King Missile, led by New York City spoken-word performer and poet John S. Hall, has been a college-radio staple on and off since 1987, releasing a series of cult hits ("Jesus Was Way Cool," "Sensitive Artist," "Take Stuff From Work," "Martin Scorsese") and one overplayed smash, 1992's "Detachable Penis." Commercially, though, it's been downhill from there. King Missile's third and last major-label release, a self-titled 1994 album, flopped, and a number of band members subsequently left. The group, aside from Hall, has always had a revolving cast anyway, and it's back with a new name, King Missile III, and a new collection of songs called Failure. From strangely poignant ruminations on life ("Failure," "Gay/Not Gay") to more obviously quirky material ("The Little Sandwich That Got A Guilt Complex Because He Was The Sole Survivor Of A Horrible Bus Crash"), the album should sound instantly familiar to the group's fans. Hall recently spoke to The Onion about hitmaking, novelty acts, and the perils of cleverness.
The Onion: In retrospect, do you think "Detachable Penis" was a good thing or a bad thing?
John S. Hall: Well, I got money, so that's the good thing. It's hard for me to say how my life might have been better if that hadn't happened. I think that if "Detachable" hadn't happened, I would have been dropped from Atlantic one album sooner, and I suppose that would have been a worse thing. Having the hit was good, not just for money reasons, but also because it indicated that we had commercial potential. The downside, obviously, is the same downside that comes with any hit, which is just a general problem with hits: It tends to supercede the rest of your work. But, you know, I've been thinking about this more. I've always said that I'm against hits and against the radio and all this other stuff, but I realize that hits kind of develop in any body of artwork, no matter what kind of art you do. So, Picasso has his paintings that he's known for, and there are painters who are only known for one or two works, even though they've made thousands of paintings. It's certainly true of authors, as well. Salman Rushdie was recently on TV talking about Satanic Verses, and trying to move the conversation to his forthcoming book, or even books he's written within the last 10 years, but everyone talks about this. So, they'll ask him the same question: Does he regret having written the book? And he says no, because it falls into his body of work, but that the fuss over it is regrettable. And I would say the same thing about "Detachable": I'm glad I wrote it, and it is a shame that it… I think the biggest shame is the way it was used by shock jocks, and the way it was misinterpreted and correlated with John Bobbitt. So a lot of kind of heinous things were done. But that's just sort of a function of the radio. You can be like Cat Stevens and say, "I renounce everything I've ever recorded, and I don't want them to play it on the radio, and I don't want them selling the records," but that's kind of an extreme view.
O: Another level of it, though, is that you not only get identified with one song, but, because it was a particularly goofy song, you're sort of pegged as a novelty band.
JSH: I don't mind that it was that song, as opposed to any other song. If you had to pick any song of mine and turn it into a hit, I would say "Detachable" is as appropriate as just about anything you could name. So it's not that I think it's an unfair characterization. My real problem is just hits in general; they tend to magnify one piece of your work over others. I mean, in certain cases it would be a drag; if I weren't a spoken-word artist who did basically amusing things, and this was sort of an out-of-the-blue thing, like what happened to that other band… I can't remember their name.
O: Nada Surf?
JSH: Yeah, Nada Surf. I mean, I don't know the album, but I was told later that that song ["Popular"] is kind of an anomaly for them. So in that case, that's kind of unfortunate for them. In my case, this wasn't anomalous at all. Most of my work that I prefer is this type, and in most cases, the singing stuff is filler, with the exception of songs here and there: "Pickaxe," from the Salvation record [1991's The Way To Salvation], and maybe "I Dare To Hope" from this one, are kind of good songs. But for the most part, I'm better at the spoken shit.
O: The record that came out after Happy Hour [1994's King Missile] had a lot of more band-oriented stuff, and the new one seems to really revert back to what you're best known for.
JSH: Yeah, I don't know. I understand why that record is perceived that way, but it had work on it that I was happy with: "Love Is…," "Let's Have Sex," "The Dishwasher," "These People." There were spoken-word things, but you're right; that record did seem to highlight the pop songs. And that was partly a function of the producer, and partly a function of the fact that we as a band agreed that that's what we wanted to do for that album. We were trying to make pop songs as sort of an art project, because we had never successfully done it. Ironically, we were trying to challenge ourselves by doing what everyone else did. In retrospect, it was definitely a mistake.
