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Prick: A Conversation With Kevin McMahon
PM Magazine, Vol. 1, Issue # 10 Sept. 7 - 13, 1995
By Susan Fenske
Transcribed by Robert Ferent
Kevin McMahon has been called an "aural sculptor;" his debut album, PRICK, (Nothing/Interscope) was recorded in a variety of studios including Trent Reznor's (Nine Inch Nails) Pig Studios in Los Angeles along with other studios located in New Orleans and London. The album was produced by Reznor, along with Warne Livesey (The The, Jesus Jones, Midnight Oil), and mixed at The Church and The Rak by Alan Moulder (Smashing Pumpkins, NIN).
McMahon and Reznor have a history: they first me tin Cleveland during the late 80's when the NIN brainchild was playing keyboards in McMahon's project, Lucky Pierre. It was a fertile, yet low-key scene that birthed other groups such as Pere Ubu and Devo.
It was a brief relationship and both have gone their separate ways since then, but the two have recently teamed up again on McMahon's terms with his Industrial/theatrical solo endeavor called Prick. McMahon is an elusive loner, self-admittedly quiet, but created a quandary when he takes ten minutes of run on sentences, pausing often to gather his thoughts, in order to explain what a quiet and shy person he is. Quite a contradictory characteristic. Calling from Los Angeles, Kevin referred to his home as his "little box" and, during our conversation, it became apparent that he was irritated by the traffic, police sirens and other noise that was being created outside his window. McMahon admitted that he doesn't have many friends and, ironically, when his call waiting clicked while we were talking, he checked the line, but no one was there.
We talked a little about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and although he seemed relatively uninformed about the ceremonies, he was curious and asked some questions. After getting untangled from his telephone cord, we sank down into our uneasy chairs and had this spooky conversation; it was deep, and it could have gone deeper, I just don't know if either one of us could have endured it.
Why aren't you here for all the 'Hall of Fame' festivities?
I wasn't asked; I need to be asked - for festive occasions I do - I don't like to just show up unexpectedly.
Are you introverted, Kevin? You sound it.
I think I am, yes, but once I go out with the band it's a little different, I get into that mode. I know that's what's set up, when I know there's a schedule of dates that I have to perform, then it's kind of a different thing. I can concentrate on that and I can think about that more than what I would do at home. So it makes it a little easier.
What do you do when you're alone?
I write a lot, read... (long pause) pace. You know, walk back and forth? One of the books I'm reading now is The Oswald Tale, which is about 6 months old, it's kind of difficult reading. I think the author takes depositions from people who were acquaintances of Lee Harvey Oswald when he was in Russia and so, through an interpreter, using broken English, he's writing it down. Instead of just coming directly from them, so he's not re-writing it, it's like reading broken English, statements more than dialogue. I'm into it 100 pages and it's still the same way, I guess it's getting easier to read, but... I think it's even affecting my speech, do I sound like I don't know the English language? This is the way it normally is, though.
What's your recollection of the Cleveland scene back in the days of Lucky Pierre, Wild Giraffes, etc.?
My recollection is that it was a good time. We were playing out often, and when we weren't, we were rehearsing. To me, bringing in new material to a band is a rewarding thing - not as much as writing it, but it's a different kind of feeling when you have a suspicion that something might work out well with a group of people and then when they play it, it immediately becomes apparent that you can't do it with the line-up that you have and you need some other instrumentation or everything just seems to work and the band feels comfortable with the way the song it and it's one of those days when things seem to work out. I guess that's what I remember most, other than the things that didn't work out, I remember when a song clicked in the basement and there wasn't any feedback... the better things.
There wasn't much going on in those days, besides us and a couple of other original bands. Cleveland was pretty much a cover band town. I don't know how it is these days, but I imagine there's a lot more people doing original music, whether or not it's because it's in fashion or everybody is getting creative, I'm not sure. But at the time, it was mostly cover music, so, us doing our originals, at times the people in the audience weren't ready for it. Down in the Flats, you'd just go out to have a drink or see some other bands. It wasn't so much an 'us against them' feeling but there was definitely something going on where we had to convince people that what we were playing was valid, even though it wasn't on the radio or on the juke box. I don't know whether or not we convinced anyone, but I'm told there were a couple of Lucky Pierre fans back then. I'm glad about that.
Why did you carry some of the Lucky Pierre material with you to Prick?
Some of it still seems to work and using the equipment we're using these days with sampling some of it transfers; "Communique" is on the record; those songs seem to be different to me now, the arrangements are slightly different, and... I'm... very different.
I think I think too much now.
Do you ever go out and let yourself go, just have fun?
I do on stage and that seems to be the only time. I'm going to try to do that. I know that yesterday I said i was going to try to do that tonight, but today I'm saying that I'm going to do it tomorrow. I keep putting it off. I just want to know that a good time is waiting for me, down the road. But, it's hard to incorporate in my daily life, I can make it work tomorrow, but making it work today - seems like such a giant step.
