Text by Jim Downs, introduction by Robert Barry Francos
© 1986, FFanzeen; introductory comments © RBF, 2011
Performance still images © RBF; other images from the Internet
The following article on the underrated indie band Human Switchboard was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #14, in 1986. It was written by Jim Downs.
The first time I met Human Switchboard keyboardist and co-singer Myrna Macarian it was very briefly during my initial visit to Buffalo in 1978. She was hanging out with Bernie Kugel. Switchboard had just played in there (the band had formed in Syracuse the year before), and of course Bernie, being the indie record maven and lead singer of hometown heroes The Good, connected with her.
This was followed by seeing the band actually perform in 1984 at CBGBs, and then again when they opened for Alex Chilton (RIP) on March 1, 1985. I grabbed Jim Downs, who had been in (another) band called Gangreen down in Boone, NC, and we headed over to Irving Plaza to interview the band. While Jim did the interview upstairs in the dressing room, I snapped the photos (and did a bit of vocal participation, as you’ll see; ironically, Jim would turn out to be a big-time photographer). On the way out of the interview to go catch the show downstairs, we ran into Bernie Worrell, who was joining the Switchboard onstage as a guest keyboardist. He was wearing a kilt, so I asked him if I could take some pix, and he agreed, striking a few funny poses.
The show was great, of course.
After the band broke up and some he had some weirdness with the law, Bob Pfeifer now has a new novel about to be published later this month, University of Straners, which I will be reviewing here in the blog. – RBF, 2011
Remember those grade-B horror movies from when you were a kid? A better term would be fright movie instead of horror. You know, the ones where there’s this big build up and then the scare, and nothing really happens? Kinda like a sneeze that has you going, ah…ah… ah…, then… nothing? This interview is with a band whose career has been just like that. Not in the artistic and musical sense, but in their dealings with the major labels. So many times the big payoff seemed to be just around the corner, but when it came down to it, no dice.
One of the amazing things about this band is the fact that a major label hasn’t placed them in a contract. A sound that you can dance to, songs that would do some serious chart damage, and an image that you could welcome into your own home. So what’s the problem, Mr. Record Company?
In getting ready to do the interviews, I was warned that “they won’t really talk”; “they’ll clam up”;” don’t try to talk to all of them at once, they won’t say anything.” Well, I did talk to them separately, but to the contrary, they were very friendly and open. And also quite willing to talk about their music and were honest about what they did. To go from expecting to pry statements from their mouths to the fun I had doing the interview was a very pleasant surprise.
Human Switchboard is: Bob Pfeifer, guitar / vocals; Myrna Macarian, keyboards / vocals; Jerry Nickerson, bass; Ron Metz, drums.
FFanzeen: The music that you write works on two different levels. On one hand, you have a pop feel on the surface, tight vocals harmonies, catchy hooks, etc. But on another level, there’s a deep emotional upwelling going on. Why do that; why dig so deep? For instance, there’s a line in one of your songs that goes, “A heart’s not quite a heart until it’s been broken.”
Bob Pfeifer: That’s probably a true statement
FF: Yes, I guess it is.
Bob: Well, there you go. That kind of answers it, doesn’t it? That’s just what comes out. That’s really the way it happens. I don’t think that my songs are morbid or anything, I think that actually they’re happy in a sense. I think that anyone that could say that would probably be a happy person because they could say it.
FF: They’ve been through it.
Bob: If they had been through it and are not happy, they commit suicide. No, not really, but the basic point is that, I don’t know, it just happens. I really would have a lot of trouble singing a lot of lyrics that I hear other people singing. I mean, Steve Perry or Styx or something. I really would have a lot of trouble and I simply don’t have the imagination to sing Rush lyrics. I sing about what is there. Sometimes I’ll use fictional characters, and I’ll get an idea. But at the same time the way that I’d portray it would be the way I’d – I mean, reality is more (interesting). I’d tell you the truth if I could explain it. I wouldn’t play it.
FF: That’s similar to what Van Morrison had said: it just comes out and he tries not to intellectualize about it.
Bob: You work on it, but you don‘t sit there and go, “I’m going to write a song about falling in love with a 14 year-old girl.”
FF: Have you received any flack from, say, the record companies about some of your lyrics?
