December 18, 2014
I WILL WRITE A MYSTERY FOR YOU TO SOLVE: An Oral History of Lilys' Astonishing Eccsame The Photon Band
|| by EDWARD CHARLTON || [updated] This month marks the 20th anniversary of the release of Lilys' powerful and mysterious Eccsame The Photon Band, a unique collection even among the oeuvre of Kurt Heasley, the band's notably restless songwriter and only constant member. For our money, it is certainly one of the most engaging -- if underheard -- indie rock albums of the '90s. Like a lot of great music, the album's creation owes a debt to that rare and singular cocktail of youth: chance, environment and a positive open-mindedness shared among the four men who created it. "Behold and open to the light," translates the title -- a sentiment that seems to have guided the principals behind it from the foursome's very first minute together.
As we listened to Mr. Heasley, drummer Harry Evans and producer Rich Costey tell the story of the album, we found that Eccsame The Photon Band was a roughly month-long flash of exhaustive inspiration -- a gnawing, melodic, experimental expression that sprang into being so suddenly it felt as if it were over nearly as soon as it had begun. Despite that, the music and production contained therein has continued to resonate with those involved, as well as with a fanatical cult following attracted to its atypical dream-pop charms. Among those, cryptic lyrics, crestfallen textures, occasional moments of loud guitar and a spiritual and devastating silence all continue to stun. To mark the aforementioned anniversary, Clicky Clicky spoke with Mssrs. Heasley, Evans and Costey about the summer of 1994, discussing a wide-range of topics including the philosophies, drum sounds and even the studio weeping that birthed a rare and unique aural document.
"I can't deviate out of the moment -- you get into the game of expectations, then you get into the game of disappointment," Heasley tells Clicky Clicky from his present home in Los Angeles. The sentiment arrives early in our conversation about the album, and it quickly becomes apparent that Eccsame was (and is) something of a mission statement for just that mentality.
The genesis of that notion came two years prior to the creation of Eccsame, spurred by some of the negative reception to Lilys' magnificent and now-legendary 1992 shoegaze debut full-length, In The Presence of Nothing. "I had no idea people would listen to this," he says of that collection, "Much less feel so strongly [about it]. It was ultimately just a group of friends making something in a basement for a few hours. I took it as the most extreme feelings [from some in the scene] of being left out of their own party."
Disappointed, but confident in the power of his on-the-fly approach, Heasley began to see how the band's process might function in the face of more standard and predictable musical norms.
In the wake of the flawless, power-pop injected A Brief History of Amazing Letdowns EP that was released the next year, Heasley made some life changes that would further create the conditions for an experiment like Eccsame. "I had new urban experiences because I had moved from Lancaster [Pennsylvania] into Philadelphia proper, living with some incredible people," he said, "Joey Sweeney let me sleep on his girlfriend's couch for weeks. It was just this ongoing live/work/play space and the amount of literature, cinema and old records that I was being turned on to for the first time was great. There, I had the feeling of going from 22 to 23, and the prevailing wisdom that 23 is the best worst year of your life. Slowly, there were responsibilities creeping in and the realization that 'this is not a dress rehearsal.'"
At the same time, the alternative/grunge zeitgeist of the prior several years was beginning to breed bad vibes. Not only did Kurt Cobain's death in the spring of '94 mark a dramatic shift in the mood of rock culture, but recent records by Talk Talk's Mark Hollis and Pale Saint's Ian Masters alerted Heasley to the loss of fidelity and subtlety in those buzzing times. "Those gated drums in '92," he exclaimed with a sigh. A trip to a Broadway production later that year would also make an impression on him. "Listening to what a five-piece pit orchestra could do literally blew me apart. Working from that level where everyone plays their part and has mastered themselves revealed a new world."
In the winter following the release of A Brief History Of Amazing Letdowns, Heasley began sketching out some fresh ideas. Those recordings would ultimately be released on 2000's Tigerstyle Records split with Aspera Ad Astra. As a historical document, the four songs reveal a remarkably clear vision of the minimal, dreamy sound that would ultimately define Eccsame -- what Stylus Magazine writer Andrew Unterberger described as "Not influenced by shoegazing as a genre, but rather as a principle."
It was time to enter the studio.
a converted turn-of-the-century Colt firearms factory in Hartford, Connecticut. It was also at that point that Harry Evans of power-pop standouts Poole and producer Rich Costey entered the picture.
