Kramer is legendary for his sonic genius and infamous for his involvement in a pair of lawsuits. MAGNET looks at the rise, fall and rebirth of the musician, producer and label owner who helped spawn everything that was funny and weird about ’80s and ’90s indie rock. By Eric Waggoner
Collect the research on Mark Kramer, look at it from a distance, and what stands out are the flashes of brilliance, tragedy and occasional outright psychosis: A deranged Texan igniting a puddle of lighter fluid pooled on an inverted drum cymbal. A crude four-track record made by a couple of teenagers—its cover art shamelessly lifted from The Best Of Leonard Cohen—that set the bar for a generation of lo-fi absurdist rock. A 41-year-old man on the cusp of nervous collapse, sitting in an airplane bound from Ireland to the U.S., swearing to himself he’d never play live music again. The studio he built, then sold, then lost. The label he built, then lost, then built again.
And behind it all, the parade of artists, friends, former friends, collaborators, plaintiffs and defendants: Galaxie 500, Half Japanese, Yo La Tengo, Low, Jon Spencer, GWAR, Urge Overkill, Penn Jillette, Ann Magnuson and others too numerous to list.
As in-house producer, engineer, founder and owner of Shimmy-Disc Records, Kramer was largely responsible for pushing the music of marginal artists—some congenially warped (Ween, King Missile), others plainly unhinged (G.G. Allin, Daniel Johnston)—into the collective consciousness of the alt-rock scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. As a solo artist and member of Bongwater, Shockabilly and the Butthole Surfers, he had a hand in creating the nascent template of that music as well.
“You couldn’t touch Kramer’s taste or his instincts,” says Mickey Melchiondo (a.k.a. Dean Ween). “Look at the catalog: He had the Boredoms, GWAR, John Zorn. The guy always knew what time it was. We were living in New Hope, Pa., doing our thing in our apartment; to us, Kramer was like the Wizard of Oz or something—some guy way the fuck up in New York who was putting out all of this incredible music. He lived in a world we didn’t have any clue about.”
From 1987 to 1998, Shimmy-Disc served as a home for oddball talents who didn’t have a mortal prayer of getting signed anywhere else. Through an accident of historical timing, however, many of those artists’ recordings for the label caught the attention of the majors, who picked up the scent of the indie-rock boom and began sniffing around for weirdos to add to their own stables. Soon enough, Kramer found himself embroiled in personal and legal battles that crippled and eventually delivered the fatal blow to both Shimmy-Disc and the studio in which many of the label’s releases were recorded.
This is a story about the wages of success, even on such a wildly careening arc as Shimmy-Disc enjoyed. This is a story about how a unique artistic collaboration can be clearly destined for hatred and acrimony, and why a person might opt to court the flame-out anyway. Mostly, though, this is a story about willfully strange music, the people who make it and the people who take responsibility for delivering it into the world. Although Kramer’s story has, on some level, a happy ending, it’s not a terribly upbeat tale when taken scene by scene. Still, that shouldn’t surprise you. Stories about creation seldom are.
“I used to work with crazy people, knowing full well they were crazy,” says Kramer from South Florida, where he’s made his home since 2003. “And I loved every moment of it, right up until the collapse.”
Born in 1958 to a single mother and adopted by a Long Island couple, Kramer moved to New York City upon graduating from high school in 1976. He remained a NYC resident on and off for 27 years, during which he compiled a résumé of collaborations and ensemble work as extensive—and sometimes as checkered—as a career felon’s rap sheet.
Michael Macioce, a photographer whose work would eventually grace many Shimmy-Disc albums, met Kramer when both were in fifth grade. “I was a weird kid, and he was weirder,” says Macioce. “Corkscrew hair and a trombone.” After a visit to Kramer’s house during which his new friend played Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor on a Hammond B-3, the two began comparing musical thoughts on the school bus.
As the ‘70s bled into the ‘80s and punk and new wave gave way to early alt-rock, a vibrant, young community of musicians, visual artists and writers began to coalesce into NYC’s downtown arts scene. “I always thought our New York scene had its counterparts in all the other college-radio cities,” says Macioce. “But New York was descended from the Dutch, who were as tolerant in the 17th century as they are today. New York attracts people of that mind, from a lot of places.”
“I was in heaven whenever I’d see Patti Smith or one of the New York Dolls on the streets of the East Village,” says Magnuson, a West Virginia-born actress, writer and monologist. “Richard Hell always made my heart skip a beat when I saw him on St. Mark’s Place. I found so many like-minded arty folks my age who idolized Bowie and were fascinated by Andy Warhol’s Factory years.”
Kramer’s earliest group credit was a 1979-80 stint as live-performance keyboardist in NY Gong, one of the many short-lived splinter groups of ex-Soft Machine guitarist Daevid Allen’s Gong project. Two years later, Kramer joined avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and drummer David Licht to play bass and keyboards in Shockabilly, an experimental noise trio whose vivisections of Yardbirds and Beatles songs, surrealist humor (Chadbourne sometimes played “electric rake”) and spoken-word pastiches anticipated Kramer’s later work. Three years with Shockabilly led to a six-month gig as the bassist for the Butthole Surfers.
The Butthole Surfers approached their mid-’80s shows as a mix of Dada theatrics and a direct assault on the audience. Strobe lights and disorienting film backdrops seemed calculated to trigger seizures; frontman Gibby Haynes was as apt to set a drum kit on fire or attack the PA system with a screwdriver as to drop acid and cavort all but naked onstage. Video footage of the Surfers from this period, archived on YouTube, shows an impossibly skinny Kramer wielding his McCartney-style Höfner bass, sans strap, playing along with a set-closing trifecta of “Suicide,” “BBQ Pope” and “Dum Dum.” At the end of the show, the Surfers walked offstage directly onto the club’s floor, collapsing the final barrier between band and audience.
The concept of art as a direct challenge to the listener’s expectations—not to mention the skewed sense of humor behind it—would underpin Kramer’s subsequent work as a musician, engineer and producer. Upon returning to the U.S. following a European tour with the Surfers, Kramer purchased a 16-track studio on 34th Street called Noise New York with $5,000 borrowed from an uncle.
Kramer’s inaugural Noise New York session was the Surfers’ cover of “American Woman,” and soon he began hosting or overseeing dozens of projects ranging from the insane to the inane to the sublime, including Half Japanese’s Music To Strip By, G.G. Allin’s Hated In The Nation (both 1987) and a significant portion of Velvet Underground drummer Moe Tucker’s finest solo record, 1989’s Life In Exile After Abdication. Of all Kramer’s Noise New York productions, however, none has enjoyed more lasting fame and influence than Galaxie 500’s three studio albums (1988’s Today, 1989’s On Fire and 1990’s This Is Our Music), which became to the ‘90s shoegazer movement what Velvet Underground records were to ‘80s punk and indie rock.
“Kramer said that when he first heard us standing there, playing the same chord for five minutes, he genuinely thought we were retarded,” laughs Galaxie 500 singer/guitarist Dean Wareham. “After he heard what we were doing, he got into it a little more.”
Kramer’s work at Noise New York signaled a promising career midwifing extraordinary music. In 1987, he founded Shimmy-Disc, which would, as he frequently stated in interviews, “release music that no one else cared about.” The result would be a double-edged legacy of unearthly beauty and ungodly suffering: a catalog of 103 releases that shaped the dirtier side of the alt-rock boom and a pair of court battles and personal squabbles that would result in Kramer’s retirement from what he later called “this fucking business.”
Shimmy-Disc was as central to the early New York alt-rock movement as SST had been to SoCal hardcore. The label’s flagship act, the one that best embodied its spirit of absurdist humor and musical experimentation, was Kramer’s collaborative project with Magnuson: formidable avant-psychedelic duo Bongwater.
Magnuson moved to NYC in 1978 to mount a performance career that would range freely between the mainstream and the marginal. In 1983, she scored small-yet-memorable parts in a David Bowie urban-vampire flick (The Hunger) and a Madonna vehicle (Desperately Seeking Susan).
As events manager for Club 57, a popular gathering place for artists on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, Magnuson occasionally sang with a female drum/bass/ voice ensemble called Pulsallama. Kramer had run sound for Pulsallama’s performances at Club 57 in the early ‘80s, and when that group disbanded in 1984, he and Magnuson began collaborating as Bongwater. Ex-Shockabilly drummer Licht and guitarist David Rick joined the duo off and on for the duration of Bongwater’s seven-year career.
The band’s debut, 1987’s Breaking No New Ground EP, established its blueprint: a combination of snarky, hilarious monologues on the pitfalls of sex and fame, tape-loop and audio experiments, and unhinged covers of songs from a wild mix of genres and artists. Kramer and Magnuson, with a rotating series of guests, laid their unique stamp on tracks by Led Zeppelin, the Monkees, the Beatles, Johnny Cash, Gary Glitter and Dudley Moore, among others. Unlike the molto serio tendencies that marked much of the ‘80s downtown scene, Bongwater’s work was pleasantly self-deprecating, lampooning the star systems of both the mainstream and the underground. “Frank,” from 1988’s Double Bummer, found Magnuson aping Sinatra’s belligerent star tantrums; “Nick Cave Dolls,” from 1991’s The Power Of Pussy, offered her breathy, horny expression of desire for the fictional playthings.
“We were just relating to the world at large,” says Magnuson, who often pulled Bongwater lyrics straight out of her dream journal. “Then, as now, sex and money seem to be the driving forces in our culture. I think the overall theme was desire, which is really the thing that drives all of us, right? Desire and the desire to be freed from desire. And then to desire it again.”
Kramer and Magnuson’s best original material, on The Power Of Pussy and 1992’s The Big Sell-Out, deconstructed the conventions of popular music but rarely sounded glib or coy. Power’s straight-ahead cover of folk standard “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine” represented why the duo was so influential among subsequent culture-mashup artists. For listeners frustrated with both Madonna-style slick pop and punk’s self-parodic tendencies, Bongwater was a brainy and welcome third path: a reminder that music could move the head and the heart simultaneously.
Then came the lawsuit.
In a 1995 interview with MAGNET, Kramer claimed his partnership with Magnuson evolved into a romantic one in 1991, following the breakdowns of their respective relationships. During the final stages of recording The Big Sell-Out, Kramer said, the duo took up a two-month residence in Magnuson’s Los Angeles home, at the end of which their romantic connection collapsed and Bongwater imploded. Kramer moved back to New York and reconciled with his wife of nine years, who was then three months pregnant. Their daughter, Tess, was born in 1992. Kramer sold Noise New York and moved into a house off the Palisades Parkway, across the river in New Jersey, with a built-in 24-track studio he dubbed Noise New Jersey. Kramer’s domestic reconciliation didn’t last, however, and he and his wife divorced in 1994.
That same year—prompted, Kramer said, by both his acquisition of Noise New Jersey and their romantic split—Magnuson filed a lawsuit against Kramer and Shimmy-Disc. Magnuson sought recompense for alleged damages to the tune of $4.5 million, charging Kramer with fraud, breach of contract, copyright infringement and an assortment of related wrongdoings. Kramer hit back, filing a countersuit.
The resulting legal imbroglio would last nearly three years. Kramer launched a solo career beginning with 1992’s triple-LP The Guilt Trip and continuing with 1994’s The Secret Of Comedy and 1998’s Songs From The Pink Death. During this period, he recorded two underappreciated absurdist garage-rock albums with Penn Jillette (the vocal half of comedy duo Penn & Teller) under the name the Captain Howdy, as well as an experimental instrumental piece called Let Me Explain Something To You About Art, which was issued by John Zorn’s Tzadik label.
Kramer’s three proper solo albums offered something of a running commentary on his personal and legal difficulties. The Guilt Trip presented a series of songs that seem to reference those troubles, including “Kathleen, I’m Sorry,” “Not Guilty” and “Won’t Get Far Without Me.” On “Don’t Come Around,” from Songs From The Pink Death (an album Kramer once said was “about the murder of love [and] the death of friendship”), the barbs became more pointed: “I am the victim/They are the curse/They are not evil/They’re something worse.”
The legal battle between Magnuson and Kramer was settled out of court in 1997, with the condition that neither party speak publicly about the details.
“It was time to move on,” says Magnuson, who still lives in L.A. and has recently released her second solo album, Pretty Songs And Ugly Stories. “Several of us (in the band) were miffed over the business aspects. Some disinformation was put out in an attempt to obfuscate the fact that I made a legal inquiry into it all, but the only issue was that of accounting. Most bands have an expiration date, and I think Bongwater simply reached it.”
Bongwater’s legacy accounts for only a fraction of Shimmy-Disc’s historical importance. Trolling NYC for bands that might fit his label’s vision, Kramer often found himself stopping and listening to the music that suffused the city’s offbeat clubs and bars, tiny places redolent of last week’s smoke and last night’s urine. In 1990, on one of his jaunts through the East Village, Kramer caught an early show at the Pyramid Club by a duo from Bucks County, Pa., called Ween.
“We knew about Kramer, even though we didn’t know him,” says Ween‘s Melchiondo. “The bands on Shimmy-Disc were amazing. So we talked to him and found a lot of common areas. The Butthole Surfers were my second favorite band, right behind the Beatles. The Beatles were Kramer’s favorite band, too.”
Melchiondo and Aaron Freeman (a.k.a. Gene Ween) ended up sending Kramer the home recordings that would become 1991’s The Pod. “We had been planning on re-recording them prior to releasing them,” says Melchiondo. “When he heard them, he said, ‘No. This four-track stuff is the shit. This is the album.’ And Shimmy-Disc put it out essentially as we gave it to him. It was a straight-up one-time agreement. The deal was, in exchange for releasing The Pod, he would give us $2,500 and take us to Jamaica. We never even signed a contract.”
Ween gave the money to Andrew Weiss—bassist for the Rollins Band and, later, the Butthole Surfers—to mix the tapes. True to his word, Kramer took Melchiondo and Freeman to Jamaica, where the trio spent a week sampling the local vegetation. As it turns out, it was a stroke of luck that Ween dodged an official contract with Shimmy-Disc. The band was already signed to a multi-record deal with Minneapolis’ Twin/Tone label. The situation was resolved when Elektra Records signed Ween and ended up buying out its Twin/Tone contract. Following Ween’s only Shimmy-Disc release, Kramer suggested the band embark on a tour of England, for which Kramer would play bass.
“The tour didn’t go well,” says Melchiondo. “We were taking a shitload of drugs. We had our own path that we were on, and it didn’t involve anybody from the New York scene. So we had a creative falling-out on the road, and we basically limped along for the rest of the tour.”
Kramer’s on-again/off-again relationships with headstrong talents have sometimes resulted in flare-ups that, for all their intensity, are frequently short-lived. His work with Jad Fair (the notoriously erratic creative force behind Half Japanese), King Missile’s John S. Hall (with whom Kramer released the collaborative Real Men in 1991) and Penn Jillette (the dispute arose over Jillette supposedly being starstruck by Lou Reed, who wrote the title track for the Captain Howdy’s Tattoo Of Blood) has been marked by creative disagreements and periods during which neither party talked to the other.
“It’s like when people say, ‘Well, why’d you break the band up?’” says Dean Wareham of Kramer’s creative feuds. “Like band work is removed from personal disagreements. Any friendship goes through tensions; some are resolvable, some aren’t. When the personal relationship goes bad, there’s not much of a way to continue the professional side and make it productive.”
Melchiondo’s explanation of Ween’s break with Kramer during the band’s U.K. tour makes a similar point: “We were just too different. The guy was a lot older than us, plus we gave him a lot of shit because he was the label head. And he’s a creative guy himself; working with us was difficult for him, too. Ween’s been on a million fucking labels, and believe me, nobody pays you. You’re overseas, and you’re having a miserable time, and so we held him accountable. I don’t think he cheated us out of anything, but when you’re on a label and someone else owns your music, it’s always hard to accept. But we’re still friends.”
So what’s the real story on the accusations of egomania and mistreatment that dogged Kramer through the ‘90s? Though his collaborations with artists such as Fair and Johnston have weathered rocky patches, both artists have continued to work with him as recently as last year. Today, Kramer seems to encounter little difficulty signing on collaborators for new projects. Matt Menovcik of Seattle ambient-rock ensemble Saeta currently records with Kramer under the moniker Rope, Inc.
“Kramer is very up front about telling you what’s not sounding great,” says Menovcik. “You need to be able to take criticism. But he did it in a loving way, and he didn’t try to shape us.”
Still, Kramer’s reputation has taken several hits in the court of public opinion. The Bongwater lawsuit shed no light on Magnuson’s allegations of fraud and mistreatment, though Shimmy-Disc and Noise New Jersey remained in Kramer’s hands at the suit’s end, suggesting Magnuson’s claim that Kramer had bilked her out of millions was, at the very least, overstated. By 1997, both the label and the studio had taken a significant financial beating from Kramer’s legal costs. In an attempt to keep them viable, Kramer sold both to KnitMedia, the umbrella management entity of New York’s Knitting Factory club. Under the terms of the contract, Shimmy-Disc would become a subsidiary of Knitting Factory Records; Kramer would serve as producer and A&R rep for the label he’d founded. Shortly thereafter, however, Kramer sued Knitting Factory for breach of contract. As a result of his split with KnitMedia, he lost both Noise New Jersey and Shimmy-Disc. As with the Bongwater case, the details of the disposition of Kramer’s suit against Knitting Factory are obscured.
Kramer’s final professional work for Knitting Factory came in the form of a 1999 European tour: a triple-header lineup featuring Jad Fair, Shimmy-Disc act Adult Rodeo and Milksop Holly (Kramer’s collaboration with songwriter Mara Flynn). Billed as “The Last Tour Of The Century,” it was a creative flop and a financial bust. Following the final show in Cork, Ireland, Kramer flew back to New York, determined to leave the music business for good.
