An Interview with the Voice Behind Longmont Potion Castle, One of the Best Cult Prank Callers of the Last Three Decades
He came up as “Mummy Napkin” on the caller ID and the interview ended with him calling Ric Flair.
Prank phone calls can get a bad rap. Words like “juvenile” or “childish” are often used to describe the action of stifling giggles with your junior high school buddies while you inquire of an unsuspecting stranger if their refrigerator is running, or ask to speak to Seymour Butts. Some shock-jock morning radio DJs like Howard Stern and Opie & Anthony have successfully used the form to fill airtime, and the Jerky Boys did release multiple platinum albums of crank phone call recordings in the 1990s. So the childishness has seen some success, but the fact remains that the thrills these calls provide are definitely cheap, and usually base level, lowest common denominator-type stuff. The idea that prank calls could actually be executed in an innovative, intriguing and artistic way—while simultaneously giving you that “I’m laughing so hard I think I might die” feeling—would probably not even cross the minds of most people.
Enter Longmont Potion Castle, the Fugazi of prank phone calls.
Longmont phones public figures such as Alex Trebek, Ric Flair, Kiefer Sutherland, and GG Allin. These calls offer an unguarded, un-veneered glimpse into the reality of these famous peoples’ personal psyches, and, at the very least, shows you at what point certain celebrities absolutely lose their shit. This uniquely absurd confusion and rage is created, fostered, and fleshed out before our ears.
LPC calls Radioshack, Sam Goody, and GameStop to check to see if they have some non-existent product in stock. Requests for products such as a “coaxial rimrod,” some “helium ointment,” or the latest R&B single from Dugan Nash and Orville Sash leave irritable store clerks in a state of utter befuddlement. Calling a guitar shop, the anonymous Longmont guy asks if any trombonists on staff are well versed in the style of the "Montoyan / Artesian Connection." Of course, such a thing does not exist. It is pure nonsense. Yet the guitar store guy tries to pretend like he knows what he’s talking about, and hints at a vague desire to jam with him.
At times he would phone live call-in talk radio financial investment programs, claiming to have a “surefire investment idea,” only to throw his voice through a digital delay pedal and guitar amplifier once the hosts of the show have taken the bait. This, of course, causes a dramatic deep pitch shift in his voice, and a squealing feedback loop that goes out live onto nationwide terrestrial radio. Further utter befuddlement ensues.
There are several things that set LPC apart from other crank-style comedy. One of them being that despite the fact that he has been releasing cult prank call records on independent labels for close to three decades (the first album came out in 1988, when he was 16 years old and it was recorded on his parents’ answering machine), there is very little to be found on the internet about the person behind Longmont. A cursory Google search will find his sparse official website, his Wikipedia page, and that’s about it. He’s never been interviewed extensively before (the below interview is the most “press” he’s ever really done). Some links to reviews of his albums come up 404 Not Found. More dead ends. His identity has remained unknown for his entire career. There is a sort of unique mystery to Longmont. Many mainsteam and DIY bands have espoused fandom for the project, and LPC’s initial spread was through word of mouth and cassette tape trading on the indie and punk rock touring circuits. This led many to believe that it was possible that the identity of the Longmont “man behind the curtain” was shrouded in secrecy because he was actually a prominent figure in some big important band (or bands). Was this the case?
Last month, he released his new album, Longmont Potion Castle 12, though it is actually his thirteenth album, despite the title. There is a definite cerebral quality to the enjoyment of LPC. His diction, and use of the English language as a tool for chaos is perfect and completely intellectually satisfying in its absurdity. At the risk of being hyperbolic here, I would venture to say that his knack for using nonsense words and scenarios to inspire pure madness in the people he’s on the phone with is unparalleled genius.
For someone whose identity is so secretive, whose career is based in practical anonymity, getting in touch with him was remarkably easy. I cold-emailed the contact he has listed on his website. I received a response from Grover Knox (absolutely an assumed name) within an hour. He asked whether we should conduct the interview through email or over the phone. I thought, obviously, that we should do it over the phone. That is his medium. He wrote back: “Ok, I’ll call you. What’s your number?” To say I was reticent to give him my personal information is an understatement. Eventually, at the risk of ending up on LPC 13, I gave him the number. When he called an hour later, his phone number was blocked on my caller ID, and his name came up as “Mummy Napkin.” Of course it did.
