Craig Leon has been an arranger, producer, and artist in his own right in numerous spheres; sometimes ridiculous (Revenge of the Nerds Soundtrack anyone?), sometimes era-defining, sometimes exploratory. From Sire Records to Red Star, from the Ramones to Suicide to Blondie, he’s had his hand in those records which almost seem trite in their greatness in a contemporary context; mammoths in New York punk and pop mythology. For whatever reason; prestige in the NY scene, productive nous, his approach and personality (perhaps on account of all of this and more besides) he’s also attracted a fair heft of eccentrics over the years, working with Mark E Smith, Jeffrey Lee Pierce (of Gun Club fame), and Arthur Brown (that ‘GOD OF HELL FIRE!) on projects which have only further strengthened the illustrious and idiosyncratic character of his career to date.
If you missed the first half of Tea With... Craig Leon, check it out here.
Tim picks up right where he left off;
Yeah, very interesting. Anyway, back to the Suicide record and your own involvement, I know that dub and reggae was a big factor…I was wondering; did you go to Jamaica before you made the Suicide record…?
I went in ’73, I was involved at Sire for a while before the Ramones and all that happened. It took quite a long time from first bringing the Ramones to the attention of the label to them actually getting signed. There were all kinds of internal politics. There are so many stories, when so-and-so says ‘I saw the band, and signed them the next day’; that’s total horseshit, it was about a year long process, and a two year long process for Talking Heads…but in any case during that time I produced a number of records and one of the projects I got involved in was because of somebody I knew from Florida, again my old colleague who I built the studio with. There was a Jamaican band who came to record at Criteria quite a lot, they were a kind of Temptations-type band, and they were called the Wailers. Well, to make a long story short, one of the favoured artists at Sire was this lady called Martha Velez, who was from Puerto Rico and had been a cast member in the musical, Hair. And she was always making these records where the bands would kick-ass and were a lot better than her. Her debut album had the guys from Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the back…
Haha, wow, yeah, just in the background…
Yeah, and Van Morrison’s street choir band that she was in, so she always had a tendency to overachieve with the backing music, haha. And this was no different, she came to me one day whilst I was in the office and she said I wanna make an album of this stuff called reggae which nobody had ever heard of and she’d heard this record by Johnny Nash called ‘Stir It Up’ which was an Americanised version of a Bob Marley song. So she was asking if I could get Johnny Nash and his people involved to do this record so I was like why not get the guy who wrote that song? But at that point nobody knew who Marley was. He wasn’t crowned the ‘King of Rastafari’ or anything like that, he was just, to me, the guy who was in the Wailers. His manager lived in Philadelphia and he was known to the people at Sire. So I said why don’t you do something with his band? So, one of my favourite co-production credits comes out of that; the album ‘Escape from Babylon’ by Martha Velez, produced by Lee Perry, Bob Marley & me. ￼
Yeah, I had a brief listen the other day.
It got a little bit of attention in England, but by the time it was finished Bob Marley & the Wailers were huge, ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ had come out and he’d toured with Clapton, and he was starting to headline on his own, it was that fast. So I was involved in putting that record together but also in the end phases of it with backing vocals, percussion and mixing. I witnessed a lot of Lee Perry’s percussion stuff and of course when I’d gone down to Jamaica, I discovered all the dub toasting artists, and the guys who would do the roll and echo kind of reverb, space echo…it was like DJ-ing, in a lot of ways, a lot more advanced than the EDM DJ-ing.
Yeah, that’s interesting. It’s the roots of it all…
Yeah, really brilliant stuff. I loved it. Well they would get the backing tracks and rap over it and put all this reverb on it. So I loved that sound and it reminded me of all the old Sun Records. The old Jack Clement reverb sound on all the Jerry Lee Louis and Elvis records so Alan [Vega] was a natural candidate for that. Or so I thought anyway. And to some extent they did some repeats and stuff when they were playing live but I guess they carried it to a nutsy extreme of feeding back the echo on itself, as well as what you get at the end of those dub phrases and stuff, and feeding that back again. And so because of the way Suicide set up, all the sound came out of one speaker so that was the track and Alan came out and did the vocal, you know, and that was it. So on a 16 track tape you’d have one track or two tracks on a couple of mics, of Marty Rev, and one of Alan, so what we did was just what those Jamaican guys did. And as Alan would be singing and Marty (to some extent) would be playing I’d be treating those things and feeding them back on themselves and adding echoes and printing them to the other track of the tapes so we wouldn’t lose them, as opposed to the dub guys who did it live.
