Interview: Pylon

For a band that hasn’t released music since 1990, there has been a lot of recent news out of the Pylon camp. New West Records announced they are releasing Pylon Box on November 6th. The boxset includes four LPs and a 200 page hardbound book. In addition, the band is releasing a signature roast of coffee in conjunction with Jittery Joe’s Coffee. It was, also, recently announced that the band would be a member of the inaugural class of the Athens Music Walk of Fame. Frontwoman, Vanessa Briscoe Hay was nice enough to answer a few questions about all the news.

You are celebrating the 40th anniversary of your debut album, Gyrate. How do you think the album holds up?

It still sounds energetic and uncontrived to me. It’s quirky. There is an element of rawness at times and I hear a few things I would probably do differently now. But, I know better than to tinker with it.

What do you remember about recording the album?

I remember that it was recorded and mixed in less than a week. We were already familiar with the set up because it was the same studio where we recorded our first single “Cool” /“Dub.” The afternoon started off with what seemed like an interminable amount of time setting up the drums, Curtis banging on the snare over and over, the guys turning the amps this way and that and then getting the mics, cables and sound set up. Bass, drums and guitar were all in the same room. There was a window that you could see from the studio into the control room and vice versa, I went next door to a Cuban sandwich shop, played pinball, drank coffee, drank beer, smoked cigarettes, read the newspaper. It was like the world’s longest soundcheck. I wandered back to Stone Mountain studio to find Kevin Dunn (co-producer) and Danny Beard (DB Recs) chatting on a couch in the control room. The engineer and co-producer Bruce Baxter held sway in a really nice chair – and all of a sudden we were ready to go. I took my shoes off and sat them on top of an unused grand piano. Bruce set me up in the vocal booth, and explained there was so much bleed over into my mic that these were going to be scratch vocals. The songs were pretty much recorded one after another with the band playing all at the same time. We would do several takes and then I would redo the vocals. I learned quickly to try not to make any mistakes, because if you did, you had to do this awful thing called “punching in” which involved rewinding the tape until right before the mistake and jumping in with it – if you didn’t get it right, the time consuming process started over. During the mixing of the album, I was allowed some input into how the vocals sounded. On the song “Gravity,” I wanted no effects on my voice because it seemed to make more room sonically. Kevin and Bruce tried to argue with me and lost. “On Read A Book,” I wanted the dialog “I think I know what you mean,” to sound like I was talking to another person on the phone, Bruce said, “cardboard tube!” and quickly put a vocal mike on the floor with a set of headphones next to it and re-recorded the vocals like that. I noticed Randy doing some different things I had never seen him do before – the eerie sound at the beginning of “Danger” is amazing feedback that came out of nowhere. He began manipulating it by moving his guitar around and above the amp. He never could reproduce that sound live and sometimes he would go up to the mic at shows and whistle it. The buzzing sound at the beginning of “Driving School” is one Michael discovered one night during an early rehearsal with Randy. They would usually leave a little black and white tube TV on for the patterns and light (because Athens, GA in those pre-cable days didn’t pick up most networks even with an antenna). When he walked near the TV with his bass that night, he noticed that it created a feedback sound that he could manipulate with the vertical hold knob.

Mixing for Gyrate took place mostly without me. Kevin Dunn and Bruce Baxter did most of it along with support from Michael and Randy sometimes. I did get to twiddle a knob a few times. Back then most boards for a studio that size weren’t automated and mixes could require several sets of hands to turn knobs. Michael did go back a week or two later and do a remix of “Danger” because he noticed the actual 2 inch tape recorder made some pretty neat sounds. He amplified and deconstructed the song by eliminating certain tracks with those sounds. “Danger‼️” ended up on the EP ‼️ along with the tracks “Cool”/“Dub” from our first single, as well as a track that was not on the UK version of Gyrate, “Driving School.”

You are releasing the Pylon Box in November. How did the idea of a 4 LP Set & 200 Page Hardbound Book come about?

Box was an idea which grew organically. Brady Brock, our producer, had the original idea for Book. We were a little skeptical at first, but we were all in once convinced. It forced us to go through a ton of our ephemera that lived in stacks of boxes at our houses. We donated most of it to the Special Collections Library at UGA after some of the best pieces had been photographed by Jason Thrasher and scanned by Henry Owings. Donating our stuff was an idea that Michael had proposed a while back, but had seemed overwhelming. These items were combined with photos which I, along with Henry Owings, had scouted out, with negatives recently discovered by Michael in his own archives. Requests to friends like Terry Allen, Laura Levine and Sandra-Lee Phipps yielded even more. The cover of Box is by Bob Leafe. I had found a small photo of Pylon that I liked while leafing through an old Trouser Press and put out the word on our Facebook Page to try to find the photographer. One of our friends found his website and I contacted him directly. He had some interesting photos from other shows in New Jersey, but the one Michael went bananas over was one a performance in New York that Leafe thought was too dark, but he had cleaned it up and sent it anyway. It is the perfect cover for Book and echoes the photo Jason Thrasher shot of Pylon gear for the back cover. Not everything could make it into the book, and I feel a sense of guilty that some pics which I had invested a lot of time to find the photographer for and get permission for, ended up not being chosen.The book was laid out by our friend and Pylon fan Henry Owings and is a thing of beauty.

