love the small class size, everybody gets something out of it ~ but, financially, it wasn’t making sense. And it was a lot of energy driving down there, making lesson plans, all of that. Because I can’t do anything half-hearted. So it didn’t make sense.”
Well, damn, Erler, that sounds almost legit. Listening to you say that as we sit across from each other at a small table in Quack’s 43rd Street Bakery in the heart of Austin’s Hyde Park neighborhood, I can almost believe that your reasons were other than an attempt at compromising my journalistic integrity. Of course, it does rather force the question of why a man gets so into a dead language to begin with. And I’ll ask you about that, later, and about what happened with Odyssey, too.
But first I want you to notice, please, the young woman who’s sitting at the table next to us. Don’t let her notice that you’re noticing, okay, but check her out. Not because she’s uncommonly beautiful or anything ~ eh, she looks alright, for a kid ~ but because, man, seriously, she’s been listening to our conversation since we sat down. She may look like she’s obliviously nosedeep in that textbook she’s got with her, doing the whole student-in-a-coffeeshop thing, but I swear she’s been following every word we’ve said.
There, you see what I mean? The way she kind of pauses in her reading and tilts her head so that her left ear’s getting more soundwaves from our direction? Okay, great. Just so I know that you know, Erler. Just so we’re on the same page here.
Now let’s talk about Master Pancake. Because after Mister Sinus split up, it was obvious you were going to continue the show somehow. Because, well, you’re amazingly funny, and the show was just too damned good to let die. So you re-named it Master Pancake Theater, and now you and Joe Parsons and another comic or two sit in the front row of the theatre and crack wise about whatever cheesy blockbuster you’ve decided to mock that week. And you do a sort of halftime show, too, stopping the movie at some obvious or random point and performing a relevant comedic sketch in which, more often than not, you wind up clad in nothing but your tighty-whities. Or, ah, tighty-reddies, as the case may be:
PHOTO BY BEN BARTLEY
Erler: Well, yeah, It started off as me and Joe Parsons and a rotating third member. But at this point Joe’s a very irregular player. About a year and a half ago, he decided that he was kind of gonna settle down, and he took a fulltime job selling insurance ~ God bless him. For some people, that’s the right thing to do, y’know? He still does occasional shows with us, like he just did the Nicolas Cage-A-Thon with us, which was fantastic. But right now it’s just me and two other rotating slots. But the flipside of that is that we’ve been doing Pancake for so long that there’s a pretty big pool of people who’ve rotated in and out, who can fill Joe’s shoes.
Brenner: Are there any plans to allow or start different Master Pancakes in other locations? I mean, now that Tim & Karrie League are expanding the Alamo empire beyond Texas?
Erler: This is an ongoing conversation. My first instinct is that it’s possible to do a local version of Master Pancake in every outlet, but it probably wouldn’t be easy. Whatever weird art it is that we do, in talking and making fart noises over movies, it’s an art that I’ve been practicing for 11 years now. There’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it.
What I’m excited about is the possibility of doing shows in other cities. We just went to Houston back in March and had a great reception. We did two shows on a Saturday night, sold out a 300-person room for the first show, got 250 for the second one ~ even bigger than a typical night in Austin, and a big party feeling. And I want to make sure that, as the Alamo expands, we go to all the different places ~ that we go to San Antonio and so on. And if and when they finally get to New York and L.A., that we go there. But the question remains in my mind if we can start up a troupe in every city. And I don’t think it’s feasible to start up a Master Pancake troupe in every single city that the Alamo goes to.
Honestly, even if we wanted to, greater minds and comedic talents than ours have tried and failed to have national chains of comedy troupes. Like Second City, which started out in Toronto and Chicago: A few years ago they tried to have an outlet in Las Vegas and L.A., but, for whatever reason, they couldn’t do it.
I mean, comedy is hard, it’s a hard art, and it takes a lot of not only talent, but resources and money. And it takes the right kind of talent, too. It wouldn’t work in every town. Austin is just such a hotbed of the right elements. People really love movies here, they love comedy, they’re willing to try weird things. I’m not trying to exclude the idea of Pancakes spreading all over the country, it’s just that it’s not something I’m that excited about personally. I like crafting the shows and making sure each show is really, really funny. But, again, if and when the Alamo opens up in a market like L.A. or New York, then I’d be excited to go there and maybe try to train up a troupe and see how it goes – but not in every little market. But I’d like to at least travel to every city on a semi-regular basis and do shows. We have such a great time when we go to Houston, and now there’s a potential that the Alamo might be opening up in Colorado and Dallas and Baton Rouge.
