April 1st, 2008 | Interviews

Joe McGarry

Gary Wilson “6.4 = Makeout”


Gary Wilson’s life is a dream come true: a kid records a genius noise collage/bedroom soul record in his parent’s basement, college radio picks up the single, he tours on it but doesn’t break through and 20 years later, Beck namedrops Gary in “Where It’s At” and his record gets re-released. Gary, now in his 50’s, speaks with Kevin Ferguson about finally finding an audience and recording a new record for Human Ear Music (tentatively titled “Lisa Wants to Talk to You”). Dreams are weird.

Where do you get your mannequins?
Well, due to some circumstances I’ve been using some of those blow-up dolls because they’re a little softer. Some of the original shows, the record company many times would rent the mannequins. Matter of fact, our first show after the resurrection I wrecked them, and it was an expensive process. They were like—I don’t know—Jesus, six or seven hundred bucks apiece! And they’re hard so it sometimes hurts to fall on them. I finally figured I can just get a couple of these dolls—you can fall on them and they won’t get hurt. I prefer mannequins—they look more natural, I guess.
I read that back in the day you needed police escorts out of some shows.
Especially in my hometown—Endicott, New York, which was kind of a small town. At that time there weren’t a lot of venues and we would kind of feed off that a little bit—there would be times that I would book us into the American Legion or something. You’d have all these guys expecting maybe a polka band and then we’d come in there with highly experimental staff—really avant-garde stuff there. We’d play teen centers where they wanted a normal rock band and we’d come in and they’d get all mad at us and as usual things would start in an uproar and people would start yelling. Next thing I know they’re surrounding the stage, threatening to kill us—it always turned into disasters like this. But not so much in New York City—I have to give them that. When I would play CBGB’s I usually got a pretty good response, even in the ‘70s. But in the smaller towns, when you’d play to like these places you weren’t suitable for I’d enjoy it because I’d be placing myself in an awkward situation. I was talking to one of the guys just a little while ago about when we played in Binghamton. I did the whole show with my head against the wall standing upside down. The club owner was screaming: “What the hell is this?!” He pulled the plug on us. I remember John Cage saying if it doesn’t irritate people, you aren’t doing your job! I guess we’ve continued with that sort of process. That’s what was kind of marvelous about the newer stuff—as I call it, the “resurrection”—because all of the sudden things changed, which is nice. You have people that like you, whereas before ninety percent of the time you had people who were mad at you. I like the change.
Is there any ethical line that you draw in live performances?
Here’s a funny thing. We did the Mercury Lounge not too long ago in New York and somebody snapped some pictures from it and I put it on a Myspace page and they deleted it. I guess because of the blow-up doll? They couldn’t tell what the hell was going on, they thought it was violent. I guess somebody complained. I mean, sure, you don’t want to go too far, depending on the situation. Somebody needs to draw boundaries as to how far you want to go with something. You have to keep things within your own creativity. Sometimes when we were younger we’d get ourselves hurt up there. We always got to be careful of that these days—we don’t want to hurt anybody now. Those days we’d use to raid the trash cans and find debris—whatever we could bring—and throw it up on the stage. Then next thing we know somebody’s falling over a garbage can! There are times where people had to get stitches because they hurt themselves. So you have to keep that in mind a little bit.
How often have you toured?
Personally, I don’t like to travel a lot. I don’t like flying, so it kind of makes things a little awkward.
Me neither.
Oh you don’t either? It’s a sick trip actually. I play here and there when there’s something that looks like it might be interesting. Matter of fact I was just speaking with Human Ear Music—Ariel Pink and those guys—so I guess we’re going to be doing a show up there April 24th and 29th. They’re gonna release my new album. It could be a good combination. I’ll probably end up playing more. Matter of fact, I was just discussing with Mary in the other room about somebody at the University of Oregon who wants us to play. And then the Knitting Factory in New York—I gotta go up there. But those plane rides bum me out. I took a train up there last time.
You live in San Diego now? I lived there for a little while and I kind of got the vibe that it’s not the friendliest place for musicians.
For so many years, I never really was accepted there. It seems more so “out of town” than in town. But I play on the side in restaurants on weekends. It’s pretty good work for lounge bands around here, but the original music scene leaves a little to be desired. Unless you’re in with a certain clique around here—the certain cool guys around town who get the coverage and press. But that’s the way it goes.
Didn’t you work at the F Street sex shop?
Actually it was the Jolar Cinema—have you heard of it? It’s one of those places where you have girls in booths. You put money in and the thing goes up and they wiggle around a little bit in the box there. But anyway I never got into that whole thing—I’m not into pornography. I found it because I worked for the UA theater down there, and somebody said that this place was looking for somebody. They’re kind of fans of mine. The thing with those places is—you know, it kind of has a rock and roll attitude. It’s loose, which I appreciate. But it isn’t like I’m into pornography or anything—it was just kind of a situation I fell into. As a matter of fact, I still work a day or two at this place. Just to keep legitimate, I guess.
You have a lounge band, too?
I play right now with Donnie—I’ve played with him since 1985. We do Nat King Cole, Lou Rawls, Wayne Newton, Johnny Mathis—a lot of the American songbook things. My father was always a lounge player—he played at one hotel for like 25 years. Like four nights a week. He played stand-up bass at night and worked for IBM during the day. Soon as I got out of high school I fell right into it. My uncle was on the board of the union of the town, and I started playing with the vice president of the union. But I always kept my original music semi-secret. I’ve tried to do that here, too, for a while, but then I got a lot of press coverage.
