HIGH FREQUENCIES: The wheel of pleasure keeps on turning
Love Tractor returns to the stage this weekend!
Love Tractor, along with the B-52’s and Pylon, are regarded as founders of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s Athens music scene. Athens was one of many creative centers that created and defined alternative rock, that post-punk, post new wave, college radio genre that launched the careers of R.E.M., U2, Talking Heads, and countless others who couldn’t get played on album-oriented rock (AOR) radio stations. While certainly a dance band like its college town contemporaries, Love Tractor had one big difference, it was an instrumental act. There was no vocalist frantically urging the audience to “dance this mess around,” nor commanding them to “turn up the volume — you can even dance!” There was just Love Tractor’s irresistible, short, quick songs that forced you to your feet during shows with the sheer exuberance of the infectious music the four-piece band played.
Founded by guitarists Mark Cline and Mike Richmond, along with bassist Armistead Wellford, the group used a drum machine before depending on a rotation of drummers Kit Swartz (the Side Effects) and Bill Berry (who would leave to join R.E.M.), until Andrew Carter joined.
For almost two decades, the members of Love Tractor lived the life of an alternative rock band when such things mattered. They released at least six albums — four for Danny Beard’s Atlanta-based DB Recs, two for independent labels with major label distribution — each building on the previous, until vocals became a part of the mix. Not that anyone stepped out as lead singer, but vocals became another layer in the group’s musical approach, one that was certainly minimalist in Love Tractor’s early days, but by 2001’s The Sky At Night (Razor & Tie), the group merged instrumentals with vocals in equal parts.
On hiatus most of this century — Love Tractor did release a single, “A Trip to the Museum,” in 2015 — the group reunited last year to play Athens’ Pop Festival. This weekend finds the band together again, for shows Friday, Nov. 17, at the Vista Room with the Swimming Pool Q’s and Sat., Nov. 18, in Athens with Magnapop. While there have been various aggregations of Love Tractor principals joined by other musicians to recreate the music — F*ck Truck and We Love Tractor come to mind — this is the real thing.
With vinyl records making a resurgence after three decades of compact discs, and streaming services and digital downloads firmly-established as today’s popular form of music distribution, Cline says the time is right for Love Tractor to plow the fields of opportunity again.
MARY ANN MITCHELL
According to the guitarist, the band never broke up, with him and Richmond and Wellford often getting together over the years to write, rehearse, and record. Having gotten out of their record contracts and management deals of the past, the musicians can now be a band "when we want to do it, and when we feel like doing it."
“What has happened in the past two years,” Cline says, “is that we’ve all been writing. And it’s come to, ‘Okay, let’s do something.’ At the same time, we’re getting pressure to re-release all of our back-catalogue on vinyl. It’s kismet, in a way, because it has forced our hand.”
He goes on to say: “Now, in the next year, you’ll probably see a new album, the vinyl re-releases, and, as for shows, yeah, we’ll play. We don’t want to be in a position where it’s mandatory that we have to do 50 shows a year, or 60 shows a year, because that’s not going to happen.”
Cline, who lives in New York but maintains a connection with Athens, says the city’s growth as a “music mecca” is another reason for Love Tractor to regroup. “For us, doing shows here and there keeps up the momentum, but what’s also happened is, when we first started out in Athens, there were really no musicians. And the the people who were professional musicians were people you didn’t want to work with. Now, Athens is filled with musicians, really good ones, and really smart, so, if we want to play, we have our pick of who we want to play with.”
It’s a formula that has worked well for both Athens alumna Vanessa Briscoe Hay, who is backed by an Athens all-star line-up in Pylon Reenactment Society, and B-52 Cindy Wilson, who has been working with her pick of a new generation of Athens musicians in her solo project.
“I can go find a guitar player, if there’s a guitar line I no longer want to play, and this other guitar player can play it for me while I play keyboards. It used to be such, not work,” Cline pauses, “but we can actually realize the sound that we always had in the back of our head.”
Cline also sees the digital world of music as one he and the band want to explore.
“Looking at this post-modern musical landscape, the way it is now, it has changed so much,” he says, citing the obvious differences in the manufacture and distribution of music from when Love Tractor first started out, “but also at an aesthetic level. Pop music is no longer the carrier wave of fashion and culture and information as it was in the days of vinyl before the internet. It’s become something much more post-modern. We would go out to the 688 Club, or to Danceteria, not just to see the band, but to meet up with our friends to see what’s going on. Music was this complete vehicle for all of that. It’s something different now. It’s a form of entertainment, certainly, but it’s a lesser form of entertainment. As a musician and a songwriter, it allows a new freedom.
