Wayne Kramer talks to GSTV about the MC5, guitars, and his new jazz project
Interview by Alex Baker
As a founding member of the MC5, Wayne Kramer is arguably one of the most influential American rock guitarists to emerge from the 1960s era. The MC5’s revolutionary stance and proto-punk sound were ahead of their time and while they never became a huge success, they’ve been massively influential on generations of bands since then. After the MC5 broke up, Wayne did a two-year stint in prison for dealing cocaine. Today, he is a successful soundtrack composer, responsible for scoring films like Talladega Nights and shows like Eastbound and Down. Wayne took a few minutes to talk to GSTV about the MC5, guitars, his upcoming jazz album and a project to get guitars into the hands of prisoners he’s involved with.
GSTV: Thanks for talking to GSTV.
Thanks for the opportunity to blab (Laughs).
GSTV: Full disclosure, I’m a big fan and listened to Back in the USA this morning on my run. It’s my go-to rock and roll cardio album because it’s just 30 minutes of pure energy.
It’s a lot of up-tempo songs.
GSTV: It must’ve been shocking the first time people heard that album.
I think it was shocking, I think that it threw people. It flew in the face of the trends of the day which were 10 minute drum solos and 15 minute guitar solos and kind of Sixties marijuana haze of indulgence. And you know my goal with the record really was to counter some of the criticism that we got because the first album was so wild and so undisciplined and unrestrained. I like all those things but I just kind of wanted to prove to the world that the MC5 was actually a great band that we could write great songs and we could play in time and in tune if we wanted to.
GSTV: And in the process you accidentally invented punk.
Well it’s been interesting to me because we were starting to go to Europe on tour when that record came out and Kick Out the Jams never really found a foothold in Europe. But later, like after I came home from prison, and I went back to Europe as a solo artist, I started to meet the Clash and Nick Lowe and Billy Bragg and all those guys would tell me that Back in the USA was the record that inspired them. I think Kick Out the Jams might’ve been just too over the top for them or maybe they were too young, I don’t know. But Back in the USA was everything they were talking about. It was short concise songs that were direct and to the point that didn’t dilly-dally about with indulgent soloing and kind of faux theatricality.
GSTV: Why do you think America took so long to pick up on punk? You could argue that it really didn’t happen until Green Day in 1994.
Well I think the music scene in Britain is condensed compared to America. It’s a much smaller country with you know a handful of radio stations that really control what people hear and what gets exposed so if a trend does emerge, like punk rock, everybody knows about it right away. America on the other hand is massive, it’s a gigantic place and it takes a huge amount of effort and capitol to launch a comparable movement. So I think the only way it can happen is organically and it took what it took, it took 30 years.
GSTV: That puts you in good company with bands like the Velvet Underground who also didn’t sell many records but influenced thousands of bands.
Well that’s very kind of you to say and I think what’s interesting about records, a good record captures a moment in time and captures some original joy. And the MC5 never went on to fame and fortune (laughs) and now most of the band members are gone and now it’s kind of locked in amber. It’s locked in time, it’s a pure moment when those records were made and that seems to hold up pretty well down through the years.
GSTV: I’ll say. Are there bands you hear today that when you hear them, you think, “Oh, they must like our records.”
Yeah I suppose, I kind of, you know you gotta be careful with that kind of stuff, because grandiosity can creep into the picture there.
GSTV: Okay, let me let you off the hook for that and just ask you to name a couple bands out there that you like.
Yeah I mean of course I like Rage Against the Machine, they’re like my little brothers and certainly have carried on in a tradition of feed the homeless, fight the power and rock the fuck out!
But you know I’ll tell you, they’re kind of dated now but the one band that I’ve heard in recent time that I thought at least was true to the spirit of the MC5 was Dirty Projectors. They don’t sound anything like the MC5 but the idea of really working hard to come up with you own sound, to have an original take on the form, I like them a lot. And I heard a new Prince track the other day that was just terrific and I was trying to find it on the Internet. I don’t know what the name of it was or anything but it was really stripped down with just funky rhythm guitar and drums, I’m gonna keep searching for it.
I like Skrillex. I think he’s kind of true to the spirit of the MC5 in taking all the tools that are available and converting them into his sound, his voice. I always felt like all the bands that came after the MC5 that bashed away on their guitars were kind of missing the point. The idea was don’t do what we did, do what you do!
GSTV: Speaking of guitars, you’re a guy who’s associated with one of the most iconic guitars in rock; the red, white and blue Fender Stratocaster. At the time MC5 was this anti-establishment, revolutionary, proto-punk group. Why’d you paint your guitar patriotic colors?
