Exclusive: John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet of Literary Wonders

Wednesday night we were transported to a Victorian-era vaudeville variety show, as post-ironic folkster John Wesley Harding (aka the wordsmith, Wesley Stace) took to the stage along with a line-up of literary heavyweights, kindred musical spirits, and a ventriloquist whose surly dummy stole the whole dang show. It felt like a throwback to a time when the singer-storyteller was king, the magic-lantern was an enchanting device, and stages were lit by candle light… then Eugene Mirman did a PowerPoint presentation, Jonathan Ames talked about his intellectual transformation from a breast man to an ass man (before letting out an oddly soothing boy scout call that put all the women in the room under his spell), and that aforementioned dummy, helmed by Carla Rhodes, killed with a 9/11 joke that reminded us how deep in this century we really are.

Le Poisson Rouge seems tailor-made for this Cabinet of Wonder, which will have two more shows in New York (March 11 and April 15 ) before Stace and Mirman take it on the road. After the jump we chat with the ringmaster about how he put this circus together and why readings are so much better with musical accompaniment.

Flavorwire: Where did the idea for this come from?

John Wesley Harding: I thought it would be a really nice tie-in, since some people know me more as a novelist than a musician, to bring the two together. And rather than me do a reading and playing together, which I think is a bit boring, I thought I’d get other people to do it for me. So I put together people, who to me represent these various sides. And once I got to that point I said, well why not open it more? Lets have Eugene and Carla Rhodes too.

FW: Is there a theme that ties these writers/comedians together?

JWH: Well blimey; is there even a link between Jonathan Ames and Rick Moody? I mean they’re both writers but they seem to be doing almost the opposite kind of thing, and both brilliant, and both people whose work I really like. In fact I found a top ten list of novels from one year, and they were one and two on it, which is pretty remarkable since they both did the first of these shows and I probably didn’t even know them when I wrote it… sometimes the theme is not so much in the work as about the person. There’s all types of performers who would, and could, be in this type of show, I mean that’s the theme, it’s basically is my taste — I like everybody who is involved. The great thing about the show, or the worst thing about the show, is that everyone is going to be completely different. Lets be totally frank, I’ve been making albums for 18, no, 20 years, if I can think of a way to, you know, invigorate the concept of putting out an album and doing some shows, believe me I’ll do it.

FW: Readings can be kind of bland, and combining them music with seems to be a great idea. Do you think we’re going to see more like shows like yours in the near future?

JWH: Absolutely, and you know I think the time, and I’m not going to say that this show is going to do it, but I do think the time is right for that, because I think writers all kind of envy the way that musicians have a kind of emotional release while they’re doing what they’re doing, because the bookstore experience is rather dry. I found book touring much more draining than a rock tour, even though you’ve got much worse hours on a rock tour and you’re putting out way more energy. Book touring is very kind of alienating, and then there’s no great emotional release at the end of it. You just go to the store and you’re happy if ten people show up. It’s a fucked system, the book reading system, it just doesn’t really work very well, even for incredibly successful people it doesn’t work very well. And so my idea was, exactly what you’re saying, is to put the readings into a more musical setting, where the writers themselves are made to feel more relaxed about the reading.

FW: How did Eugene Mirman become your partner in all of this?

JWH: Well, we’re really good friends and he started asking me every now and then to come and do a song at one of his shows. So I kind of returned the compliment, and said, ‘oh why don’t you do some comedy at one of my shows?’ So when I did the taping for my live album at Union Hall last year, I got him to introduce me, and by introduce me I mean a little bit more than, ‘Ladies and gentleman, Jonathan Harding.’ I wanted him to do one of his bits, and I’m sure he wasn’t phased by that at all. I mean, I think he’s been out supporting rock bands etc., and it went really well, and he was standing besides the stage and he said, ‘We should go on tour and do this,’ and I said, ‘Well, I think that’s a great idea since I’ve got this whole cabinet of wonders concept, why don’t we take that on the road?’ And then we decided to do it and he sent me a very good email that said, ‘It’s great to see that something that was a drunken conversation by the side of the stage is now becoming a drunken reality.’

John Wesley Harding’s latest album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, is due out on March 10 via Popover Corps/Rebel Group. Click here for Cabinet of Wonders tour dates.