The first time I heard Pylon, I lost my dang mind.
Absorbing the stark vibrations of "Stop It," a mutant, primordial galaxy of punk had been discovered. A voice like an electric shock appears: Don't rock & roll - no / Don't rock & roll - no / Don't rock & roll - na-no, no, nooooo! Curled up in a lenticular groove that grows louder in volume, despite shrieks that demand otherwise, the singer responds in kind: Now rock & roll - now / Now rock & roll - now / Now rock & roll - na-now, now, now! Its minimalist skin was masked by a complex dynamic between the song's straightforward commands and precariously-stacked rhythms. And the best part: you could dance like a maniac to it.
Pylon was formed in 1979 by art students at the University of Georgia: Randy Bewley and Michael Lachowski fooled around on various instruments until landing on guitar and bass, respectively. Curtis Crowe, living upstairs from them in a downtown Athens loft, one day offered to make sense of their noise, at least until they found a permanent drummer. (They never did.) Bewley invited Vanessa Briscoe Hay — then Vanessa Ellison — to try out as the band's singer, despite not considering herself a musician. She was in good company.
In her new book, Cool Town, author and historian Grace Elizabeth Hale draws sharp parallels between the UGA art school that Pylon's members attended and the emerging music scene of the late '70s through the '80s. In both sites a punk ethos naturally evolved, as students and artists questioned forms, prized experience over technique, and applied these lessons across several mediums, including music. "If punk taught people that anyone could play," Hale argues, "Athens taught them that this music making could happen anywhere, even in the South, even in small-town America."
Pylon's sound exists in and out of its time. During its first run, from 1979-1983, strands of post-punk deconstruction, motorik disco rhythms, '70s FM-radio pop and rock clash with avant-garde histrionics. Over two albums and a handful of singles, the music roars with a danceable chaos, but is struck by a stark, in-house logic. Vanessa Briscoe Hay is an economical lyricist — "We have our bodies / And we have our lives / We must protect them" and "This map has too many symbols / Punch a hole in it" — but expresses these deeply personal turns in yelps, growls, stutters and screeches. Hay grinds her own emotion into every word, even and especially when the words appear plain or disaffected.
"When I first heard her singing, it was just like, 'Oh, my God, she's great,'" Crowe tells NPR over video chat. "When she did 'Dub,' the hair on my arms stood up and it still does."
"I'm glad my video's turned off, guys," Hay replies. "I'm really blushing."
Like the Velvet Underground before them, Pylon could be your favorite band's favorite band. In 1987, drummer Bill Berry declined Rolling Stone's claim that his band, R.E.M., was "America's best," saying that it was Pylon instead. (R.E.M. would also cover "Crazy" and count Pylon as an influence until its last album.) You can hear Pylon's conversational equity between guitar and voice in bands like Sleater-Kinney and Priests. Pylon's austere noise inspired the same in Steve Albini's noise-rock bands, Big Black and Shellac. Minimalist mutations of disco and post-punk can be found in Erase Errata, Sneaks and early Deerhunter, but especially across DFA Records, which reissued the first two albums by Pylon on CD a little over a decade ago.
For the first time in decades, 1980's Gyrate and 1983's Chomp will be available on vinyl again as standalone LPs and as part of a new box set. Out Nov. 6 via New West Records, Pylon Box will also feature Extra (a compilation of singles, alternate mixes and live recordings) and the true gem of the package, Razz Tape, a live-to-tape recording of Pylon in its most raw form, pre-Gyrate, with many songs that would never appear on studio albums. There's also a 208-page book loaded with photographs, artifacts, a lengthy biography by Stephen Deusner and testimonials from members of R.E.M., Sleater-Kinney, The B-52s, Deerhunter, Gang of Four, Interpol and many others.
Pylon got shine during its first existence, but has been mostly celebrated in its absence — by the documentary Athens, Ga.: Inside/Out, by R.E.M., by younger listeners. That led to a short-lived reunion and album (1990's underrated Chain) and another in 2004 until Randy Bewley's death in 2009. Hay now fronts a repertoire band called the Pylon Reenactment Society.
Pylon's music is in constant conversation with the moment, as guitarists try to figure out Bewley's sense of space and harmonics, as rhythm sections lock into Pylon's labyrinth, as singers not only contend with the power of Vanessa Briscoe Hay's voice but also her sense of lyrical autonomy.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lars Gotrich, NPR Music: At the outset, did y'all know what you wanted Pylon to be, did it evolve, or has hindsight given y'all a more clear vision of the band?
Curtis Crowe: Boy, I certainly didn't. Every turn we made was a surprise to me. I don't know about the others, but for me, I never knew where this thing was going.
