Tara Key: I first heard Pylon at 1069 Bardstown Road in Louisville, Kentucky: the house where many bands practiced and hung out, and some incredibly tolerant musicians actually lived. There was usually a visitor or two or twenty in the living room and music was always playing, whether by a live band or on record or boombox. Pylon were perennial favorites. Even though my guitar sound at the time more closely resembled an agitated madwoman tearing up a hoarder’s attic, Randy Bewley’s smart, spare, well-constructed house of sound, every nail perfectly in place, taught me a terseness of purpose.
Pylon sounds to me like all four are in a perpetually excited conversation: Vanessa’s suggestions and declarations; Michael’s bass as both conjunction and emphasis; Curtis’s kick and snare certain, indisputable; and Randy’s high percussive strokes at the beginnings or ends of phrases, his chimes, and scrapes, serving as semi-colons and exclamation points. Sure, Pylon operates sonically as a mesh of interlocking gears and grooves, but rather than sounding mechanical they embody the joyous animation of a machine—the Visible Man/Woman come to life (see “The Human Body”: “I can walk, I can run, I can see, I can talk…”). The songs always uplift, and their sound is the sound of promise, of openness.
I was thrilled when asked to interview Pylon in celebration of the release of Pylon Box, because they are on a very short list of bands that provide a soundtrack to my life—with songs that stuck like glue from first listen and now resurface, without being summoned, to match my stride down the street. Their focus and clarity I find inspirational. And Pylon is the only band I’m incapable of listening to without dancing.
TK: What was your relationship to music growing up? Did you play an instrument in school or did anyone in your family play?
Vanessa: My parents, especially my father, were big country music fans… Radio in the morning was tuned into WSB, an AM Middle-of-the-Road station that featured the hits that were heard during the evening variety shows. My dad ruled the TV when he was at home. Saturday afternoons were one Nashville-produced show after another—then I discovered bands like The Beatles and other British Invasion bands and would buy multi packs of singles with my allowance at the 5 & 10 in the next town over.
I took piano lessons for a few years starting at age 8—I wasn’t very good—and then started playing flute with the tiny Dacula High School marching band in the 7th grade. We went through a couple of band directors until we got one who stuck with us. We played the hits of the day like “Good Morning Starshine” and standards like the national anthem and “Stars and Stripes Forever”—our football team wasn’t very good back then. One year our band played “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” until halfway through the season because we were scoreless. No one caught onto our little joke. I was also in the chorus and sang with the altos. I wasn’t ever a soloist. Too shy. My director joked once recently that I had a sweet little voice and he couldn’t believe he was hearing the same person when he heard Pylon.
One year our band played “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” until halfway through the season because we were scoreless. No one caught onto our little joke.Vanessa Briscoe Hay
Michael: My mom played organ in her church as a youth and we had a piano at home. I took lessons and was pretty decent, but none of that informed or carried over to my activity in Pylon as far as I can tell. I was deeply into music, it was my primary channel to culture, it was all my thing in my bedroom, and I just had to discover and find music haphazardly, often just by buying records based on the album art. First records were things like Vanilla Fudge and Three Dog Night, then I moved into hard rock and Frank Zappa.
Curtis: At 5 years old I took a Quaker Oats Oatmeal box into the yard and started drumming on it with some sticks. My first drum set! Later when I was 9 years old I went to visit my friend “T” who had seen Ed Sullivan present The Beatles. He told me he had seen the future. I believed it. We decided to start a band. I never questioned what instrument I would play. I found an empty sheetrock mud bucket behind his house that was being remodeled, found some more yard sticks and he pulled an old souvenir guitar with two remaining strings out of a closet. We stayed up late writing songs about things that we were interested in. Mostly car racing. He had a record, “Big Daddy Don Garlits Sounds of the Drag” that was just that. Sounds of drag racers and loud engine noises. We named ourselves “Billy and the Kids” (his name was Bill but he went by T) and we played our glorious first (and only) set at his mother’s cocktail party. We killed! They were stunned by our spectacular performance. Now it was in my veins and I wanted more. It was college and pretty much Pylon before I really got back to it.
TK: Did any particular source of music make a mark on young-you, be it at church, TV commercials, sounds around the swimming pool — anything; was radio important to you while growing up?
Michael: Radio had only recently debuted FM, as far as I recall, and one of the first stations on the air in my suburban, metro Atlanta home was WREK from Georgia Tech in Atlanta, followed later by WRAS from Georgia State University. Both still exist, although RAS ceded its daytime to Georgia Public Broadcasting. I heard a lot of pop stuff in households and cars, but was never into AM radio. Based on my choices, I’ve never listened to commercial radio.
Vanessa: I remember watching TV shows like The Green Hornet, Batman, Secret Agent. The 1960s were the Golden Age of TV theme songs. Our family had a little all-in-one record player. My dad had some Sun singles, gospel records and 78s and my brother & I had a few Disney records and soundtracks. The radio is where I heard most newer stuff. At some point I got a transistor radio with earbuds, and could sometimes pick up a Chicago FM station late at night. That is where I first heard Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.”
Curtis: As a kid growing up in the suburbs, it seemed like on any summer day you would hear some high school kids playing in their garages. We would get on our bikes and find them just to watch. My older sister had a few records that informed my entire basis for the future. 1. Meet the Beatles 2. Jimi Hendrix: Are you Experienced? 3. The Best of the Temptations (double album with a big chunk out of one so I missed the first song on the A and B side) and finally, 4. Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
TK: How about sounds in general? Did any type of sound stick in your mind as influential or distinctive — I’m talking anything from bullfrogs to chainsaws?
Michael: Vanessa, Curtis, and I worked at DuPont on weekends, a place that processed and repackaged synthetic fibers for the textile industry. The rhythms of the machinery in the plant were soothing and mesmerizing to me. I loved “industrial music” anyway, that job made it more real.
Vanessa: I love the Doppler type effect sound from trains and planes as they pass by. I love the sounds of nature.
Curtis: My neighborhood was new and under construction. My background soundtrack was always hammers and saws. That and cicadas.
TK: I feel like there was something (beyond the obvious passport that punk presented to us all) that made people our age want to shake things up and use the tools of The Eagles and Supertramp to subvert rock. What was it about the 1970s that made it possible for rock to present itself as a tool for expression to be used by someone who had not previously played a guitar or a bass; for people not usually in bands to think it possible to be in a band? Did you feel the cultural ennui of the ’70s and have a need to wake things up, both sonically and visually? (Video: Fall 1977 “Ignition” | Courtesy The Walter J. Brown Media Archives & Peabody Awards Collection, University of Georgia.)
Vanessa: It was truly a different experience to see a punk or new music concert after having experienced some of the over-the-top arena concerts by bands like Yes, Pink Floyd and the Who. The B-52’s and bands like the Ramones, Talking Heads, Devo, Kraftwerk, and Blondie were my gateway drugs into this broad genre of music. It was liberating to be able to participate by dancing and jumping around. It was a new and exciting time in music.
Michael: Yes, definitely, and for me in my own sense of music, because I had gotten lost as to what was important and interesting, and came a bit late to all the stuff that influenced Pylon by the time we formed. I was incredibly happy to fall into the vat of punk and post-punk music once I finally found my way to it all, via some helpful friends and the guys at Chapter Three Records in Athens (John Underwood and Chris Rasmussen). There’s a much longer story about how we, as art students, came up with the conviction that we could make art any way we wanted, including by playing the tools of rock and roll: drums, bass, guitar, and vocals.
Curtis: While in college it felt to me like there was almost a telepathic urgency to be part of the new music scenes spontaneously forming all over the world. In Athens, then a really small town in a remote eddy, we had the simultaneous luxury and curse of remoteness. It gave us the hunger to explore and the freedom from being judged during the fragile early days of exploration.
TK: What was it about art school that made it such a hotbed for the formation of so many bands — mine included? Can you paint a picture of a typical day in the art studio and the way you and your peers interacted, collaborated, challenged one another? Was there music playing as you worked together and, if so, what were you listening to?
Michael: Music in the studios in the art building was pretty bad because it was usually just radio, and our campus station was not on the vanguard at that time. But outside of campus, we’d hear lots of music at each other’s homes and at parties. People would share what they’d purchased, I’d hear it from roommates when I lived with four other people, and later Randy and I would buy different things so we’d maximize the variety in our apartment. Mix tapes at parties, etc. Art school provided a number of the people and lots of the energy that informed the party scene, but it wasn’t just art students by any means.
Vanessa: One of our professors—Robert Croker—would sometimes play music by artists like Bowie and Roxy Music in the independent drawing and painting class. Most professors didn’t have music on during class. It was quiet. After classes, you might hear the radio or cassettes playing back in the printmaking studio. There was collaboration in a sense during critique. We discussed our work and were challenged by what we saw other students doing and what was said about our pieces. After critique, some groups of students would head out to wherever the cheap beer was. Sometimes we ended up at a local disco that had new music for the last ½ hour on Wednesday nights.
Curtis: I was living in a pretty rough old building downtown above where Michael and Randy practiced. I could hear their sounds developing. It seemed that all of that time had a soundtrack. When Paul Scales and I built the first 40 Watt Club, we had a tape player going constantly. But we only had one tape—Jr. Walker and the Allstars.
TK: Can you divulge a road map of your music listening from teenager to punk? Did you make an early stop at Bowie, Lou, Iggy on your way?
Michael: That’s where I missed out, I completely missed early Bowie, Stooges, Johnny Thunders, and even Roxy Music, but thankfully I wasn’t completely absent from some stuff from those years, like Kraftwerk. I had a lull before discovering Ramones, Stranglers, Vibrators, Mekons, Lydia Lunch, DNA, DAF, Pere Ubu, Suicide, Jam, Killing Joke.
Vanessa: Teenage years: Top 40 radio—The Beatles, Elton John, Janis Joplin, George Harrison, John Lennon, Carly Simon. My brother and I watched a local UHF TV station that aired self-made music videos in Atlanta at night—years before MTV—a show called “Now Explosion.” Got into Bowie during his Space Oddity record. College years: Gram Parsons, Yes, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones, Roxy Music, Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt, Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Heart. Shortly after and during the last year of college: Blondie, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Ramones, Devo, Talking Heads, Pretenders, B-52’s, Stranglers, Edith Piaf, Patsy Cline, Kraftwerk… later on the Athens music scene, Nina Simone, Leonard Cohen… indie rock, Elephant 6 Collective, Deerhunter, classical music… I have eclectic taste.