So in the end you’d get 14 tracks made up of effects and then two or three tracks of the actual performance so that’s pretty much what the Suicide record was, it was virtually mixed live. Marty Thaw spent a whole bunch of time working on it afterwards (I had to go off because part of the deal in relation to the record was that I would only be able to work on it for a few days because I had another record pending in New York) He had said that we’d be able to make it in a couple of days which we did but he got a little bit carried away with doing mixes on it forever and ever and ever and ever, and the more he did, the more effects came up. And when I came back from California and heard it, it was just like this blob…haha. So when we got to the mastering lab we pretty much went with the original version which is what you hear on the record now, which is closer to the live material. Although I’d be curious to hear the alien-sounding mixes now, they were very murky, I remember that.
Yeah, I’d definitely like to hear them. Well I was reading the other day – this is a bit tangential – about dub and there was an interesting story about King Tubby and Lee Perry, about one of their techniques. I’m not really familiar with it but a Spring Reverb Unit…
Yeah, the BX-20, one of my favourites…
Oh right, well I’m not sure if this is right, but apparently they used to just drop it and they would record the smash and it would just have this really earth-shattering sound…
Yeah, I used that on Nommos, beginning of the second track, although I fed all kinds of different stuff into it, not just the reverb. Its very easy to duplicate, I do it all the time actually. When I was re-recording Nommos I actually went in and got the BX-10 because I couldn’t find the BX-20 and did the sound all over again, bunch of low-end stuff, and just dropping it, it gets like a big boom.
(‘Explosive’ – the BX-20 and BX-10 reverb units)
Oh right, cool. Well I’d had heard that they used this sound to announce (I think) a new dubplate or DJ or something which just sounds great. Anyway…
Yeah, it’s a cool sound, I know what you’re talking about. The explosive, low-end kind of thing. Its on some reggae records, usually they would just do it by dropping it, they wouldn’t send instruments into it but if you send instruments into it, it gets a tremendous effect. I’m hoping to send a whole orchestra into it on the orchestral version of Nommos that we’re doing and on the new project that we’re doing.
Ha, it’ll be interesting to see what that’s going to sound like, an earthquake or something…anyway that probably brings us nicely onto Nommos & Visiting. I know that you’ve said that you’ve revisited and re-recorded some of this material, were there any different impressions you had listening to it now, as opposed to previously…?
Well I re-recorded it a long time ago actually, it was only because I couldn’t get a straight answer out of the Takoma label in relation to putting the record out again. They didn’t want to do it. The owner at the time, not the owner now, said you could put it out in Europe and I never got around to doing it and the current owners said no you can’t. Back when they said I could put it out in Europe I thought that I should just re-record this and not have any hassle and it was pretty easy to do. The recording process got more advanced over the years [between original recording and re-recording] and it’s a relatively easy record to recreate because its all electronic sounds and I have all the original instruments and all the patches. Some I’ve sampled and put in to digital over the years, and also there was a follow-up album that was written at the same time, which was Visiting; a more earthly version of Nommos and has everything in corresponding keys and rhythms and tempos, which came out as the second album but I always wanted the two of them to be together and I wanted very long, linking, meditative drones in between.
Now that we have CD, I was able to do that. All digital files whereas on the original it was all kind of divided up into two sides on the first album and into individual tracks on the second album, its like one album now and it really becomes evident, when you hear that now, on the newer issues that have come out. So it wasn’t so much that I heard new things, if I hear something ‘new’ I’ll put it in to some new material, but I kind of wanted them polished to the point of being a representation of what I wanted them to originally sound like. I originally wanted them to sound orchestral but I just didn’t have a budget quite honestly. But someone’s threatening –haha, I say threatening – allowing that to happen later this year and in which case that’ll really be the definitive version of those recordings and then there’ll be in shape for other people to play them, and I’ll be happy with that, and let them sit. Not gonna redo them forever and ever. But that’s why you see me doing it live with a string quartet at the moment because its kind of a halfway-house between the synth version and the orchestral version.
