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Athens, GA: Freak Beat

“My best friend in college, her mother would go to Paris each year for her clothes, and she once gave me a camel-hair coat plus two big pieces of advice,” says Vanessa Briscoe Hay, lead singer of post-punk band Pylon, while sharing a Middle Eastern snack platter and memories from 30 years of the Athens, Georgia music scene.

“She said, ‘If you ever get a really nice piece of clothing, don’t get rid of it. Save it and take care of it, because it will always come back in style. And the other advice was to try not to get married more than once, because men are so hard to train.”

A student at the University of Georgia’s Lamar Dodd School of Art during the ’70s, Hay was part of a close-knit, creatively open community that spawned the high-concept, low-rent cheerleading of The B-52’s, the maximized minimalism of Pylon’s angular meta-mysteries, as well as numerous lesser known (but no less fondly remembered) contemporaries such as The Side Effects, The Tone Tones, The Method Actors, Oh-OK, and Love Tractor. Flash forward 20 years and Athens would bleed peppermint and paisley, fostering a psychedelic pop scene out of which emerged Of Montreal, expanded to a sextet led by Kevin Barnes and trafficking in dancefloor-friendly fringe iconography.

Now it’s 2008, and The B-52’s have just released Funplex, their first studio album in 16 years, partially recorded in Athens. Pylon, following a 2004 reunion, is readying the reissue of the group’s second album, Chomp, on James Murphy’s DFA Records. And Of Montreal is launching a tour behind Skeletal Lamping (Polyvinyl), the group’s most ambitious collection of autoaudioerotic booty calls. Communal freak-outs are back in style, so we sat down with several Athens mainstays and pieced together a firsthand account of how the temple of art-school-skewed freak beat was built.

John Martin Taylor (writer/photographer)
Athens, like most college towns, has always been liberal, in spite of its founding fathers’ having purposely placed the University way up in the hinterlands of Georgia in 1785, far away from the bawdy port of Savannah (which was then the capital of the state). UGA has apparently always been a party town, probably because it is isolated and because of its strong fine arts traditions. Until the ’70s, those parties more closely resembled frat parties à la Animal House. As pot replaced beer, and rock replaced beach music, and glam aesthetics entered the everyday vernacular, Athens gatherings became more mind- and gender-bending than keg parties had ever been. We wore fake fur and drank cocktails. The war was over. Jimmy Carter, a Georgian and a Democrat, was in the White House. As far as we were concerned, times were good.

Fred Schneider (The B-52’s)
You could get away with things in Athens, and it was very creative. A lot of it was performance. I wrote a book [Bleb, a handwritten collection of poems], and even before the band, Keith [Strickland, The B-52’s guitarist/songwriter] and I got together in his basement and wrote stuff. We did another thing that went on like four hours with three songs and a slideshow of Canada and people in drag called Night Soil. We did a lot of things, because there was nothing else except bar bands you didn’t want to go see. And clubs were just for going to when it was 25-cent beer night. Then you crashed parties ’til you were locked out.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon)
[UGA art professor] Bob Crocker had this famous 24-hour party when he turned 40. At one point I looked in the room and everybody was dancing jam-packed together, playing something like Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! I got picked up and passed across the room on hands, and I was like, ‘Oh my god. Many hands do make light work!’ It was crazy. We had a great combination in the summer: cold keg beer, sprinklers, cheap rent. There were some very creative people, and nothing was purchased–we cut our own hair and made imaginative outfits out of the thrift store.

Michael Lachowski (Pylon)
People were creative at parties without even being asked. One time I decided to have a party called “Fashion Is Art,” and the poster was a clothes hanger with that written inside it. So I hung black plastic and made everyone stand there and have their picture taken. New York Rocker magazine was what we [Pylon] wanted to be written up in–that was our quest. And damn if we didn’t get written up pretty quickly.

John Martin Taylor (writer/photographer)
In February 1977 the B’s first performed in front of an audience... I had a t-shirt made at the county fair with an awful airbrush painting of a woman with a bouffant hairdo with “B-52” scrawled across the back. I wore it over a cowhide-print shirt tucked into white drawstring pants I had bought in the Caribbean somewhere; they were tucked into boots. An atrocious sight. Everyone was wearing similar makeshift fashion.

We lived simply... But we also lived wildly, seldom conforming to anyone else’s sense of fashion or decorum. We didn’t need Halloween as an excuse to dress up… or down.

Fred Schneider (The B-52’s)
A while before Valentine’s Day I told people we had a band, which we jammed on because there was nothing to do, and friends agreed to let us play in their living room. And then after that it went well, and other friends said we had to play at their party. [Then] Curtis [Crowe, Pylon’s drummer] had a party and we played on his kitchen table. Then after several parties someone said we were as good or better than bands playing Max’s [Kansas City, a New York venue famous from the Pop Art to punk eras]. Which didn’t mean a lot; lots of bands were better [laughs]. So Keith and Ricky took a tape up there and we played in December 1977 and we felt we’d made it. That was a “wow, we did it” feeling, and then a bigger “wow, they want us back.” We were making like $60, $80 a week working full-time. We would save up and go to New York and hopefully break even, staying in two rooms in the Iroquois. And we had this opening act, Phyllis [Stapler], doing dance routines to “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” which no one had seen in New York. We created our own audience.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon)
I knew The Incomparable Phyllis, who opened for The B-52’s. I knew her from art school. She worked at the El Dorado, a vegetarian restaurant where several of the B-52’s also worked off and on.

