The Devil’s Spine Band: ‘a Mariachi bar in Mullingar’ crossed with Oscar Wilde’s west
The group’s latest performance is inspired by Wilde’s 1882 trip to lawless Leadville
The Devil’s Spine Band: ‘We know certain things are going to happen, but it all relies on intuition. Sometimes it doesn’t work out’
Everybody knows what Oscar Wilde had to declare when he reached the New York Customs office, at the beginning of a lecture tour of America in 1882: “Nothing . . . except my genius.”
Yet there is little evidence of him ever saying the words. In fact, his first reported comments on arriving, following a difficult voyage, became the subject of a running joke. “I am not exactly pleased with the Atlantic Ocean,” he told reporters. Shortly after, a letter appeared in the Pall Mall Gazette. “I am disappointed in Mr Wilde,” it read, signed “The Atlantic Ocean”.
If the shining sea didn’t meet Wilde’s standards, what chance had the mining town of Leadville, Colorado, whose silver deposits had made it one of the most abruptly wealthy places in the US? Set in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, the town’s population had exploded with an erratic mix of fortune hunters, saloon owners, miners, prostitutes, and entrepreneurs, bringing with them Victorian aspirations (such as the Tabor Opera House) and frontier lawlessness. (If they visited Leadville, it was said that Wilde’s travelling manager might be shot. Wilde expressed no major objections.)
Wilde played up to the image of the dandy, in a purple smoking jacket, impractical knee breeches and black silk stockings, and his public lecture was pithily titled The Practical Application of the Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration with Observations on Dress and Personal Ornament. It was not a hit.
Despite this he took a liking to his audience: “I spoke to them of the early Florentines, and they slept as though no crime had ever stained the ravines of their mountain home.” Regaled with stories of the 16th-century artist Benvenuto Cellini, his audience wondered why Wilde had not brought him along. Wilde explained that Cellini was dead. “Who shot him?” somebody asked.
The miners took Wilde out to a saloon, only to find that he could drink them under the table. Thus enamoured, Wilde was celebrated with a personal tour of the silver mines, enjoying a subterranean meal and ceremonially drilling a new lode of silver they named after him.
If you had to guess which part of this story most satisfies Trevor Knight, the venerable alternative composer, musician and performer, it is probably Wilde’s improvisatory spirit.
“He changed his tack when he thought it wasn’t working,” says Knight. Slouched over a Korg keyboard, laptop and a bank of effects in a snug recording studio in Dublin’s Stoneybatter, Knight seems to be doing much the same. As his band concludes a delicate song built around his shimmering Rhodes piano, a languorous slide guitar from Ed Deane, a slinky bass line from Garvan Gallagher and softly padded drums from Tom Jamieson, Knight is pleased and non-prescriptive. “That’s it, but I don’t know how it will start or how long it will last.”
This is The Devil’s Spine Band, a group Knight set up in 2011. Six years earlier, on a residency with the protean performer Olwen Fouéré and the singular visual artist Alice Maher, the trio had devised a short piece inspired by the Wild West (“I think Olwen had a pair of cowboy boots”). Fouéré had also received a script by Malcolm McLaren about “how Oscar Wilde discovered punk”, and these ideas jangled in Knight’s head all the way to Leadville, where he toured with Donal O’Kelly’s show Catalpa. Something about Wilde’s visit stayed with Knight.
“They were living a seriously high Victorian life alongside cowboys with guns, miners, shanty towns and Chinese workers. All these things had fused together.”
Knight’s career began with similar juxtapositions, with jazz-fusion and avant-pop group Auto da Fé, and has since encompassed diverse scores for more than 50 theatrical productions. If he has a favoured method, it is the logic of collision.
“That’s the word we’ve been using for this,” he agrees.
Knight first discovered Butoh, the dark and aleatory form that emerged in Japan after the second World War, during a collaboration in 1999, Equivalents, and returned to it in 2007 for Slat, a piece inspired by the histories of feral children.
It’s not easy to find an obvious connection to Wilde, or Leadville, but Knight feels the resonance more personally. “I was never so fond of jazz-jazz,” he tells me of improvisation. “I came from a rock background: the early 1970s, Hendrix and Genesis. When I met Butoh, I found the kindred spirit of what I was trying to get back to since I was 18 years old.”
First performed in 2011, at the Galway Arts Festival, this version of The Devil’s Spine Band is played out amid Alice Maher’s sculptures of cactus-like trees against David Lynch-inspired incongruities: “Like a Mariachi bar in Mullingar,” he smiles.
If Wilde has an onstage presence, it’s as an androgynous figure performed by Cindy Cummings, or perhaps channelled in Zaitsu’s voice, or represented by a different “guest performer” each night, such as Dylan Tighe and Áine Phillips.
“We know certain things are going to happen,” says Knight of the improvised performance – a card game, a lecture, a dance, a lynching – “but it all relies on intuition. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. But you make a decision and you carry it through.”
This asks for some open-mindedness on behalf of the audience, who, in one previous performance, began heckling during a long and largely silent card game sequence. But Knight sides with the anarchist over the aesthete, and he finds both in Wilde’s West.
On a visit to a Leadville saloon, Wilde spotted a sign that read: “Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.” It was, Wilde approved, “the only rational method of arts criticism I have ever come across”. Knight happily applies the same disclaimer to his show. “Don’t get too worried if it all falls apart. Don’t worry if you don’t understand what’s going on. Just go with it.”
The Devil’s Spine Band is at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, January 14th-17th