INTERVIEW BY MATTHIAS CONNOR, ILLUSTRATION BY JIRO BEVIS, THANKS TO J. SPACEMAN
Far more than anyone else, 1960s psych-rock legends the 13th Floor Elevators epitomised the ideal of the band as a gang of outsiders poised against the world. While other bands might have got high recreationally, the raw, spirited Elevators, hailing from Austin, Texas, would take their LSD before performing and try to play along with the high. By the late 60s, these freaky-looking kids soon attracted the attention of the redneck local police force. By the time the band got to San Francisco, already busted with their hair cut short, the hip who lived there looked down their noses at them. It wouldn’t be long before Roky was arrested one too many times for possession and, under the guidance of a state attorney, he would plead insanity. This resulted in him being placed in hospital, but after being rescued by friends he was re-arrested and detained at Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Texas.
When he was released three years later in 1972 he was the shadow of the man who entered. Since then, while sporadically continuing to record, he has struggled with mental health problems. This was illustrated in the 2005 documentary about Roky, You’re Gonna Miss Me, which chronicled the custody battle between his mother and brother over his wellbeing. Since then, I am pleased to report that Roky is happily married and has a new album available, True Love Cast Out All Evil, which he recorded with the band Okkervil River.
Speaking over a crackly transatlantic phone line to the disembodied voice of someone you’ve spent much of your life listening to is an odd experience. Roky, who turns 63 next month, was quiet and occasionally reticent, but always warm and polite. He also finishes most sentences with “you know?”.
Vice: You wrote tracks such as “We Sell Soul” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me” when you were 15. What inspired songs like that at such an early age?
Roky Erickson: I just sort of wrote them, you know? I just sort of did it. I didn’t really think about it.
Sometimes it sounds like you were trying to sound like Buddy Holly…
Yes, I was. Aha.
But Buddy Holly chewing acid.
Did you want to become stars like the Stones or the Who?
Well, I listened to the Who a lot and I liked to read about them. Prior to them I was listening to a lot of rhythm and blues music. I really enjoy rhythm and blues music, you know?
Can you remember meeting Tommy Hall, who you founded the 13th Floor Elevators with, for the first time?
Well, I met him when I was in a band called the Spades. I thought I was in Houston when I met him but I don’t think it was in Houston, know what I mean? He’d heard that I joined a band and he was thinking of having a band too, something like that.
I’ve always wondered how Tommy decided he was going to play the electric water jug?
He just did what he did and he had a jug and he would have to clean it out every so often, every short interval of time. Then he’d put a microphone up to it and play it.
Did he think that the jug player would get the all girls?
No, I don’t think so.
Are you aware of the power in your voice? It’s deeply moving and affecting.
Ah, yes, I am, thank you. I find it very easy to do, you know?
Is there anyone whose singing does that to you?
I just listened to the radio a lot as a kid. I liked to play my instrument and sing along to the radio. So I guess whatever was on the radio.
A lot of bands have covered your songs, and Sire even put out a whole covers album of your material. Are there any you particularly loved or hated?
I like them all. There were periods in my life when I would go through them and think about what I would do if I had to. I put the songs in, like, a container and think about them later. I am pleased that all my songs are here, you know what I mean?
Your return to health, performance and recording—considering the places you were in 20 or even ten years ago—is nothing short of remarkable. What made you want to get back onstage?
I was asked if I might be interested in maybe doing a show or something like that. It was either arranged or not. I think that’s what it was, kind of.
How did you end up recording True Love Cast Out All Evil with Will Sheff and Okkervil River?
We kind of just got together. I think they wanted me to do a couple of songs, you know? So that’s what I did.
Some of the songs on the record have been around for many years now. Are you happy with these new versions?
Yes, I was happy with them. I think they are relatively the same. A lot of my songs sound the same.
Seeing as the record contains songs from so many different periods in your life and career, does that make it closer to a biography?
Yes, I do enjoy the things that the songs say about my life but I’m not really sure what they are saying, you know?
