Mayo Thompson by Keith Connolly

BOMB 134 Winter 2016
Bomb 134 cover
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The Red Crayola live, 1967. Mayo Thompson, Frederick Barthelme, and Steve Cunningham. Photo by Dr. James Cunningham. Courtesy of Drag City.

At one hurricane season shy of fifty years and running, there is no band on earth or elsewhere that can claim Bubble Puppy, Scritti Politti, Slovenly, and Gastr del Sol as their immediate contemporaries other than The Red Crayola. From the Texan “rebellation” music alongside The Familiar Ugly in ’60s Houston, to Stalinist nostalgic agitations alongside Art & Language in ’80s London, to prodigal statesmen of the indie renaissance in ’90s Chicago, to their inclusion in the 2012 Whitney Biennial, there has been but a single consolidating force in the person of Mayo Thompson. His further accomplishments include, but are in no way limited to: assisting Rauschenberg in NYC and Israel; midwifing The Raincoats; coauthoring the Social Democrats’ song featured in the Lizzie Borden film Born in Flames; Skyping with the museum-going public all day, every day, at the Whitney Museum of American Art for three months straight; and scoring an absurdist ballet featuring a metal detector and an everyman named Mike.

With a ratio heavily favoring the amount of cultural scaffolding erected to the number of footbridges burned, Mr. Mayo, a self-styled refusalist, has stood slyly in the margins of multiple worlds for decades. Fall 2015 found him in NYC preparing for an exhibition in Chelsea, the first under his own name. We spoke multiple times about things past and present, and the contrasting agency combining them, all the while the proverbial egg timer turning black.

—Keith Connolly

Keith Connolly You’re back in New York for a spell, in preparation for your first exhibition at Greene Naftali. How are you finding the city these days?

Mayo Thompson As cause to wish I had a fortune.

KC A few nights ago you kicked off your stay with a reading at The Kitchen entitled “Art Mystery.” It was spooky.

MT That’s because of how we worked the lights, and the suspense that attends the tale. The main deal is the story of a man who was somebody, now going on as best he can in a new world, after having seriously blotted his copybook in the old one.

KC The protagonist, an “export agent” excellently named “Tile,” pursues an elusive Pollaiuolo painting in a not-too-distant future/past art-market twilight zone. It’s a kind of neo-noir that reminded me of Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, or even Robbe-Grillet… I’d guess any similarity to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental?

MT The story plays in Tirana, Albania, originally set when it was still a Socialist republic—and departs from a true story. The hero is a professional soccer player who gets sent abroad during a cup game. That’s as far as any similarity goes. I wrote the first draft in the ’80s, and changed his name to protect him, and me. I reworked it this year.

KC Speaking of strange-but-true stories, I’d like to ask you a bit about your early Texas days.

MT Shoot.

KC I’m firstly interested in the waxen herring that is The Red Crayola, perhaps the longest running and most archetypal of any “idea band.” Can you talk a bit about its inception, plus the climate and circumstances surrounding it in the early days?

MT Nice pun; smelly association. In 1965 I went to Europe. When I got back to Houston, I got in touch with Frederick Barthelme and suggested we start a band as a way forward. It was an instrumentality. We met Steve Cunningham and some of his friends. Pretty soon we had a band.

KC What about The Familiar Ugly?

MT Those were people who rolled up and wanted to be part of it somehow, a flexible, expandable, contractible group of people. All kinds of people, friend and foe.

KC And these two forces combined would constitute your first record in 1967.

MT We met Lelan Rogers during the first stage of a battle of the bands run by KNUZ, a top 40 station in Houston. It was held in a shopping mall. Lelan was there buying a parakeet for his wife. He brought us to International Artists. As I heard it, he had been a music producer for Hanna-Barbera. Happily, his vision of what to do was what we were thinking—that we would intermingle tunes with The Familiar Ugly’s din—a freak out record. When The Parable of Arable Land sold 50,000 copies we had a place in there. Lelan told me, “The record’s an evergreen. It will always make money.” I was hooked.