Brenner: And, at present, Master Pancake Theatre continues to pack them in locally. And although you’re not teaching Latin anymore, and the rock & roll powerhouse called Odyssey is disbanded, you’re still doing your "Elk Mating Ritual" show, right?
Erler: Yeah, I’m still there, still doing my thing on KOOP, on Thursdays from 4:30 to 6pm.
Brenner: And how’d you get started on that? It’s kind of a long-running gig, isn’t it?
Erler: The original "Elk Mating" show started in 1998 or 1999 when I was still in grad school at UT, and I started working at KVRX, the student radio station.
I’d done a radio show back in college in the ’80s, at Swarthmore outside of Philadelphia. I had a radio partner, and we’d do these goofy shows, play some classic rock and talk in between the music, do skits and stuff like that, make each other laugh. But we found this whale record, whale sounds recorded in the 1960s, and that was our favorite thing to play. Like, in the middle of “Stairway to Heaven,” we’d crank up the whale noises ~ and we just thought it was hysterical. And it was college, where you can do anything you want, so we’d do all kinds of stupid things, but we’d always come back to the whale noises. And that was probably 1988 or ’89.
So fast-forward 10 years, I’m in graduate school at UT, and I decide that I’m probably not going to be an academic as a full-time profession. I realize that I like it but I don’t love it. I felt like, I’m a performer, I’ve got something in me that I need to get out, and it’s not going to be fulfilled by being a, y’know, Classics professor.
So I started looking for other opportunites to perform. And God bless KVRX, because they were there at the right time, and it’s such a great environment for young kids doing crazy stuff, a fertile melting pot of really fun people. And I was the oldest one there, a grad student, so I started doing radio at KVRX.
But I needed some kind of a hook for the show, so I looked through the CD stacks, and they had this CD of elk sounds. And I put it in and previewed it, and I was like, “Wow! This is a lot like those whale noises back in college! I could probably build the show around this thing ...” And sure enough, that’s what I did.
From the first episode, I just put in the CD of elk noises ~ wreeeeeeeeeeee ~ and played music around it. Back then I was, I think, playing the CD through the entire show. Later I got more selective, and now sometimes I’ll play it and sometimes I won’t. But it started out as the foundation for the whole show, and I’d let it play for long stretches and just let things get real quiet ~ I don’t know if it was contemplative silence or just uncomfortable silence, but, hey, experimental radio.
And I started building little bits around that. And they had a phone line that you could put people on the air with, and I was fascinated with that, the interactivity of it. Then I left UT around 2004 ~ I didn’t get my Ph.D., I got my M.A., but I didn’t finish the Ph.D. ~ and I gave up the show there.
And for about a year I was floating around with no radio show, and then I started working at KOOP, which shares the dial with KVRX, and I finally got a show there. And I was like, “I’ll keep playing those elk noises, call it the same thing, it’s basically the same idea.”
Brenner: So then, following that brief, ah, interregnum ~
Erler: Oooh, nice.
Brenner: Ha ~ a little Latin for ya.
Erler: That’s a whole lotta Latin.
Brenner: And you’ve been doing "Elk Mating" for over 10 years?
Erler: Yeah, 12 years. With a year’s hiatus. So, 11 years.
Brenner: And is the show pretty much the same as when you started?
Erler: The format of "Elk Mating Ritual" has varied from day one. These days, it’s whatever music I’m interested in and listening to, and whatever themes I can find.
On my good days, I can come up with a good theme, and I do a bunch of research and make it really interesting. On a bad day, I’ll just recycle the same old crap I’ve been playing, play them in a different order and hope that interesting people will call up and request something or add to the conversation. The elk songs and the phone calls are the consistent things that are always happening on the show.
Brenner: Do you have regular callers?
