Photo by Maria Vogelauer, courtesy of Drag City
Red Krayola, Pere Ubu, Rough Trade & more converge
Interview by Jason Gross, Part 1
Someone like guitarist/singer/songwriter Mayo Thompson could have easily rested on his laurels as co-founder of Texas psychedelic art band Red Crayola, later as Red Krayola when the crayon people protested. But after the band broke up, he created the remarkably unique 1970 solo album Corky's Debt to His Father, which about 50 years later was revived by a series of L.A. and New York shows in the last few years. In between then, he revived Krayola, teaming up not only with Art & Language (a UK conceptual art group) but also the post-punk Rough Trade records collective as a producer but also gathering members of the bands there for Krayola recordings. He also joined fabled 'avant-garage' band Pere Ubu in the early '80's to tour and record with them for a few years. In the '90's and early 2000's, he found other kindred spirits with the likes of post-rock mavens from Gastr Del Sol and Tortoise, whose members also joined the Krayola collective. Along with the 'Corky' gigs, last June, he rejoined Ubu for a special L.A. show alongside other guests Wayne Kramer (MC5) and Drew Feldman (Captain Beefheart, the Residents and another former Ubu member), not to mention a pair of books that he's recently written.
Here, in the first part of this interview (done in December 2023, the day after a 'Corky' gig in NYC), Thompson manages to touch on most of the above and more, including his love of classic rock icons and abstract painters and his views on religion.
Corky was recently reissued by Drag City, along with the recent live album that he did based on the record.
PSF: Why did you decide to revive Corky now for the live dates?
MT: A friend had suggested that it would be a decent idea and I hadn't thought about it ever. And it just came up. That was like four years ago. It was a man I knew who was in California and he came here and I met him. The first thing he suggested that I do was to perform the Corrected Slogans LP at the REDCAT Theater in L.A. And that went well. We sold out the house. And then he suggested that he could get us a gig at Le Poisson Rouge with the "Corky" band and he introduced me to two players, a drummer [Yahya Alkhansa] and a trombone player [Salmak Kahledi] that were in a band with him. And when they came into it, two other people came [Lina Tullgren, keyboards, violin; Doug Tuttle, bass]. It's a case of a lot of musicians that I've known over the years. Two or three said that "if you ever do anything with that album, I would like to play in that ensemble." And also Tom Watson who I'd been working with for years. He played in the first go, with the new 'Corky' band and now he's busy with other things so we have another guitar player named Connor Gallaher.
And again, it was because this guy put it together and we found it to be feasible three or four years ago. We sold out the gig and got offers from promoters, suggesting that we play European tours. But we went back to L.A. and then in January, we played at the Hammer Museum in L.A. and the house was full. And then... came COVID. So nothing has happened until this year because of that. And the bottom fell out of the music business. But the band was put together and.. This band [Krayola] does not draw well. People don't have an attraction to it but people find Corky more appealing. I mean, some people like both Red Krayola and Corky and all of it. Some people don't even know anything except Corky. So Corky is the more approachable piece of business, from my side I guess. It's more accessible.
PSF: So did you consciously see this album as something you wanted to do that was different from Krayola?
MT: Well, Krayola is a kind of a project. We started off a two-piece- [drummer] Frederick Barthelme and I. Later, we had [bassist Steve] Cunningham and two other people. And then we got into a different situation and two of them fell out so it was a trio of Cunningham, Barthelme and I. And then Barthelme quit and then Cunningham so the band was over. And then I heard from the record company, "would you make another record?" And I said, "yes I would." So I went back to Texas and got together with Cunningham and we made that God Bless record. Then nothing happened there. It never did business, right? It didn't sell. The first album sold copies. They told me early on, it was 35,000 copies. It must have gone on to sell more so that's why they asked me to come back and do a second record. But the second record didn't do business. So the band fell apart. And that was the end of it.