“You know the generation that we grew up in, you had to get to a record deal, and now, it’s like, ‘Screw a record deal!’ The only thing you need a record company for is to market you, because they have the money to pay for marketing, unless you’ve got your own money, and you can hire your own publicist and do all that, which some bands do.
“When you look at streaming services and downloads, people don’t download albums. And they don’t stream albums, they stream singles. It’s a completely different way of listening to music. You would go and buy an album — a physical album — that would have 10 songs on it, and it would be sequenced. The A-side one way, and then the B-side, and it was meant to be listened to in its totality — album-oriented rock, which is what our generation grew up on. This streaming generation, they put on Spotify and it may be a playlist based on one band, or a certain song, then there is an algorithm that plays it and (the song list develops from there). The idea is, why make an album, when you can make tons of singles, and put those out and promote those?” he asks, with a sense of excitement in his voice.
“Maybe five years ago, I asked my nephews, ‘What music do you like?’ and they said the Beatles and the Black Eyed Peas,” Cline says. “They’re on the same level to them because they stream them, they don’t have the historical reference for any of these bands. I see it as post-modern rock, rather than contemporary or alternative. People listen to it in a very different manner.”
“The world is flat. It’s the most bizarre thing. It’s like shopping. You don’t go to the mall anymore to buy things, you shop online. With the internet, you can live, literally, in the middle of nowhere, and buy whatever the hippest thing is in New York City.”
“I have an advertising agency. And the kids in the office, they stream stuff,” he says. I’m expecting to hear new stuff that I’ve never heard of and they’ve discovered. They’re playing old stuff. These kids in their twenties are playing Talking Heads. I remember I played Pylon, and they all turned around, ‘Who’s this? Is this a new band?’ It’s a flat world. It’s not image driven.
“Look at Cindy Wilson. She’s doing this solo stuff, and it’s the best stuff of her career. It’s great stuff!” he exclaims, noting Wilson’s been recording for four decades now. “Could these kids care? They have no idea. They hear the song!”
Joining the newer, fuller Love Tractor this weekend will be Joe Rowe in the drummer’s seat, along with members of Athens’ Elephant 6 band the Glands. Adding his accents and expertise is one-time Atlanta guitarist Kevin Dunn, who now resides in Athens. Dunn’s appearing with Love Tractor, in a sense, brings everything full circle. In addition to co-producing the first singles by Pylon and the B-52’s, Dunn was co-founder, along with Alfredo Villar, of the Atlanta band the Fans.
When mentioning Dunn’s acceptance of the invitation to join Love Tractor onstage, Cline is reminded of how much the Fans played a part in the early development not only of Love Tractor, but the early Athens scene as a whole.
“You brought up the concept of minimalism. In fact, our first record was minimal simply because we didn’t know what we were doing. We didn’t know how to orchestrate or arrange songs,” he admits, recalling that one of the reasons a lot of the early songs were short and fast was because the band didn’t know how to get any of the “big, thick sounds” that they wanted.
“That’s really where Alfredo came in,” Cline explains of the Fans bass player and co-songwriter’s influence on Love Tractor, as producer of Love Tractor’s self-titled debut LP. “Alfredo came in and really heard stuff and taught us a lot. He has these ears that are just amazing,” Cline insists, adding that if Love Tractor were to record new material, they would welcome Villar’s presence in the studio again.
Cline also tells me, somewhat excitedly, that with Dunn now “part of the Love Tractor family, we’re going to be performing ‘Oktyabrina’ and ‘Cars and Explosions,’” the former a Dunn solo offering, the latter one of Dunn’s contributions to the Fans’ canon.
In fact, Cline declares, “We wouldn’t be having this conversation if it wasn’t for the Fans. Or the B-52’s. Or Danny Beard. There are so many linchpins involved in all of this, the Fans certainly. The Fans got the B-52s their first gig in New York, which set everything in motion.” And those wheels, set in motion so long ago, continue to spin and spin.
You can contact Tony Paris regarding upcoming gigs; noteworthy news, rumor, and innuendo; or, if you just want to say, “Hi,” at firstname.lastname@example.org, since you already know he doesn’t read messages received on his Facebook account.