David Fricke – “Kramer: Life at the Top of the Underground” (1990)

July 21, 2009 at 11:13 am (David Fricke, Music, Reviews & Articles)

From the May 17, 1990 issue of Rolling Stone (#578), comes this article by David Fricke on Kramer (the original), head of indie label Shimmy-Disc Records and leader of alternative bands like Bongwater and B.A.L.L. He’s made some pretty weird, trippy records over the years that are always fascinating and experimental. This article was taken from a time when he was first seriously making his mark as a producer, songwriter, musician, and label chief…

 

“I’m bored already.” Kramer rolls his eyes and groans as he listens to the music blaring out of the speakers overhead. It’s only a bit past noon, and the session has just started. But Kramer – owner of and chief producer and house engineer at Noise New York, a small recording studio in lower Manhattan – is already fidgeting in his tattered swivel chair and impatiently fiddling with the knobs and faders on the console. He tugs irritably at his long black ponytail and rescues the tape of a new song he’s producing.

“I’m still bored,” moans Kramer (he doesn’t use his first name, Mark) as he listens again to the track “Ill-Fated Lovers Go Time Tripping,” by Bongwater, a band he co-leads with actress/performance artist Ann Magnuson. The song is a bewitching piece of acoustic psychedelia, with spacey guitars and a droll, dreamlike recitation by Magnuson (“I always just wanted someone to give me a pill, and I could play guitar like Jimmy Page”). But to Kramer’s ears, it still lacks a certain something.  

“Maybe it needs some cellos!” A pause. “Nah,” Kramer says, turning to guitarist Dave Rick. “Let’s do a whole new instrumental section.” He sends Rick out to do some acoustic overdubs.

Suddenly Kramer is in overdrive, bouncing in his chair with relish as the tape rolls. “Let’s do some more of that totally stupid geek shit!” he raves as Rick, sans rehearsal or practice takes, lays down a rapid-fire series of freakout solos. The overdubs are done in fifteen minutes, about half the time some producers take to get a proper sound level. Kramer takes another fifteen minutes to do a final mix of the finished track and transfer it to a master reel of the album he’s working on, an underground folk compilation called What Else Can You Do? The entire session, including the “I’m bored” bit, is over in forty-five minutes. And earlier this morning, Kramer recorded and mixed another track for the folk album, by a singer-songwriter named Dogbowl.

For most producers, that’s a full day’s work. For Kramer, a thirty-one-year-old dynamo recognized as one of postpunk rock’s most successful entrepreneurs, it’s just an appetizer. He hustles over to his loft apartment, adjacent to the studio on the top floor of a three-story walk-up, and goes to the corner desk that doubles as the Noise New York office and the headquarters for Shimmy-Disc, the hip independent label of which Kramer is founder and sole employee. He checks his phone messages, scans incoming faxes and rifles through a leaning tower of demo tapes, promo photos, lyric sheets and scribbled notes related to his multitude of current projects, among them the folk compilation, already half-finished; Shimmy-Disc’s latest college radio hit, Mystical Shit, by the band King Missile; new LPs by Bongwater and Kramer’s other band, the now defunct B.A.L.L.; a song and poetry album by Tuli Kupferberg of the Sixties punk-protest bards the Fugs; an upcoming production job with the alternative fanzine darlings in Galaxie 500; and a collaborative album with Jad Fair of the veteran underground band Half Japanese.

Kramer actually takes a few moments to cuddle his two cats and play with his pet cockatoo, Blanche, before popping into the Shimmy-Disc “warehouse,” a tiny storeroom downstairs, to go over some outgoing orders. Grabbing a mouthful of egg bread, which passes for lunch, Kramer rushes out to hail a cab to his Brooklyn pressing plant, where he’s remastering the King Missile LP for European CD release.

“I’m always rushin’ to relax,” he quips at one point. But Kramer is quite serious when he later remarks, “The blood pumping through my veins is in the ink in the pen of Shimmy-Disc. I’m able to run this operation sheerly by forcing nature to accommodate me.”