Curtis: First concert: Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon. First record I actually walked into a store and bought: Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks. Between those two points there was a lot of David Bowie, Lou Reed, James Brown, Rolling Stones, Jethro Tull. I saw Keith Moon play with The Who and decided I wanted to do that.
TK: When you started to draw, paint, shoot and, finally, play, what or who were you drawing on? I don’t only mean musical influences — visual artists current and of yore, sonics, cultural events, politics, peers, food — anyone or anything that fueled your creativity as both artists and musicians. How did those influences turn into art/music? (Obviously y’all sound like NOBODY else.) And, when you started creating there at UGA, how did Athens — the town, not the nascent scene — contribute? Did the way it looked (textures, architecture, sunlight) or the pulse of the town make a distinctive mark?
Michael: Oh boy, great questions, and I can’t imagine typing out all of my answers. I was enrolled in the photography area, and for sure the work of photographers that I admired influenced me, but also a lot of the minimalist artists of the time. Our environment probably was less active in making marks on us as it was providing an emptiness that was available to us in which to create art and music. The downtown was semi-inert, commercially, at the time, and we felt that we had full reign there, based out of the art studio that Vanessa and I shared and that became our first practice space.
Vanessa: I think we had complete freedom in Athens during those first years with the band when we were fresh out of college. It was inexpensive to live there. The people who lived there were open to experimentation. We had that tipping point necessary to create a scene and continue a scene which had already been started by the B-52’s in a big way who [and] then moved away. There was no pressure. We were enjoying ourselves and got to explore a lot of possibilities—one of us has said that we took our fun seriously. There was a movement during this time to decentralize the music centers away from New York, LA and London. A lot of DIY scenes sprung up all over the place—Ohio, Boston, Minneapolis, Chapel Hill, Nashville, Athens, San Francisco, Leeds…
Curtis: Funny you asked what we were drawing on! I was literally painting over other people’s paintings that were abandoned at the art school. I was broke and wanted to do bigger stuff so I liked the thought that someone else had put down a layer already so I would gesso over the whole thing and then put my layers on with a palette knife and then scrape it back off. Maximum coverage with the minimum amount of paint. Like I said I was broke. Some years later I got busted by another (who shall remain nameless!) artist when she found out I had painted over her stuff.
TK: What relationship does a chord, riff, beat or exclamation/incantation have to a color or stroke on a canvas or a decision in the development of a photographic print?
Michael: Well, a professor who had a huge impact on the general scene, and, within Pylon, directly on me and Vanessa, Robert Croker—he was influenced by musicians from a different realm (John Cage, etc.) and would generate his airbrushed paintings based on rolling dice. Two fellow students who lived in true poverty at one point made paintings only with yellow and a dark blue or purple, the only paint they had left. None of us felt beholden to rules, making was the main instinct. But yes, I can see a relationship between mark-making and bass-guitar-string-strumming, thanks to my main drawing teacher, Richard Olsen.
Vanessa: I think the training we got in art school taught us how to look at negative space. The non-use of space was as important as the use of it. To realize that a drawing could be finished with the first mark. Unconsciously and consciously I would look for the place that I could fit into whatever music that the band was coming up with and try not to have any preconceived notions about how to go about doing it. There was no formula.
Curtis: Hmm. That’s a tough one. I guess a strong beat is like a strong line or color. It needs to be bold and decisive. Define the contours but not get lost in detail. Keep it simple.
TK: Were you encouraged from the get-go by the response to Pylon? (I loved reading the letter you wrote, Michael, that is reproduced in the Pylon book.) Did you think about playing outside of Athens right off the bat?
Michael: That’s another part of our story that would take some time to share. I delivered a talk on a couple occasions at the University of Georgia titled “How Art Turned Into Music,” and it got into all of that. Yes, I had the sense that Pylon should go from its gestation in our scene straight to the cultural capitals (mainly New York) if we were to be appreciated and understood. That’s what we did, and the result was exactly what we could have hoped for. The letter you referenced was to Robert Croker, mentioned in an answer above.
Curtis: We had such a gentle incubation period being surrounded by friends that were pretty much starved for new entertainment that it was enough for me just to keep playing house parties. But it seems like everywhere we went we were lured there by friends.
TK: In my town of Louisville, once bands started popping up and the scene started coalescing, the music acted like a magnet, drawing all the freaks, other-thans, Foreigner-fatigued rockers — whether gay or straight, working-class kids or professor’s kids, garbage tippers or massage therapists. And girls were always equal to boys and very present from the start. Does this mishmash-turned potent force resonate with you at all in regards to Athens at the time? Did fans come from all walks of life?
Michael: Athens in 1979–1983 was a lot smaller than Louisville, I doubt we had any massage therapists, for instance. But I feel like a wide range of people would have felt welcome, and especially the part about women. I always felt that they were equals in the audience and on stage. It’s likely that those women would say something different though, they had their own experience. But one of my favorite bands, Oh-OK, was led by two amazing and powerful women, and I don’t remember thinking that was surprising.
