From Aural Innovations #29 (October 2004)
Mushroom band leader and drummer Pat Thomas wants to be clear that he's no musical snob. And anyone who listens to a handful of Mushroom albums in one sitting will believe that must be true. Known for their blend of krautrock, psychedelic and jazz stylings, Mushroom have traveled a long and winding road since we first covered them in 1999 (see AI #7). Since that time they have released several recordings, often delighting their fans, sometimes confounding them, yet along the way building a body of work that is more cohesive than it might appear to be from the surface, and opening up a world of variety and exploration once you dip your head down under.
The most recent album available at the time of our first Mushroom article was Analog Hi-Fi Surprise, which to this day remains a highlight in the Mushroom catalog. Since then there has been a limited edition LP only release on Aether Records (1999). Perhaps less well known to fans, the album followed in the tradition of Hydrogen Jukebox and Analog Hi-Fi Surprise. Compared To What (2000) opened with a bit of a shocker... a cover of "Compared To What", originally recorded by Les McCann and Eddie Harris. The surprise of course was the stunningly soulful vocals of Gary Floyd, vocals being heretofore unheard of on a Mushroom album. And the remainder of the album was filled with some of the most purely trancey music Mushroom has ever recorded, including remixes by such luminaries as Bundy K. Brown (Tortoise) and Hans Joachim Irmler (Faust). The following year brought something new in the form of Foxy Music, Mushroom's most purely jazz oriented album to date. 2001 also saw the release of Oh But They're Weird and They're Wonderful. The album was a live set, but in true Mushroom fashion it was by no means your run-of-the-mill set of live recordings. Many of the tracks were placed in the hands of remix artist Dipstick, who gave the recordings an electronica edge with his mutational magic. Last year Mushroom did a complete 360 degree turn with Mad Dogs & San Franciscans, 9 of its 11 tracks being covers (with Gary Floyd on vocals) of 70's rock ‘n soul classics by artists like Joe Cocker, Curtis Mayfield, Spirit and more. Which brings us to the present...
The latest from Mushroom is called Glazed Popems, a 2-CD set that returns with a bang to the bands krautrock-psych-prog rock roots, the result being what for this fan is a Mushroom classic on par with Analog Hi-Fi Surprise. The two CD's are separated somewhat loosely into themes. Disc one is the "London" set, drawing on Mushroom's British prog rock influences and acid folk. Disc two is the "Oakland" set, focusing more on Mushroom's funk-jazz-soul side. Having been immersed in Glazed Popems for some time now, the differences between the two discs are by no means clear. But that's of little concern. What's important for Mushroom fans and anyone being introduced for the first time is that Glazed Popems is a testament to a collective of musicians who combine krautrock, psychedelic, jazz, soul, R&B, and progressive rock influences like no other contemporary band that I'm aware of. Mushroom satisfy cravings for the sweet sounds of the 70's, but do so in a way that defies "retro" tags, beings at all times fresh and interesting, and often downright exciting.
From the opening moments of "L'auberge", with its slowly grooving jazz percussion and horn, looming mellotron lines, and trippy guitar and electric piano, it's abundantly clear that Mushroom have returned to their cosmically entrancing Kraut-psych-jazz roots. And as the band starts to cook I'm reminded of a jazzier version of Agitation Free. Ditto for "Isle of Wight", which trips along in jazzy grooving psychedelic style, bringing to mind a marriage of Agitation Free and Traffic and slung deep into space. "Pink Island" is drenched in classic prog rock sounds with lush orchestral mellotron and Frippoid guitar licks. "(Hats Off to) Bert Jansch" does a bit of a turn into acoustic guitar Americana, quickly expanding into heights of grooving prog-psych-jazz serenity with guitar, flute, mellotron and percussion.... we're jammin' folks. Absolutely scrumptious! "Half Sicilian / Half Welsh" is probably the most intense and ominous tracks on disc one, like some dark avant-prog war march and colored by noisy radio wave embellishments.
