Sergei Chernov interviews David Thomas for the St. Petersburg Times, Dec 11 2000
Please tell about your first trip to Russia in 1993. I know you were collecting material for an article for the Spin magazine about folklore. What kind of folklore it was? Did you manage to find anything interesting? What was your article about?
I went to Novosibirsk, Barnaul, Kyzyl. Moscow and St Petersburg. I had ideas about the exploitation and trashing of American culture by foreigners. The populist view is that Americans have tried to spread their culture in some sort of imperialist hegemony. Nonsense, I thought. It is foreigners who have ransacked American values adopting perverted counterfeits as fashion accessories, in the process devaluing the currency of the culture itself. I had ideas of the nature of the media and their role in this. I wanted to look at the conflict between commercial and non-commercial music within the east/west divide of the USSR itself as mirroring the bigger west vs east divide of Moscow, for example, vs New York City or London. I had some ideas about the value of isolation. I had some ideas about the universality of the "masonic" brotherhood at the heart of the musician's craft and the nature of the creative process in a social setting. Spin never published the article. They thought it was wonderful but not for their readers. They paid me anyway.
You played at the pioneering TaMtAm club in St. Petersburg, which doesn't anymore exists. What were you impressions about the place, public and its reactions?
I don't remember much. It was another gig in another town. I went back and looked at my notes. This is what I wrote at the time,"Bands play on a small stage in a small room. People stand, drink bottles of beer and watch. This, of course, describes every rock bar in America and is hardly worth mentioning except that in Russia it seems to represent an evolutionary leap beyond the usual career prospectus of an occasional appearance at a festival staged in a theatrical space in front of a seated audience wherein nervous musicians having eyed the vast spaces beneath the proscenium arches and having sweated cold fear saying to themselves "Boy, this Space needs filling," proceed to bring on the "clowns" - dancers, costumes, theatrics, art pretensions... something... anything, oh please! - to fill space and appease wolf-like audiences. THEATER CORRUPTS MUSIC ALWAYS and Russian rock groups have labored years stricken by its cancer."
I don't remember anything else. The people were nice but the people are nice everywhere. I liked Seva Gakkel very much. He was the most impressive thing about St Petersburg. That, plus seeing a band from Magadan, Mission Anticyclone. They were opening for some hideous Russian ska group that the crowd loved. I thought the Magadan band was overwhelmingly good but nobody liked them. I watched slack-jawed, amazed and NOBODY else thought they were any good at all. They had saved their money for a year, flown half way across the world to do 2 shows where nobody liked them-- they were stunning and the other band was an anodyne imitation of an imitation of an imitation. It reminded me of a lot of things.
Your art is a blend of rock, blues, folk, jazz and theater. Why do you call it "rock music"? Do you think the term is still relevant nowadays?
I call it rock music because that's what it is. Your question illustrates a number of prejudices shared by many. Rock music is the native music at the heart of American culture. Artemy Troitsky said to me, "The most ordinary rock band playing in a garage in Nebraska has an authenticity and urgency that cannot be found in even the best bands from England because they are playing their own music." Rock music is in my blood. It's not in yours. You presume too much to think it is. I do not claim Tolstoy. You cannot claim Elvis. Your question also presumes that culture is something that can be frozen in time. It presumes that rock music was never anything other than a youth phenomenon designed to sell clothes and provide tight-jeaned boys to chicken-hawkers. It assumes that what is popularly believed must define the reality of any situation. The Beatles will be a footnote in 50 years and forgotten totally in 100. Don Van Vliet, Sky Saxon and Brian WIlson will still be honored.
Many rock writers saw punk as being progressive at the time. You said, punk rock was invented to sell clothes. Can t this be applied to rock music as such which to a great extent is part of mass culture?
See above. Rock music is folk culture. So the question needs to be re-configured. For example, is Oasis a rock band? Clearly not. (1.) They are not American; and, (2.) they do not show any evidence of emerging from a native folk tradition. I am a native American. We have a native culture. Maybe you don't want to give us one. Maybe you want our native American culture to be confined to Hollywood dross, or granny sitting in a rocking chair in the Appalachian mountains, or field Negroes singing spirituals as they pick cotton. WAKE UP! There are NO grannies sitting in rockers in the Appalachians. There are NO field Negroes picking cotton. Talking in terms of "mass culture" leads nowhere. Things are bought and sold. A particular widget does a good job of widgeting so it becomes very popular and sells many copies so other people start making widgets to sell. Is the original widget any less good at widgeting things? No. What if, after a while, the makers of imitation widgets, in order to sell more or meet the demand, start making the widget with cheaper materials? Eventually many bad copies fill the marketplace. Is the ORIGINAL widget any less good at widgeting? No. Counterfeit money devalues a currency but cannot devalue the gold that stands behind the currency.
What do you think about the contemporary state of music?
It's contemporary. It's... all... wonderful. We live in the best of all possible worlds. I have no complaints about the government or the television and whoever CNN wants to be president is fine with me.
Cleveland - the city that you grew up in - seems to be important to your work as you even prefer to play with musicians from the city. What's so special in Cleveland and mid-West?
It's my home. It's not more special than anywhere else. But it's my home. Geography, to an unappreciated degree, determines who we are and how we see. It's certainly more important than blood or politics or history or genetics or social pressures. We are trained from the earliest days of our lives by the geography we inhabit. By means of perspective and parable, geometry and sensation it shapes how we see, the paradigms we deploy. The people in Cleveland can see what I see and know what I know more accurately if only because we share the same language at the fundament of our consciousness.