March 18th, 2010 | Interviews

lauren everett

Singer and guitarist Mayo Thompson formed the Red Crayola (or Krayola) in Houston, Texas in 1966 with Frederick Barthelme and Steve Cunningham, and has continued to lead the group up to the present day with an ever-changing cast of musicians. The Red Crayola has been collaborating with Art & Language (q.v.) on and off since 1973; their most recent work together is the album
Five American Portraits, just released by Drag City. In a recent interview with Art & Language, Thompson says: ‘Some music writers want to find a sort of continuity back to a 1960s Red Crayola, when the only accident or agency that makes the connection is Mayo Thompson, I guess. Otherwise, it would be far more natural not to fetishise the name and look at or rather listen to the work. To paraphrase Benjamin, The Red Crayola/Art & Language collaboration proceeds by fits and starts. The basic form is that of a kind of abrasiveness between the sharply (or not so sharply) distinct situations that give rise to and are put into a given record. The scenes that these collaborations constitute are differentiated by captions, graphics and other conventions. These are intervals – or distinct situations – that should destroy any illusion of continuity. The collaboration between us should paralyse any attempt to make an oeuvre out of the work of either The Red Crayola or Art & Language.’ We met for coffee in Hollywood on the morning of February 1, 2010. This interview by Oliver Hall.

Mayo Thompson: I just wanted to sit out here ‘cause there’s like music going on in there. I don’t like to hear music.
You don’t like to hear music?
Mayo Thompson: Not in public. I think it should be banned everywhere in public.
The last interview I did was with Hardy Fox, who represents the Residents, and we were talking about how when they started out, the music that you would hear in public places would be 101 Strings and stuff like that. But now every time you go to a shopping mall there’s rock music blaring.
Mayo Thompson: Yeah, I preferred Muzak, if I had to hear something in public, ‘cause you got to hear funny arrangements and stuff. But I just don’t like to hear music in public in general, I think we’re saturated with it. It’s not a cause with me, but I don’t care for it. How are the Residents doing?
I just saw them a few days ago, and there were only three of them. I thought they were great. They did a lot of sampling; they opened the show with a sample of the ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ jingle, and there were a lot of other commercial samples. . .
Mayo Thompson: Where are they based?
They’re based out of Northern California still, I believe.
Mayo Thompson: Interesting band.
Could you tell me about the choice of subjects for Five American Portraits?
Mayo Thompson: Those are all people chosen by Art & Language, and they generated those texts for paintings that they were making, for works that they were making. And we’ve done so many things over the years together they thought perhaps I might like to try to put it to music. They sent it to me and I did want to do it. And so that’s the way it happened. But they made the selections.
Has the nature of that collaboration always been that they do the writing and you provide the music?
Mayo Thompson: So far. They’ve done some singing, they appear on Corrected Slogans, for example, but I haven’t been able to compel them to perform for quite a while.
Is that the only record that they—
Mayo Thompson: That’s the only one they appear on so far, yeah. That doesn’t mean that they won’t eventually succumb, again. Their better judgement tells them not to do it, though, for some reason.
Was Kangaroo? a development of that [record]?
Mayo Thompson: Kangaroo?, we took some of the material that was on Corrected Slogans and covered it with the lineup that I was working with then: Gina Birch [of the Raincoats], Epic Soundtracks [of Swell Maps], Lora Logic [of Essential Logic], and [Allen] Ravenstine [of Pere Ubu]. That was perhaps the idea of trying to take those songs and do slightly more finished versions of ‘em with people who play music for a living? And also there was an idea—punk had died, and things seemed to be open again to the very idea of pop in general, and those were pop mixes, pop approaches. When I say ‘pop’ I just mean that they traded in guitar, bass, and drums, the usual [form] which one associates with the idea of popular music. But I think of all music as popular music, really. I mean, anything that’s played in public is popular music. Folk music is a little exceptional, sometimes. Depends on the neighborhood.
One of the more recent interviews that I read with you was from the period when you were teaching at Art Center—
Mayo Thompson: I taught there off and on for 12 years. When is the interview from?
I can’t remember exactly when it was because I’ve read so many of them.
Mayo Thompson: Well, sorry for you.
No, they were all really interesting.
Mayo Thompson: Thank you.
At that point you were doing a class on musical genres.
Mayo Thompson: Oh yeah, that was the last years that I was there doing a class. The last class that I taught there was on all the types of music, all the classifications, the active categories, like rock, emo, techno, blues, jazz, all that stuff, yeah. The subtitle of that class was ‘Good, Better, Best.’ You think something’s good? I wanna hear why. You think it’s better than something else? I’m very interested, and if you think it’s the best, this I have got to hear—I wanna hear the argument why something could be the best of anything. So it was kind of an open class. I did not lecture on the history of blues or jazz—I mean, I gave a little bit of some accounts of it, I think to the disappointment of some of the students who expected to hear a Ken Burns-style explanation of the universe, which I deplore. It was an open kind of thing, you could bring something to class and play it. Hip-hop, whatever. I played a lot of hip-hop in those days, and then we’d talk about it, talk about the social environment in which music is played, and how it’s listened to, and the physical effects of it, and the psychology of the game, and representation and all that stuff. Just, you know, a general discussion thing. And it was an open kind of class, because it was an art school. Art students have passions about the things that they are doing, and music is something that’s perhaps associated with that, or an extension of those values. But it was a way of discussing those things that was a little bit more relaxed. You could argue for things that you liked and believed in without having to die for it. Whereas most artists die for the things they do.
How do you relate to genres?
