When Chris Till was on vacation in San Francisco 25 years ago, he stood on a pier, looked out on the water, and had what he calls a “goddess experience.” Till — who had been carving shrines in Boulder to different goddesses with the goal of eventually making 666 of them — was having a vision of La Diosa del Mar, the goddess of the sea, when he thought of the name Cabaret Diosa.
He decided to use the moniker for a theatrical Latin band, and came up with a backstory about a priest who encountered a beautiful Gypsy fortune teller and fell in love with her. Back home in Boulder, Till and violist Miguel Ramos, who had both been playing Latin standards in a band, posted fliers in coffee shops around Boulder to recruit players for Cabaret Diosa, billing it as a sort of mambo underground revival.
The theme of the band, rooted in the narrative of the priest and the fortune teller, would be about the sacred encountering the profane.
“The whole point was to be a little bit different and not just be another band, but to have the theatrical aspect to it and to have ideas behind it," Till says.
For Cabaret Diosa’s first few shows, Till, dressed in a priest’s outfit he bought at a Catholic supply house, was the band’s musical director and guitarist. But not long after forming the group, he fell in love with the wind. “There’s only one thing you do when you fall in love with the wind," he says, "and that is to blow."
So he sold off everything he owned (including roughly seventy shrines), packed up a road map, a toothbrush and a blanket, and traveled the country selling magic wands at music festivals. He eventually settled in Yellow Springs, a 3,000-person town in southern Ohio that he'd first visited a couple of decades earlier. After life on the road, Till fell in love, started a family, and has been supporting them ever since by repairing musical instruments.
Last year, Till started Toadstool Shadow, a music and arts cooperative, with musicians, actors, videographers, graphic designers, costume designers and others. The project, every bit as conceptual as Cabaret Diosa, is devoted to what he has dubbed "elfcore" fashion, theater and music.
“The suffix ‘core’ means a punk-rock attitude about things,” Till explains. “You can put ‘core’ after anything and it puts a little punk attitude to it, which to me is DIY, which is do it yourself and just be yourself. For me, the punk message of the ’70s was just to really be yourself, as weird as you are, as ugly as you are, as fast as you are: Just be yourself. An elf is the fairy-tale aspect of it. One of the themes of Toadstool Shadow is that there is another realm right outside of our common understanding of the world.”
Till, who also writes and performs under the name Toadstool Shadow, just released Rainbow Nights, the first of a three-part fairy-tale psych-rock opera.
Rainbow Nights is the story of eight-year-old Bunny, who finds himself lost in a rainstorm and seeking shelter under a giant toadstool. “He has a visionary experience of seeing fairies and elves and different visionary creatures. Some of them are friendly, some of them are rather troubling,” Till relates.
Folk Songs of the American Wood Elf — a twelve-song album that makes up part two of the trilogy and is slated to drop in December — takes place eleven years later, when an intense but not-confident Bunny is nineteen years old.
“He's always remembered what happened to him as a boy, but he never knew whether it was real, whether it was delusional, whether he was crazy or whether it was a visionary experience,” Till says.
Bunny decides to return to the vision with a video camera to prove his experience was real. What transpires is the subject of a Toadstool Shadow video titled “Telepathic Corridors.”
The working title of the yet-to-be-produced third part of the trilogy, which will take place many years in the future, is Journey to Glass Mountain.
Half of the twelve songs on Folk Songs of the American Wood Elf have been released as videos on YouTube and will eventually be compiled into a forty-minute movie.
Till says each of the Toadstool Shadow videos explores the question of whether there is another realm outside of our common understanding of the world — a subject that nagged at him even before his Cabaret Diosa years.
"They all have the exact same setup," he notes. "The cameras just pan down a mundane residential street, and the camera ducks off into the bushes or into a little back alley, and there's a band of elves or fairies playing strange music. [They're] playing their music to try to re-enchant the world...which it needs.
"Whether you take this literally or metaphorically, there's another realm," Till concludes. "When you walk by a bush, who knows what's going on there?”