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Mayo Thompson and Charlie Abel - The Red Krayola

There aren't many genuine underground sixties legends living in Edinburgh, let alone one who, after 40 years, is still making credible, cutting-edge music. Mayo Thompson, however, who for the past four decades has remained the mainstay of The Red Krayola, is very much such a figure.

In his colourful musical journey, he's gone against the grain of wacked-out 1960s Texan psychedelia and helped create post punk in London's late-1970s Ladbroke Grove scene as one of the driving forces behind Rough Trade Records, before, in the mid-1990s, being courted by a new generation of Chicago based musicians - a period that saw that city's Drag City Records release a plethora of Red Krayola material old and new.

Now, however, with the release of Introduction, the band's first album of new material for five years, Thompson has teamed up with Aberdeen-born ceilidh-band accordionist Charlie Abel to add a brand new Caledonian influence to the musical melting pot that is The Red Krayola. Currently in residence in the leafier reaches of Edinburgh's south side, Thompson's latest collaboration isn't as unlikely as it first sounds, even if it was brokered in the very un-rock'n'roll confines of an afternoon barbecue, where the men's wives - both scientists - introduced them.

"It's what musicians do, " Thompson burrs between puffs on a big, fat cigar. "There's a common language there already, so we got talking, and we thought, you know, we should try something out. And, fortunately for everybody concerned, everything gelled really quickly."
Abel, who has released albums with the playfully named Iron Broo, the ceilidh band he founded and has gigged on the international circuit for several years, wasn't quite sure what he was getting himself into. "I'd never heard of The Red Krayola, " he sheepishly admits, "but when I told people, and then when I heard some of the records, it was a real eye-opener."

Abel may be a recent affiliate to the ever-changing Red Krayola, but Thompson's life with - and indeed as - the band began in the mid-1960s alongside two friends, Steve Cunningham and Frederick Barthelme. Their strategy was extreme from the off, and their two albums, The Parable of Arable Land and God Bless The Red Krayola And All Who Sail With It, marked them out as being well outside the burgeoning peace-and-love generation.

While at Rough Trade, Thompson knew the late Ivor Cutler, persuaded The Smiths to embrace video via a trio of works taken from The Queen Is Dead album that were directed by film-maker Derek Jarman. Thompson also worked with Jarman on the soundtrack of the late auteur's 1987 counterblast to Thatcherism, The Last of England. It was a rough-and-ready revolutionary collage, which allowed Thompson to get into the studio with actress and Jarman muse, Tilda Swinton.

"I remember having the privilege to sit with Derek and Miss Swinton, " he says, "when she was deciding whether to work with Peter Brook, the theatre director, or not, and whether it was the right time or not. Of course, she went on eventually to act with Brook, but as a woman of integrity, it had to be right for her."

By this time, Thompson had already made connections with Scotland, having produced Sonic Flower Groove, the first full length release on Alan McGee's Creation Records by a nascent Primal Scream. Thompson also produced the sole album by The Shop Assistants, a band lazily lumped in with acts centred on Edinburgh and Glasgow's so-called "shambling" scene, but who actually sounded like a rawer, punkier version of 1960s girl groups such as The Shangri-Las.
These days, Thompson cuts something of a dash, holding court with the charming tones of an original Southern gentleman and playing up his tourist status, expressing a fondness both for golf and for malt whisky like every good American on vacation should.

Thompson's presence in Edinburgh itself is something of a happy accident, albeit a gloriously romantic one. On the way home from an art fair several years ago, Thompson's flight home was delayed. He struck up a conversation with a woman also stuck in the departure lounge, who happened to be a scientist from Austria. Things took their course, and, with a project in Edinburgh forthcoming, Thompson travelled there with her.

"The great thing about Edinburgh, " he says, "is that I can do anything I want to do. Meeting guys like Charlie is a bonus, because that introduces new elements into my working methods, so everything's always changing."

While some may see Thompson and The Red Krayola as bound to remain forever on the margins of the music scene, Thompson expresses a healthy desire to cross over into the mainstream. Given the attention this current spate of activity is receiving, Introduction might just be the record to let him do that. Especially given that, as expectation-confounding as ever and referencing the old hippy anthem Will The Circle Be Unbroken? as well as the children's favourite, Puff The Magic Dragon, it is very commercial. Thompson punches the air with glee when he hears this.

"I've wanted to sell out for years, " he says, only half joking, "and if this can impinge on people's consciousnesses a while, then this might just be our time." Either way, in terms of the attention Introduction is receiving, in his entire 40 years charting rich rock's tapestry, Thompson has never known anything like it.

What, then, whisky and golf aside, does he think this is down to?

Thompson thinks a moment, takes a puff on his cigar, then leans back expansively, waving a hand at Abel. "I blame him, " he says, knowing full well that The Red Krayola looks set to sail on a while yet.

Introduction is out now on Drag City Records.

The Herald, May 19th 2006


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