Mayo Thompson: There are some, and they have been at different times more and less historically robust, and more and less of a constraint. Me, I’m an abstractionist. I’m interested in forms, but I’m not really a formalist of any particular genre, to me it’s all wide open. People talk to me about ‘Oh, you make alternative music,’ and I say, ‘Well, if there is the very idea of music, then all music is alternative.’ You know, all kinds are alternative to each other. So I don’t hold with the categories, although I respect them, to some extent, and they can be made more and less forceful in a conversation—somebody can insist on rock and roll, let’s say, and some idiomatic relation to the language that would be characteristic of rock and roll, or something like that, according to historical precedent. You could argue the toss. But I’m not really—I mean, I understand that there are genres, but to me they’re just ways of handling things as people have handled things. It all comes down to the sound of the stuff, to the physical aspect of it. I don’t know that there is anything other than the physical; the mental is physical, in some strong sense. Music is mediated that way, for sure. You test it out on yourself—we are the guinea pigs of our experience, and we try it out on ourselves, and if it works on us, we try it on other people. That’s the way Drag City works. They listen to a record, and if they like it—whatever ‘like’ means, it makes some kind of sense to them—then we go with it. Which is a slightly different premise from the way music sometimes—I mean, record companies traditionally make records they can sell. Drag City, I don’t they make records because they think they will sell. I think they make ‘em out of some other commitment, because they actually do like the things that they do. Music they wanna hear, maybe, would be the criteria for them. In that respect they’re rather different and rather interesting, ‘cause they get offered a lot of stuff that would have a marketability, and they don’t trade in it, which is interesting. And yet they have a very successful record company. So, one is left with the unavoidable understanding that music is tied up somehow intimately with how people feel about the world. I read an interesting comment about our records which said that they were not ‘practical,’ which I really liked, the idea that they are impractical. That it’s not something that you would necessarily choose because you were gonna have a barbecue or a dance or something like that.
It’s not instrumental.
Mayo Thompson: It’s instrumental to me, it’s instrumental to my interests and concerns, but it is not designed for the instrumental use of anybody else in particular. Yeah, that’s a good term.
That’s kind of the opposite of what Bruce Springsteen said—that his music was there for people to listen to while they wash their cars.
Mayo Thompson: He trades in a different kind of experience than I do. He’s a populist; he puts his finger on the pulse of the people, and feels it, and makes something to that beat. I don’t.
So your role is more of a critical role in some way?
Mayo Thompson: I don’t see I have any role at all. I seem to be hopelessly sidelined and nothing to do with anything that most people are thinking about. I don’t think I have a role at all. I think critically about what I do because I have to put my name on it. And self-respect—without making a fetish out of self-respect, I think it plays a role. I don’t know what the function of the stuff is. I always used to ask the question in class, ‘Do you have to like everything that you listen to?’ And I don’t think you have to, necessarily. There might be the possibility of an unpleasant experience, which would be also interesting, or something that would be slightly difficult or less than a hundred percent satisfying—you know, it’s not a surefire experience, you can’t say for sure what it’s gonna produce. And then you operate with a caveat, you say: ‘Well, something you like today, you won’t like it tomorrow.’ And vice versa. And then, if you identify strongly with somebody, you have to face up to the fact that the thing that means most to you, that’s nearest and dearest to your heart—your worst enemy also has that near and dear to his heart or her heart. So music is poor stuff with which to identify.
So when you go in to make a record or mix a record, you don’t have an ideal sound.
Mayo Thompson: No. Music tells you what it can do, you know what I mean, a sound will tell you if it’s right or wrong, you can hear it. The thing is to keep an open mind about it, because something that sounds funny to you, eventually you may think, ‘Ah, I should have done that, I should have followed that impulse, I should have let that happen,’ or whatever. I mean, I hear music in my head like everybody does, but I can’t realize it in any kind of idealized sense. But I’ve worked with musicians who do have ideals, and who do think Oh, no, that won’t do, it’s gotta be this way and that way and so on and so on. I make those kind of decisions—it’s an aesthetic practice, you know, you decide for this instead of that. Sometimes I may have a bee in my bonnet or a burr under my saddle about something that’s going on in the world, like some social phenomenon that I wish to address or to make some kind of funny remark about or something like that, but it’s not generally driven by that kind of thing. Although lately I’ve been wanting to make something aggressive.
Do you think that’ll be the next project maybe?
Mayo Thompson: I can’t say what’s next. I’m always working on two or three things. I have this opera with Art & Language that I’ve been working on for 25-odd years, Victorine. It’s named after Victorine Meurent who was the model for some of Courbet’s paintings. You know Manet’s painting Olympia?
Mayo Thompson: She is Olympia.
Okay, I’ll look it up.
Mayo Thompson: Check it out. You’ll recognize the painting instantly; if you ever look at painting at all, you’ll recognize her immediately. She was a very interesting dame. She posed for a lot of people, she played the guitar, she came to America, and so it turns on her, and modeling, and the politics of image. Like Marianne, the French dame that comes out of this Delacroix painting, Liberty leading the people, that’s Marianne, the figure of French womanhood. And it was modelled on somebody; Brigitte Bardot, at one time, was the model for Marianne, I don’t know who it is now. But it’s about the political image, the politics of imagery, let’s say, the politics of motif. And that I’m continuing to work on. The top line is written and I’m gonna start recording, I hope, this year. The idea is to make a vernacular version of it, which would be us and a lot of the people that we know, some people in the art world, and then also to make what I would call the academic version of it, which would be opera singers, and then we’d try to put that into opera houses. Try to see if we can lock more into the classical world, see what they say. That’ll be fun. Then I have other projects. I dream sometimes of music, and there have been occasions in my life where I would dream of something and then I’d make a song out of it. These days, when I dream, past year or so, I wake up and if I remember it I write down what I heard in my dream, what I dreamed of. I intend to make some of those recordings and see what they come to. And this aggressive record is more—I don’t know what it is. I’ve been back in America now, constantly, for a year, I was traveling around a lot before that. And the politics—you watch TV, and you watch politics, it’s enough to make your blood boil the way they talk about things around here. So my blood’s kinda boiling. I might do something about that. I don’t know.
