Shimmy Shimmy Ya: An Interview With Kramer

Ahead of the release of his new ambient album, the musician, producer and Shimmy-Disc main-man talks to Sam Waller about Eno, imperfection and his stint as designated driver for the Butthole Surfers

Somewhere in Florida, Kramer is making hummus. Whilst most of us are content to harvest our beige sludge from the nearest chilled aisle, the multi-hyphenate renaissance man (his previous bands include Bongwater, B.A.L.L. and Shockabilly, he’s produced records for Daniel Johnston, Low and Galaxie 500 and he’s collaborated with everyone from Jad Fair to Hugh Hopper) insists on making it from scratch. Canned tahini is out of the question, as are chickpea skins, which he removes by hand, one by one, to ensure next-level creaminess.

Somehow, even with all this high-falutin’ dip production, he still finds time to release music – and only moments before dashing through to his kitchen to save a pan of his patented de-skinned chickpeas from burning, he was telling me about his new ambient record Music For Films Edited By Moths. Although whether or not it’s a true ambient record is up for debate.

"It’s technically not ambient music – at least not as Eno described it," he says. "The first works by Eno, he’d just set some things in motion – then he’d go and make lunch, and when he’d come back, the piece was done. But what I’m doing isn’t like that, I’m not removing myself from the process, I’m putting my nose to the grindstone and working very hard on making things that I think are beautiful."

Whilst beautiful ambient soundscapes might sound a bit out of character for an ex-Butthole Surfers bassist, his interest in music in the more mellow end of the sonic swimming pool dates back to the mid-70s.

"I was lucky enough to have a good local record shop run by a complete lunatic who’d buy these records that nobody but me would buy, and one day I saw a record [No Pussyfooting] with Fripp and Eno on the cover. I thought, ‘Who is this Eno guy?’ And that’s where it all began. As soon as I heard that first Obscure Records release that Eno did [Discreet Music] I went out and bought myself a Revox A77 tape deck and started experimenting with tape loops. I’ve been doing it for years, but it’s only now that I’m releasing it."

Like Eno’s Music For Films, Kramer’s Music For Films Edited By Moths is music composed for films that don’t really exist, or don’t exist yet, anyway. Just as a few tracks on Eno’s album were eventually used in film, Kramer’s layers of sound – sitting somewhere in the middle of the ‘poignant / sinister’ Venn diagram – are readymade for celluloid. The tense twanging of ‘Ladder To The Moon’ is prime audio for the moment a devastating revelation hits the protagonist, whilst ‘Requiem For Max’ is itching to be dragged into a Final Cut timeline, right at the part when a craggy-faced old soul digs out a projector from his loft, plonks himself down on the floor and watches the dusty Super 8 films of his youth. But where do the moths come in?

"The imagery I was following was cinema and light – things at 24 frames a second," he says. "I don’t want it to seem too childish, but I kept thinking of moths being attracted to the light – and the metaphors between that and film editing."

The link is reiterated with an archive photo on the inner sleeve of Gena Rowlands peering into a Moviola editing machine during the making of her husband John Cassavette’s 1967 film Faces, only her head has been replaced with that of a giant moth. For Kramer, editing is important.

"I used to study directing with Arthur Penn – who made Bonnie And Clyde and Little Big Man – and he always said that movies aren’t made on film sets, they’re made in editing rooms.

"Very often I’ll work on something, then remove almost all of it – and I find that the first two or three elements I put down are enough. It’s about the listening environment – and giving the listener nothing more than the minimum. I strip away the things that I don’t think are absolutely essential."

This stripped back, no nonsense mentality is also reflected in the way he works, and although some artists like to offload floaty floral spiel about inspiration and where it sprouts from, the reality for Kramer is a lot more practical. When I ask about the basis for making the album, he tells me a story about two artists, Chuck Close and Richard Serra, and the time they were invited to talk in a round table for a PBS show called Creativity In The Brain. Fielding a question about the source of inspiration, Serra simply replied, "At Yale we had a saying, inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work."

