The unknown is, invariably, a bit shit. How many times, after all, can you genuinely say that you’ve gone to a gig and been absolutely blown away by the support? How many times have you picked up a record completely arbitrarily and been astonished, ravished, even just a little bit moved by what you’ve heard the first time round, once you’ve got past the intriguing artwork that inspired your purchase? How many times have you been dragged by your alarmingly minor label-literate chum to see a band with only nine profile-views on their myspace, and actually enjoyed yourself, actually seen something remarkable for anything beyond, I don’t know, its novelty or, dare I say it, innovation? Once? Twice? If it’s any more than three times, you’re either over-forgiving, over-enthusiastic, too easily impressed, very lucky or you’ve got too much time on your hands.
Still, the Edinburgh Fringe sells itself upon the appeal of the unknown; the proverbial thrill of the cultural chase; the fervent desire, eerily prominent in every self-satisfied quasi-beatnik, to stumble upon that most revered of artistic commodities, the elusive hidden gem. And every year, thanks to an intoxicating amalgamation of a genuine (albeit increasingly debased) anything goes policy, blind faith and an unimaginable actual volume of performance (if you throw three hundred and seventy eight trillion pieces ‘experimental’ student drama at a wall, it’d be a bit weird if two or three didn’t stick) it does manage to conjure up a couple of bona-fide triumphs; a veritable tidal wave of wank, yes, but also one or two things which make wading through all the stale semen a remotely justifiable way to spend the best part of the month of July. This year, in fact, there were three: a play about Battenberg-obsessed children; another play about an English boy and an Italian girl comprehensively failing to communicate; and Patti Plinko and her Boy.
Patti Plinko is a ukulele-wielding, cigarette-bumming, Dresden Dolls-pleasing, voicebox-redefining English Rose who screams, grunts and cackles her way through Ella Fitzgerald, Tom Waits and Leadbelly covers, alongside Cave/Piaf/Harvey et al-esque murder ballads of her own design, in a way that is simultaneously both extraordinarily brutal and inordinately lovely. Her Boy is a post-apocalyptic, guitar-raping, cardboard gun-wielding musical sociopath, who wears a jumpsuit and a gasmask. All the time. Together, they sound like George Formby’s rotting carcass trying its darndest to seduce Björk with little more than a broken absinthe bottle and an effigy of Nick the Stripper.
How desperately pretentious, you cry, aghast!
But you’d be wrong to. Because Patti Plinko and Her Boy are also really fucking good at what they do. Unlike the superabundance of post-Edward Scissorhands cabaret/burlesque/vaudeville/sexanddeath-by-numbers bollocks that is currently saturating and strangling the life out of every artistic platform willing to give the time of day to students obsessed with the ‘cleverness’ of ‘dark fairytales’ (and by God, did said superabundance make itself known on the streets of Scotland’s fair capital this summer), they somehow succeed in over and over again transcending the rather melodramatic reference points that they allude to so unashamedly. Indeed, it is out of the joy, originality and integrity of their approach to, and interrogation of the subjects so often lazily and generally referred to by contemporary artists as ‘influence’ – Eastern European cinema, Jacques Brel, Berlin etc. etc. etc. – that their genius is born. Well, that and Patti’s astonishing voice.
Would have been a shame not to talk to them when I had the chance, then, wouldn’t it. Fortunately, I managed both to cigarette-roll my way into their dressing-room, and convince them to talk to me instead of going to see Henry Rollins do some spoken word (I know, terrifying thought isn’t it). And as I tucked into their cheap Scotch, they were as warm, forthcoming and engaging in their answers as it seems only ‘unknown’ artists are capable of being.
I asked them first about what it’s like playing as ‘theatrical’ (in every sense of the word) a festival as the Fringe as musicians, as opposed to, say, actors, or performance artists. “We’ve always had a crossover with theatre,” Patti replied. “In fact, when we were playing regularly in London, it was always the other way around. We were the weird, freaky ones trying to fit in at acoustic nights. I’ve always thought of music as theatrical – just look at Bowie. And when we write music, we kind of approach it like it’s a theatre score. But it’s not conscious.” “When you have music, but you can also add something to it, why not do that?” the Boy added. “Playing ‘nice’ comes last for us – it’s much more about other things.” Are they not in danger of pigeon-holing themselves, though? “Maybe a little bit,” Patti smiled. “But there is room for crossover – just look at the Dresdens, or even Björk. We do tour the Fringes at the moment, but that doesn’t mean it has to stay like that.”
I turned conversation towards the fact that artists within the ‘theatrical music’ genre often rely heavily upon the vampish cover-version. How important is original songwriting, then, to Patti Plinko and her Boy? “Massive,” the Boy replied, immediately. “Otherwise what’s the point, really.” “We need to create,” Patti added. “For ourselves more than anyone. Even with covers, we rip them apart – and in doing that you can work out your own sound. It’s all about process.” I asked whether that rather iconoclastic approach to ‘process’ has ever got them into trouble with militant Tom Waits fans. “Nobody’s said anything to us, actually. We know there must be people we’re pissing off, but we’re yet to actually meet them.” What about the masculinity of some of these reference points, though? “I love inverting it; I love it!” Patti laughed. “Interestingly, it pushes women a lot more than it does men, actually – women struggle with what I do much more than men do.” “I always watch the women in the audience, and some of them are like how fucking dare she – which is always fun to see,” the Boy added.
But what of the aforementioned cabaret-saturated zeitgest? A problem? “It’s not so much the fact that everybody is doing it, as that they think anybody can do it,” Patti replied. “Which is just not true. I just don’t think people know what it’s really about, to be honest. But we do. And we’re proud of that. We just want to create everything around us – and if we’re doing exactly the same thing as we’re doing now in a year’s time, then something will have gone very wrong. So, you know, let’s wait and see.”
Patti Plinko and her Boy intend, it would seem, to descend once more into the shadowy rabbit-hole that is the musical unknown. Take it from me: just this once, you should probably follow them.