Tav Falco’s Iconography of Chance

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Tav Falco’s Panther Burns gig at the Oslo, Hackney, 2015. Photo: Helen Donlon

An informal conversation, in the spirit of Warhol’s original Interview magazine chats, between friends Tav Falco (the charismatic frontman of Panther Burns, and acclaimed author and filmmaker) and No More Big Wheels’ co-publisher Helen Donlon about publishing, islands, language, Memphis, European cities, photography, touring and kino culture.

TF: You know with my book Ghosts Behind the Sun and your book Shadows Across the Moon, it seems we’re onto something interplanetary. You must have a fascinating book, with all that occurred in Ibiza over time in the music scene and the underground scene too.

HD: Well, I think you would enjoy the first couple of chapters at least which are very much about the history and also the subcultures that formed Ibiza from the very beginning of the island’s history. There’s a lot of emphasis on the 1950s and early 1960s, and subsequently the ‘Hippie Trail’ and so on, stuff like that which you might like because there were a lot of colourful and checkered characters involved. Particularly going from that period actually from the late 1940s up until the early 1970s when it was exclusively odd, strange, you know, maverick, pariah, outlaw, pirate type characters only.

TF: Pirates, yes!

HD: And you just did not have cookie cutter in any sense until the club scene came along which wasn’t really that big till the late 1980s anyway. But it’s the stuff that happens before that’s really interesting to me, and that earlier stuff is so colourful that it ensured that when the clubs came along they were actually a lot more interesting than people usually give them credit for. There’s an awful lot that’s still coming through today on the dance floors that makes it so different from dance floors anywhere else in the world because of this strange vibration that Ibiza has always had, which makes it so different from Mallorca – which we can talk about as you know Mallorca so well of course.

TF: I’m curious. This text that is in print in English, only as an e-book as yet, did you write that in German?

HD: I didn’t actually. No. You’re a bit like me in that you’re a very international person, and a lot of people find this odd, but I suppose it’s partly because the work I do is so much based, 99% based probably, in foreign language publishing, and my friends and contacts are mostly based abroad and always have been. So it just didn’t seem odd to me that I actually got commissioned to write this book by a German publisher, or rather an Austrian publisher, in English, for translation.

TF: Oh really? Vienna?

HD: She’s actually based in Innsbruck, and she also lives in Mallorca, hah! Her family used to live in Ibiza and she recognised that there was no decent book on the subcultures and the party cultures of the island so she commissioned me to write one. The only thing that was slightly odd was that my voice for my very first ever edition in any language got tweaked (very professionally) by the translator, but happily she has a stellar reputation, is a great writer herself and has translated many excellent books and she happens to be a great friend too, so I was more than delighted to get her on board. Likewise with my French translator. The UK paperback which is coming out in July is more or less in my voice, but I had wrangled it so much to suit the German market (and make life easier on Kirsten my translator) when first writing it that the text still often reflects that I think. Anyway it is with a very reputable German language publishing house and as you know the German language publishing market is bigger than the UK publishing market and many more people read books in Germany, relatively speaking, than in the United States so I was thrilled to be set up as a “German author” in the first instance.

TF: That’s wonderful. I have a friend here, a travel writer, Duncan JD Smith, who has lived in Vienna for quite some time and he has written this “Only in” series of books. He’s one of the great British explorers and travel writers, and he worked with Brandstätter Press in Vienna, who are quite a successful publisher and they started this “Only in” series. Only in Vienna was the first one and now he’s gone on to do Only in Budapest, Only in Paris, Only in Edinburgh and numerous capitals of Europe.

HD: That sounds so interesting!

TF: I’ll try and copy you on his newsletter which is fascinating to read, but, while we’re on this topic…I’m working now towards my second book of photographs.

HD: Ahhhh, you are?

