As a student of electronic music at San Francisco City College in the late seventies, Tuxedomoon’s Blaine L. Reininger always had an affinity for synthesizers and sequencers. At the time (and place), the then novel electronic instruments were more geared towards experimentation than making pop songs—a distinction for which Reininger, a classically trained violinist, had little use. From this healthy disregard Tuxedomoon’s dark, humorous, and cinematic art rock was born, and with it a massively influential spirit of experimentation that continues to cast a long shadow over post-punk and electronic music today. In Athens, Max Dax and A.J. Samuels caught up with Reininger to find out more about Tuxedomoon’s latest recordings and the pains of rearing the bastard child of pop and musique concrete.
Blaine, you’ve been living in Athens since 1998. Here it seems like markets for music and art function independently from the rest of the crisis—because things are booming. How did you end up here and what made you want to stay?
Even though the crisis has been getting international press for the past two years, the writing has been on the wall for a while now. But my decision to come to Athens had nothing to do with any of that, and neither did my decision to stay. Before I came here I was living in Brussels, but Brussels just kind of crashed and burned for me. My wife of seventeen years was dying from a heart condition, there was no work for us, and we were being evicted from our apartment. We just really needed to get out and go somewhere else. We had some contacts in Athens, so we got on a plane and left Belgium without thinking too much about the future. A short time later, my wife died and I was pretty devastated. I didn’t really know how to deal with my life, much less take care of our son. It took a few years, but things have completely turned around. It’s been quite a trip since coming here.
It doesn’t sound like you have such fond memories of Brussels…
At the end of my time there I started to believe that what I had achieved in the past was pretty much it for me; that the rest of my life was just postscript. That things didn’t turn out that way is, in a sense, a miracle … or at least really unexpected. There was a time in Brussels when all I did was stay inside my apartment, watch TV and take drugs.
When things started picking up again for you after you moved to Athens, it seems like they picked up for Tuxedomoon as well. One can say without any hesitation that the Bardo Hotel Soundtrack from 2006 is one of the great and outstanding Tuxedomoon albums. Some bands age like bread and just get stale—Tuxedomoon seems to age more like wine or whiskey.
I’m glad to hear it. For the Bardo Hotel sessions we actually went back to San Francisco to record, which was a big deal for us because we hadn’t been back there as a band in almost twenty-five years. We let the city and all of our memories—good and bad—just seep into the music. We tend to improvise endlessly, which means that the real task for recording is collating it later. Our most recent recordings were done in Brussels, so you can imagine that was a really heavy experience for me. The whole band had lived in Brussels for around twelve years, and then one by one, everybody left. I was the last one to leave and I didn’t turn off the lights. When I finally took off, I cursed the place and spit on the ground. I just thought, “Fuck this place, I’m never coming back here again.” But I did, of course.
Was it easier to confront the past in Brussels after you already had the experience in San Francisco?
Well, I think in both cases it was good for the music and it certainly felt therapeutic. It’s important for me to drag my consciousness along to places from my past. I’ve changed, you know? I’m much more “aware” than I was in the old days. I’ve shed different kinds of addictions over the years, and in the process I’ve become much more lucid in my thinking. I would say in general I try to pay more attention to everyday activities, which is a pretty Buddhist approach to the world. Revisiting the past and seeing it with new eyes is important. For me, these aren’t necessarily happy places, because I’m not really a happy guy. I thought I was finished in both San Francisco and Brussels, but I’ve discovered a whole new story … and it’s been good for the whole band.
Bardo Hotel includes lots of field recordings. Were these sketches of San Francisco part of a process of reclaiming the city for you?
We’ve always used field recordings in Tuxedomoon to incorporate our environment in a lateral way, not in a literal one. You know, we’re not interested in singing something like, “Oh San Francisco! I’ve come back to you! How pleasant!” but rather to kind of subconsciously allow elements of wherever we are into the music; to just open the channels to the environment and see what filters through. Musique concrete has been an important part of what we do. You know, Tuxedomoon was founded by a bunch of guys who were really steeped in these kinds of methods and a modern aesthetic. This is the stuff I was learning when I went to San Francisco City College. My homework in my electronic music classes was to go and listen to Cage, Fontana Mix—stuff like that.
