Tuxedomoon is one of those bands whose influence is impossible to quantify. Hailing from San Francisco, the group crafted music that owes as much to Contemporary Classical Music as to Expressionist Theatre. Spanning five decades, they created a multi-disciplinary, erudite (but not pretentious) opus that covered pretty much every corner of the musical spectrum. We had a chat with Blaine L. Reininger, co-founder of the band, multi-instrumentalist and author of phenomenal solo records (check ‘Night Air,’ if you’re in need of goosebumps).
Let’s jump in.
Ruben : Hi Blaine. I hope you’re keeping well in these strange times. How is it in Athens at the moment?
Blaine : Just now, we are locked down again. Cases have gone up and the hospitals are nearing capacity. We must go masked outside the house at all times. In order to go out, we must send an SMS message with our name and address and a number corresponding to the nature of our activity. We can then be asked to show the reply if we are controlled. There are fines for failing to wear a mask. Bars and restaurants are closed, as are theatres and concert venues, an obvious difficulty for people in my line of work.
Arcane Delights is a blog about shedding light on “music in the margins” – the records that have perhaps been neglected or which, through no fault of their own, have somehow faded into the background. Do you feel any of your work could fall within this description?
Blaine : I feel like all of my work can fall within that description. Neither Tuxedomoon or any of the related projects could ever be mistaken for big sellers.
Tuxedomoon decided to move to Europe “believing their sound better fit the electronic scene in Europe”, according to your official website. Since Tuxedomoon undoubtedly has a clear European feel to it, I’ve always found very interesting the fact that your career pretty much started with Ralph Records. I couldn’t possibly imagine a band more invested in the American culture than The Residents! What was it like working with them? Hardy Fox was an incredible composer.
Blaine : I would say in retrospect that one of the reasons we moved to Europe was that we were accepted and respected in ways not available to us in America. We had this in common with people like Miles Davis, who played dive bars in America and grand concert halls in Europe.
Tuxedomoon has never had a uniform aesthetic philosophy. I always felt a kinship with the Residents and their gonzo post modern approach to American culture that was not necessarily shared by my bandmates. We had some fruitful collaborations with Hardy in the studio and we learned a lot about the music business from them. We parted ways in 1981, though, over aesthetic differences.
The bassline of ‘Jinx’ is probably my favourite one ever. Do you recall anything in particular about writing that song?
Blaine : Peter’s basslines were the foundation of most of our work together. In the San Francisco days, we would meet almost every day to play endlessly together and it was from this stew that our compositions grew. Jinx arose in just that manner. The lyrics referred to the events in San Francisco in 1978, the People’s Temple mass suicide and the assassination of Harvey Milk. A “jinx” is a kind of curse or recurring bad luck. The word, by the way, derives from the name of a particular bird, the Greek word iynx for the “wryneck”, used in witchcraft and divination.
Can you tell us something about your early years in music? I’m particularly curious to understand how you developed your playing style (whether there were some musicians that you appreciated and took inspiration from). Also, did you always think you would become a full-time musician?
Blaine : I began to study music from the age of six, first singing, then playing violin, guitar, later keyboards and composition, even later electronic music and digital audio.
From the first, I knew that music would be my life. I had parallel careers in classical ensembles and rock bands from about age 11. Later, when bands began to include violinists I was able to join these areas. I was a big Beatles fan, and they were the conduit for the electronic and experimental music that came to fascinate me. I was also impressed by my first exposure to Edgard Varese, Wendy Carlos, the sound of the synthesizer in general. My inspirations are just too numerous to list here.
What is your relationship with technology – both in terms of using it to play and record, but also your greater perception of digital music? What was the impact of the internet on culture generally?
Blaine : I have always been an unabashed promoter of advanced technology. I am a lifelong science fiction fan and I followed anything that led to the future I expected to see in my lifetime. Kubrick’s ‘2001’ in particular provided a watershed moment for me. It had it all on many levels, both within and outside of the narrative. It had Artificial Intelligence, space travel, computer graphics, electronic music. It was as big an influence on my future artistic life as the Beatles had been.
I am an enthusiastic computer music composer. I also like to use “aleatory” or chance operations in my art, taking John Cage and others’ ideas and using computer phrase generation, musical and verbal, to push my composition in directions that I might not ordinarily explore.
The internet provides the kind of playground that media collage makers and bricoleurs like me could only dream of in the 20th century, with instant access to images and sounds. The greater philosophical or political ideas about the detrimental effects of that access are not my concern here.
After Ralph, you signed with Crammed Records. Their roster was top notch, with your band, Colin Newman, Hector Zazou and many others. How was it to work with them? Crammed Records, Les Disques Du Crepuscule (‘Broken Fingers’ is sensational!), Play It Again Sam…why do you think Belgium became a hot spot for independent music during the 80s? Additionally, why do you think the reputations of these labels have not only endured but flourished (Les Disques du Crepuscule, for example, seems as popular now as it ever was).
Blaine : Crammed has been a steadfast support for us all these years. It is also fairly amazing that I am now back with the re-booted Crepuscule for my solo work. It’s hard to say why Belgium in the 1980’s gave rise to such an interesting scene. It is probably for the same reasons that Brussels became the capitol city of the European Union, its geographical and culturally central location, the usual combination of cheap housing and cultural resources that gave rise to bohemian scenes of the past.
I’ve always struggled to pigeonhole Tuxedomoon. There are elements of jazz, musique concrète, darkwave, noise, chamber music. Have you ever felt part of a particular music scene? Did you consider any other artists as your peers?
