Interview with Tav Falco by Price Harrison
PH: A Panther Burns performance in the early 80’s was always a multi-media experience: there was the music, the visual presentation, the films and of course, the beautiful poster art. How conscious was your artistic control of these elements, or was it more of an organic process?
TF: Well, the process was a conscious one, although much of the time organically out of control as it were. As a product of the turbulent 60s, my approach was to do everything at once and to take on the mission proclaimed even earlier by the horn player, Charlie Parker, that the job of the artist is to break down barriers between the arts.
PH: What aspects of the Memphis environment were most influential in your artistic development?
TF: In the early 70s I migrated to Memphis from Arkansas to be a filmmaker. Along with my exposure to visual artists like sculptor, John McIntire, cineaste Carl Orr, photographer William Eggleston, was exposure to the blues artists Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Houston Stackhouse, Van Zula Hunt, Mose Vinson, and rockabilly artists such as Charlie Feathers. Also, there was the deepening influence of rockers Jim Dickinson, Lee Baker, Cordell Jackson plus jazzmen Phineas Newborn, Jr, Hank Crawford, a list of others too numerous to mention. To put it simply, music hung in the air in Memphis like low-hanging magnolia blossoms. You could just reach out and touch it… which is what I tried to do with my camera. Pretty soon there was no separation between what was in front of the camera, and what was going on behind it.
PH: William Eggleston once said that he only needed to take one photograph to capture an image. Is this fundamental faith in spontaneity and intuition part of your musical process?
TF: This notion and method, I understand very well and totally ascribe to, yet I still have a dubious habit of second guessing my initial take. Bill Eggleston taught me photography, and I worked as his assistant for two years. I processed hundreds of pictures of his, and I only rarely saw more than one frame of the same subject. Astonishingly, every frame that came out of his camera was a keeper.
PH: You have worked with some of the most significant artists to come out of Memphis (Alex Chilton, Jim Dickinson, Cordell Jackson, Charlie Feathers etc.) If you were to locate your work with Panther Burns within Memphis’ musical history, where would it fall?
TF: From 1979 when I founded my one and only band Panther Burns until today, I play the music of Memphis. No matter where I may be geographically, I can be no other than what I am: the Beale St. Blues Bopper. Although Panther Burns have grown to embrace other genres, whatever we do, whether tango, samba, ballad, hully gully, is interpreted as a R/R combo from Memphis. I spoke with the late Jim Dickinson a while back, and he said, “Tav what you do is pure Memphis. What you do is understood here, but to the rest of the world, it is mysterious.” Sure we reinvent ourselves, but our identity remains true to our vision of Panther Music: that of a wild cat run into a cane break set afire by disgruntled farmers. There were Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, now there are the fierce eyes of the Panther Burns glowing in the swamps.
PH: My impression of the early Panther Burns performances was that the musicians contributed to the whole, yet maintained their individual identities. I remember Jim Duckworth playing wild chaotic feedback over an entire song reminiscent of early Velvet Underground mayhem. How did you determine who played in Panther Burns?
TF: The battle cry of panther Burns was, “Every man for himself!” People came into Panther Burns in different ways: those who clamored to be let in, and those who were lured in. But once you’re in, there is no getting out. Something like a revolving door, although for the past 9 years we have cultivated a rock steady line-up in the group.
PH: From your point of view, which Memphis artists have best rendered the complexity of the southern experience?
TF: All of the artists who have played the music of Memphis have together rendered the totality of the southern experience. To single out just a few is impossible, for it is a body of music that represents this experience rather than a single individual. Like in the body of blues music, each artist is connected and the totality of this relationship creates the multi-layered entity of the musical and lyrical experience of the south. Whether Bobby Blue Bland, or Charlie Feathers, or Grandma Dixie Davis, they each represent a layer of this experience that forms the complexity we know today.
PH: What is your opinion of digital recording methods? Somehow I can’t see a Panther Burns’ record being made with all of the edits and the cleaned up, auto-tuned performances. You don’t seem interested in this type of control.
TF: Artists work with what they can afford to work with. I prefer analog recording, but I have to work in digital when analog becomes such a specialty that the price becomes out of reach. In those cases, I adapt digital to my purposes. You can try to re-create the effect of analog with digital techniques, but it is only an approximation. For example, I am presently working on a film that we shot in 16mm B&W because I wanted to have a filmic look to this material. Digital cameras can re-create that look, but the result is not convincing. However, I will make a camera film to digital transfer in order to edit the material. This is a cost effective and sensible method considering the end product will inevitably be in a digital format.
PH: Tell me about your new book Mondo Memphis, how did you get involved with this project?
TF: This book came about through an interview with me by art critic, Erik Morse, in relation to an article that he was drafting on NOISE in various forms, including musical. It turned out to be such a fertile piece that Erik wanted to forge a collaboration on a larger work. He came up with interest from Creation Books that had started along side Creation Records in the UK. So we decided to join forces in writing a book with Memphis dead center. An advance was proffered and a contract signed with the publisher. Quickly the project developed into an undertaking of massive proportions. Three years later Vols I & II of MONDO MEMPHIS were completed: My Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendor, Enigma and Death and Erik Morse’s Memphis Underground: A Roman Noir.
PH: What is your opinion of the explosion of social media technology (Facebook, Twitter)? Does your interest in bringing people together in an artistic context (a physical “happening”) have any relationship to these digital equivalents?
TF: Social media technology is effective and has accelerated the exchange between artists and their associative constituency. We are working avidly within these networks to increase the volubility of our art-actions among all concerned and across all gradients.
PH: What can we expect next from Panther Burns?
TF: A highly experimental thrust. Our current record, CONJURATIONS: Séance For Deranged Lovers is a milestone and it is the masterpiece of the Panther Burns. The album is composed of all original songs, dealing with the themes we are know for: lost causes, brother against brother, unrequited love, and burning mansions. These motifs have been rendered in our most articulate prosody and tonalities. What comes next will be more abstractly experimental and out of genre.
Tav Falco, Vienna 2011