Saturday, 17 October 2009

Skooshny interview from terrascope 12

SKOOSHNY were a band out of their time, recording Sixties-influenced music during the stifled mid-Seventies American musical landscape. They were deemed to be totally unhip by all but their faithful few critics and listeners at the time, yet during the next few years their two 7" releases became much-cherished items and by the 1980s these two little masterpieces were being hailed in all the right circles as the classics that they indeed were.This meagre six-song legacy seemed like the end of the story until London's Minus Zero Records' Bill Foresyth had the foresite to contact Skooshny songwriter Mark Breyer and drummer David Winogrond during 1991, and in so doing uncovered a further eleven songs which still existed on tape. Together with the six previously available numbers there was now enough material for a superb 17-song CD, which became an instant 'must-have' item when it appeared at the end of last year (see review
in PT 9) (Actually here is my review from PT9)
This brilliant 17 track compilation brings to an expectant public the very best of the, until now, mostly unreleased output of this Los Angeles based outfit built around the individual songwriting talents of one Mark Breyer. The story of Skooshny is not one of your standard rock & roll flash. Formed initially in 1971 by Breyer and drummer Winogrond, they remained very much a bedroom band and it wasn't until 1975, with the addition of guitarist Bruce Wagner, that the band started recording in earnest but sporadic style in various, low-budget studios. They never did get as far as playing live, but they did release a four song EP and a single before splitting in 1981 - ironically, just as the type of sixties-styled melodic guitar music that they played started to come back into vogue. Skooshny were in their time a fish out of water; five years before or five years later they would have been acclaimed for their quality and the depth of the music they created, a tiny legacy which wasn't to be appreciated until the more appropriate musical climate of the REM & Rain Parade-ish 1980s. Enter Bill Forsyth of rock record emporium Minus Zero Records, who contacted the ex-members with a view to obtaining any spare copies of the, by now, scarce vinyl for resale to his more knowing customers. A small wealth of unreleased material came to light and with it, the idea of this release, consisting of the six previously available songs plus the remainder of their recorded excursions into the studios of the late 70s. Proof, as with our own Mr Frond and the maverick musical archivist R. Stevie Moore, that a huge recording budget and multi-tracked digitalized technology are not essential to producing music of depth and quality. "Fever Dreams" is very melodically and methodically sixties in feel, beautifully played and imaginatively recorded. "The Mood In Me" resonates charm and is underpinned with a lovely harpsichord sound - lacking the instrument and means of getting one, the band played it on a 12-string and speeded up the results to achieve the desired effect. Once again, the leanness of their budget forcing them to experiment and apply intelligence to the venture. "Crossing Double Lines" is coated in the fluid guitar playing of Bruce Wagner and harmony vocals of a Left Banke-ish hue, while "You Bring Me Magic" is the type of superb melody that the Bevis comes up with when in his Byrds mode. "The Ceiling To The Lies" is a real classic, quite overwhelming and yet understated at the same time with again the 12-string foundation built on high by Wagner's tasty guitar leads. Nearly all of the 17 tracks are of comparable quality. Let's just hope that the response to this marvellous collection is as it should be and, as mentioned in the sleeve notes, acts as a catalyst to a Skooshny reformation and a new album. In the meantime an immediate investigation into the treasure trove that Skooshny left behind last time is highly recommended.

