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Interview: Pylon Reenactment Society

7 February 2024

Photo by Christy Bush

More bands should follow this lead. Rather than being a tribute band and only performing songs that Pylon wrote and recorded in the early ‘80s or dragging the band’s legacy along with only one original member still involved, Pylon Reenactment Society – featuring Pylon frontwoman Vanessa Briscoe Hay – pays homage to the influential, but never mainstream, new wave punk style she created in Athens, Georgia decades ago while collaborating with a new cast of characters. Guitarist Jason NeSmith, who Hay performed with in her post-Pylon band Supercluster, is a student of the Athens sound and through a tempting offer a decade ago was able to convince his bandmate to revisit the sounds that influenced acts ranging from the Sleater-Kinney to R.E.M.

Joined by fellow Supercluster bandmate Kay Stanton (bass) and Casper & The Cookies drummer Gregory Sanders, Hay and NeSmith were inspired to start something new and fresh with a foot planted in the past for inspiration. Thus, Pylon Reenactment Society as born and after a decade of playing Pylon songs, performing live shows around Athens and on the West Coast, and working on new material, the band’s debut album, Magnet Factory, has finally been unleashed by Strolling Bones Records.

Hay and NeSmith recently took some time to talk about Athens, how the seed for Pylon Reenactment Society was planted, the surprise adulation of the Pylon box set, and the influence Hay has had on a generation of musicians.

How has Athens changed since you moved there?

VANESSA: I moved here in 1973 to go to the University of Georgia when I was 17 years old. It was a much smaller town then. I think UGA had less than 30,000 students and the town itself was around maybe 50,000 to 60,000. But since then, the city has incorporated with the county and I think that we’re around 150,000 people. UGA has around 45,000 students. But on a football Saturday, they’ll draw 90,000 people to the town to watch the Georgia Bulldogs play football.

Is there anything about the Athens you moved to in 1973 that feels somewhat the same today?

VANESSA: There are a few things that do, mostly the older parts of campus. Downtown has changed quite a bit. It’s not like the sleepy little bird that it used to be. But what does remain the same is we do have a youth culture because the University of Georgia is based here and we have an art school and a music school. As far as things that are going on in the town, when I first moved here they really weren’t a whole lot of places to go hear live original music. The university would bring those types of things in but they weren’t clubs like there are now. That’s really grown by leaps and bounds. As far as original music, I don’t know how many bands there are here now but before the pandemic, at one point, we had 350 bands that lived here. They were calling us the San Francisco of the South.

JASON: Artists still move here because of what we all know about the city but it’s harder to have a job as a dishwasher and also tour eight months out of the year. That used to be a possible thing but it’s less so now. There is still a lot of great arts here, not just in the music but in other mediums as well. So, that part of Athens is the same.

With the original Pylon band, you got to do a lot of things that you wanted to do. You released albums, you toured, and you even ended the band on your own terms. Coming back now, does it feel like you’re playing with house money, like there’s not a lot of pressure to do this but you’re doing it because you want to? Or, does it feel like there were things you left unfinished that you’re hoping to wrap up now, this many years later?

VANESSA: I don’t think I left anything with Pylon undone. Pylon broke up the last time because our guitarist passed away. We were in the process of writing some new music and it was left unfinished. We decided as a group that there could be no Pylon without all the original members.

Even right before that, we had gotten back together in 2004 and sometime in 2007 I started having this music come into my head that was not exactly Pylon type material so I formed a recording project with some friends that included Jason and Kay Stanton called Supercluster. We recorded, made some videos. We actually played out a little opening for the B-52s in the Northeast. But then, in 2009, Pylon had been working on the Chomp reissue and we had all of the sonic parts in place and were just waiting for the graphics to be done and Randy passed away. Not that there was anything left unsaid because we did everything else, we were doing it and we pretty much, at that point, had released almost everything.

I started working with Jason with the Pylon Reenactment Society back in 2014. The Art Rocks Athens were putting on a series of events. There were art shows and some music shows that showed the connection between the music and art scene in Athens between 1975 and 1985. Jason had the idea to ask me if I wanted to perform something. I thought about it and I came back to him and I said, “That’s the era that Pylon were in. We came out of that art school, we came out of that music scene.” He helped put a band together to back me up, which was basically his band, Casper and the Cookies, and we played. Then we put that on the shelf.

At that point, Supercluster was no more since about 2013. All I was doing was working and making some art and writing. I wasn’t performing or anything. And Jason came to me the next year and he said, “We’re doing it again. You want to do it again? We’ll give you more time.” He helped me put a band together again, which was Casper and the Cookies, and added Joe Rowe from The Glands as the drummer because the drummer for Casper and the Cookies was having shoulder surgery.

