Talking With Tulip Sweet Part 1

Tulip Sweet and Her Trail of Tears Saturday, March 6th will mark the premier of Schoolhouse Roxx, PS122’s new late-night performance series exploring the intersection of live music and performance art. Stephanie Dickson and Tom Siler have been exploring that intersection for over a decade in St. Paul, Minnesota and more recently here in New York, so it seems appropriate that their band, Tulip Sweet and her Trail of Tears, which now features Johnny O’Halloran on drums, was chosen to headline the show on the 6th. In 2001, Tulip Sweet and her Trail of Tears were named the Twin City Pages’ Artists of the Year. That fall, they moved to Brooklyn, and have since been playing at CBGB, Pedro’s Bar, XPO, Buttermilk and other venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

I got a chance to speak with Steph and Tom between sets at Buttermilk, a neighborhood bar in Park Slope.

How did you guys first meet?

Tom: She was in a band called Bean Girl that was formed by her and a guy that I used to play with, and a band called Hot Devil.

Steph: He saw me at a party with a big ugly mask on my face and he was on a really bad date.

Tom: I put the ugly mask on your face.

Steph: No, I put it on.

Tom: I pulled it down off the wall.

Steph: I put it right on.

Tom: I gave it to you.

Steph: Yeah, you gave it to me–

Tom: I gave it to you to put on–

Steph: –but you didn’t put it on me.

Tom: –and you put it on.

Steph: And I started–

Tom: And she started–

Steph: –dancing around like a real slut in this ugly mask and–

Tom: No, you were acting a like a dorky guy.

Steph: A dorky weirdo.

Tom: Yeah.

Steph: And then he got really bored with his blind date because of it and then we became friends, because he’d rather be hanging out with me.

Tom: Because I figured I knew what she should wear…

Steph: Yeah.

Tom: …those kind of masks. What was that mask anyway, was it like a tribal face mask?

Steph: No, it was like the guy in the Goonies, it was like a big bald-headed mohawk monster head.

Tom: I don’t know who the Goonies are.

So what was Beangirl like?

Steph: It was like a rag-tag rat-a-tat-tat band of freaks that at one point had at least twelve people. It had accordions and trombones and a lot of fanfare and costumes. And, uh…

Tom: Bongo players

Steph: Everything: conga drums. Any instrument that you could find absurd was in that band.

And you were the front person?

Steph: Yeah. I rode a banana-seat bike with an ashtray affixed to the front on the stage that Prince played on in Purple rain, popping wheelies.

Tom: In a bordering town of St. Paul.

Steph: Yeah, a town that borders St. Paul, Minnesota.

So what other projects have you been doing over the years?

Tom: The King of France, The Odd–

Steph: We had a heavy metal band called Hot Devil.


Tom: Yeah. That was short-lived. Um… the Odd and Larmes de Colère, which is French for “Tears of Rage”- The silent rage deep within us all.

So is there a common thread that runs through all your projects?

Tom: The silent rage deep within us all.

Steph: Rage.

Tom laughs

Rage. Awesome. In the past had it always been just the two of you? Recently, Steph’s boyfriend Johnny brought his playful, unassuming drumming to the act. Is having a drummer a new thing?

Tom: It’s always been the two of us and then–

Steph: We augment ourselves.

Tom: –and then whenever we run into people who we get along with, we work with them.

I’m told you guys were famous in Minneapolis. How come you left?

Steph: Well, we tried to make the get out of town issue [of the Twin City Pages] which we did.

Tom: But we were Artists of the Year instead.

Steph: We won all the awards that you can win there by being an asshole.

So are you going to win all those awards here?

Steph: I don’t think they have those.

Tom laughs.

Everyone’s already an asshole.

Steph: Everyone’s just an asshole. No special award for it here.

So are you going to get famous here?

Steph: I doubt it.

Tom: That depends on “them”: the people.

Steph: I think that…I don’t know.

Your songs are really well served by Tom’s quirky, versatile synth arrangements. How does your musical collaboration work?

Steph: Well, we browbeat each other.

You browbeat each other?

Tom: Yeah.

I mean, does Steph usually write the words and Tom write the music or is it more fluid?

Tom: It goes both ways. Sometimes I’ll come up with the chords and song and everything, maybe a title, like “Constant State of Desire” and then you’ll take it and do the lyrics.

Steph: Sometimes I’ll write the whole song all by myself–

Tom: Sometimes she’ll write the whole thing and then I’ll change it completely.

Steph: — and then he’ll arrange it to be more weird. I write church camp style songs and then I want to make them more minor and weird.

So which came first for you guys, the songs or this act?

Steph: What act?

Tom laughs.

I mean, you’ve got Tom and Johnny playing it straight as the Trail of Tears, while Stephanie seems like she’s channeling a manic depressive teenager, climbing on furniture one moment, lying on her back with her legs in the air like a dead insect the next. So I guess what I want to know is where does Steph end and Tulip begin?

Steph: I’ve been trying to figure that out for years. I don’t know.

Tom: She thought she was gonna try and get out of Beangirl when she joined this group.

Steph: I can’t get away from myself.

Tom: But it’s still the same character…onstage and off. She’s trapped within the limitations of her own imagination. No, not the limitations…

Steph: The expanses.

Tom: The expanses…the peaks and valleys.

Click here to read part 2 of the interview.

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