Were you recording or producing first at Rough Trade?
I was recording first. The Radar thing came together first, and then Rough Trade was getting going. When I first started being involved with Rough Trade, it was strictly distribution. But they were beginning to think about making records. They wanted to make a record with Metal Urbain, and that was the first single that was made, associated with Radar. A Parisian punk band. Led to things like Dr. Mix, the beginnings of cut-up music, dancefloor music, things that led to techno, actually. All that kind of stuff came there as well.
Monochrome Set wanted to know if I wanted to produce a single. And Stiff Little Fingers asked Geoff if he would produce for them. And Geoff had never been in a studio very much, and he wanted somebody to be with him. I liked working with other people. I thought, this is an ideal partnership. So Geoff and I struck up a partnership, and we collaborated. We worked on Monochrome Set together. We did Stiff Little Fingers, Raincoats, Fall, Scritti Politti a couple of tracks, and worked together for a long time until Rough Trade got to be quite large and powerful. I was also working in A&R in Rough Trade, just doing press, speaking for the label, spokesman kind of stuff, press representative for the label. Rough Trade had a real moment at this time, very powerful moment.
But the most powerful act at this time was this curve down from punk. People kept trying to push forward power pop. "Well, what's going to be next? It's power pop." Nobody was interested in power pop, basically. I mean, you could sell some records on the basis of the tribal divisions in England. You could get people who thought of themselves as mods in some way to be interested in that kind of thing. But Scritti Politti had real pop potential. And there was a real conflict between Rough Trade, the whole indie scene, and the majors in Britain. That was a real battle, because the majors were outraged when Stiff Little Fingers' album went in at 14 the first week, said "It's a fix!" They cried foul, couldn't believe it. But it was real. That's what punk was, was economic power.
When the Red Krayola started recording again...
The reception was strange. One was counted influential, but somebody still beside the point, shall we say. Not the Sex Pistols, not the Clash. We were counted as in it, because people like Gang of Four would take us seriously and invite us to go and open for them, and invite us to go on tour, because it made sense given the kinds of things that they were investigating. They were also being true to the history of the problems that they had come to, which came partly through the efforts of Art & Language, for example, and art historians like T.J. Clark in Leeds and places like that. So there was this whole left-wing aspect as well which informed the underground and the alternative scene. But a lot of nonsense was talked, obviously.
Was there any sort of quizzical reception, because you were one of the very few people who were active in the underground in both the psychedelic and punk/new wave eras?
What was interesting was, I would say, the mindset of those people in the '70s was something like our mindset in the mid-'60s. They hated everything too that had happened before--"we're not necessarily going to clean the slate, but we're going to burn everything down and then we're going to start over again. Or in the process, we're going to burn down everything as a starting over again." And this relation was understood. So some people would say, this is proto-punk--that was where we got lumped, a little bit. But the same things that were talked about the music then are the same things that people talk about it now--"jazzy, broken, dada, blah blah."
Fragmented. I didn't fragment the world--I just happened to notice that it is fragmented. I think that the reception has always been not what one would have wanted. But in the long run it's worked out to be the best thing. Because I'm appetitive, and if a mistake is there to be made, I will make it, just like anybody.
How did you end up producing the Raincoats?
It was one of those things. I came into Rough Trade one day and Geoff said, there's a band called the Raincoats, I want to make a record with them, I want you to go around and listen to rehearsal and help them out and see if there's anything you can contribute. So I went and sit in rehearsal and listened to them play for a couple of hours, and talked to them about, well, maybe the violin could be so and so, slightly different, the Velvet Underground, show 'em some things, without knowing, for example, that Tony Conrad was the man behind all of that, that whole aspect. Just saying that the way John Cale plays viola is something that one daren't ignore. I mean, even Ornette Coleman knows this, about overtone and all that stuff. There was that sort of thing--what about this, what about that. We just worked out arrangements, and eventually they trusted me. They trusted Geoff. And so we were the producers. Simple as that.
That was back in the days, also, when I could sit down at a mixing console and twiddle knobs. I can't do that anymore--it's all changed so much.
What do you think were the band's most distinctive qualities?
