yeah, yeah, yeah, 1997, Number 7
KRISTIAN HOFFMAN: A Pop Life
A superlative musician blessed with a charming personality and an uncanny lust for life, Kristian Hoffman's career has defied stylistic boundaries. In the past two decades, he's bounced from the new wave/glitter sound of New York's beloved Mumps, through eclectic collaborations with Congo Norvell, Klaus Nomi, the funk damaged James White/Chance, and kitsch diva Ann Magnuson. His first solo album, 1993's I Don't Love My Guru Anymore, was a whimsical journey through his folk-rock influences, a vision that was substituted with colorful psychedelic '60s pop for his contributions to the tribute albums Sing Hollies in Reverse and Melody Fair-Songs Of The Bee Gees (both on Eggbert Records).
He carries on those influences throughout his latest album Earthquake Weather, a thrilling sonic stir-fry of the Beach Boys, glam rock, Roy Wood, and madcap cabaret. It's appropriate that as I'm writing this out, we've just had another wonderful California earthquake, but it's nothing that a previous sunny afternoon spent talking with Kristian could have predicted.
JIM: When did The Mumps form?
KRISTIAN: It might have been 1975. At that time, Lance Loud and I would spend four or five nights a week at the Mercer Arts Center in NYC watching the New York Dolls, and this was right around the time that CBGBs started having Television play all the time. Of course, there would be only four people in the audience, and that's when Rob Duprey (Mumps guitarist) and I decided here was a place we could play. And if this band can play for only four people, then so could we.
JIM: You've had a creative relationship with producer Earle Mankey from those early days up until now, right?
KRISTIAN: Yes, because our manager at the time also managed Sparks and knew Earle through that connection. In fact, almost everything I've ever recorded, except for Klaus Nomi and Congo Norvell, was with Earle. He even did the material with The Swinging Madisons; all our unreleased demos that were better than the stuff that actually did come out. Sparks were one of my idols when I was younger, so when we finally met Earle we were intimidated and excited. At that point I didn't know Earle was somebody I was going to become very friendly with. I just thought it was neat that I would be working with someone who played on these records that I loved so much.
JIM: Was there ever the problem of people labelling The Mumps as an east coast version of The Quick?
KRISTIAN: Actually, I think we predated The Quick somewhat, so there wasn't a large problem of being compared, but we were very fearful of Sparks comparisons. Although we loved Sparks, we didn't want to be perceived as latter day Sparks. And even though a couple of our songs were very Sparks-ish, we identified much more with The Kinks. In fact, many of our early reviews mentioned how much of a British feel we had, or how we sounded like The Kinks. When punk finally came along, that's when we felt very inspired by it and decided to give our music more of a rawer edge.
JIM: While The Mumps were out and about in Los Angeles in the late '70s, Hollywood playboy Kim Fowley was involved somehow with just about every band and scene. Did he ever have any involvement with The Mumps?
KRISTIAN: Not really, although I knew we met him many times. One thing I do know for sure is that John Cale wanted to produce our first single and we were so stupid because he wanted to do "Before the Accident," the one song that we felt sounded too much like Sparks, and we didn't want people to hear our first single and say "Oh, another Sparks," which we had a notion that would be real bad for us. It's really one of my sincere regrets that we didn't get a chance to work with him.
JIM: When The Mumps broke up in 1980, did you immediately start work with The Swinging Madisons?
KRISTIAN: James White and The Blacks/Contortions, Klaus Nomi, and The Swinging Madisons were all happening before The Mumps broke up. The neat thing about that New York time was not only was I in a moment that was historically interesting, but I was also aware of it. With this time I realized "here I am in a moment where there are hundreds of different things going on and they're all within five blocks from my house." So I became involved in as many of them as I could, including performance art and films.
JIM: Did the idea of doing solo albums cross your mind much earlier than when the albums actually did get done?
