Pylon headlines WNYU 35th Anniversary Celebration’s at the Knitting Factory this Monday, December 15.
Left to right: Michael Lachowski, Curtis Crowe, Vanessa Hay, Randy Bewley
photo courtesy of Pylon
Pylon, “Cool” (MP3)
In the beginning there were the B-52’s, Pylon and R.E.M. (in that order). And soon after Athens, Georgia, a once proverbially sleepy college town where bars closed at midnight, momentarily became the home of more bands per capita than any place in America.
All four Pylon members–drummer Curtis Crowe, lead singer Vanessa Briscoe (now Briscoe Hay), bassist Michael Lachowski and guitarist Randy Bewley–still live there, playing in their third incarnation (seemingly final breakups in 1983 and 2001 didn’t quite take) of one of indie-rock’s most important collectives.
Before just their sixth and final show of 2008, a headlining slot at Monday’s celebration of WNYU’s 35th anniversary at the Knitting Factory, we settled into a long winter’s history lesson with co-founders Lachowski and Bewley via video iChat, the band’s very first interview with the new technology (as well as ours), which began with Lachowski creating a backdrop of clouds, and then polka dots, for our viewing pleasure. —Rob Trucks
Do I need to come up with a backdrop too? Is my kitchen too busy and distracting?
Randy: Damn! That’s a kitchen?
[laughter all around]
Yeah. Randy, I thought you didn’t do interviews.
Randy: [laughs] Me? I’m just real quiet. I’m giving it a go.
I definitely read that you didn’t do interviews.
Randy: Oh yeah, yeah. Hey, you know, what can you say about bands breaking up and then getting back together?
So you do do interviews.
Randy: I do.
Well, I no longer feel special then.
Randy: I haven’t talked to anybody in a really long time.
Well, I’ll pretend that counts for something. But I do want to touch on the breakup thing. Pylon has accomplished a lot over the years, but you don’t seem very good at breaking up. You keep on getting back together.
Michael: We don’t do it very well.
Let’s do a quick history. The two of you were roommates, and the original goal was to form a band, go to New York, play one show, get written up in New York Rocker, come back to Athens and break up.
Randy: Word. That’s exactly what we wanted.
But you didn’t do that very well either.
Michael: [laughs] Our goals are so strange. It turned out that all of that went a little smoother than we probably could’ve ever imagined. We got kind of hooked up real quickly, mainly because the B-52’s had gone up and played, and the response was just so huge that the whole city just freaked out. You know, everyone that ran a club or had read any music press had heard about this sort of weird phenomenon that happened when they came and played. And I don’t remember why they had such a big crowd, like if their single had already been played or how people knew about them, but anyway it just blew peoples’ minds. So one of the members of that band, Fred, he took our tape to the people who ran Hurrah, which is sort of somewhat the predecessor to Danceteria, but in at a different address. I think their attitude is like, ‘We’d be fools to ignore a recommendation coming from somebody in the B-52’s, and if something special’s going on out of Athens, Georgia . . .’ I mean, they might not have even listened to our tape.
But anyway, he gave them our tape and they gave us a booking, and then they gave us an opportunity to open for Gang of Four that we jumped on because we were huge fans, and it was their first time in New York as well. And then we got written up by Glenn O’Brien in Interview. And it wasn’t that much longer after that when we put out a single that we got written up in, I guess, New York Rockerthen. There was maybe a little bit of a gap before we got in New York Rocker, but getting the attention of Glenn O’Brien and the club so early on, and then we got really good reviews, so we just sort of walked into it.
So your very first New York show, you open up for Gang of Four.
Michael: Yeah, it was at the club called Hurrah. I mean, we played with them one or two nights before in Philadelphia, and that was our first show in the northeast and it was their first show in America. And then like the next night or so we played with them and repeated that combo in New York.
The B-52’s come first, Pylon second, and then we get into R.E.M. and the whole exploding Athens music scene. How far behind the B-52’s start is the beginning of Pylon?
Randy: They were hot in ’77 and then Michael and I decided to start making sounds in the fall of ’78.
Michael: That could be right. And then from Pylon to R.E.M. was probably about a year, maybe. You think?
Randy: Yeah, probably just a year. I think their first show was in April.
And Michael, you were there.
Michael: Yeah, I was at that. And Pylon’s first show was in February, so maybe it was a year and two months.
The two of you decide to form a band. You go to a pawn shop and there’s very little, if any, musical experience.
Michael: Oh yeah. Where’s that book? I’ve got to show the book. It’s been in a box since 1983, and this was the only instruction I ever tried to get [he holds up a book with a gold spraypainted cover with the words “God’s Way” etched into the paint]. I think the original title was “Play Electric Bass the Alfred Way,” and since hands were coming out of the sky I felt like I was really learning how to play bass from God. [both laugh]
Anyway, I don’t really know how much I learned out of this book, but this was the sum total of my musical education, for the bass guitar, at least.
So if Michael doesn’t know how to play bass and Randy doesn’t know how to play guitar, how does the sound happen? Is it accidental? How long is it before you sound like Pylon, if that makes more sense?
Randy: Well, it kind of started with I was playing drums and Michael would play bass, and we weren’t smart enough to think that that would work. Because it does work, for some bands. I said, ‘I’ve got to play guitar to make this work,’ so we just kept thrashing. We just kept playing the same little notes over and over again and kind of, I guess, becoming tight or whatever.
Michael: You know, you just sort of mess around until you could find a couple of little phrasings of something that would kind of sound okay with a certain rhythm, and just kind of play it over and over again. And one of us would find something like that and then just keep repeating it long enough for the other one to noodle around and find the notes or chords and strings that would kind of align with it in terms of harmony or whatever. And this is still the way. If we were writing songs now it wouldn’t really be any different. One of us just has to kind of play the same thing like endlessly, and then the other one, you know, finds something and then kind of repeats the same thing endlessly. And if you play it for about ten minutes or something like that, while you’re doing that you can start trying to find some new variations. And then just run a tape recorder and later on try to figure out like how to, first of all, find it again. That’s why we had to tape everything, because we had no system of notation. And you’d mess around until you could find it again. And by listening to it on the tape we could discuss it and identify the sections that we’d maybe start isolating out. If that was repeated four times then that would be like part of the verse or chorus or something.
So it was a lot of repetition, and that’s what drove Curtis into our band. Randy and I had originally been practicing together in our house, and I had gotten an art studio downtown, and I rented it from Curtis. And we knew him but we didn’t know him real well. And he lived upstairs and Randy and I were in my studio just playing these riffs over and over and over again. And he was a drummer. He had already drummed in a band where he was, the area of Atlanta that he came from. But anyway, it was just driving him crazy, and he came down one day and he goes, ‘You guys need a fucking beat to go with it. You’re onto something but it’s just never going to, you know, cohere or feel like a song until you get a beat.’ And so, you know, he volunteered to come and provide the beat for us, so that’s how we got him playing drums.
What kind of music were you listening to?
Randy: All that beginning stuff. Talking Heads ’77 just right down the line of all the new music.
Michael: But some of them were bands that . . . You know, how only certain ones, you know, kind of rise to the top. And so, at the time, blended in with groups like Talking Heads and Ramones and Roxy Music and Elvis Costello and Cabaret Voltaire and all these other bands, were other groups that now no one ever hears of anymore, like The Suburbans and the Vibrators and, you know, things that we would find on 7-inch. It’s pretty funny to go back and listen to some of those. I had like Mekons. We actually also listened to some of that No New York stuff, like Lydia Lynch and James White and the Blacks, the Au Pairs. Even like Gary Numan and stuff. But my favorite ones are like Television, Ramones, Roxy Music. I think we liked Talking Heads a lot more then than we do now, for sure.
You were both art students when you started the band. Was there an artistic influence or artistic philosophy for what you’re trying to do musically?
Michael: It’s a good question. Actually I haven’t really thought about it, as far as how it influenced us musically. But one of our art teachers was interested in that kind of music that was being made by people like John Cage and people who were doing things with chance. And there were artists that were doing things, like abstract artists that were doing things like setting up systematic programs for how to apply paint on canvas, and our teacher was into that kind of thing. That was one area where I think that there were some overlays between influences that we were exposed to that had to do with visual art. It’s a similar system, but I don’t think we ever used chance quite to that degree.
The aesthetic for a lot of my photography definitely crept into our visual aesthetic. Two photographers that are really well known and admired now, Hilla and Bernd Becher, they’re a husband and wife team from Germany, and they photographed a lot of relics of the industrial revolution, like gas tanks and water towers. Different kinds of functional things that were invented all over Europe at the same time, and so it’s like a study of form. But their aesthetic was like very monolithic and sort of not romantic at all. And we were influenced by a lot of those aesthetics that were coming from some of the punk rock bands.
So Curtis joins the band and you start auditioning lead singers. How long does it take to find Vanessa?
Michael: Well, there was Sam. Sam and Neal are the only two guys I can remember.
