The Red Krayola with
Art & Language | Five American Portraits (Drag City)
forward edge of the downturned surface of the left ear. The right temple
between cheek and eyebrow. A bit of fur at the lower extreme right of the
cheek. The lower edge of the left eyebrow. The lower edge of the left
eyelid of Wile E. Coyote."
The Red KrayolaÕs Five American Portraits consists of five
written and musicalized depictions of iconic figures: Wile E. Coyote,
George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, John Wayne and abstract expressionist painter
Ad Reinhardt. These impressions are literal descriptions of what these
characters look like; the instrumental backdrops are drawn from familiar
and characteristic music, such as Bo Diddley's "Road Runner"
coloring in Wile E. Coyote, or quotes from the University of Texas theme
song "The Eyes of Texas" propping up the portrait of George W.
Bush; a bit of "Dixie" cues the scene for Jimmy Carter, and a
snatch of "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" sheds illumating light
on good olÕ John Wayne.
Mayo Thompson is the
main mind behind the infamous avant-psychedelic abstractionist-rock what
have you combo Red Krayola. For this new album he worked with Art &
Language, the English conceptual art team whoÕve collaborated with Thompson
on more outwardly avant-garde albums as Kangaroo?, Corrected Slogans, Black Snakes
Trapped by Liars. Five American Portraits features the drumming of Alex
Dower of mad metal maestros Victim; pianist Tom Rogerson of Three Trapped
Tigers; French brass improviser Q; Slovenly guitarist Tom Watson; some bass
work by the formerly ubiquitous Jim OÕRourke; more bass and resonantly
stagy vocal work courtesy the RaincoatsÕ Gina Birch; and clever piano,
sundry guitar and humorously matter-of-fact vocals by the one and only Mayo
In a recent phone conversation from his home in Los Angeles, Thompson gave
me some insight into the how, why & etc. of making ŅaccessibleÓ music thatÕs like
a gift that keeps on giving, just like that painting of Uncle Herbert over the fireplace.
BLUEFAT:I like this new Red
called Five American Portraits.
not an EP, itÕs an LP.
is it that long?
is by my standards. But I come from a school where the LP the ideal was 18
minutes a side.
too, actually. Okay, itÕs an LP, then. So, I like this idea of these almost
ŠŠ almost ŠŠ literal portraits of iconic figures. The lyrics describe these
individualsÕ physical characteristics. So itÕs just funny, in a way: I was
expecting one of these heavy-duty, Nonesuch-style ŅportraitsÓ of the artist
that reeks with deep lyrical analysis of the subjectsÕ souls and psyches.
not familiar with what youÕre talking about. There is no analysis of the
character in these lyrics. There is a certain familiarity which comes
through the music which will put them in their worlds, so to speak.
gave you the idea to approach these ŅportraitsÓ as, well, portraits?
& Language gave me the idea to do it. TheyÕve been known for making
portraits, and they had written these descriptions; we had done a lot of
work together over the years, and it occurred to me that I would like to
put it to music.
you have a problem with lyrics in general, or say when lyricists deal in
weighty themes? Does it ring hollow to you? Or am I projecting a bit?
do you mean?
mean, the idea that putting words to music in this case would be just a
description of what weÕd literally see if we looked at them, rather than a
scholarly probe of the charactersÕ minds, mores, politics, etc.
have made a practice, IÕve boasted, that I can put anything to music.
is the music for each character appropriate? For the portrait of George W.
Bush, for example?
all derived from Texas material.
isnÕt it, how weÕre forced to really think about Bush, through your description in
detail of how he looks. ItÕs kind of like reading a book, these meticulous
very happy to hear you say that. That sounds exactly like what weÕd have
that I enjoy thinking in detail about Bush, but it was very effective that
music is only partly about enjoyment.
sort of directives did you give your musicians? LetÕs say on the Jimmy
Carter track ŠŠ were they bringing in their own oblique impressions of this
icon you were describing?
inevitably have some understanding of things, and things are mediated in
terms of their understanding. I do instruct musicians; IÕll occasionally
say to somebody, ŅPlease donÕt do that,Ó or something along these lines.
