Broad Strokes - An Interview With Red Krayola
Mayo Thompson has fronted the Red Krayola since 1968. The Krayola’s aim of using pop music as a critique of mainstream ideologies has been pervasively influential in the forefront of the counter-cultural movements of any number of successive generations. His involvement in Rough Trade, Drag City, and Leiterwagen, in particular, have shown Thompson’s work to supercede basic musical meaning and proven him a galvanizing force in his social circles; in fact one of the defining threads in Thompson’s work is his conceptual and democratic organization of supporting players.
Yet, Thompson’s work is also obstinately obtuse. There is a complex theoretical framework suggested by the Red Krayola’s music and by Thompson himself. Earlier in their career, songs structured on a time scale of a single second on the unjustly out-of-print Coconut Hotel or in terms of “freeform freakouts” on Parable of Arable Land easily satisfied the Thompson’s criteria of defying popular expectations. Yet, as Thompson matured, the music’s theoretical bent became more knotty. A love-letter solo album, politically and linguistically-charged post-punk records and the deadpanned execution on Thompson’s Drag City work all give the sense of an artist that is incredibly calculating and self-aware.
Rather than clarifying any of the paradoxes set forth by the Red Krayola, Thompson seems heavily involved in further tangling the meaning. His longstanding relationships with Albert Oelhen and Stephen Prina, both conceptual artists in their own right, show a willingness on Thompson’s part to allow his work to become absorbed into a broader artistic milieu, he strategically makes the Red Krayola into a contextual project, an offshoot of the sea of ideas that are being engaged by his contemporaries. In the liner notes to the recent Singles compilation, Thompson hands the ball to Thomas Groetz, who, writing about a particular single, twists and obfuscates the song into a perilously intellectualized exercise:
Through the broken German of Mayo Thompson’s lyrical performance, the absolute strange text of "Rattenmesnsch (Rathuman)" is still being exaggerated in its disconcerting nature. At the same time, this measure takes into consideration that Sigmund Freud wrote in German. The translation of the English lyric, word per word, realizes and comments in a funny way the fact, that Freud’s most famous case study about the “Rattenmann (Ratman)" had manifested and tried to reason one of his central conceptions. That of transfererence: the phenomena of reviving infant feelings in a (therapeutic relationship.
A similar tactic can be found in Rian Murphy’s liner notes to the self-titled Krayola album from ten years prior:
I remember them from start to finish. And there, without missing a beat, autumn, the new Red Krayola album. Welcome one and all to another collection. Let them live alongside in bits and pieces for the likes of man to squabble over. A more than simple story is tantamount to a stack of turtles and all that they survey.
This is a slightly more poeticized example, but shows a similar methodology on the part of Thompson, allowing external sources to imbue his work with a heavily subjective meaning, and thus accentuate the seemingly intentional objectivity of his music.
This recent release of Singles allowed me a chance to ask Thompson about some of the conceptual tactics in his work, and interestingly, they seem to be byproducts of a far more natural process:
Dusted: There's a guitar figure that appears on Kangaroo?'s "1917", on Hazel and Deliverance’s "Boogie", and on the single for "Yik Yak"..."Yik Yak", in turn, has another guitar melody that appears on "If 'S' Is", on the self-titled Krayola record of '94, an album that apparently recycles lyrics written in the 80s. Then there is "(Why) I'm so Blase" on the '94 self-titled record, and "I'm So Blase" on 96's "Hazel". Could you comment on the re-use of material in your work?
Mayo: It’s about as close as I can get to repetition, for the most part. I think about some of the same things that I always have. When I write songs, when I write songs they’re always different from one another. But if I find there are certain elements in common, that continue to make some kind of sense… It depends on the tune, what kind of tune. “If ‘S’” Is..hmm.. I don’t know what kind of tune that is. A weird elaborate kind of joke about brewing beer? I don’t know. Does it disturb in someway?
Meaning? I have no particular meaning. I don’t assign values to things, I don’t just use a motif again, because sometimes, I don’t know..I think after awhile one finds what there is to find. I mean, occasionally something new comes up. I’m try to think of…'What is this motif?'
Thompson hums the motif from “1917” and “Boogie”
Yeah, it’s, you know..I mean, Albert interpreted it on Deliverance, it’s something like “Dueling Banjos”, it participated in a trading of licks. A cross-communication between two cultures. And, so it’s the sign of it, I suppose, is it had a little bit of classical aspect to it, I don’t know, it’s a figure. It came out to be useful because it could be changed by slowing it down, or speeding it up, or playing with whatever..but it was always a piece of introductory material, led up to something else.
I don’t know if that covers it. I don’t know if I can cover it more than that. It’s an interesting thought: Why does one do these things, some things again and again? Something that winds up being a motif, I don’t know. After awhile, one expresses the limits of ones capacity. Maybe it’s just the way I work, because I take time off sometimes, but I come back to things again and I pick it up where I left off… Maybe those things are constant to every session I’ve ever thought, who knows.
