Q&A With Kristian Hoffman

Kristian Hoffman always has so much to say, we might have edited the hell out of his interview—and his voluminous daily guest-editor posts. Except that everything he comes up with is so … damn … fascinating. And why not! He and Lance Loud met in high school back in the early ’70s in Santa Barbara, Calif. After starring in PBS cinéma-vérité documentary An American Family, they formed the Mumps, moved to New York and shared Max’s and CBGB stages with all the legends of the punk/new-wave explosion of 1976: Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads and Blondie. Hoffman and Loud also had front-row seats for the Mercer Arts Center incubation of the New York Dolls, before that. In our book, that grants you unlimited license to open the floodgates. Fop (Kayo), Hoffman’s latest solo album, is an ornate masterpiece of baroque pop, well worth your attention. Hoffman will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week.

“I Can’t Go There With You” (download):

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MAGNET: It’s been 20 years since we last did an interview for late, lamented mag The Bob. Love the new album. You’re still the master of baroque pop.
Hoffman: Glad you liked it. Being able to do it just came out of the blue, and I seized the opportunity. If there’s ever a time I’m going to make something big, it’s now. I think I finished the whole thing in less than three months. With all the people who helped me, it was an amazing recording experience. Finding out that my friend from high school, Jeff Bruner, was still doing string arrangements. And the guy who conducted the Rufus Wainwright Judy Garland show, Stephen Oremus, came in and did some arranging and played harpsichord. It was very exciting and fun. I think the recording studio is heaven, anyway.

I’d know your stuff blindfolded, ever since we worked on the Jigsaw Seen’s Bee Gees tribute album 20 years ago, and you cut “Lemons Never Forget.”
I think that’s the sort of song that set me on this path. It was the first time I realized, “Oh, a person can do this by themselves.” I always thought even with the great ’60s records, the Left Banke records where Mike Brown’s dad orchestrated it, that it didn’t seem you could make up these parts and have them work. But when Will Glenn played all those parts and they came out so beautifully, I just thought, “Oh, it’s possible.”

People always think of the Left Banke when the term baroque pop comes up, but the person I associate most with your music is Roy Wood of the Move.
Uh huh, I agree. Those are some of the earliest records I ever got.

From what I’ve read, he learned how to play each instrument—the cello, the bassoon, the oboe—as he recorded it. I don’t know if that’s true.
I think it is true. I think he was very disciplined, but almost to a curmudgeonly point, where he wanted to do everything by himself. And that gave those records a sort of raw sound. But also a fantastic scope of vision.

The Phil Spector sound interpreted by Roy Wood was something to behold.
I’m actually not a huge Jimmy Webb fan as far as the songs go, but I’m a huge fan of the sound of those big, orchestrated records. There’s something about the sound of that orchestra, a little more middle-brow than what Roy Wood does. It just feels so epic. That’s our version of a ’50s soundtrack.

I’ve driven a few people nuts by playing “MacArthur Park” 10 times in a row.
On some of his songs, he wants so badly to be a poet that he struggles with it. That would never happen with one of my songs.

Are you up for a little ancient history? When you first met Lance Loud, it was in Santa Barbara, I presume.
Yeah, it was in high school. I was kind of like an art star already. Art was easy, and I was the teacher’s pet. Lance came into Mr. Baker’s art class, and he was making a dodo and pinning these dead avocado leaves on its neck. And I thought, “Wow, that’s incredible.” It turned out he was so quick-witted and verbally facile. He had great ideas but never finished a project on time. So Mr. Baker would reluctantly fail him. But he was also Mr. Baker’s favorite. I really didn’t have any friends then. I came from a family of seven kids. We were really insular and thought we were really smart. So, I was completely seduced by everything about Lance. We just became best friends. I started cutting high school with him. My grades suffered the minute I met him. He taught me how to be an adventurer in life. I don’t think I’d have ever moved to New York without that.

Why isn’t An American Family available on DVD? It’s one of my all-time favorite TV shows.
It’ll all be explained on this HBO show, Cinema Verite. It’s based on An American Family, but it’s not really telling the story of the Louds. It’s the story of the filmmakers and the infighting and how that show got made. James Gandolfini is playing Craig Gilbert, the producer whose idea the show was, and Diane Lane plays Pat Loud (Lance’s mother). It’s a perfect casting. I haven’t seen the script, but the Louds did see an early version of it, and they weren’t very happy with it. The reason An American Family hasn’t come out on DVD is because of all the infighting between the production players and PBS. It’s unclear if it’ll ever be released on DVD. Oh, and Tim Robbins is playing Bill Loud (Lance’s father), and he looks eerily like Bill. It’s kinda creepy seeing people whose kids I went to high school with being played by these movie stars in this film of them, while they’re still alive, in this film they weren’t given any input into.

