Perfect Sound Forever


Mayo and the Corky band at the Hammer Museum, L.A.
Photo by Sarah M Golonka, courtesy of Drag City

Red Krayola, Adorno, Beavis & Butthead
Interview Part II by Jason Gross

When we left off last time with singer/guitarist/author/conceptualist Mayo Thompson. co-founder of Red Krayola/Crayola, Pere Ubu band member and solo artist as of late, he was chatting about his recent revival of his 1970 solo album Corky's Debt To His Father, his Ubu years and his work with the Rough Trade label as a producer and collaborator with many of the artists there.

For the second/last part of the interview, in the middle of an airport with an infant screaming the background, Thompson goes through a backwards chronology of his work, talking about his Art & Language collaborators, the 1960's band he hung out with, how Krayola stunned a crowd and picked out the best 'freak outs' for their debut, his love of philosophers Theodor Adorno and Beavis & Butthead and how mis mom influenced his outlook.

Many thanks to Drag City who've been stalwart with reissuing and chronicling Thompson's work.

PSF: You were talking before about Art & Language. How/when did you first meet up with them and what kind of kinship do you think you developed with them?

MT: They've always had great usage of language. Michael Baldwin, from my point of view, he's like Shakespeare. He can whack it out in any shape or any color or any length you like. And he's very good. And Mel Ramsden is very good too. And so, they were easy to work with and compared to the other people I know, you could have a conversation with them. America... there is something funny about America, which is, I don't know what it is but... in those days, it was a noted difference between the attitude towards politics, sociology. And those guys just appealed to me. I liked the way those guys and the way they worked, the way they thought and they way that they moved. And they did. It was easy to get associated 'cause I met them and they asked me what I did and I told them and I said, "you have any ideas for lyrics? Send me some and I'll put them to music." They thought it over and decides that it was a decent strategy... it was a parallel strategy to their visual work 'cause it was a use of language in a slightly different register.

So three months after I met them, they said "I got three lyrics for songs." "Ergastulum"- "to increase your income out of nothing/You've got to have privacy at home," that one. And "The Mistakes of Trotsky" [both on Corrected Slogans, 1976] was also there. And that rung my bell because of politics. When I met them, I was really getting deeper into politics. I had been politicized to some extent and that increased the intensity of it. I was talking about, thinking about what I was really anxious about and happy to know about. So, the use of terms like 'mediation.' I'd never thought about Adorno. I didn't know who Adorno was. I mean, I heard his name so I read it. They just put me in touch with an approach to that kind of stuff that wasn't available to anybody else.

PSF: So when was it that you met them originally?

MT: Maybe '71, '72. We're at the airport and it's very loud here...

PSF: That's fine, I get that. Could I ask a few more things?

MT: Sure. [inquisitively] What else do you have on your mind...?

PSF: For Coconut Hotel [the 2nd Krayola album recorded in 1967, released in 1995], what was the thinking behind have seconds-long songs there?

MT: Those are the shortest, most compressed unit of musical structure available. I think I liked the formal aspect, the idea of equalitating the character of those pieces. With Red Krayola, with [drummer Frederick] Barthelme and I, by the time we made Parable [their 1967 debut] and then we made Coconut and [at] the gigs, we played noise, effectively, though it would later be called 'noise music' but.. I think we were the last band on earth that raised the question, "is that music?" And that was fun, to do that. Although, we made a blunder or two. On July the 4th, we were standing onstage in front of 5000, 6000 people and we played this noise music. What we should have played was "War Sucks."

PSF: [laughs] That would have been great!

MT: After having the noise concert, we should have, playing something that everybody would have understood right away. No problem. And if you listen to the Live '67 album, while we were playing at that particular gig, the DJ who was broadcasting didn't understand [what we were doing] so he was vamping, like he was doing us a favor, saying that there was something wrong and it couldn't possibly be what was really happening. [laughs] And then finally somebody explained what was happened. After we came offstage, Richie Havens came up and said to us, "man, that poor guy did NOT know what you were doing. Nobody knows what you were doing." [laughs] We enjoyed meeting him- for us, he was the star of the festival. It was fantastic- there was Doc Watson there too. It was quite extraordinary. It was a real folk festival [Berkeley Folk Festival]. Janis Ian was the hero of the day.

PSF: Back in the '60's, did the Krayola have a connection with any other bands then?

MT: When we played out there on the West Coast, we got to meet Canned Heat, who I liked very much. I mean, I made fun of them about playing blues but it was just joking. When they came to Houston one time, we all went out together to hear Albert King play guitar one night. The leader of band was drinking a bottle of beer and those were good guys. [Adolfo "Fito"] de la Parra the drummer and Al Wilson was still alive. So we liked Canned Heat- we were friendly with them.

I was friendly with some players, particularly Bary Melton, the guitar played with Country Joe and the Fish. And we got along with the United States of America [early electronic band]. We shared a rehearsal space and [leader/composer/keyboardist] Joe Byrd was one of the best people I ever met. And Dorthy Moskowitz, great singer. It was fun being in the rehearsal studio with them and listening to them put this band together. Joe said "if you could sight read, I would invite you to play guitar in the band." But I can't sight read.

