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Ron English with Shepard Fairey in Denver this summer
Once known as the hairy grandaddy of whatever it is people consider the “lowbrow art” movement, Ron English was most identifiable this year as the agit-pop provocateur behind that vaguely controversial “Abraham Obama” portrait. But in addition to “liberating” billboards and endlessly aping our last President, one of English’s many sidelines—along with art toys, cow breasts, and a SuperSize Me cameo—has been music. Over the years, he’s designed album covers for the Dandy Warhols, spent time as one-third of the lo-fi trio Hyperjinx Triangle with Daniel Johnston and Jack Medicine (the nom de rock of Soft Skull Press editor Don Goede), and had Wesley Willis record a song about him for a Saddam Hussein-related project better explained here.
Back in 2005, I spent a long time on the phone with Ron English for a short piece. This was before amusing outtakes ended up on blogs. Now they do. This one’s all yours.
George W. Bush is President again. Are you working on anything in response?
What I’ve been trying to do is put together a group called the Righteous Right, a super-earnest Southern Christian type of group that sings songs like, “I’m Rich, White, and I’m Right.” We’ve been working on writing some of the songs. The problem is—Remember Bob Roberts? [Tim Robbins] didn’t want to release the soundtrack because he figured that people wouldn’t see that they’re supposed to be ironic. I’d be afraid the Republicans would be all singing them.
You’ve parodied religion, race, politics, modernist painters, consumerism. Is anything sacred?
I was raised Christian, so I feel like I’m allowed to be critical about Christianity. I wasn’t critical about it until I really studied it for a long time. I’ve been reluctant to do other religions, but now I’m studying the Koran. That will probably get me killed.
You’ve done paintings for the Dandy Warhols. How’d that relationship begin?
I just started making a lot of different stuff for them. [Courtney Taylor-Taylor] is a little nutty. Everything I did, he didn’t like. I should have saved his e-mails. When I did the zipper-banana piece [the album cover for Welcome to the Monkey House], I think it was the first thing I did, he said, “This is horrible. This is an embarrassment. This is bullshit. I can’t believe an artist of your caliber would actually do something like this. So I’m sitting here just staring at this thing thinking, ‘What a fuckin’ piece of genius. You’re a goddamn genius! I’m freaking out! This is so perfect!’” He’s saying all this in the same e-mail. I thought, “Man this guy’s crazy.”
The Dandy Warhols, Welcome to the Monkey House
What’s in store for Hyperjinx Tricycle?
We have a show together at South by Southwest. We’ve been trying to make a new HyperJinx record. Don—or whatever his name is, Jack [Medicine]—moved to Colorado and Daniel is in Texas. I booked the show last year because I thought the new Hyperjinx would be done and then we’d launch it. We haven’t done it yet, but we have new songs for it. We’ll get it together, it’s just that our lives are so complicated. And I guess now after Daniel’s movie [The Devil and Daniel Johnston] he’s going to be really famous, so maybe I’ll never see him again. That happens, you know?
Wesley Willis did a song called “Ron English.” Were you close with him?
My brother-in-law was this huge fan of Wesley Willis, but I’d never heard of him. I called him up in Chicago and he was kind of nutty. I sent him a videotape, but I don’t think he ever watched it. After a while, I called him up and said, “Are you going to do this song?” He said, [in a deep baritone] “Well, I already did the song, Ron. It’s a heavy-metal number. I gotta go now, the devil just came in the room.” Click.
You couldn’t talk to him. I started calling around all the record studios in Chicago to see if he’d recorded it there and left anything there. They’re like, “Nah, he takes his stuff with him.” Finally, one day, I called him and some woman named Carla answered the phone and said, “Oh, he’s not here right now.” I said, “Can you go look in his room and see if there’s any DAT tape that says, ‘Ron English?” She came back and said, “Oh, I found one, it has 50 songs on it, but that’s one of them.” I was like, “Okay, send it to me.” She did, so I think I might have the Wesley record that’s never come out. Oh God. Oh well.