Thax Douglas on laying low in Wisconsin
The former Chicago fixture brings his band-inspired poetry to Madison.
Thax Douglas began writing and performing poetry in Chicago in the late '80s, and over the next 20 years he became something of a music-scene mascot there by introducing bands onstage with poems inspired by their music. Fans of artists ranging from the Meat Puppets to Spoon to Russian Circles to Unsane to Cap’N Jazz have seen this big, (formerly) bearded, disheveled guy get up onstage to read off a barbed, surreal burst of free verse with no preamble or explanation, and that’s Douglas. He left Chicago seemingly for good about five years ago (after a short, abandoned move to New York and a bizarre false report of his death in 2009) and moved to Austin. After 14 months doing much the same things in Austin, he decided to get some distance from busy music scenes for a while and settled in Brodhead, Wisconsin, with his father. Douglas has been there for about five years now, but it wasn’t until 2014 that he started coming up to shows in Madison—his first reading at a Madison show since he’s been in Brodhead (about 30 miles south of Madison in Green County) was introducing Fire Retarded at Mickey’s last New Year’s Eve. Since then he’s read for other local acts—including Cowboy Winter, Kleptix, Disembodied Monks, Heavy Looks, and Dumb Vision—and for touring acts who’ve stopped in Madison, including solo-guitar tripper Tom Carter and singer-songwriter Glen Hansard.
Douglas will be performing this Saturday at the Evening At Maria’s series, hopefully with poems inspired by solo and collaborative sets by a handful of different Madison musicians, including Heather Sawyer, Bobby Hussy, Matt Joyce, Wendy Schneider, Aaron Scholz, and Jeff Jagielo. As he finished up a new book of poetry and worked on starting up a pop-music project involving quarter tones, Douglas met with me recently to talk about what his life has been like since leaving Chicago.
Tone Madison: What was your experience like in Austin?
Thax Douglas: It was good and bad. I didn’t like the Chicago music scene at all, and Austin was really like a dream come true in terms of the music scene.
Tone Madison: What was different about Austin that you preferred?
Thax Douglas: Oh, a lot of things. Chicago, unfortunately, isn’t about the music. It’s more about—like, there are a lot of booking companies in Chicago and stuff like that. It’s kind of more that side. And labels. And those are kind of the bigwigs in town so it’s kind of depressing. It’s sort of like it’s an administrative scene more than a creative scene. So Austin was really nice. I just didn’t like Austin as a city. I like walking around. I like looking at things, and there’s nothing to look at down there. It’s an ugly city. Plus, the things that made Austin charming are disappearing at an alarming rate. Just the 14 months I was there, it changed a lot, so I really got there too late. One thing that changed when I was there was a music curfew was imposed. When I first went there, I was really charmed by the fact that shows went on until 2 o’clock. And then all the sudden, it was like anywhere else, they had to end at 11 o’clock. The thing that made the music scene great is slowly being eaten away.
Tone Madison: So you’ve been living in Brodhead for about five years, but when did you start actually getting up to Madison and going to shows here?
Thax Douglas: Well, I’ve been in Madison off and on a lot. The first show I ever put together was in Madison, way back in ’89. I was part of the poetry scene then, and I was really into the thing where you have all kinds of different performers come together to do a show and I just arranged to do one of those at some place here in Madison. My main friend in Madison at the time was a guy named Noam Gaster, who hasn’t lived here for a long time. He was a poet, and kind of a hippie-ish kind of guy. So that was fun. I’ve performed here on and off over the years. I’ve just been doing it a little more often lately, because now I want to get out of the house.
Tone Madison: You did a reading for Fire Retarded last year on New Year’s Eve at Mickey’s. Was that your first time reading here recently?
Thax Douglas: Actually, yeah. My last time before that was back in ’11. I had some friends performing at the university at the lakefront, Other Lives and The Rosebuds.
Tone Madison: Had you checked out Fire Retarded before you read for them?
Thax Douglas: Well, I went online, so I’d have something to write about. All I have to do is listen to a song or two to get an idea what to write about.
Tone Madison: And then the last time I saw you, you read for Tom Carter at Good Style Shop.
Thax Douglas: Yeah, that was a beautiful night. I actually read for two shows that night. [The other one] was Glen Hansard at the Orpheum [before Tom Carter]. I’ve read for The Frames once and it was a positive experience, and I just showed up and asked to see if I could do it.
Tone Madison: What’s it like going between two totally different scenarios like that in one night—really different venues and music?
Thax Douglas: It was the first time I’d done that, basically, since I left Austin, and it felt great.