PSF: That would have been interesting.

MT: It would have been fun. Who else..? I'm trying to think.. I mean, I like lots of different kinds of music. But I'm not critical of what other people do. Even if it seems old fashioned or whatever. I think that if it moves you, then it's good enough for me. Do you like Beavis and Butthead?

PSF: Yeah. What about them?

MT: Do you know where Beavis makes fun of Butthead and says [in the Beavis voice] "Uh huh, you were moved!" [laughs]

PSF: That's a good one! Didn't know you were a fan of them, but you're definitely very broad ranged.

MT: They're some of the smartest, funniest American humor that I know of.

PSF: Really?

MT: Oh, absolutely!

PSF: Maybe you could do an album with them or collaborate with Mike Judge [who created the show]?

MT: Oh, Mike Judge doesn't need me. He's doing fine. [laughs] His show about the butane salesman...

PSF: Sure, King of the Hill!

MT: Another brilliant one.

PSF: It is!

MT: They have a character in there who [imitates mumbling]...

PSF: Yeah, that's Boomhauer.

MT: Right, and only the people in the cartoon understand him but the people who watch the cartoon don't have a clue of what he's talking about.

PSF: But that's why it's so brilliant!

MT: It just makes me laugh. The whole idea.

PSF: Almost done here and back to more mundane things... What kind of music did you love even before you yourself starting playing music?

MT: [pauses] The first record I ever bought was a 7" of Chopin's "Ballade." But what I liked as a kid was rock and roll, black rock and roll. In the '50's, white rock and roll was not moving, not interesting at all. But Little Richard, Chuck Berry- that's the kind of stuff I liked. And jazz- I liked Louis Armstrong, all my life long. And then I discovered Miles Davis. And then I heard Albert Ayler. I liked all that stuff. I like classical music, I like everything. A little bit of this and a little bit of that, right?

PSF: Your mom was an art teacher I believe?

MT: Yes, she taught art and English in the Houston school district system at the high school level. After a while, she stopped teaching art and taught only English.

PSF: Do you think that her work had an effect on your sensibility or how you saw art?

MT: Um, I'm sure it did but I can't put my finger on how it would have except that one learns from one's parents. My mother had very exquisite taste- she was a very modern woman. She had lots of good ideas and she had good furniture and lots of this and that- well designed bits and pieces she found. And she had a good aesthetic sensibility. So I was there and I just profited from soaking it up, without having to think about it.

PSF: For Parable, how did you pick out the best sections to use from those 'freak out' sessions?

MT: The first thing we recorded was the freak outs and we had two 1-inch tapes so you know, we had an hour's worth of freak out. And we just sat in the control room with [engineer] Walt Andrus and picked the bits that we thought worked best. And [producer] Leland Rogers was there as well- he was a good producer from our point of view or at least my point of view. He registered our strengths and our weaknesses. He helped us put together a decent record. And when he told us what his idea was, we just looked at each other and we said 'this is going to be fine' 'cause it was exactly what our idea was. And our friends The Familiar Ugly played an important part.

PSF: Were you part of the mixing process for the album or have any say in that?

MT: Yes. It was recorded in mono and Wal Andrus mixed it. At the time, we were a little 'gee, why didn't he record it this way or that way...?' But in the long run, I'm thrilled with what he did. And he's a wonderful dude and I loved working with him. He referred to me as "the master of the 'genrer's'," which he meant 'genres.' I can simulate and that's one of my talents- without playing exactly the same thing, I can get the effect, the feel and the mood of a kind of music which I'm not exactly playing but I can get that feel from it. And I can play and I can write music and read music but I also love improvisation.

PSF: What are you planning to do next?

MT: We're going to make a new 'Corky' album. We're going to record in January. It might be called Corky Returns. And for my music, I went back through some of my work tapes from '81 and found some guitar stuff that we're going to base everything around. And I'll write some new lyrics around it. I like to improvise lyrics. I don't have the need to have everything written down. I trust myself and my intuition. I leave as many things open as possible.

PSF: Do you have any particular all-time favorite albums?

MT: Oh god, I can't do that. I mean, desert island discs is never a game I was interested in playing 'cause I would never be able to narrow it down. 'Which Miles Davis record do I like the best?' Gosh, I don't know. There's lots of them. [laughs] I like most of what Miles Davis did. When I was in high school, that's what I listened to. I bought Coltrane's first records. My classmates were not listening to that kind of music. But... I don't know this one.

Let me think of one record that I would be sorry not to have. [pauses] Black Orpheus. [Antonio] Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfa [the composers of the soundtrack]. I mean, I love that music. That samba music- I like that a lot. That's a record I wouldn't mind hearing again and again.

Mayo and the Corky band at the Hammer Museum, L.A.
Photo by Sarah M Golonka, courtesy of Drag City

Also see...

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

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER