Noah Fence interviews Vanessa Briscoe Hay of Pylon and Pylon Reenactment Society

N.F.The band, Pylon, formed in Athens, Georgia in 1979. I assume that you moved to Athens, Georgia, to go to college; so can you tell me about how the band, Pylon, formed? Were there common musical influences that brought the band together?

V.B.H. The band was initially formed by Randy Bewley in the fall of 1978 with his roommate Micheal Lachowski as an art project. He convinced Michael it would be a good idea and they set out to choose instruments, learn how to play them, and write songs. We were friends in art school at UGA in Athens and went to a lot of the same parties. There was a local record shop, Chapter 3, within just a few blocks of the art school, that brought in all the latest things from New York, San Francisco, London, Germany. They gave parties and brought in bands, like John Cale and the Cramps. And we had the B-52s, the worlds best party band, just starting out. Atlanta was one hour driving distance away, with bands like the Brains, and a stopping place on tour for a lot of bands we wanted to hear, like the Ramones, Talking Heads, Blondie and Elvis Costello. All these things were kind of swirling around. 

So, Randy and Michael were practicing the same riffs over and over together in Michael’s drawing studio in downtown Athens in the fall of 1978 and early 1979. Curtis Crowe, another art student – and the one that they sublet the space from- was living upstairs in a loft that was jokingly called the 40 Watt Club, because it was lit by a lone bulb hanging from a wire in the ceiling.  

Photo by Chad Carlson of poster courtesy of T.Patton Biddle, 40 Watt Club April 3, 1980

Anyway, he and his friend, Bill Tabor, were relaxing on a mattress listening to this repetitive practicing of riffs coming up through the floor. Bill looked at Curtis and said, “it sounds like they need a drummer.” Interestingly, Curtis had been playing drums since he was a child in Marietta, GA. His first band was Billy and the Kids, back in elementary school with future Guadalcanal Diary guitarist, Jeff Walls. They played cocktail parties for the moms. 

Anyway, Curtis went downstairs, knocked on their door and asked if they needed a drummer. They said, yeah and started practicing together. Somewhere in the process, they auditioned several friends from art school to be the singer. None of them worked out. They were on the verge of using pre recorded sounds for the vocals.  I was still hanging around town after graduating art school in 1978. Randy asked me to come in and try out for this new band – and I did on Valentines Day 1979. The next day, after they had conferred, I was told I was in and they explained the premise was to go to New York and perform, get written up in New York Rocker and disband. I remember thinking at the time, this isn’t going to take too much time out of my life.

Hurrah, NYC, August 22,1979 by Jimmy Ellison

N.F. Pylon has a very distinct and original sound, a lot of which can be attributed to your lyrics and vocal delivery. For instance, I love the way you spell out the word “Axes” to punctuate the beat in the song “K” on the second album, “Chomp”. Before joining the band did you write poetry or lyrics? Also, did you have any prior singing experience?

V.B.H. I have been writing poems since a child. Fortunately, none of my early work has survived. My mom did me a favor and got rid of it. I write something almost every day. Initially, most of the lyrics were written by Michael Lachowski. He had them neatly typed up and ready to go at my audition.  I began to also contribute to our lyrics very early on. A few I co-wrote with him – one is the song K. Another song, “Feast on My Heart,” I co-wrote with a former neighbor Craig Woodall. We opened up a copy of collected writings of William Shakespeare at random and translated a speech into modern slang. (Titus Adronicus, Act 2, scene 2)   As far as music background goes, I had piano lessons for a few years, played flute from 6-12th grade and was in the high school chorus. I was never chosen to be a soloist. I talked to my high school music director a couple of years ago at a reunion. He seemed a little astounded by my singing voice now, He remembered me as having a sweet, little voice. I think participating in these activities in high school was important. I learned discipline, how to read music and the importance of practice. As an art student, I learned to approach all tools as potential for artistic creation and was introduced to the dadaists. 

N.F.  I noticed that both The B-52’s and Pylon seemed to be move from hometown gigs to doing shows in New York City pretty quickly. I assume Pylon played New York City before the band had released a single, since the song “Dub”, the B-side to the first single “Cool,” references a line from a show review “Eat dub for breakfast”. What was the New York connection?

V.B.H. New York was our goal, but we had no idea of how to make it happen. The B-52s saw us play about the 5th time we played. Until this point, people at our shows had just stood and stared at us like we were from Mars or something. The B’s loved, started dancing and all hell broke loose! They were the catalyst. Kate and Fred took one of our cassettes to New York and helped us get booked at Hurrah. The B-52s were the hottest band on the planet that summer- who could deny them if they said someone was good! Jim Fouratt at Hurrah ended up booking us to open for the Gang of Four. On the basis of that show, a friend, Vic Varney, helped us get booked in Philadelphia opening for the Gang of Four and in Boston at the Rat. We performed in New York before we ever played in Atlanta.

N.FBoth of the albums recorded by Pylon during their original time together are now classics. Did you enjoy the recording process?

V.B.H– I did enjoy it. I still do. Gyrate was recorded and mixed pretty quickly. I want to say we were in the studio maybe 3 days from early afternoon until the wee hours. The recording of Chomp was spread out over perhaps a year. We didn’t have all the songs written yet.  We started out at a big studio in Atlanta and ended up moving to a tiny one in North Carolina, in Mitch Easter’s garage. Danny Beard contacted Chris Stamey to come and produce it. He provided more direction and insight into the studio details and his engineer Gene Holder was awesome too. Mitch’s board was on its last legs at that point and all three of them were on knobs to make it happen for the mixes. I might even have helped turned a knob or two.

N.FMy understanding is that both albums Gyrate and Chomp were reviewed well and were favorited by critics. How well did albums sell? Were the band members able to quit their day jobs to concentrate on the band?

V.B.H. I heard that the albums did pretty well, but there were bills associated with making them the way we wanted as far as packaging went.  We didn’t receive very much money for them at the time and only about $9,000 later on from our record label. I think that they took the money we were making and invested it in new projects. Who knows? It’s water under the bridge anyway. I do remember that the winter of 1982 was pretty tough income-wise. I was able to talk them into sending me a $100 advance, My friend, Lorri, who worked at The Taco Stand back then, shared her dinner with me every night one week. I’ll always be grateful to her.  Most of my income came from touring. Usually I would make enough from a tour to pay my bills for a couple of months, I always paid my bills first and whatever was left over, was spent on thrift store clothes, beer and food. I had a three speed bicycle and very cheap rent. We made most of our money from touring. It was a beautiful life really except a week here and there. Most of my friends were in the same boat and we made our own fun.

N.FYour song “Crazy”, which appears on the second album, Chomp, is one of your most popular or well-known songs. I have always felt that the lyrics to the song to be very powerful. Here is an example of some of the lyrics :

“Nothing can hurt you unless you want it to

There are no answers 

Only reasons to be strong

You take a walk

You take a walk and you try to understand

Nothing can hurt you unless you want it to

Can you share with me your thoughts as to what lead to these lyrics?

V.B.H. It’s personal.  I was going through some things in my life at the time. The things most young people will go through at some point: betrayal, heartbreak, loneliness, a sense of otherness /numbness. I was somehow able to take those experiences and translate them simply and directly into these universal lyrics. Where these ideas come from, I have no idea, but I am grateful for the process. Writing is like therapy for me. I may start out with a lot of words and reduce them to the most essential elements.

I  have had several young men over the years tell me that it was their coming out song. That is quite an honor. 

Michael Stipe was at the show where we played it the first time. He made a point of telling me how much he liked it after the show.  Who knew that several years later R.E.M. would cover it? Another friend Jeff was at the front of the audience the next night in Atlanta.  He was crying and I stopped and went over to him. I told him I wouldn’t be able to do the song, unless he stopped crying. We became friends and remain so to this day.  

N.F.Pylon was able to tour the states, Canada and I have read played the U.K. as well. Did you enjoy touring and playing shows? 

