Conversation with Mayo Thompson
What happened after Coconut Hotel was recorded?
We were invited to the Berkeley Folk Festival, on the power of it. A writer for some art catalog heard it and said “If I could get you all invited to Berkeley Folk Festival, would you play that?” “Well, yeah. Yeah we would,” thinking to ourselves, “No, but we'll do something.” Is it gonna be usual rock and roll? No, it won't be. This is rock and roll. And sure enough, we did. We played feedback. We opened … we played five minutes of feedback and drove everybody in the building out, practically. And then, Lost and Found, another band on IA came along and got everybody back inside, and got 'em all in a good mood by playing them some good time rock and roll.
|A listing of artists at the 1967 Berkeley Folk Music Festival.|
Image courtesy of Berkeley in the Sixties.
We were feeling rather … I think the English call it “Bolshy”.
What does that mean?
You get into a crowd of hippies, it was easy to feel like “My goodness, come on. What's going on here?” It wasn't far from there to wanting to think in terms of being a revolutionary, politically. It belonged to that kind of attitude to the world. Eventually, you quote Marx: “Philosophy is meant to interpret the world, the point is to change it.”
Speaking of Marx, can you elaborate on the phrase you used earlier to describe Cage & Tudor's work, as working with the “means of production”?
If you wanna make music, you have to have a point of production. And there, you're liable to have struggle, if you want to put it in those kinds of terms. I met David Tudor and proposed various things to him; there was some piece where he was working on an island, and I suggested miking the island, and having some central headquarters. He looked at me like I had left something ugly on the table. So there's a politics of production, that inasmuch as there are ideas, and there is conflict among the ideas. And there's only so much money and interest to go around: production is a battle for inductive space; elbowing out inductive space: “This, here, now. Not that, this.” Or, “In lieu of that, this.” Or, “Against that, this.” “Instead of that, this.” Or, “To hell with that, let's kill that.” So there's a conflict of ideas.
So one is trying to get a hold of the means of production, which had been formed around the successful enterprises in that field, like Cage/Tudor, where you have programming prejudice: you come forward and your material's got to be relevant to the coin of the realm, and if it's not... “Next.” If we introduced anything successfully into it, it was a notion of extremism, as such. It is possible that you're gonna meet people who are playing the game exactly as it sits, but they're playing with different materials or or different attitudes to the same materials – that the other thing that one finds out: there is only one, there's no alternative material. You can turn a steam hammer into an instrument, sure enough. Luigi Russollo and George Antheil proved this: that this has all been done.
|Musical Heritage Society's recording of George Antheil's|
Ballet Mécanique (1924), recorded in 1927.
When you think of these things in some detailed, analytical way, outside of “These are the conditions I'm operating my usual game in, and everything comes down to my usual game of survival”, it's awkward to find terms in which to operate where you're not just blowing smoke. And the quest is to find some. And this thing against blowing smoke also has to do with not wanting to be a part of the great celebration of human spirit, that music and art gets the job of: encouraging human beings, “Yes, we're special. We're the reasonable animal. Not mere animals, we're above the animals.” This feeds the illusory aspect.
Do you think this use of art as a celebration of humanity is naïve?
I don't think it's naïve, I think it's sinister. I think it's a form of manipulation used by people who want more than anything for music to be an instrument to their own ends. Lenin didn't like music. He'd hear Beethoven and say "Bah, that stuff makes me want to go out and pat people on the head. Get that away from me, that puts me in a good mood." The good mood that I need to be in right now is the one that goes along with doing the thing that I'm doing, not some generic equilibrium state which humans strive for in the evening when they put on their slippers and sit in front of the TV. Music is not a comfortable shoe, in my book. Music is a pain in the ass. I walk down the street, and I hear something somebody else [is playing]. It's got me by the shoulders and the bass is pounding on my chest and my pantsleg. I didn't ask for that. It's pervasive. Music pollution. Not that I care. I'm not going to go around trying to clean up the world; I'm not a reformer. I don't mind a little chaos, I've gotten used to it by now.
If you don't approach music in the way you described as “sinister”, how do you approach music in your life?
I do it professionally; she is a cruel mistress, but she's been good to me. We've had a lot of fun together, the ol' gal and I. I love her sometimes, hate her other times. I start sounding like an Italian movie: “She's my whore, priest, saint, goddess, blah blah blah...” I don't know how to talk about it in any sensible fashion that doesn't sound like cultural nonsense. All I can tell you is that it does play a role in my life, I like to hear a little bit. I don't put any on unless I have a reason. There was a time in my life when I processed music; I'd put it on and process the information, or because I enjoyed it, or because it had a strange working on me, and I wanted to feel that again and again. Why? Etc. etc. Music has had various roles; if I was throwing a barbeque, I'd know what to put on, to create a nice atmosphere. But unlike my artist friends who go into their studios, put on records and paint, it doesn't play that kind of role in my life. I'm fascinated by, interested in, overwhelmed by the amount of it that's being made; you can only hear a fraction of what's being made. And people ask me to make a top ten list; I will not. And don't ask me what record I'd have to have with me on a desert island, because I cannot make that list. There's no way.
