Wesley Stace, who is curating his Cabinet of Wonders “vaudeville” event at UCSB Arts & Lectures on November 13, says people have no problem watching a show featuring musicians, comedians, and authors. “People know what a variety show is,” he said in a recent phone interview from his home near Philadelphia. “I think genre is really dead. People’s iPods are on shuffle all the time.” In Santa Barbara, that shuffle will feature Stace’s own catchily erudite music stylings (he’s got a new album out called Self-Titled), plus his usual co-host comedian Eugene Mirman (who also plays theremin!); comedians Bobcat Goldthwait and Kurt Braunohler; musicians Dean & Britta, Ned Doheny, Alec Ounsworth from Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, and John Roderick from The Long Winters. Matthew Specktor gets to hold down the writer’s chair (although Stace is also a novelist).
“The Santa Barbara show has the potential to be the greatest one on the tour,” Stace boasted, quickly adding, “I don’t usually say something that dumb, so I mean it. We’re not short-changing Santa Barbara.”
Stace held his first Cabinet of Wonders in New York four years ago as an album-release party. “We just wanted to have a fun night of it, but it was really fun,” he recalled. “At first it was just writers and musicians, since for years I had written as Wesley Stace and performed music as John Wesley Harding. Then we added the comedians, who were right in the middle of being used to performing for a quiet audience or a noisier one.” Soon it became a regular gig at New York’s City Winery with guests like Rhett Miller, AC Newman, Ted Leo, Colson Whitehead, Sarah Vowell, and Mary Gaitskill. Just this past year, NPR started airing the show, too.
An Englishman by birth, Stace has lived in the U.S. for more than two decades. He has only decided to bring his two artistic guises together this year, however, with the release of Self-Titled. Up to now, author Stace has written three novels; a fourth, Wonderkid — billed as “a backstage epic of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, but also sippy cups, pillow fights, and BabyBjörns” — will be released in February. Musician John Wesley Harding has recorded 19 albums, although Stace hates to count, in a career that’s been highlighted by a gorgeous acoustic cover of Madonna’s “Like a Prayer,” opening for Bruce Springsteen, a great solo show of his own at SOhO Restaurant & Music Club back in 2003, and biting, tuneful ditties like “Hitler’s Tears,” “There’s a Starbucks (Where the Starbucks Used to Be),” and “Making Love to Bob Dylan.” (He can’t do it, if you wondered.)
Stace is happy about bringing everything under one roof. “It gets a little tiring, the two names. And the introductions are too long: ‘…and also a novel writer… .’ It can get a little windy in the room,” he said. The music of Self-Titled helped spur the consolidation, too, he says. “It’s a rather different-sounding album — the songs are sung lower and quieter than usual. I needed to present them in different musical clothing. That said, there’s no reason not to sing John Wesley Harding songs if they’re appropriate.”
Of course, as part of the Cabinet of Wonders show, Stace is just one of the many riches to enjoy; in addition to playing some songs (“probably just two or three from the new album”), he also teams up with Mirman to do “some stuff together … You might refer to them as ‘routines.’” He couldn’t be more pleased with the variety of this variety show. “People might come in saying, ‘We want to see Dean & Britta’ and leave saying ‘We loved Ned Doheny,’ and then others might say it the other way around.”
Wesley Stace brings his Cabinet of Wonders to UCSB’s Campbell Hall on Wednesday, November 13, at 8 p.m. Call (805) 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.