The story behind the band is not your usual one of hard work going completely un-noticed. In fact, Skooshny played not one live concert, they recorded only sporadically and for most of their lifespan lay dormant in every way but name. And yet when Skooshny did play together the results were quite magical - gentle, melodic songs with a left-field approach topped off with the ear-catching guitar lines of Bruce Wagner. The response to the CD so far has been so favourable that the original three members have now got back together again and are looking forward to recording some new material together. Given this heart-warming news it became necessary for the Terrascope to talk to the men behind the Skooshny mask and get more of the background to the band sorted out than just the previously-published glorified press-releases; and so we followed in Bill Forsyth's footsteps and touched base with Mark Breyer, bringing in David Winogrond later in the piece as the story unfolds. The place is Los Angeles and the date is April 1992.
When did you first start playing and writing music?
MB: I guess I first played guitar when I was nine or ten. The Everly Brothers were my heroes and I wanted to play like them and sing their songs, so I took up guitar lessons - which didn't go as well as I wanted. And so I decided to take up the trumpet in the school's brass band instead, but after six months I lost interest in that also and became non-musical as it were. Then in 1964 the Beatles happened over here which rekindled my enthusiasm, and I started playing guitar again. I started fooling around with writing songs when I was about 17 or 18 - they were quite primitive songs, probably not much to speak of.
So, what bands were you into as a teenager?
MB: Well, the Everly's early on as I say, and in the early Sixties I listened to pop radio all the time, all the Phil Spector bands and everything else that was going on, then after the Beatles happened I listened pretty much to British music exclusively. Amongst my friends the Beatles were untouchable, the best, everyone's favourites. Aside from them the Kinks were always 'it' for me, Ray Davis was my hero. On the local Chicago radio stations we had shows like 'British Billboard' and 'British Countdown' which I would be glued to every week, always hoping for news of a new Kinks single that I would immediately rush out and mail order from Britain. I also subscribed to the New Musical Express, although each issue would take a month to arrive over here. I liked the Who, the Move and all the bands in the charts, and then in the NME I'd read about bands I hadn't heard like Family and the Kaleidoscope and would mail-order their albums and learn about them that way. I wasn't really into American bands although the Byrds made a big impact on me. I got into Love and a few others as well, but I didn't really get into the whole San Francisco thing like most of my friends did. I kept writing songs though, and by 1970 I put together the best of them and played them to my long-time friend Rick Vittenson. Rick shared my passion for British bands - when I subscribed to the NME he got the Melody Maker and we used to borrow each other's papers and order records together, so we both kept up on what was happening in Britain. He was working by this time in a record store, drummer David Winogrond had gone in the shop a few times and they'd struck up a conversation. It looked as if David was somebody we could work with, even though his musical tastes were a little harder-edged than ours. We formed a band which was called Brevity. We played lightweight pop, the band only lasted a year or two. We never played live anywhere. The other people in the band at various times were Joan Bernstein who played keyboards and mandolin, Gary Gand on lead guitar and Jack Burchall on bass. I didn't have the confidence to play or sing so I stuck to songwriting and the rest of the band recorded a few demos. Rick and I took them to England thinking we might get somewhere with them. We met with Muff Winwood at Island Records, and a few other people, and played them our crudely recorded light pop demos. Actually, they all made nice comments about them, I don't know why because it wasn't very inspired stuff. Nothing came of it anyway, so we did some better demos and started shopping them around American labels. Herb Cohen at Zappa's Straight/Bizarre label asked for some more demos, so we recorded more for him. He kept saying he liked them and that they were considering us, but eventually nothing came of it. The label went out of business, so that was that.
Was Zappa himself involved at all?
MB: I doubt that he was ever personally involved. He might have heard the tapes, but we never dealt with him directly. I think David saw him in an elevator once at the offices, but that was as close as we ever got! Brevity fell apart at the end of 1971 Over the next few years, David and I seemed to he at opposite ends of the country. I had moved to Los Angeles with a girlfriend and he was in Chicago. And when he moved to Los Angeles I moved back to Chicago... eventually in late 1974 I returned to Los Angeles to continue my Russian studies at U.C.L.A. and we met up again, which is when Skooshny really got started.
We met guitarist Bruce Wagner and started doing demos, and took them round to the record companies. We got some positive response, but a lot of rejection letters as well. All those recordings are on the CD including a reworking we did of one of the Brevity demos, 'Cake Walk'. There were a few other songs that we thought good enough to record, but for one reason or another we didn't get around to recording them. We are actually thinking of recording them now which should be fun. Most of the material was recorded though and are on the CD. I was not writing a huge amount.

Bringing in David Winogrond...
DW: Yes, well when Mark and I started Skooshny, we wanted to do something in the studio so we started playing around with an old Brevity song, 'Cake Walk'. We lowered Rick's voice in the mix, added Mark's vocal - this was the first time he'd ever recorded in the studio - added more guitars and mixed it down, and that track was basically the beginning of Skooshny.

DW: In the Seventies in general and up to the time of the EP we were locked into the Sixties. We weren't nostalgic for the Sixties, we just basically never left the Sixties. We had as little to do with the Seventies as possible - there were some things we liked, for instance I was listening to a lot of Eno, Van Der Graaf Generator, Mike Oldfield and Roxy Music. When punk hit I was very much into that, I especially liked the poppier bands such as the Buzzcocks and the Undertones and especially the Flaming Groovies, who were an inspiration in terms of my thinking, like 'well it's not really what Skooshny do, but we pull from similar influences so maybe there's a new market'. The indie singles market inspired me to do the EP, the fact that there was an outlet for our stuff that wasn't reliant on having to get a record deal.
MB: We decided to put our first EP out ourselves in 1978, although not only were we not a full time band by then, but we weren't even doing any recording. The EP was made up of old recordings. David and I differed on what should be on it - 'It Hides More Than It Tells' we definitely agreed on, and it was either going to be 'The Ceiling To The Lies' which has always been my favourite or 'Trish De La Roe' which sounded too much alike for them both to go on there. We decided on 'Ceiling'. 'Cake Walk' was totally David's idea, I've never really liked the song. 'Odd Piece In The Puzzle' is I suppose an interesting song although it's too chaotic for me, so those two were both David's choices.
DW: 'Odd Piece In The Puzzle' as far as Mark and probably most people look at it doesn't really fit in to Skooshny and in a way that's true, there's nothing else like it. On the other hand I really like the way it came out, it's probably a little too weird for most people but that's intentionally done to go with the lyrics. My own taste is more towards the strange than Mark likes, and that's what makes the band what it is, the balance we try to get between all our different tastes.