Bob: No, nobody’s bugged me. Except when I used the word fuck in “Book on Looks,” and tried to get airplay with it. I mean, a lot of bands have used a lot worse words than I do that are a lot bigger than me. Prince in “Erotic City” is using –
Myrna Macarian (passing through): Fuck
FF: But with Prince, there’s this -
Bob: Mega-platinum. I know, that thing allows you to get airplay.
FF: Let me ask you about the record companies.
Bob: No, let’s not. I get in more trouble talking about record companies than about what my lyrics say.
FF: Well, maybe not a specific company. But you guys have been slugging it out since ’79 [sic].
Bob: I know it’s been a long time. I know I’m feeling my age.
FF: And it’s been that it happens, then it doesn’t, then the deals come back, then they go away again.
Bob: A lot of that has to do with people that support us, I mean our audience. Through these days that we haven’t had anything, we’ve been getting a bigger audience. The live shows and the earlier recordings being independently released saturated to a degree. That helps and the critics help create that buzz over and over again, which most bands don’t have the opportunity for. With (just) my record out, I couldn’t have headlined this room tonight (Irving Plaza). If you’d all walked out on me, playing ten dates with nobody, I would have gone, “Forget this.”
FF: Is that why you keep on?
Bob: Part of it. Of course, I couldn’t bear to play in front of no one. There’s enough people to reinforce the belief that you’re good, and that they enjoy it.
FF: So you’ll get back on stage –
Bob: And I love doing it, too; that’s another thing.
FF: Did you always want to?
Bob: Sure, who didn’t?
FF: Well, what about playing out in New York today, with the club scene as it is?
Bob: Well, I think the club scene is very difficult in New York right now. It used to be three or four years ago that you hand eight clubs. Eight first-line clubs going. You have three or four now, if you’re lucky. And you used to have clubs that had music three-four nights a week, like Harrrahs, and those places. Now you’re down to two nights a week in a lot of rooms. And the other thing is that fewer and fewer people are going out to music clubs. I think some of that has to do with the age of people; the baby boom. I think the other thing has to do with the economic situation. It’s harder and harder. You used to be able to get an apartment for $300 dollars in New York; now you’re lucky to find one for six.
Robert Barry Francos: Also, in ’75, CBGB’s was $2.50 to get in on a Saturday night, and 75 cents a drink. Now it’s like $5-$6 at the cheapest places.
Bob: The other thing is that Manhattan is so expensive to live in; you don’t have so many young people coming here any more. Every kid out of college used to come to New York for a while and it’s just not happening, because you can’t afford to do that. People are, I think, staying in their own cities, or else moving to the outskirts. And that diversifies the scene; it doesn’t make it a focal point. It makes it a lot easier to get into CBGB’s.
FF: Do you feel that this situation will help your band or hurt it in the long run?
Bob: I think it hurts all bands, but at the same time, I think that we have an older audience than most bands. I think it was Hilly (Kristal) at CB’s that said that he sells more top shelf when we play than any other band. Like, he’ll run out of Dos Equis and Heinekens, and not Rolling Rock. So economically, I guess that our audience would be capable of purchasing records. But at the same time, you look at Area or something, and that’s $15 to get in and $5 a drink. And that place has no problem being filled up. I think that might say that people that are a little older don’t want to sit at CBGB’s.
FF: What do you, yourself, like to sit down and listen to?
Bob: I listen to stuff on the radio. Stuff I get up with. I listen to Dylan, Beefheart; I like the Stones. I probably listen to stuff that everybody listens to. There are no secrets. Anybody that tells you that they were listening to the Velvet Underground at 12 is full of shit. They didn’t even have it. If all the people that talk about that album had bought it, it would have been platinum in ’68. Let’s be realistic. They sold like 3,000 units. I mean, let’s face it, the Switchboard outsold them in their time. That’s how small they were; that shows you ‘cause we’re this small. See, I’m really weird, ‘cause I’ll go in with a song and I go, “This is kinda like this…” and (the band) looks and me and goes, “What country are you in? That’s not Steve Miller! What are you going with that shit?” And I’m going, “Don’t you hear it?” And they go, “No,” and it turns into a Switchboard song. So I’m trying to relate by other music. Obviously, I don’t listen to Steve Miller, but something about it reminds me of him in this one song.
