Perfect Sound Forever


Interview by Dave Lang

The idea of getting on record some sort of definitive Pell Mell story only came to mind recently. I am Facebook friends with Robert Beerman and had contacted him about the availability of the Pell Mell back catalogue for possible licensing and reissuing when I realised that, despite my longtime fandom of the band, my knowledge of their history remained scant. I first became aware of the instrumental quartet in the late '80's when their Bumper Crop/Rhyming Guitars recordings were reissued by the SST label. At the time, SST was the hottest imprint on the planet, and Greg Ginn and co. were expanding their roster at a rate of knots, much of it into esoteric and unexpected directions.

In particular, the label was becoming increasingly fixated on instrumental guitar music, and Pell Mell slotted in wonderfully. The story of the band itself is told below: their beginnings in Portland in the late '70s with Robert Beerman (the only constant in the band from their earliest to their final days), to their rebirth in San Francisco in the early/mid '80s when David Spalding, Greg Freeman and Steve Fisk joined the group, their years on the SST label, their surprise signing to Geffen in the 1990's and then their brief post-Geffen period with their fantastic Star City LP. For myself, Pell Mell are a band who didn't record a dud moment. Well, perhaps they did, as they recorded a lot of what they played, but release-wise, their discography is pure gold.

Pell Mell took the twang of Duane Eddy and the Ventures and mixed it up with a jagged, post-punk approach and a beautiful, evocative lyricism which has a wonderfully cinematic quality (no wonder they have had their music used on screen, notably on the HBO series Six Feet Under). A vocalist would only clutter things. The perfectly complimentary interplay between the bass/drums rhythm section and the expressive guitar lines possess a sublime beauty which few others have ever matched. Just imagine Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd playing the Dick Dale songbook... then imagine a music writer struggling to put in words what it is Pell Mell did exactly.

The Pell Mell story is an interesting one, too: relocations, splits, big label signings and dumpings, members with fascinating pedigrees (Steve Fisk's work with Nirvana, Soundgarden and the Screaming Trees surely places him in the Grunge Hall Of Fame, no?), so I sent these questions off to all four long-serving members and had them tell the story...

STEVE FISK (SF) – keyboards

PSF: Tell me about your upbringing, musical epiphanies, musical happenings at a young age...

RB: I was born in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a once-thriving steel-mill city. I've played the drums since I was maybe 10 years old; playing in a couple hard rock bands in grade school, a disco/lounge band, and then a power-pop band before Pell Mell. My first concert was seeing The Carpenters in 1971; another total epiphany was seeing The B-52's at a small club in Washington, DC in 1979. I've always been a voracious music listener/consumer/fan.

DS: I was born in 1956 in Los Alamos, New Mexico... Birthplace of the atomic bomb. In the 30's, the place had been a small elite boarding school... a remote sort of outpost cowboy boot camp for children of the well-heeled. Interestingly William Burroughs and Gore Vidal were students there.

Los Alamos was selected because it was extremely remote & isolated - a place where they could undertake the monumental task of figuring out how to build the bomb in secret. So the town only really existed because of this government project. Consequently, everyone there was some kind of highly educated or trained engineer, physicist, chemist, metallurgist, mathematician... It was a weird place... My dad was a geneticist studying the effects of radiation. Seems like in retrospect all the parents were so wrapped up in what they were doing that as kids we were free to do whatever we wanted.

SF: My parents were supportive of my musical interests. I played, took lessons, but never got any good on guitar, clarinet and cello. I saw the Premieres live at a school dance where my father taught. I was 10. They were the coolest thing I had ever seen.

I followed the Beatles like other kids. When they broke up I thought music was over - back to the way it used to be. I remember thinking Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin On" was as weird and radical as a Beatles record and that meant something but I couldn't figure it out. I was 12 in 1968. Musical epiphanies rained from the sky. A few years later, my good friend Ken Borgers (now a San Diego jazz DJ) snuck me into the USC Moog studios for some fun. I met Paul Wyman, the guy that programmed and played the soundtrack to Halloween.

GF: My family was very musical. My dad, mom and stepfather-to-be all played together in a dance band in the 1950's in the Monterey Bay, California area. So music was always around when I was young. I became a fan of pop and rock music with The Monkees, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and other Top 40 AM radio hits in the late '60's - early '70's.

PSF:Tell me about the formation of the band: what was the musical intention - why an instrumental band? What were the band's musical influences? What sort of gigs did you play, and who with? Did you tour much? How was it having Bruce Pavitt as a manager?

