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Photo courtesy of FOX
You may or may not know that the famous Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, Futurama and our own Life in Hell comic strip, is also a former music critic, for the L.A. Reader circa early ’80s. Groening is a lifelong, well-versed music fan who’s been only somewhat involved in the choice of musical guests on The Simpsons (the show has featured Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Tom Petty, Lenny Kravitz, Elvis Costello, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Smashing Pumpkins and numerous others), but not to the extent that Middle America gets scared off by too much obscure weirdness. That’s right, Groening’s a supereclectic whose real cup of tea you might call music from the fringes.
For all his high-profile and considerable Hollywood heft, Groening is an amiable and shockingly down-to-earth guy who remains enthusiastically fanboyish about the sounds he likes. In addition to having guest-edited the just-out Best Music Writing 2003 (Da Capo Press), he recently took on the job as curator of All Tomorrow’s Parties, the progressive mixed-bag music festival. You may recall that after L.A.’s first installment of the festival at UCLA two years ago — a critical success but a logistical nightmare — a second edition was planned for last June under Groening’s creative stewardship, but the whole thing collapsed in disarray, owing officially to poor ticket sales. Groening, however, has dusted himself off and is back with a reorganized ATP, to be held on the Queen Maryin Long Beach on November 8 and 9.
What follows is two guys who like music a lot, shooting the breeze about what gets them buzzing:
L.A. WEEKLY: So, Matt, tell us about it. What’re you into?
MATT GROENING: I like a little bit of everything. I like to find out what grows around the edges of every kind of music — I like the most odd country music, like Speedy West the country guitarist; in contemporary jazz and in rock & roll, I like the people who are pushing the boundaries.
My enthusiasm for oddball rock & roll comes from the mainstream pop of the 1960s, when each new album by the major groups was an extension of the boundaries of pop music, from the Beatles and the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. And even with all this swirl of inventiveness that was going on in the late ’60s, there were a few groups that were even going further than everybody else — Frank Zappa in particular, and Captain Beefheart. In 1969, I heard [Beefheart’s] Trout Mask Replica for the first time, and it just blew me away. There was a connection between delta blues and avant-garde jazz.
Yeah, it was really exciting, because it was like the birth of something new.
I was in high school and I remember my pal said, “If this is how good pop music is in 1969, just think what it’s gonna be like in 1984!” [Laughs.] We didn’t realize that that era was a real high point for a certain kind of avant-garde rock & roll.
Anyway, Beefheart’s Magic Band has reunited for ATP; they played at the last ATP in England, and they recorded an album here in California; I got to sit in on some of the recording sessions for it, and it’s great. It’s Drumbo [a.k.a. John French], [guitarist] Gary Lucas, [bassist] Mark Boston [“Rockette Morton”] and [guitarist] Denny Walley.Drumbo was my favorite Beefheart drummer; I remember seeing him play at the Golden Bear in Huntington Beach, when Beefheart had gotten the Magic Band back together in 1977.
I saw that show. Yeah, unbelievable. The first time I saw ’em was in ’70 or ’71, and it had Bill Harkleroad [a.k.a. Zoot Horn Rollo] and Drumbo, at the Paramount Theater, in the front row. It was also sort of the height of the hippie counterculture, and even that audience by hippie standards were complete weirdos!
How did you come to be the curator of ATP?
I gave a talk at UCLA a couple of years ago, and I hit it off with David Sefton, at the time UCLA’s new director of performing arts, and we talked about music. He had worked with Barry Hogan, who is the original promoter of ATP in England, and they both loved the idea of reuniting the Magic Band — except for Captain Beefheart, because he’s not available, he’s retired and not interested. And that’s how it started. The name “All Tomorrow’s Parties” — well, we’ve got Sonic Youth playing this year, and they had curated the festival here in L.A. last year, and I was trying to honor the tone of what they had started. My idea was a kind of through line from the Velvet Underground — because the festival is named after one of their songs — to Sonic Youth. And we’re being fairly consistent with that.
How much does this year’s lineup reflect your personal taste?
Well, the original lineup had to change, because unfortunately UCLA — the sponsor for the event — dropped out due to budget problems. The festival didn’t get advertised, and it got just lost. In a way, it’s better, because I like the new location — at the Queen Mary! It’s just an odd place to do it. The musicians I’m most excited about are Sonic Youth, who have recorded the best version of the Simpsons theme ever; of course the Magic Band, Black Heart Procession and the Minutemen.