Evans had known Heasley for a few years by '94, and had played on every Lilys release beginning with Presence. The two first met due to being physically larger guys in the scene who looked similar and both showed up at the same music store. "I was shopping there and somebody called me (Kurt's nickname) 'Wally' and I was like, 'no, I'm Harry!'" Evan says, laughing, "We happened to be at the store at the same time eventually and recognized each other due to that mix up. We started hanging out and eventually he asked me if I wanted to play drums for him. He played me "February Fourteenth" and I was like 'What the hell! Of course!'"
Following the release of A Brief History and the subsequent shows for that record, Heasley approached him with an idea. "Kurt was like, 'I want to make a record, and I want it to just be you and me.' He booked a lot of time. I hadn't heard any of the material, but he said we could learn it in the studio. Having faith in anything Kurt does, I agreed immediately," Evans reflects. That summer, the two loaded up a van with gear and made the trek to Hartford. There, they met producer Costey and engineer Mike Deming. Costey had been chosen based on work he had done with scene compatriots The Swirlies.
"I was doing a few records for spinART around that time, and at some point I ended up on a phone call with Kurt," Costey remembers, “He was an interesting character on the phone, and I still remember my first phone call with him -- rambling on and on whilst puffing on cigarettes the whole time. We must have connected somewhat. I liked the psychedelic aspect to [Lilys'] music a lot, based only on the album they had out the year before, and given the general monochromatic, conservative landscape of American grunge at that time, Kurt's music struck me as being a total technicolor garden. I had worked with The Swirlies, whom I think he begrudgingly respected, but those two bands were actually quite different in approach. The Swirlies were fighting their own limitations whereas Kurt never saw or felt any limitations at all... [He] was inventing his own landscape."
Setting up on the first day, Heasley and Evans filled out Studio .45's large, single-room with their instruments. Beginning at dusk, the duo at first had a hard time connecting. "On the first day we set everything up, Kurt was going to guide me through the songs," said Evans, "We started recording really late, but it was just not clicking. The first song we were working on was "FBI And Their Toronto Transmitters." Eventually I got super frustrated. While I had told myself initially that I was going to be really sober and work as hard as possible during the session, we ultimately took a break and I got REALLY high. We went back in and nailed it in the first take. I was like, "Aw, this is really disappointing (chuckles)."
"For the first 10 days Costey probably didn't think they were songs!," Heasley added.
After these initial hurdles, the duo settled into a groove, with Evans adapting to Heasley's ideas and advice regarding drumming. "There was a methodical thought to the way that the fills were put together. He really helped me to curb my ego, and I was willing to say 'I will listen to your ideas.' Ultimately, they proved to be great ideas. I had to be open," Evans remembered.
The songs gradually came together over the ensuing weeks, and many of the album's iconic textures began to take focus -- specifically, the massive, roomy drum sound that many Eccsame cultists rave about.
Costey recited the technical details for accomplishing this with aplomb. "The drum sound was a combination of several things: the hard, open space that the live room at Studio .45 presented; a precisely placed AKG 414 placed in between the kick and snare drums, aimed at the floor... heavily compressed with a Spectrasonics 610 compressor; and also the minimal and incredibly powerful, tasteful playing of Harry Evans. Listening to it today, it seems a study in how a drummer should play to the sound presented to him or her, as opposed to the other way around."
Mike Deming is also credited by the other three as being instrumental to the presentation. "I’ve got to credit him for that drum sound. He was a twisted, evil audio genius. He was crazy and so into what he did on a micro level," said Evans, referencing at least obliquely the album's often overwhelming negative space, best heard in the long, faraway intro and subsequent eruption of focus on "The Turtle Which Died Before Knowing."
Other subtle, genius moments were entirely due to chance. On some songs, different takes were mixed together and the resulting edits created things that thrilled everyone in the control room. "A couple of those moments where the vibrato on the guitar shifts patterns -- we couldn't have planned that, but that's the thing! We were open not necessarily to it being correct, but to it being right for what it was," Heasley said.
"The Hermit Crab," "Kodiak (Reprise)" and "Radiotricity" all rock in places, despite being composed mostly with clean, bass string strums. Costey explains that the amping of the guitars went a long way in lending huge power to a quiet source, "One simple thing Kurt was doing with his guitar sounds at the time was to run two different tremolo pedals into two different amps," he said, "It's really simple, of course, but it made for an off-kilter, drunken, gurgling guitar sound that completely shaped the feel of the record."
Elsewhere, such as on the down-tempo lullaby-pop of "Day Of The Monkey," Costey sampled Evans' drums to create a hypnotic loop, later adding room recordings of him playing along to himself to add to the overall sonic fantasia.