Bryan Poole(Of Montreal)
If you’re in a band in Athens chances are you’re probably also in the service industry. So a lot of the time bands get popular locally because the guy washing dishes puts his tracks on, and next thing you know everyone in the restaurant is into it. As a small band you start out playing for other bands, trying to get your friends to play your records at their parties. In Athens the underground places, the warehouse shows, are where it’s always been at.

Michael Lachowski (Pylon)
For a while I lived on Barber Street in this area people started to call Pylon Park. During any time there were at least two members of the group living there, plus an adjacent lot to the side. And we’d run power out from the house for my quadraphonic stereo, since we didn’t own a PA system. We’d spend the whole day putting up four-foot fluorescent light fixtures in the tree branches and against the trunks, sometimes setting up props, like stretch plastics and things. That predates when people went to see the bands, even though we were in bands. People would bring records, like when Computer World by Kraftwerk came out. Approaching this scene–sort of in the trees, with people and fluorescent lights–and hearing an album like that for the first time… everything really felt new. The mix of energy and music and ideas [came] together into a scene where everyone felt just as important as everyone else, [everyone was] sort of the star.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon)
I never imagined being in a band, I just kind of fell into it. I hadn’t had any fantasies about it. I thought I was going to be an art teacher. The guys started playing together, and I had worked with Michael at DuPont [Textiles], and we’d all gone to parties together. Then one day they suggested I audition for the band. I showed up and Michael had a nice binder of lyrics and a microphone for me, and I tried to make the lyrics fit the music. None of us had a preconceived notion of how we’d do it. I think [Pylon guitarist] Randy [Bewley] and Michael got their initial stuff at yard sales and pawnshops just to try something new. Everyone thinks dinky old stuff is worth something after Antiques Roadshow, but you could get good stuff then for $10. You could become a musician the day you decided to be. At our practices, we were always looking for different ways to be a band–once we had a practice in the dark and the guitarist and bassist had little headlamps.

Michael Lachowski (Pylon)
A lot of that kind of overly played-up idea of people being naive about bring musicians is undeniably a crucial part of that scene. Most truly did not know how to be in a band. Pylon was definitely like that, starting extremely tentatively with our instruments. But we were bold and certain... The experiment was trying to figure out what to do, and by the time we were performing, that experiment was our song. It was all part of the transition–going to houses, playing records ’til the band gathers in the kitchen.

Fred Schneider (The B-52’s)
Things were almost post-punk, pre-New Wave, but mostly everyone made music you could dance to because we were playing for our friends, and all our friends loved to groove.

Danny Beard (DB Records)
This scene, which to me includes both Athens and Atlanta bands [such as early B-52’s supporters The Fans], started from the way The B-52’s were, meaning there was no jealousy shown. Everybody helped each other. I think it has to do with being Southern, and good people. But in general some of the success in the scene had to do with the support coming from a good atmosphere between the clubs and labels, and especially between the bands.

I first saw Pylon with Kate [Pierson, from The B-52’s]; she knew Vanessa and strongly suggested I go to their show. I saw them at a party at my friend Neal McArthur’s house, and really thought they were great. Some bands needed to work into being really good, whereas The B-52’s were great the first time they played, and Pylon was the same.

Bryan Poole(Of Montreal)
When I arrived [in 1989] there was still a glut of bands trying to cop off of R.E.M.–being a jangle-rock rip-off band to ride the golden money trail. It became a little depressing to people locally, because R.E.M. is great, but the best bands do their own thing. So after that the scene needed to rejuvenate, and that came through the Elephant 6 and Kindercore labels–through a bunch of kids just happy to get out of their parents’ house to smoke pot and make music, looking for that Technicolor innocence of pop music from before 1966 and also listening to Stockhausen and putting it all on four-track. All these other state schools in the South, you all wonder why they didn’t have the same scene. But I think it had to do with having such a big art school with students who care to be crazy and create their own little worlds.

Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal)
When I first moved here there was no real hope of breaking through, as the eyes of the world weren’t on Athens. But it helps you to be in a supportive environment; being around bands that have put out records and toured can help you be more comfortable on stage. It was kind of an anti-celebrity scene. Olivia Tremor Control never wanted their faces in their photos. Neutral Milk Hotel wasn’t promoting on a commercial level. You could do some cool theatrical stuff but not worry about being a cartoon. I had these big-brother figures; it helped me realize what I had to do to make this work as a career.

