SUDDENLY, TAMMY!: Beth Sorrentino and Ken Heitmueller

The Wayward Bus
Hearsay #15 / 1997 / Email interview with Neil and Ewen


"I can still be caught grinning at my 45-only RCA changer, pounding from one bubblegum hit to the next with mechanical, reckless abandon."

Being the continuing adventures of SUDDENLY, TAMMY!, our intrepid trio from Lancaster, PA and one of Hearsay's favourite bands to emerge in the 90s. Currently finalising their third album (due in the autumn), bassist Ken Heitmueller and singer-pianist Beth Sorrentino melded in cyberspace with editor Ewen and editor Neil, both of whom solemnly pledged not to ask the band 'isn't it odd to have no guitars In your line-up?' (A: no, it's not) or 'how did you come by that curious name?' (A: Beth's uncharacteristic and over-zealous experimentation with trowel-applied make-up once led to a gradual and eerie resemblance to Tommy 'If Life Gives You Lemons Make Lemonade' Faye Bakker. This explanation bemused Laurie Anderson who asked the band, 'don't you think that would be Eventually, Tammy?' Beth: 'Whatever you say—you're Laurie Anderson! You're God!)

HEARSAY: What kind of a place is Lancaster, PA? How was it to grow up in? And nowadays, what kind of a place is it to be in a band in? (bad grammar)

BETH SORRENTINO: Lancaster, PA is famous for its Amish culture; there is a lot of beautiful farmland, which is unfortunately being developed too quickly and turned into malls and houses with no trees. However, it is the birthplace of the pretzel, and is home to two chocolate factories and lots of flea markets. There is a lot of music here with many bands (the innocence mission, Live etc.). I suppose it's a little more conducive to focusing on one's music, which helped us create our sound.

KEN HEITMUELLER: Yes, there is also a lot of bad grammar here. Jay and Beth were born in Pittsburgh, PA, I was bom in Lancaster. It was a very segregated, sheltered place to come up in. We may be fairly close to the coast and NYC but it's definitely 'Middle America': lots of tractor pulls, Harley rallies, pigeon shoots, Klan gatherings... As a child I had what I now refer to as a 'bad Lancaster accent.' People say 'wooder' for water and 'warsh' for wash. Jay still says 'melk' for milk, although most people around say 'mee-ook' for that word. It's a good place to be a band, in some ways. Rehearsal space is cheap. It's a good place to get cool old instruments and recordings because most people don't know what they have, and give it up for a song - no pun intended. And, of course, there's always Jay's and my recording studio, CHURCHBOX, to come to to record.  (Oops, plug.) On the downside, there aren't a lot of good places to play, with the exception of the Historic Blue Star and Chameleon Club of which I was an employee of for six years.

Is there any arcane significance behind the school bus motif on the sleeve of We Get There When We Do?

Beth: The school bus graphics always catch my eye - bright yellow, big numbers, plain and simple and clean. What goes on inside is a different story - I sometimes felt intimidated by the other kids and the feeling of being shuttled around with them.

Ken: I was often beaten up by the other kids on the bus. It's ironic to me to have that image on the cover because it almost feels like a little sweet revenge to those rotten kids, who I'm sure are now just rotten adults (probably with their own rotten kids) with crappy jobs and think that we've achieved some kind of impossible dream having a record out etc. I'm sure I sound a bit bitter, but I don't care. I would not be the person I am today if I hadn't undergone some of the bullshit I did, growing up. The funniest thing is when I see those people, and they're nice to me. They say, 'Hey, Dude. How's it going? I saw your band in the paper. We sure had a good time back then... blah, blah, blah...' And I want to say, 'NO, FUCKFACEI We didn't! You used to hit me in the back of the head with your gym bag and call me "FAGGOT!" FUCK OFF!'

Your ownership of and involvement with the Cat Box and Churchbox studios implies the technical side of making music is as important to you as the artistic side. Which comes first? Do the two roles feel separate or is one a natural extension of the other?

Beth: The two seem to go hand in hand; Jay and Ken have always recorded our music, first in Ken's basement (the Catbox) and that grew into the studio at the church - I think it was a desire to capture the truest, best recorded form of our music.

Ken: I've actually always been interested in the technical side of music. In fact I was involved in that before I ever played an instrument. At age three I would sit, for hours, and watch records play – FASCINATING! On my eighth birthday I was given one of those rectangular, office-style, Panasonic cassette recorders. I ran around recording everything. My parents could hardly keep me in C-cells and three­-for-a-dollar K-mart blank tapes. I can still be caught grinning at my 45-only RCA changer, pounding from one bubblegum hit to the next with mechanical, reckless abandon. To me playing music and the mechanics of music are inseparable. I guess I see playing music or recording music as an excuse to do the other.

