Before terms like “freak folk” and “New Weird America” were drooled from the lips of rock critics, before psych-folksters like Animal Collective and Devendra Banhart could crossbreed their organic experimentalism with pop sensibility to shift tens of thousands of units, and before drone bands started plugging up the blogosphere by the hundreds, there was Pelt. After being founded in 1993 by violinist Mike Gangloff in Richmond, Virginia, and later recruiting core players Patrick Best and Jack Rose for the meandering sounds of 1995’s Brown Cyclopaedia, Pelt would spend the next several years digging beneath mere psych-rock revivalism until it hit fresh soil. The resulting oak tree—a long body of work with branches reaching deep into the corners of primitive folk music, classical minimalism, noise, drone, and world music—continues to stand tall, a monument unto itself in 2011.
In recent years, Best and harmonium player Mikel Dimmick have made a home out of Madison, performing as the similarly minded Spiral Joy Band. While Pelt is currently split between Wisconsin and Virginia (where members Mike Gangloff and Nathan Bowles still live), the band has come out of hibernation for a new album and a few shows, including a stop at the Gates Of Heaven synagogue tonight, June 15. In advance of the rare performance, Best and Dimmick talk about why the geographical split isn’t so bad, building new instruments from smashed equipment, and the late Jack Rose’s love of pizza.
The A.V. Club: You’ve only been in Madison doing Spiral Joy Band together for a few years. Did you make a conscious decision to move here together?
Patrick Best: No. My wife got a job in Dodgeville, so we moved to Mount Horeb.
Mikel Dimmick: I’m actually here for grad school.
AVC: It must be tough to maintain a band that’s so geographically scattered.
PB: Within a couple years of the band really coming together, we started slowly moving in different directions. I feel like it has helped. I joined Pelt with Jack Rose in ’95, and back then we actually lived across the street from each other in Richmond, Virginia. As early as 1997, Jack and Mike [Gangloff] had started moving west toward Blacksburg, [Virginia], which was about a four-hour drive.
AVC: Pelt has kept a pretty low profile over the past few years, with you two sort of transitioning deeper into Spiral Joy Band. However, in recent months Pelt has announced not only a handful of shows, but even a new album. What inspired this flux of activity?
MD: It spawned from being invited to the Neon Marshmallow festival in Chicago.
PB: Michael is getting his PhD, and I have kids, so we keep pretty busy. But we had some time off this summer, so I e-mailed a booking agent to get some shows for Spiral Joy Band, and it turned out that she had just talked to the Neon Marshmallow organizers. Apparently they had inquired about getting both Spiral Joy Band and Pelt on the show. It was just that sort of synchronicity.
AVC: How does the creative process differ between Pelt and Spiral Joy Band?
PB: This is going to sound funny, but Spiral Joy Band is kind of the practice band for Pelt. [Laughs.]
MD: I think that I dictate and suggest where we’re going more in Spiral Joy Band. But I don’t actually know how to play shit; I just try to put sounds together.
PB: Well you don’t have the technical understanding, but you have the ears.
MD: Yeah, I guess. There’s a lot of spending time together sharing music and just talking about stuff. We have hours of just Pat and I playing on harmoniums and going back and forth at each other until it just goes off.
PB: Is the process different? Not really. When Mikel moved here three years ago for grad school, it was great to sit down and practice with somebody regularly again while picking up new instruments. I had recently started taking up violin and experimenting with that. We often talk about what we like and what we don’t like. One difference is that Pelt has become an all-acoustic, no effects kind of thing. We wanted to focus on these certain parameters. When Mikel and I started playing with Joy Band, we wanted to start doing things that we weren’t able to do in Pelt. Particularly since [violinist] Troy [Schafer] joined, it has been an exploration of new instruments, electronics, and amplification.
MD: Troy has been a godsend, however we only really do the electronic stuff live. We usually record all acoustic.
AVC: In the 14 years between 1995’s Brown Cyclopaedia and 2009’s A Stone For Angus MacLise, Pelt made a massive shift from being a psych-rock band to become something far more texture and drone-oriented. At what point did you decide it was time to ditch the drums and head in that direction?
PB: You mean like less song-based?
PB: It was pretty much by the second year we were playing. We did do a tour with a hand drummer, but the third record was really our last with drums. We had, like, two drum kits and three hand drummers for it, but we really started moving away from that sort of thing. As we got more into ethnic music and drone, we started to find that drums could be a bit confining. Rock drum kits inevitably lead to four-four, formulaic stuff, and we were getting into looping and trying to use the loops as textured rhythms. We simply found that, for the most part, drummers aren’t sensitive enough to flow with that kind of music and hear the subtle shifts of the tones—knowing when to back up. But then again, Milford Graves was a phenomenal drummer for that.
MD: Yeah, we just couldn’t find a Milford. [Laughs.]
PB: Back in 1993, it was Mike Gangloff and three other guys. Pelt was more of a rock-based unit, but they were still experimenting with tunings and things like that. All those guys quit abruptly before playing their best paying shows. [Laughs.] Jack Rose and I became friends with Mike, and he asked us to learn some songs and play some shows. In our learning of the songs, we ended up essentially creating a giant medley with lots of improvised bridges, so we felt like that was a much more interesting path to follow.
AVC: When did you begin experimenting with less conventional instrumentation? Do you have a few favorite oddities to fall back on?
PB: It has always shifted record to record as we discovered new instruments. There isn’t really a fallback per se.
MK: Did we make those hurdy-gurdies before the Sonic Youth shows?
PB: The cigar-box hurdy-gurdies? Yeah.
MK: Christ, Mike [Gangloff] and I sat up all fucking night just drinking beer and fiddling with these cigar-box hurdy-gurdies, trying to make them work. I was still drinking, so that was back in 1998.
PB: We would make our own instruments. I had made the bass resonator by 1996. I’d take this big chunk of wood and a bunch of electronics from instruments we’d smashed. I cut pockets out of the wood for pickups and stuff. I made one side a bass and the other a guitar, and I’d lay it on top of this 15” cabinet. It would just start vibrating and feeding back. I could run it through effects and strike it. That led into building the hurdy-gurdies, but there is no real timeline to when all these different instruments came into the fold.
AVC: But in addition to the electronics, your music—particularly on records like 2007’s Empty Bell Ringing In The Sky—features plenty of exotic acoustic instrumentation.
PB: Well, we use a harmonium, but that’s a very traditional instrument in my book.
MK: Well we’ve got the shruti boxes, Tibetan singing bowls, and lots of bells.
PB: Also we’ve also got a sarod, an esraj, some electronic tamboras, a jaw harp. For a long time we existed within Westernized instruments. We used guitars, and I had a giant organ. Two tiers of keys, lots of stops—it was incredibly large.
MK: That thing was a nightmare.
PB: Besides the didgeridoo on the first record, the ethnic instruments really didn’t come into play until 2000.
AVC: Of all of these, which was toughest to learn?
PB: We basically just torture our instruments to see what kind of sounds we can pull from them. [Laughs.] There was one point where Jack would grind his tambora over his electric guitar, you know? So the two instruments were both feeding back; grinding. It was grating. Shehnais were tough. They’re these double-reeded instruments from India. You have to blow really hard to get this sound, and it’s really difficult to play.
MD: Where did you get those?
PB: At House Of Musical Traditions in Takoma Park, Maryland. They sell performance-quality ethnic instruments. Even in New York City, you can’t find a store like that. You walk in and your jaw hits the floor.
AVC: While lyrics don’t seem to play a large role in Pelt’s music, both your album and song titles seem to hint toward rather specific concepts and an interest in spirituality and the occult. How do these themes directly tie in with the music? Do the titles come first?
