Tuxedomoon: American Tux exiles

The US avant-rock band Tuxedomoon have sustained a 20-year career by turning their backs on their homeland. Andy Gill meets them in Rome
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It's a beautiful, balmy Roman evening, with the merest wisp of a breeze ushering away the remnants of the afternoon's baking heat from the Villa Ada, `a park in the city's northern reaches. This is the setting for the summer season of Roma Incontra il Mondo concerts at the Laghetto di Villa Ada, a small bulge of parkland surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped lake. As with previous years, it's a cosmo-politan series of events. In the next few weeks, the stage will host Angelique Kidjo, Tinariwen, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Cesaria Evora, The Chieftains, Trilok Gurtu and Kings of Convenience, among others. Tonight, I'm here to see Tuxedomoon, the mostly American band whose music pivots elegantly around the point where rock, jazz, contemporary classical and the avant-garde meet.

It's a beautiful, balmy Roman evening, with the merest wisp of a breeze ushering away the remnants of the afternoon's baking heat from the Villa Ada, `a park in the city's northern reaches. This is the setting for the summer season of Roma Incontra il Mondo concerts at the Laghetto di Villa Ada, a small bulge of parkland surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped lake. As with previous years, it's a cosmo-politan series of events. In the next few weeks, the stage will host Angelique Kidjo, Tinariwen, Linton Kwesi Johnson, Cesaria Evora, The Chieftains, Trilok Gurtu and Kings of Convenience, among others. Tonight, I'm here to see Tuxedomoon, the mostly American band whose music pivots elegantly around the point where rock, jazz, contemporary classical and the avant-garde meet.

There's not a huge demand for their music in an America easily led by the corporate nose, which is why Tuxedomoon have spent most of their three-decade existence abroad, in the more amenable surroundings of Europe. After an extended hiatus through most of the Nineties, the band recently re-formed when offered the opportunity to spend a few months as artists-in-residence in a small town in the northern state of Emilia Romagna: a local theatre director, Sandro - now the town's mayor - was a big fan, it turned out.

Sandro's not alone, though. Italy has always been sympathetic to the more experimental and avant-garde forms of music, and Tuxedomoon have a fairly substantial fanbase there, even after years of inactivity, and their audience tonight is from all strata of society, and all ages, from excitable teenage girls to white-haired sixtysomethings.

"It's a particularly fertile ground for us in Italy," says Blaine Reininger, the band's violinist and guitarist. "The Italians have this happy notion that a band can work independent of a plastic product, and they can appreciate you regardless of whether you have a CD to sell or not. They'll book you because they like you, so we've played Italy often, year after year, even without an album out."

They're helped by a cultural attitude that regards the staging of small festivals as a matter of local pride, with a worthwhile call on the public purse.

"It's a question of money," explains the Belgian trumpeter Luc van Lieshout, the band's sole non-American member. "In the States, they don't put any public money into that kind of thing. They do in France, Italy and Spain."

Tuxedomoon have spent most of their career in Europe, originally moving over here in March 1981. "We liked Europe, because Europe treated us like humans," recalls Steven Brown, the band's keyboard and woodwind player. "We were seeing things like nice theatres and dressing rooms. Heating! Water to drink!"

By comparison, their homeland offered a much frostier reception. Born out of the late-Seventies collision of punk and art, Tuxedomoon were formed by Brown and Reininger following their graduation from an electronic music course at a San Francisco college. They wanted to do something that brought the energy of punk into serious electronic music - "taking the university into the punk-rock club," as Brown puts it. In San Francisco, this was no problem; there was a substantial enough artistic community of painters, musicians and filmmakers to support and participate in the "salons" they hosted. "That's what we'd call them, 'salons' - we had this thing, the Chez Dada Salon," chuckles Reininger, who remembers attending lots of avant-garde events in the city at that time, multi-media performances of notable oddity: "I saw one performance by a guy wearing a bird head which had a light-sensitive switch inside, so he'd open his beak and it would make these synth sounds, performed against these slides of his vacation in Alaska," he recalls. "I'd go to all these little events in garages and stuff, just sucking it up, because I had no money and had to amuse myself somehow. All this stuff was lying around in the cultural landscape."

Outside of San Francisco and New York, however, the response was less welcoming for Tuxedomoon's early art-punk performances. In a small Colorado town, where they had wangled a brief artist-in-residence position, they were rudely assailed by outraged locals who summarily invited them to "Go back to San Francisco, you goddamn Bowie-imitatin' faggot-ass punks!", according to Reininger.

