Interview: Pylon's Vanessa Briscoe Hay

Legendary Athens frontwoman pays tribute to her trailblazing band.


The original Athens, Ga. band, Pylon. A new double-live album has been released featuring a show from 1983.
  • The original Athens, Ga. band, Pylon. A new double-live album has been released featuring a show from 1983.

What people used to call the “college rock” genre back in the '80s didn’t start with those great early R.E.M. albums. You know, the ones before Michael Stipe and crew started annunciating, graduating to global fame and increasingly adventurous facial hair.

A whole lot more shaking was going on in the small college town of Athens, Ga. during that same period. There were so many unique bands down there - including Stipe’s personal favorite, Pylon – it makes you wonder if someone was tampering with the water fountains. Or maybe the record stores.

Pylon was a southern band, but not one you would associate with American rock by any stretch. Their songs were taut, bass-heavy, angular affairs played in steamy clubs filled with pogoing fans; the group was inspired by fellow townies, the B-52s, as well as British post-punk such as Gang of Four, who they later toured alongside.

“Taking the most common pop line-up, bass-drums-vocal-guitar, and turning it on its head, they managed to create a sound and songs that were distinctly theirs and incapable of being mimicked or copied," Stipe wrote in the liner notes to a reissue of the band’s seminal 1980 debut, “Gyrate." "Believe me, because I tried.”

And they were not named after the Faulkner novel, I've learned.

“I don't know where that started . . . We were artists and the idea of having a visual element to the name appealed to us," says lead singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay. "At first we were going to call ourselves diagonal, but use the symbol and not the word. Pylon probably had more in common with bands from Manchester and Leeds at the time.”

After releasing two classic albums, Pylon broke up early in 1983 when they said things stopped being fun. They regrouped a couple times before the death of original guitarist Randy Bewley, who helped forge their sound with his alternate tunings.

“Pylon was the four original members: Randy Bewley, Michael Lachowski, Curtis Crowe and me,” says Briscoe Hay. “When he died, that was the end of Pylon. None of us were considered replaceable. Randy was an amazing guitarist and not really like anyone else. We miss him tremendously.”

If you missed any version of the band, you’ll get a unique chance this week (thanks to Steady Sounds) to hear their music when Pylon Reenactment Society, featuring Briscoe Hay, shares a bill with Denver's Dressy Bessy and locals Positive No at Strange Matter on Wednesday. Other band members in PRS include Athens musicians Jason NeSmith and Kay Stanton from Casper & the Cookies and Joe Rowe from the Glands.

Richmond's Armistead Wellford, bassist and multi-instrumentalist with the Athens band, Love Tractor, was a card-carrying fan from their musical heyday together. Lately, he says he put together a version of Love Tractor called We Love Tractor that played with PRS in Atlanta and Athens at the end of July.

"They were awesome gigs and we shared drummers --Joe Rowe from the Glands, absolutely fabulous drummer. PRS has the same explosive energy that Pylon had in 1980-83," Wellford recalls. "When I tell people about the show this Wednesday, I just call them Pylon 'cause it will be like seeing Pylon dynamic wise, but now there's two girls in the band instead of just Vanessa. I predict a great show, especially for people that never had the chance to see Pylon- it's timeless."

Style caught up with Briscoe Hay by e-mail yesterday for a few last-minute questions before the show.

Style Weekly: So how are the shows going so far?

Briscoe Hay: They have been going really well. It is just amazing the response that we have received so far. People have very fond memories of Pylon. We have been steadily adding songs to our setlist from the first two albums by Pylon since we first performed for 15 minutes at Art Rocks Athens Foundation event a little more than two years ago. We have a keyboardist, but he won't be able to make it for this short tour.

Has doing this tribute group surprised you or given you any insight or greater appreciation for Pylon that you may have missed back in the day?

It has made me think about the creative process and how unusual and different it is for different people. Pylon worked differently, but we were not trained musicians. I think it is more important to have the spirit of Pylon than play note perfect. The people that I am working with now are exceptional musicians and they have the greatest respect for the music that Pylon created. Back in the day, I had the insight even at that time, that some nights when we were performing live, we were greater that the sum of our parts. I felt lucky then and I do now to have the opportunity to play this music.

If you had to drop it in a nutshell, what made Athens special back then, and how would you say it’s changed today?

There was a real connection between the art and music scene. I think that still exists, but it is maybe skewed by the sheer number of bands who only view themselves as musicians. It was a slower paced place and there weren't as many clubs. We only had a few back then. It was more of a house party scene. Athens was a smaller community. But, I have visited many places across the US and it's still one of my favorite places anywhere and it's my home.

Pylon Reenactment Society cranks up the Victrola.
  • Pylon Reenactment Society cranks up the Victrola.

If you could curate one night of live music by any of your friends – Athens or elsewhere – who would you book?

