LEFT OF THE DIAL magazine
issue #1, Nov.2001
From Detroit Inner City Blues to Zen and the Art of the
An Interview with the MC5ís Wayne Kramer.
David Ensminger: So youíre working with David Was again?
Wayne Kramer: Yeah, itís that kind of thing. Sometimes I think,
at least on a couple of songs, theyíre too linear, and I need to chop
them up into parts and put them together, like more of a William S. Burroughs
cut-up technique. Sometimes I happen to go in a narrative, and I want
to break that up.
Like a sound collage?
Iíd like it to be. Itís the process which I enjoy so much. Itís problem
solving. You got these amount of elements, so itís like, how do I get
this to go a better way? And I donít know what that is until I roll my
sleeves up and get some mud on the uniform.
With the making of Citizen Wayne, you said you tried to use the studio
as an instrument, while David would ďmerge Wayneís spontaneity with his
digital veg-o-matic.Ē Are you once again using the studio in the same
Yeah, itís a tool. Theyíre all tools. The music itself is a tool.
Language is a tool. Itís all trying to carry a message, something about
wherever I am at the moment. If I can be honest about that, then chances
are someone else is at that moment. And if I do it right, and send a message
to that person that you know, you are not alone, youíre not the only one
that feels that way. Thatís what great art has always done for me. Thatís
what great literature does for me, thatís what great painting does for
me, thatís what great music has done for me. When I hear James Brown or
John Coltrane, I donít feel so alone. Thatís what Iím talking about.
When you capture that moment in your life perfectly, does it then
transcend that moment and become universal?
Well, I donít think there is any perfectly. I just do the best that I
can. Does it become universal? You know, thatís not for me to judge.
But when you hear Sun Ra or John Coltrane, does that happen for you?
Oh yeah. That speaks to me, absolutely.
What exactly is the Mad for the Racket project, which features Stewart
Copeland, Clem Burke, and Brian James?
Well, Mad for the Racket is a real experiment. I used to run into Brian
when I was on tour in Europe, and he kept saying letís do something, letís
make a record. Of course, my standard response is: When? Where?
Yeah, letís go. So finally we were together in L.A. and we wrote a record.
We got together for ten days and wrote the record, then it was an easy
matter to get friends to come down to the studio and record it. So the
record is pretty good, I think. Itís real guitar rock. It doesnít stretch
too far. Brian tends to be very true to his vision of punk rock.
Well, heís from the Damned.
Right. He was the lead guitar player in the Damned. I always try and push
something stranger, but we share a lot of common ground, so it was a fun
project to do. So weíll just see what happens. Weíll put it out later
this year and weíll see if people like it. If we can, weíd like to do
Would it be fair to compare it to your work with Dodge Main?
Not dissimilar. Of course, itís new material. Itís songs Brian and I wrote.
With Dodge Main we had a fair number of covers. Yeah, youíre right, you
made a good connect the dots there.
You once said about punk, ďMusically, they didnít show me anything.
The Ramones and Blondie were just more of the same.Ē Have Clem Burke and
the rest just come forward enough in their musical style that there is
now fertile ground to work with?
No, I donít think so. Iím not looking to them for that. Cause the real
heavy lifting is in the writing, so I have to write a song, or construct
a song in a way that is more stretched out in order for the musicians
to take it to the next level. If Iím writing a straight up guitar rock
song, the form almost requires that you lay that beat down in a traditional
fashion. And thatís not a bad thing, and when someone does it well, like
Copeland or Burke, then itís a joy.
How much of you on stage is that kid you were at age 9 jumping around
with a broomstick to Chuck Berry tunes? Is it as fresh and invigorating
as listening to music back then?
The thing you are talking about is original joy. Thereís always the elusive
striving to capture that. Of course, you canít. Joy just passes by you,
the best you can do is grab a kiss as it passes. Thatís what we try to
do in a recording session, capture original joy. And thatís what I try
to do in performance, which is keep my mind open and be there right then
in the day Iím in and the moment Iím in, in the song Iím in, and in the
solo I am playing, so that I can grab a kiss from that original joy as
it passes by. Thatís the long answer, and the short answer is yes.
If you could go back in time, you once said youíd like to go to the
NYC jazz scene from around 1950Ė55.
