His name may be unfamiliar to mainstream audiences, but Kristian Hoffman's career has been filled with the stuff of legends. His 40 year journey took him from serving as front man for CBGB's favorite the Mumps to acting as Klaus Nomi's musical director to forming Rufus Wainwright's first touring act to entertaining invite-only audiences with classic vaudevillian numbers at the mansion of Irene Larsen, who, with her late husband and his brother, cofounded the Magic Castle in Los Angeles.
Openly gay despite the homophobia often present in the punk scene, Hoffman undoubtedly paved a freer path for later generations of musicians and artists. His most recent album, Fop, was released last September and has garnered the musician steep praise. Out spoke with Hoffman about his desire to make pop star money while still staying true to his subculture roots and the one and only time he was stabbed for being a punk.
Out: Obviously you have a really long and epic history and we have a lot to talk about, but let's first discuss how you ended up in Los Angeles.
Kristian Hoffman: I ended up in Los Angeles in a fairly colorful fashion. First of all, I had been friends with the Cramps since they formed in about 1976 and they had moved to Los Angeles and they kept telling me, 'The rent is cheap! The Mexican food is great! The thrift stores are really full of fabulous stuff!' My management -- I actually had management at the moment -- told us that if I got my band, the Swing Madisons, to California that he would get us a record contract. That didn't quite happen. The other thing is that I was living with the drummer from Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Bradley Field, and he and I had a very tempestuous seven-year relationship. It was at the end when he was a junkie and an alcoholic and he threatened to kill me. It didn't even occur to me to get therapy or fix this relationship in any way, I just told him I was going out for the night and I moved to L.A. without telling him.
That was very high drama.
And you stayed --
Yes, I did. The whole band moved with me. It was something that they had wanted to do and I was resisting. I liked our lost life, next to CBGB's with all our friends, but it got to be untenable and I didn't have an evolved, sophisticated view in order to see this. I had to make a dramatic exit and move 3,000 miles. It all happened in one night.
Your most recent album, Fop, was released last September. How would you define its genre? Do you consider your album more of a conceptual piece or is it more straightforward?
Of all of the things I do, I think of myself as a traditional songwriter first. I say traditional in what I think is the greatest sense of the word. Of course, this is only aspiration and is for others to judge. Whether I achieve these things, who knows? I have gotten fairly good response over the years. I think that I have tried to hone my craft so that is might sit comfortably on the bookshelf next to other people I admire like Rufus Wainwright or David Bowie or the Kinks or Sparks or Stooges or Cramps or Cole Porter or George Gershwin. That is the template I use. My style on the album is a cross between '70s glam and '60s Sergeant Pepper pop. A bunch of other influences come in there, especially on "Mediocre Dream" and "Hey Little Jesus," which has a lot of Cramps influence. I don't think of it as performance at all. In terms of lyrics, I have a very specific point of view that might be more performance-adjacent. Still, I work with those in terms of lyrical craft as well. I am very old-fashioned that way and I am proud of it.
When you perform live, are there any theatrics involved?
I would say that I am theatrical person, so I do a lot of jumping around onstage -- especially for someone my age. What you do onstage when you are 22 and rather slender suddenly looks ridiculous when you are approaching 60. I think I am theatrical in the sense that I do a lot of hand gestures and emoting and I have a lot of second-takes and wink-winks, hoping that the audience is traveling with me and seeing I am ironic about some methods and sincere about others. I don't use props. It's not like David Bowie doing "Diamond Dogs" or a performance artist with sets and props. I don't distance myself from my material. I am in my material. It is who I am.
Do you have plans to tour with this album or are you going to stay local?
I would have a plan to tour if touring were possible. After all these years in the music industry, or at least on the faint distant margins of the music industry -- or what we laughably call the music industry -- there isn't any way I could support a tour. When I was 19 and 20 years old, I was willing to sit in the back of a van, with no heat, driving through Cleveland in the middle of winter and hoping to sleep on someone's floor. I am not going to do that anymore. There was a subterranean system of clubs that were very excited about punk rock and would book you, sight unseen. That is not what it is like now. I can't afford to tour. I won't get in the back of a dilapidated car with my acoustic guitar and hope I can sing at a coffee shop at 3 in the afternoon. I have a slightly more fancy idea of myself than that. Maybe I'm not fancier than that.
You are such a cult legend. That being said, you are only known to those familiar with a certain type of subculture. How does that feel after so many years in the industry? Did you plan on being a cult icon or did you want to find more mainstream success?