The collaborative aspect between the four also played a key role in the shape of the album. "He had done Swirlies records," said Heasley of Costey, "So I was like 'throw me whatever note you think should be in this melody.' I think you can only do so many records where that special and fun ability exists."
As the sessions wrapped up, it was also clear that the process of achieving the album's menthol-cool psychedelia had thoroughly exhausted Heasley. Much of the tracking came down to the wire, and many of his vocal parts had to be recorded at the end in a prolonged series of takes.
"I spent the final 18 hours of tracking in the vocal booth," Heasley recalled, "By the time we were working on "Hubble" I was completely drained by the process, from all these different drives that went into the album. You can hear me crying at one point. I couldn't even stand, I was propped in a chair." Costey, aware of the strain and the reality of the moment, let the tape run. What followed was personal, uncomfortable and brilliant.
It's apparent when Heasley talks about "Hubble" that the song is special to him, referring to it as the closing sequence of the booster of the space shuttle falling to Earth. More importantly, it's a fitting end to the hyper-productive sessions that produced a collection of songs that were not only spacey-sounding, but physically so. Costey took the tapes to Water Studios in Hoboken, New Jersey and Philip Glass' The Looking Glass studio in New York for the rest of the post-production. There, he added many of the synth textures and final mixing details. SpinART had the album out by the end of the year.
And then... it was over.
"Kurt moved to California, I believe, shortly after we made the record," said Evan. "I feel like nobody really got it, understood it or appreciated it when it came out." No shows were played to support the release, which somehow makes the recording all the more mythical.
"Nanny In Manhattan" (a version of which was recorded during the Eccsame sessions but lost with the master tapes) broadening the exposure of the band and leading to a record deal with Sire. Evans would continue a successful run as the frontman of indie pop savants Poole, an act that also recorded for spinART. Lastly, Costey would use his resume with bands from the East Coast dream-pop and 'gaze scene to begin work in Los Angeles, eventually engineering and producing a seemingly endless list of big-name musical personalities including Sigur Ros, Fiona Apple, Nine Inch Nails, Muse, Foo Fighters and self-professed Swirlies fans Mew, among many others.
Despite the very abrupt end to the Eccsame phase of Lilys, and the scattering of its participants, it is apparent that the three remember the time in the studio fondly, and all have an unshakable faith in the final product.
"I felt pretty good about the album when we had finished it," Costey adds, "It seemed fresh, inventive, and colorful. Kurt's writing isn't miles away from Syd Barrett territory, but as opposed to Syd, Kurt's lyrics were open and personal. I had hoped that it would be recognized a bit more for what I felt was something pretty unique at that time: Psychedelic indie with heavy fuzz, samplers, and 808s -- but it seemed to never really get the attention it deserved. Kurt went straight to The Kinks' Muswell Hillbillies [as the template] for his next album and finally had his talent recognized, but in the process it had always felt to me that Eccsame was just overlooked."
Most importantly though, the sense of trust between the album's principals appears to be the most defining and memorable part of the era. Listening to Evans and Heasley, in particular, speak of their relationship during that time illuminates a connection between kindred souls, a pair determined to create and build as a unit.
"I could never have that kind of naive trust again. You basically get [it] once." Heasley added somberly.
At times during this reflection, it shows that both might harbor some desire to work together again. In the age of '90s dream-pop band reunions, with acts including Slowdive, Medicine, Ride and My Bloody Valentine thrilling audiences once more, it wouldn't be seem that unusual for an influential lineup of Lilys to get back together, hopefully even for new music.
"He knows that I'm willing to work with him anywhere, anytime. At the drop of a hat, I'm in," Evans proclaimed, ever the dedicated bandmate, ignoring the thousands of miles between them.
That possibility is a dream for this blog, at least, and it is dreaming big that brought together those men in 1994 -- hedging their bets on chance and understanding. But big dreams can live on in unusual ways, and funny enough, it is because of the Lilys that this scribe first spoke to this editor at Clicky Clicky some five years ago. And, because of all of that, it has ultimately brought you, dear reader, to what may not yet be the final chapter in the story of a very special and evolving piece of art.
"Behold and open to the light."
Currently, Eccsame The Photon Band is out of print (spinART folded in 2007), and both CD and vinyl copies command steep prices in the collectors' market. Heasley has been negotiating the reissue of In The Presence Of Nothing and two other unspecified titles, and also the release of new music, according to news we reported here in March. Through the murky magic of the Internet, you can listen to selections from Eccsame via the YouTube playlist posted below. -- Edward Charlton
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