On "A Tav Falco Christmas," the head of Panther Burns takes Christmas music more seriously than you might expect.

tav falco photo
Toby Dammit, Tav Falco, Mike Watt, and Mario Monterosso, by Jud Phillips Jr.

[Update] Those who know Tav Falco know for either Panther Burns’ blind-man-with-a-flare-gun approach to rockabilly and American roots music, or they know him as the tango guy. The latter is a trickier stance to get a grip on because his edge, if he has one, isn’t obvious. Maybe his tongue is every so delicately in his cheek, but he might really be serious too.

On Friday, that Falco will release A Tav Falco Christmas—on red vinyl in record stores on the Black Friday Record Store Day—and it’s in the latter mode. He’s joined by Toby Dammit, Mike Watt, Mario Monterosso, who play the Christmas favorites straight. They’re not slick, but they’re not dismantling anything the way Falco did on Behind the Magnolia Curtain. In this context, Falco’s voice, guitar, and comme-ci, comme-ça approach to pitch animates such canonical favorites as “White Christmas,” “Jingle Bell Rock” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” His biggest reach is Dean Martin’s “Christmas Blues.”

Recently, Falco and I swapped email on the project since he now lives in Vienna. The conversation inadvertently links the mini-album to his tango fascination. His rockabilly was often a stress test for the form and song, checking to see how much could be dismantled or distorted before the whole thing fell apart. Falco approaches the tango and Christmas music more romantically, trying on its finery to see how it looks on him.

What made you want to perform Christmas songs in the first place?

As I wrote in my liner notes to the album: although I have performed “Blue Christmas” onstage now and again with my group, Panther Burns. I've had the notion of recording a solo Christmas mini-album for quite some time. I pitched the idea and a playlist to record labels, but labels come and go while the songs themselves seem eternal. 

Familiar Christmas tunes were tossed in the punchbowl—evergreens from genres of pop, jazz, and ghetto funk. In large part, these were songs that I listened to as a young boy around Christmas time. The classic ones made a merry backdrop as I ran my 1947 American Flyer steam locomotive on an oval track around our Christmas tree freshly cut in the backwoods of Arkansas where we lived. The music and the clickety-clack of the tiny wheels under the rustic freight train created a montage of sounds that will ever conjure for me the jaunty bonhomie of Christmas. Because I grew up alone on a farm with my parents, the train and the songs were my best friends. 

Christmas pop songs seem to come from a very different place than the avant-garde rockabilly and garage rock you’re known for. How do deal with that seeming difference? 

Yes, Christmas pop songs are romantic music that celebrate not only a religious calendar event, but also the festive cultural trimmings and folkways that surround it. Such romance is fantasia, rather than realistic or naturalistic song. Christmas songs intone of the way things used to be, or of how we wish things were now, which is an evasion from the stark reality that besets us everyday.

Christmas is a time of cozy benevolence, and of giving gifts around an open hearth, and of bonhomie among men. In large part Christmas, as we know it, is artificial. The Christmas tree is trimmed with tinsel and glitter, and a pretty angel with gossamer wings sits on top. It is a kind of fairy land that we enter once a year before we return to the deep winter cold of everyday life.

I’ve always thought that Christmas music is a challenge because the artist has to give his or her versions reasons to exist. What do you think you’ve done that makes your versions of these songs special?

To this album of Christmas music, I have brought my own experience, persona, and voice that is unlike anyone else's. I have infused the songs with the joy of a boy running his electric trains around the Christmas tree, the pleasure of raising a glass of eggnog laced with nutmeg and cinnamon, of Christmas carols sung under a snowy window, of a sleigh ride down a country lane with the sound of horses’ hooves and sleigh bells jingling. Sure other singers can do that, but I do it in my unique way with my own interpretation that above all embodies the idea of Christmas, which in the end goes beyond the experience of a single individual. The idea of Christmas is something of an abstraction, something of a mystery, but it must be there in the music.

Three songs on your album also appear on Elvis Christmas Album from 1957. What’s your history with that album?

Not sure I have ever consciously listened to that album. What I know of Elvis' Christmas music is from his 45 rpm singles, namely "Blue Christmas" and "Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” 

Of course, the songs selected on Elvis' album have been treated by numerous other artists before and after his record was released. I have always enjoyed Elvis and his Christmas music, as I have that of Gene Autry, Bing Crosby, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Dean Martin among others.

tav falco christmas record photo

What inspired you to perform “Soulful Christmas”? 

The thought of bringing some funk and soul to the album was irresistible. Who better to go to than James Brown and Hank Ballard? I like "Soulful Christmas" because the perspective of the song is from that of a performer, and I like it because it is a song you can dance to. 

Growing up, I only ever heard “Holly Jolly Christmas” during the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas special as sung by the Burl Ives-voiced snowman. Is that where you were exposed to the song? If not, what’s your history with the song? 

It was after my time as a boy. I may have seen a snippet on the Internet of the animation, but I missed the show entirely on TV. I heard "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer" on the radio as a kid. I have always liked Burl Ives as a singer, guitarist, and as an actor.

For most of your career, you’ve chosen songs that listeners might not know were first performed by others. Why perform so many well-known songs here?

For this album, I wanted to record songs that I was exposed to when I still believed in Santa Claus, with the exception of "Soulful Christmas", which came later when I started to believe in James Brown. Those songs that I heard when I believed in Christmas—and I still believe in the feeling of Christmas—were well known songs that everyone has heard. I am just a part of that music; nothing more. For this record, I did not feel impelled to sing serious, or to compose original Christmas music, or to seek out esoteric Christmas songs, of which there are many.

Your work has often had a theatrical quality to it. Where would I find your theatrical side in this project?

Actually, I cannot think of one song on this record that is devoid of theatricality. This is a fantasy album: dreamy, reminiscent, joyous, wistful, and petulant. It is a theater piece. Remember that theater ranges from the bombastic and flamboyant to the sublimely delicate.

It seems like you’re embracing nostalgia on this album. Is that the case? 

Unless you are five years old, how could nostalgia not be a part of the feeling and experience of Christmas? There is no crime in a measured dose of Yuletide nostalgia once a year, unless one is a cynic.

In 2012, Tav Falco opened a show of his photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. For more on him, you can read this take on his aesthetic and this interview.

Updated November 25 at 5:32 a.m.

Mario Monterosso's was misspelled in the original post. It is correct now.