A conversation with Memphis maestro Tav Falco
Tav Falco never stands still. A restless, creative soul, he moved to Memphis from rural Arkansas in the late 1960s, intent on becoming an artist.
He began his career as a filmmaker and photographer but, at the urging of his friend Alex Chilton, he picked up a guitar and started Panther Burns. The band had an over-the-top, indefinable style some called Psychobilly, a term Falco finds abhorrent. “When it comes to my music, that odious term is not applicable,” he states strongly. “That term has come to denote a quasi-genre, but my work is far outside of that narrow purview. No adherents of that genre come to our shows, and they’re right not to, because there’d be little to interest them.”
Panther Burns played rockabilly, yes, but also blues, tango, pop, free jazz, noisy post-punk before the genre existed and, of course, rock’n’roll. Almost 40 years and 20 records later, Falco and Panther Burns are still going strong, with each new release demolishing musical and artistic boundaries. Falco moved to Vienna in the early 1990s, and still resides there, although his current incarnation of the band is composed of Italian musicians – Francesco D’Agnolo, keyboards; Giuseppe Sangirardi, bass; Riccardo Colasante, drums and guitarist, producer and arranger Mario Monterosso. The band’s latest album, Cabaret of Daggers, will be released on LP on Record Store day, Black Friday, November 23. Falco answered a few questions about his career from his home in Vienna.
You started your artistic career as a filmmaker and photographer. What led you to pick up the guitar?
I got hold of a second-hand $5 Sears Silverstone guitar when I was a teenager, but I soon traded it for an open reel Webcor field tape recorder. Later in Memphis — during the time I was video recording artists, politicians and musicians with the TeleVista art-action group — I began to sense that there was no separation between the view from behind the camera and in front of the camera. I picked up another $5 Silvertone guitar from a neighbor and began playing in the same rudimentary, hill country blues style of R.L. Burnside.
Why did you choose Cabaret of Daggers as the album title?
A cabaret is a theatre, informal and intimate. It has a semi-rounded stage with a curtain and a spotlight casting a white glow on performers emerging from the relief of darkness. Songs are sung and dances are danced before a discreet orchestra, for an audience that comes for the lively arts of the corner crooners, or for high-stepping showgirls, or for the torch song tributes to loves won and lost. They come to the cabaret for amusement — arcane yet familiar, titillating yet cozy, thoughtful yet diverting, dazzling yet charming.
And daggers? Let me put it this way. Juan Carlos Copes and Maria Nieves were a celebrated tango couple in Buenos Aires, where I once lived. Late in her career, Maria Nieves was asked what she thought about the younger tango dancers. She commented that there were many couples dancing new intricate figures, but where, she asked, were the daggers in their tango? These are the daggers — lost & found — that I bring to the cabaret. It’s the kind of dagger that hangs in a sheath, from a silver chain, around the waist of Hamlet.
You include a couple political songs on this album. Can you say a few words about “New World Order Blues”?
I see unrest and division as I have not seen in America since the 1960s. I am a product of that turbulent era. When I see bigotry, racism, betrayal, and oppression flaunted by our oligarchic, white nationalist leadership, I must speak out. To remain silent and play the facile card of entertainment and diversion is to be complicit. I, alongside my humane, intelligent, critical-thinking brethren, will speak out and we will take action! Everywhere I look there is the murderous glint of man’s inhumanity to man. Sure we get down and pray, we rub one another’s hump, we praise the gods, we praise the politicians, we pin medals on soldiers. But at the same time we cut off our own arms and legs and those of our children. The New World Order will drag us down into the toilet, if we let the oligarchic elite get away with it. Like Jim Morrison said, “They’ve got the guns, but we got the numbers.”
The album is being released on vinyl and download, but not on CD. Do you still listen to records? What does vinyl have that digital recordings lack?
Like quite a few musicians I know, most of my stuff resides in storage units, one here (in Vienna) and one in Arkansas. That is where my turntable is stashed. My preference for listening is analogue tape and vinyl played back through analogue tube amplifiers. If I ever get to unpack in my lifetime, I will listen in this way. Analogue provides warmth of tone and background ambient ‘noise’ that most resembles natural acoustics. Vinyl produced today has the benefit of higher quality material than previously, and the mastering technology and playback options are better than ever. There is a small company in Tulln an der Donau, Austria, that has just announced a breakthrough in vinyl mastering and manufacturing technology. Vinyl has fast become the new standard in Europe.
You sound more like a crooner than a rocker on this album. Would that be accurate?
Depends on how you define a rocker and what you call a crooner. Although I might admire a crooner such as Dean Martin, I will never sing with his ease. He loathes to ‘sing serious’. I can appreciate that. Comedy is more demanding than tragedy. What I can do is sing a ballad, a blues, a tango. I’m also equipped to sing rock ‘n’ roll and to play guitar behind it in my own perverse way.
You’re an actor as well as a singer. What do the performance styles have in common?
An actor and a singer both have to invest a notion, whether a musical or a theatrical piece, with living and breathing animation. Both must invent characterization and invest that with their persona. Truly, all that anyone is interested in from an artist is the persona. Both actor and singer deal with pitch, rhythm, and form. Both must be convincing, and both must be prepared to do one another’s job.
What’s a live show like for you? How will these songs differ from the recording when you play them live?
Good questions. A live show is a compressed, heightened, moment of expression suspended in time. Its most fertile moments are spontaneous and unrehearsed. On stage before a live audience, these recorded songs will become freer, more unpredictable, yet more in control. Within a few performances, these songs will take on a life of their own in which the band and I are merely participants.
What has been your biggest challenge as an artist?
Staying focused and drawing all that I can possibly dredge up out of my inner coils. It’s a matter of expressing the creative impulses that loom up from the dark waters of the unconscious. Technique can be learned well enough, but the ineffable cannot be learned. It must be lived.