Wednesday, August 26, 2009
Check out this video of Vietnam War footage to some Free Form Freakout by the Red Crayola. Everybody knows that War Sucks. I have pasted below an interesting interview with Mayo Thompson.
MAYO THOMPSON OF THE RED KRAYOLA
Interview November 13, 1996 by Richie Unterberger
The first time that Lelan Rogers, owner of the Texas-based International Artists label, saw the Red Krayola in 1966, they were playing at a shopping mall. Not the most appropriate venue, one would think, for a band that was working up songs like "Hurricane Fighter Plane," "Vile Vile Grass," "Transparent Radiation," and "Pink Stainless Tail." "He couldn't believe that we were serious," remembers guitarist and singer Mayo Thompson, who over the last 30 years has been the constant source of the guiding vision for the band (and indeed, their only permanent member). "He thought it must be comedy."
Rogers, the older brother of country-pop superstar Kenny Rogers, recalled in the liner notes to the Epitaph for a Legendcompilation, "There was this group of kids, three of them, up on a stage that had four or five different kinds of instruments and they could not play a note. They were just making noise and they were really putting the people on. I figured anybody that was able to put on a crowd like that -- there's got to be a market. I went over and I said, 'Hey guys, give me a call.'"
No doubt some listeners think that Red Krayola are still "just making noise" 30 years later. Mayo Thompson's lyrics are still free-associative patterns with little in the way of narrative, anthemic slogans, or, god forbid, feel-good romanticisms. The music is still an admixture of catchy pop tunes and incongruous dischords, delivered in ever-shifting arrangements that sometimes seem to owe more to chance than planning. And Thompson's still singing in his gentle whine, like an off-kilter, slightly off-key Texas cousin of Ray Davies.
Truth to tell, Thompson seems to care less what mainstream or underground critics might think of his discography. For one thing, at the moment he's as busy as ever with another edition of the Red Krayola, and experiencing a greater level of success in his native U.S. than he's ever attained since 1967. Unlike just about any other "underground" rock musician you could name who began recording in the 1960s, Thompson's gone from psychedelia to punk to post-punk without missing many beats. Whether with the noise-psychedelia of the '60s Red Krayola, the scratchier-than-a-blackboard guitars of his late '70s English edition of the band, or a current lineup that falls somewhere between those extremes, he's remained resolutely outside of both pop and "counterculture" trends.
Did you ever see the compilation Epitaph for a Legend?
"Vile Vile Grass" is on there, which has never been recorded in any other form. What that was, was a demo session. They wanted to know, "what material do you have." 'Cause they'd heard us play live and wanted to know what else we had. So they sent us in this small 16-track demo studio. We got there and we thought we were going to be able to do some interesting recording, and found out that they just wanted a version of the tunes. So, one gave them a version of the tunes and that was it. So those tunes on there are stuff that they had lying around in the can from the demo days. I don't know why. They never were meant as releasable material, in the usual sense. Those are archival tapes, I would say. The performances are what they are.
In the liner notes, Leland Rogers remembers seeing you for the first time in a shopping center. He said something like, "these guys couldn't really play, but everyone was really getting into it, so I thought I had to do something with them, even though I didn't really get what was going on."
He said that was funny. He said that he thought he couldn't believe that we were serious. He thought it must be comedy. I never tried to regulate people's responses. It was a Battle of a Bands thing. It was a gig at a shopping mall. We got unplugged in the course of the set, kept playing anyway, and then somebody plugged it back in and we went on playing.
Did the band have any vision then, as far as being different from other ones?
We set out from the beginning to mark our difference from everybody. We wanted to eliminate everybody, and we wanted to tighten the logic. We wanted to say, is there logic in pop music? And, if there is, if there's a claim for a certain kind of progressive logic or certain kind of developmental logic, well, let's see where it goes. So our strategy was totally informed to some extent by art and avant-garde traditions and those kinds of things. But, our aim was to shut everybody else up. 'Cause we hated everything everybody did, just about, with the exception of a few things.
We had a few heroes, a few bits and pieces that would squeak through that would be satisfactory to us. We admired Fahey. We admired Country Joe & the Fish, that EP that they made. Also, Electric Music,the first album, was quite okay. It had some really good stuff on it. We liked Van Dyke Parks, we liked more "out" stuff.
Partly, the logic was a certain kind of extremism, let's say, in relation to the previous standards. Mainstream action--the Beatles and all that stuff--obviously was very influential and informed what one was thinking. The Stones, the same, Dylan, the same. There were certain avenues which obviously were being explored, and closed down, as far as we were concerned. Why do what somebody else was already doing? Why even try? Because we also did not see ourselves as part as what everybody else was doing. We were not hippies, we weren't involved in the worldview that informed counterculture. For us all these kinds of things, these interests and considerations, came out of a general impetus to make art in general.
