Legendary Musician Wayne Kramer Chats About Changing the World One Guitar at a Time

wayne kramer, mc5

Photo Credit: Robert Matheu

Wayne Kramer is one of the greatest guitarists alive (just ask Rolling Stone) and he is doing everything he can to use that talent to leave the world a little better off than he found it. Many will know the 65 year old as the co-founder of the '60s Detroit rock group MC5 (Motor City 5), a huge influence on the future of punk rock and heavy metal. Even if you've never heard them, I'm willing to bet you've heard Kick Out The Jams (the standout track from their debut album of the same name) without even realizing it — what with the countless covers out there by names like Rage Against the Machine, Jeff Buckley, and Pearl Jam. If you do know of him, you probably already know about his bumpy past (from the band's dissolution and his struggle with drug addiction to his eventual four-year imprisonment in 1976 and his slew of solo records), but trust me, his present isn't any less interesting. 

Wayne was nice enough to meet me at Claire de Lune in North Park, San Diego, where we sipped coffee and chatted about the music industry, the pointlessness of record companies, getting into film and TV scores, his charity organization Jail Guitar Doors that he co-founded with Billy Bragg, and his brand new free jazz record Lexington.

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Credit: Ivy Augusta

Mila Pantovich: MC5 was known for their powerful performances and political stance; how have you seen the political landscape change from then to now?

Wayne Kramer: Political change happens over generations and generations, over decades and decades…it doesn't happen over weeks or months or years even. […] The difference between my youth and today is that there was kind of…a binary view of culture. In other words, coming out of the 50s and the end of World War II, there was this proper way things were in America. We sold this image to the world that this is what it is: two cars and two and a half kids and a bright sunny street and…the American Dream. [...] Everything was kind of hidden, it was suppressed underneath…the racism, the classism, the abuses.

In the time between the '60s and today, a lot of that has emerged. A lot of that is in the open now and I view all that as good news. I think when you hide stuff and suppress information, only bad things can come of it. I think the move towards more transparency is helping, on a personal level, on a national political level, on an emotional level - I think it's good that there's more conversation…and more information about more things.

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Credit: Ivy Augusta

MP: It seems like many popular young musicians today almost shy away from saying anything that could be deemed political. Do you think that's a problem?

WK: My experience has been that they don't really know enough to be articulate, to express how they feel. I think that's what's happening, but there are plenty of young musicians who are loud mouthed [laughs]. And I think a lot of young musicians are more concerned with celebrity and fame and success, because they think success is going to grant them all their secret desires. Which it may, but it will also bring along a bunch of problems. Some of these things just take a little time to sink in about what's really important and what really matters. I think it's important that one live ethically, […] participate in the world around them and…contribute to the world. Let's leave the place a little nicer than we found it.

MP: What do you think is it that pushes someone to speak out artistically?

WK: The hip hoppers came from sh**ty neighborhoods where crappy things happened all the time and they were motivated to talk about things. If you come from a nice middle class, white [suburban neighborhood] — I mean, that's what gave rise to punk rock, they were sick of the boredom of it all. […] If you looked around a little bit, even if you looked around in your own neighborhood or in your own house, you might see things that need to be addressed, something to add to the mix in your art, to give your art more resonance…to connect it with people. What we do with music and all of art is we tell the world who we are. This is my time, this is my place, this is the story of my day. […] Can we tell our stories in a way that have value and have meaning to each other? I think we can, but it starts with paying attention.

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Credit: Ivy Augusta

MP: Are there any musicians you've been really into recently?

WK: Bernard Herman. I just started rereading his biography again. […] You know, he started writing radio music for the Mercury Theater and he would come in and…write three shows a day. Write it, rehearse it with the orchestra, perform it, and then come in tomorrow and do it again. Then came Hollywood and he started writing for film. He had the attributes of true genius. He just couldn't get along with people. He was so arrogant and such a know-it-all, they finally rode him out of town on a rail, threw him out of Hollywood. No one could stand to have him around anymore.

I listen to other film composers a lot. I listen to a lot of classical music, because I'm trying to learn the language of the orchestra. I don't hear a lot in rock that excites me, maybe I'm missing it. I try to pay attention, but I just don't hear a lot of originality. I hear some really good productions from time to time, people that really know their way around a studio. I like some of the records that break through; a couple of Rihanna's records I really like. There's people doing good things out there…but not a lot of it. Not enough. 

