Interview November 13, 1996
The first time that Lelan Rogers, owner of the Texas-based International Artists label, saw the Red Krayola in 1966, they were playing at a shopping mall. Not the most appropriate venue, one would think, for a band that was working up songs like "Hurricane Fighter Plane," "Vile Vile Grass," "Transparent Radiation," and "Pink Stainless Tail." "He couldn't believe that we were serious," remembers guitarist and singer Mayo Thompson, who over the last 30 years has been the constant source of the guiding vision for the band (and indeed, their only permanent member). "He thought it must be comedy."
Rogers, the older brother of country-pop superstar Kenny Rogers, recalled in the liner notes to the Epitaph for a Legendcompilation, "There was this group of kids, three of them, up on a stage that had four or five different kinds of instruments and they could not play a note. They were just making noise and they were really putting the people on. I figured anybody that was able to put on a crowd like that -- there's got to be a market. I went over and I said, 'Hey guys, give me a call.'"
No doubt some listeners think that Red Krayola are still "just making noise" 30 years later. Mayo Thompson's lyrics are still free-associative patterns with little in the way of narrative, anthemic slogans, or, god forbid, feel-good romanticisms. The music is still an admixture of catchy pop tunes and incongruous dischords, delivered in ever-shifting arrangements that sometimes seem to owe more to chance than planning. And Thompson's still singing in his gentle whine, like an off-kilter, slightly off-key Texas cousin of Ray Davies.
Truth to tell, Thompson seems to care less what mainstream or underground critics might think of his discography. For one thing, at the moment he's as busy as ever with another edition of the Red Krayola, and experiencing a greater level of success in his native U.S. than he's ever attained since 1967. Unlike just about any other "underground" rock musician you could name who began recording in the 1960s, Thompson's gone from psychedelia to punk to post-punk without missing many beats. Whether with the noise-psychedelia of the '60s Red Krayola, the scratchier-than-a-blackboard guitars of his late '70s English edition of the band, or a current lineup that falls somewhere between those extremes, he's remained resolutely outside of both pop and "counterculture" trends.
Did you ever see the compilation Epitaph for a Legend?
"Vile Vile Grass" is on there, which has never been recorded in any other form. What that was, was a demo session. They wanted to know, "what material do you have." 'Cause they'd heard us play live and wanted to know what else we had. So they sent us in this small 16-track demo studio. We got there and we thought we were going to be able to do some interesting recording, and found out that they just wanted a version of the tunes. So, one gave them a version of the tunes and that was it. So those tunes on there are stuff that they had lying around in the can from the demo days. I don't know why. They never were meant as releasable material, in the usual sense. Those are archival tapes, I would say. The performances are what they are.
In the liner notes, Leland Rogers remembers seeing you for the first time in a shopping center. He said something like, "these guys couldn't really play, but everyone was really getting into it, so I thought I had to do something with them, even though I didn't really get what was going on."
He said that was funny. He said that he thought he couldn't believe that we were serious. He thought it must be comedy. I never tried to regulate people's responses. It was a Battle of a Bands thing. It was a gig at a shopping mall. We got unplugged in the course of the set, kept playing anyway, and then somebody plugged it back in and we went on playing.
Did the band have any vision then, as far as being different from other ones?
We set out from the beginning to mark our difference from everybody. We wanted to eliminate everybody, and we wanted to tighten the logic. We wanted to say, is there logic in pop music? And, if there is, if there's a claim for a certain kind of progressive logic or certain kind of developmental logic, well, let's see where it goes. So our strategy was totally informed to some extent by art and avant-garde traditions and those kinds of things. But, our aim was to shut everybody else up. 'Cause we hated everything everybody did, just about, with the exception of a few things.
We had a few heroes, a few bits and pieces that would squeak through that would be satisfactory to us. We admired Fahey. We admired Country Joe & the Fish, that EP that they made. Also, Electric Music,the first album, was quite okay. It had some really good stuff on it. We liked Van Dyke Parks, we liked more "out" stuff.
Partly, the logic was a certain kind of extremism, let's say, in relation to the previous standards. Mainstream action--the Beatles and all that stuff--obviously was very influential and informed what one was thinking. The Stones, the same, Dylan, the same. There were certain avenues which obviously were being explored, and closed down, as far as we were concerned. Why do what somebody else was already doing? Why even try? Because we also did not see ourselves as part as what everybody else was doing. We were not hippies, we weren't involved in the worldview that informed counterculture. For us all these kinds of things, these interests and considerations, came out of a general impetus to make art in general.
