Perfect Sound Forever

Whaddya Mean You've Never Heard of...
The Insect Trust

Ed Ward

They were the Memphis band that got away. Formed around a nucleus of Bill Barth, guitarist and country blues nut, Luke Faust, banjoist and string-band nut, Robert Palmer, clarinettist/saxophonist and jazz nut, and Nancy Jeffries, vocalist and folkie, The Insect Trust emerged from the ashes of the Solip Singers, a Memphis folk aggregration which made a record with Chips Moman and Don Nix. Barth and Jeffries moved to New York in 1966 at the behest of Holy Modal Rounder Peter Stampfel, and played briefly with him, Antonia, and drummer Sam Shepard before being induced to move across the river to Hoboken.

Palmer came to New York to work for Robin Leach's magazine Go, and his jazz connections (he'd grown up in Little Rock with Ferrell 'Pharoah' Sanders) brought baritone saxophonist Trevor Koehler, who came up with the Burroughs-inspired band name, into the fold. Lack of a rhythm section didn't seem to bother them, because gigs were few. They were commuting to Memphis to work on the Memphis Blues Festival, but when Palmer's assistant at the magazine brought her husband to hear the band, he arranged a recording contract with Capitol Records which resulted in the band's self-titled debut in 1968.

With its bizarre mix of country, blues, rock and free jazz- not to mention a recording of Memphis' famous "singing bridge"- the album totally bemused the few who heard it, but the mixture worked, and the band began to get a boho reputation in New York. Touring and opening shows for Mothers of Invention, The Doors, and Santana, they were appreciated by promoters because they didn't sound like anyone else- and thus didn't step on any toes.

A year later, the band switched to Atco Records and released Hoboken Saturday Night which showed that they'd figured out how to fuse all the elements into a seamless whole. With a semi-regular bassist in William Folwell (who also played with Albert Ayler), and drumming on a couple of tracks by Elvin Jones, they also featured an etheral setting of a song from Thomas Pynchon's 'The Crying of Lot 49.' But time was running out: Barth's dope-smoking was paralysing him; Koehler, given to dramatic suicide attempts, accidentally succeeded; Faust and Jeffries formed a folk duo; and Palmer began to write for Rolling Stone.

Today, Jeffries works in A&R for Elektra in New York, Faust plays jug-band music in Hoboken, and Palmer, after a distinguished writing career (he was adviser to the impressive 'Dancing In the Street' documentary series) died of liver failure this November.

The gaunlet the band threw down to explore American roots musics and make something new out of them has yet to be picked up; but there are still copies of their debut album, on Demon, for anyone who'd like to try.

Reprinted courtesy of Mojo Magazine (February 1998)

See the other parts of our Insect Trust tribute