There's an anecdote that Red Krayola singer-guitarist Mayo Thompson likes to tell about philosopher of science Sydney Morgenbesser. "He's at some philosophical conference," Thompson begins, "and some linguist is up there saying, 'A double negative is always a positive, but there's no language where a double positive is a negative,' and Morgenbesser calls out from the back: 'Yeah, yeah.'"
His delight in the story isn't surprising: Its air of intellectual combativeness, and the tension between its cerebral set-up and colloquial punchline, are also features of the records that Thompson, the band's co-founder and sole constant member, has released under the Red Krayola banner over the past 35 years. The joke also makes a serious point about how language, music, and other representational systems tend to outstrip our attempts to generalize about them -- another thread uniting the Krayola's various incarnations, from its psychedelic-era origins to its present form as a geographically scattered conglomerate in which Thompson wields more seniority than control. As he puts it toward the end of our lengthy conversation, "I don't want there to be a hierarchy of relations. The hierarchy is obvious: I write a good chunk of the material, but everybody participates in this collective project, and the royalties are dished out accordingly. I get the most, but I'm the oldest and the meanest."
The Red Krayola's new double positive, Fingerpainting, may surprise -- and initially frustrate -- fans of the band's guitar-driven, song-centered work on Chicago indie Drag City, which started releasing Thompson's records in 1994, about the time he took a teaching position at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design after two decades in Europe. The first clue that something's up is the record's personnel. The current core participants are all present, but so are founding members Frederick Barthelme and Steve Cunningham, with whom Thompson recorded the band's debut, Parable of Arable Land, in Houston back in 1966. Typically, the packaging -- and Thompson -- maintain some mystery about who played what, or when.
The disc opens with "George III," a minimal guitar piece recorded in England during the '80s, which cross-fades into "Bad Medicine," a mangled blues with bad-trip lyrics ("How can I keep you around in the state you're in?/You're bad medicine, baby") and MIDI rhythms constructed by Albert Oehlen, a German visual artist who's been a Krayola associate since the mid-'80s. After this, there's a burst of clattering improvisation, topped with Art Center colleague Stephen Prina's calm repetition of what Thompson's just sung. Similarly, sometime-vocalist Sandy Yang (who came into the fold as an Art Center undergrad) begins wailing the lyrics to "There There Betty Betty" immediately after the "straight" version is finished. And so it goes, song and non-song interrupting each other for the length of the disc, all with a smudged, gestural quality befitting its title.
In this way, Fingerpainting is consciously modeled after Parable, which alternated acid anthems such as "Transparent Radiation" with sprawling "free" tracks performed by the core trio plus the Familiar Ugly, a loose amalgam of Texas hippies who congregated around the band early on. On Fingerpainting, the "open sections," as Thompson now calls them, include unreleased material from the original Barthelme/Cunningham/Thompson era, but the record's running order isn't as simple as old noise/new song. "The alternation isn't quite so coherent," Thompson says. "There's only a couple of instances where you get a pure blast from the past, so to speak. The rest of the time you might find -- if you cared, or knew, or if it mattered, even -- that it's embedded in other kinds of material recorded at other times and other places. All the tunes are vintage material: 'Bad Medicine' is a tune that Cunningham had when we met him. But the recordings of the songs are all contemporary versions, handled in a certain way. There is obviously a game of alternation being played: This is a song structure, this is another kind of structure -- what kind of structure is this?"
In a separate phone interview, Tom Watson -- the guitarist formerly of Slovenly and Overpass, and a Krayola mainstay -- explains further: "The basic song structures were done in an afternoon with me and David [Grubbs, ex-Gastr del Sol guitarist] and Mayo playing three guitars, trying to synchronize with these rhythm tracks from Albert. But there are also bits from live performance, little parts he might have asked me to play at a show two years ago, and there's a lot of collage work, using digital tape the way people used to use analog tape. There was a lot of compiling of bits and pieces from different sources, so I have a feeling this record was something Mayo had considered for a long time."
In a sense, Fingerpainting extends Thompson's collaborative ethos by forcing disparate periods of the band's history into dialogue with one another. It's a challenging piece of work, but a rewarding one: Once you get past their peculiar handling, the songs are among the most accessible the band has released, and after a few plays, even the most difficult sections reveal a wealth of structure and detail. It's too restless and irreverent to be termed a "career retrospective," but it is something arguably more worthwhile: an extended inquiry into what it might mean to file three decades in the contested space between popular music and contemporary art under one slightly silly two-word name.
The Red Crayola (the name's earlier, legally actionable spelling) as such was born in Houston in 1966, an outgrowth of Thompson's association with Frederick Barthelme -- now a Mississippi-based novelist, and brother of the late short-story writer Donald. Barthelme, then a fine arts major at the University of Houston, began as the band's drummer but was soon playing everything he could find.
Joined by bassist Steve Cunningham, a philosophy major at St. Thomas University (where Thompson also attended school, studying art history), they played around the burgeoning Texas psych/blues-rock scene and cut Parable with help from the Familiar Ugly and Thirteenth Floor Elevators frontman Roky Erickson. They were met with dumbfounded reaction: In January 1967, the Houston Chronicle ran a short story on the Red Crayola headlined "Are All Sounds Music? Ask the Red Crayola."
