Vanessa Briscoe Hay - singer on Pylon Reenactment Society's musical magnetism

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Sunday April 21, 2024
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(L-R) Jason Nesmith, Kay Stanton, Vanessa Briscoe Hay and Gregory Sanders of Pylon Reenactment Society<br>(photo: Murmur Trestle)
(L-R) Jason Nesmith, Kay Stanton, Vanessa Briscoe Hay and Gregory Sanders of Pylon Reenactment Society
(photo: Murmur Trestle)

Long before cities such as Seattle (and by extension Olympia), Washington or Austin, Texas became music meccas at the end of the 20th century, Athens, Georgia was the place for cool bands. Athens was home to legendary acts including the B-52's and R.E.M., as well as Love Tractor, Oh-OK, and of course Pylon.

With lead vocals by Vanessa Briscoe Hay, and a unique danceable sound, Pylon made an indelible impression with two albums, "Gyrate" (1980) and "Chomp" (1983), before parting ways. Over the years they regrouped here and there, and then received the reissue-treatment in 2007, 2009, and then again in 2020.

Pylon Reenactment Society, led by the band's original vocalist Vanessa Briscoe Hay, along with Jason Nesmith, Kay Stanton, and Gregory Sanders, makes its album debut on "Magnet Factory" (Strolling Bones/New West). The 11 songs manage to remind us of Hay's origins while successfully making something new and exciting.

Vanessa Briscoe Hay performing with Pylon Reenactment Society (photo: Allison Durham)  

Gregg Shapiro: Vanessa, for those who may not be aware, please say something about how the original band line-up came up with the name Pylon.
Vanessa Briscoe Hay: Pylons are the cones you see on the road, not the architectural ones or electrical ones. We chose the name Pylon because its shape is modern, industrial, iconic, and functional. We first noticed them at a factory where three of us worked when we were coming up with our band name. Fortunately, another band name contender "Diagonal" fell by the wayside. We considered using the symbol of a diagonal — perhaps found images — as our band name, years before Prince.

I lived in Boston in the early 1980s as a college student, and I remember that was when I first heard Pylon being played on radio station WBCN, as well as the region's other college radio stations. How much of a role would you say that college radio played in getting the word out about the band?
I loved WBCN! Such a great station. When our first single "Cool" / "Dub" came out, WBCN made "Cool" their Big Mattress Song of the Week which meant they played it an insane number of times a day. College radio was extremely important in getting the word out by playing our band and other bands like hometown heroes the B-52s and later R.E.M. and Love Tractor.

We had a great student station at the University of Georgia — WUOG — it is one of the keys of our town's early musical success. Commercial radio had no place in their programming for bands like us at the time. Later, the labels "New Wave" and "Alternative" were born as a marketing tool to make what we actually called "New Music" at the time more palatable to programmers — or so I've heard [laughs].

Pylon was one of several bands that emerged from the fertile Athens, Georgia music scene. What would you say were some of the qualities that distinguished it from the scenes in other cities at that time?
We were part of a creative group of people who weren't afraid of working outside of our disciplines. Many who went to the art school at University of Georgia back then were trying on different hats — a photographer might make sculptures out of unconventional material like sprinklers or garden hoses like our bassist Michael Lachowski did, or painting using only two colors because that was all they could afford, like some of the art girls did.

We weren't afraid to just go in there and do it. No authority needed. Every scene needs a tipping point to succeed - we had all the elements we needed to make it happen: a great student radio station (WUOG), a record store (Chapter Three), interesting people, cheap rent, parties, and a vegetarian restaurant (El Dorado).

Fellow Athens band R.E.M. recorded a cover of Pylon's "Crazy." Do you recall what that meant to you?
It meant a lot. Pylon had retired for the first time at that point. I was honored that they chose our song to record. Michael Stipe heard it the first time we played it and remarked to me between sets outside the 40 Watt Club how much he liked that song. We would probably have been forgotten except for their recording of that song and a big mention in the movie "Athens, GA Inside/Out" around that same time. Pylon regrouped and began playing again in 1988.

