There’s a singular, surreal, and very memorable moment invoked by Carlos Dengler in his new solo stage production Homo Sapiens Interruptus (the last performance, part of the FringeNYC festival is tonight, 9:30 pm at 64E4 Underground in the East Village).
It’s the early ’80s and thrash metal is at the peak of its powers– Metallica’s just getting started and hasn’t even recorded their debut album yet, Dave Mustaine is still the lead guitarist (later, he’ll go on to start Megadeth), and they’re on camera, ready to give a sound-bite interview before playing a set, looking like a gaggle of long-haired super stoked party boys straight out of Dazed and Confused.
MTV’s Donna Davis, with her enormous fluffy perm and scrunched up sleeves, leans into the band. “Is there anything you wanna say to everybody out there?” she says, jabbing the mic into their faces. Most of the band are awkwardly looking straight at the camera, or dumbfounded staring into space, they’re all fidgeting like happy puppies about to wet themselves. All of them but one– Dave Mustaine is focused, looking intently at Donna. He’s so ready to steal the moment: “Metal up your ass!” he screams in response.
Dengler was only a little kid when this scene actually happened, but the moment was probably lionized on Headbangers Ball, a favorite MTV show of his childhood and one that he invokes repeatedly in Homo Sapiens Interruptus. “It was like a heavy-metal meme,” he recalls in the play, which unfolds like extended monologue and combines personal history, headbanger culture, Western philosophy, and (strangely enough) paleoanthropology.
Just like Mustaine’s somewhat confused, thick-skulled but passionate, ecstatic exclamation, it’s as if we’re watching the first crackle of evolutionary change within Dengler, a long-awaited blast of electricity that ignites his own transition from animal to upright man-citizen. But it takes several of these moments of clarity and neural growth spurts to arrive at his current, self-actualized (we assume) self.
But it’s metal that takes the foreground, and it’s everywhere at this production– from the moment you walk through the door into the small, pitch-black basement room, thrash is playing uncharacteristically softly over the speakers, and during several brief pauses in the play, the lights dim, and Dengler remains there, sitting perfectly still and silent as Slayer rips and shreds through the darkness.
This is Dengler’s very first production, and it marks the debut of his theatre career (B+B reported it was in the works last year when the former bassist for Interpol aka Carlos D, sat with us for his first interview in five years) which he embarked on after completing NYU’s graduate acting program. But the one-man play is also a sort of confession, a way for Dengler to hash out some years that up until now he’s been hesitant to elaborate on.
Interruptus itself is indicative of Dengler’s growth, but it’s the on-stage reenactment of his own evolution that offers a more interesting story than any curriculum vitae ever could. The play covers a large swath of Dengler’s personal history– from about 7 years old growing up in Elmhurst, Queens, through his adolescence in suburban New Jersey when he embraced “headbanger” culture, on up to his community college years before transferring to NYU, and finally working a desk job at 27 just before Interpol shot to fame.
“I was arriving at this tipping point, just before this huge wave of hipsterdom,” he recalls. Interpol’s big break came as a total shock, according to Dengler. The band could hardly believe their tour manager when he informed them that they’d sold 10,000 copies of their debut album in the first week, something that he said was like “going Platinum” for an indie band. “We were like what the fuck?! Are you kidding me?”
Interestingly, the play’s trajectory isn’t perfectly linear. Dengler could have easily fallen back on a typical fame/epic- downfall narrative, but Interruptus jumps around, guided only by the evolutionary path of the apes. Any science nerd knows that evolution hasn’t been particularly smooth– some of these early apes died off completely, for example. This makes for a thoroughly modern coming-of-age tale– boys
drool especially seem to grow up in fits and starts, reaching some semblance of adulthood sorta, kinda yet harboring childlike behavior and immature insecurities until the grave.
This is especially true for Dengler as we come to find out. Lucky for the audience, however, we’re not subjected to a whiney, white-people-problems rehash that should only be spewed out behind closed doors at very expensive therapy sessions. Instead, Dengler makes things more interesting by ruminating more on metal, philosophy, and his fascination with paleoanthropology than the nitty-gritty personal details (though he does mention the moment when, “I started to grow pubic hair”).