Dressy Bessy heard about this and invited us to come play with them. We just started getting invitations to play. In the process of playing together, learning Pylon material, we just couldn’t help ourselves. We started jamming and writing music. And here we are 10 years later. I guess we’re an overnight success, right? We’re finally putting an album out that kind of got put on hold because of the pandemic.

So, to me, it’s not like I felt like anything was left undone. I feel like this is doing the work. Being able to continue to make art and music with these people that are working with me is a gift. I’m very lucky to be working with Jason and Kay Stanton and Gregory Sanders.

To talk about free money or house money, I’ve always felt you’re only as good as your last show or the last thing you record. I don’t think anybody who’s an artist really likes to lay down on their laurels. I really like to move forward and try to do things the best way that I can. I’m really happy with this album and I can’t wait to see what people think of it. I hope they enjoy it.

Jason, maybe you can set the scene from the 2014 and 2015 performances at the Art Rocks Athens.

JASON: It was mainly put together by Blair Dorminey, Heli Montgomery Dunn, Chris Razz and Maureen McLaughlin, who was also the original B-52s manager, in addition to a couple of other folks that kind of came and went. There were multiple events for both of those years. It was more of a three-day festival. There were exhibitions of photographs and paintings and other sorts of visual and dance art that was related to, or came directly from, that era. And because the music and the art were so tightly connected, they were often the same people doing both.

It just made sense to have a couple of shows. For each of those years, there were two nights of music, and we tried to keep it somewhat period-specific. I asked Vic Varney to reunite Method Actors. He said there was no way that could happen, so we got Love Tractor back together for their first proper reunion show in a long time. And some other really great things like that happened. David Barbe did the first Mercyland show. He also did Bar-B-Que Killer songs. The people that were in the audience for that were a lot of people from all eras of Athens. We also had some younger bands perform just to show that this is still an evolving scene.

The second festival, we had Fred Schneider play, and all of his backup band was people my age and younger. Dana Downs, who has been in several bands, including Go Van Gogh and The Tone Tones, and Cindy Wilson were there that night, too. It really kind of spanned the eras in a great way. People lost their minds when we played, and it was just too good to not see what other juice was in them berries.

Pylon was around – and broke up the first time – before the internet. Do you think the internet has opened a whole new fanbase that didn’t know about you back in the day or had trouble finding your records and now are able to find music easily?

VANESSA: I think we’ve definitely gotten a much younger audience through the internet and YouTube. The first time we got together, Pylon Reenactment Society, and played the West Coast in 2017, the opening bands were all much younger and they loved Pylon and there was a large group of 20-and-30-year-olds who were there. Pylon had tapped into that audience when we played that same venue for one of the first Part Time Punks festivals. I think the second one that they did, we went out there and played. It was packed at the Echoplex. I had my head down, I wasn’t really looking at the audience, I was just trying to concentrate. Randy struck the first chord of a song and this huge roar went up from the audience. I looked up and looked around and there were a couple thousand people there, they were all losing their minds.

It turned out that there were some local DJs in Los Angeles who had been playing us for the last several years. They instantly recognized a song from these DJs playing it. It was astounding to me, because I joke that here I am in Athens living a normal, everyday kind of life and then I get to experience that. I mean, how wild is that? It was crazy.

Were you starting to write the songs that are on the new album back in the 2014, 2015 time range?

VANESSA: They’re from all eras. We seriously started writing after we were touring a little bit.

JASON: In 2016, we really started to do a lot of searching together in the rehearsal room. That’s when it started. Some things get refined over a long period of time or come up real fast and just write themselves. It’s hard to say that it’s from a specific era or that it’s from a range of eras, it all was finished around the same time aside from a couple of tracks.

There are a few songs that are old that you put a new touch on.

VANESSA: Two of those songs, “3 × 3” and “Heaven,” were songs that were written by Pylon back in 1979 that surfaced in our sets through the years but they didn’t make it into our first album, Gyrate, and they weren’t really the right vibe for Chomp. Every few years we would pop up and play them again, but they never were really formally recorded in the studio. When Jason was working on putting together the audio portion for Box, Pylon’s box set came out in 2020, he found these songs and he brought them to the band and was like,“Let’s try these.” They kind of rounded out this unspoken theme I have for the album. It all works. We put our own spin on them, especially “Heaven.” Jason almost completely rearranged the guitar on that and it makes me really happy to hear his solo.

There’s probably not a lot of artists who can pull out something that’s 40 years old and give it new life. I have to imagine it was pretty special to bring them to life.