FF: The band has relocated itself in the New York area from Cleveland. Other than the obvious, is there a great change, creatively, in the two cities?
Bob: I think that you can distract yourself in New York more than anywhere else in the world, which isn’t particularly good for writing songs. “Gee, I feel depressed tonight, I think I’ll go out,” instead of, “I’m sitting in my room there’s nothing to do. It’s three in the morning in Cleveland. What to do? Guess I’ll pick up my guitar and write some lyrics.” It’s much more fun to go out.
FF: Is that what’s happening?
Bob: No, that doesn’t happen to me that much because I’ve been used to the city for a number of years. Even when we lived in Cleveland, I probably spent three months out the year here. And even when I go out, I basically hang around with my small group of friends. I’m too poor to go out in this fucking city.
FF: You were quoted in The New York Rocker as saying, “They become less involved. It’s what New York does, right? You’ve got to deal with fucking working eight hours just to pay your rent, when you don’t have enough money to buy a beer. And if you don’t get on a guest list, you’re dead.”
Bob: I could not afford to see myself play tonight.
FF: You couldn’t?
RBF: Neither could I.
FF: So is there stuff that you have recorded recently?
Bob: Yeah, this last week we cut the tracks for a label for a song demo, for producers. There’s the demos from the PolyGram demo sessions, and there’s the session that Mike Thorne produced, who did Soft Cell. I didn’t appreciate his work until a few years ago.
FF: Will there be a Human Switchboard video?
Bob: Would I do a video? Sure, I’d do a video. I have no problem with videos. Certain kinds of videos I wouldn’t want to do.
FF: What kinds?
Bob: Like “Talking in Your Sleep” that the Romantics did, that I wouldn’t do. But other people have done good videos. I like Van Halen and ZZ Top’s videos; they have funny videos. I think the T.A.M.I. Show is great, and that’s all that stuff was, was videos. If you think about it, that was the equivalent of it in that day. I think that people that walk around and say, “I’m gonna be some kind of purist by not doing videos” isn’t being a purist, really. The tradition of rock’n’roll is that the music was always documented.
RBF: Even in the movies.
Bob: Sure, that was great! I remember as a kid going to see the movie just to see the performance.
RBF: In the movie Rock, Rock, Rock, with Frankie Lymon, each dance segment is a video.
FF: On your cassette Coffee Break (on ROIR), you made the statement that you have the control of the record.
Bob: Did me a lot of good. You take it with a smile. It’s better than finding me bitter. Anyway, that’s four in the morning.
FF: In relating this to a video, how much control would you relinquish with the video? Would you write it yourself?
Bob: I don’t know. I think in terms of video I’m not visual enough in terms of my own band; that’s the difficulty. For instance, like producing records, I could produce us totally because I’m too involved. But when it comes to video, you just find a relation with the director, and you have some common ground. You don’t get a guy that’s used to doing Scorpions videos; you just be rational about this stuff and I think it works out just fine. I would be better at saying things that I don’t want, and I would pool some ideas that we would want, but I would leave it in their hands to a large degree. And you’d have to establish meetings and be aware of what’s going on, whether it’s turning the wrong way. People have a lot of fear about video and I just don’t have that.
FF: Is that basically the same process that you go through when recording with a producer or engineer?
Bob: Well, we’re probably more involved in the music than the video. We naturally have more knowledge and input because of our experience. And, the songs have been written and it goes a certain way.
FF: And producing yourself?
Bob: Well, we did that with our first record. But you’re not going to have a guy coming into the Switchboard and turning us into AC/DC. We don’t sound like that. That person wouldn’t work with us and we wouldn’t work with them. I think it’s easy enough to find a common ground. I think that if you work with good people transmitting the information of the kind of sound you want is much easier than –
FF: Putting something out of somebody that isn’t going to see it.
Bob: And that’s the ideal, right?
* * *
FF: In the album Who’s Landed in My Hanger, most of the material was Bob’s. You had co-written “Saturday Girl” and “I Can’t Walk Alone” with him. Now it seems that you’re writing more for the band. Does that change the way that you work and see the band?
