Neil Cicierega is accustomed to attracting a LOT of internet attention with his weird, musical sense of humor: Just one in his series of “Potter Puppet Pals” videos, featuring finger-puppet versions of the Harry Potter gang, singing their own names over a metronome, has over 150,000,000 hits on YouTube. But in the years since entertaining over a hundred million people with Potter-related antics, Cicierega has taken his musical weirdness to new heights, which perhaps have culminated with this month’s release of the mashup album Mouth Silence.
Mouth Silence is a “prequel” to Cicierega’s Mouth Sounds mashup, which he uploaded to Soundcloud in May. Both albums feature 60 minutes of inappropriate or incongruous mashups of hit songs, primarily from the ’90s. Mouth Sounds, as the name suggests, was built around the motif of Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” while its follow-up is built around Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life.” In between the recurring theme, songs as hard to piece together as Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover of “Love Rollercoaster” get paired up, and Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady” and Hanson’s “Mmmbop” get thrown in the blender together. The result is compelling, weird, and occasionally even beautiful. So how, and why, does it come about?
“I found all these collections of the raw instrument tracks from all these songs–a lot of them were from the game Rock Band. People had taken the data from that game and turned them into unofficial remix packs of the songs,” Cicierega explains. “Once I found this huge collection, I was like, ‘Oh, I can sift through this and have fun all I want,’ so I just started downloading dozens and dozens of songs, and pairing them up randomly to see if anything would work. There was just a whole trial and error process of seeing what would be funny and what would be interesting, and a lot of false starts, but eventually I came up with an hour of interesting, weird stuff.”
The Internet loves interesting, weird stuff, and the Mouth Sounds/Mouth Silence series quickly found an audience. In addition to people in on the joke playing up their disdain for the concept (comments on the albums’ Soundcloud pages frequently run to some variation of “why are you doing this to us?”), music bloggers have been known to devote think-piece space to pondering Cicierega’s creations (“the kind of baffling, genius-level work of art that can only come from the brain of someone missing a bit of their sanity”).
“Some of what they say about the intent is not accurate at all–but I do think about what I’m doing as I’m doing it. It’s not really my mission statement, though,” he says. “Mostly I’m trying to make myself laugh.” The fact that he’s playing with songs that people have a nostalgic affection for isn’t necessarily designed to be meta-commentary on the very concept of nostalgia, for example–though he’s delighted that it can come off that way. “If you’re doing a comedy album with mashups, then you definitely want to use songs that people will recognize,” he says. “The songs that are available out there tend to be really popular songs, as well. Once a band has realized they’re a one-hit wonder, they’re like, ‘Yeah, sure, I’ll put my song on Rock Band.’ I really do enjoy making a mess of ’90s and ’80s top-40 hits. That’s part of the bizarreness for me–knowing that they all kind of occupy the same part of people’s brains, for the most part.”
The incongruity of the mashups sounds a bit like trolling at times, and Cicierega is comfortable with that description. On the first Mouth Sounds, for example, he notes that, “When I decided to mash up Smash Mouth with John Lennon, of course I was thinking, ‘This is super blasphemous, this is designed to make people angry.’ But then by accident, some people think that it actually sounds good. A lot of people tell me that they really like it, when I was expecting that it would make them mad.”
There are aural pleasures to be found in Mouth Sounds and Mouth Silence, of course. Just because Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock” and System of a Down’s “Chop Suey” have little in common musically doesn’t mean that the two songs don’t resonate, and there’s a simple joy in recognizing the common themes that do exist between such disparate material. That helps make Cicierega’s weird comedy project something that works musically–and the more, er, radical concepts that he employs for those who want to dig deeper into the world he’s building in the two-part series make it something that works for obsessives online.
“When I originally released Mouth Silence, I said it was a sequel, and then a day or so into it, I remade it into a prequel,” he admits. “The way these albums work, you can probably think of a plot or a mythology to them. So I started telling people that it takes place before Mouth Sounds because it’s before ‘All Star’ came out, and that’s why ‘All Star’ doesn’t feature on the album. Then I came up with a story about how they take place in parallel universes, and there’s a war of music going on, and one universe has Smash Mouth and the other doesn’t.”