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Credit: Ivy Augusta

MP: What made you transition into film and television scores?

WK: I always felt like it was something I wanted to do and I really loved being on tour in my '20s, '30s, '40s, even in my '50s, and I still loved played music for people. I loved being in a band. It's something I will always do, but I wanted to stay home more. After more tours of Europe than I can count, freezing in the snow, playing some sh**hole club in Nuremberg, Germany, and then going to the hotel and doing it again tomorrow. I just felt like maybe there was something else I could do that I could stay at home and sleep in my own bed, with my own wife every night. I just didn't want to get in the van again.

I still like touring, but to me scoring represented a whole new thing. I get to be the new guy again. I'm the kid again. I gotta learn a whole bunch of new stuff and I gotta figure out how all this stuff is done. It's like the best part of being in a band, but you don't have a band [laughs]. And when you finish the movie, you're done with that and you go do the next one. 

MP: Any upcoming projects?

WK: I'm scheduled to begin scoring the Evil Knievel documentary for the same crew that does Jackass, they're producing it. I'm looking forward to that. I just finished the new Kristin Wiig comedy, Welcome to Me…very twisted movie. I get to do a lot of different kinds of music, stretches me out. 

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Courtesy of Industrial Amusement

MP: You've always been someone to experiment in music, especially with free jazz — which Lexington is a great example of. What was that process like, did you plan it ahead of time or just go for it?

WK: The original germ of an idea came as I was writing the score for a documentary film called The Narcotic Farm for PBS, and I thought this score should be a jazz score, because the era that it's set in and the facility that it's focused on — the United States public health service narcotics farm at Lexington, Kentucky was a place where all the musicians that used drugs and got into trouble with the police were sent. In fact, they had a program where you could just come and sign in to take "the cure." So, I thought, well this is a jazz score, and these are jazz musicians that went there. [Lexington] a record that kind of ties in what happened to all those jazz musicians from the '40s and '50s, their involvement with drugs, and America's first attempt to deal with drug abuse as a social problem. And then…how the music grew in the free jazz movement, how that affected me, how I ended up in that same facility later when it became a federal prison, and then what's happened in the 35 years since then with this disaster of hyper-incarceration in America called the War on Drugs.

And in the music itself, I've worked with some of the players on this record for a long time, some of them going all the way back to the MC5, and we've all shared a love for pushing music beyond the orthodoxy. All of a sudden it was a chance to do this and maybe do it in a good way, in good studios with good players and tie it in with everything else. Once I turned the corner on it, it all kind of fell into place on its own. 

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Credit: Ivy Augusta

MP: How do you feel about the digital age and do you think there's a place for record companies in the wake of it?

WK: [Digital music] didn't kill record companies, record companies killed record companies. The arrogance and imperiousness of record company executives killed it, just like the auto industry in Detroit. They thought that they controlled the means of production…and they didn't. In the case of the automobile industry, the Japanese, the Koreans and the Germans had better ideas for cars than Detroit had. And in the music business, Sean Fanning and Napster and Spotify, these guys had better ideas on how to distribute music than the guys that ran big record companies. There was a moment when they could have pivoted and scooped the whole thing up and been fine, and they turned the exact wrong way.

That's why we decided with Lexington we would do vinyl, because I've heard — maybe you know more about this than me — young people get together in one room with a thing called a record player, with speakers, and they put on these things they called records, and they all listen to music together. At the same time! They share the experience. They don't sit with things in their ears, selfish little earbuds. Young people! Amazing! We thought the vinyl was a good idea so we did a 1,000 copies and I signed every one of them. Took all day.

wayne kramer, mc5, billy bragg
Billy Bragg & Wayne Kramer; Photo Credit: Ivy Augusta

MP: How did you first get involved with Jail Guitar Doors, which you co-founded with Billy Bragg? It really seems like fate that you run the American part of it since The Clash song it borrows its name from is about your time in prison.

