Mr. Mark Kramer – known simply as Kramer – is a New York producer, musician and artist. He has worked with many groups and voices in alternative genres such as Galaxie 500, Daniel Johnston, Butthole Surfers and Jad Fair. Kramer has also worked with the world-famous magicians Penn & Teller would you believe.

With such an eclectic experience in the arts and media, comes a plethora of interesting responses to some questions I haphazardly smashed into an email and sent to the man, a week or so ago. A few questions focus on outsider musician Daniel Johnston, who Kramer has worked with on several projects. His label Shimmy-Disc have just released ‘Alive In New York City’, a live recording of a Johnston performance circa 2000.
We are grateful to Kramer for “sitting down” with Silent Radio and giving us his thoughts on art, production and the late great Daniel Johnston. Hope you enjoy.
What was it about Daniel Johnston’s music that attracted you to work with him?
Everything. I couldn’t explain why i go to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and stand in front of his “Sunflowers” for 4 hours, or why any Rothko painting (or listening to Morton Feldman’s ‘Rothko Chapel’) mesmerizes me. These artists speak to me in a language I feel is very private, so it seems not simply difficult to explain, but wrong to even try. I felt as though Daniel was not just singing, but that he was singing to me, and I’ve always assumed that this is precisely what draws most people so very close to his fire.
What is it about Daniel Johnston’s music that makes you still put out records such as ‘Alive in New York City’
I chose to release this LP because i felt the performance therein to be unique and extraordinary. It’s more than just a ‘listening experience’. it’s a complete experience in and of itself, encompassing and intoxicating all of the senses at once, like great cinema. People would go to see Daniel perform live, and they would leave changed forever. The recording of this performance conveys metamorphosis that in a way that I felt compelled to share.
Are there elements to Daniel Johnston’s music (and your own) that you never want anyone to see?
Speaking for myself, it’s hard to share my loneliest songs. I don’t relish the notion of listeners understanding how deeply fragile I am, or how very prone to mistrust I can be, especially when I’m in Love. I’m capable of some truly extraordinary fuckups when my heart beats too loudly. Daniel, on the other hand, never thought twice about such things. His personality was likely devoid of all such considerations. I don’t think he ever really held back anything. he wanted the listener to see inside of him, and that’s a huge part of his appeal. His compulsion to share all of himself was pervasive.
What do you find more satisfying producing  great record or working out your own music?
Well I’ve produced a small handful of solo LPs and literally hundreds of LPs for other artists, so… there’s your answer.
I never feel as though I’ve really given anything of value to others unless I’m producing other artist’s music, or collaborating as an artist with others. Collaborations are my lifeblood. I’d be Nothing without them. My new LP with Pan American/Mark Nelson makes me feel like I’ve given something meaningful to another person. I never feel that way after finishing a solo LP. In fact, it often fills me with sadness, wondering why I did something alone, or for myself, rather than for others. I suppose that’s why I’m a producer. I prefer to Give, more than anything else, and producing IS Giving, if I’m forced to define it in a single word. I’d have worked much more on my work as a solo artist if I wasn’t a born altruist, I’m sure. I have trouble taking. I long to Give.
Are there certain things or elements you look for when seeking out new projects to work on?
Honestly, I’m just listening. It’s a very simple act, though I listen completely. It can’t be peripheral. Sometimes the really meaningful things in art are hidden well by the artist, whether intentionally or otherwise. It’s vital that I be in-the-moment while I’m listening. there’s an old Zen proverb that goes something like this; when sitting, sit. when eating, eat. when listening, listen.
Get it? Give your full attention to something, and you’re less likely to miss what’s truly meaningful, and lasting.
How important is it for labels like Shimmy-Disc to exist? Or is it a necessary vehicle for your own creativity?
I have no clue whatsoever about how important it is for labels like mine to exist. that’s for the listener to decide. Of course, no one other than John Zorn would release my music if I didn’t have the privilege of running my own label, so Shimmy-Disc remains necessary for me until (or if) I find myself having lost interest in composing, recording and producing. Some pretty unlucky things have happened to me personally as a result of running a label, but the good far outweighs the bad. People who run record labels make enemies, but they can also forge lifelong friendships, and the ones that last are the only ones that matter, to me. and even when people part ways and never speak to each other again, the music will always still be there.
Lovers break up. Collaborators disagree, sometimes to the dismemberment of their own futures. That’s just a part of Life.
It’s been said you are credited with the early development of “slowcore” or “sadcore” (work with Galaxie 500 and Low for example). Do you still dabble in that kind of music? (If this is true then I thank you as I love depressing shit).
Well thank you for the thanks, Connor. I don’t think I’ve ever ‘dabbled’ in anything at all, ever, but I do still produce artists whose music is clearly influenced by those two bands you’ve mentioned here. The reverberations of those old recordings seems to be continuously expanding, and for good reason, I think. I was lucky to have listened to that cassette demo LOW sent to me in the early 90’s, and I was lucky that Galaxie 500 heard ‘Music To Strip By” (by Half Japanese) and hired me because the drummer loved the drum sound I got on that LP. All in all, I think I’m one of the luckiest men in the world.
The terms “outsider music” or “outsider musician”, are these to be taken with pride or is it completely redundant to your work? Cliche question I guess but are labels in music something you want to avoid? Or is it impossible to do so?
