left to right: Curtis, Michael, Vanessa, Randy
Interviews by Jason Gross (May 1998)In a small Georgia town called Athens, a musical revolution was happening as the '70's closed out. The B-52's were about to put it on the map and cause a sensation as other people there got the same idea that they could make their music there too. Soon, a four-some named R.E.M. would try their hand and go from indie wonders to a major stadium-filling band. In the middle of this scene, another four-some named Pylon came together in this small but vibrant scene. Each band member was a distinctive voice in the group as the group got enough recognition to make two albums and do some serious touring. Once the fun had been squeezed out of the whole thing for them, the band broke up. As the '90's approached, they decided to give it another try as the whole music scene was changing. Sadly, after one more record, it was all over again, probably for good.
Still, their legacy of their three albums and a number singles is very powerful and surely worth remembering. This interivew with drummer Curtis Crowe, singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay and bassist Michael Lachowski was actually done seperately with each member and then stitched together (guitarist Randy Bewley declined). Michael especially deserves a huge thanks for helping put this togther.
Millennium update: Despite the long odds and gloom, Pylon has indeed reformed, though not full time. They started doing local Athens gigs in 2004 and 2005 and occassionally since then. They're now working on reissuing their back catalog.
2007 update: Pylon is just finishing up a mini-East Coast U.S. tour to commemorate the reissue of their first album Gyrate, which was just reissued with bonus tracks by DFA Records.
2009 update: DFA also put out their second album (Chomp, from 1983) but sad to say, Randy Bewley died in February. Also see our tribute to Randy & the official Pylon website.
PSF: What kind of music were you interested in before Pylon?
MICHAEL: I've been interested in music a long long time, from being a little kid and I still am. Just before Pylon, there was a lot of stuff coming out that we were all aware of. I don't think any of us were in tune with any of the precursors like the Stooges or Roxy Music, which set the stage for the new music. We weren't really consistent about how we bumped into music. We kind of tried all this stuff we heard about from record stores 'cause there was very little to read about and find out what was new. Some of my favorites were Television, the Ramones, Talking Heads (first album) and others- I've never got sick of them except Talking Heads.
PSF: What was the Athens scene like at that time?
MICHAEL: The people in Tone Tones and B-52's weren't there yet and they proceeded us but only by a matter of months. Actual music that was played live tended to be of no interest to us- it was something that no one I knew ever did. There were bands that came and played at a place at a massive college bar where they had bands playing heavy metal-type rock and they were just cover bands. There was a little bit of dabbling in jazzy music and folk music. We never went to those places. We were in college at the time.
VANESSA: When I first came to Athens in '73, it was the end of the Southern rock era but there were still a lot of smaller bands trying to follow in the Allman Brothers footsteps. One of those bands dragged a crucifix around. There was a bar band scene also where they'd just do covers. Then you had a glam band or two and because it was college town, you had a folk scene. Then came the disco era, I was in art school then. A lot of art school students turned their nose up at it because it was too commercial.
PSF: How did Pylon get together?
MICHAEL: That harkens to the art school environment. We all knew each other through art school for the most part and the whole party scene came out of there. My best friend at the time was Randy, who I knew from school. Our interest in music was very keen- buying seven inches by groups like the Normal, the Mekons and whatever else, mostly from Britain. It was his suggestion that we should start a band. I thought that it was too late like too much had happened in that whole genre even though there was a lot of diversity. I thought it had been done already and that it was way behind the curve, the idea of having your own band. It seemed like such an obvious thing. (laughs) In retropsect, that's kind of a hilarious thing. I guess it's true of any band where a lot of stuff has come before you. I didn't know how to play anything. I was interested in music but I didn't have any drive to go and make it. But Randy felt we should do it, that we had ideas that we could come up with.
So, we started play around, just the two of us. For me, it involved picking an instrument because I didn't know how to play anything. He would just ask 'what do you listen to when you hear music- the melody, the guitar line?' I said 'I don't know- I always heard it as a mix, a texture.' I had to go back and listen to my favorite albums with that question in mind. It was pretty easy for me to identify the bass as the thing that kind of grabbed my attention. I thought it might be easy to learn.