About 22 minutes later, Thompson, in the somewhat tangential nature of the interview, returns to the idea:
Some of the motifs, I’m obsessed, I think is a way of looking at it. “I’m so Blasé” is an idea. I can’t give up on this. What else can I say? “I’m deeply concerned”? It just becomes absurd after awhile. “I’m so Blasé” at least sounds sort of silly.
Dusted: Another point of interest, in terms of self-recycling, is the new singles compilation on Drag City. Singles is actually what I believe to be the second career-spanning compilation of your work, after Deliverance on Leiterwagen. Drag City is also issuing another archival release for the Red Krayola with the Japan in Paris in L.A. record, not to mention Drag City's role in releasing previously unissued facets of your work : Coconut Hotel and Ludwig's Law...
Mayo: The world, the way it sits. I don’t know. I’m told that we belong to, that we’re a cult band or something like that, that we’re not exactly mainstream, etc, etc. The “Singles” record represents the idea that one is participating in a conversation, which had its aspects of things that were more assonant, more resonant, or whatever. That one was never left trading in similar material. The idea would be that those things were meant to be. They take the shape of something. You know, there is some imagination about what a hymn might sound like, if it wanted to deal with that kind of material. Which is what people and their long-standing project, trying to take, not just do theater, but to really actually try to give it the proper feeling it has, as one’s experience is felt.
The singles…All the music is made on the premise of popular music. That something is popular, and we should popularize music, trade familiar relations, but maybe turns them around a little bit, tries to add a traditional novelty to it, make the story a little bit fresh in some way. We trade in pretty much the same style of pop we’ve always traded in…some of its topical, some of its philosophical, some of it's generic, some of its amusing, some of its scary. Some is just more entertaining, somehow.
I mean, also, entertaining conflicting, sometimes obviously, and sometimes less obviously conflicting ideas.
Dusted: What would be an example of that?
Mayo: Conflicting ideas? I don’t know. The idea that somehow complexity is a legitimate part of what people generally think and characterize, rather dubiously in my view, what is very simple exercise in writing catchy tunes, for catchy occasions, for catchy people.
Dusted: To move on to a different topic, I was hoping to talk a little bit about the function of the collaborative process in your music...Maybe we could go era-by-era (if you, yourself, see your work in that regard), and discuss the different working methods of your supporting Krayolas, specifically in terms of creative contributions and conflicts.. I find this to be an element interestingly absent from your 90s-era Drag City recordings..There is no clear-cut division of labor, even the covers are unattributed.
Mayo: Yeah, that’s got its advantages and its drawbacks. Closest to the ethos of the people you work with. Group effort. One of the most interesting things is the social aspect. Conversational. Different voices that represent somehow, understandings and appreciations. That’s the bonus of working with an ensemble. As for the uncredited, being more specific about who exactly does what, the distribution of function or something like that, it seems rather pointless in a way. Those conversations like 'who played bass on what?' are heartening, I suppose, for certain purposes. But I don’t think they make much difference in these circumstances, for our purposes.
Dusted: It’s not so much about who played bass, as it is about who contributed what ideas… .
Mayo: Oh absolutely. I come from the improviser side of things. That is, to not tell people what to play, or tell them, sometimes perhaps, to go so far as to suggest something or ask something along specific lines. But in general not to, perhaps sometimes to write something down, but not always.
In general, open to the possibility that sort of player interacting in some unique way that will astound and fill one with wonder, that kind of thing. Trust in the sense of rightness of the other person, the other player, even if it’s not what I would play, that it’s ok anyway, as it stands.
As long as it’s generated by the design of the experiments, so to speak..what’s allowed…it’s pretty open. As long it feels right, we operate by feel.
Dusted: Does that contradict the more conceptual aspects of the music?
Mayo: Well, it is because of what we’re making. Music lives and dies on the basis of feel.
Dusted: You’ve described the Red Krayola as a company rather than a band, this also suggests a sort of emotive detachment to me.
Mayo: A small company. It’s a company. It’s people who participate in a sharing of profits. It has a social aspect in terms of the way it’s played out, but it’s a small company. I mean, most bands are, aren’t they?
Dusted: What would be a typical process for how you go about recording an album?
Mayo: Sometimes there will be some idea for a song, some shape, some definite sort of changes, or some lyrics, or something like that, or some melody, some starting point, something to get the ball rolling, a photo? between two people.
These are the possibilities, it can go this way, this way, or this way. “What do you think?” and you play that together, and you see what it becomes. And in the process that’s where the feel comes, always wanting to synthesize these two understandings, these three or four understandings. There’s always a time element involved in the recording studios as well. There will be that which is done “live” , there are audio tracks, something like that. Two guitars and the drums. One voice with guitar and drums. The basic tracks, so to speak. So comes the possibility of adding things later on.
Recently, Thompson has been in the process of finishing what “under some premises” is a solo album involving support from a number of German Free Jazz players. The Red Krayola is touring Japan, France, Italy, Germany, and England and preparing a new EP of cover songs tentatively titled Taking the Hits Away for release in March. Also promised for the near future: a reissue of Soldier Talk. Hopefully, Drag City will also continue their project repressing Dexter’s Cigar and bring back some of the other Krayola circa 70's classics that have slipped away in recent years.
By Matt Wellins