When I started off as a young man, I was listening to the Stooges and the Kinks and all those stories that have been told many times before. I thought that young men write songs, get a record contract, and become rock stars. Music is the tool of communication. Hopefully, music is a tool to show people your viewpoint and make them interested in your viewpoint. Our template was the Beatles. George Harrison sold a million records by the age of 17. I don't have any anything against huge success. I realized very early that the albums I most cherished -- the first two Sparks albums, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, the Velvet Underground -- were the least-selling records in the catalog of the parent company. Suddenly I realized that I am working in a milieu that means so much to me and to maybe 10,000 other people around the world. This isn't the 10 million people that bought Sgt. Pepper. Then punk came along and reinvigorated our hope that we would go forth and gain a larger community that we could move amongst. It's not like I was so eager to make a million dollars. I was eager to make a sustainable career out of my music, sharing my music with people, and having them share their music with me. Sparks was a good template for the career I wanted: make a record every couple of years, have a nice core audience and every once in a while have a hit. That didn't happen. Even the Mumps, right when we broke up, were a really popular nightclub act. We could sell out CBGB's three nights in a row -- which is as much as anyone else ever did before Blondie, Talking Heads, or Television. We just never got signed. That was a real disappointment. On the other side of that, I have been blessed to have met and continue to meet people who are eccentric and kooky and inspiring and outsidery, which is what I most enjoy. They accompany me on my journey and I accompany them on theirs. It's been fabulous being in that cult and it continues. I never expected to be working at my age with Prince Poppycock, who is a wonderful guy. Do you know who he is?
Put in his name in YouTube. He was one of the finalists on America's Got Talent. He is a very extravagantly attired person who performs in a powered wig. He has a trained opera voice, like Klaus Nomi, and is wonderfully charismatic. I met him because he wanted to meet me on Facebook because of the Mumps song catalog and we were lucky enough to work together on a few songs. Now that he is so popular because of America's Got Talent, I don't know what the future holds. He is still a good friend of mine. Moving through life, I continued to meet people like Klaus Nomi or Ann Magnuson or the Cramps. That sense of cult is fabulous to me. I have a family in every city I go to. They are all wonderfully gracious and I am blessed. No, I want a hit record. As my backer said, 'Music, you always hope people will listen to it.' I don't make a record thinking that my friends are going to like it like a birthday cake. I make a record with the intent that it will be the best record ever made! I am very ambitious. Whether I succeed or not is a different story.
With your most recent album, is your fanbase still comprised of older fans or are you attracting a younger crowd, too?
I don't really know. I would say the critical response is fantastic. I have gotten loads of over-the-top reviews that say it's a masterpiece, which I agree with personally. The negative reviews have actually been revealing because the negative reviews say it's too long, which is ridiculous because in the '70s you didn't say Goodbye Yellow Brick Road by Elton John was too long. You would say that I, as the audience, get to luxuriate in more music that I can digest in one sitting. That would be a plus, not a negative. But most of them say it's too orchestrated or the lyrics are too precious. I even had a review saying the record is too pretty. Three or four of the negative reviews I have gotten mentioned that only the rock songs are good. The other one said only the ballads are good. I feel like it is a matter of perspective from the listener. Overall, the response has been positive. I don't know what "audience" means in this age of download. It's not a community you can rely on where you can go on the street and someone says, 'Hey! I loved your latest!' It's a community that is out there in the mystery of the Ethernet. An independent album is slow in flowering and you have to nurture it, so I didn't expect to release the album and sell 100,000 copies in the first week. I'm hoping it's an ongoing process of it reaching people. I hope you are part of that!
Through your decades of musical experience, how have you seen the gay community flourish?
