Mike Gangloff, Pat Best and

Jack Rose

Being interested in the intersection between art and place, I note that the home base of drone -rock improvisateurs Pelt is the city of Richmond in the American state of Virginia, the same city where Edgar Allan Poe lived and worked for many years, and a place seemingly at the epicentre of some pretty outre current musical endeavours (Labradford, Gospel Midgets and Rake come to mind). In invoking the memory of Poe, we’re not talking about black fingernail polish here, maybe just a shared affinity for a certain inward -spiralling darkness, and the mutual acknowledgment of something malevolent out there in the woods somewhere. I have never made any secret of my admiration for the desolate asteroid landscapes of Pelt’s work, and the way that the best of it has the power to induct the listener into its gravitational field the way that a bird on an ill -fated trajectory is sucked into the engines of a large passenger jet. The three members of the band, guitarists Patrick Best, Mike Gangloff and Jack Rose, have sent four albums out into the world in the last two years, all filled with the poetry of wood -and -wire instruments taken way out there to the perimeter and left to get on with things on a survival -of -the -fittest basis. Early works, like those found on VHF’s ‘Brown Cyclopaedia’, hark back strongly to the best of the Xpressway crowd. Tracks like ‘Anchored’, ‘Couldn’t See It’ and ‘Secret Grudge Matches’ adhere to rock structures in the same irritable way that some of the Dead C’s most conflicted works do, slightly contemptuous of them but not quite willing to let go completely. For both bands the conflict ultimately produces great skewed psychedelic mayhem (and isn’t that why we’re all here?). Unfortunately this obvious early reference point gave a lot of mentally -lazy critics and observers an easy out, an opportunity to equate the sum total of Pelt to the Dead C. But while recognising its ghosts and exorcising them, ‘Brown Cyclopaedia’ already sign -posted the way ahead, with elements of brittle mountain folk, eastern -influenced modal/drone, spoken word and chants, and shimmering improvisational tone poems. And you’d go a long way to hear a more cantankerous two -fingered aural salute to privileged collegiate America than the tracks ‘Absolution’ and ‘Almighty’, beautiful calls to worship at the alter of free -improvised drone performed in a threatening atmosphere captured nicely by the portable cassette recording, complete with abusive one -liners. Typically, it is these threads that have been developed most fully on subsequent albums, and most successfully on ‘Max Meadows’, where their work is taken to another level by increasing awareness of how to lay down a compelling underlying structure to wreak improvisational havoc over. An increasing variety of instrumentation is deployed on this later material too, with 15 minute tracks like ‘Samsara’ and ‘Hippy War Machine’ being transfigured into tranced -out psychedelic masterpieces by use of home -made oscillators, Japanese woodwinds, djembes and trap kits and God knows what else. The most recent release, the very scarce 300 -only tour LP ‘Snake to Snake’ signals a move away from guitar to re -interpret older material with new instruments and instrumental ideas. Another bold and fascinating record, one that taken in conjunction with ‘Max Meadows’ signals some kind of interim destination where perhaps they might pause briefly. Thus perhaps a pretty good time and place for the Terrascope to catch up with them.


Mike Gangloff sketches a thumbnail history of the origins of the band. “Pelt passed the five -year mark this January,” he begins. “The first two years were a fast -forward take on all sorts of ‘artistic differences’. There was a lot of uncertainty about how to, on one hand, have something that had some sort of impact and could play out, and on the other, keep Pelt's initial elements from disappearing. This sounds pretentious, but the problem was basically to keep from dissolving into yet another interchangeable rock band. A turning point came when the band's ‘rhythm section’ quit and James Connell and I did a show with friend Paul Goode rolling tape loops behind our guitars. Paul was probably the most interesting part of the set with his tapes feeding through a reel -to -reel then wrapping around his arms, neck and torso as he adopted various poses to vary the pitch, etc. Anyhow, Pat and Jack, who were playing in what was then one of my favourite bands, Ugly Head, were at that show. Jack finished the set by using a mattock to smash the speaker we'd funnelled everything into. Pat volunteered his services immediately afterwards and for the rest of that summer played in a lineup that included me, James and Paul. There were a couple more twists and turns but by January 1995, James had quit to become a motorcycle racer and Paul had his own groups. Pat and Jack joined me at first on a provisional basis to complete a set of shows that had been set up previously.”


