June 25th, 2008 | Interviews

Michael Hsiung

Moris Tepper “The Wolf King”


Moris Tepper has played guitar on records with Captain Beefheart, Frank Black and Tom Waits, among others, and had PJ Harvey as his bassist when he played the Arthur show at the Echo two years ago. He has just released his Stingray In The Heart CD. He speaks now after tending to his tortoises.

How are your tortoises?
It’s been such a weird day on the tortoise front. They’re at the age when they’re mature—
What’s a teenage tortoise like?
Like any animal—youth has a different color to it than age! So this morning I came out and the female was digging a hole like she’s gonna lay eggs. I go in the studio to listen to mixes from last night, and I do an hour of listening, and I get out here and she’s covered everything up. She already laid the egg and she’s sitting in the sun with bubbles coming out her mouth—I don’t know what that means! I never saw it before. But it’s a huge ordeal for them to lay an egg. You gotta be like an archaeologist if she covers it because you can break it easy—poke through and kill the egg. So I dig everywhere because you’ve gotta get to the egg quickly and get it in the incubator. This isn’t the desert—it can’t incubate in the ground here. I haven’t been able to find it. But now the drama’s kicked down. I was a pre-vet guy—going to vet school and deep into marine biology. You could talk to me about animals from now til doomsday. I’m queer on animals.
How does Stingray In The Heart build from Head Off?
Each record I give myself the space to lick my wounds, murder an astronaut, whatever it is—I hope, I pray, I believe by the results and relationships I have on Earth that respond to what I do that each one is digging down a little deeper. Hopefully I opened more stuff instead of closed stuff. I see with each record how it’s building on the last. Or destructing from the last record. Having an idea of what I’m doing before I do it for me spoils the entire thing—you read me the last page of the book and then I’m gonna read the rest? There’s absolutely no wonder in it for me. I try to build everything that way—every relationship, every song—keep myself fairly unconscious so I can be titillated at moments when it’s all in synch. Or beautifully out of synch. Do you remember a guy named Jack LaLanne? He had a TV show when I was a little kid—he’d make juice and stuff before everybody was doing it. It was like he was from Mars, and his body looked like Atlas—bulging veins and popping meat everywhere—looked like he’d got cancer, but the guy lived forever. And all I remember—this might have been an early idea of what I want my music to talk about—is he claimed to drink a cup of blood a day.
His own blood?
I don’t know—just blood. For all the iron and everything. And seeing a guy on TV—so American and healthy but a little on the edge, saying ‘a cup of blood everyday.’ And then at school I find out there are some African tribes who drink blood every day. I’d like to wake up to a cup of blood.
Do you take your blood hot or cold?
If you’re a purist, you want it at 98.6.
You were talking about Picasso once and said ‘the sketch is the masterpiece.’ What did you mean?
It ties into it all. It’s all happening—it’s really burning right underneath your brain, and as soon as it gets to your brain, it stops it. There’s no way to talk about this other than sideways. I read an interview with a painter named Francis Bacon, and I’m one of those people who gets nauseous hearing someone in a museum like, ‘What the artist meant is he was looking at a pomegranate and that was sexual in that day and age…’ That’s what you think! The only idea you can get is you look at the painting and try and get something resonating off that guy. You see at your periphery—sparkles around the periphery at night. And it turns out your optic nerves on the side are way more sensitive than what you see in front of you. For prey and hunters and catching shit at night—gotta be way more sensitive. So it does confirm what I know—if you attack it directly, it’s not there. As soon as you bring consciousness to it, you stop the whole thing. So this guy is being interviewed and one thing he says is ‘fear is one of the strongest senses, and what I wanna do with my paintings is create fear! I want to have fear that makes people scared to death—so they don’t even wanna look at it!’ I haven’t paraphrased well, but to me that’s so direct and well-said—the idea that there’s nothing better than murder says it all. You can’t talk direct—you have to do it! We circle back to the cup of blood. That’s where it all came from—Picasso smoking his cigar and wiping his dick off.