Michael Lachowski: Well, I definitely think it evolved. That sense of evolution was built into our experience, because we were figuring out who else needed to be involved. Of course, the dynamic changed along the way as soon as we added Curtis and then, later on, Vanessa. Another big one, I think, was that a lot of our really close friends, they were eager to see us and see us do well, but we had people that would just like straight up come and tell us: Y'all are doing something really interesting, but you need to do this, you need to do that, you need to look happier on stage or you need to move around or something like that. Another way that it evolved was just by dint of repetition; we did become a lot more confident in our instruments and the roles that we played within the band.
We didn't have point A that we started from and a destination that we were working towards by any means. It really unfolded. We really built upon our own creations.
I found a scan of New York Rocker's profile from 1981, and there's a moment in the interview where Curtis admits to taking inspiration from a Gang of Four beat and Michael's put off by it, but in a funny way: "It bothers me that it was consciously your inspiration. A guy with no hair."
Crowe: Now I have no hair. So we're even. [Everyone laughs.]
With some bands, their influences are clear, but with others, it's more obscured. The sounds they grew up on, the scene they're a part of, the books they read — it turns into a multi-dimensional puzzle. What were some of the artists that acted as guidelines for Pylon?
Vanessa Briscoe Hay: In rock music and music of any nature, there's sort of a dividing line around '76 and '77: things were changing. Disco was just leaving us. If you went to Harrah in New York, where we first played, the deejay would play Jimmy Cliff's The Harder They Come, you would hear Gang of Four, you would hear Lene Lovich. We spun a lot of vinyl at parties. People brought whatever they had recently purchased or brought in from New York.
That particular scene's sound was wild and wide open. Punk was colliding with disco, that was colliding with rock, that was colliding with, you know, the new music that was being made. And it was just like an explosion.
Crowe: I treated records kind of like I did drugs: if you gave it to me, I would take it, but I never really bought them. And so I was living in the loft up from the studio where Michael and Randy were starting to practice. And I had a little one of those, you know, the record player where you took down the turntable and the speakers came out? I don't know where it came from. And I think I had four or five records up there. Never Mind the Bollocks was on heavy rotation. I had a Lou Rawls record I was listening to. And I was listening to a lot of Iggy Pop's Raw Power — I love that record. I had a really limited little range of things that it was really anything that was in my periphery that I just I would latch onto and I would just listen to it over and over and over again. So I wasn't terribly selective.
So it was great when I hooked up with anybody else. I was always just glomming on their music. Michael turned me on to Kraftwerk and all of those machine-like bands, and that was just super exciting to me because that's exactly what I wanted to do – I always envisioned myself as part of a machine. I always figured I was just like an engine or something. That's what I like best about playing music, just being part of that machine.
Lachowski: I was a major music consumer starting when I was in sixth grade. Like all of us, I grew up in suburban Atlanta, so I had WREK, I had FM radio. But I mostly bought albums just based on the stickers on the record or the graphics or the names. That process started to run a little bit dry around the time that I was in college; I started realizing that I didn't know where to go and lost my thread about where to get my cues. I found out that a lot of my peers were picking up on a bunch of stuff that I missed, like Velvet Underground or stuff from that scene in New York.
Around the time that Randy and I became roommates, we wouldn't duplicate our purchases for the most part, except that we didn't spend our summers together. So sometimes I would have to buy a record that I knew he had already bought because I didn't want to wait till September to hear it or whatever.
Randy and I shared the bulk of what we loved: Ramones, Gang of Four, definitely Kraftwerk, Pere Ubu. We were really into XTC, maybe him more than me. Killing Joke. He was a little bit more willing to buy and own stuff like Blondie, Joe Jackson. You know, Elvis Costello, maybe, maybe even The Knack, I don't remember, and then I was over on the side of like D.A.F., Cabaret Voltaire, the Mekons, Suicide, Stranglers. I probably liked Suicide more than Kraftwerk, practically, just because of the simplicity of it.
Friends would bring over a 12-pack and a new record like the Flying Lizards or a new Devo record, and the four of us just sat around and listened to a record like seven or 10 times. Oh, Television, Television, gotta include them.
Crowe: There were little drops that came out, little raindrops of new records. These 45s would land like they came from outer space. And we would just take these artifacts and play them over and over again until we just completely memorized every instance of that song. And when a new one came in, we would absorb that one. And I'm sure every one of those there's some piece of DNA from every one of those songs that ended up there.
Razz Tape is a real peak behind the curtain of what Pylon was before Gyrate. Tell me the story behind this session. There are some songs on here that never appeared on later records. What happened to them?
