Last Friday, Rocks Off had the distinct pleasure of talking to Mayo Thompson, the man behind psychedelic (or not) art-rockers The Red Krayola, whose career spans the early days of Houston label International Artists, the art worlds of New York and Europe in the '70s, a stint working as a producer for seminal UK post-punk label Rough Trade (The Fall, The Raincoats) and a longtime association with Chicago indie Drag City. We eventually got around to talking about the Krayola's latest project, a collaboration with longtime UK visual-art running buddies Art & Language called Five American Portraits. (They are Wile E. Coyote, former Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, John Wayne and abstract painter Ad Reinhardt.) We talked about a lot of other stuff, too. Strap in. Rocks Off: Which came first for you, art or music?
Mayo Thompson: I was never a visual artist. I did some drawings and stuff in those days, but I was never a visual artist. Music was something I backed into in a way, something I found myself making. I don't know what you mean, 'which came first.' Like did I choose between two careers or something like that? RO: Right. MT: No, I didn't. Music was the thing. I studied art history at St. Thomas. They did not have a studio art department at that time, and I don't know that I would have used it anyway. I studied art history there and made music. RO: What are the origins of the Krayola in Houston? MT: You mean why did we start a band? It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. One was looking for something to do, some way forward, to use a figure of speech. Seems as good as any. Popular music was something I had known about for a long time, and been exposed to all my life. My mother played music around the house, and I knew about it. Also in the '60s, music changed a little bit. The folk thing had been rolling for a while, but then it gave way to electric music. I was interested in those forms, and I was interested in those ideas. I went to Europe in 1965 and sat there for a while and looked around. When I came back, I got in touch with my friend Frederick Barthelme and suggested to him that we should start a band, that that seemed like as good a way forward as any. I had done a little bit of playing at that time, and Rick had played a little bit of drums, so we just had a bash.RO: Were you 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. They always seemed to me to be pious in some way... or I shouldn't say that. That's judgemental. Let's just put it this way: It's not for me. It never spoke in a voice that spoke to me or for me. So I was interested in trying to find something that I could say grace over that made some sense in relation to the ideas, at the same time, that wasn't what was already going on. Plus I come from a school of thought where if somebody's already doing something, you don't do it. You don't duplicate those relations, you try to find something else. Those kind of constraints informed it, and certainly I have to confess that to a young fella it's a lot of fun to get in people's faces. Getting knee-jerk reactions out of people and stuff like that, there's a certain kind of transitory gratification involved in that, and I confess to having done some of that kind of thing. But it was not really the main impulse. I always hoped, perhaps, and dreamed to some extent, that one was involved in a conversation where everybody was doing pretty much doing the same thing, looking not for just for the known goods but looking for what else might be there in some sort of developmental sense. That was still an idea in the '60s, that there was somewhere to go with those things. I've since been disabused of this idea. There is nowhere to go, apart from across the road, maybe. Does that make any sense?
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. When we started playing, one of the things that was palpable to us was how our musicianship stood up to the quality of musicianship with which we were familiar, which included classical music, and then jazz, and then on down to people who were adept at various idioms, like great guitar players like Hendrix or those kind of things. The music made by the Beatles, or the music made by the Rolling Stones, all of which is derived from other kinds. The Beatles, I hear English music-hall music, you know, and the Rolling Stones are obviously R&B. We were moved by the intensity of jazz bands to some extent, like Albert Ayler was certainly a figure that we admired and had great respect for, partly because he knew his way around his instrument and he could play very well, but he chose to use it in a fairly expressive sort of way and to treat it as an instrument where it was not about technique, and it wasn't about mastery over the scales or those kind of things, but it was about an activist relationship to the ideas, and that the instrument was an instrument conveying those ideas. So we started from those principles. And we also had some kind of understanding of art, as a kind of progression or series of movements, which it had been up until that time. Those days are over, but it had been up until that time. And we were familiar with notions of avant-garde and notions of [phone rings] Can you hang on one second?RO: Mm-hmm. [Mayo talks to wife on phone]
MT: Sorry. My wife was calling to report she had survived the traffic. Yeah. You know, in the '60s the world was a lot different than it is now. The '50s had been a glorious time for the United States, and in the '60s things were starting to look a little frayed around the edges in terms of some of the verities that one was taught, or expected to live up to in some way. I don't know. The war in Vietnam was getting going real good. It was just a different world. The civil rights movement, all that stuff. It was a time of change, and we were as anxious as anybody to change it, and we were perhaps a little disrespectful. I will say that.RO: Would you characterize what the Krayola was doing back then as 'psychedelic'?
