Drew Denny’s tears and ecstasy: an interview by Geoff Geis

By June 17, 2011
Drew Denny’s tears and ecstasy: an interview by Geoff Geis
photo by Charles Mallison

After spending most of the year out of town, Big Whup singer Drew Denny is back to Los Angeles to curate an event at Sancho Gallery tomorrow night, Saturday, June 18.

The lineup is incredible, and includes a performance from Denny that will musically and artistically portray her experience watching her father die last November. The event will also feature a short set by Big Whup—the first, and probably last, for a while.

I chatted with Drew Denny about the show, her father’s death, her discovery of love, and the future.

Drew is among my greatest friends, and she’s one of the most aggressively talented people I know. When I joined her band in 2008, she was my long term girlfriend. Our relationship dissolved merely months later, but we valued each other and the band enough to stubbornly continue making music together. We released a 7″ record, played a ton of shows, and met some wonderful new people.

Last October, on the same day that I was celebrating my completely flippant solo art exhibit, Drew called me to say that her father had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died quickly thereafter, and she took to traveling the world. I haven’t seen her much since then, so it was really nice to have a conversation.

Drew and Geoff

photo by Pablo Capra

You didn’t always have a good relationship with your dad but eventually you came to terms with him. Did his illness cause that to happen, or did it happen beforehand?
I “came to terms” with the fact that my father was a womanizing sex addict with terrible taste in plastic surgery and a penchant for singing loudly in public when I was quite young.

Yeah, but you still didn’t like him that much.
Right. But I have a newfound respect for his optimism and his sense of humor. I always knew he was a funny guy, and everyone loved to hang out with him. Sometimes I enjoyed that. Sometimes i resented it. Then, I saw how he dealt with suddenly finding out that he had three weeks to live…

Ludwell Denny

Drew's dad wasn't actually a head coach, but as the founder of Pro Set he could pretend!

How exactly did he react?
I can’t really talk about that. I’m sorry. It’s not “out of bounds” so much as “out of language” for me.  One reason I’m making a performance about this is because I can’t communicate it in language yet.

I’m really excited about this performance, but I’m nervous. I didn’t really realize what I had gotten myself into until our rehearsal.

So… what are you doing?
I’m creating a multi-media memorial performance about taking care of my dad while he died. It’s an absurdist celebration of Father’s Day that combines video, pre-recorded score, live performed songs, a participatory narrative, and a pillow shaped liked boobs! I’m calling it my “mammary foam pillow for cancer patience.” All puns intended.

What’s that?
When I was taking care of my dad, we joked a lot. That’s sort of how we communicated to one another all the time and – when you’re living in the same room with someone, not sleeping, dealing with lots of medications and very little food- the jokes start to get really wild and really dark.

Anyway, his favorite thing in the whole wide world was boobs. He loved boobs!

He sure did.
He put boobs on everything. There are probably a hundred women from Colombia to the Ukraine to the Philippines who got their boobs not from god but from my dad. And when he was dying he got really into pillows — but mostly as a way to talk to the nurses. If they weren’t paying attention to him, he would just ask for more pillows. So the pillows were a way to be near boobs.

I told him i should just make him a pillow shaped like boobs so that he could just die with his head in between a pair of boobs.

Is that how it happened?
No. He died before I could make it. It happened really fast.

I’m sorry.
Anyway, this “mammary foam pillow” will be a huge hit, I think. Memory Foam retains whatever shape you impress upon it, it’s an inanimate material with a “memory.” I thought, what if you could deposit a thought in the foam? A fear? A disease? Just leave it there between two giant breasts?

The pillow is a little misshapen. I’m not very good at sewing.

Let’s talk about the music you’ll be performing. Are these all songs you’ve written since your dad’s illness, or do they go back further?
Two are brand new. I started writing them in Iceland and finished them in Arizona. I had a very specific idea in mind for this show —  to tell the story of caring for my dad while he died. Each little “act” of the performance represents one of the three last weeks in his life.

Hear: the debut of Drew Denny’s “Blah Blah Blah Bye Bye”

The Denny family at the Berlin Wall during its deconstruction

Did you play these songs for him?
He loved “Blah Blah Bye Bye” and “No Mommy”… And we sang “Swing Low” together right before he died. I was flying to New York from Iceland when he was diagnosed. I was supposed to meet him because we were gonna work on a show together, which was really exciting. Then, when I landed, I got a message from him saying he was dying. He found out while I was in the air. Which feels meaningful because my dad was a pilot, my mom was a stewardess, and I sort of grew up on airplanes. I suspect that I was even made on a plane. Anyway, I just took the train to the hospital and stayed with him until he died.

