THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS’ TOMMY HALL: WE WANT PEOPLE TO THINK
illustration by luke thomas
At the very end of the 13th Floor Elevators’ long discography is a ghostly version of “May The Circle Be Unbroken,” recorded at a distance by Roky Erickson as his band faded away. If we were writing a month ago, that would be where everything had ended. But last month, something unexpected happened: the announcement of a reunion of the surviving line-up from the Elevators’ epochal Psychedelic Sounds LP, who will triumphantly headline Austin Psych Fest’s Levitation this weekend. With much-appreciated help, L.A. RECORD was able to secure three Elevators interviews. Today, we’re proud to post the most in-depth interview with band co-founder and songwriter Tommy Hall since … well, ever. Here the philosophical engine of the Elevators talks with musician and producer Ty Segall. Tomorrow, we’ll post an unpublished interview with Frank Davis, engineer on the revolutionary Easter Everywhere album, who offers insight and enthusiasm with rare clarity. And yesterday, Chris Ziegler took a first-person tour through Elevators history with bassist Ronnie Leatherman, who watched the band form, played on Psychedelic Sounds and then returned for Bull Of The Woods and the final moments of the band. More than forty years after their debut, the Elevators’ influence reverberates through music today—that “surfy” sound people talk about now all comes from departed guitarist Stacy Sutherland—and L.A. RECORD is honored for this chance to peek inside the pyramid.
I’m from Laguna Beach and I know you lived there for a while—were you part of the Brotherhood at all?
No. I went down to Laguna Beach and I met some of them. I was there for about a month a half or so. There are these caves on the Irvine Ranch that were pretty cool where I was staying.
With Timothy Leary?
No, no. I just met up with some of the people in the Brotherhood and they gave me a handful of Orange Sunshine. It was far out. They had hidden this giant stash underneath a Buddha.
In the cave?
Oh no, this was in a house. They lived in a bunch of houses and they were really cool. They looked like a bunch of gypsy houses in Eastern Europe. Or like Swiss. The insides had a bunch of Indian tapestries. It was a typical hippie thing on the inside.
Growing up there, everybody talks about the Brotherhood. I’ve only met one other person who hung around with those guys.
Well, with Leary they were kind of a bad influence. I hate to say that. LSD is a consciousness-expanding medium, right? So you can use it to get ideas. You want to use acid so that you can think, not because of some crackpot political ideas.
So for you—
It’s for everybody! Everybody understands this. Hippies were so entrenched in this political philosophy. They’re all a bunch of communists, right? The hip people still believe in revolution so that the people on the bottom take over and control the people on the top. It’s still going on.
Do you think that taking acid can help you achieve higher consciousness?
It allows you to get ideas. With them, it took them out of things and it gave them a few ideas and they—because they took acid—were the intelligent ones. The other people didn’t know about this so they were the stupid ones. Even though the same people did smack and everything, they acted like they were more intellectual than your normal people. It is true that they’ve acquired some secrets as far as technique, but they misuse it. It doesn’t get anywhere. They just lie, man, you know? It’s an adversarial type of relationship that actually increases consciousness. The more conscious people had to use their brains to figure out how to rationally answer them. It keeps them alert, expands their consciousness—that’s why it’s part of nature. It’s a natural mechanism of evolution. If you look at it, evolution is the evolution of consciousness from little beings who reacted to the outside and then grew themselves—advanced themselves. Some of it is random. But the whole thing is not random. It’s an expansion from the apes. We got smarter and smarter and that advanced us. It’s very simple.
Were you trying to push these ideas when you were playing music?
No—we were just trying to give another view besides just the ‘get as high as you can’ view. And that on the political side, on the paranoid side, there was something wrong. We represented the psychedelic way that you get ideas and advance your consciousness, but in the correct way. Once you get to this one idea, what are you going to do next? That, in a way, shut us down. It took me a long time to get to this. The universe is mathematical but science says, ‘Oh no.’ They tried to figure it out and they couldn’t do it. But you have to see certain things about it. You have to start with the universe as a fraction and they never started there. That was beyond them. You have to go all the way back to the beginning and understand what abstract mathematics is based on and then come forward to see the quasi-math itself. It looks like it’s real but it’s actually a complex abstraction. Does this sound kooky or wacky to you?
It’s just a lot of information to take in.
That’s why I want you to tape it. Te more that you can explain, the more it’s going to help kids out of doing meth and smack and thinking. Getting them interested in science and math and stuff. I mean, that’s already hip. You have this show, The Big Bang Theory—the big bang didn’t happen the way they think. So they do this show and it sounds hip.
Can you tell me about the first time you heard Roky sing?