Back in NYC, living in a one-room apartment and without a studio or label for the first time in 15 years, Kramer was looking for non-musical work. He contacted Arthur Penn, director of such classic films as Bonnie And Clyde and Little Big Man. Kramer had met Penn in 1987 through his friendship with Jillette, when the director signed on to make Penn & Teller Get Killed. “I went to Arthur,” says Kramer. “He brought me into The Actors Studio, where I was his sole directing student.”
Over the next two years, he studied with Penn and assisted him in the production of a dozen plays. Kramer tentatively re-entered the music business through his association with Penn, writing the score for the acclaimed 2002 run of Ivan Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool. From 2002 to 2004, he served as sound supervisor for the Brooklyn-based Mark Morris Dance Group and as consultant and composer for the PBS series Closer To Truth: Science, Meaning And The Future.
In 2003, Kramer’s mother suffered a stroke; he relocated to Florida to be near her, but she passed away 16 months later. Kramer largely left the music business again and worked for the James Randi Educational Foundation. The non-profit JREF was founded by magician and psychic debunker James Randi; its highest-profile ongoing project is the One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge, which offers $1 million to anyone capable of demonstrating positive proof of paranormal or psychic abilities.
During this time, Kramer began thinking about establishing a new record label. The assembling of a mastering studio in his Florida home, called (what else?) Noise Miami, in 2004 was a significant first step. “It took me eight years to get to a place where I could even consider relaunching the label,” says Kramer. “I’m 20 years older now than I was when I launched Shimmy, and I feel more prepared to deal with the drama of it all, the disappointments artists will experience—and sometimes blame me for—when their releases don’t sell as well as they ought to.”
So Kramer started Second-Shimmy. The label bowed in October with I Killed The Monster, a well-received collection of Daniel Johnston covers featuring Sufjan Stevens, Daniel Smith, Jad Fair, Mike Watt and Kramer himself. Current and upcoming Second-Shimmy releases include albums by Rope, Inc., Jessie And Layla (an Irish folk/pop sister act) and Little Aida (an ethereal folk/psych band from Australia).
Of course, it’s a different musical landscape than it was two decades ago. Hole-in-the-wall clubs and cassette demos have been superseded by Internet newsgroups and MySpace—which is where Kramer found Little Aida, headed by Susannah and Tessa Rubenstein. “We came to Miami and gave him the recordings,” says Susannah, who self-produced Little Aida’s Mad Country, which was mixed at Noise Miami. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard what he did. It’s hard to explain; he listens very, very closely to what’s there, and he has a very cinematic approach to music. It’s almost like he paints a picture. He strikes a sound and makes a picture with it.”
The Second-Shimmy catalog so far seems to lean more toward the pop sensibilities of Kramer’s solo records than the willfully absurd music of Bongwater. “I still love artists like the Tinklers and King Missile,” says Kramer. “I just think I’ve done all I can do with those genres. I’m more interested in crafting what I would consider the ideal sonic landscape, rather than exploiting people’s desire to laugh.”
Having re-entered the process of collaborative work with largely unknown artists, Kramer nonetheless speaks like a man who’s trying to learn from his past and one experience in particular.
“I’ve chosen my recent collaborators more wisely than my previous ones,” he says. “I once thought the end result—the art—was worth the end of a friendship. Really, what’s more important: that I remain friends with this woman for the rest of my days, which I knew would never happen, or that I make this beautiful, meaningful collaboration happen with an electricity that burns fast and bright before imploding and taking our lives down with it? When I was younger, I felt this way: No risk was too great. It was the art that mattered and only the art. Now, frankly, I figure that life is far too short to get involved with folks who can just as easily go elsewhere and wreak years of havoc and destruction in somebody else’s life. I’d rather play cards.”
Indeed, the Rope, Inc. and Little Aida releases sound like some of the most heart-felt albums to find their way into the light through Kramer’s assistance. Melodic without being sentimental or saccharine, they reflect a new, more emotive phase of a lifetime’s commitment, for better or worse, to the dissemination of beautiful noise.
“I do find myself more interested in beauty as the years roll on,” says Kramer. “The heart is the sole target I’m aiming for. I guess it used to be the heart and the funny bone, but I’ve lost interest in music that makes people laugh. I want people dipping their toes in a pool of tears. In such an ugly world, beauty is the only true protest.”