Do you have a lot of friends around you?
No. I'm a loner. I don't know how that happened or when it happened, but it was... I do remember having friends at one point, but that was a while back.
So you don't have many people that are close to you?
Are there a lot of people who are trying to get close to you? Maybe because of your recent success and how do you deal with that?
I don't think anybody knows anything about that. Because I don't go out and tell anybody. When I do go out, if I want to check out a group or go to a film or something like that, I usually dress more... differently... so that no one will approach me.
How do you dress?
Some days, quasi-Chaplin. A Charlie Chaplin kind of thing. Clare Quilty from Lolita, I like that kind of look every once in awhile. Usually somebody who you would think was working in a machine shop for 40 years, rather than trying to have any kind of style. But style seems to be something that you can do almost anything, if you have a modern haircut or a... what do you call it? A tattoo, or some kind of piercing. You can be wearing a 40-year old factory outfit and it works... fashion-wise. You gotta learn how to stay away from that stuff so that you actually do attract no attention, and sometimes it feels strange, especially when you're across the street and there's a car coming, then you want to be seen... a little bit. For the most part to be able to walk by people and have them not recognize you is one of my goals, it seems.
So you want to look unapproachable... unattractive and kind of strange?
Well strange... I think... is attractive. So I don't want to look too strange. I'm not sure why that is, I think because I'm not sure whether or not I'll be a disappointment in conversation, you know? I don't want to do that, so I walk by some people who start talking to me and I'm thinking about something else and I can't get into the conversation, then they might get the impression that I'm trying to be rude or be anti-social, which is not the case. It's just hard for me to zero in on a conversation. I'm sort fo doing it now, but when I'm walking down the street or if somebody would just come up and knock on my door for no reason, I'd really have a tough time answering the door, so I guess that leads towards introversion.
Are you comfortable with that?
No, it's very uncomfortable. But the alternative seems to be less uncomfortable. I'll try to see what else is going on out there.
The alternative would be to be loud, attention-getting, etc...
You're not here; if you were here, I could totally do that. (Long pause) Maybe when they have those television telephones, but I don't know if I'll ever have one of those.
What is Prick to you, what does it mean?
It's a name that's kind of an umbrella for the music I'm doing at the moment and my live performance. I don't know whether or not I can say it's a pseudonym of mine, or that it's even a character that I'm in, I don't think that would be exactly true, because it's too undefined in my mind to be something that I can slip into. Perhaps if I just took out one night and described what it was, as a character, then I could more easily jump into it. But it's a name that I think is good for describing this kind of music and by 'this kind of music,' I mean the lyrics as well. Do you hear how loud it is here? It's cars. I live on a side street, there's a lot of apartment buildings but I don't understand why everyone else isn't as bothered by the noise as I am. Listen to it! it's rare that there isn't a siren going! They'll probably start up, too. Car alarms... sirens... police helicopters are always flying over... but this is a good time of the day, when the sun starts to go down, it becomes a noise-fest. All kinds of irritating noises.
So why not relocate?
I'm trying to do that, I have my stuff packed but it's been packed and it's been sitting here in the corner for, I don't know... a couple of months. But that's the beginning. I think if you pack, then you sort of force yourself to leave. It's working, it's slowly working. I have the shades drawn here, and many other things, so I'm making it almost impossible to live here. The next time we talk to each other, I'll be at a different phone number.
Are you a happy person, Kevin?
(Call waiting clicks) See... I must have friends, right? Let's see who that is. (He clicks over) Hello? It was nobody. I thought I had a friend there for a minute.
Are you happy?
I thought you'd forget about that. Well, I'm happy with the way some things are going. But, you know, there are a lot of things that are not going well, in the world. It's hard to ride a wave of individual happiness while other things are going on. So, I suppose as much as I can be happy at this time, I don't want to give the impression that I'm sulking, good things are happening with my group. I don't think I do sulk, it's just that other things come into play besides... happiness.
What are some of those things?
(Long pause) I think the tone of everything... you may not think it can drop... you may think that this conversation is really down there at this moment, but really... it could really bottom out at this point if I start thinking about all that. I have a hard time talking about it because, I think I'd sound like a politician. It mainly has to do with mankind, I don't know where the 'kind' part comes from, but I can't find too much wrong with the natural things that are happening. I think that nature seems to be fine. I don't have too much problem with fucking with that system. I don't want to fuck with that system because I don't have anything to do with it, I don't think I could think of anything better. It would have to be people's involvement with other people, and people's involvement in the natural order of things. It's not very pleasant. And since you have to think about what's the natural order, I don't know what the natural order is, then it would be hard for me to defend that position other than having blanket statements like, 'nature takes care of itself' and people's involvement and something fucks it up and doesn't improve it. I usually have this kind of debate with myself about why I think in a certain way or what is the understood truth that you're questioning or wondering about or trying to change or challenge, and, so much of it has to do with thought or what you think you know, and it's kind of hard to get into a conversation on the telephone with somebody... I don't know... because I think that inevitably I'll say something that I mean but when it's written... let's say I was looking at the moon, and you asked me to describe it. What if my description was 'a dark curvature, a chasm that looks like a concave sphere.' I would be talking about one of those little... well... if I was looking through a telescope, what do they call those things on the moon?
