The Bob, 1993

KRISTIAN HOFFMAN: An American Anomaly
by Jud Cost

Kristian Hoffman sidled into the national consciousness 20 years ago as Lance Loud's keyboard-playing, wise-cracking sidekick in the PBS documentary series "An American Family." Hoffman and Loud had just arrived in New York from their native Santa Barbara, California - a couple of fresh-faced kids in love with the Velvet Underground.

Soon thereafter they formed Mumps, a clever, sarcastic, and funny take on the Kinks as re-invented by two New York Dolls fanatics. In the right place at the right time, Mumps shared stages with all the Max's/CBGB's legends: Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, the Ramones, the Heartbreakers, and Wayne County.

After Mumps split in the late '70s, Hoffman toured Europe with Lydia Lunch's band, watched James Chance take on all comers in the Contortions, wrote songs for bombastic new wave opera singer Klaus Nomi, and sang lead in his own band, the Swinging Madisons, which he labels "Bobby Rydell meets heavy metal."

More recently he has lampooned folk old-timers Peter, Paul and Mary in Bleaker Street Incident, and played keyboards in Congo Norvell, a Los Angeles based band led by Kid Congo Powers and Sally Norvell, which Hoffman describes as "weird and atmospheric."

And he's just released his own album, I Don't Love My Guru Anymore. Framed by Robert Mache's pithy guitar and the sterling string arrangements of William Cooper - known as Will Glenn when he played in the Rain Parade - Hoffman's swooping and pungent songs sport dramatic, insightful lyrics that are actually worth reading. The "cameo in Lance Loud's life" has the stage to himself at last.

The Bob: You seem to be a real Renaissance man, Kristian, fingers in lots of different pies.

Hoffman: I made a big mistake. I was raised by a very liberal, artsy family. I was raised to be an artist. I was going to draw my little radiograph Aubrey Beardsley type drawings - teeny nibs, obsessively detailed, and slightly pornographic - and conquer the world with them somehow, even though everybody else in high school was doing the exact same thing. So I went to Cal Arts in Valencia [north of L.A.] and sat all night in the cinderblock dormitories, drinking coffee. I thought there'd be really neat, gloriously talented, inspirational people there - I was an idiot - but it was so horrible and miserable that I moved to New York and became a punk rocker. And I didn't draw for ten years because of that.

The Bob: Where did you spend your childhood?

Hoffman: I grew up in Santa Barbara in the lap of totally-detached-from-reality luxury. My friend Lance [Loud] loved the Velvet Underground and thought Andy Warhol was really neat, so we had to go to New York. There was always music in my house: the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, and Ian and Sylvia. But what we listened to most was these recordings my mother made for blind children, Stories Children Love, and we played those over and over again. Our dad gave us a tape recorder, and we'd make tapes and play them backwards and hit jars at the same time. We were useful producers even then. My mom would give us albums she'd pick out by the cover. The first one was Cher's first album [in 1966], and we played that all day every day for a year - although we usually played it on 45.

The Bob: Did you and Lance go the high school band route?

Hoffman: It was really discombobulated, but generally it was Lance, the rest of his family - Grant on guitar - and whoever else was in the garage at the time. I would play keyboards. We hoodwinked our way into playing locally for the cast of Hair. We only played in public three or four times - once as Fork, and once as Liquid Action All.

And here's one ridiculous little high school memory: I said I was going to spend the night at a friend's house, and then Lance and I took my Volkswagen and drove up to Altamont. We were right in the middle, next to the people getting killed. We got to see it all - blood on the camera. We tape-recorded everything, and the Rolling Stones did "Brown Sugar," which they hadn't recorded yet. So we learned the song and said we wrote it. Everyone thought we were so talented.

The Bob: How was New York in the early '70s?

Hoffman: After we moved to New York we decided to have a real band, and that was then Mumps. The New York Dolls changed my life. I saw them five nights a week - it must have 100 times. They seemed like the best rock'n'roll band in the world. Everybody on the charts was dressing down, wearing torn denims - the grunge look of the day - but they were dressing up and making themselves look as ridiculous as possible. Eric Clapton would stand still on stage and hit one note, and his face would get pinched-up like an otter - and you were supposed to groove on that? But the Dolls moved all over the place, tripped each other. And their lyrics were hilarious - a great sense of humor before it became illegal.