Vanessa: I always felt equal and was treated that way by my bandmates. I rarely ran into any weirdness. The guys were like my brothers. On one occasion they ignored the sound guy who was making sexist comments, turned their backs on him and asked me what I wanted to do. Locally the big thing out of Athens in our generation was the B-52’s—a band fronted by two women and very early on LGBTQ without making any kind of big deal of it. Athens was a raft of liberalism in a fairly conservative state. Events and parties for our circle of UGA art students had an eclectic mix of professors, students, hippies, gays, glitter era type theater students. I remember sweaty dance parties, keg beer, vinyl being spun and everyone being accepted.
Curtis: It was a college town after all, so there is a certain amount of natural openness that comes with that environment. As to girls vs boys or gay vs straight I never really considered that there was any conversation to be had really. That part seemed so unimportant. The music though. THAT seemed important and on that field it quickly became obvious we were all completely equal.
TK: Can you speak a little about the relationship between Athens and Atlanta? What effect do you think having proximity to excellent record stores in both places, as well as decent recording studios and a force like Danny Beard, had on the scene?
In Louisville, at least in the beginning, sympatico sounds had to be special ordered from the best store in town, and we created idiosyncratic music in a sort of vacuum. It seems in Athens you had a lot of opportunity to hear any new sound, yet you also created bands that sounded like none else. Michael, in the Rocker interview from 1981 you said about starting a record company or studio in Athens “…that would be detrimental to the attitude around here. It would become self-conscious…” What was it about the time and space of 1978 Athens that made that all so?
Vanessa: Atlanta was a much larger city than Athens and was close enough that the road in between was a well-worn path. If you wanted to see a certain artist perform, you had to make the trip. Many acts did not make it to Athens back then unless the UGA Student Union booked them. Atlanta had some bands who were inspiring and/or became friends as time went on—the Fans who had been around a couple of years, Brains, Swimming Pool Q’s… Danny Beard and his label DB Recs had put Georgia on the national radar with the B-52’s first single “Rock Lobster” / “52 Girls.” He came along with the B-52’s to see us when we performed at a house party in Athens very early on. Not only did the B-52’s offer to help us get booked in New York—which they did with the help of their friend Robert Molnar who ran the door at the Mudd Club and knew everyone. Danny became interested in Pylon. Michael and I went to Atlanta to talk to him at his store Wax ‘N’ Facts in Atlanta and gave him what we were using for a promo photo at the time. A poster-sized montage of color xeroxed polaroids made by our friend artist Watt King. Danny came to see us at local shows throughout 1979 and then offered to pay for us to have a single recorded in Atlanta at Stone Mountain Studio with Bruce Baxter as the recording engineer and Kevin Dunn as producer (who had recorded the second single for DB under the name Kevin Dunn and The Regiment of Women). “Cool”/“Dub” became the third record release for his label DB Recs. Danny went on to release records for an amazing bunch of bands—Method Actors, Swimming Pool Q’s, Side Effects, Love Tractor, Oh-OK… and many more.
Curtis: There was definitely a friction between Athens and Atlanta. I think the general attitude in Atlanta was that they had worked really hard for success and we in Athens had just goofed our way into it. Which was pretty much true. But I really do think that there was a more underlying thing in that because with the hard work came a type of territorial jealousy and artistic rigidity, but with our goofy and completely non-serious attitude came a type of artistic freedom, support and love really.
I want to add an unsung hero in all of this. Barnett’s Newsstand was instrumental as the information hub. Situated in the heart of downtown Athens (and next door to the original 40 Watt Club) it became a cultural hub. They stocked all of the newest music mags from all over the world, and you could get a copy of the New York Times as fast as you could in Manhattan. They stocked the first issues of Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine as well as obscure literature and art mags.
TK: I know you guys have said you did not like to practice and playing live was what you enjoyed. I burst out laughing last night when I read in that Rocker interview where you, Michael, said, “We practice at least 2 hours each month.” But how were all of these amazing songs written?
After you started writing lyrics, Vanessa, what would make a vocal for you? Did you have words waiting to be married to a sound the guys were making, or did their sounds inspire you in real time? And, literally, did you make sounds into words at that point, or did the words just come busting out whole?
Vanessa: In the beginning, the lyrics were all provided and I had to decide how to make them fit. Sometimes I was inspired on the spot. A few times, Michael and I got together for the sole purpose of writing lyrics. One example is the song “K”—we took the words from a scrabble game and used them to write lyrics. Every song’s lyrics pretty much came about in a different way. I started carrying around a pad and would jot things down. Usually those were pretty bad and ditched.
TK: Michael, who would usually start a riff, you or Randy? And did a drum beat by Curtis ever appear as the first salvo? Did you ever collage parts of jams together into a whole or did each song usually present as a whole entity? In other words, was there construction, or just unimpeded flow?
Michael: There was construction with occasional unimpeded flow. In the gaps—when Randy and I might be tuning, or Vanessa and me might be getting another beer, Curtis, who was seated and therefore didn’t abandon his position, would often just play his drums in these lulls—and more often than not Randy would start playing something off the top of his head on it. The riffs that came from jamming would usually get arranged into sections to construct a song, after getting maybe two parts assembled we’d play towards finding the third part and a bridge or break. Listening to the recordings, it’s neat that there’s a variety of songs that start with guitar, bass, or drums, sometimes two of those together.
Curtis: Yep. Pretty much like that. There wasn’t a lot of thought put into it.
TK: As solo-working visual artists first, how was the energy of collaboration, in making a whole of parts, different from one person-one voice?