KC There is a bit of phantasmagoria surrounding the International Artists label, largely predicated on the mythology attached to the 13th Floor Elevators plus Roky Erickson. And also Tommy Hall, The Golden Dawn, etcetera. Was this something you felt swept up in? The Parable of Arable Land certainly has an otherworldly aspect.

MT We were interested, curious even, some of us dabbling, but not swept up. Ever see the Elevators’ Psychedelic Sounds back cover? It features an argument for the superiority of life in psychedelically altered states of being over what we have generally. It begins something like, “Since Aristotle, man has … ” and proceeds to “ … thanks to LSD we now can … ,” etcetera. We joked about how conventional their music was. They were more generous to us. Whatever those ideas represented to them, their philosophical commitments plainly volunteered for a life I couldn’t lead. They landed in deep trouble. The authorities eventually hounded them out of existence—suggesting that they had more political than universal spiritual potential. Caught with drugs, Roky wound up in a state mental institution, a story fraught with pathos and sadness. He is an extraordinary talent, with charisma and intensity to die for. Lelan put him up to playing on Parable—organ on “Hurricane Fighter Plane” and mouth organ on “Transparent Radiation.” His contributions are ace.

Tommy Hall came to the studio with Roky, as interpreter, but Roky and we had no trouble communicating vis-à-vis music. The way Tommy played the jug, a traditional folk instrument, was the ringer in their work—“that funny little noise” functioning in a way similar to how the bubbling pulses work in sequencer music, viz., Giorgio Moroder.

KC It would seem that the transition in The Red Crayola from having a song-based anchor of sorts (in The Parable of Arable Land) to fully unmoored abstract music in toto (Coconut Hotel) [recorded in 1967 but released in 1995] presents a challenge to the accepted idea of popular music.

MT Unmoored? I believe all music is popular music.

KC The aleatory aspect of Red Crayola and Familiar Ugly was somewhat unique at the time, as it seems to have been free of the guiding influence of any specific affiliations to avant-garde or higher-minded Conceptualism, unlike the music of some of your then contemporaries. I’m thinking of Warhol and La Monte Young in the case of the Velvet Underground, AMM in the case of Pink Floyd, Owsley in the case of the Grateful Dead.

MT What the Velvets were doing was fresh. Pink Floyd? I only ever liked “See Emily Play.” The Grateful Dead’s first album was a disappointment. As for aleatory procedurals, Mr. Cage’s and Mr. Tudor’s ways were out of reach. At first we did leave a great deal to chance—The Familiar Ugly were at liberty—but that’s hardly the same thing. AMM played in LA one night. Their music sounded organized, as though they knew what each other were and would be doing. La Monte Young never interested me. As for Owsley and the Dead—no idea. Warhol I appreciate and respect. I believe he construed form and the limits of possibility honestly. The only act I really liked in those days was John Fahey.

KC One of the great occurrences in my life was to travel with and get to know John Fahey.

MT We met John at the Berkeley Folk Festival in ’67. We asked him if he wanted to sit in with us, and he did. There was some sort of understanding there. We were doing something related to what he was doing, but the opposite end of a rainbow. We recorded some. International Artists freaked out. I had to bring the tapes back to Texas to avoid legal problems.

KC Those lost tapes would be something to hear. [The live Crayola/Fahey set from Berkeley was released by Drag City as part of the Live 1967 CD.] Fahey had a profound approach to pure sound that is often glazed over, from the numerous tape collage experiments on his early Takoma and Vanguard sides, to his uncredited contribution to Canned Heat’s “Parthenogenesis” (from Living The Blues, 1968). By the time we met in ’98 or so, he was playing electric guitar exclusively, and was more interested in talking about Einstürzende Neubauten than anything folk or blues related. As a matter of fact, he abhorred the term folk, insisting on the German volk instead.