Mike was born in Lexington, Kentucky, and gravitated to Virginia thirteen years ago. “I've basically been in one band or another since I was sixteen. Pelt has come closest to realising the tones, the sound  - this is hard to describe  - the feelings that I hoped to find when I started thinking seriously about why I played.”


Jack Rose is from Virginia and  started playing music when he was about twelve. In the early 1990s he started listening to The Dead C and the Xpressway groups, Sun City Girls, and various Siltbreeze bands. “I first played with Pat Best in a band called Ugly Head in 1993, a loud noise band that self released two singles and a couple compilation tracks on the ‘Dixie Flatline’ CD that Mike and Amy put out on their Radioactive Rat label a few years back, which is where Pat and I met Mike and Amy. Ugly Head lasted about a year and a half and did many shows with an earlier incarnation of Pelt. The current Pelt line up didn't start until the winter of 1995.”


Patrick Best was born in Kansas City, Missouri. “My father was an old-time fiddle player. His fiddle had two sound posts and a rattlesnake rattle inside it! I knew Jack from playing in Ugly Head. What really solidified my role was seeing the show where Mike, Paul and James were playing. I saw that the potential for truly experimental music was there at my feet.”


One of the first shows by the current Pelt line-up was at Colgate College in Hamilton, New York, hilariously documented on the ‘Brown Cyclopaedia’ album. Mike takes up the story: “This was the third show that Pat and Jack and I played together as Pelt and took place within two weeks of our first practice. Colgate College is a high dollar private school buried in the frozen wastes of outback New York. We were to play in the Student Union Building, opening for Babe the Blue Ox who were very nice to us and lent Jack an expensive new Marshall rig after his Silvertone amp crashed and burned during soundcheck. We should have seen it as a sign of things to come.  When it was time to play, the place was pretty crowded and people actually cheered as we opened. But at each stop, there was distinctly less applause and people were starting to move back from the risers that had been set up for a stage. From what we could tell, everyone there absolutely hated us. People treated us like we had some sort of contagious disease and wouldn't even talk to us afterwards. We couldn't find a place to spread our sleeping bags that night, the few people who would make eye contact said no. Luckily, because it was far too cold to sleep in the van, my sister was living about two hours away and so off we headed.”


“The roads had iced up pretty well by now,” Mike continues, “and we almost wrecked on the way to her house. The equipment shifted in the van and knocked out a tail light and sure enough, a few miles later a police car pulled us over to talk about it. While I was showing one officer the tangle of amps and cords in the back, another officer came around the passenger window and started fishing for drug violations. ‘What's that bowl there?’ the officer asked, pointing to the engine cover between the seats. ‘What, this socket wrench?’ replied Patrick, holding up the offending hardware. Embarrassed, the forces of law and order retreated and left us to continue on our way! The recording that appears on ‘Brown Cyclopaedia’ was done with a handheld unit that sat on the soundboard. I think the loudest comments are from the promoter and soundman, who apparently gnashed their teeth throughout. ‘Fucking hippie garbage!’ is my favourite.”


A combination of self-belief and sheer perversity sustained the intrepid trio through these torrid early experiences, and things rapidly improved. Later in 1995, ‘Brown Cyclopaedia’ was released on vinyl on Radioactive Rat in a quantity of 300 (subsequently re -issued on CD by vhf Records). I ask them about the record, and the blasted folk vibe it seems to carry with it. “I think ‘Brown Cyclopaedia’ served two functions,” says Jack, “it resolved a lot of ideas brought forth in previous lineups, and a lot of ideas found during the improvising on the record made their way in other forms to the next three records. The main part of the record was mostly Mike's ideas with Pat and myself adding suggestions and support. The bulk of the studio material had been in Mike's repertoire for years, Pat and I added what we thought would best make those songs sound unique to this particular lineup. Side four was mostly material from previous lineups that we thought fit into the overall picture of the recordings. ‘Absolution/Almighty’, ‘Green Flower’ and ‘Phantom Tick’ best exemplify our group approach at that time. As far as a ‘blasted folk vibe’ goes, it was purely accidental.” Mike doesn’t necessarily agree. “I'm not sure it was accidental,” he says, “and it may be intensifying. My wife Amy and I have been going to a lot of fiddlers conventions this summer. Jack, his girlfriend Laurie and Pat joined us for one in Mount Airy, North Carolina, last month. Pelt's banjo, guitar and sarod excursions drew some interest and some skepticism...”


