So alright, life happens. I did an interview with an inspiring artist who I've admired for years. Our conversation was insightful and I had a great time speaking with him… and then life happened. But good music is good music and the old industry mold is broken; you don't have some tiny window for your record to be successful, it's always new to someone who has just discovered it. There are countless young musicians discovering records like Bitches Brew or Electric Ladyland every day… and they are fresh exciting and new.
So with that being said, I give you a somewhat delayed interview with the brilliant and honest Marc Anthony Thompson about his latest and perhaps final album under the moniker Chocolate Genius, Inc., Swangsongs. With his recent guest appearance on "Dang Me" from Buddy Miller's Magestic Six Silver Strings, gaining some recognition better late then never; ladies and gentlemen, from my archives, I give you a conversation with Marc Anthony Thompson, songwriter and abstract impressionist marketeer.
J.Hayes: This isn't how I was going to lead but... I've spent the morning playing with my son and he's very into super heros, which had me thinking about my super heros growing up. He's only 4 and he hasn't really seen much in the way of "super hero" stuff, so I am not sure where his frame of reference comes from but it's kind of interesting to watch. Who were those super hero figures for you growing up? Are any of those still valid?
Marc Anthony Thompson: Well you know, man, I played saxophone at a pretty young age. and there was a guy who lived across the street from me named Michael Sessions, who still plays. He played with an orchestra out here called the Horace Tapscott Orchestra and the guy turned me on to a lot of music and it had kind of the reverse... instead of inspiring me they turned into something almost like superheroes. I remember the first time I heard Charlie Parker I was like, "Man!" It just seemed like something impossible, something I couldn't even fathom. Actually, Jimi Hendrix was the same way and I look back at picture and my older sister had all these posters of Hendrix around and he was like some kind of incredibly mythic creature... all these people seemed other worldly to me. It seemed like the music I played was something different than how I approached things.
JH: It was something unattainable.
MT: Absolutely. I mean Charlie Parker is one of the first reasons I started writing songs. because I practiced hours every day and I was getting some dexterity, sitting in here and there... but I realized I could practice for 24 hours everyday and there was no way I was going to achieve that. So I felt like, “why?” I might as well write for the saxophone if I can't play it.
JH: Yeah, I feel the same way, I started out playing bass and was doing sessions here and there... then I got to spend some time with Larry Graham and sitting there watching him, I thought... man, every time I go to shed I end up writing something... It's just a different discipline.
MT: Maaan, that's always been amazing to me... classical musicians who don't write. I think at a certain point, wouldn't you just say "what if I...", you know. I think more that a different discipline it's just a different character. I think to some extent, maybe to a fault, I want to learn an instrument just well enough to write for it.
JH: Yeah, I feel the same way.
MT: Like okay, know I understand this instrument, so I know where it's notes are and what's gonna sound good if I use it, instead of really mastering it. So, as a result I can play a lot of instruments poorly.
JH: Just enough to be dangerous as they say!
MT: (laughs) It gets you in trouble when somebody yells out blues in A.
JH: Well I think sometimes the lack of traditional understanding on an instrument kind of propels you to try things that you might not otherwise. Folks will say, "well you're not really supposed to do that"... and maybe so, but it sounds cool!
MT: After you reach a certain amount of virtuosity, all people try to do is "un-learn" things. I look at my friend Marc Ribot and I see him constantly challenging himself. He bought this guitar on the street for $25 dollars and I saw him struggling with it for 3 years and it almost corrupted his style. I've heard the guy from the White Stripes say the same thing... he likes a really challenging guitar. I think after a certain point you get back to just wanting to play like a child or someone whose naive on an instrument. You know.
JH: I switch up my tunings a lot for that same reason. I look to folks like Joni Mitchell or Chris Whitley for that. It's freedom in sound rather than technique.
MT: Man, he's another one, Chris Whitley. I just came back from Belgium from doing something with his daughter.
JH: Yeah, the Gent Jazz Fest. That was amazing, Trixie Whitley is really outstanding and that show was fantastic. I know the Bassist Mark Kelly from way back. He plays for Me'shell Ndegeocello now. I am looking forward to her music getting more attention.