So who’s in the band now?
Mayo Thompson: There are no fixed members—it’s not a membership organization, really, no. There have been a lot of people through. The most recent record, you saw the people who are on it, but it’s always open. There are a couple of people I met in Europe that I wanted to do some recording with.
Mayo Thompson: Q is a Frenchman I’ve been working with. But then I met these guys in Austria that I wanted to do some work with, a guy named Philipp Quehenberger and a guy named Didi Kern. Philipp is a [historian] of techno, and Didi is a drummer out of a band called Fuckhead, which is a hardcore band from Vienna. They’ve been around for about 25 years or so, and they come out of the tradition of Wiener Aktionismus, which is aggressive performance theater, and they’re aggressive. But the guy can play anything on drums, and I’ve done some work with them, we’re talking about doing some more sometime. And it’s open, it really is open. I’m not doing anything here, though. I sit at home a lot. Play golf.
You don’t play with anybody in L.A.?
Mayo Thompson: No.
All your people are more in Chicago?
Mayo Thompson: No, the Chicago connection has waned. McEntire is busy with Tortoise and all that stuff. Lately the drummer I’ve been working with is Alex Dower from the heavy metal band Victim, and Didi Kern, those are the two drummers I’ve been working with lately. George Hurley [ex-Minutemen] and I haven’t played together in a while, and Tom Watson [ex-Slovenly] appears on this most recent record, but there are no plans to do anything, and he’s busy with his own stuff. I don’t have a band together, there’s not people I sit around and jam with. Y’know, it’s gotten that bad that I put on my guitar when I smell money. Otherwise, I don’t do anything. I don’t practice. Some guitar players, they have their guitars with them all the time, they think out loud; I don’t do that. I did that when I was younger, I played every day, but not anymore. Not anymore.
How did you reconnect with Gina Birch?
Mayo Thompson: I was in Britain, and Joanna Newsom called us up and wanted to know if we wanted to open for her in London, and I thought Hell, yes! And I didn’t know who to open up with, because I didn’t know anybody there, I wasn’t working with anybody there—I had done some work with an accordion player from Scotland who’s on Introduction, Charlie Abel, and I wanted to do something slightly different. So that’s where I started working with Alex Dower, the drummer from Victim, and Q’s always game. I can call Q and he’ll come. And I thought that would be funny, so I got Q and Alex, and I thought of Gina, because Gina’s somebody I know who will, without rehearsal, if I call her up and say, ‘Okay, I got a gig in an hour, you wanna play?’ she’ll go ‘Yeah, okay, let’s go,’ and that’s the way I did it.
Did you ever think doing about a duo performance again? In the 70s it seemed like you and Jesse Chamberlain, that was the unit of the Red Krayola.
Mayo Thompson: Yeah, Jesse—I’m not sure there ever will be another drummer like Jesse, just like there will never be another Keith Moon. Jesse’s missed.
Oh, I’m sorry, has he—
Mayo Thompson: He’s dead. Yeah, he’s dead. I’d love—because he’s another one I could call up and say ‘Let’s go,’ and he would go. . . Yeah. But a lot of people I know, though, will go, there are a lot of willing souls out there, people who are ready to stand up and put it on the line. We improvise, that’s part of it, we keep that open relation to material. There is not something that is the arrangement which everybody must learn; there are the changes. You know, I could make a very funny record of all of the versions of ‘Hurricane Fighter Plane’ that there are, played by various lineups. There have been some hilarious occasions. One evening, Lora Logic and Gina and I and maybe Epic, I can’t remember, we got called and invited to do a show, and we played ‘Hurricane’ and everybody knows the [sings bass part] ‘da-da-da, da-da-da,’ but when it goes into the breakout—it went off in some direction, it’s hilarious! It goes crazy. Genuine psychedelic music.
So you have recordings of all that stuff?
Mayo Thompson: I have a ton of cassettes. After we started playing out here, I got a lot of video material of the various bands playing live. When I first moved here, I made the mistake of playing into town, and played some shows at Spaceland, for example, there are a lot of tapes from there. But I don’t wanna play in L.A. anymore, I live here, I want to be able to walk down the street and not get. . .
Mayo Thompson: Not that you wanna not get bothered, it’s just I don’t wanna play in my own backyard.
Those John Fahey / Red Crayola studio sessions from 1967—are they just lost forever?
Mayo Thompson: I hope not, I hope not. I don’t know where they are. I’m always looking for them. Lately I’ve had some contact with Charly Records, who have gotten possession of all that IA [International Artists] material. So I’m looking for that stuff.
So the deal was you handed over the tapes and—
Mayo Thompson: I had to. One was very naïve when we started, I wanted to record and I didn’t study the contract closely enough and got into certain business troubles. Because in those days I distinguished between business and music, and they’re really not that way. They’re of a piece. Production and distribution, intimately tied to one another. And I didn’t know that, and got myself into some legal trouble over those kinds of things. And it was a position where I had to surrender the tapes, and unfortunately it was before anyone was able to make duplicates of them. John didn’t think of it, we didn’t think of it, and now John’s gone. It’s a shame, because there was crazy stuff on there, as I recall.
I always wondered about those first two International Artists albums [The Parable of Arable Land and God Bless The Red Krayola and all who sail with it], if you just got screwed. Are there any authorized versions of that stuff out?