Erler: Yeah, and they fade in and out through the years. Sometimes they won’t call for years, and then I’ll hear from them again. There’s one guy who’s an old Austin dude, he lives somewhere around here, who will always call in and pretend to be Bob Schneider, the musician.
Brenner: But it’s not Bob Schneider?
Erler: It’s not Bob Schneider.
Girl at the next table, leaning over: I’m sorry, excuse me, I’ve been listening and ~ that’s my dad.
Erler: That’s your ~ are you serious? Oh my God ...
Girl: Yeah, I thought, oh, I know who he’s talking about.
Erler: That … is incredible.
Brenner: Man, I love this city.
Erler: What’s your name?
Girl: I’m Annie.
Erler: Annie, pleased to meet you.
Annie: I recognized your voice, but ~
Erler: Annie. Craig Long’s daughter. Annie Long?
Annie: Yeah, I didn’t want to, I mean, this is gonna wind up in some publication?
Erler: Yeah, tell your dad to get a copy of Minerva’s Wreck.
Annie: When I heard you, I was like, I know who that is.
Erler: "That’s that guy my dad listens to!"
Annie: And I was a "Youth Spin" kid, so I was on KOOP, and I’d always listen to you.
Erler: I never realized that the daughter of Craig Long was on "Youth Spin."
Annie: I’m sorry if I interrupted ~
Erler: No, I’m really glad you did. This is probably the most interesting thing in the whole article.
Annie: Oh, good, I was worried ~
Erler: No, no, you did just the right thing. And I’m glad you caught me before I said anything slanderous about your dad. But I have to say, his Bob Schneider impersonation is terrible. It doesn’t bear any relation to the actual Bob Schneider, it’s just a different voice than his actual voice. But it’s very funny.
[Brief pause here while mutual farewells are wished and hands are shook
and coffee cups rearranged and so on.]
Brenner: So, then: Latin. Even if you’re not teaching it these days, the idea that Mr. John Erler, the guy who does those smart but wacky Master Pancake shows and plays elk noises on the radio, is also a Latin scholar … well, I was a bit gobsmacked when I heard about it. When did you get interested in Latin?
Erler: I was brought up in a Catholic household, and I think that’s part of the whole thing. And I was a strange, outsider kind of kid from a very young age. In high school I was offered the opportunity to take ancient Greek, so I jumped at that. And I was good at it. I was a really geeky kid, and I did Latin as kind of a side thing, because, as a Classics major, you had to study both ancient languages. And in college I majored in Greek, and I was scornful of Latin at the time. I was like, “Latin is an inferior, barbaric language. Greek is the way to express yourself ~ like all the great philosophers.”
But there was this guy, Reginald Foster, who is a monk who works at the Vatican. He’s one of the people who translate all the official papal proclamations into Latin. They’re drafted in Italian or whatever, and then translated, and he’s one of the guys of however many in the Vatican office.
So I heard about him, and he teaches a summer course to anybody who’s interested in spoken Latin. He’s amazing ~ he’s one of the few people in the world who can actually speak Latin. And I had nothing better to do in the middle of grad school, so I went and took this course with him, and I fell in love with the language. Because of this guy, this amazingly weird, perverse, and charismatic dude.
He’s a round-headed, bald guy with thick glasses, probably in his late 60s by now. He’s featured in that Bill Maher movie that came out a few years ago, Religulous? He’s one of the few religious people who doesn’t come off as a nut in the movie. And he works at the Vatican, but he’s this amazing character. Like, if you ask him his opinion on things, he’s like “Oh, I’m an atheist; I don’t really believe in anything; it’s all nonsense.” But, I mean, he’s a monk. That’s Reginald Foster, and he’s just the best, best teacher in the world, y’know? And he teaches all these classes for free. You can go to Rome and take the classes yourself, all the way from the beginning level to the spoken, advanced level.
So I ended up going to his summer program in 1995, and I went back again the next summer because I loved it so much. And then I wrote a Fulbright proposal based around studying with him, and I got a Fulbright fellowship and I went back again for a whole year in 1998. So it’s been a long sort of thing with Latin.
Brenner: And are there any bits of Roman wisdom, as prescribed by the ancients, that you’ve personally taken to heart so well that you have them memorized?