TF: Yes. Because the first photo book was published under the auspices of Creation Books, who also published my first narrative book, Ghosts Behind the Sun, and James Williamson at Creation was interested in my book of photographs too, and he said ‘let’s talk about it, when you’re ready’. So a year or so later I said ‘I’m ready to start working on it, James’ and he said, ‘well, I’ve got a distribution deal now with the University of Chicago Press, let’s start an imprint for your work. You come up with the name. I’ll pay for the publishing.’

tav4That first book, of black and white photos, – my second one will be colour – represents my early work in Memphis and deals in ‘An Iconography of Chance’, and takes place in Arkansas, Mississippi, Memphis, Louisiana, Texas and Tennessee. So the second book will be more international, and then the third book in the series will be all new work in large format film negative. All my photographic books will be film rather than digital originals. I may need to find a publisher partner if James is not in a position to pay for the printing on this second one – hey, we’ve got the distributor, a great one, so…

Mondo Memphis, the singular hybrid that is Morse & Falco’s roman noir/history of Memphis, steeps the reader in the most occult nectars of a place, a city evoked in line after tumescent line of haunted prose. Southern gothic ghosts scramble across each rippling page in mad dashes, hurtling across corrugations of text swollen with the satiety of its subject’s past, redolent corrugations tilled up out of a soil engorged with lust, madness, music and febrile civic histories. Plunge into this wealthy and eccentric masterpiece and dissolve yourself for delicious eternities in mythic Memphis.”
–Guy Maddin, film director

And with the first book, as well as the hardcover we also published in a clothbound limited edition, at 199 dollars, that sold out within six weeks. The text within is in four languages, it’s written in English with the exception of the prologue by the Spanish photographer Alberto García Alix and of course that was translated into French, German and English and then my own text was translated into French, German and Spanish. The next two books will be in the same four languages too.

HD: I find your photographs mesmerising, and I went crazy for An Iconography of Chance when it came out. And didn’t the whole thing kick off, ironically, because of a trip to Mallorca?

TF: It all started with an invitation in 2009 from the Fundació Joan Miró in Mallorca to do a presentation and exhibition of my photographs which up until then had never been seen. And they wanted to have a concert with my band, The Panther Burns at a theatre in the centre of the island and to present my short films, as collected in the permanent collection of the Cinémathèque Française, which they did. They brought all the short films over and they presented them, along with my introduction, at the auditorium of the Joan Miró Fundació and then they had the exhibition of photographs, which they had professionally printed in Hamburg by Kira Ince, a printer I met at the retrospective of Alberto García Alix in 2007 at the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. She had printed all of Alberto’s work. I was so impressed with her printing that I asked her if I ever got my own pictures printed would she do them and she said yeah, and so the whole thing came together in 2012 in Mallorca.

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From An Iconography of Chance. Photo: Tav Falco

It was the first time that all aspects of my oeuvre had been concentrated on under one umbrella, you might say. So we brought the band from Paris, we did the show, we did the films and the exhibition…and then the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans asked for the same exhibition so we had the photographs sent from Mallorca. The Ogden is a first class museum, housed in a 19th century pink limestone fortress built during the Confederacy in the centre of New Orleans at Lee Circle, where there’s an obelisk. On top of it is the statue of Robert E. Lee with his arms folded and his back to the north, and next to that is the museum. The Ogden  did a super professional job with the exhibition and printed photo captions in English and Spanish. Jessica Lange came for a private walk through, and Jack Woody of Twelvetrees Press – the foremost photographic publisher in the USA drove his pick up truck over from Arizona. They had the Panther Burns play at the vernissage. We had a lot of press. The museum had this idea to issue ten leather bound folios containing the captions and the preface to the exhibition printed on translucent paper, with 10 photographs 30 x 40 cm placed in each folio, and then interleaved the captions pages between each photograph. They sold those for 2000 dollars apiece within 6 weeks.

Anyway, now I’ve got a representative in New York who is actively representing an exhibition of the next book of photographs, and I think I need to go over later this year and sit down and meet with the Steven Kasher Gallery, who are one of the best in the city. They would want to get to know me a little bit.

HD: Oh that would be just perfect.

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TF: Yeah, I’m gonna follow up on that while I’m over there for the New York premiere of my first feature film Urania Descending on the 25th May at the Anthology Film Archives. Then on June 2nd/3rd, the American Cinematheque in LA will present my movie at Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in the Steven Spielberg Cinema. The movie will be shown again on June 21st at the Malco Studio Theater in Memphis. We’ve already had a number of screenings in other locations like London, Paris, Vienna and San Francisco.

