Kristian Hoffman's loud and queer as Mumps music's re-released
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As musical curricula vitae go, few are as expansive and impressive as that of queer singer/songwriter Kristian Hoffman. If there are any documentary filmmakers out there looking for an unquestionably compelling subject, it would be Hoffman.
A co-founding member of the band Mumps (with the late Lance Loud of PBS' An American Family fame), Hoffman has been associated with a spectacular line-up of influential musical acts including Klaus Nomi, Lydia Lunch, Kid Congo Powers, Ann Magnuson, El Vez, Prince Poppycock and countless others. The previously mentioned Mumps are getting the special reissue treatment with Rock & Roll This, Rock & Roll That: Best Case Scenario, You've Got Mumps (Omnivore), a single disc 23-track compilation including nine bonus tracks, two of which are previously unissued. Kristian was kind enough to answer a few questions related to his career and the Mumps in May 2021.
Gregg Shapiro: Kristian, you and Lance Loud became friends in high school, discovering that you had eclectic musical tastes in common. In your experience, would you say that shared love of music, as well as books, movies, and even in some cases sports, are a solid basis for friendship?
Kristian Hoffman: Lance and I met at the tail end of the '60s where almost everything culturally was defined for young people by music. Music and sharing music defined that historical moment. Everyone loved the Beatles, which in retrospect was an incident so bizarre, because it created community and magic and fellowship! Music was a given for almost everyone of the era as defining your stance in the cultural pantheon, and was, in the lat '60s, also a barometer of whether the particular friendship would be worth exploring. It immediately brought us together.
But specifically —in the sense of why Lance and I really liked each other right away— we were both snarky and bitchy and sarcastic and bad pun-prone, and constantly looking for the weird and the obscure. There's a reason why the first LPs we really bonded over were Village Green Preservation Society by the Kinks, Sparks' and the Stooges first LPs and the Velvet Underground and Nico. Some of the least selling records of all time. And some of the wildest!
We had a real sense of 'outsiderness' that we enjoyed, and thus had an unearned snobbery sans portfolio, and we loved to poke fun of everything that was generally 'acceptable.' So, Lance and I became very close very quickly, and he invited me to his home (the one with that marvelous family). He was my key to adventure and danger, because before that I just worked and got good grades and felt snobbish, but I didn't invent my own 'fun.' Lance had that fantastic ability! So, in the most delightful late sixties not particularly dangerous fashion (for the most part), we were just kids gone wild!
At the time that you and Lance were in high school, were you both aware that you were gay, and were you among the first people to whom the other came out?
I believe that to be true. I didn't really know for sure what gay was when I first met him. It might have been part of my instinctive attraction towards him, although I was never sexually attracted to him. We were legitimate old school 'best friends,' discovering the world together. And I liked his other-ness. I felt like an 'other,' too. My 'coming out' per se, was remarkable in its very unremarkableness.
Lance had been called 'faggot' and yelled at by other students. That name-calling didn't bother me at all. As I said, we were cultural snobs. We thought the people insulting us were just stupid, and we didn't care what they thought, if they actually were capable of thought.
Lance did babysit me through my coming into sexual awareness, and it was comparatively painless. I knew he was gay, although I had never experienced gay myself. But he was open about it, and I soon learned what he was doing when I was waiting in my Volkswagen Bug outside of various restrooms he would linger in.
Coming out wasn't a hard difficult confession to my parents, nor Lance's to his, I don't believe. Both of our parents had very similar reactions. My mother once finally said, "I have to ask you a fairly serious question." I could sense it, and I was ready for any of varying responses she might have had. But when I said 'Yes,' she was completely nonjudgmental, and supportive. The only thing she said to me is, 'It may be a more difficult road for you, and I'm a little bit scared for you, because there are people out there who will want to hurt you. I don't want that for my son. But I will support you, no matter what.'
