John S. Hall - 2003

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John S. Hall is a NYC-based poet/spoken word artist who also happens to lead a really darn good underground minimalist piano-and-violin musical outfit called King Missile III. Prior to this band, John was the lead singer for a hard rock band called King Missile that found major success with the 1992 single "Detachable Penis." You may actually also know him from his first band, a folksy, slightly 60sish beatniky combo named King Missile (Dog Fly Religion). But no matter whether his muse leads him to sing a song, yell a stream of curse words, or tell a bizarre hilarious little story about putting hamsters into balloons and wearing them around your waist, Mr. Hall can always be counted on to entertain. He's an intelligent humorist, an entertaining writer and, most importantly, a lawyer. With King Missile III's latest CD The Psychopathology Of Everyday Life having become a regular fixture in my player, I got this really really strong urge to ask him for an interview. He courteously agreed to an email interview, and the results can be found below. My questions are in bold, his answers in plain text.


The beginning - how did the original King Missile (Dog Fly Religion) get started? And how quickly did you become such a favorite among college radio and the sort of anti-folk poet crowd?

I started doing open poetry readings in 1985. After doing three of them, I got featured at a place in the Village called the Backfence (it's still there). I thought 20 minutes of just me would be too much, so I asked my friend Dogbowl to accompany on a few things. We performed "Lou," and probably "Take Stuff From Work," and I don't remember what else. Maybe "Sensitive" and "That Old Dog," but they might not have been written yet.

It's funny that you mention anti-folk, as that is the name of a genre, founded by Lach, who I met around that time. I performed at his venues (in various locations, but always called The Fort) often. Anti-folk and the Fort continue on, and Lach continues to have an excellent eye for talent, and has done an enormous amount of work creating and maintaining a setting where underground music can thrive. His band, Lach and the Secrets, are always worth checking out. Disclaimer: Lach is a client of my law firm, Heraty Hall (see

Anyway, in '87, we went to Noise New York to make some demos, and the engineer (Kramer) there was starting a label (Shimmy Disc) and he asked if we'd like the demos to come out on the label and we said okay.

Shimmy Disc did a lot of things wrong, but two things they did right were put out good, often off-kilter CDs (Bongwater, Spongehead, When People Were Shorter, etc.) and, perhaps more importantly, they sent the releases out to every college radio station that reported to CMJ. As a result, our first CD (Fluting on the Hump-1987) got a lot of airplay, and charted very well on CMJ, without any promotion or advertising or anything. We were fortunate, because at that time, people were just starting to recognize that college radio was a factor, but the big labels were not yet bombarding the stations with phone calls and pressure to add singles and so on. So it was possible for stuff to get played on college radio without anybody telling the station to play it. That is, they would actually listen to stuff that came in, and if they liked it, they would play it. Some college stations probably still operate that way, but back then, they all did.

We did another record with Shimmy (They, 1988). It did not get as much airplay as Fluting, but it did all right. Then Dogbowl left the band and I asked Dave Rick from Bongwater to help me put together a new band. He did, and we quickly worked out a bunch of songs and recorded Mystical Shit in late 89-early '90. That release, thanks mostly to "Jesus Was Way Cool," was a number one CMJ for several weeks. As a result of that CD, the Dead Milkmen asked us to tour (our first tour, by the way- we did eight shows in the Southeast) and Atlantic signed us.

The next CD (The Way to Salvation-1991) went to number 2 CMJ, although I credit the label with forcing it down their throats. Or it may have been that we were the only alternative act Atlantic had at the time (they had dropped Redd Kross and had not yet signed the Lemonheads), and the stations said to Atlantic, "Tell you what--we'll play King Missile." Or maybe some of the stations liked it. I always considered it weak.

The second KM explosion (the first being the Mystical CD) came with Happy Hour (1992). This was the first Atlantic record (and one of only a very few at the time) to debut #1 at CMJ, and that was basically because of "Detachable." "Martin Scorsese" also got play, as did "It's Saturday," and a few others. But it was basically "Detachable." And after that CD, we didn't really get a lot of airplay. A few stations continued to be supportive, but I think that the success of "Detachable" resulted in a lot of people getting pretty tired of what we were doing. That is one of the bad things about having a "hit."

"They" on the whole seemed a lot less "jokey" than Fluting on the Hump. Was this done to ensure you weren't written off as a novelty project? Or were you just more interested in trying new, more song-oriented avenues of expression?

