An Interview With Pylon, The Unsung Heroes Of Alternative Rock

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Seattle may be the birthplace of grunge, but bands such as Pearl Jam and Nirvana would not have been at all the same, perhaps not even existed, if it weren’t for the highly influential yet underrated music scene that came out of Athens, GA in the 1980’s. At the forefront of this scene was the band Pylon.

Pylon played a huge role in the jangle-pop sound that Athens will forever be associated with. Iconic tracks like “Cool” and “Crazy” showcase a group that find its greatest strengths in its weaknesses. The ability to take four simple yet completely unique parts and mesh them into one is something that no other band mastered quite like Pylon.

Now the band has released a live album, titled Pylon Live, released on July 25, what would have been guitarist Randall Bewley’s 61st birthday (Bewley died of a heart attack in 2009). Alternative Nation had the chance to speak with lead singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay and bassist Michael Lachowski about the new release.

You guys have been getting some attention from the press lately for your new release, Pylon Live. Why was now the right time to finally release this show?

Vanessa: It has been a long process getting the recording ready to be released. We chose Randall Bewley’s birthday (July 25th) last year as the goal for the release day when we were working on all of the parts necessary to make it happen. We definitely want to honor his memory.

The show captures Pylon’s first “final performance” from 1983. Are there any other Pylon live recordings yet to be released? Was there any particular reason for choosing this show?

Vanessa: There are no plans to release any additional recordings. We don’t have that much out there that would be new or different. This recording stood out for several reasons when Henry Owings began his quest to find a live recording. It was well recorded for a live performance on 4 track, it was a show that had significance in that we thought it was going to the last one that we ever did…it was a complete performance.

Both of you are interviewed in the 1986 documentary Athens GA/Inside Out and both of you are asked about reuniting Pylon. Michael, you were open to it while Vanessa you seemed more reluctant to go back. A few years later you guys would reunite. What led Pylon to reunite the second time?

Vanessa: There seemed to be more interest in Pylon because of the movie “Athens, GA Inside/Out,” R.E.M. were huge cheerleaders for us and people had not forgotten about us. We decided to get back together and put some more business type practices in place and see where it led us. We opened for R.E.M. and the B-52’s who were also were big supporters for our band.

Michael: I can’t turn down a chance to perform on stage! Being in our band was fun: great bandmates, fans, response from critics, and relations with the venues. So when we were all thinking we could do it “for real” on a second run of Pylon, we went for it.

I know that you guys opened for R.E.M. during the last leg of their Green Tour. What was it like playing venues like the Hampton and Greensboro coliseum’s? What were the crowds like?

Vanessa: It was amazing in that these very large audiences were attentive and seemed to really like us. A lot of it had to do with the fact that their fans were more open to hearing our sounds. R.E.M. opened a lot of doors for lesser known bands.

Michael: It was great playing for R.E.M.’s fans during that big opening-up from the Green album. And being on a tour with such a professional crew was wild — they did everything exactly right, every night: loading and setting up our gear, and perfect monitor mixes. That left us with not much to do at times — we’d play 12 measures of a song in soundcheck, and we were done.

During that second reunion Pylon released what would become the final studio album, Chain. What are your thoughts on that record? How did the process of writing and recording it compare to Gyrate and Chomp?

Vanessa: It was not our best album, but the process of writing it and recording it showed that we were capable of doing those things again. We felt that the next album was probably going to be better-then we broke up, again.

I recently had the chance to speak with Mitch Easter. He described recording you guys as being like recording a live show compared to other bands. Would you say that is accurate?

Vanessa: That is pretty accurate. We set up and played the songs straight through. The vocals had bleed from the other instruments and I cut those tracks again. Randy would come in and lay a few overdubs. I might do a few overdubs or a little punching in of a word/phrase here or there. The guys sang a little back up. As far as mixing it, on Chomp, we got into a little experimentation with Chris Stamey and Gene Holder. They had something called a noisegate which would trigger sounds using other sounds like, say the bass drum. We slowed some things down and speeded some up – just having fun in the studio.

Michael: Yeah, we never recorded our songs by assembling them instrument by instrument, we’d play it live together and then do the extras. Studio work bugged me because of those extras — the temptation of additive stuff and embellishment, usually done under the auspices of “compensating for the lack of the live experience.”

I find it fascinating that you guys have described yourselves as treating Pylon as more of an art project when you first started. Did you guys ever start to feel more like true “musicians” as time went on and you got more experienced?

Vanessa: I never felt like a pro type musician, but I adapted to the lifestyle on the road of soundcheck and traveling and waiting around. I tried to take care of my voice. When you do even a short tour of 2 or 3 weeks, it can be very tiring.