And that’s how Kramer does things. "Every time I have an idea and try to sit down and create something to match it, I fail. I succeed when I just show up and get to work. That’s the way this record came together. I started making these short pieces, and little by little, it turned into something. It took me about ten days [making] one piece a day. I’d get up at dawn, have some matcha tea and get to work."

At this point it’s maybe important to mention that the album was originally recorded back in 2020 as part of a highly limited five LP box-set created during a residency stint at Indiana label Joyful Noise, and is now getting released on its own via Kramer’s resuscitated Shimmy-Disc. Founded in 1987, Shimmy operated like weirdo flypaper, catching a wide and wild range of characters united solely by their singularity, from GWAR to Boredoms.

After some legal trouble which I haven’t got the space or the knowledge to go into, the label was lost in the late-90s, but it’s now back in action, with Kramer as old-fashioned A&R man and the folks at Joyful Noise handling the logistical stuff.

"Even though the last thing I wanted to do was run a record company again, it was really hard to say no. Aside from the music that I released, I had just failed so miserably at the other things that a label needs to do for its artists. All I was able to do was release records – there was never any kind of funding – we didn’t put out the kind of records that anyone wanted to fund. Even the ones that did well – like King Missile and Ween – only really did well years [later].

Which brings me to my next subject. As fans of Kramer’s work, the Gregorian calendar and arbitrary anniversaries might already be aware, 2022 marks 30 years since the implosion of Bongwater, his band with Ann Magnuson, David Light and Dave Rick. Since then you couldn’t exactly say that their songs have become standards in the Great American Songbook, but it wouldn’t be too grandiose to suggest the dead zone channel-surf aura of albums like Double Bummer and The Power Of Pussy made them ahead of their time.

Bongwater’s mix of twisted cover versions, obscure samples and occasional off-kilter beauty casually ignored anything as boring as genre or categorisation, although thanks to the less-than-ideal situation in which the band ended (involving that legal business I mentioned briefly earlier), it’s not something Kramer is particularly desperate to talk about.

"I’m writing a fictional memoir about my 40 years in music, and all my collaborations and experiences, so as I’m remembering things, I’m not exactly coming to terms with that time, but I’m acknowledging it exists. I’m just not really sure how to talk about it… or if I should." Fair enough, but does he realise that some people – such as dweebs like me – think their music was pretty important?

"Maybe I was a little prescient with some stuff," he admits. "I remember thinking way back then that in 20 years people would appreciate it, and I was telling people in 1993 that in 20 years Ween would be playing stadiums, and they thought I was crazy. And it turns out they are playing small stadiums, but they’re not doing that music. They’ve transformed themselves into almost a frat-rock band. It’s not like they’re playing songs from The Pod now.

"I went to see them in Fort Lauderdale a few years ago, and there were no women there except a couple of biker chicks who started a fight with these geeks. And that was an interesting thing to see – that’s their audience now. I could not have predicted that."

Modern-era fan feuds aside, Kramer says the shows he played with Ween in the UK back in 1992 were some of the best gigs of his life. "It was like when I was in the Butthole Surfers – I felt I was in the greatest band in the world, playing the greatest songs ever written – I felt like I was in the Beatles. And if you don’t have an attitude like that when you’re on the road, you’re not going to last. It’s 23 hours a day of bullshit and nonsense so you can be on stage for one hour."

Much has been said about the gigs the Butthole Surfers played in the 1980s, mainly using words like nudity, fire, acid and violence. Kramer had a short stint as the band’s bassist during a 1985 assault on Europe, so it’d only be right to ask him what was the reality behind the legend.

"There wasn’t very much reality to it at all," he says. "There was very little sleeping going on, and an awful lot of drugs and alcohol. Gibby called it ‘fuel for the show’. He’d drink an entire bottle of Jim Beam and take acid a couple of hours before showtime, so by the time he’d walk on stage, he was insane. It was fine on stage, but it wasn’t easy to deal with once the show ended."

Thanks to his time schlepping up the east coast of the US with Gong’s Daevid Allen in the late 70s – as well as much trans-Am zig-zagging as part of the avant-garde rockabilly trio Shockabilly – Kramer was no stranger to life on the road, and he quickly found himself in parent-mode for Gibby and co.

