TOTALLY WIRED: THE RUNNER-UP TRANSCRIPTS, #1
Q&A with STEVEN BROWN of TUXEDOMOON
questions by Simon Reynolds
Can you tell me a bit about your personal background?
Born August 23 1952 Chicago Illinois; grew up in Hinsdale- western suburbs. Wanted to study film, checked out nearest University with a film program in Iowa and it was a bit expensive so ended up in Liberal Arts program at Western Illinois. University for 2 years. Looking for a niche with other like minded outsiders like myself got involved in underground theatre and with the White Panther Party. In addition to putting out an independent newspaper with innovative typography and color scheme (rainbow effect) they organised blues concerts on campus. It was there I developed my love for da blues. Moved to Springfield Illinois. To attend brand new ‘alternative’ style SSU –Sangamon State University. Studied revolutionary China, art history and took a class in contemporary music where one day the teacher asked us to “play the room”. Here I met my first synth --a small suitcase that opened into a painted touch sensitive keyboard and oscillator knobs. Until then my musical education had consisted of piano lessons at age ten (thanks mom) and clarinet through junior high and high school.
And what got you into music first and how your taste developed?
The commercial radio of the 60s and later discovering an all night FM underground radio station from Chicago. One night the Dj ‘Scorpio’( I still remember his name) fell asleep and his snoring was broadcast til dawn. I believe this had a lasting effect on me. Also the few records my parents owned: Barbara Streisand, Harry Belafonte and How to Scare the Hell out of Your Neighbors, these all had their unique appeal for me. It was finally the cinema that brought me to music. I saw SINBAD with effects by Ray Harryhausen and music of Bernard Hermann and I knew what I wanted to do.
How did you come to San Francisco?
For my high school graduation I got a plane ticket to San Francisco and went with a friend, took Super movies in Marin County on the coast which really moved me. Two years later returned in road trip with friends and discovered the Angels of Light. Fell for a bearded transvestite in the show and moved in with him at the AOL commune. The theatre of the Angels was a revelation. This is what theatre was meant to be: a Dionysian rite of lites and music and chaos and eros.
In an interview I read, Jay Cem described SF as "the kook capital of the world". And in the sleevenote to Pinheads on the Move, Blaine compared it to Montmartre back in the day, a bohemian paradise. Can you give a sense of the reasons why SF was so great for unusual people and artists of all kinds?
Not only was but hopefully remains so. There are many theories —holy Indian energy center — mediterranean climate — the last stop on continental USA heading west. One need only look at the Beats in the 50s, the Hippies in the 60s, the punk in the 70s -- to see a cyclical flow of energy. When we were there people were always experimenting and trying out outrageous concepts in their daily lives and in performance -- and finding an audience. I was lucky to be part of the Angels of Light which were offspring of the Cockettes in the 60s —- glitter gender-fuck theatre queens who inspired Bowie and Elton John. We lived together in a big Victorian. Men women children and dog pooled all our disability checks each month, ate communally 100% vegetarian and used the rest of funds to produce lavish theatrical productions -- never charging a dime to the public, believing art should be free.(They were very serious about art being free and nobody in the group was allowed to participate in any profit making ventures relating to theatre).
You could write a book on the Angels of Light and I hope someone does. A ‘family’ of dedicated artists who sang, danced, painted, and sewed for the Free TheatreGay or Bi men and women who were themselves works of art… extravagant in dress and behaviour, disciples of Artaud and Wilde and Julian Beck. We were living the Marcel Carne’s film “Les Enfants du Paradise”. Every show required months of work from writing of scenarios to musical scores, costumes, sets, dance numbers etc. My debut was standing on the stage of the San Francisco Civic Auditorium in front of a packed house dressed as a giant starfish (a costume I had made) playing a clarinet in a gorgeous underwater set…the show was: ”Paris Sites Under the Bourgeousie.”
Could you give me a sort of bohemian topography of the city? Where did people hang-out, where bands played? Performance spaces, all night cinemas etc.
