By Lauren Ball
ANYONE who’s ever had a healthy obsession with post-punk knows Athens' Pylon.
In 1979, against all odds, a group of four University of Georgia art students taught themselves how to play the guitar and forever changed the music world. Combined with the late Randy Bewley’s restless, frenetic guitar, Vanessa Briscoe Hay’s honey-smooth vocals have made the project a highly influential cult favorite among bands such as Sonic Youth, R.E.M., and Sleater-Kinney.
Today, Briscoe Hay carries on Pylon’s enduring legacy with the creation of the Pylon Reenactment Society, joined by an ever-rotating cast of talented friends and musicians from the Athens scene.
On March 12 at Savannah Stopover, the Pylon Reenactment Society will perform the entirety of Pylon’s seminal 1983 album Chomp for the very first time.
Tell me about the moment surrounding the creation of Pylon in 1979. I know that during that year, you were biding your time in Athens until your husband graduated and you could move away to a bigger city. What made you interested in taking Randy (Bewley) up on his offer to audition for the band?
Honestly, I had nothing better to do while I was working. And I’m a creative person. That's the way I'm wired, so it was nice to have somebody approach me with the project. Randy and Michael (Lachowski) both were very good friends of mine from school. I was just a year ahead of them. So I guess it's really fortunate that it all intersected that way. It's almost like it was meant to happen.
What was the energy like in Athens at the time after the B-52's had taken the city by storm?
(The B-52’s) did leave a void in town. People wanted to go out and do something but there wasn't really anywhere to go. We had some places like Allen’s that’s mentioned in a B-52's song. They had the jukebox and the cheap beer, but there were no places that were really focused on our scene, so there were a lot of house parties. Not every day, but every other week somebody would have a party at their house. Michael and Randy gave some of the best (parties). Michael usually came up with themes for his, which was fun. And then there was Chapter 3 Records which was our big hang out.
One of (our friends) had an art show upstairs at Chapter 3. I wasn't involved in that but Michael and Randy were, and they cleaned that whole area out to make the space useable. I can't even begin to imagine what that was like, it probably hadn't been cleaned in years. That created another space and that ended up being the first place that Pylon played on March 9, 1979, just a few weeks after I joined the band.
When was Chapter 3 active?
From 1977 to '82 or ’83. They were a very big part of the scene. They're kind of left out of (discussions surrounding) what was in the environment that helped create a scene. You could recreate it now if you tried but at that point…in downtown Athens, like Savannah back in the day before SCAD came in, there were all these empty spaces. I had a friend who was from Savannah and we would go there while I was in college. In Athens we had businesses that left town to go to the brand new mall, so there were lots of cheap empty spaces.
We also had a student radio station, WUOG, that played music like the B-52’s that nobody else would play. At the time there was not all this machinery for this new kind of music. It was a do-it-yourself kind of thing.
It's interesting to think about how you need those spaces. You need these environments to facility that creative energy. They really do have such a big part to play in these bands forming.
Right, and even the bands staying together. What was important was that we had a group of people who were interested in going out and listening to these new things, buying these records at Chapter 3, listening to them on-air and going to house parties. It created a tipping point. We had a core group of maybe 50 to 75 people that helped promote the scene. It wasn’t the situation like now where there's something to do almost every night of the week or every weekend. If there was, perhaps people might have gotten burned out on it.
It was very new and exciting. At that point, it was possible to own all the new albums that were coming out. If you saved your money it was possible that you could own all those records and, if not, your friends owned them and you would get together and listen to them with a six-pack.
There’s a long list of bands who have been influenced by your music, but what sourced Pylon’s inspiration right at the beginning of that post-punk era?
We were listening to all the new things that came out, but we were art students and were pretty much self-taught. We were approaching this music from our own kind of aesthetics. Randy taught himself how to play guitar and he's a very influential guitarist who came up with his own tuning. Ricky Wilson (of the B-52’s) did too. He was a sculpture major making all of these sounds and notes, so he's completely self-taught.
We all liked different things but when you brought all of us together, it created its own sound. I know we all loved Kraftwerk, but we don't sound like Kraftwerk!
So you were all more influenced by the other disciplines that you were involved with, such as sculpture? Not necessarily other music?
Not necessarily, but we listened to it. We loved bands like the Gang of Four, The Talking Heads and the B-52’s. I don't think we really sound like them, but we were inspired by their energy.
As the story famously goes, Pylon decided to break up right after being invited to open for U2. What made that particular instance the impetus to call it quits?
We had a professional booking agent who was helping us book some tours after Chomp came out in the summer of 1983. Usually the way everything went was that we formally decided together whether or not we were going to do something, and we would give whoever was booking us a list of dates that we were available, and where we wanted to play in the underground scene. We went up and down the northeast corridor and out west maybe three times. We played Las Vegas a few times which was pretty hilarious for somebody like us, but there you go.
(Our booking agent) called very excitedly saying that he had booked us to open the entire tour for U2. We weren’t very happy about that because that wasn’t how we liked to do things. Plus, that really wasn’t our audience. And we said, “No, we can't do that,” and he said, “Well, why are you in this business?” Which made us say, “Well, why are we in this business?!” There was a lot of pressure to do certain things in a way that we didn't really want to do. We weren’t children, we were adults.
Later on, when got back together we did open for the B-52’s and R.E.M., but at that point that audience had grown and those people who were there to see R.E.M. understood where we were coming from, or would at least be polite about it. But to (appease) that booking agent we agreed to do several of the U2 dates. U2 were very nice, but we were completely right. Those people were not there to see us and, as our drummer once put it, it was kind of like if we were asked to open for God! They weren’t there to see us, and there was a good bit of heckling going on but we soldiered through it and then made a public announcement (about Pylon’s breakup).
Corin Tucker wrote that it was refreshing seeing you on stage in the late ‘80s, that women had little agency in music at the time. Did you feel that you were pushing against that convention when performing?
I came out of art school with these other three guys, and we always looked at ourselves as equals. Whatever I wanted to do was fine with them and whatever they wanted to do was fine with me. I didn’t feel any of those weird sexist pressures, except there would be certain clubs where the sound guy might say, "Hey, honey, get your lips a little closer to the microphone and we’ll wipe the lipstick off later.” We ran into that kind of thing a little when we were unknown. The guys would turn their backs on the sound guy and ask me, “What do you want to do?” and I’d say “Let's just get on with it and get it over with.”
I was insulated by being with a group of guys that I really consider to be like my brothers. I didn't feel the need to be anything other than myself.
What was the driving force behind forming the Pylon Reenactment Society?
In 2004 I had more time because my girls had grown older and I started making music again, but some of that music was not Pylon material. So I got together with Randy and formed a band called Supercluster with some really great people from the Elephant 6 Collective.
The premise of the band was democratic. All of us had projects, and we could just go in and out of it as we wanted. If you wanted to come and record, fine, and if you didn’t, fine. I was writing songs for that and recorded three singles and a CD. Before the CD was finished, Randy passed away, so I started working really closely with Jason Nesmith who had started out recording for the project. He stepped into Randy’s shoes after the CD came out and also brought in Bryan Poole from of Montreal. We went for several years with that and we did a little touring.
We shelved (Supercluster) for a while. We didn't formally break up but just quietly went away in 2013. About a year later Jason said, “I'm in charge of doing the music for Art Rocks Athens. Would you be interested in coming and singing something?” The premise behind Art Rocks Athens was to explore the connection between music and art in Athens between the years 1975 and 1985.
And I said, “You know what? If you can help me get a band together, let's play some Pylon music. That’s the era that Pylon was active and our whole thing was art.” From there, there were some exhibits and shows and quite a bit of activity. We were one of four or five bands that played the 40 Watt and it went over really well. I enjoyed it, but it was a one-off thing. We called ourselves Pylon Reenactment Society because there was a joke that Pylon had where every time we got back together we had to relearn everything, so we were joking that we were the Pylon Historical Reenactment Society.
A year later, Jason called back and let us know that Art Rocks Athens was happening again, and asked us if we’d like to perform once more. I said, “Sure! Can you help me put a band together again?” The only problem was that we needed a drummer because Gregory Sanders had to have shoulder surgery. And so he found Joe Roe who played with Love Tractor at the time, and it went really well. I also brought in a keyboard player so we could play music from Chomp.
Right after that show I was ready to shelve it again but Dressy Bessy contacted us and asked if we could play four shows with them in Athens, Atlanta, and North Carolina. At that point I was still having this glow from the wonderful (Art Rocks) performance and I was like, “You mean people will pay to see this? They’ll pay for me to have this much fun?”
So the Pylon Reenactment Society is going to continue playing shows?
Yes! We’ve written enough material to record an album. We spent money that we made from Bandcamp on studio time and we’ll have enough money soon to go back in again and do some more recording.
Back in October we played Gyrate in its entirety, and when I was talking to Stopover’s Kayne Lanahan about how I’d like to play the festival again she asked if we’d consider doing Chomp in its entirety. I asked the band and they agreed to learn all of that material. So we're gonna do it! We’re gonna play Chomp in its entirety!
You’ve had many different careers, from store management to nursing. While in those other stages of life, did you ever miss performing? Or did you lean into other creative processes?
I was raising two kids and working full time, so I didn't miss it because I was so busy. I like to be busy. But I was always jotting things down, writing poetry or stories. I guess that’s my dirty little secret - I’m a closet writer.
I didn't really have time to make much art but I’ve since come back to that. I have more time now and I have the space in my house to do it. If you’re a creative person things ebb and flow and if you have time to make for it, it comes back. I’ve been very lucky that people even want to hear what I'm doing. I’m very, very grateful to people who've supported me in small and big ways over the years. Sometimes just a kind word is a lot.
Thank you for your time. I can’t wait to catch you at Stopover!
Stopover is one of the best run festivals in the world. There’s such a personal touch and everybody is treated so well, and it’s beautifully curated. It’s just amazing.
Pylon Reenactment Society plays the Roundhouse Stage on March 12 at 9 p.m., and will also be selling limited edition Chomp T-Shirts.