Imagine P.T. Barnum, Edward Gorey, and The Cramps getting into a car accident. With their bodies mangled beyond recognition, a mad surgeon would work around the clock, sewing different body parts together until one whole being was born from that wreckage. The Slow Poisoner is that Frankenstein's monster mash.
The one-man band based out of San Francisco is the fevered brainchild of Andrew Goldfarb, who performs all his material live with a guitar and drum. The Slow Poisoner's songs hark back to the swampy black magic of rock 'n' roll's early years. You can hear the ghoulish delivery of Screamin' Jay Hawkins and the campy sensibilities of Universal horror classics in Goldfarb's songs, which can range topically from tuberculosis and werewolves to worms that drive hot-rod cars. He also works as a visual artist, and often sells his spooky paintings and comic books at his live shows.
And true to his name, The Slow Poisoner sells tinctures and vials of other strange potions at his merch table.
Before heading out for his latest tour, New Times talked with Goldfarb about his love for theatrical performances, porno churches, and why The Slow Poisoner is not a "grandma" act.
New Times: You’ve played the Trunk Space a lot at its old location on Grand Avenue. This is your first time playing at it since it moved into the church.
Andrew Goldfarb: Is real estate still cheap in Phoenix? Cheap enough for people to rent out churches and turn them into art spaces? In San Francisco, that would not happen.
From what I understand, the church is renting a space out to them. It’s still running and doing churchy things while they do their DIY thing.
I’ve seen that happen elsewhere, too. There was a church in Oakland that a friend of mine was doing a performance series in. We wound up getting kicked out of that because we had one performer who stuck weird notes behind the pews and it really freaked out the choirboys. So that was the end of that ... you gotta be careful how you behave in a church.
I like it, though, when churches get re-purposed. There’s a skating rink that used to be a church in San Francisco that they call The Church of the Eight Wheels. And I like it when it goes the other way and you see churches that used to be, like, porno shops. This happens sometimes — you see churches in strip malls and you can tell they used to be porno shops. Well, in that case God beat the Devil. But you figure eventually the Devil will get it back and it’ll become a porno church.
I’ve got an interesting history with The Trunk Space. It’s one of those places that I’ve played many, many times. I must have played there five or six times. It became this symbol in my subconscious of the All-Venue. For my sleeping brain, it represented all clubs. Whenever I would have a tour anxiety dream — where you’re driving and the wheel falls off, or you’re in the wrong state and you’re supposed to go on in 20 minutes… in these dreams, it’s always The Trunk Space that I’m trying to get to. So even though it’s one of my favorite places to play, I almost felt relieved when it no longer existed because I could tell myself in my dreams, “Hey, it’s all right, the club doesn’t exist anymore so you can just relax.” Now that it’s back, I guess I can toss and turn anew.
You’ve toured heavily over the years as a one-man roadshow. How many gigs has it been since you started out as The Slow Poisoner?
My 500th show is coming up in Chicago. And in those 500 shows, I’ve never missed a gig. Sometimes, I’ll show up and there won’t be a gig anymore cause the place caught fire or something, but I’ve never missed one. And yet I keep having dreams about being in the wrong state …
Being a one-man band, do you ever find that it’s a creative limitation? In the sense that you’re responsible for all the sounds and theatrics for every performance. Do you ever wish you could share that creative burden, or do you prefer being the captain of your own ship?
It’s sort of a blessing and a curse. It’s good because you don’t have to sell the rest of the band on the song. If you decide you want to do a concert record about infectious diseases in the 1920s, there’s no one to stop you. So that’s good news, but it’s also bad news because there’s no one to stop you. In general, it works, 'cause I have kind of a peculiar vision for what I want to do musically and theatrically.
It was really hard to get other members on board. For about eight years, I played with other band members. Prior to these 500 Slow Poisoner shows, I was in a band called The Slow Poisoners. I remember the turning point: There was this one gig we were playing in a bookstore. A friend of mine who was there commented afterward that I was the only one who had dressed up for the gig; everyone else wore what was comfortable. She said, “That’s what my grandma does.” And I started thinking about that, about how my bassist and drummer were behaving like grandmas. I knew at that point my destiny was to perform solo. So if I want to wear nothing but flaming pink Lycra, I would have a band dressed entirely in flaming pink Lycra. No one would be comfortable.
I love that “no grandmas” rule.
Some bands, like jam bands, aspire to that grandma-ness. And that’s beautiful — there’s a place for grandmas in this world. But The Slow Poisoner, it’s just not a grandma act … though there are poisoning grandmas out there. Baking gingerbread cookies and slippin’ something in there so little Jimmy goes into a deep, deep slumber. It happens.
It’s been really fascinating to watch your stage show evolve over the years. I remember first seeing you at Trunk Space with your easel and your cards of art for each song. And then you’d bring out the huge dragon head you’d play inside at Funny World shows, and use a scroll of black velvet paintings to illustrate your songs when you played Lawn Gnome last year. What inspires you to keep adding new elements to your performances?
There are so many ways to tell a story, and I like to keep it fresh. I’ve got different ways to visually express the vibes I’m trying to get across. Currently, I’ve got these large paintings that I display with each song. They’re bigger than the scroll or the old song cards that I used to have. I also got a mask that I’ll wear at one point, and I’ve got a new all-enveloping thing that I’ll be using towards the end — it’s kinda similar to the giant monster heads that used to swallow me in the past.
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Are there any overarching themes to the new songs you’ve been working on?
The more recent stuff has gotten a little political. It’s kinda hard to ignore the surreal shenanigans occurring in Washington. It hasn’t been necessary to look into deep space to find cosmic monsters because they’re right here, living among us.
We live in strange times.
A boon for artists and a curse for all humanity.
Here’s a random macabre question for you: If you could eat the brain of anyone in history and absorb all their knowledge and talents in the process, who would you pick?
A part of me would be tempted to go for an Einstein and get all that amazing physics stuff in my head, but I’d probably opt for Edgar Allan Poe. Even though it’s syphilitic and absinthe-drenched. Just his peculiar, obsessive madness — that would be something I’d like to ingest thoroughly.
The Slow Poisoner will be playing at the DIY Punk Picnic on Saturday, June 17, at The Trunk Space. Tickets are $7.