Who’s your favorite Beatle? That was a question that used to reveal something about your personality. It was the Rorschach test of pop fandom, 50 years ago. Paul was the tuneful dreamboat. George was the earnest, spiritual one. John was the vulnerable poet. And Ringo, well, he was the comic relief–sort of the Yogi Berra of rock music, a loveable Basset hound of a guy. Fans of Ringo were those who didn’t go in for self-seriousness, or for bombast. Fans of Ringo might very well be fans of The Ringos, the Greensboro-based duo who have a peculiar and crazed fab-four-obsessed iconography. The Ringos are not a Beatles tribute band. They are more of an absurdist art-pop project devised to burn off excess creative energy by the two members, who also happen to work most of the time in a recording studio.
The Ringos play On Pop of the World studios in Greensboro on Nov. 17 and Monstercade in Winston-Salem on Nov. 18.
Randy Seals and Matt Goshow both work at On Pop of the World studios, a recording studio and performance space that also serves as the headquarters of an ultra-prolific and promiscuous musical collective with tendrils reaching in different directions. Both Seals and Goshow are founding members of Dildo Of God (sometimes known simply as D.O.G.), a sprawling hip-hop, noise-rock enterprise. They have another side-side band called Pencil Fight. Each has solo projects and other collaborative ventures. Logging hours behind the mixing board, helping get the right drum sound or coax a good vocal take from artists recording there, Seals and Goshow would routinely feel both depleted and energized. Both Seals, 49, and Goshow, 27, are drummers, hence the name The Ringos.
“The Ringos started as a project because Matt and I were recording 100 hours a week, and after work, we were like, ‘We have to record something just to get anything of ours out,’” Seals said. “But we were pretty burnt. And there was only one rule: you can do anything you want.”
The combination of overextended deliriousness and complete creative freedom meant that the duo could egg each other on, by taking snippets of old riffs they’d been working on for years. Or hatching new ideas on the spot, layering them with psychedelic keyboards, blankets of vocal takes deranged by studio effects and pitch adjustment and disjointed drum grooves. It’s stream-of-consciousness music-making.
Add to that the fever dream of conspiracy theories (“I buried Paul!”, “Billy Shears!”) and music-nerd minutia associated with the Beatles and you get a fertile bed of possibilities. The Ringos released their first record, aptly called The Real McCartneys, last year. On its cover, the iconic Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band album art, with its packed gallery of famous faces, is photoshopped so that every face becomes that of Ringo Starr as if the familiar imagery had run through a funhouse mirror. Or else as if the cover had turned into a warped mandala. They took something that was already fairly trippy and made it a little trippier.
The record starts with “Un-American Satanism,” a song that — if you’re looking for Beatles comparisons — might be said to sound a little like “Baby, You’re a Rich Man.” With a mid-tempo beat and gently rising and falling piano line and subsonic slowed-down vocal scraps, the song has some stitched-together lyrical details about reptiles, widows, pyramids and shape-shifting. As it turns out, Seals and Goshow reverse-engineered some of the words by watching a conspiracy-theory video on YouTube involving a Katy Perry song, highly processed vocals and inferences involving the Illuminati and other bits of pop-culture paranoia.
“It’s like Steely Dan for Ween fans,” Seals said.
Imagine fans of bands like Bongwater and the Butthole Surfers engaged in a sort of musical version of the Da Vinci Code, and you get some idea of the giddy layers of allusion, reference and sleight of hand.
“There is a probably a thinly veiled joky second meaning to every song,” Seals said of some of the musical breadcrumbs dusted throughout the recording.
You can, for instance, hear a connection to “A Day in the Life,” with its famous woke-up-got-out-of-bed beginning, on “The Countdown,” which starts with the line “I awoke.” And there are whiffs of “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!,” with its lurching circus-music feel, on “Spongecake Submarine.”
“It’s like they’re all riddles,” Goshow said.
If a listener gets tired of teasing out the Beatles references, there are ways that The Ringos conjure much more recent musical iconoclasts. The stilted vocal delivery and forcefully stiff feel on certain songs can bring to mind Wall of Voodoo, while the dystopian atmosphere bears a connection to the Holy Sons, and the foggy cabaret hip-hop element suggests a kinship with idiosyncratic artists like Gonjasufi. When they’re in their nerd-chic, post-punk, piano-pop zone, The Ringos can even warrant a comparison to the mightily successful malcontents of Twenty One Pilots.
Goshow and Seals may have intended The Ringos as a one-off goof, but they’ve breathed enough life into the project that it’s started to lurch and kick on its own. The duo will be playing a string of shows taking them to Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn, New York. At first, The Ringos weren’t entirely sure how to execute their songs live, but prerecorded tracks allowed at maximum theatricality.
“We dress up a lot,” Seals said. “It’s super weird.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.