Dead Letters to Lost Worlds An Interview with Avant-Pop Master Mayo Thompson of Red Krayola
By: Scott Lockard
I bumped into the beings that inhabit the crest of Parnassus the other evening. They were actually hanging out in the basement. It wasn't Parnassus either, it was the Empty Bottle, and the inhabitants, I wouldn't call them gods but certainly legendary figures that might have attended some of their parties.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with some of the greatest anti-heroes of rock and roll at the Empty Bottle on September 11, 2004. The group was the Red Krayola. The group or collective, as it has grown to become, actually now more of a band I guess, had made their first appearance in Chicago in seven years. Chicago was an appropriate stop during its three-city tour, as it is the home to one of the drummers of the band, Jon McEntire from Tortoise. Red Krayola is now touring only as a four piece, a very tight four piece. Two drummers, two guitars, no pesky bassists.
The Red Krayola began in 1967 in the Texas psych scene with Mayo Thompson, Frederick Barthelme, and Steve Cunningham. The International Artists label run by Kenny Roger's brother, Leland Rogers picked them up. Their first gig was at a local shopping mall. They also played at the Berkeley folk festival and had shocked audiences with layers and layers of feedback. It was Luigi Russolo's manifesto fully realized.
The original group was around for only two albums. Mayo Thompson did a solo album Corky's Debt to His Father, perhaps one of the greatest pop albums that missed the commercial radar. It was a breathtakingly catchy and sexy album rivaling some of rock history's greatest achievements, but suffered miserably because of its limited distribution: roughly five hundred copies were made at its original release. Mayo Thompson had become a relative recluse, moving to New York and working under the collective Art and Language. He then released albums under the name Red Krayola, Krayola now spelled with a K replacing the original C, and playing with Gina Birch of the Raincoats, Lora Logic of X-Ray Specs.
He was also a member for a stint with Pere Ubu playing on The Art of Walking. David Thomas from Pere Ubu likewise returned the favor by playing on other Red Krayola gigs, including Soldier Talk. He has since played with numerous other noteworthy musicians including George Hurley from the Minutemen, and Chicago post-rockers John McEntire and David Grubbs. It's blasphemy to leave anybody out of the list , but it is way too long to be mentioned here. You'll just have to do your own research, and the above names should be a reason to do so.
Umpteen albums later, the four-piece now including Mayo Thompson, Tom Watson from the SST band Slovenly and Overpass, George Hurley of Minutemen fame and our hometown hero John McEntire were playing a limited engagement tour of the United States in support of their release Red Krayola Singles 1968-2002 compilation on Drag City.
It was not only a thrill to see themit's been seven years they came by anywhere near my localebut they were playing songs all the way back to their first release, 1967's Parable of Arable Land, and of course the singles, most of them lost and out of print or never released in the first place. The Red Krayola's catalogue is very difficult to categorize. They've run from all-out psych/industrial noise to punk to pop perfection and always ahead of the pulse of contemporary music or slightly to the left of it. The singles collection is like Mayo Thompson's quote Like dead letters to lost worlds.
The energy of the performance was unmatched. it was a good thing I got to talk with them before the show. They probably could have done it afterwards, but I was exhausted. Mayo Thompson is a true southern gentelman. Actually the entire band was very hospitable and eager to talk about their recent singles collection released on Drag City.
Scott Lockard: Can you explain how the 45-inch single had worked to your advantage or disadvantage?
Mayo Thompson: The first Red Krayola album was mono. I started off when they recorded with kerosene. But the idea of a single for me, was always that the essence of the very idea of rock and roll and pop music was that you got two minutes and ten seconds or three minutes and 30 seconds to try to get your point across and that's it. It's fast as well. My ideal was always that Instant Karma was a great model because it was one week from John Lennon's brain to the street. That's pretty fast, and I always thought that was good. So you make singles and you can intervene quickly and do things and make them happen. But you also have to have some kind of commercial clout and power to use that intervention tactic effectively. So we do it. Many people don't know this, but we act like it makes a difference. It makes a lot of difference to us.
SL: Is there a difference now that the single is not a mainstream enterprise? Will you still be utilizing the single with such a limited market?
MT: Yeah. I was talking to somebody and I thought the guy said that the single seems irrelevant now. I mean it's true that as a vinyl 7-inch, maybe as an object, as a commercial object, it's going to come to its kind of end, in a way. It's going to be a merchandising device or something like that. There might not be freestanding records. But I think that the single's alive. You can curse to me that you could make a tune, mix it, put it on your website as an mp3, notify the world, people go and get it. That's a single.
SL: Have you been doing that?
MT: Not yet. But we're gonna. We're working on a song called That Dogma Won't Hunt, a reply to Alice Cooper.
SL: In what vein?
MT: Alice Cooper, the other day, came across and he said that all these anti-Bush bands were treasonous morons. And I mean, the moron part, that's debatable, he said they were not traitors to the country but traitors to Rock and Roll because Rock and Roll has nothing to do with politics. School's Out has nothing to do with politics? I mean he's biting his own ass when he says that, I think. So anyway, when somebody tells me that Rock and Roll is this, that or the other thing, I say, that dogma won't hunt, you know what I mean? It just won't. So that's the kind of thing it is. I think singles are a really good thing, because you can get into a dialogue with things like- Yik Yak, which was aimed at Patti Smith and Judas Priest. I mean he's like, Ya'll think that Rock and Roll is the art form of the present. Well, that's nice.
