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They Make Mad Noise

Local buskers turn their hustle into performance art — and a dissertation.

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If you're a musician who makes his living strumming a guitar on a corner, Saturdays can be grueling. And last Saturday was typical for Khalil Sullivan. He left his Oakland Chinatown apartment at around 11 a.m. to hit the Eat Real Festival in Jack London Square, guitar in hand. There, the 28-year-old met up with the other three members of his new jug band, Mad Noise. They were a motley crew: Chris Weir on electric and upright bass; Anthony "Mogli" Maureal on drums, buckets, tambourines, and miscellany; and Jarel "Pharoah" Stone on harmonica, etc. They were off to a slow start. They'd planned to busk from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Eat Real, break for lunch, then head over to the Mission district around 9 or 10 p.m. Another fifteen-hour day on the grind.

Sullivan relishes it all: the long days, the noise complaints, the people throwing money, the run-ins with cops, the hanging out in alleyways with drunks and potheads, the hours spent reading up on what counts as "public" performance space. An English graduate student at UC Berkeley, he's preparing to write a dissertation on race, minstrelsy, music performance, and the American recording industry. He's fascinated by the way that he says musicians in general — and black artists in particular — achieve success only after participating in their own exploitation. He's tried circumventing the market economy in various ways, first by playing house gigs, then by doing shock theater with street performer Philip Huang. Once, he took to the stage of El Rio in blackface.

Busking ties into Sullivan's process of questioning the entertainment industry. Like other guerrilla-style performers, he's foisting his art upon the public. "What is my place here, as an artist right now?" Sullivan asked during a recent interview. "I'm still trying to figure it out." More importantly, he continued, "Whose neighborhood can I go into — and make a bunch of noise?"

The name "Mad Noise" came from a North Beach wino who hung out with the buskers last July while they played in an alleyway between City Lights Books and Vesuvio Cafe. It stuck. The band does, indeed, make good on its name, especially now that it has a regular Saturday-night entourage.

Last Saturday was no exception. At around 11:30 p.m., Mad Noise stationed itself in front of the bar Kilowatt on 16th and Valencia streets. By then, it had morphed into eleven people playing three plastic recycling buckets, harmonica, tambourines, rain sticks, two guitars, cowbell, jingle bells, and milk crates. Two guys were banging drumsticks on the sidewalk. Mogli was pounding buckets while Pharaoh slapped a tambourine impatiently against his leg. The musicians put a hat out for money, and a cardboard sign with their band logo. "Love, peace, chicken grease," it read.

Sullivan launched into a three-chord rendition of Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Under the Bridge," singing in his thick, growly tenor. Drunk women walked by. Some looked askance; others smiled teasingly at the band members. A man picked up his date and swung her around. A woman squealed. "Take it off!" she cried, as her friends burst into giggles. "You motherfuckers — yeah!" shouted a middle-age man in red pants and a backwards cap, grinning and pumping his fist.

The musicians welcome such behavior. Sullivan let red pants call out requests. For a moment, he became the de facto bandleader. "You do F sharp into D, F sharp into D," he instructed, as Sullivan fumbled with the chord changes. Red pants began to sing in a voice that was slurry, angry, and metallic, all at the same time: I don't care anymore/I don't care anymore/I don't CARE anymore!

"This is awesome," said one tambourine banger, turning to the guy beside him — who looked bored or weary. Mogli howled. Sullivan gave his last chord the heft of an exclamation point, and launched into a new song. "Hey, you guys, why don't we play 'Voodoo Child?'" the red-pants guy entreated.

Just then, a man approached the band, arms outstretched. "Hey, I live across the street, and it's after midnight," he said, pointing toward the upper story of a high-rise apartment building. "Look, I'm ready to go to sleep," the man said, rather sheepishly. "I don't want to call the cops."

Sullivan has grown accustomed to such exchanges. He's used to talking to cops and security guards, being told he can't play at full volume, put his hat out for money, or strum his guitar without a permit. One night, he said, Mad Noise got shut down by five different "mercenaries of the urban environment."

"Hey — what time is it?" Sullivan asked. Twelve-o-five a.m., and time to move to a new spot. The band members packed up and migrated to 22nd and Bartlett streets, near the Make-Out Room. Before they left, Mogli drew a blue bird on the sidewalk in chalk. "Mad Noise was here," he said triumphantly.

It had been a trying night. The extra personnel hadn't helped much — many didn't appear to know their instruments or the songs well enough to stay on beat. "If their rhythm is off, it throws me off," Sullivan said. His frustrations were understandable. As the band's frontman, he also makes all the important decisions — like where and when to busk, and what to play (Mad Noise's repertoire is about 75 percent covers, 25 percent Sullivan originals).

At 1 a.m., he called a huddle. His voice had given out, his muscles weren't working anymore, and he wasn't exactly pleased that the busking had devolved into a drum circle. The bandmembers made a new rule: They could invite friends along, but once the hat goes out for money, the entourage steps off. For Sullivan and Pharaoh, that's no joke. There was a point this summer when they were busking for rent and grocery money — Sullivan's teaching stipend had dried up, and Pharaoh had a wife and kid to feed. Three hundred dollars a night isn't a killing when you have to work twelve hours and divide the money among four people. But it bought the BART trip home and food for the next two weeks, Sullivan said.

This week, things are looking up. Weir became a sophomore at UC Berkeley. Mogli and Pharaoh are learning about the recording industry at Ex'pression College for Digital Arts. Sullivan is teaching and in full dissertation mode. And he's back to seeing Mad Noise as a piece of performance art, rather than a hustle. But if you ask him where all this is going, his answer is surprisingly cliché: "All the way," he said. "I'm doing this to be a rock star."

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