Yes, I'd be looking at that. So if you were to just write down that as a description of the moon, then it wouldn't be a very good description to someone who had never seen the moon. You would describe it as 'spherical and luminous.' Is it huge? That's relative to how far away you are, so it's the same kind of thing with trying to articulate what is not quite right or what tends to make me happy. I can only describe little areas. Even if I described the whole, it wouldn't be a complete thing because I'm not describing in detail and I don't want to, just for the moon's sake, I could say that it's a big luminous ball in the sky... beautiful. But, the problems of the world I would not feel comfortable putting them in one quick sentence.
Are you involved in any organized religion at all?
I think I practice religion, and I use the term 'practice' meaning that I practice thinking about religion. But I don't go to a building with other religious people to talk about what our religion is. I'm not there right now, but I think that probably the impetus of most religions was a good thing and maybe has something to do with the truth and people seeking it out and started off with good things in mind. But then, people came along, got in there and and started seeing how it could be self-serving. If I went, I would feel like I was an outsider if i went to one of those places because what I'd want to do is, not so much be comforted by it, but to dissect it and see what's wrong with it, and who wants a guy like that to join in? I don't want to go there and wreak havoc.
Well, that would be drawing too much attention to yourself, wouldn't it?
It most certainly would.
Why do you think there is such an appeal to angry music? Does the aggression, the alienation and anger rub off in areas of the listener's life?
Well, I think you are what you eat... or what you hear sometimes. I don't think that the Prick record is a record of anger and alienation and aggression. I think that there are, for their sakes alone, moments of that. I use aggressive sounds, and I'm not afraid to go certain places lyrically that are not always pleasant. But I don't want my life to go there and ruin somebody's belief in something, I don't want to do that, although that happens to me. So in order for me to be comfortable and happy or to reach my own level of understanding, I think I have to question a lot of things that might give me some unpleasant knowledge, and maybe that unpleasant knowledge will be that I don't know what I thought I knew, and a lot of times that you can find out that you get angry and isolated by finding that out. But, to not find it out, or not ask those questions or not attempt to make those discoveries, doesn't insure your happiness. I think there's places you can avoid because they're dangerous. You can say well, that's a fire on the stove I'm going to keep my finger out of there because I'll get burned, or you can go stick your finger in it. There are places that are not that extreme or events, situations and relationships that aren't as fire that we have been told, because of somebody else's experience, that it's not a good thing to do and maybe somebody else is wrong on those points. You have to go out and find out and a lot of times when you do go out and search, it wears on your optimism, because you find out that a lot of things you thought were real were just an illusion. But then when you do find the truth, or what you consider to be true, or as much as your mind can dissect, you and your mind kind of gives up and says, 'I can't go any deeper;' the human eye can only see so much and you don't mistrust your eye to the point that you have to get a microscope for everything. You've grown to trust your eye, so you grow to trust your senses about how far you can delve into something and where your stopping point is. This is enough information for me, I can't take anymore. I would pick up some book on the universe and I would like to get some idea where the 8th planet is in relationship to the 7th and it will give me some broad, layman answer and I can handle it. But it gets deeper into it and I can handle a little, but then they go way far into it and I can't... I lose it, I can't understand it. So, I can either throw the book down and rip it up or I can get all upset about it because i don't understand it, or, I can remember that the reason I got into it in the first place was because I loved the idea of learning about it. So there is some frustration there, and there is some stopping, some things you won't know, but you do have to invest some of your happiness to find out whether or not it is really happiness that you have or whether it's some artificially placed and constructed commercial thing that you've been given.
Would you rather talk or be quiet?
Sounds like I'd rather talk after all that, I've been talking for half an hour. I don't know if I said anything that I couldn't have said in half a minute. I would rather be quiet. I suppose that's because I'm usually alone; I think that if I talk when I'm alone, I start to feel a little uncomfortable. But if I'm with somebody I'm having an okay conversation with, like it seemed okay there for a while, then I don't mind talking. It's just when I can't find out what we're talking about, just banter going back and forth and sometimes that's okay, but it's been a while since that's been okay with me. But I think I could do that if I had a bottle of champagne and it was dark... and somebody else was doing most of the talking. I could probably talk and then I'd probably want to be silent. You know how it is? If a black cloud comes over me, and absorbs me and makes me incommunicable, this does happen. It's only because that cloud is there, and no matter how much I fought it, I as a mere mortal could not do anything about that part of nature.