KRISTIAN HOFFMAN. VERY CHARMING. Of noble visage. An appreciator of vintage recordings. And the most skillful American pop songwriter under the age of 51. I realized that last thing after his publicist sent me a stack of his CDs. I shoved them in the changer, put it on random play and waited for something that wasn't brilliant. When that never happened, I knew.
I had stumbled over evidence before. I'd seen him at the Starwood back in 1977, when he was playing keyboards for the Mumps, the Lance Loudfronted New York group for which he wrote nearly all the songs. I'd found him in the clubs periodically since, fronting his Swinging Madisons, or behind the keys with Congo Norvell, or during what he calls his "lonely acoustic-guitar vigil." We listeners tended to guard our reactions. We'd swivel furtive glances at each other as we smiled and tapped our feet to his music -- the wonderful helical melodies, the hilariously sad lyrics, the high, woundedly theatrical voice.
It was a simple case of not believing our ears. He couldn't have been as good as we thought he was, or he wouldn't have been playing these closets.
Nevertheless, many have rallied to the Hoffman standard. His fans tend to be individuals who really, really like music -- not the majority of the population, perhaps. And musicians, of course. Hoffman has now gathered no less than 15 guest artists to duet and collaborate with him on his new Eggbert Records release, the frighteningly excellent Kristian Hoffman &.
Maria McKee (Lone Justice). Ann Magnuson (Washington Squares). Darian Sahanaja (Wondermints). Michael Quercio (the Three O'Clock). Steven McDonald (Redd Kross). Anna Waronker (That Dog). Stew (the Negro Problem). Paul Zone (Man2Man). Van Dyke Parks. El Vez. Paul Reubens?! Lydia Lunch??!! Don't want to leave anybody out, because they all make meaningful contributions. But I don't want this to go on forever, either, so let's consider three representative selections.
We must begin with Russell Mael, because he's the album's leadoff hitter, and one of Hoffman's main inspirations. Given Hoffman's tastes, it was inevitable that our hero would eventually become the catalyst for a cordial reunion -- of singer Mael with a Mael brothers bandmate on the first two Sparks albums (1971 and 1972), guitarist-producer Earle Mankey. Mankey has long drawn worship for his genius at making cheapness sound grand, and his teamwork on all Hoffman's solo CDs is a marriage made in heaven. On "Devil May Care," a romping "Gimme Some Lovin'" beat thrives adjacent to the staccatos of a twisted classical bridge, and Mael applies his patented falsetto to a chorus that suggests, "Irony check -- have an éclair!" while grotty guitar slashes put the power in the pop. Perfect.
"God, If Any, Only Knows" escorts you to an entirely different era, Hoffman's beloved '30s -- but he's always taking you somewhere. Guest Abby Travis manages to be both girl next door and irresistible seductress, trading verses with the pitifully cheerful Hoffman as they wonder, "Inexpressible fear -- is that all that we shared?" The drama's accompanied by a hat-waving barrelhouse-piano whump-up: Kontradiction is Hoffman's middle name.
Lest you be distracted by his glossy surfaces and fail to peer beneath, Hoffman conjures one nightmare you can't wake from: "Scarecrow," with Rufus Wainwright. Founded on stately Procol-Harum-stealing-from-Beethoven piano arpeggios, it jump-cuts through a number of artfully jarring changes before settling into a celestial coda worthy of Brian Wilson; the theme, without calling too much literal attention to the fact, is the 1998 Wyoming gay-bash killing of Matthew Shepard. You won't often encounter something this beautiful and this devastating. And damn, that Wainwright sings pretty.
Overflowing with violins, harpsichords, French horns, surprising progressions and divine melodies, Kristian Hoffman & is the record that every fan of the Beatles, the Beach Boys, the Kinks and great songcraft in general has been pining for over the long decades between. Barring a few overquirked moments toward its end, anyway. But those are part of the tradition, too.
SO WHY IS IT THAT HOFFMAN CAN roll his cart down the aisles at Albertson's without bodyguards?
"I don't have that Madonna-like drive to sell myself at all costs," says Hoffman, adding that he admires what he lacks. "And what I do has consistently been unfashionable."
Unfashionable maybe. But in fact, Hoffman has been influential. Compare recordings of the Mumps with the first albums by their friends Blondie, and you'll notice quite a few similarities: the vertical melodies, the classical piano touches, the spy-movie guitar lines. The Mumps, regulars in mid-'70s New York, were also that scene's first ambassadors to Hollywood, reinforcing an L.A. pop trickle represented by the Motels, The Pop and the Quick (the last recorded by Earle Mankey) that would soon leave its originators behind to drown the world in new wave.
