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Five American PortraitsIt’s Cinco De

Hold the Mayo

The Red Krayola with Art & Language | Five American Portraits (Drag City)



"The 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 Krayola’s 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 ol’ 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 who’ve collaborated with Thompson on more outwardly avant-garde albums as Kangaroo?, Corrected Slogans, Black Snakes and Sighs 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 O’Rourke; more bass and resonantly stagy vocal work courtesy the Raincoats’ Gina Birch; and clever piano, sundry guitar and humorously matter-of-fact vocals by the one and only Mayo Thompson.

In a recent phone conversation from his home in Los Angeles, Thompson gave me some insight into the how, why & etc. of making “accessible” music that’s like a gift that keeps on giving, just like that painting of Uncle Herbert over the fireplace. paper


BLUEFAT: I like this new Red Krayola EP called Five American Portraits.

MAYO THOMPSON: It’s not an EP, it’s an LP.

Mayo Thomson drawing 1

Oh, is it that long?

It is by my standards. But I come from a school where the LP the ideal was 18 minutes a side.

Me too, actually. Okay, it’s an LP, then. So, I like this idea of these almost –– almost –– literal portraits of iconic figures. The lyrics describe these individuals’ physical characteristics. So it’s just funny, in a way: I was expecting one of these heavy-duty, Nonesuch-style “portraits” of the artist that reeks with deep lyrical analysis of the subjects’ souls and psyches.

I’m not familiar with what you’re 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.

What gave you the idea to approach these “portraits” as, well, portraits?

Art & Language gave me the idea to do it. They’ve 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.

Do 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?

What do you mean?

I mean, the idea that putting words to music in this case would be just a description of what we’d literally see if we looked at them, rather than a scholarly probe of the characters’ minds, mores, politics, etc.

I have made a practice, I’ve boasted, that I can put anything to music.

How is the music for each character appropriate? For the portrait of George W. Bush, for example?

It’s all derived from Texas material.

Interesting, isn’t it, how we’re forced to really think about Bush, through your description in detail of how he looks. It’s kind of like reading a book, these meticulous visualizations.

I’m very happy to hear you say that. That sounds exactly like what we’d have hoped for.

Not that I enjoy thinking in detail about Bush, but it was very effective that way.

Well, music is only partly about enjoyment.

What sort of directives did you give your musicians? Let’s say on the Jimmy Carter track –– were they bringing in their own oblique impressions of this icon you were describing?

People inevitably have some understanding of things, and things are mediated in terms of their understanding. I do instruct musicians; I’ll occasionally say to somebody, “Please don’t do that,” or something along these lines. But in this case the music is very simple and direct; it doesn’t involve unusual concepts – I mean, there is some improvisation, of course, but this music doesn’t entail our usual commitments to improvisation; it’s not in the foreground here in the way that perhaps it is on other records, where part of the point would be, “I got an idea, what do you think of it?” “How do you respond to this?” 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, it’s quite obvious what is what; if you’re not familiar with the references, you can see what we’re talking about.

About the vocal interpretations, Gina Birch and I had worked a lot together over the years, and Gina’s understanding of what’s 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.

The Ad Reinhardt track is very pointillist, musically.

That’s Mozart.

But Reinhardt was a very abstract kind of painter.

Well, there’s a little joke there. That was a little joke with “Paint It Black.”

How does Mozart figure into that?

He always painted black. Duh duh duh duh duh duh dun. If you hear that motif in the first piano part, the solo piano, that’s Mozart’s Sonata in D; and the second part is a section of Mozart’s 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 “Paint It Black” must’ve heard the same way I did. I heard that Mozart piece and I heard the left hand and I thought, Huh! That’s “Paint It Black,” and I derived mental pictures of “Paint It Black.” So it’s kind of a piece of literalism, if you like. A little bit of a piece of joke.

Who and what are Art & Language?

They started off in the ‘60s, they’re conceptual artists, and if you look ‘em up on the web you’ll find a ton of information –– 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, they’re video artists, and they’ve also written for years in this journal Art & Language, which is no longer published very often. And we’ve been collaborating since the ’70s, quite a long time.

As you’re working with longtime, familiar collaborators, did the tracks on Five American Portraits come together with ease? What was the process?

Well, 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 ’em 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, I’m 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 it’s 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 –– 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 who’s committed to a socialist program: How would that work? What would that be?

In the song “Kangaroo,” the title turns out to be an Aborigine word for “What did you say?” 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, “What is this animal called?” And the Aborigine says “Kangaroo?” The sailor says thank you and he walks off.

The Aborigine said, “What did you say?” He didn’t 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 there’s 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 on.

So it’s just embracing these various ideas and trying to negotiate those ideas in terms of pop idiom, let’s say, into the idea of making accessible, pleasing music.

But you have a decidedly different history with Red Krayola.

We come from America, a more chewed-up, mangled history, and it’s not very coherent in the way that British history is coherent. It’s 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 you’re bound by an idea.

It’s 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 that’s been going on with each other for years and years, and it continues.

When 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.

I’m not afraid of the obvious, not in the least. I don’t have any established commitments, I don’t 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. It’s not about only entertainment, although entertainment plays an important role in it. And accessibility of ideas? It’s about putting things in play, really. If I come to a musician and say, “I got this, what do you think about it?” and they play something, I’ll say okay. I accept things. And I accept what people say about things.

It’s edifying to read the album’s descriptions of your chosen icons. It’s fun, too.

It 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. They’re 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 year’s model is last year’s model –– what’s new, what’s 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 person’s life goes, so goes their relationships to things that they enjoy. When you’re listening to some record when you’re 20, it’s one thing; when you listen to it when you’re 50, it’s something else, maybe. One would like to make things that would survive that process.

Much like a painted portrait.

Those kinds of objects do survive. It’s remarkable, you read the great works of literature when you’re young, and then you come back and read them later and you think, Oh my goodness, it’s not as good as I thought it was, or I can’t see what I saw in that. You think to yourself, Gee, I didn’t really understand it, it’s the first time I see that it’s about something altogether different.

I think that that process is the one that we’re still interested in engaging with, where there’s a dynamic relationship to an object of contemplation.

Why does this music sound different every time I hear it? Are your characters much more than a set of eyes, ears and teeth?

We 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. There’s enough of a nexus of relations in there, I think, to keep the mind working for five minutes.