For the last six years, I have been a huge fan of DC’s electronic duo The Electric Grandmother, though I have struggled throughout that time to define exactly what they are. One could call them a band, in the sense that they create and perform music, but that’s not telling the whole story. One could say they are performance art but that misses the mark as well. What do you call it when one person sings original songs about classic 90s sitcoms, while the other projects bizarre power point presentations of stills and gifs from said shows? Weird? Hilarious? Nostalgic? Pete and Mary Alice, the force behind this unusual group call it simply “sitcom-core.”
I caught up with the duo at their home in northwest DC, and after a few episodes of “Saved by the Bell,” “Murphy Brown,” and “Perfect Strangers,” we talked about their newly released album “Cancelled,” the effect television has had on their music and the culture at large, and, of course, the episode where Pete and Mary Alice first met and fell in love.
The Electric Grandmother performs at Slash Run on February 24 with Swoll and Spirit Plots.
You define your musical style as “sitcom-core.” What is sitcom-core?
Pete: Sitcom core isn’t really a musical style as much as it is an aesthetic. I think it’s the art force behind the music. It’s the spirit behind the music. The Electric Grandmother’s music is a concoction of everything that’s influenced me and moved me over the years, whether it be the minimalism of Daniel Johnston or the experimentation of of The Residents or the ambient feel of Brian Eno or the artiness of Bowie or the pop sensibility of the Ramones. Sitcom core, and you can write this down in your newspaper, is a style that can not be replicated and I’m quite proud of that. I’ve somehow managed to accidentally create a style that is indescribable and I’m darn proud of that. Thank you!
What motivates you to get on stage and perform? Is it a desire to make people laugh? Entertain? Something deeper?
Pete: I feel like I’m on stage to make them laugh, entertain, and make them feel. Mostly, I like the idea of moving people with what we do. Some of the most rewarding instances have been people coming up after shows and saying, “You really reminded me of when I was a kid!” I enjoy hearing laughter in the moment, but ultimately the long lasting reward is moving someone.
What has your music meant to you over the years?
Pete: Sitcom-core has acted as a shield to deal with a lot of the problems I was suppressing. A lot of that came out in “Cancelled.” I think if you’re a funny person, and I’m confident enough to admit I’m funny, sometimes it’s a defense mechanism. Maybe you felt ignored as a kid, so you used humor to get attention, which was especially the case for me because I was short. I was a diminutive kid growing up and that’s maybe contributed to that part of me wanting to be seen and be heard as a performer.
Let’s talk about “Cancelled” for a moment. It’s “the story of a man who loses his mind following the cancellation of his favorite TV show” according to your album’s subtitle. Is this a concept album?
Pete: I don’t like the term concept-album, but the record definitely tells one story.
Mary Alice: The protagonist of the album, who we call “Cancelled Guy” is a very undefined character, but most of his personality comes out through his love of his favorite TV show. He sees the TV show as giving meaning to his life. It’s called “Police Department” and the episode is on youtube, as you are aware. You were in it after all (author’s note: I made a brief cameo as a dead body in one scene). What “Cancelled Guy” likes about the show is that it’s earnest. It’s a little bit corny. It’s something light and wonderful. We don’t expect our listeners to relate to liking this kind of a show, but the idea of become obsessed with something is pretty universal. We actually based the show on “Who’s the Boss.” The two cops on the show are a couple, and we looked to Tony and Angela for inspiration. They are actually based a lot on Pete and myself, by the way. “Police Department” is our way of representing a bygone era. That’s sort of what Electric Grandmother is about. It’s the lamenting of a bygone era.
In addition to your musical partnership, the two of you are married. Do the story of the band and the story of the relationship coincide?
Mary Alice: Pete and I met online back when it was not normal to have internet access. We met in 1996 on an ancient chat forum. Pete got on the internet while he was recovering from a horrible car accident, and my dad was an academic so he sat me in front of the computer and said: “Here, learn!” So the first thing I thought about doing was trying to meet new people. Pete, you found the chat through a Green Day website, right? And I used it because I just liked the aesthetic of it. It was called “Doug’s Chat Forum.” It was an Ohio State student’s project. It was an open free kinda thing. So we happened to both meet there and found out we had a lot in common. I was living in Hawaii at the time, but I had relatives in Philly, so I let Pete know when I was heading out there for a visit, and his dad drove him from Ohio to meet me. We hung out once that day, and then he came to visit me in Hawaii that Christmas. Then I went to Cleveland to visit him, and after high school he moved out to Hawaii.
Is the band taking root in any way during this period?
Mary Alice: Our first year together was long distance, so Pete would send me mix tapes through the mail. The very first tape he sent me was a Daniel Johnston song with some songs by the clash and maybe Bad Religion. I think it was what would pass for a love tape back then. But the other thing he sent were poems that he had printed out on his little diskjet printer. The thing that threw me was the fact that he wrote poems about “Full House.” It’s one of those things that you look back and remember those moments that made you really feel like you clicked with someone. And the fact that Pete actually thought Full House was funny. It was like, “Who thinks this is funny?” I thinks it’s funny, but how could there be someone else in the world who thought they were funny, too.
What shows, had they been prematurely cancelled would have triggered a mental breakdown for you?
Pete: The Simpsons had it ended too quickly. I wish they’d end it now. It’s a mutated version of what it once was. They took a Picasso and shit on it and set it on fire and threw it off the roof.
Mary Alice: I had my “cancelled” moment with “My So Called Life.” Also, Family Ties. When I was a child, I grew up in a family of democrats. They weren’t necessarily liberal, but they were fundamentally democrats. I was a big fan of Michael J. Fox, who’s character was a Reagan-loving, Nixon-loving republican. It was funny because my family was just sort of grey democrats, just like everyone else around them, and I just thought there was something very sparkly about Michael J. Fox’s conservatism. I regret that feeling very much now, of course. But I always think about the conflict between Alex and his parents and the way I tried to rebel against my parents. It wasn’t about him being conservative, it was about the importance of rebelling.
It’s funny how much of our behavioral standards were informed by television. Do you think sitcoms have shaped your morals in any way?
Pete: Sitcoms of the 80s and early 90s all generally had a message of morality. Seinfeld killed the sitcom as we knew it because it was witty, it was clever, and it had people doing bad things. So Seinfeld, as great of a show as it is, really killed the sitcom. Sitcoms are based in morality, in that its the absurd analysis of what life could be when protected from the evils of the world. Had sitcoms reflected more of a cynical perspective, perhaps that would have influenced my world-view. The fact that I look back on these sitcoms though our music makes me wonder if they really did have a big impact on my morals. Sitcoms were on during the time of Reagan. And I mean, whether he was moral or not, he was presented as moral.
Mary Alice: Yes, and clearly entertainment is better now because it isn’t trying to be moral. I think we can all cynically identify the preachiness of old shows. And we kind of knew it was bullshit but it was what the adults were telling us and that’s what we were supposed to know and that’s how we were supposed to act. Now kids are hearing all sorts of shit and I have no idea how that’s going to affect them. When I put myself in the shoes of a kid watching our president today, I can sense how different my moral cultural upbringing was.
The new album came with some companion film pieces, all cop dramas you filmed yourselves and released called “Police Department” and “Cop Force.” Mary Alice, what was it like directing a film for the first time?
Mary Alice: It was such a weird experience at first. Our friend Mason from Catscan taught me how to do story boards because I had no idea what I was doing. We fed him pizza for that. Then our friend Derek Stewart from Columbus wrote a script which was amazing. Once our story boards were done, we were ready to shoot. So then we watched these youtube videos on how to shoot with one camera because we only had one camera. The first day was very stressful. We used lot of people we didn’t know very well. The lead characters were twins and we actually found twins to play the parts, Javier and Nestor Diaz, but we didn’t know them well at the time, and I was always very nervous about inconveniencing the cast and crew. We also shot in this person’s office and we were kind of sneaking around. I didn’t know most of these people. But as soon as we started shooting, it all seemed so logical to me. It just all fell into place. I had some musical theater experience, and I’m pretty gregarious. It just came naturally to me: complimenting people when they did good and lightly criticizing them when they did bad. It was just a lot of fun and I’d love to do it again.