New wave, though, despite its roots in glam and geek, quickly became unrelentingly hetero, which the campy Mumps were not. Singer Lance Loud, for godsake, had worn lipstick on national TV -- in An American Family, the template for The ä Osbournes. And Hoffman wasn't exactly Clint Eastwood. The Mumps were thus misperceived by many as just a novelty act, and Hoffman's subsequent coy band names (Swinging Madisons, Washington Squares, Bleaker Street Incident) did little to dispel that impression.
Now that Hoffman has released three CDs under his own name, however, anyone who's heard them should be recognizing a mature, serious (though not grave) songwriter.
"I still value the song above all," he says, in a rare moment when he's not making fun of himself. "You want to be as adventurous as you can, and still perfect this wonderful thing. And I don't embarrass myself lyrically as much as I used to -- my precepts are similar, but my aspirations are higher. I love something that will catch your ear on first listening because it seems ridiculous or untoward. But I also like it when you scrutinize the lyrics and they'll reveal more layers of meaning."
Take these: "We'd heard it said that only God can make a man. It's true. But only man can make a scarecrow out of you. And only man can make a God who might approve . . . Scarecrow, I know you."
In some ways, Hoffman's talent has gotten in his way: Thanks to his skill as a piano accompanist, he's spent a lot of time away from his own music, touring with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, El Vez, Abby Travis (one of whose CDs he co-produced) and Kinks guitarist Dave Davies. Supporting Davies was a special temptation: "When I was a kid in my bedroom, I listened to Face to Face with the lights out on my little portable stereo, just obsessing over every word, and here I am now touring with that guy."
Hoffman must have felt he could do anything after he traveled Europe twice in the early '80s with Lydia Lunch -- as her drummer. He claimed no kit proficiency, "but at that time in history it didn't matter. She did tell me, which I feel kind of proud of, that her tour with me was the most embarrassing thing she'd ever done in her life. And that's something coming from her!"
Hoffman will soon hit the asphalt to promote his new album, a duty he feels he's shirked somewhat in the past. Till then, you'll find him watching movies, but avoiding the newspapers. They're too depressing: "I've been a knee-jerk liberal all my life, and I'm ready to fight anybody about that!" He believes we should leave something for our children's children, though he declines responsibility for fathering any: "I'm not going to partake in planting my seed in those particular orifices."
Hoffman says he'd like to live in New Orleans, or in New York again, but he can't afford it. No problem; he's truly at home in his Montecito Heights 1911 Craftsman-lite house, packed with artifacts -- kitsch memorials to dead children, an umbrella stand made from the foot of an elephant killed by his white-hunter uncle. When it comes to planting seeds and putting down roots, "L.A.'s the place where you can have a wonderful old haunted house and a garden."
Look out the window. What's he growing out there? "Weeds."
Singer-songwriter and No Wave pioneer Kristian Hoffman got some of his best friends together -- and some people he could only approach when drunk -- to make his new album &, a collection of collaborations due out today on Eggbert Records, his California-based independent label. Rufus Wainwright, whose touring band Hoffman leads, leaves his mark on the set, as does an eclectic bunch of figures from the cerebral fringes of pop music and culture: composer/Beach Boys collaborator Van Dyke Parks, former Sparks leader Russel Mael, New York poet and musician Lydia Lunch, Paul Reubens (best known as Pee Wee Herman) and a host of others.
"It started with this idea to make a joke duet single with Belinda Carlisle singing 'Having My Baby' with me," says Hoffman, "but that didn't happen because she had to go back to England all of a sudden. But the head of my record company thought we should make a whole album of duets. As it turned out, the list of people who were willing to participate were artists I loved and respected, and I began to take it more seriously as a vehicle for songcraft."
That list includes many artists (Wainwright and Lunch, former frontwoman of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks) whom Hoffman has worked with over the course of his varied career, and others (Mael and Parks) he had only admired from a distance. "When the Mumps, my old band, started in New York," Hoffman remembers, "we loved Sparks so much it crept into our songwriting, and we were constantly compared to them. I knew Russel Mael vaguely and of course I thought it would be wonderful to have him sing one of my songs, but I was scared and shy. So someone had to ask him for me, and it ended up being this whole circuitous thing, but I guess he said yes right away."
"And the really outlandish thing," Hoffman continues, "was to get Van Dyke Parks to do the string arrangement for me. I met him a couple times when I was working with Rufus, and once went up to him when I was really drunk and asked, "Will you do one of my songs?" And, surprisingly enough, he said yes. All the stars were in the right place to make that happen."
Hoffman had his friend Wainwright in mind for the lilting ballad "Scarecrow," and even though he agreed to do it without coercion or intoxication, the singer still accounted for the recording process's scariest moment. "Rufus came after a furious night of partying," Hoffman remembers. "When he walked in with his sunglasses on and looking kind of disheveled I thought, 'He doesn't take my song seriously.' But of course he sang like an angel and got it perfect on the first take. And I looked at him and said, 'It's amazing you can sing so well after staying up so late.' He just looked at me and said, 'Kristian, this is what I do.'"
