“In 1963, Lyndon B. Johnson gave me syphilis!” roars ONO lead vocalist and performance artist Travis as he stands, commanding and statuesque, in a white wedding dress atop an amplifier at The Burlington in Chicago, before snaking his way downstage and into the masses below. Travis’s words resound in the dark room, his operatic dress aflame in neon pink and green stagelight, as a swirling disco ball plays on the faces of the transfixed crowd. ONO composer P. Michael’s bass-driven grooves undulate amidst samplers and drum machines, steady and cool. P. Michael wears a high-necked black tunic, understated and reserved compared to the spectacle that is Travis’s performance. Behind them, the greater ONO ensemble builds an overlaid cacophony of noise: drums, keyboard, modular synthesizer, guitar, and homemade electronic percussion join, often in different keys, to create an avant-garde mix of consonance and dissonance. The sound is both inviting and experimental, oscillating between accessible funk and industrial and harsh noise, creating an oceanic experience akin to a church service.
Travis, our queer black punk preacher, sheds his wedding gown, dons a backless sequined gold frock, and tells the crowd about the darker side of American history, singing of the famous Tuskegee syphilis experiments and government exploitation of a poor Black community. Travis appears an otherworldly specter, a pair of white children’s stockings stretched across his gaping mouth; the stocking feet dangle surreally from the top of his skull like a bunny rabbit in a Lynchian nightmare. “Tuskegee, syphilis, conceal, carry,” booms his microphone through the noise. On stage he’s quick-moving and lithe, a ball of energy beyond his 69 years, his unkempt gray beard the only consolation to the crowd’s 20-somethings, reminding us that he is more than three times our age yet boasts unquestionably more joie de vivre. A quick scan of the crowd surrounding, nodding, and often embracing Travis shows all faces engaged, lost in each emotive moment.
The abrasiveness of the set, balanced by its proximity to the effervescence of a religious service, is deeply intentional and rooted in ONO’s 36-year prevailing ideology on music and performance. ONO is short for onomatopoeia, and their ethos is, succinctly, noise before music. Travis is known to introduce shows by shouting, “If you came for music, leave now!” delighting those who have come to witness the strange marriage of Travis’s spoken word performance art and P. Michael’s musical bricolage.
Since the band’s inception nearly four decades ago, on January 5th, 1980, ONO have become one of Chicago’s most beloved musical secrets. Despite the intimidating nature of their music, founding members P. Michael and Travis—they don’t use last names—are open and welcoming as we chat in Travis’s home in the Jeffrey Manor neighborhood of Chicago’s south side. The house is filled with Travis’s artwork and abutted by his splendid green backyard and zucchini garden. “Chicago in the summertime is the end of the world,” he gushes, explaining how the band meets here to practice every Sunday. The ONO progenitors are full of warmth, nostalgia, and affection recounting their victories and tribulations as a band, still excited to write words and music after all these years. The longtime creative partners are perfect foils: Travis is theatrical, frenetic and bubbling over with words, while P. Michael’s manner is more understated, with a subtle smile and a soft, mirthful laugh. I can tell after years of interviews with Travis that P. Michael’s conversational intuition matches his musical intuition; he knows when to hang back, letting Travis perform their wildest stories, and, after a sizable digression, when to steady and steer us back on course. They razz one another like family, then proudly talk up each other’s strong suits. Although he regularly intones, proudly and paradoxically, that he hates music, Travis is a lyrical speaker, with a calming, theatrical vocal cadence and a tendency to over-annunciate every fourth or fifth word. As the afternoon progresses and they wax nostalgic, I feel like the luckiest music nerd alive, listening to stories spanning back to their first bill with Naked Raygun and their time releasing records alongside contemporaries such as Sonic Youth, Swans, Suicide, Flipper, Throbbing Gristle, and Big Black.
ONO dates back to 1979, when Kathy Brooks, a Shakespearean actress and mutual friend, introduced P. Michael to Travis in Chicago. Travis lovingly describes Brooks as a “wild, wild, wild woman who always carried a machete in her purse,” to which P. Michael knowingly nods. “She was the original punkette,” he asserts. The young trio went to shows at the historic La Mere Vipere, a gay dance club that would become Chicago’s first great punk venue before it burned down. “It was crazy,” Travis recalls, “there were art school punks the likes of which I had never seen as a boy from Mississippi!” This is quite the statement, considering that Travis performed experimental poetry clad only in a jockstrap in Cleveland before moving to Chicago. In fact, Chicago was only a pit stop for Travis, newly discharged from the army after serving in the Vietnam War; he was on his way to New Mexico to join an ashram and study to be a Kundalini Sikh. When P. Michael suggested they start a band, Travis protested.