I got a bass and started trying to learn. He started to dabble in guitar and drums, and didn't know what he'd end up with. The two of us played at home a bit. We played at my art studio and it was below Curtis' loft in a studio- we sub-let the place from Curtis. We were practicing and Curtis overheard these endless riffs. We knew him from parties and living there but we weren't really friends. He came downstairs and said 'this is driving me crazy to hear you guys playing this without any beat. How about I set up my drums and play together?' He had played with some friends in another band and he was from the Metro area like us. He played with us but he kept insisting that his first priority was with the other band and that he didn't want to join our group. We put out an ad to hire a drummer because we were ready to get establsihed. Curtis came back to us and took offense to that- 'what are you doing!' We said 'you didn't want to do it.' So that solved that problem and he became our drummer.
VANESSA: I never thought about belonging to a band. I graduated from art school in 1978 and I was still around town because my first husband was still in school. I had to take another job to help him and Michael happened to be working there too. Michael and Randy were room-mates in college and had another year to go in art school. They had been reading New York Rocker and thought it would be fun to start a band, go to New York, get written up, come back home and break up. Wouldn't it be great?
So they had some songs together and they were auditioning some friends who were all male at that point and none of them worked out. They'd almost given up hope. They were starting to use records, like Teach Your Bird to Speak for the vocals. One of them said 'what about Vanessa? She's a lot of fun. She hangs out at these parties, she likes to dance. Let's ask her.' They asked me to come over and try out. They really couldn't hear a thing that I was singing. But they saw I was putting forth some effort and I was singing these bizarre lyrics that Michael had given me, trying to do a good job. They said 'OK, you can join the band.' I really don't think they heard a word I sang until we got into the recording studio later because it was so loud. That's how I got invited into the band. It's nothing I really set out to do.
PSF: What were some of the ideas behind the band?
CURTIS: Pretty much what we were trying to do was entertain ourselves. It was a tiny little boring town with no night life. No bars that were fun to go to. There were no places playing the kind of music we were listening to. Music was just starting to come around the corner from the late '70s. We were listening to the Vibrators, the Sex Pistols, Talking Heads, the Dead Boys, the Ramones, Blondie.
PSF: How did the songs come together?
VANESSA: With the very first songs, Michael wrote all the lyrics. I went into the first try-out and he had all the lyrics neatly typed and ready for me to try. He had not really thought out how the phrasing would fit with the songs. It was up to me to make me fit. It didn't occur to me at the time but I could rephrase the lyrics. So there's some strange phrasing, trying to make these lyrics fit. (laughs) I have no earthly idea of how I got away with it. I was really having a good time.
PSF: The lyrics seemed kind of existential.
VANESSA: Could be. The first group of songs were done before me and then I took over the lyric writing and sometimes Michael and I wrote them together. We'd used whatever we thought would be fun to write a song. Once we played a Scrabble game to get lyrics. It always cracked me up how people would be singing along with the songs and I'd be thinking 'this song doesn't mean anything at all.' (laughs) It was fun to do that. Another time I opened the dictionary at random and picked out words and then told each member of the band to make up a sentence that used that word- I turned that into another song. You can make a song about anything. To me, a lot of it is 'the sound and the fury,' but being there and performing is better than anything.
Going into the studio wasn't always so much fun. 'Oh, you missed a note there, you have to go back and plug it in.' I hated doing that. I liked performing. I think our live shows on a good night were so much better than anything we did in the studio.
PSF: What were the early years like for the band?
