Supercluster's Vanessa Briscoe Hay untangles Athens' musical lineage
The scene's fairy godmother looks back on three decades
For more than 30 years, Athens' underground music scene has borne the fruit of an extended family of like-minded artists. Since the B-52s played their first show on Valentine's Day in 1977, Pylon's founding member and frontwoman Vanessa Briscoe Hay has taken part in the city's musical evolution. Back then the Atlanta native was a recent Dacula High School graduate who'd played in the marching band. Today she's a mother of three who works as a registered nurse and is the only one of her former bandmates still active as a musician.
Along with the B-52s and R.E.M., Pylon became one of the three big acts to sculpt Athens' golden age. It was the era of post-punk and new wave, but with a jangling, dub-like art-pop, Pylon differentiated itself from its commercially viable peers. But the band's influence has proved no less significant and still resonates within the local scene.
Following the death of guitarist Randy Bewley in 2009, Pylon's sporadic reunion shows came to an end. But Briscoe Hay has carried on, finding new life with Supercluster, a supergroup of sorts with an open-door policy. With its debut CD, Waves (Cloud Recordings), Supercluster has become the focus of Briscoe Hay's musical output, resulting in a sound that combines the collected experience of a revolving cast channeled into a body of experimental pop as rustic as it is angular.
Now armed with a reissued 7-inch of the "Paris Effect" b/w "Neat in the Street," the group features Briscoe Hay singing and playing keyboards along with Bill David (mandolin), Bob Hay (acoustic guitar), Hannah Jones of New Sound of Numbers and Circulatory System (drums), Jason NeSmith of Casper & the Cookies (electric guitar) and Kay Stanton of Casper & the Cookies (vocals/bass). Before making a stop in Atlanta on their way to SXSW, Briscoe Hay talked with Creative Loafing about life after Pylon, her place in Athens' musical lineage and why she wants everyone to sing.
You all coined the term "Appalachian Wave" to describe Supercluster's sound, though the songs seem to have more "wave" to them than an "Appalachian" influence. How did Supercluster come into being?
Supercluster initially was a project that started because I was having these little tunes coming into my head that were not exactly Pylon-type material. I had seen Hannah Jones perform with the New Sound of Numbers and felt she might be a kindred spirit, and I asked her to help me realize these songs. We recruited members from our musical friends and went from there.
We began recording and before you knew it, we had an EP. Then we expanded it into a full-length. Somewhere near the end of the project, our guitarist and friend Randy Bewley died suddenly. The project was put on hold. We decided to continue the CD Waves and finish it so that some of Randy's last work would be available. Our friends Bradford Cox and Jason NeSmith stepped in to finish the guitar work on the songs that didn't have the guitar tracks yet. Jason and another friend Bryan Poole joined the band in his stead to play the songs live. My vision of Supercluster is evolving to include other people in the band singing more. Everyone in this band can sing and I want to hear it.
Tell me about Supercluster's new 7-inch coming out via Secretly Canadian. The B-side, "Neat in the Street," is a cover of a song by another Athens band that was around during Athens' golden age called the Side Effects.
Yes, it was written by the Side Effects in 1980. We learned it to honor them at R.E.M.'s 30th birthday party last year. The Side Effects debuted the same night as R.E.M., and we liked it so much that we kept it in our set. At one time I was married to the Side Effects bass player Jimmy Ellison. We got a divorce and he died a few years later of a brain tumor, but we were always friends.
I've Googled the title of the A-side, "Paris Effect," but I got a bunch of links to a video of an angry news woman complaining about Paris Hilton, which was posted at PerezHilton.com, but I don't think that's what you had in mind when you wrote the song.
Laughs Jason NeSmith did a search on "Paris Effect," too, and came up with something called "the Paris Syndrome." Apparently, Japanese tourists have such a huge anticipation about what Paris is going to be like that they have a sort of breakdown when faced with the reality of Paris. That's heading into the direction of this song, but not what it is about. It is about reality versus what we wish would be true. Feel free to make up your own definition in that place that lies somewhere between expectation and reality. You have just crossed over into the Twilight Zone!
In the 30 years you've been doing this you've gone from being a wide-eyed art student to a mother of two. How have your musical ambitions changed over that time?
Honestly, I never had what you would call true ambition other than to see a project through to completion. I came to music from a different place. I was an artist first and the process was as important to me as the music itself. I have set recording and making music completely aside several times to do more important things, like raise a family. But no song ever comes about in exactly the same way. I guess that is why the process is so intriguing and why it continues to come back into my life.
Do you feel like a pioneer, or like Pylon's influence still resonates in Athens' music scene?
I don't know that I would consider myself a pioneer. I was having way too much fun and continue to have a lot of fun making music. Being a pioneer sounds so dry and boring.
Supercluster has influences from a lot of different directions, and of course from the musicians who are involved with the project. Each song has its own story. Honestly, I don't know where inspiration comes from, but I am open to it. With the Internet and home studios, music can be artist-controlled today. It's possible to do exactly what you want to do. Pylon was one of a group of bands that was of our place and time. Music became decentralized and was not under the control of major labels that had created this kingdom of glossy dinosaur bands. It was a great time to be in a band. I think it's a great time again. I don't know if there is any way to make a living at it, but you can certainly enjoy doing it. That is where I am.
Will the three surviving members of Pylon ever play together again?
There is no more Pylon without Randy Bewley. Pylon was the four of us. No substitutes allowed. Members of Pylon may conceivably play together at some point in or on another project, although currently there are no plans to do so.
How has Athens' music scene changed over the years?
Athens has always had a music scene of some sort. When I came to school here in the 1970s, there was a bluegrass/country/rock band scene that had deep roots in the local community, but it was a small scene that mostly played covers over in the Normaltown area. Art students and their friends began having disco and then punk and new wave dance parties in the mid-to-late '70s. Vinyl ruled along with kegs, sprinklers, heat, thrift store clothing and some pretty wild dancing. On February 14, 1977, the B-52s played their first show and solidified this scene into a real thing. They took Athens by storm and then after exploding nationally, they moved away. Pylon and another band called the Tone Tones stepped into this vacuum and began playing parties for this group of friends. The Tone Tones disbanded fairly early on and their members were disbursed into other groups. Over the next few years Pylon was joined by the Method Actors, Love Tractor, the Side Effects, R.E.M., and Oh-OK, among others. Since then, Athens has just continued growing into a really big music scene.