Their second album, ‘Burning/Filament/Rockets’ (Econogold 1996) was recorded soon after ‘Brown Cyclopaedia.’ Notions of structure and melody apparent on the previous outing are superseded by an unhurried spirit of psychic improvisation. Long-form feedback journeys in the heart of the drone cleanse and heal as the listener’s hand passes through the flame with a mysterious absence of pain. Jack talks about the evolutionary process. “It was a very fruitful time because we were able to use our musical ideas in a very free context. Pieces were written and improvised in an immediate fashion. We would talk about an idea minutes before we would play and then leave the tape running. It was a time to fully connect on a musical level, establishing how we would develop our methods of writing, playing and editing. We think the record also set the stage for ‘Max Meadows’ which took a lot of those ideas from ‘Burning/Filament/Rockets’ and further refined them.”


Early 1997 saw the release of two transcendent albums that seem to be the fullest realisation yet of what the band have been working towards. “‘Snake To Snake’ demonstrates our use of strange instrumentation and our interpretations of already existing Pelt material,” Jack explains. “The track ‘Sun is Apart No. 2’ is our interpretation of a song we wrote in 1995. The melody of both of the songs are similar and the instrumentation is essentially the same, but what we were doing was on this version was expanding the melody to loosen the structures set forth in the previous version. ‘Gavanji 1 and 2’ has no guitar at all and is a loose structure that we do not veer too far away from. We wanted to use our new instruments and other players, Peter Neff on bass hammer dulcimer and Ron Curry on violin. This tune also provided many ideas that we used later in songs on ‘Max Meadows’.”


“During the Max Meadows recordings we were more aware of using forms with our free musical ideas,” continues Jack. “At this time we were no longer living within the same block in Richmond, as we had been for the other two records, so we would get together about twice a month and record. Due to the distance, we developed some ideas independently and brought them within the group. After some time, we had a lot of tape and we went through what we thought would be the best selection of songs to put together. Also, before we left for our first tour we tried out a couple of ideas that later became fully realized on the tour, becoming ‘Samasara’, ‘Sunken’ and ‘ABC Delancey’. A lot of new instruments like the beat frequency oscillator, the shenai and the bass resonator built by Pat played a huge part in forming the songs on the record. I think ‘Max Meadows’ is our best record so far because it is an apex of all of our ideas from ‘Brown Cyclopaedia’ and ‘Burning/Filament/Rockets’ and is better realised in a improvised rock context.”


When I spoke to Mike, Pat and Jack, they had just returned from a brief tour of the US north-east. I asked them how it went. “There was a lot of ensemble playing on this tour,” says Pat. “Before we left, a friend of ours, Mick, had been sitting in on tablas and Amy Shea had been providing drone violin during a couple of jam and recording sessions. Beth Jones had been playing percussion with us already for few months and played on ‘Hippy War Machine’. Since March, 1996 we have played together with Rake a couple of times for large ensemble shows. The Pelt lineup with Amy, Mick and Beth (the so called ‘double trio’) yielded a good recording our first date of our tour. The second date consisted of Rake, Pelt, Mick and Beth. There is a really good recording of that second night that may be released at some stage. Which is great”, Pat adds, “because the Pelt/Rake collaborations have not been easy due to time, distance and lack of agreement among members deciding which material is suitable for release. A year ago, incidentally, Econogold records commissioned a Pelt/Rake record and rejected what we sent them. In retrospect, that may have been best because the more recent ensemble sessions have been much better.”


“The next two dates were at Flipped Out Records in Albany and Trash American Style in Danbury, Connecticut,” says Mike. “We liked Jack's record store and the city of Albany, but our show sucked. We sucked in Danbury as well, but Fudd (HCI and employee of Trash) is a good friend of ours and we really enjoyed hanging out with him. After our show in Danbury, Fudd showed us the infamous Chuck Berry video, in which he urinates on a woman, along with other unmentionable sexual acts. We only watched couple minutes because we found it to be a little unnerving!”