RB: Bill Owen and I formed the band in 1980 in Portland, Oregon. Bill had met guitarist and sax player Arni May at a local Portland record store and we began playing. Arni had a couple other bands, and had connections with the local Portland music scene. As for influences, it was The Feelies, The B-52's, Television, Pylon, A Certain Ratio, Josef K, Fire Engines, PiL, The Contortions, Pere Ubu. And we had a fondness for Duane Eddy, The Shadows, and The Ventures. We did not start out with the intention of being instrumental. We auditioned several singers, and just felt that all the songs were better without vocals. We liked the idea of not pinning down the 'content' of the songs so... verbally. This, of course, became a challenge for us throughout our 'career' (ha!) because we were constantly chafing about being classified as a surf band. Evidently, any band with guitars that wasn't 'jazz' HAD to be surf...

We did a lot of shows at Clockwork Joe's (the collective-artist-run space), a couple of bars/taverns, and colleges. It was a fantastic music scene, with The Wipers, Neo-Boys, The Rats (w/ Fred and Toodie pre-Dead Moon) Sado-Nation, Jungle Nausea, et al. It was during the Portland years that we met Bruce Pavitt, who at that time was putting out Sub-Pop magazine and doing radio at KAOS in Olympia, Washington. He got in touch with us, and booked us a few shows in Olympia, where we met Steve Fisk, Calvin Johnson, and the rest of the like-minded OP magazine/KAOS radio people there at Evergreen College.

We recorded our first EP, "Rhyming Guitars" (it's in quotes on the back cover because it was taken from Roxy Music's lyric 'a rhythm of rhyming guitars') in Seattle. Arni left the band just before it was released (f I remember correctly he wanted to add a female singer). The EP got a lot of US college radio airplay, great reviews (including the revered NME) but suddenly all the material--two-guitar-driven--was unplayable. We kind of re-grouped as a trio (our stalwart bass player Jon-Lars Sorenson stuck with us), writing new material as a three-piece. We bought a Roland synthesizer for a contrasting texture, favoring settings that would just repeat throughout songs. This new trio Pell Mell is documented on the 1982 It Was A Live Cassette (CD re-release on Starlight Furniture). It WAS a cassette we released to help promote a cross-country tour with Bruce Pavitt along as tour manager. Bruce had many connections across the US through his Sub-Pop 'network' of independent radio stations/fanzines, record stores, etc. Highlights of that tour included opening for Mission of Burma in Cleveland, staying at the Chelsea Hotel in NY, and a disastrous show at Danceteria plagued by equipment malfunctions and (perhaps for the best) a mis-labeled video-feed to the rest of the venue calling us 'November Group.'

After the tour, we decided to ask Steve Fisk to join the band. We were big fans of his; it was his track on Bruce's Sub-Pop 5 cassette compilation that sealed the deal for us. He joined, and we also decided it was time to move from Portland to San Francisco. We wanted a larger audience, and a more receptive music scene. It was also around this time that we met Ray Farrell, who had been working at Rough Trade US in distribution. He was a big fan of the Rhyming Guitars record; he offered to help us get bookings in the Bay Area. Jon-Lars moved back Northwest, and luckily, Greg Freeman answered our ad for a bass player hanging in the Rough Trade store.

PSF: What were your musical activities during the pre-Pell Mell era?

DS: I saw the Beatles and the Rolling Stones on the Ed Sullivan show when they were first on. My first live concert was the Rolling Stones on the Sticky Fingers tour with Little Stevie Wonder opening up. All of that had a huge impression on me... Rock 'n' roll was new and exciting as hell and was permeating the culture... it was in the atmosphere & I wanted to be a part of it. My first LP was Revolver. My dad picked it up for me on a business trip to San Francisco kind of at the height of the whole Haight Ashbury thing...I gotta give him credit for that. I remember my mom was pissed at him for the corrupting influence it represented to her. I grew my hair long in 5th grade and was always kind of in trouble because of it, being one of the only kids doing it at first... I talked my folks into buying me an electric guitar and a Fender Champ amp at around sixth grade. I took a few lessons but didn't have the patience for it and didn't like the stuff they were teaching me, kind of folk stuff or traditional stuff I wasn't into... So I'd just listen to Stones records & Beatles records, whatever else was new.

I especially remember Neil Young's first record and sort of realizing I could play some of that stuff. I used to park myself in front of any kind of live band that I could lay my eyes on just to see & watch the guitar player's hands. I'd sneak into high school proms because they hired live bands, just so I could listen and watch. Later, I'd even sneak into bars and made a shitty fake ID... But things were pretty lax back then in New Mexico so I'd get away with it. They probably knew I was underage. I played with some other guys a little here and there and we'd pick up stuff from each other. I learned to kind of play & could improvise a little, and at some point an older drummer I'd played & jammed with who was pretty good asked me to join the high school jazz band because they were going to play "Shaft," the Isaac Hayes hit, and I was the only kid in town he knew with a wah-wah pedal... Joining the jazz band was really good for me in a number of ways. I got a lot of positive feedback from the other kids in the band because most of them had learned formerly, were more disciplined & could read music but hadn't spent time with improvisation, whereas I was pretty good at it, being self-taught and playing a lot more by feel. The band director was a cool guy who had played jazz trumpet in his earlier days and had hung out with some known jazz people. He really was encouraging, supportive & seemed to like me and my playing which was a big confidence boost.

I learned quite a bit in that environment, gained a lot of confidence, and started jamming with other better musicians and started putting bands together with some of the good players who were interested in the same kind of stuff. We played school dances got a few bar gigs and started putting on our own shows at the community center charging something at the door and actually making what seemed like a lot of money at the time. Since there was nothing else to do every kid in town came to those shows. They were pretty fun & there was a fair amount of under-age alcohol, weed, and other stuff involved... We'd occasionally catch some grief from certain concerned parents, the police and high school officials, but it was pretty tame for the most part!

But I was hooked. I tried to go to college, but was always a lousy unfocused student and just wanted to play music because that was the only thing that I got positive feedback from, so I talked most of the band into moving to California to get "serious." A couple of the guys were a year or so older and had been to a year or two of University in Santa Cruz CA, so we had a connection or two there.

At the time, the Lab in Los Alamos was run by the University of California, so if you worked for the Lab, your kids could go to California universities paying only In-State tuition which was way cheaper plus the schools were better, so we moved to Santa Cruz and eked out a meagre living in a bar band called Mersey's Cadillac. We played all over the Bay Area, Carmel, Berkeley, Fort Ord, various universities and community colleges, any place we could get a paying gig.

One of our best paying gigs was playing Stanford university fraternity & sorority parties: we were covering the Dead, Little Feat, Van Morrison, the Stones, Steely Dan, etc... Popular bar band stuff which was beginning to become passé. Punk was starting to hit in reaction to the ossifying corporate co-option of the music, and some of the Stanford students were hip to a lot of new stuff that was happening. I remember Tom Verlaine became a big new influence on me and I started to write some of my own stuff, so that band broke up around this period.

SF: I was in Customer Service with Steve Peters, Westside Lockers with Shawn O'Neil and John Foster's Pop Philosophers. There were lots of other short lived bands. My solo effort "Digital Alarm" was on Sub Pop 5. I studied composition at The Evergreen State College and worked at their radio station KAOS. I also worked at Op Magazine.

GF: I was in a new wave band called The Call based in Santa Cruz, California from 1979 to 1983. There were two LP's that I played on with this band released on Mercury/Phonogram Records, and we toured and recorded in the US and UK. I spent a lot of time working in studios in the UK and US with well-regarded engineers and producers such as Andy Johns, Hugh Padgham, Denny Cordell, and others. I was also in a '60's cover band called The Waybacks during my college days at UC Santa Cruz before this.

PSF:For everyone other than Robert: tell me about the circumstances under which you joined the band - I believe the band relocated to San Fran?

DS: During these Santa Cruz Days, I used to go to this bar called the Crow's Nest to watch Michael Bean's band "Air Tight." They later became The Call. MTV was just getting started and they had a hit with a song "The Walls Came Down." Since I was hanging around there all the time at these Crow's Nest gigs... I got to know some of band members. Once or twice, Scott Music, their drummer, filled in for some of our bar gigs... I think Greg Freeman was kind of working as a roadie for them & as the band line-up changed into 'The Call," he became the bass player... they asked me to be the guitar roadie at some point. He & I were a bit younger than the rest of the band and so we kind of hung together. I seem to remember that Greg knew of Pell Mell & I believe he even answered an ad they had put in a Bay Area paper looking for a bass player... we both quit The Call about the same time and both moved up to the Bay Area. So Greg introduced me to Pell Mell... I really liked what they were doing & became an immediate fan and started doing sound for them...

SF: I mixed their live cassette in my living room in Olympia WA. They had lost their second guitarist and were a 3 piece, which I really dug. They were my favorite band. I never do this but, when the mixing was done, I offered my services. I joined the band shortly after their relocation to the East Bay.

GF: I had just left The Call in the summer of 1983, and was hanging out with a friend and was visiting with him in San Francisco. We went to the Rough Trade record store on Sixth Street in San Francisco, and on the bulletin board they had there I saw a notice that Pell Mell was looking for a bass player. I had heard Pell Mell through the Sub Pop cassette compilations, and had purchased the Rhyming Guitars EP, so I was familiar with the band, and liked them a lot. I wrote down the phone numbers from the ad on the bulletin board, and called one of the numbers and spoke with Bob on the phone. We made arrangements to meet at Bob and his girlfriend Chris' apartment on Nob Hill in SF. I met them there, along with guitar player Bill Owen and his girlfriend at the time, and we talked about music and got to know each other a little bit. Bob had an A Certain Ratio EP on his turntable. I noticed that, and remarked that I liked them as well. Bob then played a tape of what was slated to be the five-song Pell Mell EP on Rough Trade, titled The Bumper Crop. The first song was "Estacada", and I was speechless. It was literally stunning, and I was blown away. I couldn't say anything until the second song on the tape had played for a bit, and I think all I could say was, "This is great." I was completely on board at that moment.

PSF:Was this when Ray Farrell was managing the band? It was through him that you signed to SST?

RB: Ray did our bookings while we lived in the Bay Area. We played lots of local shows, and did many jaunts to LA/Sacramento/Davis etc. We played with the Minutemen, 100 Flowers, Savage Republic, Angst, Slovenly (I think?), X-Tal, Game Theory, Toiling Midgets... During this period, we recorded a mini-LP to be released on a subsidiary of Rough Trade US called Sixth International. This was the original 'Bumper Crop' material. We got as far as designing the cover; I can't remember now why it didn't come to fruition. This material, and many live tracks, became the For Years We've Stood Clearly As One Thing cassette which K Records released in 1985. In my mind, at least, this was going to be the final Pell Mell release.

At this point, I decided to move back to the East Coast to go to school in Philadelphia to study graphic design. It kind of seemed as though we'd run our course in SF. Ray worked at SST (1985 I believe?) and Greg Ginn got interested in Steve Fisk's solo stuff and Pell Mell. So, by the time we were 'signed' to SST we weren't a functioning entity--I was in Philadelphia, Greg was in SF, Bill was in New Jersey, Steve had moved to Ellensburg, Washington. SST released a remixed Rhyming Guitars and a re-vamped/expanded Bumper Crop.

Dave Spalding, who had been our sound man in SF and an ace guitarist as well, was living in New Haven, Connecticut and he and I began getting together, playing and recording. We eventually started sending the 1/2" tapes to the West Coast. When SST was interested in doing a new LP, we convened at Greg's SF studio, Lowdown, to record. These sessions became the Flow record, released on SST in 1991.

DS: Yes, Ray has always been the strongest advocate for Pell Mell. He is just an amazing guy who understands and loves music and the creativity involved as well as the music business in general on a level that very few people get. When he started working at SST, he slept under his desk for a while until he found an apartment. Ray is very cool: he has always understood aspects of the music business on a grass-roots level.

GF: Ray was managing the band when I came along in 1983. I remember that Ray had heard that the new prospective bass player had been in a band that had some major label success, and was worried that I would insist on having my former band mentioned in gig listings, I assured him that this was not the case. I was a little embarrassed at the time about my time with a "corporate" band, since I was a devoted aficionado of more obscure music at the time like The Fall, Wire, Orange Juice, Josef K, Cabaret Voltaire, Television, etc. I learned later the hard way that the indie record scene was really no more honest than the big labels were.

PSF: Were you aware of the music SST was releasing at the time? How do you think the band slotted into the roster at the time, since Greg Ginn was very much into instrumental music at the time?

RB: Of course! We were fans of the Minutemen, and Slovenly. Most of the roster wasn't my thing, but I liked that they were putting out a lot of instrumental/arty stuff. We were thrilled that they were interested in having us.

DS: I really loved the Meat Puppets when I heard them, and saw them once or twice in San Francisco, but I was only dimly aware of SST. Greg and Bob were way into collecting records and were really up on all kinds of new music that was happening at the time. Greg had been a DJ at the UC Santa Cruz radio station. This was in the hey-day of the cassette mix tapes. Bob and Greg made a lot of them and they turned me on to all kinds of great stuff I didn't know even existed. They really improved my life with all those mix tapes!

SF: I had helped land the Screaming Trees onto the SST label along with Ray Farrell. I got to know Greg Ginn on the phone. I sent him the lost record from the SF days, Bumper Crop which K had released in a different form on cassette as For Year We Stood Clearly As One Thing a name we nicked from a train station reader board. This was right when the No Age comp was coming together. SST was branching out and signing diverse bands. It sort made sense at the time.

GF: I was familiar with Black Flag and the Meat Puppets, but that was about it. I was not really into the hardcore punk scene of the early '80's, although I liked some of the records a lot, like the first Black Flag LP, the Descendents, etc.

See Part II of the Pell Mell interview

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