INTERVIEW WITH TIM KERR:
A LIFE IN MUSIC AND ART
Joseph Shields/Nerve Cowboy: You have played in so many influential bands like Big Boys, Poison 13, Bad Mutha Goose and the Brothers Grimm, Jack O' Fire, Lord High Fixers, and the Monkeywrench to name a few. Music that was happening in Austin during this time is one of the things that drew me to move to here in 1992. How would you characterize the Austin music scene of the 1980s and 1990s? And how does it relate to the music you are playing these days?
Tim Kerr: There seemed to be more of a community and a sort of us versus them. There was more emphasis on self-expression and what that meant to you instead of doing something for some sort of name recognition. That celebration of self-expression has always been the main fuel for what I am doing… past, present, future, so changes in "the scene" don't really affect me. Like Sun Ra, not of your world (smile).
JS: Of all the bands you have played in, which one is most special to you and why?
Tim: Lord High Fixers PERIOD. Mike Carroll had become a close extended family member when he roadied for the Big Boys. We then started Poison 13. During Bad Mutha Goose, Mike and I lost touch and he then disappeared. There was a period where we thought he might could have even passed, so I was really happy when he got back in touch with Beth and me. He was a quiet, sort of shy person but really wanted to sing. To do that, he had to get drunk, and that got the best of him. When he got back in touch in the early 90s, he told us then that he had gone back to his parents and cleaned up and now wanted to prove to himself that he could do what he loved without the crutch. He asked me if I might want to help and I was honored. It was also the realization that I had a second chance with a good friend that I had thought I had lost. That opened up all the doors and windows inside of me to the fact that we all have no idea what can happen next, even the next couple of minutes, so you better hug and celebrate those around you, and celebrate what is happening around you now. Everyone involved with that band came to that realization, and it changed all of us deeply.
JS: How did the Big Boys end and Poison 13 start?
Tim: After a 2+ month tour, the Big Boys were going to take a break for a couple of months. Mike had wanted to start a band so I said I would help. He was really into Psych/60s type garage bands and I brought in the blues. We were going to play one time and it would be his night. Since we did not have a bass player yet and it looked like we were going to get a show, Mike asked Chris to play. He and Mike were roommates at the time. Big Boys never got back together.
JS: Poison 13 was a fucking force. How would you describe the live shows you played with that band? What bands did Poison 13 tour with during that period?
Tim: Thank you (smile). Nobody really liked us here in Austin except a handful of people. We were too blues for the punk crowd and too drunk, loud, and punk for the blues crowd. You also had a big group that thought Chris and I had broken up the Big Boys to start this up with Mike which was absolutely not true. We were accepted more in Hollywood with bands like Tex and the Horse Heads and the Screaming Sirens. The U Men and Tales of Terror really liked us, and we played shows with them along with The Replacements.
JS: Do you have a favorite guitar? If so, what is it and why do you like that sound?
Tim: I like Silvertones because of their sound. I am partial to their hollow bodies because of the musical feedback you can create with them. For acoustic, I really like the little Martins that were made during the depression that they reissued.
JS: Tell me what you felt during the first sessions after hearing Mark Arm's howl on "Call my Body Home," "Notes & Chords Mean Nothing to Me," and "I'm Blown" and sonic sound of the band?
Tim: Notes and Chords is the best song ever written about being in a band (big smile). I met Mark and Steve when Mudhoney played here in Austin and I had gone to see the show. I had read in some zines that their band before, Green River, were compared to Poison 13, and I had thought what I had heard of Mudhoney was cool, so I went. They came up to me all excited that I had come and started telling me how much they had loved Poison 13. When they were asking me about that band, I told them there were a bunch of songs that I had written with Mike that had never been recorded. Mark went back to Seattle and told Sub Pop and that's how it happened. I was just getting out of Bad Mutha Goose and Mike was now "missing" at this time, so I was happy and sort of amazed when this all came together. I was actually a little concerned that Mark was going to have to write new words to the songs that Mike had written lyrics to. We only had one live board tape of those songs and you could not understand what Mike was singing. I was worried it might come off as disrespectful of what Mike had originally added with his words. I was assured that Mike would be written about in the liner notes and that might send listeners to the Poison 13 recordings. They would then hear the great lyrics that Mike would write.