Mayo Thompson: There are none that I have authorized, nor that Frederick Barthelme or Steve Cunningham [have authorized]. We have not authorized that stuff, and we’re in dispute with Charly over them. We’re negotiating with them, in fact, to bring our relationship ‘under manners,’ as they say in Jamaica. We’ll see what happens. ‘Cause they made a box set of the Elevators’ material, you might have noticed that that came out. Well, I think they’d like to make peace with us. I hope that they want to because it would be to all of our advantages, because the versions that are out now, I don’t hold that those are the real deal at all. They’re just like a generation off of a generation off of a generation off of a generation. It’s been licensed a number of times and there has never been a proper master of the record released. . . it’s a mess, it’s a mess. Charly Records have got a checkered reputation in the business. I give it to them that they keep the stuff in circulation, but they’re not what I would call authorized, no. And they don’t sound right to me.
You would mix and master them differently?
Mayo Thompson: Oh, I would remaster them according to the way that they were mastered in the first instance. I had some contact with Walt Andrus, who just recently died, unfortunately. Walter had the studio in Houston where we recorded The Parable, and he built the studio where we recorded God Bless. He’s the man I did my solo record [Corky’s Debt to His Father] with back in the 60s. He had been contacted by Charly and had done the remastering of the Elevators’ material, and there was talk of our getting together and remastering that material, but he’s passed away since these negotiations have opened. . . I’d like to see it happen, but I don’t know what’s gonna happen. But through a man named Paul Drummond, who’s an Englishman—
He wrote that book on the Elevators [Eye Mind].
Mayo Thompson: He did. And he’s been instrumental in putting together this contact, and he was involved in that Elevators material, and he would like to be involved in rationalizing the situation between us and Charly, and I hope he’s able to do it. I wish him good luck. He’s a fine fellow, nice fellow.
Probably a good person to have on your side.
Mayo Thompson: You know, he’s a music lover. He loves that music, bless his heart.
You’ve been around and involved in the most interesting stuff in music, as far as I’m concerned, for some time—
Mayo Thompson: That’s very kind of you. I’ve been lucky. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve landed on my feet in a lot of interesting situations that turned out to be historic in some sense or other.
And you’ve been on all sides of it, you’ve been a performer, and you worked for Rough Trade—
Mayo Thompson: I’ve done everything. I’ve sleeved records, and I’ve marketed records, and I’ve made records, and I’ve written—I’ve done everything.
So where do you see the music business now? How do you relate to this new mode of production—digital downloads?
Mayo Thompson: I’m all for people having access. I believe that music is in an asymmetrical privileged relation in favor of the listener, that at the same time, at the moment we have laws—music technically is not free. People treat it as if it were free now. And the music industry has always been a bit. . . loosely organized by necessity, and that which didn’t need doing didn’t get done, and that which made money was always the most protected part of it. And it turns out that the protections that were written in there are not worth the paper they’re written on, effectively. The industry as a whole is made up of a bunch of individual producers, and everybody’s scrambling to try to figure out how to work in relation to the facts of the matter, the fact that music is available and anything is out. The notion of one kind of carrier which is mediated by one group of people is over. There are so many different kinds of carriers, and it’s just so open that you can’t regulate it. I don’t see how it can be regulated. So I think some serious rethinking’s gonna have to go into it. But there are people who actually like objects. You know, like [points to my CD copy of Soldier-Talk] you’ve got one there in your hand, you know what I mean, I get records myself from time to time, because I like to have a discretionary copy of it, and I don’t like to have it mediated by the computer. And I also don’t like what compression does to music, when it comes off the computer and off the web and stuff like that—I like to hear it with fidelity, high, low, or no, I wanna hear what the fidelity is. The ideal would be for it to continue to be available on a desire basis, on an ad hoc basis, but for there to be a living in it in some kinda way. I see that vinyl’s making a comeback. I watch this show Wall Street Review every evening to see what’s going on in business, and on the last show on Friday they had a piece on vinyl, and vinyl shops, and how there’s a resurgence of interest in vinyl. And it seems like there will always be some vinyl out there. It was good; that’s fine with me. And the pittance that one makes from the sales from computer downloads and stuff like that, the thing that I find interesting about it is that you get an idea of who’s interested, and what territories people are listening to music in and so on. If you had some market analysis, you might be able to construct a demographic, do some marketing. Although I’m not very keen on targeting audiences; I don’t know how. But I’m delighted that people are interested in music at all, frankly. That’s good. The rest of it is a crapshoot, it seems like, to me. Drag City do it as well as they possibly can. CD sales are down, way down—the CD is a carrier whose days are numbered, I would have thought. You’d be better off these days having a vinyl presser than a CD maker, if you were gonna be manufacturing. We’ve reversed our situation. We used to make some vinyl and all CDs. Now we make vinyl and some CDs. And the only reason we make some CDs is because it’s convenient, it’s the only way to service some corners of the market, so necessity dictates. Otherwise, I don’t think we’d be making ‘em. My commitments to the carrier are—I don’t have any. Somebody asked me one time, ‘What’s your favorite guitar?’ And I said, ‘They don’t make it yet. It would be a telepathic instrument.’ I don’t wanna [mimes playing]. I’d much rather beam.
Yeah, well it could happen, you know. I think they just came out with some sort of wheelchair for quadraplegics, paraplegics—
Mayo Thompson: Yeah, mind-controlled! I look forward to the day. Although, I have some very nice guitars, relics of the years.
I guess the dream would be that you wouldn’t even have to show up at the gig, right?
Mayo Thompson: Telephone it in. Although I confess that I still have some perverse relationship to standing in front of people with a guitar hanging around my neck, yowling down a microphone, and I don’t know why. It’s a formal relation, you know, we get to sit here and talk because I got a record out, and there’s business interest in it—and when I say business I don’t mean just monetary exchange, there’s some exchange of ideas involved. And those kinds of formal occasions where there is an exchange, I still like those things. The formality of a gig allows me to be in front of people, and involved with people on some kind of basis that I can stand it. I go to shops, but I don’t go to bars, and I don’t socialize; I have some friends, I see them, but other than that, I’m not out there. I like to test that stuff out, and there’s nothing like standing in a room full of people, and the experience that you have when you’re with people is unique. There’s a kind of an energy when you share music that’s just not there otherwise, and that’s part of it, for me. That empirical test.