The first album had a lot of tunes that wouldn't have been called "industrial" then. But looking back on it now, they seemed to anticipate a lot of that kind of stuff. How did the ideas for those arrangements come about? It was pretty different from anything else around that era, on what was nominally a "pop" record.
It's epiphenomenal aspects of learning something, right? You start somewhere, and you know a little bit, and you hear what other people are doing, and you try to figure out what you don't like about that and what you can do. That's what our aim was. So we started off with perhaps some fairly rudimentary musicianship, obviously. But having an ear for how things sound, how they actually sound, and getting involved in the kinds of sounds you can make, and then thinking about what kinds of things are possible. For us it was not like, "Here's a category, we're going to move into this category. Here's a genre, we're going to move into this genre, take it over, and make it our own, blah blah blah." It wasn't any of that kind of stuff at all. It was really about the investigation of forms, to some extent. And I suppose we definitely, like everybody else, we were being ourselves, you know? Trying it on. Trying to find out what did it, what didn't work, what did work, what kinds of reactions we were interested in.
Then there came a moment when it was like the affirmations of a crowd of youth were allegedly going to take over the world were not very interesting, finally. One understood the complaints--against the Vietnam War, etc., and sympathized with all those political sorts of things. But we did not get involved with music for political reasons. For our political reasons, maybe, to some extent. There was this distinction between life and art for us. Life was something, and art is something. It wasn't a question of trying to turn your life into art.
How was the first incarnation of the Krayola received live?
Musicianship was much more important, let's say, in those days, a certain kind of technical expertise. Which meant that people looked at what we were doing as unorthodox in some sort of sense, as neither the mainstream nor the counterculture. Not really the underground. Not the Velvet Underground, not demi-monde, not our thing and forget your world over there, we're gonna have our world over here. None of that kind of stuff at all. We saw ourselves as between all of these spaces, if you like.
I think the reception was generally that we were counted as outsiders somehow, weirdos. Weirder than people who were professional weirdos. Not Frank Zappa, not Beefheart. Not the kind of people that you would expect that we would be lumped with. One of the people in Texas I felt the most affinity with was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, who for me, did something interesting with his first single--"Paralyzed" and "Who's Knocking At My Door." This was incredible. That was the kind of thing I liked. I understood that was part of a tradition that came out of, like, Stan Freberg records and a whole lot of other kinds of things. Just part of what's fun and what's interesting to do, with the important caveat, has not been done.
What were the circumstances under which the first lineup of the Krayola broke up?
We played the Berkeley Folk Festival in '67, and we recorded some material with John Fahey. And our record company went through the ceiling over this. They threatened not to bring us back from California, even though they had used our publishing royalties to fly us out here in the first place, which is illegal, I have subsequently found out. But they threatened not to bring us back. So Rick and Steve said, "You go to Frisco and get the tapes, and we're going back to Texas." So it became my job to do this, because I had started the band. So I came back up here and picked up the tapes, which were reluctantly handed over. We intended to try to do something with them. And then I had to take these tapes back to Texas, give them to the record company, and then bust up, that was the end of that. Rick went to New York, started writing and making conceptual art, and stopped playing music in the way we had been playing music--made music at home.
I was just at loose ends. I went to southern California and sat there in Los Angeles for a little while, for about a month, two months, trying to see what was going on, seeing what was happening. Met a few people, but nothing ever really happened. I was friendly with the United States of America. We shared rehearsal space with them. I worked with them--I did sound for them a bit in the beginning, and I met Joe [Byrd] and those people. I knew that band. And Nico was around, looking for musicians. She had just left the Velvet Underground and was about to make Marble Indexand those kinds of things. She was looking around for some people to be playing with. She was not interested in what I was doing.. I met her. The idea was, could you work with this person? No.
The first record did business. IA called me and said, let's have a second album, we need another album. We recorded a second album, Coconut Hotel,which the label didn't like at all, which was this abstract music, the most extreme version of the logic that we could conceive of at that time, and also answered to our needs. I mean, if people are going to claim that they're making innovations, we felt anybody who makes these claims had better make them in light of what's going on in jazz, and what's going on in R&B, and places where music is--there's certain kinds of things where experimentation within forms, within closures, are going on.
To talk about experimental music and not know Cage seemed to us a fatuous proposition. You have to know these things. Our music was informed by steering a course through those things that we saw as landmarks, and various things that we saw us piles of dogshit in the street.