We love the way your music seems to allow a lot of improvisation within a certain structure... do you have a method when it comes to songwriting? Is it primarily a three-way collaborative affair or do you each work on separate parts and bring them to the rest of the band? Are the lyrics exclusively Beth's department?

Beth: Usually we get together and play and many songs grow out of listening; sometimes I bring some ideas I've sketched out on the piano and sometimes with lyrics - many times an idea will grow out of having all of the instruments together and the music just 'clicks' together.

Ken: I'd say that the lyrics are exclusively Beth's department. Her words are always somewhat autobiographical and I'd never presume to put words into her mouth.

Two other notable bands who manage pretty well without guitars - Morphine and Ben Folds Five - seem heavily jazz-influenced. Has jazz been a big influence on ST? Do you all listen to similar things? And do you have any current recommendations for us?

Beth: Personally, I've developed a taste for jazz over the last few years, although I grew up with jazz records (Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck) mixed up with the Doobie Brothers, Chicago, Carole King, Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Billy Joel - all kinds of stuff. Our band seems to reflect some of all of that from time to time, including more current music - I listened to a lot of Kate Bush in the 80s. Right now I recommend Young Chet (Chet Baker) and I'm listening to Elton John's Greatest Hits (with Rocket Man, Goodbye Yellow Brick Road...); the best.

Ken: Have you noticed how Beth over-uses hyphens and semicolons and I over-use all-caps and exclamation points? (We both overuse parentheses (well maybe a little (JUST a little!))).

Personally, I claim little from jazz. Although I own more jazz recordings than the average jazz fan, I know so little about the genre. I know enough to claim that it's probably the most difficult music to be good at - yes, even more than classical music. To be a good classical musician requires mostly athletic dedication. Rock requires mostly that you really mean what you're doing, even if you suck. Jazz requires music knowledge, innate or schooled, skilled playing with finesse, and style. I'm very flattered when people make jazz references to Suddenly, Tammy!

I've always listened to all kinds of stuff. Lately I've been listening to Old Pop on 45's: Jackson Five, Tempta­tions (Psychedelic Shack, that bass vocalist is sooo low that it's hard to believe he's human!), Gilbert O'Sullivan, Buddah records stuff (Tommy Roe, Ohio Express, 1910 Fruitgum Co. ), the Beatles, the Association, et al. This stuff is best heard, not only on vinyl, but on 45 rpm if you can find them (see question one). Forget 'Newly Remastered!', 'Digital Quality!' CD reissues. Avoid the LPs. This stuff is about feel, vibe, catchiness. The mixes on the 45s are usually drier (less reverb) with louder rhythm sections. Forget the new 45 rpm reissues as well. They are cut too quietly, usually from the album mix and, YECHH, were probably DIGITALLY stored at one point! Also, the more worn the better (within reason). There's nothing munchier than a snare drum on a single that's been played 100 times. Sorry to ramble, but check this out. It defines 'FAT'. PHAT!! I'm not completely a retro listener, though.

My vaguely current favourites have been: The Innocence Mission's Glow and His Name is Alive's Stars on E.S.P. I can't hear or say enough about them. If you like Stereolab, please check out HNIA. I think that if I started a band from scratch, I'd probably just rip them off! I've also been liking Doctor Rocket - The Music of Sound, L@N, Aphex Twin and Musique. They are techno? I'm not really clear on all those different genres of new electronic stuff. I've been listening to the electronic pioneers for quite some time now. During the course of this typing I've played: Karlheinz Stockhausen - Hymnen (an electro-concert piece composed of National Anthems of the world); Walter/Wendy Carlos's Clockwork Orange Soundtrack; George Crumb - Music for a Summer Evening and Makrokosmos III (not electronic, but pushing the limits of the small orchestra). I've tinkered around with electronic music and may put some tapes out some day. I also like Exotica (Denny, Esquivel, Gold, Schory, Hymen), classical music from the 1860s to the present (Debussy, Satie, Copland, Bartok, Vaughan Williams); true ethnic music (African, Asian, Middle Eastern); soundtracks (Mancini, Hermann, Goldsmith, Indian film soundtracks).

Your self-titled debut album was tightly packed and highly chromatic. The follow-up seems more tranquil somehow and perhaps more structured. Was this deliberate? Was it anything to do with the move to a major label or the introduction of an outside producer? Or perhaps working in a concentrated burst in a professional studio rather than working at home over a long period?

