Pylon- just another great dance band from Athens
"They're like my babies... I couldn't really say which one I loved more," singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay told me yesterday about the first two albums that her band Pylon released in the early 80's.
I'd hear those albums originally not long after they came out. At the time, I didn't even know their story or about their roots, coming from Athens, Georgia, also home to the then just-emerging R.E.M. and already phenoms the B-52's and a number of other great bands since (including Drive By Truckers and the Elephant Six collective). Pylon was gone by the mid-80's, just missing a boom of interest in the area after R.E.M. started to make it big and documented in the film Inside Out (which includes a brief interview with Hay).
In a contrast I didn't even realize until right now, I got to see both Pylon and the B-52's live within the last week. The B's were doing a Halloween gig and sure enough, the crowd was dressed for the occasion. The band didn't disappoint, hauling out their old hits and squeezing in a few new ones from their upcoming album. Hundreds of people were bouncing around madly (including me and my girlfriend) to this psychotic, kitschy surf music. "Rock Lobster" still sounds wonderfully bizarre today but what's made them have such a long career are their late 80's hits like "Roam" and "Love Shack," the later being a shoe-in to 1000's of party mixtapes.
Pylon were another group of white kids from Athens with femme vocals who were also a rock band playing dance music. But this was different than Funkadelic or Rick James (much less Hendrix). Just as the B-52's used kitsch to put their mark on funk music played at 78 RPM, Pylon did something similar though their unique spin was Hay's growling/shouting vocals and gnarled, poetic lyrics. Great as that was, it doesn't capture crowds as big as the B's have.
I missed seeing Pylon live back in the day and did again when they reunited briefly in the early 90's. I did manage to track down 3/4 of them for interviews about 10 years ago. After hearing their story and realizing that most of their music wasn't available at the time, I did my usual annoying fan-boy thing and asked when they were going to put out their old records again. They wanted to but didn't know how to do it. Though I'd worked on a number of reissue projects before, I was kind of tired of doing that so I just wanted to advise them and let someone else do the heavy lifting.
Luckily, they found a good manager (Phil Walden Jr., associated with Capricorn, the same label that the Allmans were on) and eventually hooked up with the good people at DFA Records. It was a great match as a lot of the label's output sounded like they'd been listening to bands like Pylon, having the same funky, twisted grooves lining the music. Even with all four of them on board for the project, they still had trouble getting together to agree on things as they were involved in other jobs- bassist Michael Lachowski has a design company and drummer Curtis Crowe does production work on the ABC-TV's series Lost, which films in Hawaii.
But the stars aligned to get them together again to sign off on a reissue of their first album Gyrate (originally from 1980), which DFA just put out with some bonus tracks, including the wonderful "Cool" single. To commemorate that, I managed to interview Michael Mills from R.E.M. for a recent MOJO article where he told of their band's love of Pylon (they even covered a few of their songs), reckoning that along with the B-52's, they were one of a handful of local bands that were all-important to everyone around that area.
Even better, Pylon was able to regroup not just to do some local shows in Athens but also to do a mini-East coast tour. It was a joy seeing them live this week, with small red pylons on stage and the band decked out in their own bright red "Cool" shirts which they offered at the mersch table. Lachowski and guitarist Randy Bewley happily bounced around while Hay swirled around like a windmill. Though the bass and drums were on point, Hay and Bewley didn't come through as clearly in the mix until later. By that time, Hay was at her best, belting out the songs as only she could.
And next...? They still have their other jobs to attend to though a writers' strike might mean that Crowe is more freed up now. Hay says that DFA is looking to now put out their second album Chomp (from 1983) some time maybe next year. Maybe down the road, their early 90's reunion album (Chain, from 1990) might come out again too. And maybe a bigger tour too? If their other jobs allow it...
Over the phone, I told Hay how great it was that their music was out again and that they were able to play out again and find new and old fans. In her thick Southern accent that you'd never imagine her having after hearing her sing, she thanked me for nudging them to get their music out again. I did feel kind of mushy hearing that but the fan boy in me just thought "I can't wait for Chomp to reappear!"