I didn’t know Bill and Pat were still alive.
They’re both still alive. Both of my parents are dead, and Bill and Pat took me to my mother’s funeral. They’re the best friends you could ever have, since high school. They’re my alternate parents.

I remember clearly, watching the first episode of An American Family, thinking this is really boring. Then about half an hour later, you’re totally hooked.
I felt the same way, too, thinking why would anyone want to see this? But Ann Magnuson told me she moved to New York because of watching An American Family. It was sort of like little tendrils you send out in the cultural pond. Some friends of mine told me that Lance gave them the faith to come out to their parents, all sorts of stuff like that.

When did you move to New York?
We first moved to New York in 1971. Like many teenagers—I was 17—we had failed attempts to stay there. We’d rent an apartment, we wouldn’t pay our rent, and then we’d get kicked out and go back to Santa Barbara with our tails between our legs. That happened a few times. That’s why we were lucky enough to be there when the New York Dolls first started, when they played at Mercer Arts. They used to play five nights a week. I would meet all the kids from Parsons and the other arts schools and get all dressed up. We were sort of a clique that got in for free because we went there so often. I feel very blessed we happened to be there at that moment.

Wow, talk about being in on the ground floor.
Here’s a quick aside. Lance and I went to Altamont and took a cassette recorder. And the Stones played “Brown Sugar,” which hadn’t been released yet. So we played that in our high-school band and pretended we wrote it. Lots of people thought we were talented.

You took the Mumps with you to New York?
Yeah, the New York Dolls had inspired Lance and me to take having a band more seriously. We went back to Santa Barbara for about six months and did the typical thing, rehearsing in the garage with Jay Dee Daugherty, who later went on to Patti Smith. Then the Mumps got booked on The Dick Cavett Show, because the Louds were going to be featured. We had about seven songs, and they were all pretty terrible. We played “Muscle Boys” and completely alienated the audience. People were aghast at seeing an actual gay person on TV. Completely baffled, silence. And we just wanted to kill ourselves. I remember watching it on TV later at this rich guy’s place in New York, and they both hated it so much I started crying, realizing that my baby is stillborn. Better try to make another one. But Lance and I said, “Now we’re here in New York, we’re not going back.” We stayed in this hotel called the Belleclaire on West 77th Street and eked out a living until we met all the members of the Mumps and started playing.

I saw the Dolls in San Francisco on their first West Coast tour in 1973, when Arthur Kane couldn’t play because he had a hand injury.
We got to come out to see them at the Whisky in L.A. on that tour and got to go to the after-party at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

It was such a bleak time after the Beatles, the Airplane and the Doors fell apart. The Dolls were a real breath of fresh air. You could feel dangerous rock ‘n’ roll being reborn right before your eyes.
They were everything the Rolling Stones promised to be but weren’t. The only thing I would have liked was if the Dolls had made their psychedelic album.

That would have been pretty cool. I assume the Dolls’ germ came from that notorious photo of the Stones in drag to promote “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing In The Shadow?”
It seems like that, but it was in the air at the time, like unisex haircuts. And Bowie had made everybody look at outrageous clothing in a different light. And rock stars were all very femme-y and thin. It was like they took the British trope and put it through a trashy American prism. The Dolls had platform shoes first, and Bowie stole that from them. I remember seeing Bowie in the audience at Mercer Arts, and David Johansen by that time was having his shoes handmade by this friend of his. When we saw the Dolls do the drag show at Club 82, David Bowie and Bryan Ferry were in the audience, and you could walk right up and talk to them. And we went to see T.Rex and the Stooges and the Kinks at all the local theaters.

Better still, you got to see the blossoming of the entire Max’s/CBGB punk scene in the mid-’70s?
Oh yeah. We’d go to Max’s late at night, then stand around and not know what to do with ourselves. And there would be Lou Reed or there would be Alice Cooper, and we’d eat chickpeas. But Lance was very forward, and we’d end up sitting around with Glenn O’Brien and Fran Lebowitz and Danny Fields before he was managing the Ramones. Danny Fields would call us “cots,” that’s what he called young boys. He might have had some sexual designs on us, but he was very generous, and there was never any sex forced upon us. He was managing Iggy Pop at the time. Glenn O’Brien and Fran Lebowitz frowned on us, called us “Danny’s boys,” unsightly nothings that should be kept out of the room. But Danny called me up at 11 o’clock one night and said I should come over to his house right now. He said, “There’s someone I want you to meet.” And there sitting on his couch were Paul and Linda McCartney. Of course, I didn’t know what to say to them.