JS: Where did the songs from that first Monkeywrench record come from and if Monkeywrench didn't happen, what do you think would have become of them?
Tim: There were three incarnations of Poison 13. The two records that were put out when the band were together, are the original lineup. I got out after that second record, and Jim the drummer left as well. Poison 13 went on maybe a year or two without me. When Chris tried to make them move to Hollywood, Bill and Mike did not want to go so Chris moved there on his own and started up Junk Yard. Mike and Bill asked me back in, but I was in Bad Mutha Goose. I said yes anyway, but Poison 13 would have to do things when Bad Mutha was not. The first Monkeywrench record is those songs that I wrote with Mike (music me and words Mike) or wrote myself in that last incarnation. I had just read the book The Monkeywrench Gang and that's where the name had come from. I don't think you would have ever heard those songs if Monkeywrench had not happened. The idea was to record those songs with some covers, and it would be a one-off group. We only played the one show in Seattle after we recorded. This was 90 or 91.
JS: How did The Monkeywrench end up opening for Pearl Jam at Wembley Arena in 2000? Any interesting stories or anecdotes from that show?
Tim: At the end of the 90s, Matt Lukin decided to leave Mudhoney. While they were deciding what they wanted to do since Matt had left, Mark and Steve decided to put Monkeywrench back together and gave me a call. We wrote a bunch of new stuff together, made a record, and then toured when it came out. That was the first time Texas got to see that band. Between that first record and the second, I had now been "truly enlightened" with Lord High Fixers. I was also diving deep into free jazz and adding that to my vocabulary as well, so it made for a completely different experience for the rest of Monkeywrench (smile). Pearl Jam asked if we would open for them so we did. It was great and those guys were really down to earth and treated us as equals. Because of my time with Lord High Fixers, I was in a completely different space about playing music or any sort of self-expression. The idea that this could be the last time you get to celebrate with your friends changed the whole idea of playing live for me and I ended up jumping off the stage and handing my guitar to the first person I saw in the crowd to celebrate with me. I also remember throwing my guitar to their stage sound guy when he smiled at me. It was an invitation for him to be even more part of what was going on (smile). I heard later that when I jumped off, Mark jumped off as well and started kissing people in the front row…. celebrate your time here indeed.
JS: How did it feel to have The Monkeywrench get back together to play the Sound on Sound Festival in 2016 and how did that reunion come about?
Tim: Because we got together every 10 years or so after that first recording, we never really thought of it as a reunion. What we did think about was Tom Price, the other guitar player in Monkeywrench. He was the only one who had seen the original Poison 13, so it was a given that he would be the other guitar player when Monkeywrench formed. That's why Steve was playing bass. Tom had been in the U-MEN, who were stranded in Austin the summer that Poison 13's first record came out. Tom now has Parkinson's, and it has slowly gotten worse over time. We all knew this might be the last time to play with him, so we were happy to have been asked. Since we were going to have to practice for the show, we also decided to go to Australia as well. Martin the drummer was from there and Tom and I had never been, so we were all excited about going. We knew then and know now that we will probably not get to do something like that again with Tom.
JS: The garage blues scene in Austin was alive and well in the early 90s. You had a great band called Jack O' Fire. What did you like most about that band and the records you put out on Estrus Records and Austin's Undone Records label?
Tim: From Big Boys to the first Monkeywrench, there was never a break, so when I got back from that first trip to Seattle, I was not looking to be in anything else. Walter was a big Poison 13 fan and asked me if I would play with him at a Howlin' Wolf birthday tribute. That led to someone else wanting us to play one more show, and then someone else. It was a band that for the first three or four shows was only going to play one more time (smile). Word was spreading and people wanted to put out a record of us. I was reluctant at first because as I said before, I did not really want to be in any more bands, but realized if I said no, I would be letting down Walter and the others. With that in mind, I sort of laid down the law. I would do it if I got to have final say on what we played. I still feel embarrassed saying it, but after being in the bands before where we always voted on everything, and me now not really wanting to be in another band, it was what it was. The idea for me was to get back to having fun again with this and bust out again (just like the late 70s/early 80s), of the uniform and conformity of what bands and performing had now become under the umbrella of Alternative College Rawk. I liked the idea of being self-sufficient when we played so that we could set up anywhere and did not have to rely on a PA. I also wanted to plant seeds in this new generation coming to shows and starting bands. Make people question why there were any rules at all that they were supposed to follow when it came to self-expression. We would only do covers to get listeners to maybe go back and hear the original spirit that this had all come from. Everyone in the band would pick covers they wanted to do and then I would pick from them. That band could have never happened without Walter, but Walter would have never done a band like that at that time.
