Pylon influenced everyone from R.E.M. to LCD Soundsystem so listen up!
On a tree-lined street in the Athens district of Normal Town, GA, the air is still and thick with summer. On one corner sits a sprawling, wood-slatted house, the kind with a rickety porch—the perfect local for a day stretched out and made fuzzy by endless Long Island iced teas. Up the stairs, past a half demolished disco ball is the spacious home-cum-studio of Michael Lachowski, bassist of the band Pylon. When the door swings open he greets us with a broad smile, a soft southern drawl, and several glasses of whiskey on the rocks.
If you’ve never heard of Pylon, don’t worry. They’re a local Athens band who formed in 1978 with the express purpose of getting reviewed in New York Rocker, after which they’d split. What the quartet didn’t factor into their prankster manifesto was that the music they created—a deliciously danceable, spikily melodic brand of art-punk—struck an instantly resonant chord. They played five shows before Gang of Four asked Pylon to open for them in New York City along with a write up in Interview mag following soon after. Disbanding now? Well that would’ve been a foolhardy move.
Pylon released just three albums over the course their stop-start career, and while they failed to make a mainstream splash, their musical DNA is evident in artists as disparate as R.E.M. and Deerhunter, LCD Soundsystem, CSS, and The Rapture. If the guitars are angular and there’s a beat you can dance to, chances are they’ve mined Pylon’s slim back catalogue—or at the very least have listened to Gyrate—for a masterclass in sonic cool.
When we flew to Athens to cover the small, but artistically fertile town for the Made In America series, tracking down Michael was top of the list. He’s lived in this one apartment for 27 years and is a pillar of Athens’ art-centric society, throwing legendary, never-to-be-missed Christmas ragers, working as the public relations co-ordinator at the Georgia Museum of Art, founding free culture magazine Young, Foxy and Free, and being a quasi mentor to artists like Daniel Donahue of Dream Boat. That’s just the tip of it. An ardent artist and photographer, even his website stands as a love letter to his adopted hometown. Of all the cities we’ve visited so far Athens truly felt like a supportive community where everyone was welcome to join the party.
Below is an extended chat with Michael covering everything from meeting Grandmaster Flash and bringing hip-hop and breakdancing to Athens, to the relationship between art and music, plus a very special discovery involving a sealed letter from the 80s that he originally wrote to his art tutor.
Daniel from Dream Boat, Michael from Pylon, and Noisey.
Noisey: Back in the 80s there was the B-52s, you, and R.E.M. Who else was on the scene at that time and what was it like to be involved in that?
Michael: It was, most of all, really fun. The level of support between all these bands was part of it. When somebody would start a band, if we didn’t already know them, we would immediately get to know them, they formulated out of the general crowd. It was all so fresh at the time that nobody ever wanted to miss a show. It wasn’t a lot of people, but everybody went to everything. You would see all these other bands doing their 2nd and 3rd shows in somebody’s living room or kitchen.
The bands I can think of off the top of my head were the The Side Effects, Love Tractor, Oh-OK, Killkenny Cats. It was on, and on, and on. There were a number of bands coming out of that period.
Originally you were drawn to this town because of art school. What was the impetus for starting Pylon?
I didn’t come up with the idea. I am a co-founder of Pylon because my roommate Randy Bewley wanted us to have a band. The music that was being generated in the world at the time was extremely exciting. It was a post-punk era. We were really fortunate in Athens that we had Chapter 3 Records John Underwood and Chris Rasmussen, who really had their ear to the ground. I guess it was through their distributors that they would get leads on what music to bring in. We were listening to music fromManchester and Leeds and Cleveland and New York.
Athens’ party scene at the time was pretty nuts right?
Yes, it was fueled by the music we were talking about. If you were in possession of records you could come and deliver new information, new experiences, to people at a party. Sometimes it would be that people would drop by with a 12 pack and they’d bring two singles and you would just play them like seven times, hang out, and talk about it. With that as the background, the B-52s popped up out of their own element. We were certainly at their first shows and then—boom—they were off to New York after their fairly quick ascension. When they were gone, Randy was asking me to start a band, to fill the void.
I like this idea that you were art students making art, but then you started making music and that was your art. Now there is this exhibition—ARTifacts Rock Athens: Relics from the Athens Music Scene, 1975–1985—at the UGA Special Collections Libraries, that ties into that.Could you elaborate?
Even before that exhibition I was asked by the music school here at the university to give a lecture about the scene. I decide that I wasgoing to title it How Art Turned Into Music. I was thinking how to convey that art turned into music. I read reviews and interviews of us—a lot of primary source research into my own life—which was kind of weird. I basically figured out the factors: we had an exuberant group of people, creativity was prized above all else, everybody was just putting out work. It led to us going out of the boundaries of our disciplines. I was a photographer and Randy was a 3D designer. A lot of us in the art school were trying out different media with a punk rock message, which is just go in there and do it. You don’t need training, or authority or legitimacy. Just figure it out.
We had a very tight scene where everyone was pushing each other to create. We stated very clearly at the beginning: we were making art. We happened to be doing it in a traditional format, like the Ramones—a four-person band of bass, guitar, lead singer, and drummer—super pure. We were into the purity and minimalism of this arrangement. Beyond that we were making it all up.
The attention came to you quite quickly though…
We did five shows in Athens and then we went to NYC and then we got written up in Interview magazine. We were confused. Now what do we do? We made a single. It was written by Glenn O’Brien. His review about our live show said, “These kids sound like they listen to dub for breakfast.” So, we made a song called “We Eat Dub For Breakfast” as a B-side. The next thing, Glen O’Brien was reviewing our single and said, “This song is about something I wrote about them in another review.” All of this happened pretty quickly. It was very weird to go straight from art school to that level of recognition. It may not have happened if the B-52s had not gotten everyone’s attention.