There were 3 places in North Beach: The Savoy Tivoli, The Mabuhay Gardens (a Filipino restaurant by day), and a place around the corner whose name I forget….’City’ something… There was the Mutants loft by the bus station; The Deaf Club in the Mission District, an authentic club for the deaf where you ordered beer in sign language and where presumably the patrons obviously didn’t mind the music because they couldn’t hear it but liked the vibrating floorboards. The Café Flor on Market and 14th was where everyone went for good coffee (still a rarity in those pre-Starbucks days) and good crepes. Here there was a mix of nearby Castro Street queens and punks and artists of all sorts. The Roxie cinema on 16th street. Midnite shows of Rocky Horror in a cinema on Market St. Tuxedomoon staged several ‘salons’ in the Angels of Light rehearsal studio on Valencia in the Mission. There were many private parties. In fact Tuxedomoon played for the first year or so in private homes at birthdays etc -- hooking up our ‘gear’ to hosts stereo system in guerilla fashion.
What I've read, it seems like there was quite a lot going on in terms of art-rock/experimental stuff before punk? What was it like, and how did punk change its direction?
We were just starting Tuxedomoon when I heard ‘God Save the Queen’ for the first time. I still see the moment clearly… putting on the headphones in the house at 3645 Market. It was exhilarating and inspirational.
Did punk open up more of space for left-field artists like yourselves?
Yes and no. The punk ‘do it yourself’ anything goes attitude was shared by most promoters and so yes, all kinds of acts got a chance to play. But very soon punk ossified into a puritan dogma of guitars bass and drums and screaming vocalist. When Blaine Reiniger and I first started performing in public --a violin, a sax, a synth and a tape-recorder -- the crowd threw beer bottles and screamed: “Where’s the drummer!!??” The forest quickly got lost for the trees I felt. For many, punk came to represent only one simple style of music.
So both you and Blaine were studying electronic music, right?
There was a very high quality City College where residents of SF could study for free. It was like Xmas. I took classes in etching, piano, harmony, and Blaine and I took a class with Jerry Mueller in electronic music primarily to get our hands on the giant Buchla-built synthesizer and the tape recorders they had there. This was before the days of polyphonic keyboard synths and the class was more like an electronics or physics class … voltage… oscillators... square waves etc. We produced sounds by patching cables and turning knobs. Music concrete and Subotnik like bleeps were the order of the day. At term's end we all had to perform a piece. Most were unbearably sterile and abstract, if not pretentious. With the aid of Tom Tadlock, who would later become Tuxedomoon's producer-manager-guru, I set up a tape loop system designed by Brian Eno and diagrammed on the back of the lp Discreet Music. Into this system I played Tadlock’s Polymoog producing successive layers or washes of string sounds -- what today would be called New Age I suppose. Blaine on the other hand assaulted the academic flourescent-lit ambience head on, singing and dancing in a white smock with a balloon headdress to a pre-recorded tape and projected Super-8 film. Absurd and entertaining: the perfect performance in the perfect place. It turns out we both enjoyed each other's performance --different as they were from one another.
Forming Tuxedemoon, how did you ‘assemble your sonic idenity’ i.e. the instrumental choices made, things ommitted, goals, taboos, self-chosen restrictions, role models if any?
Our identity came largely from what was at hand — synthetic rhythms recorded on tape at school — Blaine’s violin, my sax, Tom’s synth. Inspiration came from many fronts: Burroughs Phil Glass, Eno, Roxy, Bowie, Cage, Reich..etc The only rule was the tacit understanding that anything that’ sounded like’ anyone else was taboo.
In one piece, the band cites its influences as: "burroughs, bowie, camus, cage, eno, moroder". Can you say what you admired or drew on vis-à-vis these artists?
William S. Burroughs -- ideas concerning use of media - tapes, projections, his radical anti control politic in general as well as his outspoken gayness. Early on we duplicated on stage one of his early experiments projecting films of faces onto faces.