There was no weeping, no wringing of hands, no theatrics, and my mom was an actress! This was her chance! It was that easy. So, when people ask for my 'coming out' story, I really didn't have to come out. We were already out. And with Mick Jagger's mincing, and the posturing as of David Bowie, and then after him Marc Bolan, we really never felt like we were acting 'gay.' We were as idiotic as the next wannabe fan, and we thought we were acting like rock stars!
Do you think that when friends discover they share similar musical predilections, that even without proper training or background, someone will inevitably suggest starting a band?
It was prevalent amongst almost everyone we knew that starting a band or even just playing an instrument wasn't dependent on any particular scholastic gift or bent. It was about drive, and inspiration, and, most importantly, fun.
Starting a band was about as intellectually challenging as trying to surf. You just jumped in, and everyone was doing it. We truly started as a garage band, in Pat Loud's garage, and later in my mother's garage. We didn't have notions of becoming the next Beatles or anything. There, of course, were dreams of some sort of recognition, if that were even remotely possible. But that aspiration wasn't yet defined at all. It was more about getting together with friends, making a huge racket and laughing and having fun.
I was surrounded by musicians even in high school who were so far superior to me. We already had guitar; David Collert, so much so that he was asked to join Todd Rundgren's band! He refused because he thought Rundgren 'unhip.' Jeff Bruner later became a noted orchestrator. Jay Dee Daugherty! Just the greatest! Patti Smith noticed! Kevin Loud was a really good bass player, and Grant, when he deigned to "jam" with us, was a great guitar player, a great singer, and really handsome.
We didn't actually even know how lucky we were. I was at best a mediocre piano player, if that. Lance couldn't sing. But the odd thing was, we were the ones with the "drive.". I immediately started writing songs. The very first song I wrote was an inexcusably rudimentary 12-bar, but it was, delightfully, called "I'm God." I still remember it. Lance and I had ideas for other songs and I would finish them. Lance made David Collert throw together some chords and out came Mumps classic "Muscleboys."
And Lance and I were either dedicated enough, or delusional enough, to believe we could do it, like these moderately notorious bands of people who also only knew three chords in the Santa Barbara clubs, and everyone else who ended up at CBGBs to become that incredibly unlikely grand fun-loving participatory family. We wanted to be the Beatles, of course! But were smart enough to be gravely dubious about anything like that ever happening. My mom bought me a subscription to Melody Maker; whiff of sophisticated British exotica! So, I already knew Village Green Preservation Society was one of the least selling records in Warner Brothers history at the time. I thought, "Well - we actually might likely achieve that!"
And how often do you think that turns out to be a good idea?
Always; every single time. Why not try it? You'll have fun, even if you fail! Do something crazy and creative! You'll make great friends and do crazy things. It doesn't mean you'll even be listenable, or inspired, or anyone will like the music. It means you'll have a wild adventure if you stick to it. And might make something moderately amusing during that adventure. An "idea" by its nature is good. Having no idea is bad.
Rock & Roll This, Rock & Roll That: Best Case Scenario, You've Got Mumps (Omnivore) is a single disc 23-track compilation of Mumps songs. It's not the first time that most of these songs have appeared together on CD. Why was now the right time for this expanded reissue?
Don't ask me! I'm just the musician here (laughs). But really, I understand how wildly blessed we Mumps are. There are certain unassailable facts: Mumps were a wildly popular live act in what looks like, from this distance, a fairly small pond. We could, and did, sell out clubs all over the U.S. People would scream and faint and throw their underwear. I mean, really! Even the Soho News conceded that "Mumps are a hard-driving, tightly pulled together powerhouse package with a genuine teen idol out front."
I look at lead singers this way: There's David Johansen during the New York Dolls, there's Lux Interior (of The Cramps), and then there's Lance Loud. Lance was that good; one of the top three ever. But we were not easily classifiable, we didn't have an easily digestible 'hook' like, say, Blondie or Talking Heads or the Ramones. Even so, we were inconsistent live, not geared towards the taste of the moment, and without a record company backing us and promoting us, like they did many other CBGBs acts, we weren't powerful enough on our own to make that leap from small clubs to an actual career.