Hay: Chris [Razz] wanted to record us. He'd recorded us at Chapter Three or at a party or something. He was just a nut about wanting to record things. And so we said sure. I don't remember that we ever used this for anything, but it was late summer or early fall because it was so warm. I remember that.
I was set up in the hall outside of where [Michael] and Curtis and Randy were. And he kept the tape machine in the hall, which was outside of Michael in my studio, and it was also the band's practice space. He set the mic up for me in the hall. There were two mics in the room: one was for the drums and the other mic was shared by both the bass and the guitar. Y'all couldn't see me; I couldn't see you.
We had some songs that we were trying out that were very recently written. "Read a Book" has the instrumental version; I hadn't written the lyrics for it, yet. And we'd just written "Cool."
We just went through it. We just plowed through it. It's not overdubbed, but that's just what it is.
And I cringe at some of the things, but the overall sound and feeling of it is very spontaneous. It's a beautiful record just because of that and, of course, we threw out a bunch of those songs and they were never recorded.
Lachowski: I think that Chris was such a music nerd, he still is; he's worked in or owned a record store and been a collector. He was so influential on what Randy and I would buy at the store and probably everyone else at Chapter Three Records. Then he bought this amazing piece of technology. [Editor's note: a Revox tape recorder and a Nakamichi cassette deck.] And then once you own that, you just got to go find a use for it. You've got to go out and record.
The same cassette that we're calling Razz Tape, the other side of the tape is his recording of Public Image Ltd. Just the fact that you wouldn't start with a fresh tape for Public Image Ltd.! It's flawed, but it captures the energy of those songs and the way that before we got competent to the point of becoming more mannered.
What was "3x3," the previously unreleased song featured on Extra? It's got such a clipped, raw groove.
Crowe: "3x3" is clipped and raw because everything we did started that way. It usually started with Randy. He would introduce a riff, I would build a beat and Michael would find a groove. It was always done in real time with barely three or four measures before we had the bones of the song fully formed. It really was a rapid prototyping style. Vanessa would sometimes provide instant vocals, but more often than not had a little more time to consider her parts. Structure was an evolutionary consideration.
Each member of Pylon was crucial to the whole, but I wanted to talk about Randy's guitar playing. On Gyrate, he was a sharp foil to Vanessa's voice, but by the time y'all got to Chomp, his playing became more spectral and spatial. So much of early Pylon was about the instantaneousness of the music. When and why did that change? Was Randy's guitar playing part of that, or was the band starting to understand itself more?
Crowe: I got an idea here: Randy was the drummer until I came down. And so he picked up the guitar and he played the guitar like the drums. He and I would really match beat for beat; I really keyed off of Randy's guitar playing as a percussive instrument. I think he was a drummer until he just naturally evolved into being a guitar player. He started understanding how the guitar worked. He expanded the vocabulary.
Lachowski: I've always been amazed at the sounds he made with his guitar. This "Untitled" song that we have, that predates when Vanessa was in Pylon, that's on the record called Extra in this box set. I played it for Chris Razz the other day and he was like, "How in the hell is he making those sounds? Is there any overdub in this?" No.
One of the narratives about Chomp, from what I've read in the history of Pylon for this book that's in this box set, is that it says that we became musicians that were willing to rearrange everything in the studio. I don't know if I really buy that as the full answer for why Chomp sounds different. I think it was just that we were on the road a lot. I just think Chomp was the result of a maturation from lots and lots of gigs and just different types of songwriting dynamics.
Hay: Maybe jamming is not quite the right word, but creating sounds on the spot: you would find a riff that works and just keep going with it. In the case of "K," the very first time we performed it, it fell completely apart. It was nothing like we had planned on doing live and we were ultra-embarrassed about that. One of the Seawright guys came up and they were just raving about that new song. [Eds. note: Visual artist Sam Seawright and writer John Seawright, brothers in the Athens arts scene.] And so we got to the tape to listen to it and went, "Whoa. The song that fell completely apart doesn't suck: it's really good." And so it took us maybe a month to recreate that accident to where we could play it again.
Hay: We were strong enough in our own personal belief that when we heard something like that — that was a really happy accident — we recognized that as something worth pursuing.
I've learned a lot from Cool Town, but maybe even more from author Grace Elizabeth Hale's personal reflections on that time in Athens. One bit that stuck out to me was her description of Vanessa's stage presence: that you rarely flirted with the audience. This was the era of Debbie Harry, but also the B-52s and Siouxsie Sioux, when different sorts of sexuality were being presented and challenged on stage. Were you conscious of how you performed?