On that whole idea of "alter ego"... when you first did the Black Music record, was it easier to write the kind of incredibly personal material that's on that record (not to mention subsequent records) by creating the "Chocolate Genius" persona? (you described the music as "therapy sessions")
MT: Well, I didn't really create a persona. What happened was I was in a band, a really great band, and the band split up. It was a band with a guy called Dougie Browne and a woman called Uka Hana. They were a married couple and their relationship was kinda splintering up and I didn't realize why there was all this friction in the band.
Dougie went on to play with Chris Whitley. Uka formed a project called Cheba Mata. So she got signed to Warner Brothers and Dougie went off with Chris and I was left in New York with the studio, so I just started this project I thought was fun... just a little side project called Chocolate Genius. It really had nothing to do with the songs that are on Black Music. I was writing songs all the time but the Chocolate Genius project wasn't what I thought, you know what I mean. Then I got signed to Richard Branson's label (V2) and that name had been just laying around I had been doing some gigs under that name but it wasn't like I thought, 12 years later I'd still be anchored to that project name.
So when I got signed the first thing the record company wanted to do was change the name. They gave me all this pressure. "It's a horrible name", "We're not going to be able to work with this name" and you know, I'm just really a hard head and because the record company told me they wanted me to change the name, I thought, No, we're not gonna change the name.
JH: Good man!
MT: So, I stuck to my guns with that. But as for a confessional angle of the songwriting... I just think at a certain point in my life, you said cathartic and you know it wasn't cathartic at all, it was just the opposite because you make a record and if you're really smart about it you think, I've got to make all the steps with promotion of the record. But I wasn't thinking at all in those ways, it's obvious by the arch of my career that I don't think in those terms (laughs).
So when we finished the record and it was time to go play those songs live... it was a drag, it was really a drag. First of all, those songs take a certain amount of emotional space and put you in a certain terrain and I didn't want to be there all the time. I was glad I made the record but I didn't want to necessarily be there all the time. I think I was trouble, the whole stage persona was not working out that well. I had these great bands but performances were always really irregular. A lot of alcohol, a lot of angry yelling at audiences, I was kinda troubled about the whole process. I like making records but I wasn't sure how I felt about promoting them or someone telling me how many people were on my guest lists.
I went to those songs because, I guess it's like the idea of lying... truth is always gonna be easier because you're gonna remember it.
JH: Right, best to keep your stories straight.
MT: Exactly, so if I ever picked up a guitar that was what was on my mind, those stories were there. So I went to it, I don't want to say fearlessly, I almost want to say lazily. I went there because I didn't have to pick anything out of my imagination. I just have to tell these stories about all this stuff that was going on. At a certain point in my life I realized, everybody has these stories, every tiny life is really unique. I start looking for writers that resonated with me across different cultures, and I though, wow this is the stuff that really makes the world smaller and beautiful. I can read Philip Roth and "Fort Noise Complaint" or I can pick up this Lawrence Tarrell book or this Urth Caricci guy. You know, I was reading a lot and it just made my stories seem as valid as any other stories. And it just so happens that that started the whole thing.
Originally when we made Black Music, I had only intended that record to be so autobiographical. When we made the second record, I was writing with my friend Abe Laborial [jr.] and I realized that once we found a theme it made things so much simpler. On the first record we kinda got a temp limit, you know?
JH: Like that like that Ray Charles ballad tempo.
MT: Yeah, we decided it was gonna be this dark ass, slow record that we wanted to make. Then for the second record we had a ton of songs. We rented a place in Hollywood and we decided to go there at 9 in the morning and no matter how things were going we would stop at 5. And we did that for about 3 weeks running and we came up with about 20 songs. It was just an incredible way to work, so days were a drag, like there was really loud band playing next to us so we'd have to take a lunch break. But it was cool to start at 9 in the morning and stop at 5. Anyways, we wrote all these songs but it wasn't ‘til were trying to pick songs for the record that we realized that like 4 or 5 of them had some reference to God or religion, even if it was to say "god damn it!" or something, we realized there was some little tie in. Fuck, it's God Music. The record's got to be God Music. But even inside of that I wasn't thinking that the record's got to be autobiographical but in the same way that Woody Allen struggles with his Jewishness or Martin Scorcsese, you see all his movies and really it's just about "being a catholic boy"... this unending theme. I went to catholic school for 9 years and I just couldn't really escape it. I didn't even realize until was talking to a friend of mine that wasn't catholic and I was trying to figure out something about why something had happened and he said "god, you're so catholic". And I realized, I do think this way. When something bad happens, I've got to look for the why someones' being punished. I'm always equating thing with the fear of hell. But then it became really easy. Just explore that.