Kramer is living proof that energy and missionary zeal count as much as, if not more than, business acumen in the perilous world of indie-rock economics. Noise New York lacks some basic amenities: One part of the console-room wall is torn away; a speaker is missing from one of the studio monitors. But the combination of affordable rates (forty bucks an hour) and Kramer’s discerning ear has drawn such left-of-center celebrity customers as former Velvet Underground drummer Maureen Tucker, avant-jazzman John Zorn, the New York guitar thrashers in Pussy Galore and Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller.

Meanwhile, Kramer has built Shimmy-Disc into a pillar of outlaw brotherhood and misfit aesthetics in the underground marketplace. There are no written contracts (“Everyone on Shimmy-Disc is really a friend of mine,” says Kramer), and acts are free to leave for a better offer. Yet Shimmy-Disc has released more than thirty albums in less than three years and scored hits with King Missile’s Mystical Shit and Bongwater’s brilliant 1988 LP Double Bummer, which is nearing the 20,000-sales mark. The label’s catalog is also a marvel of vitality and variety, ranging from the haunted man-child warbling of Daniel Johnston and Dogbowl’s strange, folkish Tit! (An Opera) to the art-punk squall of B.A.L.L., GWAR’s cartoon heavy metal and the big-band-jazz dementia of the Reverend Fred Lane and His Hittite Hot Shots.

Bongwater’s Ann Magnuson describes Kramer as a kind of “Ken Kesey character, the ringmaster for all this activity by people who on their own would never get it together to put a record out.”

Tuli Kupferberg likens the rampant eclecticism of Shimmy-Disc to that of legendary Sixties label ESP-Disk, where the Fugs rubbed shoulders with the likes of Pharoah Sanders, Pearls Before Swine and Sun Ra. “Kramer is very open and very personal,” Kupferberg says. “He doesn’t sit down and say, ‘Okay, what should I do here to make more money?” And he does it all with so much energy.”

“Yeah, in the taxicab of alternative music, I press my foot down on the accelerator just a little bit further,” Kramer says with a dry laugh. Still, he notes, success is a relative thing in his remote corner of the pop universe.

“How’s this for the benefits of an underground rock star?” Kramer says quite sincerely. “I took my two cats to the veterinarian down the street, and she said, ‘Don’t worry, it’s on the house.’ That was really nice of her. Saved a hundred bucks, too.”

 

One day early in 1988, Lou Reed arrived at Noise New York to play lead guitar on two tracks on a solo album by his old Velvets band mate Maureen Tucker. Kramer, who was engineering the session, put a single microphone in front of Reed’s guitar amp.

“He said, ‘That’s the only mike you’re gonna put on it?’” Kramer says. “He grimaced and turned away. You could tell he was biting his lip. Then he came into the control room to listen to his solo after I recorded it, and he didn’t believe that I had only used one mike. He went out to look at the other microphones to see if they were plugged in, to see if I was lying.”

Reed and Kramer then had a rather nice chat – the former grousing about how engineers usually take eight hours to set up his guitar sound, the latter remarking on the absurdity of spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on making a record. “I’ve been in studio situations,” Kramer says, “and I can’t understand, even if you have the money, why on earth anyone would want to spend $300 or $400 an hour to play Pac-Man or pinball.”

At Noise New York, you get the most for your studio dollar. It is not uncommon for Kramer to record the basic tracks for an entire LP in mere days. For example, the twenty-four tracks on Jad Fair and Kramer’s 1988 LP Roll Out the Barrel were recorded in two weekends. And, says Fair, “those were all first and second takes of songs we’d never even practiced.”                

Kramer frequently appears on Shimmy-Disc records as a sideman, contributing bass, guitar and keyboards, and he’s not afraid to step in as de facto arranger when he thinks a song is headed into a wrong, or worse, boring, direction. “He calls us ‘my pop band,’ says singer-guitarist Dean Wareham of Galaxie 500. “He comes up with all these ideas which are often initially conceived as humorous – clicking of fingers, a ridiculously high vocal or me playing the harmonica, because I can’t play the harmonica. But in the context of the song, they don’t sound ridiculous at all. Like he has a sixth sense of what really works.”

