Q & A: Tav Falco

Left to right: Toby Dammit, Tav Falco, Mike Watt & Mario MONTEROSSO. 2017, for "A Tav Falco Christmas"

Tav Falco, who grew up on a farm near Gurdon, has released his first Christmas album, A Tav Falco Christmas. Falco, who now resides in Vienna, Austria, answered questions in an email interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sunday Style editor Ellis Widner.

A. My first Christmas lingers in my memory as only a child's vision can. Not only the visual images but also the olfactory and audial impressions cannot be forgotten. There was the loden green of the little Christmas tree cut in a pine grove on our farm set in the woods between Whelen Springs and the Missouri Pacific Railroad terminal of Gurdon. The resinous scent of pine needles mingled with the clickety-clack of the tiny wheels of the freight train that my 1947 American Flyer locomotive pulled on a circle of track around the tree. There were ropes of silver tinsel swathing the tree and glittery glass bulbs and little cotton Santas. Tiny stuffed reindeer hung from the boughs, while placed on the highest branch was a sparkly white angel with a light inside and a frosty star on her head.

Christmas for me was mostly a time for railroading and rolling around on the floor under the tree. My locomotive made a chugging sound when it ran, and real smoke poured from its stack like a steam engine. The little windows on the red caboose were illuminated and cast a shadowy glow as they passed and receded down the track. I watched it go by again and again and again.

At night, when I lay in my bed and the moon shown through the lofty limbs of the pecan tree outside my window, I could hear a real steam engine train through the woods south of the farm rumbling, chugging, blowing, and hissing down the track heading for El Dorado. As moonlight fell across my blanket, I felt comforted by the train passing in the forest, and I thought of the conductor, and of the baggage man working in the cars, and of the passengers riding in their coach going to their destinations.

It was a cozy feeling for a boy living on a farm secluded in a world of often-imaginary friends. Later in life I worked on that railroad out of Gurdon as a brakeman; still enthralled by the transitory romance of the rails and the trains, and the people coming and going in a world that still seemed one with itself.

Q. What was the first Christmas album you bought?

A. Rather than an album, it was a shiny white Christmas book my mother bought for me that meant most. Every Christmas for as long as I can remember, I brought out the book with its big jolly Santa on the cover, with a little girl sitting on one knee and a little boy on the other and with reindeer, stars, and bugles floating around them. I still bring the book out at Christmas. It's called The Golden Christmas Book and it's full of stories, poems, songs, and puzzles.

Q. How often do you come back to the state?

A. I come back to Arkansas once or twice a year. Christmas is always enticing in mother's home, now situated on Lake Hamilton. Still, we miss our life on the farm in Clark County. While I was growing up, a deer took up with our cattle in the back pasture. We named her Bambi. She was a graceful, docile creature with the most sensitive ears -- as if they could see like her eyes. [The Democrat-Gazette] actually sent a photographer down and photographed mother feeding the doe for a little feature story.

Later, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission brought a young buck as a companion for her. I named him Bonzo and he became as much a companion for me as for Bambi. He loved to be fed cigarettes, which he chewed up lickety-split. Bonzo came to a tragic end, though, when hunters spotlighted him on the highway across from our farm and blasted him with shotguns.

Q. What is your favorite Christmas song? Were you inspired by any particular artists or songs?

A. Seems that any Christmas song I like is a favorite. A good song is important, but maybe more important is the singer as much as the song. I really like the classic Christmas standards sung by Gene Autry. His voice is clear and melodic in a simple, direct way, and his phrasing is so essential. Many of the singers whom I admire recorded Christmas albums: Jerry Lee Lewis, Dean Martin, Burl Ives, Elvis Presley with the Jordanaires and the fabulous Brenda Lee.

Although I've performed "Blue Christmas" onstage now and again, I've had the notion of recording a solo Christmas album for quite some time. Familiar Christmas tunes were tossed in the punchbowl -- evergreens from genres of pop, jazz, and ghetto funk. In large part these were songs that I listened to as a boy around Christmas time. Songs like a seemingly simple ditty such as "White Christmas" was a challenge to get on top of. Other tunes like "A Holly Jolly Christmas" were just a barrel of fun to record.

Q. You recorded A Tav Falco Christmas at Sam Phillips Recording Services in Memphis. What was that experience like?

A. I have recorded four albums at Sam Phillips recording studio in Memphis, and we are going back to record our fifth there. At this point in my checkered career, I cannot imagine recording anywhere else. Phillips studio is my creative and spiritual sanctuary. The studio managers, Jud [Phillips] Jr. and Jerry Phillips, live and breathe music. Without their dedicated support, A Tav Falco Christmas would probably have never been made, and certainly not to the standard you now hear.