The first album had a lot of tunes that wouldn't have been called "industrial" then. But looking back on it now, they seemed to anticipate a lot of that kind of stuff. How did the ideas for those arrangements come about? It was pretty different from anything else around that era, on what was nominally a "pop" record.
It's epiphenomenal aspects of learning something, right? You start somewhere, and you know a little bit, and you hear what other people are doing, and you try to figure out what you don't like about that and what you can do. That's what our aim was. So we started off with perhaps some fairly rudimentary musicianship, obviously. But having an ear for how things sound, how they actually sound, and getting involved in the kinds of sounds you can make, and then thinking about what kinds of things are possible. For us it was not like, "Here's a category, we're going to move into this category. Here's a genre, we're going to move into this genre, take it over, and make it our own, blah blah blah." It wasn't any of that kind of stuff at all. It was really about the investigation of forms, to some extent. And I suppose we definitely, like everybody else, we were being ourselves, you know? Trying it on. Trying to find out what did it, what didn't work, what did work, what kinds of reactions we were interested in.
Then there came a moment when it was like the affirmations of a crowd of youth were allegedly going to take over the world were not very interesting, finally. One understood the complaints--against the Vietnam War, etc., and sympathized with all those political sorts of things. But we did not get involved with music for political reasons. For our political reasons, maybe, to some extent. There was this distinction between life and art for us. Life was something, and art is something. It wasn't a question of trying to turn your life into art.
How was the first incarnation of the Krayola received live?
Musicianship was much more important, let's say, in those days, a certain kind of technical expertise. Which meant that people looked at what we were doing as unorthodox in some sort of sense, as neither the mainstream nor the counterculture. Not really the underground. Not the Velvet Underground, not demi-monde, not our thing and forget your world over there, we're gonna have our world over here. None of that kind of stuff at all. We saw ourselves as between all of these spaces, if you like.
I think the reception was generally that we were counted as outsiders somehow, weirdos. Weirder than people who were professional weirdos. Not Frank Zappa, not Beefheart. Not the kind of people that you would expect that we would be lumped with. One of the people in Texas I felt the most affinity with was the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, who for me, did something interesting with his first single--"Paralyzed" and "Who's Knocking At My Door." This was incredible. That was the kind of thing I liked. I understood that was part of a tradition that came out of, like, Stan Freberg records and a whole lot of other kinds of things. Just part of what's fun and what's interesting to do, with the important caveat, has not been done.
What were the circumstances under which the first lineup of the Krayola broke up?
We played the Berkeley Folk Festival in '67, and we recorded some material with John Fahey. And our record company went through the ceiling over this. They threatened not to bring us back from California, even though they had used our publishing royalties to fly us out here in the first place, which is illegal, I have subsequently found out. But they threatened not to bring us back. So Rick and Steve said, "You go to Frisco and get the tapes, and we're going back to Texas." So it became my job to do this, because I had started the band. So I came back up here and picked up the tapes, which were reluctantly handed over. We intended to try to do something with them. And then I had to take these tapes back to Texas, give them to the record company, and then bust up, that was the end of that. Rick went to New York, started writing and making conceptual art, and stopped playing music in the way we had been playing music--made music at home.
I was just at loose ends. I went to southern California and sat there in Los Angeles for a little while, for about a month, two months, trying to see what was going on, seeing what was happening. Met a few people, but nothing ever really happened. I was friendly with the United States of America. We shared rehearsal space with them. I worked with them--I did sound for them a bit in the beginning, and I met Joe [Byrd] and those people. I knew that band. And Nico was around, looking for musicians. She had just left the Velvet Underground and was about to make Marble Indexand those kinds of things. She was looking around for some people to be playing with. She was not interested in what I was doing.. I met her. The idea was, could you work with this person? No.
The first record did business. IA called me and said, let's have a second album, we need another album. We recorded a second album, Coconut Hotel,which the label didn't like at all, which was this abstract music, the most extreme version of the logic that we could conceive of at that time, and also answered to our needs. I mean, if people are going to claim that they're making innovations, we felt anybody who makes these claims had better make them in light of what's going on in jazz, and what's going on in R&B, and places where music is--there's certain kinds of things where experimentation within forms, within closures, are going on.
To talk about experimental music and not know Cage seemed to us a fatuous proposition. You have to know these things. Our music was informed by steering a course through those things that we saw as landmarks, and various things that we saw us piles of dogshit in the street.
Most of your sales were in New York and San Francisco?
