A Brief History of Athens, Georgia

New Madrid’s Phil McGill premieres a new track — and talks with his local heroes Dave Schools (Widespread Panic) and Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon).

Phil McGill is the frontman of the Athens, Georgia indie rock band New Madrid; Dave Schools is the bassist for Widespread Panic and Vanessa Briscoe Hay is the frontwoman of Pylon, two pioneering Athens bands. To celebrate the premiere of New Madrid’s track “Q&A” — which you can stream below — McGill sat down for a friendly question-and-answer session with the local legends. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music 

Dave Schools: The Athens of the early ‘80s — as you well know, Vanessa — was far different than the Athens of 2021. The rent was so cheap, there were so many of those big old houses where an entire band and their friends could live. They could roll burritos and support themselves and live there and throw parties and play and practice and learn how to be a band and how to create original music. Was there a Pylon house?

Vanessa Briscoe Hay: There was, but not for me. Randy [Bewley] and Michael [Lachowski] were roommates, and then Curtis [Crowe] and Michael were roommates. It was off of Barber Street, this area they called Pylon Park. There was a house nearby where several members of Love Tractor and R.E.M. lived, and then just up the hill, there was this big kind of overgrowing green space with a parking lot and a two story house. Kit Schwartz lived downstairs from them for a while. I’m not sure who moved in later, but I was there a lot. At that point, I’d say the Barber Street & Boulevard neighborhoods were kind of the center of a lot of artists and musicians. 

I’ve seen it all over the country, neighborhoods where artists and musicians start moving in together — at some point it becomes too expensive, because other people want to buy in to that and then the artists and musicians can’t afford to live there anymore. We’ve seen that happen in Athens. A lot of younger people who are in bands complain they just can’t afford it anymore, they can’t afford to do the restaurant job and live in town, because they have to have two or three jobs like that and then they’re too tired to be creative. It’s sad, it really is. 

Dave: It is sad. I remember I had already moved out of the band house and was living off of Nowhere Road with some other folks, and they instituted the law that no more than three unrelated people could live in a house at the same time. It even got us — we were living in Featherwood Hollow, a little circular neighborhood, and I lived with Robert McKnight from the Jack O Nuts and Ellie McKnight, who works for Widespread Panic. They were married and we had a fourth roommate, Elliot, who was an artist, and the nosy neighbor — she was counting cars one day and decided that she was going to turn us in. Luckily, Robert and Ellie were married, but at one point we did have a fifth roommate living in an A-frame, loft-y part. And they had to leave. Let alone what happened to all those houses in the Pylon Park area that you mentioned, the whole Hill Street, Cobb area. There was Gravity Creeps’ house, there was the place called The Zoo—

Vanessa: Oh, yeah!

Dave: Where Peter [Fancher] and the Club Gaga people lived, right across from the taco stand. All those started becoming, like, dentists’ offices and real estate offices. There’s definitely a capitalistic plan, you know. But that era when musicians could afford to all live together and they could work at the Gyro Wrap — I mean, the Panic guys, we all lived on King Avenue, and I delivered flowers for Flowers, Inc., [Michael] Houser worked at the Gyro Wrap and sometimes at Dominos. John Bell worked at a nursery. But all of those jobs pretty much allowed us to get out of town Thursday through Saturday or Sunday and play some gigs. Taco Stand was notorious for letting their employees go off and have a job waiting when they came back from tour — which probably cost them money to go on tour, I doubt they came back with anything other than breaking even.

Vanessa: Oh, sure. Most people, that’s all they can hope for, was break even. Philip, you lived in Athens more recently. What was your experience?

Phil McGill: I moved there in 2009. Two of the band members are still there, so I’m still down there frequently. But it’s pretty remarkable how much it changed, even in that 10 years, from five years ago. Like, it kind of felt like there was this one little wave of stuff, even up on Barber Street, where there were these little places called The Shacks where people could live very cheaply. At this point, most of that stuff really does seem gobbled up. 

I grew up in Chattanooga and had always played music. My sister had gone to school in Athens, and so when she was down there, I’d always be looking at who was playing, telling her who to go see. It was, I guess 2008, at the 40 Watt Club —I saw you play, Vanessa, with Supercluster opening up for Of Montreal. That was my first 40 Watt show. 

From 2009, I moved into place off of Commerce Highway out there — I got really lucky, found a great place on Craigslist, like a barn on a couple of acres. I think we had a rare instance where a new landlord came in, and he bought the place for the the tennis court in the back. The tennis court had the perfect dimensions for a flying trapeze. 

Vanessa: Oh, wow. 

Phil: So that was this weird little oasis over there — it’s like a mile away from Chase Park. That part of Athens has kind of been protected from it. But you see the same thing in Austin, Texas, and Athens, where you have these really big development companies coming in and putting in these college high rises. They’re not putting much money into the building and charging exorbitant prices. There’s definitely that edge, where Athens is like a college resort town for Atlanta. The soul is still very much there, but those sorts of infrastructural changes are happening all over America, because that’s where the dollars are seen.

Vanessa: Yeah. So in that time period — I know it’s been a long time since your first album came out for New Madrid. How many years has it been?

Phil: I guess it’s been nine years now. We put [New Madrid’s debut Yardboat] out in 2012. A couple of us were in Nashville and then we recorded it in a weekend with David Barbe down there, and then we put it out and all moved in together. They moved to Athens because I was like, “I don’t want to go to Nashville, I love Athens.”

Vanessa: Why has it been so many years since you recorded something? I’m just asking as the man on the street — I know myself, I have spent many years between recordings, and I had my reasons. I’d like to hear your reasons for taking so long between this first well-received album and the second album.

Phil: So, basically we self-released our first album, and then we did we did two albums with Normal Town Records. We recorded those in Athens. And then for the fourth one, we wanted to explore our deal options, because our first self-released album is still what had done best. And, you know, the music industry’s just constantly changing, and in terms of avoiding convention and trying to figure out what’d work — because our second and third records did alright. But I think our third record is a little more noisy, a little bit more like post-punk. 

But then from there, we wanted to go back in, like with our first record, and self-fund it as opposed to booking a week of studio time, or a couple of weeks. We did it over the course of over a year, doing sessions three-ish days at a time. And that one, we had started working with Drew Vandenberg, and it was just like, OK, we have three or four songs, let’s go and get these. And the spacing, honestly, was because once we finished it, [we were] just kind of trying to build a team around it. We had done two albums on a label, and were really wanting to go fully on our own, just because of the way the last two records had gone. So Lemonade Records came in, and it was a close option for us kind of doing it on our own.

But yeah, this one was definitely way longer than planned. And it’s weird because when we started the band, it was like we recorded  and we put it out on Bandcamp. And that’s what I loved about it. I think that accessibility as an artist — the whole system and the game, at a certain point it makes sense, but also you see time and time again the people that defy convention and just get the music to the fans — that’s what’s most important.

All these other things that we’re told are extremely important — on certain levels, they really are, but the landscape’s just shifting constantly. Like I think about vinyl production — when we first started working with New West, URP in Nashville is one of the only places pressing records, so getting a record press would be difficult. But now you have Kindercore in Athens, there’s Soft Wax in Philadelphia. It’s fascinating, the growth in that. So the timing in between — it was going to come out last year, and then we kind of waited because it didn’t feel like the right time. So the hope is to get this one out and engage with that ability to create and release.

Dave: On that tip, Phil — as you guys were going through these three day recording spurts, had you done any talking about the sort of the modern idea of constant content? Like, what made you decide to want to release an entire LP as opposed to just dropping digital EPs or singles over the course of a year until you had the material built up to release a full blown vinyl album?

Phil: That’s a that’s a good question, because that’s one of those things that we got so close to doing a lot. When we started recording this album, that was kind of why we started booking shorter times — we were like, “Well, let’s do a couple of songs.” And then when we started to look into building a team again, everyone says, “Well, the booking agent wants to hear the full album.” Even with the label, they want to hear something full. So you kind of get to this point where it’s like, “OK, do we just release this?”

I think that the album still one hundred percent has its place, and it’s a beautiful art form, but it’s amazing how you’re not constricted by physical mediums anymore. So it’s just like thinking about the way just so many things are built off of old systems. 

Dave: It’s interesting to me, because I wind up working with and producing a lot of young bands on their first real release, or their first funded studio effort, and it’s something that we talk a lot about. There are so many reasons for going either direction. 

You know, Vanessa will agree with me that both she and I are from an era where to get your album done was the thing. In fact, when Widespread Panic first put out Space Wrangler in 1989, we asked our record company, “Are we going to get to do CDs?” And they were like, “Well, you guys aren’t big enough for CDs yet.” And then that whole model sort of flip flopped to where it’s like, “Can we do vinyl?” Or like, “We can’t afford vinyl. No one buys vinyl.” 

Well, I gotta tell you, I work with the United Record Pressing all the time, and there are major labels wanting to buy in so that they can get the product that is literally in a six to 12 month queue pressed and into people’s hands. But at the same time, working with a young band, sometimes it’s financially more feasible to go into the studio and cut a couple of songs, and if they do well on a streaming service, then maybe we can give them a 7-inch with a cool picture sleeve and they can have something to sell when they’re on the road.

