Portland Entertainment

Just Some Kind of Gadfly, I Guess: A Conversation With Leo Daedalus of The Late Now

Leo Daedalus of The Late Now

If you aren’t familiar with Seattle “constrained” writer Doug Nufer, the late filmmaker Alan Greenberg, or juggler Howard J. Patterson of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, don’t blame Leo Daedalus. As host, producer, and primary writer for the Portland-based avant-variety talk show The Late Now, Leo has interviewed these and dozens of other experimental artists over the last few years before a live and often slightly tipsy audience. If you’ve ever been disappointed by what supposedly passes for fun and intellectual stimulation in the world these days, Leo understands. He’s made it his mission to connect curious audiences with guests outside the cultural mainstream. I sat down for an interview with him a fortnight before the final show of the season at Vie De Boheme this past June 13th. I did my best to put him on the spot right away: “Who is Leo Daedalus?” I asked him.

“In the words of that Chinese dude,” he told me, meaning Chou En Lai, of course – “when asked what he thought of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell. I kind of feel like that’s the case with me, I don’t know. I feel like I’m very much in a limbo space right now. It’s like I’ve managed to make some of this crazy vision happen but it’s still early days, very inchoate. I used to identify as an artist but I kind of am less and less interested in that  – I’m not in necessarily changing the way that I do things but the way I theorize. I think it’s more interesting to think of myself as – just some kind of a gadfly, I guess.”

I asked Leo to describe The Late Now. “Of course, according the official PR, The Late Now is the thinking mammal’s avant-variety talk show. Initially it was conceived to be a kind of Dada intervention on one of the most typical commercial forms there is, which is the late night talk show, and it’s so commercial because especially in recent years it’s just evolved into – you know, all it is is product placement where the products are people. But its origins were a little bit more interesting. You go back to Steve Allen and Jack Paar and television still hadn’t figured out what it was up to, and they thought for a minute there that maybe it could do something that was interesting and a little bit thoughtful and entertaining, and then they realized that that was a losing proposition, to try to do any of those things.

Leo Daedalus

Leo Daedalus

“But my thought was – I’ve always been fascinated by that form for various reasons and I sort of morbidly and naively wondered what would happen if we took that form and tried to use it for something subversive, what I call ‘inconclusive ludic subversion.’ So The Late Now is really an experiment in trying to use that kind of variety in talk form, but instead of bringing to people something they most expect, which is what those shows are trying to do, bring them things they don’t expect, interesting things. So when I started out the idea was that I would have a late night format but the guests would be experimental artists and avant-garde poets and, you know, fakirs of various kinds out of the mainstream, you know the kind of people you aren’t going to get on Livewire or anything else, and it’s evolved into whatever the hell it’s evolved into now.

I asked Leo about his upcoming show. “This is a landmark moment – we are about to do our 30th show and we just passed the third anniversary. So the world premiere – and that’s all caps – was April 21st of 2012, and our June 13th show is going to be the 30th show. Now so some of these so-called shows were pretty small. We did some things at Mother Foucault’s bookshop. One of those shows was actually an attempt to webcast using kind of primitive webcasting software on an iPhone in a place where we literally had to end up doing it with the phone network rather than Wi-Fi because Mother Foucault’s doesn’t have Wi-Fi! So I think that about three people saw that. But it’s still a show! It’s a notch in the belt.”

However, Mother Foucault’s is just one of many venues that have hosted the show so far. “About a year and a half ago we started having a regular home,” Leo tells me. “That was at Din Din, and then we grew out of that, and we’ve been at Vie de Boheme for most of the last year. Before that we did things like – well, the very first show was at Performance Works NW – and big ups to Linda Austin and PWNW, a really great phenomenon that! – and then we did all kinds of strange things. We did a John Cage kind of music circus kind of thing at PNCA, we did some bookshop things. We turned an invitation to do a reading in a downtown park in Portland into a show and so there’s a lot of sort of catch as catch can kind of weird little venues. Some regular theaters –  we even did a show in Seattle at West of Lenin.

“And then in mid-2013 i got a call which to me seemed the craziest idea ever, which was that they had heard of the The Late Now and did we want to do a show there in the restaurant, and at the time that seemed that just the craziest idea ever, doing the show in a restaurant, so of course I said yes and I wondered how the hell we we going to do this, and it we called it Dada dinner theater and it was kind of great. And that’s what inspired then making it at an eatery after that, and that’s what’s going on now. I don’t know what the future of that holds – I think that we’re going to need a larger venue and we don’t have a lot of several hundred seat dinner theater venues in town so I don’t know, we’ll see.”