As beautiful an object as it is, it would be an empty thing without the sound. The sonic side of the story actually began several years back—-before I had found a label for this project. My friend and bandmate in Pylon Reenactment Society, Jason NeSmith is a skilled audio engineer who works at Chase Park Transduction Studios. He is also a Pylon fan. Jason asked me one day if we had ever considered reissuing Pylon’s records and said he would love to remaster them if we ever did. I filed that in my brain library. I had been working towards getting Pylon’s business straightened out since 2004. It seemed like a good idea to work with someone I trusted who understood us so he and I began putting feelers out for Pylon mixtapes and other tapes. I had some already, Mitch Easter sent some, Jeff Calder brought 2 tubfuls over that had been kept at Southern Tracks Studio. Jason went to work restoring and cataloging our studio and live material. He digitized it and in the process saved the music on many of them from doom. Jason shared with me later that some of the tapes were right on the verge of being lost. Tapes of this era tend to flake off and had to be baked in an oven at a low temperature for several hours—in some cases twice. In the process of looking for our material and finding studio versions of our albums Gyrate and Chomp which had been cut up, spiced and placed on one reel to make Hits, a mutual friend of ours, Chris Rassmussen, or Chris Razz as he is known, let Jason hear a tape which he had recorded in 1979 at Pylon’s rehearsal space using 3 mics and a Nakamichi tape deck. It was recorded not too long before we went into the studio to record our first single. The tape contained some songs which had fallen off our setlist after recording Gyrate and has a raw immediate sound, Initially, Jason and I proposed a double album which would include some of these songs combined with our singles and some rarities, When our executive producer for New West, Brady Brock, heard the entire tape, he suggested we release the whole thing as a free standing album.

While looking for the photographer for a photo which was in a Northwestern University magazine in 1983, I noticed Steve Albini’s name on the masthead. I tried to contact him to see if he knew what happened to his former classmate. When I didn’t hear back, I didn’t think much about it at the time, because I had never met him. I am a huge Shellac fan. A few months later I was cleaning out my trash bin and saw an email from Steve Albini. He was super nice and said he didn’t know where the photographer was. He said he loved Pylon and asked if we needed help mastering the record. I said no, but we would need help with cutting the vinyl. He put us in touch with his bandmate Bob Weston – and Steve ended up writing a story for Book about when he saw us open for Gang of Four in Chicago. And the day that Book was going to press, Henry found a photo of Pylon taken at the very show Steve Albini wrote about in a book by Brian Shanley he had just gotten in the mail. I immediately emailed Brian begging him for this photo. This is the photo we are using for most press.

I assume you re-listened to your albums for the box set, is there anything new you have noticed about them?

Oh yeah, I listened to them several times during the process and once it was mastered, I listened to it about 3 times—and I listened to the CD master in my van and in the house. I listened to the test pressing twice. Jason, Caroline Barfield at New West and I listened to it a lot.

I was struck by how sonically pure and clean Gyrate was. Looking at the track sheets for it – the 16 track board was not filled up; we didn’t use all the tracks available to us. Our engineer and co-producer had enough common sense to let us play without a whole lot of overdubbing.

Chomp takes a completely different approach. Chris Stamey put a noise-gate on the drums which was a fairly new thing at the time that triggers some interesting sounds. At times you hear a keyboard. Randy and I did a little messing around with two different ones. Some of the vocals have a backing track using various techniques. One song has a slowed down version of my voice as the backing vocal which sounds sort of like a sexy male vocalist according to Mark Cline (Love Tractor guitarist). We did a mix in the studio back then for fun called “Yo-Yo (Male version)” which was on Chomp More, It’s not on this set nor is “4 minutes” because we had to make some decisions.

Razz Tape is a complete rediscovery for me. Randy had obviously listened to it because he pulled the track “Functionality” for Gyrate Plus from it. There are some unheard cuts on this: two versions of “Modern Day Fashion Woman,” an instrumental version of “Read A Book” before I had lyrics for it, “Efficiency,” “Information,” a very early working version of “Feast on My Heart.” It was recorded with three mics on a Nakamichi tape deck. One mic was shared by the guitar and bass, one was above the drums and I stood in the hallway outside our practice space and had the third. It is very raw and has a lot of energy.

Extra includes our singles and alternate versions of some studio cuts. Some of the songs are the real surprises to me. Todd Phlarski who owns Low Yo-Yo Stuff in Athens has been taping live shows for a long time. He also collects live stuff. He found a tape of Pylon before I joined the band. There is a tape of one song I regret we never studio recorded called “3×3.” It had been in our set off and on through all three incarnations of Pylon. There is also a live version of something called “Danger III” live that is off the chain.

You will also be releasing a special blend of coffee with Jittery Joe’s Coffee Roasting Company. How did that collaboration come about?

One of my friends Damon Denton (keyboardist for Pylon Reenactment Society) has coffee in Jittery Joe’s every morning. He saw that they had done some coffee for Kishi Bashi and Drive-By Truckers and suggested we talk to Jittery Joe’s about it. I liked the idea of having an everyday sort of useful product – well for those that drink coffee it’s useful. I asked Brady Brock and the other members of Pylon what they thought and they were up for it. So Brady contacted Jittery Joe’s and they set up a tasting at the compound in Athens where it’s roasted by our old friend Charlie Mustard and packaged. We chose what I think is an everyday drinkable coffee with a bit of a stone-fruit overtone that is a blend of organic and fair trade coffees. We have a song called “Buzz,” so it was a no-brainer to call it Buzz Blend. Michael and Henry did the packaging so it fits right in with our other designs. The pouch is reusable and refillable locally, so maybe a little less going to the landfill. I’m out of my initial sample bag, Looking forward to November when I can get some more.

The Athens Cultural Affairs Commission recently announced that you will be in the inaugural class of the Athens Music Walk of Fame. What does that mean to you?

It’s overwhelming. We have so many friends who are musicians in this community who are deserving of this honor too. It is wonderful to be recognized.

I noticed the box set does not include 1990’s Chain. I was wondering why it was not included and if you had any plans to celebrate that album separately?

We are looking at that and exploring reissuing it too… Box highlights the early period of Pylon up until 1983.