Pride is an empty, selfish emotion. It gets in the way of the real reward, which is the work itself. I’m sometimes proud of what happens to an artist or a band I’ve produced if I did something that made the world sit up and take notice (as with Urge Overkill), but I’ve never felt pride in my own work. that just seems like something inherently useless. On the subject of genres and catch-phrases attributed to one style of music vs another, I dunno, Connor. I don’t categorize art like that. it gets in the way of my process. I never saw Daniel as an “outsider artist”. I see him simply as an artist. A troubled, challenged artist who is simply trying to explain or share his feelings with others. He was on the outside looking in, but aren’t all great artists similarly positioned in the world? Isn’t that why they make art? I reject anything that separates people from each other, or places them in a space that prevents them from being seen or heard by others. People are just people, art is art. We all have our struggles.
I think they’re easier to deal with, or perhaps even overcome, if we jettison labels altogether, and share our collective experiences. that’s part of the purpose of art, if there is a shared purpose. On the surface we are all different, but inside, aren’t we all just human? We look for Love, but we don’t know how to find it. Cassavetes said that’s our struggle. We’re all the same, when it comes right down to it. fuck labels and genres. keep your mind and your ears wide open, and maybe, just maybe, you won’t miss something that could really change your life.
You’ve worked with many different artists and people in film, art etc. Do you ever reflect on past projects deeply or is it a keep going kind of deal. Is there any real point in reflecting on something you put out 20 years ago? Does it really matter? (Quite a nihilistic view I suppose). Is there room to be proud of your work or do you feel a duty to get the work of others out there as best you can, like Daniel Johnston?
KEEP GOING, that’s the daily motif here. Just try not to die just yet, try to wake up tomorrow morning. I don’t think about 20 years ago. There are one or two people I think about every day, but I don’t think about some LP I made or released on my label way back in the 20th century. I haven’t the time for such nonsense, and no one can alter the past. None of it matters at all. My duty, if you want to call it that, is indeed to keep going, to keep giving. Duty may not be the best word. Compulsion, obsession, PASSION may be the best word to explain it – call it what you will – or just a search for Love in which my main tool is giving what I feel I’m still capable of giving, in the hope that I can make a difference in someone’s life. to give something they couldn’t receive elsewhere. I think all we’re ALL looking for, is Love.
Any bands or projects you’re aware of in New York we should keep an eye out for in the future?
There’s a woman in NYC named Clara Joy whose work is at the front of my mind nowadays. her work speaks to me with great immediacy. I hope to understand why, as I listen more.
Any UK groups or artists you’re listening to at the moment and enjoying?
I can’t deny enjoying everything I’ve heard by Lankum recently. Not new, but always sounding new to me.
What’s on the cards for release next for Shimmy-Disc and Kramer?
There’s the PAN AMERICAN & KRAMER LP I spoke of previously here, there’s a new JD PINKUS LP that began as a series of songs intended to be part of the new Butthole Surfers LP, but eventually became the central part of Jeff’s solo LP when the most recent of multiple plans going back many years to reunite the band were scuttled, for the last time. I’m finishing a collaborative LP with Kato Hideki based upon our respective obsessions with the written works of Basho (for Kato), and Robert Walser (for myself), both of whom wrote a lot about walking for miles and miles and miles. There’s also an artist who calls his project BIG BEND releasing an LP in the late summer (featuring Shahzad Ismaily) that I’m giddy with anticipation over. It’s based on improvised performances but it sounds intricately composed, planned out and executed with absolute precision, and that fascinates me. I don’t use the word ‘genius’ often, but it may apply to Nathan Phillips, the artist behind BIG BEND.
I am also currently completing work on my newest spoken-word+music LP, based upon the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe and featuring Britta Phillips, Thurston Moore & Eva Prinz, Chloe Webb, Anne Waldman, Ratso Sloman, Lydia Lunch, and Joan As Policewoman, among others, for which I’m composing the music. Almost done with that one now…it’ll be out in the coming autumndedicated to Hal Willner.
Why should people care about the music on Shimmy-Disc?
I dunno, Connor. Why should they care about Silent Radio? Same reason I guess, if there really is a valid reason, but I’m the last person on earth to tell people what they should or shouldn’t care about. All I can offer is thoughts on what I myself care about. I care about the Brothers Quay securing the funding they need to make their next film exactly the way they want to make it. Steve McQueen, too. I wish David Lynch would make another film. I care about whether or not someone like Guy Maddin will ask me to score a film for them before I die. Sometimes I care about how musical artists struggle as never before, nowadays, in the Spotify world we’ve found ourselves in, but let’s face it – that’s a waste of time. I have no power to affect change there. all I can do is to continue endeavouring to help artists to make the best recordings of their careers. I know I can do that, so that’s what I’ve chosen to devote my time and art to. I’m not sure how much I wish people would care about my own music, but I vehemently wish for people to love the artists on my label, and artists I’ve produced. sure. I want them to experience success, as they themselves define it. and sure, I’d love to know that people are at least Listening to Shimmy-Disc. and if they are listening, and they suddenly find themselves ‘caring’, I’d love to know why.
(Photo of Kramer with Daniel Johnston circa 1999 courtesy of Valerie Zars)

Liverpool born music writer with passion for punk and Everton FC