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Thursday, November 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  A Few Clouds
Music
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The Trickster: Biff Blumfumgagnge is an irreverent shape-shifter, and also a hell of a musician
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Credit:Nick Berard

"He is really an enigma," says Bill Feeny, who met Biff Uranus Blumfumgagnge more than 20 years ago and has played alongside him in Reptile Palace Orchestra for the past 16. "He is a massive performer and musician, and he has this incredible voice. But we all wonder, what's Biff's real voice? Because he can imitate anybody."

Blumfumgagnge has crafted this identity - from his adopted name down and youthful music explorations up - into a chameleonic force of nature who spans musical borders:

A founding member of the Gomers, the exuberant rock band that anchors at least six Madison gigs a month.

A cornerstone of the Zombeatles, whose brains-in-cheek Beatles parodies include the album Meat the Beatles and the mockumentary All You Need Is Brains.

A contributor of violin and mandolin parts to the Reptile Palace Orchestra's Balkan funk.

An ace strings modifier and MIDI master who has also worked with the Dang-Its, Green Lime Dog, Headpump, Jambeau, Jim James & the Damn Shames, Killbilly, the Kissers, Yammer and Yid Vicious.

Sitting in his basement Beeftone Studios off North Sherman Avenue, Blumfumgagnge, 46, is affable and open. Recovering from knee surgery, he is, he says, "Still hangin', bangin' and pretty active."

Indeed. He is polishing a new LP for the Gomers, who performed at High Noon Saloon sheriff Cathy Dethmers' recent wedding. The Zombeatles are embarking on an East Coast Halloween tour with stops in Manhattan and Asbury Park. Reptile Palace Orchestra is wrapping up a new CD and is scheduled to open for Enter the Haggis on Nov. 14 at High Noon. And Blumfumgagnge will head back to New York City in December to produce, mix and tech a series of shows for guitarist Robert Fripp, one of his heroes. All that on top of his Madison Media Institute teaching schedule.

"I'm just a crazy person who's able to do some stuff," Blumfumgagnge deadpans. "It's fun."

His face lights up at mention of the camaraderie he finds among the Gomers every Tuesday during Rockstar Gomeroke at the High Noon.

That's where he, Dave Adler (keys), Steve Burke (guitar, bass) and company serve as the live karaoke house band, drawing on a song list of several thousand tunes by the likes of Aretha, Dylan, Elvis, Jose Feliciano, Green Day, Hendrix, Hollies, Iggy, Kiss, Led Zep, Melanie, Midnight Oil, Mozart - well, you get the idea. Able to rearrange songs in different genres, keys and tempos, the Gomers are an 80-gigabyte iPod made flesh. They're a cover band adept at finding the sweet spot between celebrating the music and not taking themselves too seriously.

The spark came during a benefit in the mid-1990s, Blumfumgagnge recalls, when the Gomers hit on the idea of inviting donors to join the band onstage and sing the worst song they could think of.

Gomeroke has since spawned Kiddyoke, "another pile of weirdness that appeared and we got all over our feet," he says, sounding like someone whose default is toggled to Sure/Why Not. "We didn't see that one coming. But little kids come up and can rock 'Twinkle Twinkle' on up through 'Iron Man.'"

Blumfumgagnge's own earliest music memories are of his mother singing, and the "William Tell Overture," which grabbed him while he was still young enough to ride a hobby horse: "I used to sit there and crank on the horse to that music," he says, launching into a vocal rendition of the staccato theme popularized by TV's Lone Ranger.

Born in Milwaukee, he was adopted and raised on Madison's west side. Almost 20 years ago, he notes, he sought out his birth mother - "a sweet, sweet lady" who gave birth to him while still in high school and now lives in Florida, where he last visited her in April.

Blumfumgagnge remembers a "delightful" childhood, describing himself as a "troublemaker" and "handful." He attended Orchard Ridge elementary and middle schools, and Memorial High. By fourth grade, he had picked up the violin. Of all the instruments he now plays - Bifftar, guitar, mandolin, drums, oud, nyckleharpa and others - the violin remains his favorite. He is able to emote on it the best, he says, and he finds it the "easiest to make talk."

By high school Blumfumgagnge had opted for music over football. "I was forever branded the nerd," he reflects, "and did the orchestra and stage crew. And soon after came guitar and nutty songs."

