Need to Know: Kristian Hoffman
By Courtney Nichols
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?