Around 1998-1999 we all started having potluck dinners every week, and we’d bring something simple we cooked and we’d share music and books and films. It was so inspiring, almost like an education for me. It was people in bands plus their girlfriends, and the girlfriends were also in groups like Dixie Blood Mustache. Basically, they were performance art... They’d do stuff like hang cymbals from the ceiling, create visual atmospheres, create weird little rooms you’d go into. They created this Chinese Dragon that you’d get in and move around and bang in. I think everyone was really influenced by The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra, infusing that into indie rock. Mostly, though, everyone was really into psychedelic pop music, and that was the binding force. We tried to discover these lost classics, put them on and blow minds, have something to freak out on for a week.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon)
Downtown [in the late ’70s/early ’80s] was pretty empty, and there was always the same nice old policeman down there, constantly giving us warnings but letting us go. Once there were these girls in the street dancing in go-go boots on top of a convertible, and as I walked by one of them shouted to me, “We’re making history!” And I said, “Wow, what a place to make it!” But in a way they were making history on that car, and it’s a fond memory for them. We all made a little history in places we never expected to.

Michael Lachowski (Pylon)
Vanessa and I were just both panelists on a discussion at AthFest after a showing of [1987 documentary] Athens, GA-Inside/Out, and the questions were along the lines of “Compare the scene then to earlier or now.” Ort [owner of Ort’s Oldies record store] was also on the panel, and he described a concept he called the Ort Fulcrum or something. Basically, the concept is that if things are tipping this one way then everything can be really fun, but it doesn’t have to be what might commercially be considered good (like the early period). And tipped the other way, everything might be good to further success, it just might not be fun. And a lot of us on the panel tended to agree–it’s shifted back away from that period where commercial success is an important goal; that tendency of good but not fun has subsided. We feel it’s more collective, and people are supporting music for the love of making it again.

Kevin Barnes (Of Montreal)
Basically, we played a ton of shows–hundreds–and probably 90 percent did nothing to make us want to continue making music and touring. But we found moments of affirmation, even on albums that didn’t sell well. Working with other musicians, working with my brother on the album artwork, figuring out what to do with it all on the stage–the creative process is very rewarding, sharing it is fulfilling. And the touring has reached that level. For [our new album,] Skeletal Lamping,we can create a communal experience where likeminded people all dress up in our freak scene each night like I always wanted.

Extra: No strangers to 8mm film cams, the Athens scene of the ’70s and ’80s was a well-documented one. Check out clips from the scene-defining documentary Athens, GA-Inside/Out and some rare live performances of “Rock Lobster” and “Devil in My Car” from The B-52’s.


John Martin Taylor is a writer, photographer, cookbook author, stone-ground corn connoisseur, and friend of The B-52’s. His quotes are reprinted with permission, and his complete memoirs can be viewed on his blog.hoppinjohns.net

Fred Schneider has been a band frontman since the Africanized “killer” bee scare of the mid-’70s. It started as a hobby, a way to bring Fellini and Mancini to the sleepy Classic City, something to do after cocktails at a Chinese restaurant. An immediate hit from the Peach State to the Big Apple, that lark–named The B-52’s–helped set the initial Athens music scene in motion.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay, vocals, and Michael Lachowski, bass, play alongside drummer Curtis Crowe and guitarist Randy Bewley in Pylon, a band that’s had its own custom Lachowski-designed typeface since forming in 1978 (exactly one year after The B-52’s’ first show). The group took a hiatus between 1984-1988 and another between 1991-2004, but still managed to tour with The B-52’s, Gang of Four, U2, and R.E.M., among others. The first incarnation of the 40 Watt, Athens’ renowned live venue, was originally Pylon’s practice space. During the second Pylon hiatus, Lachowski was a local electro boogie DJ, dance culture promoter, and seller of vinyl and DJ supplies.

Danny Beard graduated from the University of Georgia and co-founded Wax ’N Facts Records in Atlanta in 1976. From 1982-1984 he had a “junior” branch in Athens, co-managed by Michael Lachowski. Beard’s DB Records also holds the distinction of having put out the debut singles by both The B-52’s (1978’s “Rock Lobster” b/w “52 Girls”) and Pylon (1980’s “Cool” b/w “Dub”), among several other local acts.

Bryan Poole and Kevin Barnes play together in Of Montreal, alongside Dottie Alexander, James Huggins, Davey Pierce, and Ahmed Ghallab. Poole moved to Athens in 1989, and may or may not have been at the first show of Pylon’s first reunion. However, he definitely bought Michael Lachowski’s tuner at Pylon’s “Going Out of Business Sale” in 1991. Along with Of Montreal, Poole has played bass in Elf Power and an ESG cover band, Dark Meat, with more surely to come. Barnes moved to Athens in 1997 following a brief cruel stint in Minneapolis. He’s been prolific ever since, surviving the Elephant 6 shadow and Kindercore Records collapse to become the Purple One of the Southeast, self-recording a kinky frenzy of basslines in his computer. Of Montreal’s Skeletal Lamping is out in October on Polyvinyl.

Photos courtesy of Michael Lachowski and Of Montreal.

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