I think it was more a result of having twice as much time to fill up. "Fluting" was just a 22 minute ep (originally released on vinyl only, it is now included on the Mystical Shit CD). "They" was 45 minutes or more. We all felt it would be a good idea to break up the spoken word shit with more singing. And there was singing on Fluting too: "Lou," "Heavy Holy Man" "Fluting," and "That Old Dog"--that's over a third of the record. And three of those are not very jokey.

But basically, the answer is that we were trying to experiment, and we had a lot more time in the studio. "Fluting" was made in ten hours (including the mixing) and I was paying for it. With "They," we were given as much time as we wanted.

When Dogbowl left and you got a new band together, what made you choose the musicians you did? In other words, were you interested in a harder rock sound, or did you just really like the guys and their eclecticism?

I met Dave Rick at the Fort. I had a show booked (this must have been '88, before "They" had been recorded), and Dogbowl was out of town, and I called Kramer and said "Help!" and he put together a band that learned a bunch of songs (without me) and they showed up that night and performed with me. That band was Dave Rick on guitar, Kramer on bass, and Dave Licht on drums. (I later asked Dave Licht to play some drums on They (or maybe Kramer asked him--I don't remember)). When Dogbowl left, I called Dave Rick, recalling how well that impromptu performance worked out. He enlisted Chris Xefos who played a lot of different instruments, which was important to me, because one thing I have never wanted is the typical guitar-bass-drum set up. And I asked Steve Dansiger, who had played drums on about half of the They record, and who I had known for years. The result, Mystical Shit, was mostly a rock sounding record - although "Gary and Melissa," "Jesus," "Sandbox" and "Cheesecake Truck," which were four of the more popular tunes, were also far less rocky. When the CD first started to take shape, I was very unsure about what was happening--I wasn't sure I liked what these guys were coming up with. I missed Dogbowl's melodies, and I didn't like that it was loud. But other people seemed to like it a lot, and at that time, that was important to me, so I went with it. As time went by, I started to appreciate the oddity of me in a rock band. Unfortunately, I didn't really embrace the idea fully until that band had broken up. Nowadays, I can look back and think it was fun and funny that I was in a rock band, but at the time, it bothered me a lot and I complained about it all the time, but I lacked the moral character to do anything about it. And some of the results over the years made me quite pleased: "Jesus," "The Fish That Played the Ponies," "Gary," "Sandbox," "Fourthly," "Flower," "Pickaxe," "The Indians," "Sink," "It's Saturday," "Detachable," "Ed," "Love Is," "Let's Have Sex," "These People," and "Delores." There was other stuff that I liked, even if I didn't love it, and there was stuff that I didn't like, but I was glad we tried it, and other people liked it, and got something out of it, so that's okay. I keep answering more than you're asking!

When "Detachable Penis" hit MTV, did you notice a change in your audience makeup? Or did you attract the same sorts of (and sizes of) audiences the whole time?

There's a phenomenon that happens with bands at various points in their careers where you're getting a lot of press, or airplay, and people come to see your shows, or buy your CD not because they like you, but because it seems like the thing to do. So there were always people who would say "I want to get the new KM CD," or "I'm going to see KM when they come to town." But at certain points there are other people out there who are saying "I want a new CD. What should I get? Oh, maybe I'll get this" or "I feel like seeing some live music tonight. Oh, this band is in town, I think I might have heard one of their songs, I think I'll go see them." So from about 92-94 there were a lot of people coming to our shows who weren't really fans. They didn't necessarily hate us (although some of them did) but they didn't really care. One of the ways we dealt with this was by playing "Detachable" early in the set, so that the people who didn't like us could leave, and we could play for the people who cared. That worked out well. People did leave.

Are you constantly writing, or just when it's time to get crackin' for a new album? (or book?)

There's only one book (Jesus Was Way Cool-1995), and it was all written before it was put together. I'm working on two others now, and one of them I'm putting together mostly from old albums and from work that, for whatever reason, never made it to an album. Things usually don't make it to an album because we can't come up with music that works with the words.

The other book I'm working on is being written "from scratch." But I don't know if I'll finish it, so there's no point in discussing it. I shouldn't have even brought it up.