If I could curate it, I would have R.E.M., the B-52's, Love Tractor, the Side Effects, Oh-OK, Limbo District, Pylon, Method Actors play in a small steamy club with about 100 people there. Everyone would be dancing!

Do you recall Pylon playing Richmond back in the day? Or do you have any Richmond memories or associations?

I don't recall ever having performed in Richmond before with Pylon. My recording project Supercluster did play in Richmond back in 2009. When we were here Armistead Wellford [of Love Tractor] took us on a short tour of downtown. I thought that it was really cool.

Speaking of Mr. Wellford, he is showing up for a special appearance on Wed. What is your fondest memory of his band Love Tractor?

Love Tractor were and are one of my favorite bands ever. Armistead has always been a true gentleman and is a really fun guy. Love Tractor recently played a reunion show at the Georgia Theatre in Athens, GA for Athens Popfest and it was like no time had passed whatsoever. I know that they are reissuing their catalogue and if you have a chance to see them you should. It was an amazing show.

Did adding a keyboard in PRS fundamentally change the Pylon sound in the live setting? Have you guys written anything new for this group or would you like to?

Not really, the keys play parts that always existed on the studio albums. We haven't written anything new because of time constraints. We do perform a Supercluster song "Peace Disco Song" which is the most Pylon-like of that material. I would like to write some more material. We'll see!

Watching the documentary “Athens, Ga. Inside/Out” – it sounds so unusual to hear you guys say that you just wanted to have fun and, after opening some shows for U2, you decided it wasn’t fun anymore and quit . . . Today, many bands seem focused on making a career, first and foremost . . . the whole idea of college rock and indie music is much different than it was, more corporatized. But I can’t think of many current college bands who create their own sound/or manage to be as vibrant and alive as you guys were. Do you still find many younger groups exciting today?

I have heard several younger groups in my hometown who are doing amazing things, like Tunabunny and Monsoon. My older daughter had a cool short-lived band called Green Thrift Grocery. I think that if you are willing to take the risk of just being yourself and playing what you want to play and bring your own energy to it, anyone of any age, background can make something fresh and exciting. There is no formula and no path other than the one you make for yourself . . . We were a product of those particular times and those particular people and in that particular place.

I’m sure you’ve had musicians thank you for inspiring them . . . What did you think of the Riot Grrrl movement and associated bands that are still reverberating today (that was my time in college, early 90s, bands like Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulysses, and Teenbeat artists would perform at our house parties in Harrisonburg, Va.) Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I consider myself a humanist first and that is not a cop out. Ultimately, isn't that where we want to be? No labels, everyone being respected for who they truly are and their talents regardless of their outer appearance. I thought by now, that we would be past so many things. When I was young, I really thought that the future would be like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. That said, I have two daughters and the older one subscribed to Riot Grrrl magazine and I love that whole movement. I took Hana to see Sleater-Kinney at the 40 Watt and I would have to say on that night and on that stage, they were the best band in America. You were very lucky to see Bikini Kill, Nation of Ulyssess and the Teenbeat artists.

If Pylon has one song you’re most known for, I guess that would be “Crazy.” Great song – what are your memories of its genesis? What did you think when you first heard R.E.M.’s cover of it?

I was going through a difficult time personally when the band created the music. I wrote the lyrics as sort of a self-help guide. Michael Stipe was there the night when we first performed it and complimented us on the song. It was a major surprise after we had broken up the first time, all the wonderful props and support that they were giving us. R.E.M. were tremendous cheerleaders, not only for us, but for other bands like Mission of Burma. They asked for the lyrics, but by the time I got those to them, they had already recorded it. I guess they aren't that hard to figure out. I got a copy of the single “Driver 8” and “Crazy” was the b-side. It was so neat to hear another band that I liked so much cover our bands song.

Have you guys had any strange commercial offers for that song or "Stop It"? The latter is so visceral, a classic gritty rock vocal that feels instantly familiar, but few people can probably place it.

Yes, actually we agreed for it to be used for background music in the Showtime series “Billions.” Someone has some great music taste! Look at the other bands -- This is the episode: Music from "Billions S1E07." No one is interested in "Stop It," so far. We take these things on a case-by-case basis.

What else is going on in your life? Any future plans that fans should be on the look out for?

Right now, I don't have any current plans other than this tour and another in December with PRS. I have been busy for the last year helping with the release of Pylon Live. It is a double record set of a complete Pylon performance from the first time that we broke up. December 1, 1983. It has been a long saga, but it is finally here and we are all very happy with it. Henry Owings from Chunklet, Michael Lachowski who did all the graphics and Derek Almstead who worked on the tape restoration/mixing have all been an absolute delight to work with.

Steady Sounds presents Pylon Reenactment Society, Dressy Bessy, and Positive No on Wednesday, Sept. 21 at Strange Matter. 8 p.m. doors. $10 cover.