KRISTIAN: Well, first of all, I had The Swinging Madisons before my solo work, which is a vehicle for myself, since they were my songs and I was the lead singer. The first solo album came out because I had a bunch of other songs that weren't appropriate for my other projects, and my then-manager said to go ahead and record them. For the new album, I felt like I didn't have to write a song from a specific point of view, which meant I could do whatever I want - I could have the folk songs, and I could write the pop songs, and the '60s influenced songs, and the glam songs, and whatever I want. I just decided to make it a potpourri, or a "pop-pourri." This second album is much more of a direction I'm interested in going, and the thing I do want to keep consistent is that I do care about melody and song craft. And I think that each song should be a little adventure, even though I like things to be familiar because it's comforting and I have a particular style of music that might be my favorite, I like to surprise you or take it somewhere you don't expect.
JIM: You have quite a cast of characters helping you out on the new album. Who are some of the special guests?
KRISTIAN: Will Glenn [Mazzy Star, Rain Parade], who is a miracle in my life, did the strings on the new album as well as on my first solo album. Earle Mankey played most of the guitar. Jonathan Lea from The Jigsaw Seen plays 12 string guitar and E-bow. Ethan James, who used to be in Blue Cheer, plays Hurdy Gurdy. Ann Magnuson sang backup on one song, and Ivy Rorschach from The Cramps played lead guitar on one song, which is a real dream come true since I've been a real fan of that band for years.
JIM: From witnessing your live performances, I've noticed you play with a stripped down lineup of just guitar/bass/drums. Do you plan to expand your live band to accommodate the album's big sound?
KRISTIAN: My idea is pretty modest: I'd love to get a lead guitarist. My rhythm section of Ron Gomez (bass) and Chuck Mancillas (drums) are just fantastic, but are married and have commitments with other bands. To me, I think we could do the songs really well and do them justice with simple arrangements. I don't feel the need to reproduce the record onstage. I think onstage it's more about personality and delivery.
JIM: The harmonies and backing vocals on the new album seem very Beach Boys influenced. Was that a direct result of working with Earle, who of course is a big Brian Wilson fan, and who has worked with The Beach Boys?
KRISTIAN: Well, I love The Beach Boys, but I came to them very late. I always hated them all through my childhood and formative years, because I always thought of them as too wimpy or "Sandpiper-ish." I ws more into English rock, the Brit-Beat, and because I was from California, I had to hate everything that was from California. I only realized how great they were in the last 10 years, so they weren't a formative influence on me. I was much more into The Bee Gees, Beatles, The Left Banke, The Merry Go-Round, so the Beach Boys influence might be more of a sideways influence, but not a conscious influence.
JIM: Earle's a fascinating producer and was very influential in helping to develop the sound of late '70s power pop. It must be fascinating to work with him. How do you two go about making a record?
KRISTIAN: When making a record, I demo everything including the backing vocals, except for things that I'm absolutely incapable of, like a guitar solo, in which case I'd leave a blank space and tell Earle to come up with something. I don't fancy myself a guitar player really. I think I'm capable on keyboards, but I find it easier to write on guitar because it forces me to play more simply and direct. Earle is so encouraging and supportive, and when you have an idea he wants to try it. On one of the new songs, "Now I Understand," I had a straight-forward folk rendition planned, but Earle had been taking flamenco guitar lessons, so when I heard him playing some of that we decided to add that to the song. We ended up just arranging the entire song around this new thing he was trying.
JIM: The two songs you performed on the tribute albums definitely hint at the musical direction of this new album.
KRISTIAN: Those two songs sort of helped me to find my direction, because I'd been in that folk idiom and wanted to do something more pop, and going into those projects I felt like I was free to fuck around. It was neat to be able to put in a distorted guitar, or use my '60s influence without feeling embarrassed about them, and putting strings in a more aggressive setting. Which reminds me of another one of my influences which I'm sure people are going to cringe when they hear it ... Echo and The Bunnymen. It was also just fun for me to do those, because before I would just sit there alone in the corner with my Bee Gees records and ask, "am I the only one?"
JIM: Your career has been so diverse, is there any particular project or goal you feel ready to conquer?
KRISTIAN: I certainly feel like I'm capable enough to write a song that a mainstream artist could cover, for instance I'd love Linda Ronstadt to cover one of my songs. I'd also like to write a musical, since the opportunities are all around us. What about that little beauty queen tragedy? Now there's a musical in that. I think there's a musical in everything.
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