Oh right, so in the live version at the moment you’ve got both electronics and orchestral parts together…
Yeah, the sonic and string quartet, and the string quartet is behaving like percussion for the most part. They’re triggering noises and stuff and their own sounds are coming out at the same time. They’re doubling sounds that I’m playing.
We did a thing in Russia with it a couple of years ago that’s very poorly recorded on a handheld thing and very badly filmed but the one from Moogfest was recorded very well, the performance with the Asheville Symphony string quartet players, the one at the Poisson Rouge was done with ACME (the American Contemporary Music Ensemble) Those were well recorded and you can kind of hear what’s going on. Those should be up on the internet at some point soon and you’ll get an idea of where it could be going then just imagine it with maybe 40 players doing it rather than 4, 6 rather, so its going to be interesting, especially the part where we make the big [reverb] noise.
[Back to the reverb units, Craig correcting me and giving a speculation as to how the ‘explosive’ reverb was stumbled upon in Jamaica…] You didn’t have to drop the AK-G chambers, the BX-10 was small enough that you could just kick it. Probably what happened was that they used to do these things, the DJ’s would used to do their thing, with their turntables and their consoles on the back of an open truck, only one of the guys dropped one [of the units] off, being really stoned one day and BOOM!...this noise comes out and eureka!
Ha, serendipity right there. Anyway, to get back to Nommos/Visiting, can you give a brief outline of the Dogon tribe of Mali, their creation myths and their relation to the records?
Yeah, what it was, was – why we have the funny titles on those record as well – there was an exhibition in New York of Dogon art and a book that came out of it that I got a hold of. And if you go see the Dogon art, all through their history, thousands of years, its like one thing, much in the same way that European painting from about 900AD to about 700AD – eventually you get some rich and important peoples portraits in there – but 95% of it is pictures of the Holy Family and the Catholic church, and its Mary and Jesus and whatever, and an angel or something like that. Well they have the same thing, equally obsessive. Every one of their things in wood and drawing – I’m being broad by saying everything – a majority of them are these long, elongated creatures that look like kind of a praying mantis, half-fish kind of thing that were, they say, their version of angels which came from heaven in fiery machines and all this kind of stuff and taught them all the rudiments of civilization.
(One of the Dogon sculptures as pictured on the front of Nommos – design by Peter Saville)
And they honour them, and they have a great deal of information in their oral tradition and their mythology about what these beings said, what they did, great descriptive things. But the most interesting thing about it is that they described where these guys came from, when they were first discovered and they said they came from here, and they drew a picture of a very specific planetary system that was so far away from Earth at a certain time and it became obvious to the people they were describing it to, that it was the Sirius system from where they had said it was located, because they had a very specific location point of it.￼
(A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the Sirius star system – via wiki)
There’s a whole book written that discusses where these guys came from. They basically said that they had come from a star, one dead star, actually a double star, with one live star circling around it and their planet circled around the live star. Well, that was interesting. When telescopes were invented a little while later, they found out that yeah, the Sirius star system that they were referring to is one of the two or three in the solar system that we know of that exactly matches that description. So the question was, how did they know it? And they said that’s because the Nommos told us exactly where they came from (they call these guys Nommos) haha. So usually the most simplistic answer is the correct one. ‘Well how do you know that?’ ‘Because that’s where they say that’s where they’re from’…you know. So, that got me to thinking, well if they brought all the rudiments of civilisation with them, or let’s say the angel story is correct in our case…it became ‘what would the music of somewhere else be?’, what were they listening to? What was their music?
What was on their iPods...