The Slits are more of a social phenomenon than a musical phenomenon. What you see there is the liberty of feeling displayed very intense, and a great deal of conviction. Some of the music is interesting. I'm not saying anything against them. But with the Raincoats, you have Vicky Aspinall, who's a trained player. She can read it, and all that kind of stuff. And then, some primitives who have a feeling for music, like Ana da Silva, who's got a certain kind of primitive relationship to it. She likes that scratchy, nasty guitar. I like it too, but I don't want to make that the point of the record. If that's the point of the record, then it's a very simple, straightforward sort of thing to do. Whereas what they were doing seemed to me to be more complex than that. It was about this element, this feeling, that drives one to make music in the first place, and the whole idea that music somehow soothes the savage beast, belongs to the organism, and has something to do with the way we are, the feelings, and all those kinds of things. I would say that the Slits were more attitudinal, and the Raincoats were more musical. The Raincoats were not trying to convince anybody about who they were, or what kind of people they were, or those kinds of things. The Slits were always on duty, so to speak. As much as I love them--they're wonderful as they were, but it was something else.
Did you work with Robert Wyatt while he was with Rough Trade?
No, but I talk to Robert a lot. I saw Soft Machine in Texas in '67, opening for Hendrix. Robert Wyatt came out and played in his underwear, "Did It Again"--you know that one? It was very good. Knew about Soft Machine's music, so when I found out I had a chance to meet Robert, it was a big thrill. He was a huge influence on Scritti Politti--this whole Canterbury sound, the quality of his voice, if you listen to Scritti music early, you can really hear how close those things are, in some respects. Also, Robert was appealing to talk to because he was political. He was a card-carrying Commie. He was one of two, you know. The other one was the guy in Pink Floyd, what's his name--Gilmour.
But Robert had that--it was slightly unfortunate--I don't want to insult anybody's consumer categories, but Charlie Haden's Freedom Liberation Orchestra and Carla Bley's Mexican revolutionaryisms, this whole love of this kind of Brechtian-Weill, that whole kind of ethos--Robert had something to do with that, but really in a much softer and sweeter and stranger way, much more inflected by just jazz per se. Although he'd been turfed out of Soft Machine because of the jazz aspect, 'cause he was not 100% behind jazz. Which made him also, obviously, sympathetic to me. Because I think anybody who lives by a category dies by it. Robert was just interested in possibilities, it seemed. At the same time, it was also poignant to see the state that he was in. He was a vital guy, and at the same time in a tight spot, so to speak, existentially. Hard to keep your spirits up, hard to feel like it's worth it, that sort of stuff.
But the other thing is that Robert also, he's a true musician. Pop music is interesting because you find pros and amateurs working side by side. You find people who are dilettantes working with people who've really got the chops, who can really play anything you like. Then one comes to find out that maybe in that space in between there is where music really is. It's in between somewhere of the potential to have the power to articulate yourself in any way that you want, knowing an instrument, and also then having some kind of discursive spirit that drags you toward this thing, because it's an interesting way of expressing yourself if you like, or an interesting way of going on in the world. Robert to me is more that. He was like in between categories. One of the sweetest guys you ever want to meet--a nice guy, very smart.
Did you envision your association with Pere Ubu as a long-term thing?
When the opportunity came up, I thought, yeah. Because when I heard what Pere Ubu did...I was sitting in England reading Sounds or NME or one of those papers that mentioned Pere Ubu. I thought, okay, I'm going to get one of these records and listen to it. So I went to a record shop in Oxford and said, "Please play me a Pere Ubu record." And they put one on, and I listened to it, and I thought, oh yeah, I know exactly what that's about. Or I had a sneaking suspicion I know what it's about. At least I know some of the things that it goes to in music, even if I don't know exactly where it comes from.
But it also does come from this American suburban alienation effect. Like, I'm living in some place that is patently not the center of the universe. Then somebody's telling you that there is a center of the universe. And there are a lot of people acting like there is one, like, "All culture comes from New York," "All culture comes from Paris." So you're sitting there, and you think, fuck you, you know? I'm going to do something anyway. So I think Pere Ubu came out of that to some extent. Same with the Sex Pistols, went around and inspired everybody in Britain and then a thousand punk bands blossomed. Pere Ubu is a product of that wish to activate, that wish to engage in some way.
But they were very professional from the beginning, and they had a certain kind of thing going for them. They went to New York, and they played New York at Max's, and they were part of that whole sort of thing. They had a very high-powered manager who was at Mercury, Cliff Bernstein, who organized them properly from day one, helped them write contracts which said things like, "Within five years, the tapes revert to the ownership of Pere Ubu." Things that like, if you thought about it, you would think, that's smart. So playing with them was like playing with a big-time organization, for me. I had never really even tasted touring at that level until I got to Britain. We were with Radar, suddenly we were able to rent a station wagon, and have drums, and have an amplifier, and go and play places, and drive around in an orderly fashion and have a tour manager, rent a PA, all those kind of things that I never knew existed. I never knew what the logistics involved where, because we always just had our own crap and threw it in the car and went and did things, you know?