I have always been an outsider in music, so I am an outsider in gay music. For instance, as much as I love Lady Gaga as an icon, I think her music is the most boring music I have ever heard in my life. Don't take that personally Lady Gaga! I still want you to endorse me! I don't care about an electro-Euro-disco beat that goes on for 20 minutes and one phrase is repeated. I don't respond to that. I never felt part of a gay music scene. In that same sense, I never felt part of a gay scene because we were punk rockers so we didn't like clones. We thought they subscribed to label fashion and Studio 54 and the cocaine aesthetic -- all the stuff we felt alienated by. Even when Prop. 8 was passed in California, we cannot forget that there was even a ballot trying to legislate gay marriage. That this even existed was such an extreme leap forward from when I was a child and my mother would say she went to a gay party and since she was raised in the '20s that meant she went to a party where people were happy! It didn't even occur to me that people had to hide in darkened street corners and meet in secret places and never admit to friends who they really were. Who knew the president would now have to take a stand on whether or not to stop "don't ask, don't tell"? There have been incredible and historic leaps forward. Coming out doesn't mean you're going to be mugged. In high school, people say, 'You're gay!' -- but it didn't mean you were. They would wait and beat you up. I know this still happens in rural communities and surely some urban communities as well, but now these people have gay support groups. The word 'gay' is in the national vocabulary. It's radically different. I do identify as a gay pioneer somewhat. When Lance Loud and I were in the Mumps, he was in the show This American Family. It was coined the first reality TV series and it caused a national sensation. They were on the cover of Newsweek and they were labeled superficial, middle-class climbers. Their working background never made it onto the screen. In the mythos of this show, Lance became the first gay person on screen. If you revisit the show you notice he never comes out. I have said this many times before, but we didn't dress like gay people. We dressed like rock stars. Lance came out on Dick Cavett right afterward. He was a national icon for a gay person who was articulate, charismatic, and unafraid. Over the course of our lives so many people have come up to Lance and said, 'You gave me the opportunity to come out to my parents.' Other people came out to him, like Ann Magnuson whom I still work with, said, 'Lance, I believed in you so much. You are the reason I moved to New York and believed I could become an artist.' In the middle of that, we never thought the Mumps was a gay band. We thought Mumps was a great band. I didn't think I was a gay songwriter. I thought I was a great songwriter. I didn't want to be ghettoized by being gay. I'm happy to be out and be political about being gay, but I would dare you to compare my songwriting chops to Elvis Costello or anyone who doesn't have to deal with that question. It's a two-edged sword. Am I songwriter? Or am I songwriter that's gay? I am a political person, so I fight for gay rights. It was pejorative to be gay. I am fighting against that.
It's hard in the media because the moment you come out, you are no longer a musician. Then, all you are is gay.
Exactly! I do think I write from a gay perspective. I compare myself to the McGarrigle Sisters, who write pristine, very minimalist songs with acoustic guitars and searing voices. I don't think of my love songs as any less touching than their love songs because I happen to be gay. When I think about love, I don't think about a hot guy from the Frontiers classified. When I think about love, I think about heartache, and community, and hoping to intertwine in some long-lasting way. On the other hand, I am gay and I am ready to be out and gay. Also, I am willing to accept some gay dollar because I was out there as a pioneer. The physical and philosophical act of being out and not being in is a stance we took every early. In punk, I was living with my boyfriend. Punk was not gay-friendly, especially when it got codified into that Orange County stuff with all those people yelling about hating things and sporting mohawks and leather. We were not that kind of punk. To live openly with my boyfriend and still be accepted into bands like the Contortions or to tour with Lydia Lunch was a political statement in itself.
Did you ever feel threatened by the punk community because of your sexuality?
If you went to an Echo and the Bunnymen concert -- who I love -- you would notice that the whole audience is New Jersey "bridge and tunnel" people. That is not saying anything bad about them, but they are predominantly jocks and as a gay person that is threatening. You don't know what will happen. We had a lot of self-regard and hubris and we thought we were it, and history has proved correctly that we were it. There have been hundreds of books written about that time period, which has convinced me that I wasn't delusional. We were living in a fantastic time with a bunch of fantastic artists whose work lasts until today. Even Mumps, who I thought we marginalized during our time, have had two large retrospectives of our music released. There is appreciation for what we did. In the moment it was sometimes scary because it wasn't as evolved as now. When I was in the Mumps and I was going around New York, there was this club that Ann Magnuson started called Club 57. They had this little club called the Ladies Auxiliary Club where all the girls of the East Village would get together and make folders of eligible bachelors. Before they met me they thought I was a hot, eligible bachelor. I guess I wasn't as out as I thought I was, but they found out soon enough. There were arenas were it was very welcoming. There were other arenas where it was threatening and you didn't know what was going to happen. In my life in New York I have been mugged twice and some people called me faggot -- this happened in L.A., too. In the confines of the punk world, the only time I was threatened was when were playing in San Francisco at the Mabuhay and we were going to a party at the Avengers house after the show and some hippie who had long hair and looked like a member of the Grateful Dead chased me down the street yelling "punk" and stabbed me! What a weird thing to have happen! So the only time I was ever harassed in the confines of the music was for being a punk.
And from a hippie!
In San Francisco! Fortunately he hit a rib.
How is your sexuality expressed in your recent release, Fop?