PB: Titles are secondary. Sure, there’s an interest in the mystical, esoteric, and spirituality. But then there’s “Abcdelancey Gimmie Me That Dickel.”
MD: I was drinking a lot of George Dickel at the time.
PB: Once the vibe of the record is established, we’d start talking about the record cover and the art, and song titles would come up. Because it’s a collection of songs, we try to create some cohesion. For instance, Ayahuasca was simply something I’d been reading about at the time.
AVC: Have you had any first-hand experience with ayahuasca?
PB: No, but we all have a history of hallucinogens in our background. I did the cover art, and it was very much about that psychedelic experience. A lot of our album titles just reflect what was going on with us at the time. We did this 7-inch with a band from Florida called Harry Pussy. We went down to visit them, and at some point on the trip, someone was trying to write out “Black Flag” in orange price-tag stickers on Mike’s van, but the stickers ran out and we were left with “Black F-L.” Anyways, we drove down to Miami through like five tropical storms. It was actually my second date with my wife.
MD: It was the shittiest van ever. It had a big hole in the floor, and there was water coming up through the bottom.
PB: When we finally arrive, Bill Orcutt from Harry Pussy opens up the door, sees the stickers, and says “Black Florida! I love that!” So, we named the 7-inch after that experience.
AVC: Do you have a fond memory of Jack Rose that you'd like to share?
PB: I just have to say that I played with Jack for a long, long time. He was one of my best friends. If I hadn’t seen him for two years, we could sit down and just instantly connect. We had just been ’round and ’round, through all sorts of craziness as young men, as drinking buddies, and touring together. He was a character and one of the most honest people I had ever met; he was one of the most talented, too. I loved eating pizza with Jack; we would argue about pizza endlessly.
MD: There was that place in Philadelphia he fucking loved.
PB: Ah yeah, Tacconelli’s. You actually had to call ahead in the morning and order the dough for the pizza, then you’d come in at night and they’d have the dough ready and you’d add toppings.
MD: One of my favorite shows we did with Jack was at the Casa Da Música in Portugal.
PB: It’s a building designed by Rem Koolhaas—a famous European architect.
MD: It’s fucking amazing. This was the one and only Pelt show with accompaniment from a fog machine.
PB: It’s this sculptural building. We played in this gallery space that overlooked the main performance space, this very narrow, thin room with 30- to 40-foot-high ceilings. The walls were corrugated Plexiglas. It sounded amazing, [with a] totally professional system. The artists entered through this massive glass door from the back of the space.
MD: It was from fucking Star Wars. Someone was like, “They’re calling in, are we ready for them to enter?” And we’re just like, “What the fuck?” We were in Portugal, right? It was the first time we’d ever played there.
PB: So this huge fucking door opens up, and it’s really bright behind us and we’re entering a dark space. And the smoke combines with this purple-ish light onstage.
MD: There was something really kind of crystalline about what we did in the set that night.
PB: It was during this very rocky part of the band’s relationship. Jack had started getting really into his solo stuff, but he just sort of let it go that night. We all got really into it; we had been out through the city exploring that day. We had been drinking, and it was a really festive sort of mood. It was a very unique set. They took us out to this cool underground club afterward and we had some drinks; it was really great.
Another great memory I have of Jack was going to see him in New York City after I hadn’t watched him play in a few months. He was doing a series of shows with Matt Valentine, and he played at this church on the Lower East Side. Jack and I had been talking earlier, and he was telling me about how he had really gotten the timing of his thumb down. I watched him that night in this church, and he had jumped so far in his guitar playing that I was just astounded. I was sitting in the back of the hall, and during one of his long pieces, there was this screaming going on. This sort of ghostly howling in the background was coming out from the back behind the altar. People were looking around, and it was all just flowing. He was able to expand the songs, and the timings all nuanced and counterpointed to each other. The first couple of years he didn’t really have it sorted out, but at that point he just took off, and people started noticing, “Holy shit, he can really fucking play.”