Louisville hosts Motherlodge festival: An interview with founder Ray Rizzo

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The Motherlodge website describes itself as a live arts exchange based in Louisville and Brooklyn, New York. Specifically, "Motherlodges are unique programs that provide creative cross-pollination between artistic disciplines and across geographic boundaries." They provide "fertile space for its participants to develop new ideas, offering a mix of traditional and experimental live production with online programming, and a participatory and socially engaged applications of the arts." So, what does that mean in a layman's translation? Michael Bolton will be reading Edward Albee? Not exactly. It means between March 23-April 3, Louisvillians are in for a treat, including Alanna Fugate’s Pink Elephants release show on Friday March 26, Bonnie Prince Billy and The Cairo Gang Sunday March 28, and an all day 4th and Oak Block Party featuring music, puppets, vendors, and a flea market.

Motherlodge is the brainchild (which is meant in the best possible way - not like "Cop Rock was the brainchild of Steven Bochco") of Louisville-native Ray Rizzo, who was kind enough to answer some pertinent questions concerning the event, which is based at The Rudyard Kipling night spot on 4th and Oak in Louisville. The man who once made a name for himself around here as part of acclaimed bands like Java Men, King Kong, Days of the New, lovesauce and soulbones, a.m. Sunday, now lives in New York, where another Motherlodge festival will take place April 14-18. In between, they will stop in Whitesburg, Kentucky.

What follows are some really funny and cerebral comments and observations by an interesting guy who is equal parts renaissance man and everyman. Perhaps if Rizzo ever runs across John Mayer in New York City he can give the guitarist a few tips on how to give a good interview.

Louisville.com: Was the 2003 CD tribute to The Rudyard Kipling venue (named after the man who wrote a poem called The Mother Lodge) the genesis of Motherlodge as we now know it?

Ray: Yes. Bill Green and my wife Traci and I heard there was trouble paying the liquor license and we came up with the idea for a CD compilation that could, true as possible, represent the people who played the Rud and rather than be a benefit, be a strong thank you. Andy Hurt suggested we name it Motherlodge and Sean Garrison liked the idea, so we knew we had to do it. The name, and what it all came to mean to me, has been the vehicle through which we've figured out what is happening now. The only drag about the Motherlodge poem is that it's all dudes in Kipling's Lodge. We all agree that this had to do with the conditions of his post, and we've done really well populating our lodge with more women than men, a few cats, some plants, beings from other atmospheres, corrupted computers, and a cistern.

Louisville.com: How is the Louisville portion different than the New York portion? It looks like New York has more plays?

Ray: You're asking about two cities that are in some way completely different planets with their own laws of gravity. The same things will happen on stages in both cities but will be completely different experiences. But you are referring to the programming, and the answer is that Motherlodges are comprised of whatever we can pull together, ideally with people who can make the trip between cities. In New York, we have been ridiculously fortunate to have theaters participating with us who are hot with producing plays. I'm over the moon that Looking For Lilith and LePetomane are part of our Spring program (Lilith here and le Pet. in NYC) and on April 1st, Blue Moon Circus and Va Va Vegas will perform with Lady Rizo. But I was looking at the schedule a week ago and wished we could have incorporated more Louisville theatre. As time goes on I hope we do.

Louisville.com: Whitesburg is a nice community, but how did it get itself into the Motherlodge mix?

Ray: You are rubbing the buddha, Mr. Sedelmeier, so I must provide you with a key to Motherlodge: the goal of Motherlodge is seeing how many people we can get out of the city to experience an atmosphere and community that will enrich them the minute they show up. The inverse has to happen also - that we bring something to the community that lights the locals up, but the reason that Whitesburg is in the mix is because that is a town that figured out how to enrich itself before I was born and is still doing it. It is one of my favorite stops in the whole world.

Note: Ray is correct. This small southeastern Kentucky town is home to Appalshop, a multi-disciplinary arts and education center founded in 1969 which produces original films, video, theater, music, and books.

Louisville.com: How did you get into acting? Any interesting run-ins with famous actors or any specific theatrical advice you have been given?

Ray: I have been acting longer than I have been playing music. The Monkees were my favorite band before I was ever in a band. When I investigated method acting, I realized that I had a solid grasp of it from having played in so many bands where I took serving the ideals of the group seriously enough to internalize new information that was beyond my normal experience. So mentally, I was there. But having my acting instrument tuned to my thoughts is another thing, and I'll make up in soul what I don't have in chops.Being brought up in front of the television, it's surprising that there aren't more people of my generation who grew up thinking in multiple performance and compositional disciplines. I've always been interested in many other aspects and applications of a creative process. Working as a writer, producer, and director at times also feeds into my playing. Run ins: I have a home movie of Anne Hathaway dancing with a banana.

Louisville.com: It seems like being a musician on stage might translate into being an actor onstage. Has that been the case for you?