That’s one thing I like about playing music as opposed to writing. I write for some disreputable publications, and they go out in the world and you don’t know what happens to it.
Mayo Thompson: No.
But with live music, you have an instant—
Mayo Thompson: Definitely. You play, obviously?
I play guitar and very bad mandolin.
Mayo Thompson: You’re a guitar player, you have a band?
Mayo Thompson: What’s your band called?
We’re having a hard time with the name [likely Green Eyes]. That’s one of the things about the internet now, if you come up with a band name, you instantly find out if someone else somewhere in the world already has that band name.
Mayo Thompson: When we signed with International Artists, we scared them to death, ‘cause we said ‘We want to change our name on every record!’ And they were like, ‘Oh, no.’ But then, I think that they realized from that how naïve we were, because it’s a game of branding. We didn’t know anything about that stuff. But, change the name of the band every record. What the hell? Which is actually quite a straightforward way to make it depending on the quality of the record. You know, Paul McCartney gets to look in because of his name. Everyone wants to say, ‘Oh, that’s Paul McCartney, I’ve heard other stuff he did, so I’ll check that out.’ Same thing happens to me, on a much smaller scale. I think the test would be, like, some great writer writes under a pen name, just to find out what happens. You know, are they buying this because it’s my name, or does the writing stand on its own—that’s an interesting problem. Or not problem, question maybe. What’s this stuff really worth? No idea. You put it out there and you find out. Then you find out also—there was a time when I thought you could get all the information straight. That’s nonsense. Disinformation is the information, and the Wikipedia entry for the Red Krayola, it’s, like, you’re joking.
Is there any truth in it?
Mayo Thompson: There are some shreds of reference to some things that are facts, but facts are constructs, and an artifact of the computation that made it, and there are some facts along those lines. But there is no definitive history. There are things that I would like people to take into account, let’s say, when considering material, if they were interested in the background to it, there would be some detail that I would think would be relevant to people that maybe wanna know. But there’s nothing I insist on anymore. I’m not worried about it. It really does take care of itself. But things are open. The difficulty would be if somebody had some preconceptions based on some information that they had, and then went to the material and found that it was not what they thought, and that they would be disappointed and so on. You’ve read reviews of ours, we get chastised sometimes. Our audience chastises us for being difficult, or being boring, or not as interesting as they’d like for us to be, and stuff like that—that’s all good. It’s all part of life’s rich pattern.
I don’t know, ‘boring?’ That one’s hard to take.
Mayo Thompson: Lately I’ve read that we bore with our intellectual crap, and that the lyrics of this new record are boring, but that once you get past them into the ‘mantra-like’ aspect. . . And I think ‘Mantra? Hmm.’ You learn something every day.
That’s kind of the opposite of—I never thought of the Red Krayola as in any way spiritualist.
Mayo Thompson: Oh, we’ve got spirit, we just don’t divide it up. With us, it comes of a piece. You get some good and some bad and some ugly.
Do you know if the Gorki & Co. book is ever going to be republished?
Mayo Thompson: I don’t know. I have the idea of publishing some writing, but I don’t know. Right now I’ve been writing some stuff about a catalog by a friend of mine, an artist named Michael Krebber, a German fella I know. We’ve gotten to be friendly over the years, and I’ve followed his work, and I find it very interesting to talk about the way he does things. Art for me is out of my domain; I have some associations, productive history, along those lines, but I am not myself a visual artist. I studied art history in school, so I have some interest in it, and so I talk to get to think out loud about things like that, by looking at those things. I’ve written some fiction in my day. I’ve written one or two comments that have gone into the front of art catalogs, I don’t do that anymore, but I’ve done a few of those things. I wrote that one book that was a crazy, messed-up book, it’s not your usual presentation of history, and a little bit mad, with the funny lyrics and so on, but that was for some funny German guys I know who had a publishing company. That was a while ago.
Then you got to photograph Rachel Williams holding the book.
Mayo Thompson: Rachel Williams, yeah. She very kindly did that shoot for us. An interesting dame.
Was she a fan of the band?
Mayo Thompson: No. She’d never heard of us before, obviously. She’s a model, and an art historian of a kind. Formidable woman. Very powerful presence, and I was starting to say supermodel, but that’s a category. She’s very super, when I say ‘super,’ I mean that she really knows her business. Does all those poses that you see on there. You turn the camera on and she goes. Which is the opposite of me, you know, you get poses of me like that [covers his face]. I throw my hands in front of my face, I don’t wanna break anybody’s camera.
Who are the writers you read these days?
Mayo Thompson: I read mostly philosophy. I don’t read much fiction at all; I gave up on fiction a while ago, like movies. I don’t know. When I say I gave up on it, I don’t mean there’s anything bad about it, it just doesn’t interest me anymore and it doesn’t move me. Although occasionally I come across a piece of fiction—I read The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil, I read that lately. I’m reading another piece of fiction which was given to me by an English friend of mine by a writer named Luther Blissett, called Q.
Sure, now the Wu Ming collective.