HD: Yes, that’s what I want to ask you about as I was particularly interested in your San Francisco connections, because when I lived there in the early 90s ReSearch Publications were sort of my bibles, and Search and Destroy had been so important before that too for me and several of my friends. It was the height of V.Vale being the hip indie publisher in California, in fact across the whole USA, and my second home was…surprise, surprise…Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, but also the Roxie. So I’m reading about your Urania Descending launch and ALL THREE come into the picture.

TF: Well, in the wake of the 2012 exhibition, the Panther Burns did a tour across country and I incorporated book readings in a few places too, including New York, Asheville in North Carolina, Austin, in Texas, Chicago, LA at Stories Bookstore, and San Francisco at City Lights. It was Peter Maravelis at City Lights who co-ordinated the presentation of Mondo Memphis. Jello Biafra came and spoke and so did Erik Morse who wrote volume two of Mondo Memphis. Erik is the most talented, perceptive journalist in the field of art and cinema and new music that I know in America. V. Vale came with Marian Wallace and we met that night. Then I came back to the Bay Area at the Octopus Bookstore in Oakland on November 9th, the night before the San Francisco premiere of Urania Descending, where  I did a presentation of my new book and projected photographs and read captions, and I also projected the trailer to the movie that was going to be shown the next night at the Roxie.

So V. Vale came to that and he’d already agreed to come to the Roxie the next night and to speak after the presentation. He came with Marian Wallace and Fantômas also came! – in the guise of Robin Waltz – he’s the creator of the Fantômas website and he played the “Fantômas Waltz” on the accordion marching around the theater. That was a delightful event and I must admit that V. Vale was quite enthused by this. I don’t think he knew what to expect filmicly but I did tip him off that it was not a rock n roll movie. Everyone had a great time. Peter Maravelis came and brought people from the DaDa World Fair which was a 13 day event in San Francisco hosted by City Lights booksellers. The screening of my movie was announced as an official art happening of the DaDa World Fair, and I received a wonderful endorsement email from Peter a few weeks later. So that was how Urania Descending went down in San Francisco.

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Tav and Via at the Horse Hospital. Photo: Helen Donlon

HD: One of the things I was thinking about this movie is how you’ve had quite a few premieres in some very interesting places, like on the Côte d’Azur and of course at London’s Horse Hospital, a venue I’ve been going to for 20 years now and it has always been extraordinary and a place where the interesting stuff happens, always, and so I knew it was just perfect for you! And perfect for Urania Descending and perfect for you and Via Kali to showcase your tremendously exciting tango moves on the same night. It seems to me anyway that you get really interesting audiences wherever you go and you’ve managed over the years – especially with the Panther Burns – to build a really interesting fan base in city centres around the world. You have these little pockets of Tav Falco audiences ready to come out wherever you pop up. And remember – I met my soul mate Kris at a reading of Mondo Memphis that he had helped you organise! That was a super interesting crowd that day too, back in 2012…

Anyway, there we were at the Horse Hospital a couple of years later and noticing you’d enticed out a small but really enigmatic, interesting looking mixed up and as always international crowd.

 

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Panther Burns flag. Photo: Tav Falco.

TF: Those interested in my work, my writing, my books and the work of The Panther Burns do seem dedicated and do seem to be those kinds of people who once they become interested they don’t then become uninterested over time. It’s a certain erudite strata of artists and journalists and they’ve kept the work alive because it can’t exist in a vacuum. What I do is not a vanity publication or record release or film release because I think its not ethical for the artist to invest in that way in presenting their own work.  You have to invest in creating and there has to be an audience to justify the work. Obviously I’m not in this for the money. I don’t eschew money by any means; but we need income to continue the work, otherwise you can find yourself in a vanity situation. There have some hard times but we’ve been able to continue the work on this level where there’s been an audience to justify another book, another short film, another group of photographs. Somehow we always get the requisite support and it continues to unfold, and I am able to continue to grow as a performer. I got a late start in life but I’m very grateful to be able to do the work.