The production itself is barebones– Dengler is dressed like an academic, wearing a nondescript outfit, glasses, and a well-groomed beard. He’s seated at a desk with nothing but a glass of water, a pen, paper, and a stack of handheld cardboard visual aids. This allows for Dengler’s storytelling to fill the room, and there are moments when it really does feel like you’re seated around a fire listening to an old-timey oral history.
The hominid, as you might have guessed from the title, is a major theme. The great apes appear in Dengler’s daydreams and hallucinations, arriving during his most dramatic highs and gutter-dwelling lows. At one point, he holds up an image of a neanderthal as he’s recounting the dawn of grunge music, what he sees as the antithesis of metal culture. Whereas metal offered “empowerment to the weak and disenfranchised,” grunge “was all about reality, getting in touch, all about feelings, messiness, vulnerability”– none of which he was comfortable with as a young adult. “I felt like a neanderthal,” he said. “They were the most valiant hominids ever.” He explained that the species had their own language and culture, and were wiped out by early humans.
However, Dengler’s personal metal memories were much more engaging than the ape stories, and all the more so because Dengler essentially gave up music when he left Interpol in 2010. But Interruptus is Dengler’s opportunity for confession on his own terms, so he seems much more comfortable talking about music and offering an explanation as to went down with him and why he left the band. There are still some holes in the story, convenient narrative gaps that may or may not be shielding Dengler from looking like a total jerk, but they’re more likely there for the narrative’s sake. And for that matter, there are plenty of moments when Dengler lets us in on his bad behavior and there’s a great deal of self-probing. It’s just that the play lacks some of the juicier details that some of us want badly. (Or maybe it’s that I’ve read too many really gnarly Behind the Music-type confessionals that make Dengler’s debauchery look like settling down in old age.)
But then again, Dengler’s just a nerd at heart. The play begins with a scene from the life of the 19th-century Dutch philosopher Kierkegaard, which might send some people into a panic, but fear not, our narrator doesn’t veer too far into pseudo-intellectual babble. Rather, these monologues take on the perspective of philosophy fanboy, and for the most part feel more like asides and narrative catalysts than attempts at being a smartypants. Dengler points to Kierkegaard’s supremely ascetic decision to call off his engagement to Regine Olsen, a woman he was deeply in love with. As rumor has it (no one’s really confirmed this for sure), he ghosted Olsen because he felt that he was too passionate about philosophy and therefore he couldn’t give all of himself to Ms. Olsen. But, as Dengler points out, the ice-cold breakup had a majorly positive impact on Western philosophical discourse.
So what does this have to do with Dengler? Well, at 20 he had a breakup of his own– “Cutting off my dreadlocks,” as he recalls. He rewinds a bit to give us some context, and attempts to explain what possessed him to grow these awful white-boy dreads. “It was the ’90s […] there was a kind of tackiness to things,” he recalls with a feigned wistfulness. “Carrot Top comes to mind.” But Dengler didn’t dye his hair orange, instead he took inspiration from an iconic White Zombie music video, 1992’s “Thunder Kiss ’65,” which he first saw on MTV’s Headbangers Ball. It’s one of the best songs to come out of a super regrettable genre, ’90s groove metal, and Rob Zombie’s enchanting as he whips his impressively lengthy and full, jet-black dreadlocks around and around.
Dengler was instantly taken with Zombie’s look, which he described as “a strange hybrid between a shaman and a New Orleans heroin dealer.” Unfortunately, Dengler himself didn’t quite have the hair for it, and his dreads ended up looking like “long turds.” Sadly, he was only able to pull together approximately ten of these “dangling ginger roots.” But it didn’t matter, looking like a ne’er-do-well scumbag was sort of the point for headbangers.
“I was part of a tribe,” he says.
It’s a moment of sudden self-awareness that leads Dengler to finally cut those dreads off, at age 20. “I was just angry all the time,” he recalls. After delivering a pizza to a Princeton University student, he gets back in his car and gazes in the rearview mirror. “What the fuck am I doing with my life?” Shortly after, he discovers and immediately falls in love with philosophy when he helps his girlfriend with her Descartes homework, and later on enrolls at Mercer County Community College (one “requirement” of the headbanger tribe “was not getting good grades”) and went “all Dead Poets Society.” But most importantly, he says: “I started this sort of life of the mind.” The headbanger recollection stands as the precise opposite of Dengler’s philosophy fetish, and it’s at that moment that he turns his back on the metal culture he loved so dearly, even if metal had similarly betrayed him with its groovy moment.