On some level, I identify with that lifestyle. They played these clubs,
they had a camaraderie, there was a kind of club that they were part of
that no one could get in unless you were one of them. I donít know, somehow
I find that a little romantic. Iím intrigued with the idea. Weíre all
so crazy to be musicians in the first place. Thereís a connection amongst
musicians, and I guess I just romanticize that a bit.
But sometimes thereís not enough connection, as in the case of when
you played with Johnny Thunders. He had a different away of approaching
the music than you. So even within the culture of musicians, do you see
Absolutely, sure. Weíre not all from a cookie cutter. We run the gamut
of personality types as in any other walk of life. Sure, there are musicians
I prefer not to hang out with (laughs). But amongst my circle of men and
women I consider my friends in music, when Iím with them, and weíre working,
thereís no other place Iíd rather be.
Itís almost a perfect place?
It doesnít get any better. If Iím in a recording studio, and Iíve got
David Was there, and some of the guys from L.A, or some of the players
from Detroit, and weíre doing something that I donít think is too bad,
thereís no place else Iíd rather be in that moment.
that include playing on Simon Stokes new record?
Absolutely. Iím in the studio, Iím playing my guitar, Iím working with
people I like, and they like me, and weíre getting the chance to do the
kinds of things we like to do. Iím very grateful to be able to do these
kinds of things in this life I have today. Iím grateful to live any kind
of life. Iím happy to be anywhere. By right, I shouldnít be anywhere.
I should be six feet under. So Iím happy to be anywhere.
For people who are not that familiar with jazz, how would you describe
the difference between Sun Ra and John Coltrane?
Iíll put it to you this way, John Gilmore was one of the great tenor saxophone
players that was with Sun Ra for twenty-five years, maybe thirty years,
when he got out of the service. He played in the army band, and he said
that his reading was really strong, and he was trying to decide who he
wanted to go with. He got an offer to play with Coltrane, or with Mingus,
or Monk, and he decided to go with Sun Ra because Sun Raís shit was more
stretched out. In the pantheon of truly cutting edge jazz world, Sun Ra
was head and shoulders above everyone. And had been for years, for years.
I mean Sun Ra ran his band on a whole other level than the rest of us
tried to exist in music. Well, people thought Sun Ra played free music,
and it was all this kind of noise, but Sun Ra was only interested in discipline.
That was all completely controlled, everyone knew exactly what they were
doing. In fact, Sun Ra wasnít interested in freedom, he was interested
in discipline. Not external discipline, but self-discipline.
I suppose you really canít sound free without an element of discipline.
Thatís the thing. Freedom isnít actually free. If you think of freedom
as a coin, on one side it says freedom, and on the other side of the coin
it says self-control, discipline, or something like that.
Your songs often de-romanticize the dope fiend aspect of rockĎní roll,
but also seem to de-romanticize the idea of the lone, mad artist creating
in a vacuum, or by him or herself in the corner. It seems like music for
you happens in a community.
I think it probably does. Iíd agree with that. Itís being part of, as
opposed to separate from. Absolutely, I mean I write these songs so I
could to them myself over and over again. I want people to hear them,
and be part of a lexicon.
Youíve described the old MC5 audience as the greaser, factory rat
contingent back in Detroit. What is your audience now?
Thatís a good question, man. Itís something that I really try and study,
because itís important for me to figure out who the heck is my audience.
And I think they are 35Ė50, I think theyíre older. I think they are music
fans that have grown up with rock íní roll that arenít teenagers, but
still want to rock. They are basically uninterested in whatís happening
in popular music right now because it insults their intelligence. I think
my audience is working people and professional people, probably a lot
of people that have grown kids now, and that are still fans. They donít
go to clubs, but they go to concerts on the weekends. They get a sitter,
and if you let them know enough time in advance, theyíll come out. I also
think my fans are archivists and completists.
~ Wayne Kramer
~ Photos by William
Whatís your relationship with Epitaph at this point?
I did my contractual commitment to Epitaph, and after 4 albums we mutually
agreed that Wayne would make his own albums. We left on the best possible
terms. Iím still very close with everyone at Epitaph, from Brett to Andy,
to the men and women in the mailroom. Theyíre all still my friends. I
see them all regularly, and I still consider myself an Epitaph artist
at heart because the things I learned at Epitaph about running a record
company ethically and honestly. Itís the same way I am running my own
label now, the same principles I learned by watching how Brett ran the
company, and thatís how I want to run my label. The center never holds,
and however things are today, theyíre not going to be the same four of
five years from now. I knew going in that there was a chance that in four
of five years no one knew what was going to happen. Would Epitaph still
exist? Would they be huge? Would they be bought out? Would they go under?
