AN INTERVIEW WITH FISH KARMA
Yesterday (sort of), I posted some reflections on the career of intrepid seriocomic musician and artist Fish Karma, with a focus on his groundbreaking album Sunnyslope. I contacted Mr. Karma with some interview questions, and he kindly responded to them. In his answers, he reflects upon his decades as an alt-musician and the themes that have influenced and changed him over the years.
JE: Many of the songs on the Sunnyslope CD seem to be inspired (provoked?) especially by the place and era in which they were written, that is to say, places in Arizona in the 1970s and 80s. For readers who are unfamiliar, can you say a little about these and how they influenced the CD?
FK: I have had a love-hate relationship with the state ever since my father decided to move us from Royal Oak, Michigan to Phoenix, Arizona, when I was seven or eight years old. Being rather dim as a child, I somehow thought that we would be living in some kind of John Wayne or Lone Ranger-type paradise. I guess I thought everyone who moved to Arizona would be given a complimentary ten-gallon hat, horse, and Colt .45. Imagine my shock and horror, then, when I deplaned–silver wings proudly affixed to my shirt– and found myself in Phoenix. In the middle of August. I honestly could not conceive of anyone being able to live in that sort of ineffable heat. And the cacti and succulents I regarded with mixed horror and nausea. Thank goodness for the “Wallace and Ladmo Show”–I truly believe it was one of the few things that kept me sane.
That, and playing basketball as many hours a day as I could. And collecting Slurpee cups. And reading. I remember seeing a copy of “Gravity’s Rainbow” on the paperback rack at the grocery store where my mother purchased canned peas and pork and applesauce and canned beans; decided I had to have it; spent my allowance on it; took it home; read it; understood virtually nothing. But I was hooked. Years passed; after being graduated from high school, I ended up living with my friend Jack and his mother and brother in a poodle-infested house in a more-Godforsaken-than-usual part of Phoenix, where I worked as a “cashier” in a gas station that was located several yards away from a very festive topless bar frequented by angry bikers and aggressive “speed freaks.” Deciding I had enough of the rural life at Bell Road and Cave Creek, I moved to Sunnyslope proper, where I lived in a one-room apartment at 12th and Hatcher. (Or some other cross streets. It doesn’t matter.) I remember often drinking Fresca, for some reason. And, of course, the Circle K next door, where it seemed mandatory for everybody to blast Van Halen songs from their vehicles.
As far as I can remember, the song “Sunnyslope” was my first attempt to write a song that was relatively serious. Or, to put it another way, non-comedic. I recall feeling somewhat self-conscious about this, since I had previously written nothing that was not deliberately humorous in either intent or execution. When one aspires to be a songwriting musician, but can neither play an instrument nor, indeed, carry a tune, satire is an easy cushion upon which to collapse. These sorts of songs came easily to me; the two cassettes I put out on Al Perry’s label–“To Hell with Love, I’m Going Bowling” and “Disco Entropy”–were intended to be outrageous. Of course, I didn’t realize what a trap I had set for myself. I also had no idea that I would still be making music more than three decades later, nor that I would be writing more “serious” songs. The humor is still there, I believe, albeit deliberately muted. It drives me crazy that people still call out for “Swap Meet Women” or “God is a Groovy Guy” on those increasingly-infrequent occasions when we play live shows. I suppose I should be happy that they remember them…BUT I’M FUCKING NOT! It’s not easy being forever associated with the callow thoughts of one’s youth. But I digress.
Then (REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED), and I moved to Tucson. Rather liked it, although I moved to California for a few years of drinking and eating Oki Dogs. Went on tour in Canada with Al Perry and the Cattle. Moved back to Tucson. Got married. Had three children–all boys. Got divorced. Got married again. Became a widower. In between, I moved out of Tucson several times and invariably moved back.