So what was the status of Skooshny at this point?
MB: The band wasn't really together in day to day terms; I was working crummy office jobs to pay the bills so the response to the EP was really exciting for me. The first review, from Ken Barnes in the 'New York Rocker', I was really thrilled with! He had some very nice things to say and we were actually hearing from the outside world. The response and the reviews overall was great.We sold between 700 and 1000 copies I guess.

You recorded a new single in 1979, 'Crossing Double Lines'/'You Bring Me Magic' - this was about the time that you met Michael Penn?
DW: I met Michael at a recording engineer class, I remember that he was wearing a button [badge] that featured the sign that Peter Hammill used to use - I saw this and thought 'I've got to get to know this guy!' and we became friends. Michael was THE Beatles fan of all time - he still had his full collection of Beatles bubble-gum cards in his closet, he was a fanatic! So we would hang out a lot and play each other records and what-not.
MB: We wanted a Rickenbacker 12-string on 'You Bring Me Magic' and David mentioned that this guy Michael had one, so Michael showed up at a session which was the first time I met him. Skooshny was still together in theory, but it was very loose. Over the next couple of years various combinations of us put together what have been called 'experimental demos', sometimes it was just Michael and I, sometimes David was involved and a couple of times Bruce Wagner, David and' I went up and recorded. In the end Bruce and David went off and did other musical things, and while I was still writing songs the three of us did nothing musically together - and that was the end of Skooshny.

DW: The band didn't really break up we just stopped doing anything. I think we got the feeling that there just wasn't an audience for what we were trying to do. Bruce and I continued to do some stuff together, the best-known thing being a band called SS20 - and they certainly weren't a well-known band. From there I spent two years with Sylvia Junkosa in a band called To Damascus and shortly after that I worked with Davie Allen and the Arrows, did a little jam thing with him in the studio which is on a compilation called 'What Surf Three'. With these bands my drumming was inspired more by the wilder drummers like Mitch Mitchell, Ginger Baker or Keith Moon, whereas with Skooshny I generally stuck to a more Ringo Starr style I guess.
MB: I went on to do lyrics for various LA stage revues, it was a musical departure for me and at one point I thought I really should write for stage musicals but it really wasn't my natural genre.
Which is....?
MB: The essence of Skooshny, folk rock with a pop flavour. I lean towards ballads over rockers and I pay a lot of attention to the lyrics. I like interesting, innovative, impressionistic and evocative lyricists such as Keith Reid of Procol Harum. Even though Skoosbny don't sound much like them, Procol Harum have always been one of my favourite bands.

It must have come as a surprise when the idea of the CD came about?
MB: Yes, it definitely was a major surprise. We knew we had sold a couple of thousand records back in the late 70s, but we really had no idea that there were people who still remembered us. So when Bill Forsyth of Minus Zero Records expressed an interest in doing this we were delighted and very much grateful to Bill for reviving Skooshny.
What type of bands are you listening to today?
MB: I like Crowded House quite a bit, and an American band called Till Tuesday. I don't go out of my way to find a lot of new things, but I'm sure there's lots of good things out there. I still listen to a lot of the old favourites, Beatles, Byrds and the like.
It must have been strange during the 1980s to hear bands treading the same path as Skooshny did a decade earlier - didn't things seem right for a revival then?
DW: I remember mentioning that a couple of times to Mark during the Eighties, bands that we didn't really sound like but which you could tell the influences were similar enough to us being better received than we had been before. It felt a little odd that these bands with the same influences were now considered very hip and yet when we were doing it it had been considered very unhip indeed. I guess the Seventies was that kind of time.
How do you feel about Skooshny reforming?
DW: I think that in any kind of reunion there's always the danger of wanting to fit in with what's currently happening. Skooshny is a band that never did that in the past and it would be a mistake for us to start trying to do it now. We are trying to record new material, balancing between something that hints at what we used to do for the people who like it but at the same time you don't want to just rely on old tricks, you want to keep it moving and being creative. The focus will be what it always was, which is Mark's songs, but how we treat each song in terms of instrumentation, arrangement and production would just represent where we're at today rather than trying to continue where we left off. I expect it to be some of our best stuff.
And indeed Even My Eyes turned out to be some of their best stuff, a great album.
The third album Water is also fairly essentual
and then a few years back came an american best of collection with a load of unreleased new recordings

No comments: