Warhol would’ve been proud. Although the wigged genius fostered relative grumps like the Velvet Underground as his house band, his own art was often considered just this side, if not over the line, of parody. Warhol was both revered and despised for presenting such common items as soup cans or dollar bills as art or, potentially worse, for depicting serious subjects, like race riots, frivolously. If art wasn’t quite a joke, he seemed to be saying, it was certainly something you could take lightly. The same can be said of The Pizza Underground, who’ve recently become an underground sensation by singing about, you guessed it, pizza. And, as you also might guess, they sing to the tune of reconstructed Velvet Underground songs (and some Lou Reed songs too). Is it a joke? That’s what New Yorkers first asked about Warhol’s 1962 gallery opening, which featured among his celebrity portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley those now infamous Campbell’s soup cans. Likewise, Seattleites flocked to Chop Suey last Monday night to witness the spectacle of the The Pizza Underground, and their own living celebrity, Macaulay Culkin.
Let’s be clear: This isn’t Macaulay Culkin’s new band. It’s neither a bloated 30 Seconds to Mars vanity project nor a late night stoner conceit. The Pizza Underground was actually formed first by NYC anti-folk fixtures Phoebe Kreutz, Deenah Vollmer, Matt Colbourn, and Austin Kilham, who started singing about this most perfect of foods before running into the former Home Alone star. But with Culkin on board, The Pizza Underground is now selling out clubs nationwide, like Seattle’s own Chop Suey, and delivering cheesy fun to more fans than ever before.
If the audience on Monday night did consider the show a joke, their response was pure amusement. They gleefully partook of the Hot Mama’s pizzas handed out from the stage into the packed floor. “There’s not so much so just take a bite and share it”, glockenspielist and vocalist Phoebe Kreutz suggested in her Nico-esque faux German accent. As fans dangled giant floppy triangles of greasy goodness precariously over their heads (the contents of one box may have tipped to the floor), the five members of The Pizza Underground took their places at the front of the stage.
Instrumentally, they had but one guitar, the aforementioned glockenspiel and a pizza box drum between them, but they filled the gaps with their tambourines and in Macaulay Culkin’s case, a beaded shaker. The music, though, was beside the point. The real meat was in the lyrics.
The songs in their mercifully short set were appetizing bites, rather than full renditions, thrown into delicious medleys. “Papa John Says” oozed into “I’m Beginning to Eat the Slice” and “Za Za Za”. And every line was both familiar and strange: “Sunday morning means cold pizza / num num num have a bite of crust / white pie, why don’t you have any sauce?” You could almost sing along. And who loves pizza? Everyone, the crowd cheered in unison. The whole pie was done in less than an hour. And that’s including a solo rendition and a quick diversion.
As box thumper Deenah Vollmer said after the quote-Nevermound interlude, “That could have gone either way”. Set opener Toby Goodshank (of the Moldy Peaches) appeared mid-set as Kurt Cobain’d, donning an appropriate wig, glasses, and striped sweater, to perform the songs of Nirvana, quote, in the past tense. “Came as you was, as you were, as you had wanted to have been”… okay, so maybe it wasn’t all in the strict past tense, but you get the idea. Too soon after the recent 20th anniversary of Cobain’s death? Apparently not. “There we were then, entertained us”? Most definitely.
Deenah Vollmer, by herself, thrilled the crowd with her Mo Tucker-esque delivery of “If You Close the Box” (answer: “I’ll never have to eat it cold again”) before bandmates Culkin, Kreutz, guitarist Matt Colbourn, and Austin Kilham rejoined her for the Nico-led “She’s a Pizza Gal”, followed by a truly inspired encore of “Pizza Roll”, retelling the invention of that late-night/after-school guilty pleasure. Key take-away: “It was alright. It was alright”.
But the show turned out to be so much more than “alright”. If an SNL skit has been that funny in the last two decades, I haven’t seen it (and yet they all feel twice as long). And if Pop Art was ever to evolve beyond the statements Warhol made in back ’62, well, this probably isn’t it either, but at least The Pizza Underground, maybe more than most who followed him, live up to the self-made icon’s ideals.
At one point between songs, and after lifting his sunglasses to compliment the audience on their apparent good looks, Macaulay Culkin pretended to be lost and jokingly asked the crowd, “Who are you? Where am I? What am I doing with my life?” That’s easy, Mack: You’re making art. Everyone else is just throwing out the dough.
The Pizza Underground: