If you’ve ever watched an old horror movie featuring a carnival or a haunted house, you’ve heard spooky organ music.
Meet Herb Lienau, a man who is bringing that spooky music back, thanks to his one-man carnival-organ-music show, called Herbert.
Herbert will be performing at the Bat Country Summer Slam at the Palms in Twentynine Palms on Saturday, July 4. Yes, he’ll be wearing his trademark creepy mask.
I recently spoke with Lienau at his business in Palm Desert, and we discussed the history of punk rock in the Coachella Valley during the early to mid-’80s. Lienau was very much part of that scene: He played in bands with desert rock greats Scott Reeder (Kyuss), Alfredo Hernandez (Kyuss, Queens of the Stone Age), Mario Lalli (Fatso Jetson), Gary Burns (Deadbolt) and Sean Wheeler (Throw Rag, Sean and Zander), just to name a few. After living in Los Angeles and performing in the band Dead Issue—which later became Darkside, and then Across the River—Lienau returned to the desert.
“I kind of freaked out on acid, and I had to regroup,” he said. “I quit the band and moved back to the desert, and those guys went on to do Across the River. … Me, Mario (Lalli) and Alfredo (Hernandez) all lived together in an apartment in Culver City, and Scott (Reeder) was going to UCLA and living in the dorms there. Good things come out of bad things. It sucks I had to quit the band out of volition, but I had to come home to regroup. Out of that came Across the River, which was an awesome band, and the whole stoner-rock thing happened after that.”
Lienau also had an amusing story to tell about introducing Scott Reeder to the world of punk music.
“He didn’t know any punk or anything,” Lienau said. “He was into Rush and Pink Floyd; that was his thing. I tried to get him into punk, and I took over a copy of Black Flag’s Jealous Again EP and the first T.S.O.L. EP, which were both 12-inch EPs—what you’d call 45s. I took them over so Scott could listen to them and record them (for his own use). So then I was talking to him the next day and asked, ‘So, what do you think?’ He said, ‘It was OK, but T.S.O.L. and Black Flag sort of sound the same to me. It’s kind of slow and …’
“I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He had recorded both of those at 33. … (When played at that speed), they were kind of slow and did sound the same. That’s typical Scott.”
How did Herbert come to fruition? The name, of course, has to do with the fact that Lienau’s full first name is Herbert, but the idea for the concept came to him while he was playing the keyboard.
“I had been messing around with keyboards here and there after always playing guitar and singing in bands,” he said. “I wasn’t in any band at the time or anything, and it was something I could do at home. … I didn’t have to plug a lot in or set up a lot of equipment, so I started like that, just messing around. As time went on, I started accumulating a lot of different things. I asked myself, ‘How could I put this together and play somewhere?’”
As for his costume?
“I had this old man mask I’d wear to scare my daughter,” he said. “I used to chase her around and say I was Grandpa Daddy, and I’d be all like, ‘Look at Grandpa Daddy!’ On Halloween, the kids would all come, and I’d freak them out by giving out candy while wearing that mask. So I figured I’d wear the mask, and that way, while I was still trying to get the feel on the keyboard thing, I didn’t have to put myself out there entirely. I could hide behind the mask—plus I always wanted to do something with a mask. That’s kind of how it’s been evolving, and I grew up with the Shakey’s piano-player guy when I was a kid.“
The response Herbert has received from audiences has been interesting. He’s played local shows at The Hood Bar and Pizza and Schmidy’s Tavern; he’s also played at BB Ingle’s Halloween Party.
“Some people just do not get it at all. It’s weird to them, and they’re creeped out by it, which is fine, because I get entertainment out of that,” Lienau said. “At BBs, it was kind of a trippy thing, and I liked the fact that I was in my own corner. (They) said, ‘Just play whenever, and if you don’t feel like playing, just walk around.’ I did three sets and walked around.”
The Herbert set includes typical carnival-organ music—with some covers thrown in, such as “Angie” by the Rolling Stones, “Hotel California” by the Eagles, and Booker T’s “Green Onions.”
“I have 13 songs, and a half hour to 45 minutes worth of live material. I have about six covers, and the others are all instrumentals. I wasn’t planning on singing and was just going to do instrumentals, but at home, I put together this medley, and I realized ‘Hotel California,’ ‘Angie’ and ‘Let the Sun Shine In’ are basically the same song. So I kind of merged the three together playing them instrumentally, and eventually split them up. It’s just sort of evolved as I’ve gotten better and more comfortable.”
As for the Bat Country Summer Slam, Lienau said attendees who catch the Herbert set will get a surprise—a surprise which he refused to reveal.
“I like (the Palms),” he said. “It’s way out in the middle of nowhere, but it’s really cool and peaceful. I’ve seen a couple of different incarnations of Rikk Agnew out there, and it’s so cool that he came out to do that. Zach (Huskey) mentioned it to me. … They definitely didn’t need to add me, but I was glad that they put me on there.”
The Bat Country Summer Slam takes place at a time to be determined on Saturday, July 4, at the Palms, 83131 Amboy Road, in Twentynine Palms. Admission to the all-ages show is $10 at the door. For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page. For more information on Herbert, visit herbsorgan.com.