JH: It's interesting because as a writing device, it really works because, as you say, even people who aren't catholic or didn't grow up around it, still have a clear frame of reference for what that's about. So if you're referencing these images they're really universal.
MT: Absolutely, absolutely. So I made the decision nothing so much that the songs would be biographical but that when I'd say "I", I'd mean "I".
I did some show with David Byrne and we were talking about it and he was saying his "I" is almost never him, like when he's singing "Psycho Killer" or whatever the fuck he's talking about. That he escapes with the word I. But for these records, I really decided to jump into the word I.
But if you're gonna play the game and keep your record company happy, then you've got to play the record. This, of course was back in the day when there was still money in the record industry. You know, they give you $100,000.00 to make a record, you can't really start slapping the hand, you know. So I stopped doing some of those songs for a while, put 'em away for a few years and one night I just pulled them out again and I really felt as opposed to being this yolk around my neck, it was this really empowering thing.
And I don't mean in a cathartic sense, I mean that all of the people in these stories, some of whom were gone, they were right there with me. I remembered the room I was talking about or I could see my mom... and it was cool. I didn't even care about the audience and whether it was resonant for them. I was in my own little church again and I thought "cool, I don't have to fear these emotions. I don't have to worry about bringing people down or feeling sad." The music for me is about a transformative experience. You hope you can do something to disappear inside of it. Some of the best shows I've seen were people who were totally unaware of the audience. Whether it's Al Green or Bob Marley. You reach for those moments but you can't really predict them.
You can maybe try with drugs or the right amount of alcohol to help them along but the bottom line is you really just have to be open and going for it.
JH: Part of the indie thing, and I chant it like a mantra, is this premise that "if you dig it, someone else will too".
MT: I wish that was true.
JH: No I think it is! You've just got to find them. Man, I've seen some of the weirdest stuff, like Goth-Metal- Polka with an MC on it or something and if you find them... your audience might be in Australia or Mongolia or whatever, but it's just a matter of connecting with them. So it's not necessarily easy but it's interesting from a creative process to not worry about "market" or "genre" or any of that.
And that seems to be a big part of what you reached with these records; making the music you wanted to at a given moment and hoping it would find the right folks.
MT:Yeah, it's funny, I have this quote from a long time ago... "we're just lookin' for a tribe"... like these elders are just out there walking around trying to find their tribe. When I think about it, it's exactly like you're saying; Britney Spears has her tribe, Cat Power has her tribe... Lady Gaga has a really BIG tribe right now. But you know, there are a lot of people out there who may be a part of 2 or 3 different tribes, it's not like some exclusive thing but there is a reason it's always seemed extremely elusive.
Especially with this record, and I have to be very judicious with how I speak about this record because of all the records it's probably the fuckin' darkest of all of them and it's really the finale to a lot of these stories, I mean people are dying. And I read some of this press and I go, Oh my god, who would want to hear this record, like: here's a song written on the day of his fathers death... I mean.. (moans).
JH: I've been really moved by all the Chocolate Genius/ Chocolate Genius, Inc.; Black Yankee Rock has rarely left my CD player since I got it. But Swansongs brings me right back to that first record... the feeling, the emotions, it really works as a bookend. And maybe I'm being a tad tangential about it but to me the whole thing is really a suite and it's returning to the themes of the first record, lyrically, sonically but with all the insight, information and growth gained from the records that fell between.
MT: That's absolutely what it is. The funny thing is, had I planned this out intentionally, I'd think I was fucking genius! You know, what I mean, Jesse?