When Sam Phillips decided to move out of the converted radiator repair shop known as SUN, he had this dedicated state-of-the-art analog recording studio designed and built in 1959 in a tropical deco-modern style. The studio is infused with the history of the origins of the music we now listen to everyday, and history is still being made at Phillips studio. The walls are hung with row upon row of framed gold records, but the kind of history that was made at Phillips transcends charts and gold and platinum. It is a story of talent, experimentation, growth, and perseverance. Above all it is the story of blind belief in the creation of all that provokes and satisfies the human spirit.

Q. With the album recorded in the heat of summer, did you do anything in the studio to set a Christmas mood?

A. First thing when we arrived at the studio was to hand a camera to Jud Phillips. Jr. and ask him to photograph the band in the upstairs wet bar adjacent to the Japanese rock garden with the miniature running waterfall. Each band member wore a Santa cap and I had a set of antlers growing out of my head. Those are the pictures you see on the album cover.

That was the end of our studio Christmas décor in July, especially after Jerry Phillips told us this story: When Elvis went into the studio to record one of his Christmas albums, also in the heat of July, the producers had put up a big Christmas tree and some other doo-dads to set the mood. Elvis, however, was going through a bitter divorce at the time, and when he saw the Christmas tree in the studio, he spun around with an extended karate chop and broke that tree in half with his foot. Any way you look at it, I discovered that you really have to psyche yourself up to record a Christmas album in July.

Q. Cool choice of songs ... arrangements, musicianship are very sharp.

A. What you hear is a brilliant band behind this music. The album is produced and arranged by Mario Monterosso whom I met when I decided to go to Rome to record my last album, Command Performance. It was in August, and although I have a band in Paris that I've worked with since I lived there, they were away on holiday, and nobody messes with the vacance of a Frenchman. I put out word in Rome for anyone who might want to record with me, and Mario Monterosso walked through the door. He arranged, produced, and played lead guitar as brilliantly on that album as on our Christmas record, plus he has played lead guitar on a number of our tours in Europe and across the USA. We've acquired a visa for Mario to live in Memphis, and we will again join forces in January.

Further stalwart musicianship was provided on the Christmas record by Mike Watt on bass and by the multi-talented Toby Dammit on drums. I was very fortunate to have these career artists on board. They sure turned these sessions into a holly, jolly Christmas for one and all.

Q. Have your mother and step dad heard this yet?

A. As I played the burned CD of the album in our living room, mother and Ralph sat there expressionless. After it was all over, they said they couldn't understand a word. Seems they comprehend the hosts on Wheel Of Fortune much better than my record.

Q. Are you and the band going to perform a Christmas show?

A. There was talk of an East Coast and West Coast tour to support the album. We had a pretty good offer in New York where I have something of a profile. That venture was snuffed for this year because our bassist on the album, Mike Watt, has just completed a marathon tour of Europe and decided to chill at home in San Pedro, California, this Christmas season. So maybe next year we will take our Yuletide show around to all the usual unreliable places we tend to play.

Q. When do you tour again?

A. Nowadays our tours are booked six months in advance. At this moment, we have concert agents already organizing tour ventures in Spain and Scandinavia for March/April; USA coast to coast in May; and Australia in July where our band has toured on more than one occasion.

We would very much like to play in Japan some day because when we do, it's going to be an explosion. All of my 13 albums are in distribution there. European audiences are special, as I suppose the Japanese would be, in that our music is something of an exotic import, often celebrated, sometimes emulated and occasionally dismissed. Point is: audiences in Europe seem to really pay attention; they have a critical ear. Our music and our show is meaningful for them as well as entertaining, hence our music really matters to them outside of sheer diversion.

Q. New album on the horizon?

A. There is, in fact. We are going back to Sam Phillips' recording studio in January to record our 14th album, this time for the ORG Music label in Los Angeles. While A Tav Falco Christmas is a solo record, the new album will be recorded with my one and only band, Panther Burns, named after a plantation in Mississippi once owned by the Percy family of writers and poets. Legend has it that a cunning panther once stalked and terrorized the local population until it was corralled into a cane break and set aflame. According to witnesses, the shrieks coming from the panther were an unholy amalgam of animal lust and divine transubstantiation, which continue to curse the plantation. There were the Rolling Stones, Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, and now there is the Panther Burns.

Q. The music business has changed so much in the past decade ... what's your take on streaming, downloading, etc.? How has it impacted creativity from your perspective?

A. Marshall McLuhan, the media theorist from the 1960s, presaged that the nature of electronics, both analog and digital, would exert a decentralizing influence across all levels of our existence. As a product of that turbulent era, I still pay attention to its thinkers, experimenters and innovators.

