Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Dave Lang, Part 2
(February 2018)

STEVE FISK (SF) keyboards

PSF: Were you out on the road much at all during the SST period? I ask this because I know that Ginn and co. were very much into the idea of their bands being on the road to promote their records.

RB: Nope, the SST 'period' was just them releasing our two older records, and then Flow; we didn't play live (what with the scattered-between-5-cities-situation).

DS: We never did any touring during the SST period. I think we played one or two live shows around the time we recorded Flow...We played in San Francisco at a place called the Bottom Of The Hill. I think a video of that show exists!

Pell Mell did most of its live playing & touring in the days before the SST period. During these touring years, I was a roadie & sound man for them. I had an 8-track recorder and we'd mess around with that, putting ideas together, some of which later ended up going on the SST album Flow. I was already playing guitar on most of those recordings.

I had a rehearsal space around this time and Greg and I put together a studio in the space using that 8-track deck, and we had all become good friends, but the band kind of split up around this time. Bob moved back east to go to design school, Steve moved up to Seattle, I moved to Boston after a couple of years running the Yale University Language lab recording studio while my wife was going to Yale's Graduate art program.

PSF: Where were the band members situated during this period? I ask this because the band address on the SST CD of Bumper Crop is in New Jersey.

RB: I was in Philadelphia, Dave Spalding was in New Haven, Bill was in New Jersey, Greg was in San Francisco, Steve was in Ellensberg, WA.

GF: Huh, weird! Must be because Bill Owen was living in New Jersey at the time of that release. I was in San Francisco, Bill was in Hoboken, Steve was in Seattle, and Bob was in Philadelphia. Pell Mell broke up in 1984 as a touring band in San Francisco, and we went our separate ways. We kept in touch, and when SST was interested in releasing some older recordings, around 1988 (which ended up as the SST version of Bumper Crop), we started sending new song ideas through the mail on cassettes. During this time, we enlisted our friend Dave Spalding as an additional guitar player. These song ideas became the basis for the songs recorded for the LP Flow, which was recorded at my studio Lowdown in San Francisco in 1990.

PSF: You released Interstate on the Geffen label - did that come about due to the band's previous association with Ray Farrell? What was it like recording for a major? Did they have expectations of big sales? Did you? Did they push you to do things you might not have otherwise wanted to do as a band?

RB: Yes, Ray was working at Geffen and made it happen. I guess we were part of the post-grunge-sign-alternative-bands era thanks to Nirvana and Sonic Youth. The biggest difference was, of course, financial--suddenly there was airfare for us to get together to work or promote, photographers, etc. They didn't mix in much w/ the recording. I do remember there being a 'radio edit' of "Blacktop"; that was about it I think. They let us handle the packaging and promotional graphics. Considering that we were an older, not-really-together-INSTRUMENTAL band, they surely knew we wouldn't be their next breakthrough smash. The higher profile helped us to attract some interest from filmmakers and definitely exposed us to a larger audience than before.

DS: Absolutely. Again, Ray was really a super advocate for Pell Mell. he asked us to play at his wedding in San Francisco which served as kind of a showcase for the band since a bunch of Geffen folks were invited to the wedding. We were signed a few days after that wedding.

The SST recording was just a blast, they gave us $3000 or something like that: we took the money and bought an old 2" 16-track recording machine from Fantasy Records in Berkeley. Tape was on its way out at the time, so Greg & I spent a couple of days on our hands and knees wiring the thing up in his studio before we started recording Flow.

When we signed the deal with SST, we didn't bother reading the contract, a stupid move in hindsight! We figured no one would ever hear whatever we recorded & we were just happy to be making and recording our music on our own, without any supervision from the label.

When Flow came out, it got played a lot on college radio which was a real surprise to us. We had already recorded most of Interstate on our own before we were signed to Geffen and were used to doing things our own low budget way. Once they signed us, they wanted to be involved but we were used to doing everything ourselves so we booked the studio ourselves: Fort Apache in Boston. I remember the A&R guy who had actually signed us came to the studio and we were already well into recording stuff, which I think surprised him a little. He had a few suggestions and wanted some more up tempo material, which we were happy to provide, but for the most part, Interstate was produced by us in control without much interference. Since we booked the studio and were efficient and thrifty, we all got a portion of the advance money. But when it came time to record the next record, Star City, the label was much more in control and they insisted we get a recognized producer. They had some good ideas that might have actually been pretty cool, too.