This Frenchman wrote me wrote to me and he just had to know. So I wrote back to him, and said luckily I have a friend with some quantum sound accumulator, or something like that, and it is capable of capturing sound which has been transmitted as long as it hasn't been interrupted by a solid surface, or deflected or diffused in any way. This thing can catch 'em, so I can hear all the music that's ever been made. I like it all. All of it's relevant, or none of it's relevant. And that would be my philosophy, if you like. It's all okay, or forget it.
And that's a Cageian principle: you don't like something, so you listen to it twice, four times, eight times, and eventually you'll hear what's good about it. You can ruefully shake your head and say “I give up.” There must be something good about it. Point taken, professor, there's something good about everything. And it's certainly the case that if I'm drunk enough, “Mary Had A Little Lamb” may be just the right some for the night.
Was Coconut Hotel originally going to be released by International Artists?
|The Red Krayola, Coconut Hotel. Drag City DC62, 1995|
We fell out with them after the Berkeley Folk Festival because we recorded with John Fahey, and they were worried sick about us getting a management offer while we were in California. A record lawyer would have gotten us free in a New York minute. But we didn't know where we were, or what was happening, and we weren't paying any attention to the law part of it. All we were interested in was making that stuff. If somebody showed us a piece of paper and said “Sign this and we'll worry about everything; you're good to do what you want to do,” and down in the contract it said, like, “Your mother will have to work her fingers to the bone for us for the rest of her life,” we wouldn't have even thought about it. We would still have signed it and gone right ahead. Which is pretty much what happened.
So the thing was pushed to one side, and then we fell out with them. Nothing happened. They called me and asked me to make what they called a “second record”, which is where God Bless came from; the “climb-down”, shall we say, from the heights of extremism, by inching back along the limb toward the trunk. We'd gotten ourselves out on this limb and practically sawed it off. But there was no mention whatsoever of Coconut Hotel, it just sat there on the shelf. They didn't even know they had it; it never occurred to them. Then the company got into such disarray, that in the end, I had the tapes. Nobody knew about them, nobody cared about them. I was the only one who cared about what had happened. And all the other IA stuff, that was actually commercial product, was part of the package deal that Leland eventually finagled, he got control of it, and sold it around to this label and that label. But he did not have possession of that particular piece. I kept possession of that. As I now know, if we had been intelligent enough, we could have kept possession of all of our stuff. But it's alright; it never made a huge amount of money. It's not the money question. Not like the Elevators. Elevators made money. But even the Elevators didn't make money; you know what made money out of that catalogue, was the Maceo Parker track, where he's rehearsing the James Brown band. That's a stone groove; I'm down with that. That thing sounds like a loop. That band is so tight; that is as close as you can get to genuine repetition in music, as far as I'm concerned.
The One-Second Pieces present a formal problem. You can only play one of them, and then you have to dismiss the audience and the orchestra. Why is that? Because if you play two, they're related, immediately. And they're so related, if they're close enough together, they sound like they're part of the same piece. And if you play one, and you want to distinguish it in character from another piece, so you play a longer piece after, it still sounds like the introduction to that piece. If you play a longer piece in front of it, then play one afterwards, it sounds like a conclusion, or a joke. There's potential for that mishearing. So the only way reasonably to do it, is to play one of them, to give it a name, go through all the rigamaroll, set it all up, and on the downbeat... “Bop.” And then we all go home. And so on God Bless the Red Krayola, the only way to we could solve it was, “Listen to this.” Okay: the sound of the piano. And then the little ledger that comes between the tracks has a different acoustic quality to it than the rest of the “silence” on the record. Like, a silence within a tune has a different quality than a silence between two tracks. So you can create an acoustic space but even there, it's not really 100% satisfactory. It's really impossible.
So you can write a piece of music that's very difficult to realize, and it's the most compressed amount of music that there is.
Silence is the most compressed?
I think “silence plus one sound”. I think you have to animate the space somehow. I don't know how you could do that with just silence. [Pause] If you were in a situation where you could create two levels of absence, or two qualities of presence: one where there is nothing, and then one where an emptiness opens; a void opens, and you perceive a void. You gotta be able to wrap your brain around what you're hearing though.
God Bless The Red Krayola included some ideas from Coconut Hotel.