SL: I guess something a lot of people might not know is that you worked with Robert Rauschenberg in the '70s. What was that like?
MT: Amazing. When I was an art history student at the University of Texas, I attended one of his first exhibitions. It was a great exhibition of his combine paintings, and there was a painting there, magicians hanging there, and it's got this platform out of which comes a little bag hanging under the gauze and it's got this little weight in it. You're looking around and you go chick chick chick, chick and you gotta know what's in that little bag and its bottle caps. I just fell in love with the guy's work and I was really knocked out by it. So I was writing my dissertation thing, and I finally got to meet the guy, and through fortuitous circumstance, I finally wound up working with him, which was really awesome, an inspiration. For my money, he's twentieth century's America's greatest artist. There's a controversy. Is it him or is it Jasper? And I think it's him.
SL: What did you do exactly?
MT: You know, walk the dog, get the dry cleaning, make a movie, and write the introduction to a catalogue. Whatever.
SL: Was he familiar with any of the Red Krayola/Art and Language stuff?
MT: No, no. The thing was, I got involved with Art and Language right around the time I was working with himhe has a foundation called Change Incorporatedand he was kind enough to give us a small grant so that we could get together. Michael Baldwin came from England and he and I sat down and wrote all those tunes for Corrected Slogans together. So he knew about my involvement in music and he was always looking at me, like, Why aren't you out there doing it? What's the matter with you, kid? If I was your age I'd be out there tearing my ass off, you know, that kind of stuff. It was after the solo album, and I'd fallen out of the music business and there was that nine-year period where I didn't do much of anything, but I was making that Art and Language stuff in between and trying to figure out what I thought about it again. Because getting in the music business, at twenty-one, and by twenty-three falling out, completely ruined everything. It seemed strange.
SL: I read something about an unreleased film on Robert Rauschenberg?
MT: We worked on a version of a biography of, you know, one of those art documentaries about him. There was a company in France making a film about him and the director was a guy named Clˇmente whose brother was this actor in Belle du Jour, you know, the one with the golden teeth. Anyway, Mr. Clˇmente started this film and Bob wouldn't let it go out as it sat. And there was some discussion: Well, what do we do? And he said, Do you know anybody who can film because maybe we can do some more parts? And I said, Well, I had some background in film when I was in college: We used to make movies and shit like that. So we rented a movie camera and started shootin' film with Bob reading his aphorisms, like, The only value of a good idea is that it's an excuse to work. Stuff like that. Anyway, we cut our version of the film together and played it in Venice, but it never was released. It was handed on to somebody else, who then made another edit and then another edit. I think it finally came out, but I never saw the end one. I have a version of the one we made on VHS.
SL: Do you think that it will go out for release?
MT: I doubt it. That's one of them business things. And Bob is involved in big business at the level he operates. So you have to be extremely circumspect about these things. But on the other hand, maybe the attitude toward copyright will change to some extent, and then the attitude could maybe accommodate a view of it as just information. If it is seen as missing information, and therefore it would be valid for it to be considered just as some more information about the same thing. We'll see.
SL: Is there anything you wanted to say about the new singles collection?
MT: Ah. It's got twenty-one tracks on it. It started in '68. There's a lot of stuff in it and it's kind of strange to hear it. I characterized it to somebody. I said Dead letters to lost worlds. And so I feel slightly sad when I listen to these tunes because I begin to see them in time in that way. And there's a certain sense of loss or something like that, but then on the other hand. I think to myself, hmmmm, turn on that record, there's still a radio. Who knows? It's never too late. Something could come back and catch the public ear and it could work, so I hold out hope that out of that stuff, some of those singles will catch some ears somewhere and get into the conversation.
SL: I just heard some of them for the first time. I've been playing Yik-Yak constantly.
MT: That's the problem. I mean, I condone the compilation on the grounds that a lot of that stuff is just completely lost. There's no way that I could make those available as a single or something like that ,because there are commercial constraints and it's pointless to make singles if you can't distribute them.
SL: But a lot of these had small distribution?
MT: All of them had small distribution. I mean some of them didn't even get pressed. Some of the things that are on that record were never intended to be singles and therefore I feel vindicated in putting them out. But some of those things never even saw the light of day. So this is the end of the rubric of singles compilations. I can put some songs out there that nobody's ever had any access to. I hope in the long run that, I mean, I had fantasies, of course, that somebody's gonna hear this song or that song and then maybe market it all around the world and then there'd be one of those songs off that record that would hit. That they would connect in some way.
SL: What kind of connection do you want to make?
MT: Listen. I'm playing for all the marbles. Should we get a hit? Gimme. Gimme. Gimme.
SL: So you're not averse to the idea of a hit.
MT: Hell-no. I live for the day. I mean that's not why I play but I live on the hope that they will do their job.
Read another interview by Scott Lockard with Mayo Thompson and Nathan Butler.
Listen to the 80-minute unedited version of the interview on freeradiosaic.org. Just click on the archives tab.
Email Scott Lockard at [email protected] for a full transcript of the interview.