With his mess of curls, baby face and wardrobe of mismatched thrift store formal wear, Lance Romance is every bit the street-level showman. He looks as if he could be the director of a guerrilla theater company or a subway busker or a comedian at the DMV. And, in a sense, he's all of those things. Since moving to Brooklyn full-time (the Rhode Island native had lived in Texas and Boston) in 2004, Romance has been a part of New York City's "anti-folk" scene, a loose-knit collective that's sort of a support group for eclectic musical souls. Its ranks represent everything from the children's-hour-gone-wrong antics of the Moldy Peaches to social rabble-rouser Hamell on Trial to jingle-jangle heartthrobs (and Michigan natives) Creaky Boards, along with Romance's absurdist pop.
Anti-folk's a good fit for Romance, since his songs are consciously strange concoctions of bodily functions, misanthropic longing and the skewed, murky punch line humor favored by comics like Demetri Martin or Eugene Mirman. Over two albums he's written about everything from sexy girls at bowling alleys to the horniness of Kris Kringle, and "Urinal, Urinal (My Love is Astounding)" is an early classic. 2004's decidedly lo-fi Titty Titty Yum Yum blends claptrap hip-hop beats and one-finger keyboard melodies with syrupy bass lines and Romance's vocals, which are often layered to suggest a Ween sort of madness in the studio. "Lance Romance Wiggle" is a call-to-arms for all the female dancers, while "The Kids Song" isn't the warm-fuzzy you'd expect from its name. Romance self-releases all his material, selling it through online outlets like iTunes.
Currently, Romance is living the dream, and touring America by Greyhound Bus, sans band. That's a dream? Well, for some. Sure, there's the iconic image of the tour van, barreling down the interstate on a last-chance power drive. But who needs cabin fever on bald tires when you can find a new backing band in every single town? Since the tour's first stop earlier this month in Washington, D.C., Romance has been building his backup band from each gig's available parts. Other acts on the bill, random audience members everyone has rock potential when Lance Romance comes to town. And you don't even have to be physically at the club. Two weeks ago Romance was performing live on Los Angeles college station KXLU. "This next one is called 'Mrs. Doubtfire,'" he said. "If anyone knows the song you can call in and sing along."
"When you're improvising, people are more honest," Romance says from a pay phone during a Greyhound bathroom stop. "I do all the regular songs from my catalog, and I play bass, so it's easy for anyone joining in to follow along. The songs are pretty simple, anyway."
Romance has been gauging each performance's success or failure on the reaction of the girls in the audience to one of his signature songs. "If they enjoy 'I Like to Ejaculate,' then I've done my job," he says. "Ejaculate" isn't your typical crowd-pleaser. But Romance isn't your typical showman, either. "I'm trying to hide that what I do is funny," he says, stressing the improvisational, musical element to his shows. In other words, he doesn't want to be pegged as a singing funnyman. But it's that subversive humor angle that connects a song like "Macaroni, Macaroni" which helpfully explains how to make mac 'n' cheese, right down to how many cups of water to use to a larger movement in comedy and music. Call it alternative comedy, call it anti-folk just make sure you call it important.
At 5 p.m. Saturday, April 29, as part of the Totally Awesome Fest, at 607 N. River St., Ann Arbor. Also appearing Sunday, April 30, at Club Bart, 22726 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-548-8746. With Paul and the Gaming Guild, Green Army Men; $5.Johnny Loftus is the music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org