And then I went to England in 1977 and I had been working on a record with Art & Language where I was writing the music. And I was working with [drummer] Jesse Chamberlin. And so Red Krayola has taken shape in so many different ways. And I'm just one of them. And the difference between the two, between the discourses I would say is this- in the Red Krayola, "I" does not mean Mayo nor [anyone else], but in Corky, when I say "I," I mean "me." I'm speaking in the first person. That was an important difference for me and it changes the feel of that one and how I perform the songs- if it's abstract or personal. That's the difference between them. And I have always hoped that I do make money. I didn't just get into this business just for my amusement. I'm not prepared to die to make a record- it's a business. I want a record that sells and I'm always trying to sell records. I'm always working so that's a game I play, right?
PSF: To go back a little, Corky does seem like a more person album and also a bit influenced by cabaret music. Do you see it that way?
MT: No, I don't. I don't have anxiety about influence. If I go in a certain direction, I own up to it and say so. I don't try to take credit for anything that I didn't do. The things I did take credit for, I did it. And that's how it works.
And it is a personal record. It's a 'solo album' That's what they called them back in the day. I mean, it's not really a solo album. Paul McCartney maybe made a solo album [McCartney, 1970] where they gave him a tape recorder and he made all the pieces himself, played all the drum parts and played all this, that and the other. That would be legitimately, absolutely a solo album. But it just so happens that Corky just has my name on it. It doesn't have a band name on it. And that's why when we brought it back.. I mean the thing is on Corky is that there are some consistent players there but there are only two or three players that are on every tune. So it's also a put-together band. But there is a legitimate Corky band and these people who are playing with me now are really crack musicians. We played well- we had a good night last night.
PSF: Sadly, I missed last night but I saw you with Krayola when David Grubbs was in the band, playing the Knitting Factory in NYC .
MT: Oh yeah. That was a fun night. We had John McEntire playing drums.
PSF: Yeah, that was quite a group. What was your impression of that line-up?
MT: That band, that line-up was great fun. I mean, to look to my left and see the expression on John McEntire's face while he's looking at me with his tongue hanging out was crazy. [laughs] Everything that I did, he was tuned in, dialed in on it. He got everything done. I mean, he's one of the best players I've ever... I shouldn't say one of the best- they've all been great. But he's a fabulous drummer.
And also, I don't know if you're familiar with the Krayola record but... what was it called... I'm forgetting the damned name of the record [ED NOTE: maybe Introduction, 2006]... But he [McEntire] played synthesizer on it as well. He's a multi-talent. You know, he's got a PhD in music from some East Coast music school. And Grubbs knows his onions as well. Grubbs is great on piano and it was fun to play with him for a while. But that wore off, I must say because he and I.. his guitar style and my guitar style are really at odds. He's always on the beat. And me? I drift here, I drift there and get a little ahead of it, so I feel it and how I feel this type of lyric is how I play the guitar.
PSF: For the Five American Portraits  record, which is extraordinary, could you talk about your choice of subjects for that?
MT: I like that record very much. That's a funny record. We had a lot of fun making that. That was made in... somewhere in London. The idea was that Art & Language gave me texts, which are those texts that you hear, which are descriptions of the features of the people who are spoken of. It's kind of a strange way of making a kind of portrait of these people. And Art & Language chose the people who they wanted to talk about and wrote the lyrics. And me, being as I am, I just took it and set it to music and did what I could to make it happen.
There's a funny one, the Ad Reinhardt tune. Nobody that I know of or.. I haven't read anyone who has caught the joke of the thing, which is a Mozart piano concerto in D and which is in the bassline. Do you know who Ad Reinhardt was?
PSF: Yeah, the abstract painter.
MT: Right, so he painted black paintings. So the joke is that the bassline, which is in the Mozart piece and goes "da-da-da-da-da da-da-da-da da-da-da... I see a red door and I want to paint it black..."
PSF: Didn't notice that before. Very clever.
MT: But if you listen to it. Listen to the concerto and listen to the left hand and maybe it doesn't go as fast as I'm suggesting but that is the thing. And Brian Jones I believe wrote that music. And he was a different musical force in the Stones than Keith obviously, and Mick. He had a different attitude towards things and different ideas and so on. And I think it was he who started that band in the first place.