“Truth or Consequences” was inspired by a trip taken by my new family–only one child at the time–to Chimayo, New Mexico, by way of Truth or Consequences. “The Customer is Always Right” is a true story of working in a video store while going to grad school. “Dick York” is fairly self-explanatory, with the codicil that I was actually shocked as a child by the unwelcome appearance of Dick Sergeant. “(She Likes to Make Love to) Led Zeppelin” is another true story. (Try it some time!) “Girl, You Gotta Love Your Man” and “Gas, Grass, or Ass” are examples of journalism.
JE: Where did the name “Fish Karma” come from?
FK: It was just a goofy name I thought of when I was in a laundromat next to the Dunkin’ Donuts on University Boulevard. I don’t know if the washing machines played any part in my thought process. The idea was to create a nom de plume I could utilize for a couple of Tuesday nights while performing “stand-up comedy” at the Tequila Mockingbird, a nondescript Tucson mall bar that somehow served as the nexus for any number of interconnected subatomic tendrils that are still extending and reconfiguring themselves, years after the bar itself succumbed to the bulldozer’s tender kiss. ANYWAY: my comedy partner (Mike Sterner) and I had recently broken up our violent “Gomez and Gomez” duo, the result of some long-forgotten altercation; and I believed that my own name (which I’ve never liked, by the way) was unsuitable to the sort of comedy performer I aspired to be. At some point, I had taken the twenty dollars my mother sent me for my birthday and purchased, at Value Village, some kind of hideous, stifling, burlap-bag outfit festooned with bottle caps and rope. Which cost exactly twenty dollars. I also wore long, plastic elf shoes.
I have no idea where they came from. Thus was Fish Karma born. It was only meant to last for a few weeks. “Rockin’ and Rollin’ with Little Baby Jesus” was written after a night of the usual sort of debaucheries in LA. (Not as interesting as you might think.) Both “White Things” and “Cow of my Dreams” were on the first cassette; I don’t remember why we re-recorded them. Things are very murky. I do know that Mojo Nixon “produced” the album, which came out on his boutique label that was associated with Triple XXX Records. And by “producing,” I mean he drank many bottles of many things, screamed, jumped around, and refused to let us do more than one take of any song. “Lunch with the Devil”–no comment. Oh, “My Parents are Having a Party”–that’s actually my second serious song. It was based on the horror I felt as a child when my parents hosted a shindig and things started getting out of control…
JE: Unlike almost all musicians working with the various genres you explore, the lyrics of your songs are characterized by strong literary influences. This yields some interesting works, such as a rock ode to Emily Dickinson and, on the Sunnyslope album, an Oi/punk version of part of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. What is your background in literature and how has it influenced your music?
FK: My background in literature is that I have always been an avid reader. I enjoy incorporating aspects of books I love into different contexts. If I had had the time (and more musical talent), I would have done a lot more with the Eliot poem. I mean, granted, he was a vicious Anti-Semite, but that poem is a real cracker. And I’ve always had a mad crush on Emily Dickinson. I can only read a few of her poems with falling to the floor and rolling around for several minutes. It’s the same feeling I have while watching birds build nests.
It’s been difficult for me to describe the music I hear in my head so musicians know what it is I am asking them to do. That’s why I feel so fortunate to have worked with Dave Roads for the past three years. We have a degree of communication that I have not before experienced. He always knows exactly what I want him to play, even if my instructions are along the lines of “First play the ‘doot doot doot’ part, then the ‘deet deet deet’ part, then go all ‘whangety-whangety’ right before you get to the bridge.”
JE: More than thirty years have passed since you started appearing as the enigmatic Mr. Karma and a quarter century since the release of Sunnyslope, You have released seven CDs since then. What sorts of differences do you perceive in your songs now by comparison to the early days?
FK: My songs are more political than ever, even if they are sometimes buried beneath somewhat obfuscating metaphors. For example, the song “Lethal Fairy Tales” is about how religious cultural information is passed along from generation to generation, thousands of years after the original creation myths were conceived by people in specific geographical circumstances. Of course, one begins to question the songwriting if each song has to be explained. However, that is how I am working these days, having grown weary of tendentious finger-pointing. I’m also more open to dream imagery. Several lines and musical arrangements on the new album, in fact, were dreamed by different band members. We’re all cycling together now.
