ROKY ERICKSON: SOUNDS LIKE EXPLODING STARS
Roky Erickson makes the world a better place simply by existing and released his first new music since 1994’s All That May Do My Rhyme this April on ANTI-. He speaks now with Will Sheff of Okkervil River, who are his new backing band. He would like a copy of H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness if anyone would like to bring it to his show at the Fonda tonight. This interview by Chris Ziegler.
(ENTER ROKY — cue organ music)
Where are you, Roky?
Roky Erickson: I’m still in the same place.
Roky, what is your philosophy of life?
Roky Erickson: Well, just mostly relaxin’—kinda taking it easy. I like that book Philosophy of the Mississippi. It’s a book by Mark Twain. ‘Excursions and Thoughts About the Mississippi’ or something like that. I like books I can study a lot and get into. I like the Bible a lot
What is the most important thing to remember about reality?
Roky Erickson: Oh, I don’t really know. Mostly I like to read Einstein and about nuclear power—I’m kinda into that. I like the way a car backfires and things like that. In the theory of relativity they say if you hear a sound, you might want to have some kind of guidance. It would make you think that you would rather be in a more comfortable environment than in a position where you would hear something without someone with you.
How did you first get into Einstein?
Roky Erickson: I just did. I would get so bored doing all that other stuff that I would try to get into other stuff.
Are people still sending you presents?
Roky Erickson: Yeah, a lot of times they do. I have this friend who sent me these two cartoon movies. Looney Tunes and More Looney Tunes. I like ‘em all. That’s a good name—’Looney Tune.’ Might be a little bit scary to say, too. Like Bugs Bunny says, ‘What’s Up, Doc?’ and stuff like that.
How do you feel about Wile E. Coyote?
Roky Erickson: I like Wile E. Coyote a lot. He’s a good guy. And I like Pink Panther a lot too. In cartoons you need guidance. I like a lot of cartoons. But cartoons are real strange. There’s this thing where I’ll have to catch you a bit later and see ya in the funny papers, or something like that.
Will Sheff: (guitar/vocals)Did you ever used to watch those Betty Boop cartoons?
Roky Erickson: Yeah, I never did understand that.
What’s your favorite sound? Just a sound and not music?
Roky Erickson: Well, let me see—sounds like exploding stars. Things like that. That would be fun to watch. Watch it on television.
What’s your favorite sci-fi movie?
Roky Erickson: I like science fiction a lot. I like The Day the Earth Stood Still. I like that one.
Do you still remember what to say to Gort?
Roky Erickson: Yes, I do remember it—‘Klaatu barada nikto.’
Have you ever thought about writing a science-fiction story?
Roky Erickson: Yes, I have thought about that. I wrote this one about a guy and his name was Jakoby Mellenger, and he was into things. He would experiment with things. Like with children he knew. And then he created a thing—some kind of silly putty that he could turn them into vegetation. I called that ‘Trees.’
Have you read H.P. Lovecraft?
Roky Erickson: Yes, I have read H.P. Lovecraft. There is one book by him I want to get called At The Mountain of Madness. I had to put it down and will probably come back to it later. I’ve been wanting to write more tunes and maybe draw some pictures too. Shout! Factory wanted me to draw a picture for them and they were really kind to me when I did that picture.
What about drawing an exploding star?
Roky Erickson: That’s the same thing to record some kind of thing that would seem like maybe some cotton candy blowing away in the wind, or something like that.
What’s your favorite love song?
Roky Erickson: ‘True Love Cast Out All Evil.’ I looked in the Bible to get it but I think I found it in the Bible—I turned right to it and it said ‘true love casts out all evil’ or something like that.
(ROKY EXITS SUDDENLY)
Does Roky talk about exploding stars in the studio?
Will Sheff: A little bit, yeah. He was saying in a positive way about one of the songs—about ‘Forever.’ That it was one of those songs that sounds like a string going around and around in slow motion. If something catches Roky’s ear he’ll stop and ask about it.
(ROKY RETURNS — cue organ music)
Roky Erickson: I enjoy music a lot and I have a radio here I play a lot. I try not to get upset with it but I turn it on and I try to get to write songs and it gets to my cranium. I like it though, its really beautiful music.
What kind of stuff are you looking for on the radio?