Myrna: No. I think we work really well when we collaborate, and usually most of the songs that I sing I like to have a part in the way the vocals go. ‘Cause the way I vocalize something would be different than the way (Bob) would. There are songs like, well, he wrote the song “A Lot of Things” that I sing, and he wrote all of it. But that one was really suited for my voice, because we have such completely different vocalizings.
FF: Sure, because you have, well, I don’t want to say it ‘cause in some circles it’s a bad word, but you have a pop feel to your vocals.
Myrna: No, I don’t think that’s bad at all. I’m a pop singer.
FF: Whew! Great, because the way that you sing “Downtown” –
Myrna: I didn’t write that one.
FF: You didn’t?
Myrna: No, can you believe that?
FF: You might as well have.
Myrna: [Laughs hard]
FF: Well, how do you approach writing your songs?
Myrna: Generally, it’s an idea that you’ve been considering or a situation that presents itself to you. Most of the songs are about love and relationships, the way people act with each other, and friendship as a whole. But that’s what most music is based on.
FF: Say that there’s a song that you’ve come up with an idea for. Do you take it to the band and have them work it over with you, or do you more or less bring in a finished product?
Myrna: Well, I collaborate with Bob. And in some cases, he’ll come up with just a chord structure and bring it in, and I’ll work on it the way I feel and put a vocal on it. And then you have a song. Or, in some cases, the two of us sit down together and put music and then a vocal on top of it. But most of it starts with music first and then we put a vocal on top of it.
FF: You’ll get an idea for a riff or something –
Myrna: Yeah, you get little ideas. I don’t know where you get them, maybe something that you’ve heard before. You can’t help but be influenced, like a little melody, or something that occurs to you, and you build out of that. Because I seem to be more melody-oriented, I tend to go more for the melody line. I guess that’s my pop sensibility. I’m really not too self-conscious about it. I tend to be more intuitive about things. Maybe I’m not critical enough.
FF: But by being too critical, a lot of stuff doesn’t come out; by examining too closely.
Myrna: I’m not a very crafted songwriter. I would never look at it as a craft. I tend to do it the way it feels to me.
FF: You had been working with Bernie Worrell. How was it with another keyboardist in the band?
Myrna: It was great! It was great in a lot of different ways. It was tremendous to have a person of that stature. In a sense he’s probably one of my heroes in terms of keyboard players. He laid a lot of groundwork down for a lot of different kinds of music, especially a lot of modern stuff.
FF: How would the two of you work your parts out?
Myrna: In that situation, Bernie was taking over a lot of the rhythm parts and filling in. It’s kinda difficult to be able to do a lot with the keyboards and sing at the same time. It’s not like the guitar where you can get away with, ah –
FF: Just whacking at it.
Myrna: It was nice; it gave me the opportunity to sing more, and I got in front a couple of times. It gave me that chance. So, you work it out. I really liked working with another musician. It adds a different aspect. You can play around with rhythm and melody that you think about, that you can’t do on your own.
FF: It seems that the sound has changed a bit from having Bernie in the band. There are certain things I hear now in your music that were not that apparent before.
Myrna: I’d say that more than anything it gave us a chance to work things out and push them a little more to wherever they were going to go. A lot of it was just having an extra musician. You feed off ideas off people back and forth all the time. And he’s a great player.
FF: So how did all this music come to this point? In other words, why music?
Myrna: It’s like… well, people ask me that and I don’t know. It just sort of happened. Really, it did. I didn’t wake up one morning and go, “I’m gonna be on stage.” Sometimes I’ll be on stage and I’ll go, “How did I end up there?” I don’t know what happened. It’s been a long haul and there’s been a lot that went along with it; and it was a conscious choice, but for it to have gotten to where it is right now wasn’t something that we had ever foreseen. When we had decided to do it we wanted to go all the way. Maybe that’s why we’re not plagued with a lot of the same problems other groups have. Because it was something we all enjoyed and we did it because we enjoyed it. We didn’t do it because, “Well, we’re a band.” It wasn’t where you decide to do something where you wear your clothes a certain way to fulfill that. That didn’t quite happen. It evolved in a very natural way.
FF: Well, it seems natural. You look like you have a lot of fun.
Myrna: Oh, yeah. We wouldn’t do it otherwise. I wouldn’t do it otherwise. It’s not something that you do and not enjoy it. If you don’t, you’ll start hating it. But other people will hate it too, probably.