You describe an intellectual and emotional past that are completely intertwined.
They are! And talking about this stuff is like psychotherapy for me. I could just keep yammering away about it forever … But really, I think I couldn’t possibly separate my emotions from my intellect, because people like John Cage have affected me in both areas so strongly. I mean, music, sound and silence are emotional … although Cage had a much different understanding of the concept of silence. He once described going into an anechoic chamber—a completely soundproof room—and hearing two sounds: a highpitched tone, which was the sound of his own nervous system, and a low-pitched tone, which was the sound of his own blood. That’s when he decided that true silence doesn’t really exist.
Entering an anechoic chamber can almost be painful—initially you feel this strange pressure on your ears, as if the air’s being sucked out.
It’s like diving—or being in an airplane that’s descending too quickly.
John Cage’s experiences with anechoic chambers were what led him to explore the concept of silence—which, in turn, led to exploring the sounds of chance. What role does chance play in the way you think about and write music?
I’ve always felt drawn to chance because of its Buddhist underpinning, you know? Chance as a way of reading the events of the universe … It’s like taking a random slice to analyze the whole—like with using the I Ching to figure out where to go in musical situations of your own invention. The funny thing is that when I’ve employed Cagean methods in the past, the result was almost always pop. And I’ve had a lot of success with that over the years … as have other people. David Bowie has done similar stuff writing lyrics with cut-ups and whatnot. It’s really good when you’re out of ideas, or when you haven’t played for a while.
So is employing modernist techniques just a way for you to shake things up before you write a pop song?
How do I put it … The process of composition is like tuning a radio receiver; it’s like making yourself sensitive—making yourself a conduit for a flow of information. Chance systems help to put you in a state of heightened sensitivity to your own thoughts and actions …
As if you’re eavesdropping on yourself…
You certainly step outside of yourself. I like to put my personal desires and prejudices aside to get into a kind of instinctive state. Then it feels like I know what I’m doing in some deeper sense. Whenever I set out to write something more literal—something where I can say “This song is about this, that, and the other”—that’s always when I get the worst results. And that goes for whatever medium I’m working in: theater, dance, whatever. To do good work, I need to be in a creative trance.
What’s your definition of pop?
The way I use the word I usually mean music that employs standard harmonies, diatonic composition, chords, melodies, lyrics, a four-four time signature—that kind of thing. Basically, a pop song is something that’s recognizable as a “song”, as opposed to simply organizing sounds.
Do you see the hybrid of these two aspects in your own music as a natural evolution?
I think modernist methods in all the arts have widened the field, which definitely should be a normal and natural thing. Modernist painters were the first to use photographs and collage and found objects in art to produce something other than painterly renditions of the “real” world. In the same way, that’s what happened to music. And it started pretty early on—like with Satie using a typewriter in his compositions. That stuff broadened the field of what constituted music and eventually became part of pop music through bands like The Beatles, who were digging composers like Stockhausen. It also helped that they were using drugs … But that’s what I grew up with—the notion that nothing’s forbidden in music. If it makes sense and goes with the internal logic of the music, no sounds are off limits.
These days, it seems like noise, atmosphere and field recordings are a permanent fixture of pop music. Does it bother you at all that some bands have gotten rich using techniques that Tuxedomoon pioneered, while you guys never really got your due in terms of fame and fortune?
Because that wasn’t really your ambition?
Actually it was, but we got over it. These days I don’t really have any ambitions. My ambition is to stay alive. I guess back in the day we were all much more arrogant and thought we’d be enormous rock stars. But I think everybody does when they start out—everybody thinks they’re going to be David Bowie or something. At this point I’m content to do what I do and that I’m given opportunities to do it. I consider myself fortunate. You know, I think this whole avant-garde thing, starting from the second half of the twentieth century, needs to continuously be repeated. It has to be told again and again because people forget what’s been done! And there’s always reactionary elements that kind of erase or whitewash those influences. Especially in America, people want to undo all of the progress that was made in the sixties. It amazes me today that so many Americans don’t know what happened in the fifties and sixties with Cage or The Living Theater or Ginsberg … People should know this stuff!
