PRINT January 1998


IF THE CURRENT LIAISON between the worlds of pop/rock/underground music and contemporary art is anything to go by, artists seem to have something to learn from pop music, and vice versa. From Charles Long’s collaborations with Stereolab to Raymond Pettibon’s album covers to Mike Kelley’s various projects (from the recent reformation of his old Detroit band Destroy All Monsters, with artist Jim Shaw, to his Documenta contribution with Tony Oursler in the band The Poetics), contemporary artists are not only drawing on the semiotics of pop music but increasingly moving between the two worlds. Some thirty years ago, Mayo Thompson was already pioneering this constellation. Only by simultaneously considering post-Conceptual art practices and electric music could he find an artistic life to his satisfaction.

I first met Thompson in Hamburg in 1981. I was a young rock journalist; he was guitarist for Pere Ubu. But he was also performing with his own ensemble, The Red Crayola, whose lineup in those days read like a Who’s Who of the British Rough Trade sound: Lora Logic, cofounder of the feminist punk band X-Ray Spex as well as singer and saxophonist in her own Essential Logic; Gina Birch of the Raincoats (Kurt Cobain’s favorite group, the all-female band reformed briefly in order to play with Nirvana not long before his death); Epic Soundtracks of the band Swell Maps, whose repetitive, Can-influenced sound became the model for a good 50 percent of what is called alternative rock today.

But on that evening we were talking not about postpunk, but—among other things—about Conceptual art. Not exactly my area of expertise in those days.

Thompson founded his band—the name has changed from The Red Crayola to The Red Krayola over the years due to copyright issues—in Texas in the late ’60s with Steve Cunningham and writer-artist Frederick Barthelme, recording two albums for the legendary Texas-psychedelia label International Artists. After a single solo album and a few scandalous performances—legend has it that in Berkeley the frequencies from a Red Crayola concert killed a dog—Thompson could be found several years later in New York working with the British Conceptual collective Art & Language. Between the mid ’70s and the mid ’80s A&L collaborated on several Thompson/RK pieces, among them the opera Olympia (about a murder case in Manet’s Paris) as well as the British masterpieces Kangaroo?, Black Snakes, Soldier-Talk, and Corrected Slogans. Thompson moved to England in the late ’70s, where he worked as musician and producer for the Rough Trade label. In the second half of the ’80s he lived and worked in Germany, again with people from the art world, particularly the painter Albert Oehlen, who contributed not only lyrics but also technical production work to Red Krayola albums like 1989’s Malefactor, Ade.

Since Thompson’s relocation to the US in the early ’90s he has formed an entirely new organization, in which artists (Oehlen, A&L’s Michael Baldwin, Stephen Prina, Christopher Williams, and many others) as well as musicians from several cities and musical worlds are involved. The circle around experimental musicians Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs in Chicago is one of the new cells of Red Krayola members; another is found in Manhattan Beach, California, home to Tom Watson (from the band Slovenly and Overpass) and George Hurley (former member of Minutemen and fIREHOSE). With these contributors and others, Thompson has not only recorded The Red Krayola (TOM T) and Amor and Language but also established a working relation with the Chicago-based label Drag City, which has begun reissuing most of his recorded material, including the previously unreleased Coconut Hotel and various one-minute-long experiments from the ’60s.

The most touching as well as intellectually convincing results of Thompson’s recent collaborations can be found on The Red Krayola’s 1996 release, Hazel. Several voices (David Grubbs, Tom Watson, and Thompson himself) contribute to a set of compositions that seem infinitely distanced and detached from comparable guitar-accompanied efforts, yet neither cold nor abstract. These songs still entertain the possibility that words set to music can have something to say. Set against a background that seems incongruently emotional, the abstract statements, parables, and allegories don’t suffer. Still, it’s impossible to pinpoint what genre Hazel belongs to. I talked to Thompson in Los Angeles, where he now teaches at the city’s Otis Parsons school and at the Art Center in Pasadena.

DIEDRICH DIEDERICHSEN: The name Red Krayola today seems to encompass many different kinds of practices and different people from very different backgrounds who play very different roles. What’s your position in it? On recent albums you’re listed as one of many, but of course people who know the story realize that you’re the one who’s been holding Red Krayola together for a long time.