Yeah, that would be it. Or in the case of 1979 – when we did Nommos – what was on their Walkman. A cassette Walkman at that. And as previously mentioned I told you I was a big fan of speculative fiction, alternative theories and things. So I didn’t try to make an ‘ethnic’ album and say this is what the Dogon tribe is, on a synthesizer, you know, it’s far from that. It was my own idea of what a very primitive system of music would be from another planet. So I said let’s make something like – not an exact representation – but something like very repetitive African drum patterns, and music very reminiscent of five tone scale or less, like what you would get in an ancient Phoenicia or ancient Egypt – from the earliest written things that we know of – and since the Dogon predate ancient Egypt, and this myth predates the Ancient Egyptian civilization (and there are theories that the Dogon actually influenced ancient Egypt)…why not start there and work backwards? So I kind of created a musical system of notation, depicting the melodies in very limited ranges, and putting them with these drum patterns. And if these were amphibious creatures, the whole thing would kind of sound underwater so I created an effect that actually put it in another environment which wasn’t earthly which is all that feedback and wateriness. On Visiting it cleans up a little bit (not much) because its more of an earthly vision but it is the same techniques and it gets into later Western kind of composition using the same things. On Visiting there’s a bunch of stuff which borders on the –dare I say it- ‘classical’ than on Nommos which will mean that it will take to the orchestral version a lot easier, and its more like the classical material I’ve been writing over the years. Hope that helps the sci-fi fans out there!
Yeah, I have a feeling they’ll like that. I wanted to ask about the metallic kind of sound that you get on Nommos, I’d heard that you used a Linndrum, is that the correct term?
Yeah, that isn’t the Linndrum though it’s how I treated it actually. The Linndrum that I had was a very early model of it that a friend of mine - a mutual friend of a guy called Roger Linn who had invented it - had. I was talking about doing a percussive album that had a lot of percussive bases but I couldn’t afford musicians so I thought this guy’s just invented the Linndrum why don’t you fool around with that.
(An early Linndrum model)
So luckily I got one of those but I didn’t know how to work it so I took it down to Texas where my wife Cassell [Webb] - and my cohort for years - knew someone who had a studio that was falling apart because he was going to sell it. But he said if he didn’t sell it, and we wanted to put it back together again, whatever our budget was for Nommos which was next to nothing, we could have the studio for. So we did, I went down there and did it and I brought the Linndrum down there and I experimented and kind of taught myself what to do with it in my mind – which isn’t what you’re supposed to do with it by the way. But I was learning how to use it and that leads to a whole other album of mine which happened by accident, with Arthur Brown (but we’ll go back to that in a second)
But that was a very flat sounding, dead sounding, very lo-fi sample of drums and it wasn’t what I was trying to get across but then with the watery sounds; I put them through some feedbacks and delays and harmonizers and split the sounds up a little bit and eventually used more of that than the actual sound of the Linndrum and that’s what you get on that album and again its pretty straightforward duplicating that, you can do it at home kids! You can’t do it on a computer too easily, you need a harmonizer – no wait, there’s feedback generators that you can use as plugins and they’re very close, in fact some of the stuff on the newer album is that. It was originally called an Eventide harmonizer
Right, ok (not too subtle admission that that was over my head) – I know I’m mentioning the percussion again but I’d heard you mention previously about Ballet Mecanique was that an important precedent for what you were doing percussion-wise…?
Yeah! Hopefully if there’s an adventurous hall somewhere, Ballet Mecanique and Nommos would come in the same ‘show’. Ballet Mecanique was written by an American who lived in Paris in the 1920s named George Antheil who studied with Stravinsky. It was the first piece of mechanical-sequenced music that we know of in history. Basically the first of what everybody is doing now. But obviously he didn’t have digital electronics or anything like that, what he did have was seven player pianos on piano rolls and he cut them up in a very specific way to play very specific patterns and then he looped them all together mechanically and hit go and that’s the basic drum track of that piece of music. Its done with a lot of percussion on top of it, no proper ‘strings’ or ‘winds’, its all percussion and player pianos and effects – he’s got aeroplane propellers going off on it and it was done on (Craig details how he’s got the original handbill up on the walls in his office) Saturday the 19th of June 1926 at four o’clock in the afternoon. That was the premiere of it. Ezra Pound played the bass drum…
(Shot from the accompanying Ballet Mecanique 1924 film shot by Ferdinand Leger – watch here)
Haha, wow…that. is. Great.