Eventually Dengler would go on to NYU and excel in the philosophy program, but once again falls back into being an under-achiever. For every step forward, he seems to take another two steps backwards before a good timing or luck (or perhaps just Dengler’s own talent) sends him on another great leap forward.
Even though he gives up his life as a metalhead, at least on the surface, Dengler maintains an inner devotion to the genre. At the moment Interpol hit indie rock stardom, “something awakened in me,” he recalls. “Interpol had a lot of influences but it’s safe to say that thrash metal wasn’t one of them.” But he attributes his renewed sense of passion to “that inner Homo habilis,” which he also sees as an equivalent to a reemergence of the headbangers spirit.
To this day, Dengler finds comfort in metal. When shit gets real, “I put on a Megadeth album and it’s like noise cancellation.”
It’s not black metal or nu metal or even that awful ’90s groove metal he liked for a hot minute, but the ’80s thrash metal of his childhood that’s stood the test of time. “Metal was real back then,” he recalls. As a 14 year-old kid, he’d wear his favorite Iron Maiden t-shirt with horrific skull insignia proudly. “That used to freak people out.”
Long before Metallica grew up to become the douchiest band on Earth (their 2000 lawsuit against Napster marks the beginning of the internet-versus-the-music-industry battle that’s still in full swing), they were legit weirdos. And to Dengler, metal is countercultural and anti-authoritarian. He vividly recalls watching the 1985 Senate committee hearings that preceded the “Parental Guidance: Explicit Lyrics” stickers that now grace the cover of naughty albums, when Dee Snider of Twisted Sister approached the mic and stuck out like the sorest, most metal thumb ever amongst all those squares. “I need this, I need to go ugly,” Dengler says, recalling his feeling of wanting to belong to the tribe. “I just felt this groundedness.”
Way back in 1982, Metallica was apparently so smitten with their lead guitarist’s “Metal up your ass!” declaration that they released a demo called Metal Up Your Ass (the tracks were recorded live at the Old Waldorf in San Francisco using a boom box, according to Encyclopaedia Metallum). But Mustaine took things a little too far and was “kicked out of the band for having an alcohol problem,” as Dengler recalls, which is saying quite a lot. Afterwards, Mustaine went on to found Megadeth and their debut album, Dengler remembers as an “anti-authoritarian” masterpiece that, for a lonely kid who was constantly bullied growing up in Queens, provided him with a sense of refuge and empowerment.
Just as Mustaine was kicked out of Metallica immediately after a breakdown, Dengler, too, left Interpol after a series of rock-bottom moments. His decisive shift from Carlos to Carlos D, from an insecure underachiever to self-assured rock star on an ego trip, also plays out in his reassessment of Motley Crue, a band he’d hated when he was 14. “All that vroom vroom, Girls Girls Girls, fuckin’ LA shit,” he recalls. But suddenly out of nowhere, the persona Carlos D starts idolizing Nikki Sixx, the ultimate symbol of glam metal debauchery. “I became obsessed with the circus,” Dengler says.
At one point, he finds himself in the hospital with a wrist injury after he punches through a mirror during a drunken fit after a fight with his girlfriend. Things were bad all around. “I don’t need food, sleep, or water, just coke, booze, and sex,” he recalls. Things come to a head when Interpol is about to play a show one night. Carlos D is backstage experiencing the height of his “spiritual decay” while gazing into the bathroom mirror. “I can’t feel myself,” he says. “I don’t feel like a human.”
The band framed the departure as an “amicable” one, but Interruptus hints that the departure was more a result of Dengler acting on several epiphanies, all of them leading to a final moment of truth and his decision to shed the Carlos D persona. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say some alien creature falls to earth and inspires Dengler to pursue a state of “grace” rather than self-destruction.
Interruptus isn’t the type of coming-of-age story that follows a neat upward flow from baby boy to adult man. Instead, Dengler only finds his true purpose when he embraces his 14-year-old self. “Stop listening to Motley Crue,” an apparition of a young teenaged Dengler advises a very lost Carlos D. “They suck, they’re posers.” The young headbanger was wiser than he knew.