MAYO THOMPSON: I’m something like the processor of processors. With Tommy Smith, Jesse Chamberlain, Lora Logic, Gina Birch, Allen Ravenstine, Epic Soundtracks, Ben Annesley, Chris White, each arrangement of Red Krayola has had its own character. With Albert Oehlen productive relations are again like they were with Frederick Barthelme and/or Steve Cunningham, Michael Baldwin, Mel Ramsden. However it gets articulated, we’ve always been a small corporate entity—you know, like Public Image Ltd. Recent rolls, being alphabetically ordered and not specifying roles, reflect that David Grubbs, George Hurley, Lynn Johnston, Margo Leavin, John McEntire, Albert Oehlen, Jim O’Rourke, Stephen Prina, Elise Randazzo, Mary Lass Stewart, Tom Watson, Christopher Williams, Rachel Williams, Sandy Yang, and MT, doing whatever, are Red Krayola. I was troubled over using the name when Red Krayola effectively restarted in 1978. Upon reflection it was clear that the project as designed—though hardly immaculate—still had potential, and it seemed a bad idea to abandon Red Krayola to culture, history, and the vultures. Also, I wasn’t interested in me plus sidemen and/or -women. I guess it’s one of those “Should Art & Language have continued to use the name after 1972 or ’75 or whenever?” questions. I don’t know. It depends on how you look at such things, and what you call property.

DD: It’s an interesting question since there was a time when people started listing roadies and sound engineers as members of the band. At the same time, in the art world, people often work with assistants and students and friends, but essentially, it is always about the artist, and the others have an anonymous existence, no matter how much of the work they do. The current Red Krayola is the only example that I know of where the graphic-design people are considered members of the band.

MT: The project traditionally exploits, among other things, its social aspect—viz. Red Krayolawas and Art & Language, Red Krayola and the Familiar Ugly. There is no single, privileged voice, but nothing programmatic is claimed, either—for community, for example. Programming is transitive and spontaneous. To a certain extent, membership is a function of participation. In this lineup, this or that comes from everyone; we all do what we are able to, more or less.

DD: There was a time when it was thought that the art-world star system could be dealt with, maybe in a subversive or progressive way, by working anonymously. In Germany, at least, there’s a lot of talk again among young artists, or artist-activists, about nameless production; for example, the contributions to the 1995 anti-art fair “Messe 2 ok” in Cologne were kept anonymous.

MT: That’s a move you can make, decide among fellows to work with, generate conditions of solidarity, etc. My experience beginning in the ’60s was of ideological models being put forward, and of the competition giving way where one model worked—in the sense that it displayed explanatory power for this or that section or group. Interested parties recognized the differences and distinctions between themselves and others, and argued for and emphasized those differences in order to define their relation of opposition. Good faith leads down some strange paths, but I believe youth are entitled to rediscover that fire, entertain the thought of burning things down, get burnt. Eventually we came to refer to the old A&L slogan, “The misery of being exploited is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all.” So much for maturity.

DD: I’ve often quoted that slogan. It’s like a motto for the whole post-Fordist world. It was one of the inspirations for my book Freiheit macht arm (Freedom creates poverty). Where does it come from?

MT: Corrected Slogans, the first record with Art & Language (1973-76).

DD: I never realized it was an A&L slogan. I thought you made it up in 1984.

MT: Michael Baldwin and I were working on the songs; we got to talking about the possible senses in which one could see oneself as making history. Some in the transatlantic art world were beginning to question the notion of “use” and were organizing, a number of them on the basis that a decidable history was out there to be made. In New York, Marx began to figure after a fashion. I was fuzzily aware of the historical Left, and felt connected to it somehow, in an underground way. In the ’60s in Texas we wanted change, but we also wanted in on the fastest games. We embraced that contradiction. We read Artforum, and it became a game to predict what moves would come next—Barthelme was very good at it. It was comparatively easy. Modernist analytics was a machine—definite input to definite output. When the fabric began to unravel we were left processing contradictions, the organization of the game, in all its strange, privileged, unfair, and sad aspects. We fucked around with ideas, agreed, disagreed; and personal psychology figured, but never undercut our sense of the bindingness of the facts of matters, the sense that one had that there was a way to do things. I am no longer prepared to say that there is, ever will, or ought to be a set of expert reductions that could eliminate idiocies, bathos—pop wisdom, common-sense platitudes may just apply. Equivalence rules.

DD: Is there a relation between common sense and something like the song form?

