AUSTIN DAZE: What does the word “freak” mean to you?
SAMANTHA X: The word freak is derived from the word, “To dance with nature”. We consider it to mean a fabulous genetic anomaly who is willing to perform and show the world how wonderful they are. Freak, as Jackie the Human Tripod says, “Is a term of endearment.” We are reclaiming the word again to mean just that: a genetic human anomaly as an amazing and interesting individual. Not something that is deformed.
AD: How did you guys find each other?
DYLAN M. BLACKTHORNE: I met Samantha in Bisbee, Arizona for the New Year’s celebration there and we became interested in creating a circus show. Samantha is very knowledgeable of human anomalies through her study of anatomy and physiology. So me and Samantha were thinking of having a history of the freakshow, she was researching it very well, and has definitely contributed most significantly to our museum of mutantstrosities. And soon we met up with our good friend Lobster Girl.
H.E.A. aka LOBSTER GIRL: I never really thought about freakshows; I never really knew anything about them. When I met them the first thing they said was, “We really like your claw.” And that kind of took me aback. I was like, “Whoa. That’s really cool that somebody would say that.” And it made me feel instantly more comfortable about myself around them and started the whole process of opening up to what has been created through this. I see it every time I meet knew freaks. It’s like, “Yeah, I am a freak! Thanks for noticing.” They would immediately join up with the show. Pretty much everyone we meet. I had this thought that the next tour we should call the “Freak Call out Tour” and then I had an image and thought, Oh my gosh, could we have enough tour buses to carry them all? An army of freaks.
AD: Sam, what were you drawn to?
SX: I was using photos of old freaks of the past to highlight the endocrine system for people that were learning it for various reasons. When I started researching the medical anomalies of the endocrine system I started finding out about all of their interesting lives. And when I would show a giant and say he’s got blah, blah, blah of his thyroid and by the way when he was 27 he did this really amazing thing. And so that started like that. When I met Dylan I had a book and a collage of some freaks and he said he was starting a circus and wanted to know if I would be willing to start a little side tent that would have some pictures of freaks in it. So I was just going to build a small dome. He thought he was going to have a lot of people that were going to do the circus tour with us and they all fell through except for maybe two. So then we just kind of ended up with what we had gathered at the time which was H. E. A., the Lobster Girl, Deidra the Dwarf. I had also put an ad in the Jack Rabbit Speaks–the Burning Man magazine–for a person with extra limbs or missing limbs or facial deformities or skin disorders or other strange traits. We actually got a response from our still current Elephant Man, who is a man with neurofibromatosis. So we decided to pick him up. During all this time we were painting the banners and getting the freak show tent ready and Dylan was in San Francisco or Oakland or Berkley trying to put together the circus. Dylan ended up finally meeting us here and we took a trip across country to pick up the elephant man and we got to San Francisco and our focus became the freakshow. It became very rapidly increasingly obvious that we needed nothing but the freaks and the freak show to exist. And we started slowly pulling away from the circus performers. The original goal for me with the freak show tent was to remind people of history. I always like to remind people of witches that might have existed in the past or other such characters that we were supposed to not talk about. And I thought it would be good for a lot of the underground circus kids, and that’s who Dylan was hanging out with, to just remember, “Hey there once was a four-legged girl and she didn’t pierce herself to have them implanted on her.” We thought we would last one tour and get picketed and made fun of and told to leave and we had the opposite effect where people were really ready to and happy to see the freak show. It attracted all types of people: Republicans, anarchists, vegetarians, non-vegetarians, disability rights activists. So here we are three years later and we’ve done a lot of filming with different publications and different articles and now we have nine freaks that currently perform with us.
AD: What does 999 Eyes mean?
SX: When people ask me that I encourage them to research the number 9 and the number 999 and have a fun journey.
AD: How do new freaks generally react when approached about joining the troupe?
SX: It took different lengths of time for different people to jump right into it or become completely comfortable with it. And we have that constantly happening. Right now we have a bearded lady who has never grown her beard and is feeling dehumanized and humiliated that she hasn’t grown her beard and she wants to do it and show the world that she is a bearded lady. She has been shaving three times a day since she was 11. This is an ongoing project.
AD: Is there ever a fear of being exploited?