MT By the time I got in the game, Dylan had put paid to folk. When we were still playing songs we introduced “Transparent Radiation” as our “folk-rock number” with no little sarcasm. I never heard what Fahey did as folk. I heard it as abstraction carrying within it the spirit of folk, blues, and church music, generating an image of America beyond kitsch. Fahey was what I understand as camp—where the agent performs a reflective relation to a beloved idea, mindful of the inevitability of anticlimax, living out the pathos that haunts its very expression, and getting high on the failure.

KC Was/is country music a factor? Of course it is a broad and potentially misleading term, but I’m thinking here of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, Ray Price and Charlie Rich, Merle Travis and Roger Miller… My mother listened to AM radio when I was a kid in the ’70s, WHN 1050, with DJ Del DeMontreaux mixing in Anne Murray, Kenny Rogers, Eddie Rabbitt, Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, etcetera with all of the above in a weird East Coast Yankee whitewash (though I’m sure there was some Charley Pride in there somewhere). This was probably precisely at the same time you were recording the first Virgin Prunes record, so maybe you were spared, but it left an indelible, if blurry, mark on me.

MT I’ve never been a connoisseur or lover of country. Hank Williams’s music I knew as a matter of course—although it didn’t hit me full force, I didn’t dislike it. I loved Roger Miller as a figure, and loved and bought “Dang Me.” I heard it as a relative of ”Paralyzed” and ”Who’s Knocking on My Door” by the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. I took note of Bob Wills’s sweet swing, and of Johnny Cash—that voice—and of Bill Monroe—effectively, jazz. The others you mentioned only made an impression later, except for Country Charley Pride, whose “Crystal Chandeliers” fell favorably on my ear, and who’s dignity and presence struck me. I couldn’t deal with Merle Haggard and Buck Owens because they were against any mumbling word in opposition to American exceptionalism. I loved and still love Guy Clark, and learned through him to appreciate his friend, Townes van Zandt.

KC There seem to be shades of country in your solo record, Corky’s Debt to His Father [1970].

MT Corky is a portrait of me. It shaped up battling clichés, genres that are like black holes which swallow my novel solutions to the same problems everybody has, while recognizing there is no escape, only twisting the familiar to my ends, insisting on my take on them, presenting my ideas effectively via negativa. That record was made post-Crayola/International Artists, with Frank Davis and Roger “Rock” Romano producing. I met Frank hanging out at the Jester Lounge—a Houston folk venue. Rock I knew from college. He’s a great dude, a tower of Houston musical power from the start. He had a band, and had played bass in the Baroque Brothers, playing their own stuff and covers of hot stuff from the day. They were the house band at La Maison, which had been a folk club (I had my first go playing in public when it was). When I got back from Europe, they’d moved into an old church, and shifted musically. It was the heart of the Houston scene. A pair of Ringo’s drumsticks were enshrined on the stage.

KC Drag City’s reissue some twenty-five years later sounded fresh at the time and did pretty well as I recall. Perhaps not an evergreen, but that’s quite a half-life.

MT People seem to like it better than other stuff.

KC So from these storied Texas years you came to make a transition of sorts, which brought you into contact with the notorious Art & Language collective, and eventually landed you in London…

MT Christine Kozlov introduced me to them, like most everybody else I met in art back then. I didn’t know anybody.

KC So New York was your first stop on a journey east, a kind of reverse manifest destiny.

MT Barthelme lived in New York. I visited him from time to time. I met Christine through him in ’69. It went on every which way from there.

KC Can you tell me a little bit about Christine?

MT She was a Conceptual artist. She and Dan Graham had the Museum of Normal Art. I had no idea what Conceptual art was. It seemed the artist nominated something for an object relation, made a kind of formal argument for it and Bob was your uncle. One night coming out of Max’s Kansas City, I pointed to a construction site—sawhorses standing around, orange tape, cones, some dust dug up on the sidewalk, and I asked Christine if I could nominate that as a piece. She said, “It’s your piece.” From there I began to understand a bit about how it worked.

KC How was it that you eventually ended up working for Robert Rauschenberg?