[He talks in depth about Lawrence Tarrell and "The Alexandria Quartet", with each book written and named for a different character and the influence that had on this process for him.]
MT: It spans this lengthy time when there were still colonialists in Alexandria, rich, rich people but it's got this pace... immersive. I was enamored of the idea and kept working of the idea of trilogy. Originally all the records were going to end with the word "music". The deal with V2 came to an end [after God Music] and I was just shy about making another record. I felt like I burned some bridges, I mean we spent a ton of money on those records. We aborted the second record after we spent a bunch of money. I went back and fired the producer and we made God Music in a cabin in Woodstock cause we blew all the money. Abe and I played pretty much everything. It just felt like that's how records should be made.
After that I was doing other shit to make money, I was doing theatre and I was scoring stuff. Then Craig Street, who has like forced me to make at least 2 records, he just called and he was up at Allaire, this great studio and he had these 2 projects back to back and in between the 2 projects there was a 5 day window and he just said, "wanna make a record". And I was like "Yup!"... so we just kept the musicians around and I flew in a couple other people and that was the record right there, Black Yankee Rock. So it was really the least thought out in terms of the arc of Chocolate Genius. But I'd just play songs for everybody in the morning and we'd just cut.
JH: It's a beauty of collaboration on that record, you can really hear what each of the players contributed. I think that record actually worked perfectly in the context of the greater suite because it's the record about life and living, which is basically what you were doing at the time.
MT: That's the beauty of working with Craig Street and when I'm in the studio, if there's something I have to play more than once, I think I probably made the wrong phone call. The other thing that's cool about it is, I took about 40 songs up there, so they got to choose. Every song that's on there is because somebody had some kind of affinity for it. Then we just worked ‘em out. I tried to play the songs maybe once so people would see what I was going for. Some times we'd play something for 3 hrs and it just wouldn't work so we'd scrap it or times, like at the "Beginning Of Always", you can hear we're barely at our instruments. It's like "okay, let's go, let's go". We wrestled with some songs. I think we did "Same Time Tomorrow" 3 different ways before we finally settled on it being stripped down like that.
But this new record is really the quickest one we've ever done. Just real musicians in a room.
JH: Well, you had a great band!
MT: Yeah, I had a great band. But it was the first time I ever recorded with that drummer. I've played with him live out here. David Piltch, I've known forever. He's just so solid.
JH: And you're on his record, which is really beautiful, you, KD Lang and Joe Henry.
MT: Yeah, I haven't heard the whole record. We sent files back and forth for a while and I met him through Joe Henry actually.
But from the first record to this record, I think I'm singing better. In terms of songwriting, this record is stripped down, you know 1, 4, 5 in terms of Blues changes. And also, there's some of the residue of touring with Springsteen these past few years.
I didn't really know his stuff and this tour certainly wasn't all of his own material but learning these 3 chord songs and watching him rock out in front of 60,000 people. Sitting there night after night, you sit and go "huh..."
JH: Yeah, there's a reason.
MT: Maybe it is 3 chords and the truth, I don't need to be sure that all my musical people are gonna go... “Oh!”
JH: I think that can be a bit of a New York thing.
MT: Yeah, Absolutely.
JH: But I always talk about John Lee Hooker and how it can be 1 chord and maybe 3 words and it just feels good. There's something emotive about it.
MT: Man, Marc Ribot, and I hate to keep going back to my friends but I've worked with some really great musicians over the years, and there have been times of bringing in a song and kind of apologizing for it.
And I was showing Marc, I forget what it was, it might have been "Safe and Sound", and I said Marc, it doesn't have any changes man (apologetically) it's just this groove. And he said, "Oh man, changes are for people who can't write music."
JH: I love it man! The music business has changed so much since you've been in it. A friend of mine compared the movements going on right now to a return to that sort of field recording era, people recording out of their own homes, artist's are trying to figure how to reach their audience, how to make money, etc.; only there is no longer that big machine. Do you prefer the freedom despite its hurdles?
