INTERVIEW: King Missle
King Missle's lyricist, vocalist, and only permanent member discusses his seminal rock band King Missle
By: John Ferrer
John S. Hall is the lyricist, vocalist, and only permanent member of the seminal rock band King Missile. For over fifteen years, the band has been a mainstay of alternative and underground music, primarily due to Hall's off-kilter subject matter and absurdist, vulgar lyrics which are usually delivered in a speaking voice reminiscent of New York beat poets. In the 90's King Missile reached their peak of popularity by signing to Atlantic Records and pumping out hit songs like "Martin Scorsese," and especially "Detachable Penis," which to this day remains a favorite of college radio and MP3 trading. On last year's Psychopathology of Everyday Life and his just-released Royal Lunch, Hall has settled back into a smaller label and cult familiarity, while simultaneously running a successful law firm (Heraty and Hall) for clients in the entertainment industry. We e-mailed John to talk about politics, profanity, and the legacy of King Missile. Royal Lunch is available now from Important Records.
JF: You've admitted that the huge success of "Detachable Penis" may have put you at a critical disadvantage. Do you still feel like that's a problem?
JSH: I don't remember saying that. It's not so much a critical disadvantage - it's more like instead of being a person or a member of a band with a body of work, you become the "person who did Detachable." Still, it is good to be known for something that is representative of what you actually do. I've seen what can happen to bands who become known for songs that are completely anomalous, compared to the rest of their music, and that is a far more difficult position to be in. The problem with the idea of singles in general is that it creates the impression that "this is the only good song on the CD." It makes the one song the one thing. It devalues the rest of the work, so you hear people say things like "Why should I buy the whole CD when there's only one good song on it?" That's a problem any band with a hit has. But as I've pointed out, it is almost always better to have a hit than not. I saw that band Survivor on TV yesterday, reviving their "Eye of the Tiger" song for a Starbucks commercial. On the one hand, maybe it's sad that people don't think of this band that had this big song a number of years ago. But on the other hand, maybe it's nice that so many years later, they can get together and do this silly commercial. Although it was kind of sad, I also thought "That would be fun, to get a chance to make a commercial like that."
JF: How are things different for the band now that you're on a smaller, more supportive record label, and less in the public eye?
JSH: Being on a smaller, more supportive label is better than being on a smaller, less supportive label. But my experience with the major wasn't terrible. They did the best they could, considering they had no idea what to do with us, and we couldn't really suggest anything. And at the height of the Happy Hour days, we were in Rolling Stone, and Spin, and getting played on big radio stations, and we sold a bunch of CDs. I get the feeling that Important is doing everything they can, but some people at Atlantic did everything they could, too--particularly the publicity department. They worked very diligently to create opportunities for us and they did a fantastic job. So in terms of support, I can tell when it's there and when it's not, and it's not like it's always "big label bad, small label good." But right now it's "small label good." And that's good.
As for being in the public eye, I've always lived in NY and I've never felt like I was in the public eye. "Detachable" didn't even get airplay here until several years after Atlantic dropped us. And considering the Def Poetry appearance, and getting played on Howard Stern's show, and being on Air America, and posing for a Richard Avedon photo - I'm arguably more famous now than I ever was. But in NY, you can walk down the street and feel like you're just one of millions, and not particularly famous. There's probably someone around the corner on a soap opera, or in movies or recording a big budget CD, or whatever. So I've never really felt famous.
JF: You made some really funny and interesting music videos in the 90s with director Richard Kern. How did those come about? Do you think you'll do another video for "America Kicks Ass" since Important Records seems to be pushing it as a single?
JSH: I don't think so. If we were going to do a video, the time would have been over the summer, so that we could coordinate it with the release and the single push. My hope is that the song will become outdated after November 2, and we were start working on a video for it now, we probably wouldn't get it finished until then. Besides, there's already a good version of it on Def Poetry, which is available on HBO On Demand until October 2.
But it would be great to do a video for one of the other songs. We'd probably have to do it ourselves, or wait for some young aspiring filmmaker to approach us and offer to do it for free.
JF: Royal Lunch is frequently being referred to as a political protest album, but you come across as almost apolitical. "Another Political Poem," for example, isn't just pessimistic towards Bush, but towards all politicians, and towards the future of America in general. Your feelings on Bush are obvious, but do you also think some liberals may be too idealistic towards Kerry?
JSH: I don't think the left is idealistic about Kerry. I think they're very pessimistic (and rightfully so) about a second Bush term. Some of the left, the "Nader left," if you will, honestly believes there is so small a difference between these too, that there is no real choice. I've never believed that. What I like to say is "If you think, on a scale of 0 to 10, Bush is 1 and Kerry is a 1.7, that's still a huge difference, and it's still necessary and important to vote for Kerry." But I actually think Kerry could be the best president we've had in my lifetime, which stretches back to the Eisenhower administration. That's not exactly idealism. I was idealistic about Clinton, but he let me down with the "don't ask, don't tell" and the health care debacle and the welfare reform and the "era of big government is over" crap. I was idealistic about Carter too, and devastated by the Reagan revolution. But being demoralized or cynical is not a luxury we can afford right now. Shortly after I wrote "Another Political Poem," in early 2003, I began working to defeat this president, first on the Howard Dean campaign, and later for Kerry. And when I said "worse ones come to take their place," I meant worse Republicans. It may be true that Democrats have gotten worse as well, but Republicans are far more into destroying the fabric and the infrastructure of this country than Democrats are. Our only hope, I think, is for Democrats to get better, and I don't know if the way to do that is by challenging them with strong left wing third party candidates, or to promote reform from within, like Dean is doing now with his "Democracy for America" organization. But I haven't given up on this country. I don't even think I'll give up if this piece of shit president gets reelected. I have a lot more acceptance these days, and willingness to work for change wherever it's needed. Pessimism is just an excuse not to do anything, and I'm sick of feeling that way. We've got a lot of work to do, cleaning up this mess that Bush is making.