Pere Ubu was operating at that much higher level. And to me, it just seemed to be ripe with potential. And I thought that they also had a lot of interesting things. I really liked a lot of what they did. I persist in thinking their best records are Datapanikand Dub Housing.And the records that I'm on--Art of Walkinghas a few good times, and Song of the Boring Man,as I call it, is a seriously flawed record in my view.
Are you still in contact with those guys?
Got sent a box set the other day. I got my money when they sold it to Geffen. That's how well-organized they are. They're very down the line. They have good management, good organization. But I don't have much contact with them. It was kind of awkward--not awkward, but a funny situation. I liked songs like "Final Solution." One of the things I looked forward to was playing "Final Solution," but we couldn't play it because David didn't want to do that anymore, because of his religious convictions.
I heard Raygun Suitcase. I got sent a complimentary copy, very kindly, by the label, and I thought, yeah, that's Pere Ubu. I recognize that sound. But, for me, Ravenstine was key to that situation. It was also a different socialty than I was used to working in. There were conflicts in that band, at levels, in which people thought of other things about what other people in the band were doing, at levels that I never even dreamed were any business of anybody else's. What difference does it make if the drummer doesn't like blah blah blah, or is interested in so and so? It doesn't matter to me at all. And yet, it seemed to make a difference in this band, because David has this thing. He wants to order things, he wants to control things, he wants to make things happen in certain kinds of ways.
So I got a reputation for being difficult, because I went in there and had an alliance with nobody. I was actually allied, obviously, with David, because David saw me as an ally, and as a force for driving the band in a certain kind of direction. Preventing Scott and Tony, for example, making it a rhythm section band. All those stupidities. So that was educational for me. It was fun. Made some interesting tours with them, played in the United States for the first time, like, all across America--never done that before. That was fun.
What records were you doing between the mid-'80s and the early '90s?
After Black Snakes,I made a record called Three Songs on a Trip to the United States,which had three originals on one side, and the other side was live, recorded at some festival in Switzerland. Then after that, I was still interested in the possibilities of making music. I did some independent projects in the mid-'80s with Connie Plank and Mobius. I produced the Chills, Phil Wilson for Creation, Primal Scream's first album. I really liked him [Phil Wilson]--great songwriter, very nice man, very good man. Interesting stuff, very strange stuff. When I say strange, I just mean that he's got a certain character to it which you can hear how it relates to what everybody else conceives of as standard functional pop music--"this will do the job, right?" And yet it's got this slight angle on things. So for me, it was interesting enough. I produced a Shop Assistants album, I think I did something with Mighty Lemon Drops maybe, can't remember exactly. Did some work with Alan McGee at Creation.
Then left England, moved to Germany. I couldn't stand it anymore and went to Germany and starting working there a bit. But I wasn't making much music until I met Albert Muhlen, this man I started working with recently. Since '87, he and I have made some recordings together. Some of them have been on record. We made a couple of singles, we produced a few things for other people. We put a song in Derek Jarman's Last of England.I produced that soundtrack, so we were able to get a song into this film. Then we made an album for Glass--I think 1000 of them exist in the world, not even that, maybe 700, 800, like Corky's.A rarity. But I was just kind of out of it I wasn't really thinking so much about it. I wasn't not thinking about it. I did it when it came up. When there was something to do, I did it. When there was nothing to do, I didn't think about it.
Then David Grubbs came to Germany and called me, and we talked on the phone, 'cause we'd been put in contact with each other by a German journalist named Diedrich Diederichsen.
How did you end up back in the States?
We made this demo of like six, seven songs and gave it to Drag City. David gave it to Drag City without saying anything to me about it. He just said, there's a label in Chicago that would do something with you if you were interested in it. I thought it would be interesting to try to do something, maybe. And they've been fantastic. Also, my situation in Germany changed. My living situation changed. I was doing a little bit of advertising music and that kind of stuff in Germany, and involved more in art than music, although I did some producing there. I produced a couple of Dutch bands, one thing for a German band. I hadn't lived here in a long time. My mother became ill, so I was drawn here more and more, and spending more and more time here as of about 1993. So the past three years, I've spent more time in America, a lot of time in Texas.
I just look at it, and this thing with Drag City actually clicked. It's real. We're doing business, and it works. It pays for itself, and even makes a little money. I had been, I guess, culturally alienated for a long time from this country, partly by choice. I just didn't want to be part of it. But being here, and having a chance to work again--I started coming over, starting teaching at art school here in Southern California. I started doing some lecturing over there.