The Bob: That's something the Mumps never lacked.

Hoffman: That was always a big thing to me and Lance - that you were allowed to say something meaningful, but still you were allowed to have a sense of humor about it. But that's such a problem. As soon as you have a sense of humor, you yourself are not taken seriously. On my new album I veered away from making that "schticky" Shecky Green Catskill statement, but I hope people see that some of it is humorous.

The Bob: Why no Mumps album after your "Crocodile Tears" single on Bomp?

Hoffman: Maybe the fact that we were funny, I don't know. We were managed by the same person who managed the Dickies, and they put us both up for A&M. And A&M chose them. We were very lively and crazy on stage - but unpredictable. So we could either be really lousy musically or really great. And at that time the "Lance Loud thing" worked against us somewhat. We were perceived as trying to cash in on the television documentary - the same way people might look askance at Cher's daughter.

The Bob: How was it being in that series and having your personal lives constantly under scrutiny? It's one of my favorite TV shows of all time.

Hoffman: That was me, mincing around the hotel room in New York. The parts of me that are shown in it have been an endless source of embarrassment for me. Being in the show was fantastic. Of course it was edited a certain way, and they re-shot things they missed. When Lance and I went to Denmark the camera crew got bored, so they said they'd pay for our train tickets if we went somewhere else, so we went to Paris.

I'm surprised the show's had the longevity to hold this '70s trivia nerd fascination. And I'm surprised and very gratified at the impact Lance's flamboyancy had on people. People have come up to Lance to say that he gave them the bravery to come out to their parents. The weird thing about that is that at the time we didn't think we were acting gay - we thought we were acting like rock stars. And through the show I've finally resigned myself to being a cameo in Lance Loud's life.

The Bob: Were the Mumps taken seriously by the rest of the CBGB/Max's bands?

Hoffman: We were all so radically different from each other - Blondie, Talking Heads, Television, and the Ramones - that we were accepted, but thought of as kind of a Kinks revival band, so we sort of sidled into the punk aesthetic. But right before we broke up, we got this weird maniac teenage girl audience - very young girls screaming and throwing their underwear at us. Maybe we had some sort of "Menudo appeal," I don't know. Maybe we belonged more on the Archies side of the charts, but I was shocked that we didn't get signed after that, because we were selling out Max's and CBGB's. Lance got his clothes torn off a few times, but he was usually too sweaty. He was legendary for being able to aim his sweat.

The Bob: You recorded your first single in Brian Wilson's studio in Bel Air.

Hoffman: We waltzed into Brother Studios, which was an insane '60s relic with a meditation room and pictures of the Maharishi and fake stained glass windows that lit up through solar panels. They didn't have the sandbox there anymore, but there was this grand piano, and Brian Wilson had all the speakers in the piano room carved to look like Gothic cathedrals. So here we were, these little new wave punksters, but it was a lot of fun. And our single got played on KROQ - we were so happy.

The Bob: You kind of "punkified" the Doll's clothes sense.

Hoffman: Our motto was "if it doesn't go - it goes." Lots of clashing prints, very loud clothes before the "new wave" was a ripple in its father's eye. We always made fun of things, which I guess didn't make us a lot of friends. One Halloween Lance had a shirt like a jack-o-lantern, and he made this huge safety pin out of a coat hanger. And the punks thought we were making fun of them.

That was a wonderful time - thinking you could do it yourself without going through the machinery. It's funny because it makes you sound like just another old hippie. That was one of the songs we never finished, our big putdown: "You're Just Another Hippie With a Haircut."

The Bob: Did John Cale produce you toward the end?

Hoffman: It seemed like a dream come true. But he insisted on us doing one song that we thought sounded too much like Sparks - "Before the Accident." Now I think, "who cares?" It's a very funny song, and it would have been great working with him. But when you're young you think another opportunity will be there the next day. Our problem with the Mumps was never not enough ideas - it was too many ideas.

The Bob: The Swinging Madisons was next up?

Hoffman: Towards the end of the Mumps I was in a lot of different projects with Lydia [Lunch] and James Chance. The Swinging Madisons started as a joke band because I wanted to be a singer at some point. The whole idea was to cross Bobby Rydell with heavy metal [laughs]. We'd steal the horn lines from Louis Prima records and play them on the guitar. The problem was that I was writing lots of different songs in different styles so people who liked "Volare" might not understand "My Mediocre Dream." And of course we had Robert Mache, who I still think is one of the best guitar players in the world. He spoiled me. We never had to rehearse - he'd get it right the first time.