Hay: That's a good question. Curtis told me I was terminally shy when I came into the first rehearsal. He said, "I don't know about that one." But I got on just great with all of these guys and I was able to talk very openly with them.
I think that a lot of people who are painters and artists, whether they be men or women, don't necessarily feel like their artistic spirit is necessarily male or female. It was almost like a pure spirit, as something you can keep coming back to, as a part of you that always exists.
I don't know how to describe it. So I wasn't trying to be anything other than myself. And that's just how it was. And I was fortunate to be with a group of other artists who treated me as an equal. They were sort of like my brothers on the road. We got along really well. It was a lot of fun. So that's all I can say about that; I was just being myself.
Crowe: Vanessa, whatever shyness you may have had, you got over it. [Laughs.]
Hay: The last time we played in Atlanta, there was a guy who flew in to see us. And he said, "I'm so glad to see that you're finally comfortable in your own skin." And I just started laughing and I said, "You know what? It only took me 64 years!" And then he started again: "You're the Southern Patti Smith." And I was just like, "Oh, my God, don't even mention my name in the same sentence as that woman." Oh, my gosh. Gosh, it's like, I can't talk to you anymore.
From what I've read in old interviews, a strong bond between New York and Athens formed in the early '80s. There was a real energy between those scenes, kick-started by the B-52s and continued by R.E.M. One of your major goals for Pylon was to play New York and get a nice review. Why did y'all decide to stay in Athens?
Hay: Pylon visited many cities and we loved many of them, but New York was special to us and their art and music scene embraced us. We also loved Athens and the community we were a part of here. At that time, Athens was much more affordable.
I think it occurred to us that we could maintain a connection with New York and other cities we liked by performing/touring, taking an extra day or two off to do something while on tour, then go back home and be able to pay our rent from what we had earned while on tour. We were all naturally frugal and it worked out pretty well for several years. During that time period, a scene was reinforced and expanded by people like my bandmates Curtis who co-founded the 40 Watt Club and Michael who worked at Wax Jr. Facts and created art events and shows and by all the bands who formed and also remained here.
Crowe: I saw New York as kind of the artist's Mount Everest. It was like you were expected to migrate there after graduation as a trial by fire period. Besides being intimidated by the whole prospect, I really liked trees, cicadas, hot summer nights and skinny dipping. I wasn't really ready to give all that up to prove my mettle. Still, there were the beginnings of an expat artists community that formed a kind of loyal band of refugees. The worldwide art and music scenes had already exchanged their DNA and so, when the B-52s broke out in New York, it was a natural occurrence for the entire Southern expat tribe to show up. In the beginning, I really do believe that a major component of our success there was the excitement built by what was essentially receiving a postcard from home. It was this atmosphere that gave us the loving bubble to explore our own limitations and style.
Lachowski: I can't say for sure that this entered into why Pylon never considered relocating (to New York or anywhere else), but one of Randy's arguments to me about why we should start a band was that when the B-52s had left, someone had to step up in Athens. So in a way it was our role to be an Athens band, according to that aspect of our origin.
Being in New York felt really easy as Pylon. The B-52's had turned us onto the Iroquois Hotel and helped us get those first gigs and all the necessary phone numbers. Ex-Athenians Steve and Bronwyn Hinton hosted house parties with other Athenians when we were in town. The critics were receptive. But I don't think any of us saw ourselves living there and being able to afford to live there at all. And Pylon's ambitions were limited in scope and a vaguely sensed time frame, not sufficient to justify such a disruption even if we had wanted to move there.
Did y'all ever expect to make such a lasting impression? Has your relationship with legacy changed over time as you've met new fans?
Crowe: After the band broke up, I ended up getting in the movie industry – and you would not believe the connections in the movie industry. The movie I'm doing right now is a Fox feature and on the first day on the job, the director comes up to me and he goes, "Hey, I think my band opened for you guys in Trenton, New Jersey." Now we're sending pictures back and forth of flyers and band posters and things like that. So it's just a trip to just keep going and going like it does.
Lachowski: When it comes to who is influencing who and the legacy and all of that, to me, it just keeps folding onto itself. I mean, we were pretty cocky when we were doing our first two albums and broke up. Maybe that energy made music that lasts for people in a certain way, but I don't really know how to measure it and put it all into a narrative.
Hay: We were just being ourselves and we weren't really beholden to anybody who was trying to mold us or shape us into anything. [DB Records owner] Danny Beard didn't do that. He just let us be ourselves. And so I think some of that shines through; there's a lot of authenticity in that we were being ourselves.