Strange City Digest has a great time talking with Cory McAbee, the filmmaker behind indie classics like The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam, as well as being the lead singer behind San Francisco band The Billy Nayer Show. We talked about his upcoming film and new album, life after Bill Nayer, and how he plans on saving Earth by sending (part of) us to Mars. Check out his new film Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences and learn more about his plans for terraforming Mars at The Red Planet Planning Commission
Cory McAbee is a man who likes to stay busy. Whether it’s as frontman to musical act The Billy Nayer Show, writing, directing and starring in films like The American Astronaut and Stingray Sam, or blurring the line between satire and activism on his way to Mars, McAbee’s birth of ideas is rivaled only by his constantly adapting means of conception.
His ability to maintain a fluid, if even mercurial, creative approach may be on brand for the artist today, but it began as a skill learned through necessity.
“There was a revolving door of musicians [within The Billy Nayer Show],” lead singer McAbee recalls. “Some would stick around for a few years, some only a few shows. The sound always evolved with the lineup. I got to learn a lot by playing with a lot of different people over the years.”
The band’s bellicose, quasi-punk beginnings, in which they once attempted to open for The Circle Jerks until their PA system caught fire as their set began, brought a sneering energy to the stage. Their subversive approach to song writing and performance (like their 1994 sophomore album The Ketchup and Mustard Man– a stream-of-consciousness radio play) challenged the genres they skirted, as well as those in attendance.
“Every song was about ideas and experimenting. When I was young, I was working at the Paradise Lounge in San Francisco as the head of security. All of the people who worked there were also musicians. With some of them, it was a game to be really offensive on stage. We tried to be shocking, but also polite to each other at the same time. I don’t know how much that stuff holds up today. Also, I wouldn’t be curious about pursuing it today. It was something of the time. It was fun then. A lot of us were just trying amuse each other.”
In 2001, McAbee, along with his bandmates, debuted his first feature length film The American Astronaut at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. The retro-futuristic space western musical’s quest-laden plot, including rescuing the “The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman’s Breast” and a parlay with “The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass”, is reminiscent of Sergio Leone Westerns if all the blotter hits accidentally sweated through your britches at high noon. The dark comedic tones and fantastical storytelling, along with its stark, high-contrast black and white presentation, harkens to Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece, Metropolis. This includes the parallels between Lang’s working class “Subterraneans” and Jupiter’s downtrodden all-male mining colony featured in McAbee’s debut film.
The multiple musical numbers in this film and his cinematic follow-up, Stingray Sam (2009), are what makes both perennially enjoyable. With McAbee performing as lead singer for The Billy Nayer Show at the same time, incorporating original songs into the filmed narratives may have seemed a natural fit, but their presence was seeded by a much earlier influence.
“I thought musicals were an interesting format that I started wanting to explore. I was excited about them when I was first started watching Dennis Potter, a British television writer. He wrote a few miniseries and tried to make films out of them. Some of them were pretty good, most of them were bad, but they made Pennies from Heaven with Steve Hart, Christopher Walken, and Bernadette Peters. That was the first of Potter’s work I saw. I liked the way he made musicals. I grew up thinking musicals were all Gene Kelly dancing around with scarves blowing in the wind and it didn’t speak to me. Ironically, that was probably a Golden Age for musicals, just not for me.”
Touring as a performing musician while simultaneously shooting his films allowed McAbee to test material before it found its way in. “When I was writing The American Astronaut, I went in two different directions. One was to take old pieces of music and try to work them into the screenplay, but I would also write stuff for the film and we would work with it and perform it on stage and see how crowds would react before we ever even starting shooting the film. Stingray Sam was different in that we wrote that material for the film itself.”
He takes personal pride in not being an overly-controlling director, recalling a moment early in the filming of The American Astronaut when he talked with Rocco Sisto who played Professor Hess. The actor’s interpretation into his character’s motivation veered far from McAbee’s original vision but proved more engaging, prompting McAbee to rewrite the role aided with his actor’s input.
“Sometimes, directors act like they’re trying to etch their names in stone,” he says. “There’s a different reason to make a film each time. They may not all be super successful, but I’m able to experiment and try things that might fail. I’m able to learn from that. That’s what’s exciting, doing something new. I have a friend who used to skydive. I asked why he stopped and he asked me how many times can you jump out of a plane and still find the same thing interesting? That’s how I am with making things. If I do something that people like, I’m not going to do that thing again because I’ve already done it.”