So, to continue to have maintained consistent interest and support through all these decades, and to have this be the third re-issue of this material (with some newly unearthed surprises) is truly an amazing gift. I'm wildly grateful that we now get assistance from a great label like Omnivore (and from marvelously kooky guys like Long Gone John and Greg Dwinnell beforehand) to make that pleasurable racket available to new listeners all the time.
Rock & Roll This, Rock & Roll That opens with "I Like To Be Clean." Aside from being a song title one might not expect to find on an album by a punk band called Mumps, the subject matter is also somewhat non-traditional. On the other hand, it's also indicative of the kinds of songs you wrote for the band, which exhibit a sense of humor often absent in the scene.
Most songs of the pre-punk era took intimacy as a predicate, love as the pre-existing condition to be remarked upon and celebrated or lamented in song. "I Like To Be Clean" asks: what about getting to intimacy, or being uncomfortable with intimacy, and not even caring for intimacy?
As a songwriter, I always love a good question, even if I can rarely answer it. For "I Like to Be Clean," I started out at the trucks and their contemporary bi-product, herpes. Then, as usual I extrapolate to the ridiculously enormous: a condemnation of all aspirations towards the grim mediocrity we fancifully call civilization. That kind of stuff is fun for me.
How much do you think that you and Lance being gay contributed to the band's embrace of camp, with the previously mentioned Lance composition "Muscleboys" being a prime example?
I don't think we ever embraced 'camp.' Maybe I'm delusional. I think there's fun and melody and catchiness in Mumps song, but there's also hard and unstinting observation. The lyrics to "Muscleboys" are not 'camp.' They are about mindless militarization and cruel exclusivity, measured by qualities that are spiritually vapid. All that, and it's funny, and it's kind of about butt-fucking, which, as you know, I enjoy. Mumps are not camp. We are pop, if you mean 'melodic and constructed to be musically and lyrically memorable.' If by 'pop,' you mean 'popular,' the jury is still out.
Would it be fair to say that Mumps had to go to New York to be embraced by the punk scene, and if so, do you think they would have achieved the same kind of recognition if they'd been part of the early LA punk scene?
There's a question I can't answer! We went to New York because to me it sounded like a lot of fun to go somewhere new, and Lance wanted to meet Andy Warhol. We didn't even go there to start a band. We went there to run away from our circumstances (I hated Art School, even though I had it easy with a scholarship) and Lance had an unerring gift for creating an "event" and New York was it.
After we first went there, we wanted to stay there. But we were young and stupid, and didn't do things like, oh, say...get a job, or pay the rent. When we predictably bumbled home, we practiced with the slowly coalescing band that occasionally defaulted to the name "Loud," even though there were other names like "Fork" bandied about. That band is on the previously unreleased tracks on the new CD. And that is the band that, because of Pat Loud, got us on The Dick Cavett Show (Lance interview on YouTube).
And when Lance and I and Jay Dee got there, we decided to stay and earned the opportunity to make what really became Mumps there. That doesn't say it couldn't have been done elsewhere. I am proud to say ¬—as many L.A. soon-to-be pop stars and bands to reckoned with, then in their nascency, have freely admitted— Mumps being the first NYC CBGBs-era ever band to play L.A. inspired wild rioting and crazy fandom! Mumps always had a great time in L.A. and were wildly welcomed into as many crazy experiences as we could stuff into our visits there. And now I live here! So, it could have happened in L.A. as well. The scene was just waiting to happen.
You later rerecorded "Anyone But You," which appears on Rock & Roll This, Rock & Roll That, with Stew (from the Negro Problem) for your duets album &. Why did you rerecord that song?
For a couple of reasons. The idea for & came about in a ridiculous fashion. I was good friends with Belinda (Carlisle) from the Go-Go's who was a wonderful supporter of my band The Swinging Madisons. The Madisons usually closed our sets with a riotous version of Paul Anka's "Having My Baby." I asked Belinda if she would record a duet of that song with me for a one-off 45, and she just said "Sure!"