Most of your sales were in New York and San Francisco?
One might be interested in numbers, but, I mean, [Rogers] also says in the interview that we've sold something like 50,000 records. I know that we sold 8-10,000 records in New York, and we sold some records in L.A., some Frisco. Major urban centers, obviously. But what he's not alluding to is the fact that International Artists did not advertise. There were no band photographs. There was no promotion. This was making a virtue of your shortcomings. This was the beginnings of alternative rock.
You knew Roky Erickson at that time.
He played on our first album. He plays keyboard on "Hurricane," and he played harmonica on "Transparent Radiation."
Have you been in much contact with him since then?
I have not seen him since he was spirited away to a mental institution when he decided to plead mental incompetence against a charge of marijuana, which at the time in the United States, in Texas particularly, was very dangerous. Police saw themselves as having a crusade against this upstart psychedelic loony fringe. So they worked hard to destroy that band. But I used to see Roky around. We got along. He was an interesting guy. But he was already quite out there in some ways.
Did his subsequent mental problems and instability surprise you?
"Unstable" is only in relation to our norms. Maybe not so unstable, but on another planet, on another wavelength from the beginning. What little I know about his family background--his mother's a very strong woman, very powerful. His father's an architect. I think he comes from a somehow cultured family, and middle-class family. He was one of those people who just never had any doubts about what direction he was going in. It just never occurred to him to think, could this be the wrong thing to do? No! This is it, this is what's happening. But Tommy Hall mediated. Tommy was playing the translator for us for us on the first night: "You must show Roky the changes." One could look at Roky and knew that he knew exactly what was going on, that he knew what we were talking about, he could hear the music, he knew what that was. And he did it. You can hear that he did understand it, because these elements that he had fit perfectly into our program.
My impression of him was that he was an extremely sensitive person and extremely talented, with a great deal of energy, power, charisma, all of those kinds of things. But in a certain sort of sense, somebody who needed somebody to take care of other kinds of affairs for him on some level, that's all. He didn't seem to me to be debilitated in any way. Taking seriously the idea of taking acid every day is questionable. Even to me at the time, being wild child or whatever, you look at that and you go, boy, that's extreme.
What was the original label for Corky's Debt to His Father?
Texas Revolution. Walt Andrus was head of the best studio in Houston, and in that particular period, he recorded everybody. Euphoria, who were definitely West Coast psychedelic progenitors of surf music, South Bay surf music, incredible guitar playing, power trio, the bass player out of the band that made "Pipeline" or "Wipe Out" or one of those kind of things, and a great drummer and a good guitar player. What you saw with Hendrix--the same principle, taken to its highest expression.
Walt recorded this album. The technical level came out of traditional recordings of all kinds of regular kinds of music. Now the music scene has changed immeasurably, and the technology has leaped fucking ahead of the music, and the music expands by developing certain kinds of technological chops which become evident. Or certain kinds of technological possibilities became evident, like sampling or whatever. I'm not poo-poohing anything, I'm just saying that seems to happen a lot. At the time, everybody was making it up as they went along. The first album is mono--the stereo is simulated. It's a trick. It wasn't electronically reprocessed--it was like two tape recorders with one master tape (here), and one master tape (there), and then you'd put your thumb on that one occasionally and slow it down, so that, ooh, the ground gets a little weird. Really ad hoc--all by the ear. How does it work? How can it work? What can you make it do?
Pop music has changed, obviously, with punk, completely. But at the time that I made the solo album, it was Walt Andrus' own label. He had a lot of money which he had gotten to start a label called Gulf Pacific, which was a joke on Gulf & Western, I think. He was partners with a couple lawyers in Southern California who had gotten some money to do a blues reissue from somebody and blah blah blah, and there was this kind of money, so we were able to make this record. And he was like a few weeks short of really having it all together, Texas Revolution being really together. And then the whole partnership collapsed and fell apart for some reason. And the dream ended. But that would have been a really...that was going to be an interesting project, because Walt Andrus and Frank Davis, he was also an early hero of mine, a real legend in Houston, a great musician.
We were going to make records of the news. We were going to put the newspaper to music, and sell it on street corners. Like make it in one day, press it, and sell it the next week. Topical songs, sold out of the back of a truck. All the things that we've later come to see--indie music, the DIY scene, all that stuff.
Did anything else come out on Texas Revolution?
Linden Hudson made an album. He made the first one. He's a vocalist--had incredible falsetto range, like Frankie Valli quality. Good singer.
Did you go for more of a pop sound on the solo album than you had with Red Krayola?