SX: I don’t think anyone has ever felt exploited. I think they experience coming into the empowerment of reclaiming the word freak and being proud of it and proud of their anomaly and being proud that they aren’t just ten-fingered and ten-toed and honoring nature. Nature creates art and they are part of that. I think it’s more about feeling empowered. Wouldn’t you say, H.E.A?
AD: Do you see a transition in the freaks?
SX: All of us go through transitions. I gain strength and knowledge and wisdom from genetic anomalies as I watch them turn into freaks–meaning that they start performing. I gain strength from our troupe’s social interaction with the outside world. I think we have all gone through a lot of personal transformation in the project. The elephant man didn’t take his shirt off for 47 years in public and now he takes it off on stage; H.E.A. used to hide her hand.
H.E.A: Yeah, I was neurotic about it. I wouldn’t do anything where people could see me using my hand. It wasn’t like that when I was a child, it was something that I developed as I became aware of the social pressures of this so-called idea of normal which I’m increasingly seeing probably doesn’t even exist.
SX: She says how they used to call her “crab girl” and be real comfortable with it and then all of a sudden around puberty they started pretending they didn’t notice it and that’s when she thought, “Oh shit, this isn’t normal. Why are they scared to look at it? Why aren’t they asking me or talking about it?” Some of the other freaks haven’t had that, they haven’t been able to hide their anomalies and they tend to have to become more comfortable with it at a younger age.
AD: So you guys are one of the only freakshows in the country?
SX: As far as we are concerned we are the only freak show in the country. We may have other people challenge us but we will challenge them on stage publicly. Because we take the word freak very seriously to mean genetic human anomaly and there are shows, though they do have freaks in their show so we can also call them freak shows, they are just as centered around side show performance-sword swallowing, tattooing, piercing themselves with hooks, laying on beds with nails, sexy girls with whips. Not that we don’t love and honor all of our friends that do them and of course we perform side by side with any side show but we take the term “freakshow” to just clearly mean that the freaks are the stars of the show.
AD: Do you travel all over the country?
SX: we plan on traveling all over the world. That’s our goal-to get this show to as many places as possible. We’ve seen it be a really healing thing all over. Everywhere we have gone we’ve had human anomalies come into the museum after the show to show us whatever it is to them that is special. We’ve had them bring their relatives-we’ve had all kinds of things happen. So it seems that for now we are just going to keep moving forward with the show.
AD: Where has been your favorite place to perform?
DB: One of my favorite places to play was the Lucky Devil in El Paso, Texas. Those people treated us real nice there and the crowd was very enthusiastic and attentive. They were sitting down up front so everyone could see the smaller performers-it was a really great place to play. There were people who came in and were very eager to see our museum of mutantstrosities which has our two-headed cow, our pickled pugs, and mutant animals preserved in jars and taxidermy as well as a history of the freaks. It’s all on the inside.
H.E.A: I had a really good time playing at Antone’s here. Being a road show we are often times playing to a whole new audience, which is a lot of fun, but it was a different experience to be able to perform for people in our community and to see their reactions to it. I think in some way they still didn’t understand what we were doing until they saw the show.
SX: Historically the Freak Show has always met with the company of Kings and Queens so I can only imagine that next we will be hitting Hollywood parties and things like that. It would only make sense historically that that would begin to happen. We just got asked to do a fashion show in Vegas. We also did a meeting of people in Hollywood but we will see where that goes. Often times freak shows go in really strange directions.
AD: Any thoughts on that?
SX: We’re pretty much open to anything. The show is just about having fun, it’s not a political statement. We’re not trying to teach anybody anything, we are really just out there to have fun and we all don’t care who our audience is. We are open to perform for just about anybody and take money from just about anybody. We’ve got performers who can’t work. We could take the money from welfare or we could take it from a corporation. Humans are humans and judging them for their outside covers is often an unwise thing to do. We are pretty versatile and come from different backgrounds so we don’t want one demographic to be our audience-we would like to get the show out to as many people as possible.
AD: How do you recruit new freaks?
SX: I think it’s magic. I think the people that cross our paths are sort of put into the path.
H.E.A: In almost every instance they feel that it was destiny.