Disc two really demonstrates what cosmic melodic scientists Mushroom are. "The Beards Are Back In Town" starts off like electric Miles with bits of 70's fusion and healthy doses of psychedelia. Awesomely funky and soulful in the patented Mushroomized style. Then about halfway through it shifts to a tranquil spacey jazz segment with an entrancing melody. Psychedelic groove jazz for the ultimate brain massage. And speaking of melodic hooks, the title track is equally spellbinding and clearly has jazz-pop potential. And then there's "Tonite Let's All Make Love In Oakland", a psychedelic prog-kraut-jazz excursion that would be equally at home on either disc, right out of the starting gate taking off into psych-jazz jam realms and leading the listener on an beautiful 11+ minute journey that culminates in some lusciously dirty freakout guitar.
Anxious to know more about Mushroom's widely diverse musical palette I chatted by phone with founder and band leader Pat Thomas.
AI: Even in 1999 when Keith first wrote about Mushroom it was pretty clear that you couldn't expect the same thing from one album to the next. And since then some of the changes have been fairly dramatic. But what makes Mushroom so unique to me is even though all the various krautrock, psychedelic and jazz influences are clearly apparent, the band is ultimately very difficult to describe. You guys blend all these styles and influences in a way that no other contemporary band that I'm aware of does. That said, describe for me your take on the Mushroom world.
Pat Thomas (PT): For one thing, I'm not a musical snob. We could sit here and talk about Amon Düül and Faust for the next three hours. We could also talk about Carol King and Elton John for the next three hours. And what I mean by that is, I agree with you that Mushroom definitely wears its influences on its sleeve, but I think part of what makes us unique is... I think a lot of bands will say.... ok, we're gonna take the first five Genesis albums and the first three Pink Floyd albums and we're gonna make that a blueprint for our band and we're never gonna deviate from it. I like to think that Mushroom is influenced by everything. And what I mean by everything is a wide palette of 60's and 70's jazz, rock, pop, real mainstream pop, prog, krautrock, etc. So that's what I mean by not being a musical snob. I probably have about 10,000 LP's and 10,000 CD's. And I can tell you that they're not all krautrock and they're not all jazz. I just feel like we bring a lot of influences to the table. And a lot of the other Mushroom guys could be fans of anything from Richard Thompson, to Pat Metheny, to who knows what. You're not dealing with a group of guys who have buried their heads in the sand. So that's one thing.
The other thing is when the band started the jumping off points were various eras of King Crimson, definitely Miles Davis' electric stuff, some Soft Machine... I hadn't really heard that much krautrock when the band started. And in fact, I actually heard Neu! after we recorded The Reeperbahn and thought that it had some Neu! like qualities. So although we wear our influences on our sleeves we're not real self-conscious about what it is that we're doing. We didn't have a pow-wow and say this is what we're doing. I took everybody into the studio and I said we're just going to improvise like maniacs for the next 24 hours. And that's what became the first album. Pretty much every album has been that way with the exception of the Gary Floyd thing which has cover songs. But pretty much every album is kind of.... I'm probably the only Mushroom member, being the band leader, that as I go in the studio I'm kind of mapping it out in my mind. The other guys just show up and say, ok boss, what are we doing.
AI: How about your live shows?
The live shows are a lot like that. Mushroom is really more of a collective than a band. There's a core group of people. There's me on drums, Erik Pearson on guitar and sax. You start to see some of the same names. But you also see kind of a floating thing. If we do ten shows over let's say a five month period, 7 out of the 10 times there could be a slightly different lineup. And what happens is by adding and subtracting a guy you might see one show where you think, oh man, this is totally Soft Machine "Third", this is total British jazz-rock. And then a week later with maybe one guy changed you'd think, oh this show is totally Faust. And that's not anything I bark out to the guys before we start. Mushroom really has a life of its own in that sense. So it's really wherever the musical chips fall is how it all comes together.
AI: So if I lived in San Francisco and had the opportunity to see Mushroom perform on a regular basis it sounds like I'd hear even more differences than I hear just listening from one album to the next.
PT: Mushroom has played maybe 200 shows in the last 6-7 years. I would say I have all but four of the shows we ever played recorded. And so my eventual goal is to put out a live box set that will probably be taken from 40 or 50 different shows. And it will really show what I'm talking about which will be... wow, I can't believe this is the same band!
AI: That excites me to hear that. Mushroom is a band that would be perfect for that kind of thing.
PT: Yeah. Sometimes I fantasize and wish that Mushroom was more popular. I wish that people were trading and swapping these shows and talking about them. And I've occasionally either given away live CDR's to some fans, or said send me $10 and I'll send you five CDR's or something. So I've tried to slowly build that up. Because we don't tour, I think that's one of the reasons why we haven't developed that live following where people are swapping our tapes. But I think people would have a lot of fun doing it.
AI: I'm on the Hawkwind lists and I'm aware of the Grateful Dead thing. Those fans get into collecting the various concert dates, but the variation can tend to get limited.
PT: Certainly. I'm not a Deadhead but I'm a bit of a Grateful Dead fan. And for all the millions of Grateful Dead tapes that are out there, year by year they don't change that much. But I would really honestly lay my balls on the table and say Mushroom shows... they change.
AI: After we first featured Mushroom in 1999 the jazz influences started coming out more overtly, though you by no means abandoned the spacey stuff. But Foxy Music struck me when it came out as your most openly jazzy album to date. The horns were certainly more prominent. Was that a result of the fluid membership and resulting new blood... conscious decision?
PT: It's funny about the jazz thing. That was probably more self-conscious. Because those first couple of albums - The Reeperbahn and Analog Hi-Fi Surprise - those were definitely, for lack of a better genre, those are more or less space rock, prog rock albums. And with Foxy Music we really moved into the jazz-rock thing. And I know for a fact that we alienated some fans with that. For example, the guys at Audion magazine, who are probably our biggest supporters besides you guys, they couldn't get down with that. And the horn thing I think was me... when Mushroom first started I was just kind of dabbling with Miles Davis and a little bit of Coltrane. By the time we got to Foxy Music I probably owned 300-400 jazz albums. And I was getting into Eddie Harris, Les McCann, that kind of stuff. So Foxy Music was me living out my jazz fantasies if you will. And it was funny because we definitely got a whole group of new fans from that album, but I also could tell that we alienated some fans. And that's why I think when we were making Glazed Popems I was consciously saying to myself it's time to get back to a little more of the space rock, prog rock, psychedelic stuff and get away from the jazz stuff.
AI: But I'll tell you, and these are just personal comments, but I like Foxy Music. And I like it because it goes back to my original comments, that it's by no means just a straight jazz album. The freaky stuff is still in there.
PT: That's right. And the thing that I like about Glazed Popems is we're getting back to the psychedelic thing, yet we're still keeping some of the horn guys around. I think the other major change with Foxy Music we can touch on is Foxy Music is the only album that's been severely edited. And what I mean by that is all the albums leading up to Foxy Music, if we played the song for 10 minutes you pretty much got the full 10 minutes. All of the songs on Foxy Music could be anywhere from two to three times longer than they are. We went in and took out everything from what we thought were bad solos to maybe a technical thing. And at the time I wasn't necessarily trying to make a more commercial album, but I maybe was subconsciously trying to make an album not just for guys who like to smoke weed. And I think it helped in the sense that Foxy Music got a lot of mainstream press. We got reviewed in Downbeat and Jazz Times and things like that. And then later I started to semi-regret my decision, which is why I did the Foxy Music double vinyl where I restored some of those songs closer to their original length. So I now have this fantasy of someday re-releasing Foxy Music as a double CD set and giving people the more extended versions. I'm not saying I regret doing Foxy Music. But it's probably our most concise album.
AI: But that's what lead to magazines like Downbeat being interested in you.
PT: It's interesting... it gave us one tiny foot in the jazz world, and pulled out maybe half a foot out of the proggy space rock world. But the thing that I love is guys like yourself that like a lot of different styles of music, that's what keeps Mushroom refreshing for them. Let's face it... even all of our favorite bands, we pretty much know what that album if going to sound like before we pop it in the CD player. And that's what I think keeps Mushroom exciting. And some of my favorite musicians... Neil Young has done a bunch of different incarnations, some successfully, some not successfully. Lou Reed has done that to some degree. Take The Who. There's a big difference between Who's Next and My Generation. Same band. And that's my inspiration. As I've gotten older I've lost respect for some of my fellow musicians who after 20 or 25 years are kind of making the same record over and over and over again.
AI: When the Compared To What album came out that was a surprise, because the first thing you hear is the "Compared To What" cover.
PT: And VOCALS!
AI: So what made you decide to do that?