VANESSA: It was very exciting. When Pylon got back together for the third time I was like “Hey, we need to go in the studio and record ‘3 × 3’.” We didn’t ever quite make it in there to do that. And then after Randy passed, I kind of had an idea that maybe I could get three of the members of Pylon and get Jason to come back and then do it. But I think it’s much better this way. I think this is a better way to present it. It’s such a joyous song, I think that a lot of people are enjoying it for that reason.

Were you surprised that the box set got glowing reviews? There were so many reviews that praised it.

VANESSA: Having worked very closely with Jason, I was more in the sound and the business side as opposed to the vision, but I helped get some of the material together that went into the book. I knew it was really special, but I didn’t know that so many people would get it. It made me really happy. It’s like, “If we’re gonna have a legacy here, this is a good one to have.” Part of the reason I worked so hard on all this is I didn’t want Randy to be forgotten or Pylon to be forgotten. It served its purpose and is still available. They put out another printing of it so you can still get it.

JASON: I’m so happy that we were able to use Chris Razz’s rehearsal tape of the band. It just shows another side of that early history where you could see where the songs were going when they were just about to record the first single. You could just see from the very beginning there was something interesting. That history was hidden until Box came out. That was really fun to be able to show people that.

It’s very cool that all of that early Pylon material still exists.

JASON: It seems that there’s quite a few people, Chris Razz being one, Tom Smith being another, sound people that Pylon have had over the years, that have been very dedicated to capturing the shows. We still get packages in the mail from folks who were at a show in Denver and they brought a little cassette recorder and are like, “Here’s the tape.” It’s great that the documentation is there for all these tiny moments that would have been forgotten completely.

VANESSA: Moments good and bad (laughs). Warts and all.

The music you were creating in the 80s and even the music on the new album sounds relevant in 2024. There are so many fads in music that are here today, gone tomorrow, but to be able to go back and listen to your stuff that’s 40 years old and it makes sense today is a really cool testament to the music you were writing then and being able to take that next step and create new music that fits in. It’s great that there’s nothing you look back on with embarrassment.

VANESSA: I’m not too embarrassed usually, but I can be embarrassed. Jason knows that. I think that maybe what is resonant about some of the material, especially the early stuff, is that it was authentic. That was us in the studio and if you go back and look at the track sheets for the band and the instruments, we didn’t even use all the tracks that were available. Sonically, it made it better. We were lucky to have Bruce Baxter record us and not really try to mess with us a whole lot, just to make an honest picture of how we sounded. I think that kind of resonates and it does with a lot of other music. If you think about the things that you really like, sure, there’s a lot of stuff you like that has a lot of trickery and whatever, but if you listen to early Ramones or Television or Talking Heads, it’s the sound. We had a sound and we were lucky to have it recorded pretty much as it was.

You probably know a ton of bands that never recorded anything but that you would go see live and really like.

VANESSA: One that kind of sticks out is the Tone Tones. They started pretty much the same time we did. They had Dana Downs, Vic Varney and David Gamble, who went on to form the Method Actors. They were a really great live band and I think people have looked to try to find some kind of good recorded output and it just doesn’t exist, which is a shame. That’s one that is near the top of my list as far as bands that I know personally.

JASON: We are fortunate that a band like Limbo District, whom we all thought was lost to the mists of time, did leave some recordings behind. Henry Owings has been trepidatious enough to locate them and we’ve transferred them and those are coming out. That’s a rarity.

Once the Tascam PortaStudios became something you could go to the music store and buy, you didn’t have to go to a big studio. You didn’t have to ask somebody for money to go to a big studio and record your five songs that you’d been playing every weekend at the local club, you could just record them at home. That turned into, “Let’s make our own Sgt Peppers in our bedroom.” There’s something to be said for that. Some of it is really fantastic. It’s some of the best music ever. That’s how I came up. But listening to Pylon is a great reminder that it’s just the sound of three or four or five people doing exactly what they do best and it working together with no trickery at all. It’s a real special thing.

Was going into the studio to record Magnet Factory like putting on a pair of old shoes where everything felt comfortable or given all the new studio technology, was it a completely different experience than what you were used to?

VANESSA: For me, it’s so much easier now than it used to be when you record. You’d have to be really, really careful when you were in the studio, especially being a singer. First, you would go through and do the vocals with the band while they were playing. But because there would be a little bleeding coming in from the sound, you’d have to go back and re-record the vocals. If you made a mistake, it was really hard to fix. They do this thing where you take another track and do a drop in, or sometimes they’d actually razor it apart and splice it. You tried not to make any mistakes because it was a lot of grief. Nowadays, it’s all digital and automated. We recorded to tape for the most part over at David Barbe’s.