I don’t know if this will get me in trouble. I was dealing weed in Austin and so we went down to this beautiful place, Padre Island. We were cool-looking people, so these other two dudes introduced themselves and they wanted to know where they could get weed. I found out that they played music at Padre Island and we’d just come from there. It was this big thing—like, wow, far out. We tell them to come up to Austin and this was Stacy and John Ike. They came and bought weed from us. They didn’t like the band that they were in so they wanted to form another band but they needed a singer. These things happened together, like a coincidence. I said, ‘Well, I’ll look around.’ I heard about this singer, Roky, and they were playing in the Latin Quarter in Austin—a small little club. I thought he was a really good singer. He was just with this kind of a dumpy band. A kid’s band—a high school type of band, right? But they had a pretty good sound. So I mentioned to Stacy and John Ike that I found this singer. They looked at him and it made sense. I had discussed ideas about consciousness— Alfred Korzybski kinds of things—that you used weed to get ideas and acid. They asked me if I would write songs for them and even be in their band if I could? I played jug, you know? Just to be a part of the folk groups. I thought I could do that with a rock group, see? I wanted to get on board because I could write songs. I knew I could write songs because there wasn’t anything being done in those days that was about consciousness. I’m the one who came up with the idea about psychedelic rock and the eye in the pyramid. I played with them and it worked but that first tune that we did, ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ … I really wasn’t ready and I sounded horrible and I apologize to fans. They had this idea that everybody in the band should play at the same time and you’ve got this spirit throughout each other. We didn’t record on different tracks. We recorded ‘You’re Gonna Miss Me’ and I was kind of sloppy. I got the gist that they thought it was all right—there wasn’t anything wrong with it. But there was, see? But the idea is that we would’ve had to record the song together again and they just got in the mood that it sounded great, that it was perfect—except for me. It’s a part of an acceleration of my consciousness. You have to wake up and compensate for this. I worked hard and the earliest songs were tools. But that’s how we met Roky.
Can I ask you some questions about some of the people you knew back in the 60s?
I knew Janis Joplin in Austin. There were all these people around her. There was a folk music group that played in what they call the Commons at the University of Texas. They have these glass doors and I saw people playing with guitars and I went in and they were really good. I could not believe that they were so good. She reinforced people but she had people with her. They were excellent musicians. I got in with them and they were connected with a lot of the intellectuals, with The Texas Ranger, a Texas humor magazine that won the award of best in the nation that year. I was right in the middle of that social swill, right? It was really great. I just expanded, too. I was well read and I knew jazz. I read a lot but I hadn’t read a lot of Lawrence Durell, Henry Miller, which was really a side issue. To them, this was a big thing that you educated yourself with. Plus there were differences in philosophical things. I got in with this book Science and Sanity by Alfred Korzybski. This is really a great book, man. From this book, I got the idea of the pyramids. He talks about levels of abstraction—that’s a really great concept.
Is that where you got the concept of the pyramid?
Not directly but he talked about levels of abstraction. Ideas are different levels of abstraction, which is a really powerful thought. You start thinking that way and it takes you right out. It’s really great knowledge. As you go up in levels of abstraction, it has the tendency of leading to one idea. That’s why the pyramid works as a model for consciousness.
So that’s the pyramid you used for the Elevators?
Well—with the eye, it leads to perception.It’s called ‘The All-Seeing Eye.’ It’s just abstraction itself. We were able to utilize that for full perception. It worked with us very well to help people understand, to think. It gave us ideas. That’s what all this stuff is for, you know?
Let’s talk about your influence on the media.
What’s important is the information’s influence. I’m like a monk. I just happen to have this information available to me. I did a good job and I worked and I was faithful, you might say. I had the information that I could believe in and I kept on doing it.
Are you happy with how the Elevators have promoted these ideas?
Yeah—sure. But what I do now is I work on the structure. How it started and taking it forward into the galaxies and stars. All of that comes together and then it has to happen back to Earth so the electron structure and the photons hitting that causing our perception … we have to make understanding there that will advance our perception to other levels or else it’s just bullshit. It’s not going to work.
Did you have these ideas during the Elevators?
I had the idea about the curve of space—everybody knows about that. The hippies called me ‘The Grey Spider.’ I used to wear a grey jacket. Because I spied it—I spied her. They know about that. It’s an underground thing. But that’s all I could get. So you’re getting high off it but then what do you do? It takes awhile to realize that science really didn’t do their job in a way, but they did what they could do to predict stuff that we could use at the time. You have to see that the idea about the big bang is partially wrong. There was space before it expanded—it’s not the way that they said it was. It’s not just energy—it’s abstract mathematics. That’s what I’ve been doing but it just took a long time. I think I’ll be safe as long as I can bring it back to our perception and our electron structure and what the photons are so we can get a bigger idea about the perceptual globe, you might say. That has to happen.
