Many of us across the Coilhouse nation dream of becoming full-time artists, and some of us actually become so, but few follow our vision as fearlessly as Jack Terricloth. Jack never learned any marketable skill like speed typing or graphic design or computer programming. He's never had a "Plan B" of any kind whatsoever. He just jumped out his window and - wooosh! - he started flying. While most of us were in college, Jack was a full-time punk rocker. In fact, he never even bothered to graduate from high school. What would cause an abundantly gifted, middle class kid from a stable family to behave so recklessly? Why wasn't he disciplined by a fear of falling through the social safety net?
While our current global economic bust forecloses conventional career options for many of us, it's also an opportunity to change consumption patterns and general complicity with an economic order that is clearly unsustainable in the long run. Will the economic downturn lead more people to unconventional lives or will it make us ever more desperate to fit into the economic system? Will global recession be good news for the planet and for making art? Is this the best time to follow Timothy Leary's advice: "Turn on, tune in, drop out"? Likewise, as file sharing rings the death knell of the music industry, will we see less mass-orchestrated pop sensations? Will musicians be more inclined to self-expression and artistic exploration once they no longer have the temptation to sell out?
I first met our man o' cloth way back in 1991, while I was working at Reconstruction Records, an all-volunteer punk record store in New York's East Village. Back then, Jack was a snot-nosed teenager living under an assumed name with more than assumed parents in suburban New Jersey and fronted the band, Sticks and Stones. With Jack at the helm, Sticks and Stones restlessly explored new musical terrain - hardcore, punk, goth, techno, pop - until 1995, when his bandmates told him that they would go no further. Undeterred, Jack started the current cabaret revival by assembling the World/Inferno Friendship Society. The World/Inferno has since also explored a smattering of Northern Soul, pop, klezmer, and African-American spirituals. Now, several albums and scores of tours later, the World/Inferno has embarked in a more ambitious direction. They have integrated theater into their live performance in a production titled: "Addicted to Bad Ideas: Peter Lorre's Twentieth Century." Doubtless, their tour will inspire some imitators, but there ain't nothing like the real thing, baby.
Always ambitious for art and undaunted by the strictures of grammar, Mr. Terricloth has also penned a series of short stories. They have been published as The Collected Cloth. "Backsish," the longest of the tales, is the story of a police informant. Our world is composed of wheels within wheels, dear reader, wheels within wheels.
On a bitter cold evening in New York's first healthy winter in a decade, Jack was generous enough to belch confessions of artistic and political heresy into electro eye and ear. It should offer a very intimate view of Mr. Cloth, set as it was, deep inside his Gotham City grotto. We hope that you will find it tasty food for your hungry muse.
What were you like as an adolescent and when did you discover that you could sing?
I was very angry. I always liked singing and started playing guitar just to facilitate singing only to discover that I couldn't sing and play guitar at the same time. I remember, almost to the moment, that day when my skill level jumped to where I could do both. I was in bands since I was 15. There are photos of me and my sister singing "Rag Mop" at 5.
When did you first feel really different from ordinary people and decide to live an unconventional life?
Pretty early, maybe at 5 or 6.
When did you think: "Have a career like my dad? Not me."
Around the fifth grade. I remember waiting for punk rock for a long time. When I discovered it, in the seventh grade, I thought: "That Bowie thing is cool, but this is what I've been waiting for my whole life."
When did you feel like an outsider? Was there a time when the other kids were doing things that were age and gender appropriate and you discovered that you had no interest?
I was a very awkward child. I was pigeon-toed and wore braces on my legs, so I felt like an outsider early on. I was also wearing Coke-bottle glasses when I was very, very young.
What is the most trouble you've ever been in?