It seems weird now, but that kind of stuff happened all the time. We had the backing track all prepared, but Belinda suddenly got unexpectedly called back to France where her husband lived. I was ready to shelve it, but Greg Dwinnell just said, "Why don't you just record a whole album of duets?" I had quite a few finished songs hanging around, but not enough for a whole CD. I love Stew and I love the Negro Problem. I went to every local Negro Problem concert I could, and you can usually talk to people after a club gig, so I just went up and told them all how much I loved them. I ended up playing a couple of gigs with them at Spaceland with various bands I was in, so when it came time to record &, I just asked Stew, and he just said yes.
Speaking of &, you have a long history as a collaborator — from your pre-Mumps bands to the Mumps and continuing with Klaus Nomi, Lydia Lunch, Ann Magnuson and Congo Norvell, among others. What is it about you that makes you so good at playing well with others?
I don't know. I usually show up on time. I'm an enthusiast. Also, I am idiotically brazen.
When I was the pianist for the first New Wave Vaudeville show, and was lucky enough to write songs for the MC David McDermott, that wasn't a surprise. I was already great friends with the NWV producers Tom Scully and Susan Hannaford. And I had known David McDermott since I first moved to New York and even lived with him for a time. But I didn't know Ann Magnuson until I met her when she directed NWV. I really liked her, so I just invited her to my house and said "We both love folk music, but isn't it time to start an anti-folk band?" She just said, "Sure'"!
Next stop, (the band) Bleaker Street Incident. And Anya Philips who was managing the Contortions, which I played guitar in for a while, came back stage after one of the NWV shows, and said, "What about that guy Klaus Nomi who just brings down the house? You should start a band for him! Just call him!"
I got his phone number from Susan and called him the next day, and just blurted out gracelessly, "Hey, don't you want to start a band?" I didn't even know him except from brief passings backstage. He just said yes!
The East Village was really like the world's greatest college dormitory at the time. Every time you left your house you'd run into a crazy band or artist or filmmaker and they always wanted you to come to their opening or their club or have you sing at some ridiculous event, or they needed a bass player or a place to store their equipment overnight.
We all lived within three miles of each other. How else could I be in the Swinging Madisons, the Mumps, Bleaker Street Incident, The Contortions and the Klaus Nomi band all at the same time? And play drums with Lydia Lunch?
I got to go play in Oslo with Prince Poppycock, and he sings songs I wrote! Who else gets to do that? But I still am invited to do crazy stuff all the time, and play with the greatest people. My current band, on pandemic-inspired hiatus, is a tribute to the Boswell Sisters called the Roswell Sisters. It has Kristi Callan from Wednesday Week, Lisa Jenio from Candypants, and my husband, playwright Justin Tanner, on impeccable vocals. And they cover some of my songs in concise inspired gorgeous three-part harmonies! Oh, and, unabashedly I confess: even if I can't really play, I can write a hook.
I recently interviewed Kid Congo Powers, which whom you performed in Congo Norvell, about his new EP. With live music shows and touring making a comeback in these vaccinated days, do you think the two of you might ever team up and play a show together?
I'm into it! I've already asked Chris Frantz (of Talking Heads and Tom Tom Club fame) to start a band with me! I don't think he thinks I'm serious, but if Kid is in the band, who knows? I adore Kid! And Congo Norvell let me co-write some songs too! That was so much fun.
Is there, per chance, a new Kristian Hoffman album in the works?
If someone asks, I'm so there. That's how all my albums happened. Before Fop, Gary Stewart (bless his soul - that was a hard departure) just happened to call me up and said, "I'm worried about you. Aren't you writing songs anymore?"
I said, "No one asked me to."
He said, "I'm asking you to, now!" And he made Fop happen - he stuck with me through all the ridiculous foibles and errors and kind of babysat me through the entire Fop process at the same time as he insisted, "I want you to do the biggest most grandiose album you want to do," and thus I was lucky enough to have my happiest and most satisfying recording experience making the solo work I'm most proud of.
So, anyone out there, feel free to ask. I'm just a fucking lucky guy. Driven, but pretty darn lucky, too.
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