PYLON: BEER, SPRINKLERS AND HEAT
illustration by abraham jay torres
Only one of the glories of Pylon is hearing how much like this current moment they were sounding back during Reagan’s first term. As for the rest of their 24-karat virtues, any even partial catalog would beggar both newsprint and patience, as well as necessity, as most are inferred below and the rest decisively demonstrated on the recent Pylon Live, a two-LP document of the band’s two farewell performances at Atlanta’s Mad Hatter Club in December, 1983 out on Henry Owing’s excellent Chunklet imprint. Coming after a two-album career and easy conquest of still-emerging college radio with a singularly intense jangle-punk dancemania, Pylon’s climactic conclusion now takes its place as an essential part of the band’s legacy. Other incarnations followed, with the most recent phase being the Pylon Reenactment Society, an all-star juggernaut headed by original singer Vanessa Briscoe-Hay set to level the Echo this Sunday, December 11. Here the honey-voiced and thoughtful frontwoman pays respectful tribute to her past and calls in a few friends to add a riff or two. This interview by Ron Garmon.
What was it about one of William Faulkner’s lesser-known novels that inspired the band name?
Vanessa Briscoe-Hay (vocals): That’s just basically a legend that grew. William Faulkner did have a novel called Pylon but the members of Pylon were all art students at the University of Georgia and we wanted something that was a symbol as well as a name. At first we were just going to have a symbol—like diagonal—but we liked the way it looked. We were into minimalism. It doesn’t have anything to do with William Faulkner other than we’re both from the South.
Set the background of 1979 Athens for the toddlers among us…
VBH: I can only speak to what I know and saw personally. Athens, GA was a sleepy Southern college town, but there were things going on. Our art department at UGA was home to some artists and professors who had influences beyond our little patch of ground. In the town itself were people who had traveled and listened to what was happening around the world. We had a wonderful local record store called Chapter 3 Records who brought the latest discs to our attention. There were amazing house parties where these were played and people danced. Thrift store clothes, keg beer, sprinklers and heat combined to create something new, fun and fresh. There was a band here around 1977 or so called the B-52’s. They were very important and nobody had seen anyone really like them before and they got their start here. They took off like a rocket and we ended up slipping into the void that was left when they departed here. Pylon began as an art project by Randy Bewley and Michael Lachowski in late 1978. I was auditioned as the singer in February 1979. We played several party shows and we didn’t know what people thought of us but about the third time we played, the B-52’s saw and told us we have got to go to New York. They helped us get booked into a club in New York, so off we went and opened for the Gang of Four, who were our heroes. We actually played New York before we played Atlanta. We had more in common with that scene and what was going on in Boston, Minneapolis, England, and Germany than what was going on in local scene at the time.
The idea was you guys wanted to create a band that would go to New York, get reviewed in New York Rocker, then disband!
VBH: That was the initial idea—we were an art project and not professional musicians so we had no goal other than that. The first time played New York we got written up in Interview and it was a little ways down the road before we were written up in New York Rocker but by then we were having too much fun. We finally disbanded in 1983, because it got to be too much like a job. That was what was behind that.
You missed your original aspiration to become a footnote to rock history!
VBH: Right—well, certainly better to be a footnote than not anything. We certainly had a great time.
You got a record deal just months after forming. How did that happen?
VBH: [Producer] Danny Beard approached us and asked us to do a single, which did well, so he asked us to do an album so we went to Atlanta and recorded Gyrate. I guess it was a week total recording before it was done. I forget how many tracks we recorded and we didn’t even use all of them. People seem to enjoy that record even now. It’s amazing to me that it’s so fondly remembered.
It’s been reissued multiple times since 1980. How much attention did Gyrate get upon first release?
VBH: It got a lot of attention, actually. It was kinda at the beginning of the college-rock era and almost every station was playing it. CMJ was very new at that time and we charted on that. Not such a commercial success, but to us it was a success because the music was being heard and we traveled and played it. People came and saw us and danced. It was a word of mouth and DIY scene. Extraordinary times.
Spectacular for a first crack out of the box.
VBH: To us, yes. Success for us maybe had different parameters. I don’t even know what TV show we could’ve been on at the time but we received attention, we got to travel, we opened for some of our favorite bands and fanzines wrote about us. That was success for us.
What were some of the bands of that era you guys doted on?
VBH: American bands like Mission of Burma. We opened for Talking Heads and the B-52’s. When they both had their first U.S. tour, they toured together but they came to Atlanta and split up so we opened for them both nights. We also played with PiL when they played Atlanta which was amazing. Outside of America, the Gang of Four was the band we had the closest relationship with. We toured quite a lot with them on the East coast and the Midwest and Canada. There were lots of interesting things going on then and interesting American bands. That whole period of time—from 78 to 83, which was kinda our era—is one of the more interesting eras in American music, though it wasn’t commercial per se. Pre-MTV and before the major labels began to sign a lot of these bands. They didn’t know what to do with them or what category to put them in.
What was touring and playing like then?
VBH: Not unlike now. There was a network of clubs and a local promoter would call you up. Then as now, a lot of local people would come and support you just because you were coming to their town. In our time, we didn’t call it post-punk or new wave. They were coming to hear new music, which was what we called what we did. Fanzines would write about you and it was very word-of-mouth. This was way before blogs. It was interesting.
Chomp! was produced by the great Mitch Easter over a fairly lengthy stretch during excessive touring with the likes of Gang of Four and U2. It later became quite influential. How long did recording it ultimately take?
VBH: Before we worked with Mitch, we started in Atlanta with those who worked with us on our previous record. Brice Baxter was the recording engineer and mixer, but we just wanted to try something different. So we talked it over with Chris Stamey and went to a very tiny studio of Mitch Easter’s and I think it was the last time they used that board of theirs as the knobs we wearing out.
Tell us about circumstances surrounding the newly released live record.
VBH: We had decided to break up after doing some touring after the release of Chomp! It was beginning to look like more work than we were interested in. We were approached by a group of local investors who wanted to have a TV show called Athens Shows and shoot us as the pilot for it. Knowing that, we looked for a local venue that had the capacity and room to do this. The Mad Hatter was really just a large boxy room. It was advertised as our last show and the investors brought in cameras including one on a track and a recording truck. Curtis Crowe, our drummer, built a simple backdrop. Everyone came and danced and a lot of our friends got up and danced on stage with us for the encores. Listening to the recording during final mixing, we were struck by what a solid show it was and also by the feeling … why the hell did we break up? Ha! But I’d like Henry to answer this one, too.
Henry Owings (Chunklet): What happened was Pylon had announced they were doing their final show, and at the same time there were two enterprising gentlemen in Athens that wanted to start an Austin City Limits-type show that would showcase the finest talent in Athens at the time. They set up camera and recording equipment for this night—Love Tractor and Pylon would perform and they wound up with two pilots for the price of one. They shopped the show around to no takers and the tapes lay ignored for the better part of thirty years before I found them. It’s a crazy story—there is an Indiana Jones element to the search and I just never gave up.
If Pylon has a band ethic, what is it?
VBH: Oh my goodness. Minimalism. No one member is more important than another. We tried to show this by how we presented ourselves to our audience, our graphics and also by how the music was mixed. We all wrote our own parts, except lyrics were either written by Michael Lachowski, Michael and me or by me. The songs came easily or took months. The sum was greater than its parts. I guess the whole premise behind Pylon is that we made our own decisions in the way we approached music and business and everything. It came from a core sense. It was a huge experience and it had to be fun. Playing live was our favorite thing to do and that’s why this record is important. Henry basically saved the tapes from obscurity. This is an object on vinyl: two discs with beautiful artwork by Michael Lachowski, our bass player. In keeping with our ethos I hate to say artifacts, but that’s what it is.
Hugely enjoyable listen but that five-song encore is a thing of beauty! Not too many live documents of that kind of music.
VBH: Why, thank you so much! Everybody was dancing. Very sweaty! There’s not a lot a lot of crowd noise on this recording and a lot of it we had to cut so we could have all the songs. We could only find one band photo of that night—a shot my husband took. Everyone else was too busy dancing to take pictures!
HO: I’d like to add that we had video footage of that night. In the encore you’re talking about, there’s barely room for the band onstage because the amount of people onstage dancing. It’s like ‘Oh, there’s Peter Buck!’ ‘There’s the guy from Love Tractor!’ It was very open sort of ‘Everybody come on up and have a good time!’ All I’d heard was what’s on the record and then I saw the video and thought the show must’ve been absolutely nuts!
You can tell from the way the musicians are playing that the audience is going mad! Enormous crowd energy.
VBH: It’s a two-way street and it goes back and forth.
Pitchfork calls the live record your ‘proper tombstone,’ but is that all it is?