Falling in with ComedySportz, Blumfumgagnge was often flagged for transgressing the competitive improv troupe's profanity prohibition. "It was really hard for me to turn the editor on," he laughs.

He established a bond with Adler, cornerstone for the ComedySportz band. They and a couple other perps, including CSportz fixture Andy Wallman, established the Gomers' nucleus, Blumfumgagnge says, "and kabang."

Wallman's early impressions of Blumfumgagnge include "this mischievous little smirk on his face," a long ponytail, a gangly physicality and a desire for people to be happy.

"He's gotten older, but no less Biff," says Wallman, a partner in the marketing firm Knupp, Watson & Wallman. "I get this thing from him that reminds me of Les Paul - he invented things, he could play like crazy." Blumfumgagnge, he adds, is "the guy you want on your team," who pushes the music in surprising directions. "You look over and go, 'Oh, that was the coolest little thing you threw in there.'"

The name is legal. In September 1992, Blumfumgagnge walked into Dane County Judge Moria Krueger's chambers under the name he had grown up with. He explained that it was a hassle to switch between his stage and legal names. The new surname was pronounced Blumm-fumm-gog-in-ya, he added, alleging a derivation from some Franco-Latvian translation for "good-smelling joke." Perhaps catching a whiff of its aroma, Her Honor signed off on the change.

At the Madison Media Institute, he teaches basic electronic musicianship - a blend of music theory and the principles of a software synth program called Reason - and a mixing class in which he strives to open students' ears to placing elements in a sound spectrum. The daytime gig affords both his primary income and health benefits.

It also ties into technical tendencies dating from youth. His father, a budget analyst for the state Department of Transportation, kept a home workshop. Before Blumfumgagnge was 10, he says, he was disassembling things like clocks, figuring out how different pieces worked together. This fed an urge to make things do something they weren't built to do.

Later, as a guitar tech for another of his heroes, Adrian Belew, he was fascinated by the ways Belew modified his instruments. Hearing the possibilities, Blumfumgagnge was soon experimenting with his own MIDI pickups. He employs them in his bands and his solo shows at venues like Mother Fool's.

"It's fun to make a tuba or a baritone sax come out of this little mandolin," he explains. "Part of it probably is the trickster in me too. I like to put a theremin in a violin, you know?"

Blumfumgagnge's trickster inventiveness is among the magnetic qualities that have drawn more than 1,300 people to his Facebook tribe, including such notables as Mayor Dave Cieslewicz. Among all his friends, he says, the most essential is his wife, Deb Rabin. "The Gomers would be the next soul brothers," he continues. He also prizes the High Noon's Dethmers, the Frequency's Darwin Sampson, and Toni Ziemer, who, as booker for the late, lamented Club de Wash, gave him and the Gomers some critical early breaks.

Bill Feeny's acquaintance dates to the late 1980s, when he was rendering cover art for an early Gomers cassette. Hearing Blumfumgagnge play violin for Marques Bovre as openers at a Jefferson Starship concert, Feeny invited him over to watch a Packers game and jam a bit - and was struck by his enormous talent and knowledge. Blumfumgagnge was soon an essential component for the nascent Reptile Palace Orchestra.

"He'll hear something and say, 'I can do that,' and he proceeds to do it," marvels Feeny, hard-pressed to think of anyone more capable of importing musical references on the fly during performances. "As far as a regular old human being, he's very compassionate," he adds.

Kia Karlen concurs. "His roots go very deep with people," says the multi-instrumentalist, who has worked with Blumfumgagnge in Yammer and Yid Vicious. "What's made an impression on me is the complexity of all the relationships he has with all the musicians."

At mid-career, Blumfumgagnge's ambitions include a solo album and more work with Fripp. "He's letting something play through him," Blumfumgagnge says. "He's opening up to the great eternal." Emulating this feat is another of Blumfumgagnge's ambitions.

Meanwhile, he seizes opportunities like the band Swamp Thing's recent, elegiac, guerrilla mini-tour of two vanished Madison venues: the empty lot where O'Cayz Corral stood until it burned down, and the gas station where the old Hotel Washington was once home to Club de Wash.

Blumfumgagnge found it cathartic to do a quick little show on the grass where O'Cayz once stood, invoking ghosts and memories. "The vibe," he says, "was still there."

Dethmers, who was queen of the rodeo at O'Cayz Corral before its demise, distills Blumfumgagnge's essence down to five concise words. "He is," she says, "an amazing musician."

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