Hoffman knew Reubens -- who runs through a bizarre and hilarious spoken-word intro to "Sex in Heaven" on the album -- from art school. "He's one of those people who's really good at calling every six months to see what you're up to," Hoffman says. "I asked him if we wanted to do something silly on the album, and he said sure. So he came down and just made something up to go over the background vocals for 'Sex in Heaven.'"
A tour isn't likely to support &, but Hoffman -- who since his last solo album, 1997's Earthquake Weather, has also been playing in Dave Davies' band -- will probably play a one-off show with friends in New York this summer. "I don't really have that Madonna gene," he says, "but this time that I need to force myself to promote the album, as opposed to just kind of put it out and wait for people to discover how great my record is."
As recently as 6 months ago, if someone had mentioned the name Kristian Hoffman to me, I would have only been able to comment on his clever keyboard work on such records as The Jigsaw Seen, Andrew and others. A Fine studio musician-a real team player who lent a certain elegance to some records that I'd heard or reviewed. But, after seeing Hoffman play at the Poptopia show, and hearing this record, I've definitely expanded my opinion of him, especially as a songwriter and singer. At the Poptopia show, I couldn't quite put my finger on something in the vocal style that sounded familiar. Morley Bornoff (better known to some of you as Cosmo Topper), a fine musician in his own right, gave me the perfect analogy, with reference to the late, great Phil Ochs. The trademark Buddy Holly 'hiccup' vocal style also comes to mind. With these two sides from his upcoming eggBERT CD, Earthquake Weather, all of this talent comes to a fine boil. The A-side, "He Means Well", is an exciting pop masterpiece, with a lot of energy, and infectious groove, and a lot of wonderful free-association verse that makes the listener do psychic second takes al the verse. Even if the lyrics were a bit more straightforward, it would still he a solid pop song in anybody's book. Earle Mankey's lead guitar and production help the track crackle with energy. This is a well thought out, and above all fun record. Kristian is also a fine rhythm guitar player (something of an invisible art) that reminds me of Don Everly. The B-side, "Green Circles" is a cover of a great Small Faces tune (written by Steve Marriot and Ronnie Lane) that is a fantastic story-song, with a wonderful, swimming arrangement, produced by Hoffman and Jonathan Lea of The Jigsaw Seen. It's quirky, elusive, and has a psychedelic majesty that elevates it beyond "flip side. This is great stuff, and makes me look forward to the upcoming CD. Another little bonus for you vinyl fans is a fantastic, Beardsley-esque cover drawn by Hoffman himself.
Kristian Hoffman's new album Earthquake Weather is a bigger new wavekick than a stack of Trouser Press magazines. Over the years, Hoffman has written and performed with Lydia Lunch, Klaus Nomi, The New York Dolls, James White and the Blacks, as well as fronting the legendary Mumps. On Earthquake Weather, Hoffman's opulent whimsy is a bit like Sparks in their heyday. Hoffman has a slick nerdiness, kind of like two Mael brothers in one. Although the album is tuneful, it's a bit of an acquired taste, as the songs never quite do what's expected. A must for fans of the grand pop gesture.
You've Got Bad taste, for all it's "offensive" pretenses, really knows how to give back to community. Not only is it a fun place to hang out and a way cool trashola emporium, they consistently put on great free! shows there. Tonight's bill features the official single-release party for Kristian Hoffman, a local lad who should be canonized for his contributions to the underground music scene at large, going on more thean 20 years now. Not only has he played with influential pop/punk/nowave bands (The Mumps, Swingin' Madisons, James White and the Blacks, Lydia Lunch, etc., etc.), he's written songs perfromed by the Cramps and the Go-Go's, among others, and he;s done some fine solo stuff on his own, ranging from what he terms "whiney, broken-hearted folk" tp sparkly, Sparks-like bubblergum. Oh, not to mention he was right there on the PBS series An American Family coming out as a homosexual alongside his former Mumps bandmate Lance Loud, who incidentally, will be on hand to do a song or two on Sunday. Kristian's new 45, "He Means Well," is just out on the local eggBERT Records, and not only does it sound interesting, Kristian did the cover drawings too.
Witty pop tunes from ex- Mump/Swinging Madison/Congo Norvell chappie. lntense attention to detail in these very arranged songs, and a timeless Danny Hutton/Knickerbockers/mid '60s sound (subjective). Canny chords, harmonies, instrumental embellishments (glockenspiel rock) give the best you can ask of pop music: a surprise now and then. His words: much wailing and gnashing re gangsters and fatalism, comments on pop culture; mainly, he wants to feel alive. And his music has a lot of life in it.