Before Seattle became synonymous with flannel and distorted guitars, even before Sunset Strip was a record executive honey hole for Aqua Netted glam bands with neon guitars, Athens, Georgia was the scene that launched a musical movement. Unpretentious and seemingly uninterested in what the rest of the music world was being driven by, a core group of art students started forming bands, in part, out of a lack of anything else to do.
The Athens scene hatched a slew of talented bands whose sound would dominate the 1980s and ‘90s and whose influence would last a lot longer. Among the groups that put Athens on the map – R.E.M., The B-52s and Pylon – were somewhat easy to categorize. Love Tractor, however, proved a lot more difficult to describe musically. Their self-titled 1982 debut had elements of dance, New Wave, Jangle Pop – but none of those terms manage to accurately describe the band’s sound. The fact that there were no vocals caused some critics to grasp and call it surf rock. It was layered, it was different and, above all, it was fun.
Four decades later, Love Tractor is still around, still making new music and still performing, at least when not hobbled by a global pandemic. The band has teamed with Athens-based HHBTM Records to re-release their catalogue on vinyl starting with their 1982 debut. Remastered and expanded, it features liner notes from The B-52s’ Kate Pierson, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, and former Rolling Stone editor Anthony DeCurtis.
Love Tractor co-founders/guitarists Mark Cline and Mike Richmond recently spoke with Glide about the re-releases, their motivation for starting the band, and what happens next.
Let’s start off talking about the re-release of your debut. Have you been thinking about re-release again for a while? What was it about 2020 that made the timing right?
Mike Richmond: It seems like we have been thinking about releasing our back catalog for several years now. We did a reunion show in 2016 at the Georgia Theater here in Athens and from that point on we have been much more involved in doing Love Tractor things and 2020 was when it all came together for us. Also, since the pandemic has made live gigs unlikely, now is a good time to focus on other things besides live performance.
Mark Cline: We have been planning the re-release of our catalog for quite some time, and oddly it is not an easy task. For this first release – our first album – we were faced with severely deteriorated ¼” masters, so we made the decision to remix the album – otherwise the fidelity would have been subpar. Jeff Calder from the Swimming Pool Q’s was a great help in locating the tapes and getting them transferred. It was important to us that we maintained the integrity of the original mixes, so we enlisted former band member and the ever-polite task-master Bill Berry, someone who knows a bit about making great records, to produce the remixes. Along with Bill, the obvious choice of studios was Chase Park in Athens with mix-master Dave Barbe behind the board. The result needs to be heard; I think it was Bill who said, “It’s like cotton has been pulled out of my ears.” The mixes sound fresh and alive and true to the original vision, just better. This album is coming out at the tail end of 2020, but it dated 2021, mic drop!
An instrumental record was a bold choice for your debut. What was behind the decision to put out an instrumental LP?
Cline: Bold, hmmmm, we were art students when we released the first album, we were making the music we wanted to make with no constraints. None of the songs needed vocals – we didn’t set out to write an instrumental album, it just happened. Trust me, if a song had needed vocals, we would have added them. In fact, we put aside one song with vocals as it didn’t fit the feel of the record – and not because it had vocals – the song appears on Around The Bend. We have always written albums, not songs, perhaps this is why we are famously slow in releasing material. The first album is, in our eyes, one complete work – not a collection of songs. Fans and critics who know our music, know that not one Love Tractor album sounds like the other. We honestly didn’t think of the album as an instrumental album, although it didn’t have a human voice. To our ears it is complete, it is narrative, it is highly melodic and to this day it sounds fresh.
Richmond: Yes, it was definitely a time when you could be bold and it was even expected and certainly allowed, especially within the late ‘70s early ‘80’ music scene that happened in Athens. I know we felt like we could do anything we wanted to do and our main concern was to be original at all cost. We weren’t thinking in terms of commercial success or image. We were all music lovers and we wanted to carve out our own sound. It didn’t seem strange to us to do an all-instrumental record. We didn’t have a P.A. sound system or anything like that and no-one wanted to sing at that time. I eventually became the singer but I had never sung before. I had been in some cover bands in high school and just played guitar. None of the songs on the first record sound like backing tracks for a missing singer. It wasn’t surf music either. I think Mark, Army (Wellford), Kit (Swartz) and I were really into exploring the interplay we had going, and vocals seemed pointless at the time.
When you listen to that record, almost 40 years later, what are your thoughts about how it turned out?
Richmond: I listen to that record regularly because that is how I practice the songs. I just put on the record and play along. It is evergreen to me, I never get sick of playing any of it and after playing along to all 32 minutes of it I generally feel quite refreshed, almost liberated in a way. It’s very uplifting music and a lot of fun to play. One thing I’ve realized over the years is that people – critics – in general don’t seem to know how to talk about that record. We get a lot of surf rock comparisons you know, or it sounds like R.E.M. without vocals, but it isn’t surf rock at all and as far as R.E.M. goes, they were in their formative stages and mostly a cover band so there was nothing to be influenced by when it came to them and the sound that they later developed. It’s a pretty singular sound vision on that record and I’m pretty proud of it considering some of us were still teenagers when we began.