“These books put the ‘psycho’ back in ‘psychogeography,’ and history seldom gets this personal.”
– Luc Sante, author of Low Life (1991), Evidence (1992), and The Factory of Facts (1998) on Mondo Memphis.

HD: And you’re living in a really great place now, Vienna, where you’ve been for a few years. It’s obviously continuing to inspire you. What was the impetus for deciding on Vienna as a place to live – and did you already have an interest in the literary heritage, the cinematic heritage, or..?

TF: It was after a Panther Burns tour brought me here that I began to learn about the literary heritage and legacy of Austria, and all the great art produced here and its political and historical significance. And as with living in Paris four years before making the transition to Vienna, I had become involved in the Cinémathèque Française and later with the Austrian Film Archive here. In fact one of the screenings for my movie Urania Descending took place at the Metro Kino, the elegant 1920s cinema in the centre of Vienna, which is administered by the Austrian Film Archive. At the Albertina Film Museum here I became immersed in exposing myself to films I would not have any hope of seeing otherwise.

HD: Were there any huge surprises or inspirations there?

TV: Yeah, I saw retrospectives of Erich von Stroheim who grew up in the next district to me right here in Vienna. I’m totally fascinated  with his oeuvre and the way he came out as an artist, the way he presented himself. He created a mystique around himself that was not particularly grounded in a reality that could be documented, but more a reality of his own fabrication. He started as a film maker in Austria but transitioned to Hollywood and worked his way up via menial jobs in the studios to be a top director. Von Stroheim presented himself in the new world as an officer in the elite guard of the monarchy of Austria, as an aristocrat, when in fact he had been nothing more than a corporal in the infantry of the Austrian army, and he was dismissed within a couple of months. Anyway the Americans were totally into European aristocracy during this period in the 1920s, – we can read that in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Von Stroheim did not like working with stars. He worked with real people, people he thought he could draw something out of on screen. I also adore his film presence, in any movie he’s acted in.

HD: Funnily enough we just rewatched Sunset Boulevard, for the millionth time.

TV: A sterling piece of work.

HD: It’s just absolutely timeless, isn’t it.

TV: Directed by another Austrian. I like Wilder. His comedies are delightful. But also in Vienna I really discovered Josef von Sternberg, and I saw a complete retrospective of his work here, and two or three filmed interviews that were quite revealing. He was filled with a lot of self doubt, as many artists of his stature are – like James Agee, the American writer. There are certain neuroses which some artists can make work for themselves, especially in drama. Von Sternberg’s contribution for me was supreme but he felt he was passed over in Hollywood and that his work was not significant. I could not disagree more, and I think there are many of us who feel the same, but at any rate his first five films were astonishing for their aesthetic nuance and brilliance and then as with the last film he did with Marlene Dietrich, The Devil is a Woman, written by Jon Dos Passos – he also did the camera and it completely zapped his creative wellspring. It took him two or three years to come back after that. But it is a magnificent double entendre film – it’s entertaining, it’s paradoxical, it’s ironic, it’s high art.

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Still from Urania Descending

And then right around the corner from my house is a plaque – Fritz Lang lived in this house, 1909-1919 – so, someone else I discovered in Vienna.

Of course I knew Metropolis but I really didn’t know the oeuvre, all the films of Dr. Mabuse, his earlier work, and I really didn’t know the Hollywood stuff. In Hollywood Lang was passed over, but the films noirs he made were excellent, just low budget. So I guess the most successful of the Austrian refugees was Billy Wilder. He came back here to Vienna three or four years before he died, and struggled to remember how to speak his native language.

Vienna has been of such importance in terms of its musical legacy and support of the arts over the centuries, for the middle classes as well as the aristocracy all the way up to the Third Reich. Everything that they didn’t understand they of course termed decadent, but fortunately we lived through the Third Reich.