Yeah, it’s a big influence on me especially on the Nommos record. The idea of repetitive percussion has intrigued me a lot. Antheil never really wrote anything else like it which is sad. But then again I’m not going to be doing anything – at least in the foreseeable future – that has percussion like that of Nommos. Maybe it’s a one time thing, you get it out of your system, haha. ￼
(George Antheil in 1922)
I’m just imagining Ezra Pound on the bass drum now…
Ha, yeah. In fact I got this poster (the aforementioned handbill) from the Ezra Pound estate. There was an auction of a lot of his books and belongings but in any case he was a big champion of Antheil, he wrote a whole book about Antheil and modern music in the early 20s. In any case it was very much back to a folk-roots kind of thing that was done mechanically, he was very much into the folk-roots like what Stravinsky was doing in the ‘Sacre du Printemps’ which was using very ancient rhythmic patterns so both of those pieces in a way had me thinking when you’re talking about Nommos and Visiting. But there wasn’t an attempt to emulate them there’s nothing in Nommos or Visiting that’s remotely like Stravinsky, a little bit of it, some places are like Antheil but you’d be hard pressed to find the exact correlation, it’s the principle of the thing.
On the subject of composers I’ve seen people describe similarities between La Monte Young and Terry Riley and the Nommos /Visiting work, do you think that’s accurate? Did they influence or interest you much?
Well we were all in and around New York. Those guys are earlier. I mean I was a fan of Church of Anthrax and all of that but I don’t think there’s much of those guys in Nommos or Visiting except that there’s probably an attitude that’s part of that scene. And out of that scene Steve Reich and Philip Glass were around the same time as Nommos and Visiting and John Adams came a little later, it’s all part of the same theory. But it wasn’t a conscious attempt to do anything with that kind of music. The influences are more the folk thing and creating a new system and Antheil is more an influence when considering anything ‘modern’ rather than any of the contemporary people who were in New York around the same time. But I wouldn’t see any similarities between John Adams work and the Nommos/Visiting stuff and I don’t think John Adams would either. Its all kind of minimal, those guys were all exploring – when you get back to – modernistic-yet-black-and-white type images which those things are, they were exploring the same thing in their way. You’re closer to the noise jams of Velvet Underground at the beginning than to La Monte Young and what I do. And Suicide to some extent when it gets to the really noisy bits and the really eerie bits is closer to La Monte Young. But I always associate La Monte Young with having to have strings though. Strangely enough there’s bits of our quartet thing which probably sound more like earlier La Monte Young and Harry Partch - we won’t get into Harry Partch yet, that’s a whole other different system! That’s a much more complicated system, there’s 41 tones in scale
Okay! Well I feel like I’m mentioning a lot of ‘influences’ but I’m kind of carrying on with it here; Carl Ruggles?
Yeah, these are people who have influenced me in composition, in general. Carl Ruggles created huge blocks of sound in very dense pieces which are very short for the most part and he would take like four years to do eighteen bars and he was quite fanatical about it and he had his own system. So in the way that Carl Ruggles had his own system of composition I guess you can relate that – as Nommos has its own system too but they’re not the same system at all. As opposed to atonal he’s totally multi-tonal, he’s got every sound known to man!
One of his orchestral pieces, it’s eighteen minutes long I think [has that] But his complete works fit on a two LP set and they were done – believe it or not – somebody actually put out the complete Carl Ruggles in 1980 or 1982 or something on Deutsche Grammophone, if anybody finds it on ebay, get it! There’s a couple of old, old, old Colombia US recordings of Carl Ruggles supervising his own stuff or at least being aware of it while he was alive and those are good too. You won’t find him in many places, he’s rarely performed as he’s incredibly difficult.
I did hear he was a difficult personality too…
Oh yeah, he was a real irascible guy…the Mark E Smith of classical music or something maybe.
Carl Ruggles – ‘the Mark E Smith of classical music’
There’s a lot in common between Carl Ruggles and Mark E Smith.
Yeah? And you’ve obviously worked with good old Mark E Smith… (terrible description – apologies to any Mark E Smith/Fall devotees)
Yeah but having said that I never saw him as irascible. I never had any troubles with him, touch wood. I may now, now that I’ve said that I haven’t. He might give me a lug of shit or something but in any case I’ve always really respected him as a writer and a talent. Although he’s given a lot of credit, I don’t think he’s given enough, it’ll only be in the future when probably he won’t be around anymore or whatever that people will actually really get into him and what he was doing.
