Ed. note: Eighties Athens band Pylon is justifiably legendary, with recent years seeing the release of the group’s back catalog and its stature continue to grow as a younger generation discovered the band. (R.I.P. guitarist Randy Bewley in 2009.) In 2014, vocalist Vanessa Hay, now Vanessa Briscoe-Hay and also of the group Supercluster, mounted a one-off project she called the Pylon Reenactment Society featuring some fellow Athenians, and since then she’s repeated the show at a handful of dates, including a little over a month ago at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, plus Asheville and Atlanta. Plus, there is a two-disc live Pylon album due out in the very near future (all respect to Henry Owings of Chunklet fame for putting that into motion); a documentary that captures performances from various bands (including Pylon) at early ‘80s NYC nightclubs; and in one of the more improbable strokes of punk providence, Lexus automobiles recently aired a commercial featuring Pylon as the backing music. So it seems entirely appropriate to publish this interview with Briscoe-Hay, conducted recently by longtime BLURT contributor Tim Hinely for his own zine, Dagger. Special thanks to Tim for allowing us to reprint it, and to Vanessa just for all things Pylon. To read more about the band at BLURT, go HERE to check out a retrospective piece we ran a few years ago on the occasion of the group’s reissues. – FM
BY TIM HINELY
I can remember where I was when I first heard Pylon, the unique band that called Athens, Georgia, home in the ‘80s (and beyond). It would have been 1983 or so and I was hanging out at the one punk/new wave club that we had in South Jersey, The Ivory, located in the town of Margate, at the time my home away from home. The club’s deejay, Howard McCabe, played all kinds of great stuff and, specifically, two cuts by a band I had never heard. The songs were “M Train” and “Feast on My Heart.” I went up and asked him who the band was and he stated Pylon. I made a mental note in my head to find their stuff.
I then found the “Crazy” b/w “M-Train” single locally (Sound Odyssey in the Shore Mall) and thought to myself, “What idiot put this fish sticker on here?” and promptly tore it off—stupid me…I realized it was supposed to be on there, and luckily I was able to find another one.
Then came this love affair with this band that sounded like no one else. Not just musically; Vanessa Hay’s vocals were brilliant and one of the most unique I’d ever heard, both arresting and beautiful, sometimes at the same time. And on stage, it was even better as we got to see her jumping and dancing all around, so refreshing in the era when most bands were too cool to move. I bought all of their records, and though I missed ‘em live the first time around, I did catch them in the later ‘80s when they reformed (at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ).
I contacted Vanessa via email and she was more than happy to answer some questions. From Georgia with love, it’s Vanessa Briscoe-Hay!
BLURT: Were you born and raised in Georgia?
BRISCOE-HAY: Yes, I was born in Atlanta, Georgia and grew up in a small town between Atlanta and Athens called Dacula.
What was the first song you remember hearing that really knocked your socks off?
My father was a country and western fan, so most of what I heard growing up was of that genre. He listened to the radio a lot and would watch a lot of TV shows on Saturday which were country music. He also had a clock radio which usually was tuned to WSB which was a MOR kind of thing that played a lot of different type of things. I wouldn’t get up in the first and second grade until Moon River came on. The other song which stuck out for me was Johnny Cash and June Carter singing “Jackson.” This was the pre-seatbelt era and my brother and I would argue over who could lay in the back window of my Dad’s oversized black car with runninng boards. “Jackson” went nicely with the rhythym of the telephone wires looping up and down on the poles next to the train tracks next to the road as he drove along.
Was there much music in your house growing up?
Yes, my brother and I had our own record player. We would play whatever was lying around. My parents had some Sun 45s and 78s and my Aunt Jane had some Chubby Checker and gospel singles which she would lend us. When I could buy things with my own money, I would buy singles at the local 5 and 10 which came in multi packs. One good record on top and 3 unheard of ones underneath. I bought quite a few singles by the Beatles, Monkees, Marmalade and some albums like Jesus Christ Superstar. We also went to see bands play at the drive-in in the nearest town over who covered things like These Boots Are Made For Walking.
What was the early Athens scene like back in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s?