Roky Erickson: I just mostly enjoy it all.
Are you still listening to that station BOB-FM?
Roky Erickson: Yes. Now Bob I like a lot. They tell me that I always used to listen to Bob.
What about when you’d go on the radio to talk and play?
Roky Erickson: Yes I remember doing that. That was in the days when I was trying to get to get my sweat—they say its always good to sweat a lot. Have you heard that?
Roky Erickson: Well that’s what I hear.
What happened the first day in the studio with Okkervil River?
Roky Erickson: I got along with them real well. I just asked them if we could take it real slow and relax, you know what I mean?
Will Sheff: They were telling us you were calling us Okra at first, right?
Roky Erickson: Yeah, that’s what I called them—Okra.
Where did you source these songs? A lot of these barely if ever got recorded.
Roky Erickson: Let me see—I liked that song ‘Goodbye, Sweet Dreams.’
Will Sheff: That one’s a real standout. I was really grateful to Roky for having the trust to let me find my very favorite ones and chase after those. It was a funny thing—Roky and I were saying this in the last interview, but when I was first tossing out song ideas Roky would be like, ‘How did you find that one? How did you find that one?’ because they were so old and from all these different scattered periods. What steered me in my song selection was what stirred me the most in an emotional and spiritual and rock ‘n’ roll level.
Who kept all these tapes? How did they last so long?
Roky Erickson: I don’t really know.
Will Sheff: Some of them were kept by Craig, Roky’s ex-manager, and some of them were kept by Casey Monahan who did some archival stuff for Roky. Some of them were kept by Darren, Roky’s manager. I honestly don’t really know. They just sent me a whole bunch of different stuff and I wasn’t really sure where it’s all from. It’s actually from talking to Roky that I found out some of the stuff he recorded on that little tape recorder.
Roky Erickson: I recorded ‘True Love Casts Out All Evil’ on it.
What about the songs that aren’t on the album? You had a few extras like ‘Singing Grandfather.’
Roky Erickson: I did like that one—I didn’t know we recorded that one.
Will Sheff: That one came out really cool. That will probably come out on an EP or single and then there were some iTunes tracks that I really loved that could just as easily have been on the record—‘For You’ and ‘Sweet Honey Pie.’
Will Sheff: One of the things I love about Roky is that he’s always game for anything. He’s very open minded. We could do something really weird—like specifically I remember working on ‘Birds’d Crash’ and we had this big long feedback ending thing and right after we did that Roky said, ‘You know, that’s kind of weird.’ And I asked him, ‘Is it weird bad or weird good?’ He thought about it for a second and said, ‘No, no, I like it.’ But I think a lot of other 62-year-old musicians who are very zealously guarding their legacy are more conservative than that. They might not be as eager and ready to embrace something kind of weird like that. Its great working with Roky because he’s down with everything at any given moment.
What exactly have you discovered qualifies as ‘really weird’ to Roky Erickson?
Will Sheff: Sometimes when Roky says something is weird he means it in a positive way and he’s kind of like detecting something about it—even when he talks about Looney Tunes, he’s kind of finding what he connects to with something like that, which is a very personal thing. So sometimes saying something’s weird is actually a high praise. But sometimes I’ve heard him use ‘weird’ do describe things he doesn’t like as in, ‘it’s not my thing.’ I’ve heard him describe some kind generic radio pop song as too weird for me. Roky doesn’t criticize things unless you ask him about it but I’ve asked him about all kinds of things while we’ve sat around. John Mellencamp would be an example of something that came up somehow. I would say, ‘Roky what do you think of that?’ ‘That’s too weird for me,’ and obviously it’s not weird at all but that’s his way of saying it’s just not my thing. He’ll also say things like, ‘It was meant for somebody else or something like that.’
How did Roky reach out of the sky to get you for his backing band?
Will Sheff (guitar/vocals): It was an odd train of events. There was a writer in Austin who really liked us and she was a big Roky fan and she thought it would be cool if we did a show together. So she set up this show. A woman named Margaret Moser—she is an Austin Chronicle writer and I didn’t know her at all, but she just took it upon herself to bring us together. Roky really, really liked it and we were really blown away by the experience. So a couple weeks after that, Darren, Roky’s manager, was like, ‘Hey, you guys should do a record together!’ I was a little bit nervous because I’d never produced another record before. It wasn’t necessarily on my list of things I wanted to do. Over time I’ve gotten more and more experience as a producer because Okkervil was never a band with deep enough pockets where we could just go from producer to producer, so I had to start taking responsibility for my own sound at a certain point because there was nobody else who would. But I never really thought that I would end up producing somebody else’s record.
Do you think a release like this could lead to an archival Roky release in the future?
Will Sheff: I think something archival would be fantastic. One of the things that I found fascinating but also slightly frustrating about working on this project was that while a lot of people know who Roky Erickson is, people don’t necessarily know what he did or what to get. Some people might know the horror rock stuff but not the Elevators, and some people might know the Elevators and not know the beautiful but more conventional pop love songs and relationship songs he wrote in the late ‘80s like ‘You Don’t Love Me Yet.’ Some people who might know that won’t know the Rusk songs. So there’s real depth to what Roky’s done and not everybody who isn’t a hardcore Roky fan sees that picture. That’s partially a result of the business issues. The ups and downs of the music business in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s were tough and weird enough when you don’t have a schizophrenic artist that you’re trying to get out there. I know that also there’s a lot of things being tied up by different ownership so I think that would be a hurdle to have to get past.
The Elevators got their 10 CD box set—it’d be great to do a Roky box set.
Will Sheff: That would be incredible but there’s the issues of ownership. You’re looking at Roky Erickson and you’re looking at a guy whose stories about being exploited by business are pretty up there with some of the worst I’ve ever heard.
Did Doug Sahm really get the rights to ‘Red Temple Prayer’ and ‘Starry Eyes’ by trading Roky a smoothie?
Will Sheff: That’s actually true. I think that was just kind of a devious thing that Doug Sahm did. When I heard about it—Doug was a sweet guy but he had a bit of a cold calculating side and Roky was in a place where he was not at his most grounded, and Doug knew that and he took advantage of it. That said, Roky has no hard feelings against Doug Sahm. He really really likes him. Sahm helped Roky’s career in some pretty definite ways and when Doug Sahm passed away his son met with Roky and gave Roky those masters back—formally gave him the tapes and everything. So those songs are back in Roky’s possession and that wrong has been righted.
What are your personal picks for Roky artifacts that need to be reissued?
Will Sheff: You were asking whether he’d written any short stories, and he wrote a story called I Know The Hole In Babies Head. He actually wrote a bunch of short stories at that time and there’s a guy called Doug Mobley. He had a cable access show and one day got a call from Roky and Roky said, ‘I wanna do these poems and stories I’m writing—I want to do recitations of them.’ They found this abandoned building—a mental health center in Austin—and Roky went there with Doug and did these readings. His reading of ‘Hole in Baby’s Head’ is amazing. I have the entire thing, and it really needs to be … on paper it’s fine but you need to hear it or see him doing it. It has kind of an Edgar Allen Poe meets Samuel Beckett quality to it. There is a Samuel Beckett quality to the way he uses repetition in it. I think that would be a wonderful thing to get re-released. There’s a fantastic ‘documentary’ that his mother made and I say quote unquote ‘documentary’ because it’s just his mother filming him around the house. He’s got a pencil mustache and it’s spring time and he’s just hanging out around her house. That was around the beginning of a not-very-good chapter of Roky’s life cause he’d gone off his medication. But he was still doing pretty well at that point. It’s beautiful actually—there’s this long shot that’s gotta last about 7 minutes … this continuous shot of Roky standing in the driveway with these cars pulling in and out and driving past and cats walking around and he’s completely—for some reason or another—completely immobile and just standing there with a frozen expression on his face while the world moves around him. It’s got an Andy Warhol quality to it. Evelyn [Erickson, Roky’s mother] herself has a really creative eye. I think that would be a great reissue—that ‘documentary’.
Is that the clip in the documentary You’re Gonna Miss Me where he’s wearing a crown and people are chanting, ‘Hail Roky, King of the Beasts’?
Will Sheff: That’s another thing that Evelyn did called Five Kings. She did a bunch of films. I know it’s very much like Kenneth Anger or Kuchar or something like that. And homegrown. Evelyn doesn’t know who those people are. That’s the thing with Roky—he has that quality. Though Roky is much more well-read than he would let on. It happens occasionally in interviews that he’ll drop some sort of name. He’s been a voracious reader all his life and even today he’s often at home reading science fiction stuff.
You’ve gotta get him Mountains of Madness.
Will Sheff: I should do that. I know he likes Lovecraft and Theodore Sturgeon. But anyway, that Five Kings was the source of the some of the sound effects on ‘Please Judge.’ When I was first doing this record, I was thinking a lot about the textures on those demos at the beginning and end—the tape hiss and the deteriorating tape and the gear being cheap to begin with was sort of affecting the sonic quality of the whole thing. It’s sort of ‘Found Piece for Vocal, Acoustic Guitar and Birds,’ you know? That’s how it felt to me. I was thinking a lot about the legend and legacy of Roky’s artistic work and one of the things that he was really participatory in very early on in his career was guitar feedback and low fidelity. And low fidelity was a less intentional thing but the Elevators were very lo-fi and the recordings that Roky made himself when he was pressing play on the tape recorder … I think that when you look at psychedelic music and rock ‘n roll, what you’re seeing is gear that is pushed harder than it’s supposed to be pushed and amplifiers that are pushed to where they’re starting to scream with pain and a tape recorder that’s deteriorating. That says a lot about Roky’s life—he was a guy who pushed everything to the very outer limits. He lived in the most extreme of human experience and he came back to tell the tale. It was a scary and wonderful tale and I really wanted to have a sonic analogue to that. If you hear cicadas on the recording, it’s the cicadas in Roky’s backyard. If you hear static, you’re hearing the static from Roky’s TV. It’s all real original sound. All that stuff comes from videos of Roky.
What’s out there that you got to hear but can’t ever be released because of ownership issues or other problems?
Will Sheff: Well a lot of those songs that nobody’s heard. If you want tapes like that you should pick up Openers 2—the collection of all Roky’s lyrics that they were ever able to find—because it really gives you a sense of how tip-of-the-iceberg Roky’s career is. I’d say about a third of the stuff from that book is anything that I know and I know probably almost every Roky song that was ever put out. It’s stuff that Roky never wrote down and never recorded—he maybe played it one time for the guy who wrote that book that wrote down what he was singing. There’s songs that were completely lost to time. The only way you could get them is if Roky, on a whim, decided to sing them.
So he’ll just break out songs he hasn’t played since 1971?
Will Sheff: He will. I asked him to play ‘Can’t Be Brought Down,’ and he played a little bit and immediately got sick of it and transitioned to this old song ‘Something Extra,’ which is not a very well known Roky song. He hasn’t done it in twenty years, probably, and he just completely busted it out and remembered the whole thing and we jammed on it and it was really, really fun.
Did you roll tape on that?
Will Sheff: I wish—it was just there it goes, there it went. We were just sitting around and you never know what Roky’s gonna do, which is so frustrating sometimes. I wish I’d had him singing ‘Something Extra’ on tape. We did one rehearsal with him where he was just in the guitar soloing mood—which he is not usually. He doesn’t usually go out of his way to want to solo but he was taking these epic ten minute guitar solos. We felt like it was like a Crazy Horse kind of thing, and we’ve been begging him to do it again and he only does it if he feels like it.
What songs got recorded but aren’t on the record?
Will Sheff: Well there’s ‘Sweet Honey Pie’ and ‘For You’ that are extras that people can get. And ‘Singing Grandfather’ is one of my favorite songs that we did for the whole thing but I just decided not to put it on there because I think it would have opened this whole other door that didn’t necessarily have to be opened. It’s got a really strange mixture of being funny and being scary and grotesque and being pretty and being disturbing. Some people have grumbled about there not being horror rock stuff on this but my answer to that would be ‘Please Judge’ and ‘John Lawman’ are horror and ‘electricity hammered me through my head,’ that’s like the real horror rock where Roky is not singing in metaphors—he’s talking about the very worst things that can happen to you. I felt like, ‘Let’s cut to the chase and talk about the real shit and not necessarily spend all our time on vampires and zombies.’ That was my attitude. But ‘Singing Grandfather’ was more traditional vampire horror rock. It’s got more of a horror rock vibe to it.
How does Roky seem to feel about this renewed career at age 62?