MT: I don't know. The Elevators were interested in Psychedelic with a capital P, Psychedelic as a way of life, as a mode, as a strategy, as a philosophy, whatever. We would own up that there was something that was psychedelic in the small-p sense, in the sense that something could expand your mind, and perhaps some medium was required, some substance was required to perform the magic that was discussed in the Elevators' thing. But it was also possible to look at that as a characteristic of a relationship where you look at a sunset and you have kind of a 'Gee whiz! Isn't that beautiful' kind of effect, which takes you a little bit out of time and puts you in a slightly different space. That we thought of as psychedelic in some way, in the small things and the mundane things, that there were also moments where other worlds and other ways of thinking and other kinds of ideas came into the foreground in some way. We weren't advocates of psychedelia in the way that the Elevators were, nor were we interested in perpetually occupying ourselves with those states or being in those states. Do you know what I mean? RO: Are you talking about drugs, or just the...? MT: I'm just talking about the whole way of things. I don't know. To me, it seemed to be weak thinking. RO: Was there a lot of friction between the Krayola and Lelan Rogers? MT: No. We never had any friction with him. We were naïve in extremis; we knew nothing about the business, and we just wanted to make records. We were crazy to make music, and crazy to make records, and our first contract that we signed with International Artists was a piece of boilerplate. It's unbelievable when I look back on it. I have had occasion to have a lawyer explain to me what that first paragraph of that contract meant, and I signed away a lot of... I wanted to get on with it, and I wasn't paying attention to the business part of it. And Lelan, we had a misimpression of Lelan - we thought that was his record company. It wasn't. It was owned by two lawyers who had bought it from another lawyer. We made that first record, and pretty soon after that, Lelan was out.
When they asked me to come back and make God Bless The Red Krayola, the second album, Lelan wasn't even around. He wasn't even part of their operation; they had gotten rid of him. Instead, Ray Rush was in charge of A&R there, and Fred Carroll was involved in the production side of it. IA was a shaky organization. They didn't do anything the regular way. They didn't advertise, and they turned around and tried to make a virtue out of that. As we see from what happened in the later years, that this is actually a feasible way of going on, but at the time we didn't think much about it. We just wanted to make a record. It never occurred to us to try to send tapes to the major labels and try to get a deal in the usual sort of way. We just felt like there was an opportunity there, and we went for it. Lelan was an adventurous thinker in his way. He had an imagination, and he had a show-business nose. He came along and saw us playing one night in a battle of the bands. KNUZ had a battle of the bands we were invited to play. We played one night in Gulfgate Mall, and he came to that looking for a parakeet and found us and asked us to make a record. I later read in interviews where he said he thought we couldn't play, and I suppose from the point of view of musicianship, I guess we couldn't play. We were not your standard-issue musicians. We just weren't interested in the techniques in quite the same sort of way. Like I said, for us instrumentality was tied to a notion of expressing ideas. Our understanding of adequacy was a little different. But at the same time, music is a form that has a powerful, phenomenal effect on the body. And one has a feel for time, a feel for frequency, and even without knowing much about it, being 'primitives of the form,' we still managed to touch some things that actually do work, and are characteristic of music that works generally. So I think it was valid as music. I don't think there's any question of that. We didn't have any friction with anybody, particularly. We were not really - I mean, Steve Cunningham was much more deeply steeped in the scene than I was or Bartheleme was. Bartheleme and I came from a slightly different world. We were a little bit older than he. It was a kind of craziness. It was making it up as we went along. We were determined that we wanted to do it differently, and we had some funny ideas. We wanted to change the name of the band all the time, and the record company thought, 'Oh, my God.' We had also made up our minds that we would not record the same thing twice, and once we were done with one kind of idea, one way of doing things, we'd move on and find something else. RO: 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, and things were going on. It was just fine. I personally wanted out, but not because of anything about Houston. One gets older [and] after all these years, I think 'I can live anywhere if I have to.' And I will. I'll live wherever I have to and I'll make the best of it that I can, whatever's going on. It's certainly the case that Houston suffered from a kind of second-rate, like a hierarchy of relations in relation to culture - you know, New York is where art came from, and Chicago is where music came from. There were all those kinds of clichés around about how the world is organized and how it's built. That's all nonsense anyway. I mean, not nonsense, but it's not really a problem. Anything anywhere - 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. RO: How did you wind up assisting Robert Rauschenberg?