PT: That was probably a continuation around the Foxy Music period where I was really caught up with what I call soul-jazz. Specifically, the guys who did "Compared To What", Les McCann and Eddie Harris. And the other thing was I was really in awe of this singer, Gary Floyd, whose kind of a Bay area legend. For people who are into punk rock there was a band called The Dicks in the 70's out of Austin, Texas, and he's kind of an icon to a different group of people. And so I just had this fantasy of recording that song and he was into it. I would say that the Compared To What thing also was a bit of a departure because we were doing these remixes. It's probably our least successful project in some ways. It's certainly the most inconsistent, if only for artistic reasons. To be honest, I was also trying to be a little coy. Faust offered their involvement. I was very flattered by that. I was trying to be a little coy by bringing in Bundy K. Brown from Tortoise because I was hoping that some of the indie-rock, post-rock fans would jump on to Mushroom if they saw our involvement with Bundy. And that didn't really work in quite the way I wanted it to. I'm a P.R. guy and a marketing guy, that's my background. And so probably the most self-conscious part of Mushroom probably comes from the marketing side where I say, how can I appeal to a 50 year old Soft Machine fan... how can I appeal to a 25 year old Tortoise fan... how can I appeal to a 40 year old Miles Davis fan... all at the same time.
AI: What I got a kick out of, and for me the only thing that could be called inconsistent, is the album opens with the "Compared To What" cover, and then the rest of the album, or most of it anyway, is this ultra trancey stuff that I really liked.
PT: What's funny is I think the song that sent the most people running out of the room was the Bundy K. Brown thing, which was very ambient and very weird and very long, I think it's about 20 minutes long. I either have people saying they loved it or people saying they can't get all the way through it. And there's a bit of a reward, because if you work your way through there's a hidden track after that which is this really cool live thing.
AI: I think it worked, but at the same time I can understand where people might have been a little confused.
PT: Yeah, so it was what it was. And that definitely lead me to do the whole album of covers with Gary [Mad Dogs & San Franciscans]. Which was also interesting because we got some amazing mainstream press. We got a half page in the New York Village Voice, which is unheard of for an unknown band. We got a four star review in Mojo in England. And that was another one of those albums where half the old Mushroom fans came up to me and said what the fuck are you doing? And then the other half came up to me and said man, this is fucking great!
AI: Well I'll tell you, I liked the "Compared To What" cover, but after I heard Mad Dogs & San Franciscans I really understood what an incredibly soulful singer Gary Floyd is.
PT: I really love things like old vintage Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin... I grew up on Blues-rock. The Who, Cream, Led Zeppelin, the Stones. That's really in my DNA more than anything I probably mentioned in the last 10 minutes. So when I'm on stage with him, the few times we played together, I really felt that I was on stage with Joe Cocker or Paul Rogers of Bad Company or what have you.
AI: I think it's a really fun album.
PT: It is fun, exactly. The other thing was, I figured by this point people knew Mushroom well enough to know that the next album probably isn't gonna have that guy on it. And it didn't.
AI: I wanted to ask you more about the remixes. When you did the Oh But They're Weird And Wonderful album...
PT: That to me was a much more successful remix project. Someone told me, and not to toot my own horn but I loved what they said, they said, I've never heard an album quite like this. And I think what they meant is here's these really cool live tracks, and they're all segued with these little remix tracks. And I thought that the remixes overall were very organic and very complimentary to the overall thing. I'm really proud of that combination of live and remix.
AI: I'm going to confess to some cluelessness here. Help me to understand these remixes. I remember in the 70's the "dance remix" became popular.
PT: Technically I hate remixes. In other words, remixes to me mean dance music and I basically hate dance music. And I've never really gone down the path of listening to what you might call ambient remixes. I agree with you that the Compared To What CD with things like the Bundy K. Brown are sort of more ambient remixes, which I would definitely prefer over if you'd put a drum machine on it. So those are those kinds of remixes. And the other difference is on the Compared To What CD these guys were given the multi-tracks. When Hans Irmler from Faust was tweaking this he had his choice. He could say, I just want to hear drums, I just want to hear guitar, I just want to hear flute... so that's how those were done. But the remixes on the live CD, because it was a live album he [Dipstick] didn't have individual tracks. He just had a big pile of live tapes.
AI: So with Compared To What they could control the individual tracks.