In interviews and the like I’ve always found him hilarious.
Yeah, he’s hysterical, he’s got a tremendous sense of humour. But then he’s not somebody you’d want to cross. Anyway, sorry to digress on that…
No! Any digressions on Mark E Smith are welcome. Anyway you mentioned the live dates earlier, St Petersburg, Moogfest, and Le Poisson Rouge…
Yeah, those are the start anyway.
I was just wondering out of the other acts there – cause obviously there’s this renewed interest in your work from RVNG INTL - whether any of the contemporary acts on RVNG interested you at these shows and what you’re currently into within that kind of sphere or elsewhere?
I know very little of it. Ever since the last Blondie hit I’ve been in the kind of conventional classic world, in terms of making my living which has been nothing like Nommos or anything like that. Finally after many years and *touch wood* I hope I have enough years to do it there are now classical labels which will allow me to do something as out there as Nommos & Visiting in the classical world.
Right, kind of a chance to bridge the two worlds.
Yeah, I think bridging the two makes sense. It’s not a crusade or anything it’s just something that I think is going to sound good - to get electronic music and electronic rhythms incorporated into the orchestra and start treating orchestral instruments intelligently that makes sense with delays, repeats and echoes so they become part of the actual music that they’re playing. It’s not just a question of, you know, oh we’re going to put a trumpet through a Marshall amplifier…that’s not what I’m talking about…it’s quite the opposite of that. But anyway the ones that I’ve found interesting on RVNG – I’m not an expert on what they do or anything – the one that I liked the most is a lady named Holly Herndon who I think is using the computer as a way of doing ‘found’ music like in a William Burroughs cut-up way. I think she finds sources rather than actually composing them. So again bridging the intuitive and compositional but she still moulds them into new compositions. I like what she’s doing a lot. There’s a girl – well I mean woman, anyone’s a girl to me at my age – Berangere Maximin who is absolutely at the forefront of doing that very same thing and she does it in a style closer to what I do and what I like. But those two come to mind in particular. But you know, Annette Peacock did a lot of it too in the 70s.
(Precursor to contemporaries Holly Herndon and Berangere Maximin – Annette Peacock)
But I think what’d I love to do is get involved – I actually spoke to the guys at the Boiler Room about it – with some DJ’s and really messing with things, it could be really, really interesting. I think there’s a lot in the modern EDM movement that I can learn from for instance. I’m not going to profess to know a lot about it but I want to find out more.
Yeah, I did see a performance not too long ago where a drum and bass DJ and an avant-garde, improvisatory guitarist called Derek Bailey collaborated live. I think that might be the kind of thing you might be getting at? A kind of collision of those two worlds.
Yeah, well I’d like to write something out and have them work with it structurally and let it fall apart. I did do some improvisation, you know, I can. I did an improvised piece with an old time synth guy who’s brilliant, and we did a duet with bass running through synthesizers and me running through Moog things. It was at Moogfest, they taped it, I don’t know if they’ll dare put it out but it sounds like some good noise. But yeah, I’d love to know more about it but again I only know the ones that I’ve actually physically seen perform.
Yeah. Well speaking (loosely) of new things. I’ve heard you made a passing remark in another interview about – obviously you mentioned Anthony Burgess earlier giving you that first edition – was there something to do with a ‘new language for singing’ for ballet which you were working with him on?
Well it was a stage show. It was a show that was performed at the Old Vic in 1994/1995 (I think, I’m bad on dates) and there’s a whole soundtrack of that if anybody really wants to find something that’s rare. It was a thing I did on synths called Klub Anima and they wanted to do it as a kind of play and I went to speak with Anthony Burgess about creating a language for them, for me to use in the actual sampled sounds that were supposed to create this otherworldly environment. It wasn’t space or anything like that, it was a mind thing you know? An inner mind experience type thing, it was an interesting little play. Unfortunately I met him at the very end of his life and he wasn’t in the mood to do it because he’d been diagnosed with a fatal illness for the second time in his life. He became a writer because he was diagnosed with a fatal illness very early in his life and so he said I better write some books so my wife will have something to live on and he lived for another forty years after that but I don’t think he was so lucky on the one he was telling me about. So we never really did that but I did get to meet him, he was an incredible figure and I’m really happy that I got to meet him for the short time that I did…by the way! He could be Mark E Smith’s father!