Cage – use of tapes and radio and noise. His books more than his music.
Bowie for his unabashed showmanship and constant changing of styles and musical explorations.
I read somewhere that there was this initial concept for Tuxedomoon as combining music, theatre and writing into some sort of "Unified Field"?
Big on Scriabin and Wagner.. delusions of grandeur. Of course I suppose we succeeded in our own way. I can think of shows we did using tapes, live instruments acoustic and electric, professional painted sets hanging on stage, Winston Tong in black tie and tails manipulating wondrous homunculi created with his own hands, a female chorus - Victoria Lowe at once vocalist and foil to Winston Tong, our sound man Tommy Tadlock a protégé of Nam June Paik … then later with addition of Bruce Gedulgig we had film projections, covering all the bases…
There was a fair amount of talk at this time, especially in the U.K., of getting rid of stale rock procedures and routines, the gig, the encore, etc. Was this a motivation? One U.K. experiment in these terms was Cabaret Futura, the brainchild of Richard Strange formerly of late-period glam outfit Doctors of Madness. You played Futura once, right? Moving away from rock, people seemed to look back (to cabaret, ultimately to show biz and "variety" ideas — everything scripted and choreographed) and look sideways to the margins (performance art, multimedia, film back projections etc). Who do you reckon did interesting work at the time in terms of outmoding the Gig?
Well, for a split second, film and performance art were a part of the cultural revolution of punk . Z’ev… Mark Pauline… NON… even Devo in the beginning with their Bruce Conner films. What happened was the tyranny of music over the other arts. It’s apparently still easier today to make waves with a music CD then say a new film. Although this has changed a lot lately with films like Happiness, Safe, Poison, Velvet Goldmine etc..actually making money. For Tuxdomoon our shows were always ‘scripted and choreoed’ after our own fashion. The point is there were video artists and performers like those mentioned coming in on the wave of energy then. Its just that to put it country simple; Tuxedomoon couldn’t even get airplay (in the US) with their discs so imagine for the rest. Living where I and a lot of other like minded souls do today,(Oaxaca) there is just NO ACCESS to non-commercial contemporary films,for example. This is a big city thing but hopefully will be changing as more and more people flee the grand metropoli. In fact in a way I suppose we are beginning to institute this change: one of my self appointed ‘jobs’ here in Oaxaca is showing 16mm films to the pueblo for free.
You mentioned Winston Tong -- what was his contribution to Tuxedomoon?
The name of Winston Tong already elicited a flicker of interest - excitement even before I ever met or saw him. First time was on upper Castro St in a salon / party in a very nice Victorian apartment The buzz of the party hushed and there in the center of the room was Winston in a black tux with 2 dolls for lack of better word, he himself used the word but they were really alive… these creatures, these homunculi he had created. This of course was a marvel to behold. Tong was and is a pro. He’s got the magic. Don’t know if you know the book by Thomas Wolfe.. You Cant Go Home Again.. there is a scene in that book that eerily seems to be describing what I experienced that night in the Castro. Later through mutual friend Victoria we delighted in Winstons participation in one of our Tuxedomoon salons held in the Angels of Light studio. From that moment on we worked together.
And you mentioned Bruce Gedulgig with his movies...
Bruce had been working with Winston for some time when we started working with him. He was studying film at the University of SF. The ‘instrument’ he played was super-8 projector.
You supported Devo at the Mabuhay, right? Did you feel any kinship with them?
We admired Devo a lot from the beginning. And of course there was an affinity between songs like "Mongoloid" and our "Pinheads" for example. We were on the same wave length for a minute… then they got famous and rich and we didn’t…
Tell me a bit about Tom Tadlock? He’s described somewhere as a "electronic music guru"? How important was he in the early days of Tuxedemoon. And whatever happened to him?
