Tuxedomoon rise again
Experimental cult favourites play their first Scottish gig after 40 years
BLAINE L Reininger was on a solo tour with former Josef K singer Paul Haig when he was introduced to ex-elvet Underground chanteuse, Nico. “Nico looked at me,” Reininger remembers, “and says, do I know you? I said no, and Nico said, I didn’t think so. That was that, and that’s the way it’s always been.”
As one third of San Francisco-sired post-punk electronic trio Tuxedomoon, Reininger had helped cause a quiet sensation in 1980 with the release of the band’s debut album, Half-Mute. The record’s low-slung mix of noirish saxophone and violin pulsed instrumentals combined with abrasive vocal-led tracks were an after-hours cocktail of post-modern cabaret sleaze, avant-garde austerity and multi-media poise.
Given a record that sounded so alien and so studiedly European, moving to Belgium seemed like a natural move. Here Tuxedomoon became part of an international avant-garde based around record labels, Crammed and Les Disques du Crepescule. They released albums of theatre and film soundtracks, some as Tuxedomoon, some solo ventures, and toured with Cabaret Voltaire, The Pale Fountains and Richard Jobson.
Three and a half decades on, Reininger, Steven Brown and Peter Principle, plus trumpeter Luc van Lieshout, have reconvened as Tuxedomoon in a Brussels rehearsal room. The quartet have travelled from their respective homes in Mexico City, Athens and New York to revisit HalfMute for a tour to coincide with the album’s re-release, and which tomorrow night arrives in Edinburgh for the band’s first ever Scottish show.
“These songs for me are timeless,” drawls vocalist and violinist Reininger on a break from the final day of rehearsals prior to the tour’s opening dates. “They have epic, mythic proportions, and live large in my sense of nostalgia. We didn’t really forget this music, and I have to be subjective about it. I don’t feel uncomfortable about playing it. These songs still stand up, and it’s a lot of fun and pretty rewarding to play them, but we try to avoid revisionism. If a writer goes back to rewrite their poetry and prose, then it becomes something else. We have to honour the people we were and respect our past.”
That past began in mid 1970s San Francisco, when Reininger met Brown while they were both studying electronic music.
“There was a really interesting synthesiser lab,” Reininger deadpans. “It was a really powerful period, with Terry Riley playing across the Bay, where lots of other interesting things were going on, and we plunged ourselves into the emerging punk rock scene.”
With much of Tuxedomoon’s early action revolving around Filipino restaurant turned key Bay Area punk venue, the Mahubay Gardens, Reininger, Brown and bass player Principle, who joined in 1979, took advantage of the era’s “anything goes” attitude.
“We played galleries and salons, and were more associated with the performance art and theatre thing. A lot of the styling was in the tradition of Roxy Music. We were very aware of how to manipulate personae.”
Such awareness came in part from Brown’s involvement in Angels of Light, a drag-based alternative theatre troupe which had evolved out of another group steeped in underground culture, The Cockettes.
“There were graduates and refugees from Broadway around,” Reininger remembers, “but we’d had this interdisciplinary thing going on from the foundation of Tuxedomoon. I’d been in bands since I was twelve, so I knew what it was like playing covers in bog-standard bar bands, and I knew I wanted to do something more than that.”
In performance, Tuxedomoon developed a multi-media approach that incorporated work by performance artist Winston Tong and film-maker Bruce Geduldig. The latter sadly died earlier this year, necessitating fellow film-maker David Hanneke to step in for the tour.
As well as revisiting Half-Mute, the current spate of Tuxedomoon activity has seen the release of a ten CD box set, and a soundtrack to a documentary on David Lynch’s film, Blue Velvet. All of which suggests that Tuxedomoon have become something more than cult figures, even if Nico didn’t know who they were.
“We’ve managed to survive,” says Reininger, “and are still doing music and culture, and for that alone we have eminence grise status. It’s like Genesis P Orridge or the guys in The Fall. One way or another they came through lives of obscurity and poverty and managed to survive, and through that acquire elder statesman status. That’s fairly ironic and amusing.”
“It’s the same with labels. The scenes they represent in the late seventies and early eighties, they put a gloss on them, so people now think, oh, I wish I was hanging out at the Hacienda, or I wish I was hanging out in Brussels.”
Some of this new wave of admiration for Tuxedomoon can be heard on Give Me New Noise – Half-Mute Reflected, a bonus disc that comes with the HalfMute re-release, and which sees artists such as Simon Fisher Turner, Jim Thirlwell of Foetus and Georgio “The Dove” Valentino cover the original album in full.
“These people are like our co-workers,” Reininger says. “They’re like our disciples or students, younger guys we’ve had a lot of involvement with.”
Beyond Half-Mute, Tuxedomoon will continue to operate in the margins.
“We’ll finish this tour and see what comes up,” says Reininger. “We have various releases and re-releases happening. After that we’ll see. Once we get a spark, we can see what that yields.”