MT: Accident. I was sitting in Europe in the summer of '73, and I went to Greece to make a record with a guy named Manos Hadjidakis, the guy who wrote "Never on Sunday." And he was ill and couldn't work, so I just sat there for a month waiting and waiting and waiting and finally I just couldn't stay there anymore. I was running out of money; there was nothing I could do. And there was nothing for me to do there. I begged his pardon and said, 'I think I'm just going to have to leave. I can't stick around here and wait forever.' And I went, 'On my way home I think I want to stop in Paris.' So he organized a ticket for me and I went to Paris. I was sitting there and it was August, and I was walking around one day with my second wife, who was an artist, and we were walking down the street one day and we saw Rauschenberg sitting in front of Illyana Sonovan's [sp?] gallery. [My wife] knew him from New York a little bit, and we got to chatting and he invited us to come in, and I wound up working for him through that. He needed to write a press release for this exhibition they were putting together, and they needed a little something because they were launching this printing company. He had a printing press called Untitled Press, and they needed something to write. I knew how to use a pencil, and so I got the job. 'Oh yeah, I can do that. Sure, I'll help you do that.' So I helped write the press release, and in proving oneself handy at this and that, opportunity will knock. And so when we got back to New York, where I was living at the time, there wasn't much of anything going on and I asked Bob could we have a job. And he found something for us to do because he liked us. He liked people around him, he liked to hang out, he liked to have fun, and we had had some fun together. So it seemed a natural, and pretty soon we were working for him. I worked for him for about 18 months, almost two years. RO: What other kind of work did you do for him? MT: Walked the dog, pick up the dry-cleaning, you know, wash the dishes. Whatever. I suppose the most interesting thing I got to do was working on a film about him. There was a documentary being made about him by a French film company, and the guy who was making it - when Bob saw this film, he said, 'Oh, I can't let this out this way. I need to do some more on it.' So he asked my wife at the time, Christine, he asked her, 'Do you know anybody that can make movies?' And it happened that I had made some movies when I was at St. Thomas; I had gotten interested in film there. They didn't have a media department there, but I was just making movies. Barthelme and I were working on a film together before we started the band. And she said, 'Oh, he can.' Like the press release, you know: 'Can anybody write around here?' 'Yeah, I can write.' 'Okay, you get the pencil.' 'Can anybody make a film?' 'Yeah, I think I can probably do it.' I'm not easily intimidated by those kinds of things, or as nervous as it might make me, I'm not going to be so scared that I won't have a go. So he said, 'Can you?' and I said, 'Sure, we'll try.' I went and rented a camera and wound up finishing this film. The guy who had been making it before was terminally ill, and it fell to Rauschenberg. He backed it up and we did some more filming on it. It's a film called Mostly About Rauschenberg. My version of it, I should say, or our version of it, was never shown until after Bob's death, in fact, in Munich. We were invited to show it there. We went along with some people from Bob's organization, David White, and showed the film then. That was the most interesting thing I got to do. We traveled around with him some, and worked on installations of exhibitions in various places. We went with him to Israel, for example, and we sat in Jerusalem for a couple of weeks and helped put together a show of his work there, and helped make things. We helped make things in Paris. The usual stuff that assistants do. Some of this, some of that. RO: I was looking over your discography and it's just staggering. What do you think it is that's made you so prolific?