Noisey: On the new album, Longmont Potion Castle 12, a call from you brings Kiefer Sutherland to such an infuriated point, that he threatens litigation against UPS. In the past you’ve prank called many other notable names. How do you come across these famous peoples’ phone numbers?
Longmont Potion Castle: From early on, I seemed to have a knack for enraging people. All of those public figures, and most of the businesses I call, are phone numbers that fans or friends refer me to. People will say, “This GameStop has a real jerky manager, you should call them,” or “This tire shop would be a great call.” I’ve talked to Alex Trebek more than two dozen times, and he seems to welcome it because he hasn’t changed his number for years and years. Kiefer Sutherland changed his number immediately after talking to me one time for four minutes.
What is it about portraying a UPS employee or a teamster, claiming that you’re trying to deliver a Cash On Delivery package of peacock meat from Lithuania, or pounds of Plaster of Paris, or lamb from Lebanon, millipedes from Alaska, etc. that brings out such an aggressively defensive reaction from the people you’re calling? What is it about that call dynamic specifically, that brings out such an infuriated response?
Have you ever dealt with teamsters?
They kind of present themselves like the Raiders of the labor movement, and they also represent UPS. They definitely do things their own way. I’ve had some run-ins with them, and have had issues with UPS. It’s very maddening. I’m kind of picking on UPS more than I am the people I’m calling. The whole idea of “You’re gonna get your package when, and only when, we feel you’ve earned it.”
And especially because it’s framed in this way that the package isn’t even something the person on the other end of the phone has even ordered or would ever want.
Exactly. It’s this rogue attitude. “We’re going to make you jump through hoops, and we’ll see if you get your package at the end. That sound good?”
It seems to be your most returned-to theme. I feel like you’ve done at least one UPS call on every Longmont release.
Yeah. I don’t know, is it too much by this point?
No! It’s great. It’s like when a band you enjoy plays the song you want to hear most as their encore.
That’s an outstanding analogy, I think. I’ve always sort of viewed Longmont as kind of like a band.
Is your approach to releasing new LPC albums similar to that of a band making an album? Do you set out to write and produce what makes up the record?
Yes. Record albums are my favorite form of art and entertainment. Of course, movies are a big thing culturally and everything, but it’s really not possible to make a movie alone. Even independent movies, they’re not truly “independent.” It’s very freeing making albums. In the beginning, I was making LPC recordings 24/7. It was just what I was doing. Over time, as I’ve gotten older, I have intentionally set out to get it together and make a well-rounded album and get a little bit more deliberate with it.
That makes sense. I think most musicians, if they start out when they’re younger, they are just doing it for the sake of doing it but, as time goes on, and you are on your thirteenth record in almost three decades now… It has to become a more routine or deliberate process.
There are things in LPC that have gotten to be mainstays. I make sure there’s a “theme” song on every album, I make sure there’s a musical interlude. There are these fixtures that are peppered throughout. That form is part of it. I just love making albums. They’re not musical in nature exactly, but they’re very close. When I listen to a lot of other prank call albums, there’s usually some element of music on there. I love metal, punk, and hardcore, so I figured I’d add that as my musical element.
Do you have an agenda when you call a private residence? Do you approach it with specific fake names you’ll use (Dirk Funk, Nannette Nananacci, Dugan Nash, Towlette Pettetucci, Levi Goulet, Buddy Gripple, Tanyo Lubbock)? Do you have bullet points up your sleeve that you want to get to, or do you let the call kind of lead itself and just react to it on the fly?
Only lately in the past couple of years have I had some notes of premeditated ideas, or names I want to use. In the past, I never really did that. It was mostly improvisational. Recently, I figured: why not try to write this stuff down and go into it with some notes?
I had a brief encounter with having my own TV show about five years ago. It was all set up and ready to go, but the network yanked it at the last possible second. They were very uncomfortable with the idea of the show being unscripted, and also with some of the more organic and improv elements that I wanted to use. They wanted a guarantee that something good was actually going to happen, and didn’t want to rely on spontaneity. Even though the TV show didn’t come together, I sort of thought, “Well, if I’m going to keep doing this, maybe I should structure it a little bit so that I know something good is going to come out of it.”
