Tuesday, September 15, 2015

SNAKEFINGER: Skanks and Shakes [1981]

Text © David G. and Chris Van Valen / FFanzeen, 1981
Introductory text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015

Is there such a thing as experimental free-form jazz rock? Because if I had to categorize the uncategorical British native / San Francisco resident Snakefinger, that’s where I would place him. He found a home on Ralph Records out in California, which for a while was the center of the strange and bizarre, such as the Residents (for whom he was also a member under a mask), Fred Frith, Renaldo and the Loaf, Yello, Tuxedomoon and MX80 Sound.

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981. It was written by Anglophile music historians of the off-center, David G. and Chris Van Valen.

Sadly, Snakefinger passed away by heart attack while in tour in Austria in July 1987 at the age of 38 years. – RBF, 2015

Time to interview Snakefinger. Chris and I get to the hotel and it looked just like the Overlook: all endless corridors and flocked wallpaper! Call Ralph Records if I don’t come out in an hour!

Well, Snakefinger turns out to be quite an amicable chap, and the difference between mild mannered Philip Lithman (that’s what his mum calls him) and “Snakefinger,” the wild kimono-clad guerilla guitar player that led his hand-picked “assault and battery squad” (Carlos Crypton, guitar; Johnny Jenkings, drums; and Jack George, bass) through a tour of New York City’s zippier nightspots this past October, when this interview was done, is striking. At Max’s [Kansas City], Snake whizzed off manic slide solos and leapt about wildly as the band punched out rock'n’roll versions of tunes from Chewing Hides the Sound, and the new Greener Postures (in contrast to the heavy electronic bent of those albums).

A highlight of the set was the appearance of “Skanking” Ross, a bizarre youth who Snake swears he met right before the show. Ross subsequently appeared at all of the band’s New York gigs.

FFanzeen: Snake, how do you account for the fact that many of the musicians you worked with in England in the early ‘70s “pub-rock” movement are now backing people like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello, and you ended up with the Residents?
Snakefinger: Well, I think that, basically, they followed the logical line of what was going on; they all took the next logical step, and me, being a sort of illogical person, took the next illogical step and came here (to America). I’d already done stuff with the Residents. I’d left them six years previously and I’d told them to keep my tea in the oven – I’d be right back – and six years later I came back and my tea was still in the oven.

FFanzeen: How did you come to meet the Residents and N. Senada?
Snakefinger: It’s completely fate, completely by chance, every single bit of it. I met N. Senada in Austria on holiday. He then told me he’d heard about these people who weren’t as yet the Residents – they were just some people fooling around with sound – so we came together. I didn’t know a single soul in the whole of America. We stopped in (the) New York airport with the idea of stopping in New York for a while. But he didn’t like the New York airport, so he decided to go straight to California. We arrived there, went straight to the Residents’ place in San Mateo, where the “San Mateo sound” was being constructed, added to the construction – basically completed it – and stayed there for a year; he left to go off and do more stuff in the vein of work he was doing, and I left to go back and be a pub-rocker in England – for a while.

FFanzeen: What made you go back to England?
Snakefinger: Well, I was offered a job with a friend’s group called Mighty Baby, who was like a psychedelic-era band. They fell apart just as I got back, luckily enough, and my friend went off and joined a Muslim commune.

FFanzeen: Doesn’t everyone?
Snakefinger: [laughs] Well, I finally talked him out of it and we formed the Chilly Willies [aka Chilly Willie and the Red Hot Peppers – RBF, 2015].

FFanzeen: Your friend was Martin Stone, right?
Snakefinger: That’s right, yeah.

FFanzeen: While you were still in California, didn’t you do a couple of folky-type gigs?
Snakefinger: Yeah, that’s right. In fact, N. Senada and myself did a couple of gigs with just guitars, piano, and saxophone in a few folk clubs that completely astonished the people there; you know, they were all singing, “Here’s a little song me and my chick wrote when we were on acid, hitchhiking to Oregon,” you know, and suddenly this mad guy with dark glasses and a saxophone and myself – who was pretty mad, but I won’t get into that – jumped on stage on audition nights and things like that, and suddenly the whole place is stilled into silence by the total lunacy onstage.

Snakefinger and the Residents
FFanzeen: These days, a lot of different people are into sound alteration the way the Residents were ten years ago. What do you think of that?
Snakefinger: It’s real hard to put them in a block. There are people that I think are real go-ahead and really have something, and a lot of people I don’t really think have anything going for themselves. It’s very easy to make new sounds by piddling around with a few things, you know. I’m not saying that anybody isn’t entitled to go ahead and do it – anybody is going ahead and doing it right now.

FFanzeen: Synthesizers are so cheap that every 18-year-old kid is buying one these days.
Snakefinger: Precisely, and I mean, you can’t go far wrong; you can do almost anything and have it be art. I don’t particularly look at things that way; I need a bit of substance. I think the Residents have a bit of substance and I’ve known the people for a long time and they’re all very, very clever. I mean, I’d go as far as to saying genii – is that the plural? [Answered HERE – RBF, 2015.] But they’re not the kind to sit around and figure out chess games. They’re really down to earth Southern guys who were brought up in Louisiana, spent most of their lives there. Just hospitable, pleasant, and as nice as they can possibly be. But I mean, with these great minds that only come out when they’re doing their work.