JS: Can you say anything about the title of your Jack O' Fire single "Bring Me the Head of Jon Spencer"? Where did that come from?
Tim: Late 80s and early 90s, I started getting asked to help record bands. One of the first was Sugar Shack. Their very first record sounds like a Seattle grunge band. They were thinking about calling it Bring Me the Head of Mark Arm. Neither they or I knew any of the people in Mudhoney at that time, and because they were big fans, they decided it might piss off Mark, so they scrapped the idea. Soon after was when Monkeywrench happened and when I told Mark and Steve about the title, they thought it was great. Jon Spencer was big news when the first Jack O' Fire record came out. Howlin' Wolf would come up in his reviews alot. I liked his band and I thought, well, we are playing blues, and we are playing a Howlin' Wolf song, so let's do what Sugar Shack didn't do and call this Bring Me the Head of Jon Spencer. It was a shout out of recognition to him and if he got it, cool. If he was offended, oh well and cool too (smile). There were definitely reviewers that were offended. I guess they did not see that scratched in the vinyl of that 7 inch were the words…. and bring me the hands of Steve Turner too (bigger smile). I did meet Jon later and it was all good.
JS: Lord High Fixers seemed to pick up where Jack O' Fire left off, except with a strong Cramps influence. What the driving influence behind this band's beautiful sound?
Tim: Mike and the celebration of the moment, life, friends, and self-expression! We played in the key of free.
JS: You have worked with a ton of record labels over the years. Which of them did you find to be most supportive of their bands?
Tim: Touch and Go and Estrus. It's an honor to know Corey and Dave and call them family.
JS: You have produced a lot of great bands over the years. Of particular note for me was the first Dexateens record that you produced and played on. What were those sessions like and how did you approach your work with that band?
Tim: The first time they got me to come record them, they sounded exactly like the Quadrajets. They had one song that was different…. Cardboard Hearts. That song is so great, and I told them. They looked really surprised that I liked it. They had written more songs in that vein but were not sure anyone would like it. I told them they should do more stuff like that, instead of trying to be the Quadrajets, so they had me come back to try again, I recorded them for a couple of records after that, and that's how I met Lee Bains who came in to take John’s place. I always worked at the libraries at UT through all of the bands and recordings, so I had the luxury of only working with bands I liked and felt like I might could help. I was always honored that anyone was asking me to come help. All the sessions I was part of were fun in different ways and I now have a big extended family because of it.
JS: From punk rock to your latest musical project "Up Around the Sun" - what piqued your interest in old time music and how did you get connected to that scene is Austin?
Tim: Through junior high and high school, I was really into acoustic music. When everyone else was listening to Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, I was listening to John Martyn, David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Cockburn, Nick Drake, Pentangle, etc…. All I wanted to do was to play acoustic guitar in those styles. Leo Kottke to me was all flash and tunings while someone like Rick Ruskin was amazing. I did not play electric guitar until Big Boys. I was also really into soul music and jazz. When I came up to Austin in 74 to go to school, Beth and I went to some of the first Austin Friends of Traditional Music concerts. I even played at Kerrville folk festival when I was picked to be in the song writers contest. I got picked again the next year but was skating in an empty pool in Bastrop and broke my arm. I always really gravitated to Irish and British folk and finally started playing Irish music in 2005 on the button accordion. That was also the time that I started being asked to do art shows. I met an Irish fiddler, Michael McCullough, who also knew and played old-time tunes with some of his friends. Randal, who had run Beerland, had just opened up Rio Ritas and wanted to see if I would start a session there. So I got Michael to help because he knew a lot more tunes than me. It first was Irish and old-time, but after about a year, the session went straight to old-time. I would play guitar like I play now in Up Around the Sun, but because of the open D tuning and the different sound from the chords I was playing, it would confuse the other guitar players. I switched to banjo and that's when I met Jerry Hagins. I kinda felt like I had come full circle or have come full circle but with a bigger wide open vocabulary (smile).