You have released records on Trance Syndicate, the label run by King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers, and Henry Rollins published a collection of your lyrics. How did you meet those guys?
It just kind of happened. Well, Henry Rollins I’d heard about. Someone had got me a poster and it said Henry Rollins on it, so I knew who he was.
Have you seen the film about your life, You’re Gonna Miss Me?
I have, a little bit. I’d like to see more but you really need somebody with you to watch it. It is hard to watch in a way because you have to understand what you’re saying as you watch it.
In the film, when you would turn on all the electrical appliances in your house, did it sound like music to you or was it to drown out something?
Did I try and listen to it from a musical point of view? I like noise a lot of the time, so I guess it was music.
Roky hanging out on a cliff, 1975, by Stephanie Chernikowski
You once roomed with Townes Van Zandt and even suggested him as a replacement member when John Ike Walton quit the Elevators in 1967. How did you know Townes?
Well, it was just by chance that I heard about him. People always said, “Go and see him play his music”, and I had a chance to see him play so I went along and saw him. He just liked country music. That was the hard thing about it. That’s all he would sing. I can’t really remember if I played with him or not in the end. He may have given me a guitar once but I don’t remember if I played with it or not.
Did you suspect then that he was also bound for a path of hardship?
I don’t know. I didn’t hear about that until later. I’ve worked with a lot of people. I heard things about it but I have to be real careful about what I read. I enjoy reading things but I just take my time.
On the new album, some of the songs recorded while you were incarcerated in Rusk are credited to “unnamed prisoners”. Who did you play with while you were in there?
Is that right? I didn’t know about that. That’s a long story. I think there were a lot of people I played with, but then maybe who knows?
Is it true that the manuscript of your book of poetry, Openers, had to be smuggled out of Rusk?
Openers is a really good thing. It was for my family so they would be able to raise money to get me a lawyer. I just let my family handle it.
What are your feelings towards the punishment system in America now that you have some distance from it?
Like I say, I don’t really think about it. I like reading, though, and you could read. I like reading stuff from Russia. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Things like War and Peace, you know? I actually haven’t read that. It’s a very huge book and I don’t know if I’ll read it, but it looks like a good one.
After getting out of Rusk, you played with Doug Sahm and recorded with him as a producer. What are your memories of working with him?
We went to some studio. He helped me with a couple of songs called “Two Headed Dog” and “Starry Eyes”. He really did good on them.
You said recently that you like to “write about religion and horror at the same time”.
I just enjoy horror movies and things like that. Getting into things, purchasing them. And I enjoy reading the Old Testament Bible and writing songs about it. So those are two things I like, you know?
What are your favourite horror films?
I like the Creature With the Atom Brain. I haven’t seen any in a long time, but I enjoy them.
One of your backing bands was called the Aliens, and on the back of your “Bermuda”/“Interpreter” single from 1977 you wrote: “I am an alien, I am from Mars. And like I even had it notarized, y’know, had me swear it was true.”
I enjoyed playing with the Aliens. We did an album called The Evil One and we really enjoyed doing that and I enjoy reading about the secret hangars on the air force bases and aliens, you know?
Did you ever want to act?
Well, I have thought about it. That’s the whole thing with movies: you always want to be in them and be able to be in the show and everything. I had met this guy once at some ice cream thing, an ice cream social—his name is Darren, you know? He was just some guy I met. He lives way up, very far from here, know what I mean?
And he was in the movies?
Yeah. [Pause.] No, he’s not.
Do you still enjoy movies these days?
I like cartoons. What cartoons do you like?
I like South Park.
South Park. Oh yeah, that sounds good.
I like The Boondocks too.
Yes, I listen to that one every so often, but it’s a hard one to follow.
A lot of your songs deal with God and Satan. What does God mean to you?
Well, God is a thing that you like. You think good thoughts, and then you perceive that someone is going to tell you about God. What kind of form He is, stuff like that.
And how about Satan?
Satan is the same way. Satan is God and Jesus Christ.
Roky Erickson with Okkervil River’s True Love Cast Out All Evil is out now on Chemikal Underground.