My friends John and Galen, and of course, Bill...
Bill Gage has Down syndrome. And his band rocks
By: IAN SANDS
3/27/2008 4:42:46 PM
Watching Bill Gage perform with his band, BILL, is an eye-opening experience. You go in not knowing what to expect, maybe even a little nervous on behalf of everyone involved — the crowd, the band, yourself. But then you’re witness to a sizzling and raw hard-rock display, and your reservations vanish.
Gage doesn’t so much sing songs as tear through them, his vocals occasionally sounding as if they’re coming from someone twice his size. As he sings “Big Foot,” a track off of the band’s second and most recent album, Bat Man, Gage bellows the title line over and over, all the while pacing back and forth like some caged beast, swaying to the ominous, industrial-ish score. You think for sure his voice is going to give out any moment, but it never does. It’s magnificent.
“I had a boss once who’d seen Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, James Brown,” notes Gage’s older brother, John Gage, who plays guitar, among other things, for BILL (the band, he insists, is spelled in all capital letters). “So I was playing a tape of Bill, and he had just walked into the place where we worked, and he says, ‘Who is that — Muddy Waters?’ And I was, like, here is a guy who has seen James Brown, and he’s saying Bill sounds like this 40-year-old black man.”
Bill isn’t Muddy Waters, obviously, and he isn’t James Brown, either. But he is a rock-and-roll trailblazer in one respect: though he is an exuberant performer and a natural rock vocalist, Bill has Down syndrome.
A pretty good time
I’m sitting with most of the band in the TV room of BILL guitarist Greg Ansin’s spacious two-story South End apartment. Ansin, Bill and John, drummer Daren Follower, and bassist Gaylen Moore (John’s fiancée) have recently finished taking some publicity shots. Instruments are scattered throughout the apartment. The band (minus guitarist Eric Morin, who’s not around today) will be playing together after I leave. Bill seems very excited about this.
As for our conversation . . . it’s odd, even by rock-band-interview standards. John had warned me by e-mail that his brother isn’t “much for small talk and storytelling (outside of some of his songs).” John, on the other hand, loves to talk. Which is fine. Because nobody knows BILL better than John, who has collaborated with his brother on the project for more than 20 years.
According to John, the brothers — who, at 46 and 42, are no youngsters — each developed an interest in the arts in the late ’70s while growing up in Laconia, New Hampshire. “You’d go by Bill’s room and it would sound like there’s a couple of TV shows going on at the same time. He’s performing little skits and doing characters back and forth, and he’s got music playing.
“So there I was, this lonely teenager, without a circle of friends. I was like, ‘Wow that sounds like he’s having a pretty good time in there.’ ”
John would eventually move to Boston and play in rock bands, including, briefly in 1986, the Zinnias, with Magnetic Fields’ Stephin Merritt. Bill would sometimes visit from New Hampshire. In 1987, John had the idea of putting together a band fronted by Bill to play an open-mic night. The fledgling band went on without any song list. “It was like we were going to put a backdrop up and let Bill do his thing,” recalls John.
It was a few years later that BILL coalesced into something more serious. In 1991, the band released its first album, the free-form Beatles Chinese. Before long, BILL began to cut into John’s time — mostly because, in order for the group to get together, John would have to spend a few days ferrying his brother to and from Laconia. (Sure enough, that’s how Bill got to our interview. He still resides in New Hampshire, living in a shared home and working a custodial job through Lakes Region Community Services.)
It also stressed out his family. “It was a big production whenever we’d do something,” says John. Eventually, though, the Gages warmed to the idea of the band, John explains. “My mom in the beginning . . . didn’t see artistic merit or therapeutic [merit] in it, now they do see it. They see how happy it makes him and how happy it makes other people.”
In search of big foot
Ironically, Bill, who essentially cannot read or write, is also the group’s songwriter. In fact, the band was named after the one word he can write legibly, “making it simple for him to create the logo (and sign autographs),” notes John on the band’s MySpace page. Bill’s is an internal sort of songwriting — one that, John continues, “is always in flux.”
As a result, the rest of the band has adopted a creative approach to working with Bill. For Bat Man (2005), John and company prepared their instrumental lines beforehand and had Bill sing over them, impromptu, in the studio. The back-up tracks ran the gamut of genres from metal (“Steve Pepper”) to punk (“Bad Clothes”) to acoustic lament (“All My Heart and All My Life”) — the idea being that variety would inspire and entertain Bill.
When it came Bill’s turn to record, much to everyone’s surprise, he nailed most of his vocals on the first take. “We thought we were going to do multiple tracks and maybe edit the best parts together, but a bunch of them were, like, ‘Wow, how are we gonna top this?’ ” says John.