But in this case the music is very simple and direct; it doesnÕt involve
unusual concepts Š I mean, there is some improvisation, of course, but this
music doesnÕt entail our usual commitments to improvisation; itÕs not in
the foreground here in the way that perhaps it is on other records, where
part of the point would be, ŅI got an idea, what do you think of it?Ó ŅHow
do you respond to this?Ó and so on.
In this case, it was
all very straightforward. There were the characters, and there was the
material which was the background of their portraits, and it was a question
of making soundscapes, to use that word. There definitely were ideas, and the music was derived
from material that is in some cases quite familiar. And since the
references are all listed on the record, itÕs quite obvious what is what;
if youÕre not familiar with the references, you can see what weÕre talking
About the vocal
interpretations, Gina Birch and I had worked a lot together over the years,
and GinaÕs understanding of whatÕs at stake is always very thorough and
complete. I never ask her to sing it this way or that way. Her
understanding of it is just right to me.
Ad Reinhardt track is very pointillist, musically.
Reinhardt was a very abstract kind of painter.
thereÕs a little joke there. That was a little joke with ŅPaint It Black.Ó
does Mozart figure into that?
always painted black. Duh duh duh duh duh duh dun. If you hear that motif in
the first piano part, the solo piano, thatÕs MozartÕs Sonata in D; and the
second part is a section of MozartÕs Sonata in D. Now, Mozart repeats
section one and he repeats section two and so on as he does these pieces;
he plays them once and formulates the ideas, then he plays them for you
again in the second section. We dropped the repetition, and went from
section one straight to section two; when section two kicks in, the motif
in the left hand changes to that thing that Brian Jones or whoever wrote
ŅPaint It BlackÓ mustÕve heard the same way I did. I heard that Mozart piece
and I heard the left hand and I thought, Huh! ThatÕs ŅPaint It Black,Ó and
I derived mental pictures of ŅPaint It Black.Ó So itÕs kind of a piece of
literalism, if you like. A little bit of a piece of joke.
and what are Art & Language?
started off in the Ō60s, theyÕre conceptual artists, and if you look Ōem up
on the web youÕll find a ton of information ŠŠ although Wikipedia is full
of disinformation. But then, I think we all accept that disinformation is
part of the information these days. Art & Language exhibit works,
theyÕre video artists, and theyÕve also written for years in this journal Art
which is no longer published very often. And weÕve been collaborating since
the Õ70s, quite a long time.
youÕre working with longtime, familiar collaborators, did the tracks on Five American Portraits come
together with ease? What was the process?
Art & Language sent me the lyrics, that is, they sent me what became
the lyrics, which was the text of these works they were making for an
exhibition. They sent me the text, and I sat and thought about it for a
while, and I had Õem for three or four months, and they stewed in the back
of my brain like things do. Then I had an opportunity to go into the studio
and I thought, Okay, IÕm gonna record this stuff, as I finally had enough
ideas to put it together. So I went to London and we went to the studio and
spent three or four days and recorded all this material. We finally got
around to mixing it a year later, and then it came out three or four months
after that. So itÕs been in the mill for quite a while.
These pictures or
images are details that are described in the text, and they became the
lyrics. It was just a case of trying to figure out what to do. In the past,
we have written things ŠŠ for example with the record Kangaroo, there were questions of
trying to take seriously the idea of socialism, and what one would assume
about an artist whoÕs committed to a socialist program: How would that
work? What would that be?
In the song ŅKangaroo,Ó the title turns out
to be an Aborigine word for ŅWhat did you say?Ó It comes from Captain Cook
and his men in the South Seas. They go to Australia and they capture what
we call a kangaroo now; so somebody goes ashore to find out what the name
of this creature is, and they walk up to an Aborigine and say, ŅWhat is
this animal called?Ó And the Aborigine says ŅKangaroo?Ó The sailor says
thank you and he walks off.