I wanted to talk about moving out of your studio and uncovering things that had been lost for the past 30 years...
Yes! When our band broke up I had an art studio in the back of a record store that I also worked at and Pylon rehearsed there. Then the record store had to close. I had to fund a new studio and Jim Herbert, the painter/art professor, let me move into his studio. I was in their rent-free for 29 years. He’s made so many paintings thateventually he needed the space in his studio to store his work. I moved out and in the process I found letters I had written to my art professor, Robert Krocker, that were sealed.
Michael in his art studio.
Let’s take a look!
You get halfway through the letter and then it says, “We also use the studio for our band practice. Our band is called Pylon, the kind in the road. Not the architectural ones or the ones that hold up electricity. Randy plays guitar, Curtis plays drums, Vanessa sings, I play bass. Our goal is to play in NYC at least once, after we play there we will decide on the basis of the response whether to quit or continue.”
It continues: “We are not musicians. We do not even like to jam or practice. We only like to perform. We only care about the product, not the process. Although the experience of playing in public is very intense, very pleasurable. In Athens, they receive us politely. They have to like us since we are all in this town together. We are all in this music subculture scene together. But there are comments like ’too art oriented,’ ‘conceptual,’ ’they sound like a bunch of artists that got together and decided to have a band.’ ’Michael your music sounds just like your art.’ ’They will like what you are doing in NY’—as if to imply that they don’t really in Athens.’”
Which I really like because it reminds me of the Prince song where he said all the critics love you in New York. That was a good line. That was our thinking at the time.
How much attention do you pay to the new bands coming out of Athens?
It used to be that people said Athens music tends to have jangly guitars and a danceable whatever. Over time all different musical genres have come in, so just like the rest of the culture, the diversity has crept in where it gets to the point where you can’t characterize the scene in any succinct way. I have been really pleased with how vibrant it is, how much support it receives. The one element in the Elephant 6 group, that Dan [Donahue, of Dream Boat] was so involved with, is this idea of mutual support, people willing to help each other. Within that group there is a lot of trust and sharing of talent. Currently the bands I like the most are bands likeReptar, or the more experimental bands.
Dan was talking about Reptar being mind-blowing live.
They exemplify what I love about Athens: the kind of people they are, their attitude, their energy. Of course I love Dream Boat, Hope for a Golden Summer. I’m a visual artist, but music has a lot of power. I am very pleased that I got to make music and make a slight mark along the way. It was really fun. It is great to be able to talk about.
Noisey plus Michael and that boombox.
So, just changing tact, this is an amazing artifact. It’s enormous! Tell me about this boombox.
First of all, let me backtrack. I was a big Kraftwerk fan. By the time I was listening to them I was catching up a bit, they had Trans-Europe Express which has that track on it. Someone had given me a record by The Sequence which is a band on the Sugar Hill label and they were rapping with rhymey nursery rhyme stuff—‘hotel, motel, Holiday Inn’—they would sing refrains from commercials about the Big Mac and Juicy Fruit. Around 1981 I had these two influences and then Pylon was frequently up in NYC.
In the early 80s the urban condition was that people were walking around broadcasting their idea of music through their boombox, which they perched on their shoulder. If you live in NYC, your life is not defined by your house or car. What you have is your flair that you bring to the street. It’s like what you wear, your shoes, your jewelry. The era of the boombox meant that people could carry with them a circle of sound that defined them; their programing for the street. It was pretty common to see people carrying around boomboxes this size and blasting. I was walking with my bandmates one day and a dude was carrying one of these on a fairly quiet street. In the song there was “Trans-Europe Express” with rapping on top of it. It was just this weird combination of things I was familiar with in a way, but couldn’t understand what I was hearing. I ran across the street and asked a random stranger what it was. It was Planet Rock.
So I was like where would you buy such a record. He gave me directions to Downtown Records, which was in the financial district almost. I walking into a fairly intimidating environment for a skinny southerner like me. I went into the store where all kinds of DJs who were mostly African American and Puerto Rican, just New Yorkers basically, and they were checking out all these titles. There were two guys sitting up there dropping the needles on records. I went in there like, how do I start. Eventually I became a regular customer and started buying stuff every time I went to New York. I was coming back to Athens with these artifacts from the big city, a part of the culture that wasn’t in New York Rocker. That ended up being one of the roles that I played in the Athens scene. I found people that enjoyed it as much as I did and eventually we were helping to run a record store around here and buying from Downtown Records directly. We started bringing that music into Athens.
We started laying out big sheets of cardboard outside the store so neighborhood kids would come breakdance in the street. We were trying to teach the kids from Athens how it is done in NYC on the subway.
Eventually many years passed and my friend Marc Bell—who claims I taught him how to DJ and was a very active Athens DJ—got Grandmaster Flash to come spin records at the 40 Watt Club. He came to Athens which I couldn’t believe. There was a publicity photo that I was aware of with Grandmaster Flash and Tina Weymouth from Talking Heads and I think he was holding a boombox—this exact model. I went to him at the 40 Watt Club and I met this man that I revered. I asked him to sign my boombox. So there it is!
Thanks to Pylon we would go hang out in NYC three times a year for about a week each time. New York used to be very late. Our headline gig was once at 3 or 4am. When we were loading out it was daylight and people were still coming in because they left Studio 54. It was a weird time in NY, fun, but weird.
You must have been running on no sleep.
We were pretty innocent people. If we did anything at all we just drank beer. We just had fun.
Kim is an Editor at Noisey and the host of Made in America. She’s on Twitter - @theKTB
More from Athens!