Thompson's twins

Three decades later and smarter, Red Krayola's Mayo Thompson holds a mirror up to his first freakout

On these records and 1979's fierce, Ubu-backed Soldier Talk, which Thompson characterizes as "a response to punk," the stylistic features most associated with the Red Krayola are fully in place: the lyrics' impersonal nature; the use of multiple vocalists for specific effects; Thompson's elaborate melodic writing and fractured sense of song form; and a constant tension between skilled playing and an unfinished, seat-of-the-pants quality that prevents the music from lapsing into "progressive" dullness. As Thompson says of A&L's own visual work, "the gestalt remains deliberately slightly clunky."

Art & Language continues to this day, mostly as a nom de brush for painters Michael Baldwin and Mel Ramsden, along with "house critic" Charles Harrison. In the catalog for a recent retrospective exhibition, they commented that on Kangaroo "the musical performance and the lyrics were engaged in an uneasy detente." After repeating the line in a lightly sardonic tone, Thompson takes issue with this reading.

"Art & Language's view is highly mediated," he says. "They rightly want to stay in their own domain, and they want the Red Krayola to stay the Red Krayola. But for us, I don't think there's an uneasy detente, because I don't see any difference. They may express themselves in different terms-record shop vs. gallery, record company vs. museum or collector-but the formal issues are more or less structurally the same, and the logical issues are surely the same. This domain of fine art, high art-that's their turf and so on, but I would want to challenge that idea. I would want to say, 'High art, what the fuck is that? What's low art?' Gimme a break.

Mayo Thompson, then and now: "I would want to say, 'High art, what's that? What's low art?' Gimme a break."
Mayo Thompson, then and now: "I would want to say, 'High art, what's that? What's low art?' Gimme a break."

"I think they have content, we don't-how about that? Their words and their stuff is about something, where our stuff isn't about anything -- it just is that stuff."

No members of Art & Language appear on Fingerpainting (though Michael Baldwin is credited on 1997's Hazel), but Thompson's fitful collaboration with the group remains fruitful. One of his current projects, with sound artist Marina Rosenfeld, is the completion of the music for their "opera" Victorine, about a French policeman who mistakes the nude figures in paintings by Courbet and Manet for a serial killer's victims. Beyond this, Thompson freely acknowledges the impact this collaboration has had on his subsequent work.

"Working with them sharpened my whole relation to the craft of writing, and how to take caution in making certain assertions," he says. "I learned those kinds of lessons in the trenches with those guys. The other thing that I was able to sort out for myself was the extent to which tone of voice and delivery in performance is also a factor in language. My involvement with Art & Language, if nothing else, reflects my will to find out if there's a justification for doing this. In what terms can it be justified? And not because I fucking want to and I'm a white boy and I can."

The mid-'80s to early '90s, which Thompson spent largely in Germany, were considerably less prolific -- an album with Oehlen here, some music for Derek Jarman's The Last Of England there. It wasn't until Thompson returned to America and sent some demos to Drag City that the Krayola underwent its third renaissance-thanks, in part, to contributions by a third generation of art-rockers in Chicago (Grubbs, Jim O'Rourke, John McEntire) and Southern California (Watson, former Minutemen-Firehose drummer George Hurley). The Red Krayola's most recent work combines all the theoretical sophistication and improvisatory spirit of the past with -- theory be damned -- a liberal dose of the Texas R&B Thompson grew up on.

Which makes this as good a point as any to ask: How important is knowing the band's extensive history when coming to grips with Fingerpainting? According to Thompson, not very. "I believe in a single point of reference in isolation from all others. I believe that one Red Krayola record will do; get at least one in your collection, please." (Thompson held a similar line in a 1997 interview: "If I explained how a song was put together, and then you listened to it, there's no guarantee that that's going to make it any better, or make it work if it didn't work before.")

Watson is more cautious: "My instinct is that it's important to understand something about the band, or at least the way people have been collaborating through the years. It's at least important to be alive to the possibilities of improvised or live music."

But Thompson has a point: It might be interesting to know that Bobby Henschen was a jazz pianist (still active in Houston) that the band knew in its early days, or that his contribution to "Filthy Lucre," which ends the album, dates from the early '70s. But you don't need this information to get the point of superimposing Henschen's florid, expressive piano cadenza and Oehlen's implacable MIDI beat, two utterly incompatible ways of organizing sound, each pointing out the other's limitations. Still, Thompson sometimes speaks of Fingerpainting as if it were a full-dress cover version of Parable of Arable Land.

"The first time we made the album [Parable], we had eight microphones open and filtered it down to one track, in mono, with 15 people raving down one line," he says. "But we were able to choose the events and sequence things and so on, and we effectively did the same thing here. It's not just, 'Let this random crap run with this random crap and let's hope we get something groovy.' It is deliberate."

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