“Everything about the way I make music is improvisatory,” Kramer says. “I go with the first take all the time. You always find that the most interesting thing is where you took the most chances. And that’s always the first take, when you don’t quite know what you’re doing yet. I always roll the tape when people think they’re just doing a test, because it always ends up being so much better than anything you spent rehearsing.”

With B.A.L.L., which split last year after four searing albums of outre guitar thunder, Kramer (who played bass), guitarist Don Fleming and drummers Jay Spiegel and David Licht eschewed rehearsals entirely. “That’s why B.A.L.L. was so exciting,” Kramer says. “In King Crimson, Robert Fripp used to have these things called ‘sonic cues,’ where he would just start a song and everyone would start with him. B.A.L.L. had that down.”

“That’s his stock in trade – immediacy,” says Ann Magnuson. “It’s maddening, too. Every time I work with him, I just go out of my mind. We’ll do these live performances with practically no rehearsal at all, and I’m very unnerved by that. Actually, I think that’s exactly what he wants from me.”      

Frankly, anyone used to the tonal comforts of Top Forty radio, AOR rock and post-R.E.M. guitar jangle will be greatly unnerved by the wayward tonality of many Shimmy-Disc releases. Kramer agrees that a lot of the artists he works with could be classified as idiot savants – songwriters and musicians blessed with an intuitive gift for compelling, unorthodox self-expression but wholly lacking the refined technique that would land them in, say, Guitar Player. “I take that as a compliment entirely,” he hastens to add.

But there is method amid the mania on each Shimmy-Disc release, whether it’s the cacophonous outbursts of B.A.L.L., the trippy garage-folk musings of King Missile on Mystical Shit or Bongwater’s heady Double Bummer cocktail of monster guitars, TV sound bites and Magnuson’s funny, nightmarish narratives. Kramer’s records are nothing if not psychedelic – as in mind expansion, as in the deliberate altering of sound to test the limits of accepted rock & roll order.

“I think there could be something mind-expanding in this,” Kramer says. “It’s not rooted anywhere, in the late Sixties or anything. The root of rock & roll is sound. The organic root is the blues, but in what I do it’s simply sound. Altered sound.

“I sell records to teachers, scientists, people at M.I.T.,” he continues. “We don’t have to assume that everyone who buys my records has reefer. Yet there is something about that lifestyle, that feeling, that is very apparent on records like King Missile’s They and that I do feel very strongly. I can’t put it into words, which is why I guess I make music. I guess I was compelled to start Shimmy-Disc. I had to make music.”

Born in 1958 to an unwed mother who gave him up for adoption a year later, Mark Kramer (his adopted family’s surname) grew up on Long Island playing a different kind of music, studying classical organ and winning state competitions for his mastery of “that Phantom of the Opera bullshit.” By the time he got serious about rock, Yes and ELP were all the rage; in school, he played in art-rock cover bands, including one combo with future Stray Cat Brian Setzer.

Around this time, Kramer dropped his first name. “In class, you’d do your roll call, and I couldn’t say Mark Kramer – I always stuttered on the extra k.” Besides, in the schoolyard “it was always, ‘Hey, Jones,’ ‘Hey, Kramer.’ I became more of a Kramer than a Mark. Even now, my mother calls me Kramer.”

In 1978, Kramer answered an ad in Downbeat for the Creative Music Studio, an experimental music school in Woodstock, New York. He signed up for a ten-week study course, during which he met and mixed with the likes of composer Carla Bley, saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell and renowned minimalist LaMonte Young. He also made the acquaintance of an eccentric guitarist and composition instructor named Eugene Chadbourne.

“He came up with this guitar that had a kalimba nailed to it, a bunch of key chains and about 200 broken strings wrapped around the whole thing,” Kramer says. “That was his axe. I took one look at that and though, ‘Holy shit, I gotta play with this motherfucker.’” 