One might be interested in numbers, but, I mean, [Rogers] also says in the interview that we've sold something like 50,000 records. I know that we sold 8-10,000 records in New York, and we sold some records in L.A., some Frisco. Major urban centers, obviously. But what he's not alluding to is the fact that International Artists did not advertise. There were no band photographs. There was no promotion. This was making a virtue of your shortcomings. This was the beginnings of alternative rock.
You knew Roky Erickson at that time.
He played on our first album. He plays keyboard on "Hurricane," and he played harmonica on "Transparent Radiation."
Have you been in much contact with him since then?
I have not seen him since he was spirited away to a mental institution when he decided to plead mental incompetence against a charge of marijuana, which at the time in the United States, in Texas particularly, was very dangerous. Police saw themselves as having a crusade against this upstart psychedelic loony fringe. So they worked hard to destroy that band. But I used to see Roky around. We got along. He was an interesting guy. But he was already quite out there in some ways.
Did his subsequent mental problems and instability surprise you?
"Unstable" is only in relation to our norms. Maybe not so unstable, but on another planet, on another wavelength from the beginning. What little I know about his family background--his mother's a very strong woman, very powerful. His father's an architect. I think he comes from a somehow cultured family, and middle-class family. He was one of those people who just never had any doubts about what direction he was going in. It just never occurred to him to think, could this be the wrong thing to do? No! This is it, this is what's happening. But Tommy Hall mediated. Tommy was playing the translator for us for us on the first night: "You must show Roky the changes." One could look at Roky and knew that he knew exactly what was going on, that he knew what we were talking about, he could hear the music, he knew what that was. And he did it. You can hear that he did understand it, because these elements that he had fit perfectly into our program.
My impression of him was that he was an extremely sensitive person and extremely talented, with a great deal of energy, power, charisma, all of those kinds of things. But in a certain sort of sense, somebody who needed somebody to take care of other kinds of affairs for him on some level, that's all. He didn't seem to me to be debilitated in any way. Taking seriously the idea of taking acid every day is questionable. Even to me at the time, being wild child or whatever, you look at that and you go, boy, that's extreme.
What was the original label for Corky's Debt to His Father?
Texas Revolution. Walt Andrus was head of the best studio in Houston, and in that particular period, he recorded everybody. Euphoria, who were definitely West Coast psychedelic progenitors of surf music, South Bay surf music, incredible guitar playing, power trio, the bass player out of the band that made "Pipeline" or "Wipe Out" or one of those kind of things, and a great drummer and a good guitar player. What you saw with Hendrix--the same principle, taken to its highest expression.
Walt recorded this album. The technical level came out of traditional recordings of all kinds of regular kinds of music. Now the music scene has changed immeasurably, and the technology has leaped fucking ahead of the music, and the music expands by developing certain kinds of technological chops which become evident. Or certain kinds of technological possibilities became evident, like sampling or whatever. I'm not poo-poohing anything, I'm just saying that seems to happen a lot. At the time, everybody was making it up as they went along. The first album is mono--the stereo is simulated. It's a trick. It wasn't electronically reprocessed--it was like two tape recorders with one master tape (here), and one master tape (there), and then you'd put your thumb on that one occasionally and slow it down, so that, ooh, the ground gets a little weird. Really ad hoc--all by the ear. How does it work? How can it work? What can you make it do?
Pop music has changed, obviously, with punk, completely. But at the time that I made the solo album, it was Walt Andrus' own label. He had a lot of money which he had gotten to start a label called Gulf Pacific, which was a joke on Gulf & Western, I think. He was partners with a couple lawyers in Southern California who had gotten some money to do a blues reissue from somebody and blah blah blah, and there was this kind of money, so we were able to make this record. And he was like a few weeks short of really having it all together, Texas Revolution being really together. And then the whole partnership collapsed and fell apart for some reason. And the dream ended. But that would have been a really...that was going to be an interesting project, because Walt Andrus and Frank Davis, he was also an early hero of mine, a real legend in Houston, a great musician.
We were going to make records of the news. We were going to put the newspaper to music, and sell it on street corners. Like make it in one day, press it, and sell it the next week. Topical songs, sold out of the back of a truck. All the things that we've later come to see--indie music, the DIY scene, all that stuff.
Did anything else come out on Texas Revolution?
Linden Hudson made an album. He made the first one. He's a vocalist--had incredible falsetto range, like Frankie Valli quality. Good singer.
Did you go for more of a pop sound on the solo album than you had with Red Krayola?