A few years before the encounter with Blaine, I had joined The Angels of Light. This was the real ‘America On Line’!! It was with the AOL that I met Thomas or Tommy or Tadpole. Tommy was the audio systems designer for the Group. He also owned a Polymoog. This fact alone already gave him quasi dio status for some of us. Long before I ever met him I was always hearing about him from various Angels. In fact he was extremely important to the Angels of Light which prided itself on its original scores and songs performed live with each production. I remember Beaver or Rodney mentioning his name with tones of reverence or desperation depending on the day’s events. In fact I remember that more than I do the actual moment of contact with the man. Suffice to say I ended up moving in with him. Later Blaine would do the same. Patrick Roques having moved in before him. And there in the house on Upper Market street beneath ‘Twin Towers’ with a view of the Oakland Bridge and Bay we all cranked out our weirdness together and lopped it into something called Tuxedomoon. To say Tadlock was a pivotal all important first member of Tuxedomoon would be an understatement. There is hardly a day goes by now that I don’t think of him. He was a guru in an electronic music and also a spirtual way. Sometimes frighteningly demonic yet always there to keep prodding us when we got lazy or discouraged.. in short he was blood.. one of us.
For Blaine, who played both electronic violin and guitar on stage, Tommy designed ‘Treatment Mountain’ -- a plywood pyramid displaying junction boxes or compressors or effects he had designed and built, as well as an Echoplex. Years later these treatment loops that sat on the floor would be marketed by every major musical brandname and used by guitarists everywhere. But this was only one instance of Tadlock’s genius and over the years Blaine and I realized how lucky we were to have known this man.
What was the concept behind "Pinheads on the Move" and "Joeboy The Electronic Ghost"?
Jolly jaunts up and down the yellow brick hiway between S.F. and Daly City I think it was, down south ie: outside the limits of the liberated zone and shot into California’s own quirky version of suburban life in the late 70’s. Blaine and his pal Leslie found no end of joy and illumination in these pilgrimages. Pinheads is you might say the soundtrack for these trips. Joeboy R Police was a grafitto on a wall in Chinatown, San Francisco that Blaine picked up and ran with, creating a whole new mythical character called Joeboy the Electronic Ghost.
About Ralph Records...did you ever meet the Residents or do they play that whole mystery shtick straight all the way down the line, hiding behind the Cryptic Corporation?
We eventually figured out that the guy doing the graphics and the engineer in the studio were in fact the Residents. They didn’t wear eyeballs to work so it wasn’t all that obvious at first. The other eyeballs that performed live as The Residents remained more of mystery.
What were the Ralph offices like?
They had a huge warehouse on Grove Street at this time. It consisted of Jay Clem’s office, a huge room full of records and a graphics studio and in back there was a recording studio. There was also a huge garage-like space used as a film studio and where we would eventually shoot JINX in 16mm with Graham Whifler directing. He did most of the early Ralph videos and it was an honor to work with him. I for one was more impressed by the Residents videos then their music.
Did you feel much sense of community with the other bands on the label, like Chrome and MX-80? The Chrome guys come over, in early interviews, as somewhat unhinged.
Not really. MX-80’s music I found intolerable and there were feeble unfruitful attempts to relate to Chrome. Damon had a sort of star complex though of all the acts I felt more affinity to what they were doing.
Who else was there of note on the SF scene? Factrix? Voice Farm? The Units? 2 plus 2?
Ive already mentioned Z’EV… NON… I liked The Mutants: they were a good time party band on and off stage. Factrix were interesting… The Sleepers is where I first saw Michael Belfer. They were good adolescent sexy rock. The singer Ricky was a sort of young Iggy Pop. Mark Pauline and his Survival Research Laboratories remains my favorite American artist. He always had live music. Matthew Heckert was in charge of that. He played a while in a band called The Pink Section. The Screamers were very good -- all synth no guitar.. They were from LA. Voice Farm I liked. The Avengers were a good classical punk band. The Tubes with Fey Waybill were already an SF institution when we arrived and did great shows.
