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Thursday, October 1, 2009

Thomas Peake R.I.P.

tom peake

Last week Creative Loafing was saddened to learn about the death of Atlanta music writer and DJ Tom Peake, who died from a fall on the Grand Canyon National Park Lava Falls Trail. His body was found on Sept. 22.

I only met Thomas in passing a few times over the years but I learned a lot about what was going on in Atlanta before my time here, from many of the stories and shorter pieces that he wrote for CL. Our first real encounter was in April of 2000. We were both working as freelance music writers, both gunning to write about the Red Krayola show at the Earl. He got the feature story, I got the consolation prize of writing a review for CL's long-gone trashy off-shoot paper, The Scene.

Over the last few days I've been scouring the paper's archives and tracking down some of the stories he wrote for us, and have included a couple of my favorite ones here. Best of all is Thomas' feature on Shellac when they played at the Clermont Lounge in '95, which I have scanned and placed at the very bottom of this post. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

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Creative Loafing Critic's Poll

"Best Alternative Band of 1995"

Rumored proclivities aside, Smoke's version of chamber country blues is still one of the most iconoclastic and enjoyable around. This all-star post-Opal aggregate enjoys a suprising amount of fame, given their interminably morbid style, but that probably says more about their audience than it does about their music, for Smoke certainly do not pander to anyone's lowest-common-denominator expectations. Their second album should not only extend the musical boundaries they've been operating in, but also bring them notoriety far beyond their supplicants at the Point and Clermont.

A pre-post-rock parable

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

By Thomas Peake

Published 04.22.2000

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.

"The Purkinje Shift consisted of the outspoken guitarist Ben Davis (New Zodiac Ensemble, ex-Charlie Parker, ex-Habeas Corpses), guitarist Gary Flom (ex-Rebar) and drummer Scott H. Robbins (John Brown, ex-Rebar). It's a distinctive combination of interlocking guitar lines, repetitious scales, strategic pauses and circuitous percussion that have led listeners to the Chicago-centric 'math rock' label, a characterization the band did not dismiss. Good." - Thomas Peake

Smoke is:

Benjamin - words

Brian Halloran - cello

Bill Taft - cornet & banjo

Tim Campion - drums

Coleman Lewis - guitar

Published November, 1995

Time moves slowly, if at all, in urban-Appalachian Cabbagetown. Across the street from a tiny Baptist Church under the stacks of the old Fulton Bag Mill, Smoke are teaching themselves new songs.

The quintet doesn't usually practice the older tunes, but they take a moment to indulge by digging up "Dirt," a perfect example of their sound-without-brand-name. The somber blues that Smoke creates -- from Siberian sambas to state fair freakouts -- is arresting in every sense of the word.

The music of the depressed and dispossessed rarely draws throngs of admirers. Yet Smoke tends to pack the venues in which they serve their eloquent time. With the release of their second record Another Reason To Fast, they attempt to meet the lingering anticipation of their growing following intrigued by 1994's Heaven on a Popsicle Stick.

All but one of the band members live in Cabbagetown, the perfect environment for this troupe. Much like Smoke, the dilapidated Atlanta neighborhood holds a colorful mix of folks, historical importance, and a vaguely promising future. From the original cast of characters when Smoke formed in 1992, only vocalist Benjamin and cellist Brian Halloran (both ex-Opal Foxx Quartet) remain. But Bill Taft (ex-Jody Grind), who plays banjo and cornet, joined the band shortly thereafter. More recently, guitarist Coleman Lewis (Grand Fury) and drummer Tim Campion (ex-Insane Jane, ex-Blood Poets) have stepped in, while Dana Trotsky occasionally accompanies on clarinet.

Although they use the tag team approach to songwriting ("like championship wrestling!" exclaims Taft), the band is undeniably led by Benjamin. Without him, the Smoke will clear.

Benjamin, who has a home at the moment, says he's leading "a more full life than ever before." Moments later, he recalls hearing Patti Smith's "Kimberly" at 16. "I can remember the day, the minute," when music emerged from the background and, enthusiastically, into the foreground of his life.