Interest in Pylon never seriously waned and in 2007 and 2009 DFA reissued "Gyrate" and "Chomp," which were then reissued in 2020 on New West, along with a four-LP box set. What do you think that says about Pylon's musical impact?
I never would have guessed this would happen back when we got started in 1979. I thought it was going to be a one-off project. There is something elemental/youthful about our music which makes it ripe for rediscovery by succeeding generations. Our music can sometimes be a bit raw and it's not everyone's cup of tea. But it is danceable and fun.

I have theorized that because we never achieved mainstream success (or were overplayed on the radio or MTV or wherever) that might make the music more interesting to some folks as well. Just a theory, who knows? I'm glad people are still finding out about us and like Pylon.

You performed in the band Supercluster with Jason NeSmith and Kay Stanton. Is that where the seeds for Pylon Reenactment Society were planted?
Yes. Jason and Kay were both important members of Supercluster which started around 2007. We could have as many as nine members on stage. It was a lot of fun. Supercluster was a recording project for music that was coming into my head at the time which wasn't Pylon-type material.

I would come to rehearsal with lyrics and a simple music line which I played on the keyboard. They would then help arrange and shape the song. One song was Pylonesque: "Peace Disco Song." Pylon's guitarist Randy Bewley also played in Supercluster.

One night at a Pylon rehearsal, bassist Michael Lachowski started playing the bass line to that song and Randy admonished him that it was a Supercluster song. Anyway, Supercluster petered out in 2013. We just stopped playing.

Jason NeSmith came to see me in 2014 because he was putting the music performances together for a series of events called Art Rocks Athens which explored the connection between music and art in Athens from 1975-85. He asked me if I would like to perform a few songs and was a bit floored when I suggested doing Pylon material if he would help me put a band together.

In what ways would you say your songwriting has evolved in the years between Pylon and Pylon Reenactment Society?
I am so glad you used the term evolve. As we live, hopefully, we do grow and evolve. It's really hard for me to see exactly how I've evolved because I am obviously too close. I know I've experienced more things first-hand at this point than I experienced in earlier phases of my life, like birth, death, betrayal, magical things, sad things. I try to write a little something every day. Maybe I've learned a few things.

One of the first things that listeners might notice when they hear Pylon Reenactment Society's "Magnet Factory" album is that your trademark growl has been tempered a bit. Listeners can still hear it on "Messenger," "3 X 3," and "Compression." Please say something about the evolution of your vocal style.
I never planned to be a singer, but now I've sung on and off for 44 years or so. I've learned a few things on my own. I've also raised two children who are now adults. I sang a few lullabies and holiday songs along the way. More importantly, the song always suggests what I will do with it. I also think I hear different things to do that I may not have thought of before.

Earlier we talked about R.E.M, and Kate Pierson of the B-52's, another legendary Athens band, can be heard singing with you on the song "Fix It" on "Magnet Factory." How did that collaboration come about?
About a year ago, the B-52s had announced that they were coming to the end of their touring days and would play their last show in Athens, GA. Of course, we all went. It was fabulous onstage and off [laughs]! Anyway, Pylon Reenactment Society had just finished tracking our album and we were set to mix the album at Chase Park Transduction with David Barbe the following week.

While watching this show, I realized what a perfect fit Kate would make for one of our songs. She is one of my singing idols and Cindy Wilson is another. I asked Kate after the show if she would sing a song with us on our album and she said yes. I sent her the lyrics and Jason sent her the tracks. She recorded her vocals at the studio she uses the next week and sent the recording to us to mix. We were all over the moon when we heard her vocals. Just amazing! Such an honor to have her sing with us.

Athens bands including the B-52's, R.E.M., and Love Tractor, all had queer members, which made me wonder if you were aware of an LGBTQ following for your own musical career?
We do have a LGBTQ following for our music — even some super fans. I am so appreciative of their support. I went to art school at UGA in Athens and was friends with Jeremy Ayers who was Silva Thin at Andy Warhol's Factory. I also have loved ones in the LGBTQ community. Don't we all? If you say you don't, you are in major league denial. We are all a part of the human race. Love not hate. We need more of that.

We're speaking shortly before "Magnet Factory" is being released. Are there plans for a Pylon Reenactment Society tour in support of the album, and if so when will it begin?
Pylon Reenactment Society is planning some dates. We are going to the Northeast in April, and we will go from there.

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