I don't know what exactly to say to those things. My interest was always in popular music. I was interested in the accessibility of this thing. And thought that experimentation was allowed, because I was beginning from a certain kind of consensus position, or at least a set of conventions about what counted in popular music. And that a certain kind of experimentation and variation and difference was sought. You were looking for something that sounded a little bit different. So I saw what I was doing as 100% traditional. Nor was I trying to make something that I thought where I had finally understood [that] people don't want to hear this weird shit, they want to hear more straightahead stuff, and I'm now going to try my hand at this. It was never that kind of thing at all. Those things--they were what I could do.
But it does have a different character from the Red Krayola material. I would say that is largely informed by the fact that the musicians were all from elsewhere. They were not players that I had worked with. People I knew, but I didn't work with them before, from other kinds of bands and stuff like that. Also, the material was very personal, the lyrics were very personal, whereas the Red Krayola was seldom personal.
Did you have any musical projects between the solo album and the mid-'70s?
No. I got involved in art. I was making music, I was involved with a few people here and there, tried a few things, had a band in Texas for a while. But nothing ever really coalesced, particularly in the way that I wanted it to. One could get something going. You could get a band together, they could play tunes, they'd be very competent, make wonderful arrangements and so on and it was kind of like (yawns). I just wasn't that interested. I was always looking for the most radical position. I would say that would be the other thing that would inform. Not trying to seek it out and stake it out or something like that, but radicality in relation to a set of givens was an interesting thing for me. Because, you know, what's the point of reproducing the effect? The point is to enlarge upon or expand upon it. Find out what limits it has, if any.
The period of the complete failure of the solo record--when I found out that people--I had a friend who lived in a commune in New Mexico, and he'd get up and put that record on and people would throw things at him--"Don't put that goddamn record on again!" They hated it. They just didn't want to hear this stuff. And I thought, I wonder why? So I delved more deeply into one of our original thoughts about music. It was original to us, it was one of the origins for our impulse, which was that music is instrumental, in the sense that it's a form in which you can say various things and do various things. Those formal characteristics of music have their own weight and gravity. What you do is you balance them against the other kinds of things that you want to put into them as a carrier or some kind of support structure, if you like.
So I got involved in this whole political discourse as well with Art & Language. I was working in New York, and in the mid-'70s in New York, the art world collapsed, literally crashed. There was a recession, there was an oil crisis, the art market hit the lowest point that it had since World War II. The music industry more or less collapsed from its own grandeur. Not collapsed, but let's say the content aspect of it wore out. There was just nothing left to explore in the kind of sense apart from the fact that we are these kinds of people. You know--we are the people who are now wearing makeup, now wearing stacked boots and funny clothes and all that sort of stuff. So I got involved in the politics.
And then when New York became completely intractable, I moved to England. And that's when I started working with Rough Trade. Just coincidentally, maybe a year before I left New York, I had a conversation with a guy I was working with. He said, "That Red Krayola stuff, that's shit. Nobody cares about that. Nobody knows about it. Nobody wants to know about it. You're a joke." He was mad at me about something else, but he lit into me about this. It rang in my ears for a while, I thought about this. But then when I got to England, I found it was absolutely the opposite. There was a whole bunch of people who, ten years later so to speak, knew those early records, who thought that they were groovy records, and liked them. I began to find out that they had some resonances in Britain. They gave me a kind of entree. Punk was obviously in full flower, if you want to call it that.
This was around '77, '78, when Radar started doing the whole IA catalog?
Exactly. I went to England and I sat there, and after I fell out with Art & Lang--we had a big argument, after I was there for about a year. So I thought, what am I going to do? I thought I would look around and see if there was any possibility for music. I did an interview with Pete Frame, who did Zig Zag and all these family trees and so on--a very nice man. He was the press agent for Stiff Records at the time. The whole thing was just getting going. And he said, yeah, I imagine you could do so and so. So I went around to Virgin and saw Simon Draper, and Simon Draper said yes, he would make a one-off single with me. Virgin was about to do a single with Roky, "Bermuda."
He [Roky] had his fans. I tell you, there were people who adored him. The thing is, you listen to his music now, still, his music works. No matter whether you can make any sense out of how he acts or what he talks about, or anything else like that. That part of his brain is definitely intact and still cranking it out.
I met Andrew, and got to know Geoff at Rough Trade around this time, there was just a lot of possibilities, and found that the ideas that were being traded--I wouldn't go as far as to say I felt a certain proprietorial interest in them, but I had a certain of engagement with, or involvement with some of the issues, let's say. Those kinds of attitudes. So it was just normal for me to get into it, in a sense.
Were you recording or producing first at Rough Trade?