MT: Well... I don't know. After The Parable of Arable Land and Coconut Hotel and God Bless The Red Krayola and Corky, I thought pretty much I was finished. I thought I had done about everything there was left to do with music. It seemed to me to be exhausted, at least in terms of formal development. I was thinking along the lines of where Schonberg leads to Cage and Stockhausen, out of classical music. Unless you're really a technician and interested in musicianship and interpretation and stuff like that, which is what players do classically - not being a player and not being interested in music in that way, I thought, 'Well, I've exhausted this form.' I stopped making music for a while, until I met those guys in Art & Language. Then I got to thinking, 'Well, maybe there is something more to do with this stuff, maybe some kind of lyrical content that I haven't explored the possibilities of putting down and dealing with, and some other kinds of expressive relations, some other kinds of politics of relations.' So there's always been some reason for it - it's always been reason-driven, let's say, where it's like 'Gosh, there is something else to say, there is something else to do.' And production, my motto has always been 'Produce and the world will run to keep up,' or 'Produce and be damned' and 'Take a stand somewhere, do something and see what happens.' So that's what I did, and over the years it's happened that I've had opportunities to make records. I haven't always pushed it. Sometimes I've pushed it out of necessity, 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 doing some things, and found out that there was interesting things going on in music, punk rock and all that kind of stuff, and got involved in that. RO: Of all the collaborations you've done over the years, which ones kind of stand out in your mind today? MT: The ones I can remember (laughs). If I see it down on paper, I'll go 'Oh yeah, I remember doing that!' or 'I remember them.' 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, and we get things together and do stuff from time to time. 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. RO: On this most recent album, why did you choose these five people that you did? MT: I didn't choose them; Art & Language chose them. N: Do you know why they did? MT: (laughs) No. I don't. George Bush, I can think that they might have chosen him because historically they've done portraits in various styles. They've done "Portrait of V.I. Lenin" in the style of Jackson Pollock, so there's a relation there. And they've done a portrait of Bush in the style of a certain Pollock painting which had a certain history. I can't remember exactly how it worked out, but it was shown somewhere in the East, and Lenin's name had to be taken off of it. I don't know - there are certain kinds of indexicalities that they could answer better than I, and I don't really know them. And I haven't really concerned myself with them, not because I'm not interested in them or anything else like that. It's just that, you know, I wanted to make the record. They've written lyrics and given them to me over the years - well, these things were not written as lyrics. They were written as descriptions of representational works they were making. RO: Kind of like instructions. MT: Well, yeah. They describe the features, and when they looked at the lyrics, they thought to themselves, 'Ah, Mayo might like this.' So they called me up and asked if I'd like to see what they were doing with these texts that they had gotten together, and I said by all means, send 'em to me. I looked at 'em and I said, 'Oh hell yeah, I'll do something with that.' I started thinking about the problem of the very idea of making portraits of these people, and what would go into a portrait, what makes something a portrait, what makes it possible to see these people and to bring them to life, so to speak, or to bring them before one, to conjure them before yourself. It's an interesting formal technical problem. I'm interested in the problems of representation. I have the privilege to involve myself in those kinds of questions rather than other sorts of stuff. So I do.RO: How did you go about composing the music to match each one of these portraits?
MT: All of those people are very familiar to me. My being an American, I happen to know all those characters. Wile E. Coyote, I saw the first Roadrunner cartoon back when they came out. I always liked Wile E. Coyote and thought he was a very sympathetic figure and, you know, one of the most charming villains in film history. And I also liked Bo Diddley, and I know Bo Diddley wrote a song called 'Roadrunner.' So I started putting two and two together, things like that, you know, just one step after another, that leads to another thing - the 'knock on' effect with ideas. It was about generating something that was familiar. You know how portraits are - when you go and look at a portrait of somebody you'll see in a museum, and if they were an explorer there'll be a little globe on the table, and they'll have their hand on a book of geography, that kind of stuff. And so it was pretty simple putting together the atmosphere that goes around these kinds of people. Their worlds, so to speak. Wile E. Coyote's world is his life in the imagination of people. And I thought about Bo Diddley, of course, and Bo Diddley had just passed away not too long before I started working on that thing. I had always liked his music, and I always felt a great deal of sympathy for him, and understanding, because when I hear 'Roadrunner,' which is a little bit different from his jungle thing, I thought, 'That's the pop musician's perennial problem, that the idea is to make something that everybody will like, and to do something that makes a kind of sense.' So I went online and saw a couple of performances of Bo Diddley performing 'Roadrunner' with his ensemble, and it just struck me how alienated the whole thing was, about how much it wasn't idea-driven, about how it was a project to do something, and to get something that really resonated with the people. And who knows? Bo Diddley, at the time he did that, I think he was living in New Mexico. Maybe he saw a roadrunner, or maybe he saw the Roadrunner cartoon and thought that it had captured people's imagination and he was going to get him a little piece of that action, he was going to get in on that, so he wrote that tune, and that tune seemed to be good enough to me. So I rearranged it and added a few little thises and little thats, but it seemed to be an ideal way of portraying Wile E., a good backdrop. And it seemed to capture some of the energy and the frenetic aspect of it, which is something like a cartoon.
