There's a song on Tagyerit's latest album, Shimmer, that gets to the heart of many of Rich and Flo Newman's favorite things. It's called "Neat Junk," and it's a musical manifestation of, as they say, "the collecting mentality."
The song is propelled by a skipping beat that is hard to avoid calling "peppy." Rich Newman's fat bass tones rumble beneath. Flo Newman's vocals lead the proceedings: "Here I'm piling my collection/ my neat junk—all my nifty stuff/… mermaid shaped swizzle sticks/ lagoon creature model kit/ dolls dressed like nuns and brides/ Jetson Viewmaster slides/ Crackerjacks—prize inside."
It's hard to peg this music—it's got moments that invoke jam band languor, others that seem like art rock precision, and a strange, wonderful playfulness of a brand that is unique to Tagyerit.
The duo's musical cousins are few—Eugene Chadbourne and Camper van Beethoven come to mind, but only sort of—and nearly everything created by Tagyerit ends up in the rarefied territory of truly inspired originality. Flo nails sometimes-jagged intervals to craft surprising melodies, and her guitar playing—delivered on a rabbit-shaped guitar she carved herself—often seems unhinged from ready expectations.
The combination of all those elements is a sort of children's music for the kind of youngster who can dig Captain Beefheart, or perhaps music for adults who like to eat Count Chocula while listening to Talking Heads.
In part, that's because of a central fact: "We're not a band—we're songwriters," says Flo.
Partly because they aren't really a band, they appear only on record, never live, although in the past, Flo performed as a more folk-oriented singer/songwriter.
Her folk ways didn't quite work for Rich. "We were in college and Flo was into precision—she wanted it to sound a certain way—and I was a jammer," he says. "That never worked."
"We never played together at all," adds Flo. "We were married right out of college, and all those years we never played together."
In the '80s, they decided to give it a try. "At that point, I was actually ready to learn a song from beginning to end," says Rich. Flo gave up her acoustic playing in favor of electric, crafting her rabbit-shaped guitar with the help of Valley luthier William Cumpiano.
The results of their playing together have been extraordinarily well received from the start. "This stuff sounds normal to me," says Flo, "but all these reviewers—one of them literally said, 'This is from another planet!'"
"It's not so out out there," says Rich. "It's actually pop, but it's not what you hear on the radio."
"It's really interesting writing songs with somebody else," says Flo. "[Rich] comes up with these really wild lyrics, and he comes up with some great melodies, which he's not really able to communicate."
"I can't sing!" says Rich.
"He writes down the notes in tablature for me and then I have to learn the notes that he's hearing in his head," Flo says.
Because Tagyerit's music is apparently extraterrestrial, people sometimes find it surprising that when they record, the two employ as producer one of the Valley's best practitioners of traditional blues: Ed Vadas.
Rich says, "He knows more about performance than probably anybody else in the Valley that I know of. More than a musician, he's a performer. He'll make suggestions, but ultimately, it's our call."
Flo says she's been friends with Vadas since 1970. "Ed and I ran coffeehouses together. Ed started the Blue Wall at UMass—most people don't know that," she says. And when it comes to producing, "He's blunt, honest and working for the best thing he can."
"First we come up with the songs," says Rich. "We come up with the arrangement and record it and we hand it to him and he goes, 'All right. Now let's take it apart and put it back together again.' When we bring something to him, we think, 'Oh, we have something here—we'll start recording soon. But it turns out it's another year by the time we've reshaped. Well, songs don't reshape so much as they just get fine-tuned."
When the songs make it to the studio, a drummer joins the mix. And that in particular presents extra challenges.
"Our music messes up drummers a lot because I have these very strange guitar parts," says Flo. "Piano was my first instrument when I was really young and so I see the guitar somewhat horizontally, I think."
"But also you don't really count 4/4," says Rich. "You play 4/4 90 percent of the time, but then you want to change it up or something, so you'll add an extra note. That'll trip anybody up!"
Flo says Vadas and recording engineer Greg Steele sometimes find her highly personal sense of timing entertaining. "I finish the part and I look at them, and they're just trying to hold it together," she says. "They shut the soundboard off and then they just are laughing their asses off. They say, 'What was that? What culture was that music from?'"
"She's been practicing this part for anywhere from weeks to years," says Rich. "In her mind, it's normal already."
Flo is easygoing about changing her parts. "Sometimes it's really hard. But you know, there are some songs from our earlier records—I didn't let go of some certain parts that I dug in my heels on or something, and I think it kind of messed up the song," she says. "Because everything is for the integrity of the song. You want your song to get across."
"There are places in these songs we spent hours fighting over, and to this day, none of us can tell you what part we were fighting over or who won," adds Rich.
Flo says, "Wait a minute—you said none of them. I'm a Scorpio—I remember some of it. I said to my niece and nephew, 'You know, your uncle and I have been married a long time, but if there's ever a divorce, it's going to be over one beat.'"