As Shockabilly, Kramer and Chadbourne (along with drummer David Licht) made an unholy but memorable freak-rock racket during the early Eighties, mixing manic originals with disemboweled Sixties covers distinguished by the inspired guitar chaos of Chadbourne. Echoes of that racket, immortalized on a series of records for Rough Trade (since reissued on Shimmy-Disc), can still be heard in the sound of spiritual brethren like Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers. In fact, Kramer later toured as bassist with the Butthole Surfers.

In 1985, Kramer made the leap from underground enfant terrible to legitimate entrepreneur with the purchase of Noise New York, a modestly successful studio on West Thirty-fourth Street. The place was originally run by two white brothers who catered mostly to rap and funk acts along with the odd rock star (the Ramones, Brian Eno). Then one of the brothers, who had a Black Muslim girlfriend, began coming to work dressed in a white robe and carrying the Koran under his arm. As a Black Muslim convert, he felt the studio profits were the devil’s money, and he wanted no part of it. The other brother, under the circumstances, was all too eager to sell, asking only for his share. Kramer, who had already recorded there with Shockabilly, literally got Noise New York for half price.

He immediately got to work recording tapes with a motley crew of underground friends and associates and sending the results to top alternative labels for consideration. “I sent them to all the independent labels I knew existed from Option magazine – Ralph Records, Homestead, Twin/Tone,” Kramer says. “I didn’t even get one response back. I didn’t call anybody after I sent them out, because I didn’t want to add insult to injury. I thought it might make me more depressed, and I’d sound bad on the telephone.”         

Instead, Kramer established his own label, Shimmy-Disc (“The words sounded great together,” he says), and began releasing the rejected tapes as Shimmy-Disc platters: B.A.L.L.’s debut, Period/Another American Lie; the first Bongwater EP, Breaking No New Ground; and the label’s brilliant 1987 flagship compilation, The 20th Anniversary of the Summer of Love, a real festival of weird, featuring future members of the Shimmy-Disc stable alongside veteran radicals like poet Allen Ginsberg and guitarist Fred Frith. Shortly thereafter, Kramer moved to his present downtown location and set up his underground rock shop in earnest.       

Today, Kramer runs his mini-empire on handshakes supplemented with modest capital. In a typical Shimmy-Disc recording deal, artists receive no recording advance; instead, an act gets free run of Noise New York for as long as it takes to make a good record. Kramer himself rarely has more than $3000 in ready operating cash at any time. A portion of Shimmy-Disc profits goes to Noise New York for studio maintenance and purchase of recording tape, while checks from outside customers at Noise New York help cover Shimmy-Disc’s pressing costs and other outstanding accounts.

Kramer also uses generic labels on all of his records, without song titles or album credits, to save money (and confuse DJs), and his half-page fanzine ads usually list a dozen different new or upcoming Shimmy-Disc releases at once. “There’s so much information that’s got to be spread around that I have no choice to do it any other way,” says Kramer. “I can’t put an ad in the paper for the new Bongwater record. That would be piggish. This way, everybody’s happy.”

“The only thing I would take exception to is Kramer’s tendency to want to do it all by himself,” says singer-lyricist John S. Hall of King Missile. “Shimmy could be four or five times as big as it is if he was able to stay in constant contact with distributors and stores and radio stations. Shimmy is as successful as it is because people on the other side have responded to it.”

In fact, Kramer is seriously considering expansion. The underground-radio and sales buzz on King Missile and Bongwater has fueled major-label interest in Kramer’s operation, and he’s talking to his lawyer about the prospects of a distribution deal. He’s also hired his very first Shimmy-Disc employee to answer the phone and deal with the label’s indie distribution network. Until recently, if you called the Shimmy-Disc office, you got a tape of Kramer doing a wacky imitation of Mahatma Gandhi on speed (“I love to work for Kramer. Doesn’t everybody? Ha, ha, ha!”).

“It’ll be interesting to see if business picks up,” Kramer says. “For the first time, people will have a real live person answering the phone.”