I think you’re doing good work here.
The ideas have been there and we’re here and we’re supposed to do this. We’re supposed to use our brains. That’s why we have brains: to figure this out, you know?
What about your method? Do you still use acid while you’re working?
Not right now. It’s really hard to get acid. I used to smoke weed. Weed is cool—it allows you to think better. But it causes me to cough. Now I’ve got this show coming so I can’t smoke weed. The weird thing is, from the position that I’m in, I really don’t need weed.
Do you think that every person has a different tolerance for or psychedelics? Should there be a limit?
People are in different situations—different levels of consciousness. There’s an evolutionary hierarchy so some people are more competent than other people but it’s all about the situation they’re in too. Like, if they’re having trouble? Acid makes you retrospective. You use it to get ideas about yourself and the outside world—so it could freak out people if they’re having trouble. If you have smoked weed and are going step-by-step so you can tolerate a change of consciousness, you’ll be safe.
How did you use acid in the Elevators?
One thing I want to say is that the legalization of weed is a really good thing because it allows people to tolerate a change of consciousness and perception. They have control so that people won’t use it at work and stuff. It will be clean. It’s not the type of drug that carries over. It might be present but it doesn’t affect you the next day unless you use too much.
Did you know Skip Spence?
No. We played a show with him. I never met him, man. They were in this other group and they were just kind of wanderers. They had no idea what they were doing. They just played rock music, you know? See, we were psychedelic rock and the Dead were psychedelic rock, too—but it’s different. Even the poets were on the wrong pathway. It just got bigger and bigger, like that Alan Watts book. The acid shows you the expanse of things. They’re saying, ‘It’s bigger than you are so just forget about it.’ Well, that’s ridiculous. That’s just silly. But they were older people and that sold books. It was about consciousness from kind of a basic reality. Luckily we had Timothy Leary in the early days who was into the expansion of consciousness. I read The Psychedelic Review. I subscribed to it so I got certain ideas. But he just went off into this fucking nutso crackpot political theory that was dangerous and it spoiled acid because they thought, ‘Well, when you take acid you want to overthrow the government.’ It messed everything up. I met people who made bombs. In San Francisco, this one dude blew all the fingers off his hand. It was fucked up. You had all these orgies. It was really a messed-up environment. Everybody thought that was cool, though. ‘Oh yeah, far out.’ But it messed up a lot of people.
Were you close friends with the Dead?
I met the Dead. Janis introduced me to them. The band got turned on to weed up in this tree house at what had been a girl’s camp. The Dead rented it, right? They lived there and they were really groovy but they were, like, far out. At this point, I had only done the first album, which was, like, ‘Acid is all right. It’s like a rollercoaster.’ We did have the eye in the pyramid but I hadn’t gotten to this idea about our perception of closed space. That came later. So we were little. We were in awe of them. Their first album is the one that’s happening. And also Quicksilver’s first album. The first one had ‘Pride of Man’ on it. You can put that on and play it over and over again. We came out before those people. It’s no big deal. They had this perfected music to teach that there was this high thing about acid—that you could expand your mind—but they didn’t follow their own rules. They didn’t have that information so it narrows it. We had these little gems in there that help people think. It’s not just taking more of it. We want people to think.
Did you play music after the Elevators?
No. We were a philosophical effort. Janis wanted to join our group but I said we shouldn’t do that because it would change things into a blues. We were a psychedelic band and we didn’t want to just commercialize. Other people asked me to play but I didn’t think it was a good thing. And Roky suffered and we ought to honor him because he is the Elevators as much as I am.
How is your relationship with Roky now? Is everything good now? Still friends?
Yeah, sure—of course.
Are you excited about playing together?
Yeah—it’s a cool thing. It draws attention to the group again and makes people think about what we did. It reinforces the attention that people have paid to us and it rewards that. Like—it isn’t dead. I am doing something. That’s another reason why these articles are cool because we want people to understand that this is a progression. This kept on going. I’m a student and I have studied and I get my ideas everyday and the ideas progress or else. If it stopped, I wouldn’t keep on doing it. It would be irrational. But as long as long as the pathway keeps opening up, it’s great. I just keep on doing it, like a walk in the woods. The universe helps us because it wants us to do this. It loves us and we’re a part of it and we’re going somewhere.
What do you think about other bands that are playing this kind of music now?
There aren’t any other bands playing this kind of music.
THE 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS WITH LIGHTNING BOLT, THE JESUS AND MARY CHAIN, FUZZ, MELODIE’S ECHO CHAMBER AND MORE ON MAY 8-10 AT AUSTIN PSYCH FEST’S LEVITATION AT CARSON CREEK RANCH, 9507 SHERMAN ROAD, AUSTIN, TEXAS. ALL INFO HERE!