Do your fans spill over into the lounge shows?
Surprisingly there’s not as many as you would think. I think it’s because not a lot of people know where I’m playing and I’m not going under “Gary Wilson.” I kinda like that separation between the two. It’s a good thing because you got the lounge guys who are working the trenches and then you got the original guys who look down at the lounge guys because they call them sell outs. I can probably write the definitive article about that—keeping the two of those things together. I remember one time we did a show—gosh, it was back east, a real avant-garde show. I can’t remember what the hell was going on—a lot of stuff flying, a lot of trombones and chocolate milk, pouring it all over the drums, real messy and flour and everything. And then I had to go play at this plush steak house in like four hours. I remember rushing over there and putting on a tuxedo. It’s kind of a good balance. It’s worked out well.
You worked with John Cage, too?
I spent a few days in John Cage’s house, as far as that goes. We went over my scores. He corrected what I had done or tried to tell me certain things, like that string players might not interpret this as what you think it is. He’s my hero since I was a kid. David Tudor, too. He used to be the most avant-garde piano player—the most extreme piano music. He would play with Cage a lot. Matter of fact, one of my favorite albums was this thing called Cartridge Music he did with Cage. As a teenager, I remember picturing these two grown men making the most horrendous noise—using contact mics on piano strings, and putting it through the cartridge of a turntable somehow so everything was so distorted. It was very thrilling. The other album that really opened my mind to John Cage was a selection called Concert for a Piano and Orchestra with David Tudor on the piano. You might want to check that one out.
When you’re talking about ex-girlfriends, how do you handle it?
Pretty delicately—you don’t want to get too graphic. Funny, too, because Linda goes back to when I was in Endicott—she was one of my first girlfriends. All of the sudden—maybe about a year or two ago—she contacted me. We kind of talked about the old days. But a lot of the girls don’t even know I write about them.
Do you change their names?
Well, no. Not really. I try to use the people that I have known through my life. That’s kind of what I try to do with the mannequins—I kind of turn them into those characters. When I bring something out, it could be Mary, it could be Linda, it could be Karen. I try to keep that sort of a thing going. My new girlfriend—the one I have right now—it’s hard for me to sit in front of her and sing to her. Some guys can just pick up a guitar and sing to her. It’s kind of hard for me.
If the mannequins are girlfriends, what is the flour?
Snow. The snow in Endicott. Plus, you know, the flour and water keep you alive, so to speak. Sometimes I like to think of it like snow—that it’s snowing up there. I got in trouble with that at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco. I got docked. The lady there got mad at me. She stepped on stage with a broom, mad as hell at us, dusting the flour off of everything. She docked me 200 bucks or something. Later on she said to me, “I liked your show a lot—come back again! Just don’t bring the flour.” There’s been times when it’s been insane with that stuff. We did this thing at Little Pedro’s—it’s called Bordello now—and a massive amount of flour was on the stage and everywhere.
Did you ever play with the same Frank Roma you sang about?
Yeah, he’s still in Endicott. Whenever I’m in New York, I always bring the boys from Endicott up to play with me. There was a good moment when we were playing the Mercury Lounge. I had Mary the blow-up doll and we were doing “Gary Saw Linda Kissing Frank Roma.” During the dissonant part, Frank was doing an extended solo and I said to him, “You want Mary? Here she is!” So I wrapped it around his head with duct tape and he was yelling “She loves me!” It was a magical moment—it’s what keeps me in the game, so to speak.
Did you ever meet Beck?
I never did. Hopefully we will at some point. He’s one of the things that brought it all about, you know. That was probably around ‘97, right? Back then I was kind of at a low point in my life. I was doing the graveyard shift at Jolar Cinema. I’m getting ready to go to work and I just had the MTV Music Awards on, and he comes out and he starts quoting “6.4” and “I Wanna Lose Control.” That was the beginning of the resurrection. Also back in the ’70s I was getting fan mail from The Residents. One time when I went up to San Francisco, I went over to their place—the drummer and I taped our pictures all over their door. That was like in ‘80 or something. We corresponded a lot through mail but I never met them.
Did you see that ?uestlove plugged you in GQ?
Yeah, that was a funny one, huh? He’s a big supporter of mine, actually. It kind of surprised me. I’d like to get him on drums sometime—do a show with me or something.
What was the documentary like for you?
That was one of the highlights of my life, actually, because we had the premier in New York at the Lincoln Center. So I got a chance to go there and watch my life on the big screen on a state-of-the-art-system. The place was packed—they had a party for me.
Have you noticed a sort of trend with documentaries like that?
Yeah, I was talking with somebody about that today. They always put the three of us together: Daniel Johnston, Jandek and Gary Wilson. It’s been pretty good for them. Daniel Johnston was on Showtime and all that. As a matter of fact, we played for the release party in Los Angeles about a year or two ago. The director invited me up there to do an interpretation of a Daniel Johnston tune, so we went up there and rolled around a little bit. They always rope the three of us together.
How do you feel about that?
Eh, fine. I always thought it would be an interesting tour with the three of us together. I don’t know if that’ll ever materialize.
Which Daniel Johnston song did you cover?
Well, the director gave me a thing of songs—whichever one I wanted to do. I don’t remember which one I picked. Mary—my girlfriend—came up and recited the lyrics to one of the songs and Ross Harris—he was in Airplane—was playing keyboards. I was probably rolling on the floor screaming girls’ names out.