Thursday, October 5, 2017

POLYROCK: In Search of Playful Seriousness [1981]

Text by Stacy Mantel / FFanzeen, 1981
Introduction © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2017
Images from the Internet

This interview was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #7, dated 1981. It was written and conducted by then-FFanzeen Managing Editor, Stacy Mantel.

To be honest, I wasn’t a fan of Polyrock at the time, as I found them too…esoteric. The whole synthesizer/techno-guitar thing was lost of me, but Stacy was a big fan, hence the interview. I heard the albums back then, but never saw them live. However, I do have an indirect tale about them:

In the early 1980s, after this article appeared, I applied for a job as an Editor at a technology-based magazine, and was granted an interview. When I got there, I found out that it was produced by Al Goldstein [d. 2013], and the interview was in Screw Magazine’s office. The person interviewing me was the brother of a member of Polyrock. He knew who I was because of this piece, and said he was not going to give me the job as a favor to me, because having Screw Publications on a resume was not a plus, and Al was a hard person for whom to work. He did, however, show me Goldstein’s office, which was just packed with memorabilia. He warned me not to touch anything because despite the chaos, Goldstein knew if anything was moved. I thank him for that, even now, because he was absolutely correct.

As for Polyrock proper, they released two major-label albums on RCA, produced by Philip Glass, and disbanded a year after this interview was published, in 1982. Looking back, I can appreciate some of their releases more, such as “Bucket Rider,” but even today, the snyth/modulated material is still is not where my interest lies. – RBF, 2017

Polyrock is not unique, but then again, they are. It depends upon what angle you care to listen to them from, and how contaminated your musical background is.

Everyone is talking about them. Some are nervous, some elated, some speechless – but they are reacting. Polyrock themselves are doing the least talking. They are modest experimenters, trying to be a little different. Polyrock is: Billy Robertson, guitar / vocals; Tommy Robertson, lead guitar / electronics / violin; Lenny Aaron, keyboards; Curt Cosentino, bass machine / synthesizer; Joseph Yannece, drums / percussion / vocals; and Catherine Oblansey, vocals / percussion.

I spoke with Billy Robertson at the Rock Lounge, Saturday, February 28 of this year. He is very amiable and neat, and smiles freely. When we spoke, a lot of sentences were left open where words could not express certain artistic aims; sensibilities. For coherence, I had to punctuate in my mind and on paper. Personally, they’re probably best left unclosed, because in that, there is more understanding.

FFanzeen: In The [Village] Voice, John Picarella compared your sound to geometric paintings a la Mondrian. But when I listen to your music, I don’t think of harsh, stark lines; I feel it’s more impressionistic and imageful. What do you feel?
Billy Robertson: Well, it’s really hard to make a comparison to paintings or that kind of art, but I see it more as impressionistic. It’s also an immediate type of thing too, because it isn’t painting. Although when you go into the studio, you make a record and it’s a piece, but when it’s written, it’s sort of an act of aggression. The thing is to capture a live moment; an experience.

FFanzeen: What do you mean by “act of aggression”?
Billy: It’s a weird word – it’s a performance. I don’t mean aggressive as a negative or positive act of aggression or anything like that, but putting out something immediate – something with a certain amount of intensity. And it’s a performance. To answer your question more specifically, it’s more impressionistic than mechanical.

FFanzeen: It’s felt mostly on “Your Dragging Feet.”
Billy: Oh, yeah.

FFanzeen: It’s very hypnotic, almost like a mantra, because it’s somewhat repetitive.
Billy: It’s packaged sort of in a form; it has levels. It’s a very pretty song to me.

FFanzeen: The systems approach and Philip Glass’ music deals with similar types of repetition and levels.
Billy: That song has a lot more of that mode or side of us than any other song, and I think it’s something we really want to do; even in short pieces, and not so much a trance-piece, but something that’s very subtle and right there with the instrumentals. Some of the new stuff would make this clearer to you. That type of writing style started, for me anyway, when I listened to Brian Eno; I heard it in the Beatles and John Lennon songs like “I Am the Walrus.” And that’s what I like about Philip. When I first heard him I appreciated the repetition. He was an influence, but he was more someone we liked and respected. We really didn’t see his music as being part of our music. I can really like jazz or other kinds of music, but I play my music, and it just has been coming more and more. I just identify with Philip so much. I think he identifies with us, but he knows that we’re making pop music and we’re in a different medium.

