When Rolling Stone e-mailed the address on Longmont Potion Castle's website, it wasn't clear whether anyone would actually reply. And meeting the underground prank-call legend in person seemed entirely out of the question. But there we were a week later, in front of a cheesy, semi-chain sports bar in Westminster, Colorado. A man in a green shirt, the color he told RS he would be wearing, lingered outside smoking a cigarette, looking like a fortysomething version of a kid who would be hanging out in front of a convenience store in the 1990s.
Once we adjourn to the rooftop patio of Lodo's, the question of why he picked this spot comes up. "I've never been here before," he says. It seemed like a strange choice, too corporate and suburban for such an edgy, shadowy figure. But then again, it felt exactly right: completely weird and unexpected. When we pick up our menus, the first thing he spots is the bruschetta. He pronounces it with the goofy flair heard in one of his famous bits, "Bruschotti," and only then is it certain: The man sitting beside me is Longmont Potion Castle.
LPC began making prank phone calls as a youth – in the Denver suburb of Littleton where he "got in a lot of trouble" – and released his first proper album documenting the experience in 1988. LPC preceded the Nineties prank-calling heyday of the Jerky Boys and the following decade's Crank Yankers, and has also long outlived it by amassing a largely cult following with his self-released albums – around 14, not including various collections and related projects, all compiled in a comprehensive new box set, Official Compact Discography. (The release sold out within days, but many back-catalog titles are still available.)
His fans range from Colorado residents anxious to hear local businesses get the Longmont Potion Castle treatment to members of big-name bands like Queens of the Stone Age and Jimmy Eat World, the latter of whom etched quotes from his calls into the runout grooves of their records. The tie that binds is a fascination with the uniqueness that is Longmont Potion Castle: an anonymous soul who subverts the prank-calling genre, dialing up mom-and-pop motels and bewildered celebrities alike, and transporting them to a meticulously constructed alternate universe with its own curious dialect – a place where LPC alter egos such as Dirk Funk, Dugan Nash and Bernard Fuddle run wild in a sea of whips, cleats, millipedes, ointment and putty.
"They do call the cops," Longmont Potion Castle says of his subjects-cum-victims as he eats from a plate of fries and drinks a summer ale. (He's vegetarian, despite allusions in his calls to the likes of 450 pounds of peacock meat and something called "aqualamb.") Yet even with the potential legal ramifications that come with being a professional prank caller, LPC is relatively at ease about his anonymity. He didn't want his real name or photo published, but he gave RS the former, and though he wore sunglasses the entire time, it would be easy to pick the tall, svelte dude with shoulder-length hair out in a crowd.
Asked if he has ever met a journalist in person before, he says he met a local reporter "at some point in the Nineties" but basically lied the whole time. (This, of course, raises the question of whether he is telling the whole truth to RS, but he seems completely on the level and, anyhow, such is the bargain when interviewing a person whose art is based around comedic deceit.) When asked why he named his project Longmont Potion Castle, he says, "I don't remember any other name being considered."
He's not too worried about being traced either. "I have a bunch of spoofing equipment," he says. "I think it's an unintended result of some of the equipment I use. I have six different numbers, different area codes. If someone recognizes my number and blocks it, I can just switch my number and call again. That actually helps because they're already more irritated than they were before," he says with striking professionalism.
One of the closest calls he's had with the authorities was a result of one of his more infamous bits, involving a series of telephone encounters with Denver-area law firm Underbakke & Associates. The "really creepy" receptionist, whom LPC discovered after he had applied for a job there, got in touch with the phone company, who sent a complaint letter. (Perhaps the best part of the exchange is that the receptionist doesn't know how to work the tracking equipment and tells LPC that he "will have to call back again." Longmont Potion Castle, of course, complies.)
Other than that, he only remembers one other instance in which he fielded a call from the police. "All I said was, 'Oh, he didn't want me to call? I didn't know he didn't want me to call,'" he says. "A lawyer told me that somebody would have to prove damages to get anywhere. Nobody's getting rich off of it. If anybody was making money, I'm sure I'd be in more trouble. I don't really think about it."
So how does he finds such colorful characters to ring up? "You're always listening," LPC says. "If somebody's crazy or they have a crazy voice and you hear them giving their number to somebody else, you make a note of it," he adds, surveying his surroundings. "Lead generation for Longmont stuff is just a weird thing in and of itself. I used to just dial random numbers. There's still some of that. But it's just listening and paying attention. People send you numbers. It's almost like a part-time job, just coming up with leads." I ask specifically about Eric, an improbably chipper sales rep featured in the call known as "Golf Wolf." "My wife's printer was leased from this company in Los Angeles and she was like, 'This guy is such an idiot. You should call him. Every time I talk to him, he's like, "I am unbelievable!"' Then that's what he did, like, 10 times when I was on the phone with him."
