Byron Coley: Destroy All Monsters existed for a really long time.
Niagara: It was a long time, yeah. But the band, Destroy All Monsters — I only really think of that as Ronnie and the group we had together — lasted for ten years or so. The earlier art collaboration — which is what I call it — is something that only practiced in the basement. Maybe we played one gig at an art college. That was it. I didn't mind that Cary and Mike turned it into a small industry, and got it hooked up with museum folks, but that's not a version of Destroy All Monsters that anyone ever heard of or saw or saw the name of. When we did those reunion shows, after a while I was like — I gotta get away from these guys. Everyone hated them as people because they started acting like rock stars. Because that's what they thought it was like to play a stupid gig. It was hysterical. I love Mike, but he was always weird. He would send his artwork out to get painted. Like that huge painting of the four of us [the original members of DAM]. He just did a collage and sent it to some Mexican sign painter, who probably charged him a couple of hundred bucks.
B: Mike was a concept man.
N: That's for sure. He couldn't use his fingers, so he used his brain. I always wondered what he was gonna do. He seemed driven, but didn't really have any artistic talent. I always figured he'd think of something.
B: The first inkling I had of the band was when the “Bored” single came out. The lyrics of that song just killed me and everyone who heard it.
N: Well, that was our first record. Iggy thought it was great too, and he busted ass to come out with his “Chairman of the Bored” thing fast. I thought it was cool he'd used my lyric. I knew mine was better anyway, so there was no problem. And Lester Bangs called me to say he stayed up all night listening to "Bored". He was a little obsessed with the song and had written about 12 more stanzas. Which he read and then sent to me. They really stunk. But we became friends and Ronnie and I visited him in NY. When I saw the Neanderthal look of Lester's apartment and his ''housekeeping style'' I started calling him “Lestoil,” which was a nickname that stuck.
“[Mike Kelley] couldn't use his fingers, so he used his brain. I always wondered what he was gonna do. He seemed driven, but didn't really have any artistic talent. I always figured he'd think of something.”
B: Were you writing much before that first single?
N: Not really. I was writing diaries since I was little. So I wrote that way, just crazy diaries and little creative pieces, but I didn't write lyrics. Why would I? Who the hell wants lyrics? I first started writing them for “the art collaboration.” The first song I think I wrote was, “I Love You But You're Dead.” Then, “You're Gonna Die.” I had a real good thing goin'! But that was it.
B: Who were you using as lyrics models? I hear a little Iggy in there, but they are some of the funniest goddamn lyrics ever.
N: That's so nice to hear. I was a huge reader. So you pick up whatever you do if you keep your hand in the books. I was an Oscar Wilde fanatic, and I loved Truman Capote and Mark Twain and even Dickens and that stuff. And I love writing things about the band, it just takes me forever to write. It's like I'm writing a lyric times 100. Every word has to be just how I want it. So I'm not really cut out for long form writing. Lyrics are faster and for me they're more natural.
B: Were you already using the name Niagara when the band started?
N: Oh yeah. I've used that all my life because my older sister called me that. Her and my cousin would torture me to make me cry. Then when I'd cry, they'd taunt me and call me Niagara.
B: A waterfall of tears.
B: The first time I saw Destroy All Monsters — at Max's Kansas City — you looked very tippy on stage. I couldn't see your feet so I dunno if you were wearing extremely high heels or something, but your balance seemed highly compromised.
N: I don't remember that show. Maybe it was early enough that the heels were too high and I wasn't used to them yet. Usually when I was wearing six-inch heels it was easier after I'd had a couple of drinks. I could spin in them. But I think it was probably part of the act — just falling around stage — but then, I was drinking too. I think there was one time I went on the stage sober. I could really not do that. I couldn't remember any of the songs we'd done forever. I had to make up lyrics. I'd be singing the wrongs lyrics to Stooges songs or “November 22nd.” It was a mess. Of course nobody cared or noticed. Even the band didn't notice. When the records came out, Ronnie would say, “These lyrics are great. I was crying.” He hadn't had a clue before that of what I was singing. He knew the song's title, but that was it. At least he got to know them eventually.
“[Lester Bangs] was a little obsessed with the song and had written about 12 more stanzas. Which he read and then sent to me. They really stunk. But we became friends and Ronnie and I visited him in NY. When I saw the Neanderthal look of Lester's apartment and his 'housekeeping style' I started calling him 'Lestoil.'”
B: Were you always doing visual art?
