Behind Tav Falco's Strange Brew of 'Art-Damaged' Rock 'n' Roll
Tav Falco’s reputation as a performance artist began in the late seventies when expressionist theatricality and primitive Southern goth-tinged rock 'n' roll took over the underground. While Falco has steered away from the fractured noise on his recent releases, his self-invented values remain remarkably consistent and unmistakable — raucous, raw, and completely off-the-rails. After his show in Rochester last fall, we caught up with Falco to discuss his beginnings, his relationship with fellow creative chameleon Alex Chilton, and his remarkable longevity.
When Memphis legend Tav Falco made his television debut on a now infamous episode of WHBQ-TV's local weekday morning program, Straight Talk with Marge Thrasher, Falco’s Panther Burns played a blistering cover of "Train Kept A' Rolling" and referred to his art as "an unholy amalgam of animal lust and divine transubstantiation." Thrasher called it the worst sound she's ever heard come out on television. Falco responded and said, "I don't think anyone else is playing music like this in Memphis or maybe anywhere else in the world." With his rough, but gentleman-like stage presence, Falco's "anti-music environment" blending country blues with the avant-garde was a rapid-fire injection into punk rock.
While it's true that The Cramps had an aesthetic that seemed similar, on the surface, Falco's Panther Burns was at least as much about conceptual art as it was about music — revealed more during the band's live shows where at times Falco would feel an impulse to chainsaw his guitar into pieces onstage. While Falco has steered away from the fractured noise with a cleaner sound especially if you compare the deviant swamp garage-blues of his 1981 debut Behind the Magnolia Curtain to his most recent work like 2018's Cabaret of Daggers and 2021's Club Car Zodiac EP, his self-invented values remain remarkably consistent and unmistakable — raucous, raw, and completely off-the-rails. After his show in Rochester last fall, we caught up with Falco to discuss his beginnings, his relationship with fellow creative chameleon Alex Chilton, and his remarkable longevity.
Paperface Zine: You wrapped up your U.S. tour with the Panther Burns last fall. How was that and what were some of your favorite spots?
Tav Falco: It was great to meet the public again. Panther Burns had not played Texas in a decade so it was an adventure to get back to Austin, Houston and Dallas, and we played our first show ever in San Antonio. Austin drew a big, appreciative crowd. HOCO Fest in Tucson, and shows in Memphis and Little Rock was exceptional as well. We logged a lot of road miles on this tour.
PZ: The Panther Burns have always evolved with its rotating crew of musicians. Who's in your current band and what do you admire about this lineup?
TF: So right now, I got Mario Monterosso on guitar, Giuseppe Sangirardi on bass, and Walter Brunetti on drums. I feel privileged to have this extraordinary band from Rome behind me. Monterosso is also a gifted producer, arranger, and guitarist who has orchestrated the recording sessions for all of my records since 2015.
PZ: In 2021, you released the Club Car Zodiac EP, which was written and recorded during the pandemic in 2020. It features one of your most diverse collections of songs that blends your familiar scuzzy roots rock styling with a less primitive tango and cabaret styling.
TF: This mini-album of five songs is my most personal. It was recorded largely during the pandemic, and was instigated by one of the Panther Burns' bass players, Mike Watt (Firehose, the Stooges). What was intended to be a single morphed into a vinyl EP that includes three original pieces, plus an English interpretation of a 1930s Italian cabaret song by Petronini. There is a crying out across these tracks — a howl. "Dance Me to the River," and particularly "La Brigantessa," and “Tango Primavera," are products of my past appearances in Rome. Mario arranged these songs beautifully for the recording sessions.
PZ: Looking back, what sparked your interest in making music?
TF: The first broadcasts and recorded music that I really paid attention to were the SUN Records releases out of Memphis that I asked my mother to buy for me at Stan's Record Shop when we visited Shreveport. I also grooved on The Platters, Jimmy Reed, and Bo Diddley. All of those artists were on the radio most every day. The live shows that made an impact were mainly in Memphis. In chronology: Howling Wolf, Bobby Blue Bland, Mississippi Fred McDowell, R.L. Burnside, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Houston Stackhouse, Booker White, Furry Lewis, The Shewolf, Jackie Wilson, and Phineas Newborn, Jr. Sandwiched in-between during my foray into San Francisco were Big Brother and The Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Thelonious Monk, Dr. John, Roland Kirk, and Sun Ra in New York.
PZ: Shortly after you graduated college, you formed the nonprofit Televista art-action video group and filmed legendary blues musicians from Memphis and north Mississippi. What did you enjoy most about documenting those music scenes and working under William Eggleston?