Michael: I think we became more capable on our instruments, including voice management, as Vanessa says, and the combination of additional competency and accrued experience shaped us into something more like musicians. But not really!

Who does Pylon look up to for inspiration? You guys have inspired many artists, but who inspired Pylon?

Vanessa: I listened to a lot of different types of music growing up. Then came art school and I was introduced to bands like Roxy Music, Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, the Talking Heads, the Sex Pistols, Devo. I fell in love with our local heroes the B-52’s and I was a huge fan before I was in a band. I loved touring with the Gang of Four and playing with bands like Mission of Burma.

Michael: At the beginning and most influential stage, Randy and I were roommates — and to maximize the amount of new music we could hear, we made sure not to ever buy the same albums. So now that I don’t have access to his record collection, I sometimes can’t remember all of our many influences. I can recount a number from memory: Stranglers, Ramones, XTC, Vibrators, Cabaret Voltaire, Devo, Talking Heads, Suicide, Kraftwerk, DNA, Mekons, Clash, Gang of Four, Killing Joke, Pere Ubu, Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Patti Smith, Blondie.

Vanessa, you are currently playing with a band called the Pylon Reenactment Society. How much of a band effort was Pylon? Billy Corgan went for years as the only original member of The Smashing Pumpkins, but still used the name. Is Pylon not Pylon without all four original members?

Vanessa: Pylon was a very democratic process. Everyone pretty much wrote their own parts. Songs usually started out from a jam between Michael and Randy and Curtis. I might take a tape home and try to come up with some vocals alone or sometimes it just happened on the spot. The earliest song lyrics were all written by Michael, later I wrote some or we collaborated on them in different ways. When Randy died, Pylon died with him.

Michael: I miss Pylon, but it’s gone since we lost Randy.

How did the PRS come about? Are there any plans to record or tour beyond this fall?

Vanessa: Pylon Reenactment Society came together to play a few Pylon songs for something called Art Rox Athens in 2014. I chose our name from one Pylon jokingly called ourselves when we were practicing back in 2004 or so.

Art Rox was a group of exhibits and music shows centered around the art and the music which happened in our town between 1975-1985. PRS got a good response and were asked back. We expanded the set for the second Art Rox Athens in 2015. Musicians that I had worked with in the past with my recording project Supercluster or who I wanted to work with came on board for both shows: Jason NeSmith, Gregory Sanders and Kay Stanton from Casper & the Cookies along with keyboardist Damon Denton, former member of Big Atomic and UGA music school accompanist (to play those overdubs from the records and provide his own take on it). Later on, Gregory couldn’t play because of a shoulder surgery and we asked Joe Rowe to play drums. He had been the drummer for The Glands and had played with a revival of Love Tractor called We Love Tractor and F#ck Truck. PRS are touring this fall in the Northeast with Dressy Bessy and may go to the West coast to help support the release of this record. It has certainly been a lot of fun, especially the recent release events in Athens and Atlanta with Swimming Pool Qs and F#ck Truck.

I’ve noticed that PRS changes their set list up a bit, at least between the shows this winter and the recent release shows. How do you guys come up with your set lists? In the original days of Pylon, did the setlist change very often?

Vanessa: PRS haven’t played that much, but it is important to change your setlist around so the band doesn’t get bored. Also, there may be someone who saw an earlier show and you don’t want to bore them either. Back in the Pylon days, I seem to remember Randy made quite a few of the setlists, but we all had input. Now, I make the setlist, but try to get input from the other members. For the recent record release events, I turned the Pylon Live record cover over and followed the track list. If PRS didn’t know a particular song, I would plug in another one that we knew if I felt it was appropriate.

Do you guys have a favorite show or favorite venue from playing with Pylon?

Vanessa: I have always loved the 40 Watt.

Michael: The 40 Watt in any of its iterations. It was part of our DNA as a band and a scene, and still is.

What were/are your favorite songs from the Pylon catalogue to perform live?

Vanessa: Feast on My Heart, Danger, Beep.

Michael: I loved playing K even though it was hard to play correctly, and pretty much the entire first album plus Beep and Crazy.

Who would you say was the strongest songwriter in Pylon, or was it always more of a group effort?

Vanessa: It was a group effort.

Michael: Ha ha, the term “songwriter” didn’t exist in Pylon. It was us, just us together.

Is there any significance with dinosaurs and Pylon/Athens? Obviously Chomp and the dinosaur t-shirt are classic Pylon images, but Peter Buck is famous for decorating his amps with dinosaurs, and I noticed that PRS guitarist Jason NeSmith had one on his amp the other night in a video I saw.

Vanessa: We loved dinosaurs.