Yeah, I suppose I could see that!
I’m not talking literally, in mindset.
Anyway I know you’ve mentioned Mark E Smith and Arthur Brown – two incredible characters and figures – I really wanted to touch on, if only briefly, Jeffrey Lee Pierce.
Yeah, another one of that ilk. He was a really interesting bohemian writer that never really got to develop that side of what he was doing, he wasn’t very well disciplined which was his choice but I found him to be a really fun guy and really knowledgeable and hilarious…again. For a lot of artists, they have that criteria for any of us to want to work with them and he ticked the same boxes shall we say. Great guy and I was never really able to work with him again after the album we did again because of circumstances and him being on a variety of different labels and we just never got together. We’d always talk about doing it but we never did. I’m very proud of that album, the Wildweed album, in our personal favourites for Cassell (Webb – musician and Craig’s partner) and me.
(Jeffrey Lee Pierce – gun-toting, from the front cover of Wildweed)
Yeah I just had on ‘Love and Desperation’ today, it’s awesome.
Did you ever hear ‘Flamingo’?
No, unfortunately not. Which one’s that?
Somehow we talked the label into putting it out. It was Jeffrey’s experimental jazz album.
(Jeffrey Lee Pierce’s foray into experimental jazz)
We did it in one go for a couple of hours one night in the studio – Wessex Sound – and the premise was, we’d get everyone in the room and Jeffrey was going to lead it like on a Sun Ra Arkestra level. He had built up this orchestra of his friends and fellow musicians but everybody had to do something which they didn’t know how to do.
You’ve got a guy who’s an amazing bass player playing sax and on and on and on. I was playing string bass which I know a bit about and how to play but not enough to qualify as a good string bassist and he got everybody in the room and said ‘play whatever you want’ and he gave us a bunch of hand signals – ‘so only when I do this one thing, you’ll do that, and when I do another thing, you’ll do that. When I do this, you’ll stop. When I do this, you’ll go again. Everybody play at once, when I point to you stop playing’. He gave us a whole bunch of rules and we just ran the tape and its miraculous and it came out on Static records, a label associated with Virgin, they actually did release it. Again if anybody sees it on ebay, get it! And it has Slaughter Joe on there too, duets between him and Joe doing Hendrix. It’s a very bizarre record. And there’s a thing with Cassell on there too called ‘The Fertility Goddess’ which is Jeffrey doing poetry and she’s playing weird flute things in the background but try and find it! It’s a good album.
Yeah, well for me I’ve got into him through the Gun Club…
Yeah its nothing like the Gun Club, its more like New York loft 1963 Archie Shepp land but you know, not quite as well executed.
Yeah, sounds great. Anyway, I was wondering if you’d heard one of Mark E Smith’s home recorded version of one of the tracks off of Nommos, on ‘Seminal Live’?
Well they used to use Nommos as their intro tape. What you’re hearing on that is the sound of it coming out of the PA and the audience.
For some reason I thought it was him at home…
Well he’s done so many recording he might have done that as well. I don’t really know. But I think he calls it ‘Mollusc in Tyrol’ (click on the link to listen on Spotify) Well it’s the sound of the people coming into the hall, to hear the Fall, and Nommos blaring out over the speakers. I think he talked over it as well or maybe not I can’t remember. I have it somewhere. I haven’t heard it in years. It takes me back because I did an imitation of him on Hilly Crystal’s version of ‘White Lightning’…(Craig proceeds to do an impression of the chorus) Kind of like the revenge of Mark E Smith.
Anyway, well we’ve covered a lot but I thought I should mention Harry Smith in light of the title of your new collection.
