Slusarenko gets shit done. From his home here in Portland he dreams up ideas about rock operas or tribute albums, as probably do plenty of other ex-members of bands that got caught in the early-'90s hype. (Slusarenko's band Sprinkler signed to Sub Pop in 1992, releasing More Boy, Less Friend and Peerless before disbanding.) Unlike passing fantasies, however, Slusarenko's dreams, no matter how farfetched, don't go unrealized.
His Colonel Jeffrey Pumpernickel: A Concept Album (2001) was just that: a concept album in theory, though quite unorthodox in its methods. "That he came up with the idea of a rock opera and had other people write it for him is just genius," marvels McCaughey. Slusarenko provided the title character, then asked bands and solo artists--among them Howe Gelb, Macha, Poster Children, Grandaddy, Quasi, Bongwater, and Guided by Voices--to contribute original tracks telling Pumpernickel's saga, resulting in not only a beautifully packaged CD but a two-night, two-city concert that brought many of the contributors, including Bongwater's Ann Magnuson, to the Northwest.
His latest project, the result of another one of his wacky dreams, has landed Slusarenko in the national spotlight. Wig in a Box is a benefit CD for NYC's Hetrick-Martin Institute, home of the Harvey Milk School and the oldest and largest not-for-profit multi-service agency dedicated to serving gay youth. Artists including Frank Black, the Breeders, the Polyphonic Spree, Spoon, Jonathan Richman, Rufus Wainwright, Sleater-Kinney, and Yoko Ono contributed covers of songs from the musical written by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask--who also ended up contributing a track. And when a benefit performance was canceled due to some silly infighting, Slusarenko saw his name--and work--splashed across the New York Post's gossipy Page Six.
"Stephen called me up and left a message saying, 'You made Page Six, baby! You're a staaaah!' and then hung up," says Slusarenko. "I didn't even know what Page Six was. But that I'm in the gossip column in the New York Post can't hurt. My goal is to get to the Grammys and ask Amy Sedaris to go with me dressed as whatever character she wants. My wife understands."
"Did you hear about Guided by Voices?!"
This is the first thing Slusarenko says to me the morning I call him. He tells me he's the band's latest bassist. Of course he is. Slusarenko's been nipping at GBV frontman Bob Pollard's heels forever, and when I say this to him, he replies, "I am the ultimate fanboy." It's been a few years since GBV has toured without their biggest fan hitching along.
"I'm so used to riding in their van anyway," he explains, "showing up backstage or helping them load in gear or standing on the side of the stage. Now I just take, like, three more steps out and put on an instrument. But it still feels like I'm just watching a show."
Before he gets lost in another dream, I ask Slusarenko to explain how the Wig in a Box CD came about.
"About a year and a half ago," he recounts, "after seeing Hedwig the movie, the idea to do a charity album just popped into my head, and I thought, God, that'd be great!"
But Slusarenko wanted to choose an organization the album would benefit before approaching Trask and Mitchell, so he did a little research with some people in New York. "The Hetrick-Martin Institute, which the Harvey Milk School is part of, just seemed perfect in terms of the vibe and vision of what Hedwig was."
Then came the long task of actually getting ahold of Mitchell and Trask, a task Slusarenko accomplished through friends of friends, ex-managers, and whatever, until he finally managed to reach the creators of Hedwig.
"Ever since then they've been completely on board," says Slusarenko. "At the beginning we'd talk three to four times a day about who we wanted to get on the album, and sometimes Stephen and John would throw their muscle into it a bit to make something happen. I knew 'Exquisite Corpse' had been written with Yoko Ono in mind, and I thought, I'm going to try to get Yoko. I sent her management a fax, and a month later I got a call from her assistant saying, 'Yoko would like to know if she could still do it.'"
"That was one of the few sessions I went to," he chatters on. "Yo La Tengo, myself, and John Cameron Mitchell were there--and I mean, she's YOKO ONO. So she showed up, and was just the funniest, lightest, coolest person. So sweet, she would just look you in the eye and hold you by the arm, and she was having so much fun, it made it easy."
It was a new experience for Ono, too, who'd never before done a cover that wasn't a John Lennon song.
"So this was her first cover, she just turned 70 a week before, and she was just rockin' it out," says Slusarenko.
The phrasing in "Exquisite Corpse" is really fast and kind of tricky, and because of that she asked Mitchell to slap her on the back whenever she needed to change the pace a bit.
"She said, 'You can hit me hard, don't be afraid,'" Slusarenko says. "John's like, 'I'm slapping Yoko Ono on the back in Brooklyn, and in my life's dreams I would have never imagined this scenario.'"
The Cyndi Lauper/Minus 5 collaboration came together in just as surreal a fashion.
"Originally we were going to try for R.E.M.," Slusarenko explains, "but with logistics and time and them recording in Vancouver, we just couldn't get it together. Scott McCaughey was just brokenhearted about not being able to do it--and I was like, duh, if Peter [Buck] wants to do it and you want to do it, why not Minus 5?"
Slusarenko had one caveat: The Minus 5 would record in Portland so that his old friends Jim Talstra and John Moen, two members of the band who've never played on a Minus 5 record, could be included.
"It was Stephen, Scott, John [Moen], and Jim in Portland, who then sent the tapes to Peter in Athens, Georgia, so he could add stuff. Next, the tapes were sent to the kids from the Harvey Milk School, who sang the choir parts, after which they sent the tapes back to Stephen to add more stuff in New Haven before he sent it off to Cyndi, who was on tour with Meat Loaf. Then it went back to New York so it could be mastered. Everything was so down to the wire, so terrifying, and we were so stressed out, but the song is beautiful."
Wig in a Box was a tremendous amount of work--nerve-wracking, nail-biting, deadline-pressing work. But Slusarenko made it look so easy.
"Someone said something to me the other day to the effect of, 'It just seems like everything is handed to you,'" says Slusarenko, taking time out from learning the bass parts of 78 Guided by Voices songs.
"But it all started with 'Here's this crazy idea we haveÉ'"
Wig in a Box : Songs From and Inspired By Hedwig and the Angry Inch debuts this Tuesday, October 21, and is available in record stores everywhere.