MT: Yes, with song form you’re also stuck with a certain shape’s being a joke, sense being of instantiations, shaped in and as relations to knowns, given habit, knowledge, virtue, and the rest. The play is for specificity, in recognition and reflexivity, in, of, and across—more or less effectively—framed states. I treat song form in a pyramid of relations where the voice is at the top. It’s the voice of human being, an embodied voice, situated. The interesting problems for me arise from the sense, specific to ways the music informs the words, and vice versa; the music being abstract, representing nothing usually, taking on representational aspect, sense, character, as a function of a relationship to the words, and still being “music,” “the music,” etc. We don’t set out to make atmospheres—for example, hearing a lyric and thinking about the requirements of a noir atmosphere, or a slightly jazzy handling. It’s a question of generating rightness in the association of materials, elements, etc., such that, being what and as they are, what the voice expresses can be recognized. We try this, exploiting the other side of the conventional business, which of course acknowledges the conventional business—we take our hats off to the wonderful effects of the minor third or the heartbreaking moments of pop songs. You operate with that conventional syntax. We always wanted to be experimental, but within pop. Honi soit, etc. It’s not like we set out to be popular and suddenly realized that it wasn’t interesting. We are attracted to the money sign and so on, obviously; but the most important thing has been not to get bored, not to get hold of The One Idea and reproduce it to death. Of course with experimentation, have we done that anyhow? Kept on, trying to find a way out? However fraught and vexed, matters have improved with the crazy realization that writing a hit is not a move out of your underground mode into the hit mode, because the modes don’t exist in that way. They represent the same potential; to function, they are the same. All music is alternative and, in that sense, popular. So we could talk about the politics of alternativity or indie ideology—but that’s another thing entirely.

DD: But isn’t the fact that certain sounds and certain noises become meaningful only briefly and only for a limited group of people at a certain time what distinguishes pop and, say, classical or ethnographic music? So not only are the lyrics denotative, but also particular sounds.

MT: Absolutely. And we all wind up hearing it, and hearing all about it. Our wrestling match with the intrinsic functionality of sonic cliché is partly with the language generated. That’s where prediction plays a role for me in production. How driven by the imperatives are we? What are the imperatives? What are their criteria of satisfaction? Where did they come from? Things are embedded in a certain moment, as you say. Status is contingent upon a certain use within a public life, a value. Usages as such mean, like characters in Asian languages, a riff, an idiom, a cliché; they stand one in, for example, sorts of rhetorical or mechanical or technical relation to the possibility of saying anything at all. Combinations of symbols, compounds of things existing at different levels and different depths, even if dangerous to handle, remain the interest. In our sortings there is no ironic stance. With us irony has always been irony lite. The masses up on their hind legs, and Mother Nature, can be ironic. A lot of the time I feel like I’ve been fighting against authenticity, which is of course ridiculous.

DD: Well, authenticity is an ideology.

MT: I’m still prepared to argue the verities of certain ideological “authenticities,” see that “truth” in ideology does certain jobs, that it uses class in as much as classes use it, etc. The music comes from different kinds of necessities. Transformational logic figures, of course, but pro forma consistency and commensurability seem only relative justifications, on the basis of contingency, instrumentality. The Notorious B.I.G. came from a contingency surely quite differently shaped than mine, where the music serves not a more direct but perhaps a more immediate, communal, identity function. It’s also distributive, and everybody listens to it somewhere, sometime. We all hear what everybody’s thinking. Radio, television, cinema, print, they’re full of what everybody’s thinking—distribution of information having developed since the ’60s, carriers having improved, etc. But I don’t think content’s changed. The difference now is perhaps that the natures of satisfactions are understood to define ontologies of function.

DD: In pop music nowadays, you cannot afford to inhabit only one world, one musical frame of reference. However, most music is presented as if it’s only good for one frame of reference and it’s definitely sold with this parameter in view.

MT: That irritates me. I believe we realized what the teachings, if you will, of Cage, Rauschenberg, Johns, and others—along with Cecil Taylor, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, and others, who also had something to do with us—exemplified in terms of the pursuit of a certain kind of extreme, the Modernist project per se, to see whether a limit existed or not. Practice crunches categories. The failure of Modernism was that it became very coherent, a logic, certainly in the literal handlings of most Minimalists and Conceptualists—something that happened to it along the way that was a bit like what happened to Marx’s thought after Lenin turned him into a consistent materialist. Reduction to style may damage the susceptible.

DD: The current Red Krayola is composed of more worlds, not just more individuals. The worlds of Stephen Prina and Albert Oehlen and that of George Hurley and Tom Watson are as distinct as is possible.

MT: A world, or world of worlds, aspect, is not quite the point. I’m looking for ways to affect the things I’m not sure of, in part to act out undecidabilities, questions such as: Do I have to do it this way? Is this the only voice that this can possibly occur in? Can anybody else make sense of this? I believe that you and I once had a conversation about being pretentious, agreeing that it’s better in a sense to try and say something novel than just endlessly repeat what little we feel we know as though it were final. In the equation, nothing I know has ever been enough on its own. Pop has a synthetic power; through the openness of the form it will bend, heal, and assimilate what it transforms—at the same time—into its opposite. By now I’m quite alienated, even disaffected. I do not belong to any group engaged in shared release, certainly not in public at least, but to this organization, and partake in a synonymy, a realization within a certain split life, where particular things have been toted as natural. One walks strange little lines between codes, and the paths can get very narrow, and you find from time to time few others on them. The process of alienation sharpens the music to some extent, and the music is multilogical, but it’s not a narrative of necessary or romantic disaffection, or anything like that. I just want any language generated to have to revitalize itself continually to be relevant, to have to be fluid, to flex.

DD: You’ve worked with a diverse group of people and in a wide range of situations—as a producer, as an executive in the indie world for Rough Trade. When you refer to your art practice, it’s always either the work with Art & Language or Red Krayola, but in effect the scope and breadth of the people that you have worked with is extremely large, i.e., Stiff Little Fingers, James “Blood” Ulmer, Morrissey, The Fall, Primal Scream . . .

MT: This is partly luck—luck partly made, partly found. At Rough Trade I had the chance because I had certain experience, a technical capacity. I had been in a recording studio and knew how to do things. And I was sympathetic to the music. Rough Trade was heterogeneous and complex, working with a variety of people and artists. Our heroes like the Sex Pistols and the Clash were with major record companies. We got Stiff Little Fingers because we had street credibility and not because we had distribution power—though we did; our productive capacity was based on our distributive power. Punk history was also written with a checkbook.

DD: But neither the Sex Pistols nor the Clash had ever sold that much . . .

MT: No, but enough to hold the space.

DD: I’m not sure how Rough Trade was structured at the beginning. Was it like a collective?

MT: Well, sort of. Three guys started it, I think, Geoff Travis, Richard Scott, and Steve Montgomery. Then there were progressively more people involved, and there were shares. As the industry and the situation changed, and more space opened up, structural possibilities eventually overwhelmed structural principles. My assertion was that it was not that different from the ’50s, rock ‘n’ roll being made by independent producers, Chess, Specialty, the general emergence of records out of race labels, Brunswick, for example.

DD: But those labels never had a specific political ideal. It wasn’t until the late ‘8os that major record companies, at least in Germany, began to use the term “independent” to define a certain category of music instead of a type of politically motivated economic organization of music production. In WOM and Virgin Megastores the category “independent” now means bands with guitars, no hip-hop, basically what’s called alternative rock in the US.

MT: Ten years after; sick transit, Gloria; file under flop, sort of? But, better: save oneself who can; no? Rough Trade’s political ideal was the same as punk’s, and R ‘n’ R’s, and partly mine—“I can do that.” One learns what “that” consists in. When I last worked there I met regularly with the five big High Street retailers—HMV, Our Price, Virgin, etc. You really get an insight into the business—just exactly how you can sell records, and it being a matter of shifting numbers, hyping this and that—and you do it. That is ideological space. I suppose the thing that remains interesting about art and artists—and what gave Rough Trade snap—is the commitment to a notion, however mediated. When people say they like some art, they express a commitment—that’s not to be underestimated. We wanted to have some effect against the art citadels, drive the philistine bullshit-talkers from the temple, etc. We wanted to tell people that it was silly to talk about abstract pictures when Rome was burning, but we wanted them to realize at the same time that we weren’t doing anything very different, we too were talking about abstract pictures. Basic, ideal argument can have a very powerful effect on the way one shapes symbols—repented of, at leisure, of course. In that I claim no failure. I agree with Bob Dylan, success is success. Noble failure, the dandy’s position, is a joke. Baudelaire the model was not a coherent ideologist of his lifestyle. I think he made it up as he went along, and went from bonus to bonus.

DD: He was a failure in every social context but he was not a failure as a figure in the history of literature.

MT: In moments of vanity I have consoled myself with a similar thought.

Diedrich Diederichsen is the publisher of SPEX in Cologne and a frequent contributor to Artforum.