“I hate music! I never intended in my life to compete with musicians,” Travis claims. But P. Michael appealed to the performer in Travis, assuring him they were going to make noise, not music. They established a rigorous practice schedule in the basement of P. Michael’s family home, and so began the most fruitful creative partnership of their lives.
“There is a character who is performing, because many of the pieces have to do with my military experience, including Vietnam. These would not be possible to perform as myself without hurting myself. I saw what Black bodies went through in Vietnam, and I live on the south side of Chicago and see what all the people live with there. To America, as a Black body, I am noise.”
P. Michael grew up in Chicago’s West Chesterfield neighborhood, just west of Travis’s current home. As a boy, his block was a rich alcove of talented ’60s soul musicians. Artists like Mahalia Jackson, Carl Davis, Curtis Mayfield, and Calvin Carter hung out like friends at a schoolyard and filled his childhood with sound.
“We had musicians all up and down the block,” he recalls. “During the summertime we’d get to watch all these R&B artists singing their hit songs. I used to go to Carl Davis’s house and play. Mary Wells would be sitting at the bar drinking with that big bouffant, smoking.” He laughs. P. Michael’s father was a record collector and saxophone player, and both parents were encouraging when their son picked up bass guitar and later assembled early iterations of ONO in their basement. “His parents tolerated all of this ONO madness from the very beginning,” Travis beams. “All that racket—it was harsh, and they dealt with it, no questions. His house was full of sun and creativity.”
The young band practiced every Monday, Friday, and Saturday, beginning a hectic period of burgeoning inspiration that drew from other artistic performances and large-scale church services. Both remember the awe of attending Chicago’s largest Catholic mass, held by Pope John Paul II (“the original cool pope,” P. Michael remarks) in 1979. “It was drama,” Travis tells me. “I roller-skated from my office and met him at Pope John Paul II’s mass. P. Michael insisted as a continuation of rehearsal that we go out and see other acts—Klaus Nomi, Ornette Coleman, Captain Beefheart—and that we go to church. He knew that all levels of performance intersect with ONO.” After their first show at the original Chicago Exit venue with Naked Raygun, ONO took on accordion player Dr. Shannon Rose Riley—introduced to them by Ministry’s Al Jourgensen—and saxophonist Ric Graham, who still maintains the ONO archives. The band went on to release two albums: Machines That Kill People (1982) and Ennui (1986) on Thermidor records, sharing a label with Flipper, Minutemen, and The Birthday Party.
Audiences were not primed for a harsh experimental noise set led by a flamboyant performance artist. ONO was one of the weirdest acts out there: Travis would make a racket with garbage cans and portions of sheet metal, accompanied by a series of outlandish costume changes. At Chicago’s Navy Pier, jockstrap-clad Travis performed from inside a cage as they opened for Glenn Branca’s Symphony of Guitars, an ensemble that included, among others, Michael Gira and Thurston Moore.
As early pioneers of weird, boundary-pushing noise rock, the band experienced pushback, disdain, and even violence from crowds. P. Michael and Travis recall a particularly nasty 1984 incident at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where a few jock bros whipped coins at a talented noise musician while he was performing prior to ONO’s set. “Three of them throwing coins, and coins can hurt!” Travis says. “So ONO came on, and we put chains and garbage-can metal out in front, and I said, ‘You want some action? I’ll put your ass in traction!’ And this flood of sound came out of P. Michael, and they just left! It would have been better if they’d really heard us instead of leaving, because I’m not trying to get rid of you—I want you to see other facets of who I am and who you are, who we are!”
As a queer Black Vietnam War veteran originally from rural Mississippi, these were not the first venues in which Travis had experienced hostility in response to his unfettered self-expression. He draws from these experiences when writing lyrics and when crafting his intricate series of outfits for each performance. Travis grew up on a dirt road in rural Itawamba County, Mississippi, and was raised by a series of strong-willed female relatives he lovingly refers to as “big, mean women who’d put you in your place!” His aunt India drove him regularly to Birmingham, Alabama, where she shopped for designer dresses—“she could not ride her bike down our dirt road without a designer frock on!” Travis says—and filled their modest home with trunks of beautiful frocks, which Travis used for his own private operas.