Will Sheff: I think his perception of it is exactly what yours would be or mine would be in the same situation. He’s really, really psyched. He’s really, really happy and pleased and proud and surprised. My bad thing would be doing interviews with Roky and hearing people say things like, ‘Hey, were you sad when you were being given shock therapy?’And he’s just sorta like—he’s really nice so he’s never gonna snap at somebody but you can tell that he is like, ‘Really? What do you think?’ He doesn’t really want to talk about that stuff. He’ll indulge you with it but his way of not talking about it is just not give you the answer you want. He’ll say, ‘Oh, it’s just like Disneyland. It was like being on vacation.’ But that’s the only downside is that there are probably moments where he’s like, ‘Jesus, don’t ask me about the very worst parts of my life, bluntly, when I don’t know you.’ The perception that I’ve gotten from talking to him and hanging out with him is that Roky is not one to wallow in that stuff and to not think too hard about really scary places, but at the same time he is a more resilient and mentally robust person than people realize or would give him credit for. Obviously he recovered from all that stuff to a miraculous extent. I think he’s stronger than people would think but I think that part of that is having those things locked inside of himself—knowing how to access them but not dwelling on them.
Where do you think Roky’s true place in American music should be?
Will Sheff: That’s a funny question because it’s so wonky and music critic-y. I don’t really know exactly because placement is also a dynamic thing too. Ten years ago nobody would have placed Nick Drake where they currently place him and twenty years from now they might not place him in the same place. But I think that Roky has been unfairly written off as—what really kind of annoys me is when people compare him to other musicians who the only thing they have in common is they have mental trouble. Daniel Johnston is nothing like Roky in any way and anybody with ears can tell and that’s nothing against Daniel—I’m just saying. And then people say Brian Wilson but Brian Wilson is nothing like Roky in any way. Brian Wilson could never have done this horror rock stuff and Elevators stuff and Roky could never have done Pet Sounds. Syd Barrett is another example. Roky’s story pre-dates Syd Barrett. The underlying message of that is that he is some goofy, eccentric footnote. And that’s the thing that really burns my ass. If you look at Roky he was present at pretty much the birth of rock ‘n roll. He is sort of the founding figure of psychedelic music and so much shaped and informed our images of this rock ‘n roll wild man—Roky is this rock ‘n’ roll id and at the same time he is this really sweet Buddy Holly-esque sweet boyfriend kind of singer. He’s been so many things throughout his career—he’s been country, he’s been garage, he’s been psychedelic, he’s been power pop, he’s kind of walked throughout musical history. So when I talk about somebody’s place in the canon, I think it’s so dynamic. People will turn on their idols and decide that they’re shit and then they’ll decide that they’re great again—I don’t really feel interested in being a part of that process. But I think that if in a sudden flash, you could see before you Roky’s entire discography and see it clearly. you would say, ‘Oh my God, this guy is like a fundamental figure of rock ‘n’ roll.’
Have you read the 13th Floor Elevators book Eye Mind? That’s such a disheartening story in some ways.
Will Sheff: I think that the story of the Elevators—and it’s not a race and it’s not even a good thing to have happened—but really what happened to the Elevators is the saddest story I can think of in rock ‘n’ roll besides like, I don’t know, Richie Valens or something. Or Otis Redding. It encompasses murder and madness and incarceration and absolute failure. They were just so cursed and it’s a very sad and dramatic story. And I can’t think of a sadder one in rock ‘n’ roll.
Who is Roky Erickson really?
Will Sheff: He’s a unique child of God, man—he was created one of a kind and there’s nobody like him at all. He comes from another dimension and he’s really kind of incomparable. I think that’s his essence. He’s not a man of the 20th century—I never met anyone like him.
L.A. RECORD PRESENTS ROKY ERICKSON WITH OKKERVIL RIVER AND LESLIE AND THE BADGERS PLUS DJ CHRIS ZIEGLER (L.A. RECORD) ON TUE., MAY 18, AT THE HENRY FONDA THEATRE, 6126 HOLLYWOOD BLVD., HOLLYWOOD. 9 PM / $32 / ALL AGES. GOLDENVOICE.COM. ROKY ERICKSON AND OKKERVIL RIVER’S TRUE LOVE CAST OUT ALL EVIL IS OUT NOW ON ANTI-. VISIT ROKY ERICKSON AT ROKYERICKSON.NET.