I was recording first. The Radar thing came together first, and then Rough Trade was getting going. When I first started being involved with Rough Trade, it was strictly distribution. But they were beginning to think about making records. They wanted to make a record with Metal Urbain, and that was the first single that was made, associated with Radar. A Parisian punk band. Led to things like Dr. Mix, the beginnings of cut-up music, dancefloor music, things that led to techno, actually. All that kind of stuff came there as well.
Monochrome Set wanted to know if I wanted to produce a single. And Stiff Little Fingers asked Geoff if he would produce for them. And Geoff had never been in a studio very much, and he wanted somebody to be with him. I liked working with other people. I thought, this is an ideal partnership. So Geoff and I struck up a partnership, and we collaborated. We worked on Monochrome Set together. We did Stiff Little Fingers, Raincoats, Fall, Scritti Politti a couple of tracks, and worked together for a long time until Rough Trade got to be quite large and powerful. I was also working in A&R in Rough Trade, just doing press, speaking for the label, spokesman kind of stuff, press representative for the label. Rough Trade had a real moment at this time, very powerful moment.
But the most powerful act at this time was this curve down from punk. People kept trying to push forward power pop. "Well, what's going to be next? It's power pop." Nobody was interested in power pop, basically. I mean, you could sell some records on the basis of the tribal divisions in England. You could get people who thought of themselves as mods in some way to be interested in that kind of thing. But Scritti Politti had real pop potential. And there was a real conflict between Rough Trade, the whole indie scene, and the majors in Britain. That was a real battle, because the majors were outraged when Stiff Little Fingers' album went in at 14 the first week, said "It's a fix!" They cried foul, couldn't believe it. But it was real. That's what punk was, was economic power.
When the Red Krayola started recording again...
The reception was strange. One was counted influential, but somebody still beside the point, shall we say. Not the Sex Pistols, not the Clash. We were counted as in it, because people like Gang of Four would take us seriously and invite us to go and open for them, and invite us to go on tour, because it made sense given the kinds of things that they were investigating. They were also being true to the history of the problems that they had come to, which came partly through the efforts of Art & Language, for example, and art historians like T.J. Clark in Leeds and places like that. So there was this whole left-wing aspect as well which informed the underground and the alternative scene. But a lot of nonsense was talked, obviously.
Was there any sort of quizzical reception, because you were one of the very few people who were active in the underground in both the psychedelic and punk/new wave eras?
What was interesting was, I would say, the mindset of those people in the '70s was something like our mindset in the mid-'60s. They hated everything too that had happened before--"we're not necessarily going to clean the slate, but we're going to burn everything down and then we're going to start over again. Or in the process, we're going to burn down everything as a starting over again." And this relation was understood. So some people would say, this is proto-punk--that was where we got lumped, a little bit. But the same things that were talked about the music then are the same things that people talk about it now--"jazzy, broken, dada, blah blah."
Fragmented. I didn't fragment the world--I just happened to notice that it is fragmented. I think that the reception has always been not what one would have wanted. But in the long run it's worked out to be the best thing. Because I'm appetitive, and if a mistake is there to be made, I will make it, just like anybody.
How did you end up producing the Raincoats?
It was one of those things. I came into Rough Trade one day and Geoff said, there's a band called the Raincoats, I want to make a record with them, I want you to go around and listen to rehearsal and help them out and see if there's anything you can contribute. So I went and sit in rehearsal and listened to them play for a couple of hours, and talked to them about, well, maybe the violin could be so and so, slightly different, the Velvet Underground, show 'em some things, without knowing, for example, that Tony Conrad was the man behind all of that, that whole aspect. Just saying that the way John Cale plays viola is something that one daren't ignore. I mean, even Ornette Coleman knows this, about overtone and all that stuff. There was that sort of thing--what about this, what about that. We just worked out arrangements, and eventually they trusted me. They trusted Geoff. And so we were the producers. Simple as that.
That was back in the days, also, when I could sit down at a mixing console and twiddle knobs. I can't do that anymore--it's all changed so much.
What do you think were the band's most distinctive qualities?
The Slits are more of a social phenomenon than a musical phenomenon. What you see there is the liberty of feeling displayed very intense, and a great deal of conviction. Some of the music is interesting. I'm not saying anything against them. But with the Raincoats, you have Vicky Aspinall, who's a trained player. She can read it, and all that kind of stuff. And then, some primitives who have a feeling for music, like Ana da Silva, who's got a certain kind of primitive relationship to it. She likes that scratchy, nasty guitar. I like it too, but I don't want to make that the point of the record. If that's the point of the record, then it's a very simple, straightforward sort of thing to do. Whereas what they were doing seemed to me to be more complex than that. It was about this element, this feeling, that drives one to make music in the first place, and the whole idea that music somehow soothes the savage beast, belongs to the organism, and has something to do with the way we are, the feelings, and all those kinds of things. I would say that the Slits were more attitudinal, and the Raincoats were more musical. The Raincoats were not trying to convince anybody about who they were, or what kind of people they were, or those kinds of things. The Slits were always on duty, so to speak. As much as I love them--they're wonderful as they were, but it was something else.