“I had years of playing dress-up!” he recounts. “I loved the fashion! Every time I found a dead animal in the yard, I would give it a formal funeral and sing for it and wear frocks!” His performance in ONO serves as catharsis, a way to process and commune with past trauma, both his own and that of American history. His lyrics discuss historical travesties like Tuskegee and Vietnam, gun violence in present-day Chicago, gender and sexuality issues, and other such themes. To Travis, making noise is as conceptual as it is aesthetic. “Travis is not performing,” he tells me, speaking in the third person. “There is a character who is performing, because many of the pieces have to do with my military experience, including Vietnam. These would not be possible to perform as myself without hurting myself. I saw what Black bodies went through in Vietnam, and I live on the south side of Chicago and see what all the people live with there. To America, as a Black body, I am noise.”
ONO did not break up in the late ’80s, but slowly stopped performing. As time passed, each member focused on other projects. Then, in 2007, after a long hiatus, Steve Krakow (of psychedelic rock outfit Plastic Crimewave Syndicate) wrote about ONO for his Chicago Reader series The Secret History of Chicago Music, lauding the group as pivotal Chicago musicians who’ve not gotten their just dues. Soon after, Kraków convinced the pair to broker a reunion, and an ONO resurgence was sparked. Since then, they’ve released three albums—Albino (2012), Diegesis (2014), and Spooks (2015), all on Chicago’s Moniker label.
Moniker founder Robert Cole Manis expounds on ONO’s singular role in punk history. “ONO transcends the norm: a group who has undergone two periods of activity, first in the ’80’s, and now in the new millennium,” he says “Who does that and achieves notoriety the second time around? It is because ONO is unlike any other act that has graced the staged or hit the record button in the studio. Their mixture of gospel noise, industrial, performance art, and beautiful madness has never been imitated or copied—they stand alone in a massive world of make-believe art.”
Since their 2007 resurgence, the band has gone on two cross-country tours, and they have every intention of continuing. P. Michael and Travis gush about the tour that took them to Boston, finally sharing a bill with old Thermidor labelmates Flipper, whom they’d never met. Flipper surprised ONO with a tribute, rearranging a song to include Travis’s lyrics to the song “Snatch.” “Flipper’s onstage singing Travis’s lyrics,” P. Michael recalls with a smile. “They’re up there singing ‘Ever touch a man’s penis for old times’ sake?’”
“The Flipper show was the end of civilization,” Travis says. “David Yow is a madman and I love him dearly. It was a dynamic moment, very surreal; we left Boston after having the most amazing conversations.”
On tour, P. Michael and Travis were struck by the number of youths they connected with after choosing to end their set with a cover of Lou Reed’s “Heroin.” Show after show, young fans came up to the two to confess their personal drug experiences, allowing the touring musicians to experience firsthand the symptoms of the wider American opioid epidemic. Despite having never experienced the pain of drug addiction themselves, they lent empathy and support.
An ONO show is about communion and inclusivity, functioning like an all-welcoming church service in more than just an aesthetic sense. Every show has a predetermined premise, and “there are bits of samples that relate to the premise, or theme, of each show—like a homily, gospel, and epistles, the music taking everyone to a place together, connecting people,” P. Michael says. Even the band’s Facebook page has become a place of community and acceptance. “I’ll get messages from these young fans overseas, in the Middle East and India,” P. Michael says, “living in places where they’re stigmatized for the way they dress or their sexuality, saying the photos [of the band] are beautiful.” ONO’s music and imagery provide a platform for isolated, alienated people to connect and feel hopeful.
The current ONO lineup includes a battery of accomplished Chicago musicians, including keyboardist Rebecca Pavlatos, percussionist Connor Tomaka, drummer Ben Baker Billington, synth composer Brett Naucke, and guitarist Dawei Wang. “I’m so pleased that P. Michael has brought all this young blood in ONO,” Travis raves. “These people have their own issues, their own successful bands, and they indulge me in going where I want to go creatively.” In the fall, the band will embark on their first tour of the American South, with Virginia freak-punk band Buck Gooter.
As always, their live show promises to be something unexpected. “You have all these ideas happening in the service,” Travis says, “and then the possession occurs. People roll on their bellies like reptiles! Because when it gets good to you, honey, you just can’t help yourself! You can’t stop. And so when we are in the midst of it, there’s the complete abandonment of self to the performance.”
Profile and photography by Sarah Jane Quillin.