JF: Your two most recent albums have been patently profane and offensive, even compared to your earlier work. Do you think it's become more important to push the envelope?
JSH: It's not that intentional--I was a lot angrier when I made those albums, so I cursed more. But I've always enjoyed profanity. When I was a kid, I listened to a lot of Richard Pryor and early George Carlin (before he became a Republican), and I love South Park (even though those guys are Republicans). (By the way, my definition of Republican is "a person who would vote for a Republican.") So profanity is something I've always enjoyed. But I don't think my work is offensive. There is an audience for what I do, and they enjoy it. They aren't offended by it. People who would be offended by it shouldn't listen to it, and I hope they don't. Unless they like to be offended for some reason. I mean, I didn't watch any of the Republican National Convention on television because I knew I would be offended. I don't like being offended. And I don't really want to offend anyone--I just want people who enjoy my brand of profanity to have a good time. And they seem to.
JF: I remember hearing Failure for the first time and being blown away by how skilled and impressive the music was, and reading the liners and wondering who the hell this genius Bradford Reed was. How did you meet up with him, and what made you decide to pick someone more compositionally inclined as opposed to the sort of anarchic rock music you'd been doing up to that point?
JSH: Well first, I don't think the rock band version of King Missile was anarchic. Dave Rick was into noise experimentation, but there was a lot of method behind his madness, and I think he was one of the best guitaristsof the early 90s--certainly one of the most underrated. Chris Xefos and Roger Murdock were both phenomenal musicians as well. And before that, I worked with Dogbowl, who writes some of the most beautiful melodies I've ever heard, and Charles Curtis, who is probably one of the 10 best cellists in the world.
I met Bradford through Jane Scarpantoni--another great cellist, who worked on "The Body Has A Head," "Failure" and "Royal Lunch." I went to see Jane play with the Lounge Lizards and after the show she introduced me to Bradford, and we hit it off immediately. Bradford can be compositionally inclined, but he's also song oriented. He can do film soundtracks and King Missile III stuff and really, what ever is called for. Check out his website: http://www.pencilina.com! Ask for him by name! You'll be glad you did.
Sasha Forte has also been an invaluable part of King Missile III. I've worked with her for over ten years now, and she's always bringing fantastic ideas to KM. She came up with the "America Kicks Ass" music, and not only is it perfect, but that music has helped inform the way I perform that piece. So what I'm saying is that if I was able to nail that performance on Def Poetry, it's in no small part due to Sasha's soundtrack that was running in my head while I was on that stage.
JF: King Missile has had three completely different bands now. Do you think you'll ever collaborate with any of them again, .i.e. Dogbowl?
JSH: Dogbowl and I have worked together when our schedules permit, and we have discussed the possibility of having him record with us again. It just hasn't happened yet. I also have, for years, thought it would be great for KM to do a CD of just Dogbowl songs. In addition to the Dogbowl songs that I've already recorded ("Hemophiliac of Love", "Margaret's Eyes" and "World War III is a Giant Ice Cream Cone"), Dogbowl has written some of my very favorite songs: "Anastasia", "The Factory", and much of his CD Flan.
JF: You've sort of started this second career of offering legal services to musicians and other artists, which is probably interesting enough to merit its own interview. Briefly, what's it like being a rock star lawyer?
JSH: The advantage lies not in my having been a "star" but in having had experience with the kind of issues and people and organizations that many of my clients have had to or will have to deal with: lawyers, accountants, managers, label people, publicists, radio and TV people, and of course, contract negotiation. I like the work, I usually know what I'm doing and when I don't I know who to ask, and I like my clients. It's enjoyable and rewarding work.
JF: You and Lach were basically at the forefront of the anti-folk music, which has just recently had another big explosion. There's basically this huge underground network of people like Kimya Dawson and Adam Green and Jeffrey Lewis who are pumping out all this new anti-folk music. I was wondering if you listen to any of that stuff since you influenced it so much?
JSH: KM did a show with Kimya last year. I have done a number of performances at the Fort (the hub of NY Anti Folk), and I am a fan of a number of people who play or have played there, most notably Schwervon!, Randi Russo and Langhorne Slim (he's also a client). There are a lot of great people out there, though. Those are just the first three I could think of.
JF: What else are you listening to these days?
JSH: I love Ursa Minor. Hmm, that's all I can think of right now. I've also been listening to this meditation CD, from wildmind.org. If I had this CD a few years ago, I would have never recorded "Meditation is Boring."
JF: Do you still have plans to put more books out?
JSH: Yes! Thanks for reminding me! I've got to email that publisher back who expressed some interest. Of course, if there are any publishers or agents reading this, I'm always up for a bidding war.
JF: You seem to be making records a lot faster these days, do you already have plans for a new one?
JSH: Not right now. Probably start working on another one next year. JF: Will you be touring for the record?
JSH: I don't think so. We were told after Psychopathology that demand has really diminished for us. I think Royal Lunch is a much better CD, and it's already getting more attention than Psychopathology, and maybe even more than Failure. So maybe the interest will be so high that we'll feel we have to tour. We'll see.
JF: Finally, I have to know, what's the story behind "Get Down With the Funky Shit?"
JSH: I don't remember. I think that piece of funky shit is probably about four years old, and I have no idea why I wrote it, or what I was thinking.