FFanzeen: How did that collaboration come about? Was it on your mind or –
Billy: It did enter my mind, but I didn’t see it as becoming a fact. I never thought it would become a fact because I didn’t picture Philip to be what he is, as open-minded and just as versatile because he listens to all kinds of things. He makes music that’s his music.

FFanzeen: Do you see Polyrock trying to bridge the gap between that kind of music and pop rock’n’roll?
Billy: Yeah, I think subconsciously. We’re trying to make a serious sort of musical type of music; not just an occasion. A dance band. That’s definitely on our minds and that is an aspect of our music. We really like John Cage and people like that, their aspect of music, but we also enjoy playing for people and dancing. So, we’re trying not to be that, as many writers said, “serious.”

FFanzeen: You’ve had a lot of problems with the critics about that aspect of being serious. Some have asked, “How can a pop band have that in their musical or personality makeup”?
Billy: Well, it’s in the personality. I think it’s a real special thing. That’s what keeps me going. I see it developing more and more for us. Sort of like bridging that gap. I wouldn’t say so much as the repetitious thing or the minimalistic thing because I don’t think Philip Glass is minimalist.

FFanzeen: I don’t think so either. Minimal is an Andy Warhol film.
Billy: “Grey Canvas” is minimal.

FFanzeen: When you’re putting music together, do you take concrete ideas and put one after the other, or do you use the kind of random approach that Eno takes with his systems pieces?
Billy: I think that when I write, I hear where it’s going. I can sit down with an acoustic guitar and play it. Well, it’s sort of a systems approach because I’m doing other people. I know what Lenny, as a keyboard player, will reflect into the song, and I know what Curt will. And I have an idea what my brother will do – he would definitely write his piece to it. But the others, even though I’m writing the melodies and injecting it to them, I can already see what they’re going to do. When I play with just an acoustic, I usually do the melodies with my voice, and it’s weird because you keep the melody in that part of your head and you write another melody, or you get someone to team up with you. There’s so many things we have to stay away from when we write, Tommy and I. We try not to keep Blues progressions out of it and funk feelings. We’re trying to start with these very sterile sort of holes and these melodies. Mechanically, that’s what we start with. But, we’re trying. I think we’re very emotional. I think we’re trying to inject that, so the emphasis is not on funk, because what’s soul? That isn’t soul. We can have soul in our music.

FFanzeen: Well, not having a bass is almost an anti-funk idea.
Billy: I’m not anti-funk. I mean, I love it. I find it more challenging not to work with, because it’s very easy to me. It’s because we have to stay away from these things. I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to grow into something where we wouldn’t have to sit around here and try to explain it. It’ll just be this type of music that came through a process; but it’s just a process of trying to strip down and get away from all these things that have been done; all these different modes. I mean, it’s been 25 years since rock came about and pop music still sounds the same way. You can make it different and change it into a different shape, but it’s still the same medium. And funk’s been around and African music has been around. Sometimes I think it’s a crazy thing to do [smiles] but if it can work and we can do it, good. It’s a romantic thing to do, laying yourself on the line; but it’s an experiment. We can fall flat on our faces, and we’ll just turn around and try it a different way. I don’t think that I’ll ever put together a band that’ll be accepted right away. I don’t think any of us would. We would try to do something that had space for growing.

FFanzeen: Groups like Visage and Spandau Ballet are working with computers that go beyond a synthesized bass; they’re computerizing a beat. People are saying you are electronic. Isn’t that a bit off-base?
Billy: I think that when using all synthesizer and rhythm generators, I see that sound as getting too homogenized, too packaged too quickly. I think that just working with guitars is more of an inside thing. I see that kind of electronic music as getting too sterile. Like Gary Numan. I liked his first record, but he got too sterile. The overall sound is too formulated.