Beth: Probably all of that is true. I don't really hear the album as 'tranquil', but that's probably lack of objectivity! River, Run is certainly quiet, but Hard Lesson always makes me a little hyper. Working at Bearsville was a departure from home; I think the sound of the album reflects the whole experience.

Why did you choose Warne Livesey as producer and what was he able to bring to the project? Was his role to 'realise' your ideas or did he add something new to the creative process?

Beth: Mostly because of his enthusiasm for the music – he was concerned about keeping the band 'organic' – keeping the three-piece sound clean; using acoustic pianos; more of a 'live' sound. We worked very closely with him, but his influence does come across on the album.

Suddenly Tammy's lyrics always seem alluringly oblique and more about specific imagery and particular moods rather than telling a straightfor­ward story with concrete meaning. Do you find things in everyday life which inspire you to write songs or do you prefer to tackle more abstract themes and ideas through specific angles? The theme of uneven relationships or power seems to appear fairly frequently... is this a theme that particularly interests you (or are we clutching at straws here)?

Beth: Things in everyday life became abstract themes for me. Something that seems to be so 'normal' (a ride in the car, a talk with my mom) can turn into very strange mixed imagery in my mind – relationships and the problems within are always being sorted out in my lyrics.

Ken: Knowing Beth, I clearly see what many of her lyrics are about. Sometimes the meaning is very clear. She is not too literal, however, with her words. The things she sings about often seem to have a multilayered meaning. This allows for many interpretations and people often apply her words to their own situations.

And there's a kind of dream-like, hallucinatory –sometimes even vaguely unsettling – quality to lots of the songs (Mt Rushmore, Bound Together, Beautiful Dream etc). Do dreams and/or nightmares influence you? Do you feel lost when you're asleep and found when you're awake, or is it vice versa?

Beth: For me, many dreams are clues, sometimes, to things that bother me during my waking hours sometimes (I guess) I suppress thoughts about disturbing issues, and a lot of my 'bad' dreams leave me with many questions and images, which seem to unfold sometimes only when I play music, accounting for the lyrics, possibly.

Ken: Sometimes Beth drives when she sleeps – a sleepdriver.

What images unfolded on the Cine film you sat down to watch In the middle of your first album? Do you have any favourite films or directors and do they influence your writing?

Beth: I don't remember what movie that was; Ken had his projector running. He shows movies in his yard over the summer. I have many favourite films – 2001 is a great movie to watch outside in the dark on Ken's lawn! I also love Hitchcock films and Searching for Bobby Fischer [UK title: Innocent Moves] is one of my favourites.

Ken: I think it was The Cat in the Hat by Dr Seuss. It's the Lancaster Public library's copy and is now half splicing tape. Every few seconds the action jumps ahead like a skipping record. I recorded the sound from that film, with that first tape recorder, as a child. It was splicey then. When I borrowed that same print fifteen years later, I recognized the locations where the music skips from the 15-year-old splices – and noticed it to be much more dashed up since then. I don't think people realize that a print of a half-hour 16mm film costs about $500 to replace. Soon, that Seuss will be only 15 minutes long! It makes me sad that kids today won't know that SOUND! That lovely purring of the Bell and Howell Filmosound in the back of a darkened classroom. It puts our Beth right to sleep.

We were interested to read somewhere that Beth nearly went to Boston to study music theatre. Music theatre often seems an inherently conservative genre in stark contrast to the oblique atmosphere, lyrics and music of S,T. Do you feel any affinity with the great composers of musicals? Do you think the music of Suddenly, Tammy! would produce something wonderful and original on Broadway?

Beth: I did go to the Boston Conservatory, and did study musical theatre for two years. As 'tap dancing' was my biggest credit in my sophomore year, I decided to move on. I grew up with many musical soundtracks: Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Annie, Evita. Broadway would be interesting. Why not?

Ken: 'Isn't it ironic? It's like having a shoe, but not having a foot...' (Beth's adaptation...)

What acts of profligacy would the Great British Public have to perform in order to persuade you to play in the UK again?

Beth: Just invite us, We'd be thrilled.

Ken: I would like it, too. I once wiped out the left side of a brand new Vauxhall Astra with 75 miles on it, on an old stone wall. The rental company said, 'It's okay, most Americans do that.' It was teal, anyway.

Who would play each of you in the TV movie of the Suddenly Tammy! Story?

Beth: KEN: Himself (or Luke Perry); JAY: Antonio Banderas or Mike Myers; BETH: Melissa Gilbert

Ken: KEN: Wesley Willis; JAY: Beth; BETH: Jay

Have you got there yet?

Beth: No, not yet.

Ken: Under where?

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