Vanessa: I never tried to preconceive what was going to occur at practice. A lot of our collaboration grew out of just trying different things and being open. Sometimes I had an easy time finding something to do, sometimes I had to take a tape home and think about it. There wasn’t a lot of discussion about what we were doing. We just did it. It was almost like there was some type of psychic connection. We were pretty much all on the same wavelength and got along really well. It was a case of the sum of the parts being greater than the four of us.
Michael: Yeah, there was no one voice, or someone bringing a song in to practice from home, ever. Probably not even a riff brought in from home. I think our creations came from the presence of the four.
Curtis: Yep. Again pretty much like that.
TK: The picture in the Pylon book of you guys in your rehearsal space is similar to the way ours looked — words painted on walls, photo of a TV test pattern, pictures of cattle, gig posters; the look of a clubhouse. There was, for us, a blurring of divisions in our lives between work/play/music/art/relationships; there just was a big stew of creativity and this extended to the space: its use for party/living/work/play. Does any of that resonate for you — the feeling of boundaryless immersion of that time? I think the spaces we practiced in influenced certain songs — do you feel that?
Vanessa: Without realizing it, I think you are correct in saying that we were totally immersed in it. Some of what you are referring to was having access to our practice space/studio which was cheap and downtown—and the fact that downtown was mostly dead at night. If we were going to be entertained and have fun, we would have to create that fun. Pylon members all hung out a lot together and with our other friends. As the scene snowballed, Michael, who had one of the few answering machines in town, would leave a message where the party was that night. That became the Athens Party Line. Many of us had a part-time job on the weekends at DuPont which paid much better than working full time at most jobs locally. This left us with spare time during the week. We had time for parties, art shows, hanging out at each other’s houses or at places like Chapter 3 records. We went to places where cheap pitchers of beer were to be had and enjoyed long discussions about art, music, life, etc.
Michael: The studio was mainly for me and Vanessa, but people dropped by, and/or we had a somewhat regular practice of getting pitchers of beer from the restaurant downstairs and watching the Batman TV series on my B&W TV. There was a window that was pretty easy to climb through to get to the roof of a dress shop, and we populated the roof with furnishings and an old stereo for more hangouts. Eventually, the dress shop called the cops because they could hear us up there and we were busted and prohibited from using the roof anymore.
Curtis: To this day I have never been able to separate work/life/music/art. I don’t really see the point.
Vanessa: And the cops confiscated all of the accumulated pylons that had been gathered (from mostly other places) by our friends and fans and presented to us. A few were legitimate purchases by Randy’s brother Chris who was a skateboarding whiz.
TK: As in Louisville, where all of us, in bands today or not, still keep close tabs on each other, it seems community was always important to the Athens scene. From the B’s spreading Athens gospel and facilitating opportunities, to the support everyone in Athens bands showed each other, to the “post-past” where the early scene was respected and revered by later-day versions of folks arriving to contribute. I thought Michael’s letter to Robert Croker, in describing the various local reactions to Pylon, was priceless. (“In Athens they receive us politely…’your music sounds just like your art’…’they’ll like what you’re doing in New York’….”) Even with all the support, were there any, and I mean this in the most positive way, competitive feelings among the scene? Because healthy competition grounded in mutual respect can provide wonderful results.
Vic Varney said in the Rocker interview from 1981, “It’s the only place I’ve ever seen where everything in the culture is conducive to making everyone lift themselves up.” It seems to me that the webs of respect and encouragement are still tight in Athens and that feeling is still alive. Thoughts?
Michael: I’m sure people felt competitive, it’s human nature, but that would probably be an internal measurement of relative achievement and success rather than anything they’d say or act upon. Hopefully we made the bands that came after us—which was pretty much everybody—feel welcome, and for some we were overtly supportive, offering opening gigs in New York or whatever. The greatest support was that everybody tended to go to everything, we loved nothing more than bands consisting of our friends. For a while, Athens had a reputation of being fairly blasé about out- of-town bands compared to our devotion to our own.
Curtis: Oh I was jealous as hell of others—their success or even specific songs or even single licks! But then they were like family so I was really proud of them too. It made me want to try harder. Maybe not so hard that I would practice or anything rash like that. I have not really been immersed in Athens but I really hope that the same supportive atmosphere is still the rule.
TK: Before coming up to New York for the first time, had you guys played out of town much? Did you ever have “alien territory” experiences, where the gig may not have been quite the right fit for the band, resulting either in a mismatched gear-gnashing night or a night where you felt like successful evangelists?
Vanessa: One show that comes to mind is an early one in Providence, RI. The audience was spitting for some reason—in some misguided way of showing appreciation—they were spitting—perhaps it was the very show where we were mistakenly billed as “Tylor from the West Coast,”—anyway, the opening band were fellow Athenians the Method Actors. Their drummer David Gamble started dancing with a pylon on his head! With his help, we won the audience over. The spit ran out, mission accomplished with some help from David Gamble.
Michael: Ha, I love what Vanessa recalled there. But before we played New York, the only other places we’d played were shows (for our friends) in Athens, and other shows in what turned out to be truly safe territory for us, Philly and Boston.
Curtis: We somehow got booked into an outdoor daytime gig at a place in Florida. It was like a poolside bar frequented by Barbies and bodybuilders. We could have not gotten a more alien reception had we come from Venus. Whoever booked that gig should be kicked in the balls. Twice.