MT: Well, you know, like I said Jesse; my marketing acumen is er.... well just follow what I've done to realize that my decisions are not based on any kind of awareness of what's going on out there.
It's kind of a catch 22, because now that home recording has become so prevalent, you can get studios for REALLY cheap. As far as how things work for me it hasn't changed that much, I've always worked a lot at home and some of this last recorded was recorded on my lap top in hotel rooms. But I started this out on a 4-track but the arc of getting the music made, that paradigm hasn't changed that much for me.
But the part that's kinda scary is, there's sooo much stuff out there right now. You can have this blind belief that the cream's gonna rise to the top. I think I said something to Me'shell the other day. I said, "we're gonna just do it cause it's good music" and she just kinda laughed. As if just being good was enough to warrant some kind of attention. She was like "Boy, you are naive"
So I still feel like on a certain level, the fact that there is so much out there is so exciting. There's room for almost anything. Had I released a song like "Lump" ten years ago it would have been blasphemy but now Cee Lo's new single is called "Fuck You"!
So things are wide open and that's really exciting. I mean, it used to be "chocolate genius, edgy BLACK artist", "black, black, black, he's black!". Now who give a fuck? So on those levels it's exciting. But at the same time there are so many trees falling in the forest, it's deafening. I mean how do we find that tribe when there are so many other people trying to feed them.
It's funny too because this record that just came out on this label in the US, the office closed the week after the record came out! So I'm signed to this label now in the UK with people I've never met and I don't know if they have any kind of affinity, I don't know if they even like the record.
So here I am once again, I mean, even when I was on Warner Brothers, I felt like I was on my own, cause nobody has any idea what to do with this stuff I make.
JH: I read an interview you did in Scene magazine and you talked a little about Marian Anderson and Elenor Roosevelt and it got me thinking. Would that happen now? Does the government, policatal figures, first ladies, whatever, pay attention to artists or musicians?
As we talk about looking for ways to reach the people, in that era of Patronship, it was a different thing. You'd have wealthy people, who would say, I just want good music to get heard and I want to help artists develop and mature. Now, I'm not sure those same circles pay any attention to the arts, outside of novelty.
MT:Well I certainly don't think so in America. It's always funny, I've always had this... I won't say I'm a Francophile but if you think about James Baldwin and him moving to Paris or Jimi Hendrix and him being discovered in the UK or countless other Jazz musicians. I always thought that was some kind of scenario that might fit this music... but life has a way of getting in your way, you're tethered to family and bills and you can't just pick up and say, "I'm goin' to Europe!" For this record I made a conscious record to get a French record label and I have a French manager and we have a completely separate deal in France.
I mean being over there recently, and I don't even think they're that progressive but man, if you work 45 dates a year, just 45 dates a year over there, you get unemployment.
That's all you have to do, 45 live dates a year. I mean that's a little controversial because, do you really want the government subsidizing these live venues and concerts and such?
JH: I'd go for it here.
MT: And it was great! These things that would never happen here. a street festival that the city had paid for. All these great little things. And maybe it's a token opiate to keep the masses happy for a while, but at the same time, it seems in Europe they have this commitment to that ancient mentality that, yes arts are good for us.
So, I don't see that here. What's Obama doing, taking a couple of photo ops with The Roots or something?
JH: That's the thing, every once and a while people will "slip through the cracks and you'll see" some relatively obscure artists performing at the White House but often that's more a case of the artists or manager just really hustling.
MT: Exactly. But you'd think the administration has to be getting younger. There has to be someone lurking around there with some kind of taste.
JH: Yeah, but I think it's cultural, you know. It's a culture that surpasses race or gender that relegates things that aren't in the mainstream. Because if it's not in the mainstream, it's not going to help you politically.
JH: If people don't say, Oh! I love them so thus I love you. Then it doesn't matter.
MT: There was a really great thing on NPR yesterday about how politicians are never really leaders, they're always gonna just follow whatever trends are. And now there are so many more gay people in the spot light, you know culturally things can change like that. Like It's mainstream now, folks can watch Will & Grace and think "these are funny guys".
JH: Yeah and they're not "too scary" now.