PT: Right. They had a lot more of a palette to pull from. What the Dipstick guy did was he just had a pile of live tapes, which meant he had no control over anything. So what he does is he isolates things. He would grab, let's say, a 5 second drum beat and loop it. Or he would grab a mini guitar solo and loop it. So his work actually in my mind takes a lot more effort in some ways to get something musical back out of it. And the thing that he did, that I loved, and we discussed this ahead of time, the other thing that remixers try to do is they add in some of their own shit. They'll say, I'll grab this funky bass line off of my Roland bass synthesizer, or I'll put a 4/4 drum beat off of my drum synthesizer. What the Dipstick guy did is he just took these bare parts that I gave him and didn't add anything in. In fact, there's a line in the liner notes that says these remixes do not include any additional instrumentation. The other thing was we kept those fairly short. Some of those things if they were 5 or 10 minutes long I'd probably be hating them. But they're just long enough that you get into the groove and they don't irritate you before they finish. What he really did was he looped things. He would take like a 5 second or maybe even a 30 second piece and he would loop it 3 times. So it would sound almost like a drum machine but it wasn't. You'd get that kind of electronica vibe.
And interestingly enough, originally he was supposed to co-produce Glazed Popems, and Glazed Popems was supposed to be the same idea except in the studio. And to make a very long story short, he moved out of town, and got busy, and blah blah blah. But Glazed Popems could have been a very different animal had we done that. And there was a time where I was disappointed that he blew town. And now in retrospect I'm glad he did because I love what came of it without his involvement.
AI: Let's talk about Glazed Popems. I've given it several listens and have to say that prior to this album Analog Hi-Fi Surprise was my favorite Mushroom album. But this definitely ranks up there with Hi-Fi. It's a really varied album, but it's also got some of the spaciest and most krautrock oriented stuff I've heard from you guys in a while.
PT: One thing is, and it was actually my art director who came up with the concept, we recorded a lot of material, as we often do, and I had been threatening since Analog Hi-Fi Surprise to put out a double CD. And as we were going through the tapes my art director said, you've got two really distinct styles here. You've got this almost folky, kind of British stuff with the mellotron and the touches of acoustic guitar, and you've got the more standard Mushroom stuff which we called the Oakland stuff for lack of a better description. We didn't do this exactly straight down the line of course, but we basically kind of made them a little bit thematic musically. And I think it made a much more interesting record than if I had just sequenced it haphazardly. And it's funny because most people gravitate toward disc one. That tends to be their favorite. I've had a couple people tell me they prefer disc two. And the funny thing is I can imagine putting out disc one as its own album. And I couldn't really imagine putting out disc two as a stand alone album. But somehow when you add disc two connected to disc one, it makes a complete album.
AI: To my ears there's crossover. It's not really clear cut themes. You hear krautrocky stuff on both discs...
PT: The thing is disc one ends with that really long piece that is some of the most avant-garde music we've ever done. And so that's kind of a cool juxtaposition with all the folky, more melodic stuff that precedes it. So I would agree that the discs aren't really clear cut in terms of any real theme. And then you go over to disc two and there's that real beautiful song called "Glazed Popems" with the vocals, that's actually more the kind of vibe of disc one. So yeah, the discs I think are pretty continuous and it's not like we've totally switched genres once we've gone to the other disc.
AI: I listened to all your albums in succession in recent weeks, and despite all the variation we've discussed, there's still a coherence throughout.
PT: One of the main Mushroom members, Michael Holt, who's a real key part of Analog Hi-Fi Surprise, Foxy Music and Hydrogen Jukebox, moved to Toronto a few years ago. And when he moved there he said to me, what would you think if I started playing music around Toronto and called it Mushroom. And I said yeah, I don't care. Go for it. So he did a gig and called it Mushroom. And needless to say he was the only Mushroom member there. But he called me up afterwards and he said, something about not having you behind the drums, it just wasn't the same. So I've decided not to do it anymore. So I think there's something about me as a band leader that helps keep it as a certain glue. I would also say that Erik Pearson has been on every record, and he's also a certain glue. Here's a funny story. We played a show opening for Faust. And then a month later we were in Germany touring and hanging out with Faust. And Irmler came up to me and said, y'know... you and Erik are the only two guys that are here from the show we played with you a month ago. And I said yeah... one group of guys were available for the Faust show in San Francisco, and that's what we did. And those particular people for whatever reason were not available for Europe. And I think it really flipped him out that 80% of the lineup had changed within 30 days. And I was like, well 30 days from now it will be slightly different. So in my mind as long as me and Erik are here... that's Mushroom.