For the Newmans, music is but one outgrowth of a playful mindset. The Newmans' house, for instance, is a wonderland of sorts. Their kitchen is a bright shade of green tempered by the warmth of wood, much of which they carved themselves. A carved tree covers what would be an exposed pipe and spreads out along the walls. Look closely at that tree or in almost any other direction, and you'll find niches, nooks and shelves full of little figures and toys. In the wrong hands, all of that stuff could create a grand mess. But here, as in the Newmans' music, what could be a tangle is instead an unusually ordered series of layers, each of which rewards a closer look.
A major aspect of Rich and Flo Newman's "Neat Junk" (though it doesn't appear in the actual song) is one that gives new meaning to the word "ephemera": the couple's toilet paper collection. The collection has been featured in local media, and now has gone national through the Smithsonian Channel, which came to the couple's house to film them and their yards of bog roll.
The unusual collection began, Rich explains, quite a while back with a basic notion. "One of the reasons we started collecting toilet paper was because, when you have a collecting mentality, you start to look at the value of everything, and we decided we wanted to collect something that had no value. We were throwing around ideas of things that had no value, and toilet paper was the bottom of the list—or the top of the list, depending on which way you look at it."
"We started collecting places," says Flo. "People would say, 'What can we bring you,' and I'd say a couple of sheets of toilet paper, from Czechoslovakia or wherever."
The Newmans' friends took the pair's new habit pretty seriously.
"We got some from mid-flight over the Atlantic," says Flo.
"Somebody found a piece of dotted Swiss toilet paper in Switzerland," adds Rich.
They then went occupational, getting examples of the papers of choice from a train engineer, a tug boat captain, and even a rear admiral. More categories followed, to the point that the total specimen count was around 800. Now, with the addition of collections others have donated, their estimated total is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000.
After three decades of collecting, the Newmans know a thing or two about toilet paper. "European toilet paper was like wax paper, crepe paper," says Flo, "and we've watched it change since 1978, when we started collecting."
"It's becoming more homogenous now," Rich adds.
They demur slightly when it comes to the ultimate qualitative question: Where is the softest toilet paper found?
"The people in England are nuts over Andrex toilet paper," Flo says.
For the Newmans, collecting is about more than just obtaining different kinds of paper, and their friends' travelling habits and brushes with fame have offered them some unusual scores. They are fairly certain, for instance, that they own the world's largest collection of toilet paper from Buddhist monasteries. A construction crew in Seattle sent them paper from a former brothel. One friend went cross-country procuring select samples from outhouses.
They own a roll from 1915, and catalogues produced strictly for bathroom employment. ("Sit in comfart," says one). A World War II catalogue includes propaganda messages, and even invites one to wipe with Hitler.
Their elevation of the ultimate item of non-value has also turned up or inspired a good few items of unique value: "A local poet who wishes to remain anonymous—we'll call her 'Nova Scotia doggy mom'—wrote an entire poem across paper," says Flo. "Somebody [else] found a journal. They were at a campsite renting a cabin. The people who were there before them had written a whole journal on the toilet paper. They left it in our mailbox. What else are they going to do with these things?"
Perhaps it was inevitable that the collection eventually incorporated celebrity paper as the Newmans' friends went to greater lengths. "It was like an adventure hunt to get a celebrity's signature," Flo says. "How could they approach a celebrity without being total dorks about it?"
They've collected something yet more ephemeral as a result: loads of stories. Some of those stories have prompted their helpers to hide behind code names. "Some people have bribed reporters to get close to [famous] people in order to get me toilet paper—bribed them with… various things," Flo says. "Some of this is down and dirty toilet paper collecting."
Sneaky or even shady methods have been employed to gain them quite a number of big names scrawled on paper or paper from the homes of famous people. The list includes lesser-knowns—a New England Patriots cheerleader, a female astronaut, a grip from Law and Order, and even "an ex-porn star who sings the blues, named Candy Cane." The big-name list is impressive, too, as just a few of the signatures reveal: Ram Dass, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Al Franken, Penn and Teller, Jim Jarmusch, David Lynch, Sharon Stone, Woody Allen (who wrote, "Why this?"), and John Turturro. Musicians who've contributed include Robert Plant, Joan Jett, Leon Russell, Patty Larkin, Melissa Etheridge, Little Stephen van Zandt and Noel Redding, among many more.
Good stories abound in all those little squares. When Flo herself collected Robert Fripp's signature, he folded it over as he handed it to her. She checked it out later—"He had signed 'Brian Eno.'" And a score from Martha Stewart's house revealed some remarkable intel: she reportedly uses white single-ply.
The stories just keep unrolling. The world the Newmans craft has plenty of interesting ways in, and each of them leads before long to an intersecting set of concerns, objects, stories and songs, an inviting flood of colorful creations. Rich and Flo nail it in "Neat Junk" when Flo sings: "Ignore half of what I say/ the truth is I love to play."
You can check out Tagyerit's music, toilet paper collection and plenty more at http://www.tagyerit.com.