It was mostly a house party scene. There were very few places that had live orignal music other than large concerts put on by the University Union. One of my fellow art school classmates or one of our professors would throw a party and buy a keg. There would be wild dancing to the whatever the latest vinyl happened to be that week. When the B-52’s first performed, it was a revelation. Things were happening right here in Athens that were as much fun as anything you could imagine. When they moved away, my band Pylon started to perform along with some others which included bands like The Method Actors, Love Tractor, The Side Effects, REM and Limbo District, .
Can you name some bands from that scene that should have been huge (or at least who were very good) but that we might not have heard of?
A band who performed with us the second time we played called the Tone Tones seemed poised to break out, They had some high profile shows, but broke up without recording. The Method Actors came out of that band. Dana Downs who was the bass player, still performs with various people including Fred Schneider and Cindy Wilson in their solo efforts.
Another band who I dearly loved were the Side Effects. They were a very good dance band who had their own followers called the Effectets who were wild dancing girls. Jimmy Ellison was the bass player and he passed away from a brain tumor. Their drummer Paul Butchart became Pylon’s soundman on the road.
You have probably heard of Love Tractor. They were excellent as well. Amazing instrumentals. I heard a version at last years Athfest called We Love Tractor. “Spin Your Partner,” a favorite song of mine, took me back to that time which for me was the first golden era of Athens music.
Limbo District were probably the most experimental of the lot and my husband Bob Hay joked that he once saw them clear out a fraternity party in 5 minutes flat. They recorded some material which has never seen the light of day. Take a look at Jim Herbert’s film A Carnival of Sorts which is on Youtube if you want to get an idea of what they were about.
The Squalls were one of my favorite bands who were among the stronger songwriters. They have a song NaNaNaNaNa which is in Athens, GA inside/out. I have to confess that I married the lead singer Bob Hay, but I would never let my musical taste be clouded by the rose colored glasses of love, right? Anyway, they were very good, but didn’t really get beyond a regional level with their success.
How/when did Pylon begin? Who came up with the name?
Pylon began as a collaboration between Michael Lachowski and Randy Bewley who were roommates and attended the UGA art school. In fall of 1978, they decided to start a band, perform in New York and disband. They subscribed to New York Rocker and one of their goals was to be written up in NYR. Randy and Michael obtained instruments and started to create music together in Michael’s art studio. Neither had any real training. Curtis who lived directly upstairs heard them practicing the same riffs over and over and decided that they needed a drummer, he went downstairs and offered his services. He had playing drums since he was a kid and things began to take shape.They were at the point that they wanted a vocalist. Several guys auditioned, but none worked out, so they were going to use found sounds and recordings for the vocals. Randy thought that I might be someone who could do it. We were friends and honestly it wasn’t anything I had any goal to do, but he saw something in me that I didn’t see. I auditioned and was asked to join the band.
Michael and I worked at Dupont on the weekends. It was possible to support yourself just working 2 days a week there in a totally industrial environment. We were art students and were interested in the image or shapes of certain things. One early band name idea was Diagonal, but we ended up calling ourselves Pylon after the orange safety cones that we saw at work.
Did you feel any kind of a kinship with other bands in that scene (ie: REM, etc.)?
We felt a kinship with bands that we ended up playing with like Mission of Burma, the Gang of Four and PIL. Randy and Michael had a pretty extensive collection of German and British singles. There wasn’t anyone locally at that point who were heading in the same direction that we were. We liked other bands like the Fans, Swimming Pool Cues, B-52’s and later, after they had formed, bands like REM, Love Tractor, the Method Actors. There was a lot of new stuff happening almost everyday and it was nearly impossible to keep up with. We depended on the curating skills of the guys at Chapter Three records and DJs that we listened to on the road to keep us aware of what was happening.
Was that gig at Hurrah (which I’ve seen some footage on You Tube) your first time playing NYC? If so you were you extremely nervous?
That video is of one of the later times that we performed there. But, I do remember the first time we played in NYC. We opened for the Gang of Four who were some of our heroes at that point. I was a little nervous and don’t remember a whole lot of what happened while we were up on stage, but I do remember people at the front reaching out and trying to shake Randy’s hand as he was moving stuff off the stage after we played. It was packed and to see him get that immediate recognition as a good player was wonderful.