Tone Madison: Did you used to bounce around and read at multiple places in a night?
Thax Douglas: Oh yeah. My record is five. I did five shows in one day once.
Tone Madison: After living in big cities for so long, is it nice to be in a small town and to be able to come up to Madison when you want a bit more excitement?
Thax Douglas: Well, I’d always wanted to be in a small town, so I enjoyed it for a while.
Tone Madison: What do you do in Brodhead?
Thax Douglas: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It’s a small farming town of 3,000. I read during the day and I watch movies at night. That’s it. Sometimes I walk. Sometimes I ride a bike to Albany, that’s the town seven miles away on the bike trail.
Tone Madison: Is there more to do there or what?
Thax Douglas: No, it’s a smaller town. But just to do something, basically. See, I came up here to not do anything. But I’ve had some health issues which I’ve ignored for most of my life and I’ve had to get them addressed. I finally got a diagnosis of autism. It’s just nice to have a name to the nameless terrors I’ve faced over the years. Before, it was just like, there was something wrong and I attributed it to things like fate and the gods and stuff like that. So it was kind of a relief knowing that, no, this is a condition. I mean, I’m closer to what they used to call Asperger’s. I mean, it’s definitely a real thing. I don’t want to go into great detail about it, but it’s like, there’s all these ducks lined up in a row and it’s like, “Yeah, I’m like that, I’m like that, I’m like that—oh, OK.” And it’s kind of a great relief. But now that things are getting settled down, I’m ready to head out and do stuff again.
Tone Madison: What’s your impression so far of music here?
Thax Douglas: Well, it seems like there’s a lot going on. Of course, I’ve noticed that any town, any city, no matter how small, has somebody who’s legendary in that town, but they only perform in that town, they have no interest in touring or doing anything. Like a guy who read about who quit Kiss, he’s part of a bar band in Boston or something, and he’s happy. No one recognizes him. [Laughs] There’s a band in La Salle, Illinois called Headless Ballerinas Underwater, and somebody asked me to write poems and host a show in La Salle, which is a small city 100 miles southwest of Chicago. No reputation as a scene or anything like that. The other bands were average small-town bands, but then there were these guys, kind of a theatrical improv noise band. They’re all junkies, so they acted like they were in the big city, but they only performed in La Salle. They never even performed in Chicago.
Tone Madison: Who have been some of your favorites in Madison so far, whether it’s bands you’ve written poems about or not?
Thax Douglas: You know, I’m trying to decide if I’ve read for her or not yet, but I like this chick named Stephanie Rearick, who runs Mother Fool’s. If I’ve read for her, it was only once. I remember I really like her. One of my favorite Madison memories is that the first time I read for Calvin Johnson was at Mother Fool’s.
Tone Madison: How long ago?
Thax Douglas: Back in 2000. And he’s one of the few people where I get kind of a fluttering around. I don’t get starstruck easily, but he’s one of the few people where I do that “Oh my god, it’s Calvin Johnson!"
Tone Madison: Why is that?
Thax Douglas: I’m not exactly sure. I saw Beat Happening in the ‘90s and I really loved them. And I’m not sure why, but he is. There’s only two guys, actually. The other guy is the guy from Unsane. I forget his name.
Tone Madison: I can’t blame you there. They’re kind of intense.
Thax Douglas: But they’re the only two people that when I talk with them, I’m always really nervous and I say stupid things. I did a show here once at O’Cayz Corral. It was a long time ago, early ‘90s. It was a show I put together, and it was this band called Algebra Suicide that’s been long gone.
Tone Madison: There are a lot of bands that you’ve written multiple poems about over the years. As you write those over the course of however many years, does that reflect your changing relationship with their music? Or what makes you keep revisiting a band repeatedly through poetry?
Thax Douglas: Usually I like the band, and I like the people in the band, so it’s just a pleasant experience and I keep doing it. Sometimes I run out of things to say.
Two Thax Douglas poems written for Madison bands:
drunk on the the
floor like cold piss
gelatin, only wants
to snooze so it
can shine in its
dreams on gardens
twins buried deep
like black holes
Read before the band's set on April 23 at Mickey’s Tavern
don’t have a chance to
bark before they’re
tossed downstream, or so you
think—but your ears
like earrings are only
decoration before you
turn ‘em on like hearing aids
then the saved up
squeals of puppies past
paw out of the vault
in an assault shaker
of violent steam
making you yelp in surprise
as you’re palinaded
downstream like any
Read before Kleptix's set on September 26 at Maria’s