VBH: It is what it is supposed to be. It is a recording of a significant show for us and recorded as well as it could have been under those circumstances. It is a artifact of a live performance which is what we did best and enjoyed most. It is amazing that it survived and that there was interest to release it by Henry Owings.
Pylon ended, time passed, people remembered the Athens scene and bands that soldiered on remembered you to the press. Your records were reissued in the late 1990s to hammerstunned astonishment from critics like Robert Christgau and much general rejoicing. At what point did Pylon begin to seem like an idea whose time had never gone away?
VBH: It happened twice more and now for a fourth time with the Pylon Reenactment Society. The second time we called it Pylon II. I guess we reemerge from the earth every once on a while like … I don’t know, some form of insect or whatever. With Pylon II, we reemerged because we got a lot of attention from ‘Athens Georgia Inside Out.’ The B-52’s and R.E.M. were very encouraging and said, ‘I think they’re ready for you now.’ We came out for a while, had management. We toured. I think we could’ve continued but [guitarist] Randy [Bewley] didn’t want to do it anymore. Later on in 2005, Randy called and said ‘Hey I miss you guys. Let’s get together for fun.’ So we did some shows between 2005 and 2008 and he passed away in early 2009. We both worked on getting the tapes organized and remastered for the DFA reissues of our first two records. It lay dormant again until 2015. Joseph E. Smith was working on the committee on something called called ‘Art Rock Athens’ an organization formed locally to remember the art and rock scene of 1975 to 1985 in Athens. So I get a band together and we performed a few songs. People just went nuts for our fifteen minutes and the next year they said Fred Schneider is coming and would I appear again? I said sure and the Pylon Reenactment Society did a half hour. Also Dressy Bessy said come and play with us and other event shows. We’ve been doing shows sporadically and getting very good feedback. Then sometime earlier this summer, I became friends on Facebook with Shelina Louise of Panthar and she’s a huge fan of Pylon and she’s like ‘Look, you’ve got to come to Los Angeles. All the bands love you out here and you’ve got to play with them.’ So we talked to Michael Stock of Part Time Punks—we’ll be there in December. I have another member of the band here Joe Rowe, and he can tell you a little more about performing with us. We talked about needing a drummer and Curtis [Crowe] said ‘You need to get that guy right there.’
Joe Rowe (drums): This is Joe! It’s been fantastic taking Curtis’s spot on the drums. Vanessa’s truly one of my favorite rock ‘n’ roll singers ever.
Expect a royal welcome in Los Angeles. What did you think of R.E.M.’s pass at ‘Crazy’?
JR: I loved their version of that song and I can’t remember if I heard R.E.M.’s or Pylon’s version first. I was in New Jersey at the time and didn’t get things at the same time up here as down there.
VBH: I think it’s just incredible they did it. They introduced Pylon to the rest of the world. They were very awesome about sharing their spotlight with others and recognize their influences. I saw one of them recently—my mind’s blanking on who—and he said ‘Well, we meant it.’ Aw you, guys! Thanks!
JR: I moved down here to Athens in 1987 from New Jersey. I remember one of the first things I did was buy two cassette tapes—a Fall record and Pylon’s Gyrate. I fell in love with it and wore that thing out, so it’s a total trip to play with Vanessa and with Michael and Curtis. Michael and Curtis will get up and play song or two or three with us when they’re able and that’s really cool.
VBH: Michael and Curtis have been really supportive of us. I’ve had several people come up to us in the Northeast and locally after shows say that they never dreamed they’d see us live.
Vanessa, at what point did you feel like a pioneering woman rock vocalist?
VBH: Oh, well … [laughs]
I mean, it could’ve happened all at once or over a period of time.
VBH: I don’t feel like a pioneer but I don’t feel like a typical vocalist either. After a really good night, I’m standing there thinking I’m the luckiest person in the world. I don’t know how pioneering that is but I definitely enjoy doing what I do. Come by when we’re in L.A! Say ‘Hey!’
PYLON [AKA PYLON REENACTMENT SOCIETY] WITH SEX STAINS, PANTHAR AND THE TISSUES ON SUN., DEC. 11, AT THE ECHOPLEX, 1154 GLENDALE BLVD., ECHO PARK. 9 PM / $15-$18 / 18+. THEECHO.COM. GET TICKETS HERE! PYLON’S LIVE IS AVAILABLE NOW FROM CHUNKLET. VISIT PYLON AT WEAREPYLON.COM.