Mayo Thompson: That’s an interesting book because of the history of the Reformation which is in there, and also it’s like a primer on politics, and the politics of association is also involved, all issues which are near and dear to my heart. I read some political philosophy from time to time, I read a little bit of history from time to time, but mostly philosophy. Cognitive philosophy. My favorite is Jerry Fodor, but there are a lot of them that I also read. And I don’t read only people that I agree with. You want to know what people are thinking, I want to know what the arguments are, so I read a range of different things. But Fodor is for me the most profoundly critical of all the voices, and he trades in mental representation, which I find a really fascinating problem. ‘Cause it’s even hard to talk about it, and how the relations work out, and his arguments I find always compelling. Who else. . . I read some of the classics. I like Hume, still, the great empiricist. When we were in Scotland, that was funny to be in Edinburgh, in Hume’s hometown, walking around. That was strange. The reason we were there, my wife’s a molecular biologist, and she had her laboratory there, so I went. And I went back and forth, ‘cause I was working at Art Center, and we had our place here in L.A. and we got to spent time in Edinburgh. I like the Scots. I have some Scottish forbears, and I like the Scots in general, they’re a funny people. The British are interesting people, the whole set of ‘em. The English being the most difficult. They’re the masters of psychological warfare, and I find them very interesting. I lived among them for ten years. They were very tolerant, mostly patient. But then that’s a form of self-inflicted penance on their part. They fancy themselves as able to put up with anything, even Mayo.
What about Germans?
Mayo Thompson: I lived among the Germans and I don’t know, I must have been out of my mind. I have some dear friends who happen to be German, and I have some respect for some of their things, but there’s something about the German mentality which is… I don’t know. Interesting place. It’s a great language, terrific language. But my wife is Austrian, and I prefer that school of Germanic thought.
Were you there in ’89 when the Wall came down?
Mayo Thompson: I was. Watched it on television. It was a very funny day, very funny day. It was interesting, ‘cause I never foresaw the collapse of institutionalized socialism, those nation-states that were built around that idea, allegedly, state-monopoly capitalism. Watching that fall apart was interesting. And Germany is an interesting place, it’s got a really different kind of society or social form than we do. I had never been in anywhere where people wait for the traffic light before crossing the street. I come from a place where, you know, God gave a goose intelligence, and me, and I know when to cross the road and when not to. I might get hit, I might be unlucky. I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping my [sun]glasses on, it’s just bright out here. You know, I have to be careful—you always get hollers, ‘Oh, Blues Brothers!’ But no matter how careful one is, it’s impossible to avoid insult. As long as they don’t add injury to it, I’m all right.
What about Texas, do you ever go back there?
Mayo Thompson: No. I like Texas very much, and I like my hometown, Houston, I have some good feelings for it. It’s not unlike L.A. It’s got a certain anomie which informs it, there’s a kind of alienation, you could be as alone as you wanna be there. But both of my parents are now deceased, so my reasons for going back there have gotten fewer. I haven’t been back since 2007 when my father passed away.
Are you still in touch with Frederick Barthelme?
Mayo Thompson: Yeah! He’s teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi, he runs the Creative Writing department there. And I’ve kept up with Cunningham, as well, who’s living in Wisconsin. He’s a technical writer. He was doing some work for Exxon-Mobil last time; I don’t know what exactly he’s up to right now, but that’s what he does, and we continue to communicate.
How did they participate in the Fingerpainting album?
Mayo Thompson: Fingerpainting and Fingerpointing are based on The Parable of Arable Land, they’re structured in exactly the same way. Freak-out, song, freak-out, song, like that. The material that’s on Fingerpainting is material that we didn’t record for Parable of Arable Land, it’s material that dates from those days. Like ‘There There, Betty Betty,’ that’s a song from that time, and ‘Shadwell’ is something that we recorded together as well. That was when we had stopped playing songs altogether. That’s like the time of Coconut Hotel and the time in Berkeley, when we were playing at the Berkeley Folk Festival, we did that stuff with Fahey. We were playing what we called feedback music, and they were involved in that.
So are you saying that they were on the tapes that you used?
Mayo Thompson: On ‘Shadwell,’ they appear.
In 1967?
Mayo Thompson: Yeah, that’s 1967, that’s the period piece. And there’s also, that piano player that you hear in the background of ‘Shadwell,’ the last thing that you hear on Fingerpainting—it’s not on Fingerpointing—that’s Bobby Henschen, the piano player I worked with in ’71. Rick [Barthelme] and I worked with him in Houston together. That’s an album that’s made out of material that comes from 40 years ago. It wasn’t 40 at the time, it was made in 1999. And Fingerpointing was O’Rourke’s mix of the same material, which when I first heard it I thought, ‘No, this is not what I had in mind.’ I wanted something that was more actually one-to-one with the first record.
I haven’t heard Fingerpointing yet—could you talk about the difference?
Mayo Thompson: They’re O’Rourke’s mixes of that material, it’s O’Rourke listening to the material and finding another set of possibilities using the same raw material, if you like. Whereas Fingerpainting is all of the material that was recorded for these ideas. And the mixes are made by Albert Oehlen, for example. It was his concept to remake the first album. I had thought of it a number of times—maybe we’d just re-record the first album, because we didn’t have possession of it. But we never could get it together to do it, and never really did take it seriously, and then Albert had a concept of how to do it, so one did it that way. And it worked out; that’s what you hear. And also, it turned out to be a happy mish-mosh of the state of the art at the time. It reflects computer possibilities and sampling and all kinds of things that are going on in there, and yet it genuinely incorporates freak-outs, where there is no script, apart from—’The microphone is on. You’re on!’ And you hear Stephen Prina’s idea of a freak-out: [sings gentle melody]. He’s just whimsical-thinking at some sort of level, if anything from Stephen Prina can be characterized as whimsy; I’m not sure that it can. He’s a very thoughtful producer.
His contributions—for a long period, it seemed like people were not credited with. . .