By virtue of our technology, we have morphed from an industrial, railhead society organized around a central matrix of our inner cities into a vibrant mosaic of instantaneous pleasure and pressure points. There is no longer a center because everywhere is a center. We are more connected than we can possibly imagine, while digital technology races blindly ahead of our comprehension and ahead of our efforts to manage it.

Streaming and downloading of music new and old, is symptomatic of how this de-centralization is happening everywhere. Even those engaged in music production and creation are trying to come to terms with the significance of these dynamic developments. The thrust of technological advances and its meaning often baffles those who are most engaged in it. Streaming and digital downloading will not thwart creative impulses of the true artist because the artist learns early on to be resourceful, adaptive and elastic if he and his efforts are to survive.

The iPhone is the new recording studio, the new movie camera and the new printing press; the blog and vlog are the new newspaper and TV station. Personally, I'm not that impressed. Instant gratification can be a factor; instant communication can be convenient, yet maybe too convenient. We become impulsive and too eager to speak without reflection.

I'm an analog guy. I'm impressed by steam locomotives, I howl with delight riding on noisy motorcycles, I like to watch movies on celluloid in a movie house, I like to read books and to hold them in my hands. In many ways I'm a post-postmodern antiquarian, and in connecting the past with the present, I tread on the threshold of the future.

Q. What inspired the move to Vienna?

A. After a band tour in the '90s, I was drawn to Austria to produce a record for a band called Krüppelschlag in a town on the Danube [River] called Linz. Then I was summoned to Vienna for an interview on national radio due in part to a splash Panther Burns had made headlining a high profile festival in the MuseumsQuartier. Out of that interview I was offered my own radio show on ORF national radio. Somewhat at loose ends, I accepted the offer and proceeded to forge a lightweight career in Eastern Europe with Tav Falco's Wild and Exotic World Of Motion Picture Soundtracks show. The archive of ORF to which I had access housed every possible example of recorded music known to man, carefully organized by genre. For content rare and arcane, all I had to due was walk to the shelves, and then cut it together in the studio on ¼ inch ferrous oxide tape and deliver my monologues. That was a rewarding gig.

After a stint in Buenos Aires learning to dance tango, I decamped to New York and put together a new band of Panther Burns and struck out on a protracted tour of Europe. Afterward I settled in Paris where I had already released 9 albums on a French record label. Four years later, I found a window where I could return to the fin de siècle imperial city on the Danube. For some inexplicable reason I still don't fully understand, Vienna is a town I always seemed to miss being away from. Perhaps it is the legacy of its grand music and courtly gestures where gentlemen kiss the hands of ladies in the most unaffected way. Vienna is a city of gardens and statuary and fountains, and elegant horse-drawn carriages where art and theatre are a part of the fabric of everyday life.

Q. Do you have any new film or book projects coming up?

A. Both, in fact. My first feature film, a B/W 16mm film entitled Urania Descending premiered in Arkansas in 2016 at the Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock. More info can be found on IMDB.com. In May, the movie premiered in New York at Anthology Film Archives and in June it was presented by The American Cinematheque in the Steven Spielberg cinema at The Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Blvd.

On February 10th of 2018, we are invited to present the movie at the Oxford Film Festival in Mississippi. Here is the Log Line: Arkansas girl on a one-way ticket to merry/sinister old Vienna becomes embroiled in an intrigue to uncover buried Nazi plunder. Now we are working towards the production of the sequel, Urania Unbound, Part II of my proposed Urania trilogy of films -- contemporary films, yet inspired by Urania, the timeless muse of the heavens. Thus far we have start-up funding from the Vienna film commission, and we are flogging a successful crowd funding campaign to launch the production.

In 2016, my book An Iconography Of Chance: 99 Photographs Of The Evanescent South was published by my imprint Elsinore Press with University of Chicago Press distribution. Although the cloth bound limited edition sold out within six weeks, the hardcover edition is still available. There are quite a lot of Arkansas pictures in that book representing my early work when I was an assistant to the color photographer William J. Eggleston.

Prior to that, my book of psycho-geography entitled Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma, and Death: Mondo Memphis Vol. I was published by Creation Books in New York and London. That book is also in current circulation.

A new book on the Elsinore imprint (named after the castle in Hamlet) was just today sent off to the manufacturer in time for the Christmas holidays. It's also a road book of photographs by poet and journalist, Gina Lee, entitled This Could Go On Forever: On The Road With Tav Falco & Panther Burns. Look or ask for it everywhere books are sold.

Q. Whose creativity inspires you?

A. It is all one song for me: whether music, performance, film, fiction, or photographs. Other than technique, there is little separation. For what I do, it is the persona that matters. All that people are really interested in is the secret eye of the artist.

Style on 12/07/2017


A Tav Falco Christmas, 2017 Tav Falco


Tav Falco and Rita Nelson, his mother.


Tav Falco in performance in New York, 2014