As a young person in high school with little money and not much to do, I enjoyed making prank phone calls. I'd call the operator and say that I wanted to kill myself and hang up. They'd call back and plead with me. I could spend 45 minutes that way. Or I'd call Pat Robertson's organization. One day, I called the operator and quoted a Suicidal Tendencies song. I said: "I shot President Reagan and I'm going to shoot him again and again." Little did I know that [Reagan] was in the next town over. The Secret Service took it all very seriously and closed my high school. The next day, my punk rock gang went to the school library to make photocopies of an article about it. The librarian noticed. The principal caught one of us and threatened him. He cracked under the old "this is going to go on your permanent record" bit. The Secret Service swooped in at my bus stop and held me incommunicado for a day and a half. They even took a gun out and rested it on the table in front of me, like in a movie. Eventually they realized that I was just a kid, but gosh, if that sort of thing were to happen today, imagine about how much MORE trouble I would've been in. It got me probation, which prevented me from quitting high school a year later. It didn't end there. Supposedly, they expunge your record when you turn 21, but, for years, I would get a phone call whenever a president was in central New Jersey that would ask: "What are you doing today? Not thinking of going to Somerville, are you?" "No, I wouldn't dream of going to Somerville."
Have you ever noticed your phone being bugged or your band spied on?
Not since I came of age. I try not to be paranoid. Maybe they did expunge my record. I think I blew someone's security clearance. A member of the World/Inferno was trying to get security clearance and was mysteriously turned away.
Being that you're a band with these outspoken views and, being that you already have this personal history, I wouldn't be surprised if some of your bandmates have been informants. After all, they say that one out of five citizens of East Germany informed for the STASI.
We don't have to go there. Have you seen The Lives of Others?
How do people get into your Society? Are they tapped, like in Skull and Bones?
Pretty much. Generally, they are people we've known for a long time. We wait them out.
As long as I've known you, you've always been a bit of an aesthete. Were you a debonair youth? Was your double Mohawk your most outrageous haircut?
I went though the usual gamut of spiky hair and Mohawks, but the funniest one was when I was going for liberty spikes, but my hair was too curly. It looked like I had horns. We used egg yokes or sugar or glue to keep our hair up.
I used Ivory soap.
But then, when you went to shows, and started sweating, what then?
I never sweat. The Damned were among your early influences. What was your favorite Damned album?
I'm going to go for a controversial choice: Fantasmagoria. It was the first new one that came out when I was into the scene. I saw them on that tour a few times. I know that many Damned aficionados will scoff.
I denounce you.
I remember you playing "Tattoos Fade" for me and telling me that "Sticks and Stones" wouldn't play it because they thought it was "too spooky" sounding. Was that the birth of the World/Inferno?
It was indeed. I wrote that song for Sticks and Stones, and I thought it was the best song I'd ever written. The boys said, "No." So, I put it aside for a while and thought that I'd start another band to play it.
What was your inspiration for the song?
Those hardcore toughguys preening about their latest ink.
Do you still have "N.I." tattooed on your chest?
Yes. It's the only prison tattoo that looks better today than when I got it. I was in Juvenile Detention at Skillman in New Jersey. We had nothing else to do. We used a needle and ink. It's my only tattoo. I got in a fight with a skinhead.
I won the fight.
Some skinhead! He obviously hadn't read the book about attacking in superior numbers.
This skinhead was prank calling my family's house in the middle of the night because he didn't like punk rockers. We had an actual rumble at a skate ramp. It was a real gang fight. We won. He called the police.
Whose side were they on?
They didn't seem to mind that we beat the skins.
What got you interested in cabaret music? Do you remember when you first remembered your Weimar?
I rediscovered Kurt Weill when I was bartending at The Continental. I'd given up making music and gave up on punk rock but wanted something that was still political. Adrian from Wandering Dragon recommended it to me. He always had vodka. He also worked at Le Ciel Rouge.
That was where, performing as a two-piece, you had the very first World/Inferno show. What do you find fresh and interesting to listen to nowadays?
I don't listen to contemporary music much at all. I've been listening to Buddy Rich.
Where do you see your next musical horizon?
We're supposed to write a new record soon. I'm thinking of a quieter record, but I'm not sure if that will fly. We won't do two concept records in a row.
Read any good books lately?
I'm reading a biography of Lorca. I've been ripping him off.
You've been largely nocturnal for most of the time I've known you. Are you "waiting for the blackout"? Do you have a fear of normal people? What's up? Feel vindicated by increasing skin cancer rates?