It's really a world of possibilities. I never did develop a strategy, never had a master plan after a certain point. I maybe had an idea at the beginning of what I wanted to do, but that fell away. So since then, my cultural life has been pretty ad hoc. Do this? Is that interesting to do? Yes, okay, well, let's go do that. Is this interesting to do? No. I'd just decide. The luxury that I have is that I don't have a huge baggage of a certain kind of success to carry around. And people expect certain kinds of things of you if you have a certain kind of success. And it's easy to become a failure. I mean, I've been a failure from the beginning, no problem, in conventional terms.
Do you see a linkage between the various incarnations of Red Krayola?
Absolutely. I would say that the continuity between them is that I find that we deal, pretty much, with the same kinds of problems. Our attitude remains fairly much the same. It's defined by experimentation--a will to experiment, and a will not to repeat, and a will not to reproduce. Those three things, I would say, inform the decisions that we make. At the same time, it's like wanting to get up on that line where you arouse somebody's understanding that you are like, here's something we know, here's something we understand, but let's twist it this way. Just the possibility of learning is a thing that keeps one going. I would say that that informs every band--every band learns what it can do. Every lineup learns what it can do, it finds out what it can do.
The conditions which operate obviously affect the music. Listen to Kangaroo.Kangaroofor me is a record that is just like Parable of Arable Landor any other record we make in the sense that there is a set of dominant ideas which inform most consumption of music and most production of music in a particular period. In the '60s, it was this kind of psychedelic blah blah blah, and counterculture and youth thing and all that sort of stuff. And we wanted to kind of go, yes and no. We want to be dissidents of the people to whom we should most propitiously belong.
That was one of the beauties of being in Germany, also. I worked with Albert. I learned the slogan, "the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy." That's a concept you could apply to every band. We stand in inimical contestatory evil relationship to everything that people want to feel positive about. I don't want to confirm anybody's worst or best suspicions about what kind of a place this is. I want to trade in instabilities of how one is able to iterate that. What you're actually able to formally to do about anything, to me, is more important than the love of my fellow man.
You're one of the few underground rock musicians who has continuously kept abreast of musical changes, from psychedelia to punk, and now you're collaborating with members of Tortoise and Gastr Del Sol. There are very few musicians who have exhibited that same sort of capability of continuing to participate in alternative musical movements. Would you have any thoughts on why there've been so few, from when you first started doing music in the late '60s, who've progressed in that fashion?
I could be unkind. I think people start off with an idea and then they develop something--let's pick somebody completely respectable, worthy of our respect, like Zappa or somebody like that. Zappa started off, and his records were handled as comedy, the labels that he dealt with. Zappa is like an analog for us in a certain sense. He also, I think, thought hippies were stupid and foolish, and kidding themselves, and congratulating themselves on how hip they were, but only by keeping their eyes closed, not noticing what anybody else was doing. At the same time, he recognizes that humor was one of his most powerful devices. But it ate at him to the point that he wanted actually to be taken seriously. So that became more important to him than anything.
I would say that the difference between me and the people (from past underground rock movements) is that I have no commitments to any one form, or style, or anything else like that. I'm interested in music because it's self-activating, to some extent. I'm interested in art--the democratic aspect of it. I don't mean like, gee whiz, democracy, either. I mean like democracy as democratic expression of a sense of individual human beings getting their own crap together.
At the same time, I recognize that being a self-managing, efficient unit in society is also ugly aspiration somehow. I never read a self-help book, and I won't. I just don't give a damn about that stuff. I just think that the world is a set of fairly consistent problems, because we have certain functional things which have to be satisfied--gotta eat, gotta sleep, blah blah. Comes to entertainment, maybe people want things they can go back in and feel at home with, and comfortable, and sort of things like that. There are certain pieces of music that I would put on just because I love them, or something else like that. But seldom.
I'm not exactly sure how to characterize it as an attitudinal kind of thing. I met a lot of people over the years, like Country Joe and all of those people who were heroes of a certain period. It seems to me they've become encased. They've become trapped in a period that functions for them, where they know where they are. I mean, I don't mind a bit of insecurity. I don't mind a little of instability, don't mind a little quicksand. I like it. More fire, more danger, please. Because otherwise I get bored to death.
I can't imagine what people like. I
even know what I like. I hate what I like every day. I
to myself, why in the world do you like these tiny stupid pleasures
Life's supposed to be hard and edgy and all those kind of things.
This is a stupid romanticism, of course. But nevertheless, it
for a certain kind of...for some reason, I cannot stop making
And believe me, I wouldn't mind. Somehow, it remains an
problem. I just learn. I meet people. It's also a
to find out, am I irrelevant? Has history passed me by? I
think so. I think I'm still ahead of the fucking curve! (laughs)
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