Steve and Greg were really into Tchad Blake at the time, and so we suggested him to the label and they OK'd it. It was a lot different working with a producer than what we were used to. Tchad was great to work with and super cool, but it all felt kind of rushed in some ways and I feel like we gave up or lost a crucial bit of control and maybe perspective. The label was now booking our digs, booking our flights, booking the studio and hiring the producer and spending a bunch of money. All money that we were gonna have to recoup; it just seemed wasteful and kind of stupid, and in a way I think it kind of killed it for us. I remember the label wanted some professional promo shots of the band which we could have easily shot while we were all together in the studio at the same time, but in the rushed atmosphere, we didn't bother, so the label booked last minute top-dollar flights to bring everyone to Boston including a photographer and assistant from LA. Again, this was essentially our money they were spending, since we would have to recoup it. As everyone was boarding the plane to go home, Geffen dropped us.

GF: Somehow we got signed to DGC after SST, and I am sure having Ray as our manager helped. During the Interstate, period we didn't have any real pressure to have a hit or big sales or anything. That changed, though, with Star City, which was recorded for DGC but ended up getting released on Matador/Flying Nun, since they dropped us before the release. I recall there was some input from our A&R reps at the time that we should have vocals, and we should try and write a hit. Yeah, right.

PSF: So the band was dropped? How did Star City come about? I believe the band owns the music - was it licensed to Matador?

RB: Geffen was behind Star City, allowing us to record w/ Tchad Blake, which was a fantastic experience. They dropped us after it was finished. Matador then stepped up, releasing it as a one-off.

DS: Yeah, the band was dropped. The big wheels at Geffen thought they were geniuses because they had signed Nirvana, who stunned them with their success. Ray and his association with Sonic Youth were really a big part of the reason that Nirvana got signed. Then Geffen just started signing a bunch of indie bands from the Pacific Northwest. That wild binge was partly responsible for Pell Mell getting signed, since Pell Mell was one of those "pacific northwest" bands, though there were people at the label who appreciated and really liked what we were doing. The promotions, publicity, and sales departments really got behind Interstate and did a great job of publicizing the record. We got great reviews in all the major papers and music mags, partly because of the anomaly of an instrumental band being signed to a major label, but we didn't sell a lot of records and pretty soon the label started to hemorrhage money from their signing binge. The money ran out right around the time Star City was finished and about to be released, and we were dropped like a hot potato. They just tossed all of the Interstate CD's and vinyl in the dumpster behind the Geffen offices.

We had a publishing deal with Matador & they agreed to put out Star City because they had an opening in their schedule at that moment. I think Ray pulled that off, but consequently there was no prep time for publicity, so nobody knew the album was on the shelves and we were in no position to tour and promote it ourselves, so it stiffed. It's kind of surprising to me that Geffen even bothered to hand the masters over to Matador considering what happened to the Interstate back stock. Again, I think Ray came to the rescue!

SF: Ray Farrell and Tony Berg really believed in the record. They tried to do cool things at DGC. Some cool things happened. We were lucky to be dropped early.

PSF: Why did the band call it quits after that?

RB: We all had full, busy lives apart from Pell Mell, and, without a label's support and the physical distance between us, it again ran its course.

DS: I know I was kind of discouraged by the fact that we were spread all over the map. After our Geffen record came out, we got some offers to open for some bands that we liked to do some touring in the US & possibly Europe, etc. We had a booking agent who was really into us and was very well respected with a good roster of bands and with all the right connections and he wanted to hook us up, but the nature of these kind of offers was usually pretty short notice. We couldn't or wouldn't do any of these gigs because of various responsibilities and priorities various members had. Bob had started a family, Greg had his business running the studio, Steve was busy producing. I remember at one point we tried to make a rule that we needed three months' notice on anything of this nature before we would consider committing to anything, and this effectively took us off the roster. After that, it became clear that for scheduling requirements & logistical reasons, Pell Mell wasn't going to be much of a viable entity. We no longer had Greg's studio to operate out of because the building was torn down to make way for the new San Francisco baseball stadium. I moved out of my house in Boston so we lost the basement rehearsal space where Bob and I had played together. And now we all lived in completely different cities.

