By JOHN DALY
Tav Falco has been an enigmatic presence on the fringes of rock ‘n’ roll for decades. Four decades, in fact, as this year sees his fabled band Tav Falco’s Panther Burns celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Born in Philadelphia and raised in rural Arkansas, Falco originally relocated to Memphis in 1973 with the intention of becoming a photographer and filmmaker. He quickly fulfilled those goals. He started the nonprofit Televista “art action” video group with Randall Lyon to document local musicians. He was also mentored by famed Memphis color photographer William Eggleston.
In 1978, Alex Chilton offered to start a band with Falco. Chilton, the legendary singer for both The Box Tops (“The Letter,” a Billboard #1 in 1967) and Big Star, would tour with Panther Burns until 1984. After his exit, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns continued to record and tour at a brisk pace, as though a hellhound (or flaming panther) was on their tails.
To date, either as a solo artist or alongside Panther Burns, Falco has released 18 albums and numerous EPs and singles for labels including Rough Trade, New Rose, In the Red, and Sympathy for the Record Industry, among others. His music, which the artist has described as “avant hillbilly,” is a blend of blues, obscure country, cabaret, film soundtracks, art damage, and traditional rock ‘n’ roll.
Since the late 1990s, Falco has lived in Europe. His current album, Cabaret of Daggers, was recorded last year in Rome and released by California label ORG Music. Two of the musicians who appear on the album — producer-guitarist Mario Monterosso and bassist Giuseppe Sangirardi— will appear alongside Falco at The Peppermint Club in West Hollywood on May 10. Additionally, Tav Falco’s Panther Burns play Thee Parkside in San Francisco on May 9 and the Whistle Stop Bar in San Diego on May 12.
California Rocker had the chance to have Falco answer a few questions before his arrival.
CR: Panther Burns’ first area show famously occurred on Halloween night, 1981, at the abandoned horse racing track Devonshire Downs in Northridge. You appeared as special guests of The Cramps on a bill that also included horror host Vampira (Maila Nurmi). What do you remember about that night, and in particular, what was your impression of The Cramps’ much-missed frontman Lux Interior?
TF: It was an open air event and Vampira had her coffin set up center stage. In between our set and The Cramps coming on, Vampira emerged from the coffin with great ceremony. After the show, Lux warned me to be careful leaving Devonshire Downs as he said people knew musicians had just been paid, and that we might be jumped for what we had in our pockets.
When I speak of Lux Interior, it must be in the same breath as Ivy Rorschach for they were an inseparable couple. Both were heavy record collectors, and they were the embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll style in everything they touched and created. Their commitment was intense —fanatical, in fact. They were sexy, glamorous, wicked, and uncompromising. Above all, consideration of their audience came first. It was all about the show, all the time, in every way. Lux and Ivy drove us around LA in their 1964 Mercury Meteor with its slant 6-cylinder engine. The car looked like a satellite with fins. We visited their favorite drive-ins, hot dog stands, Mexican joints, and sex shops. They were a sharp, high-style couple who moved across the Los Angeles landscape like steppin’ razors.
CR: You also played together on occasion with another legendary LA son, Jeffrey Lee Pierce of The Gun Club.
TF: Gun Club and Panther Burns played together at a number of shows — large and small — on the west coast. Jeffrey Lee came to visit Alex Chilton and I when we were living together in a funky backhouse in uptown New Orleans. Later, JLP and I hung out in the East Village in lower Manhattan. You might say that we were homeless for a while and roamed the city’s back streets with foam mattresses strapped to our backs. Quite literally. Ahhh, I fondly remember those 4:00 AM bowls of barley soup we shared at the Kiev deli on 2nd Ave. In the 1990s Jeffrey and I hung out some in Paris when we were both signed to New Rose Records. He was going through a lonely period in his career, as many of us were. There is little comfort in that… when romance seems to slip away and dust settles on everyday reality, yet it mattered knowing you were not the only one. JLP and I were not so distant fratelli.
CR: Have you had a favorite L.A. venue, which you played in the past but which has now vanished to the sands of time?
TF: Brendan Mullen had a groovy thing going at Club Lingerie on Sunset. He had an innate understanding of Panther Burns as the uncanny band we are, and booked us more than once. Although he may not have known what to expect every time we hit the stage, he knew what he was getting. Like the time our Memphis drummer, Ross Johnson, rode his bass drum out into the audience like Slim Pickens riding that nuclear warhead through the ozone in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove.
CR: Tell us about your new album Cabaret of Daggers and what fans can expect from your show at The Peppermint Club.
TF: We recorded this album of blues, tango, jazz, balladry, and rock ‘n’ roll in Rome. Its themes are unrequited love, betrayal, brother-against-brother, hoodlums in government, the smoke of burning mansions, and liberation — culturally, politically, spiritually, and sexually. What distinguishes the new album are the challenging nature of the material and the refinement of execution. I can play a blues like falling off a log, but to do justice to a Chet Baker ballad (“Born to Be Blue”) is another matter. There are songs on this album which I had always admired, but never previously felt competent to undertake. What brought this record to its maturation is the effort and unmistakable touch of its producer, Mario Monterosso. He will be on stage playing lead guitar at The Peppermint Club.
CR: This is your 40th anniversary tour. What is one of the biggest changes you’ve seen happen to the recording industry in that time?
TF: In the case of formats, I find it amusing that record execs so staunchly believed that CDs would completely eradicate vinyl. Music fans are now enjoying the last laugh as vinyl has surged back, often in technically more advanced pressings than ever before.
CR: What’s next for Tav Falco and Panther Burns?
TF: My team and I recently completed filming the second and third installments of a film trilogy I’ve been working on for the past five years. It is called The Urania Trilogy and the films were shot on 16mm on location in Vienna, Austria and Venice, Italy. The first installment, Urania Descending, had its Los Angeles premiere at the American Cinematheque on Hollywood Boulevard in 2017. What I do on stage, on film, and in print are all parts of one song that I sing. It emanates strangely from within. No matter what I do, that song invariably finds me.
CR: Do you have a favorite California record?
TF: In terms of albums, I must say that hovering around the very pinnacle is Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow.
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