Never mind Sharon Osbourne, let alone Piers Morgan. In the wake of July's appearance on its biggest stage yet -- the nationally televised NBC talent contest -- the art-rockin' stage troupe is back to work, touring old shows and developing a new one.
But first, a few words about AGT, and those judges' comments.
"We knew we could never win," admits Squonk co-founder Jackie Dempsey. In fact, to this day the group known for its complex musical compositions and surreal stagecraft is in the dark about who decided to ask it (a year ago) to audition for a show typified by ballad singers, acrobatic dancers and novelty acts. America's got talent, sure -- but the Americans who cast phone-in ballots for reality shows seem to prefer the familiar to the outré.
But what the hell, thought the Squonkers -- they'd already incongruously played Broadway, right across the street from The Phantom of the Opera. And the group, after all, has toured internationally for years, to critical acclaim.
Squonk survived early AGT auditions, including one in Minnesota for judges Morgan, Osbourne and Howie Mandel. And when the six musicians and their gear were shipped to Las Vegas for a second audition, they were mysteriously promoted to the Hollywood round -- the one on TV, featuring this season's top 48 acts -- without even having to perform.
To this day, Dempsey told CP this week, the group doesn't know who at AGT was advocating so hard for Squonk, despite the group's idiosyncracies.
In AGT land, said idiosyncracies included refusing to cover someone else's music, despite being repeatedly asked to do so by AGT personnel. "You'll get a lot more votes from America if you do a cover," Dempsey says they were told.
"The show doesn't really seem to celebrate creativity," Dempsey adds. Once, she says, she saw Osbourne tell another contestant, a female singer-songwriter: "We really love your voice, we think you're really talented, but we can't judge you unless you play a song we already know."
"Songwriting is actually a talent," Dempsey says. "But they just don't see it that way."
"If we would have played ‘Billie Jean' or something, we could have won a million bucks," she jokes. (The show's grand prize is $1 million.)
Instead, on its July 12 TV appearance, Squonk performed a truncated, 90-second version of "Majesty," the finale to its newest show, 2011's Mayhem and Majesty. The production came complete with video projections on screens rising from the stage, singer Autumn Ayers riding on the moon, and co-founder and horn-player Steve O'Hearn doing his best impersonation of a cherub, complete with wings.
Then the judges spoke.
"It really was not good, the song," said Osbourne. "It messed with my head."
"This is what I imagine hell is like," said Morgan.
While Osbourne did praise Squonk's musicianship, the only judge who didn't "buzz" the group was Howie Mandel, who puckishly told the performers, "When you watch you, it's kind of like a drug, and I didn't know where I was."
Dempsey says she was really surprised only by designated "mean guy" Morgan's jabs at Squonk's technical proficiency, including his comment that Dempsey had missed every third note on her keyboard. "I was really taken aback, because that wasn't happening," she says.
While AGT doesn't reveal audience-vote totals, Squonk didn't make it to the next round. Six weeks later, this season's remaining AGT contestants included motorcycle daredevils, the splashy Miami All-Stars dance troupe and a jump-rope team.
Meanwhile, as of Aug. 23, the YouTube page featuring the group's appearance had garnered 36,042 views and similarly divided responses. There were 170 "dislikes" ("dreadful," "HORRIBLE") and 118 "likes" ("exciting," "not as good as jackie evancho but alright I guess").
Interviewed this week, Dempsey wouldn't bite on the question "What would you do differently?" But she did acknowledge that Squonk's production design wasn't ideal for television. The group always performs live, in person, and O'Hearn designs the set in a sort of widescreen format. "We're used to people seeing the whole picture all the time," she says. But with TV cameras isolating performers and stage elements, "That's not what America saw."
Still, no regrets. "We got what we wanted in terms of exposure," says Dempsey, adding, "We're glad to move on from it."
And moving on they are … with new promotional materials that include the quote: "‘Completely bonkers' -- Piers Morgan."
In fact, you can see Squonk (www.squonkopera.org) live as soon as next week. The troupe has two bookings for its extraterrestrial-themed show Astro-Rama, both just a couple hours' drive from home.
The first is Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, at Frostburg State University, in Maryland. (The "UFO" that crashes to promote the show is set to land on campus this weekend.) And on Sept. 16 and 17, Squonk performs Astro-Rama in Cleveland, as part of the new-media-themed Ingenuity Festival. "We're calling it our peace mission to Cleveland, to encourage Pittsburghers to come," says Dempsey.
Those shows will be your first chances to see Astro-Rama nearby since its Pittsbugh-premiere run, in October 2008 in Schenley Plaza. (The show was the subject of the inaugural Program Notes blog post: www.pittsburghcitypaper.ws/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A54008.)
And that's not all the post-AGT Squonk is up to. It's still touring its celebrate-your-town show Hometown Opera Series (with the 22nd venue, in Elizabethtown, Ky., forthcoming). It's still touring Mayhem and Majesty. And it's starting work on a new project it hopes to premiere next summer, for the troupe's 20th anniversary, right here in Pittsburgh.