Perfect Sound Forever


photo by William Coupon

Tales of Raybeats, no wave and cartoon music
interview by John Wisniewski
(February 2024)

Musical careers can take all sorts of odd and bizarre, unpredictable twists and turns where one phase doesn't seem to connect to another one but it still happens somehow. Case in point is New York multi-instrumentalist Pat Irwin. After studying with John Cage in Paris, he came to NYC and dived into the no wave scene of the late '70's, becoming a member of 8-Eyed Spy with Lydia Lunch and later working with her on her solo debut. Around then, he also formed 'neo-surf' band the Raybeats with Spy bassist George Scott. After a few albums, the band broke up in '84 and Irwin would then record and tour with the B-52's, whom he had met back when he first came to New York. In the late '80's, Irwin also began his long-standing work as a film, TV composer, working on documentaries, dramas and cartoons, which range from kiddie classics like Rocko's Modern Life to gritty TV fare like Nurse Jackie and Dexter. His extensive CV in this field led him to teach about scoring at NYU also. He's also started working with a fascinating ambient-coutry combo called SUSS. Here, Irwin talks about the fascinating facets of his musical life.

PSF: When did you become interested in music?

PI: I can't remember a time when I wasn't interested in music.

PSF: You had studied under John Cage at one point- what did you pick up from him?

PI: I picked up everything from John Cage. His conviction. HIs passion. Discipline.

PSF: How did you first George Scott?

PI: I first met George when I had my place on 27th St., in the Flower District. He was just leaving the Contortions - or maybe James had kicked him out - No New York was just released. I hadn't ever heard anything like it. George was a dynamo. One of a kind.

PSF: With Lydia Lunch's Queen of Siam album (1980), how was that different work with her than before?

PI: Queen of Siam was a very distinct and different sound for Lydia. She didn't want to be in Teenage Jesus and the Jerks anymore. Queen of Siam was really the first record that I was ever on. My debut.

PSF: With Eight-Eyed Spy, how did band come together and how did the band decide to put their own stamp on classic rock standards?

PI: 8 Eyed Spy was formed because George Scott and Lydia Lunch wanted to be in a band together and she was tired of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks. The covers were chosen by George Scott and Lydia was into doing them all. I wouldn't exactly call them classic rock standards but there you go.

PSF: How did The Raybeats form?

PI: Don Christensen and Jody Harris had stuck around with the Contortions for a bit longer, but not much. George and Don wanted to form an Instrumental Rock and Roll band and that was that. I was in.

PSF: What was the concept for how The Raybeats music should sound?

PI: Don, Jody, and George got together to knock around a few ideas. It was simple, "let's make an instrumental Rock and Roll Band." But really, George was the catalyst. He was working in a record store called The Musical Maze and Hip Hop music was just starting to become a thing. The A sides of a lot of the early Hip Hop 12" records featured an instrumental version of the A side and one of the first featured a sample from the Incredible Bongo Band's version of "Apache." I think it was the Sugarhill Gang. George thought we could form a band and be a part of that scene. Imagine that.

PSF: Tell us about recording the first Raybeats album.

PI: Well, the first Raybeats recording was done in Austin, TX. It was called Roping Wild Bears. The first album was recorded in England, outside of London in Goring On Thames, with the great producer Martin Rushent. We loved the sound of The Stranglers records that Martin had produced and we had just signed a record deal with Beggars Banquet. The folks at Beggars Banquet put us together with Martin who had just built his new studio and we were the first band to record there. It was very alive, we all set up in the room and basically played our set. Martin had a few overdub ideas and we kept it pretty simple. We stayed in the pub down the road from the studio and did our best to stay out of trouble.

PSF: What did you think of the No Wave scene?

PI: I felt like I could belong. Those first bands on the No New York album were such a jolt. The Contortions, Teenage Jesus, Mars, and DNA turned me upside down. I loved it. This was the kind of subversive energy that Rock and Roll was missing.

PSF: Why did The Raybeats disband?

PI: We didn't really disband. We just kind of fizzled.

PSF: How did you meet up to work with B-52's- what was it like touring with them and playing live?