Did you work with Robert Wyatt while he was with Rough Trade?
No, but I talk to Robert a lot. I saw Soft Machine in Texas in '67, opening for Hendrix. Robert Wyatt came out and played in his underwear, "Did It Again"--you know that one? It was very good. Knew about Soft Machine's music, so when I found out I had a chance to meet Robert, it was a big thrill. He was a huge influence on Scritti Politti--this whole Canterbury sound, the quality of his voice, if you listen to Scritti music early, you can really hear how close those things are, in some respects. Also, Robert was appealing to talk to because he was political. He was a card-carrying Commie. He was one of two, you know. The other one was the guy in Pink Floyd, what's his name--Gilmour.
But Robert had that--it was slightly unfortunate--I don't want to insult anybody's consumer categories, but Charlie Haden's Freedom Liberation Orchestra and Carla Bley's Mexican revolutionaryisms, this whole love of this kind of Brechtian-Weill, that whole kind of ethos--Robert had something to do with that, but really in a much softer and sweeter and stranger way, much more inflected by just jazz per se. Although he'd been turfed out of Soft Machine because of the jazz aspect, 'cause he was not 100% behind jazz. Which made him also, obviously, sympathetic to me. Because I think anybody who lives by a category dies by it. Robert was just interested in possibilities, it seemed. At the same time, it was also poignant to see the state that he was in. He was a vital guy, and at the same time in a tight spot, so to speak, existentially. Hard to keep your spirits up, hard to feel like it's worth it, that sort of stuff.
But the other thing is that Robert also, he's a true musician. Pop music is interesting because you find pros and amateurs working side by side. You find people who are dilettantes working with people who've really got the chops, who can really play anything you like. Then one comes to find out that maybe in that space in between there is where music really is. It's in between somewhere of the potential to have the power to articulate yourself in any way that you want, knowing an instrument, and also then having some kind of discursive spirit that drags you toward this thing, because it's an interesting way of expressing yourself if you like, or an interesting way of going on in the world. Robert to me is more that. He was like in between categories. One of the sweetest guys you ever want to meet--a nice guy, very smart.
Did you envision your association with Pere Ubu as a long-term thing?
When the opportunity came up, I thought, yeah. Because when I heard what Pere Ubu did...I was sitting in England reading Sounds or NME or one of those papers that mentioned Pere Ubu. I thought, okay, I'm going to get one of these records and listen to it. So I went to a record shop in Oxford and said, "Please play me a Pere Ubu record." And they put one on, and I listened to it, and I thought, oh yeah, I know exactly what that's about. Or I had a sneaking suspicion I know what it's about. At least I know some of the things that it goes to in music, even if I don't know exactly where it comes from.
But it also does come from this American suburban alienation effect. Like, I'm living in some place that is patently not the center of the universe. Then somebody's telling you that there is a center of the universe. And there are a lot of people acting like there is one, like, "All culture comes from New York," "All culture comes from Paris." So you're sitting there, and you think, fuck you, you know? I'm going to do something anyway. So I think Pere Ubu came out of that to some extent. Same with the Sex Pistols, went around and inspired everybody in Britain and then a thousand punk bands blossomed. Pere Ubu is a product of that wish to activate, that wish to engage in some way.
But they were very professional from the beginning, and they had a certain kind of thing going for them. They went to New York, and they played New York at Max's, and they were part of that whole sort of thing. They had a very high-powered manager who was at Mercury, Cliff Bernstein, who organized them properly from day one, helped them write contracts which said things like, "Within five years, the tapes revert to the ownership of Pere Ubu." Things that like, if you thought about it, you would think, that's smart. So playing with them was like playing with a big-time organization, for me. I had never really even tasted touring at that level until I got to Britain. We were with Radar, suddenly we were able to rent a station wagon, and have drums, and have an amplifier, and go and play places, and drive around in an orderly fashion and have a tour manager, rent a PA, all those kind of things that I never knew existed. I never knew what the logistics involved where, because we always just had our own crap and threw it in the car and went and did things, you know?