FFanzeen: That’s what I meant, because those people are just programming in the entire thing and they’re called inhuman.
Billy: Well, that’s supposed to sound inhuman. I look back on this record and there are reservations, because the fact that we have a serious edge doesn’t give us room to be playful.

FFanzeen: What’s your definition of “serious”? The B-52s take themselves seriously.
Billy: Yeah, I can think that, too. I could ask myself, “What is the definition of ‘serious’?” And I think it’s totally absurd to think that way, but obviously there is a whole overall thing that is looked at as serious and something that’s looked at as playful. It’s not my definition though. If I really stop to think about it, it’s just a type of seriousness where you have an attitude of just like when you make a piece, it could be a serious piece, something that you’re really thinking about and really trying to make different, but also trying to be very pretty and aesthetic in a sense; something that’s not as playful, because if something’s not playful, what else can it be?

FFanzeen: You mentioned new material. What stage is that at now?
Billy: It’s at the stage where we have five or six songs down – not all at the performing stage, though. We’ve been working. We’ve been to London, and we’re going to Baltimore. When we get back, I just want to go back up to our house [in historic Woodstock], and get these things down. We want to get back into the studio to make another album the end of March.

FFanzeen: Will Philip Glass produce the next album?
Billy: I think he will. It all depends on what the circumstances are, who we’ll be working with. I see him as another member of the band with just a smaller part. He doesn’t produce it; he’s not about that. And that’s what I was talking about – one of the reservations about going into the studio again. Because we want somebody who’s going to be more sensitive to the rock’n’roll aspects of it.

FFanzeen: Let’s get some more background. Before Polyrock, you played with the Model Citizens for a while. What was Tommy doing?
Billy: This was the first time he became visual, and marketed what he does. Before that he made tapes and has a collection of his own tapes which may be marketed someday. He’s been working mostly on his own music. This is more of something which we’re trying to create. It’s not what we’re about. Right now, we have this thing and it’s a band. We’re using our personae. We’re using the look. It’s a lot more than just making music. I think if Tommy was to write music for himself, he would explore a lot more different things; more subtle things, and not be so accessible to himself. That’s what I’m into doing.

FFanzeen: Aren’t you afraid to explore so soon?
Billy: Yeah. It definitely takes some time, and it’s good for me. I don’t think it’s a compromise. I think that we’re going to get to the point where we’ll be ready to do it, and we’ll know better how to do it, and we’ll learn what directions we really like and want to go into. But I think there’s a different attitude. A more spread-out kind of experimenting. Next album, I’m going back to bass on a couple of tunes. On the first record, for some reason, I just wanted to get away from electric bass. Maybe now I can incorporate it into our sound, because we’re starting to get a good idea of what we’re doing.

FFanzeen: How long were you in the studio recording the album?
Billy: About a month and a half.

FFanzeen: Did you have anything to do with the ad campaign RCA launched, with “Polyvinyl, Polyrock of the Future”?
Billy: No, not at all. Did it seem like any of us did? I hope it’s clear to most people that we had nothing to do with it. We really hated it, but I’m not going to turn around and say “RCA stinks.” They just got a little away from us.

FFanzeen: Polyrock is the best name you could have come up with; it’s so descriptive.
Billy: We thought it had a nice sound, also.

FFanzeen: What about this “dance-trance” business? It’s applied to other groups too, such as the Bush Tetras, and you two bands couldn’t be further apart.
Billy: It’s obviously not an adequate description of the music. Even more general is the term “New Wave,” which really freaks me out because Blondie is supposed to be New Wave and even Talking Heads, because they made it through the same packaging, the same channels. So I just have to say when people ask me what kind of music we play, it’s “Polyrock.” We’re making it that and that’s what we called it.

1 comment:

  1. R.I.P. Billy. Too soon. Less than a year after this post was made, Billy died. I still don't know the cause. I only know he was too young. It is a loss on many levels. Polyrock created a sound that to this day is unique and timeless. We will miss you. - Stacy Mantel