When I asked Leo to tell me about the other folks who work on the Late Now, he broke into a huge smile. “Alex Reagan is America’s favorite high-altitude co-host – that is title-case with a little ‘register’ symbol at the end of that. (It’s not actually registered but, you know.) And of course he sits in the very tall red chair. That came out of the idea – well, I was thinking about how co-hosts for these things on the whole tend to have kind of low status. I mean you know Johnny Carson was pretty abusive to Ed McMann and Letterman – there’s certainly no love lost between him and Paul Schaefer –  and even at best when they seem to pretty much buddies, the co-host’s main job seems to be to warm-up the guest seat and then get out of the way. So I said let’s do the reverse and elevate the co-host, and that’s why Alex sits in basically a six-foot high life guard chair. We thought we’d just make him high status. And lately, in turns that will amuse all the kids, he’s been portraying various 20th century dictators and monarchs up there, and that’s kind of fun for the whole family.

“And the band is Three for Silver – kind of a variation – I call it the Three for Silver edited for television edition, the core being Lucas Warford, who plays wonderful bass objects and a lot of other things and sings… and Willo Sertain who is a great singer, and also plays the accordion and Greg Allison, who is a phenomenal violinist and mandolin player. We always have a drummer, and that’s usually Charles Pike whenever we can get him involved. Lucas is very much my musical director and we brainstorm what kinds of songs we want to do. I usually like to do one or two or three songs myself, so then if we have  guests who are musical they’ll participate and there’s usually some kind of participation with the band also, and Lucas pretty much orchestrates most of that stuff. They’re great – just phenomenal musicians – I think i once called them a 90’s band and I meant the 90’s of all the recent centuries. It’s because – they’re not a very 1990’s band but I heard Lucas play his bass banjo in this incredible 90’s slap mode one time and that just captured my fancy.”

I went on to ask Leo to describe the typical audience for a show. “I guess pretty varied in the Portland sense of that. I mean they tend to be educated, kind of on the sort of nerdy intellectual end of the spectrum, but an irreverent audience. But they’re pretty varied, the age ranges pretty widely. I’m not surprised to find people of nearly any age there. I wish it was more than basically middle income white progressive Portlanders. I would love to see that shift up but that’s kind of a Portland issue as well. But they’re great, they’re pretty much game for everything. To put it in non-demographic terms, they are people who actually want to go out and be surprised because, for one thing, it’s not very clear what The Late Now is. There are throughlines and similarities but the shows vary quite a bit as well so you never quite know what is going to happen. It varies from tones of absurdity to sometimes poignancy – especially with the music – to serious conversation in the interviews so there’s a very wide range of stuff and it never quite looks like anything else so people are up to be surprised. People are curious.

“When I first conceived of the show the thought was the show I want to see doesn’t exist, so I’ll have to do it. In fact I was having a conversation with a friend an experimental poet friend and I was talking about how I was looking for the right venue to perform in, and I really didn’t know if that thing existed, and she said you’re not going to find the right venue you just have to make it. And so The Late Now is what NPR ought to be or even what mainstream media ought to be, which is fostering curiosity, fostering critical thinking, fostering experiment, but you know, that’s very far off the mark from what commercial media is, and frankly I think that over the years NPR has evolved into – to use [author – ed.] Curtis White’s term – this kind of ‘middle mind’ thing – it’s just like bubble gum. I feel as empty as the end of half an hour of listening to NPR in the car – because I’ve got nothing better to do except watch the road – I feel as empty after half an hour of watching that as I do watching commercial television, pretty much.”

I remarked on how each time I’ve seen the show, Leo seemed to go out of his way to make the audience members there feel included. It turns out this isn’t an accident. “The inclusivity is really important to me. I think we live in such a thoroughly anti-intellectual country. I was at a symphony recently and they played something just kind of out of the super mainstream and it was like a hundred years old. And instead of just presenting it they apologized as if they were serving people vegetables and it was kind of an ‘eat your greens’ speech that the director gave at the top, and I was really kind of disgusted by that. To present those things and then indulge that anti-intellectualism and then say we’re sorry we’re doing something a little different here is something that’s in exactly the wrong spirit. That’s why I call it ‘inconclusive ludic subversion.’ I want people to enjoy themselves that it’s kind of not until later that they realize we’ve been tackling some sort of difficult philosophical topic.”

In closing, I asked Leo what he had planned after the June 13th show. “The most fascinating thing is always the future. The Late Now has gathered a certain amount of momentum and it’s done that in a very organic way. I’m not a very strategic guy and I kind of do what’s interesting to me but The Late Now has a little bit of name recognition in town and has gotten a little media coverage, mostly without us trying. I’m looking forward to leveraging our core competencies for impactful synergies in the marketplace, and that should probably be in italics and quotes and underlines in some kind of black letter font. But yeah I’m looking forward to taking it to a larger venue. We are selling out and people keep asking me about the possibility of some kind of broadcast kind thing because it’s live – you catch it live in person or you lose –  and we’re so hoping to do something broadcasty in the coming year or so.”

In the meantime, you can look forward to catching The Late Now this fall at Portland’s Vie de Boheme. I, for one, will definitely be there. As to whether Leo Daedalus’ efforts will ultimately make the world a little better or not, one thing is certain: it’s too soon to tell.

Thomas Dietzel – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor 

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