One day last September, the mail included a hand-addressed envelope with a New York City postmark and a return address that turned out to be a Mail Boxes Etc. store near Times Square. Inside was a sheet of paper with an odd story on it and instructions to go to TippersMusic.com and request a CD from a band called The Twenty%Tippers.
How exciting! Finally, mysteries were coming my way! And as someone who read a lot of Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden back in the day, I am always looking for mysteries.
And so, I requested my free CD. It arrived, I listened to it, and then I emailed and requested an interview with the band.
Eventually, I talked to Ken Sorkin, the band’s founder, impresario, and short-story writer. The Tippers were not some odd hoax put together by McSweeney’s interns, but rather a band that had played in bars in New York in the early 1990s. “I put the band together because I wanted to get these songs realized,” he says. “But I knew that no one would want to see a band that they’d never heard of, so we wanted to create a mailing list as soon as possible.” In those pre-Internet days, that meant putting up fliers around Manhattan and setting up a telephone hot line (646-335-3390). Those who signed up received notices about upcoming dates and one of Sorkin’s short stories telling of the fictional alternative life of the band and its members.
“The music didn’t get any attention,” he says. “The stories did.”
The band members drifted apart. Sorkin got married, moved to California, then returned to New York. And yet, The Twenty%Tippers keep finding new followers. Sorkin wanted to share his stories with more people, so he began using different public online databases to find potentially interested folk. He searches for occupation more than for ideology or geography, trying to find people who are more likely to be intrigued than frightened when the letter carrier brings a hand-addressed envelope from someone they’ve never heard of in New York. His targets include college professors, ad agency employees, and computer programmers.
“We’re reaching people we’re not supposed to be in touch with,” he says, because the band has no connection to them. But those curious folks who respond often correspond, which Sorkin says has been wonderful. “There are people you make connections with,” he says. “It’s just crazy. We’re an unknown band, but there are people all over the country who are in touch with us.”
Sorkin still writes fiction based on a band called the Twenty%Tippers. He doesn’t have a novel, although a few editors and agents have contacted him after finding out about the band. The band itself is defunct. That’s partly because Sorkin has a day job and a family that make it hard to play, and because the songs span enough genres that it has been difficult to find musicians willing to tackle the body of work for no pay.
Here’s one Tippers song, “Breadman.”
If you like it, go to TippersMusic.com and request the CD. Although Sorkin gave me permission to post one song, he prefers a CD to a download precisely because it is less accessible. He wants more commitment from his listeners before they develop an opinion than is possible with a two or three-second clip.