Mayo Thompson: I gave up on crediting what people do, until Introduction, I started doing it again. But before that I didn’t do it because, like, I’ve read remarks on this new record, people talk about O’Rourke. Well, O’Rourke’s a name that people know. O’Rourke played the bass part on one verse of ‘John Wayne.’ I gave him the record to mix and he couldn’t mix it. He had other things he was doing, other things he wanted to do; he had a different idea of how to put it together than I had in mind, and the things that he did were all, again, like Fingerpainting and Fingerpointing. His ear works a certain way. When he puts together the music, in his mixes I hear his commitments to drone, for example. And Watson has also got a commitment to drone, and so here are these two drone elements. Me, I don’t like drone. It’s not like I dislike it; it’s not part of my repertoire of sounds. I mean, it’d be something I might deploy, but it wouldn’t be a medium in terms of the way I would mix all of the sounds. I like separation of things, I like abstraction, not synthesis. I mean, I don’t mind synthesis as a summation of things, a way of describing that is a synthesis of that material, but it does not set out to be a synthesis—it’s made out to be a reconciliation, if you like, on my point of view. The way that they should be working in congress, they should reconcile things, conflicts of opinion, the war of ideas. Let’s have the war of ideas, but let’s have some reconciliation, let’s do something, that kind of thing. So people make contributions, and they trust me to respect their contributions, and I do as much as possible. I trample on some closely-held beliefs, perhaps, in the process, but I don’t think anybody’s been offended. There’s very, very few people who have ever been fired from the band.
It’s hard to get fired?
Mayo Thompson: Almost impossible.
It sounds like there’s an element of struggle.
Mayo Thompson: Struggle is the human condition. The law of the jungle. Conflict of ideas, best idea wins. I mean, I’m an old man now, people defer to me, and some people don’t even want to argue, they just are happy to be doing it or whatever. But I take it as it comes, you know, I don’t expect people to think as I think, nor to like what I think, or to do what I do, or think like I do. Like J.P. Morgan said when he went to Wall Street, ‘I don’t come up here to make friends, I come up here to make money.’
So do you direct musicians?
Mayo Thompson: I will occasionally say ‘Please don’t do that.’ But that’s the most I will ever say. And sometimes I’ll say ‘Yeah, more of that.’ But I don’t direct traffic. The reason I don’t make solo music, or I don’t make a record all by myself is, I know what I sound like, and I know what I do by myself, I live with myself all the time. You cannot escape. What I’m interested in is what other people think of these ideas. It’s a test, it’s like testing it out. You know, I play this, what do you do? Some people go [silence], some people play along, some people run off.
Did you have an argument with Art & Language at some point?
Mayo Thompson: Yeah, we had an argument, but that was an infrastructural argument, it wasn’t an ideological argument. It was an argument about money. Because in the 70s, when I moved to Britain, there was a recession on and things were tight. And somehow the sociality of the group was tight, and there was not a fit, and it was never an ideological struggle between us. Let’s put it this way, not all of them, but there might have been differences of opinion about the logic of an argument, or something like that, or the methodological approach to this, that and the other thing. But mostly it was about material circumstances, material conditions of existence.
Which was also the subject of that material.
Mayo Thompson: Absolutely, and that’s intimately involved, and it’s reflected in the production. That’s how I understood it. So, there’s an argument, so one walks away. So I walked off. Then I found myself, ‘Well, I’m living in England, I’m going to have to make a living. What am I gonna do? Oh, I know, I’ll get back in the music business.’ So I got back in the music business, and that’s when I started working with Rough Trade and made that record with Radar.
[After a brief discussion of the academic job market:]
Mayo Thompson: Business is business. It’s like the Mafia, you know? [laughter]
Well, that’s L.A. for sure.
Mayo Thompson: That’s life. I like this town. America’s an interesting country, and it took me a long time to reconcile myself to it. I was a very sensitive person before, but I’ve gotten thicker-skinned, and I’ve learned a little bit more about how things are, and give and take, and so my idealism has been tempered by reality, to the extent that I can live here now.
When you left [the U.S.], what were your motives?
Mayo Thompson: Escape! Burn bridges, leave town.
I’m trying to remember the chronology. You went from Texas to New York, into the art world?
Mayo Thompson: You know, [in the art world] they’ll let you play a little bit but they never really quite let you in. It’s like moving into a country town, you know what I mean? Where everybody knows everybody and they’ve known each other forever? They’ll let you sit there, and they’ll let you live there, but you’re never really quite one of them. And it was that way with me and New York and the art world, and it still is with me and the art world. I’ve been around it, I’ve been on the edges of it, I’ve been in the middle of it, but I’m not really one of them somehow. It was that way in New York. I never really fit in anywhere, particularly, there’s never been a community. . . it’s like Groucho Marx and clubs, you know? I can’t think of a community that I would volunteer, like, ‘May I be a member?’
Yeah, but don’t you think that your work has embodied some kind of loose voluntary association or something like that?
Mayo Thompson: Loose voluntary association I’ll give you, but I wouldn’t call that a community. That’s driven by all kinds of things. When I started working at Rough Trade—I come from a slightly different history, I’m a little older than those people, like ten years older than those guys, a slightly different generation. And you look to your left and there’s somebody with a funny haircut and a swastika on their forehead and fishnet stockings, and you think, ‘Hm. I’m not so sure about this.’ To your right there might be somebody in a business suit, and you think, ‘Hm. That I understand.’ But the conditions of solidarity are conducted on a volunteer basis. There are compulsory relations that one enters into, but community is not one of them.
[The conversation turns to the collaboration with Art & Language.]