TF: My time in Memphis was a creative one. It was where I joined forces with working artists and learned my trade. I had migrated from a cabin in the hills of Arkansas to Memphis with all of my junk stuffed into a 1950 green Ford with a '48 Mercury v8 under the hood. If you wanted to go to the big city from Arkansas, the options were either Dallas or Memphis. I tried Dallas on a return trip south from the Haight-Ashbury, but became involved on the periphery of a satanic, Anton LaVey type cult and barely got out of there alive with the shirt on my back. Then I had the intention to further myself as a photographer and a filmmaker in Memphis. In large part, I did that, but in a decidedly non-commercial way. I assisted William J. Eggleston on a number of ventures. He taught me how to use the camera and how to take and print pictures. Then I worked in a motion picture laboratory for a couple years making titles for films. Yet, out of frustration, I formed a rock 'n' roll band as Alex Chilton had urged me to do. Over a dozen albums later, and countless tours, the Panther Burns' beat that was dredged from primal swamps around Memphis has carried me around the world and opened many doors onto creative and cultural landscapes. With few exceptions, everything that was happening in Memphis when I arrived in 1973 was coming from the underground — at least anything that interested me. I was drawn to country blues, free jazz, free verse, and especially, experimental film. For me, experimental film was a dream carnival of the mind, a montage of delirium emerging from a clandestine incubator of phenomenal fires. My experiences in Memphis placed me on the path to how I view myself now, as a Utopian Anarchist. Panther Burns is a band that always holds out a hand to the enemy.
PZ: What was it like having Alex Chilton as your right-hand man in the first lineup of the Panther Burns and what did you admire most about him?
TF: I first encountered Alex behind the lens of a video camera at Sam Phillips Recording Studio. I plainly saw that he was a singer, but I did not know who he was. Memphis is full of singers and guitar players. During the 1970s and the eclipse of psychedelia, I retreated back to the realms of country blues and avant-garde free jazz. In comparison with the 1960s, for me what followed was a lost and vacuous decade, though a time for research and experimentation. It was not until after I had picked up a second-hand Sears electric guitar, and had destroyed the instrument on stage at the grand Orpheum Theater at Main and Beale Streets, did Alex and I become acquainted, and soon after, collaborators. Alex urged me to form a band, and my one and only band resulted, the Panther Burns — named after a legendary plantation in Mississippi. The same plantation that Arkansas poet Frank Stanford alludes to in his epics. At the time I was playing a rudimentary form of country blues in the vein of R.L. Burnside, for whom I had recorded videos. I turned Alex onto my interest in blues — a genre in which he previously had little interest. He was enthralled with my cryptic, oblique, and roughly-hewn guitar playing. Alex showed me how to play some rock 'n' roll stuff — something I had never even considered, as it seemed to be real music from songbooks and playing within the complexity of a group. Alex's own playing was among the most inventive of the handful of exceptional guitarists I have ever seen. The attack of his fingers on the fretboard expressed the convoluted, manic, exhilarating, sensitive, humorous, and often feral nature of his personality. He did not think of himself as such a guitarist, but I assured him that he was among the very best, and my personal favorite. As a singer, there was none better than Alex. He was the man of 1000 voices. When The Box Tops' "The Letter" was outselling The Doors' "Light My Fire," The Beach Boys even tried to recruit him. For more on my time in Memphis, I would refer your readers to my book Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death: Mondo Memphis Volume 1, published by Creation Books in 2011. It's a 450-page encyclopedic history and psychogeography of Memphis' cultural underground and its demimonde. I also have a second book, An Iconography Of Chance: 99 Photographs Of The Evanescent South, published by Elsinore Press.
PZ: I'll be sure to check both of these out! You know, we recently chatted with Jon Spencer and he spoke a bit about your album Behind The Magnolia Curtain. Out of all of your albums, which LPs and songs are you most proud of?
TF: Although none of my records are a triumph in totality, there are certain tracks on each that attain heightened moments I am after. Each feature particular tracks which reach a level of hysteria — whether calm and restrained, or feral and turbulent — that elevates and bonds the listener to the artist in discreet subliminal ecstasies never to be forgotten. If I were to choose which album would be preserved, I suppose it would be 2018's Cabaret of Daggers, which we recorded in Rome. I would choose it for its range of genres — dance to balladry, blues to Go-Go grooves, to anthemic homage. Also, for its emotional heft and for the high degree of musicianship that it delivers.
PZ: I hear you relocated to Bangkok, Thailand back in January. What has that been like for you so far and what do you love most about that city?
TF: In November, I moved from my apartment in the theater district of Vienna, Austria to the Royal Kingdom of Thailand. Within a few weeks, I had found an apartment overlooking an expansive view of the Gulf of Siam. I also rented an artist's studio in March. At that point, I returned to Vienna, packed my bags, and sold my vintage Norton motorbike to finance the move. I had come to Thailand to visit the publisher who put out my two books. A photographer friend from Memphis who is now living just south of Bangkok on Wongamat Beach also invited me to visit. While visiting, I unexpectedly fell under the spell of this tropical, seaside paradise and decided to hang my hat here for a while. It was time for a change.
PZ: Since you recently wrapped up touring, what's next for you and the Panther Burns? Possibly a new record on the way?
TF: We are in discussions with our label, ORG Music, regarding the direction for a new Panther Burns LP. When I return to Thailand, I will be wrapping up post-production on the final entry of 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 a vital elegance. I'll be bringing the Urania Trilogy to America next year. You can follow the progress of that at uraniadescending-themovie.com.
Club Car Zodiac is out now through Org Music.