MT Summer ’73, Christine and I had been in Greece, where I was lined up to make a record with Manos Hadjidakis, the guy who wrote “Never on Sunday.” This was the time of the junta and the atmosphere was thick. Manos was unwell and we just sat, waiting. Finally it got to be too much. I told him I wanted to go home. He got me a ticket and we stopped in Paris. There we ran into Bob [Rauschenberg] outside Ileana Sonnabend’s gallery, hung out, helped a bit, and eventually started working for him.

KC So throughout these years, there is no such thing as The Red Crayola.

MT No.

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Mayo Thompson, Lora Logic, Gina Birch, and Epic Soundtracks. London, circa 1979–84. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Drag City.

KC What is it that attracted you to Art & Language?

MT Art-Language, their journal. They were the fastest conceptual guns around. When I got to know them they were a large group. There was a bunch in New York and a bunch in England. And there was warfare between the two groups over who was in charge. In ’72 there was a conference of the two sections in New York turning on what they called “blurting.” A-L was conversational. The upshot was anybody who got involved was somehow in Art & Language. At that conference, I met Michael Baldwin and Philip Pilkington, who were in town for the talks. They asked me what I did. I gave them a copy of Corky’s Debt. They listened and said, “It’s kind of personal.” I said, “It’s a solo album. That’s what those are.” I asked if they had another idea. That led to Michael sending me some lyrics I eventually set. That stuff became Corrected Slogans [1976].

KC So eventually the band becomes resuscitated in England post Art & Language?

MT Yes but as The Red Crayola, with a c—trademark law being different in the UK. [Crayola covers Parable, and it’s Krayola for everything released in the US from God Bless The Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It forward. Crayola also applies to all UK and European releases.] Jesse Chamberlain, who drummed and sang some on Corrected Slogans, joined me when Radar gave us a deal. I reformed the band because Christine and I fell out with Art & Language. I had to get something going, so got back in the music business. Radar was rereleasing the International Artists’ stuff, so it was a natural for all concerned. It made sense to restart the group rather than pursue a solo music career.

KC Would you say you see Red Crayola as a product?

MT Mike Kelley once told me that he was no democrat, but that we were going to have to have universal democracy before anything interesting could happen again. He was thinking about product, good product. Though he did not think art is redemptive, Mike was a utopian. He believed in progress. I don’t. And I don’t think anything is necessarily interesting. Something’s being interesting only serves those in whose interest it functions. Punk qua form wasn’t about making interesting music, rather about music as self-realization. Even poor punk was interesting, though, particularly if it sold. That’s what made the Crayola viable. Sales made it interesting in a broader sense. When we started we knew we couldn’t play up to the standards operative in those days but didn’t let that stop us. We made a virtue of what we could do that conventional musicians couldn’t do, and exploited that, with the idea of making them eat it thrown in. We were playing a theoretical endgame. We let the world know we couldn’t be bothered. You might say that was and to an extent remains The Red Crayola product. Our music expressed our aggressiveness, our attitude. When I heard The Beatles, Dylan, I thought, “Fuck, cool. If that makes it, I can sing too.” The Sex Pistols had the same effect, giving people a sense that they might empower themselves. People discouraged me when I sang as a child, said, “You can’t carry a tune in a bucket.” People still say that. Well, fuck it. I haven’t been trying to carry a tune. I’ve been essaying, expressing my interests in abstract terms, devil take the hindmost.

KC So you do not consider the records that you have made to be works of some kind?

MT If you mean artworks as such, no. I think of them as candidates for asymmetrical functional relations, open to interpretation.

KC Having said that, would you refer to the band as a condition of a sort?

MT Condition? You mean like, pneumonia? No.

To my lights, it just represents instrumental potential inasmuch as its value is tied to its use. Music has been instrumental to my being able to put ideas in play, having more fun than you’re supposed to, that sort of thing. I’m no purist, and don’t believe authenticity or sincerity save anything, not necessarily. The game is to make things that have to be dealt with on the terms they instantiate. My stuff doesn’t carry or necessarily suggest imperatives for others. It’s not well-formed in the scientific sense. In personal terms, it entails a measure of shame, because it would be nice if everybody were as fortunate as I in doing what they like.