"I was the designated driver, den mother and self-appointed tour manager. None of the others were able to walk up to the desk in a hotel lobby and say, ‘Hello, we have three rooms reserved for us under the name Butthole Surfers,’ so they’d stay in the van whilst I dealt with it. I had been on tour many times before so I was able to present myself as a reasonably sober person to the desk clerk, get our keys and go back to the van. And then these four maniacs would come in – and very often after a show Gibby wouldn’t have cleaned up – so he would come into the hotel lobby covered in fake blood.

"It was interesting — but I only lasted a month on the European tour, and I left immediately afterwards. I didn’t think it was possible to keep doing it and not get killed – either by a policeman in Mexico, or someone in the audience who objected to something in the film being projected behind us, or in a horrible crash with a 16-ton lorry. It was a crazy time, and I don’t regret a moment of it, but I’m glad I thought better of living life like that."

By now this article might have started to read like a counterculture remake of Forrest Gump, only with a whip-smart long-hair in the lead, somehow playing a pivotal part in some of the most interesting bands of the last 40 years. And we haven’t even talked about his friendship with Penn Jilette, that song off Pulp Fiction or the three years he spent working with magician and sceptic James Randi on his One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, debunking the supposedly supernatural.

Was he intentionally trying to get the most stacked Wikipedia page in history, or was it all one grand fluke – a case of being in the right place at the right time with the right skills, about 100 times? When it comes to the music at least, Kramer reckons there was no master plan.

"I think it was just a coincidence that I succeeded in working with a few artists who turned out to be acknowledged as among the greats. I tried to get people whose music I thought was extraordinary to come into the studio and make a record with me. It was all very immediate – I’d hear something and freak out, then try and get that person on the phone. And that’s the way I found Daniel Johnston. I heard a cassette, so I asked around and someone said, ‘Oh yeah, he’s working at a McDonald’s in Austin.’

"I thought that if he could sit in front of a piano with a cassette deck on top of it, press record and sing and play like that, then in my studio, in front of a good microphone, I could make a good record. That’s how I made 1990, but admittedly I couldn’t get him to do that for more than five songs – he went insane during those recordings and I had to cobble the rest of the record together with field recordings and record store gigs. I wasn’t able to get him to stay in the studio for long, he’d burst into tears and run out into the street."

If there’s one thing that does tie all of the disparate elements of Kramer’s work together, maybe it’s that thing about finding beauty in imperfection. I say this as a compliment, but I doubt any of the bands or artists that have existed in Kramer’s ecosystem would win a nationally televised talent show, and yet, as Kramer tells me, "There’s a reason Will Oldham has songs in the Library of Congress." In fact, Oldham’s Kramer-produced ‘West Palm Beach’ / ‘Gulf Shores’ 7-inch from back in the Palace days is as good an example of wabi-sabi perfect imperfection you’re likely to hear.

"Nothing interests me less than perfection," he says. "Those records that you can tell have been laboured over for a year? I hate them. The records that are made in the course of a day or two, where you can hear the mistakes and the moments that occurred, those are the records that are great. There has to be cracks in things – didn’t Leonard Cohen say that’s where the light gets in?"

"I think a big part of a producer’s job is preserving accidents. With Galaxie 500, Dean would play a guitar solo and say, ‘That wasn’t what I meant to play.’ I’d have to say, ‘But Dean, come in and listen to this – you played something I’ve never heard before.’ Eventually he’d hear that it really didn’t sound like anything anyone had ever played before – and that’s how you make great records – you make a compilation of these unique moments that you’ve never heard before."

Before he has to run off and save those chickpeas once again, I try to pin it all down once and for all. Music… film… hummus… what are we looking for? Or at least, what is Kramer looking for? What separates the great from the gruel?

"It’s that mystery. I’m not looking for the answers to anything, I’m looking for the most interesting questions. It’s like that stupid old saying, ‘It’s not the destination, it’s the road.’ I really don’t want to know why she loves me, I just want to feel the love."

Music For Films Edited By Moths is available via Shimmy-Disc on 26 August

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