PYLON: The Art Students Who Took Their Fun Seriously
A stacked new box set offers the most complete look at the band who helped put Athens, GA, on the map
Not long after the B-52’s put Athens, Georgia on the map in the late 70s and a few years before R.E.M. did the same for the city in the mid-80s, there was a foursome of art students who applied themselves to music and proved to be a cult favorite.
Singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay, guitarist Randy Bewley, bassist Michael Lachowski and drummer Curtis Crowe started out in early 1979 when a music scene barely even existed in Athens and soon caught the national spotlight with their first single “Cool” on the local DB label that same year. Their strident, stark indie-rock-before-its-time debut album Gyrate arrived the following year. But after a strong follow-up album in 1983 (Chomp, produced by members of the dB’s), the band would dissolve later that year. R.E.M. (who were friends of the band) kept interest in them going by covering some of their songs and the band would eventually regroup for their third and final album (Chain) in 1990.
The reunion proved short-lived though and the band dissipated again. A third/last reunion began in 2004 and stretched on through the next few years with shows around the US, coinciding with a reissue series on DFA in 2007, until Bewley died of a heart attack in 2009. Though the band refused to entertain the idea of continuing Pylon without him, their story didn’t end there. Hay teamed with a new generation of Athens musicians to form the Pylon Reenactment Society in 2014 to relive the band’s catalog live, and has been touring on and off ever since, while the Chunklet label put out Pylon Live in 2016, captured a 1983 show. And now, the New West label is presenting Pylon Box, which features a huge bound book, the first two albums and singles, plus an ‘Extra’ album which includes rarities, unreleased material and alt-takes and ‘The Razz Tape,’ a pre-debut recording of an early session.
Hay retired from nursing while Lachowski has pursued his old love of photography and Crowe has been busy with behind-the-scenes film and TV work. We were able to coral the three of them to speak of the new box set and the band’s history.
RNRG: Pylon had a distinct sound but from your perspective, what groups influenced you?
VBH: I don’t think we ever came together over anything except maybe the No New York record, we all liked that. We liked dance music that was fun, and at the big parties we had, we would play certain things like the Vibrators, James Brown, Grandmaster Flash. And we all loved Kraftwerk. But I can’t point to anything where we said ‘hey, we wanna sound like them!’ And of course, we loved Talking Heads and Gang of Four. Randy’s taste were like Michael’s but he would also buy some of the more middle-of-the-road records like Joe Jackson or Blondie. Of course we were art students before we were anything. We took our fun seriously. (laughs)
CC: Obviously there was the Gang of Four connection only because the first show we actually played in an actual nightclub was with them [in New York City] and it was their first show in the United States. Things were happening out there and we were listening to anything we could get our hands on and felt like we were in a little tidewater hamlet in Athens at the time. It felt like the whole world was charging on around us. And we felt like there was a world out there that we needed to get into. And when the B-52’s jumped into it and became such a splash, that was a huge influence- if nothing else, it showed us that you COULD do it. It was something that you could do and move beyond the local party scene and go out into the world with it. So we were absorbing any records that came out at the time.
ML: For some groups, we might pick up a different sort of influence of a different nature, like maybe more about the instrumentation or the vocals. It kind of ran the gamut from stuff that was more pop, like Blondie and The Knack or Elvis Costello or XTC, all the way through a lot of the usual suspects. And then on the other end of that, like, more experimental stuff, like No New York or one or two records by the DAF and Cabaret Voltaire and that kind of stuff.
But I think that the essence is that we were sort of making it up from scratch, as far as how our relationship to our instruments and such. And then it was how we ended up trying to figure out how to you generate music together. And that was sort of the baby steps that me and Randy were trying to figure out- how to merge something, how to pull patterns and riffs and things out and kind of make them go together like bass and guitar. So very rudimentary building blocks, but a lot of that is just building up a comfort level of being willing to experiment in front of each other. And just jamming, endless amounts of jamming. I think we we’ve come to understand that that we just kind of developed our musical language or way of having a sound or having certain traits that tended to come up again and again that were maybe signature components of the band.
AUDIO: Various Artists No New York (full album)
RNRG: The Razz Tape has this wonderful raw quality to it, both in terms of sound and songs themselves. How did you see it in relation to the actual debut album?