A lot of what LPC does gets left on the cutting-room floor – about 90 percent, he estimates. Longmont Potion Castle says his most recent albums have taken about six months to produce, a more concentrated effort than his earlier days. He's currently at work on Longmont Potion Castle 13, of which he says he has 20 minutes of solid material. "Once I decide I'm gonna go for it – make another one – then it's Monday through Friday, for as long as I can go," he says. "The worst times are when you work for four or five hours and you have nothing. Other times, it's golden and the first thing you do, you think, 'This is going to be a keeper.'" He adds that there's a fair amount of pressure when a call is going well. "I have this one opportunity, is how I see it – I can't blow it."
"The worst times are when you work for four or five hours and you have nothing. Other times, it's golden and the first thing you do, you think, 'This is going to be a keeper.'"
The new box-set prompts the question of whether he's thinking about hanging it up, literally, anytime soon. "I'm still youngish," he says, noting that he will turn 44 this month and has been at it for almost 29 years. For the 30th anniversary of LPC in 2018, he wants to do something "big." "I think I have a little more time I can get away with it. I don't know, if you're like 55, 60 – I don't know how many good years I have left." He took a break for more than six years in the late Nineties – between LPC 3 and 4 – when his band broke up and he was having "a lot of personal issues." Then a fan bought him the URL for his website and he decided to jump back into it again. (He answers many of the e-mails that come his way, including, recently, a "guy who wanted to talk about guitar effects pedals" and a girl who was going through a breakup and just wanted to talk, in the middle of the night. She sent him pictures of her and her dog.)
LPC is constantly honing his craft; he has even started taking notes. "I more recently got bullet points for myself," he says. "It used to be all improv. Whenever anyone else got involved – whether it be a label or a TV network – that made them really uncomfortable. If anyone is funding this project, they don't like to hear that it's improvisational." LPC explains. "I send myself texts all the time," he says, then shows RS his phone – his real, live cell phone – where he texts himself ideas for a few of his English-major-on-LSD monikers. Bunchel Amos, Dunkel Wacker and a guy named Daniel (but pronounced "Dawn-yul") may or may not be coming to a Longmont Potion Castle call soon.
This kind of preparation represents a newfound professionalism following a scrapped deal for an Adult Swim series. He takes the near-miss in stride, even if he's a bit jaded. "It all came down to money," he says. "'How much money have you made doing this? How many YouTube views do you have? How many records have you sold?' And it was like: 'Welp, I was happy with it until you put it in those terms.'" He still does one-off projects for the network and claims that an animated version of "Clown Motel" will be hitting the airwaves later this summer.
Aside from his virtuosity with pronunciation and character creation, improv is where LPC frequently dips into genius territory. It's the little offhand moments in his calls that garner him the kind of rabid, devoted fan base most comedians can't touch. On "Super Bowl Halftime" from Longmont Potion Castle 11, for instance, he calls Denver-area residents during the Broncos' big game against the Seattle Seahawks. He halfheartedly pretends to be ex-coach Mike Shanahan looking for advice on a comeback, dialing up an indifferent Denverite who wants nothing to do with football and seems completely trusting of the fact that a famous NFL coach has randomly called him up for advice. When LPC doesn't receive the response he believes he deserves, he hits the man with one of his trademark third-grade-bully threats. The man responds, "Come on over. I've got plenty of baseball bats to take care of you." Without hesitation, LPC retorts, "No, we need you thinking football, here, not baseball." The call ends.
Many of Longmont Potion Castle's devotees come from the music community. From the get-go, his tapes became mainstays in tour vans winding their way across the nation's highways. (It doesn't hurt that LPC, himself, plays music – you can hear his guitar licks on the lo-fi metal interludes that dot his albums.) The bassist from the War on Drugs, Dave Hartley, e-mailed Rolling Stone to explain his fascination. "I think I love Longmont so much because, aside from being the funniest thing I've ever heard, it's the work of someone who is completely pure: not doing these calls to be famous or even for any outside gratification," he writes. "He seems like that rare kind of guy who would make prank phone calls, alone, unrecorded. For the love." Hartley, who wrote about how LPC can ease the burden of the road for The Talkhouse, also admires the project's focus. "It's like his 12-bar blues. He'll branch out and do some weird, surrealist shit, but he'll always come back to the good, old-fashioned blues – just calling a dude and telling him he's got a delivery of millipedes coming, COD, pal."