O: Well, you got dropped shortly thereafter.
JSH: Yeah, yeah. Um… [Pauses.] Yeah.
O: What happened from that point until now? I think a lot of people see the new record on the shelves and think, "Huh. King Missile."
JSH: Well, when we got dropped, I was kind of happy. I was like, "Wow, 'Detachable' was on the charts less than a year ago; we should have no problem getting another deal. Atlantic was stupid for dropping us." But we went to a few labels, and they just weren't that interested. They considered "Detachable" to be a flash-in-the-pan type of thing, so they weren't interested. And that version of King Missile, with Dave Rick, broke up right after the band got dropped. So what I was bringing to these labels was solo work that I did with James Scarpantoni and Sasha Forte. I brought those tapes to various labels. They weren't interested. Eventually, a German label put that stuff out, so there is this one solo record that came out in Germany. And around the time that that record came out, I started working with Bradford Reed, and then Charles Curtis joined. And then we decided that it sounded King Missile-like, so we called the band King Missile III. Within about a month of doing that, Knitting Factory expressed an interest, so we went for it.
O: Is it bad to be clever? In this day and age, bands seem to get disparaged for being clever.
JSH: I think it is considered bad to be clever, because I think people usually assume that a clever person or a clever band doesn't have substance, doesn't really care about anything. People want music that matters, that believes in something, I think, whether it expresses anger or despair or love. People want to believe that their artists are portraying emotions that they really feel. And I think that's true of Patsy Cline, Johnny Rotten, whoever you want to name. If you believe the artist, you're going to go for it. And with clever people, you often don't think of them as caring about anything except being witty. It's even maybe true of comedians; you don't just want your comedians to be witty; you want them to have some sort of feeling about something, some sort of passion, whether it's Richard Pryor or… I guess Jerry Seinfeld is sort of the perfect example of someone who's clever and probably doesn't have a whole lot of substance behind him, but people do like him. But I think maybe the time has passed for that kind of ironic distance.
O: Where does King Missile fall into that?
JSH: If you listen to a song like "Jesus," there's obviously some sort of feeling there. Some of the work has a genuine feeling behind it. Some of it is probably just being funny for the sake of being funny. Obviously, there are elements to "Detachable" about male identity that are there, but not really overtly there. For the person who wants to find it, it's there. I don't know. I don't think… I like to think I'm not obvious about the humor, and I'm not obvious about the feelings, either. There's a certain degree of subtlety to what I'm doing; even in very obvious things, there's something underneath that's interesting. I think we're guilty of being clever at times, to the detriment of conveying something more important, more real, more honest. I'll cop to that. But I will also say that there's also stuff that does have meaning.
O: Defeat seems to be a recurring theme on the new album.
JSH: [Laughs.] Yeah, there's sort of the idea of from-riches-to-rags, the idea of having had a certain degree of success and no longer having it, and kind of trying to re-establish a career. But also, within the work itself, there are ideas. I mean, the last song is about kind of a failure to convey love in a song. And the first song is actually about the fact that, by surrendering to your inability to succeed, you do actually accomplish something. So, in other words, I'm not just saying, "It's futile. Give up." I'm saying that there's liberation that results from that kind of acceptance. I mean, I noticed at some point that there was a lot of kind of down and depressing stuff [on the album]. I had a bad couple of years, just a couple of years where I kind of despaired of continuing artistically, and even maybe… There was a lot of dark feelings. But that's the thing: I'll write something, and I'll be very depressed, and I'll find that in the process of writing, I've cheered myself up.
O: What do you do if King Missile doesn't work out?
JSH: Well, three or four years ago, what I wanted was to have a happening touring band with good support from a label and all that. And basically, I've gone back now to where I was when I first started with this, which was basically, like, "I'm gonna make the recordings and try to get them put out." And everything I've recorded that I've wanted to have released has been released, and is available one way or the other if people want it. That's really all I want, to be able to have my work released. So, on that level, I have a certain degree of confidence that that will always be possible. If worst comes to worst, I can put it out myself and distribute it myself. It's easier than ever to set up a website and do mail-order. It's a much easier deal now than it used to be. In the old days, you had to put ads in magazines to put out your own records. Now, you can do it just by having a website.