V.B.H. I am one of those weirdos who likes to tour. I like everything about it, even the crummy stuff. Maybe, it’s because of the people I was lucky enough to be with. Maybe, because when I started touring with Pylon right after college I was 23 and the rest of the guys were about the same age as me. We had a great time exploring and hanging out, telling stories, talking. We took turns driving across America several times to California and back. The driver was in charge of deciding what music was played and I was the navigator quite a bit.  I remember on one of those long stretch hauls listening to Remain in Light a couple of times in a row while Curtis was driving overnight through Texas. The sun eventually started coming up, as it always will, and it was magical. I do like to travel and meet new people and see different things and to hear new music. I took a long break from it while I raised my girls. Fortunately, I am getting to go back out again with Pylon Reenactment Society. We just performed at Primavera. Most of us had never been to Spain, so we took some time to see some of the area around Barcelona and visit some cultural sites. I loved the area and the people. 

Probably 1982 taken by soundperson. Taken on a trip to the west coast. Polaroid, Randy Bewley collection 

N.FPylon decided to break up in 1983. What led to the break up? And afterwards, what you do? Return to college?

V.B.H.  There were a couple of factors that led to the breakup. The number one factor was the increasing pressure being put on us to do things that we didn’t necessarily want to do- like opening  for U2. Our booking agent kind of overstepped his bounds and had booked us some dates on their first US tour without really discussing it with us. He jumped at an opportunity and committed us to 7 dates, Michael, our bassist, talked him into reducing it to a couple so the agent wouldn’t completely have egg on his face. They both got into a loud discussion with the agent saying, “if you won’t do this kind of show, why are you in this business?”  Why indeed? We decided to stop while it was still fun. We had wildly exceeded all of our early expectations. 3 of the 4 of us got married and started having kids. 

N.F. I am sorry to say that I did not hear the band, Pylon, until sometime in 1983, after the band had broken up. A friend of mine had the records, and played them for me. I loved them, but I had a hard time finding the records for myself. It was not until 1989 when the CD anthology Hits was released that I owned any Pylon music. It was the second CD I ever purchased. I did not even have a CD player, but worked in a record store that did, so I would play it while at work.

Did the release of the CD prompt the band to reform? Was the reformation an easy process, did the members all get together and everything just worked as before?

V.B.H.  The CD was a piece of all of that. Actually what happened is our friends in R.E.M. and the B-52s continued to cheerlead for us and I think it was R.E.M., who said, we think the world might be ready for you now. We had a meeting and decided to approach the process in a more business-like way, if we did reform. We got management, bought a van, opened some stadium and arena dates for our friends in R.E.M. and the B-52s, and recorded a new album “Chain.”  It was different. We were a little older. I was leaving a pretty young child at home when we did tour. I had great family support in my husband, my mom and sometimes his parents. A good bit of my income was eaten up by phone calls home in those pre-cell phone days,

N.F. Pylon released their third album Chain in 1990 and toured again. I was fortunate enough to see the band on this tour at the I-Beam on Haight Street in San Francisco. I remember it as being a great show. Was this a good time for the band? What led to the band breaking up again in 1991?

V.B.H. It was a pretty good time for the band,  I remember that being a pretty good show too.  Anyway, Randy decided that he wanted to leave the band and we couldn’t talk him out of it over the course of several days. I had finally made the decision to quit my day job and had quit it about a month before this decision of his. Our manager Jennifer was stunned and took it quite hard, she had given up a lot to come down and throw in her lot with us.  We all felt like Chain was a starter album, the next one would be better. Pylon were the four of us and members could not be substituted. We had van payments, booking commitments– it took about a year to disengage ourselves from all of that. 

N.FIn 2007 DFA records reissued both of the original two albums by Pylon with extra tracks. Can you tell me how this came about? Do you think this helped to introduce the band to a new generation of listeners? 

V.B.H. Sometime in 2004, Randy quietly came to each member of the band and told us how much he missed playing music with us. So, Pylon had a group meeting and decided to get back together for fun. We had also had some fans tell us how disappointed they were in the audio quality of Hits as opposed to our vinyl albums.   I learned that there were a couple of factors in this. One was that the release occurred in the early days of CD manufacturing and that the quality got better after this release. The other factor was that the tapes had literally been spliced together in the song order and run off the reels directly onto the CD recording. No mastering was involved. There was a missing step that had occurred in the making of our first two records on vinyl – Greg Calbi had mastered those tapes directly to vinyl to the vinyl masters. I personally saw these tapes last year as we began the process of cataloging and restoring our recordings.  Some reels were empty and what had been on them had been moved to other reels. The sheets for each reel had a confusing system on the outside of each one. It was nearly impossible to find stuff. 