JS: You have a very distinctive guitar sound. What musicians have had the biggest influence on your musical career?
Tim: John Martyn, Curtis Mayfield to name a few. Stephen Stills acoustic stuff. I am really into open chords and chording like McCoy Tyner plays with John Coltrane or the chords Aaron Copland used in Fanfare for the Common Man. As far as electric, Hound Dog Taylor and Bucky Pope who played in a really great band from Madison called the Tar Babies. My influences are all over the map and I am still being influenced. John Coltrane is a huge influence as well as Roland Kirk. His book Bright Moments, and Sun Ra's book Space Is the Place, put words to my thoughts and feelings about my own self-expression.
JS: Your art seems to cross the boundaries of music, art, and politics. What inspires your ideas for the content of your artwork? What visual artists do you admire and inspire your own work?
Tim: Basquiat, Barry McGee, and lots of visionary/outsider art. Also things around me day to day and the idea that if you look in a different way, art is everywhere. It's like skating. A skater will never see cement the same way again. A photographer will constantly see things as photos. I am inspired by my friends' self-expression and people doing selfless actions because it is something they feel needs to happen to change a situation they are in. They and their actions and words really inspire me.
JS: A great deal of your artwork seems to address social injustice and champions of the cause to make things better. Walk me through your process for deciding on who or what will be the subject of your next art project.
Tim: I hope I can flip a switch and shine a light in and on the viewer that each of us can make history at any moment just by a single action. The people I paint are examples of this truth. It doesn't matter if it's sports, art, music, or fighting for justice, the action always comes from the same place of something needing to happen at that point in time.
JS: Your art also brings to life many blues, jazz, and soul legends, like Monk, Nina Simone, Hound Dog Taylor, and Mingus. What made these and other artists rise to the top for you and who do you still want to paint?
Tim: The list is pretty endless because I am always learning. For the most part it's all about hoping that you turn the viewer on to something that they may not have known about
JS: Tell me about your process for deciding what material will serve as the canvas for your work?
Tim: I like the idea of something looking like it's been found, so I paint on things like old school maps, skateboards, wood, etc…. anything but canvas. Everyone paints on canvas so why add to that conversation.
JS: Of all the art exhibitions you have done across the globe, which one are you most proud of and why?
Tim: The solo show at the Rosa Parks museum. I was humbled and honored to be asked to do that. There have been some murals that I am really proud of like the one at Wirtz Elementary school and the one in Birmingham Alabama
JS: Skateboarding, punk rock, blues, old-time music, and visual art, how does it all come together?
Tim: I need them all like air, to live and breathe. They are all connected in my world.
JS: So musically, artistically, what is next for Tim Kerr?
Tim: I have no idea, but I stay wide open and hope I haven't seen the best thing yet.
Tim Kerr is a musician, visual artist and photographer. Kerr moved to Austin after high school graduation where still resides with his wife Beth. He earned a degree in painting and photography at the University of Texas in Austin.
After college graduation, Kerr became involved musically and artistically with the early stages of the DIY punk/hardcore/self-expression movement. The idea that anyone could and should participate in self-expression burst every door and window inside of him wide open.
He was a key member in bands that have made recordings for such record labels as Touch & Go, Estrus, Sympathy For The Record Industry, In The Red, Sub Pop, and Kill Rock Stars. Tim also produced and recorded bands for all the labels above and more, both in the US and overseas.
Journalists and critics have cited the bands that Tim played in as major factors in starting everything from funk-punk, skaterock, grunge, and garage which played an important role in what is known, for better or worse, as the US indie scene today. Tim was a founding member of The Big Boys, Poison 13, Bad Mutha Goose, Jack O'Fire, Lord High Fixers and Monkeywrench, and he currently plays old time folk music in Up Around the Sun with Jerry Hagins. He has shared music bills with Grace Jones, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Fugazi, Black Flag, Africa Bambaataa, and X to name a few. He has toured in the United States and abroad.
Tim now shows his artwork in the US and abroad from galleries including PS1 in New York, 96 Gillespie in London, Slowboy Gallery in Germany, Third Man Rcords, and Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. He has also been involved in painting murals in Texas, Nashville, New York, California, and Montgomery, Alabama. Tim had a solo show at the Rosa Parks Museum in the summer of 2015.