Randy: Well, I tried.
left to right: Michael Lachowski, Curtis Crowe, Vanessa Hay, Randy Bewley
photo by Terry Allen at Memorial Hall
Randy, if you’re shy and you don’t like to talk to people, how serious was that ‘I tried.’ Based on the few minutes we’ve talked you seem like the least likely front person in the world.
Randy: You got me. That’s way back when.
Michael: We didn’t know what kind of front person . . .
Randy: Yeah. Like we picked people that looked cool, or were very characteristic. And all of sudden Vanessa’s name just came up.
Michael: I think we were looking for a singer who would be like out of category. You know, because the typical thing of having a guy that was going to come in and the guy has to decide like, is he going to have like an Iggy Pop persona onstage, or more on the other end of the extreme like a David Byrne? Or, you know, just go into some other mode like Devo did it, or the Residents or something? Maybe it’s an easy way to get uniqueness. We were about to give up, and then we just came up with this idea of Vanessa. And that would just be so special because it would just be kind of out of category, I guess you would call it now.
Did you know immediately? Like by the time Vanessa leaves the first audition, do you know it’s going to work?
Randy: I think so. I think it felt right. I mean, she wasn’t an accomplished singer or anything of that nature, but it just felt like she was it.
Who’s writing the song lyrics since Vanessa’s not the lyricist to start?
Michael: I don’t really remember. I think I maybe had written most of our words before she came in, and so some of these songs we had worked with that the other guys had tried singing. We already had lyrics and a number of songs. I’m not sure which ones now, but once we got Vanessa in a lot of time was spent just learning those songs with her. And it was a little bit of a lag before we started writing some new ones. And her ability to contribute to the lyrics kind of came in a little later. After she had joined in probably. And after that she and I would either write together or alternate, you know, but with her writing more and more of the lyrics as time went on.
I think I read that “Crazy” was the first set of lyrics she wrote with Pylon.
Michael: That sounds about right, yeah. And that was a totally different kind of energy, I think, to lyrical content. Way more personal and emotional than all of our very kind of dry, formal kind of observations or lists and stuff like that the other songs had in them.
If “Crazy” was the first song, would she have come in with the song lyrics by themselves or would she have been writing them after the music was already written?
Randy: The tunes always came first and then she would listen, you know, go home, write some stuff down, come back, listen. But yeah, everything is pretty much tune-driven.
Michael: And she had done something before “Crazy” because I know “Feast on My Heart,” she wrote the lyrics for that with a friend of hers, so there may be some others even before “Crazy” other than “Feast on My Heart.”
Of the stuff that’s on Gyrate, maybe “Feast on My Heart” was the only one she wrote lyrics for. I don’t know.
While we’re throwing out the titles to some of Pylon’s greatest hits, would it be fair to say that there’s probably more people who have heard of Pylon and know that the band’s important than have actually seen Pylon play?
Michael: Yeah, that’s one of the reasons that having us back together again makes a difference, you know, because the band was widely considered by all of us and everybody else to be a band that should be heard live. Honestly, I didn’t really warm up to recordings until their function became like so much more crucial, because like during the big, long period of time that we weren’t together the recordings kind of rise to the top because they take over as being the sole surviving means that people can know the Pylon experience. But now that we’re back together again and our performances sound pretty much interchangeable from the way they used to, you know, now that’s back out there again.
I’m looking at Gyrate and I think Vanessa wrote the lyrics for “Stop It,” “Danger.”
Michael: “Recent Title” and “Read A Book.” No, wait. I think I wrote those.
Randy: I think you did, too.
Michael: Oh, and “Feast on my Heart.” So she definitely contributed a good bit of lyrics even on our first album, and “Crazy” wasn’t until later.
Some of the best lyrics, to me, are “Working is No Problem.” She wrote those, and to me that was like this brilliant kind of merger between these more kind of drier kind of lyrics that I was writing and her putting more of a personal interpretation on things, a kind of first-person view of herself. And she and I both worked at the factory so I think that maybe, you know, that one song represents a really strong kind of a coming together with an aesthetic. She kind of took it and made it a little more personal. I think the lyrics to “Working is No Problem” are some of the most really like just solidly interesting ones that we’ve got.
When you say factory, is that a literal factory or is that some kind of Warhol-tribute art collective nickname?