TK: Can you speak a little about Steve Fallon and playing Maxwell’s and Jim Fouratt’s role in your travels? Maxwell’s felt like a safe haven from the get-go to us, and the support of both of those guys was critical to us and incredibly encouraging.
Vanessa: Both were very encouraging to us as well! Our first out-of-town shows in a real club were in August of 1979—Philadelphia and New York—opening for Gang of Four and Boston at the Rat. Hurrah in NYC is where we first met Jim Fouratt. In retrospect, it is funny that we played the Northeast before we played in Atlanta. We found out about Maxwell’s the next year. We played there in March at the end of what was then a long tour for us. Somehow we performed six shows in the New York City area in one week. I don’t think you could get away with that nowadays. Except for that one night in Philadelphia, we stayed at the Iroquois.
03/20/1980 Hurrah, NY, NY w/Circus Mort.
03/21/1980 Hurrah, NY, NY, Open for Lene Lovich, with Side Effects.
03/22/1980 Hot Club, Philadelphia, PA, w/Comateens.
03/23/1980 CBGB, NY, NY, w/Neighborhoods.
03/24/1980 Mudd Club, NY, NY.
03/25/1980 Tier 3, Tribeca, NY w/ Shaun Cassette, Nitecaps—3 encores
03/26/1980 Maxwell’s, Hoboken, NJ
Michael: I <3 those guys! Steve let me have an art show at Maxwell’s in 1990, and he let me and my friend stay in his home in Weehawken. When Jim came to Athens in April of the year Pylon reformed, he stayed at my apartment. We’ve had so much history with both of them.
Curtis: Maxwell’s felt like home turf to us. We loved coming home there to friends and a good meal.
TK: We know about your close relationship with Gang of Four. Was there any other non-Athens band that you felt a kinship in particular with, whether or not you ever played with them? And what was it (musically and personally) about Gang of Four that made them such soul brothers to you guys?
Vanessa: I would have to say that we also felt a kinship with Boston band Mission of Burma with whom we played several shows early on at The Underground. I can’t put my finger on what exactly made us “soul brothers” with Gang of Four—we weren’t and aren’t considered a political band. Perhaps it was the energy and the space we both left in our music—maybe it was the camaraderie. We loved them and they loved us. One of the best shows ever, according to people who were there, was the release party for Gyrate in Boston with Gang of Four, Pylon and Mission of Burma. I can’t disagree.
Michael: Yes to Gang of Four forever and always! But no, I really can’t think of another band that we connected to in that way. It was so cool to go from fanboys to colleagues to friends with them.
Curtis: For me it was our first show in a real nightclub paired with their first show in the US. That show was like an electric shock to me. We had the opportunity to play with them again the next night and we met the good people behind the fury.
TK: What was different, if anything, about playing in England and the response to Pylon there?
Vanessa: It differed according to the venue. There were different tribes in the UK at the time. College kids in nice jeans and good shoes, hardcore punks, art kids… We were supposed to open some shows for the Buzzcocks at places like Wembley, unfortunately, they broke up. While we were over there, the worst thing of all happened—John Lennon was killed. I was devastated. Suddenly, it was not a cool thing to be a dance band from Georgia, USA. The Soft Boys did perform with us in London as a favor to the label and brought some people in who might have otherwise stayed away. I did enjoy getting to see the beautiful country and meet people. We were based in London in a flat off of Portobello Road. Most of the UK could fit inside the state of Georgia, so most nights we could return to the flat. Hugo Burnham put us up in Leeds and we spent the night in Blackpool above the venue. The label gave us a tour manager who drove us around in a small station wagon called an estate wagon. We took along our own sound person, Paul Butchart, so there were six people in a vehicle really made for five people. They also arranged a lorry (truck) full of sound and lighting equipment which was driven and set up by two guys who could easily have been in Motörhead. They were super sweet. British crew are the best in the world.
Michael: During that time Randy and I, who mirrored/mimicked each other in clothing cues, had taken to wearing sweatshirts inside-out. At one of the shows in England, some of the locals at the gig asked us if we were drama students. We said “no, we were art students,” and they said that only drama students wore their sweatshirts inside-out.
Curtis: It was definitely a different vibe for us. The English crowds were much more reserved in giving you a pass just because you got a good review. I felt like we had to prove ourselves every night.
TK: I absolutely adore the footage of Pylon at Hitsville in Passaic, NJ, from circa 1981 (this would be about the time I saw you at Maxwell’s) with Vanessa doing laps (!) during “Feast On My Heart.” Did you guys feel like you could be somebody else when you played or did you feel like the most superhuman version of yourselves: in other words was performing like playing a role or producing a distillate of your Best Self? How important to you was the physicality of playing?
Vanessa: Movement became important after our earliest shows in NYC. Jim Fouratt recommended that we move more and we took it to heart. I could lose 2-5 pounds a show. The shows were very physical, but the endorphins were amazing. Dance is a drug to me. It was not always easy to do. Sometimes we collided—but we always kept going. Pylon were serious about the presentation. It’s not like being actors. I don’t know what you would call it other than it was a performance and it was our favorite thing to do.
Michael: I loved it once I learned how to do it, to bring lots of movement into playing, even at the expense of precision on the bass. I had a long guitar cable to give me room to roam the stage, and would have to stop every four or five songs to unplug and untwist the cable from having been spinning around.