Pere Ubu was operating at that much higher level. And to me, it just seemed to be ripe with potential. And I thought that they also had a lot of interesting things. I really liked a lot of what they did. I persist in thinking their best records are Datapanikand Dub Housing.And the records that I'm on--Art of Walkinghas a few good times, and Song of the Boring Man,as I call it, is a seriously flawed record in my view.
Are you still in contact with those guys?
Got sent a box set the other day. I got my money when they sold it to Geffen. That's how well-organized they are. They're very down the line. They have good management, good organization. But I don't have much contact with them. It was kind of awkward--not awkward, but a funny situation. I liked songs like "Final Solution." One of the things I looked forward to was playing "Final Solution," but we couldn't play it because David didn't want to do that anymore, because of his religious convictions.
I heard Raygun Suitcase. I got sent a complimentary copy, very kindly, by the label, and I thought, yeah, that's Pere Ubu. I recognize that sound. But, for me, Ravenstine was key to that situation. It was also a different socialty than I was used to working in. There were conflicts in that band, at levels, in which people thought of other things about what other people in the band were doing, at levels that I never even dreamed were any business of anybody else's. What difference does it make if the drummer doesn't like blah blah blah, or is interested in so and so? It doesn't matter to me at all. And yet, it seemed to make a difference in this band, because David has this thing. He wants to order things, he wants to control things, he wants to make things happen in certain kinds of ways.
So I got a reputation for being difficult, because I went in there and had an alliance with nobody. I was actually allied, obviously, with David, because David saw me as an ally, and as a force for driving the band in a certain kind of direction. Preventing Scott and Tony, for example, making it a rhythm section band. All those stupidities. So that was educational for me. It was fun. Made some interesting tours with them, played in the United States for the first time, like, all across America--never done that before. That was fun.
What records were you doing between the mid-'80s and the early '90s?
After Black Snakes,I made a record called Three Songs on a Trip to the United States,which had three originals on one side, and the other side was live, recorded at some festival in Switzerland. Then after that, I was still interested in the possibilities of making music. I did some independent projects in the mid-'80s with Connie Plank and Mobius. I produced the Chills, Phil Wilson for Creation, Primal Scream's first album. I really liked him [Phil Wilson]--great songwriter, very nice man, very good man. Interesting stuff, very strange stuff. When I say strange, I just mean that he's got a certain character to it which you can hear how it relates to what everybody else conceives of as standard functional pop music--"this will do the job, right?" And yet it's got this slight angle on things. So for me, it was interesting enough. I produced a Shop Assistants album, I think I did something with Mighty Lemon Drops maybe, can't remember exactly. Did some work with Alan McGee at Creation.
Then left England, moved to Germany. I couldn't stand it anymore and went to Germany and starting working there a bit. But I wasn't making much music until I met Albert Muhlen, this man I started working with recently. Since '87, he and I have made some recordings together. Some of them have been on record. We made a couple of singles, we produced a few things for other people. We put a song in Derek Jarman's Last of England.I produced that soundtrack, so we were able to get a song into this film. Then we made an album for Glass--I think 1000 of them exist in the world, not even that, maybe 700, 800, like Corky's.A rarity. But I was just kind of out of it I wasn't really thinking so much about it. I wasn't not thinking about it. I did it when it came up. When there was something to do, I did it. When there was nothing to do, I didn't think about it.
Then David Grubbs came to Germany and called me, and we talked on the phone, 'cause we'd been put in contact with each other by a German journalist named Diedrich Diederichsen.
How did you end up back in the States?
We made this demo of like six, seven songs and gave it to Drag City. David gave it to Drag City without saying anything to me about it. He just said, there's a label in Chicago that would do something with you if you were interested in it. I thought it would be interesting to try to do something, maybe. And they've been fantastic. Also, my situation in Germany changed. My living situation changed. I was doing a little bit of advertising music and that kind of stuff in Germany, and involved more in art than music, although I did some producing there. I produced a couple of Dutch bands, one thing for a German band. I hadn't lived here in a long time. My mother became ill, so I was drawn here more and more, and spending more and more time here as of about 1993. So the past three years, I've spent more time in America, a lot of time in Texas.
I just look at it, and this thing with Drag City actually clicked. It's real. We're doing business, and it works. It pays for itself, and even makes a little money. I had been, I guess, culturally alienated for a long time from this country, partly by choice. I just didn't want to be part of it. But being here, and having a chance to work again--I started coming over, starting teaching at art school here in Southern California. I started doing some lecturing over there.