McAbee continued to challenge himself with 2012’s Crazy And Thief which starred his children, Willa Vy and John Huck as the respective leads at the ages of only seven and two. The film, with its POV through the children’s eyes ascribes a mythological rendering to city life as they navigate their way home. The film went on to win the New Visions Award at that year’s Catalonian International Film Festival and was described by Indiewire as “one of our ten best undistributed films of 2012”
“I was in a weird place at the time,” McAbee reflects. “I considered, if I could make one film before I die, what would it be? I decided I wanted it to be something about little kids and how they see the world and how they try to understand it. that was a very interesting idea. My lead actor was two years old. They struck to the script and didn’t stick to it. Every take was different. That was my first real crash course in giving up control. They were great, though, nailed everything.”
“Some people still question why I bothered making it. Some people say it’s the best thing I’ve made yet. But if it wasn’t for Crazy and Thief, I wouldn’t have started Captain Ahab’s Motorcycle Club.”
The creation of the global art collective, Captain Ahab’s Motorcycle Club, emerged after the dissolution of The Billy Nayer Show in 2011. Throughout the band’s chameleonic run, McAbee’s only other constant was drummer Bobby Lurie. “It was him and me through the entire course of everything. We parted ten years ago, but towards the end it was just me and him on stage trying to see how simple we could do it. That was the last incarnation.”
“I actually enjoyed going minimal,” he adds. “There was a point where the music just got so loud. I enjoy holding a microphone on stage and singing and accusing the audience of things and jumping around, but after the shows people would come up to me and say things, like, ‘Man, that was a really good show, but I couldn’t hear the vocals.’ It was like I didn’t really even need to be there. When the band went our separate ways I wanted to do things differently.”
Chief among these changes was the dynamic between performer and audience. McAbee described a difference of opinion between he and the rest of the band when it came to interaction with crowds. “Our band was always very private. People would reach out, illustrators asking if they could design album covers, people offering to let us sleep on their couches while we toured and stuff, but we always ended up turning them down.”
McAbee recognized the benefits of a shared artistic community, borderless with a cooperative exchange of talents and ideas. He recounts contributions from across the world that helped him continue musically without a fixed band behind him,
“I would spend a couple weeks writing these these songs and very simple recordings posted online. I then asked them to make a mix for me to sing to. I said, anything goes, as long as the scratch mix fits the vocals; then I can play that on stage and sing along to it. I went on tour like that. At first, it was just me playing to the original recordings, but then I got slammed with all these mixes and it got really fun and exciting.”
“I learned so much from that, like how to let go of the reins. When people send you their mixes you want to honor their work.”
Captain Ahab’s yielded fruitful collaborations in music and graphic design, but an attempted film project was ultimately redirected. “I had to realize this was a bad match,” he admits.
“I want to make film about Abraham Lincoln’s embalmer. When Lincoln died they put him on a train and took him from city to city in open casket presentations for two and a half weeks. By the time he hit New York, which was not too far into the tour, he already wasn’t sitting pretty. He smelled. Bad. There were all these people lining up to see him, locals, military, the government, and then there’s this poor guy in charge of making him not stink. I thought it was a compelling story, at least.”
The project, along with the script for Werewolf Hunters of the Midwest, are among McAbee’s creative ambitions that did not materialize as originally envisioned, but the research was not without its benefits, as we will see later.
Small Star Seminar became the next musical effort and has since become McAbee’s favorite album he’s released to date. This is due not only to the accomplished arrangements he was able to spearhead, but the experiences that are tied to its creation and performances.
“I had no money and I don’t know how to drive. I would pull into town on a bus, people would pick me up and let me sleep on their sofas. It was a real life experience.”
As its title implies, the album is, conceptually, a motivational speaker’s presentation. It permeates with philosophies of self-detachment, non-involvement, ego loss, humility, and acceptance through the guise of satirical passages like McAbee’s professed “limitation celebration.”
“Motivational speakers tell everyone they can do anything they want to. Well, you can’t. My thing was to go backwards,” McAbee explains. “As far as the songs, they were all very unexpected. When I was writing it I gave myself a rule: don’t go dark. The moment I go dark I go preachy and get political and that gets poisonous. It goes from being an idea to being propaganda, so I tried avoiding that. I also have to believe what I’m singing.
“It got to some people. One guy came up to me and said he was going to commit suicide when he found out he had a disease then heard Small Star Seminar and he said it changed his life. Another woman had depression who said ‘I know he’s joking but it’s working on me’”
Small Star Seminar also proved a personal achievement for McAbee with the new challenge of being responsible for all aspects of the musical arrangements.