I don't know what exactly to say to those things. My interest was always in popular music. I was interested in the accessibility of this thing. And thought that experimentation was allowed, because I was beginning from a certain kind of consensus position, or at least a set of conventions about what counted in popular music. And that a certain kind of experimentation and variation and difference was sought. You were looking for something that sounded a little bit different. So I saw what I was doing as 100% traditional. Nor was I trying to make something that I thought where I had finally understood [that] people don't want to hear this weird shit, they want to hear more straightahead stuff, and I'm now going to try my hand at this. It was never that kind of thing at all. Those things--they were what I could do.
But it does have a different character from the Red Krayola material. I would say that is largely informed by the fact that the musicians were all from elsewhere. They were not players that I had worked with. People I knew, but I didn't work with them before, from other kinds of bands and stuff like that. Also, the material was very personal, the lyrics were very personal, whereas the Red Krayola was seldom personal.
Did you have any musical projects between the solo album and the mid-'70s?
No. I got involved in art. I was making music, I was involved with a few people here and there, tried a few things, had a band in Texas for a while. But nothing ever really coalesced, particularly in the way that I wanted it to. One could get something going. You could get a band together, they could play tunes, they'd be very competent, make wonderful arrangements and so on and it was kind of like (yawns). I just wasn't that interested. I was always looking for the most radical position. I would say that would be the other thing that would inform. Not trying to seek it out and stake it out or something like that, but radicality in relation to a set of givens was an interesting thing for me. Because, you know, what's the point of reproducing the effect? The point is to enlarge upon or expand upon it. Find out what limits it has, if any.
The period of the complete failure of the solo record--when I found out that people--I had a friend who lived in a commune in New Mexico, and he'd get up and put that record on and people would throw things at him--"Don't put that goddamn record on again!" They hated it. They just didn't want to hear this stuff. And I thought, I wonder why? So I delved more deeply into one of our original thoughts about music. It was original to us, it was one of the origins for our impulse, which was that music is instrumental, in the sense that it's a form in which you can say various things and do various things. Those formal characteristics of music have their own weight and gravity. What you do is you balance them against the other kinds of things that you want to put into them as a carrier or some kind of support structure, if you like.
So I got involved in this whole political discourse as well with Art & Language. I was working in New York, and in the mid-'70s in New York, the art world collapsed, literally crashed. There was a recession, there was an oil crisis, the art market hit the lowest point that it had since World War II. The music industry more or less collapsed from its own grandeur. Not collapsed, but let's say the content aspect of it wore out. There was just nothing left to explore in the kind of sense apart from the fact that we are these kinds of people. You know--we are the people who are now wearing makeup, now wearing stacked boots and funny clothes and all that sort of stuff. So I got involved in the politics.
And then when New York became completely intractable, I moved to England. And that's when I started working with Rough Trade. Just coincidentally, maybe a year before I left New York, I had a conversation with a guy I was working with. He said, "That Red Krayola stuff, that's shit. Nobody cares about that. Nobody knows about it. Nobody wants to know about it. You're a joke." He was mad at me about something else, but he lit into me about this. It rang in my ears for a while, I thought about this. But then when I got to England, I found it was absolutely the opposite. There was a whole bunch of people who, ten years later so to speak, knew those early records, who thought that they were groovy records, and liked them. I began to find out that they had some resonances in Britain. They gave me a kind of entree. Punk was obviously in full flower, if you want to call it that.
This was around '77, '78, when Radar started doing the whole IA catalog?
Exactly. I went to England and I sat there, and after I fell out with Art & Lang--we had a big argument, after I was there for about a year. So I thought, what am I going to do? I thought I would look around and see if there was any possibility for music. I did an interview with Pete Frame, who did Zig Zag and all these family trees and so on--a very nice man. He was the press agent for Stiff Records at the time. The whole thing was just getting going. And he said, yeah, I imagine you could do so and so. So I went around to Virgin and saw Simon Draper, and Simon Draper said yes, he would make a one-off single with me. Virgin was about to do a single with Roky, "Bermuda."
He [Roky] had his fans. I tell you, there were people who adored him. The thing is, you listen to his music now, still, his music works. No matter whether you can make any sense out of how he acts or what he talks about, or anything else like that. That part of his brain is definitely intact and still cranking it out.
I met Andrew, and got to know Geoff at Rough Trade around this time, there was just a lot of possibilities, and found that the ideas that were being traded--I wouldn't go as far as to say I felt a certain proprietorial interest in them, but I had a certain of engagement with, or involvement with some of the issues, let's say. Those kinds of attitudes. So it was just normal for me to get into it, in a sense.
FOR PART TWO OF MAYO THOMPSON INTERVIEW, CLICK HERE
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