Erler: Roman wisdom? Well, obviously, the fact that Carthage must be destroyed is always weighing heavily on my mind. You know, Carthago delenda est? [laughs]
That may be a question I have to think about and get back to you on. But, I’ll tell you ~ this may be a little tangential ~ learning Latin is such a complicated thing. Not that it’s beyond the reach of anybody, but you become really familiar with grammar. It’s really a great mental exercise, a sort of cerebral juggling act. And ~
[And here the man digresses into a sort of primer on Latin cases and conjugations, talking about “the nominative” and “the genitive” and “the passive paraphrastic” and so on, going on for a while as grackles prowl in search of dropped crumbs beyond the coffeeshop’s big main window and I note that the spots of coffee spilled earlier have joined on the floor to form what looks like a miniature, silhouetted profile of Abe Vigoda. I begin to make a mental note to check Wikipedia and see if Vigoda is actually still alive, but am distracted ~ and compelled ~ by Erler now comparing the concentration necessary for keeping track of Latin linguistic details to what he does during a Master Pancake show.]
Erler: When I’ve got a microphone in my hand, I’m not working off of notes. It’s like a play, a three-man play, and we’ve memorized all these lines for an hour-and-a-half performance. And not only have we memorized the lines and the jokes, but each line that we deliver is like a little bit of acting. You can’t just say the line straight, there’s always something behind it. You’re either pretending you’re doing it in the voice of Nicolas Cage, or in the voice of Sean Connery, or maybe you’re yourself and you’re taking a wry view of events, or you’re making a fart noise ~ there are all these different inflections you can use to deliver a joke. I’m not a good actor, but I have a basic ability to shade the things that I say with mood or tone. So when you memorize all these lines, you have to remember how you inflect them each time. And if you’re good, you’ll listen to what the audience thinks of the lines you’re saying. You’ll pay attention to the ones that get a laugh and the ones that don’t, and you’ll file that away as you’re doing the show, and you’ll tell yourself, like, “Okay, at the 10 o’clock show later tonight, I’ll say that line a different way,” or “I’m gonna drop that line; I’m gonna trim the bush so that other jokes can flourish.”
I guess I must be anal-retentive or OCD or something, but there are a million different considerations that you’re going through as you’re performing this spectacle on-mic. And sometimes, as I’m doing it, I’m thinking, “I’m glad I took Latin and Greek, because that was perfect training for compartmentalizing all these different obscure little considerations.”
But maybe that’s just life, I don’t know.
PHOTO BY JON BOLDEN
Brenner: And where does the cover band Odyssey fit into the life of John Erler?
Or, I guess, where did it fit?
Erler: You should talk with the two ladies who started the ball rolling, Caroline O’Connor and Elisabeth Sikes. Those two gals were friends, and I knew them ~ I don’t even know how, anymore ~ and the two of them, before I got involved with it, wanted to learn some rock & roll instruments, because neither of them played anything.
So Elisabeth bought an electric guitar and started taking lessons. And Caroline bought a drum set and was either teaching herself or taking lessons, maybe both. And at a certain point they contacted me and asked if I was interested in being in a Journey cover band.
And I was like, “Well, what’s the deal?” And they were like, “Well, we’re teaching ourselves how to play these instruments, and we thought it’d be fun if you came along.” This was like 2005, 2006.
And I didn’t even know what I was gonna do in the framework of the band, so I just sat in on one of their practices. I didn’t even have a bass at that point, I just brought a toy accordion and an acoustic guitar with me, and figured I’d try to fit in. And I realized when I sat in that what the band needed was somebody to play bass. So I went out and I bought a bass. And it was just amazing the way it came together so fast. I’d sung in bands before, but I’d never played bass in a band before, we were all just teaching ourselves how to play.
For a long time it was just the three of us. We’d listen to the records and we’d try to, you know. And I don’t even know why Journey was the group that everybody thought would be a good idea. But the gals wanted to be in a rock & roll band, and they loved Journey, it was their decision.
I never was a huge Journey fan, but I enjoyed the songs I heard on the radio. Who doesn’t like “Don’t Stop Believin’”? I didn’t know any of their non-radio songs. But, then again, they have so many radio songs, there’s probably 20 songs people recognize as Journey songs without knowing anything about them.