The pinnacle of the tour seems to have been their time in New York City, though. “NYC was probably the crux of the tour,” ventures Jack. “We had met Donald Miller (Borbetomagus, Lhasa Cement Plant, William Hooker, etc) a few months back and seemed to hit it off. After our show, where we first met him, he had some very encouraging comments which boiled down to ‘lay off the rock and pop shit and focus more on the skronk and drone’. Mike and Donald kept up correspondence and he continued to encourage us. When we were getting ready to go on tour, we asked him if he could take us to LaMonte Young's Dream House and if he wanted to sit in with us. We got together and played at the Knitting Factory and had a great show, despite our van and all the gear being towed while we sat in Donald's apartment (it cost us most of what we made from the tour to get it released). The next day we went to the Dream House. The room was huge with carpet covering the entire floor, two huge tone generators in corners of the room, and the light had a mauve glow and four Marion Zazeela light sculptures were hung symmetrically from the ceiling. The light sculptures would move and dance from the light that reflected on to the shapes, then on to the wall. These objects certainly altered your visual perception, something akin to taking hallucinogenics, which we weren't doing at the time. The sound produced in the room was nothing like we've ever heard before. It is based on an interval that produces many imagined tones when these two notes are playing simultaneously for a long time. Just moving your head or switching your position in the room would produce all kinds of different tones. By placing yourself in a certain position, you could even isolate low or high tones coming from the interval. You could even close your eyes and tell when other people were moving around the room by the changes in sound. We had been working with drones and have heard of Zazeela and Young's work, but to actually experience their art was profound.”


“When we played that night,” Jack continues, ”again with Donald, that experience could most certainly be heard in what we were doing. Mike tried to resist the influence of the Dream House in his playing but in the end said he just could not help but succumb to the drone! Donald and his wife Cree were great hosts for those two days. We learned a lot about music we had been interested in for long time from him, ate some really great Indian food, drank a lot of beer and listened to a lot of funny stories about his experiences with Borbetomagus. We hope to work with him again soon because he taught us a lot about music. We're very grateful to him for sharing that with us.”


“Pat was sitting on the second -story balcony at my apartment a month or so ago listening to Tony Conrad's "4 Violins" album,” adds Mike, “which has, I think anyhow, a lot of sonic similarities to the Dream House effect. A mockingbird landed on a tree limb near the railing and tried several times to whistle along with Tony, attempting several very different registers and melodies, before getting frustrated, flying down to the railing and screaming angrily at Pat. That's a great endorsement of an album, I think.”


“Then we played Boston at Twisted Village,” says Mike. “Wayne and Kate have a wonderful record shop and they were very nice. They had heard about our troubles in NYC and took up a collection for us. Then we went to Philly and played at a friend's warehouse w/UN, Tower Recordings, and Tono Bungay. Philadelphia has always been one of our favourite places to play because everyone we know there is great and there are good record stores. Everyone we played with at the show was great, we had a blast and we got paid well, then we went home.”


I ask them about how they see the respective places of song-craft and improvisation in their work, now and in the future. “Songs and improvisation are not necessarily differentiated,” says Jack. ”We do play songs, but they are not in the manner of pre-set or rehearsed riffs. Songs are based on certain moods or feelings that they invoke, and it may sound totally different from time to time. Prior to improvisation, there is usually a discussion of the parameters we will be using. We leave the parameters loose enough so that if our original plan isn't working, we can go on to something else or if other unexpected ideas come into play that we like, they can get incorporated into the overall plan. ‘Samsara’ is a number of ideas improvised that later take on a song structure, whereas ‘Sunken’ has defined structures freely improvised upon. During improvisation, we usually revolve around a tonal centre in which a structure will emerge. It isn’t typical pre -planned improvisational structures that dictate our approach, it is the tones, phrases and themes that we have been working with and incorporating over the years. Lately our main focus has been on intervals and how we can produce the third voice which is so often found in Appalachian and Indian music, and in works of the Theatre of Eternal Music, among others.” “When we first started Pelt, we'd say a song was going well when we could hear instruments that weren't being played,” adds Mike. “By focusing even more on multi drones,” resumes Jack, “we have been meeting at a place which is slightly off the tonal center, which is starting to produce tones that we haven't worked with before. Pat right now is heavily immersed in Indian music and has recently bought a sarod. Mike for a long time has been into Appalachian mountain music and has become quite an accomplished banjo player. I'm really into free jazz, especially the music of Bill Dixon, Cecil Taylor and The Revolutionary Ensemble. The preliminary recordings for our future projects have produced some interesting results, due in part to our current interests and ideas, both personal and communal.”


Finally, Mike sums up their progress since forming the current line-up. “With the help of many people, things have gone amazingly well for us. We've released four full-length recordings, played what to me at least is a lot of shows - last year was the first time I was able to play shows on more than two successive nights - and travelled to some pretty interesting places. But, at the risk of sounding like a department head, there is much still to do.”


Written, produced & directed by Tony Dale, (c) Ptolemaic Terrascope, 1997.


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