Your Name Here

Tim Kerr's revolution

I find the group of people that's playing Irish or old-time and get to have this musical conversation with complete strangers.
"I find the group of people that's playing Irish or old-time and get to have this musical conversation with complete strangers." (Photo by Sandy Carson)

A small chunk of Raul's restroom lives in Tim Kerr's closet. Across the faded pink and green stripes, "Big Boys" is spray-painted in green on top of loose red lettering, a rare remnant from ground zero of Austin punk.

"On the last night at Raul's, they were tearing everything up, so I grabbed that," motions the guitarist. "Big Boys formed to see if we could play one time at Raul's.

"When I saw that, I thought we had pretty much made it."

Where the former fun house of Big Boys' late provocateur, Randy "Biscuit" Turner, offered a home playscape of gleaned junk-art (see "Making Biscuit," Aug. 19, 2005), Kerr's Hyde Park dwelling reveals a far more personal museum of popular culture. Each room has its own theme, with nearly every wall sporting toy action figures that range from the Beatles to Casper the Friendly Ghost. Sci-fi creatures inhabit the bathroom, JFK iconography surrounds Kerr's massive record collection and antique piano in the dining area, and Halloween accessories have turned a corner of the living room into an artificial pumpkin patch.

"These are artifacts from all of the cultures we've grown through," observes Kerr with a slow Texas drawl, referring to his wife of 32 years and lifelong friend, Beth.

Perhaps it's his role as host this Thursday afternoon, but with graying sideburns and a stout build, he resembles a dungeon master, save for the fading color tattoos, most tellingly the words "John Coltrane" across his wrists. The 53-year-old doesn't skate as much as he used to – not since he broke his leg on the second song of a Total Sound Group Direct Action Committee set at Beerland in 2003 – but gets around all right.

The 30-minute walk-through provides a crash course in Kerr. He's Austin's original funk renegade, a prolific and fiercely independent renaissance artist with old-school credentials – Poison 13, the Monkeywrench, Lord High Fixers.

The guest bedroom studio boasts two massive library card catalogs filled with DAT recordings of sessions he produced for the likes of the Riverboat Gamblers and Fatal Flying Guillotines. More notable is the creed Lungfish's Dan Higgs scrawled in black all-caps across the neighboring wall, a doctrinal passage that speaks volumes about Kerr's philosophical bent and constant resilience.

We are born students to a test in progress

A test that which cannot be completed or failed

Yet the test must be taken.

We are born pilots in an intersection of space and time

To navigate our senses and discover a conscience

Greater than opinions or slogans

Greater than cash or credit

Greater than sincerity

Greater than legitimacy

Greater than authentic plagiarism

Greater than gravity – greater than inertia

Talking to Tomorrow

Mike Carroll and Tim Kerr, Lord High Fixers, '90s
Mike Carroll and Tim Kerr, Lord High Fixers, '90s (Photo by Michael Crawford)

Despite his archival tendencies, Kerr's not one for nostalgia. Like contemporary local Greg Ginn of SST Records (see "Rise Above," Aug. 21, 2009), he refers to band reunions as "re-enactments."

"If you really have the need to get up on that stage, start something new," he scoffs, now seated in his shed out back for the first of three hourlong interviews. "All of those people are going to be there for that first show to see what you're doing next. Whether they come again, that's an entirely different story."

Since retiring last year from the University of Texas, where he served as an audio/visual technician for close to three decades, Kerr spends most days in this two-story workspace. Dozens of gallon paint canisters litter the concrete floor, coated in confetti streaks and splotches, while the back wall illustrates his two current focuses.

The left side features a mural of the civil rights activists Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks. The large-scale paintings are indicative of Kerr's now-trademark style: loose, bold tempera portraits of inspirational figures, both the known and oft-forgotten – Colvin was arrested nine months before Parks for refusing to give up her bus seat – all accented with handwritten historical facts, quotes, and personal summations. Taking up the rest of the wall is a daunting list of Kerr's new musical repertoire, 118 different Irish songs.

"That seems like a lot, but that's nothing," says Kerr, who picked up accordion and clawhammer banjo about five years ago. "I decided I was going to make a concerted effort to learn Irish music. That's the only way to do it really. It's hard. You can't just do a 1-4-5 like you can with the blues. You have to know where the changes are. ...

"When we first started at Raul's, there were no rules. Nobody knew what the hell it was. It wasn't on the radio. It was a completely open playing field. You weren't playing for people; you were playing with them, 'cause everyone in that crowd was either in bands or doing fanzines or whatever. I'm into this for that same sort of community of it.

