A Conversation with John S. Hall
of King Missile

The New Puritan ReView
Minneapolis, MN
Autumn 1991

Exploring the creative process that connects performing artists with writers and readers alike.

[I might have mentioned this once or twice by now, but the finished layout for the complete article as it appeared in 1991, was either lost or destroyed over time. I wish that were not the case, as there were more photos, and some other cool design details in the published piece, but at least you can share what inspired it in the first place. A floppy disc with the original interview was the source for what appears here, before that too, gave way to the ravages of time. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – keeping tabs on the past is a lot of work.]

Q Who do you think listens to King Missile records?

A I’d say the audience is mostly college, some are younger, some are older. Some are much younger, some are much older. It’s difficult to say – I mean, I sort of feel that with each new record that the audience gets a lot more diverse. I understand why that is, but I can’t really explain it. It has to do with – not just greater distribution and greater airplay – it also has to do with the records themselves. I think they have steadily gotten more accessible.

Q Do you feel that the ideas expressed in the earlier records carry over into this new accessibility?

A When I said accessibility I was basically referring to the sound of the record, not the lyrical content. To me the content always changes; I’m evolving as a writer, but again I can’t really say exactly what it is that I’m doing that would necessarily make the work more accessible now. I’m not conscious, in other words, of writing in such a way as to reach a wider audience. I don’t think I would know how to – if somebody asked me how to do that, I don’t think I would be able to tell them. For example, there are no curses on this new record, but I don’t necessarily think that makes it more accessible or less accessible.

I’ve been told by those people that have been with us for a long time – in terms of buying records for say two or three years – that it seems much more of a band now. It certainly seems much more like a band to me, but those people have been around for a long time. I would say that people are initially attracted to us because of the lyrics, and that the music is something that they learn to appreciate later …I shouldn’t say learn to – that they come to appreciate later. I don’t know exactly why that is, and I don’t necessarily think that’s always the way it will be. I could envision an album that would be more immediately noticeably musically than lyrically [accessible], coming from King Missile. I can certainly see that as a possibility, because everybody that I’m working with right now is exceptional. I would like to see that happen as well, because it can be a little bit draining on my part. It’s not very easy for me to feel that it’s me instead of being a group. I mean, the reason I’m working with these people is because I don’t want to do it alone, so I don’t want to be perceived as a person doing vocals with back-up musicians; I want to be a member of a band.

Q Do you recognize the existence of themes on your albums, or would that be just a coincidence?

A Well it’s not coincidence, it’s inevitable, and I try to make that change from album to album to a certain degree. For example, the second record I thought had an awful lot of blood in it; there was a lot of mysticism, although not as much as on the following record. Mystical Shit had mysticism and sexuality and food goin’ on. The new record, Salvation, has all of those themes and the beginnings of some new ideas. One of the things that sets my lyrics apart from most popular music is the lack of writing about human relationships, girls, friendship; a lot of the popular themes have been things that for various number of reasons I haven’t felt compelled to write about. One reason would be that there are a lot of brilliant love songs out there that I don’t have any interest in – I’m not very big on competition. I’d much rather come up with things that I don’t see that many people doing – or hopefully nobody, doing and making it popular. So, in the area of, say, food, or in the area of self-hatred, self-mutilation, self-consciousness, or insecurities, mysticism, a direct open discussion of sexuality like you have in “Gary & Melissa.” I gravitate towards those themes because there isn’t as much of it out there, I don’t want to write things that I feel have been done already.

The ultimate reason for why I do what I do is because I do, and it feels good. You know, if it didn’t feel good I wouldn’t do it. So in the past, I’ve tried to write love songs, but for whatever reason they didn’t work. Maybe I lacked the sincerity to do it, or maybe I lacked the ability to write about things that aren’t real to me. It’s a combination of both. There have been people in my life that I have truly and deeply loved, that I felt it cheapened the relationship to try to write about it. It was too important to me to be able to write about. Then alternatively, there have been times when I’ve been motivated to write about things, and I haven’t done such a good job because I didn’t really care about them. That’s one thing I’ll definitely say, is I can’t write about things I don’t care about. If something makes laugh, that means I care about it on a certain level. If something makes me cry – same thing. If something makes me angry – same thing. If something makes me think – makes me feel that my consciousness is expanded – I’ll gravitate towards that, and try to write about it, try to convey it to people, so that their consciousness can expand as well. That’s hopefully what I’m trying to do. [laughs] A-hah, lots of words!

Q Do you consciously try to incorporate a lot of humor into your writing, or would that just be the irony of the situations you describe?

A I’ve been accused of being glib, of hiding behind, of not having anything positive or contributive – is that a word? – that I don’t have a positive contribution to make, that I don’t have any real advice to give, so I make fun of things. I just read recently, Robert Anton Wilson said that in most cases, when you look at the human situation, you’re faced with sitting down and crying or laughing; and I choose to laugh.

Q I wouldn’t call that making fun of anything …

A Sometimes I am. I think I’m making fun of white Europeans in a song like “Indians”, because the attitude of the people that killed the Indians is an attitude that I see every day in white people like you and me. We are pigs, and every day I see evidence of it, although that may be insulting to pigs to say that. In fact it certainly is insulting to pigs to say that.

Q More than likely you would not behave in the same manner as the people you’ve written about in a song like that.

