There is no Billy Nayer in the Billy Nayer Show. The frantic frontman of the longtime local cult favorite is Cory McAbee, sharp-suited singer, writer, painter, filmmaker, and autoharp strummer. With his leering swagger, antic energy, vaguely creepy charisma, and smooth and howling vocals, McAbee comes off as a lounge singer gone berserk, spinning macabre tales of bunny kings, ill-fated hot dogs, and the girl with the glass vagina; bellowing perverse fantasies about angels and waitresses; and crooning wistfully of raining pitchforks and women, or captaining cows upon a sea of grass. Even if Billy Nayer isn’t a real character, McAbee obviously is. McAbee says he developed his unique stage presence “probably originally out of fear. A lot of people sort of assume that it’s more of a character, but it’s just how I act on stage. It’s not like I’ve decided to be too much different than I actually am. A lot of people think the material is kind of strange, but it’s all based on reality.”
That sense of the real beneath the surreal is something McAbee emphasizes about his upcoming feature film, The American Astronaut, a black and white “musical space Western” that’ll whip through the Bay Area for a couple of sneak-preview showings next week–at the Balboa in SF Thursday, April 19, and at the Rafael Theatre up in San Rafael that Saturday. “People think it’s one of the most unusual films they’ve ever seen, but it’s actually very autobiographical. It was funny, a lot of the more Hollywood press–it was kind of like asking a country & western music critic to review a hip-hop record. One person said, ‘Imagine a long Laurel and Hardy skit directed by Salvador Dalí.'” It’s not like your usual musical,” he confesses. “In your usual musical someone will speak about love, and then music will fill the air and they’ll sing about what they were just talking about. In this, the music is more organic to the scene. It’s not the sort of situation most people would envision or write about, but, growing up in bars, it makes perfect sense to me. There’s a scene where these guys are harassing this one character in a restroom. And they bring in this little record player and sing to this record. I don’t explain it well, but it’s one of my favorite scenes. It’s the henchmen scene.” Traveling from planet to planet in the movie, McAbee says, was a natural outgrowth of a very earthly feeling of drifting between worlds. “When I was writing it I wasn’t living anywhere for about three years. I was just sort of cruising around with a suitcase on Muni buses and staying in friends’ garages or trailers or on sofas and things like that. I’d reached the point where I could either work to pay my rent or just not pay rent, and spend all my time and money and effort working on projects. I just told my landlord he could sell my furniture and split. And when I got a place to live after three years, I compiled all my notes and wrote a story based on all the scenarios I had written. Even though the film takes place in outer space, every place you visit you can find on earth. There’s a barn, a bar, open fields, arenas. Even his spaceship looks a lot like my room above the Hotel Utah I storyboarded the entire film in.”
Though he’s been holed up in Chicago writing and painting for two years off and on, the ex-bouncer for SF’s late rock dive Trocadero Transfer says he plans to join the BNS’ other constant quantity, drummer/producer/musical director Bobby Lurie, in New York in a couple of months. (The band’s had a fluid and fluctuating lineup over the last eleven years, featuring at various times such local nuts as Baby Snufkin headman Scrote and That One Guy Mike Silverman. While out here next week, the BNS will be a trio with guitarist James Beaudreau at the Great American Music Hall that Friday, and the Sweetwater in Mill Valley on Sunday.) Once he reaches his new digs in Brooklyn, McAbee plans to get to work on the American Astronaut soundtrack and to start writing a werewolf movie.
The American Astronaut may be McAbee’s first feature, but it isn’t the first Billy Nayer Show movie by a long shot–the band based a live show around its short films back in ’95, including McAbee’s first animated short Billy Nayer, hand-painted with house paint in his bathroom; The Man on the Moon, costarring the late local rabble-rouser Buck Naked; and The Ketchup and Mustard Man. This multimedia experience, The Billy Nayer Chronicles, played the Sundance Film Festival some years back, and McAbee brought his latest filmic effort to Sundance this year–for a second time, really, as the script was part of the screenwriters’ lab (a Sundance workshop) two years ago. It was part of the dramatic competition” this year, he says. “During the awards ceremony at Sundance, it was kind of nerve-wracking because I was afraid if we got an award, we would be approached by people who were attracted by the award and not the film and didn’t know how to deal with the film. When I got to the ceremony I was all buzzy, and when they announced every category they’d say, ‘This next film, the screenplay defies normal rules of writing screenplays,’ and I’d be like, oh my god, that’s me. And they’d say, ‘he was in the lab,’ and I’d think, oh shit, here it comes. And they’d say ‘he’s wearing a blue turtleneck,’ and I’m wearing a blue turtleneck. And they’d say someone else’s name, and I’d be like, fuuuck. I thought I’d have a heart attack by the time the thing was over. But then when it was all over with, the master of ceremonies said there were only a few awards given, but there were a lot of great films here, ‘like Cory McAbee’s The American Astronaut, which was so fun and free.’ So I kind of took that as our own award.”