Curtis: Ha! That’s all it was to me! I treated our shows like sports events and my drums like adversaries. It’s kind of a shame because of that I never really learned how to actually play drums, only beat them. I guess it worked well enough with Pylon though.
TK: What did it feel like the first time you heard yourselves on the radio? And did you read your reviews?
Vanessa: We would read our reviews sometimes several months after we performed—it was a bit like being in a vacuum. Our earliest national review was in Glenn O’ Brien’s column “Beat” in Interview. Our initial goal had been to be written up in New York Rocker. That came much later, We were overjoyed and somewhat mystified to be in Glenn O’Brien’s column. He described us as eating “Dub” for breakfast. We had no earthly idea what that meant, so we wrote a song called “Dub.” He heard that single and responded back in the next column—it was both satisfying and fun to communicate like that. Shortly thereafter “Cool” was named as “Mattress Song of the Week” on WBCN–FM in Boston which meant they played it some crazy number of times like 30 times a day. Michael and I flew up to guest DJ there early one morning after playing the night before in NYC. I did get to see them spin it and promptly fell asleep on the air. Michael held down the fort. 🙂
Michael: I don’t remember radio being a factor in my experience of music around that time, or hearing us on the air. But radio played a big role for us in that we did so many on-air interviews, especially college radio. The joke was how impossible it always was to find the radio station building on a college campus.
Curtis: We were in England when a review came out in, I believe, NME. Our tour manager Torquil read aloud a review: “Curtis Crowe, Mr. Locomotion, maybe the post-punk Gene Krupa.” My response: “Who is Gene Krupa?” Oh boy… after they all stopped throwing stuff at me I realized I would need to start all over if I was ever going to win any respect with this crowd.
TK: I felt like, with our band, that our Southern-ness (calling out regionalism) was treated as an exoticism (for better, not worse, usually). Considering y’all were 500 miles more Southern than us, did you experience that and how did it make you feel?
Vanessa: The B-52’s were hot in NY and then here we came up the pike… writers looking for an angle wondered if there was something in the water… the downtown scene in New York was incredibly open to us. There were quite a few ex-pats from Athens who already lived there. I actually felt more exotic in towns like Boston and LA. While soundcheck was going on, I would sometimes chat with people at the bar. I never felt I had that much of an accent, but I guess I did have some twang and some of the locals were fascinated with my speech pattern.
Michael: I sounded pretty Southern back then, I’m not sure how/why. When I asked, “Where is the milk or cream?” at a coffee shop in Boston, they asked me to repeat it—not because they didn’t understand me, they said, but because they just wanted to hear the sound of it again. Another episode was a very long interview I did for the band by phone while on tour with a weekly that would run the article by the time we got to that city, and for every single “…ing” ending word, they transcribed them all like this: “So we’ve been tourin’ and playin’ a lot.”
Curtis: I think the southern thing cut both ways depending on where we were. It was either a celebration of quirky regionalism or hicks. Good thing we had Vanessa. She won over everybody first with the accent and then they would discover she was really smart. One of my favorite Vanessa-isms: “It’s impossible to predict the past.”
TK: Obviously the U2 tour was a benchmark in the band’s history. Was it difficult to reject a seemingly graspable brass ring? What was playing those couple of shows before you left the tour like for you? When that end occurred, which turned out to be a pause, did it seem like you would never play again; that it all was in the rearview mirror?
Vanessa: As far as I could see at that time, there was no brass ring ready to be grabbed by playing a show like that. The audience was not really our audience. When we did make the decision to disband, I was super happy. We went out on our own terms at the top of our game. No major label seemed to be interested in us anyway. I was 28 years old and felt like I had my whole life ahead of me. I wanted to have a family too. Only later, did I hear things like, “We were just about to sign you.”
Michael: The U2 story is annoying to me in some ways because it was really just a blip, but it demonstrated Pylon’s point of view and resolve about what we wanted, and we weren’t at all interested. So we extrapolated that to the conclusion that we might as well hang it up.
Curtis: It was obvious that U2 was about to be the biggest band on the planet and I for one had mixed feelings about turning down what would be a career-defining choice. But I also knew that it would be a grueling slog playing night after night to openly hostile audiences. It was the right choice.
TK: Other than your stewardship of Pylon’s visual style, Michael, were you all making visual art while you were amidst the prime time of the band? And how about afterwards? Did the impulses that were making you make music easily translate back to making visual art?
Michael: I don’t remember enough now to speak for the others, but during Pylon the art I focused on was my primary mode, photography, augmented with Super 8 filming. When we broke up, yes, I got much busier doing drawings, submitting to juried exhibitions, and having my own DIY shows—but nothing big, mostly in Athens and Atlanta. The main translation that occurred was the other way around, while the band was forming and performing—“How Art Turned Into Music” was the title of a talk I’ve delivered a couple times here in Athens, about Pylon. Randy and Curtis had put their schooling on hold for Pylon, and both of them went back and got their BFA’s, whereas Vanessa and I had already graduated. In the years since 1983, art has been my primary identification.
TK: I was watching Athens Inside/Out the other night and I just about started to cry when Vanessa was speaking at the end. Then I read that that scene had an effect on you guys too. What changed for you guys in each cycle of the band reemerging that made you throw the switch back on?
