Three photos of Kurt Ralske lay across my desk. The one on the left dates from 1988, around the time his one-man-band debut, Ultra Vivid Scene, was released by Britain's 4AD Records. With an utter lack of guile, his gaze is directed straight at the camera. In his crew-neck sweat shirt and tousled hair, he looks like the shy, polite kid who grew up next door, dreaming impossible dreams of someday playing in a rock band.
The middle photo, copyright 1990, accompanied the second Ultra Vivid Scene album, Joy 1967-1990 (issued in America on 4AD/Columbia). This time, the eyes are shrouded by aviator shades and Ralske's wearing a semiposh corduroy jacket. With his enigmatic, crooked smile, he resembles a younger, coiffured Paul Shaffer.
The photo on the right is the current one. Here, the gaze is slightly averted and the smile has a more cautionary curl. The leather jacket is the experienced rocker's uniform of choice.
Ralske's musical evolution isn't all black and white, of course, but photos do tell a tale. This one's clearly a case of someone being bitten by the bug early on and doggedly chasing the muse ever since. Calling from Detroit, about a week into a five-week headlining club tour, a candid Ralske maintains that music is more important and more fun than ever for him. Of his new Ultra Vivid Scene recording, Rev, and his new touring band, he says firmly, "It's working out great."
It's actually our second conversation. In 1990, we linked up via telephone and he impressed me as one who appreciates the intricate dynamics of rock n' roll and the musical form's continuum. "I believe in change on a personal level," he told me then. "I believe in your own private little revolution inside yourself."
The 27-year-old pop philosopher seemed to appear out of nowhere in 88 at the behest of 4AD. However, Ralske's rsum included: studying jazz trumpet at Boston's Berklee College of Music; switching to guitar in New York during the early-80s days of the avant-pop No Wave fractures; playing and recording in an experimental group called Crash; and winding up in London, where the 85 underground scene centered on such bands as Jesus and Mary Chain, Loop and Primal Scream.
Take an anything-goes musical ethic, add a record collector's devotion to the classics (from Byrds to Velvets to Hendrix to Love to . . . Hank Williams?), stir in an instinctive knack for twiddling knobs, and you've got a debut album that had the critics smacking their lips, penning kudos along the lines of "luscious rhythms and divine melodies" and "incisive evocations of a state of mind." By the time Joy came out a couple of years later, Ralske demonstrated a keen propensity for penning 60s-ish, harmonious pop nuggets alongside sizzling psychedelic waltzes. Columbia Records lent encouragement, allowing Ralske to put together a full-fledged band to support the stateside release of Joy. After that, well . . . what took so long with Rev?
Recalls Ralske, "I went out to San Francisco for about a year. I thought it was time for a change. New York, just day-to-day life there can wear you down. A lot goes on between records: you tour, then you want some time off. Then you have to write, and that can take a long time. Finding a band and recording can take a long time. And then, once it's done, the record company can wait six months, which they did!
"Before I recorded the album, I put together a group to do about a month's rehearsal of jamming," Ralske begins. "On the record, it's myself doing guitars and vocals, Julius Klepacz on drums and Jack Daley on bass. [Guitarist Knox Chandler rounds out the live unit.] Last time, I put the group together after the album was finished so people were sort of scrambling to make it work. This time around, I took more time finding the right people, getting to know each other better and spending more time getting a musical communication going."
As far as the communication factor goes, Rev is ample testimony to the telepathic grooves a working ensemble can develop. Right off the bat, "Candida" kicks into lowrider gears, a fat bass line and Latino percussion (courtesy of guests Matthew Sweet and Fred Maher, respectively) egging on Ralske's chunky guitar riffs and sardonic, breathy vocal reminiscent of T. Rex's Marc Bolan. Who's this temptress called Candida? Some surreal vision caught in a fun-house mirror, dressed in blood and candy floss? When asked, Ralske claims to be inspired by "emotional experiences and by people," but that he frequently writes when he's "half asleep . . . in the morning, there's stuff that I don't remember writing."
One of Ralske's favorite tunes is "Thief's Love Song," which weds stream-of-consciousness lyrics (A flower lip to lick a flower lip a silent wingtip bring a silent wing to tip a head . . .) to an equally dreamy musical arrangement, featuring phased guitars and eerie overlays of female vocals. The album also contains a bona fide epic, the ten-minute "Blood and Thunder." Rife with religious imagery--a Ralske trademark--and phrases like "We had discovered a cross would bear him" and "We saw him fall in blood and thunder," the tune unfolds in a frenzied mass of wailing slide-guitar riffs and polyrhythmic drumming.
That song's the perfect band vehicle; in fact, one guaranteed to get the full stage treatment. Ralske hastens to point out that some of the most gratifying moments occur in the midst of extended improvising. He's firmly committed to working with other musicians right now.
"Initially, I did a couple of the songs the way I did the Joy album, which was program-program-program. I started to think that I could beat the machines! That if I could just program hard enough, I would get the sort of intensity that a band gets, and I found out that it just doesn't work that way," Ralske says. "What the machines offer you is perfection and control, and that doesn't always make for better music. I think what's great about the record is you hear musicians communicating. You hear things happen in the music that aren't the result of one person's decision. You hear the group thinking as a whole."
I mention that a number of Rev's songs sound like they grew out of good, old-fashioned jamming on guitar riffs.
"Yeah! That's a good description!" Ralske says with a laugh. "What we were trying to get on this record is the intensity of what happens live. These days there are a lot of different approaches to recording. On most major-label stuff, people record one instrument at a time, and if there's a mistake, they'll go back and fix it. Or maybe sample sections of a good performance and loop them--which is what they actually did on the Nirvana record which nobody realizes! We kind of took the outdated 60s approach, which is you go to the microphone and you play."
The 60s approach, or style, of music making is either adored or abhorred, depending on who's doing the grading. Does Ralske worry about being considered in the same context as, say, Lenny Kravitz, who tends to rummage through another generation's attic trunks a bit too tenaciously?
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"Personally, I like tracking down old music that's kind of obscure--although I really like My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, Unrest, Red House Painters!" he says. "I like to look backward to the past, because if you're going to make guitar music, you're part of a tradition that goes back at least 40 years. You should be aware of that tradition because otherwise you're going to be unsuccessful at trying to reinvent the wheel. I think, in a way, it takes a little more courage to be yourself than to be Jimi Hendrix or somebody!"
As the conversation winds down, we discuss pop culture, the media and video. The visually oriented lyricist is no huge fan of video, although, as it turns out, he's bemused that MTV used "Blood and Thunder" as backing music twice: once in a piece on bikers called Road Hog and then for a piece on date rape during a segment of Cindy Crawford's House of Style.
We never do get around to the question of camera poses and publicity photos. I'm tempted, however, to make the observation that for a lot of people, rock n' roll has metaphysical properties that keep them young. And for those involved in the creation of music, that purity can keep them from becoming mere Dorian Grays propped up by ale companies.
"My attitude is that my obligation is to the music," concludes Ralske. "I'm not really keen on the idea of a rock career as a means to move product because I have a mortgage to pay. I don't have a mortgage, and I don't want one. It's very important for me to feel like the music has the upper hand and I'm not trying to influence what the music wants to do.
"I feel like the only way I'm gonna sleep at night is if I really believe in the music. There's just no other way. Music is far too important for me to compromise it, to make it a whore so I can eat.