WK: Well, seems like it was bigger than me. I was on the road to Sing Sing [Correctional Facility], took some musicians with me and one of them was Billy. I'd known Billy for years and [he] had Jail Guitar Doors written on his guitar. So, I said, "Bill, what's that all about?" He said, "Oh, it's an old Clash B-side. Have you ever heard it?" [long pause] I said, "Bill, the song is about me." He said, "What do you mean?" I said, "What are the lyrics, Bill?" "Well, let me tell you 'bout Wayne and his deals of coca…bloody f***in' hell!" He had forgotten completely that the song was about me [laughs]. Then he told me [that] he told Mick Jones [of The Clash] the same story and Mick says, "Was it about Wayne?" He didn't remember either [laughs].

So, [Billy] went on to explain that he wanted to do something to commemorate Joe Strummer's life's work — The Clash were that important to him. A guy had written him about using guitars as tools for rehabilitation in prison in England, but they didn't have any guitars and could Billy help him get some guitars? And so [he] said he was going to call it Jail Guitar Doors based on the song, and to honor Joe every year. We went to play this concert at Sing Sing and on the bus ride home it kept resonating with me. I knew for years that I needed to do something about hyper-incarceration in America, as a musician, as an ex-offender, as an artist, as a human being…I had to do something. And he laid it in my lap and I said, "This sounds like a good deal, I'd like to take this on for America." And he said, "Good, because I was just going to assign it to you." 

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Courtesy of Jail Guitar Doors

MP: How has it been going and how many instruments have you gotten in American jails so far?

WK: Oh, 500…600. We're in over 50 U.S. prisons now, we have a waiting list of 60 more. We’ve got programs running in the Cook County Jail in Chicago, the Travis County Correctional Complex in Austin, […] Sing Sing in New York, the Philadelphia County prison system, the Los Angeles County jail, and we're about to start one in the Twin Towers [Correctional Facility in Los Angeles]. We're working on a program here at Donovan [Correctional Facility in San Diego], trying to get it off the ground and also one in the county jail. We've been talking with some Sheriff's Deputies about bringing some guitars in and getting some volunteers to come in and run the program.

It's going really well. I think corrections professionals know that you can't lock people up and not do anything with them. You can't warehouse human beings. Today there's 2.3 million of our fellows in prison, half of them are non-violent drug offenders — they've got no business being in prison. This is terrible disaster for us as a country, as a people, and I hold our leaders responsible for this. In the end, if we don’t do something to help them change for the better while they're in custody, they will most certainly change for the worst. Then 95 percent of the people in prison will be released one day and they'll live next door to you and me, and we'll be sitting next to them here at the coffee shop. Who do we want to be sitting next to? Somebody who was treated like garbage for 20 years in a world of violence, racism, defeat and bitterness, or someone that had a chance to figure out what was wrong with them and learned a job skill, got some drug treatment and got some mental health counseling? Someone with a support system now to help them through the tough times. So, it's going well. We get mail everyday from prisoners that are happy that we're there and we get mail from corrections officials asking us to help them. It's terrific. We're trying to work ourselves out of a job [laughs]. 

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Courtesy of Jail Guitar Doors

MP: What's the best way to help out? Donate money, guitars, volunteer, etcetera?

WK: We always need money. The guitars come at a good discount to us, but they don't come free. We provide new guitars for our programs. We're not asking for people to give us their old guitars. Usually they're so beat up that it costs me more money to fix them up than they're worth. They can make a donation [instead]. Musicians can start their own chapter — because we're musician founded — in their own neighborhood, put on their own Jail Guitar Doors benefit concert, raise their own money, buy their own guitars, and take them into their own local prisons. That's your friends and family in those prisons. So, we want to see this repeated everywhere, everywhere that musicians that give a damn are and want to make a difference. We'll help them do it. Well take the bumps out of the road for them.

MP: And finally, what do you want your legacy to be?

WL: …He brushed after every meal [laughs]. 

Pick up a copy of Lexington on April 19, which just so happens to be Record Store Day.

wayne kramer, mc5
Photo Courtesy of Jail Guitar Doors

Mila Pantovich

Mila Pantovich lives in San Diego, CA with whatever animals she is fostering at the time. With a degree in Literature/Writing and a Minor in Film Studies, she holds a marketing position at a prestigious law firm and has written for several publications, including JustLuxe, Citizine and Huffington Post. In her spare time she writes film reviews for various online publications, works on a creative n...(Read More)

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