I like living in another culture, for me it’s very inspiring. There’s so much to discover, and when you don’t speak the language fluently you have a kind of understanding of it which means you’re always making progress with it, an unfolding process of growth, and I enjoy that. Like I did in Paris, for the same reasons. So the tempo I understand very well and the tempo here is not super urban, it’s more like Paris in the 1950s and 1960s maybe. Now Paris has gotten sort of like New York; it’s always pressing in on you. I love to go there and work, and I love to go to London, but for me this period in Vienna has been very creative. I have only the distraction that I want here, and Gina Lee and I move through the tango demi monde here in merry/sinister old Vienna.

HD: You’ve been involved in tango dancing for a few years now.

TV: We’ve been dancing quite a while. I was down in Buenos Aires for four months for the music and dance, and I learned a lot, understood a lot more than I had known about tango and the relationship of harmony inherent in it. One aspires for harmony between the partners and it’s a relationship that’s viable for today’s world. The dance is designed as a celebration of the female counterpart, to put the woman in a context of beauty, harmony, passion, sexuality and of course its all predicated on the music of tango which is a very passionate and romantic music. It’s like the blues in that it’s often times the music for unrequited love, or bad luck in love, but it can also be very inspiring. Tango has become a part of the fabric of my existence, and I love this from Isadora Duncan, “My first steps were timid, but the feeling of the languid music caused my body to respond to the voluptuousness of the dance. Soft as a caress, toxic as love under the midday sun, cruel and dangerous as a tropical forest.”

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HD: That’s so beautiful and absolutely nails it. Changing the subject, I was thinking the other day about how you strike me as quite a David Lynch kind of person, like with your interest in American Gothic, and then this whole idea of creative work coming out of the subconscious, and a certain kind of humour, and your interest in ‘what lies beneath’ might be one way of putting it.

TV: What appeals to me about David Lynch I guess is his transformation of the conscious world into a sphere of symbolism and metaphoric icons and gestures that have sinister and gothic nuance. I like that. And there’s a certain ritualistic treatment that Lynch uses that also appeals to me. I was pleased to be able to have the Paris vernissage of Urania Descending at Club Silencio which was designed by Lynch. He did a very tasteful treatment, it’s not lavish, it’s modern by Paris standards but with materials you can get at Home Depot. He redesigned what used to be Club Triptyque on rue Montmartre – in fact I played at Triptyque with the band, and then I did a duet there one night for the Alberto García Alix exhibition after-party. Anyway, the cinema part of Silencio that Lynch designed looks like a larger version of a screening room at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. You’ve got these little tables with small lamps on them between each banquette, and a banquette holds two maybe three people, and there are aisles on both sides, and state of the art projection and sound. So we looked good, and sounded good, plus the Paris demi-monde came out for the screening: the writers, journalists of the underground who live by night.

I may end up back in Paris. I’ve got a lot of friends there and my time there was also a very creative period. I have a Panther Burns band in Paris and a Panther Burns band in Rome and between those two we have most of the world covered one way or another!

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Panther Burns in Southend, 2016. Photo: Helen Donlon

HD: That’s really interesting. Talking of Panther Burns, you’re on tour now?

TF: Yes, a Spanish tour with ending dates in Torino and Luzern. In May we have the aforementioned presentation of Urania Descending – the movie at Anthology Film Archives in New York, and then in Hollywood with The American Cinematheque followed by the Indie Memphis Festival showing, both in June. Afterwards in July there are recording sessions at Sam Phillips studio in Memphis for the new Panther Burns album.

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Tav with Alex Chilton

 

HD: Wonderful! As usual, you’re doing so many interesting things. Well, before I let you go tell me one thing – what are you reading? I have to know as I strongly believe our reading nourishes our daily aspirations.

TF: Presently reading HIDDEN WATER, a new anthology of poems and drawings by Frank Stanford. He wrote of Panther Burns, floods, dark passions, and redolent evocative Gothic themes. I think I may have met him once back in the hills of Arkansas before he shot himself in 1978…

HD: That’s heartbreaking. But the collection sounds right up my street, so thank you Tav and huge waves of support from us, as ever, for the Spanish tour and the US screenings of Urania Descending. It’s been the usual great pleasure catching up with you.

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Mondo Memphis reading, May 31st 2012. Photo: Helen Donlon