"Give Houston a big old kiss for me," signs off Mayo Thompson after more than an hour on the phone. Even after 15 minutes spent discussing various aspects of his hometown, it's a surprising bit of sentiment from a musician and artist who, in previous interviews, could politely be described as "no-nonsense." ("I don't even know what I like. I hate what I like every day," he told freelance writer Richie Unterberger in 1997.)
In the mid-'60s, Thompson formed The Red Krayola with his friend Frederick Barthelme, brother of late novelist/U of H professor Donald Barthelme, and fellow University of St. Thomas student Steve Cunningham. Taking more cues from jazzmen like Albert Ayler than the Beatles, Stones or Kinks, the Krayola was further out on the fringe than International Artists labelmates the 13th Floor Elevators and predates even the Velvet Underground in the annals of American avant-garde rock.
Known as The Red Crayola until crayon conglomerate Binney & Smith's lawyers got involved, the band released two albums on IA, 1967 debut The Parable of Arable Land and '68's God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It. Due largely to the bizarre organ improvisations and two-dozen-odd "one-second pieces" — which, give or take a second or two, are exactly that — the label run by Kenny Rogers's brother Lelan passed on chronological Arable follow-up Coconut Hotel.
Before leaving Houston for New York, where he worked as Texas-born artist Robert Rauschenberg's assistant for almost two years, Thompson also recorded the only album he's ever released under his own name. Corky's Debt to His Father, a primitive precursor to later "outsider" solo musicians such as Daniel Johnston and Jandek (to name two Houston-area examples), came out on late Houston engineer Walt Andrus's Texas Revolution records in 1970.
Both Coconut and Corky's were eventually reissued on Chicago indie label Drag City, for which Thompson has recorded — with a revolving cast of collaborators but always as The Red Krayola — ever since returning to the U.S. from Europe in the mid-'90s. While he was overseas, by the way, he produced records by underground A-listers the Raincoats, Stiff Little Fingers and the Fall for UK post-punk label Rough Trade.
In short, Thompson's résumé has to be one of the most wide-ranging, under-the-radar and top-to-bottom impressive in all of popular music. Oh, and he spent a few years as a satellite member of Cleveland art-punk trailblazers Pere Ubu in the late '70s and early '80s, too.
Thompson's latest Drag City endeavor is last month's Five American Portraits. His longtime collaborators in UK visual-art collective Art & Language devised a series of instructions to draw Wile E. Coyote, former Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, John Wayne and late abstract painter Ad Reinhardt, while Thompson and Krayola cohorts Jim O'Rourke, Tom Watson, Gina Birch and Alex Dower, among others, set about illustrating those illustrations in music via everything from "The Eyes of Texas" to Bo Diddley's "Roadrunner" and Mozart's Piano Sonata No. 6 in D.
"I'm interested in the problems of representation," Thompson says in a voice that's never lost its Texan overtones. "I have the privilege to involve myself in those kinds of questions rather than other sorts of stuff. So I do."
Noise: In the beginning, was the Krayola trying to consciously go against the grain of the music that was popular at the time?
MT: I always consciously try to go against the grain of anything that's popular at the time. I'm contrarian by disposition, and unorthodox and iconoclastic and all those things. That makes sense to me. At the same time, I wouldn't want to characterize what I do as going against the grain for its own sake. It's just the way I do it, the way I see it.
The orthodoxies and the standard-issue ideas and so on, things like that, have never been satisfying to me in any way. Plus, I come from a school of thought where if somebody's already doing something, you don't do it. And certainly I have to confess that, to a young fella, it's a lot of fun to get in people's faces. But it was not really the main impulse.
N: How did you translate those sorts of ideas into the music you were making?
MT: Just to talk about different things than 'Baby, I love you' and 'It's a pretty day.' Rather than trade in tried and true, to find something new. It also operated at the limits of one's abilities, of course. We were moved by the intensity of jazz bands to some extent.