KC Let’s talk about record producing. There is still nothing that sounds quite like The Parable of Arable Land, after all these years.

MT Lelan was great with us on Parable. He guided us through. Luckily too, the late great Walt Andrus—who, along with the equally great Frank Davis, made Parable the record we hear—was sympathetic. Looking back I see that International Artists wanted me to be a producer; they had me producing Johndavid Bartlett in mind. I’d no idea, though eventually I learned. I’m credited on God Bless The Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It [1968]. I played a role and so did Steve but we weren’t the producers. It was Jim Duff.

KC God Bless has risen in my estimation as the most radical and particular of your Texas-era albums, containing not only discernible seeds of Corky, but also predicting in some way bands like Minutemen, or subsequently Unrest and Bastro/Gastr del Sol, which would not happen for decades.

MT Predicting? I don’t hear it like that. It was made to put paid to musical possibility as I understood it at the time. It represents the end of the game as it stood.

KC You did eventually end up producing many records for other bands, starting with a great run of singles and albums for Rough Trade.

MT At first I got the jobs that legitimately made me the producer of records later, I believe largely because bands liked the sound of the records Crayola made. I feel fairly sure that’s why Monochrome Set’s manager asked, “Would you like to produce a single for us?” Stiff Little Fingers had just asked Rough Trade boss Geoff Travis the same question. We decided to join forces. He had been in the studio when Radar backed the new Crayola. He had seen that I knew my way around enough not to be intimidated by the process. We wound up coproducing a bunch of records. We did that Monochrome Set single, then Stiff Little Fingers’ first album, The Raincoats’ first, sides with The Fall, a couple of tracks with Scritti Politti, one with Cabaret Voltaire… 

Part of production is encouraging people to think that what they are doing is feasible and worth doing. That they’re not wrong or insane daring to make a record. I twiddled knobs on a lot of those early things but an important part of the job we did was preparing the artists to live with the consequences of their choices, because they’re permanent. With The Raincoats, for example, I heard their violinist, Vicky Aspinall, a trained player, and suggested she think outside the box. I asked her if she’d heard The Velvet Underground, John Cale. She checked it out and added that string to her bow. 

I was also able to function in the role because I like the problem-solving aspect of it. With Primal Scream, recording Bobby Gillespie’s vocals was problematic. He could have a hard time singing “Hello.” He would get “hell” and blow “o,” then throw the headphones on the floor. He broke nine pairs and a Neumann U47 recording Sonic Flower Groove. We’d holler, “Bobby, no!” as he slammed them into the ground, hollering “Shite!” in tune. Pat [Collier] wound up tracking his vocals sometimes a syllable at a time. Track after track after track until we had all the bits of the vocal, then stitching them together, a syllable here, a syllable there, a word here, two, three, four in a row there. The drums were another kind of problem. The drummer couldn’t cut it so we hired someone who could. Then, the kit didn’t work for the sound we were after, so we used a sampler. The snare is Carlos Alomar’s snare off a Bowie record. The bass drum is John Bonham’s. Jim wanted a “sixties twelve-string sound” but tech had moved on. By that time Rickenbacker twelves were no longer stereo, and had two instead of three pick-ups, and amp sound had changed, so we had to simulate, track parts in one setting, then track them again in unison in another setting, and another, and another until we had something that sounded the part. Steve Albini can handle the whole thing, tech and soul. Rick Rubin gets stuff out of people they forgot they had in them. Me, I worked on others’ stuff the same way I worked on mine.

KC You were actually a member of Pere Ubu for a bit in the early ’80s, a mark of some distinction.

MT Working on the road together we got to know one another. Then Pere Ubu broke up. What I heard from [Allen] Ravenstine was that he and David [Thomas] went to a concert of Talking Heads, looked at each other, and said, “We weren’t that bad. Let’s start again.” They asked if I would play the guitar.