So, in a way, it was a great idea. And, in a way, it was a terrible idea. Because, y’know, my voice is like down here; I’m a baritone. And Steve Perry is this classic tenor or alto, I don’t even know what he is, but he’s got this amazing voice and it’s way up in the register. So it was a terrible idea for me to sing, and a terrible idea to do this intricate rock & roll music with people who’d never picked up the instruments before. But maybe that’s why it worked: Because it was a ridiculous idea.
And we put a lot of love into it, spent a long time learning how to play the stuff, and arranging the songs. And we didn’t do them ~ if you’ll excuse the pun ~ faithfully; we did them in our own style. Like “Open Arms,” this classic ballad in three-quarters time. It just didn’t sound good. If you don’t know your instruments, you don’t wanna play a slow song, because it accentuates all your mistakes. So we decided to put it into 4/4 time, sped it up, I was thumping on the bass, and it sounded great. The arrangement was completely different, but it somehow worked. And I’ve always been into covers and fucking with originals and putting accents on different things, so that was perfect. And Caroline got really good at drums really fast, she nailed it in a short time. And that’s what we needed, because she was the glue that held us together.
For a while we’d just play houseparties and stuff, friends would invite us to jam. But I could see, from the very first show … you know how, when you’re doing something, you don’t know how it’s going? You might be good or you might be terrible, but you can’t tell because you’re too deep into it. But you can gauge how you’re doing by other people’s reactions. And people were having a great time, they were smiling and dancing. I still don’t know exactly what it was ~ the chemistry, the fact that it was Journey songs when it was still a little bit uncool ~ I don’t know, maybe it still is uncool ~ but maybe it was that point at which something uncool was starting to feel cool?
And the crowds kept getting bigger and bigger. And then we brought my sister along, because we were getting good at it and we wanted to add a little more sound to our sound, so she played on a couple of songs with us ~ on violin. And violin, yeah, that’s totally un-Journey. But it sounded great. And then we did a Journey tribute night at the Alamo and the place was sold out … and things kept growing, and we got more gigs that made money, and word was spreading. And Caroline knew a trombone player, and he came along.
And, again, I mean a violin player and a trombone player in a Journey cover band? But it sounded great, and we had this full sound with five people in the band.
And we just played and played and played. And at a certain point, we just got tired of it. After a couple years, we couldn’t put as much energy into it. And then Caroline moved to L.A., and that was the final nail in the coffin of the whole thing.
Brenner: Ah, people are always moving to L.A. or Chicago or somewhere, aren’t they?
But you just bought a house.
Erler: Yeah, I’m not going anywhere.
Brenner: And you’ve been here for a while, right? Since the early ’90s?
Erler: Well, I was born in Austin, in 1968. I spent my first 12 years here, went to Bryker Woods Elementary, O. Henry Junior High. And then my parents moved to New York. But first they moved to Dallas, so I lived there for a year, then spent my high school years in New York City, in the Bronx, for four years. And then I went to college in Pennsylvania, lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, and moved back to Austin in ’93 for graduate school.
Brenner: Why’d your parents move to New York?
Erler: Well, my mother, to her credit, got her act together at the age of 40 ~ my parents were living a sort of slacker lifestyle here in Austin ~ but she hunkered down and finished her Ph.D. and started applying for jobs as a professor and got one in NYC. It was great for her, but no fun for us who had to be uprooted. We loved Austin. And we spent this weird, purgatory year in Dallas. I can’t even explain what the rationale was behind that, because we knew we were moving to NYC, but my dad had a job in Dallas. So Mom went to New York while we went and lived with Dad in Dallas for a year. And Dallas after Austin, it was ~ you know, it was terrible.
Brenner: And then New York, Pennsylvania, San Francisco, and grad school here.
And then, of course, there’s no way in hell you could leave, right?
Erler: As it turned out. But Austin wasn’t really my first choice of grad school ~ I would’ve rather stayed in the Bay Area. But, well … God had a plan. [laughs] I’m not religious, but I just saw The Sound of Music 40 times in a row ~ because we’re making fun of it ~ and they keep saying “If God wills it” and “God’s plan,” y’know?
So the universe wanted me to come back here and, yup, I never left.