N: Did you find living in Houston back then to be constricting at all?
MT: No. I mean, I had other horizons on my mind. But Houston was a perfectly fine place. It worked for a lot of people, and a lot of people that we knew were doing very well there. It was just fine. I personally wanted out, but not because of anything about Houston.
I mean, look at ZZ Top. They stayed right there and they've done fine. So it's not about the town, it's about your state of mind, I think. Me, I said I wanted out, so I got out.
N: What do you think it is that's made you so prolific?
MT: There's always been some reason for it. Like, 'Gosh, there is something else to say, there is something else to do.' I haven't always pushed it. Sometimes I've pushed it out of fiscal necessity. I've thought to myself, 'I better go find something to do' a couple of times.
That happened to me in England; that's how I got involved in all that stuff with Rough Trade. I found myself in need of a way of making a living, and found out that there was interesting things going on in music, punk rock and all that kind of stuff.
N: Of all the collaborations you've done over the years, which ones stand out in your mind?
MT: The ones I can remember (laughs). The most constant, I suppose, is obviously my association with Art & Language. That persists, and we still find things which are of interest to both of us, sufficiently interesting to animate us [on] both sides. But every collection of people who have gotten together to do something has been interesting in its way, and I don't rate it one over another.
N: What's your attitude toward performing live these days?
MT: I confess that I still get a thrill standing in front of people. I don't know why. I really don't. I can't explain it. I mean, there's something completely absurd about the relationship of standing in front of people with a guitar around your neck yowling down a microphone. But somehow people will go, and people seem to enjoy it, and I like standing on the other side of the footlights.
And for me, it's a way of being in public. I don't go out much at all, and it's one time I can get out and be in public. Plus there's something I really like about the process. I like the way that time passes when you're onstage. I like sharing a vibe with a lot of people in a room. That's a strange feeling, and an interesting feeling. Very powerful.
N: Any plans to play out with this new record?
MT: No, no plans. If something comes up, and somebody has an idea and makes me an offer, you know, maybe I'd do it, maybe I don't. Maybe we will do something. The only places I go on tour in the traditional fashion are Japan and in Europe. In America, the band gets invited to play maybe in New York, or somebody will give us a gig in San Francisco, maybe, or Chicago.
We're difficult. I read a review of something recently that said, 'The Red Krayola's music is not practical.' And I thought, 'That's really a great observation.' There is no practical justification whatsoever for what we do. It's not functional, it's not the kind of music you can put on when you want to dance, it's not the kind of music you can put on at a barbecue.
N: Well, one of these days we hope to talk you into coming here.
MT: I appreciate that thought very much. I really do. That's awfully sweet of you, but I have to confess that the very idea of playing in Houston makes me a little nervous. I'm really reluctant. Because...I don't really know why. It just makes me nervous to think about it.
N: Just because you were raised here?
MT: Maybe that's what it is. I don't play in L.A. anymore. When I first came out here, I was kind of going back and forth between here and Houston, spending time with my mother out there. I played some shows here, and after a while, I thought to myself, 'I ain't never playing here again.' I live here, and you don't play where you live. It just seems like not a good idea.
There's something like that about it. I just don't want to go and face the vagaries of it, I suppose. I'm lacking in nerve on that front. But it's a nice idea, to come to Houston and do something. I like it.
N: Houston has always underestimated itself.
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MT: It really is a town that's a bit alienated. I like it. You can be as alone there as you want to be, or you can be in the middle of things if you want to be. That's one of the reasons I like Los Angeles — there's a certain kind of anomie that informs things. You can just make it up as you go along.
There is no center, there is no bar where you're going to run into everybody, there's no restaurant where you're bound to run into everybody you already know and all that kind of stuff. I like that. I like that.
Much, much more with Mayo Thompson — including his and Art & Language's upcoming opera — at blogs.houstonpress.com/rocks.