I jumped at the chance. Tony Maimone and Scott Krauss acquiesced. Ubu were managed by Cliff Burnstein at the time, and operated at a higher level of organization and possibility. The band was infinitely more popular than Crayola. Rough Trade got to be their label and, in the couple of years I was there, we made two LPs, The Art of Walking and Song of the Bailing Man, and a single, Not Happy/Lonesome Cowboy Dave, and toured, playing places and gigs in the USA I’d never otherwise have seen, plus there was money in it.

It was a trip working with them, not least on account of our all being American but their being homeboys, my being an expat. Add in the relative differences in our pasts, how uniquely each of us had been enculturated, and you get a sense of the motley. Say, the psychological environment was unique, there being not only differences in worldviews but attitudes to music. It all came out in the wash.

David had his own ideas of things, and set the tone. There was camaraderie but it wasn’t always easygoing. Nonetheless, we got things done. We recorded in a great studio in Painesville, Ohio, and touring was always interesting. Just two examples, we played a few shows in Italy. One I remember was in a circus tent in Ravenna, a town well run at the time by communists. We arrived in a timely fashion but had to sit on our hands and watch our tour manager—Mark Kostura, a great guy—play missile command, while negotiations went on behind the scenes before we were allowed to take the stage. Had we been going to nuclear war, I’d have wanted Mark at the controls. He was a whiz. Eventually how the money would be worked was settled and we went on about two hours late. The public had also waited patiently. I’d never seen anything like that.

The other show that made an impression was in Bologna. We were booked to play a theater with a thousand seats. At sound check we worried, hoping to fill seats at least back to the mixing console, which was thirty plus rows back. By showtime, the joint was filled to the rafters, standing room only. More than one bootlegger had set up a big reel-to-reel tape recorder and stereo mics, right out in the open—Ubu were famous for not minding bootleg recording. It was such a jam, they were turning people away, and there was protesting, some so violent the carabinieri were called in to keep order. We were wooden, playing the tunes but without flair. In the middle of the third number, Mark hollered, “Heads up.” I was walking around picking. It wasn’t like “Duck and cover,” rather more as you might when a fly-ball is coming in and somebody hadn’t noticed. I looked up and there was a firework arcing toward the stage, sparking and sputtering, heading my way. I moved out of the landing area, continuing to play, and it hit with a bang. That moved us.

The Ubus are good guys; it could be real good crazy fun playing with them.

KC How would you say that your approach to the Crayola differs from that of David Thomas/Pere Ubu?

MT David Thomas is a unicum. He is a sovereign entity. All things Ubu revolve around him. Me, I’m a group player. I’m prepared to revolve around whatever’s happening. So we were made for each other in some sense. I had writing chops that he liked. We also had a common interest in certain kinds of intellectual stuff. But he is also a deeply felt American kind of fellow. I probably come from space.

KC So eventually you relocate, from London to Düsseldorf in the late ’80s where a new phase of The Red Crayola begins.

MT I met Markus Oehlen, whom I first knew as the drummer in Mittagspause, the best of the German punk bands, at least as I saw it then. One night Markus said to me the same thing that Frederick Barthelme’s brother Steven had said to me back in the day: “You should meet my older brother.” Eventually I did meet Albert, with whom I went on to make Malefactor, Ade[1989] and another bunch of records.

KC Is it true that you also made some commercial jingles while you were in Germany?

MT Thanks to Diedrich Diederichsen and Michael Schirner I got commissions to make some. I did pieces in an array of generic styles for C&A, a clothing store based in the Netherlands. I made them à la reggae, heavy metal, rockabilly—even some I called semiotic monsters—using hip-hop drums with Swingle Singers voices and funny other bits. I could pastiche pretty much anything. I had a guy from Holland who could sound like James Brown, or Ray Charles, and a German lady who could conjure a number of famous females. One of the best was an ad for Adidas. They were coming out with a sporty body lotion for men. For that I got a keyboard player whose name I can’t recall and pirated Beethoven. He said, “Oh no, not Beethoven.” I said, “It’s for money.” He played. The voiceover was cool—Claus Biederstaedt, an absolute pro, one take. It was fun doing such stuff because you’d go to the cinema and there the pieces would be, up on the big screen before the film.