Yeah, we tried to take some of those ideas forward. In God Bless
it would be our embrace of song form, and also the genre; this is
where our (by now) fairly “robust” sense of genre starts to come
from; this is where it takes shape. We did not think of ourselves as
playing this and that genre, but we made some genres there.
That's the way I hear it. “Sherlock Holmes” – it's got a
detective atmosphere, “Tina's Gone To Have a Baby”, each one of
them is a little world. It was made as a record that you were to hear
as a piece. You're not meant to be able to be pulling songs out,
listening to this song, that song; you put it on and listen to the
whole damn record, and part of the phenomenon is getting up in the
middle and turning it over, and hearing the little girl at the end;
there, you're in the recording studio, in the room with the
little girl. The lights went off in there, trying to soothe the
little child, making the little child feel comfortable, 'cause she
was doing something so funny, “Gosh, turn on the tape recorder
quick!” The urgency of human life is there, and it's got some
community aspect to it too. There the Familiar Ugly play some formal
roles, like we got some of them singing back-up.
Improvisation plays a role there. I would claim a palpable commitment
to improvisation, which is characteristic of the whole thing. And it
came out of the sessions, but it also has to do with … Corky for
example, those are really heavy-duty players, and they're bitching at
me 'cause I don't have an arrangement. And I don't tell them the
secret: I know what I can do by myself. What I want to hear is what
happens when I do it with somebody else. So, I say x and they
do y. So, I make them play it, and I've got the machine
running, and they want to take the music home and work on the
arrangement, get their part together just so, and I won't let them do
it. They've had to think, while listening, and that's what I want the
sound of. So that's what you get on that record. And in the one case
where there is an arrangement, Joe Dugan was allowed to think about
the horns on “Dear Betty” and went home with them and came back
with them the next day.
God Bless The Red Krayola included some ideas from Coconut Hotel.
|The Red Krayola, God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who|
Sail With It, International Artists IALP7
And that record gets to be called a “minimal” record. It was not like a punk record, like “we're gonna get back to basics, good clean rock n' roll, we're gonna run the river Styx through here and start over again.” It wasn't that kind of thing at all. It was not driven by an impulse to basicness. It was just schematic because we were used to working with the stuff we had in our hands, instrument-wise. I had a Fender and Steve had a fretless bass, and Tommy Smith had a regular set of drums. Part of our game has always been to make unusual sounding stuff with conventional instruments; to make electronic music with not-electronic instruments in the purest sense of the word. The logic is informed by the possibility of what amount to category mistakes. That brings the Man into the music, which is not always so nice. You know what I mean by “the Man” right? You're up there in Michigan.
Yeah, the Man. “You're workin for the Man.” The Man is implicit – the dead hand of capitalism is implicit to all rock n' roll. The Man is implicit to all music which is African-American … by definition. It defines itself that way.
Can you talk about improvisation, and Corky's Debt to His Father?
|Mayo Thompson's first solo album, Corky's Debt|
to his Father, released by Texas Revolution CFS 2270
So that improvisational thing – I have worked with people like Rüdiger Carl and his COWWS Quintet. The piano player from there, what's her name... [Irene Schweizer], she learned a lot from Cecil Taylor. You wouldn't say she's a student, but she's certainly a follower; she has to be seen as someone who appreciated a great deal what Cecil Taylor does, and in fact hammers the piano and fights the Man. We played in front of Cecil Taylor one night with that band. I was doing some vocal stuff like that, and whenever I wasn't playing, I'd leave the stage. Then, after the show, Cecil said “Hey man, you're the guy who kept leaving the stage.” That's what he noticed. [laughs] Also, when we were in Berlin, somebody said to him, “Oh Cecil, it's so great that you've come to town.” And Cecil said, “Man, I'm just trying to play a gig. Take it easy.”
So, that's what I think of as improvisation: that's Cecil Taylor improvising against expectations. And that's what improvisation consists in: you've got a set of expectations and you're a realist about what it's possible to realize, and what you play manifests your awareness of the limit. As usual, at the limit, one is operating at an extreme; either extremely lot, or extremely little, or extremely middle, you know what I mean? One time Rüdiger Carl said to me, … I've talked to Keith Rowe from AMM, “What is improvisation?” “What isn't improvisation in life?” This is improvised, I don't care about the given forms, it's still an improvisation on themes. Sometimes it's a lot of stuff made up for relations that don't exist anywhere else. So, this is my personal quest against people congratulating themselves for doing the obvious. And I've got a one-man campaign to de-mystify these relations. That is a motivating force in my thinking. Whether they can be de-mystified or not, maybe I'm making it worse. [laughs] It's possible.
(interviewed by Matt Endahl on December 26th, 2011)
|Thompson in 2010.|