Artist You Should Know: Mayo Thompson and Red Krayola

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Since the late ’60s, the Red Krayola has served as one of America’s premiere art-rock bands, marrying the ramshackle Dadaist blues of Captain Beefheart with the more academic approach of English avant-rockers Henry Cow. While their records have been consistently distinct from anything else on the scene (or even from their own discography!) the one unifying component of all their releases has been the leadership of main singer, songwriter and guitarist Mayo Thompson.

From their psychedelic-flavored debut, The Parable of Arable Land in 1967, to this decade’s Five American Portraits (featuring musical sketches of John Wayne, president George W. Bush & Wile E. Coyote), Thompson and his ever-rotating Red Krayola cohorts have reflected, deconstructed and reconstituted the notion of pop music.

To my mind, this makes their rare appearance at REDCAT in downtown Los Angeles this Saturday (Nov. 7) an event not to be missed.

Thompson’s career has been an amazing series of records, events and projects, bringing him in contact with an enviable array of artists through the years. These include the 13th Floor Elevators; Guy Clark; John Fahey; visual artist Robert Rauschenberg, filmmaker Derek Jarman; electronic music pioneer Dieter Moebius; industrial rockers Pere Ubu (which he joined for a couple of years); and post-punk bands the Raincoats, Cabaret Voltaire, and the Fall (all three of whom Thompson produced key recordings for in the late-70s). His more recent collaborations were released by Chicago-based label Drag City with John McEntire of Tortoise, and Jim O’Rourke and David Grubbs of Gastr del Sol.

Thompson brings a palpable energy to his projects, which tempers the often-thorny music with humor and a decided lack of pretentiousness. But there is also an underlining artistic intention behind the tunes, using improvisational techniques from jazz and complex structures from art music, combined with a desire to sound utterly unique.

“It just built into this rather oppositional, contrarian relationship to the given,” Thompson told me in a phone conversation last week. “We didn’t play together, we played at the same time.”

This Saturday’s REDCAT performance will be based around the Red Krayola’s 1976 album Corrected Slogans, released in conjunction with the Art & Language conceptual art collective. It’s an oddball collection of songs that combine fairly accessible and stripped-down folk-rock melodies with heady, cryptic politically-themed lyrics that delve into topics such as sociology, feminist Harriet Martineau, the ’60s activist group Students for a Democratic Society, Aristophanes’ play “Thesmophoriazusae,” and Marxist theoreticians Leon Trotsky & Georgi Plekhanov (which makes it the perfect album to perform under REDCAT’s larger umbrella exhibition, Hotel Theory).

A high-brow educational opportunity disguised as a concert, or a low-brow tongue-in-cheek rock extravaganza based on historical themes? Who knows. I’m sure I’ll be as mystified as the grand majority of the audience (and maybe even some of the band), but that’s part of the fun.