Pylon are currently working towards reissues of our material on vinyl. There should be an announcement of that project soon. We’ve had a lot of help getting it to this point from Jeff Calder who helped find some lost mixdown tapes and major league help from Jason NeSmith who took responsibility for those tapes, plus some I had in storage already and had had delivered to me from Mitch Easter. Some of the tapes had stuff beginning to flake off and splices came undone as they wound off in the digital transfer process,  Jason spent a couple of months baking, digitizing and cataloging the tapes on digital at a much higher quality than is necessary for vinyl so hopefully they won’t need to be touched again. They were right at the verge of being lost. We have found a few things that we thought were lost, like the original single version of “Crazy” was found. It turns out the one on the DFA reissues was not the one. Randy did his best tracking it down, but he ended up using one that he thought might be it – this is it, however, We’ve had advice along the way from boxset guru, Bill Levenson. Additional material is being looked at with help from peeps like Mitch Easter, Gary Smith, Chris Stacey, Paul Butchart, Chris Rasmussen, T.Patton Biddle, Henry Owings. Jason has been on a treasure hunt! More info when it is closer to release.

N.FThe label DFA also released a single with the band, Deerhunter, doing a cover of Pylon’s song “Cool”. What are your thoughts on their version of your song?

V.B.H. I loved it.  It was a huge compliment that they recorded it and made it their own. Bradford doesn’t play guitar like Randy, but he has the same kind of relationship with his instrument, it’s difficult to describe.

N.F.  At present you are a member of the ongoing project or band, Pylon Reenactment Society, who perform music recorded by your original band. Can you tell me how this group came together?

V.B.H.- My friend Jason NeSmith approached me in 2014 to see if I would be interested in performing a few songs for a concert, in conjunction with a series of events called Art Rocks Athens.  Jason and I had worked together previously in Supercluster, a recording project I was involved in that had my dream team of Athens musicians. He was shocked when I said I would like to perform Pylon material.  Pylon had been no more since Randy Bewley had passed away in 2009. I asked him to help me put a band together – so he got his band, Casper & the Cookies, to back me up. I had also worked previously with Kay Stanton, powerhouse bassist in the project Supercluster.  We performed and got an extremely good response. I enjoyed the moment and I forgot about it until the next year, when Jason called up again and said, “Art Rocks is doing another show, would you be interested in performing again? You can have 30 minutes, but we will need a drummer, Gregory Sanders is having shoulder surgery.”  I thought about it and said I would like to add a keyboard player to bring in some sounds Pylon had on Chomp in particular and asked my friend Damon Denton to come onboard. Jason recruited Joe Rowe to play drums. Joe had worked with him before in Casper and the Cookies and was well known for his project, the Glands, and Love Tractor reunion shows.  I think he has been in over 30 local projects. Well anyway, the audience reaction was ecstatic. A few weeks later, Jason said Dressy Bessy would like us to play some dates with them. I said, someone wants to pay us to do this! Heck yeah! It is so much fun to get to play this music again. Fortunately, these awesome people Kay, Jason, Damon and Joe are willing to back me up. We have turned into a real band and are currently writing new material using Pylon as a guiding star.

Randy Bewley

N.FIn addition to performing classic songs by Pylon, The Pylon Reenactment Society have recorded and released a fantastic single of new music “Messenger / Cliff Notes”, which sound like classic Pylon songs to me. Any chance the band will be releasing more new music, possibly an album?

V.B.H.- We have been focusing on writing and have six songs right now. We would love to put out a full length project in the not too distant future.

N.F.  Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions and share your thoughts with me. Sadly I missed seeing Pylon Reenactment Society perform in Portland, but I hope you are having fun with the current group and hope to see you perform next time you tour and play Portland.

V.B.H. It was my pleasure. Thank you for asking me.  We would love to come back to Portland and nearly did this past December. We were unable to find anywhere there, until after we had already booked the open date in Sacramento. Sacramento was a lot of fun though. Next time. 

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 PylonPylon Reenactment SocietyVanessa Briscoe Hay