Not with the same hand?
It’s all the same hand in that land! But the shit really lies in the sketches. You can smell the cigars! The ones he worked and labored over look like commercial Coca Cola drawings and he did that, too—he could do anything! So in everyone’s sketches—this little thing you’re typing up with all the mistakes—there’s more essence of you receiving than there will be in the finished thing.
How have you figured out your own essential Tepperness?
Your approach—your dedication and your commitment is the whole thing. A struggle is a beautiful thing to have. It’s the only thing that makes you create something that isn’t ‘Oh, that just sounds like a Moris Tepper record again!’ You have to live—you can’t sit in L.A. and eat lunch with your friends every day and go to shows and create new music. You can do it for three or four months and then you have to change! And living—you got to live, and to live you gotta stop doing anything that’s scheduled and straight all the time! So what about the whole thing of the hope and Obama? Ever thought of McCain with the cane and Obama—the bomb explodes? What I actually think is he’s gonna get knocked off.
I’ve seen everybody get knocked off that’s any good. I love the idea of change and hope; I know there’s no such thing as change and hope. It all changes but it never changes—money money, power power—it gets stronger and stronger. I love people younger and older getting charged. Every twenty or thirty years after a bad economy and a bad American government, this is what happens. But it’ll just go back. Maybe it’ll be good for the next ten years, and maybe we’ll feel it for ten years after. I hope we don’t put this in! I’m just another cat blowing my horn!
What do you see happening to America in your lifetime?
I read the hemispheres. I read the long away line and try to go—is there direction in it? That’s as much searching for God as I was ever able to do. I don’t get why everybody needs some explanation for why they’re here. Why don’t you just be here? And think this is as good as it gets and make the best of it? As soon as I woke up the first time and looked out a long way, I said, ‘Shit’s going down.’ And every time I look out, that’s still how it looks! I’m a little shocked how fast it’s going down. I thought it was like a thousand years going down. Now I think America’s got like three years left.
They say to be ready for 2012.
They said Y2K, too.
You said once that you had very little hope for man—do you still feel the same?
No—Obama really turned my head around.
No. Print that—‘laughter.’ Everything’s gonna change! Ha ha ha ha ha!
This is bracing stuff.
Well, you know—come on, baby, you know the truth! I shouldn’t say ‘the truth’—my truth. You’re younger—you may have a more hopeful outlook. I’m certainly not right. I just know what I know. I don’t think he’s bringing anything more than smooth talk. I love his voice. I think America with its horrible standing internationally could use him to heal a few things for a few years. I just don’t think he’ll be there long enough. But he does change a mass coming in—the first time it’s a black man! And she changed it, too. Either one—it’s about stopping the mentality that’s there, and I think the mentality will be back. I watched Reagan get nominated—‘Are you kidding? Are you guys kidding? Aye yi yi!’ Over and over.
Is this what ‘Wolf King’ is about?
Of course it is! How do songs get written? Do you write them or do they write you? If I was U2, I could say, ‘I wanted people to hear about America’s wrong-doing in the Middle East.’ But no one’s listening, so let’s just say I had a fire party in my bedroom! And again we’re talking sideways—who called the murder squad? Who shot the monster bullet? Who is to blame here? You know what’s up—I knew what was up the minute—that’s the thing! I don’t understand when people don’t see things the same way. Like you actually think the terrorists came out of nowhere? ‘Don’t let those people have Cokes over there!’ No one wants to look at cause and effect—no one hits someone in the face for no reason.
You talked about Bacon putting fear in his paintings—what do you put in your music?
I’m just trying to open places sonically for myself—and lyrically. What do I put in there? Love? I wanted to say to make great work you have to commit to it and it always sounds corny and funny, but it’s like your child, and you have to do it 24 hours a day all the time for a while—to make something great. You can’t do it half-assed! You can do funny little things, but you can’t give deep without giving it your all. It’s easier said than done unless you don’t have family or friends—you gotta be somewhat isolated and alienated. So what do you put in your stuff? I put pinecones, feathers—
It’s like a birdfeeder.