A I don’t know what I would do if I were in that kind of a situation. I’m not gonna say that I would never do this or that. A hundred years from now, people might sit around and say, “I would never litter”, “I would never use plastics”, “I would never insult women”, “I would never have a problem if my kid wanted to marry outside of their race, or outside of their religion or outside of their culture.” There are things that we as human beings really need to grow out of – all of us. I think that the difference between the wisest of us and the stupidest of us is not a very great difference. And I think that the difference between the wisest of us and the wisest of us a hundred years from now – if we survive – is going to be vast, because we really need to learn… and we will. We will learn or die. It’s not a warning and it’s not a threat – it’s just the way it is. I choose to believe that we will survive and learn, and I try to learn as fast as I can.

Q What actually preceded the notion that you would be doing this for a living? Were there any personal barriers you had to cross before this would become commercially accessible?

A I’ve never tried to make anything commercially accessible to people, first of all. I started with a bad cover band, You Suck. The way I managed to do this, despite my shyness, was by drinking very heavily, and not really being conscious of the fact that I was up on stage in front of a bunch of people, basically just doing my own thing. When I say “cover band”, it was sort of a dada-ist thing or an audience antagonism thing, trying to get the audience to sort of take notice, and also to amuse. After that dissolved, I found myself trying to write songs for a while, being very frustrated, and I started writing more prose-ish things in kind of a short form. Those earliest pieces made it to They and Fluting On The Hump. These were pieces that I was reading at poetry readings and open mikes in the East and West Village in New York. They got pretty good responses from most of the other performers that were watching these – almost everybody else that was in the audience was also a writer, so there was a certain exchange of compliments and advice, and it was a good way in which to learn a little bit about how to do certain things.

I felt that in the entertainment aspect of things, I had the advantage over a lot of them. I placed a lot of emphasis in the way in which I read the things, and not so much emphasis in how I would write them. So I felt that I wasn’t nearly as good a writer as most of the other people I was performing with, but that I was more entertaining. I also saw that the avenues of commercial exploitation for what I was I was doing were profoundly limited. That’s kind of a cheaper way to put it, but what I’m saying is I didn’t see a very big audience for it in that form. The idea of publishing didn’t appeal to me, I wanted to be recorded. The idea of just my voice with no music behind it didn’t sound very interesting, so I wanted to work with music. I didn’t play any instruments, I found some people willing to do it, and people have come and gone, but for the last two years I’ve been working with Dave and Chris. We’re signed to Atlantic now, and we’re more or less committed to continue until we hate each other or until it stops working for us. We’re gonna keep going, and it’s been working better than ever, I think.

Q How did it feel, making the leap from Shimmy-Disc to Atlantic Records?

A We left Shimmy; six months later Atlantic expressed interest. We decided that we would leave Shimmy and then look. I didn’t think that was such a good idea, I thought we should stay on Shimmy until we found something, but we were lucky. At the same time we were talking to Atlantic, we were getting a lot of rejections from other labels, and we were also rejected by Caroline and Rough Trade, so we were very lucky then.

With the exception of Shimmy-Disc, a label takes you because they think you can sell records, and they don’t take you because they think you can’t. Or maybe the label thinks, “We don’t have the resources to market what you do in particular.” My philosophy really is that just about everything has a potential market that could probably support you. Even the most out-there stuff, you could probably sell it, if you make it a priority. You can probably sell about 20,000 of anything.

Q Do you feel any pressure or expectations on the behalf of the industry at this point in time?

A No. I feel kind of frustrated that we had a Number Two college record, and that everything else in the Top Ten has outsold us; and I attribute that to the label, and not to us. I think really that a record that’s high priority on Caroline or SubPop or SST can sell more records than we have sold so far. I think that what’s really important is that you have people where it’s their life basically to make your record happen, and we don’t have that, but we do have a lot of support from the label. We have enough support to sell the amount of records that we’re selling, and my opinion is, that if this is all that they really want to do, then this is all that is going to happen, and I can’t control it.

Q Could you be content with that level of success?

A Sure! I mean, I don’t really care – if they drop us, they drop us. I doesn’t matter to me, really.

Q You don’t feel any added responsibility as a performer?

A Well, I have more things to do. More people are interested in talking to me – doing interviews – and I’m doing a lot more shows this year than I did last year, but at the same time, I’m not doing telephone surveys. So, it’s a happier life for me right now, even if it is a bit more tiring. I don’t necessarily find it to be pressure, because to me, I just wanna do everything I can to get King Missile out there for people to hear, because I think that it makes people happy. People come to us and say that we make them happy, and that makes me happy. That makes me feel like I’m doing something worth doing. I like that – I really like making people happy. I’d also like to be in some way part of a process in which people educate themselves, empower themselves, amuse themselves.

Q That’s not preaching – it sounds like you’re going through all of it yourself.

A That’s exactly what it’s about for me. I’m trying to let people in on my process of growth, because life involves a growth process – a lot of pain, and a lot of fun. I’m attracted to people who have a lot of fun and people who experience a lot of pain, because I do both of those things too. I think that a healthy balance of both of those things makes for a better life than to gravitate towards one or the other, because you don’t want to amuse yourself to death, and you don’t want to cry yourself to death.

© J.Free / The New Puritan ReView; 1991; 2022