I’ve always been a great fan of Pete Townshend you know he was hugely influential on me when I was a young man with the kind of stuff he was doing and I noticed that he incorporated the Union Jack into a sport coat. And I thought that’s clever, I like that. But I’m an American, what can I do? I was always looking for a way to help the band have a look and a sound and a total assault on the culture.
So I thought I’m an American and the symbol, the flag, the stars and stripes, is my flag to, especially when I considered that the direction the country was going in was wrong that the Vietnam war was wrong, that the way people of color in America were treated was wrong, that the drug laws were wrong and you know, democracy is participatory and you know it’s out job to complain when things aren’t right so I felt like this was a way I could express my patriotism and my rebellion and my disgust with Richard Nixon and John Mitchell and that whole gang that lied us into those wars and J Edgar Hoover and the creepy shit he was doing. It was just a way as an artist to express my revulsion with these people and their immoral and unethical practices.
GSTV: Aside from the paint job, can you tell me what else was special about that guitar? Looks like it had a humbucker?
Yeah, the story on that was the MC5 emerged at the time when live sound reinforcement is nothing like it is today. We didn’t even know what monitors were until we played the Fillmore East, they just didn’t exist. So all the impact of a live performance came from these stacks of Marshall amplifiers, 100 watt Marshalls with two speaker cabinets or sometimes four speaker cabinets. Sometimes we used two heads each and four cabinets so we were unbearably loud. It was shocking how loud it was.
But as a two guitar band, I had a problem of how do I get my solos just a little bit louder so I can be louder than Fred Smith, at least for the solos. And the humbucker pickup, it’s a dual coil, it’s wrapped a little heavier, and it’s a little bit louder. So I had a guy I knew that worked on our guitars put that in the middle just so that when the solo came I had a little extra just so I could get people to hear me.
As it turns out, it really makes the guitar unique because you can combine, you can get that tone alone and you can combine it with the bridge pickup and the neck pickup to get a completely unique take on the Stratocaster, it opens the guitar up to a whole new range of tonal possibilities.
I was very proud of Fender for really putting the work in to get it right. We went through a lot of permutations and various prototypes and we’d send them back and I’d say no, it’s not right, it’s not right. Because I felt like if they’re gonna do this and I’m gonna put my name on it, it better be a good guitar.
GSTV: So you stand behind the Fender Wayne Kramer Signature Strat?
Sure, I use it myself. I mean I don’t have the original.
GSTV: Where is the original, do you know?
It went in the little hole in Wayne’s arm.
GSTV: Ah, gotcha. What was your setup like with the MC5?
I had a Fuzztone and I wish I could remember the model. It had two tones on it and I think that’s about all. I don’t think Fred Smith ever used any effects pedals. My experience with effects pedals has always been that it’s just more to go wrong. You see guys that use stomp-boxes they spend half the show down on their knees fiddling with the wires.
GSTV: You’ve got a jazz record coming out. When you play jazz, what’s your setup like?
Same, because my approach to jazz is as a traditionalist I’m not trying to sound like Barney Kessel or Wes Montgomery. I’m doing my best to sound like Wayne Kramer. That’s a big enough challenge for me! So to me the tone of the guitar is whatever I feel like is appropriate in that moment and I use a Fender Hot Rod De Ville and I use my Digitech effects box and mostly I try to figure out how to get from this note to the next note.
GSTV: What’s the record called?
The record’s called Lexington and the story behind the record, you know Lexington’s the name of the federal prison that I served my sentence in. But before it was a federal prison it was designated as a U.S. Public Health Service narcotics farm. It was where drug addicts went to get treatment and it’s where people with drug related federal offenses were sentenced. In the Seventies it was taken over by the bureau of prisons and when I went there it was a federal correction institute but the history of it was fascinating all the great jazz musicians went there.
As it turns out I was hired to score a documentary for PBS called The Narcotics Farm on that institution. So I thought the score has to be a jazz themed score and since I had all these wonderful musicians together I started thinking there’s more to this than just a film score because I did my bit there and the kind of music that I’m interested in is expressed in this score. So I repurposed some of the themes and rearranged some of the music and made a record out of it. And it kind of ended up being the musical narrative of my time there and a kind of way to reach into the past and the music that was important to me as a younger man and use that fuel to take me into the future.
GSTV: You have another project, the Jail Guitar Doors, which is about getting guitars into prisons. Can you talk about that?
Sure, after I got out of prison I watched as more and more people just like me went to prison for longer and longer periods of time, for more severe sentences. Over the years I got angry about it. It was a slow burn that built up over a couple of decades as I watched the war on drugs turn into a war on mostly young men of color and mostly poor people. If you were white and you got busted the chances of going to prison were pretty slim. If you were black or brown and got arrested, you were gone. When I went to prison there were about 300,000 people in prison in America and today there’s 2.3 million people in prison. So at a certain point I felt like I’ve gotta do something.
I ran into Billy Bragg and he told me about an independent initiative in England named after the Clash song “Jail Guitar Doors,” which was about me going to prison (laughs)! I thought that’s a good thing that you’re doing in England Billy, but I’m an American. I’m a formerly incarcerated, person, I’m a musician maybe I’m uniquely positioned in this country to be a bridge between the world of music and people in prison. So we started Jail Guitar Doors USA, my wife Margaret Kramer, Billy Bragg and I founded it in 2008 and today we’re in over forty American prisons, we’ve got a waiting list of over 50 more waiting for instruments and we have songwriting workshop programs in prisons across the country.
GSTV: When you were doing your time, how important was music to you in terms of keeping your head together?
Playing music, it kept me sane it kept me connected to who I am as an artist and it also gave me a way to be of service to my fellows in the institution. Because musicians have always gone to prison, we had a band and we were able to put on regular performances and some of the bands were pretty good. We had some pretty good players come through Lexington, especially the great trumpeter Red Rodney, who became my mentor and my teacher and my musical father I like to think of him as.
It was important because when I’m playing music I’m not in prison anymore, I’m in the world of music and notes, and it’s also a good way to process one’s problems. Things don’t go your way you can pick up your guitar, you can strum for a while, and it’s a way to kind of work it out. Music and art in general are anger management.
GSTV: And you got to be the main character in a Clash song!
(Laughs) It was really a brotherly thing they did you know, I didn’t know them, we hadn’t met before I got locked up but they were fans of the MC5 and they decided out of a show of solidarity with their brother across the ocean to include me in their song. I just thought it was a really, terrific thing for them to do. You know, when I got out we all met up and became great friends forever. I’m still friends with Mick Jones. It shows what you can do if you organize, organize, organize organize!
GSTV: You mentioned Townshend, who are some of your other guitar influences?
Jeff Beck has gotta be at the top of my list up to right now today. He’s playing his ass off nowadays with that little bass player that he has Tal Wilkenfeld, she’s so good, and she’s so cute! Man they just play so well, so beautifully together. And of course Chuck Berry. Before Townshend and Jeff Beck, Chuck Berry was always my man because he played with such exuberance and with such great rhythmic velocity! The way Chuck Berry would construct a solo would be driving, it would be forcing you forward. It was a revolutionary departure from the way people approached the guitar before him. Today I love Nels Cline, some of the guys that are doing things that are more stretched out.
GSTV: Is it disappointing to you that there aren’t more bands taking political stances these days?
Not really because it’s not for everybody. If you’re motivated to participate in the world around you, that’s a good thing, that’s an admirable thing. But if you’re not and you don’t wanna do that, it’s alright with me, I don’t give a damn.
GSTV: Funny, Tom Morello told me the same thing in an interview once.
Tom and I we share much the same mindset on most things. He’s one of my guitar playing idols today because he takes the electric guitar and moves it forward, He’s not trying to out-shred somebody he’s taken the tools and figured out some way to make it sound like Tom Morello. When he’s playing you know that’s him. It’s like tenor players used to be, when ‘Trane was playing you knew it was him. When Dexter Gordon was playing you knew his style. That’s the artist responsibility is to expose himself or herself.
GSTV: What do you think of some of the more retro guys like Jack White or Gary Clark Jr.?
I like Jack White, when those White Stripes records came out there was nothing like them. They were really unorthodox. I liked that. When that stuff came up on the radio it was like “that sounds different.” It was very cool and he continues to do interesting stuff. To me he has more to do with the MC5 than kind of heavy metal bands. I’m just partial to the creative process more than the technical side of it.
Gary Clark, I like what he’s doing. I think there’s always the place for a fresh voice. He hasn’t really broken through into anything new yet, I’m sort of waiting for it to see what the futures like for him He has to get more stretched out, take bigger chances . . .and fuck shit up!
GSTV: is that your advice to young bands out there?
Absolutely, take the rules and turn them upside down and see what you come up with.
GSTV: That seems like a good note to end on. I really appreciate you taking the time.
The pleasure’s been mine. I appreciate the opportunity.