So I got that, and I thought of George Bush as being a figure who is intimately associated with the very idea of Texas. I thought, 'Well, that's my turf.' So I borrowed the University of Texas' fight song, which they borrowed from some other tune they borrowed from, you know, the levee song and 'I've Been Working on the Railroad,' and then I had some other music which I had written. Back in the '80s I wrote a piece called 'The New Eyes of Texas' which I had never done anything with, but I had this piece sitting around. I thought about 'Home, Home on the Range,' which was written in Texas I believe, and 'Red River Valley' and 'Oh Texas, My Texas,' 'The Yellow Rose of Texas' - I just thought of all that Texiana and thought about George Bush, thought about there being a piano in the White House and, you know... it was pretty straightforward, you know what I mean? It was just a game of association. And Jimmy Carter being from Georgia, you know, 'Georgia On My Mind.' 'Rainy Night In Georgia.' And then 'Dixie's Land,' something - sort of the forbidden, the hot icon, because it's associated with the Confederacy and associated with the old slaveholding South and the contradictions which persist and continue to this time, continue to haunt the whole relation, as we see. So all of that came into it. At the same time, with John Wayne, I grew up with John Wayne in the movie house. Back in the day in Houston, there used to be a theater on the corner of Main Street and Richmond Avenue that was called the Delman. I lived around the corner from that theater, and I used to go there every Saturday to the movies. I think I probably saw most of the movies that John Wayne was in from the late '40s all the way through the '50s. John Wayne was a hero to me. He's one of those figures that I just admired and respected. And of course in the '60s, when there was a question of are you a patriot and how does patriotism express itself, and there was some controversy over what counted as a legitimate expression of patriotism and 'Do you love your country?' and 'Would you die for it?', etc. The Green Berets, and all that moment. And John Wayne had always been a conviction player on the side of flying the flag, which is something I understand. Of course my father's generation, those people went out and fought the war. That was the world I grew up in. I was born in '44, the war ended a year later, no connection I'm sure, but that colored my relationship to John Wayne. And Ad Reinhardt I got to know about when I got to know about art. And Mozart of course I had known about since I was an infant. I've heard his music all my life. The funny thing about the Mozart piece is that my wife is a molecular biologist. We were living in Scotland at the time and she had a piano. She's also an accomplished pianist, although she doesn't play any more. At one time she had to choose between biology and the piano, and she chose biology. Anyway, she would come home and sit down at the piano sometimes and play. One evening she came in and started playing this Mozart piece. She was working on some passage of it that didn't quite satisfy her. She's quite technically accomplished, so she was working on the left hand. I heard this figure, and I said, 'Honey, what's that you're playing?' She told me what it was, the name of the piece, and I'd heard it before but just didn't know what the name of it was.
And I said, 'Would you play that again? Just the left hand, and play it slowly.' She did, and it's the motif from 'Paint It, Black' by the Rolling Stones. This is in the second section of Piano Sonata No. 6 in D (sings). The first 32 bars of the second section of the Piano Sonata in D, that is a motif. It changes register and changes around, it doesn't stay the same way it does in the Stones' version of it, but then I thought to myself, 'Brian Jones, surely he heard that. He had piano lessons as a kid and knew Mozart, and that line had always stuck in his head. Who knows?' So that was an easy association. And it turns out, of course, that Ad Reinhardt always painted all of his pictures black. They're all black. So there's a certain kind of literalism and a kind of associationism, trading in familiarities, some straightforward representation, which is a little bit different from what I've ever done, but like I said I don't like to do the same thing twice. So that's how that stuff came about.
The John Wayne thing, the movie, one of my favorites of his is The Searchers. It's got music by Max Steiner. I think he must be a German émigré who came to America after the war, somebody like Franz Waxman, who wrote for Hitchcock, somebody who was trained in the academy and knew musical tropes very well, and who was able to adapt things, sitting out there in Hollywood and knew this one and knew that one, and one thing led to another and pretty soon he's writing the music to this movie. So because it's a Western, he's obliged to bring it down to earth at some level, and there's some fairly prosaic music, and I'm sure that he listened to some American music in the same way that, you know, Bartok listened to folk music and stuff like that. When I listened to The Searchers, I thought, 'Well, there's 'Just a Closer Walk With Thee' in there, it's an adaptation from this old spiritual, but it's also the tune to a thousand songs.' So it's deeply ingrained in American culture, and so it seemed to me to be deeply noncontroversial. Plus, in that setting, you have all the chromatic excitement, which is all the clichés of soundtrack music versus this homely tune, and that kind of thinking.RO: What's your attitude toward performing live these days? Do you do much of that?