You got to witness the great New York bands—Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, the Ramones—develop before your eyes.
We were actually formed a little bit before them. The way we ended up being in that circuit was Rob DuPrey was working at Cinemabilia, a famous cinemaphile bookstore, and Richard Hell was working there, too. I ended up working there, too. The guy took pity on these rock stars and let us work in the mail room. Richard Hell had scoped out CBGB’s, which at that time had poetry, spoken word and blues bands. He said, “I think we can get a gig over there.” So, we went to see what might have been Television’s first show at CBGB’s.

A tiny crowd, I suppose.
There were only three or four other people there. We thought this is cool, a place to play. So, we went and got booked there right away. Our first few gigs there were with Television. And we adored Television, but the love wasn’t returned. Tom Verlaine tried to steal Rob DuPrey from us. He’d say, “You’re never going to get anywhere with that horrible band,” but he was very friendly to us as a person. Lance loved him, too, considered him a great poet. But you don’t have to like each other’s art to be friends. We actually played there before those other people came. Blondie, at that time, was the Stilettos. Elda Stiletto has been in touch with me on Facebook. I always wanted to cover her song “I Left My Wednesday Panties In Passaic.” That was before Chris Stein arrived. It was funny; he took a little longer than the rest of us to cut off his hippie hair. His first shows with Blondie, he had Alice Cooper-like torn leotards, shag, lots of eyeliner.

My favorite single from that era was Wayne County’s “Max’s Kansas City,” where he namechecks all the New York punk bands: “Blondie’s on the cover of the New York Rocker.” Was it a kick for the Mumps to get mentioned?
Of course. We’ve always loved Wayne, and now he’s Jayne. I also loved his song “If You Don’t Want To Fuck Me, Baby, Baby Fuck Off.” It turned out he really meant that. I was sitting on his lap at some drunken party next to Leee Childers, and when it didn’t happen, it was like, “You asshole.” Like I was giving the wrong advertising.

Let’s skip ahead and wrap this up by talking about your working association with Rufus Wainwright, a current fave of mine.
What a blessing to work with him. Kate and Anna McGarrigle put out some of our favorite records of all time. Lance and I were totally obsessed with them. That was the rock bed of what we thought of as great songwriting. We read in the paper that this weirdo guy with the nasal Barbra Streisand voice and funny shoes was having a residence at Largo (in L.A.) and no one was going, then found out that he was Kate McGarrigle’s son. We thought maybe she’d be there. So, we went to meet him. His voice takes a little getting used to at first, because it doesn’t have a precedent in your history. But once you get used to it, it seems like one of the most beautiful instruments in the world. Like you’ve learned a new language, it’s just so gorgeous. When he was going to form a band, Lance absolutely forced me on him. I would never have been brave enough to do it. So Rufus succumbed to Lance—when he turns his light on you, you feel like you’re in the warmest spot in the world—and he allowed me to put together his first touring band. I dragged in all my friends—D.J. Bonebrake, Will Glenn, Jonathan Lea, Joe Berardi, Pierre Smith—a shifting array of all these fabulous people. It was one of the greatest times of my life, playing music that was really new and rich to me. Rufus made allowances for his songs to breathe and go places they wouldn’t otherwise go. And I have to say, I think our voices blended beautifully together. At first, I felt like I was the grown-up songwriter and he was the kid. But he really helped me see music in a new way.

—Jud Cost

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3 Comments

  1. Glenn O'Brien
    Posted April 18, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    Danny Fields referred to that generation as “tots” not “cots.” Danny was a great friend to youth. I remember that an insurance company put out a decal called a “tot finder” with a picture of a fireman and a tot. You were supposed to put it on the your children’s windows. I gave one to Danny. Lance was very self-assured. He once gave me his autograph unsolicited. Anyway if I frowned on Lance and Kristian it was only until I saw them play at CBGBs and then I loved them–Kristian is one of the great underknown treasures.

  2. Posted April 19, 2011 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    Thank You Kristian for bringing back a lot of memories of when the Mumps performed in Los Angeles. The Mumps were welcomed with open arms by the LA Kids. I did get to have some of those moments with Lance – where you felt it was only him and you. Also I learned how to properly interview someone due to an important lesson Lance taught me after The Mumps first show at The Whiskey.

  3. Posted April 19, 2011 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I DID do that correction from “cots” to “tots” on my Facebook page when I posted this link – who knows what senility has done to my already questionable elocution when interviewed over the telephone? And I love the source! Meanwhile, Glenn has been nothing but fabulous towards me since oh – about 1975? But the first few meetings, when we were fresh faced Santa Barbara rubes and totally in awe of EVERYTHING, rendered us acutely riposte-free when presented with what might have been Max’s most fabulous erudite back-room table. Even then Fran was a caution, and Glenn – not only a crack raconteur and impossibly informed, but quite the stunner as well! Yes, I was awestruck!