The Bob: James Chance always came across in the press as a querulous punk funk junkie.

Hoffman: Well, that's what he was - the best punk funk junkie. He'd get in big fights with people right on stage, get completely beat up and have two black eyes. Then he'd go on and play some more. But I thought he was kind of a genius.

The Bob: Was it odd going from a pop band to playing with Lydia Lunch and James Chance?

Hoffman: I didn't see what the difference was. One of my very favorite bands was Teenage Jesus And The Jerks. I interviewed Lydia for a fanzine back then, and she said her favorite band was Herman's Hermits. And I'd go to her house, and that's what she'd be playing. Just because you liked wimpy pop didn't mean you couldn't like wild noise.

The Bob: How did you link up the punk diva, Klaus Nomi?

Hoffman: I was in a show called "New Wave Vaudeville," which advertised for "slaves, Nazis, and freaks." They got me and Lance and Klaus Nomi. If you didn't like one number, there'd be another one you liked. Klaus Nomi closed the show. He came on in a clear raincoat shaped like a space suit, with tiny light beams flashing on him, and through the smoke he sang an aria from "Samson and Delilah" in this unearthly voice - "Frankie Valli goes to Outer Space." There was total silence, a show-stopper. No one could have followed him. The announcer had to reassure people that he was really singing live because nobody believed it.

Anya Philips called me up to get a band together for him. One of our first dates was playing Fiarrucci, a very trendy clothing store that had big fashion shows. This may not sound like a compliment, but Klaus Nomi was everything that was neat about Tiny Tim - into his own world with a weird charisma and presence, truly one of the great eccentrics of our time.

The Bob: I hear Roy Wood of the Move as a major influence in the new album.

Hoffman: Well, I loved the Move and, lest we forget, the ever-present Sparks - people we listened to a lot in our formative years - and of course the Kinks. Those were some of the first records I ever shop-lifted.

Recently I was in a band called Bleaker Street Incident - kind of a folk/satire band with Robert Mache and Ann Magnuson. We did funny songs in the folk idiom. Since I was raised around folk, a lot of me really loathes it, but another part of me thinks the melodies are really beautiful and emotionally touching. So I ended up writing a lot of songs too sad to do in Bleaker Street Incident. I decided to do an act where I only did sad songs, called Mope-A-Thon. I did all my songs that were too whiny and mopey to do with any other joke band I've done. The best thing about it was that everybody cried. I thought, "I've got my finger on the pulse now - my ticket to the stars." My mom loved it because I was finally doing the music we'd grown up on. She helped me to get the mney together to record the album. But I realized I couldn't do just sad songs, and threw on some of the other ones too.

There were a few snide comments, but it was a conscious attempt to get away from the stuff I used to hide behind - puns and one-liners. I made an effort to be as naked as possible and deal with simpler emotions instead of making pompous pronouncements about how I could save the world if only I ruled it. Even still, it's typical, to me, of that very dangerous genre, the singer-songwriter - you see a young man with acoustic guitar and run screaming in the other direction. And yet it's some of the most satisfying work I've ever done, because I've gotten in touch with things emotionally - in the way other people's songs have touched me.

The Bob: The string arrangements by Will Glenn, alias William Cooper, border on the brilliant.

Hoffman: He's fantastic. It was a gift to find him. The people in Fat And Fucked Up recommended him to me. I'd asked them because they all play violin and cello, but they couldn't really read music. Will Glenn came in and did the strings so fast it was like having another Robert.

The Bob: Is "I Don't Love My Guru Anymore" about anyone in particular?

Hoffman: It's anybody in your life who's ever betrayed you - generic deprogramming material. There are vague references to David Bowie and Patti Smith, but it isn't that I don't love those people anymore. You just get to the point in your life where you feel, "Boy, this just doesn't do it for me anymore." You'll never be at that point again where you're so vulnerable that music comes and fills a void you thought nothing could fill. But that's what music did for me. I was hoping I could make somebody else cry in this lifetime, and I'm glad to say that I have.

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