LPC pre-dates The Jerky Boys, Tom Green, Jackass, and Crank Yankers. How do you feel about other prank comedy?
I have nothing against the Jerky Boys. I like them. I wasn’t aware of their albums as it was really happening for them, only after they got huge. Like, before the movie came out, I wasn’t really paying attention to them. Their albums are fine, and I have nothing bad to say about them. When the movie came out and they were a huge mainstream success, I thought that maybe I would experience some good fortune with my own stuff as well. It happened a little bit.
Sort of like when Nirvana became the biggest band in the world and major labels grabbed every grunge band in Seattle, threw it all against the wall to see what would stick. That kind of thing?
Yeah. I thought, perhaps that would happen on a smaller scale for the prank call “genre.” It sort of fizzled out though. But going back to my brief brush with making a television show—that’s related to this. We met with a bunch of networks. We ended up with Adult Swim. During that process, they were saying, “You really need writers because even Adam Carrolla has writers for Crank Yankers, and he’s THE BEST PRANK CALLER EVER.” Those were their words, not my own. I don’t even care about that show.
I feel like Adult Swim would have been a good home for LPC. Tim and Eric must be huge fans of yours. Their whole aesthetic seems very informed by the Longmont style.
The programming of Adult Swim makes me think that they must be interested in just weird dudes, or something. I’ve never met them, but I like Tim and Eric. They go places with their material that I would not go to, like I’m not a very scatological person. I prefer adding as much nonsense as I can fit in, with a grain of relatability to it.
You resonate with many touring bands. Bands that have said they are fans of yours span from The War On Drugs, Jimmy Eat World, and Sublime, to Screaming Females, Mike Watt, the Dirty Projectors and many more. What do you think it is about your records that resonates so much with punk and indie rock bands?
I play music, and that must come across in the Longmont stuff, that maybe I am coming from the same place as bands that are out there in vans on tour. I call record stores, music shops; things like that. I use a lot of music gear to make the recordings, and I’ve been told that I use effect pedals in a way that others wouldn’t necessarily think to use them. I’ve also been told that LPC is very punk rock in nature. So the albums aren’t musical exactly, but like I said before, they’re very close. I think there is overlap there, and I think that comes through.
What are some of your comedic influences?
My references are very old, I’ve been told. Like the Jerry Lewis prank calls he would make, at the time it seemed unprecedented to do that. I’m just such a big fan of prank calls. Anything I could find, I would pick up. I’ve seen Stephen Wright a number of times. As far as contemporary stuff, I think Key and Peele are amazing. I know that some people are all about Monty Python. I certainly appreciate it, but I’m not one of those people. I was sort of isolated [when I was younger], to some extent. It’s more like influences of what not to do.
What rig do you use to manipulate your voice, and how has it changed since you started doing it in the 80s?
I was using just a cassette answering machine when I started. Then, I incorporated a guitar amp with a microphone and an Echoplex pedal, and putting the phone in front of the guitar amp. That got switched to a digital interface, and a DAT recorder. Then I had a rig that was initially intended for call-in talk radio programs. Currently, I use a Neumann KMS105 vocal mic with a Universal Audio 2-610 tube mic preamp, and that goes into my favorite digital delay pedal, the Digitech 8 Second Time Machine. Back in the 80s, when these Time Machine delay pedals came out, you would have to buy every time increment as a separate pedal. They had one-second delay pedal, they had 1.1-second pedal, 1.2-seconds… all the way up to eight seconds. So I have the rack-mount eight-second. I don’t know anyone else who would have a $3,000 vocal rig to make prank phone call recordings.
A lot of the humor is not only in the situations you put the people you are calling in, but in the diction and syntax of your made up nonsense words. Where does your skill with weaving language together come from?
I studied English, and excelled the most in language arts. I used to read the dictionary as a kid. I’ve gotten more southern-sounding in these more recent recordings. I’m originally from Texas, so that appears to be in my blood and I use that a lot. I’ve lived in Texas, Denver, Maui, Los Angeles, Benelux in Europe, Littleton. I’ve moved around a lot. Too much, actually. I definitely pick up on different vernaculars and I just use them, sometimes subconsciously. I’ll even switch my voice or approach mid-call, without even knowing it.