VBH: I don’t know that I ever actually ever heard it until recently, in the process of helping to choose what was going to be on it. So it was kind of a revelation to me, to step back in time and go, ‘wow, that’s not bad…’ (laughs) But it’s also very rare to me- I kind of cringe when I hear some of my vocals on there. But the overall sound, you’re right, is so raw. I was working on putting together our two albums and the singles plus a lot of things from this mixed in and when Brady Brock (New West Records) heard it, he was like ‘we need to put this whole thing out, just like it is.’ So that’s what we did. So there’s the albums, the singles, the rarities and a couple of things that go squeezed off [the original records], like “Four Minutes,” the male version of “Yo Yo.” But Randy had heard it and he had chosen “Functionality” to be on Chomp More [the expanded DFA reissue] so I knew he heard it. But his knowledge went with him and I kind of miss him.
CC: The Razz tape was a kind of a pre-recording recording so we were using that as a dry run recording session. The difference between that and even our live performances is not that much different. It’s in some ways closer to what we really were than even the recordings, because with the recordings, you had an opportunity to polish up and clean things up. We were primarily a live act. What we did in the studio was not always necessary and sometimes we welcomed it, but in some ways, it feels like almost an imposition on what we magically did anyway.
ML: think it sounds good. At the time, it was sort of the weird way that he [Chris Rasmussen] tried to figure out how to record for four people’s instrumentation. into a two track record. But now, you can hear everything. You really can hear it all. It’s not, maybe the way it would have been mixed ideally, and so all the instruments are present and that’s the way it just takes me back mentally. I just can hear this like down plucking of the bass, just this kind of like a drive to try to produce some sound out of my equipment. It was very hard to get it to really sound big and strong because the equipment wasn’t very good. And Curtis’ drum sound is just so loud. So I sort of ended up like plugging away for dear life- I just trying to get some shape to my bass sound. And then later, when I had like better equipment and better bass and all that and sort of had that technique and kind of fallen in love with that real strong kind of bold round-plucking sound, which was very sophisticated. It was all like downstroke playing for the first two years basically. Then I figured out ‘wait, you can actually pull it up- I don’t know if I want to do that all the time.’ So that I was when I learned that I could do it in both directions through manual economy.
RNRG: Did the discovery of Razz Tape figure in to creating the box set?
VBH: It’s a precursor to what we did and it’s an honest picture of what we sounded like in that first year. But after Gyrate came out, a lot of the really early songs kind of fell to the wayside for whatever reason. You have an album and then you’re writing more songs, and you only have so much time in a set so there’s just some songs that are always gonna be in the set. And there’s some other early ones we don’t have any real good record of. Like I remember a song called “Fluorescence” that was very early so there’s some others. But this is a picture of what we were doing- we were writing a lot and spent a lot of time together and this is before our first single was recorded so there’s kind of like a progression that you can hear, like some development. Maybe like how you go to some retrospective of some artist and you get to see their really early work and you say ‘oh yeah, I can see how they went in this direction.’
ML: It actually started with the more basic situation that you couldn’t get the first or second album on vinyl, except for to buy it on eBay and sometimes for silly amounts of money. And we have been working with DFA Records to do compilations in 2007 and thereafter. After a little bit of time, it was like, ‘hey we should probably do this on vinyl too.’ But it just never got done and Vanessa started inquiring about it and talking to people and was working with Jason NeSmith [member of Pylon Reenactment Society]- he has a lot of experience, and they were doing that kind of work commercially. They started digging around and started finding all these other things. And there were just different mixes or different takes of the same song and probably all mixed down, but then they started getting really interested like ‘oh, this is different’ and ‘you know, there’s a lot of material here that would be new to people.’
RNRG: At the time Pylon started, the only band known outside the area was the B-52s. What was the Athens scene like in the late 70s from your perspective?
VBH: The B-52’s were just taking off like a rocket ship. At that point, they were less and less in town. And we continued to have these parties where we’d play vinyl. And I remember lots of really great parties. But as far as bands, there was a band that started around when we did called the Tone Tones but they probably broke up probably after a year, with two members going on to form the Method Actors.
But the music that began to be created out of this new scene kind of started snowballing because we had enough people that were interested in this type of thing. There were different people like University of Georgia art program and then you had people who were drawn into the scene who worked at the local vegetarian restaurant. Fred Schneider was a waiter there- he was a forestry student at University of Georgia. And then you had people that were locals who lived here like Keith and Cindy Wilson and Keith Strickland [all from the B-52’s]. You had a lot of really interesting people. People that had connections to New York and beyond. We had an exhibition at the University of Georgia Museum of Art that some fairly well known artists at the time donated work and they all came to town. We had a lot of visiting artists at the time that came through the art program. So we had a connection to the outside world- it wasn’t just this sleepy little area where all of a sudden the B-52’s popped up. And then you had Atlanta pretty close by, which is a fairly liberal area. So there was a lot of LGBTQ there. And then Jeremy Ayres had lived here and he had been a Warhol acolyte. He wrote the “52 Girls” lyrics [for the B-52’s] and then later on, he wrote some lyrics for R.E.M. [“Windout,” “Old Man Kensey”].