Even this early on, the band's membership tended to be fluid. "When we met Cunningham," Thompson says, "we got two other people along in the package: a woman named Bonnie Emerson and a harp player named Danny Schact, and we were playing covers and some originals. And then there came a moment when we were playing, and suddenly there was another guy on stage named Mark Frohman, who owned the club we were playing in at the time, and suddenly we were up to six, and it was beginning to be like Jefferson Airplane." The intended follow-up, Coconut Hotel, was an anti-rock barrage of organ drones and "One-Second Pieces"; it was half Fluxus-style experiment, half attempted kiss-off to International Artists (the band's ill-run label) -- and to hippiedom itself.
"It represents not least the firing of the Familiar Ugly," Thompson says. "There came a moment when that was not the point, to become the Grateful Dead or Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters and wander around thundering each other on the back about the same stuff over and over. It was about this damned experiment, this project. So we moved away sharply. When I fired Danny Schact, he said to me, 'That's OK, your music is ontologically unsound anyway.'" Recorded in 1966 but shelved until 1995, Coconut and the chaotic festival performances collected on the recently issued Live 1967 back up Thompson's claim that the band's contrarian approach was already in place.
"The blues thing was going down," he says, "and we were around all these people who were like musicologists, and we'd say, 'How can anybody want to play the blues now, especially when there's all this other exciting stuff?' So we were confrontational in that sense. It was a problem for us too, because we knew something about [John] Cage, and something about jazz, and we were chastened by these things. We stood there with our little hands wrapped around Albert Ayler's Bells and thought, that's important shit, we're going to have to go somewhere. So we were always thinking strategically." A stretch in California produced studio sessions with John Fahey that have never seen release, but Barthelme left the band after its return to Texas.
Thompson and Cunningham made a second second album (God Bless the Red Crayola and All Who Sail With It) before putting an end to the Krayola's first incarnation. After Corky's Debt to His Father, a 1970 solo album, Thompson next surfaced in New York, working as a studio assistant for Barthelme's old hero Robert Rauschenberg and playing music only casually. In 1973, though, he met members of Art & Language, a predominantly British collective who were among the earliest and most analytical exponents of conceptual art.
"When I found out what was going on in Art & Language," Thompson says, "I found something that made sense to me already. I'd given them Corky's Debt, and they said, 'The music is fine, but aren't the lyrics kind of personal?' And I said, 'Well, if you've got a better idea of what songs could be about, give it here.' A couple months went by, and I got some lyrics from Michael [Baldwin] and started putting them to music."
By 1976, Thompson was in London making Nine Gross and Conspicuous Errors -- a performance video that's never been released commercially -- and the album Corrected Slogans, both of which match skeletal backing by Thompson and 16-year-old drummer Jesse Chamberlain (later of the Necessaries) with Art & Language's dry, unsingerly voices and their intentionally antilyrical lumps of Marxist art theory. Here, pop form and decidedly non-pop content either cancel each other out ("It's an Illusion" sets lines like, "It's just not autonomy/That support for technology/Is hegemonic agency" to the chord progression of "Teenager in Love") or fail to meet at all, as when painter-critic Philip Pilkington simply recites prose over a drums-and-piano march: "Don't listen to sociologists; don't talk to sociologists. Social practice has no sociological content."
1981's Kangaroo and 1983's funkier Black Snakes are musically richer, better-realized versions of the previous collaboration, with Thompson joined by a who's-who of Rough Trade post-punks, including members of the Raincoats, Essential Logic, and Pere Ubu (which he joined for a time in the early '80s). Both records feature versions of "A Portrait of V.I. Lenin in the Style of Jackson Pollock," which decisively demolishes the romantic myth of "Jack the Dripper": "They say that art killed Pollock/As if that could be/In fact he missed a bend/And drove his Ford into a tree." Even now, the song is a highlight of Red Krayola's live shows.
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.
"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."
The differences between the Red Krayola circa 1966 and 1999 may lie less with the sounds it makes as with how it talks about them. On Parable, these open sections were identically titled "Freeform Freakout," a trippy description Thompson seems to regret, but on Fingerpainting, each gets an elaborate title that mocks the possibility of giving a rational account of such abstract music. The funniest, in its entirety, is: "A Sow With an Abbess's Bonnet Is Sitting on Four Rock-Objects and Singing Along With Them. The Song Sounds Like a Cheater, and Is Imprisoned in a Striped Toy Box Because Its Aims Are Not Recognizable. On Top of the Box Is a Head That Could Be Elvis's, If He Had Survived This."
Stranger still, the title is actually a useful guide for listening. The cheap-sounding keyboard that runs through the piece could well be compared to "a striped toy box," and the strong backbeat that ends it, presumably the handiwork of Hurley, could, conceivably, have something to do with Elvis. I can't help you with the sow, though.
Similarly, Live 1967 reproduces a manifesto written by the band's original Texas line-up, full of notions about the nature of music that were in the air at the time: "Music is that which is proposed as music. We free the sounds and free ourselves of responsibility to them or for them." Fingerpainting includes a manifesto of sorts as well, but it's cagier, less Cagean, a punning take on the universalist tone of free-jazz liner notes:
"Music is the feeling horse of the planet. Spin across, void, to that space where next to nothing shows through its feeling." As far as the author is concerned, there's no conflict between the two statements, though he's well aware of the shift in emphasis.
"That earlier language is Cagean, and therefore philosophical, and this language, it's crackpot, quote unquote," he says. "And then you get to the end of it, and you find out that we're sincere: 'Dig the dignity.' It's the deployment of sincerity, the avoidance of any engagement with irony -- this language is as fresh as a newborn babe."
Thompson is joking; he's not joking. Both and neither -- you can tell by his tone of voice. Yeah, yeah.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.