On Black Friday, the legendary country/psych/blues/rock outfit Tav Falco’s Panther Burns will release their new album Cabaret of Daggers. The band, originally based out of Memphis, are led by the brooding, deviant and uber-talented Tav Falco. Falco’s life began in Philadelphia, but his family eventually moved to a farm in Gurdon — a rural town about 85 miles south of Little Rock — before he hit his musical groove in Memphis. He’s been fronting the psychedelic Panther Burns since the late ’70s, and Cabaret of Daggers will be the group’s first studio output since 2015’s Command Performance.
The album was tracked in Rome, where Falco lives, with vocal overdubs done at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis. The band are set to tour the U.S. early next year in support of the album.
Falco chatted with Shindigmusic via e-mail recently about life, growing up in Arkansas and Memphis, the new record and more. You can purchase Cabaret of Daggers on Friday as part of a selection of curated releases for Record Store Day 2018. Remaining stock will be available to purchase online or at participating retailers.
Shindigmusic: First up, let’s talk about the new album, Cabaret of Daggers, which is scheduled for a Record Store Day release. Your music is a great blend of psychedelia, country, blues and rock. Your lyrics use lots of symbolism with clever references to the twists and turns of life and relationships. What can we expect on Cabaret of Daggers?
Tav Falco: You can expect all that you mention: psychedelia, country blues, rock ‘n/ roll, and, I might add, an original tango (“Nobody’s Baby”) written by a fan in Dresden. The album is rich with symbolism. There are metaphors of the ‘jelly sellin’ woman;’ symbols of the hangman’s noose, and the stench of burning flesh; there are garlands of roses with their scent intoxicating sailors and lovers on a summer day; the romantic iconography of the ‘train’ leaving the station with its cargo of grief and black smoke; the symbol of Morpheus leading us down into the dark, fertile underground; and there is the French icon of Fantômas – the Imperator, Lord Of Night, Master Of Chaos.
Shindigmusic: What, or whom, are the major contributing influences to your life and your music?
Tav Falco: At this point, there are many. There is no separation between my life and my work. I will cite artists and their oeuvre whether as individuals or collectively: Antonin Artaud and his Theater Of Cruelty; The Futurists; The Expressionists in art & cinema; Beat Poets; the Group Theater in New York; dancer Vaslav Nijinsky; actress Alla Nazimova; actor John Barrymore and his psychoanalytic characterization of Hamlet; film directors F.W. Murnau and Pier Paolo Pasolini; photographers Baron de Meyer and Berenice Abbott; musicians Eric Dolphy, Sun Ra, and David Amram; singers Billie Holliday, Anita Ellis, and PJ Proby; the tango orchestras of Carlos DiSarli and Francesco Cannaro.
Shindigmusic: We know you’re very into the arts and culture. What are your thoughts on the current state of the arts and cultural scene?
Tav Falco: Depends on the art and culture to which you refer. As for the western world, our art is a reflection of our culture, which is in decline morally, spiritually, and artistically. Especially in America, the social fabric is in decay. With rare exceptions, we live in the ruins of a nobler era.
Shindigmusic: Do you have any favorite artists or authors?
Tav Falco: With some artists everything they touch is magical, like Salvador Dali. Then there is Andy Warhol, with whom I hung out in New York for the proverbial 15 minutes. Banksy. William Eggleston, who showed me how to make pictures. The late, incendiary Arkansas poet Randall Lyon. And among the best and most cerebral, Arkansas artist Buz Blurr, whom I consider to be the Woody Guthrie of conceptual art.
Shindigmusic: Do you have a favorite album or musical artist?
Tav Falco: Among my favorite albums is Two Steps From The Blues (Duke Records) by the incomparable Memphis soul singer Bobby Blue Bland. When I saw him and his orchestra live on stage in Memphis, I was transfixed by his divine tonalities and spirituality. When you hear Bobby Blue Bland sing, you understand what it means to be mistreated, and you are convinced of something far greater than the song.