 

If Kramer has any regrets about his growing notoriety, it’s that his success as an underground Svengali has overshadowed his real love, songwriting. He has written or co-written nearly every original song on Bongwater’s three records, the four B.A.L.L. albums and the two Jad Fair-Kramer LPs. A Kramer solo album was also projected at one point, but he incorporated the material into Double Bummer.

“It’s a good thing I don’t have much time to think about my image,” Kramer says wryly. “It does disturb me when I think about it. What’s in my heart is in the songs. And that’s what I want people to hear, the songs. If I had my choice, I would rather be remembered for one song than this record company and the fifty or hundred records it put out.” He cites “Homer” (a haunting melange of acid guitars, TV dialogue and ragged, prayerlike vocals, from Double Bummer) and the title track from Too Much Sleep (a dark Beatle-ish ballad with political overtones and Revolver-like flourishes) as examples of his aspirations as a writer and composer.

But the fact remains that if Kramer had never taken the Shimmy-Disc plunge, he could have written hundreds of fab, bizarro tunes during the past three years and they probably would have languished on his tape shelf. One of the few thriving, truly independent small labels devoted to the preservation of non-mainstream rock, Shimmy-Disc – together with its sister studio, Noise New York – has set a standard for underground survival and idiosyncratic musical vision in a pop age of cookie-cutter video stars, copycat heavy metal and billion-dollar record-company mergers. You don’t have to like Kramer’s music, or that of his Shimmy-Disc pals, to appreciate his singular success or his knack for tapping that quiet, disgruntled but growing audience for music on the fringe and beyond.

“I don’t know, maybe we can make a fashion thing out of it,” he says, laughing. “If a band comes out of this that people like the look of, we could see some real sales. And if the sales come, then the money comes. And when the money comes, the freedom comes.

“Because it’s not the money that I’m looking for,” Kramer adds quite seriously. “It’s the freedom that the money brings.” 

David Fricke

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(Various Artists) – “Theme Time Radio Hour with Your Host Bob Dylan” (2008)

July 21, 2009 at 9:00 am (Bob Dylan, Music, Reviews & Articles)

This 50-song collection of various blues, country, rock, jazz, r&b and old-time Americana comes from Bob Dylan’s highly-lauded Sirius XM radio show – which Dylan may or may not continue to do in the future.

Each show would have a different theme and Dylan would play songs based on that particular theme. Besides the always interesting, and usually obscure, playlist, Dylan would provide fascinating and entertaining commentary, which may include everything from household tips, anecdotes about the artists featured, quotes from old poets and philosophers, email readings, or vintage radio air checks and promos. Radio shows like this, unfortunately, do not exist anymore (John Peel, why did you have to leave us?). Dylan proves, in his deep, ravished voice, that if he had never become a legendary singer-songwriter, he could have just as easily become a legendary disk jockey. The man is a joy to listen to.

This collection, put out by Ace Records, features many wonderful songs – sometimes strange, always interesting. The packaging is excellent. It includes commentary on each song and artist (including notes by Colin Escott and Barney Hoskyns, among others) and there are many pictures and reproductions of old record sleeves. This set was put together with love and attention.

The only complaint about this set is that Dylan’s commentary is missing. These are just the songs, by themselves. Anyone familiar with the show will be disappointed by the lack of Dylan. Perhaps his anecdotes wouldn’t work though, when taken out of the context of each show. Even a lot of the songs themselves sound better when listened to within each particularly-themed context. The songs are selected, seemingly, at random from dozens of the programs.    

Still, there are so many good selections on here that it’s hard to complain too much, as long as you have eclectic musical tastes. From James Carr to The White Stripes to some strange act called George Zimmerman & The Thrills with The Bubber Cyphers Band, the joys are endless. This is a excellent history of the last hundred years of music.

For anyone wanting to hear Dylan though, I suggest picking up the deluxe edition copy of his new album Together Through Life. Included, is a complete broadcast of the “Friends & Neighbors”-themed show that Dylan aired on Aug. 23, 2006 (episode #17). This will give you an excellent taste of what the show is all about.

Do yourself a favor though and purchase both of these sets – you certainly can’t go wrong.

Jay Mucci

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