CC: From my perspective, it was the art school and all of the artists that were part of that. There was a small but active gay community in town. There was no place to play. There were no bars to play or clubs. But they [B-52’s] were really the first band and they broke out as the party band in town. So they were an absolute blast and we just needed the fresh air.
We felt like we were still in a tidewater in a back channel. And the whole world was happening there around the globe- all of this music that’s happening like a comet with telepathic urgency all over the world. We were being left out of it just by geography. We were so stuck away from anything and that seemed like we were just not ever going to get any of that stuff. And when the B’s [B-52’s] came along, it not only taught us that we could do it ourselves, but that we didn’t have to wait for somebody to bring it to us. And when they did do it, it was such a huge wave of euphoria that hit everybody because we had such a great time exploring these new possibilities.
ML: And as far as the bands go, aside from the B-52’s, I cannot remember, knowing about any other band that was based out of Athens until them that anybody I knew ever really listened to. It was just a matter of months, from getting acquainted with the B-52’s, from seeing them play live and then having them go off and have all these different adventures. So Randy started saying, ‘hey, we need to find a band because we need to have some other band who stay there because they’re [B-52’s] moving away.’ So, in a way, Pylon kind of has had the attention of our local scene for our dreams to ourselves for a while.
VIDEO: The B-52’s Atlanta 1978
RNRG: How did you see the difference between Gyrate and Chomp?
VBH: The first record was made very quickly- somewhere between three and five days, with recording it and mixing it. And Chomp was a very long, drawn-out process. We had brought in Chris Stamey and Gene Holder [of the dB’s] and we were working at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In studio. But all of us were busy at the time- we were touring and it was really hard to get our schedules to connect. So, it was a mess between recording sessions.
The whole process took too long. (laughs) It was nobody’s fault. That’s just what happened. It might have been a better record if we could have finished in a week and a half but it didn’t work out that way. So you had something done very quickly [Gyrate], that is kind of pure sonically in some way, looking at the tracking sheets for it and listened to it a lot recently and getting it ready. And we didn’t even use all of the tracks on a 16-track so there’s a lot of space on there. It was recorded very well. It was an honest picture of what we were doing. And there were very few overdubs and not a lot of studio trickery going on. And then for Chomp, I remember Randy saying that he wanted to get ‘a real producer.’ And that’s when Danny [Beard, head of their label] went after Chris Stamey. And Chris brought in some things like the noise gate for the drums. And there was a lot more thought behind the recording process other than just going in and doing it. It was still done on tape though, so punching in was not something you wanted to do ‘cause it was annoying as heck to do that. With some of my vocals, he actually used two microphones- one was closer than the other. It might have given a little more presence to the vocals. I thought some of my performances on that record were better overall. But sound-wise, they’re totally different. One of them [Chomp] has a lot more going on ‘cause the drums would trigger these other sounds. We did some more overdubbing. On one of the songs, Curtis was shaking a dog dish. (laughs) Everybody should do that once, right? [ED NOTE: yes!]
CC: We were taking our time with Chomp while Gyrate was forced on us by circumstances of timing. We only had so much time to record that, plus we were brand new and green in the studio. We’ve never done anything like that, and it was a new experience for us. With Chomp, we were a little more familiar with the process and the timing, and then with Chris Stamey and Gene Holder, they gave us a brand new avenue of exploration, which was in all those extra tracks that you can play with. And so, you know, we had little more freedom to expand and Chomp took advantage of that.
We were slowly kind of morphed into each one of these understandings of music as a medium. Really, we’re all visual artists. We played mostly starting off as an art form and it morphed into actually being real music at some point. And then we, by default, kind of turned into musicians, sooner or later. And along the way, we had to figure out how to do the recording process and Mitch [Easter] was really instrumental in that process because he’s at home in the studio- that is his home and so he was really eager to explore boundaries that we may have been lucky to explore.