Ray: Absolutely. If you are approaching anything the same way twice you are, in a sense, acting. This can be a mind altering thing to consider. I have not seen a group of musicians play in a long time where I couldn't identify actors among them. I mentioned Sean Garrison earlier. Before I moved to New York, he said something to me that I've never forgot. He had just come offstage from playing an ear x-tacy birthday party at Headliners and he said, "Pretty soon, only actors will play music. There's no more place in this for people who just play music and sing." I know exactly what he meant, but I've found the truth to be harder to pinpoint. A few months ago I read for a play about Harry Smith. I played a dusty, broken Merry Prankster and I had this monologue where I described the Victrola record player as a death machine because it differentiated those who sang on recordings from those who sang just to sing, and this created a division in the souls of music makers that no one had ever felt and once made, could never be changed.I'm drawn to work with people who have deep respect for the tradition of music, but who can also visualize the music. I like being pushed by people with strong ideas. I make music with people who just play music and sing and I play with people whose primary focus is other creative pursuits. The point for me is that I approach music in a way that is new for me. At the garden on our street in Bushwick, I'll set up and play with anyone who walks in. I have fruitful playing with anyone who is willing to be moved by the experience.I just finished a recording last week with Michael Shannon. We have a band called Corporal. Mike played in jazz band in high school and has spent more time in his life as an actor. He has a big appetite for music, writes devastating songs,  and approaches Corporal with a deep respect for what is at stake when you write a song and play in front of people. He is pursuing the thing beyond the thing, and is not acting. Of course, when I see him in a play, I often think he's not acting then, either.

Louisville.com: You were in Louisville just a couple weeks ago for The Java Men reunion. Do you come home often? What was working with Todd Hildreth and Craig Wagner again like?

Ray: I've been luckier than Traci in that I've made it home about 5 times a year since moving to New York City, but I've done it by having work in town. That is no small factor in my work for Motherlodge and The Rud and it's also why I came up with the Germantown Tour idea. I developed much of my sense of arranging from the drums from playing with Todd and Craig and it has been very moving to me to get to play music that I knew would take me until I was this age to understand how to really approach. Halfway through the second night of our tour, we got Todd to turn up and for the next 90 minutes we kept topping ourselves. We played better that weekend than we may have ever played. There was a high level of freedom once we realized Todd had to turn up.Also, Todd and Craig's dynamic had continued for a while after I was not with the group, so sitting between them was a challenge to not jump to any quick conclusions about where things were headed musically. I always felt like my role as the drummer of Java Men was to help Todd and Craig coexist musically and to co-compose the thing with them. I think that was in full effect. It was fun, too, to have a night with Chris and Paul. Chris wasn't prepared for how loud we were playing by night 4, so he didn't solo much. Paul and I have played together often over the years, so it was familiar new territory to have 2 kits going.

Louisville.com: You have worked with Dawn Landes, who will be performing at Motherlodge. In fact, you are 1/3 of her band. Is that correct?

Ray: That is correct. I might even be considered half of her band at times if you counted the keyboard bass playing, although Josh Kaufman is probably rigging cymbals to the inside of his knees as we speak.

Louisville.com: You are both from Louisville. Did you know each other here or did you ironically meet in NY?

Ray: Actually, Dawn and I played at The Rudyard Kipling 10 years ago with Danny Kiely on bass and Mark Hamilton on guitar. This was just before she moved to NYC for college. After that, we would play off and on when she came through or I was in New York. We have been friends for a long time and when Traci and I moved to New York, it was a matter of time before we started playing together again. I was a bridesmaid and flower girl for her wedding.

Louisville.com: Any final thoughts on Motherlodge and the Louisville music scene in general?

Ray: Well, I'll go backwards and say that thanks to Motherlodge, I feel like I'm getting a sense of the Louisville music scene again, and I'll be able to answer that better after next week. But looking from the outside, I can't remember a time when so much industrious energy and activity was happening. I love the new venues I've seen, like Z Bar. Bands seem to be taking their potential seriously. I'm encountering a little more slick biz talk in conversations, but that was inevitable.

Motherlodge involves for me a from-the-heart-and-gut dialogue of action that I hope would support a renewal of the arts and music which was so commodified over the past 100 years. My generation grew up hearing jingles and hooks in their head and admired what it could get them, and took a long time to ask if there was anything else, especially when there was nothing culturally supporting other ideas. In the world of American Theatre, I think there has been an insecurity for as long as I can remember about if and how original staged works function in society. If people don't have the patience to come out and take a risk on a show that wants to move them, there can be no Ibsens or David Rabes.

Motherlodge is plain and simple an agreement between artists and audience to get in a dark room together and allow the experience to change them. This is what we mean by A Live Arts Exchange. Some of our shows are standard fare, multi-act bills. But behind everything going on is a spirit and nature that is out to encourage change in the world of live performance and the communities where they happen.For me right now, the art is in the business of things because I need to develop a solid structure for the Lodge to hold together. So I am working my ass off to understand the economics of time and resources. Motherlodge will never make anyone rich, but it will give back to anyone who gives to it. I really want to grow a vehicle that can serve a great many people in a great many ways. Next year we are planning to start in South Texas and make some stops before we get to Louisville, Whitesburg, and New York. If we do that and figure out how to reach more diverse performing arts groups, the vision for the three-year Motherlodge plan will be real.

No doubt, Rizzo has undertaken an ambitious goal, but he is certainly someone who could pull it off successfully. Although Rizzo is an accomplished musician, being an actor may unfairly make some passive observers think of some famous actors who tried music in the past; Bruce Willis and Don Johnson painfully come to mind. So, in the indomitable words of Don Johnson, “I’m looking for a heartbeat.” With the second annual Motherlodge, Rizzo’s arts hootenanny not only has a heartbeat, but it’s getting stronger and louder each year.

You also may enjoy: Bob Schneider is ready to rock Jim Porter's

Photo courtesy of Ray Rizzo.

About Kevin Sedelmeier
I am polite, and I'm rarely late. I like to eat ice cream, and really enjoy a nice pair of slacks.
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