A Sensitive Singer

An interview
with John S. Hall
of King Missile

Elein Fleiss, Olivier Zahm

Imagine Alfred Jarry as leader of a melodic grunge group: itís John S. Hall, song writer and vocalist of King Missile: deliberate immaturity, vitriolic irony and absolute self-derision, mixed with the sonic and sentimental distorstions of a hauntingly obsessive voice. Letís crown Ubu S. Hall King for the release of the groupís last album ďHappy HourĒ.

We were talking about this song, Gary and Melissa, because itís been released in France. Is it an important song for you?

Itís one of my favourite songs. I like it a lot. When I wrote it, I was thinking of the Oshima film, Empire of the Senses. I like Oshima a lot. But usually I write about myself, like in Sensitive Artist, Iím making fun of myself, Ďcause I get that way sometimes. I donít want to talk to people, and I think Iím better than everyone else.

Your production is very active, do you write a lot?

Yes, I write everyday, not only songs, also a diary, it can be anything, feelings about people, letters. We might put a book together of all the lyrics, Ďcause there are a lot of them now.
I read a lot of non-fiction, literary criticism, art criticism, things about science. Iím very interested in dreams, the occult, philosophies of life, mostly essays. I get ideas from non-fiction.


Your songs are very narrative, the text is very important, you use irony, humour, itís often very sarcastic, absurd, and in a way you refuse the traditional Rockín Roll attitude, direct revolt. Donít you think that this is a marginal position in Rockín roll.

Yes, I think it is, but I also make the distinction between Rockín roll and Pop music. Some of the things that I do may be anti-rockín roll in a sense. But a lot of pop music is also anti-Rockín Roll, and there may be a way in which what Iím doing appeals to people who wouldnít listen to rock music at all - and I donít just mean intellectuals - people that just donít like that kind of music, donít like to hear that same kind of music over and over again. ĎCause the music in our records, it isnít all Rockín roll. It isnít all heavy guitars. A lot of it is, but not all of it: Jesus Was Way Cool, you got just piano, Gary and Melissa, just acoustic guitar. On the new album we have pieces with just drum and vocals. We use a lot more keyboards than a lot of other bands. So musically we do different things than Rockín roll bands, it isnít necessarily marginal from everybody but itís marginal in Rockín roll. Also sometimes we do straight ahead rock songs . I like listening to that kind of music. I donít mind making it. Itís harder for me to make that kind of music than to just write a little story.

Can you tell us a little about your own influences? Are they really diverse? Where do you come from musically?

I really like Patti Smith, Lydia Launch, and a lot of the New York bands, Richard Hell and the Voidoids. When I was a teenager, I would listen to the Sex Pistols, the Ramones. In the eighties I really liked Sonic Youth and I still really like them. Other people in the band listen to a lot of the American independent music records.
I used to have a band called U Suck. We had musicians and people painting or juggling or just doing different things. It was like an Artaud theatre, Dada type of thing. Very noisy and anti-art, anti-music. I was a big fan of Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi, I love that play so much.

I was also thinking of the pataphysique.

I first read that play 10 years ago. ĎCause I didnít really like theatre before that, and I didnít really understand art. That just opened it up for me, and then you learn about Duchamp and realize that you can make art. I started writing, and painting and performing. Really Alfred Jarry was very important for me. To go further about your musical influences, your work reminds me of The Beatlesí research with Sgt. Pepper, where they mixed a lot of songs, took noises from the street, Indian music...
Kramer is a very big Beatles fan. So am I. I think on this record too, with the song Mr Johnson, you have a sample of Penny Lane. Kramer produced all the records, except the last one produced by Atlantic. Heís producing the new one with us. He also has a band, he writes a lot of music. For the album we did together (Real Men), a lot was sound effects, but he did all the sounds and all the music. In 1987, I made a record. It was the year my father died and I had some money from the inheritance. I wanted to make a demo tape. Kramer was starting a label, Shimmy Disc, and I gave him some money, to put the record out. Then we made other records, and he gave me the money back.


Your very biographical way of writing often seems to be influenced by your childhood. In a song you mention that you come from a farm, but in the same song you say itís a lie. So is it a lie or not?

Itís a lie, I grew up in New York, four blocks from here, in the West Village. Iíve been to farms. I like them a lot. The social landscape that you describe doesnít seem to be very New York in spirit. It seems more traditionally American. Thatís true. My mother is from North Dakota, from a farm area. My father is from New Mexico, which is like desert I guess. Iíve never been there. They werenít New Yorkers. I think that made a difference. They had these ideas about what America was, and God, and all that stuff.


You deride this religious spirit, yet your music is still spiritual.

My father was very religious, and my mother a little bit. She likes what I do a lot - she was always very encouraging. I used to go to church. I went to a catholic school, but we were protestant. In the seventies, there were a lot of religious groups. Living in New York I learned a lot about Krishna, and buddhism.

You often use irony and double meaning. When you speak about religion it is in a critical way, but at the same time you make us conscious that we have to believe in something. You end one of your songs with this statement: ďI donít know what to believe anymore.Ē Do you still have the desire to believe in something ?

Yes, absolutely. Sometimes I feel I do know what to believe in. Sometimes I believe in working, writing, performing, doing the work. Other times I Ďm full of despair and I donít even believe in that, but for some reason I will get out of bed and do something anyway, even though I donít believe in it.


Do you accept being defined as socially critical?

Well, I like that better than what most people say that I'm a comedian, a poet. I am not just doing jokes. I do try to be entertaining, but I try to say something about things that bother me about myself and about society.

So you include yourself in your criticisms, you donít put yourself in a superior position?

I donít like to think of myself as superior. I also donít like to think of myself as inferior, but sometimes thatís difficult (laugh) I want to be there, somewhere there. When I was growing up, I used to think that I was different from everybody else, that I was not from the same planet, you have daydreams where you think youíre from outerspace, or that you are adopted, that you are Jesus or whatever. (laugh) Then you grow up and you realize that weíre all the same. TO WALK AMONG THE PIGS, thatís about equality. I do try to see everybody as equal, and myself as equal too. Thatís important to me.

The way you see things is very critical, but not completely despairing, not totally dark...

No, not totally dark. (laugh) Itís dark and light both, sometimes in the same song, and sometimes in different songs. Sometimes if you go to see a very, very, happy movie, a Hollywood movie, you can walk out of the movie and feel very depressed because itís so false. And other times you see a very depressing movie and it makes you feel good, happy because youíve seen something real. Youíve seen something that talks to you and says that your bad feelings are legitimate. And then you can go further with that and say, well this bad feeling is good, and this good feeling is bad, but is it good to feel bad and is it bad to feel good ? .Iím concerned with feelings. And sometimes when I feel good, Iíll write something very negative because I have the strength to do it. But when I really, really feel very bad, what I want to do is make myself feel better, so Iíll write something happier. My Heart is a Flower is really a funny song. I was very, very sad when I wrote that one and a lot of people find that surprising. But I felt really, really trampled on, like a flower thatís been thrown down in the dirt, when I wrote that.


What is very special about the way you write is that itís often little stories or a repetitive structure. You never use a refrain. Have you ever wanted to write a classic song with a refrain?

I think if I ever wrote a really good chorus, then I would try to make it into a song, but I never have. Most songs I listen to are like that. I have written songs like that, that I havenít recorded with King Missile, like country western type songs and that kind of thing.

You seem to describe sexuality weirdly in your songs...

Weird? (laugh)

Like a type of obsession. In Gary and Melissa, you seem to deride sexuality when you describe having sex with vegetables or with animals, but also when we listen, there is always some tenderness and real sentiment.

Sex is not something I make fun of. I think people, when they hear what Iím doing, they know Iím not making fun of it. Religion too - Iím not really making fun of religion or sexuality. Those are important things to me and I wouldnít... well maybe one day I would...

So itís still really a love song?

In Gary and Melissa? Yeah, definitely. Iím trying to make the point that in America there is the idea of man and woman and children, and thatís what itís about. But a lot of those people get divorced, and they donít stay together. Not that you need to stay together with anybody either. But in that story they do a lot of strange things, but they stay together. For me thatís great. I guess not everyone feels that way, that the ultimate thing is just to be together with somebody. If I had to do it all over again, I would have used gender neutral names like Jan and Dana. In a lot of songs I donít mention gender because another part of whatís important to me is that I donít like to make judgements about what people like sexually. Some people like one sex, or the other, or they like fat people, or they like to be tied up, whatever. Thatís fine. Whatever people like is fine by me. I think thatís important, too, because in this country a lot of people want to make laws about that and Iím very much against that. Making certain kinds of sex illegal... To me thatís immoral, to illegalize things that people want to do. Same with religious things. I think people should be able to believe whatever they want to believe. I think that when governments try to get involved with that sort of stuff, youíre really destroying peopleís souls. I donít make statements like that in my songs because thatís not what I want. I donít want to make a political statement.