N: Besides gig fliers and record covers I wasn't doing that much. The band just usurped everything. When I think back on how much you have to do to be in a band, I can't believe so many people think it's fun and goofy and everyone's getting high. There are so many components, so much you have to do. Writing the stuff, practicing every night... I thought I would be in a band for a couple of years, then I'd go back to art, which had always been my main thing. Then all of a sudden, it was like — I've been in a band for 15 years! I've gotta stop this crap.
B: When did you start getting back into visual art more seriously?
N: Early '90s. I hadn't totally stopped before that, but I don't think it really counts either. The first art show I did was in the windows of this famous retail lady's store in Royal Oak. She put all my paintings in the windows and the mannequins were like people at an art show. The paintings were for sale. And no one could believe how well they were selling. People's minds were blown. So I did that. Then I started showing at some of our favorite bars. After that CPop Gallery opened. They got famous in Juxtapoz and were a really nice big gallery.
B: Is that what led to the clothing design work?
N: I don't really sit around design clothing. I just work with different companies, like Hysteric Glamour. They're great. They use my art as elements of their clothes. It's punk couture, but they're the finest made clothes around. I just send them art and photos. I don't do anything more than that.
B: Did you have any involvement with Ron's low-budget film making career?
N: No. I didn't really approve of that. Ronnie loved acting. He got the biggest kick out of that, way more than from music. And his school of acting was The Three Stooges School of Acting. There was nothing real about it. He was the worst actor. He was like the funniest story teller — so witty he could make anything funny — but his acting was so bad! But he liked it. And I'm glad he got to do it. But I was happier when he got back into The Stooges. He started to get back into music. And he was making money, which is what mattered to those guys.
“My older sister called me that. Her and my cousin would torture me to make me cry. Then when I'd cry, they'd taunt me and call me Niagara.
“Byron: A waterfall of tears.”
When Ronnie rejoined Iggy he took the arrangements we'd used. We'd worked the songs up into a bit more of an epic thing, like they should have been. And then they played them like we had. But I played with Ronnie about five times longer than Iggy did. Iggy had these bands who didn't even realize what the Stooges had been about. And Ronnie didn't take it as seriously as he should have at all. But it's a miracle that the reunion ever came to pass. Iggy was in control of everything, but he finally got the message. He was pounded down for two decades with people yelling for The Stooges. He'd say, “Fuck The Stooges. I'm Iggy!” After two decades he wasn't making any money so he decided to call up Ronnie and Scotty. Those guys had kept in touch a bit, but it was finally done right.
But when Ronnie was doing those huge shows in Europe with The Stooges, he'd come back and call me and tell me about it. And he was still on the program of telling me everything that went wrong, because that's what we always talked about. He'd say, “You should see what they tried to feed me. They gave me these little French puffballs!” It was hysterical. He was used to that kind of angle and he couldn't get off it. That's what counted — the bad stuff. We'd had fun touring with Dark Carnival, but it was pretty rough with the crew of Destroy All Monsters. Ronnie and Mike Davis had a very tenuous relationship. Mike joined the band right after he got out of jail and Ronnie always called him a criminal, which Mike hated. But it was funny. I can't believe we were together that long. But that's what you do, you get along. Then everything goes wrong and you just have to laugh.
“It's tough for anyone to drink enough every night to get on stage and try to act tough, when you're really just a sensitive little guy. Everyone thinks you're hardcore, but you just have to drink enough every day to do this stuff. Then you die.”
B: Did you always do those comedy raps on stage?
N: It's so funny you say that, because I was just thinking about what some guy wrote about me once in some big mag, calling me “a dime store Nico.” I started to think about that today. I figure everyone has to be compared to someone else, that's how they explain you. And it's not the worst description or anything, but Nico didn't have any sense of humor at all. I always sang about things like death, and the songs were heavy, but I always thought they were funny too. My paintings are like that too. Some of the girls have guns and may look threatening, but they're also supposed to be funny.
B: I think my all-time fave of yours is that one, “If I want your opinion I'll beat it out of you.” When I saw that in Juxtapoz I just about lost it.
N: Kate Moss did some thing about me in Vogue this year, and her favorite one was, “Shut Up or I'll Kill You.” Before I did that I thought — this is the stupidest line ever. I've got to use it. I thought it was funny that it was her favorite.
B: It's pretty weird you're getting those kinds of fans for your work now.
N: Well, they always say, “If you can just live long enough...” Almost everybody I know from the rock world of that time has died. They were usually older than me, but it's tough for anyone to drink enough every night to get on stage and try to act tough, when you're really just a sensitive little guy. Everyone thinks you're hardcore, but you just have to drink enough every day to do this stuff. Then you die.