"At these art shows I go to, I find the group of people that's playing Irish or old-time and get to have this musical conversation with complete strangers. You can find a common tune that everyone knows and then just sort of take off. That's the beauty of it.

"I'm playing more now than ever."

Most Tuesday nights Kerr can be found at Rio Rita, sharing folk standards with a small assemblage of friends and colleagues. The unbilled residency, now three years running, makes a consistently odd pairing – middle-aged ramblers, huddled in a circle with banjos and fiddles, oblivious to the conversations unfolding at East Sixth Street's hippest hangout.

A chalkboard sign hanging in the upper reaches of the Kerr's home shed serves as a reminder of his response to one particular heckler at the bar: "Proud to play that same song all night."

"People want to put you in a box and keep you there," he furthers, "but everything is still growing, and everything is connected. The celebration is the same for all of this."

Once Upon a Time Called ... Right Now

Kerr never really fit neatly into any particular scene. He's been a constant outsider, just close enough to any given establishment to push back against it.

Even the Big Boys – Turner, Kerr, bassist Chris Gates, and a rotating cast of drummers – were an anomaly in hardcore history: punk rock you could dance to, a combination tagged on countless show posters with the logo of an anarchy symbol crossed with a skateboard. The band's costumed fervor thrived in its constant contradictions, joyous yet combustible, with all the subtlety of a pipe bomb. Small wonder that Transmission Entertainment copped the group's timeless teenage riot "Fun Fun Fun" as the namesake for its annual music festival.

"When we went skating, we would have Kool & the Gang and Ohio Players on, so of course, when we started the band, we played some of that stuff," Kerr explains. "The only sort of rule of thumb was that you were doing something straight from the heart, your vision. In reality, the Big Boys never broke up. We just quit playing."

The transition to the belligerent blues of Poison 13 – a side project with Gates and Big Boys' roadie-turned-vocalist Mike Carroll – and later to his neo-soul train Bad Mutha Goose & the Brothers Grimm, Kerr describes as a slipstream narrative, a natural transition away from the then-divisive punk scene. Each act culled its own cult following.

"For myself and a handful of my closest friends, there were really only three records coming out of the hardcore scene that were doing that trash rock," professes grunge linchpin Mark Arm. "It was Redd Kross' Born Innocent, [Tales of Terror's] Tales of Terror, and that Poison 13 album, and they all kind of sounded like they were recorded by people that were so fucked up that they could barely stand.

"There was a primitive looseness to those records that I really appreciated."

In the mid-1990s, Kerr drifted into the outer limits of free jazz, led by the spiritual triptych of John Coltrane ("the Father"), Pharoah Sanders ("the Son"), and Albert Ayler ("the Holy Ghost"). Equally influential was the music and autobiography of Sun Ra, solidifying the theoretical concepts that Kerr had long abided by, like the notion that all sound is valid and equally important, no matter its origin or intention.

That revelation is easily traced in the difference between the Monkeywrench's first two albums. While 1992's Clean as a Broke-Dick Dog (Sub Pop) reaches the sum total of the band's esteemed parts – Arm and Steve Turner of Mudhoney fame, Kerr, former U-Men guitarist Tom Price, and drummer Martin Bland from Australia's Lubricated Goat – 2000's Electric Children crackles with a cosmic otherness, blasts of atonal velocity that push the group's minimalist punk-blues to unnatural extremes.

"I don't intentionally try to do things differently," reflects Kerr on the transition. "I just do. It's like that Sun Ra thing, that he was not of this world; he was from Saturn. I'm always a little bit off from whatever everyone else is doing, for better or worse."

Randy Biscuit Turner and Tim Kerr at the Big Boys' second show ever, and first at Raul's, Nov. 27, 1979
Randy "Biscuit" Turner and Tim Kerr at the Big Boys' second show ever, and first at Raul's, Nov. 27, 1979 (Photo by Ken Hoge)

The lone constant has been a purity of expression. That thread connects everything from Jack O'Fire's blitzkrieg soul revue to Kerr's string of modern dance compositions this millennium for the choreographer Holly Williams and his soundtrack to the experimental documentary Who Is Bozo Texino?, which screened earlier this month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

"Tim's really easygoing, but he's got strength of conviction," posits Arm. "He's always into something really interesting and into it very heavily."

The Beginning of the End ... The End of the Beginning!

Kerr isn't changing course. He's coming full circle.