The Aborigine said,
ŅWhat did you say?Ó He didnÕt say the name of that creature. It was called
something else by the Aborigines. And this question gets to be the name of
the thing. The song retells the story of that, and then tells the story of
a Labour Party member, Michael Foot, based on a photograph of him visiting
a prison, and holding in his hands a model made by a prisoner entirely out
of matches. Then thereÕs something based on a description of a Socialist
Realist mosaic, and I have a tractor driver and a milk maid, and so on and
So itÕs just embracing
these various ideas and trying to negotiate those ideas in terms of pop
idiom, letÕs say, into the idea of making accessible, pleasing music.
you have a decidedly different history with Red Krayola.
come from America, a more chewed-up, mangled history, and itÕs not very
coherent in the way that British history is coherent. ItÕs not the
representation of one people, but a group of people trying to live in
relation to a concept, with a constitution or something like that, where
things are written down and youÕre bound by an idea.
ItÕs the meeting of
these two cultural approaches. A lot of our culture, of course, is derived
from the British history, we have similar relations to capital punishment,
imperialism and slavery, etc. And our economy is derived from the same
directions as well. And so we have a kind of a conversation thatÕs been
going on with each other for years and years, and it continues.
you were putting music to these Five American Portraits, you had to have been concerned
with not being too literal musically with it. There must have been ideas
rejected as a tad obvious.
not afraid of the obvious, not in the least. I donÕt have any established
commitments, I donÕt have any school of thought that I belong to in terms
of music; I like all kinds of music and I dislike all kinds of music. To
me, music is an instrumentality for putting ideas into play. ItÕs not about
only entertainment, although entertainment plays an important role in it.
And accessibility of ideas? ItÕs about putting things in play, really. If I
come to a musician and say, ŅI got this, what do you think about it?Ó and
they play something, IÕll say okay. I accept things. And I accept what
people say about things.
edifying to read the albumÕs descriptions of your chosen icons. ItÕs fun,
was my fondest wish that people would find something to enjoy in it, and
that it would work in the ways that music can, which is some kind of mutual
relationship where something like emotions are aroused. Those are not
really emotions, but they are tied to things which we describe in terms of
emotion. TheyÕre sensations, like physical sensations. The phenomenology of
music is that kinda stuff. You throw in the relation of lyrics, and it
focuses the mind in relationship to these two ideas and you get a good
dialectic going there.
We trade in the pop
idiom a lot, and pop songs are kind of disposable things, last yearÕs model
is last yearÕs model ŠŠ whatÕs new, whatÕs next, all that sort of stuff
plays a role. But part of the aim with this record is to make something
that would withstand a number of listenings and will continue to unfold
over the years. As a personÕs life goes, so goes their relationships to
things that they enjoy. When youÕre listening to some record when youÕre 20,
itÕs one thing; when you listen to it when youÕre 50, itÕs something else,
maybe. One would like to make things that would survive that process.
like a painted portrait.
kinds of objects do survive. ItÕs remarkable, you read the great works of
literature when youÕre young, and then you come back and read them later
and you think, Oh my goodness, itÕs not as good as I thought it was, or I
canÕt see what I saw in that. You think to yourself, Gee, I didnÕt really
understand it, itÕs the first time I see that itÕs about something
I think that that
process is the one that weÕre still interested in engaging with, where
thereÕs a dynamic relationship to an object of contemplation.
does this music sound different every time I hear it? Are your characters
much more than a set of eyes, ears and teeth?
wanted the album to be rewarding in your listening, that it would have
depths. The topicality lies in the iconic: John Wayne and Wile E. Coyote
are icons, and George Bush and Jimmy Carter are symbols, or people who have
filled a symbolic relationship, or have stood in for a symbolic
relationship, being presidents, which is a symbolic office, right? Ad
Reinhardt is a generator of symbols. ThereÕs enough of a nexus of relations
in there, I think, to keep the mind working for five minutes.