In Conversation: Corin Tucker (Sleater-Kinney) and Vanessa Briscoe Hay (Pylon)

Two legends from different generations discuss the epic new Pylon box set, politics, and more.

Pylon is a legendary band’s band — one of those acts that never broke through to the mainstream but that influenced many that did. Pylon first existed in the fertile Athens, Georgia scene of the late 1970s, coming up alongside The B-52s and influencing the city’s biggest-ever export, R.E.M. That band’s Bill Berry once demurred when R.E.M. was declared the best band in the world, claiming that honor belonged to Pylon. Though it’s music has been reissued throughout the years, it’s never been in as comprehensive and beautiful a package as the new Pylon Box, which contains not only the band’s two proper studio albums, but also a wealth of extra material and a 200-page book filled with photos and testimonials from other musicians — among them Sleater-Kinney’s Corin Tucker. We asked Tucker to chat with Pylon singer Vanessa Briscoe Hay to mark the box set’s release. 
— Josh Modell, Talkhouse Executive Editor

Vanessa Briscoe Hay: I’m glad to be talking to you! Are you back home in the Northwest?

Corin Tucker: Yeah, I’m in Portland. Just waiting out this year. This long year. And are you in Athens or outside of Athens?

Vanessa: I’m in Athens, Clark County, but I’m on the outskirts of downtown. I’m on the side of the county, this little suburban type area. Moved here when my girls were younger, when my mom had to move in when my father passed away, so I needed a four-bedroom house really quick.

Corin: Well, I’m really excited to have this Pylon box set. It’s really beautiful.

Vanessa: Thank you. A lot of work went into it from the whole team. I have one next to me that I’m patting. It’s so nice to get to actually talk to you, Corin, one-on-one. We’ve only actually met twice and neither time I don’t think we really were able to speak to each other at length. So this will be great.

Corin: Yeah, I’m really happy about this. I wanted to ask you about the box set, because it is so beautifully put together and it seems like such a 360-degree presentation of the band. I think the music that you’ve added here is really incredible, but also the visuals that you’ve put together in the art book. Pylon has such a strong visual aesthetic as well. And I’m wondering about how you put it together.

Vanessa: It started from the music side really. I had to work on the unglamorous side of it, untangling the ball of yarn that was the Pylon business, and I had a lot of help with that. Philip Walden, Jr., whose dad ran Capricorn Records, he helped us get an LLC and helped us get our publishing back under our control. I’ve worked full-time for years as a nurse so this was like a weekend thing that I would do. In the process of all of that, I’ve been recording with a band called Supercluster. It was just a recording project for me because it wasn’t really Pylon type material. I made really good friends with that band. One of them is Jason NeSmith, the guitarist, and at one point he mentioned to me, you know if you ever consider reissuing Chomp and Gyrate, I want to remaster it. I’ve worked in the studio with him and knew how awesome he was. 

So I guess about three years ago, I said, “I think I’m ready to really think about this.” We started gathering up all the tapes. It was a major job, because a lot of the reels were completely mixed up. If a producer or somebody wanted to take a track and put it on something, they just cut it off and take it off its reel and it would end up on another reel, so they were all mixed up. So he became the archivist too, Jason did. The type of tapes that were used in those studios would become very fragile,  breaking off. So it has to be baked in an oven.

Corin: Wow. Did he bake the tape for you?

Vanessa: Yes, he did, in his own home. It was like two tubs full of tapes, like the kind that you get at the local dollar store that you’d use for storage. So he took them all off, found out what was on them, put them on metal reels. He said we caught it right before they would have been lost, really. It would have been a major restoration.

Corin: Wow.

Vanessa: Jason and I had also discovered a lot of cassettes. I had Randy [Bewley]’s cassettes, my cassettes, other people were bringing in cassettes, and we started thinking we had more than just the reissue of those two albums. Then I started just cold calling up labels. We went with New West; they’re based here in Athens. If something goes wrong, or if we don’t like something, or they want to talk to us, we could just go and knock on the door. Plus, they did a really quality product. We worked with Henry Owings from Chunklet, he had worked on the Pylon live record. He’s a very good graphic artist, I think he even won a Grammy. At the same time we talked about donating to a local special collection, and we had a lot of stuff.