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. Like, 'What?' 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, and it's when I can play a little bit of a role and get out there and do my thing, and I go on tour sometimes or play shows sometimes, and that makes a kind of sense to me. 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. You notice, like, 'Oh, he dropped his beer. Oh, they're leaving. Oh, she's dancing. Oh, he's not. He's sneering, and that one's laughing, and they're not listening at all.' But the thing about music is, as you know, is whether you're listening to it or not, it's playing you. It's got hold of you. It's got hold of your body and it's moving you around, even if you're not listening to it. Even if you don't like it, or if you do like it, one way or the other it's got you. If you're present, and music is present, it's happening. You know what I mean? So I like that relation about it as well. I still like playing in public, yeah. I do. And partly because of the, like I said, one of the most interesting parts about it for me is the ability to get out and be with other people.RO: Are there 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 place I go on tour in the traditional fashion is in Japan and in Europe, those two places. In America, the band gets invited to play maybe in New York, or somebody will give us a gig in San Francisco maybe. Or we could play in Chicago. But when I first came back to America and started playing here in the '90s, when I first started working with Drag City, I played in some places in the middle, in St. Louis, maybe somewhere in Wisconsin someplace, I can't remember all the places we played, and Philadelphia. But it's not like Will Oldham, for example, who's out there and who plays every town in America. He goes everywhere and does all those things. We're not that kind of band. We're difficult, and the music that we play is not - 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. You might find one or two tunes here and there that'll fit if you had a whole medley of other kinds of things. You can shoehorn something in there, you know? But largely it's unique stuff, and it's the kind of music that was made on the premise of 'Now listen to this' rather than 'Put this on while you're cooking fried chicken' or something like that. If somebody does that, I'm happy. I'm not ruling that out, but it's not functional music in the usual sense. It's not dance floor. It doesn't sit comfortably in any of the genres that I know of or in any of the categories that I know of, except in the broadest category of them all, which is popular music. There, I think we've got a foothold, along with everything else. And people say to me, 'Oh, you're part of the alternative music scene.' And I say, 'Look, if there's any kind of music, all music is alternative.' And ours is alternative to all other kinds, and there is no hierarchy of values which is implied in these stances. I refuse a lot of the usual category closures. So it's really not the kind of music that you can - you really have to want to go and hear the Red Krayola do its thing. There ain't many people out there who want to do that. It's unfortunate. There's nothing I'd like better than to play. Part of the game of popular music, of course, is to do something that catches the public imagination on a grand scale, and I'd love to see that happen. I keep that possibility open, and I wouldn't be surprised. People have funny ideas. Maybe one of our funny ideas meets up with everybody else's funny idea one of these days. Who knows? So it's that kind of a thing that keeps it going, as impractical as it is in terms of the known applications.RO: Do you make it back to Houston much anymore?
MT: I haven't been back since 2007. My mother and father are deceased, and my great-aunt, they were the people who brought me to Houston. That was why I went to Houston, was to be with them. I still have some friends who live there, but I haven't been back in a while. I communicate with them. I've got some cousins who live there, but we were never very close and we don't communicate with each other, so I don't have strong family reasons that bring me back to town. I've got some stuff in storage there, which I need to visit, but I just can't get myself together to do it. I don't know. I like that city very much. I think Houston is a great city. I've seen it grow from 'The Biggest Little Town In the World,' as they used to call it, and where they zipped up the sidewalks, as they used to say, at 10 o'clock at night. That was back in the day when men went out and they wore hats and ties and stuff like that, and ladies didn't go anywhere without hats and gloves. But that world's gone, and Houston now is a whole new thing. I like the city, though, very much. I particularly like it between October and March; between March and October I'm not very fond of it. The weather. But I can endure it. How are things there? How is Houston?RO: Houston's a busy place. We have a nice little art scene here, and a music scene that's improving every year.
MT: Oh, I know. There's always been a lot going on. There are a lot of fine people. What is theHouston Press
? I remember back in the day there used to be a newspaper that was owned by Scripps-Howard that was called theHouston Press
.RO: That was a daily. We're a weekly. I guess we've been around maybe 20 years.
MT: I was a paperboy for theHouston Press
. That was a good paper. They had a bulldog edition and a morning edition, all those things that came out. That was when Houston had three newspapers.RO: Right. The Post, the Chronicle and the Press.
MT: I've heard of thePress
, and I've seen articles here and there, online for example, where it says Houston Press. I hope y'all are doing well. Twenty years is a good record.RO: Yeah. Especially these days.
MT: I would come back to Houston if it was a little closer. I'm far away, and my wife works, and our life is here in L.A. at the moment. That's just the way it is. I could live in Houston easily. Now, it would be easy for me, but I just don't see anything happening for me along those lines.RO: Well, one of these days I know we hope to talk you into coming to Rice or downtown somewhere and doing some Red Krayola stuff.
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. Playing in Texas - people talked about 'Would the Red Krayola play a tour of Texas?' and I've thought about it a number of times; it is a card that one could play. But I'm reluctant. 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 played in L.A. for a while. 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. And I really wouldn't know where to play. The other night I turned on the TV and I saw Roky Erickson playing onAustin City Limits
. And that's a natural for him. He's an Austin man, and he's part of an authentic, official music world, a music scene. He can play all kinds of venues, and there was Billy Gibbons onstage with him, and some other people like a guitar player and a solid bass player and a good drummer, and some kind of keyboard. They're on there doing their thing and I thought to myself, 'What we do sounds something like that, but it also sounds something not like that.' 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. I like the town, and Rice is an amazing, amazing campus. Are you affiliated with them? Did you go there?RO: No.
MT: Are you a Houston man?RO: Yeah. I grew up here, and lived in Austin for a long time. I'm a UT boy, but I moved back a few years ago.
MT: I joke about Austin and Dallas. Whenever I say I'm from Texas, they always say, 'Dallas, right?' I say, 'I'm from Houston. We admit that Dallas is part of Texas, but that's as far as we'll go. And then Austin, 'Oh, that's a vibrant scene, the music.' And I'll say, 'Yeah, Austin is our state capital.' I underplay it because I believe in rivalry between towns. I kind of like that idea, for one thing. Plus the culture of Austin has always felt a little alien to me, like San Francisco feels a little alien to me. It's too cultured. Too cultivated, and too aware of its own value.RO: I know exactly what you mean by that.
MT: I bet you do.RO: I don't think Houston has ever quite had that problem.
MT: That's one of the great things about Houston.RO: It's always underestimated itself.
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, or one of the things Los Angeles has in common with this town, that 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.RO: I like that too. I like it here because of that.
MT: I can believe it. What did you study at UT?RO: Different things. Journalism, American Studies, started in the music school actually.
MT: Yeah? You a player?RO: Formerly. I played cello and bass for a while, classically.
MT: That's great. I'm working on an opera. Man, that's going to be fun. I'm looking forward to locking horns with all those classical people.RO (laughs): What's the opera about?
MT: It's called Victorine, and it plays in Paris in the late 1870s and early 1880s. Victorine Muron was the model for Manet's painting Olympia. It's this nude, there's a black woman in it and a black cat, a black woman holding a bouquet of flowers. It's largely referred to as a painting of a prostitute. She plays this role, a courtesan, and anyway, she modeled for a lot of people. She modeled for Courbet, she modeled for Manet, and this thing plays in Paris at the time. The story is occupied largely by a police inspector trying to solve what he thinks are a bunch of murders based on his readings of various paintings of nudes, where he sees them as murdered. He treats these paintings as forensic evidence. The libretto is by Art & Language. It's very funny. This guy's got a confusion between 'motive' and 'motif.' He looks at the motifs in the paintings and thinks they amount to motives for murder, like there's some sort of message involved, that the killer is trying to tell tales and so on and so on and so on, making political points. And people are manipulating this copper left, right and center trying to sic him on Courbet. Because Courbet was a lefty, and Courbet got in big trouble for pulling down the Vendome column. He was the minister of culture for the Paris commune, who Karl Marx said of them, 'Their mistake was they didn't march on Versailles and therefore transform all of France.' They were satisfied just to take Paris, that's all they cared about (laughs).
