The Chong show
Ching Chong Song unveils its demented cabaret-vaginal sound effects included.
Thu Jan 17 2008
Photograph: Xabier Tudela
Julie LaMendola and Dan Gower sit in the pocket-size dressing room of Chelsea's Vortex Theater, their youthful faces aglow from the miniature lightbulbs that frame the mirror in incandescent clich. The pair is about to take the stage in a berserk musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol; Gower is playing piano, while LaMendola portrays a particularly loud Ghost of Christmas Present.
Julie LaMendola and Dan Gower sit in the pocket-size dressing room of Chelsea's Vortex Theater, their youthful faces aglow from the miniature lightbulbs that frame the mirror in incandescent clich. The pair is about to take the stage in a berserk musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol; Gower is playing piano, while LaMendola portrays a particularly loud Ghost of Christmas Present. While their fellow cast members shuffle in and out—applying makeup, kibitzing and, in the case of one older gentleman, dropping trou—the musicians turn away from the events of Christmas Present to discuss their main gig, the anarchic cabaret band Ching Chong Song.
"We just played a porn-film festival in Berlin," LaMendola says. "They booked us because...well, we can't really define exactly why." The singer, 31, scrunches her brow in earnest bewilderment. "Our roommate in Berlin was a woman named Mouse who spun around on one knee and squirted milk out of her pussy and ass," she continues. "When we got there, I looked through the [festival] pamphlet and was like, Okay, we belong here. But why?"
In truth, this Brooklyn duo belongs in a pornography festival no more or no less than it does in a rock club or a theater. Ching Chong Song is a genuine New York oddity, drawing equally from junior-high musicals and graphic performance art. LaMendola commands the stage with her nerves unhinged, one part rising diva, the other local loon. "Just the way she throws a glance at the audience could knock over ten bowling pins," says Jason Trachtenburg, a longtime supporter whose Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players have taken the group on tour. "They have a real punk-rock attitude—but they put it into show tunes."
This week, Ching Chong Song celebrates the self-release of its first album, Little Naked Gay Adventure, which was produced by electronic musician and feminist performer Kevin Blechdom. As with the band's live set, the songs are presented sparely, supporting LaMendola's large, brassy voice with little more than Gower's piano and the haunted murmur of LaMendola's singing saw. According to Blechdom, one song, "Roreesa," also includes the sound of a "slurshing vagina." And while such an instrument may seem at odds with the record's sweet, slightly kitschy vibe, vaginal slurshing is very much in keeping with Ching Chong Song's act. During the pair's three years playing together, LaMendola has disrobed in concert, sullied stages with vomit and urine and, during one performance at Tonic, competed in a "masturbating olympics" with Blechdom. "Just knowing Julie has changed my whole perspective on the way to live your life," Blechdom says. "These days, to be outrageous is to shop at Trader Joe's. She [practices] a kind of social experimentation that's more from the '70s. It's very calming. It's like, 'I can start masturbating right now—if it bothers you, that's your problem.'"
Nonetheless, most of the band's antics are hardly vulgar. At one performance, LaMendola began applying lipstick, gradually spiraling away from her mouth until she was singing in demonic redface. The duo also relies on obstructions, a technique most famously employed by the filmmaker Lars von Trier, in which a set of unusual rules is imposed upon an artist. In this mode, a theater guru has instructed the pair to sing an entire song while giggling, auction one another off from the stage, and randomly impersonate Johnny Cash and Tori Amos.Of course, the most daunting obstruction blocking Ching Chong Song may be its name, a slightly anachronistic Chinese racial slur lovingly revived in recent times by Rosie O'Donnell. The musicians claim to have chosen the moniker simply for its onomatopoeic silliness—which was all well and good until they ventured onto a college campus. Last year, a show scheduled at Bryn Mawr was canceled following protests by a group of Asian-American students, while an NYU concert was picketed. "I really wish they had come inside and listened to our music," Gower, 28, says. "They would have understood where we were coming from. We're full of love! We're totally not offensive."
Oh, heaven's no! "I wrote an open letter to Bryn Mawr," LaMendola says. "I told them, 'I would never call you a ching chong. I would call you retarded twats!'"
Ching Chong Song plays Sound Fix Fri 18, Ukrainian Home Jan 24, Sidewalk Caf Jan 31, Bowery Poetry Club Feb 6 and the Stone Feb 9.