The Bear and Little Nun was a last-minute addition to the Save Music in Chinatown 3 lineup. But the experimental/soulful duo is a perfect fit for the benefit not only because Mark Baar and Noni Rigmaiden are Castelar parents but also because of roots in O.G. Chinatown punk rock and modern Shanghai club culture (with Atlanta and Bay Area jazz and R&B connections, to boot). Their special set on Sunday, May 18 and Human Resources will be their live debut.
Your duo seems pretty unlikely. Can you talk about your totally different backgrounds and how you got together?
In many ways I think we are a most likely duo. But I do admit that our chances of meeting were a kind of serendipitous event. I write experimental music and came out of L.A. punk rock in the late ’70s but quit that style of music when hardcore hit in the early ‘80s and got into noise and artsy music. Noni came from a musical home, sang in church, and had huge voice but was into punk rock up in Oakland as a teen. The she went to CalArts to broaden her already amazing vocal chops. We just did our searching in different decades.
I had been looking for a woman to sing on an electronic instrumental album and, of course, this being L.A., the more I looked around the more I was sure I was never going to meet her. Then, on the first day of this school year, there were Noni and Zara. They had just moved to Chinatown from Atlanta so her daughter could be in the Chinese immersion program at Castelar, which my son attends. I had no idea she was in the Atlanta or Bay Area jazz and R&B scenes with major players, and that she is this intensely trained yet profoundly original soulful singer who loves experimental and crazy instrumental music yet is very approachable.
So one day I said something about music and she said something about music, too. And from there she came over and listened and l was blessed. Noni gets music–all kinds of music—and loves it in the same way I do. So it works great. Noni always lets me be me; I am odd and play my stuff and she just blows it up with her voice. And we both write lyrics, too, and we get each other. Everything happens just as it is supposed to.
What’s it like to dive back into making music after taking a lengthy detour through food and business? Is there anything familiar about it or is everything brand new?
I am that nerd that has always played–no matter what instruments I have around in my life. When I opened restaurants and clubs in Shanghai for a few years, I took a Strat, an interface, and a computer, and my son. I worked seven days a week and still played and made music. For years I didn’t think it was possible to do anything with it. Between my own fears, my unwillingness to deal with my own crap ideas, and life in general, music was what it was: nerdy, noisy self-expression I did alone to kept sane.
But now that I have told the job to piss off (and my wife’s blessing was a huge thing for me) I can do what I have wanted to do for years now. I am not only making tons of music but have started a label that will release an album this year. I am also producing music and trying to be a real contributor to the music community in as many ways as I can.
Some stuff I think is just the same as when I was a younger. But it is a new era of laptop studios and sounds I could only dream of making at my fingertips. I really believe that with the new abilities we have in the tech and digital worlds, the next generation of music is going to be even more dynamic and amazing than anything that has happened in my lifetime. I want to be a part of it and really push for it.
Have you revisited your old music at all? How do you think it stands up?
No, not at all. My old punk stuff was pre-hard core, and I could talk about this band or that band I played with or was on a tour with but, as I said, when ’82 rolled in and hardcore was what punk would become, I moved on and into the world of the Art Bears. Or The Birthday Party or Eno and Cale. Noisy eclectic stuff no one ever listened to except for my band and 50 people at some art gallery in San Fran or Portland. It was what it was. I mean, I got to play with Frith and some other really cool people in the mid and late ’80s but I have no romantic notions of the past of any kind. Some amazing stuff happened. Some of it made a impact or has relevance, for sure. But I was just a kid doing what kids do naturally, so why look back when the whole world is opening up today right in front of us?
You did witness the original Chinatown punk scene, though. Can you describe any shows or tell a story from back in the day?
I thought about this all day since Chuck is doing this gig. That’s so great of him and his family. And I am sure in those days that no one ever thought there would be any real connection between Chinatown and the punk scene or its legacy members. But it was an odd marriage that worked really well for a bit. I do have some heroes from those days that were driving forces for me to explore music. Black Flag, The Middle Class, X, and some others played shows down here for about two years and that meant something then.
So I thought I would remember one night and I wonder if Chuck recalls the story as I will tell it now. Keith was still in Flag, we were at the Hong Kong Café, and Dinah Cancer, Lorna Doom, and I were drunk. I can’t remember why I was with them or where their usual cohorts were (mine were downstairs in the plaza getting into trouble) but Bowie was at a side table with a date. Keith was doing the whole fall-off-the-tiny-stage thing, Greg was on the right, Chuck was on the left, and some tables went crash. Dinah or Lorna or both of them were screaming at me to get Bowie’s cigarette butts from the ashtray. I was a little drunk, confused, and unsure of everything but I was willing, so I leapt in to grab Bowie’s ashtray off the table when his totally tall, gorgeous date whose top was falling open said over all the noise, “Really? Why don’t you just sit down and ask?” So I did. Bowie sad something like, “Great band, eh?” I was maybe 17 or 18, and didn’t really know what to think or do, so I just sat there as the band and crowd went off. Keith finally ended up on the floor and Bowie got up, and some really huge guys walked him out. I think that was the summer of ’79 or so.
More really crazy stuff happened that evening, but at the end of the show we ended up at some rehearsal space in San Pedro or Long Beach, I think, and I had to take the bus back to Hollywood the next morning after Flag and others played all night. That was just another night in those days.
What are some of your favorite things about Chinatown today?
Chinatown for me is people. My son was born at Pacific, which is right across from Castelar Elementary. We live here, my wife is from Shanghai, and we walk a lot to visit galleries, eat out, and shop. I speak fourth-grade level Chinese and hang out with the old folks dancing in the morning or doing tai chi at Alpine Park where my kid hangs in the after-school program. We know all the parents and kids.
To me, Chinatown is a community that has real Angelinos in it. It is a huge immigrant neighborhood, but unlike the rest of the city they don’t come here from the Midwest to be actors or celebs or on TV. They raise families, fight, drink, eat, work, send their kids to school, shop, or do whatever but they become residents and don’t have a need for the faux life L.A. that so many fools are attracted to. They are living in and building a community that is crazy in its differences: 20 kinds of Chinese, Latinos from Mexico to Peru, some black folks, and some white guys like me. No one cares much about any of that stuff, but everyone cares about what you do and who you are as a person. It is by far my favorite hood in the city.
And what’s next for your band?
The Bear and Little Nun have our fist five-song EP coming out September 1. It’s going to be called James Bond’s Dream. We’re going to be on my label called Jawseybruce Records, and I hope that we can put together some kind of west coast tour dates to show it off. I am really hoping to do some college radio shows, too. Then there is the full-length LP, but for now Noni and I are just being playful. I look for a lot from her with regard to performing. She is a honed performer who simply glows and loves to play live, and I am really digging being allowed to show up with her and play some music we care about. I hope that others can get behind it, too.
Anything else you wan to add?
Thanks for your ability to bring such cool people here to help out. Getting instruments to the kids is a very important thing, and I am really thankful to everyone giving their time and energy to this event.
The Save Music in Chinatown benefit will take place on Sunday, May 18 at the Human Resources gallery in Chinatown. For more information about the show, which raises money for music education at the mostly immigrant and working-class inner-city school, visit the Facebook event page or Eventbrite ticketing page.