Oh, yeah it’s a homage to him. Again he’s one of these guys…he predates all of the New York people. I did meet him, he had a long life and was quite a character in the village. I had known him initially because he had produced the Fugs first album. He was a collector and anthropologist and collector of American Indian Art and North Western Indians (he was from the North West of America) He did a lot of treated film pieces, one of these early guys who’d paint on film and tint film to make projections like what became early light shows amongst many other things. He was a magician and all sorts of stuff but he had a very large folk record collection (78s) which he tried to sell when he was broke to a guy who had a folk label in New York. This is in the late 40s, early 50s and the guy said I can’t afford to buy all these records cause there are like thousands of them and he said well what you could do is do me kind of a compilation of what you think the best 12 of these would be and I’m going to put them on this new thing called ‘the LP’. So in his usual methodical way what Harry did was, he made four albums but he chose the songs for very, very specific things. To do this whole social equality thing that he was into between black and white people, and he also did things with cabbalistic symbols revealing what songs should follow each other and his liner notes are incredible. It was called the Anthology of American Folk Music. It was a four record set, different colours for each album and all of this kind of stuff. There’s CD reissues of it, the Smithsonian institute issues it actually but the original albums were on this little label called Folkways or RBS which was a division of Folkways.
The thing was, in the 60s, myself included, and in the 50s in some cases, since it was one of the earliest collections of folk music that was out on an LP, people who were into folk music bought that so they could learn the songs that were on it. All these songs by early country singers or early black singers or early blues singers and Cajun, all kinds of ethnic backgrounds and it’s a brilliant, brilliant compilation. Kind of hard to listen to in places because a lot of its really obscure stuff. There’s great shape singing, there’s all kind of stuff on it. It’s actually a cross-section of Americana from the 20s till the 30s (when they recorded it) and he did it in a very specific way. So this system that he created was to effect the mindset of the people who were actually listening to the record. That sounds like hogwash until you learn that all the people that picked that up to learn folk music were people like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and all the people who were part of the spearhead of the American Folk Movement in the 1960s which became the American Protest Movement in the 60s. And all of the logic that they were using was kind of exemplified in this record. It was America as one big melting pot, no racial or cultural discrimination allowed, that’s what Harry was talking about. And that’s what they carried on in their message. Oh and there’s a story, it may be apocryphal, that in the 50s when he put it out when he delivered the album he told the guy at the label, Harry Smith said in fifty years’ time we’d have a black American president because of this album. So Nommos is volume one of the interplanetary folk music and fifty years’ time we’ll have an alien president!
Yeah, fingers crossed! That’s the main thing for everybody to take away from today – everyone who’s reading.
Yeah, a good friend of mine – Angel Corpus Christi – had heard me say that somewhere else and she sent me a picture she drew of the future alien president of the United States and it’s fabulous. It’s got tentacles and a little American flag on it.
It’s going to happen, definitely going to happen. Okay, one last question – I suppose it’s a ‘fun’ one – since we’ve been talking a lot about the Nommos & Visiting records and the supernatural and outer space, I was wondering if you’d ever heard of the Voyager Golden Record?
(Golden Voyager Record)
Oh yeah, there’s some good stuff on that. It was sent into space and it has Chuck Berry and…
…Stravinsky and Beethoven and…
Beethoven Opus 130 Cavatina is on that, from the string quartet and it’s one of the most gorgeous pieces of music ever written. So if an alien can listen to it and hopefully not hear it as a bunch of buzzsaw noises, it’ll be good listening. But its kind of like throwing a pebble into the Atlantic Ocean and hoping that you’ll hit a shark 500,000 miles away so I don’t know if it’ll ever be heard but it’s a nice thought you know.
I was wondering if you were the chairman of the committee who picked the songs to go on the record, what would you choose?
Probably some of the ones which actually got on to it.
Yeah, the Beethoven piece I just mentioned, something by Bach (which I think is on there) because it’s so mathematical that it might appeal to any culture. Again, provided they hear it the same way we do but that one could be mathematically analysed very easily and they’d think oh maybe there’s half a brain in these creatures. And the primal stuff, Chuck Berry, and they did some ethnic stuff so I wouldn’t of done much different. I might have put more ‘sounds of earth’ rather than actual musical things and I think there’s some correlation of writing and numbers on there which is probably more important than the music quite honestly. So unfortunately it’s a bit of a dud but I don’t think I would have put anything different on there. I don’t think the aliens would be enlightened by ‘I Belong to the Blank Generation’ or anything like that so none of mine needs to go on there.
But, if you could, put any of your own on there, what would you choose?
Oh! Nommos! With a question mark, and something saying ‘was I anywhere close?’