Anyway, this plays in the aftermath of this whole thing, when Louis Napoleon was in charge in France. Art & Language are very good writers. The characterizations are funny, and it's really wordy. It's four acts, and I don't know what the word count is, but let's say there are lots of words there. It's not like most operas where you have an aria, and a recitative parts where the story is stitched together with some songs. There is only one aria in the whole piece, and one vocal chorus of policemen. The rest of it is all these descriptions of bodies, and then some speculation on the politics of representation. But it's quite entertaining. I hope it'll be entertaining. I would say if you were to characterize the Red Krayola, I always say we're entertainers. We entertain ideas, and we try to bring these ideas to life so people will be entertained by them as well, or will have the opportunity of entertaining them themselves. The premium would be on entertainment, and not everybody's entertained by the same kinds of things, of course, and some people have different ideas. Some people, when they think of entertainment, they think of 'ha ha ha,' or, you know, whatever. But this is a more complex relationship to that very idea. And this opera, I won't say it's traditional, in that it doesn't come out of any particular line of thought, let's say, but I can tell you for sure that my favorite operas in the world are Mozart. Don Giovanni's a fine piece of business. Puccini operas, The Barber of Seville, these are fine, fine, fine pieces of music, and I will not simulate these effects, but I have learned from them and absorbed quite a lot of those ideas, and there will be something in that. And also, this coincides with my old claim that I can put anything to music - any words, I can find the setting for it, and that's not a problem. The premium has been put on the sense of the language, so that you can follow the story, so it'll be easy to follow the story. It'll strike a balance between opera as it exists as some kind of spectacle, constrained by the narrative imperatives of Hollywood scriptwriting. In Hollywood they want you to make damn sure that everyone knows exactly what's going on all the time. There will be no mysterious elements or anything like that. Nobody will turn to you in the theater and say, 'Who is she?' So that would be a criterion, emphasis on sense, and also wedging this thing from the outside into that world and seeing what happens when these worlds collide. That's my entertainment, and Art & Language's entertainment as well, to some extent, would be to go to Salzburg and watch the people who are drenched and steeped in the classical tradition, see how they respond when they have to listen to this stuff. And they may have to, because there's always a trade-off where commercial necessity dictates that you have to get in bed with some strange people sometimes. That's the card we plan to play. RO: Well, I would very much like to see how that all turns out. MT: Stay in touch.RO: I sure will. Thank you so much for talking to me.
MT: It was my pleasure. The most recent occasion I had to look at your paper waswhen Walt Andrus passed away
. I really thought y'all did a good job with his obituary, the way you handled it. That was really nice.
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MT: It was really nice. He was a great man. RO: So I hear. Quite a figure back in those days. MT: Oh, I mean, he made - so much of the stuff that we know of was done in his studio. Frank Davis still lives in your town, and he's an amazing character. When I first started playing music, he and Guy Clark were two people who were really generous to me. They didn't say, 'Fuck off, kid.' They were playing at the Jester Lounge, which is out on Westheimer right by what is now Loop 610. It was a folk club, and there were a lot of folk players there. Frank Davis was playing there, and Guy Clark was playing there, and they were the first people who really talked to me in a really straight-up sort of way. We talked about music, and I learned a lot from those two guys. Corky's Debt I recorded at Walt's, and we recorded Parable at Walt's place. I recorded Corky's Debt for Walt's label, and Rock Romano, who's another Houston stalwart, we did that together. All those players are Houston players that are on Corky's there. There's some good stuff in that town. Guys I went to college with at St. Thomas, the guys who did the newspaper there, Bob Raines was a drummer, and a guy named Paul Norris, and Bob Raines used to get regularly called by Mickey Gilley to play drums. One time he asked Mickey, 'Why do you call me, Mickey?' He said, 'Because Bob, you play loud. I like that.' There's some things there, and that obituary brought all that back to life for me. That was really good. RO: I wish I would have had a chance to sit down with Walt and talk to him before he passed away. MT: I do too. You know, he and I were talking again on the telephone, about the possibility of remastering that stuff, The Parable of Arable Land and God Bless The Red Krayola, because this record company, Charlie, who have got control of that kind of stuff, there's some sniffing around about maybe making peace over this stuff. We'll see. We've been cut out of it for years. But I think they did that box set with the Elevators, and I think they wanted to have something of mine along the same lines with us, which eventually might happen. So there was talk about Walter and I getting back together and remastering that material, and I was talking to Walter on the telephone through the past year, up until the time he passed away. It was just great talking to him. He's such an amazing fellow. Funny fellow. He was one of the people who was not balked by the fact that the things that I was doing were perhaps not official enough, or that they didn't belong to the regular categories. He just heard the sound and he liked the sound. He had a really open mind about things. He was vital to my getting involved in the business as well. The first thing we ever recorded was with him, in fact. Before we signed with International Artists, we went in his studio and made a single. He was extremely encouraging.