Does that keep these people from just flat-out hanging up on you? If you feel like the fish is getting off the hook a little before you’re ready for the call to be over, does that switch in approach keep them on the line a little longer?
You start to notice patterns in peoples’ reactions after doing it for so long. To me, it doesn’t matter how long the call is. You can get great stuff in a minute or two. Sometime though the longer it goes the better it is. It’s a weird skill to have, feeling that out and knowing how to do it.
How many hours of phone calls do you make over the process of producing an album? How much gets left on the cutting room floor, versus what makes it on the record?
Some material on the new album, like “Walrus”, that one took a week of calling and recording and editing to come together to form an eight-minute track. That one was very much “audio juggling,” getting three to five people on the phone at the same time. But sometimes you get on the phone, and you have a great four or five minutes, like the Kiefer Sutherland call on the new album. The amount of time it took to have that conversation, that was how long that took to produce. It can either take a week to reach a goal, or you can go in to a call without even having a goal and it can take only minutes to get a great result.
The vague and light physical “threats” you make to the people you call (“I’m gonna hit you with a tennis racket,” “You will be tumbling through ointment in a minute,” “I will strategically maneuver donuts throughout your store”) are so minor and sort of good-spirited and funny in nature, that it’s difficult to imagine why these people end up reacting so aggressively. What happens to the mental state of a person realizing they’re on the receiving end of a prank call, and can you explain why they get so violently defensive?
I used to think it was specific to the rural Colorado mentality, but it turns out as I’ve moved around so much, that reaction is more universal.
How is it for you, on the other end of the phone, to be garnering that reaction?
It really struck me as powerful early on that I was able to attain a recording of a person completely losing it over nonsense. I saw no reason to stop. I actually felt that I needed to pursue it more. The whole purpose of it was and still is to capture those moments of loss of control, and to be able to play them back.
On LPC Vol. 9, you call a record store and in less than two minutes, the clerk identifies you over the phone saying, “is this Longmont Potion Castle or something?” How often are you identified during a call? Do you ever worry that your modest cult notoriety over the course of three decades and 13 albums will prevent you from a smooth, organic call experience?
As far back as 1988 when I was making Longmont I, I was being found out. My mom went into the record store in our town and paid for something with a check, and the girl ringing her up saw the name and phone number on the check, and said “Are you the mom of this prank call kid? He calls here all the time. Can you please tell him to stop?” It does happen from time to time. It happens on the new album as well.
Have you ever accidentally revealed anything personal about yourself or your identity that has resulted in any real consequences?
People are leery of me sometimes. People have called the cops, which I’m not necessarily proud of, but there’s never been any real consequence. In my personal life, sometimes people won’t want to give me their phone number.
Is the fact that you’ve maintained your anonymity over the course of three decades a specific artistic choice? Have you ever wanted to sort of pull back the curtain?
Anonymity just seemed like the thing to do when I started, and it has continued to be just the way I do it. I’m not sure that it would even be interesting to people to know why. I’ve never wanted to do a “behind the scenes of my process” type of thing. It seems strange to do that.
Is there any autobiographical information, or information about your identity that you would want to reveal at this point?
I don’t know that anyone would care… but in addition to LPC, I am a part-time sculptor’s assistant. I collect guitar pedals and shoes, which always cheers me up. I’ve played in a bunch of bands, I like tons of music.
Final question: what is Ric Flair’s phone number?
(704) [REDACTED]. Do you want to get him on the phone right now?
Uhhhh, yes of course I do.
[At this point we call Ric Flair together, over Skype. We get his voicemail.]
He’s busy, I guess. Let me try Alex Trebek.
[We call Alex. Again, it rings multiple times and goes to voicemail.]
He’s busy too. Let’s try Bobcat Goldthwait.
Sure, I love this!
Dammit! It would have been so great if any one of those people picked up!
I know. Welcome to my world.
Mike Campbell is very interested in moving some rope to Limon. It is tangible that he is on Twitter. - @mikedcampbell