SX: We just recently found a half-boy and he’ll be coming in and performing with us.
H.E.A: He’s very eager.
SX: And very beautiful. He’s an Elvis impersonator. He’s a fetal alcohol syndrome baby so he does motivational speaking. He sings and writes country music and wrote a book called, “Has Anyone See My Shoes?” Of course, he has no legs. He also rides horse back and details cars. And he doesn’t use a wheelchair. He got rather offended when I wanted to give him a disabled help on the airplane. With Half-Boy, his mother felt that God had something to do with it. Partly it’s because our whole goal for this project was to keep alive the history, we were never out to have a side show. But I think the drive behind it has always been building a community. So when we go up to someone and we are totally absolutely incredibly amazed by their freak qualities, we have five other human anomalies come up to you and myself or someone else and it’s like, “Do you want to join our show? It’s really, really fun.” It’s different than how it used to be when we were dumpster diving for food and had no money and weren’t really sure what we were doing and it was like, “Do you want to join?” The first freaks were brave, they were just really, really brave. It’s ridiculous to think what we did for that first show. We started off with the Lobster Girl, The Dancing Dwarf and The Elephant Man and none of them had an act or had been on stage.
H.E.A: I had this picture, because that’s what I was always told, was that freaks were in cages. So we thought we had to keep ourselves concealed and then reveal ourselves mysteriously. When I first came out on stage I was insisting that I come out in a net and was hidden except for my claw protruding.
SX: A huge part of our story is missing right now that we need to tell: basically we had three freaks and music and we had pictures of freaks that we had been collecting and we had these banners. We decided that we better go and talk to some old showman and figure out what the hell is going on and what we are supposed to be doing and stuff like that. So we met several old showmen and John Strong was one of them. He was a huge influence of ours and gave us the two-headed cow. He’s one of those sideshow brats where his dad’s circus was so absolutely fabulous and everybody worked for his dad and loved his dad so much that even though none of them like him they just keep him around. He was always really sweet to us and was like, “I’ll do all these things for you just say good things about me.” He said we were going to need a sideshow museum so they started giving us things. And we went to Bobby Reynolds house. I don’t know if you know this but the circus is very incestuous. Big John Strong had died and John Strong’s mother married Bobby Reynolds who had been the Coney Island talker for thirty years and one of the last people to have a giant freakshow. We heard that he might not let us in the house but we knocked on the door and said, “We’re here to see if you can tell us what a freak show is.” And he started laughing and telling us joke after joke. I mean we are with the Dwarf, Lobster Girl, the Elephant Man, an accordion, and me and it’s like, “Can you please tell us what a freak show is” We received a little bit more knowledge.
SX: We also went and met with a man named Frank Rooney.
DB: Our first great experience with sideshow talking which is explaining what is in the museum and things like this, was with someone by the name of David Apocalypse. He came to what I believe was our first show. He had been touring with a band by the name of Pig Face where he was doing a straightjacket escape while crowd surfing and the audience, ungrateful bastards, dropped him and he broke his back. So he came down and we offered him to get on the podium to get some people into the museum because we had been talking for hours. He got up there and it was magic. He got a bunch of people into our museum. Our first weekend of shows had over 500 people go through it.
AD: How do you vote a person into the show? Do they have to have a special talent?
SX: We have a band and that band sort of runs separate and together with the 999 Eyes. That band sometimes grows or shrinks depending on what we think is best for the music. The rest of the circus trusts us in our opinions with the music. Originally, the only 10-fingered, 10-toed regular height people that were in our show were Elisabeth Anderson. We had her because she was a freak anomalies expert and painting our banners. She didn’t get on stage with us for a year and a half. She finally got on stage with us last year and began speaking about the horrors of separating Siamese twins. Now she just learned how to blockhead and is doing mental floss. She was a young woman who had been into freaks since she was 14 years old and she never thought she would be in a freak show and that was always her dream. After awhile we were only accepting freaks because our band was so big and we wanted to keep supporting them but then low and behold the sword swallower kid started flying himself out to perform with us for free.
H.E.A: We can’t forget the clown.
SX: Oh yeah, we did have a clown. I kept feeling weird that we didn’t have a clown because usually when you want to start a circus there are like ten clowns and no performers and a band.