Tobacco, the frontman for eccentric psych-pop group Black Moth Super Rainbow – which asked LPC to do a remix of its song, "Windshield Smasher" – puts it this way: "I've probably listened to LPC more than most music. He's the master of phrasing. Everything he says is, like, instantly quotable. He made 'up 'ere' legendary," he says, referring to Longmont's frequent sui generis pronunciation of "up here" (usually when threatening to pay a less-than-friendly visit to the person on the other end of the line).
Kevin Hufnagel, guitarist of prog-metal outfits Gorguts and Dysrhythmia, is similarly laudatory. "The genius of LPC is that, unlike most comedy, which, in general, is funny the first time you hear it but then loses impact after you know the joke – LPC works in reverse," he says. "It confuses most people initially but the more you listen, the funnier it gets. You can really home in on all the little nuances and inflections in his voice. It's really all about his delivery and the skill he has for keeping people engaged for so long on the phone, no matter how upset they're getting and absurd he's becoming." For his own part, Longmont Potion Castle understands the symbiosis. "I get it. It doesn't feel like that much of a stretch to have bands like it," he says, "They're records, after all, and bands put out records."
"I've probably listened to LPC more than most music." –Tobacco
And, as Hufnagel suggests, some of the people he calls do get really, really upset. A familiar device LPC employs is a UPS delivery man looking to drop off a package. The contents are frequently absurd – say, Tasmanian syrup or peacocks – and LPC is almost always asking for money in return. He has employed the conceit with both Kiefer Sutherland and Alex Trebek. (Sutherland changed his phone number right away; Trebek still has the same digits and answers almost every time. In fact, LPC says, "I just talked to him earlier in the week. Sometimes when I'm talking to somebody I just add him to the call and see what happens. He enjoys explaining to people what's going on.") When asked what it is that bothers people so much about the idea of receiving a package they didn't order, he points to an inspiration. "There was a seven-inch in the Eighties by a guy named Lou Minati," LPC says. "It was called 'Blackmail Me?' He was threatening to bring in some refugees from Cambodia to these people in the Deep South. They got murderously mad about that and I noticed that. I noticed that immediately. I didn't want to rip that guy off so I changed it into a parcel of something colorful, something else. The guy is on the clock, he wants to do a good job delivering these parcels." He also namechecks provocative SST Records group Negativland as an influence and, in a very LPC way, says, "Dada was really big for me."
As Hartley notes, Longmont Potion Castle tends to stick to his guns, meaning: trying to piss people off on the phone. Yet his gear has improved, technologically, by leaps and bounds. His current rig features a microphone, preamp and delay pedal, a setup that allows for a slew of trippy effects, a far cry from where he started out. (When he describes the intricacies of how, exactly, a call gets dialed up and recorded, it's the only time he wants to go off the record.) His first recordings were done on his parents' answering machine, which would intermittently – and confusingly and often maddeningly for the caller – beep. On one such classic cut, "Rope," LPC showcases his early improv skills in rope-centric tête-à-tête with a freight company. "What's that beeping?" the prankee inquires. "Just a bunch of rope moving around," Longmont Potion Castle replies.
Sometimes his material naturally wavers into dark territory, as when a boy hashed out his suicidal thoughts during a Super Nintendo purchase gone awry or when he came into contact with a virulent racist on "President Hater." Asked if he ever feels remorseful, he answers with a matter-of-fact "no."
He and his wife – who largely financially supports them – moved back to Colorado almost a year ago after a few years in L.A. and a short stint in Portland. LPC says he's barely left the house since he got back. Because the project doesn't garner him much income, he's held various odd jobs including working for an at-home concert promoter and – wait for it – at the Longmont DMV. "It helps that I'm a self-starter, he says. "Some days I wish I could just go punch a clock somewhere, but I can't. I just gotta get on the mic and do it."
He's exceedingly gracious and humble during our meeting, as if he doesn't see what all the fuss is about. He also seems a bit lost in the world, not knowing exactly where his place is meant to be. At Lodo's, we talk about the recent news of a patron being killed by a bouncer. As if on cue, LPC invokes one of his tried-and-true tropes: "I told 'em when I got here that I got a fuckin' horsewhip," he says. "So don't come to our table."