AI: It's funny because I've heard you say in the past that a lot of Mushroom members have never heard a lot of the krautrock and prog rock stuff. So there must be some spirit you're bringing in as band leader.
PT: You know what it is... most band leaders are into roping people in. In other words, I've played in all kinds of bands as a drummer. And generally when someone's a so-called band leader, most people are trying to rope in the musicians to create whatever it is their vision is. I'm actually trying to get the musicians to play more outside of themselves. One of the things I always tell a brand new Mushroom member, especially if it's a horn player or anybody who's going to be doing a lot of soloing, I tell them don't be afraid to make mistakes. When you take a horn solo, I would rather you play 3 bad notes, and play great and crazy, then play a really safe, conservative solo that doesn't really get my rocks off. And so I think what I really do is rather than whip these guys into shape, I'm trying to whip them out of shape.
AI: You reissued Analog Hi-Fi Surprise. Why was that?
PT: That reissue might be my biggest artistic Mushroom regret. I think that Analog Hi-Fi Surprise, as you said, is one of the Mushroom classics. Analog Hi-Fi Surprise was on this label that me and a buddy co-owned. And he paid for the pressing, so I was basically signed to his side of the record company. So after 3 years that contract had expired and Analog Hi-Fi Surprise was out of print. So since it had been a pretty good seller and a consistent seller he was eager to repress it or renew the contract. And he owed me some money so I was dabbling with just letting it go out of print, maybe I would reissue it someday myself, and he kind of dangled a carrot in front of me and said, how about if we reissue it in a digi-pack and add some bonus tracks. And I love digi-packs and I love bonus tracks... so I kind of dove into it just for the excitement of reissuing it.
AI: So was the original even out of print yet?
PT: The original was basically out of print. There were maybe like 15 copies left in the warehouse. So he just said the right words to me... digi-pack, reissue, bonus tracks. What I do for a living is I do a lot of reissues of jazz and soul and rock stuff. So I was just getting my rocks off just revamping part of my own catalog. And then after it was done I was a little less excited about it. I think the first song is kind of a turkey, and it's got a bit of a mixing problem. I think some of the other stuff is cool, but I guess I wish I hadn't fucked with it, or maybe if I'd left the album originally as it was, and put the bonus tracks at the end. But I was trying to recreate something that would be a listening experience from start to finish.
I think my favorite part of it is the packaging and the liner notes where I wanted people know, because I'm pretty proud of it, is that this was basically put together in 24 hours. And because I think there's a lot of really good material in there, once I sat down and thought about it a few years later I was like... shit, we walked into a room, I had no material, we improvised, at the end of the day I mixed all this stuff, I stayed up half the night doing it, and bango... I had a really cool album.
AI: It's really wild hearing you talk about how you just cranked this out in a day. Because it really is one of your stellar albums.
PT: And actually Hydrogen Jukebox is all from the same sessions. And it's funny because Michael Holt, our keyboard player, he thinks that Hydrogen Jukebox is the genius album and the throwaway stuff is on Analog Hi-Fi Surprise. But my feeling is the other way around. I think there's some great stuff on Hydrogen Jukebox, but at the end of the day I think it's the Analog Hi-Fi Surprise tracks that are the more definitive.
AI: I read in the Glazed Popems promo sheet that you've done, or come close to being included in, some motion picture soundtracks, including Kill Bill. Tell me about that.
PT: I've often wanted to get Mushroom into some movies. A few years ago a guy took bits of Analog Hi-Fi Surprise and weaved it into this documentary he did about crack whores. It was kind of a PBS style documentary. And after that I was determined to try to get into more films. And then there were some guys who did a documentary about the big dot com boom. And they used music from Foxy Music in that. Then I hooked up with a guy in Los Angeles who had a meeting with Quentin Tarantino. Of course Tarantino loves 70's stuff. So he laid some Mushroom CD's on Quentin who thought they were pretty cool and would consider them for use in Kill Bill. Needless to say, I haven't heard from Quentin and it didn't get used. But I threw that in there to make a point that this is some very thematic and very intense music, and it has been used in a couple of independent films.
AI: Thanks Pat!