November 10th, 2011 | Interviews


Singer/songwriter/historian/preservationist/deconstructionist/filmmaker/photographer/provocateur/lover/actor/rebel/tango dancer/best hair in the world/expatriate American original Tav Falco is truly all of these things. In 1978 he ended his infamous performance at the Orpheum in Memphis by chainsawing a guitar in half—some sparks hitting Alex Chilton, which led to the two of them igniting the Unapproachable Panther Burns, an “art-damage” poly-rhythmed rockabilly freakshow with a manifesto to “stir the dark waters of the unconscious” through the reinterpreting of some of the best blemishes of early American music. Thirty-three years later, we see the release of Conjurations: Seance For Deranged Lovers, which happens to be Tav’s first album of all original material and, according to him, the band’s “mission statement.” He also just finished a book, “Mondo Memphis,” a roman noir historical study of the storied town. I listened intently to the man for 45 minutes out of our two-hour long interview before I could ask a question, and I didn’t want him to stop. He almost didn’t. This interview by Gabe Hart.

When did Conjurations get released?
It came out last year, in July, in Europe. It came out on Stag-O-Lee Records, part of Glitterhouse Records. It’s gotten around pretty good in Europe. We worked for quite a while toward getting a release in the U.S.A. We were turned down by every independent label in the United States—in North America. Rejected, tossed out, thrown in the trash and ignored. So finally we broke through with Cosmodelic Records. We went to Revenant Records, Rhino Records, we went to everybody, you know, for domestic release. Rounder, Matador, all of them. They all thought they had their Panther Burns in someone else, but they’ll never get it. They’ll never get it. It’s one of the things, really, that drove me away from the States. You know, like Robert Mitchum said, ‘In the United States, if I’m an actor and I happen to be out of work, I’m a bum. If I’m an actor in Europe and I’m out of work, I’m an artist.’ … So, we brought out this record [Panther Phobia] on In the Red, and Larry Hardy wanted a certain kind of record from Panther Burns, and I had come back from Europe to test the U.S.A. once more—it was a big mistake, of course, but anyway, I came back for a couple of years and I was surrounded by a group of people who could only make this kind of record, period. And Larry wanted this kind of record, so he came up to me after a show in Memphis and put $6000 in my pocket and asked for this record. So I thought, ‘Why not?’ I can do this kind of record like falling off a log. So I did it, and I stand behind it, but it was only one side of Panther Burns, and Larry didn’t want the whole banana. You know, a lot of people aren’t ready for the whole banana. They think they are, but they’re not. We wanted to do something different, we wanted to experiment. They have an idea of what Panther Burns is, but they’re not really willing to consult with the group and look at what is really possible. So I did that record, and I talked to Larry later about the Conjurations album. I sent him the demo—the first demo I ever made for a record, which was also a mistake, I should never make a demo, I’ll never make another one—so that demo was turned down. Larry said, ‘Oh, it’s too lounge. I’ll buy the record when it comes out, it’s just my audience isn’t gonna buy it.’ I said, ‘OK.’ So it took about nine years to get this record released without compromise. I knew I had something when everyone turned it down. I knew then that, artistically, for Panther Burns, it was going to be an important record and it turns out, it is an album of all original songs, and it is the manifestation of the vision of Panther Burns. It is a career statement. Thirty years later—actually, going into the 33rd year of Panther Burns. So you have something of a culmination of our thinking, of our vision. Even though the lineup has changed over time, even though we have reinvented ourselves, but always within the identity and within the context of the original Panther Burns. We haven’t changed the Orphic vision of Panther Burns. It is still our job, our mission, to stir up the dark waters of the unconscious, and that’s what we do. We’re the last steam engine train left on the track that don’t do nothing but run and blow. That’s the way it was from the beginning and that’s the way it always will be, although we have evolved. As any art form—like jazz, or even rock ‘n’ roll, we have embraced other art forms, like tango, like samba, rumba, uh … jazz, standards—we’ve played and drawn from a number of genres. I could have stayed in Memphis. I could have been a rocker in Memphis all this time, and been that, and maybe I could have done alright. And maybe I’d have a larger audience. Maybe people would understand us better. But for me, it’s not what I want to do. Alex Chilton used to criticize me. He said, ‘You know, this is entertainment, Tav. You’re trying to make it into something else. You’re an entertainer.’ Well, that’s part of it for sure, but for me, I started the band out of frustration. I came to Memphis from Arkansas to be a filmmaker and a photographer, and I did that. But there came a point, a very frustrating point, where I felt like I couldn’t go any further in Memphis and I began to feel very anti-establishment there. I was always considered trash from Arkansas in that town anyway.
How were you perceived in Memphis?
I started from the underground in Memphis. And when I go back, on November 12, it’ll still be the Panther Burns from the underground. I’m gonna make a little appearance at Goner Records, but those people even turned down the Conjurations record. They laughed at it. You see how particular our vision is.
The garage scene can be very close-minded.
They like what they like, but it’s like Charlie Feathers told me once. He said, ‘Tav, if you’re not doing something different, you’re not doing anything at all.’ You can’t create art or a band out of a vacuum. It’s never going to be totally original, uninfluenced by anything. But you can constellate your own vision out of what is given you in your environment, and to what you are drawn—spiritually, artistically, musically, and otherwise. With that, you can create something original. And I think there is an original gradient in Panther Burns, and that’s what we cultivate. And if it’s out of style or out of trend, we’ll live through that, we’ll survive it. … You know, we tend to polarize an audience, but invariably there are those in that audience who are elated and who are moved to emotion and to dance, and there are others who greet us with howls of contempt.
I’ve tried to turn other people on to you before, and half are like, ‘This is one of the most compelling things I’ve ever heard,’ and the other half say, ‘What the hell is going on?’ But I think the latter is one of the biggest compliments.
The thing is, now I can sing, whereas in the beginning I didn’t sing so well, But when you work with Alex Chilton long enough, you’re around someone who’s an incredible singer—one of the best of his generation, one of the best guitar players of his time. So I learned from good people, the best in Memphis, and that’s something you live with and you grow with, and it stays with you. It’s not something I would ever deny or turn my back on simply because there’s no place for me in that cutthroat town, or places like L.A. or New York. I mean, yeah, I could survive in New York and I’m able to make money there—there are people who understand me in New York, but it’s the job of the artist to make himself understood. We have an audience in Europe, we have an audience in the United States. I’m not complaining, I’m grateful that there are people there who embrace the Panther Burns and who are looking forward to the music we record and to our shows and to us coming back and performing there. But I have trepidation about the States. I feel that Memphis is a place that kills artists. I’ve seen them murdered. I’ve seen it in New Orleans. It’s a very violent scene. I’ve seen it in L.A. L.A. is a hard scene, you know. It can be. If you don’t have money. If you don’t have insulation. If you don’t have a cozy little pad in Hollywood Hills, uh, it can be kind of edgy. There are wonderful people in Los Angeles—I have quite a number of good friends there. I’d like to spend more time there, but I get a little nervous because I don’t know what’s going to happen next in the sense that I’m trying to bring something out from the interior. I’m not trying to do something that’s totally commercial and I feel like I’m in a commercial environment, for the most part.
Beyond geography, what kind of world do the Panther Burns try to conjure?
The Panther Burns evoke the Orphic vision—it’s not a mystical vision—it is the vision of Orpheus, it’s the vision of music, it’s the vision of going down into the underground, into the underworld, into the unconscious. That is our domain. That is our realm. It’s not the mystical heavens, it’s a different kind of poetry. It’s the poetry of not the shiny side of the moon, but the darker side.
Not really. Because Lucifer called himself the Prince of Light. We’re not Satanic. It’s a poetic vision. It’s a vision of music, it’s a vision of the interior—an expressionistic vision. … The symbolist poets—Rimbaud, Baudelaire—they were under the spell of the Orphic vision. They weren’t mystics—it was something different. And this is the realm in which we work.
Is there a reason you chose American roots music initially to express this?
This is what I was surrounded with in Memphis—was blues music, was early rock ‘n’ roll music, was Karl Heinz Stockhausen, was Eric Dolphy, was John Coltrane, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf—these are all people I saw come to Memphis, except Stockhausen, of course. I saw Dizzy Gillespie and some other jazz people. John Fahey … An artist draws from what’s around him, and this was the environment. To me, John Fahey was the epitome of the American guitarist, a visionary. Also a product of the Orphic vision, in my view. … You listen to Fahey and it’s totally original, totally Orphic, totally transcendent, totally poetic. I don’t know anyone like him. That’s why I took this up because that was what was around me. … I started playing rock ‘n’ roll because it was an extreme form of Dionysian ritual and celebration. It was freeing and liberating and erotic, sexual, abandoned, political—all of these things. I felt there was something I could do within this medium, but mainly it was a nonintellectual-type release. I was playing blues, strictly, and filming blues people. And when I met Alex, I did this happening at the Orpheum Theatre with Mud Boy and the Neutrons—I was a dancer in his band … It’s all in my book, Mondo Memphis.
Is that where you chainsawed the guitar?
Yeah, I chainsawed the guitar playing ‘The Bourgeois Blues’ by Leadbelly. [Alex] was in the audience that night, among those who became rather hysterical during this happening, where I did destroy the guitar. I did meet him about a month or so later at a soiree at my house in Memphis, on the wrong side of the tracks. He knew rock ‘n’ roll, and I knew something of rudimentary blues, so, I don’t know, there was just some sort of kindred spirit there when we met, and Alex urged me to start a band, and he said he would play guitar in it for a while.
Should we talk about Mondo Memphis?
Yeah, sure. That book turned out to be a massive undertaking. Had I known it was going to be that much involvement, over three years, I’m not sure I would have signed a contract on it. It came through a journalist who had interviewed me on a long piece on noise music. He wanted me to answer a number of questions, so I spent a week answering those questions, and turned in almost twenty pages. We started corresponding a lot. His name is Erik Morse. … He worked for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, still writes for them, writes for Frieze … Anyway, Erik got this overture from Creation Books, which had started with Creation Records in the U.K. So, we got this deal to do a book on Memphis. Erik has volume 2, I’ve got volume 1. Erik has turned out to write a fictive account—a shorter piece. Mine is rather lengthy, maybe too long. It’s kind of a historio-fictive account up to the period in Memphis in which I was living. So the book starts before the Civil War and it goes through each epoch and ends in the 90s, with Panther Burns and with Tav Falco. Tav Falco enters the book rather late—the last two chapters out of thirteen deal with Tav Falco and what happened around him. The book is in first person, but not in the name of Tav Falco. It’s Eugene Baffle, which is the alter ego of Tav Falco. Eugene Baffle is the one who came out on stage at the Orpheum Theatre and destroyed the guitar, with Mud Boy and the Neutrons. Eugene Baffle met Tav Falco some months after that event.
How do the two personalities differ?
Well, Eugene Baffle was a little more reticent, and a little more introspective. He’s an observer, he’s someone who deals more with experiential knowledge. When they met—they looked a lot alike. They had similar interests in a lot of areas. Falco was more of a hipster and he was more of a—well, is, he’s still out there, playing and touring around in godforsaken places—more of a performer, an instigator of happenings, anti-environment actions, publicity stunts, jokes, double entendre. Baffle was more of a sincere type individual, not so complicated. Basically a kind of a litmus, kind of observer, more of a follower. … Baffle had more of a political consciousness than Tav Falco, and more of a social conscience, whereas Falco is more of a rock ‘n’ roller. Not that he didn’t have sensitivity, because he was an interpreter. That’s what Falco is. That’s what Jerry Lee Lewis told me he did once. He said, ‘You know, I interpret songs. That’s it. I’m an interpreter.’ Jerry Lee didn’t write songs. But on this last album, Falco ended up writing some songs, and I think he did a surprising job with it. Eugene Baffle lives in Paris and he runs with Gypsies. He lives a very carefree, although frugal, existence.
You described Tav Falco as a ‘hipster.’ Unfortunately, that word is used as more of a slur today.
In the outlook of Tav Falco, we’re talking about people who he would idolize—a hipster is like Chet Baker, or like Allen Ginsberg, who he knew personally. Or someone like William S. Burroughs, who dressed in a canary yellow suit and hung out in the Orient and Tangiers and smoked opium and had hallucinations. These were elegant people on one side, and on the other side these were people who would travel on the road, like Jack Kerouac. I don’t know how in touch people still are with that in the States, with that movement in the 50s and 60s. When I came to do that show for Arthur magazine at the Palace Theatre, I saw a lot of bearded and sandaled hipster-looking-type people. I saw people looking like a lot of the hippies I knew in San Francisco when I was out there. It’s an ethos to embrace; it’s an ideology. Timothy Leary, you know, and that group of writers and experimentalists in his cabal. They were interesting people. They made a lot of interesting experiments, there was a revolution. On the one hand, we sacrificed a lot in that revolution. We gained a lot and we sacrificed a lot. We sacrificed a certain social fabric. We sacrificed a certain sense of style. We sacrificed social dancing. That went out the window. The embrace in dancing was gone with psychedelia.
It’s interesting because psychedelia identified itself with communalism and togetherness.
The form, and the embrace, and certain formalistic and ritualistic attributes. But, I suppose those had to be sacrificed to some degree for there to be an all-encompassing revolution like we did have. … Now, people who survived the revolution—they’re going back and they’re retrieving that which was important to retrieve; that which was lost and discarded they’re bringing back, and they’re preserving that and celebrating it once again.
Do you see that as a form of nostalgia?
Nostalgia is a diversion—it’s a form of entertainment. I’m saying when people go back to celebrate certain forms and rituals and social practices and dances and certain kinds of art or music, there’s nostalgic revival on the one hand and then there’s going back and reinventing genres that were shut out. To use dance as an example. Social dancing is being rediscovered again—not in a revivalist or nostalgic way, there’s a gradient of nostalgia there, but it’s become part of the fabric of day-to-day life. People are going out and dancing Cuban dances—the habanera—again, because they feel it. They want to do it. It’s more than just sheer nostalgia that’s drawing them back.
Do you ever see a revolution happening again in America?
I think there is a threshold where you can push people too far. What it would take would be a kind of class revolution. It would take some real starvation, some real deprivation in the United States before there would be any kind of serious response to political and cultural organizing. … It would have to be like the 1930s or like the 1960s in the sense that we have a mandatory draft and a huge military conflict. … All the great hopes we had for the Obama administration, and I still hope, if he’s re-elected—and of course I will vote for him—hopefully he will be more of himself in the second term. But we do have these huge military engagements today that are destroying our country, destroying our credibility in the world, undermining our creative and moral fiber in the United States. Really undermining the American ideal. America once had a noble vision and I don’t think it has it anymore. Most people in the States seem to me totally concerned with materialistic well-being. They go and they pray on Sundays, and they give lip service to these Christian ideals, and they go out during the week, and they’re hypocrites and they don’t even realize that. All through the bible belt and in California too, our politicians prey off these people and their thinking and their mentality. … I can’t live over there right now.
Do you feel like living over here affects your integrity?
I just feel like I would be destroyed. I think, artistically, I would be reduced on a certain level that I’m able to pursue in Europe. Hey, Europe’s had its dark chapters. It has a culture here of art and music and theater. We have that, to an extent, in the United States, but here it’s the fabric of everyday existence. It’s open to everybody. I don’t have to be rich to lead the kind of life here that I would have to have a lot of money in the United States. I would have to work two jobs in the States to survive, and I’d be caught up in materialistic things. Here, I can live la boheme vie—a bohemian life—without degradation.
The argument we use here in L.A. is that the anxiety and the oppression—when you feel like your artistry is being pushed in a corner—it makes you work harder and good things come out of that. Do you think that’s a delusion or do you find any merit in that?
It can produce some very vital responses, and can generate a lot of thoughtful work. This is how I started—I’m a product of those kinds of forces and pressures, but I must say that my best work, I think, has come out since I’ve been in this environment, in Europe. I’m not on the rock ‘n’ roll scene here; I don’t hang out with rock ‘n’ roll people. I hang out with dancers and theater people and artists and filmmakers. Not that I don’t like rock ‘n’ roll people, but I’m in a city that’s not a rock ‘n’ roll city, for one thing. So I have the distance, culturally, to look at my own culture in the United States—I’m able to look into the culture as an outsider, and then I have the distance to come into my environment in which I live, and be able to get in touch with myself without distraction, and to learn more about what I’m thinking and who I am and who the people around me are and how I really want to cultivate what I’m doing. I didn’t have this kind of perception when I was living in the States. It was always these other pressures involved just to stay alive, just to survive, to scratch out an existence as an artist. And it takes a lot of time to do that.