Corin: Is that where the clothes are? The clothes were amazing. I mean the photos of the clothes, I was blown away by that.

Vanessa: Oh yeah, I kept all that stuff. My girls even wore them as dress-up and stuff. You know that yellow, black, and white dress everybody loved? My older daughter in the fourth or fifth grade wore that one Halloween. She had on a pillbox hat, and her hair was all swept up. We’d gone to see her grandma in Michigan, and she teased her hair out, and made it all bouffant and stuff. She was like a ’60s lady, she looked really cool. All these things were vintage and handmade, and most of them were given to me, or somebody found in a thrift store and said, “Hey, this looks like you, take it.” So all these things came together, and it made me thankful that we did do a book. I think what it shows is maybe a picture of what the scene was like at the time and that we were like, do it yourself. It might be inspirational to somebody who thinks, “I can do that too!” This whole package is just totally our aesthetic.

Corin: I think that’s absolutely it. It does show this really unique band and your do it yourself aesthetic. I was super inspired by it back in the late ‘80s early ‘90s, and I wonder, when I listen to the music — which is incredible by the way — what struck me was that I felt like Pylon was part of this incredible scene, but you yourselves were super unique. Your aesthetic was so minimalist and almost international sounding, like New York for sure, but also like Kraftwerk or Can or that kind of stuff.

Vanessa: Oh wow, that’s such a huge compliment coming from you. I thought that y’all were the best band in America. I saw you guys live, I mean how awesome. I’ve had several young women musicians tell us how much they like us and that we were an inspiration. I just don’t know these things because back when this was going on there was no internet, it was all from word of mouth. I bought different records just because I liked the jackets or something! It was just an amazing time. It was just right at the intersection of art and music, and it was just a worldwide music explosion at the time. America was different from overseas in a lot of ways, but we just listened to a lot of things that came out of Germany and England. Gang of Four, and Delta 5, and Kraftwerk of course. I think I found out about Can later and I loved them. 

My daughter wanted a subscription to Riot Grrrl magazine one year for Christmas. I was like, I’m not going to act excited, but I just thought that was great. We’re all standing on the shoulders of feminists and people who came through this all through the 1900s, and I came to this point where any young woman, they can do anything they want to do, and I just want to be sure to say that. It doesn’t have to be punk rock music. If you want to be a scientist or a doctor… There’s places for everybody here. Also, no matter what gender you align yourself with, we didn’t use to know what to call this, we just knew that some people maybe felt different. In the art scene and the music scene I was in, it was no big deal. We didn’t think about it, or worry about it, or make a big deal about it. It was just all part of the same thing. So when I saw that Riot Grrrl thing and Girls to the Front it was like, Alright.

Corin: Yeah, I think that the Athens scene had a really wonderful inclusionary vibe to it, and I feel like the Northwest had it in some ways, and in other ways there was a little bit of a battle going on between who’s taking up the most space, and there was the kind of macho moshing that happened at shows that made women sometimes feel uncomfortable. So there was this movement to make it really specifically inclusionary to women and to point out their bands and their accomplishments, but I think there are different ways that women have spoken up for themselves or led bands. Like you said, I think we’re all standing on the shoulders of the women that have come before us.

Vanessa: When I was a kid, I watched Star Trek and I honestly believed that in the future things like race, and our sex, or our backgrounds wouldn’t have any bearing on what we did or how people thought of us. I thought we would all be on an even footing, you know? Of course I know that’s not true. I didn’t run into a whole lot of that macho, misogynistic kind of thing because the art scene on the Lower East Side and in Athens, and a lot of places that would have us play it was very mixed. The first band that was out of Athens that I really loved was The B-52’s. They were just so wonderful, and they were just…  It was no big deal. Of course women could.

Corin: Who were you listening to at the time when you started singing? Because you have such an incredible vocal style that I think has influenced me and so many other people.