The youngest of three and a natural surfer, Kerr began his music education courtesy of AM radio on the outskirts of Galveston, predominately the British folk revival and early recordings of David Crosby and James Taylor. After winning a songwriting competition, the budding guitarist performed at the 1974 Kerrville Folk Festival, playing original acoustic material in the vein of Bert Jansch and John Martyn. He was invited back the following year but broke his arm skating in a pool in Bastrop.

"Punk rock wasn't even in the picture yet," he adds with a slight smile.

Around that same time, Kerr moved to town to attend the University of Texas. In the absence of guitar courses, he earned his degree in painting and photography studying under Garry Winogrand, a street photographer who best captured New York City's original Mad Men era.

"I appreciate the skill that it takes for a Dutch Masters painting, but it's like lots of radio music; it just doesn't seem real," admits Kerr, who was awarded a Ford Foundation grant for his collegiate work. "I always liked van Gogh, just because you could literally see the brush stroke, the thickness of the paint sticking out and where it was pushed around."

That's one of the most distinct characteristics of Kerr's folk art. You can sense where his hands have been, the desire to confront the viewer. There's a skilled roughness to it, forged with what graphic designer Art Chantry describes as "deep, subtle sophistication and wondrous, explosive execution."

Mirroring his amplified output, Kerr doesn't conform to any one medium. Though he prefers cardboard for its absorption, his work splays across wood panels, brick walls, maps, and even blackboards. Late last year, for example, he was commissioned to make portraits to fit in the advertising section of an Arlington, Va., city bus as part of Artisphere exhibit Party Crashers: Comic Book Culture Invades the Art World.

A collection of Kerr's paintings was recently released in a soft-bound book, Your Name Here, printed by local multimedia specialists Monofonus Press, a collaboration established through his album artwork for two of the label's artists, the Golden Boys and Ralph White. Coupled with a tape of the guitarist's hand-picked greatest hits, the full-color compilation provides an annotated gallery of American Indian and civil rights activists, blues masters, and free jazz titans that together form a compelling narrative of fortitude and liberation.

"It's a history book," furthers Morgan Coy, founder of Monofonus Press. "You can tell that he's working from photographic images, but these people feel really alive to me. Part of that is his use of color, but it's more so that it's important to him, to present that challenge to be one of these people."

Kerr couldn't agree more.

"'Responsibility' is a harsh word to use for it, but it's the realization of the power of influence," he says. "We all have it in some form or another. If I'm going to put stuff out there, I want to be a positive influence on someone, to turn people on to Albert Ayler. That's as much punk rock as anything else.

"It's all about planting seeds. That's why it's called Your Name Here. It's the same thing as what we used to say with the Big Boys: 'Go start your own band.' Do something. You're missing out if you don't do some sort of self-expression."

When the Revolution Comes

Located near the corner of Springdale and East Seventh Street, just beyond the condo sprawl, the Monofonus Compound proved a perfectly weird setting for the release party for Your Name Here in late January. Everything at the spacious, eight-studio enclave appears artfully rendered, from the old school bus parked out back to the stripped telephone booth near the fenced entrance.

Billed as the Artsiest Little Square Dance in Texas, the event's a family affair in the slyest sense, a rare intentional gathering of geezers and scenesters. Kerr yields most of the gallery space to the work of his friends and contemporaries, including Orange Mothers frontman Ethan Azarian, Bill Jeffery of Ichi Ni San Shi, and Chronicle photographer Sandy Carson. He's also ceded most of the stage.

At its peak, there are 23 musicians crowded together, with a small orchestra of guitarists and no fewer than six fiddlers. Kerr sits off to the side, strumming his banjo and tapping his heel lightly to the old-time tunes. Sure enough, an actual square dance caller leads the crowd through the motions – the bowing, circling, and promenading of the various partners – though the routine transitions more into a drunken stumble as the evening progresses, the "yee-haws" becoming less frequent and far more random.

Through it all Kerr beams regardless, so obviously content in this moment he's created. The music carries on deep into the night, and in some regard, spills over into the following evening when a handful of the same folks shows up at Kerr's shed for another marathon session. Only this time, it's strictly Irish music, flutes and fiddles joining together in jovial jigs.

One particular medley, opening with "Lark on the Strand," stumps Kerr on accordion. It's played again and recorded, preserved for future practice sessions. This is how tradition survives, why the colors come alive.

"As honored and humbled as I am by all of that history, I'm not dead yet," spouts Kerr later. "I hope I haven't seen the best thing yet."

At least he's caught a glimpse.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Tim Kerr, Big Boys, Randy Biscuit Turner, Poison 13, the Monkeywrench, Mark Arm, Monofonus, Bad Mutha Goose, Lord High Fixers, Jack O'Fire

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