While Man Dee has been a musician since her early days growing up around the area (spending time in Meadville, Altoona and Squirrel Hill, among other locales), Tommy came to music late — he never studied an instrument as a kid, and simply writes words and melodies off the top of his head. He doesn't play an instrument in Amoeba Knievel, but then, if he did, how would he cram himself into his signature caterpillar suit, or wear puppets on both hands, or wrap the audience in caution tape, as he's wont to do?
Man Dee, for her part, grew up playing cello (she still plays) and always sang, though it wasn't always her primary art. She dropped out of Allegheny College after a couple of years. ("I was partying too much in college. I knew enough French to get by. I knew enough art to make some art. I knew enough music to make some music. Why I am I paying $25,000 a year to just party?" she says.) She toured the country in the late '90s with two alternative-circus acts, the Bindlestiff Family Roadshow and Circus Redickuless.
"I was so enthralled by this idea of variety entertainment," she says. "It wasn't just music, it wasn't just spoken-word, and it wasn't pretentious performance art. It was just some real whacked-out stuff.
"I had Zoe Collins from Threadneedle Street make me a half-man, half-woman costume, and I learned little songs to sing to myself, and I had to have a skill, so [Dave Apocalypse] taught me how to eat glass. And he also made me change my name, because apparently The Sister-Master of the Fist-Masticating Arts, which used to be my performance name, has no stick-to-it-iveness. You can't remember Sister-Mister of the Fist-Masticating Arts as easily as Mista Sista Phat Man Dee, so that became my name."
Man Dee became a jazz singer in the early 2000s, at the same time her relationship with Tommy was developing. (They married in the summer of 2002 atop a huge pink-elephant float on Carson Street and, six months or so later, ended up on Judge Joe Brown, suing some friends who were supposed to deliver the elephant to them later, at Burning Man, but couldn't find them and burned it instead.)
In 2002, she also released her first album, Life Just Goes On, with a number of songs written by collaborators (including Tommy Amoeba), and a few standards. In 2007 came her second full-length, Torch of Blue, with a few she wrote herself, and a few written by locals like Christiane D., Colter Harper and John Purse.
The new album, Hey Phat Chick, features tunes like the title track, which has become her theme song, and "Why Wait?" — which she says she wrote because she found herself writing too many songs for friends after they passed away. There are also some interpretations: "You Are Special," the Mr. Rogers song, for example, and a couple of French-language songs, taking advantage of her major at Allegheny.
The choice to release the two albums with a joint show came partly out of convenience: Both albums were coming out around the same time anyway, and Man Dee was reserving Mr. Small's through the Creative Life Support program, which, among other things, runs regular "Revival Series" shows in which local bands play the Small's stage without charging admission. But it's also somewhat sentimental: The two have rarely shared the stage for full sets by both of their bands on one night.
"We are married, people keep calling us some kind of weirdo iconic couple," says Man Dee, "because we got married on the pink elephant. Yeah, it's true: We want to be Pittsburgh's freaky-deaky Sonny and Cher!"