PSF: Yeah, that's true. He did.
MT: So there was that part of it as well- the thought that it had something to do with Brian Jones. And you know, the Stones are untouchable, just fabulous.
PSF: Could we go back further with your work that had touched on before?
MT: You can go ahead and ask what you like.
PSF: You were talking before about when you were working with Rough Trade records in the late 70's and early 80's. What kind of kinship did you find with the label and the artists there?
MT: I mean, a lot of those people I worked with were there.. Gina Birth from the Raincoats played with me. Lora Logic played with me. Epic Soundtracks was a Swell Map. I got to know a lot of different players working in the studio and some of them wound up working with me. Whenever I meet a good player, by and by, I don't care where they come from. If they're willing to work, I might have something to do with them. And working at Rough Trade was tremendous fun. Working on those records and watching them actually happen and the business. The English have a... I don't know if you know this but in Britain, they have something like a coherent culture. A shared culture. And their businesses are organized. In America, everything's like regional or local. There's some national stuff but there is not one American culture, as far as I'm concerned. And there's nothing you could appeal to, nothing that's characteristically American. There are American-sounding idioms and such, but no, that's not the point. I don't know how to characterize it but Rough Trade was very effective. They had it going from a distribution sort of outlet for indie records to a major player in that game. And they and Geoff Travis are still in business, I think.
PSF: Yeah, they are. Was there anything in particular that you learned or picked up from your time at Rough Trade? You seemed to be alluding to that before.
MT: My relationship to existence is always learning. And I don't like making mistakes and I don't like making them twice. So if I find I'm doing something and I get a chance to learn something or something dawns on me about the whole process for some reason I don't even know and I learn something that I didn't know before, and it comes to me, I change. I'm always modifying my behavior.
Corky band at the Hammer museum; photo by Sara M. Golonka, courtesy of Drag City
PSF: When you joined Pere Ubu, what did you see as your connection to the band?
MT: Pere Ubu, from my perspective, were the first American band that I got to know at all. When I got back into the business, I got to know them. And we [Red Krayola] opened for them, [drummer] Jesse Chamberlin and I at some point and a number of times. And then the came to the UK and they played their first album, The Modern Dance, and came and toured it and it went very well. They came back and they had a deal with Chrysalis or someone like that and they had another album, New Picnic Time, and we supported them on some dates, promoting that record. And then I got a call from them when [guitarist] Tom Herman quit the band. They called and they didn't know what to do for a while and then they thought it over and said "well, let's ask Mayo to play the guitar." So David invited me to come into the band when I had been observing them from without and knowing them. I saw how they were and being on tour with them, I got to understand the psychology of the band.
They were strange... there I am using that word again. They've a very particular kind of people. I wasn't even sure that they even liked each other. David Thomas is an amazing guy but... I have to be careful about what I say about him because he got in touch with me, not long ago, about last spring and he wanted to do an interview with me for some kind of radio show he's got and then next thing I know, he invited me to play a show in Los Angeles with him. It was the first time I heard from him in 30 years! So I went and played [June 22, 2023 Ubu L.A. gig]. And he's more volatile than ever.
And before that, I had, what I thought was, a friendly relationship with [Ubu synth player] Allen Ravenstine. Turns out I was wrong... 'cause there was a guy named Alex Perrish who did a zine about Kangaroo?  and he got in touch with Ravenstine and interviewed him. And Ravenstine said that he didn't remember anything and nobody ever told him what to do. His take on it and what he was prepared to say about it was like... "Hm, so that's how you've been thinking about it?" I was taken aback because I really, sincerely thought we were friendly, but we weren't. And I invited him to play one time. We went up and had a band in L.A. and we had three gigs lined up with one in Spaceland and one in San Francisco. So I invited him to come and play and said "come to L.A. and bring your synthesizers to L.A." So he came and we played this thing and he only played two of the shows instead of three and he went home. And then I read somewhere in a magazine that he said that he wasn't pleased with the playing. I was like, "OK, now I know where I stand after all of these years." I know I usually don't talk about it, except to you I'm talking about it. And there's nothing to it- sometimes things just don't work out.