MT: (laughs) Exactly. So I admit, we took televisions out of our house 15, 16 years ago... but now with my kids they go on the internet and watch these shows the day after. But one time with my son, we were watching one of these shows, I think it was America's Got Talent… and I must admit, I felt like all of a sudden I had joined the water cooler generation and I could get on the bus and talk to my neighbor about "hey did you see that show last night". I could walk by people magazine and know who these people are.
It felt good, man! I mean, I don't really watch sports until it's the play offs. And it was the Lakers here in LA and there was this hysteria and I could go to a bar! And it's so unnatural but kinda cool to me to be in that situation, sharing that thing man. Not sure how that reflects on music or culture or any of that.
JH: Well I think it goes back to that sort of tribe thing. Our need or want to find something to associate with.
JH: So maybe it's a sort of sideways transition but this conversation reminds me of this story I heard about Solomon Burke performing at a KKK rally...
So it's strange that at one time something like the KKK, for the sake of music, was willing to have Solomon Burke perform at their rally. But I guess it's radio culture verses video culture.
MT: Mm, hm.
JH: And now that everything is so visual, these differences are more evident than ever. Even though we say things like "gay culture has become more accepted in the mainstream" or we have a black president in the US but we're so visually polarized that it affects and effects the music. People won't listen to an artist if they don't like the way they dress. We create these other associations that have nothing to do with the music....
I've been really intrigued by the way you've used the "new media" in your promotional efforts.
The chocolategenius youtube channel for one, which I assume you do yourself. Most artist's have just a straightforward music video but you have all these little art pieces like the Topanga thing with Satie's music and the Voice over Demo with the "ambivilon" gag. But I feel like it's all those things that create the complete picture of you as an artist. Like if you dig those pieces, you'll probably dig the music.
MT:We'll you and I are probably really similar. In high school I started doing a lot of graphic arts and music was just a way to design the packaging and at times it's been the most exciting part because by the time you've finished the mixing and editing, you're so sick of the record anyway. Then you get to design the cover!
But it's like you were saying, I like to make shit and just sit back and say, "isn't this cool?"
I just made this thing, I don't know what it is but isn't it cool. And I just love MAC... so I just sit around and make stuff all the time. Final Cut Pro has been my hobby for the last 3 or 4 years so I made all these movies and when the record came out I thought, why don't I just jam every possible thing for people to check out?
It's been really funny ‘cause in Paris I got to do this photo session and they hired this guy for $1500 and we're walking around and I said of all the things you could point your lens at, why me? We could make all this cool stuff, we could take pictures of whatever.
It's all just part and parcel. I hope you're right and I hope these things I make can clue people into the bigger outlook and it's not just more ambivalent confusion.
It just seemed to me that the cool stuff I see right now is more edgy. I've been watching a lot of Swedish films and there's a lot of cool stuff coming out of Korea now too. I think people are more used to being challenged. They're used to looking at things that used to be farther on the fringe. I think the fringes are coming in, is what I mean to say.
It's catch 22 again because, if there is an outlet for something you want the widest number of people to see it.
At the same time, there was no plan with this record. I thought I was really gonna see what it's like to do something myself. I thought I was gonna release it myself, package it myself and then along the way, one of the first people I played it for said, I'd like to release this record. So serendipity stepped in again, I didn't have to shop it or anything. Even though I thought “alright, my work’s done...” I realized: bullshit, no one’s gonna do anything to promote this if I'm not. With all these tools, all these films, I still have to bring people to it. That's the bit that's a little daunting.
Chocolate Genius, Inc. album Swansongs in available now, also check out Black Music, God Music (if you can find it) and Black Yankee Rock. It's an enchanting, disturbing bit of voyeuristic catharsis… but it's damn good music.
Live Well and Listen Closely,
read more articles by music writer J. Hayes here and at: http://www.examiner.com/x-4161-New-American-Music-Examiner
and become a fan on facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/pages/J-Hayes-music-writer/161850300225
art direction & design by www.hayesdesignstudios.com
Special Thanks to Mr. Marc Anthony Thompson, my editor; Elisabeth Horan and Ashley Ayers with Tell Your Friends PR