Mayo Thompson: There have been times when I was much more intimately involved with Art & Language as an organization, when I was in New York and when I moved to Britain. And then subsequent to that, it has been that I’ve been the music guy and they’re the art people, and these kind of things come together in connections. Although I would call them friends. The art world, it’s a funny world, people always say, ‘My friend (comma)’ so and so. And a lot of times that’s a business association, somebody you know through production relations, like—Tom Watson. And if I characterize my association with Tom Watson in the first instance as ‘My friend, Tom Watson,’ that’s different. We started working together and we got to be friends over years, we are friendly, we are friends in that sense. I have friendly and cordial relations with people I do business with. I have, also, combative relations with some people I do business with, conflict with some people I do business with. But Art & Language are people that I have known now since ’73, I’ve known some of ‘em longer than that. I’ve known Mel Ramsden since 1971, ’72. So these are some of my oldest colleagues, and we go way back. And they talk rougher than anybody I know, and tougher. They’re tough, smart people. And the way that they talk, and the way that they think, and the way that they produce, are awfully close to the way I think, and the way I feel, about how these things can be done. And it’s the only way I can do it. I can work for a lot of people, put aside my personal convictions and do a job, no problem. And the trouble at Rough Trade, for example, was this community idea, because of punk and new wave. The sociality that is determined by the point of production, where you share point of production struggles with somebody, where you suddenly find yourself colleagues with reggae players, for example. I found that interesting, the politics of production. I felt they had a political relation, rather than a social relation—I mean, social and politics, kinda splittin’ hairs there a little bit, but you know what I mean? It’s a productive relation, and it’s mediated in terms of business and convergence of interest and those kinds of things. A notion of community that emerges from that, I don’t know how you would describe that. That would be friendship for me. When the band started in Texas, in the 60s, in Houston, you know, there was the ‘community of freaks.’ But a lot of those freaks—they don’t like me. They didn’t like what we did. We didn’t fit in. And I don’t say they don’t like me personally; they don’t know me. I think that we just vibe wrong with one another, although we’re supposed to be part of the same ‘community’—there’s no such thing! It’s like youth, generation. Chronologically, we’re all young, but we don’t all think alike, or whatever. So who I would own up to having communal relations with, i.e. the people I’d be willing to live with, that’s different. I’m loth to pitch things on that, because that to me constitutes a kind of idealism. It might be a transcendental idealism that you would endorse with a utopian pen, ‘Yes, I believe in a perfect society, it would be a good idea,’ but you’d have to argue over the details. Who’s gonna wash the dishes, who’s gonna—you know the difference between the distribution of function and the distribution of labor? Distribution of labor has to do with some organized relationship to each other; a distribution of function is where people do what they can. That’s the bone that has never been cleaned. It’s been picked up a number of times, but it’s impossible to clean it, in my view. Impossible to sort it out on an absolutely principled basis. You can have principles of party organization, and everybody can endorse ‘em, but there are gonna be exceptions, always, and contradictions. You can’t, like, volunteer to get rid of contradictions. All the action is in contradictions; it’s not in harmony. I mean, I understand this drive for harmony, and homespun American philosophy is built around the idea of harmony. But at the same time it’s built on categorical differences. Our fundamentalist friends have got a lot in common with our fundamentalist enemies. I’m for the fundamentals, but I wanna argue about ‘em, and I wanna be free to argue about ‘em, on a day by day basis, project by project, minute to minute. Without giving offense, if possible. Live and let live. Although there are some people that you would definitely say, ‘Uh-uh.’
There aren’t some people you’d wish to offend?
Mayo Thompson: Wish to offend. . . Let’s put it this way, there are some people who, say, if they were offended, I wouldn’t be sorry. But I do not seek to offend anyone.
That’s an old avant-garde strategy I’ve always had problems with, that you can shock people out of their. . .
Mayo Thompson: Yeah, you know, who are you shocking? There was a time when I uncritically embraced the term avant-garde, and I’ve grown more critical of the very idea in time. I don’t like the idea of that which distinguishes itself at the expense of someone else, necessarily. Making a fool out of somebody—’Ha ha, you’re a fool’—that’ll bite you on the ass, in the long run. Well, I don’t wanna play that game; I’ve been bitten on the ass by a lot of my stupid ideas, and I don’t volunteer for that anymore, I try not to. At the same time, I understand that people do wanna distinguish themselves in some way from other people, and Vive la différence, know what I mean? I’m for that, I’m for variety, heterogeneity. Some people talk about heteronomous relations. In the art world they talk about it, particularly. But, there’s a concept ‘art,’ but I do not think of what I make as necessarily art. It’s potential to such a relation, it can be described under that rubric, but it is not necessarily any of that stuff. It’s just a collection of sounds operating at certain frequencies, delivered in a carrier of a certain type, and what people make of it. . . Somebody from Mars is gonna go, ‘Huh? Wonder what that is?’ And that’s where I start. My music is for the man from Mars. That’s my premise. That’s my attitude to the object. There are no category relations that I would absolutely insist on. There’d be some, even I wouldn’t be able to deny them, but the rest of ‘em—I’m in denial about most of ‘em. I avoid them. I’m happy to say that there are no records that I have made that I repudiate. There are some that I wish that I hadn’t been on. One? Two? But I don’t deny any of them.
Mayo Thompson: I, one time, interviewed Buddy Rich.
No kidding!
Mayo Thompson: Yeah, I worked for a radio station in Houston and I interviewed Buddy Rich one night.
You have a tape of it?
Mayo Thompson: I wish I did, I don’t. It stayed at the radio station. And he was talking about contemporary jazz. At that time, free jazz was just beginning, and he was completely disdainful of the approach and their line of thinking. He preferred arrangement, and he came out of a different tradition, and he came out of that tradition where he had a great arranger in the band, and so on. It was put together like an army. And so, he said, ‘Yeah,’ you know, ‘there’s the drummer, and the piano player hates the saxophone player,’ and so on like that. And I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if everybody in your band likes each other’—I didn’t ask him. But I think what he was getting at was that the sociality that informed the music was a sociality of conflict, that he was used to people harmonizing in relationship to a great idea. Right? Rather than, part of what’s at stake is the collision of values in respect of the very idea of a great idea. But for him karate was karate, and music was something else.