First of all, the cover -- my father took that picture of me in a dress. My mother was an actress, and she had what she called a 'rainy day trunk' of discarded costumes from her various plays. We were encouraged to play, act, and make believe. Her world seemed full of beguiling fantasy. On rainy days all the kids would just pick a costume out of the trunk and run around the house pretending we were old ladies from a Marx Brothers movie, or Gilligan's Island, or whatever we had seen on TV that afternoon. My dad took that picture of me, thinking it was cute, and even before I knew what 'gay' was, my incipient defensive self knew it was embarrassing -- I could sense the condemnation to come -- just this side of blackmail, really, and I never wanted anyone to see it. But now I want to embrace that person -- that spirit of play actor, role changing, and adventuring into outr' areas of dress that are outlandish and provocative. It doesn't seem 'gay' to me anymore. It seems wonderfully playful and fanciful. It seems to have a spirit that should be celebrated. It may seem 'gay' to others. So, by that picture, I out myself as that person who is willing to take the risk of 'seeming' gay, and ultimately being found out to be gay.
The whole album embraces that concept: often, whether true or not, the 'fancy man' has been presumed to be gay, and therefore dismissible: 'light in the loafers,' 'half a man,' etc., and his concerns where thus thought of as the provenance of wispy irrelevant florists and hairdressers -- a sort of eunuch slave class.
I wanted to out myself as that fancy man -- that fop -- which was originally a pejorative term for a person too much concerned with surface to have substance. I wanted to say in a dark era where art and intellect are suspect, surface is substance. The statement you make by being 'fancy' -- excessive, opulent, over-orchestrated, flamboyant -- is a revolutionary statement. Instead of hiding, you say, 'My comportment is my art.' In that sense, you come out. There are other approaches -- pristine, elegant, minimalism. I love that. The punk squall railing against the establishment. I love that, too. But those are not the album I made. My slap in the face to the drabness of contemporary culture was to make an album where not only is there a sturdy framework of disciplined craft, but where artifice is the art. Everything will be as big and highly realized and crazy and unpredictable as possible, and celebrate excess through all the eras of music at which hopefully I have some small semblance of command.
The fop, who has so often been ostracized by culture as shallow and marginal, who has been beaten and persecuted for being different, who has been cast as an irredeemable sexual predator without any evidence, who has been ignored or ridiculed, is outed on this album as a true revolutionary: one who dares to aspire -- and perhaps fail -- to display all that is florid, rapturous, opulent, all that is theatrical and passionate -- which is so often dismissed as 'gay' -- as a dizzying unapologetic psychedelic merging of sound, vision, and comportment through a world that would rather rob one of all color and texture. Fop describes the 'fancy man's' journey through that dark world. So Fop is not a sexually 'gay' album as such, but it embraces and celebrates what the world often dismisses as gay. The will to live is an 'event' in oneself.
What do you think of music in this contemporary moment?
I sort of have a disclaimer because I am a DJ on this radio station called Luxuria Music. It's been established for six years and I have been playing there for five. It was founded on the notion that people who have gone to thrift stores their entire lives have peculiar record collections. They have a lounge DJ, and an exotica DJ, and a bossa nova DJ, and I am a DJ that plays light psychedelia from 1966 to 1971, which, not coincidentally, impacts how I write music that is very adventurous. I listen to a lot of old music so I have to make a new show every week. Before the show I would be examining all the songwriters I admire and how Conor Oberst structures a song or older people who work in the same milieu. Now I don't listen to too much new music. Friends recommend the new music I listen to. Occasionally I will sit through a morning of VH1 to see what the hits are and it just seems completely vacuous and corporate. But since I am not young and in college, I am sure there are wonderful songwriters out there that I just don't know about. I have to default to the fact that the records I love didn't sell much music, but mainstream music doesn't interest me. Even though I perceive my songs are expensive, they are also full of hooks. Now I might be wrong, but I perceive myself as an editor. Others may argue.
It seems that your relationships in the musical world are lifelong.
I have been extremely lucky that way! I don't know how that happened! A lot of us hold tight this sense of community. People like Rufus Wainwright have been swept up into this ethereal headspace that I don't have access to. He is not a Top 10 hitmaker, but he travels the world and sells thousands and thousands of records and yet he does keep in touch with me. Part of that is generosity on his a part and part of that is that I do manage to make real friends. Artists bond together. They are hungry for that. Friends stay friends. Or at least I hope.
For upcoming Kristian Hoffman performances visit KristianHoffman.com