PSF: That's a shame to hear about Kangaroo?. I love that album. It's so funny and odd and poignant and unique.
MT: Thank you very much. I think Ravestine... I know how he doesn't understand or doesn't want to realize or claim what he did, because what he did on that record, I loved it. I mean, the effects were perfect for every song. I never had to say to him, "why don't we have something along this line or that line?" He always had a good imagination. He went with something and it worked. And I don't know what it was... maybe he just didn't like me. I don't know what it was but it just fell apart. That happens sometimes. And I think David Thomas and Allen Ravenstine, they're friends. And David had issues with Scott Krauss and then Scott Krauss was out of the band and on the album The Song of the Bailing Man was Anton Fier instead. But Anton... Ravenstine talks about how Anton had no respect for me. And you know... SO WHAT?
PSF: Going back to Kangaroo?, that was the second time you worked with the Rough Trade artists on Krayola?
MT: No, it was the first time I worked with them on an album. And we also had a terrific bass player [Ben Annesley, from Essential Logic], who was a soul boy from London, who knew funk and jazz and all that, and he played with us. He didn't enjoy the music very much but he played it and he was perfect for what I wanted. Like you listen to him playing on the first song on the album and you say, "that's an interesting combination of sounds." So he added something.
It was good fun making the record. We made it in Dennis Bovell's studio, "Blackbeard." Geoff [Travis] and I produced it. And I thought Art & Language's lyrics were impeccable. That's the other thing that I like to do- I like setting language to music. I don't necessarily have to write the lyrics to everything that I do.
PSF: Could you talk a bit more about working with Epic Soundtracks and Lora Logic working on that record [Kangaroo?] and otherwise?
MT: With Epic, I had a really strong friendship... Maybe friendship is the wrong word. I had a cordial relation that was ongoing with the Swell Maps. They liked me, I liked them. I thought their music was very funny and I enjoyed their energy. And when Jesse [Chamberlin, drummer] left, I needed a drummer and he [Epic] was ready to do it. So he played drums for us. His hero was Jaki Leibzeit [of Can]. His brother Nikki [Sudden, also of Swell Maps] one time said "I don't think Mayo likes music very much." He might have even said, "I think Mayo hates music," and there's a certain truth in that. I have my reservations about things. And Nikki was the kind of guy who wore lace gloves and he'd carry around a little wine glass, which he drank from- he was a character. And Epic was a hardcore music fan. He loved music and he loved to play. He was fun to work with for a while. And after a while, we fell out, I mean he fell out with me. I just looked up at him and saw a look in his face and he had changed. I thought, "Hm, what happened?"
And Lora and I remained as friendly as people who hadn't talked to each other in years and years and years. I think the world of her. I think her vocal on [Red Krayola's] "Born in Flames"... [laughs] I mean, her vocals on all those records... She's great and she also plays the saxophone very well. I didn't have to ask her [anything], she came with parts and she was fun to work with. And she had asked if I could play guitar in her band [Essential Logic], which I did for a while. But it got to the point where I couldn't play the arrangements exactly and I didn't want to let her down so I just suggested that she try something else. But she was important - she was the first to join the band from Rough Trade when it was just Jesse and I and we made Soldier-Talk . Jesse said "I know a saxophone player." I think she was 16 or 18, real young. So she came and she played and everything was cool. And then when we went on tour, we invited her and she came and it was Jesse and Lora and I and we opened for Pere Ubu. And we went on tour on our own when Soldier Talk came out.
She's into Krishna consciousness, which is a discipline that I do not partake of. I'm not looking for those kinds of solutions. To those who need them or want them, OK. Go, go, go. It's not my business.
TO BE CONTINUED...
Also see our article on Red Crayola's debut album
And yet another article on The Parable of Arable Land
And our article on God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It
And our 2007 article on and interview with Mayo Thompson