Your 'typical' Southern-raised pill-popping homosexual/drag queen, Benjamin has paid his performing dues in this town by way of such 1980's noise and punk outfits as Medicine Suite and Freedom Puff. Years ago, Benjamin told Lowlife Magazine that the experimental, exhibitionistic Medicine Suite was his way of saying "Hey Atlanta industrial bullshit scene, let's see how cool you really are! Let's see how much culture and art you can take, let's see how much dick and sex and piss you can take." But, with Debbey Richardson (ex-Magic Bone) on guitar and Benjamin on bass, Freedom Puff reverted to the simple, comparatively wholesome joys of (sorta) punk rock.

As for the 90s, Benjamin is perhaps better known to some as Ms. Opal Foxx, frontperson for the legendary "quartet" that often featured over a dozen members. Regardless of garb or genre, he is always in character. Over the years, his unmistakable low-end grumble has resembled the roar of a wounded lion, a French intellectual in the gutter, a confused Southern outsider, a forsaken soulmate of Hank Williams, or (the inevitable reference) a Georgia-bred Tom Waits.

Remarkably, Smoke blends luxuriant pop with atonality with a Blue Ridge flavor. Something in its chemistry makes the band as comfortable at the High Museum of Art or a swanky New York gallery as at the seedy Clermont Lounge or a burnt out carriage house in Rome, GA.

It's in the instrumentation, too. Taft's cornet, for example, a shorter, fatter, less shrill trumpet, refines the Smoke sound while his occasional banjo brings it back to earth.

Halloran's vivid cello enriches the combo. Apparently, violins and cellos are proliferating in pop music. With amusement, Taft notes his conversation with a DC booking agent who informed him that strings are "really cool; the string thing is just really big now." One of the original three "plink plank plunk" brothers, as one Athens critic referred to them, with Taft and Todd Butler (Smoke's first guitarist), Halloran's cello is more foundation than trendy window dressing. On Another Reason To Fast, the mix caters to the mid-range, presenting Halloran's cello more prominently than 1994's Heaven On A Popsicle Stick CD.

The new album was recorded in Athens by Sugar/Buzzhungry guy David Barbe, "a genius maniac freak" of a recording engineer, Benjamin applauds. This batch of songs features such highlights as the resurrected Opal Foxx classic "Clean White Bed," and "Friends," a melancholy tune that has little to do with the hit TV show. But the disc also carries a subtle new direction away from Smoke's original sparse ballads of pain. These are the songs that Benjamin has taken to sarcastically introducing as their "new wave" tunes.

Campion and Lewis are behind these energetic pieces. Whereas Todd Butler maintained an acoustic presence, Lewis adds a Gibson electric. On the first single "Shadow Box," he takes center stage alongside Campion's impossibly funky beat.

"I was terrified when Tim came because I was afraid that it would suck. Instead, it was twenty times better than it had been," Benjamin recollects of the addition of Campion's meticulous, perfectly pressurized drumming. Far from jumbling the ensemble, Campion's stripped down kit fits in seamlessly.

More so than any other Atlanta act, the comfortable Smoke vibe is made for commiserating. But not everyone can fathom the beauty Benjamin somehow culls from the despair and pain of a self-described addictive personality.

He has a handful of heroes: Tracy Terrill (the reclusive songwriter also known as Cake), Debbey Richardson, Dana Kletter (Black Girls), Vic Chesnutt, and Nina Simone.

According to Campion, Smoke's songwriting is what distinguishes it from previous bands, especially the beloved spectacle of the Opal Foxx Quartet. "After two years of fucking kicking ass and having a great time,we could finally hear what we were doing (with Smoke)," adds Benjamin of the transition. Indeed, the modern day Smoke relies less on depravity and more on the crafting of songs. As only Benjamin could get away with singing the words he sings, the band is getting away with making music that only this collection could possibly conjure.

Perhaps referring to the fact that all music lovers - everyone - can enjoy the common denominator of his pensive, lyrical sufferings, Benjamin delivers Smoke's musical bottom line wryly: "No matter where you are, people know good stuff. People go, 'Uh-huh, something my body needs anyway.'"

"The Purkinje Shift consisted of the outspoken guitarist Ben Davis (New Zodiac Ensemble, ex-Charlie Parker, ex-Habeas Corpses), guitarist Gary Flom (ex-Rebar) and drummer Scott H. Robbins (John Brown, ex-Rebar). It's a distinctive combination of interlocking guitar lines, repetitious scales, strategic pauses and circuitous percussion that have led listeners to the Chicago-centric 'math rock' label, a characterization the band did not dismiss. Good."

shellac

(Photos courtesy Thomas peake Farewell Concert Facebook page)

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