On a lot of your music, especially Half-Mute, there’s a vibe of suave noir sophistication, slinky elegant despair, deluxe desolation – it reminds me a little bit of James Chance but without the frenzy. You called your publishing company Angst Music, and songs like "What Use" are all about numbness, anomie, worldweariness. Great lyrics. Likewise "7 Years" – the line "seven years went by in one night"—reminds a bit of those Eno solo album songs about immobility and being becalmed and stranded except for him that was a kind of bliss, whereas in Tuxedomoon it’s more like this insuperable ennui. So is all this where your heads were at? It seems to clash slightly with Blaine's descriptions of San Francisco in the late Seventies in terms of feeling blessed to be alive and there, a cultural dawn.
Well I suppose in that sense we fit into the nihilist punk ethos just that we had different orchestration. It was the times… being in beautiful free liberated SF didn’t preclude our own inner artistic tension and struggle for perfection. Antonioni lives in Italia and well, look at his films.
I’ve heard people going on about the tritone for years, it’s almost become a cliché a la the mythical sonic frequency that is supposed to make audience members shit their pants. But Tuxedomoon must have been one of the very first to actual talk about the tritone and use it in their music. How did you discover "the Devil's sound"?
It was Blaine who had had a classical background who educated us on this point. I came up with baseline for ‘Tritone’ and he pointed out what the interval I was playing was.
Tuxedomoon appear in in Downtown 81. Did you feel the vibes at the Mudd Club? Was there a sense of kinship between the twin bohemias of San Francisco and downtown Manhattan bohemias? In San Francisco it seems like black music and "dance" were less important as sources.
The Mudd Club was amazing. A hole in the wall that everyone waited in line to be hopefully allowed entrance to. The door policy was an underground parody of the Studio 54 policy. You had to be or look like somebody. Of course one of dear friends was at the door so we had no problem. I remember asking Johnny Rotten at the bar how PiL had gotten that great bass sound on their recent new lp. “With a bass.’ He replied. I also remember doing a great show and taking the lift up to the ‘dressing room’ where the owner Steve Mass bribed us with a bottle of Dom Perignon to do an encore. We felt pretty good about that. The Mudd Club was the epicenter of the New York scene for a good year or three. It’s definitely true the music in NYC was different from SF… more dance and black and Latin influences. It was maybe more urban where SF -- when it wasn’t copying The Clash ( ‘The only band that matters’ as posters on every corner reminded us) or The Dead Boys -- was blatantly experimental and more psychedelic. We always said it was good we didn’t live in NYC because the enormous support we received seemed related to the fact that we were from out of town. Once we played Danceteria which was the post Studio 54 happening giant commercial disco. Live acts were basically just a break between DJs and allowed 15-20 minutes on stage. Evan Lurie was overwhelmed when we got called back for an encore. It was the first time that ever happened there, he said.
There’s a kind of European-ness to Tuxedomoon’s sensibility – and of course you got big in Europe. Did you feel like exiles in America? The post-punk stuff that was going on in New York and SF never stood much chance of impacting the rest of America, did it? It took 15 years for even straight-ahead punk a la Nirvana and Green Day to make the mainstream of America. Is this why you made the move to Europe – a much more congenial and supportive environment?
It took me years before I could figure out why we were always branded as ‘European-like’. We did start in San Francisco, California after all. I think now that this perception had to do with our constant experimentation… and refusal to be a part of any one scene. Of course putting out singles like "The Stranger" with snips of Camus himself reading from his novel only stoked that opinion. Also the violin… the theatrics of Winston. When we did make the move to Europe we didn’t have a clue what it was going to be like. After three years or so we had gone from dodging beer bottles at the Mabuhay to playing sold out shows with lines around the block. SF is utimately a small town.. 700,000 was the official population and we said to ourselves ‘Well we could stay here and be a popular local act or we could go to LA, or New York or Europe.” We almost randomly chose Europe. Bruce and Winston had toured their in the Theatre circuit; the rest of us had never been. But yes we soon found to our amazement that there was a public there already and that yes in general we were treated like artists… something unheard of in USA. Ultimately working with Winston’s manager in Paris -- Maria Rankov -- we too played a more theatrical
state-sponsored circuit of professional theatres with dozens of dressing rooms and mirrors and sinks and showers etc. This was mainly in France. But everywhere the situation was much much more developed and professional than in the US for musicians.