When/why did Pylon break up the first time? How did the reformation come about? (I saw you guys in ’88 or so, at City Gardens in Trenton, NJ).
We broke up because it started to seem more like work and less like fun basically. City Gardens in Trenton was one of our favorite places to perform. We played there the first time we were together and also the second time.
After REM became pretty famous, we continued to recieve fan mail and then Athens, GA inside/out came out. REM encouraged us to come and open for them and perform. The B-52s also asked us to play with them. We decided to come back and treat it more like a business and hired a manager and that type of thing. Before that, we were self managed except for a brief stint with Vic Varney of the Method Actors doing some of that stuff.
It was so sad to read about the death of guitarist Randall Bewley. Did that officially mark the end of the band?
That officially marked the end of Pylon. There couldn’t be Pylon without any of the original members.
Were you in any bands after Pylon? Are you in any current bands?
I formed a recording project in 2007 called Supercluster [above]. I invited a dream team of some of my musician buddies to be in it. That project included a ton of people: Randy Bewley, Hannah Jones, Bob Hay, Kay Stanton, Bill David, Jason NeSmith, Heather McInstosh played on 3 songs, my daughter Hana Hay played cello on a song, Bryan Poole joined us sometimes, John Fernandes, and Bradford Cox came and recorded guitar on a few songs after Randy died to help finish the record. It is called Waves and Cloud Recordings put it out. For a few years, I did some backup percussion and vocals for New Sound of Numbers. I sang a version of Form A Line on a recording by Tunabunny and recently recorded a little back up for a song on Dressy Bessy’s new record.
Right now, I am not involved with either of those projects. I had a few things going on and I couldn’t really pay attention to music for a year or two. Recently, I retired from my day job as a nurse and I have had time to sing a little here and there mostly locally. Last year I did a full set of Pylon music with some of my friends (Jason NeSmith, Kay Stanton, Joe Rowe and Damon Denton) and we call ourselves Pylon Reenactment Society. We performed at Art Rocks, an event which focused attention on the late ‘70s and early ‘80s art and music scene this past fall. We opened for Fred Schneider here in Athens. My friend Tammy from Dressy Bessy has a new record coming out and she asked us to play a few dates with her.
Of all of the bigger bands you have opened for (ie: U2, REM, etc.) which particular one were you most excited about playing with?
Probably the B-52s, REM and PIL are up at the top of that list. It would be hard to decide between them.
Who are some current bands that you like?
I like Deerhunter,Tunabunny, Sia, Lourde. I have a soft spot in my heart for a great guitarist.
Care to list your top 10 desert island discs?
I’ll be happy to list some, but my taste changes from week to week. Here is more than 10 off the top of my head.
Hank Williams – Best of
Gram Parsons-Grevious Angel
Kraftwerk -The Man Machine and TransEurope Express
B-52’s – The B-52’s
Talking Heads – Remain in Light
Afrika Bambaata and Soul Sonic Force – Planet Rock
Elvis Costello – My Aim is True
Public Image Limited – Metal Box
Isaac Hayes – Hot Buttered Soul
David Bowie – Heroes
Patti Smith – Horses
REM – Document
Any closing comment? Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?
I can’t think of anything really other than to please register to vote and please don’t vote for Trump.
Well, I do on the Pylon side of the questions. Pylon are releasing a live record later this summer. It will be the full show of our final performance back in 1983 here in Athens, GA. Henry Owings is going to put it out. It has been mastered, but I haven’t heard the acetate yet. It was a good performance. Michael said after listening to it that he couldn’t believe that we broke up. Ha, ha!
BONUS QUESTION: It is true a Pylon song is featured in a car commercial (I have not heard it yet, a pal told me about it)? If so how did that come about?
That is true. The ad rep for Lexus approached us late last summer about using “Cool” in an ad. We were in agreement after discussing it. It still freaks me out to hear the guys playing on TV, especially that great riff of Randy’s. We didn’t really announce it, but Lexus put out some sort of press release. Our friends and fans have been definitely noticing that it is Pylon and for the most part they are happy to hear us. We are all way more excited about this live record that is coming out and have been focusing on that.