MICHAEL: We formed in the winter and the first time we played was in February. The single ("Cool") came out the following year in January. Our first show was in mid-March of our first year and we played a few times at parties. Randy had to leave for the summer so there was a big pause in the life of a real young band. He went to D.C. to live at his dad's house. During the summer, we were lining up shows in New York thanks to the wild success of the B-52's that year with "Rock Lobster." They were an instant sensation in New York. They played at a big club at the Hurrah. When they were getting booked there, Fred Schneider gave them our tape and suggested that we should play there too. We got that gig and that made it easy to get a gig in Philly and at the Rat in Boston. We had a three-city trip to do for the end of the summer. The rest of us drove up and met at Randy's house and set up the band equipment in the living room where we rehearsed for a couple of days to get back to where we were. We played in New York then and in the fall, when school started up, we were back playing in Athens again. We were probably in the studio in late fall doing 'Cool.' The band hadn't been together for that long, hadn't done a whole lot of stuff.
PSF: What about when that came out and got recogition for the group?
MICHAEL: The recogition actually came a little earlier. The key element was a review that Glen O'Brien wrote about our show in New York where we opened for Gang of Four and devoted half the review to us. We idolized Gang of Four- we had one seven inch record of theirs and when we found out we were going to be able to play with them, that could have been the end for us and we would have been happy. That attitude stayed with us in a pretty pure form. I think that's why when the band did finally break, it was a fairly easy thing to do. We had it definitely in the beginning. I used to do all of our bookings then and it was easy. We had that kind of stuff to point to where if you said you played at the Hurrah and had this review, it was pretty easy to get booked again. I remember playing there a few times and that club wasn't open for that long. We headlined and opened for Lene Lovich and all of that happened within a year of our first performance in New York.
When 'Cool' came out, we started getting reviews from New York Rocker (one of the few magazines covering that music). Robert Christgau at the Voice started writing about us and he'd consistently write about us whenever we came to New York. It made it really easy for us to have that and get people to turn out. You couldn't keep that going forever if people didn't enjoy it I guess. We were just coming along at a time when there was a lot of enthusiasm for music and excitement. People were really looking for information. These days, I don't think any of that is true.
CURTIS: More than anything, we were a product of that time. There was a real strong do-it-yourself movement going. The really big-time rock and roll made by big-time people with big-time money on big-time labels- everyone was bored to tears with that. They had enough of it. They'd seen all of that stuff. You had David Bowie doing huge stadium tours and it was so unapproachable. I still liked him through that period but it was just the death of rock and roll in the '70's when it started getting spelled with capital R's. It was in big tall letters with neon around it and suddenly it wasn't something you could do anymore unless you had a quarter-million dollars and a record label.
It was just kind of spontaneous all across the Western hemisphere. People just started going 'Fuck 'em, we can just do this ourselves. We can make our own music that's just as fun and just as buyable and you don't have to have all those goods.' The B-52's went out and got themselves a little toy piano and toy instruments- they played on those and they ROCKED with them. Everybody just saw that it was happening everywhere. Everyone got so excited about this, this universal ground-swell. It was kind of like anarchy, it was like being part of an anarchist underground cult.
Everybody knew each other from the fact that they all had the same 45 collection. 45's were really the unit of currency for that whole movement. It was one of the few, accessible things where four kids with day jobs could go out and raise enough money to make a 45. You distributed them by throwing them into your car and driving to the towns that you played in. You could go to a record store in any town and they'd go 'New 45? We'll take 5 of 'em.' They'd throw them into the store and it didn't cost them anything. They thought that somebody'd buy them even if they were terrible because there were people out there everyday buying every new 45 that was on the shelves. That's how our single got out there.
PSF: What did you think of the first album (Gyrate) after hearing it later?
VANESSA: I haven't listened to it in years. We were trying different things. On one song, we were trying to sound like somebody talking back on the telephone, so we took a microphone and put it between a headset and layed it on the floor of the studio. Bruce was doing some effects with a not-expensive system. He was doing a lot of stuff very primitively to get the sounds we wanted. Once, they wanted to put echo on my voice and I just insisted that they didn't. They thought I was crazy but they let me do it. I imagine if it was a large label, they wouldn't have let me have my way. It was a picture of the band at the time. We didn't understand a lot about production but we knew what we liked. Michael knew what kind of bass sound he liked.
MICHAEL: It was an exciting project that I enjoyed but I was never really thrilled about our records. "Cool" is still my favorite one. I think it's partly because it was written three or four days before it was recorded. When we recorded our first single, we had two other songs picked out, "Piece of My Heart" and "The Human Body." These were songs we had in the can for quite a while and we rehearsed the shit out of them because we were going to record them. When we went into the recording studio and laid down the tracks, we were really excited about this song "Cool" yet we had all these older songs that seemed to be obvious choices for singles that would best represent the band. We went with our instincts and we went with "Cool" and "Dub" at the last minute for recording as a single. That record remains a testament to that kind of freshness. I just don't think the recordings later had that freshenss at all. The way we approached our albums was real similar to the way we approached that first single. It's still pretty direct and it reflects the way that songs were performed when they were done live. A very minimal amount of overdubbing and sitting around trying to think of things to add to it. That first album is also pretty good and I like the material on it a lot but I don't remember what I was thinking about it at the time. It was recorded and mixed in a short period of time. Some of that we did ourselves.
PSF: Do you think the local scene was different then?
CURTIS: The local scene was picking up momentum. Everybody was going 'this is cool. People actually know our town from reading about it from the press in New York and Europe.' We'd get write ups from Trouser Press and even the New York Times. For some reason, I don't know why, Athens was actually mentioned. It's like each time the band got mentioned, the town got mentioned. I can't think of any other band that's happened to except maybe Devo and Akron. It was the same with the B-52's, they kind of started it. I think it was just kind of so far out of left field. New York pretty much already had punk rock, explored punk rock and gotten over punk rock by the time that the B-52's got up there. You'd go to any club in New York City and there's all these tough guys standing around in black leather, safety-pins in their nose and the whole nine yards. They had gotten over it- they were kind of bored. Punk rock had just about run its limit. We're talking 1977 and it had already run its limit. The B-52's show up there like a fucking hurricane of clean, fresh air. They went 'Wow- you can still have fun, dance AND be cool.'
PSF: R.E.M. is cited as a group that was really influenced by Pylon. Did you see it that way?
MICHAEL: I actually don't see that we were an influence. They definitely came up in the same scene as we did. Maybe they paid more attention to us than I realized 'cause some of them were in New York when we played there one time, before they played there. I think that the influence thing cut both ways. They did a lot to lay a lot of groundwork for the rest of the world and especially in Athens with the club owners. They were doing that kind of challenging music that Pylon did and gave it an open ear. R.E.M. was very good at entertaining the crowd from the get-go whereas Pylon was CONSTANTLY being referred to as 'experimental.' I think people were just challenged by the music at the time. But R.E.M. made it safer for some of those people to come check out bands like Pylon. But they were coming from a totally different background and they had totally different goals. They had totally different material, they were able to go do that bam-bam-bam and enterain people all night long whereas we were only able to do a forty-five minute set with an encore.
They were so driven about their success, they just did it all on their own. I was happy enough that they covered our songs and that they were able to achieve something and that they did come out of Athens.
CURTIS: I know that Michael (Stipe) used to come see our shows and he was a really big fan of ours. There's a couple of our songs that he really dug. I remember that he always wanted to do a cover of "Gravity" and maybe they will someday. I guess we were an influece of some sort 'cause it's too small of a town for three bands to be in that each of them isn't influencing the other in some way. If nothing else, proximity is just going to be an influence.
PSF: Was Pylon changing in terms of its sound after the first album?
VANESSA: Of course. We were playing more together and we discovered that we could actually go out and do this and people would come and see us. There was a turning point where I gave up my day job. We opened for the B-52's in Central Park. We got that job because another band couldn't get into the U.S. so they called and asked us if we wanted to open for them. My gosh, I had never seen so many people in my life before! It was the summer of 1980 and that was just really exciting. I hadn't slept at all and we drove straight to New York. Ricky Wilson came into our dressing room to tune his guitars because there was too much hair spray in the B-52's dressing room. They loved to dress up. We were having a good time.
See part two of this interview
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