H.E.A: Send in the clowns.
SX: Half way through the tour the bus we were traveling in left us and we had wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs and dwarfs with bad backs and it was not a pretty sight. The clowns from the Alberta Clown House rescued us so I knew from that moment on we really did need a clown. So we hired one to do some shows with us and then after Burning Man we needed a ride to our Spokane show and we met a young man named Lowrent who I didn’t realize was a performer or a clown, though I guess he kept telling me. We all thought he was a bus ride.
DB: He was wearing that monkey suit with the nipples.
SX: That’s just what people who do a lot of drugs at Burning Man wear. Anyway, half way through his bus broke down and Dylan and I and he got stuck at a house together and we ended up getting to know him.
DB: It became evident that his whole life was as series of practical jokes that life was playing on him thereby making him a clown by default.
SX: We’ve been a really tight team ever since.
DB: And he’s created the largest mechanically produced fire effect that I’ve ever seen-Lowrent’s patented 50 ft fireball.
AD: Have there been any freaks that didn’t work out?
SX: There was a Giant. He did click really well but he’s 34 and giants don’t often live past 30. He was sleeping a lot. He really enjoyed performing with us but we didn’t get him to move and join the troupe full time. He sleeps 16 hours a day and eats a 4,000 calorie breakfast. He performed the whole west coast with us and can be seen on our National Geographic show. He says it changed his life. Maybe one day he will find us again and want to come back.
H.E.A: In total contrast to that there is Jackie, the human tripod, who heard us on the radio make a freak call out to the freak revolution and where we were performing. And she showed up with her bags packed and asked if she could perform her karate act that night. She got on stage with us that night, jumped on the tour bus, left her boyfriend. This summer she performed with some other troupes and had a lot of fun and she is doing sideshows as well. And H.E.A. did some stuff with Warren Hall who really kept the sideshow going.
H.E.A: It’s definitely something that I needed to see for myself. This is how they have done it for so long. It’s a hard life but man it reaches a lot of people; a lot of children which is a cool thing. I wanted to definitely increase more of a kid audience, which we do–we have a very kid-friendly show. I like when we play festivals. Like we played the Maker Fair this year and that gets an audience of all ages and all abilities.
DB: The sheer experience of these performers who have perfected their act after performing it maybe on really big days, maybe 24 times a day is incredible. Swallowing swords; doing the human blockhead.
AD: What is the human blockhead?
DB: Hammering a four inch nail into your face.
H.E.A: Or a screwdriver or a knife
SX: Or even a drill.
AD: What would you say to a freak in the shadows reading this interview?
SX: We’re hiring! Of course in our definition, a freak would not be hiding in the shadows but rather a genetic anomaly would be hiding in the shadows. To any genetic anomaly hiding in the shadows, we are here to come and find a home and learn to be a performer. We would like to offer our community and our homes and our space with any genetic human anomalies that would like to explore their role as a freak or what we are doing as circus sideshow performers.
AD: Tell us about the new CD.
DB: I’m really happy with the CD. We couldn’t have done this without the support of the people and music industry here in Austin who wanted to help local bands that are doing something interesting.
AD: Tell us a little bit about the sound because it is interesting and different.
DB: That Damn Band is a rock band but it is also a folk band. We also play music that has lasted throughout the ages and has been around for 100 years or more.
SX: We definitely have a Balkan influence and a Klezmar influence. I have a little less of a folk influence for myself. A lot of the songs, Dylan writes. We are also in love with the underworld things like earthworms and fungus and goddess energy and womb-like spaces and seeds and roots. We’re very into dark energies and spirits and I think we are mixing this old gypsy music and all this sort of magical overtones together with the traditional music that we have learned from the United States; that we have learned from all hobos and different traveling musicians.
DB: If you listen to our CD you’ll find something old, something borrowed, and something new. As far as this album goes, I was looking for an opportunity that I had co-written with many people around the country or songs that I learned from friends of mine which I really thought deserved to have a good quality recording so they could get out there in the world. I’m pleased to finally lay those songs down to rest so to speak so we can move on with some original material.
AD: That Damn Band and the 999 Eyes, are they separate entities?
DB: I think of the two projects as conjoined twins.