JE: Many years ago, you released, with Andy Young, a wonderful collection of children’s songs, which my own 10-year-old greatly enjoys. Any chance you’ll do another album for kids?
FK: That was a special time in my life–teaching second- and third-graders in a multiage, multiyear classroom. Most of these students came from circumstances that could be charitably be described as benighted. I just started writing songs to sing with my kids, because it seemed like a natural thing to do. Many of my songs on that album were based on the experiences of the kids in my room. Simultaneously, Andy Young was writing songs for his kindergarten students. I proposed a collaboration, which my friend Rich Hopkins put out on this Tucson label, San Jacinto Records. Unfortunately, I don’t think another children’s album is in my future. The record was of its time and circumstance, although I am rather proud of it. And my son Sinjin did the cover!
JE: What thing more than all others makes your life worthwhile?
Being with Kay Sather. I don’t know how to describe her. Actually, I don’t have to; just watch her documentary “Mud,” that is available on YouTube. You’ll see what I mean. She is extraordinary.
After my wife Jennifer died, I had reconciled myself to the prospect of wandering about in an alcoholic haze for the rest of my life. I won’t go with the tired trope often heard in songs (e.g., “You made my life worth living,” etc.); however, I will say that we have each others’ spark rekindled. (This is, of course, from my perspective.)
JE: Most sensible people regard Ronnie James Dio as a contemptible hack. Can you explain your love for the man?
FK: On the contrary! He was a sensitive and articulate man. Sure, at first I laughed, because he seemed to embody the worst stereotypes of a certain genre of music. However, I grew to truly love him. Check out his stuff in the 50s, when he helmed Ronnie and the Redcaps; his Beatlesque phase in the early 60s; the glory that is Elf…
JE: You have a new CD coming out now, Time to Say Goodbye. I hope it doesn’t mean you’re saying goodbye. Tell us about it!
FK: 18 new songs, one of them a cover of the Archies! Three instrumentals! Many genres! Lots of lyrics! Kay sings a song in German! I’m not saying goodbye to show business; rather, I’m bidding farewell to the human race due to the climate chaos that will soon engulf us all. (I mean, more than it is already engulfing us.) We’re having a conjoined Record Release/Rock Opera at Club Congress in Tucson on June 9th; I’ve written a narrative that incorporates many of the new songs (and a couple of older ones), and which will be voiced by the inimitable David Fitzsimmons. It’s a free show, for Christ’s sake. I’m still looking for someone to film it.
You can find Sunnyslope and other of Fish Karma’s works on Amazon, iTunes and the usual platforms. His new CD, Time to Say Goodbye, will be released by Alternative Tentacles on June 8.
Fish Karma records with The DeRailleurs, which is comprised of the inimitable trio of Dave Roads on guitar, Dante Perna on drums, and the Reverend Jim Hartley on bass.
If you want to explore Fish Karma’s music, paintings, and writings (such as the play Hump, an amusing reimagining of Shakespeare’s Richard III), and/or are interested in attending or even filming his big June 9 record release, go to http://www.fishkarma.net/
Praise for The Language of Bears:
Witty, serious, and original, this stunning tale should attract anyone who delights in an intellectually stimulating read. – Kirkus Reviews
The combination of world-building, character development, and expert plotting makes for a compelling yarn, but THE LANGUAGE OF BEARS is also more than that. It’s a novel with something to say. By drawing on Puritan America for inspiration, Eidswick is able to examine both the harmful legacies the United States has inherited from that past, as well as the things of value it has cast aside. Even though it’s set in an imagined town isolated in time and space, THE LANGUAGE OF BEARS is full of lessons for the present day. After reading BOOK ONE: THE POLYPS OF CHRIST, you’ll anxiously await whatever intrigue and wisdom Eidswick has planned for BOOK TWO.” – IndieReader
It hits almost every single one of my wants when it comes to a fiction book and then some. – MI Book Reviews
This book is like reading a fairy tale after consuming a box of magic mushrooms…the surprise hit of the year. – Two Bald Mages
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