Shindigmusic: You grew up on a farm near Gurdon and spent time in Fayetteville before heading to Memphis. What are some of your favorite memories about your time living in Arkansas?
Tav Falco: In Clark County, Arkansas, between Whelen Springs and Gurdon, I lived with my parents on a farm of 52 acres. As I had no friends other than a pet deer, I created imaginary ones. Most days before sunset, I met them beside a little creek or brook running through a field in front of our house. They were a merry bunch, and we had good times laughing and cavorting in the tall grass by the running water. I told my mother that one day I would bring them home to meet her. In Fayetteville I had my first exposure to art, music, literature, and to the stage at the University Theatre. It was a rewarding, formative period, and I soaked in all I could from every direction. I felt inspired, yet this was the turbulent 1960s, and I eventually became psychedelicized and entered a protracted period of experimentation.
Shindigmusic: Did you ever see the “Gurdon Light” during your time down there?
Tav Falco: Although I worked as a Missouri Pacific brakeman on that very railroad where a section gang foreman reputedly lost his head in a scuffle with someone wielding a coal scoop, I never encountered ‘Gurdon Light’. As much as I did search those rails around the Womble Crossing in the dark of night, I never saw it.
Shindigmusic: On a Memphis level, that city’s music history seems to be getting a lot of nostalgia lately between Stax Records and the Big Star documentaries. Your work with Alex Chilton, along with just being immersed in that scene, how do you view the city now and your time spent there?
Tav Falco: To answer that question in depth, I would refer you to my book on the topic, Ghosts Behind The Sun: Splendor, Enigma and Death, Mondo Memphis Vol. I. It is a 450-page encyclopedic history and psychogeography of Memphis’ cultural underground and its demimonde. An intertext of the urban legends, rural fables, and literary clichés that have made the Bluff City simultaneously a metropolis of dreams and a necropolis of terrors. My time in Memphis was a creative one. It is where I joined forces with working artists and learned my trade. I had migrated from a cabin on Markham Hill to Memphis with all of my junk stuffed into a 1950 green Ford, with a ’48 Mercury V8 engine under the hood. I had the intention to become a photographer and a filmmaker in Memphis. In large part I did that, but in a decidedly non-commercial way. Out of frustration, I formed a rock ‘n’ roll band as Alex Chilton had urged me to do. My one and only band, Panther Burns, named after a legendary plantation in Mississippi. The same plantation that the Arkansas poet Frank Stanford often alluded to in his epics. Fourteen albums later, and after countless tours, the Panther Burns beat has carried me around the world and opened many doors to creative and cultural landscapes I could hardly have imagined.
Shindigmusic: How did the culture of living in Memphis in the 70s influence you either politically or musically?
Tav Falco: Actually my purview on the ’70s is that of a lost decade. With few exceptions, everything that was happening in Memphis then was coming from the underground. At least anything that interested me: country blues, free jazz, free verse, experimental film, a dream carnival of the mind, a montage of delirium emerging from a clandestine incubator of phenomenal fires. You would not earn 10 cents in Memphis stoking these fires. But that’s OK. That’s all right. I’m not in this for the money. I do what I do in spite of money, which depending on how you get it, and what you do with it, can be unsanitary. I’m in this for something else, and it is not for the glory of it. From my experience in Memphis, I have evolved into a Utopian Anarchist.
Shindigmusic: Finally, as we primarily cover the local, budding arts and music scene here, what advice would you give to a young musician or band who is just starting out?
Tav Falco: May I leave you with a couple of pieces of practical admonition? Something I picked up as a Gurdon Go-Devil: a quitter never wins, and a winner never quits. From the actor James Dean: if you don’t believe in yourself, nobody else will. Lastly, as the rockabilly pioneer Charlie Feathers in Memphis advised me, if you ain’t doing something different, you ain’t doing nothing at all.
To learn more about Tav Falco, visit tavfalco.com.