KC The art world, so to speak, in Germany was pretty happening at that time.

MT Art is fly for Germans, generally. I got to know Martin Kippenberger, Werner Büttner, lots of others. I was living in Düsseldorf, but went out, and socialized most in Cologne, which was the center of the art scene. I learned later that it was Martin who booked the Soldier-TalkCrayola into the SO36 [in Berlin].

KC Was it in Cologne that you met Michael Krebber, with whose current painting exhibition your show at Greene Naftali coincides?

MT One night we were sitting in a bar waiting for some opening and there was Michael. We were introduced. He had just stopped working for Baselitz, I think. I heard Michael had gotten rid of all of his books and was living an ascetic life. When we started talking somehow we clicked. We’ve gotten to be friends, and he has played a big role ever since in my thinking about art. I count his person, take, and stance to possibility beautiful.

Back then I had written a little piece called “Vitrinization.” Michael was interested in using it, offering to trade it for a work, and asked if I would write something for Cosima von Bonin, which I did—on Joan Jett. I chose a monochrome from a show at Christian Nagel’s gallery, and was amused to learn later that fifteen minutes after he gave it to me Martin Kippenberger tried to buy it.

KC That’s fantastic.

MT That was how I would eventually meet Carol Greene, who came up to me one night saying she really liked “Vitrinization.” I thanked her kindly, and continue to.

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Mayo Thompson, John McEntire, and Tom Watson, 2006. Photo by Chris Strong. Courtesy of Drag City.

KC How do you view your current exhibition in relation to the work you have done as a musician with The Red Crayola?

MT For me, visual art is another world. I observe and respect the differences between music and art as formal schemes, where the kinds of necessities are understood to have their own characters, and see differences in them when it comes to objects. I will say the two modalities are related, and strike me as analogous in terms of affects, but that’s it.

What I like about music is its psycho-physical working, that it unfolds in time and space, and that it is ephemeral—unless you play or imagine some, or put some on, there ain’t none, and when it’s over, it’s gone. I appreciate how it is different with a visual object, say, a painting, which is “on” when you look at it, and otherwise is merely an object hanging there. I’m interested philosophically in those differences. They are telling when it comes to bringing pieces of music or paintings under ART, the concept, as experiences, whatever they have in common relative to, say, orders and kinds of mental representation. I see too that there are structural similarities involved in the ways their histories bear down on our experiences and uses of them. I should point out that I’m no historicist—meaning I don’t think it’s possible to fix value relative functions. There is only projection. That said, I feel the pressure of history, and respond to what is afloat at a certain moment—zeitgeist and meaningfulness, stuff like that. I feel constrained too in theorizing, by there being nothing like scientific proof.

In terms of what passes for theory in music, with regard to material potential, I think I did all my theoretical work on musical possibility in the ’60s. The first five records sum up everything I ever had to say in theoretical terms. When I started, listening to Cage, Stockhausen, and other modern Europeans, it seemed plain that what was left of the Western canon after, say, twelve-tone, was fully articulated. Let me be brutal and overly reductive: Cage had resorted to chance, thumbtacks, “noise,” and “silence” in an attempt to get a last drop. Stockhausen was making jokes that remind me of Conceptual art, where in living through the music there is meant to be some understanding that one is living out culture, in terms of the beautiful and the transcendental. I say this as a preface to explaining what I mean about the first five records.