Because, I mean, financially, that is where the buck stops. If you can’t afford to record 10 songs and press a record and market it and put it out, then maybe it’s a lot easier to just record a couple. But being in Widespread Panic, we still want to make records, too, because it takes us a while to write songs. And when we’ve written these songs, we inevitably find a way that, they’re just kind of scenes in a movie and we want that experience. We want our fans who’ve been with us for 30-plus years to have that experience. And I know Vanessa has something to say about all of this, because she and I have seen this thing flip and flop. We’re trying to build houses on shifting sands in the music business in the year 2021, and it’s not easy. 

Vanessa: Sometimes a younger band will come up to me and ask me for advice about what to do with their positions or whatever, and my biggest piece of advice is to have fun and do what you enjoy doing and don’t think about what someone else wants you to do. And if it looks like it’s going to work out, get yourself a lawyer and an accountant. Because you can’t predict what is going to happen with the music business, and it’s best to not even think about it as a business except when it comes to business items. There will always be somebody else, believe me, who will want to take care of your business for you. You should not give that up, you should always keep an eye on it. 

Dave: Phil, I remember when your record came out and Dave Barbe sent me a copy of it. He went on tour with you guys up and down the West Coast, right? 

Phil: Right. 

Dave: Whenever I see a band doing the work, to me that’s a sign of great things to come. Because a lot of great bands can exist in a town like Athens and they can make records, but for whatever reason they don’t take it to the street. And that’s really where something special happens — night after night, gig after gig, no matter what it is. Peter Buck once gave me some advice: “Always keep your appointments.” To me, that meant looking at what R.E.M. was doing in that era, which is like, if the gig is at a pizza joint, play the gig. If the gig is at a bowling alley, play the gig.

Phil: That’s where the magic is sometimes. 

Dave: That’s right.

Phil: That’s definitely a spiritual lesson I’ve picked up, even from y’all, the sanctity of the show. It’s all a story — night-in, night-out being able to be in that space…  

Vanessa: Oh, sure. I mean, who would have thought 45 years ago that we would all be sitting here today. Some of these great musicians never made it out of Athens — it took the B-52s! You cannot discount the impact of the B-52s and R.E.M. just touring around and flying all over the globe had on our scene. Athens is a great lab, but you really do have to go out on the road.

Phil: Yeah, I think about whenever I have gotten out of Athens playing, and it’s so empowering because there are a lot more cultural deserts out there. Like in Chattanooga, there is not that infrastructure. That’s what I think is amazing about Athens — like growing up there as a kid now, there’s those resources. Like, we did the AthFest Educates where we played in elementary school for, like, four periods one day. It’s just the kind of things where I’m like, Wow, if that had ever happened to me, my whole world would have been shifted. But, you know, art is important to be heard everywhere. 

Dave: It’s true, and it’s about making friends. When I arrived as a freshman in the fall of 1983, I lived in Milledge Hall, and trying to make friends was hard, I was an only child. But the first person I met was this fellow with a white afro, shirtless with a chiclets necklace — he comes up to me and he says, “Hey, what’s your name? My name’s Dave.” And I said, “My name’s too! What’s your last name? And he goes, “Barbe, Dave Barbe.” The first person I met, literally within days.

It’s about making friends. I tell young bands all the time that this is a business of relationships. You can call it the music business, but it’s the business of relationships and those friends that we make out there on the road or our first day in college or wherever, some of them stick with us for our whole lives. I can come back to Athens after having not lived there for 12 years, and I can see Curtis Crowe and it’s just like no time has passed. I can run into Vanessa at Low Yo Yo, and it’s just like literally no time has passed. And that to me is that’s the essence of a relationship, that’s the beauty of this business we’re in. It doesn’t have to be a business, per say. It’s about making music and making friends and making a connection.

(Photo Credit: of Dave Schools, Stacie Huckeba)

With origins firmly rooted in the revered southern music town of Athens, GA, New Madrid first arrived on the scene with their 2012 debut, Yardboat, and will soon release their fourth full-length on April 30, 2021 via Lemonade Records. The 10-song set is self-titled to mark a renewed focus and finds the four-piece (comprising Phil McGill, Ben Hackett, Alex Woolley, and Graham Powers) revisiting the southern indie rock sounds of their very first recordings while exploring new elements of dreamy psychedelia, jangly pop, and energetic post-punk. Writing and recording the forthcoming album started in the immediate aftermath of 2016’s magnetkingmagnetqueen (New West Records), and didn’t conclude until early 2019 when the band brought in Drew Vandenberg (Futurebirds, Bambara, Faye Webster) to produce and engineer the project. The time spent has delivered a collection that Hackett describes as “all the things we liked about our previous albums with new stuff put on top of it,” adding, “It feels like a cool re-set. This is the closest to what the band has always sounded like in our heads.”