Michael: No, there was a DuPont factory that did textile repackaging. Not really like smokestack stuff, because they would bring in the nylon products on spools from other cities, and our factory was preparing them for the textile industry to use them on looms. She worked in another section that was texturizing the material for the carpet industry. So she and Curtis and I, all three, worked there, because it was a job that you could work two shifts on the weekends and make enough money to live in Athens for the rest of the week. And it gave us first-hand access to a lot of this industrial aesthetic because of the way the factory was run. All of the safety kind of paraphernalia was a big influence on a lot of these songs, lyrics and stuff.
Randy: I didn’t work there. I was left out all these conversations on the road.
It’s because you never give any interviews. If you’d be more of a team player . . .
[laughter all around]
Randy: No, man. I play guitar. That’s the team.
Michael: It used to be in the early days that every interview was a band interview. They were always done, you know, with all of us. But in the modern era, starting like when we got back together for Pylon II was when we would take turns doing interviews and go stand in the hallway on a pay phone. When we were touring with R.E.M. for Green.
This one guy drove me crazy because I was doing this phone interview with him, and then they printed the entire article, and they used a contraction at the end of every word I said that would’ve been an -ing word. Like we were playin’. They ended every one with in’.
Maybe he was trying to write like Faulkner.
Michael: (laughs) Yeah. I came across that interview a few years ago taped to the wall at a Georgia Music Hall of Fame exhibit. It just cracked me up because at the time it was really infuriating that this guy was like going out of his way to make me sound like the biggest hick.
Well, no problem with that this time, given that I’m from Alabama.
I’ve got to think that when your out of category lead singer starts writing song lyrics that that probably takes the band up another gear. And that’s got to be pretty damn exciting for you guys to know ‘now we can do even more than we did before, which was pretty good to start with.’
Michael: I think my main reaction to Vanessa was just always about the sounds she would make. You know, I never really spent a lot of time caring about the words. Her ability to kind of figure out a way like to take the words I’d written . . . Sometimes I almost think it’s a better result because she maybe didn’t hear it the way I did when I was writing them or something, and so she’d figure out a different way to do the vocal arrangement. But when she’s writing her own lyrics, she already kind of has the vocal arrangement in her mind and kind of crafts the words to fit a little more. Maybe being forced to fit somebody else’s stuff onto the music resulted in some of the more amazing, to me, more unexpected results in her vocal arrangements. I’ve always been most impressed with her sounds that she makes and kind of where she makes them. It’s more than lyrics.
Since we decided that more people have heard of Pylon than actually heard the band, if you could give everyone in the world one Pylon song which one would it be?
Michael: I’m kind of thinking everybody in Pylon would have a different answer to that.
Great. Let’s get two of the four answers. Is there a quintessential Pylon song?
Randy: To me it’s “Cool” or “M-Train.” And it’s funny because “M-Train” Michael and I switch instruments, but it’s still the same Pylon.
Michael: “Cool” [[audio-1]] is it for me but it’s probably based as much on a lot of the other things that surround that song and that recording and that single and everything than it is just the song itself. But it was the first song that came out, the first side of our first record. Also, the decision to actually record “Cool” was sort of a little bit of a nail biter because when we went in to record our single, we had two days to record it. And we went in and the idea was that we were going to lay down the tracks on Day One and mix them on Day Two. And so we had rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed the two most people-friendly songs, and it was “Human Body” and “Feast on my Heart,” I think. And that was going to be our single. But right around that time we’d just written “Cool” and “Dub,” and they were so fresh and raw and seemed a little more like modern and cool to us. And “Dub” was actually just a complete like work-in-progress jam. And that night when we were all listening to the tapes we came up with this fairly bold idea to try to convince Danny Beard who was putting out the record to let us go back and try to record these two other songs just in case. And we talked him in to going with the newest and, to us, more interesting songs.
So that song, you know, almost didn’t make it into that position as being our first song. And that song just did really well for Pylon. In New York it was on jukeboxes in all the clubs and, you know, we did that thing where we’d go to New York on a tour and walk around on our off-days and go to all the shops and go in and say, ‘Hey, we’re this band from Athens, Georgia. Would you guys like to buy some of our singles?’ And they would put “Cool” on the record player in the store and listen to it while we were walking around waiting on them to decide if they were going to buy any. And then they’d say, ‘Yeah, we’ll take ten.’ Or twenty. And it was like that shop to shop, and so that song just really, you know, has a big role to play. And also, musically and lyrically I think it represents the rest of what’s on Gyrate as well as anything else.
And so it’s on the re-issue that came out last year.
Michael: Yeah, it came out in October. And we were criticized that we had never put “Cool” and “Dub” on Gyrate when it came out.
Randy: And criticized because we did put singles on our second album.
You can’t win for losing.