FFanzeen: If they’re so hospitable, why is their music so ominous? Is it on purpose?
Snakefinger: Yeah. It’s meant to be that way. They are hospitable amongst themselves, and with friends that come by and everything, but you can’t be hospitable about your life’s work, and they’re not.

FFanzeen: The music of both you and the Residents always seems designed to unnerve. When the music is pleasant, the lyrics are not, and vice-versa.
Snakefinger: Well, it varies between myself and the Residents; we have different approaches. The Residents, I mean their whole thing, when they started off, was to unnerve; was to wake up people in deep trances; was to create completely different alternatives than were available to people. It was very, very stale for the first six years of their existence. The music scene was really horrid. Then came New Wave, which was a good little kick in the ass for the whole world, even though 99.9% of it was just phoney and not really worth bothering with. But it did do something – it opened up broader horizons and things like that. So the Residents changed slightly.

FFanzeen: I thought it was funny to see six-year-old Residents albums in the punk sections of record stores – especially since they are miles away from any punk or New Wave band; even miles away from label-mates like Tuxedomoon, who are in infancy compared to what the Residents do.
Snakefinger: We’re all miles away from each other. On Ralph Records [d. 1987 – RBF, 2015], there is a label sound for sure, but everybody on Ralph is miles away from everybody else on Ralph. There aren’t two people on Ralph that sound even vaguely alike – thank goodness.

FFanzeen: Do you play your solo on the Residents’ “Satisfaction” single on a slide guitar?
Snakefinger: It’s a slide; I play slide quite a lot. I don’t do any electronic solos. Everything I play is on guitar. I don’t play solos on synthesizers. The most I’ll do is put something through a bunch of effects to get a more interesting sound. What we usually do for the records is record stuff completely experimentally; we’ll try all kinds of different techniques to get different sounds, anything but the sound you expect.

FFanzeen: Most of the stuff is made on conventional instruments and recorded or reprocessed in unusual ways later.
Snakefinger: Yeah, in my work in particular. There’s a minimum of synthesizers – just effects. The Residents use considerably more synthesizer than I do, but for the most part they use normal instruments, played by the Residents – which immediately makes them abnormal – but through a lot of electronics at the Ralph studios.

FFanzeen: Getting to your lyrics, is “Picnic in the Jungle” about a situation like Auschwitz or Jonestown?
Snakefinger: On another planet, yes, that’s exactly what it is. As I said, you won’t find anything like “No more Dachau! It’s a terrible thing, how could they do all that stuff!”, but that’s the situation. It’s about Jonestown and it’s about Dachau and things, basically. I mean, if you want to put a story to it – which is another thing you can do to any of these lyrics; just take them as they stand, as a story. I’m into people drawing their own meanings. The show is a ritual – just like the records – but the story of “Picnic in the Jungle” is that these people who are taken by aliens to another planet are experimented on, and one of the prisoners is telling the story that every day they leave a tray and take one away; a cloud appears and melts away the skin of some. But basically, it’s symbolic of all the things that have happened here, and are set to happen again if we’re not really careful.

FFanzeen: Your lyrics are definitely more specific, and less fantastical than the Residents’ stuff.
Snakefinger: Yeah, my lyrics are more a part of human life. I deal with humanity. The Residents are more fantasy and I’m more reality based, and it’s the same in the music. If it wasn’t that way, I’d be doing what the Residents are doing, but I don’t because the Residents are doing it and you only need one of those – but I do think you need one of those, and I think the world needs one of those, and I think it realizes now that it does need one of those – at least – and they’ve had the most experience and are doing it best.

FFanzeen: There’s so much out there, in art and music, and people are just not interested in it.
Snakefinger: Oh, absolutely, I agree entirely. I mean, there’s discrimination, and being a discriminating person immediately lets you out of a goodly amount of stuff. I’m real discriminating and I realize I miss out on a lot of stuff that way, but being as discriminating as I am, there’s still far more than even I can deal with that I want to get to.

FFanzeen: How did you get the name “Snakefinger”?
Snakefinger: It comes from N. Senada. He named me.

FFanzeen: What did your mother have to say about that?
Snakefinger: [laughs] She didn’t have much of a choice. There was a gig, one of the Residents’ legendary few gigs. It was Halloween, in far Northern California, and it was a full blue moon on a Halloween evening – and it was very, very strange. There were a lot of drug casualities around. Everyone was in fancy dress and people started acting out the parts of their dress, and started to get a little too into them. And the demons that were dressed up were beginning to be really demonic and started to freak people out – you know, the perfect setting for a Residents’ gig. Now, I was playing violin at the gig and according to N. Senada, he saw my figner jump off the violin and become very snake-like. There’s actually a photograph of it which is in the Ralph Records Collection at the Cryptic Corporation. It kind of looks like the camera was sort of out of focus, but there definitely is a snake there – and N. Senada told us about it before he’d even seen the photograph. He said, “Your finger was just like a snake writhing around the violin,” hence, Snakefinger.