“When I was working with a band, you don’t want to tell the bass player what to play. You want them to bring whatever they bring and get on with it in a form of chemistry. There was a form of interpretation. I always left it very open with a band. I never paid any attention to the mixing board. I would always bring drawings to the studio. When people are looking at the board I usually just focus on illustrations or something to keep myself awake. I now had to use my own recording instruments and figure out how everything works.”
Rather than a harrowing experience for a lead singer asked to perform on their own without any support or backup, the affable McAbee found the experience a welcome fit. He described how freeing the performances proved, “I’m singing to recordings so I can just jump around stage and play with the audience.”
Enjoying the intimacy and improvised atmosphere he craved during his time with The Billy Nayer Show, McAbee added space before his set’s final song to perform a science lecture to the crowd. Sometimes researched, sometimes off the cuff, it was an opportunity to interact with the crowd and fed into his natural showmanship. Only intended as an aside to add variety to rest of the musical performance, McAbee was forced to rely on the lecture portion exclusively for a show at San Francisco’s Exploratorium while recovery from throat surgery.
“As my voice started to return I was eventually able to add one song back into the performance, then another, then I started weaving the songs into the narrative of this science lecture, which, at this point had animation and illustrations behind it.”
The hybridized performance was molded into a filmed ninety-minute version entitled Deep Astronomy and the Romantic Sciences which was later accepted by the Sundance Film Festival. “It became this growing thing. I would do the shows, local filmmakers would document it and meet me after the show to hand off the footage and then I would move on to the next town and do it again. That’s how the film got its start.”
The film’s public release has seen prolonged delays after the project lost both its sound mixer and color corrector to Covid- related restrictions and general limitations which arose throughout the world. “I’ve been dealing with a few people I’ve reached out to since who have volunteered to help with the color correcting, so it’s almost done,” he reveals. Visit deepastronomymovie.com to learn more about the film and its coming release.
As has been the case throughout his career, every project has left behind fertile grounds for his next to grow in. From the Deep Astronomy sessions came a portion entitled the Red Planet Planning Commission, a premise that has since taken on a life of its own. McAbee describes it as a form of “factual functional fiction”; getting his point across in a candy coating of an engaging fiction to people who may otherwise be burned out or overwhelmed by the world’s dire ecological concerns.
He explains, “I create fictitious narratives like with RPPC, I’m talking about terraforming Mars by sending human compost and cockroaches there. In reality, we’re dealing with green burial and butterflies back here on Earth. There’s this narrative for people who don’t like talking about dead people and dying bugs, we can frame it around a story and Mars.” Website, http://www.redplanetplanningcommission.com explains McAbee’s interactive meta-fiction in full and should be experienced personally rather than retold here, but in short, it educates on and encourages green burials, monarch butterfly population restoration, and supports cycling.
The latter of which includes I_Butterfly, “a nationwide festival of self-guided bike tours” that follow monarch migratory paths. “I got really into monarch butterflies about nine years ago,” he explains. “A German documentary team needed a singing cowboy for a shoot about the migratory path of monarchs from Canada to Mexico. Someone in their team knew me and saw me in Stingray Sam and said, ‘I know a singing cowboy.’ I ended up hanging out with the experts, sitting by myself in a greenhouse watching them come out of their chrysalises. Partly because it was my job, partly because I couldn’t help it. I once saw a small tree branch break from the weight of butterflies on it. It was prehistoric and beautiful. It only becomes more and more amazing over time.”
Remember that film about Abraham Lincoln’s embalmer that never was?
During research for the script, McAbee studied up and learned how adverse the process’s impact was to the environment. He also cites Amy Browne’s A Will for the Woods green burial film as a large inspiration for the movement’s inclusion in this project. Inspired into activism and uniquely qualified to rally awareness through his knack for crowd sourcing, McAbee has championed the practice of green burials and convinced similar sites to plant native milkweed in order to encourage monarch food sources. The University of Alabama is also working with him to develop a monarch waystation on campus and have helped to collaborate on the related film project.
McAbee remains optimistic for the project. “Will our green burial movement save the planet? Who knows, let’s hope. Will this help to bolster monarch butterfly populations? It’s worth a try. There is one thing that we do know. Will it bring butterflies to people’s funerals at a time when people need to see beautiful things the most? Absolutely.”