You used the term Pylon II earlier to signify the second go-around after the first break-up. Does that mean that we’re on Pylon III?
Randy: This would be III.
Okay, so just two breakups that actually stuck for a while.
Randy: Hey, there’s no rules in break-ups.
I apologize for disparaging your breakup skills.
Michael: [laughs] Well, when we got back together the second time, everything about that Pylon II was like really deliberate. It was kind of like, ‘Okay, we didn’t want to be business-like the first time around and so that’s why we closed down shop. But this time let’s go ahead and start up Pylon again, but also run it like a business.’ So Pylon II was very, very deliberate. Pylon III is just kind of whatever it is, because at this point in our lives it’s just kind of a real fortunate thing that we’re able to be together and play the music together, but you know there’s no real agenda now. There’s no pretending that we’re going to, you know, really have like a full-on effort at being a rock band writing songs and touring and putting out records. But we can still do any mixture of that if we want to and don’t really feel like we’re obliged to our record label or the fan base or a manager or anybody to do anything on any kind of particular schedule right now.
Do you practice only when you’ve got a gig?
Randy: Well, it is kind of practice for play, because of the way people’s schedules run. Curtis is pretty busy.
Michael: The way it’s been going this year is I don’t think we really had any kind of a plan. And all of the six shows that we’re going to end up doing this year were ones where somebody came to us and just kind of, you know, persuaded us to do the show. And the first one wasn’t until August. In the spring and on into the summer Curtis was working on a TV show that was being filmed here in Athens, but he was working 14 hour days. And we practiced a little bit in there because we were getting ready to go play Winston-Salem for a show that Mitch Easter’s wife had put together as part of a film festival. But that wasn’t until August, and then we finally played in Athens at the place called the Melting Point where they wanted to record the show to play on a syndicated radio program. And we’ve been stalling on doing that show for four years. They’ve been asking us for three and a half years or so to please, please, please play it.
Randy: We’re not very good at stalling either, are we?
[laughter all around]
Michael: [laughs] We finally did that show and it was actually a blast. We had a really good time playing there and a really good show. And then the other shows have all been people calling us up and asking us to play.
Randy: Which is nice.
It’s nice to be wanted.
Randy: It’s all warm and fuzzy.
And now you have to practice again because you’re coming to New York, which I know is a special place for the band.
Michael: We love New York. We always did like really well in New York and Boston.
Randy: We were pretty much the house band, sort of, for Danceteria back in those days.
And Michael had this great quote during the breakup between Pylon II and III: ‘We were tourists in the rock and roll industry.’
Randy: Yeah, that’s why I don’t do interviews. He’s got it wired.
[laughter all around]
It’s a good quote.
Randy: It’s a great quote.
Michael: But our band had come up with that sort of self-definition. You know, before we broke up in 1983, probably for a year before that we were coming to terms with the fact that we just didn’t really fit into the systematic approach that most people had in mind for bands. And we were still doing most of the same things you would do. We were recording and putting out singles and then putting out our album Chomp and going and doing proper tours for it, but somehow we just knew we just weren’t viewing it with this kind of career orientation. And in the meantime we would stop everywhere and have our roadie take pictures of us in these places like the Grand Canyon. And so little by little it started looking like we were professional tourists and sort of paying our way by playing these gigs. And that just kind of morphed into this interpretation that we’re not really rock and roll people, we’re just tourists in the rock and roll industry. We don’t really live here, we’re just kind of, you know, passing through. So we took it kind of to the limit when we broke up. We used to go play some shows that we didn’t ask our booking agent to book, and you know that put us in an awkward position and it just seemed like maybe we should just go ahead and follow through on our threat to only do it while it was fun [laughs]. Which you hear a lot of other bands say that too, but I think we actually did it.
In which case you did the breakup well, and I’m wrong and Randy’s right.
Randy: [laughs] It’s all good. We’re kind of back to where we started. The first time it was for us. The second time it was kind of driven by external forces. Third time, just because we want to do it.
Michael: But there is sort of a newer component to it which is this air of responsibility that I think we recognize, which is that Pylon’s reputation and fans have like their own . . . You know, there’s like a built-up kind of gestalt that is Pylon that in a way we recognize is, at this point, coming back into it. That legacy of the band or whatever is just a little bit bigger than the four of us now.
Michael: And so our idea is that we should like be attentive to not screwing that up, because we don’t want to ruin it for everybody else just because we wanted to get out and have fun or make money or take advantage of an opportunity or something like that. So we’re trying to be judicious and respectful of what Pylon was before 2004 when we got back together so we don’t screw it up.