So they did, recording their own early EPs in their kitchen on a four-track Teac, and eventually alerting the interest of Ralph Records, the record label run by local weirdos The Residents, for whom they recorded their first two albums, Half Mute (1980) and Desire (1981). The timeless quality of those albums' elegant, evocative ruminations can be gauged from the fact that the tracks from them included in tonight's show, such as "Nazca Lines" and "Desire", sound as fresh and distinctive now as they did nearly a quarter of a century ago.

But America offered little fertile ground for them to grow, and once they had experienced the more sympathetic cultural climate of Europe, they upped sticks and emigrated, with all the callow optimism of youth.

"We were that young, in our 20s, we just showed up in Europe," explains Reininger. "We didn't know where we were going to live, we didn't know what we were going to eat, we didn't know how we were going to get money, we didn't know anything about being legal - we didn't know anything! We just showed up, 'Hello!', feeling sure somebody would like us."

Not everybody did. The UK was typically grudging in its welcome, and stingy in its remuneration. Reininger remembers being so poor that he was reduced to re-rolling cigarette ends, and making a tiny bowl of soup for himself and his wife from the last of their provisions, one onion and a bouillion cube. They would sit in the dark, bereft of coins to feed the meter, hoping the sun wouldn't go down before the man from the record company turned up with some money. When he eventually arrived, they went out and bought two packs of cigarettes apiece, leaving the lights on as a defiant snub to poverty. Then when they were about to head off to the continent, the authorities suddenly seemed reluctant to let them go.

"On the 91st day of our visa, we were leaving England and [the immigration officers] said, 'You've overstayed your visa!'" recalls the bassist Peter Principle. "We said, 'But we're right at the border, we're about to leave. C'mon, just let us out!'"

In mainland Europe, things were a little better, but it was still a hand-to-mouth existence for avant-garde musicians, as always. But at least their Belgian labels, Crepuscule and Crammed Discs, perceived enough of a market for their music to allow them to subsist for years without taking day-jobs - an extraordinary achievement.

"We lived this bizarre parallel-universe version of bourgeois life, but it was never quite in sync with the reality," says Reininger. "There were moments of dire poverty, and moments of indulgence - 'Wow, I just got paid - don't let me be passin' that shoe-store now! And how 'bout some matchin' luggage on my way home?' We'd get the record advance and just blow it."

For a brief moment, they seemed about to break through to wider acclaim. "There was a time there where it seemed like we were in sync with the rest of the world," muses Reininger, "and it seemed like what we were doing was going to carry the day, culturally. Then we went back out of phase with it, and the mainstream continued being the mainstream, like it always was."

Ultimately, the poverty and cultural marginalism of their existence wore down even their feisty spirit, and the band gradually dispersed - Peter Principle returned to New York, Steven Brown moved to southern Mexico, and Blaine Reininger wound up in Greece. Then, a few years ago, they started getting requests to appear at shows in Italy, and took to reuniting for a month or two each year to play concerts and work on new material. Their geographical diversity, they found, made their brief times together all the more fulfilling.

"Because we're so geographically separated, we're able to concentrate better when we are together, and we're not so bothered about ourselves when we're apart," reckons Principle. "If we all lived in the same town and knew each other's stories and everything that happened when we weren't together, maybe it wouldn't be as easy to go on. When we get together now we have a high level of concentration, and get a lot done in a short space of time."

"It's amazing how resilient our work as a unit has been," adds Reininger. "A lot of it is about personal relations - we've known each other so damn long now that we're a lot like a family. A band is kind of in loco parentis, y'know - the culture we come from isn't all that big on family to begin with, and a band is one of the more successful alternatives. People band together for various reasons, for mutual survival and protection, and that's where we've come to: working as a group, we can all live better than we probably could on our own."

The main problems they now face are logistical: principally, how to get such far-flung band members together at the same time in one place for long enough to work. It's led to a temporary existence as "proletarian jet-setters", as they scuttle across Europe from concert to interview to launch-party for their new album, the beautifully atmospheric Cabin in the Sky. They may still live as self-proclaimed nouveaux pauvres, but for Tuxedomoon, their marginal status is a small price to pay for an artistic vision free of compromise.

"People tend to think that what they are doing is not valid if it's not reaching this mass audience," believes Reininger. "But it doesn't matter in the long run if what you're doing is good, even if only 10 people see what you're doing. As long as you're improved as a human by doing it, it can have that effect on other people. And they do seem to recognise that in Europe - they will give a sucker an even break here."

'Cabin in the Sky' is out now on Crammed Discs

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