Consider hits from The Strokes, only imagine them catchier, less faded and with vocals not nearly as strained or affected. Consider that the musicians also make art—like Lansing Dreiden, but without the shroud of mystery or lofty price tags. Pass Kontrol, the four-person Brooklyn-based art collective, has a do-it-yourself aesthetic without the chipped shoulders that often come with the territory. The group has played at locals such as Lit, Arlene’s Grocery, Southpaw, and Pete’s Candy Store. But their latest project, a post-apocalyptic rock-and-roll play entitled New Hope City, unfolds closer to home at the Bushwick Starr Feb. 11-27. The play follows the lives of three dudes and a half- robot/half-dude as they broadcast pirate radio on the fringes of an incorporated society. I caught up with Oliver Ralli over the phone.
Eliza Bent (Rail): Ok, so I see from the materials you sent me that Pass Kontrol is responsible for something called Fart Beer?
Oliver Ralli: It’s a product we made. In the future it’s sold all over New Hope City. We were thinking, “What would be a ridiculous beer that would make a lot of money and appeal to the lowest common denominator?” So we came up with “Fart Beer” and shot a commercial on Tony’s roof for it and told a ton of friends to come dressed as “future prep jocks.” Now it’s all throughout the play. We also have commercials for meatlumps, bread lumps, noodle product, and cheese product. In the future the world runs on mood enhancers—basically prescription drugs for any kind of mood you want to have.
Rail: Tell me more about the play.
Ralli: It started off with us telling stories from a future world and cracking jokes. It became an outlet to process living in New York City, which is so fast paced and doesn’t quite leave you time to process the absurdity and insanity of it all. So this was a way to recontextualize the world and make one of our own. Books like 1984 and Brave New World have influenced us.
Rail: I was going to ask if you drew inspiration from those books!
Ralli: I’ve always really loved dystopian books and stories because they have great insight into our world now. So this play is a way to engage with that.
Rail: So, there’s a narrative?
Ralli: Yeah, the story starts out after these Oil and Water Wars. MediaCorps is a guise to make it seem like there are more choices in the world, but really they have built franchise cities full of products and mood enhancers. There are a bunch of “New Hope Cities” all around the world, like Mid-Atlantic New Hope City, Middle Western Belt (Chicago), and Euro Express (Paris). Then there are Outskirts which are shabby shanty towns and beyond that there’s just industrial nastiness. My character lives in the Outskirts and works at the “Rarty Room,” a mood enhancer retailer in Cultureberg, a hip area within New Hope City. My character and his buddy hop a freight train to the Middle Western Belt where things are a lot looser and they go in search for Visser Matron 3000 a half-man/half-robot who used to be a pop star named Chaz Rickles. MediaCorps wanted him to pump out hit after hit, so they turned him into a robot, but now he’s lucid and makes weird trippy music. The other characters want to return him to broadcasting and they cobble together an illegal transmitter. Originally we wanted to shoot a short film but it didn’t work out. So we decided to put on a play.
Rail: Is this the first time you’re presenting the play?
Ralli: We developed it at Space/Space two years ago and it was great. Friends helped us out. The whole things was SUPER low budget—we had clip lights attached to power strips.
Rail: I’ve gotta ask—where does your funding come from? You distribute free CDs and whatnot—is it all “do-it-yourself”?
Ralli: Yeah it’s all out of pocket but it doesn’t cost that much money! We just burn the CDs on our computers. You can get a roll of 100 CDs for 15 bucks. And the packaging is in paper with a stapler. So yes our aesthetic is very “do-it yourself.” We don’t worry about any kind of slick product. We just want to get it out there and share it. It’s not like we’re spending that much money on fancy clothes or electronics. If an idea is there and has spirit then that will always come through.
Rail: Are you playing fan favorites or are there new songs for the show?
Ralli: We created a lot of new music for it, but we’re also are using songs from our repertoire. At the end of the show there’s a live broadcast where we play a few songs. But there is original mood music throughout and film stuff that we’ve made like the Fart Beer commercials.
Rail: How would you describe your music? I want to compare you to the Strokes?
Ralli: [Laughter] I’d say we make Rock-and-Roll. A lot of people hear other influences. We love so many kinds of music. Our B sides have drum machines and synthesizers. But we’re also influenced by Americana, new wave, and soul.
Rail: Is it entirely ensemble written and directed?
Ralli: The collective came up with the stories together when we hang out. We’d be drinking beers and start talking it out more or less. The whole show is more or less improvised. We have certain scenes we know we want to hit and what information needs to get out but there’s no script. I find it a really comfortable way to work. That way no one worries about messing up lines.
New Hope City runs Feb. 11-13, 18-20 and 25-27 at the Bushwick Starr, 207 Starr St. For more information, please visit passkontrol.net.
Despite popular misconception, Eliza Bent is neither a vegetarian nor a Park Slope resident. She eats meat and lives in Soho and goes to school for playwriting at Brooklyn College. In her spare time, she's an editor at American Theatre magazine.