I look at the bottom of birdfeeders for little elements. I collect things at the beach. I love nature. That’s mostly what I put into it. I love nature.
Human nature, too?
Two opposite things, huh? But real animal human nature is—‘I wanna pee outside! I wanna fuck a lot! I love the hunt!’
The cup of blood?
I need my cup of blood! That’s what I wanna hear—my animal! People have said, ‘Your records are all over the place—avant-instrumentals next to Phil Collins-y pop beauty and folk Americana…’ You know what? All I can say is almost every record I listen to sounds like shit. It’s one song all the way through! I like confusion. I like to have fun.
What’s the most extreme effect your music ever had on someone?
Once I’d written a song called ‘Hurt Someone’—one of those kind of songs about something that happened in some sideways way, and some older cat came up to me at some gig with tears in his eyes. ‘I need to tell you that song brought me through the last three months after my divorce!’ And that made me get some perspective—holy shit! Obviously, time is what did it, but the reflections of the song sounded it out—like holy moly, the power of love! I remember I heard like Joni Mitchell said something about it—‘Songs are like children!’ And I was like, ‘You’re such a fruit loop, honey.’ But now—there’s an energy I created out of love, and that goes out on its own and out of its love, it helps somebody! Not like I’m a doctor or anything—
You are for the tortoises.
I’m a pop—yay!—to a couple of things! An airplane just flew over and took my thought with it. Sometimes things that move above me take me with them! If I’m walking and a bird is flying over, I feel like I just got told a message. In Japan in Kyoto, I was trying to find this particular shop that sells a certain kind of candy, and my interpreter was like ‘I don’t know—let’s ask one of these ladies!’ These two three-foot-tall women who were like 95 years old, hunched, bad back, the whole thing. She talks and turns to me—‘I don’t understand their language! They’re talking in the old language—it’s like poetry! They said the crow flies over the pine tree…’ I’m like, ‘Oh my God, let’s talk to them more!’
But you never got the candy?
No candy for crow! I got a whole thing with birds. I was wondering about being hunted. You see a shadow—all of a sudden a hunch about it, and you know a bird flies off, and you feel a thing—like I’m supposed to notice in that direction or something. People have disciplines in life to find order and meaning, but there’s so much meaning not knowing anything! I constantly discover meaning because I don’t know anything—because I’m so dumb! If I go camping for a week—‘Oh my God, how did I ever live in the city?’ If you ever get the opportunity to lose yourself in nature where you have to murder to live and burn fires every night and sleep on the dirt—if you do it for a week or ten days—
Moris Tepper’s murder vacation?
It’s a life vacation! The opposite of murder! Something happens I can’t describe, but it’s powerful—it’s like nature! You hit someone, they fall back—it’s just a dynamic! If you put yourself on earth outside of man’s order, and you do it for a week or two—maybe two years is good, too, but whatever; I love recording and eating great food, so I can’t do that long—but I arrive at a place where I can’t even believe I’m on a rock! I’m an animal on a rock—it’s not thinking that—you’re actually in it! How can I have ever traded this moment on earth? Everything I do in society and culture—it’s not even on this earth! I’m in a whole bubble—electricity, cars, the shell, the house—obviously that’s the most natural thing of all to protect yourself from nature! But for me it’s the most spiritual experience of knowing on this planet—I’m actually here, actually present, actually alive! Everything else is like I’m watching TV—it’s like a movie compared to how present you are on the rock! This sounds sort of preachy—I’m sorry, baby! The sermon from—
Murder Rock?
Sermon from the murder rock! Semen from the murder rock! You know what? It’s all the same. What we talked about at the beginning was the hippest stuff—the drama of the tortoise egg. I think a lot of interviews happen around egg time. When you wanna write, that’s when she wants to put one out.