I used to write every day, but nowadays I write when inspired. That can be because I have a spoken word show coming up or because I'm in the middle of making a CD. Often, I will write a lot of stuff while we're recording and some of it will make it to that CD, and some of it is held in reserve for the next CD.

How much of your writing have you NOT revealed to the public? (And why?)

Of all the stuff I write, probably 75% never gets recorded. Sometimes it's because I've read it at shows a few times to lukewarm response. But usually it's because I think it's not right. I will sometimes rewrite the same idea a few times before it feels good. I do this as opposed to taking a piece and tinkering with it in an effort to make it right. The earlier drafts wouldn't (and shouldn't) get recorded, because they're not as good.

I know it's been a while now, but as a fellow New Yorker, I was wondering if you could go through your thoughts, emotions and actions the day the terrorists hit the Trade Center. I ask this question to a lot of people because it's one of those few times in life when I think we were ALL stunned and broken apart, and I find it interesting to see how different sorts of people dealt with the tragedy.

I was pretty confused, and I felt horrified for the victims (especially the ones that jumped out of the buildings). I recently watched the 9/11 special that CBS broadcast on the first anniversary (I taped it, but did not watch it at the time. My reaction to the mostly jingoistic 9/11/02 commemorations was utter disgust), and I felt it gave me a deeper sense of what the firefighters, and some of the victims, may have experienced. But I remember that within an hour or two, my biggest concern was all the misery that this country would inflict upon itself and others in response. I'm sad to say that America has far exceeded my pessimistic expectations in that regard.

Could you speak a bit about the common thematic threads that run through all of your work, and perhaps say a bit about why these themes play such a large role in your writing?

I think these are some of the common themes: a)life is hard, brutal, capricious and unfair, b) sometimes there is a benefit to seeing it clearly, and acknowledging it truthfully (e.g., "Happy Hour," "Frightened and Freezing," "Happiness"), and c) other times it is best to find something to laugh about, lest despair crush one completely. I find a lot of humor in shocking or so called taboo things: castration, excrement, violence (usually self- inflicted or inflicted on the narrator, "Scorsese" being an exception), sex and sexual perversions ("The Miracle of Childbirth," "Let's Have Sex," "The Leather Clown") etc. I don't really know how to describe the stuff. It makes me feel pretentious to try. So I'll stop now.

The new album is by a wide margin your most curse-filled and offensive ever -- was there a specific reason for this? (i.e. giving up on radio play, incredible anger about the state of the world right now, just a more obscene sense of humor sticking with you lately, etc?)

It wasn't intentional--it just happened that the "Pain Series," "The Miracle" and "The President" all ended up on this record. Radio play has never been the main focus: I've just always tried to come up with stuff that I think people will like, and I usually try it out at spoken word shows, and if it works, we put it on CDs. Those three I just mentioned are among my favorite things I've ever done. I guess I'm hoping for word of mouth, as opposed to radio, and maybe some good reviews and I hope our upcoming tour helps draw attention to the fact that this CD is out. I expect that if people buy it, they will like it.

Which of your songs do you feel are your finest of all time? Which are you most proud of, of all?

It's not pride; it's more like, "Fuck, I am so lucky that that occurred to me." And I felt that way about "Take Stuff" "Sensitive" "Jesus" "Detachable" "Gay Not Gay" "The Miracle"-- mostly things that the audience has tended to favor as well. Conversely, are there any that completely embarrass you? I don't mean just ones where you'd like to go back and change a line or two, but ones that you hear now and wonder what you were thinking? ;7)

It's not so much the material, but more a sense that we didn't record something properly: either we used music that didn't work so well (the lyrics to "Take Me Home" and "Open Up" might have worked very well as spoken word pieces; "Frightened and Freezing" probably should have had sweet melodic music, "The Commercial" sounds a lot better in performance--the version that was recorded was uninspired, etc.), or the production values were not what they should have been (On "They" there were a lot of things that I wanted to sound really poppy, like "Mr. Johnson," "As I walked through Queens" and "Stonehenge;" on "The Way To Salvation," I thought my vocals were mixed way too high throughout the record) or my performance was weak ("She Had Nothing to Say," "Let's Have Sex," and most of the ones where I sing). So there's stuff that I don't like to listen to, but I'm aware that other people like it, so that gives me some solace.

When and why did you decide to go to law school?