ML: When we did our first album, we had plenty of material and we kind of foolishly said ‘well no, we’re not going to put the songs from our first single [“Cool”] on this record because they’ve already been released.’ We wanted everything on our first record to be new. It was really original material and some of it was older that predated our single. We didn’t take some of our earliest songs that you can hear on the Razz Tape- they never even made it to the recording studio. But “Modern Day Fashion Woman” is on there and there was one called “Information.” So Gyrate was pretty full. But then later what happened was that our songwriting process became less automatic- we were relying on happenstance or happy accidents that to such a great degree that we couldn’t decide to generate all this in a way, that kind of had to happen. And I don’t know how that all started to change, like our lifestyles or our interest in rehearsing or just our experiences, but we were still able to come up with some great material.
We were coming up with ideas here and there and trying to fill the void, recording those singles. And so, we put out these singles, “M Train” and “Crazy” and then “Beep” and “Altitude.” And then we’re putting out an album [Chomp], and all four songs on those two singles are added to this album, so it’s much different approach to filling an album. It’s not all new stuff, that hadn’t already been released so we went kind of totally the other way. And there’s still enough variety I think in the songs. I really am okay with, with the album, including “Yo Yo,” which we made up in the studio.
RNRG: Why didn’t you include the Chain album as part of the box set?
VBH: That might be something that might happen later. We just decided with this, you only have so much space. And so we wanted to concentrate on the first era of Pylon, up until 1983..
CC: There was the notion partially that it was the earliest stuff. There’s kind of a distinct stylistic break between those two earlier albums and then Chain. And it was different times in our lives.
AUDIO: Pylon Chain (full album)
RNRG: Will another volume cover the band’s later work?
VBH: Well, we’re talking about it. I guess we have to see how well this does and see how much interest there is. It’s not my money. It’s not my company. We’ll do this and then we’ll go from there. There is some other material that could come out with Chain and then there’s Pylon Live, that was Henry’s [Owings, Chunklet] thing- I think he finally sold out of that.
CC: If you were to ask me if this box were to come out five years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined that. So is another one possible? Absolutely. Is it on the books? No. Okay, but it’s certainly possible.
ML: To my mind, this is good enough. I’m fine with that. But as to whether we need to go through the whole process of putting Chain out and all that stuff, I’m kind of ambivalent about that. I’m very happy with the box and the book that’s in it.
RNRG: Was there any more material recorded for the final reunion that the band did in the early millennium?
VBH: No, we never made it into the studio. Actually, we were just in the process of writing some new material and I have some cassette tapes that Randy made of his guitar and it almost sounds like cathedrals of sound. He was really growing as a guitarist. And I had done some recordings with Supercluster and he was involved with some of those. But that wasn’t Pylon material. That was the whole idea behind Supercluster- it was just this outlet for things that weren’t Pylon material. I think there was one song on there and Michael heard it and he started playing the bass line at practice and Randy looked at him and said ‘quit it, that’s not your song.’ (laughs)
RNRG: What do you think Randy would have made of the box set?
VBH: He would have loved it. And I’ve been thinking about him the whole time with this. He’s in my thoughts in everything we [Pylon] do. Really, I don’t want anybody to forget about Randy Bewley. He was a great guy, great artist, great dad, great guitarist. So, I think it’s important that he be remembered.
CC: I think he would have been absolutely thrilled. I do really believe he would have loved this thing. And I’m really sad that he wasn’t part of this because he had a lot of input in there that could change anything because we were always pretty unified. As far as our group went, everything we pretty much did was in a big block most of the time. There was very few things that we ever divided over. And certainly there was never anything that any one of us dug in over. We were really monolithic in our in our tastes and our image and all that stuff.
ML: I think he would have been completely on board with all of this. I think he would love it and I think he would have been involved but also supportive of me taking the creative control over the visuals. I think it would have worked out quite the same. He would have been a lot more involved in the recording side of things.
In some ways, we’re missing a bit of information that he could have provided. There’s some tapes that somebody had that he gained access to. And I’m probably the best person to figure out what they are exactly but I can’t quite say exactly. Randy probably could have because they were tapes that were in his possession. So we used a segment of one of those and it’s called “Untitled”- it’s the lead track on the “Extra” disc in the box. That was just like me, Randy and Curtis before we were called Pylon. Randy would have been good with that sort of stuff and plus, there’s probably more like that he probably had. His kids helped us out- they gave us what they had on hand. But I’m not sure how much other stuff Randy would have been able to bring to the project. So he would have been an asset to working on it but at the same time, it serves as kind of a tribute what Randy did as a musician. It really represents him throughout the [box set’s] book and everything. I think we did him right. We have a few things in the book that are very much like memorial images.
Pylon Box is now available via New West.
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