A pre-post-rock parable 

Thirty years later, indie rock catches up with the Red Krayola

The much-maligned term post-rock is actually a fairly meaningful term that describes a largely Chicago-based rock often employing creative textures, unusual time signatures and experimental instrumentation in such a way that it may become something else entirely. Granted, it already carries more baggage than United Airlines. But it works as well as the taxonomies grunge, gangsta rap or ragtime ever did.

The only problem is that it might have been coined nearly 30 years too late. If bands such as Slint, Tortoise and Gastr del Sol exemplified the post-rock ethos, what does that make the Red Krayola, which began making its mark in Houston in the fall of 1966? Parable of Arable Land, released in 1967, and their recent handful of CDs on the Drag City label — which feature many of the younger, Chicago-based post-rock musicians — display haunting and heartening similarities. Pre-post-rock, anyone?

"We intended for it to be quite extreme. That's for sure," says singer, guitarist and songwriter Mayo Thompson, who founded the band as the Red Crayola with Frederick Barthelme and Steve Cunningham, and comes to town this week with a newer incarnation of the group. "We didn't know we were supposed to be trying to do this other thing by pleasing people and making hit records and stuff like that. We thought we were supposed to be making experimental pop music, so we went ahead and did that."

Considering the era, the Red Krayola's conception seems immaculate. There were no precursors for their electric-pop-noise-terrorism, though bands like the Godz, the Velvet Underground and the Silver Apples had already struck a discord by 1968, when the preciously malformed folk of the Krayola's second LP, God Bless the Red Crayola and All Who Sail With It, emerged.

Despite the times, the locales and the frequent accusations, the Krayola (with spelling appended when the crayon company came calling) were much more (or less) than a standard-issue psychedelic band. "It didn't 100 percent fit the self-image of youth of the time, or the image of magazines that were around," explains Thompson, the sole consistent member of Red Krayola, with some satisfaction. "It doesn't belong to the cozy explanations of the '60s."

Thompson released Corky's Debt to His Father, an astounding solo disc that best presents his soft, surrealist enunciations, in 1970. It didn't foreshadow much in the '70s, but it underscores Thompson's approach to pop as artistic expression rather than literal screed or political proviso. "One of the things I do is I write songs, not just pieces of music," says Thompson. "And that voice you hear there is the sound of a human being finding some kind of equilibrium in a space where things are strangely familiar and strangely unfamiliar at the same time."

Thanks in part to his work with the Art & Language collective in the late-'70s and early-'80s and some potentially misleading lyrics, Thompson is sometimes tagged a Marxist or, worse, transparent. "My father calling me a commie doesn't quite cover it," Thompson chuckles. Lenin's name does crop up in the Red Krayola's more punky, new wave work with Gina Birch (Raincoats), Lora Logic (X-Ray Spex) and Epic Soundtracks (Swell Maps). But straight-forward political declarations are far fewer in the Red Krayola box than lyrical devices with more poetic functions.

"I describe myself as a conservative. And I am, in the sense that certain institutions and ways of living make sense. The way the world is organized may not be just, it may be imperfect, but it's symptomatic of something interesting about us as a species," says Thompson, who obviously relishes cultural theorizing. "And I continue to support the social project in most of its forms. I begin to wonder if culture's not a drag on evolution."

Thompson, who also teaches at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, hints at a busy and changing future for the Red Krayola. That last year's Fingerpainting resembles Parable, for example, is telling: "The time structure is exactly the same," he explains, "and the layout is exactly the same." In addition to many of the usual younger suspects (including ex-Gastr del Sol guitarist David Grubbs, ex-Minutemen drummer George Hurley and Stephen Prina, who all appear with the group this week at the Earl), the personnel for Fingerpainting included original Crayola principals Barthelme, now a well-known author, and Cunningham, a technical writer living in Houston.

"There is a thought the three of us would get together exclusive of everybody else and see what happens," says Thompson optimistically. "I piss and whine a little bit about the number of records we sell, but basically I know how lucky I am."

Like any true artist, Thompson's motivation for making music has less to do with "the psychology of the need to express. By now it's 100 percent more perverse. I'm trying to figure out how to quit and I can't!"

Red Krayola performs at a benefit concert for WREK 91.1 FM, Fri., April 21, at 9 p.m. at The Earl (404-522-3950). Tickets are $8. Stephen Fenton with Krayolas also perform Sat., April 22, at 9 p.m. at Eyedrum (404-522-0655). Tickets are $5. For more information, visit www.wrek.org.


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