JASON: In the early stages of the David Barbe recordings, we did record to tape. We did end up transferring those to a digital workstation and continuing recording, but we still primarily used it as a tape recorder, like a big multi-track recorder. There was no MIDI, there was no looping. It’s a pretty honest recording for what that’s worth. It’s not to say that we couldn’t have done something like that, but we wanted to make it that way. We wanted to sound like we sound.

VANESSA: There were a few songs I did completely all at once without having to go back and drop in or anything. I think it was the first take too. I was kind of laughing. Of course that didn’t happen a lot but it happened once.

Did you start recording pre-pandemic?

VANESSA: We recorded a few songs on December 29th, 2021. And then in 2022, it was June or July before we could get back in the studio. It was very hard to get the schedule for everybody together and we ended up going to another studio called Subvon to lay down tracks with a great engineer, Tom Ashton, who is in the band The March Violets. He has done quite a bit of recording that we like here in town.

It was toward the end of 2022 when we were able to get back and finish it up and start the mixing process. We went into David Barbe’s studio and finished up the recordings. The mixing took place in January of 2023 for a good bit of it.

And there’s a song that we do where Kate Pierson comes in and is a featured vocalist with me. I think it was January the 7th or the 8th, the B-52s played what was going to be their last touring show here in Athens, Georgia. I happened to go backstage and was able to talk to Kate and Fred after the show. While they were playing, it struck me that Kate would be perfect to do this one song we had. And I said, “I don’t have anything to lose. I’m going to ask her.” And I did. And she was like, “Really? You want me to sing with you?” I was so happy. About a week later, she was at home up in New York state and in her studio up there and sent the vocals down on our very last day of mixing. I want to say it’s maybe even the last thing we mixed. We were just all over the moon when we heard her vocals. It was like a dream come true.

JASON: We had actually mixed everything else on the record and five minutes after finishing it, her vocal came through on Dropbox. It was the most perfect timing. It’s like, “We can actually finish this record today.”

Was the idea always that Strolling Bones was going to put Magnet Factory out or did you finish it up and then start shopping it?

VANESSA: We finished it and then we started shopping it. After talking to some different people, we decided that Strolling Bones was the best bit for us and the main reason is they liked it just the way it was. They didn’t want to talk us into changing anything and they’re very supportive. They’re local, but they also have the backing of a bigger label, their mother label New West Records who I had worked with with Pylon. I was really happy that they wanted to work with us.

Have a lot of people come up to and tell you how early Pylon influenced their music?

VANESSA: I’m just always surprised that anybody’s even heard of us. I guess one of the first ones that really surprised me was Sleater-Kinney. I’d taken my daughter, who was in high school, and her friend to go see them at the 40 Watt. They’d heard of Sleater-Kinney through a women-focused punk rock magazine. I don’t remember the name but it was Northwest based. I was like, “These are the kind of people I like to have influence on my daughters.” So I took them to the concert.

Of course, as soon as we got there, they ditched me. There’s a little record store next door so I walked in there and one of the members of Sleater-Kinney was there. And she was like, “Are you who I think you are?” And I was like, “Who do you think I am?” And she says, “Don’t leave. Wait right here. I’ve got someone that you need to meet.”

She ran backstage and got the other two members of Sleater-Kinney and brought them into the record store to talk to me. We signed some stuff for each other and we’re talking and then I looked and right outside the window, I saw my daughter and her friend staring at me with their mouths open. And I was like, “Well, this is fun.”

Did your daughter already think you were cool or did that score you some cool points?

VANESSA: That gave me some cool points. I was just a mom to her. I was the one who had to say “no” to her and try to be a good mom and all of that. She wasn’t really thinking that I had some other life before I had her. I never really imposed that on my children.

My younger daughter, when she was in the third grade, she had some little boys down the street over here one day. They pulled out a Pylon record and they were playing it and she was going, “Listen to this. This is my mom. She was in R.E.M.” I just laughed. She didn’t know what she was talking about. I never really made a big deal out of it.

They both help sell merch for us and my older daughter is going to come and be our roadie and merch person in California in a few weeks. That’s gonna be fun.

When you were raising your daughter, what did they know you as career wise if they didn’t know you had been a singer in a band?

VANESSA: I was a registered nurse for 21 years. That’s how I supported the family. I was a soccer mom. I drove them to soccer practice and to games. I went to PTA meetings and had a minivan and all of that. I took being a parent seriously. Kids don’t ask to come into this world so I wanted to try to be a good mom. I hope I was. I’m not perfect, but I tried my best.

Once the album drops, what happens?

VANESSA: We’re going to South by Southwest. We want to do a Northeast and maybe a Midwest tour.

JASON: We don’t have dates yet for that, but it’s on the horizon. We’re really excited to play these new and old songs for people and see what they think.