Parable, to my lights, sums up musical possibilities that began in the cave. Coconut represents possibilities extending from those facts. Live 1967 covers performance and free expression outside standard structures. God Bless picks its way through the rubble looking for feeling and meaning, senses of share. Corky embraces the personal and treats the instrumental power of music for the sake of expression. Records have been made since of course, but, as I’ve tried to explain, making them was precipitated and driven in the first instance by existential necessity. After Corky, song form became the main deal, with some other things thrown in, for example, what counts as “noise” and how attitude figures in terms of effects. I like to write music, of course. I’ve done soundtrack stuff for a Bruce and Norman Yonemoto film, and music for a few pieces of Bruce’s, works he deploys in the fine-art context. Since ’81 I’ve been working on Victorine, an opera with a libretto by A&L—we did a few scenes during the 2012 Whitney Biennial. Lately I wrote and played some piano music for Mike Smith’s ballet, turning on his quest to find the Fountain of Youth. In general, making music has become for me stuff tied to opportunity. Albert Oehlen and I got a chance and made some stuff; and I did some music for advertising. Jörg Schlick made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: to play Crayola in Graz at the Kunstverein. Off that a few other gigs were strung together. Kaspar König had us to the Portikus, and we did a show in a gallery in Cologne. That’s how it goes. Opportunity knocks. I respond.

In the abstract I will say that I do get the bug from time to time, but always have a beady eye on distribution. That’s how I got involved with Drag City. After Graz I got the bug again and started to play the guitar more, wrote five or six tunes and recorded them four-track with an eye to hitting up a record company for a deal and along came a chance. Now I have the chance to have a go at visual art, and am finding it an interesting, because particular, kind of trip.

KC In the ’90s there was a bit of a Crayola renaissance, via Drag City.

MT One day David Grubbs rang. He asked what I was up to and I gave him a dub of the four-track stuff, telling him of my plan to go to the bank. He asked if he might send it to Drag City in Chicago, urging me to hold off getting back in the mainstream grinder. It turned out Dan Koretzky and Dan Osborn liked the stuff. During Christmas ’93, when I was home in Texas visiting my mother, Dan rang. He was able to persuade me to give Drag City a chance. I swallowed my qualms about working again indie style. Eventually, Albert and I went to Chicago and did our first work with the label, a song called “Columbia,” maybe another. Ultimately we made the eponymous LP at Steve Albini’s studio, building the set around the tunes from Germany, David playing, along with John McEntire from Bastro, Tom Watson from Slovenly, and Stephen Prina—an artist I’d gotten to know at the Pasadena art center. I won’t name everybody. The names are on the cover. Sure enough things kind of clicked and we got gigs. I should say too that I met Jim O’Rourke then, but didn’t know at first what to do with him. I’m glad to say we were able finally to get him involved. 

Except for David, I continue to call on the Drag City folks when there’s what to do, and, over time, we’ve added a number of products to the line. You’ve got to love them. Well, perhaps not everybody has to, but I surely do. They’re straight-shooters, honest as the day is long, and only trade in what they like, which, I like to think, is how I run.

Keith Connolly is a third generation Irish ­American lapsed Catholic whose interests include traditionalism and so-called strong emergence. He is currently grappling with William T. Vollmann’s latest novel, The Dying Grass, and furthering the post­mortem trajectory of a conjectural Abigail Hobbs.

Jim O'Rourke by Jay Sanders
Orourke Jim 1
Frederick Michael St. Jude by Gary Canino
Frederick Michael St Jude 1

Reflecting on a lost, post-apocalyptic, maximalist masterpiece of a concept album.

Looking Back on 2017: Music
Looking Back 2017 Music

Featuring selections by Jem Cohen, Keith Connolly, Britton Powell, Alan Courtis, Byron Westbrook, and more.

Marina Rosenfeld by Tristan Shepherd
Marina Rosenfeld 01 Bomb 137

The artist and composer stages her latest entanglement of bodies, spaces, and sounds at the Biennale de Montréal this October.

Originally published in

BOMB 134, Winter 2016

Featuring interviews with Jem Cohen, Tom Burr, Maylis de Karengal, Portia Zvavahera, SO - IL, Sarah Ruden, Michael St. John, Stephen Collier, Mayo Thompson.

Read the issue
Bomb 134 cover