FFanzeen: Can anyone get a gander at that picture?
Snakefinger: Yeah, I’m not very recognizable – I have a gas mask and a trench coat on – but it’s definitely me.

FFanzeen: We’re not leaving until you tell us who the Residents are. [laughs] They’re probably not anyone famous at all, just a bunch of guys.
Snakefinger: That would be a big let-down, wouldn’t it? But it could all be a lie. It could actually be John, George, Ringo and whoever else – or I might just be making this up.

FFanzeen: Paul is making too much money to do something creative.
Snakefinger: No, Paul wanted to be one, but we – oh, sorry!

FFanzeen: This doesn’t seem to be much of a tour – you hang around New York for a few weeks, instead of the night-after-night type affair. Is this a prelude to the legendary Residents / Snakefinger tour?
Snakefinger: Well, in answer to that question, yes and no. We’re discussing it right now. We’re discussing how it’s going to get in with all the people what we want to use, and it’s a very strong possibility at the moment. We might do a few little local things first, to see how we like it. They feel how I do about being on the road; the actual shows are exciting and fun, but everything that goes along with it, the whole stigma – there’s a whole mental attitude that is almost impossible to avoid on the road, and I mean, why put yourself into one mental bag like that – apart from selling more records and stuff like that, which is all jolly good I’m sure – but why limit yourself? There’s no chance that you can get out of a tour without being a smaller person than when you went in. And without a few months to recover your scope of vision afterwards, you’re done. People that are on the road constantly, their scope of vision gets to be so tiny; they can basically only see the crew of people that they’ve been with, and the world becomes a terribly small place for them.

FFanzeen: Groupies and journalists.
Snakefinger: Yeah, well, you get to hate your fellow humans after a few months, and you feel like this little assault group on humanity, which is healthy for gigging; gigging’s a ritual – at least that’s what it should be at any rate – to fix something important in your mind, i.e., the costumes and things that people wear onstage, the attitudes they get over. It’s a magical ritual. You cause changes to occur right there in the minds of people that are coming to see you, which is fine, and you need that assault and battery attitude to do it. And it’s like, Us or Them. It’s not that they’re the enemy, but they’re who you have to deal with; they’re the consciousness you have to change. So, to go on like an assault and battery squad might not be the most subtle way of going about it, but it is necessary to maintain some attitude of that sort. Just to get it done, as far as performing is concerned, there’s a middle ground in-between records and live that you have to take because if you go up there and try to be art for art’s sake, you’re just going to alienate everyone. I’d like to get through on a mass level. That’s one of my purposes and one of my points. The more people I can get through to, the better it’s gonna be, and in the excitement of a gig, you have to solo down a couple of times, and you have to make it loud and nasty, and there’s a middle road where you can keep the subtleties in it, but still do things that are semi-expected at a gig – and also, the things that are semi-expected.

FFanzeen: What kind of band set-up are you using for these gigs?
Snakefinger: The instrumentation is completely straight. I think the music is weird enough in itself that one doesn’t have to go to synthesized cow udders and things like that to get weird music. It’s a basic set-up, with two guitars, bass, and drums. The other guitar player’s a co-founder of the Dead Kennedy’s. They’re all very young, very fresh, without time to pick up any heavy attitudes yet about what they are or what they like. They don’t really know what cool means yet, which I really like. If I’m gonna tour, I certainly don’t want to do it with a bunch of seasoned old soldiers; I want it to be fresh and exciting.

FFanzeen: Are you using any visuals?
Snakefinger: No, we’re on the tightest budget you ever heard of in your whole life. Also, I think the added extraordinary visuals in the way of slides and films would just help to confuse the issue.

FFanzeen: People ask you about the Residents so often, you probably feel like just handing out a printed statement sometimes?
Snakefinger: Yes and no, for two reasons: one reason is that you take the question and answer it, and then you can turn it around to take in the subjects you want to talk about; the number two reason is this – and it’s something I wanted to say to you – I’d sign a paper and say that everything I’ve told you so far, and every question that I’ve answered has been the truth and the way I really feel – right now. If you want to come back and do an interview next week, every answer might be completely different; my whole concepts on life might have changed. That’s the only real difficulty I have with interviews, and it’s the only real thing I like to say at the end of any interview I ever do. This is the way I feel now; tomorrow it might all be different, so don’t take the philosophical word of the Lord out of what I am saying. It all changes.

FFanzeen: That’s reasonable, since everything is always in a state of flux anyway.
Snakefinger: That’s why, particularly with rock’n’roll stars – or whatever they’re called – rock’n’roll morons – these big quotes of ”This is my stance,” and “This is my view on life, come hell or high water,” are just full of shit. I’ve never agreed with it, whatsoever. I’ve never endorsed it.

FFanzeen: Right, but don’t you ever get sick of answering questions about the Residents?
Snakefinger: That’s okay. They’re interesting to talk about. I don’t mind.

FFanzeen: Okay then, who are the Residents?!
Snakefinger: Well, my mum’s one of them!


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