Inquiring Minds: An Hour With The Red Krayola Mastermind Mayo Thompson

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Chris Strong/ Drag City

Last Friday, Rocks Off had the distinct pleasure of talking to Mayo Thompson, the man behind psychedelic (or not) art-rockers The Red Krayola, whose career spans the early days of Houston label International Artists, the art worlds of New York and Europe in the '70s, a stint working as a producer for seminal UK post-punk label Rough Trade (The Fall, The Raincoats) and a longtime association with Chicago indie Drag City.

We eventually got around to talking about the Krayola's latest project, a collaboration with longtime UK visual-art running buddies Art & Language called Five American Portraits. (They are Wile E. Coyote, former Presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, John Wayne and abstract painter Ad Reinhardt.) We talked about a lot of other stuff, too. Strap in.

Rocks Off: Which came first for you, art or music?

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Mayo Thompson: I was never a visual artist. I did some drawings and stuff in those days, but I was never a visual artist. Music was something I backed into in a way, something I found myself making. I don't know what you mean, 'which came first.' Like did I choose between two careers or something like that?

RO: Right.

MT: No, I didn't. Music was the thing. I studied art history at St. Thomas. They did not have a studio art department at that time, and I don't know that I would have used it anyway. I studied art history there and made music.

RO: What are the origins of the Krayola in Houston?

MT: You mean why did we start a band? It seemed like the right thing to do at the time. One was looking for something to do, some way forward, to use a figure of speech. Seems as good as any. Popular music was something I had known about for a long time, and been exposed to all my life. My mother played music around the house, and I knew about it.

Also in the '60s, music changed a little bit. The folk thing had been rolling for a while, but then it gave way to electric music. I was interested in those forms, and I was interested in those ideas. I went to Europe in 1965 and sat there for a while and looked around.

When I came back, I got in touch with my friend Frederick Barthelme and suggested to him that we should start a band, that that seemed like as good a way forward as any. I had done a little bit of playing at that time, and Rick had played a little bit of drums, so we just had a bash.

RO: Were you trying to consciously go against the grain of the music that was popular at the time?

MT: I always consciously try to go against the grain of anything that's popular at the time. I'm contrarian by disposition, and unorthodox and iconoclastic and all those things. That makes sense to me. At the same time, I wouldn't want to characterize what I do as going against the grain for its own sake. It's just the way I do it, the way I see it.

The orthodoxies and the standard-issue ideas and so on, things like that, have never been satisfying to me in any way. They always seemed to me to be pious in some way... or I shouldn't say that. That's judgemental. Let's just put it this way: It's not for me. It never spoke in a voice that spoke to me or for me. So I was interested in trying to find something that I could say grace over that made some sense in relation to the ideas, at the same time, that wasn't what was already going on.

Plus I come from a school of thought where if somebody's already doing something, you don't do it. You don't duplicate those relations, you try to find something else. Those kind of constraints informed it, and certainly I have to confess that to a young fella it's a lot of fun to get in people's faces. Getting knee-jerk reactions out of people and stuff like that, there's a certain kind of transitory gratification involved in that, and I confess to having done some of that kind of thing.

But it was not really the main impulse. I always hoped, perhaps, and dreamed to some extent, that one was involved in a conversation where everybody was doing pretty much doing the same thing, looking not for just for the known goods but looking for what else might be there in some sort of developmental sense.

That was still an idea in the '60s, that there was somewhere to go with those things. I've since been disabused of this idea. There is nowhere to go, apart from across the road, maybe. Does that make any sense?

RO: I think so. How did you translate those sorts of ideas into the music you were making?

MT: Just to talk about different things than 'Baby, I love you' and 'It's a pretty day.' Rather than trade in tried and true, to find something new. It also operated at the limits of one's abilities, of course.

When we started playing, one of the things that was palpable to us was how our musicianship stood up to the quality of musicianship with which we were familiar, which included classical music, and then jazz, and then on down to people who were adept at various idioms, like great guitar players like Hendrix or those kind of things. The music made by the Beatles, or the music made by the Rolling Stones, all of which is derived from other kinds. The Beatles, I hear English music-hall music, you know, and the Rolling Stones are obviously R&B.

We were moved by the intensity of jazz bands to some extent, like Albert Ayler was certainly a figure that we admired and had great respect for, partly because he knew his way around his instrument and he could play very well, but he chose to use it in a fairly expressive sort of way and to treat it as an instrument where it was not about technique, and it wasn't about mastery over the scales or those kind of things, but it was about an activist relationship to the ideas, and that the instrument was an instrument conveying those ideas.

So we started from those principles. And we also had some kind of understanding of art, as a kind of progression or series of movements, which it had been up until that time. Those days are over, but it had been up until that time. And we were familiar with notions of avant-garde and notions of [phone rings] Can you hang on one second?

RO: Mm-hmm. [Mayo talks to wife on phone]

MT: Sorry. My wife was calling to report she had survived the traffic. Yeah. You know, in the '60s the world was a lot different than it is now. The '50s had been a glorious time for the United States, and in the '60s things were starting to look a little frayed around the edges in terms of some of the verities that one was taught, or expected to live up to in some way.

I don't know. The war in Vietnam was getting going real good. It was just a different world. The civil rights movement, all that stuff. It was a time of change, and we were as anxious as anybody to change it, and we were perhaps a little disrespectful. I will say that.


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