Blaine : Tuxedomoon has not been easy to pigeonhole. That’s probably a large part of our appeal. We have also always combined a huge and fearless eclectic curiosity with the musical chops necessary to include diverse elements into our work. That combined with our common personality traits and similar dysfunction as individuals on an emotional and psychological level.
Part of Tuxedomoon’s brilliance was its theatrical approach to the music. Not many other bands did that (I can think of Pere Ubu, Peter Gabriel and, again, The Residents). Why do you think so few bands actually followed your path? Has it got to do with a general decline in the interest towards experimental theatre?
Blaine : This theatricality was something that Steven Brown and I shared. He had worked with the San Francisco Experimental Theatre group, ‘The Angels of Light.’ I had dreamed of doing something like The Tubes were doing after I saw them live in San Francisco in 1973, as an alternative to the kind of dull cover bands I had been working with in Colorado bars before I moved to San Francisco. When we joined forces with Winston Tong, schooled at Cal Arts, and already a fixture in both New York and San Francisco’s experimental theatre scene, the die was cast.
I do think one thing that might discourage young bands from greater inclusion of theatre is the difficulty and expense of trekking around with sets and costumes. I know this has certainly been a discouraging factor for me. Steven and I both, though, continue to work in theatre, as composers and also as actors.
Can you tell us something about Tuxedomoon’s creative process in the early years? Did you create a manifesto? Was there a lot of rehearsing, or did you spend more time formulating the concepts and the aesthetics behind your music?
Blaine : Tuxedomoon was always about rehearsing in the early days. We would get together pretty much every day to work on new stuff. We were kind of a “jam band”. Even now, we have endless hours of recorded improvisations to sort through. More than we ever could, really. We rarely discussed concepts and aesthetics, though we certainly all devoted much individual thought to them. Paradoxically enough, one of our firmest beliefs was in casting beliefs aside in favor of instinct, trusting that the pure voice of the unconscious would manifest better by avoiding intellectualization.
Glen : I’m particularly enamoured by your work with Vini Reilly. You collaborated with Vini on the Durutti Column album, ‘Short Stories for Pauline’ back in 1983 but it was mothballed by Tony Wilson and not released until almost 30 years later! Yet from the duet, ‘Duet,’ The Durutti Column’s ‘Without Mercy’ was born. This was not only my first encounter with The Durutti Column but I think one of their finest works and their golden period. What do you remember from this time? Have you followed Vini’s work since?
Blaine : I began to work with Vini in my capacity as a kind of freelance producer and session musician with Crepuscule in the early 80’s. I was introduced to him by Michel Duval, Crepuscule founder, for a session at Brussels’ “Daylight Studios” where much of the Crepuscule work was done. Vini played me some music and I played along. I guess he liked what emerged. Also, I think that Tony Wilson envisioned him more as a kind of Michael Nyman modern composer and tended to push him in that direction. Tony was really the driving force behind that ‘Without Mercy’ project.
What was it like working with Savage Republic for their record, ‘Varvakios?’ They really are a terribly overlooked band. I saw them live three times, and they were phenomenal.
Blaine : I thoroughly enjoyed working with Savage Republic, and I enjoyed the company of American peers which I often lack around here. I also enjoyed playing live with them, basking in a kind of raw enthusiasm from their public often lacking in my other work. Their houses were always packed.
Dead Can Dance dedicated the first two records after their (2011) reunion to Greek culture, and Brendan Perry has just release a solo record consisting of (English translations of) rebetiko music. Have you noticed a trend? Can you sense some sort of desire to come back to the roots of Western civilisation?
Blaine : I think that non-Greeks tend to make more of the connection with ancient Greek culture than the Greeks themselves. Modern Greek culture is far more Balkan and owes more to the Turkish influence than that of Homer. Rebetiko is hashish music, music of dive bars and cultural outsiders. It has more in common with punk rock than with ancient tragedy.
Talking of Western Civilisation…as an American, what do you think of the outcome of the presidential election? I’m personally very worried by the fact that more than 70 million people still voted for Donald Trump. What’s going on there?
Blaine : Oh god. As Robert De Niro has said, “Trump is a dog. He’s a pig.” He’s a blight on our history. The people who voted for him have been duped, brainwashed by a hugely skillful propaganda effort into voting against their own interests.
People will write books about Trump for the next 100 years. There will be films. I am still holding my breath waiting for him to go away. I have a feeling that only the Grim Reaper will succeed in moving him along.
What do you listen to these days? Are there any bands or projects that have caught your attention?
Blaine : Apart from classical music, Bach and Satie in particular, I tend to listen to ambient type music, environmental music for my yoga and meditation. I like a Japanese guy named Chihei Hatakeyama. I like Eno, of course. I listen to film music as well. I like Max Richter. Johann Johannssonn. Stars of the Lid.
What’s next for you?
Blaine : What’s next is more of the same. I will release a new CD with Les Disques du Crepuscule in 2021. I have theatrical collaborations with my wife, director Maria Panourgia, in the future. I will perform again the music I composed for a show at the Mauthausen Concentration camp in 2019 with Greek director Elli Papakonstantinou in Avignon and elsewhere in summer 2021, COVID willing.
There is a new Tuxedomoon release coming next year. Its exact nature is still forming.
Thank you very much Blaine.
Interview by Ruben Guastapaglia
Further reading/listening/info :
Blaine L. Reininger official website
Tuxedomoon official website
Tuxedomoon archives Bandcamp page
Blaine L. Reininger Patreon page