Do you see it as an obligation to constantly revisit and reintroduce these figures and ideas?
Well, the recordings Tuxedomoon recently did in Brussels were for the soundtrack of this iconic queer film from the sixties, Pink Narcissus, by James Bidgood. I guess you could call that revisiting the past. I mean, it’s not something I personally feel a connection to, though it’s brilliant stuff and has been hugely influential. I don’t feel any obligation to teach anybody about a given era of music, but I think that’s sometimes the result. I would say our new material is sort of jazz-like—at least the process of playing for hours and hours on end.
Wading through massive sessions was a popular way for jazz musicians like Miles Davis to record. He and his producer Teo Macero used the studio as an instrument, taking material—the nuggets of longer jams—and splicing them together.
The jazz association is funny for us, because there’s certainly a part of our audience that’s more like, uh, jazz fans … We played Sofia recently and up in the front rows where the tickets were more expensive were the jazz guys, while the back rows were all goths. Our fans are a real motley crew.
You performed in an early episode of Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party. It was interesting how early Tuxedomoon—which could be associated more with a West Coast, Residents-like San Francisco avant-garde—mixed in with New York’s downtown punk and art elite, people like Chris Stein, Debbie Harry, Basquiat … Did you guys feel at all intimidated when you performed there?
We were just thrilled that they were so welcoming to us, you know? They really treated us like we were one of their own—like a “New York” band. All those dudes had this junkie disdain for the whole flower-power thing, which they carried on from the Velvet Underground and stuff. But I think we were despairing and dark enough to be acceptable. On the tape you can see I had this big, goofy grin on my face while playing my violin. Everybody else in the band looks really serious…
So does the crowd.
Yeah, but Glenn looks real happy introducing us in the end. He was a huge booster for Tuxedomoon on the East Coast. He wrote about us in his column for Andy Warhol’s Interview and said something like, “If you can’t find The B-52’s in your local record store, then Tuxedomoon’s Pinheads on the Move will serve as a fine temporary substitute.” I guess our sound and our shtick was a little goofier back then … But not so long after that, there was a palace coup and the rest of the guys in the band stood me up against a wall and said, “We’re going to get serious now!”, and we did. We shed the Residents- and Devo-style postmodern humor real quick.
Glenn O’Brien is a pretty discerning critic, so it actually means something when he offers his praise.
That’s true, and the whole band feels indebted to him for all his support. But I have to say that as renowned as all those people are today, at the time they were completely unintimidating because they were so stoned and drunk. TV Party was just that: a party. Debbie Harry and all those people sat around like royalty, but they were beyond trashed.
What was Debbie Harry like?
Really nice … and unintimidating! Aside from being totally hammered, she was also in between dye jobs, so you could see her roots and stuff. And she also had the craziest dandruff … not that she gave a shit though. I remember before and after filming we went around to this chain of bars they have in New York called the Blarney Stone. The drinks were insanely cheap—a gin-tonic or whiskey soda cost, like, fifty cents. For three or four bucks you could get totally blitzed. And Tuxedomoon fit right in with the rest of the drunks. I remember somebody interviewing Bruce Geduldig and asking him where he liked to go on vacation. He was like, “I just like to stay at home and take a lot of drugs.”
In Germany, we call a stay-at-home vacation a “holiday in Balconia”.
Nothing beats a good staycation. ~
Picture 1 – Blaine L. Reininger shedding some light in Athens, Greece. Photo by Luci Lux.
Picture 2 – Blaine L. Reininger (teaser) hamming it up for the camera on Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party.
Picture 3 – Tuxedomoon (left to right): Friedrich Engels, Steven Brown, Reininger and Peter Principle.
Published January 27, 2012.