Wayne Kramer and the MC5 - Still Kickin'
Kramer, of course, was part of the MC5, the flying fist of sound that punched its way out of the Motor City during the late 60's. The bands free-form, anarchic approach to music and politics raged against the machine long before Tom Morello ever picked up a guitar. Kramer's career and life since the groups 1971 break-up have been just as eventful -- from an ill-fated pairing with Johnny Thunders in the band Gang War to a two year jail sentence for dealing coke. Then there was Kramer's subsequent and remarkable rebirth as a solo artist with boundless ambition and taste for experimentation -- not to mention some pretty ferocious guitar playing. Now, with the release of The Big Bang! Best of The MC5, some of his most incendiary material lives on. Yes brothers and sisters, 30 years on, Kramer is still kicking out the jams!
Guitar.com: During the 60's, did you, as white rock musicians in Detroit, have any kind of contact with Motown?
Wayne Kramer: Yeah, man. The musicians were people. I mean, you'd go to the record store, and [bassist James] Jamerson had come in, and you'd be like, That's James Jamerson over there. You go talk to him No, man, he looks mean to me! You go talk to him. We were children, and he was our idol. I thought the Beatles were a pretty good band, but the Motown session band was better. And still is. But it was almost like we took Motown for granted. We thought everybody heard Bernadette 28 times a day. We thought everybody did record hops with Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. And as musicians, it informed our thinking and the way we played.
Guitar.com: Did Motown's prevalence keep other influences out?
Kramer: Oh, no. For a guitar player, Chuck Berry was the guy -- at least in Lincoln Park, Michigan. You were judged by how many Chuck Berry solos you knew, note for note. This idea started to crystallize about music that had drive; certain musics had it, and many musics didn't have it. Bobby Vinton don't have it. Motown does have it. James Brown definitely has it. And let me not underestimate the importance of the Who and the Rolling Stones. All of a sudden, here were white guys of our age that were doing what we were trying to do, and they were doing it really well and being hugely successful.
Guitar.com: The MC5 also incorporated elements of free-form jazz. How did that happen?
Kramer: That was the influence of [manager] John Sinclair and [singer] Rob Tyner. Certain jazzes had the drive to it -- the ultimate being the free jazz movement of the late 60's -- John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, the usual list of suspects. It all started to crystallize for me about what it was that I was trying to do with my band, the MC5, and what I was trying to do in the music itself, this kind of forward motion.
Guitar.com: It's a stretch from Chuck Berry to free jazz, though.
Kramer: To me it was a simple step from Chuck Berry to John Coltrane. I took the best Chuck Berry solo I knew, put it a little further, starting to fall into that sheets of sound, that pure energy, the pure visceral experience with that sense of drive. I think it has more to do with a music that speaks more about physical commitment, sweat and energy. It's not an intellectual thing. You can analyze it, and of course I do, but at its base it has more to do with the sanctified elements of gospel music, that sanctified-ness of James Brown -- any time there''s a purity of purpose, when an artist is really moved out of themselves into a more pure-sounding dimension.
Guitar.com: In other words, kicking out the jams?
Kramer: Yeah! When other bands finally started coming to Detroit and we'd open shows for them, we found out how lame they were. So, being hormonally driven and arrogant, we used to fuck with them and yell at them, "Kick out the jams or get off the stage!" We were into participating in the show. Our idea of a show was if someone played something really cool, you hollered out. And if they didn't, whoa...
Guitar.com: So how did that aesthetic turn into a song?
Kramer: Tyner and I used to write at the kitchen table, with a little amplifier, and smoke a lot of marijuana. I would just play guitar and he would say, "Wait! That there. Play that again." One day we were coming up with some new tunes, and we said, "Let's use [the phrase] kick out the jams [in a song]." He went off to the bedroom and came back in a minute and said I got it. I got it! I've only found out through reading interviews with Rob that he was actually talking to the rest of us in the band in that song Let me be who I am. I mean, Rob Tyner didn't want to be in a rock 'n roll band. He said, "No, man, I want to play jazz. Rock's for squares. That's kiddy stuff. Listen to [Charles] Mingus." It wasn't until he heard the Rolling Stones that he said, "Whoa, this changes everything."
Guitar.com: Live albums were pretty rare during 1969, and doing one for your debut was unheard of. How did that happen?
Kramer: That was Elektra's idea in the beginning, which we endorsed. We thought it would be kind of a revolutionary act for a bands first record to be live when conventional wisdom was that about the third album was live. You do two or three studio records to get yourself established at radio and then you could do a cheap live album and score big. Of course, after years of watching the record business, I can look back and say the reason they did it live was because it was cheap. They came out of there with an album for under $10,000.
Guitar.com: These days, how do you keep moving yourself forward as a player?
Kramer: I study. I learn more from other musicians than any single other source. When I was playing with Red Rodney at Lexington [prison], I got a lot of music lessons. Worst comes to worse, I get out a book and try to figure some things out, find some new ways to play things. And looping and sampling is a good way to learn stuff. There are songs on the [solo album] Citizen Wayne where we just went into the studio and recorded for two days. We just played, put that on DAT, loaded the DATs into the computer and made loops out of them. The loops came up sometimes in ways I wouldn't have played normally. Chords turned around or looped in a certain way that I wouldn't necessarily have played. That opened a whole new door to where the music might go, which I hope to keep pursuing.