Vanessa: A lot of people. I loved Debbie Harry, but I don’t sound like Debbie Harry. We were before Chrissie Hynde, but I don’t sound like Chrissie Hynde. I love Patti Smith, I don’t sound like Patti Smith. I don’t know where it comes from. I just wanted to be sure that I found my place within the song, and how I was doing it was in the answer to what was happening at the time. It’s just like when I’m going to do a painting or a drawing, it was like having a blank canvas, and when I went to practice I didn’t have any preconceived notions about what would happen. Sometimes the song would get written all at once, other times I’d have to take a tape home and go, Where is my place in this song? I just think that I’ve left myself open to what the music was trying to tell me.  I might have found my space inside of that right away if I was lucky, if I was open to it. I know now that, having worked with other people, that all people do not work the same way and there’s no right way or wrong way to do it. How do y’all like to write?

Corin: I think we’ve written a lot of different ways over the years. Originally we would all get in the practice space together and just throw things out until we would come up with something. But sometimes Carrie or I would have a guitar part so we would bring things in. But more recently, we’ve gotten into composing like people do nowadays on the computer, and I really like that. I didn’t at first, and I do really miss just jamming, and we still do that sometimes, but I’ve gotten into composing on the computer because you can try a lot of different things. I don’t consider myself classically trained in any way, in any instrument, but you can come up with different keyboard parts. You can add a bass line. I think it’s important to have a mix of the kind of human interaction stuff and the computer. If it’s all just on the computer, then you lose some of that human element, I think. One thing I noticed about this box was that there seems to be songs of yours that changed after you had recorded them, like the song “Danger.” It sounds totally different.

Vanessa: That was our excuse to make up something fun. There aren’t that many words to the lyrics, but it did have a bare bones structure and we just kind of messed around with it, but it wasn’t anything. That song, even now, is different every time you hear us play it.

Corin: You mean with the Pylon Reenactment Society, the group that you do that reenacts Pylon songs? That’s so cool.

Vanessa: We do that, but we’ve also done writing. We’ve got enough for a whole album now, but COVID shut everything down just as we were about to go in the studio. We’re trying to figure out how to get those songs out. It’s kind of like Pylon is our guiding light. Obviously it’s not the same people so it can’t be Pylon, but Jason uses Randy’s tuning, and Kay is a very good bassist. She’s right out front, very strong. But anyways, it’s something fun to do. I hope we can record some more.

Corin: That’s so cool that you were able to do that with how difficult everything is right now. That’s awesome, it’s really good to hear.

Vanessa: Oh, yeah. This has been an opportunity for a lot of us to think and reflect on how we would like things to really be. I’ve stayed busy this year. I’m sure you have too. It’s not like I’m not busy, but because I’m not pulled to go out, or I’m not pulled to go on a trip, or that type of thing I have so much time to think. I’m hoping when we come to the other side of COVID that things are going to be better. I hate to see all of these wonderful clubs shut down. I really support Save Our Stages.

Corin: It’s really heartbreaking. There are just so many little places that I don’t know how on earth they’re going to survive. Some of the larger places I think will be OK, because they were able to get money, and support, and funds, which is good. You just want that for everybody, you know? But some of the really smaller clubs like Mississippi Studios, I just have no idea how they’re going to come out on the other side of this. I’m just hoping that they’ll be able to.

Vanessa: I hope so, too. I love that club. Everybody there is so nice. Top to bottom.

Corin: Yeah, it’s definitely more DIY and I think it’s run by a musician. Clubs like that are more about doing it for the love of music I think than anything else. That’s really been on my mind, as this whole year has just been having to step away from performing and seeing people. That’s the other thing about music, right? It’s all your friends. I think that comes through in your box set, and the kind of picture that you paint. It’s so sweet that you are all doing it for fun and friendship, and you’re all brushing your teeth together in that photo. It’s really sweet and you can tell that you guys are all in it together, like riding around in the van together and it’s like this little rock n’ roll family.