This is the nature of this business that weíre in. The fact is that they
are doing pretty well. I was there at the time when I was a real anomaly
at Epitaph because Iím actually not a punk. Epitaph fans are basically
about 7Ė13 year old white suburban boys. As much as I like to think that
the young guys would appreciate my work, Iím not writing to them, Iím
not playing for them. I deal with grown up issues, Iím an adult at this
stage in my life. So Iím not talking about what they are interested in.
It was a little bit of a hard fit, because the one thing Epitaph knows
how to do well is sell records to those fans. Itís not really my fan base.
We were just talking about who are the people who buy Wayneís records,
and theyíre not necessarily 7Ė13 year old white suburban boys. Theyíre
not. But I do feel good because we were like the snowplow that opened
the door for Tom Waits and Tricky. And for Epitaph to be able to stretch
out and do other things besides Southern California style punk rock.
Your manager described your Wayne Kramer Presents Beyond Cyberpunk
as a ďthinking manís punk record.Ē Would you describe it the same way?
I suppose. I was just trying to broaden the definition of punk, show that
it wasnít all beats at 160 rpm and flashing guitar, that a mid-tempo ballad
could actually be a punk song, or a twisted up funk track could actually
be punk, or swamp metal could be punk. I think it has much more to do
with a sense of self-determination and self-efficacy that it does a musical
You wrote ďSharkskinís SuitĒ for Charles Bukowski, did a recording
of a Poe poem, and early on were highly influenced by Allen Ginsberg.
How do these writers shape your own art, not just music, but now your
Itís like how I wanted to learn and play guitar like Chuck Berry. In my
literary efforts itís the same kind of thing. Iíve always admired writers,
and wanted to be a writer. William Burroughs, Ernest Hemingway, and great
crime fiction writers like Elmore Leonard. I love what these guys can
do with character and dialogue. I aspire to that, and in song writing
I have been blessed to have people in my life like Rob Tyner and John
Sinclair and I study Bob Dylan and Tom Waits' lyrics. These guys are gifted
lyricists, even Jackson Browne is a truly gifted lyricist. These are people
I admire and I aspire to their level of competence and their level of
vocabulary in the craft of songwriting. I guess Iím continuing to stretch
that into my prose and the kinds of things I have been writing, like book
reviews and memoirs. We are working on a couple of scripts, so itís just
the continuing work in a creative lifetime. Itís not all that remarkable,
it really is 90 percent perspiration, and 10 percent inspiration. You
have to do the work. I can only go along so long without writing a song
and then I start to feel bad. I go, you know Wayne, itís time to write
a song, you gotta go write a song, other wise youíre going to get in a
crabby mood here. Itís the same with all of it.
We both grew up with a Midwest work ethic, where work matters, it
is important, even a healthy part of our life.
I had no doubt itís my Detroit, blue collar, factory upbringing. I was
basically raised by my mother, and she put such a premium on work. She
worked hard all her life. Itís just what you did. No one gave you nothing.
If you wanted anything in this world, you had to work for it. There were
no entitlements you know. And that was reinforced in the neighborhood,
in the city. Detroit is a city that is all about work. I found, as I got
older, that there was honor in work. There was esteem in work. Even in
the beginning of the MC5 we applied all these principles to how we ran
Wayne Kramer, second left ~ photo Leni Sinclair
People donít realize how much work is in rock and roll.
Itís a job when youíre playing five sets a night, six nights a week (laughs).
Forty-five on, fifteen off.
People always talk about the R&B and jazz influences on the MC5, but
your momís boyfriend used to bring home Patsy Cline and Hank Williams
records. Have people missed out on the fact that country music is also
part of your musical roots?
Well, it turns out it is. I kind of denied it for years, because I was
such a staunch rock íní roller, then I became an avant-gardist, but when
I look over the complete path I have been down, those songs are important
to me. Those artists and those Nashville guitar players. Talk about lyric
construction, some of that stuff is fabulous, you know.
ďNo Easy Way OutĒ could easily be a country song.
Youíre right. I havenít thought of it that way, but thatís interesting.
In Fred Goodmanís Mansion on the Hill he discusses the manufactured
blue collar image of Bruce Springsteen. When a guy like Springsteen writes
a song like ďMy HometownĒ then buys a million dollar home, should it matter
to us, or should only the song matter?
Itís not up to me to say what matters for you. I just donít have a problem
with it. Art is very broad, and inclusive, not exclusive. I donít think
that itís okay that songs are exactly true to your life and not okay to
write a complete fabrication, and anything between. Letís keep our feet
on the ground. Thereís real evil in the world. Whether Bruce lives in
a mansion and writes about his poor upbringing is not part of it (laughs).
Who cares, really. If you write a good song, great. If you live in a nice
house, good for you. How many great songs are there that Holland-Dozier-Holland
wrote that didnít have anything to do with anybodyís real life, but that
we all love. That are important to us. Who was Bernadette anyway? Did
she look over her shoulder or not? What was she looking at? What was she
You mentioned Hemingway earlier. You lived in Key West for awhile.
What was that like?
I had been living in Manhattan for ten years and reached a point where
I felt like I needed a change. I didnít feel like I was any closer to
being happy or being rich, or whatever. I didnít know what I was doing
really. I was kind of like in a rut. I thought, let me go down there.
I met a woman who lived down there and she invited me down. We ended getting
married. It was a nice lifestyle for a couple years. But itís a little
teeny island at the end of the road, and Iím way too ambitious to have
been able to stay there. I want to make movies, I have a lot of records
to make, and a lot of songs to write, and a lot of bands to produce.
Without that time you spent there, do you think you would have been
as productive as you are now?
I think everything we do fits part of a larger plan. If weíre growing
at all, change can be a good thing. I know I was on some kind of a path,
whether I knew it or not. Moving to Key West was part of it.
your lyrics be even more political now that Bush is in office, or turn
towards the personal?
I think Iím interested in both. If the last election taught me anything
it was about the illusion of choice. That there is no real choice in the
world, certainly in America, about anything that is important. Like health
care, we donít have any choice in that. Electricity, utilities, those
kinds of things that are importantÖ We donít have any choice in that.
Media, we have no say in any of that. Is it a Republican or Democrat?
Well, whatís the difference? Theyíre both corporate shills. The things
we have choice in are like 31 flavors of ice cream, 50 kinds of bagels.
You get 10 different kinds of sneakers, but that stuff doesnít matter.
Thereís only five record companies. Choices on the important things are
all narrowed down and controlled by gigantic multinational corporations.
Thatís the fact. We have no choice. We have the illusion of choice, like
we all go vote. And believe me I vote, and Iíd vote every day if theyíd
let me. I donít believe itís going to make much difference. I havenít
seen where it makes much difference.
You described the Citizen Wayne songs as auto-mythogizedÖ
Is that still where you are going in your work?
Well, there was a lot of looking back on that record, I was trying to
tell mythological versions of what my experiences have been, but I think
if anything, Iím looking more inward now. So thatís what Iím trying to
do. Iím trying to take a hard look at who I really am. What the hell am
I doing? What am I really all about? What am I really interested in, what
do I really care about? Can I be honest enough? Do I have enough courage
to look really inside and say what I really see? I think thatís what Iím
trying to do.
While imprisoned in Lexington, KY you worked with Red Rodney, who
took you from being a straight rocker to a jazzier player. Is there anybody
influencing you today like Red Rodney did then?
I have a lot of contemporaries. Iím pretty close to guys like Chris Vrenna,
or John X, or David Was remains very close to me creatively. All these
guys are doing things, theyíre showing a high degree of creativity and
courage and pushing music into new spaces. Releasing it from old ideas.
Itís not the same as my relationship with Red, because that was more the
fundamentals of music, the language of music, but I hold these guys pretty
much in the same esteem and I feel like we have a real healthy petri dish
that weíre trying to operate in.
This interview (c) 2001 by David Ensminger
Kramer's new release on Muscletone
Wayne's first solo CD release in over 5 years. It's
a masterpiece. Full lyric sheet. 10 songs that'll slay you.
"...'Adult World' shows Kramer taking another brilliant, fearless leap
into the future--and landing on his feet."
(Jaan Uhelski, RS Online)
Credits: MC5 photo by
Photos of Wayne Kramer
on stage by William Nettles. Top photo by Stephen Paley.
to LEFT OF THE DIAL's publisher David Ensminger and designer Russell
Etchen for their help and kindness and to Margaret Saadi and
Thanks to Jeff Gold.
LEFT OF THE DIAL's staff at email@example.com.
Kramer's official site: http://waynekramer.com