That "magical little thing" was a combination of game show and musical theater that performed most Thursday nights for more than two years in the back room of Fiorella's Cafe in the French Quarter. The show was inspired by a cache of old bingo cards Maedgen found in a thrift store, and featured melodic songs of carnivalesque melancholy with some early Tom Waits' love-in-the-gutter feel. Those songs appear on 2002's Bingo! (Independent), which made many local critics' best of 2002 lists.
The high point for Bingo! came in 2003 when the show played a five-week run in a theater in Brooklyn. "We ended up selling out 20 performances in a row," Maedgen says. "We went out to Manhattan each day and busted a guerilla theater move." The troupe of musicians and performers would pile into a bus, then find a well-trafficked spot to unload equipment and play, giving passersby a taste of the show, whether they wanted it or not. "We played for a mob of people, we handed out flyers, and it really, really worked," he says.
With the demise of Bingo!, Maedgen is returning to his first musical love, Liquidrone, which he started in 1992. Not surprisingly, the band had theatrical origins. "We started as a band creating the score for live theater for a production company called Baton Rouge Alternative Theater, and it grew from there," he says. "It went into an orchestral phase that lasted for about four years." He is particularly pleased with the current incarnation -- Maedgen, Michael Miller, Casey McAllister, Ryan Farris and Marty LaStrapes -- so much so that he says, "I don't want to change anything ever again about it. I want these five musicians to continue to grow together and explore the sound together."
This lineup just released Liquidrone (C Student), more of a rock 'n' roll album than Bingo!. Rhythm and blues is at the core of these songs, whether it's the "Funky Drummer"-like drum loop that opens "Funnel" or the spiritually ecstatic feel of "Church of Mary." But there's also an avant-garde undercurrent, with textures, stray notes, and even structural touches countering the dominant riff and rhythm. On "Fools and Their Fences," there's looped drum pattern and a repeating banjo melody in the verse, while a quiet, haunting synthesizer part meanders, seemingly disconnected from the song. Almost four minutes into the song, the banjo fades and the synthesizer part swells and takes over as the dominant melody instrument until Maedgen steps in with an extended saxophone solo.
"I Got a Harley & A Mail Order Bride," another song from Liquidrone, was written under unusual circumstances. "As an experiment, I'd write as many songs as I could in 30 minutes," Maedgen laughs. "This was a five-minute song." Like so many Liquidrone songs, it had its origins in non-standard instruments. "We came up with this new beat for it that came from the squeaky part from inside a dog toy. We looped that then kept the rest of the song more or less the way it was."
A dog toy is just one of his many musical instruments that started its life serving other purposes. A number of songs feature what Maedgen calls "the crunch box," a toolbox full of metal. This evening, he has a makeup case with new toys/instruments, each customized and bearing the "Liquidrone" logo in block letters. He unpacks them with the enthusiasm of someone who lived for Show and Tell in the sixth grade and sets up two shape-identifying toys converted into rhythm machines and a walkie-talkie equipped with a light sensor to turn it into a modified theremin.
"Liquidrone's starting its line of toys," he says with glee. "My friend Scott in Placebot has modified these." He then sets them up around the tape recorder and improvises a song with a distorted rhythm clacking out of one of the toy beat box's speakers while he ad-libs a melody on the theremin.
Talking to Maedgen, you wonder if he has turned his life into theater. He's obviously aware of the show value that accompanies pulling out rebuilt Fisher Price toys just as he knows how riding his bike with spiked black hair and aviator goggles gets attention. "I live in New Orleans and work in the French Quarter," he says, "so almost by default my life's pretty theatrical."
Delivering food for Fiorella's by bicycle -- his day job -- helps him write, he says. He heard "Funky Cartoon" from the new EP in his head while riding, and he draws inspiration from the sounds around him. "It's that twist on a drone that motivates a lot of my writing," Maedgen says. "The calliope, for instance, is going to sound a lot different on Decatur Street than it does on Royal Street than it sounds on Rampart, than really, it sounds on down on Press Street."
He looks out the window of the True Brew Cafe at a construction site and continues. "At some point, I'm sure they had one of those big pile-driver devices. To me, that's got to be the greatest drum section in town. Think about it: conck kaa conck kaa," he says, imitating the pile driver. "What an incredible loop. To twist it even more, you take the pile-driver scenario and walk two blocks away. It's going to go from conck kaa conck kaa to bouncing off a couple of different buildings to where it might be conckconck-keh kaa conckconck-keh kaa.
"We don't dis-clude anything as a musical instrument. I don't think anybody who's as hypnotized by music as we are can. This chair here could be a really good musical instrument. You've just got to mess with it and figure out what its trick is." Maedgen sometimes gets help finding makeshift instruments from his 9-year-old son Trinity. "We do a lot of thrifting together and he's found the greatest things at the bottom of this pile of toys," he says.
The returned focus on Liquidrone doesn't mean that Bingo! is entirely dead. A DVD of the show is in the works, and Liquidrone is now playing Bingo! songs. Maedgen proudly announces he has 287 songs. "It's hard to separate them into the Bingo! category and Liquidrone category," he says, but adapting the melancholy, pump organ-driven songs to Liquidrone's rock 'n' roll has taken some reconsideration. "They've grown into these huge arena songs." He is also considering ways to make rock 'n' roll shows as engaging as the intimate Bingo! shows at Fiorella's. "I'd like to keep the interaction with the audience," he says. "It felt like our audience was part of that music. It's something we're definitely taking steps to keep."