So there are these three acts in the performance. I chose songs I thought would communicate how I was feeling during that time.

I’ve written so many sad songs, mostly about love, of course, like everyone else… I was so bored by that until I watched my dad listen to them as he was dying. A love song takes a whole new meaning in a cancer hospital. Unfulfilled desire, the frustration of not being able to control something… when it’s about another human being, it’s banal at worst and “touching” at best.

When you’re caught up in a narrative as powerful as the cancer narrative, and you’re overwhelmed by the tropes of caretaker/patient/et cetera… nothing matters. I haven’t said that with as much certainty since I was 13! But really. Nothing matters if you don’t have love in your life. That’s what I actually learned watching my dad die.

Tell me about life since then. You went traveling, sometimes at the drop of the hat. Big Whup disappeared. Where were you, and what were you doing?
Haha… My dad used to say that only time is finite. It never really hit me until I saw him actually die… No, until I saw him be dead—just a body. It made me want to move! Go everywhere! Talk to everyone about all the things I want to know and do. And, it gave the strength to let myself be in love.

We went to a performance art festival in Denmark, participated in a Symposium at a wild Arts Colony in a Lithuanian national forest, played street music in Berlin, visited the only contemporary art gallery in Chiapas, visited an artist residency in Monterrey—a really crazy place to have an artist residency right now.

What were you doing in Mexico City?
On the invitation of Hazel Hill McCarthy of Show Cave, Jack and I presented Reclamation at SOMA in Mexico City. We showed photos of our installations and performances and discussed the theory behind our representation of nature and our desire to open all our installations to performers and curators as stages for actions.

When I got that urge to move, I thought about what was keeping me from moving… and honestly, it was Big Whup. Big Whup is the only reason I’ve stayed in Los Angeles—for years, it’s been the reason why I haven’t left or taken jobs elsewhere or traveled.

After my dad died, it dawned on me that my band was just a hobby for most of the people in it.

Not me!
Yeah, but you have other projects.

That’s true.
Anyway, I just thought that I couldn’t hold anything up right now. I can barely hold up me.

That makes a lot of sense.
Big Whup is never going to “disappear.” The spirit of Big Whup will persist in one way or another.

Like Santa?
Yes.

I just had to take some time away, to see what artists are doing in the world, what musicians are doing, how people are living who are not miners on a settlement in Bolivia or my friends in L.A.

Even though Big Whup wasn’t playing live anymore, you kept coming back every so often to rehearse and write with us. Why?
I started Big Whup to create a process through which I could experience joy. And because I really wanted to be in a band. And because I wanted to hang out with my friends. But really, I wrote my first ever happy song for Big Whup. Our first show we all wore ridiculous hats. We made fucking crop tops! We got naked on the porch for our record cover!

photo by Charles Mallison

People seemed to really enjoy it when we did that.
It’s always been about joy. It’s about taking musical material and life experience, no matter how strange or dark it is, and communicating it in a way that allows for the experience of joy. “Everything’s so fucked up, so we might as well laugh!”

I mean, you know, watching my mom try to kill herself a thousand times and go in and out of rehab and burn her house down… That’s what B.O.N.I.Z. H.E.A.R.T. is about! It’s one of our most blissful songs!

When my dad was dying… It was just another one of those fucked-up things. So as much as I realized I had to let go of the Whup a little—to let go of my desire for it to be something the other Whups didn’t want—I couldn’t let go of it completely. I need the Whup.

We’re quite joyful.
Yes! And, as it turned out, Morgan wanted to quit. Jenna wanted to go to law school. Rand will have his PhD pretty soon. I couldn’t make sense of staying and trying to make that my life. But I always came back, and will always come back, for some quality Whup time. I’m actually quite “back” at the moment.

Where are you going after you move out of Girl House?
I’m in California until July 28, when I go to the East Coast for my sister’s babies’ baptisms and my dad’s funeral.

And then it’s open-ended?
I’m making a couple films this summer: one in Northern California at the beginning of July, and hopefully one driving from L.A. to Austin soon after that. I applied for some grants. One to teach art in Pakistan, one to continue my documentary in Bolivia, one to make a model of my Brain House

We’ll see what happens.

Hear: Big Whup – “No Mommy”

Don’t miss the show:

Tears and Ecstasy Closing

This Saturday June 18

Sancho Gallery presents…

Drew Denny

with Big Whup

Julia Holter

Niko Solorio

Sadie Siegel

Laura Steenberge

DJ sets by Dan Collins (LA Record) and Ale (Dublab)

Visuals by Jesselisa Moretti and Yelena Zhelezov

Sancho Gallery—1549 Sunset Blvd, Echo Park

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