It's really a world of possibilities. I never did develop a strategy, never had a master plan after a certain point. I maybe had an idea at the beginning of what I wanted to do, but that fell away. So since then, my cultural life has been pretty ad hoc. Do this? Is that interesting to do? Yes, okay, well, let's go do that. Is this interesting to do? No. I'd just decide. The luxury that I have is that I don't have a huge baggage of a certain kind of success to carry around. And people expect certain kinds of things of you if you have a certain kind of success. And it's easy to become a failure. I mean, I've been a failure from the beginning, no problem, in conventional terms.
Do you see a linkage between the various incarnations of Red Krayola?
Absolutely. I would say that the continuity between them is that I find that we deal, pretty much, with the same kinds of problems. Our attitude remains fairly much the same. It's defined by experimentation--a will to experiment, and a will not to repeat, and a will not to reproduce. Those three things, I would say, inform the decisions that we make. At the same time, it's like wanting to get up on that line where you arouse somebody's understanding that you are like, here's something we know, here's something we understand, but let's twist it this way. Just the possibility of learning is a thing that keeps one going. I would say that that informs every band--every band learns what it can do. Every lineup learns what it can do, it finds out what it can do.
The conditions which operate obviously affect the music. Listen to Kangaroo.Kangaroofor me is a record that is just like Parable of Arable Landor any other record we make in the sense that there is a set of dominant ideas which inform most consumption of music and most production of music in a particular period. In the '60s, it was this kind of psychedelic blah blah blah, and counterculture and youth thing and all that sort of stuff. And we wanted to kind of go, yes and no. We want to be dissidents of the people to whom we should most propitiously belong.
That was one of the beauties of being in Germany, also. I worked with Albert. I learned the slogan, "the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy." That's a concept you could apply to every band. We stand in inimical contestatory evil relationship to everything that people want to feel positive about. I don't want to confirm anybody's worst or best suspicions about what kind of a place this is. I want to trade in instabilities of how one is able to iterate that. What you're actually able to formally to do about anything, to me, is more important than the love of my fellow man.
You're one of the few underground rock musicians who has continuously kept abreast of musical changes, from psychedelia to punk, and now you're collaborating with members of Tortoise and Gastr Del Sol. There are very few musicians who have exhibited that same sort of capability of continuing to participate in alternative musical movements. Would you have any thoughts on why there've been so few, from when you first started doing music in the late '60s, who've progressed in that fashion?
I could be unkind. I think people start off with an idea and then they develop something--let's pick somebody completely respectable, worthy of our respect, like Zappa or somebody like that. Zappa started off, and his records were handled as comedy, the labels that he dealt with. Zappa is like an analog for us in a certain sense. He also, I think, thought hippies were stupid and foolish, and kidding themselves, and congratulating themselves on how hip they were, but only by keeping their eyes closed, not noticing what anybody else was doing. At the same time, he recognizes that humor was one of his most powerful devices. But it ate at him to the point that he wanted actually to be taken seriously. So that became more important to him than anything.
I would say that the difference between me and the people (from past underground rock movements) is that I have no commitments to any one form, or style, or anything else like that. I'm interested in music because it's self-activating, to some extent. I'm interested in art--the democratic aspect of it. I don't mean like, gee whiz, democracy, either. I mean like democracy as democratic expression of a sense of individual human beings getting their own crap together.
At the same time, I recognize that being a self-managing, efficient unit in society is also ugly aspiration somehow. I never read a self-help book, and I won't. I just don't give a damn about that stuff. I just think that the world is a set of fairly consistent problems, because we have certain functional things which have to be satisfied--gotta eat, gotta sleep, blah blah. Comes to entertainment, maybe people want things they can go back in and feel at home with, and comfortable, and sort of things like that. There are certain pieces of music that I would put on just because I love them, or something else like that. But seldom.
I'm not exactly sure how to characterize it as an attitudinal kind of thing. I met a lot of people over the years, like Country Joe and all of those people who were heroes of a certain period. It seems to me they've become encased. They've become trapped in a period that functions for them, where they know where they are. I mean, I don't mind a bit of insecurity. I don't mind a little of instability, don't mind a little quicksand. I like it. More fire, more danger, please. Because otherwise I get bored to death.
I can't imagine what people like. I don't even know what I like. I hate what I like every day. I think to myself, why in the world do you like these tiny stupid pleasures for? Life's supposed to be hard and edgy and all those kind of things. This is a stupid romanticism, of course. But nevertheless, it makes for a certain kind of...for some reason, I cannot stop making music. And believe me, I wouldn't mind. Somehow, it remains an interesting problem. I just learn. I meet people. It's also a challenge to find out, am I irrelevant? Has history passed me by? I don't think so. I think I'm still ahead of the fucking curve! (laughs).