In another interview, you talk about SF’s bohemian golden era ending with the assassiantion of the liberal mayor and Harvey Milk, and a shift to the right? Is that really what it felt like – Reaganism’s tentacles reaching the liberal mecca of Northern California? Time to get out?
We were in Europe on tour during the elections and Blaine joked to anyone who would listen (including the press) that if Reagan was elected we weren’t going back to the US. Well, essentially, this is what happened. It was a co-incidence of course and a good topic for the European press. But in SF yes there was a very dark period after the dual assasinations. The energy was very heavy and negative. When Dan White got off with such a light sentence based on his defense as being a family man under a lot of stress and surviving on Hostess Twinkies, well there was a huge riot. Dozens of burning police cars (White was an ex-cop). The City Hall didn’t have one window intact. It was an incredible outburst from the normally reserved if politically powerful gay community. Then when Diane Feinstein took over as mayor it only got worse. She was not well liked and had shady real-estate connections. Moscone was a Kennedy-like figure and Milk was the country’s first openly gay elected representative… it was a heavy heavy blow. And yes this made it a lot easier to move out of the City by the Bay.
And then you lived for a while in Utopia -- an 'artists commune' housed in a disused waterworks in Rotterdam. What was it like? My book ends in the early Eighties but I’m curious about the whole Belgium connection: There seems to have been a very receptive environment there for certain literate and arty musicians of the period – you guys, Ludus, Paul Haig, Alan Rankine. Was this a broad Belgian thing or really down to certain inviduals or a specific milieu? The whole Disques Du Crepuscule and Crammed milieu?
Life in the waterworks… well that was something. There was a queen bitch who lived in the tower and ran everything unseen. There were various Dutch artists there living and working quietly in their Dutch way. We all lived in one building and rehearsed-composed in the basement standing on planks over the 3 inches of water. There were large brick open cisterns of water in front and the Rhine river in back. Finally the queen decided we weren’t meant to live in Utopia. And we were unceremoniously evicted. We should include that in our curriculum; that we were thrown out of Utopia. So we were homeless -- quite literally not knowing where to turn when Maria in Paris saved the day saying another of her clients, a dance group in Bruxelles, the Plan K, were going to Brazil for 6 months and wanted to sublet their apartments.. Though nobody particulary wanted to live in Bruxelles, we had no choice and jumped at this opportunity. After the periphery of Rotterdam, Bruxelles seemed very much more alive and sophisticated… at first. The truth is it was the right time in the right place. Les Disques du Crepuscule and Crammed were just getting started and to have Tuxedomoon fall in their laps was a blessing to all parties. We soon had lots of work. Bruce hooked up with a video studio, Image Video, where we soon had carte blanche as well. And there produced our first videos and the Ghost Sonata. We always had a good public in Bruxelles but as far as it being home to so many ‘alternative’ artists this had a lot to do with Crepuscule and Crammed who really made the scene by bringing in artists from abroad and producing new music. Later of course Play it Again Sam became a major player. It's worth pointing out that Belgium had a very big electronic music scene as well in mid eighties long before the DJ craze of today.
more about Tuxedomoon at their official site
and at Blaine L. Reineger's personal website
and at this photo-laden fan site
and at this more discographic but cover-scan-laden fan site
exhibition at Garelie Dennis Cooper of Benoit Hennebert's cover art for Les Disques Du Crepuscule, including a Tuxedomoon or two
information on Isabelle Corbisier's book about Tuxedomoon
1 year ago