SF: Any band exists only because its members agree to let the band eat up a certain amount of their life. As a mixer/producer, I have seen the simple act of recording and mixing a record bust up a band. It brings out hopelessly diverse opinions and perspectives that just rehearsing and playing live would never occur. I felt robbed when Pell Mell broke in '85. So much work and so few people heard us or "got" us. When we got dropped I was fine with it and felt like we had made our point. Patti Smith played Interstate on her tour bus. That's enough right there.

GF: My analogy has always been that the major label interest, and the money from that, allowed us to exist on "artificial life support" and function as a band, even though we weren't a real band all living in the same town. Once that was gone, we didn't really have the means or impetus to continue. Besides, I feel like we were kinda tapped out as a creative entity. Star City is a great record, but the material was getting stretched kinda thin at that point, I feel.

PSF: Members Steve Fisk and Greg Freeman have also enjoyed successful careers as producers/engineers - can you tell me a bit more about this, and did it impede on the band's activity at all?

RB: I'd say we were absolutely blessed to have two great producers/engineers in our ranks. It was only a plus, never an impediment!

SF: I hope it didn't mess up the band. If there hadn't been 8 track tape machines in Boston, SF and Ellensburg we may not have reformed. I continue to putter away in the dark working on music nobody hears or if they do they don't know who produced it. Car Seat Headrest, mixing for Ben Gibbard. I have been composing and producing immersive multi-channel environments for Paul Allen's EMP/MoPop in Seattle.

Here are things pretty much nobody heard that I really dug:

GF: For me, I don't think that my work as a producer/engineer had much impact on Pell Mell, beyond the fact that I engineered Flow and a fair amount of Interstate. Our activity such as it was didn't have a lot of demands on our time, really.

PSF: What have you been doing since the band called it quits?

RB: Steve Fisk and I made a record as Cut-Out--Interlude with Fun Machine--2003, which Starlight Furniture put out. We made a follow-up a couple years later (imaginatively named Cut-Out 2) with Greg Freeman. This remains unreleased; a gem in hiding. Locally, here in Boston, I play drums w/ Gary Waleik (ex-Big Dipper, Volcano Suns) in Mars Classroom, which is his project with Robert Pollard (Guided By Voices). The debut album The New Theory of Everything was released on Pollard's Happy Jack Rock label in 2011. We're currently working on LP #2.

DS: I put together a band in Boston with some local folks and started playing out in Boston/Cambridge toward the end of the Pell Mell days, then I moved to NYC and played around there for a number of years, first doing solo stuff, writing and singing songs and eventually putting a band together. I recorded an album of some of that stuff which has never been released. I've continued to write songs and record demos etc. and these days I split my time living between Taos, New Mexico, and Los Angeles CA. I've been playing with some folks here in LA where we just get together and free associate; nothing is ever planned, we record everything, we just sit down and start playing. This stuff is all instrumental, sort of ambient, atmospheric, and extremely satisfying & interesting to see what happens. My girlfriend is a documentary filmmaker and I help her out with her projects as well. The last film called Two Trains Runnin' has been nominated for a Grammy this year in the Best Music Film category.

SF: Many, many things. I should mention that one thing I'm proud of is that I composed and produced music for About A Son with Ben Gibbard. That's a big deal for me. It got cool awards and depicted Kurt in a realistic, dignified manner - something that continues to allude his legacy.

GF: Oh, jeez! Musically, I have played with the band Virginia Dare since the early '90s. I have also learned to play the ukulele and to sing. I kept working as an engineer and producer until 2001 and then changed careers and started work in IT. I am now working with California art history of the late 20th century. I still record music at home.

PSF: Do you feel that the band achieved something special in its time, something unique? The question which must be asked: why an instrumental band? What is it that instrumental rock presents to a listener that vocal-led music doesn't? What was the songwriting process in PM?