Normal people do piss me off, but I'm not afraid of them. It's just my default setting. When I was working at the Museum [of Natural History], well, there were issues.
Rocknroll never forgets, but museums do, eh?
They were very nice to me, but I was away an awful lot.
I remember you saying that you'd rather be famous than wealthy. How would you like to be remembered?
Just to be remembered would be swell. Maybe remembered as "that guy who was brave and gave me some ideas.
Do you get credit in the indie world?
Every time I get recognized it's by someone who doesn't like me: "I know you. You're that loudmouth singer from that stupid band!" Or they recognize me when I'm having a fight with my ladyfriend on the street.
Today, with the internet, the record industry seems to be headed for the trashbin. How do feel about your not having signed with a major label?
We had an offer from Tommy Boy, a subsidiary of Warner. They had the idea that we should go techno. The first singles had loops, but they really didn't get us and I didn't give a damn about them.
Are downloading and filesharing forms of piracy that you endorse?
I endorse all forms of piracy. Information wants to be free. The best thing about the World/Inferno forum is the YSI sharing page where the kids in the greater World/Inferno community ask each other for records. It has 500 pages.
500 pages of albums anyone can download?
Let's see...485. They do expire, though. Bands make money at shows. Record companies make money off records.
Is "Addicted to Bad Ideas" a turning point for the World/Inferno? Is it a nod toward Richard Wagner's Gesamptkunstwerk?
It could be, but I wouldn't put Wagner and Peter Lorre in the same sentence.
You just did. It's now happened twice in one day. A catastrophe to language.
People have told us that we're theatrical. It's been very broadening and a lot of work. I've been making fun of actors for years. It turns out that they work very hard. I'd like to apologize to all of the actors out there.
Do you see more theater in your future?
Definitely, but not on the next record. Our next project will be a live radio show that we'll take on the road.
With live Foley effects?
What can we learn about the 20th Century from the life of Peter Lorre?
Everything. Everywhere I looked in the 20th Century, he was there. He was born in Transylvania. What punk rocker doesn't have a thing for vampires? He moved to Vienna, where he worked with Fritz Lang. He moved to Berlin, in Weimar, and worked with Bertolt Brecht. There was some unpleasantness in Germany in the Ô30s and he was Jewish, so he left for London. In London, he worked with Alfred Hitchcock, working phonetically, since he didn't speak English yet. It fascinates me that someone could do that. He moved to Hollywood. He worked with John Huston and Humphrey Bogart. He was interviewed informally by HUAC at his home. After the war, he moved back to East Germany to work with Brecht again. He was a lifelong drug addict. He did everything that was good to do in the 20th Century.
You have a "what would Jack do?" button on your website. Jesus is said to have said, "If you want to follow me, be like me." How is your life exemplary? What lessons would you like to teach the next generation of young soul rebels?
How to get away with it. I want to be an example of someone who made their dream real. Following your dream is tenable and sustainable. You don't need to get a day job and live a life of quiet desperation.
You live in a historically Italian neighborhood. Do you feel especially at home here?
Yes. When I first moved in, people were suspicious. They asked me if I really was Italian. Just today, I saw a school kid throw his lunch at a yuppie. It seemed like it was scripted just for me. The yuppie defended himself: "I invest a lot in this neighborhood. You may not like that me and my friends are moving here, but we have a lot to offer." I didn't get involved. The kid said something like, "Go back where you came from, you yuppie scum!"
It was a hate crime!
That's how the yuppie scum took it. Unfortunately, the yuppie followed me into a liquor store and wanted to get me to talk about it. I pretended to not speak English.
Do you have a personal connection to Nazi Germany?
My grandmother left Nazi Germany because my grandfather was Jewish. He was secretly Jewish outside the home. It said "Catholic" on his passport, but he celebrated Jewish holidays at home and spoke Yiddish. He died in the 1960s, before I was born. I learned German from my grandmother, which is why I speak old fashioned German. It amuses Europeans. The first time Sticks and Stones went to Germany, I asked for a pen, "Haben Sie eine Feder?" They laughed and asked why I wanted a feather. I'd literally asked for a quill.