Image by Lucia Rossi
Tav Falco is one of the largest legends that you just may have never heard of.
Once upon a time, he exploded out of the Memphis post-punk scene with his “art damage” band Panther Burns, combining American roots music with punk attitude, and arguably helping to lay the groundwork for the alt-Americana style that has become an internationally recognized genre unto itself – though his heart is still with the classics.
He would go on to have a prolific career as an iconoclastic musician, author, filmmaker and actor. Indeed, several of his films have been archived into the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque Française – in the same city of Paris in which David Lynch invited him in 2015 to perform at his exclusive Club Silencio.
He’s just recorded a cover of Grace Jones’ post-disco – and slightly re-titled – classic “Strange (Libertango)” (which BlackBook premieres here), reimagining the song as a Gallic-gothic cabaret tune, surely intended to be performed at 3am in some dark, underground lair in the Pigalle. It’s taken from his unflinchingly political new album Cabaret of Daggers, which will be released via ORG Music first on limited edition yellow vinyl this Friday, November 23 (Record Store Day), and then on black vinyl and digitally on November 30.
We caught up with him for a take-no-prisoners conversation about American fascism, the Great American Songbook, and “the fateful caprice of tarot cards.”
You’ve been pretty vocal about the current administration. Was that a primary inspiration for Cabaret of Daggers?
I stand in absolute, unequivocal opposition to the current POTUS, and to the present iteration of the GOP in Congress. All around me I see unrest and division as I have not seen in America since the 1960s. When I see bigotry, betrayal and oppression flaunted by our oligarchic, white nationalist leadership, I must speak out. To remain silent and play the facile card of entertainment and fun is to be complicit. The new album actually includes my take on quite possibly America’s greatest ever protest song, “Strange Fruit.”
Indeed, you reach back to the Great American Songbook for this record. How do those songs “converse” with your new, pointedly political songs?
That Songbook is stuffed with all kinds of tunes, and protest music is not a stranger to it. I’m thinking of Woody Guthrie and his songs that kept the spirits of the working man alive during the Great Depression; Johnny Cash’s songs in support of Native Americans and our incarcerated brethren; and the anti-racist messages of Gil Scott-Heron. Even Bob Dylan put on a work shirt and sang great anthems of protest in his youth. There aren’t many contemporary songs being written that approach these lofty heights.
American roots music has always been central to who you are. Is it reasonable to say you were a nascent influence on what we now call “Americana”?
My music represents the “Americana” that most people are trying to forget about. I celebrate the outsider: the subversive, sexually and spiritually liberated America of free jazz and atonal squawks.
You’re living in Vienna now – what drew you there?
I produced a record by an Austrian band named Krüppelschlag. Then a charming fraulein who resembled a wood nymph from a Gustav Klimt painting entered the picture. Concurrent with that liaison, I was offered my own radio show on ORF, Austria’s national public radio network.
The new track “Red Vienna” is actually about the rise of fascism in Europe. Do you see parallels with what is happening in America now?
It’s about the fall of the monarch and the socialist eclipse that followed – interrupted only by the rise and defeat of the Third Reich. There are definite parallels with the fascist era in Europe and contemporary America. We hear the same populist rhetoric that attempts to unite the population with fear, bigotry and white nationalist hatred for those seemingly unlike themselves.
In composing “Red Vienna,” I thought not only of the historical and cultural events that have transpired over its long and magnificent – yet at times dismal – history. It is a grand capitol standing on the threshold between the East and the West. I also thought of the nature of revolution itself, whether openly declared or in covert development. I thought of how much we sacrifice in a revolution: there are gains, but also irretrievable losses. I thought of how style, eloquence and cordiality can deteriorate when striving towards notions of progress, liberation, and often, false modernity. Austria enjoyed a provisionally enlightened monarchy for a thousand years, yet there were also social problems and rampant inequality.
“New World Order Blues” is pretty blunt in its assessment of the world condition. Are we on the eve of destruction?
We are as close to the threshold of mutual destruction as I have been in my lifetime, and as close as the world has ever known. With strategic motives diametrically opposed to one another, self-serving autocrats have their giddy fingers on top of instant MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction – buttons.
Do you miss America at all?
It is not easy to miss that which you were never totally part of; for the artist, by his very nature, is an outsider. I have angst about America for all of the obvious reasons: its self-destructive, pathological violence, its racial exploitation, the purposeful dumbing down of its population, and its weapons of mass distraction. Our social fabric is unraveling with little chance of mending. What I miss about America is its freewheeling, vast imagination that knows no limits. I miss the America of Whitman and Thoreau, and of the Beat poets. I miss riding with saintly motorcyclists into the western sunset.
You actually recorded this album in Rome. How did that come together?
In August 2014, I ventured to Rome with the intention of recording an album with a stash of funds from a label in Glasgow. My band in Paris was not available. Mario Monterosso showed up at the studio with his guitar, Francesco D’Agnolo came from the conservatory with his keyboards, Riccardo Colasante came in later on drums, and Giuseppe Sangirardi joined on bass. This is the formation I have been playing with continuously since 2014. When I step outside the box and deconstruct a song or transform it into something unpredictable, or create a completely new piece, I can totally rely on my band to go right behind me. This is a new dimension for me and for the group.
Mario Monterosso is also the gifted producer of my last three albums. The contours and beauty of Cabaret Of Daggers are due to his remarkable aesthetic and harmonious understanding, and to his extraordinary musicianship.
You were never shy about the range of your artistic influences, drawing on the likes of dada, Antonin Artaud, Beat poetry and Burroughs.
After Panther Burns’ appearance at the [Memphis] Beale Street Blues Festival in May, the music critic for The Memphis Commercial Appeal wrote, “Tav Falco is nothing if not sincere.” That was written in the wake of the full ferocity of our encore, “New World Order Blues.” I live and breathe the art I create, there is no separation between my life and my art. For that reason I am convincing, if not painfully entertaining.
What’s left for you and for music in general to accomplish?
A lot. I am not going to speak about music in general – too vague, speculative, and ends up back where it began at the beginning of a vacuous circle of hollow conjecture. About my own work I can be specific. Presently, I am wrapping up the filming in Venice of the final entry in my Urania Trilogy of intrigue films. I’ve always been a fan of cinematic music, and the Urania Trilogy brings together many of the skills I’ve honed over the decades: storytelling, photography, directing, acting, staging, and music composition. These films flicker with the fateful caprice of tarot cards fingered in a Viennese bordello. They emerge as corporeal fables and offer cabalistic hygiene for vital elegance. I’ll be bringing the Urania Trilogy to America next year.