Vanessa: Oh, yeah, we were a family. Those guys were like my brothers, and are still. It’s just so painful in a way. There’s just so much loss going on, and the way the country is polarized… I’d just like to see a little bit of kindness and civility return. If everybody would act that way towards everybody, use our inside voices, and have a good discussion and stop demonizing each other. I’d just like to see this country come back together. There’s probably more rifts and cracks since the Civil War in this country. It’s so divided. It’s terrible. I’m in Athens, a spot of blue in a sea of red, but we managed to turn Georgia blue this year.

Corin: Congratulations on that. That was pretty impressive.

Vanessa: Oh, my goodness, so many people that contributed to that. The African-American community in particular really came out. It was very difficult for them. They had to stand in line before work. Get up at five or six and go out there and stand in line so they can get in to vote before they went to work, drive out of their way, whatever they had to do. John Lewis’ dying wish was that people would vote because so many people had put actual blood on the line so everybody could be free and vote, and I was really happy to see that here. We got a run-off coming in January that’s super important. I’m just so hoping that we at least get one of those seats, if not both of them.

Corin: Yeah, it’s a pretty major deal.

Vanessa: It is. Everybody send your good juju, your prayers. Say “Georgia, Georgia, Georgia.” Make Georgia on your mind January 5. Even before that. If there’s a listener out there who happens to be from Georgia and they’re not registered, if you turn 18 before January the 5th you can register to vote. If you have not registered, register to vote. I’d like to point out to the younger people in particular that voting is really important. It has an impact. These races came down to not very many votes and your vote is important. I’m really old now. I’m 65. You’re younger. It’s going to be your world soon, so vote and try to make it the way you want it. That’s my soapbox speech right there.

Corin: I love it. That’s awesome. Well, I have just one more question about the box set, I think.

Vanessa: OK. I’ve got it right here in case I need to look at it.

Corin: The Razz Tape, is that truly just from a regular cassette tape?

Vanessa: Yes. It was made in a Nakamichi though, which was state of the art at the time, and he used three mics. One was shared by the guitarist and the bass player, one by the drummer. This was in mine and Michael’s art studio, which was also our practice space, and it was big. They put me out in the hall with a mic outside there because they were so loud, so we couldn’t even see each other. When Jason went to master it, he did try to bring the vocals up in some places, but he pretty much stuck with it as it was. His philosophy for it was to do no harm.

Corin: Was he just hanging onto it for 40 years? I’m just super impressed that it made it so long and it sounds so great. It’s got such a cool vibe to it. Just very electric.

Vanessa: We were just all about energy back then. Chris said that he’d given us copies of this long ago, but I didn’t have it in my collection. I’ve moved many times since then and I don’t remember hearing it to be honest, so Jason, who’s working on this, he’s really good friends with Chris. They go to concerts together, go to music trivia night when they used to have that, they’re real good friends. He said, “Hey, I’ve got this tape of Pylon before they ever went in the studio to record,” and Jason was like, “Of course I want to hear that.” And he was just blown away, too. It is amazing it survived. Have y’all put out any live stuff with Sleater-Kinney?

Corin: Yeah, we put a live record out a few years ago that was just one show in Paris. It was really cool. It was exactly the kind of live show that you want. Everybody’s really excited and it feels like a party. It was really fun.

Vanessa: I’ll have to check that out. I missed that somehow.

Corin: I’ll send it to you. It was super fun to do.

Vanessa: Is Sleater-Kinney working on anything?

Corin: Sleater-Kinney is working on stuff this year. As slowly as we can, with COVID and everything. But we’re working on stuff and just looking forward to 2021.

Vanessa: I’m hoping a vaccine is a real thing like they’re talking about. I guess we’ll see what’s really happening. I’m just real hopeful that we can get real scientists on board with this thing. There’s going to be so much stuff coming out right after COVID I think.

Corin: Yeah. I think people will be so ready to just go and mingle with people again. It may take us a while, but I think people will be excited.

Vanessa: I’m looking forward to it. I miss that. I love going to a live show and seeing something that I haven’t seen before.

Corin Tucker is a founding member of the legendary Sleater-Kinney, which has released nine albums since forming in Olympia, Washington in 1994. Tucker has also released music with the Corin Tucker Band and the supergroup Filthy Friends, in which she shares frontperson duties with Peter Buck of R.E.M.