Cline: To my ears this record is not a document of a specific time, although many bands from New Order to The Smiths to more local acts borrowed heavily from the record. So yeah, it turned out well, we are extremely proud of the record – it sounds like it was written and recorded yesterday. As a band we have always tried to stay away from musical trends or hackneyed tropes. Lazy critics with little frame of reference have tried to peg the album as Modern Surf, New Wave Instrumental, Jangle Pop…none of those monikers serve, as the album is unique unto itself. It is trendless and timeless.
Let’s talk about the Record Store Day 7″ you put out recently? Where did those songs come from?
Richmond: The 7” came about because we had to re-mix the entire first record since the original masters were no longer available. We thought we might as well do an updated look at two of the songs on that record. “60 degrees and Sunny” and “FESTI-vals” were of course “60 Degrees Below” and “Festival,” both tracks from our first record. We added some subtle touches to them both emphasizing the repetitive nature of both tunes. I think we had some Phillip Glass influence going on for both those re-thought tracks. We also did a similar take on “17 Days” (now “17 Days and a Night”), which is not on the 7” but shows up on the LP itself.
Any plans for other reissues?
Cline: The answer is yes, we plan on rereleasing our catalog in order of original release, so next up is Around the Bend, which will have a remaster and possibly some additional tracks. That will be followed by Till The Cows Come Home, which was originally released as an EP, but it may come out as a restored full album – we’re still talking it over. And so on and so forth. We are working on the rereleases as I type, so expect to hear more on the subject.
I grew up in Atlanta in the ‘80s, so was stocked to see the Athens scene take off. Do you have any theories as to why that scene in particular took off at that time?
Cline: The reason for the Athens scene was the copious amounts of LSD in the city drinking water, and the fact that it was the most boring place on earth. So, if you wanted fun you had to create your own fun. Fred Schneider said “on any Saturday night you could lay in the middle of the street in downtown Athens and you would never be hit by a car.” He was 100% correct! The art school was also a hub of activity, all the bands came out of the UGA art school, in fact the scene came out of the art school. Love Tractor, Pylon, R.E.M.: we all lived in the same houses, shared equipment, practice spaces and are all still best friends to this day – it was a tight scene and not just among the musicians but our friends were the provocateurs who demanded we entertain them – so blame them. The B-52s had moved away but…
Richmond: I think it was a combination of several different things. The University of Georgia Art School where members of Pylon Love Tractor and R.E.M., among others, were attending, and some cool professors. Some incredible record stores where all the latest sounds (and it was a spectacularly interesting time in music) from England, New York etc. were easily available. Athens, was also really boring in those days and the art students used their natural creativity to create their own fun, which led to the scene. Of course, the B-52’s were the first band to happen and their success inspired and encouraged others to give it a try. For me personally, I remember being blown away that the town I lived in could produce a cool band like the B’s and I had been in high school with Cindy Wilson, we were the same year and in the same homeroom class. Also, some incredibly low rent enables artists to live cheaply. At one time I was paying like $30 dollars a month rent. Those days are long gone.
Your last record of all new music was in 2001, correct? Any plans for a new studio LP?
Richmond: Yes, The Sky At Night came out in 2001. We have quite a lot of new material in various stages of completion. Probably two LPs worth of material and we certainly do plan on releasing a new record at some point. We are trying to figure out how to best coincide it with our re-releases.
Cline: We do have an album partially demoed, along with a number of other great songs, some of them just thrill me to no end. If not for Covid we probably would have completed the album. We write slowly, partially because we toss out a lot of material until we find something that is the thematic guiding light to an album – but once we have that North Star we move quickly, and we have a magical record waiting in the wings.
How active are you guys as a band nowadays?
Cline: Very active in our own way, which is not like other bands. We write, we play a few shows a year, we would like to play more, but there are two things hindering that:
- We are no longer a business entity with management, agents, or staff of any kind. And we don’t want to have to support a staff, it is a burden which in the past forced us to stay on the road 24/7, as that is where the income comes from.
It was a vicious cycle. Nowadays If we play a show we are booking it, we are the roadies, we are in charge of transportation…everything. I’m looking for a way around this by hooking up with some other bands to share the burden. But ideally, we’d like to comfortably play a major city tour each year.
What’s next for you guys?
Richmond: Promote this re-release; we have been making videos for every song on the album – nine down, two videos to go! Prepping the next few albums for rerelease. We just finished the cover art for Around the Bend and Till the Cows Come Home. We have completed a video for the song “Christ Among the Children” from The Sky at Night. (Then) finishing our new album and play some shows!