Michael: Vanessa had a hard time with that interview, as I recall because the space shuttle Challenger had exploded that day, a national tragedy. But the movie, when it came out and circulated, had an impact on our thinking about the potential of Pylon that may have been missed by breaking up too soon, and it contributed to a conversion that brought us back for another whack.
TK: Michael, I read in your letter to Robert Croker that you felt “we only care about the product, not the process.” In an interview in 1983 with the Atlanta Constitution when you were ending the band, you said, “A lot of people think we could have done better if we’d worked harder. But we’re pleased with what we’ve done although we’re not totally pleased with our albums.” What would you have changed then about the albums (assuming you were not misquoted)?
Michael: I can’t really recall what I was thinking then. I might have been less enthralled by our albums than other members of Pylon—we were at our best as a live band—there are always limitations to what can be achieved in a recording, and there’s the opportunity to critique it as a fixed object. But I have to say from my perspective in many of the years since then that I’m thrilled with our albums (and other recordings)—because that is all we have of our music now! Especially since Randy died in 2009, the recordings are all the more precious to me. Add to that the LP of Razz Tape that we are releasing in Box, an amazing record of the early, plucky Pylon, recorded before we went to a studio to record “Cool”/“Dub.” I love Razz Tape.
TK: Vanessa, did you ever have to field the number one question in the 1990s for a woman in a band (“What is it like to be a woman in an otherwise male band?”), or did you manage to skirt it by your spurts of inactivity? I would assume it was certainly never an issue for you…
Vanessa: That is a question that I only have been running into during the last few years. You know we had some major league feminists that paved the way for us in the 1960s and ’70s. Grandma always made a point of telling me I was smart and I could do anything I set my mind to. I took her at her word. I was always treated by the guys in Pylon as an equal.
TK: I was fascinated by the fact that you guys worked at DuPont and how that informs a lot about the look and style of the band and the words. I always felt that the Civil Defense pamphlet-style lyrics and directives were like Trojan horses that delivered/evoked real emotions when set to the music. Could you speak to that juxtaposition a little?
Michael: Well it’s hard to really tease it out. If you take songs like “Warm Leatherette,” dispassionately about dying in a car crash, and the everyday nerdy anxieties of an art student in Talking Heads: 77, and bring the “Civil Defense pamphlet-style” safety guidance I experienced at DuPont on top of my earnest Eagle Scout background, plus the Kraftwerk-like influence of the factory, that gets a little ways towards situating those lyrics. But my favorite factory-inspired Pylon song is one where Vanessa provided the lyrics, “Working Is No Problem”—that goes beyond the enumeration of advisories and into beautifully phrased personal examination, like “I’m not a race car driver, but I like to have my fun.” That’s where the realness appears.
TK: I have always been absolutely blown away by Randy’s playing and style. I am so thankful we got to share a bill with you in NYC in 2007 and that I could see you play once more before losing him. What do you think made him the player he was?
Vanessa: Randy was a sculptor major. He was a completely self-taught guitarist and extremely talented. He created his own style of playing by using his own tuning—which as Michael points out was what Randy thought at first was the correct usual tuning. By the time he found out, he had invested too much time in writing tunes. Curtis thinks some of his playing was influenced by the fact he was a drummer first and they did tend to play off each other. Randy would make highly percussive taps to create ringing overtones. To me, it was his willingness to experiment to make sounds—not unlike Adrian Belew or Bradford Cox later on—he pushed the envelope of sound.
Michael: In addition to what Vanessa has said here, which is all correct, my take on Randy as a guitarist is kind of the same as him as a skateboarder, and in stark contrast to me. He had the physical grace and facility to control those tools, it’s just an innate mastery and confidence, augmented by experimentation and practice. And he was humble, he did those things with a quiet confidence, not cocky, and that helped keep him from getting too showy.
TK: As far as that goes, nobody in the band ever wasted a note, riff, beat or a phrasing. It is why you seem, to me, to be as essential as a heartbeat. And timeless. Thank you. P.S. THE RAZZ TAPES RULES!
Vanessa: Thanks for wanting to interview us. I appreciate all the thoughtful questions and the positive things you had to say to each of us.
Michael: Tara, the most insightful questions ever, only possible coming from someone with your own commensurate experience and previous attention to Pylon. Thank you so much for this investigation, it’s been fun to work on and a good thing no matter how you’re able to incorporate our replies.
Curtis: Yeah… great questions! Thank you!
Tara Key co-founded the first punk rock band in Kentucky, No Fun, born in the studios of the Louisville School of Art in the spring of 1978. She is best known as the guitarist for the Babylon Dance Band and, for the last four decades, the New York City band Antietam, whose most recent release is Intimations of Immortality (Motorific Sounds: 2017).
Key is currently at work on new sounds with Antietam; a long-term visual project reinterpreting the beautifully time-marred photographic negatives of her father and great uncle (taken circa 1915-1960); and a book, Friends Call, Strangers Cordially Invited, about her great-grandaunt Fannie Evans Uhl, a prosperous madam from the 1890s through the late 1920s. Fannie moved among the politicians, prostitutes, and gamblers of Louisville’s Gilded Age; upon her death in 1929, the fortune she had amassed became the subject of a public court battle among her estranged relatives.