The “Steve Pepper” take was an exception. “The thing we discovered is don’t put headphones on him,” says Follower. “We tried early on with him wearing headphones as any other vocalist would do. And it just apparently wasn’t visceral enough.” So Bill delivered his vocal sans phones while facing the speaker.
Bill himself, sandwiched between Moore and Ansin on the couch, is affable, small, and compact in a gray hoodie. With another band, I might ask the songwriter what inspired his lyrics. Bill, though, isn’t about to launch into a pretentious anecdote about how he was influenced by some Milton poem. Bill’s vision is much more direct — and refreshing.
JOHN Hey Bill, you know that song “Big Foot”?
BILL Umm, “Big Foot” [growling].
JOHN Why did you name that song “Big Foot”?
BILL ’Cause “Big Foot.”
MOORE It just reminded you of Big Foot, the music reminded you of Big Foot?
BILL [considering this] I sing, the bass guitar . . .
JOHN Yeah, the bass goes boom, boom, boom.
Sometimes it’s as simple as that. A bass line that inspires him. Other times, John says his brother, like the rest of us, takes ideas from the radio, overheard conversations, and records. Bill is a fan of David Bowie, Yoko Ono, and especially the Beatles, whom he references on “All My Heart and All My Life” (“And my heart is thumping to watch the Beatles”).
To the extent that he can control the factors contributing to Bill’s creative process, John does his best to make sure that the songs are Bill’s and Bill’s alone. He and his bandmates never interfere with Bill when he’s recording, and they don’t ask him to sing lyrics he hasn’t thought of on his own. Neither do they edit him too much — even when he goes on long after a song has ended (like at the end of “Big Foot” where Bill begins thanking “Stephin,” “the Lord,” “Itchy,” “Big Foot” himself, and “Nikki”).
BILL are a band!
Glancing at Bill, sitting with his hands on his knees, his eyes — as they’ve been for much of the interview — focused downward, it’s hard to imagine him laying down vocals over a blustery metal cut. He hasn’t said very much, and then only at his brother’s prompting. It occurs to me that he may not understand the purpose of my visit.
“I was trying to tell him we were going to be talking to somebody from a newspaper,” says John, “and he was, like, ‘Ohhhh okayyy.’ Then I said, ‘Maybe after we can come up with some new music we can do with the band’ . . . and he kept on talking about that.”
Such innocent incomprehension is at the heart of criticisms that
have been slung at BILL. There are folks — “both young and old,”
says John — who send nasty letters, even the occasional death threat
to his Youtube account. Their complaint springs from the notion that
John and his cohorts are exploiting Bill — that the band is some
kind of freak show.
A visceral example of this revulsion shows up in the Gage brothers’ “Big Foot” video. As Bill is belting out his lyrics on a residential street, a neighbor complains about the noise, then chides John, “You’re embarrassing him.” Still filming, John asks his younger brother point blank if he’s embarrassed. Bill answers, “No.”
John understands the criticism and the fact that BILL can make audiences uncomfortable. “It’s a little like when you see someone who has a porcelain scar covering half of his face. You’re like, ‘Whoa!’ . . . The human brain says, ‘Bing, bing, bing, this isn’t normal,’ ” he says. But far from humiliating or harming his brother, he counters, new experiences and activities like the band are good for Bill.
On the new-experiences front, Bill has taken guitar lessons, and he and John are now working on a film that’s a take-off on Elvis Presley’s classic/cornball 1960s musicals. Bill, in what to me was a bloody brilliant casting decision, plays the pop icon himself.
“I think this is what [people with Down syndrome] need,” says John. “Not necessarily to be a lead singer in a band, but . . . by constantly replenishing him with new events and various things, it helps [Bill] build new neural pathways. Because otherwise [people with Down] can suffer from sort of an Alzheimer’s.”
“It’s just like anyone,” interjects Moore. “I can’t speak German any more. Even though I took five years of it.”
“Yeah, Bill’s like that,” says John. “He’s just on a slightly accelerated pacing.”
Not long after this exchange, something remarkable happens. Moore has been playing a staccato bass line tentatively on the guitar. Bill begins humming and slapping his knees in time. Ansin and John grab guitars to join in. After Follower bangs out a drum solo on the arms of his recliner chair, the entire band jumps with the song’s verse. Bill starts singing vocals. It’s the happiest I’ve seen him all afternoon.
BILL are playing the Abbey Lounge at 9:45 pm on April 10, along with Fake Boys, Gozu, and Death Defect. Ian Sands can be reached at email@example.com.