RB: I'm very proud of our 'oeuvre.' As I said before, there really wasn't a precedent for our instrumental music within the 'new wave' scene back then. I think we laid some important groundwork for a lot of the 'post-rock' bands that came after us. We had a very open-minded approach to melding disparate influences--we covered Blowfly, for example--at a time when something like that was really rather gutsy. We also had that rare musical chemistry--regardless of the time between get-togethers we were always able to continue the telepathy. We meshed well. And I'm proud that our music still holds up after all these years. You can hear a clarity of intention that runs through all of the records. The instrumental format keeps everything open to interpretation. It may be pretentious to say, but I think there's a purity about it--the interplay of instruments/textures/etc. without the verbal/literal 'defining' of everything. As for songwriting, most of the songs started with a kernel of an idea brought by one of us, then expanded by the rest of us. We had a very democratic approach--often at the expense of efficiency--we all pretty much had to agree on everything before anything was 'done.'

DS: What we were doing was different than a lot of stuff that was going on at the time, but in a way we were just carrying on the instrumental torch. After the original San Francisco split, everyone stayed in touch as we had all become pretty close pals. Since Bob and I were on the East Coast, we were close enough that we would get together fairly often. Greg had his studio in San Francisco, I had access to the Yale language Lab studio and Steve had access to various studios in Seattle. As I remember it, the Bumper Crop album had been recorded before the band left SF, but hadn't been released even though there had been interest from a couple of labels, but later after Ray had started working at SST, he got them interested in the record and they released it and then said they'd put out anything else we recorded. This was inspiring, so we started sending cassettes by mail back and forth with various song ideas we were coming up with. Since we all had studio access, we could add parts and send the stuff around to each other pretty easily. I think we were planning to just make the next record that way, but at some point we all got together in the same room and it was a blast because we all already knew the songs but now playing them in real time really brought the material to life. We paid a lot of attention to the arrangements of those songs and it was really a pleasure. It was very organic and collaborative and inspiring!

SF: I don't think we did anything especially unique but I'm glad we took the time to do it. Post-internet, everything is a reflection of your record collection, like there's no shame in Americans singing with an English accent. I think Pell Mell comes from a time where dignity mattered and you couldn't just regurgitate. We had a small audience but we knew they were listening closely.

I believe Bob observed that in instrumental music the absence of a singer means the music can mean anything. Often, it becomes a sonic signature of a good summer or a bad break up or loss. It is more personal and works without language and its baggage. Ray pointed out that up to the '80's, there were always instrumentals on the Top 40.

GF: Sure! We rocked! And there are so many bands with singers, why not instrumentals? There is a universality that is achieved with music that has no words. Once a language is introduced into music, there is a specificity that can never be erased. It's not bad or good, just different. That specificity of lyrics can be profound and powerful, but really, at the end of the day, what is more universal than music that doesn't require an understanding of language?

PSF: The band's catalogue is scattered over a number of labels - have you looked at doing any reissues and getting them back out there? Has Greg at SST posed any roadblocks in regards to this?

RB: I'd love to see a comprehensive reissue program happen. We've had interest from a few labels, but the current situation with SST's ownership of three of the records is a big impediment. We've tried, to no avail, to re-claim the rights to these records; at this point, there is no resolution. At a minimum, I'd love to see those records available online.

DS: I would love to get some reissues and/or outtakes out there. Not sure how to make this happen at this point, especially for the stuff that we signed away to Ginn.

SF: Yes and yes. It's pretty bleak.

GF: Oh, god. Sure, we would love to do the big box set of All Things Pell Mell. Let's just say that we signed a terrible contract with Greg Ginn and SST. "Roadblock" is a generous term. If we had a valuable catalog and some big lawyers like Sonic Youth or Husker Du do, we could maybe get our SST rights back, or at least license those recordings. But we don't. That will never happen. C'est la vie. I just want to go on record as saying that there is no difference between the exploitation of musical artists on most major corporate labels and almost all independent labels. I can say with the authority of direct experience that it's all the same.

PSF: Lastly: would there ever be a chance of the band reuniting?

RB: I know I'd entertain the idea.

DS: I'd certainly be willing to try. Just gotta dust off that ol' cassette deck!

SF: I'm game, but probably not.

GF: I don't think so, but you never know...

In case you missed it, see Part I of the Pell Mell interview

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