Michael: Randy had a fascination with toys, especially somewhat classic items such as robots, Astroboy and dinosaurs. His dinosaur obsession grew after the Chomp album cover and his art that was driven by the same images. The outline profile of a dinosaur on the reissue of our first t-shirt design was done by Randy and just like some of his paintings.

How big of a deal was the Pylon artwork to you guys? Like the album and single covers and logos. Was that stuff second priority or did you enjoy that part of it as much as the music?

Vanessa: Michael is responsible for the look of Pylon. He can talk about that.

Michael: The music and stage presence and name of the band were all more key to our self presentation than the graphics, but the graphics needed to compliment and enforce our ideas of minimalism and the equal representation of the four members which we also strived to maintain in the songs, the mix, our photos and our representation in interviews, etc.

Where was the album cover for Chomp taken?

Vanessa: The Chomp cover came from a postcard that we picked up in Vernal, UT.

Michael: We found a postcard with that image and made arrangements to license it. We also bought lots of the cards and included them in the sleeves of the first pressing of Chomp.

Pylon has always had a really unique sound. What kind of gear does Pylon use? Do you guys still use the same equipment now? I always really loved the sound of Randy Bewley’s white guitar he used in the 80’s, but I could never figure out what kind it of guitar it was.

Vanessa: Randy started out playing a Japanese made Teisco through a stereo amp/speaker, but grew to love Supros which were made by the American company Valco who also made National guitars. Valco went out of business in 1968. The white one you mention was a Supro. He had 2 white ones and also a black one. He usually played through a Fender Twin Reverb. He used lightweight strings and changed them before almost every show. The key to his sound, though, was his tuning. He was a self taught guitarist and came up with his own tuning.

Michael: I had two different bass guitars from pawn shops before settling on a new Aria II, which I love. Our gear was a part of our sound for sure.

Are there any current bands that you guys are into? What are your thoughts on the state of the music industry now compared to when Pylon was first starting? Do you think a band like Pylon would have a harder time making it now?

Vanessa: The state of the music business is something that is always changing. Right now it seems like a free for all and unfiltered type of thing. When Pylon started out, it was a bit like that with the DIY attitude. However, fanzines and publications like New York Rocker and our local record store Chapter Three, as well as our local radio station WUOG would inform us of what was happening outside our town. I think a band like Pylon might have a much harder time now in that there are such a large number of bands around and such a infinite number of places to find out about them on the internet. Locally, I like Tunabunny, Casper & Cookies, 5-8,  Athens Cowboy Choir, Mothers and Monsoon as well as some of the E 6 projects like Robert Schneider and anything with John Fernandes. Deerhunter and Atlas Sounds are two of my very favorites by anyone currently. Bradford Cox pushes the envelope of sound. The B-52’s have had a few cool spin off projects. Kate Pierson put out a great record last year and Cindy Wilson is putting out one soon. I heard it and it’s amazing. I love LCD Soundsystem and Gorilla Toss.

Michael: I love music but spend too much time listening to talk on NPR and podcasts. I love the ability to stream so I can try out nearly anything that I read about. Lately that has led me to enjoy Gilligan Moss, Rouge Mécanique, the new Junior Boys, Daphne Oram, Ultimate Painting, Clint Mansell, Gabriel Kahane, and more if I kept scrolling through my Apple Music.

Did politics ever play a role in Pylon’s music? If Pylon were writing new songs now, would today’s world influence them?

Vanessa: We were not a political band. But, that said, the fact that we existed at all speaks a little to the times we lived in. How you live and how you decide to do things is political.

How much different did the Pylon experience turn out to be versus what you expected it to be when you first formed? Are you surprised to still be talking about Pylon now?

Vanessa: I thought that Pylon was going to be a short term project. It is amazing to me that people still remember us so fondly. Pylon gave me the opportunity to travel, have some experiences and see some other bands during my youth. It definitely still influences my world view. People everywhere are more alike than they think. Athens, GA is still one of the best places to live.

Michael: We were confident enough when we formed to think that we’d be appreciated at least by the sort of informed and aware critics that wrote for the New York Rocker, and getting written up by them was initially our only goal. That eventually happened but it was superseded by coverage in even more well known and widely distributed publications such as Interview (by Glenn O’Brien) and Village Voice (by Robert Christgau). So it grew beyond our dreams and we enjoyed it quite a bit for a few years!

And finally, what are your thoughts on Michael Stipe’s beard? Is it true that his beard got to cast its own vote for Bernie Sanders?

Vanessa: You are too funny. I like Michael’s beard. I asked him if I could touch it and he let me. It’s very soft.

You can order Pylon Live here.