Law school is what a lot of people do after college when they don't know what to do next. I took the LSAT when I graduated, but then the band started to happen, so I went with it. When the band stopped happening, I twiddled my thumbs for a few years, and then decided I should learn out how to do something else. Upon graduating, I was invited to start a firm with another lawyer, and so we did. Heraty Hall.

Does your practice get a lot of business? I see you have a very large client list on the site, but I don't know how long you've been in business, so it's hard to gauge...

We can always use more business. We have a lot of clients (especially considering that the firm has been operating for less than year), but many of them just need a contract drafted or reviewed every now and then. Our rates are very reasonable, so if you know anybody who needs a music/entertainment lawyer, let them know!

Are there any songs (and by "songs," I mean "spoken word" stuff too) of yours that you feel have been badly misinterpreted over the years? Due to your use of metaphor or symbolism that people just didn't catch -- or irony that nobody realized was irony, that sort of thing?

No, I don't really think that has happened much. There is not much subtlety in what I do. I suppose people missed the ambivalence about male gender identity that is an undercurrent of "Detachable." Then again, sometimes people point stuff out that I wasn't aware of. A reviewer pointed out that "The Sandbox" was an allegory about lost innocence, whereas I thought it was about the environment. An audience member suggested that "The Miracle" is about how life starts with violence and turbulence and blood and parasitism, and so on, and that that explains why living is so fraught with misery and oppressive guilt and confusion. My point being that sometimes other people understand what I'm doing better than I do.

Do you and King Missile III write the lyrics and music separately from each other, or do they write their music based on what you have written, or vice-versa or some or all? For example, why was the decision made to back up "The President" with a drum solo?

We've done it all different ways. With most of the new CD, the lyrics were written first. Sometimes they write music to the lyrics, and sometimes they come up with something, and I say oh, "these lyrics would go good with that." If I don't have lyrics to go with their music, I will try to write some. I don't remember why we decided to do drums and vocals for "The President." I think I wanted something sparse. It may be that we came up with that on stage one day.

Why did you remake "Jesus Was Way Cool" on the new album? Right after "Jim," your delivery comes across as incredibly disillusioned-sounding, like you no longer really believe what you're saying. (I'm not sure if that was on purpose or if it's just the impression I get because "Jim" is right before it)

About 30-40% of the new CD was actually recorded four years ago for an internet music company that went out of business without releasing it. The rights reverted to us after three years, so we took those songs, and made a bunch more, and here we are. That company had asked that we dust off one of the old ones and remake it. So we did. We thought it might make a good addendum to this CD, but the intention was not to sound disillusioned. Although I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing.

I must be honest and admit that I had no idea you had a solo album called "The Body Has A Head" until a couple of days ago. Is this record entirely spoken word or do you have music backing you? And is it possible to purchase a copy of it anywhere?

I don't know what the availability of TBHAH is. It was released in Germany only, and that company also went out of business, so the rights reverted to us. We put out a version with some additional live material and sold it as "The Green Album," but I think we've sold out of it, and I don't know if we're going to make more or not.

What is your book like? I plan to purchase a copy soon (I didn't know about IT either).

It's basically just lyrics from most of the CDs. In fact, there is stuff from all the CDs except this new one. It's about 90 pages long, with about 40 or 50 poems, including "Take Stuff," "Sensitive" "Wuss," "Jesus," "A Good Hard Look," "The Prophesy," etc.

Are you touring for the new CD?

From March 3-March 31. The tour dates are available on our booking agent's website. (THE KORK AGENCY WEBSITE)

My wife laughs and laughs every time one of the Pain Series poems come on the stereo, and she wanted me to ask if you would consider trademarking the word "Fuckhammer"?

It sounds like a good name for a band, or a vibrator. But I'll let someone else have it.

What's in the future for John S. Hall, the hat-wearing minstrel?

We hope to have another CD out very soon, especially if this one does well. And I'm hoping the law firm takes off. I really enjoy helping people with their bands, and their small businesses.

Reader Comments
Gosh, John Hall is really accurate in his interpretation and assessment not only of King Missile fans, but music fans and performers in general. I remember seeing King Missle in '92 in Denver, and I remember being there for the same reason that now bugs me with other people - because it seemed like the thing to do. The band had a buzz and I admit I didn't really care that much. But at least it turned out that I did like them and I even bought a T-shirt. Anyway, I like what he has to say and I'm glad to see that he's all reasonable and shit.

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