PI: Working with the B-52s was a thrill. They were my friends. The Raybeats had opened for them several times and Kate had come down to the Mudd Club to see us play. They borrowed my amp for their first gig at the Mudd Club.

PSF: Regarding your teaching at NYU, how did that come about and what do you cover in your seminars?

PI: I was introduced to teaching by my friend and fellow composer, Phillip Johnston. I had known Phillip because of the Microscopic Septet. Phillip introduced me to the folks at NYU and that led me to teaching at Brooklyn College's Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema.

PSF: How did the group SUSS come together? Interesting idea to meld country and ambient. How does group come up with songs?

PI: SUSS is a real bonus. It's now down to three of us. Bob Holmes plays mandolin, harmonica, and keyboards. Jonathan Gregg plays Pedal Steel. I play guitar, Ebow, Autoharp, Piano and Synthesizers. It was Bob's idea to form an Ambient Country band, the idea being what would it be like if Eno produced Ennio. We write our music together.

PSF: Your scoring work is extensive. How did that come about? How do you come up with music for the TV shows that you've worked on? PIL Film scoring always seemed to be in the air for me. My first TV show was Tales From The Darkside. Later, a producer from Nickelodeon saw the Raybeats play at the infamous Times Square show and he asked if I'd be interested in scoring a cartoon. I said, "of course." That was Rocko's Modern Life. The first film that I scored, My New Gun, ended up in the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, the same year Quentin Tarantino exploded with Reservoir Dogs. The show inspires the music. It's all about the story.

PSF: Your cartoon music has been award winning- how did you get into that field? How is that different than your other scoring work?

PI: I love cartoon music. The classic Warner Brothers cartoon music is tattooed on my brain. I got into it because someone asked if I'd do it. It was what I thought making records was going to be like. I like putting bands together and working with them over the course of a project. The musicians that played on Rocko's Modern Life are all on another level. Kevin Norton played drums and percussion and Dave Hofstra played bass and tuba. At the time, Kevin was playing with Anthony Braxton. Dave had played in the Contortions and the Raybeats. He was also playing with John Zorn and Elliott Sharp. Art Baron played the trombone, he had been with Duke Ellington. I'll say that again, DUKE ELLINGTON. He had also been with Stevie Wonder and B.B. King. Rob DeBellis played the woodwinds. When I first met Rob he was playing with Phillip Johnston's "Big Trouble." Kevin Norton and Dave Hofstra were in that band too. I've worked on some wonderful cartoons, SpongeBob SquarePants, Pepper Ann, Class of 3000 (with Andre 3000) just to name a few. When you score a cartoon you get much closer to the picture (it's called "Mickey Mousing" for a reason).

PSF: Any favorite music groups?

PI: My favorites change all the time. I was out with a friend last night and found myself reminiscing about the B-52's. I love that band. And then, of course, there's Booker T. & the MG's, The Ventures, Link Wray. The Ronettes. The Beach Boys. I like Godspeed You Black Emperor. Stars of the Lid. Tortoise. Also, Iggy and the Stooges, the Velvet Underground, Television, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, Wire.

PSF: What are working on now?

PI: I'm super excited about SUSS. We've recorded several records on Northern Spy and have a new one in the works called Birds & Beast that should be out in the Spring of 2024 (mixing it now). I've also got a band called the PI Power Trio with Sasha Dobson on drums and vocals, and Daria Grace on bass and vocals. SUSS plays a kind of ambient, semi improvised, music that we call Ambient Country. There are three of us now, Bob Holmes on mandolin, harmonica, and guitar, Jonathan Gregg on pedal steel, and I play guitars and keyboards. PI Power Trio lets me wear my Rock and Roll hat. We play some instrumentals and we even play a couple of Raybeats tunes. We also play "Atomic Bongos" which George and I co-wrote with Lydia Lunch and is featured on her first record, Queen of Siam and we play a couple of things by the B-52s. Sasha and Daria add abstract and dreamy vocals to a couple of tunes. I love that band.

photo by Orestes Gonzales

Also see Pat Irwin's website

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER