Back in 1981, when a phone call brought four kids at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts together to form a peculiar psych-pop outfit called The Prefab Messiahs, Ronald Reagan was in the White House, Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” was topping the charts, and REO Speedwagon’s “Hi Infidelity” was one of the biggest albums of the year. Closer to home, Ed King was still Governor of Massachusetts and future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs was still a year away from making his major league baseball debut with the Boston Red Sox.
In a Worcester — or “Wormtown” as it’s known — music scene dominated mostly by straight-ahead rock & roll outfits and loud, fast punk bands fashioning themselves on The Clash and The Ramones (not bad role models if you were going to go that route), the Prefab Messiahs may have been loud but they were anything but straight-ahead. Over, under, sideways, and down was more like it. Inspired by Dada-ist surrealism and a mistrust of mall culture and mass-marketed product placement (hence their moniker), the Prefabs filtered their love of Television Personalities (not television personalities) through a cracked kaleidoscope of ’60s psychedelia and a penchant for paisley. They played shows anywhere and everywhere they could, with borrowed amps and second-hand clothes, but an art-damaged sound that was all their own. They even, improbably, won a local Battle of the Bands. And then, after spending two years in a time warp of their own making, they vanished into the ether.
Now, a mere 32 years after they disbanded and moved on to other schools, other band projects, other lives, the three Prefab core members (oh yeah, the Messiahs borrowed their drummers too) — lead singer-guitarist Seth “Xerox” Feinberg, bassist-singer Kris “Trip” Thompson, and guitarist Michael “Doc” Michaud — have beamed back into the stratosphere. This time, maybe for good. A smattering of messianic sightings and sounds a couple of years ago on the occasion of the band’s 30th anniversary mini-tour, plus a stellar Burger Records cassette reissue of “Devolver,” their early ’80s anthology, proved as prophetic as that phone call three decades earlier.
Armed with new drummer Ned Egg, creative inspiration hit again, this time with the band members seeing a blurry reflection of themselves in the classic Herman Hesse story of Siddhartha’s jagged path from idealism to disillusionment and, ultimately, wisdom and enlightenment. “Keep Your Stupid Dreams Alive,” the band’s just-released mini-album of all-new material — actually, its first album of any kind, period — nods to that journey. The opening track is even titled “SsydarthurR,” so now you know why. To celebrate the arrival of their new short/long player (available from Burger Records in all formats, including vinyl and cassette: go here http://www.burgerrecords.org/), the Prefabs even have a few album-release shows lined up, beginning next Thursday at the Middle East restaurant and nightclub in Cambridge, MA. (go here for info and tickets: https://www.facebook.com/events/790345927703261/).
To mark this momentous occasion, here’s “RPM”‘s exclusive Q&A conversation with “Trip” and “Xerox,” executed, much like the Messiahs’ own approach, through a mix of old and new-school means. I sat down with “Trip” at a pub near “RPM”‘s HQ, while “Xerox” beamed in via the Interweb from his home in upstate New York, to talk about the Prefabs’ past, present, and — dare we say? — future.
RPM: It’s been 32 years since the last Prefab Messiahs full-length record/album. Did you ever envision back then, that you’d be talking about a new Prefab Messiahs album and shows in 2015?
XEROX: I couldn’t even envision being alive in 2015. You name it and I didn’t envision it. I’m sure I felt we deserved to be famous and change the course of rock history. I think it actually takes a hard-earned degree of “mature perspective” to appreciate what’s actually going on now. Imagine beaming back to 1982 and hanging out with a bunch of other bands and trying to impress them with today’s reality: “You wait, The Prefabs will be releasing a cool EP in 2015!” You wouldn’t ever bother dreaming up this particular level of success. But I’ll take it!
TRIP: We sort of joked around about how well we were going to do. But it was just a joke. We couldn’t see three weeks ahead of us.
RPM: What was the genesis of The Prefab Messiahs and what you guys were trying to do back then? You guys were playing ‘Indie Rock’ before that was even a term – or you even knew what it was.
TRIP: When we started, two of us were 18 and two of us were 20, so we were perched right on the edge of where people say (Baby) Boomer ends and Gene X starts. Also, it was sort of a changeover from classic rock sensibilities to new wave and punk, which of course had already been around for a few years. But as with all movements, they don’t really permeate the suburbs for a few years. It was a time when rules were up for grabs and we didn’t feel like we had to stick to any one thing. We liked the Byrds and psychedelic sounds and the Velvet Underground’s first album. We also liked the energy and newness of punk. But we didn’t just want to fall into being a Clash-sounding band. (Worcester bands) held us in suspicion for a bit because we were the ‘campus kids’ (at Clark University). And there was the inexperience that led to eclecticism. We were feeling our way at an uncertain time, and open to possibilities.
RPM: Is the existence of the band and the new album a case of — to cite the name of your new record — “keeping your stupid dreams alive?” Although I don’t believe any sincerely hoped-for dream is ‘stupid,’ the tone of that title is one of stubborn persistence in the face of adversity or indifference. Is there a kind of nobility and/or creative purity to that insistence, no matter how foolish?
XEROX: Of course there’s a dumpster-load of clichés about ‘following your dreams’ and making them come true and all that. I’ve come to think nobody really has that much control. Then again, if the shoe fits… maybe.
RPM: So, how are you hearing the new ‘maxi EP’ from this vantage point? How do you feel about it, and where do you think it fits in with the band’s history? Is it the middle, the end, or even maybe even a new beginning?
XEROX: To me, it’s pretty much the record the band might have made around 1985, give or take everything that’s happened and we’ve learned in 30 years(!) It seemed surprisingly easy for us to slip back into the old group mindset. The new recordings are both about the band and by the band, so they’re sort of a time-warping homage to those times and about what happened to get us here now.
RPM: Did making it feel like a bit of unfinished business?
TRIP: (The band breaking up) was essentially my fault because I transferred to U-Lowell because things weren’t working out for me at Clark. And I’d decided I wanted to study music at Lowell and we just weren’t able to keep the band together. So it came to an end after I transferred. But I was always pretty nostalgic for (the band) myself and I think I was the only one for awhile (chuckles). But eventually, I think Seth (X) and Mike (Doc Michaud) realized that some people are interested and it’s not just out of pity (chuckles again). I guess I was always the keeper of the torch and those guys eventually came around and said, ‘Y’know we did have something pretty special. Let’s give it another go.’
RPM: What were you after when you made this record? What did you want from it, or out of it?
XEROX: In 2012, thanks to the mysterious machinations of Kris (Trip), our original music finally got noticed and we played some shows and I started wondering if there was a way to pick up where we left off with new music. We all definitely didn’t want to just be some dumb old jam band that would disgrace our legacy of obscure weirdness. But I also felt frustrated about only surviving as an Oldies Act (one that never had any hits or fame to begin with.) I started thinking, ‘What would The Prefab Messiahs be doing today?’ and it seemed like there were some interesting answers. I made a bunch of demo songs and shared them with the band and by the same old mysterious osmosis we eventually settled on what to record. I think we just wanted to see what would happen if we just did what we always wanted to do, if we could.
RPM: This mini-LP/Maxi-EP comes on the heels of some reissues a few years back — including the career-spanning “Devolver” anthology — as well as being back in touch and working with your mentor, (outsider psych cult figure) Bobb Trimble. Did that dovetailing of activities prompt this new surge of writing and recording and this “reunion”?
TRIP: Awhile back, we realized we were coming up on 30 years since we first came together (in 1981), and that we should plan some shows for our anniversary. And we had so much fun doing those four shows (in Cambridge, Worcester, Northampton, and Brooklyn) in 2012, we thought, ‘Wow, that was pretty great. We should try to do something brand new, rather than just keep hashing the same old songs around.’ So the songs actually were recently written, mostly with Seth (Xerox) starting them, recording demos and us playing them for each other online. Also, we had a grandiose idea that we wanted to do something sort of rock opera-ish, so there’s a theme running through it loosely based on Siddhartha, and we wanted to call it Syd Arthur, like (Pink Floyd founder/acid casualty) Syd Barrett blended with (the Kinks’ album) “Arthur.” And then it turned out, there’s this British band with the name spelled exactly the same way!
XEROX: The previous (reissue) releases featured only old music from our original tapes and recordings from (gulp) 1981-82. We didn’t record any new music at that point. But Kris was very involved with helping resurrect appreciation for Bobb, and Kris and Nick (Ned egg) also played bass and drums for Bobb. so it made sense for a Prefab “30 year” reunion too. We’d been friends and supporters of Bobb and part of the same scene back in the day. It was a bit of a revelation to me to see how something obscure and unknown could be appreciated on a level with contemporary music.
RPM: Have you guys remained in contact through the years and/or collaborated with each other?
XEROX: The original line up was me on guitar, Kris (Trip) on bass and Mike (Doc) Michaud on lead guitar. (The Messiahs had a rotating cast of drummers — RPM’s NOTE). So the three of us are still here. I moved to New York City in the mid-’90s and we now live in three different states, but we’ve always stayed in touch, more or less. Mike and I were in a short-lived Prefab v.2 band in Boston in the mid-’80s called The New Improved. But without Kris the dynamics were even less stable than originally. And we’ve all been in bands of all kinds over the years, and supported each others’ various musical adventures.
RPM: You had both Apollo Sunshine’s Jesse Gallagher and Mmoss’ Doug Tuttle on board as engineers for “K.Y.S.D.A”. In a sense, they’re both musicians and artists who work outside the proverbial box. I see them as indirect psych-pop descendants of what you guys were doing 30-plus years ago. Did you feel a kinship or special rapport working with them?
TRIP: I was friends with both of them and they were Prefab fans – definitley Doug was. I remember there was a (promotional) giveaway for one of our vinyl reissues and Doug was one of the winners. At the time, Jesse had his (Nightime Sunshine) studio on the top floor of the Lily Pad (Cambridge club) building. I thought it would be a nice creative, laid back way to capture the new tracks. And then Seth and I ended up mixing it at his place in rural New York.
XEROX: I was excited to work with them because they both make very interesting stuff. Doug’s albums are beautifully produced. They had a very atmospheric little recording studio set up in the eves of this old walk-up in Cambridge. We only had a few days to record the basic tracks, and then because of scheduling (including Doug’s 2014 album release) had to wait months to finish it up. But I think it definitely helped to feel that these two guys were into us. Also, spending time in Boston again (on Kris’ couch) was like revisiting a former life for me — my desperately happy, slacker, shuffling-around days.
RPM: New songs like ‘Bobb’s Psychedelic Car’ and ‘College Radio’ seem drawn from your own experiences and early days as a band. It sounds very much like an autobiographical record.
TRIP: Yeah. That’s actually me singing on ‘Orange Room’ and the paint on the car is the same color I painted my room with. People would say, ‘How can you sleep in it?’ And I’d say, ‘When it’s dark it’s dark!’ There was this black Baptist church in downtown Worcester and we got our clothes down there. And they had a little section of used paint cans sitting around, and I saw that bright orange paint can and said, ‘That’s gotta be good for something!’ So I painted my sneakers, painted my room, painted Bobb’s car.
RPM: Can you talk a bit about your impressions and recollections of the Worcester “Wormtown” music scene of the early ’80s? Where did you guys fit — or not fit — into all of that?
XEROX: It was a tough, gritty, totally unglamorous place and the point of contact between that and a group of shiftless liberal arts college kids was the community radio station WCUW. We met a couple DJs — particularly Brian Goslow who hosted a local punk rock show — and once the concept of DIY music sunk in I was never the same. The Wormtown scene reflected the prevailing imported punk aesthetic and put a lot of emphasis on ‘real kids’ and ‘authenticity’ and ‘local’ so we were never going to really fit in with whatever nonsense that was. But there was also an appealing sense of being part of a small world of underground underdogs. A joke going around was that Worcester was going to be the ‘Paris of the 80’s’. Bands like The Performers and The Nebulas and Bobb Trimble were supportive. The problem was that the Wormtown scene never figured out how to get the attention it maybe deserved. We were as hopeless as anyone. We didn’t even have a car between the four of us for most of the time we were together. (That’s why we would drive around in Bobb’s psychedelic deathtrap!)
TRIP: I think part of what we bonded over was that we felt like we didn’t want to lead the preppy lifestyle on campus. A couple of guys took German Expressionism and literature classes and were very inspired by Dada and Surrealism. So we were outliers of a sort, and we were definitely outliers of the local scene at first. There was a band called the Nebulas that was progressively New Wave, sort of Magazine-ish – they were pretty cool. (DMZ’s) JJ Rassler was there with the Odds at the time. Seth and “Egg Al had put up posters that read something like: Talentless guitarist and drumer seek bassist and guitarist for semi-psychedelic pop. They were a scribbled on posters and Mike and I grabbed them. After a short conversation on the dormitory phone booth with Seth, he said ‘OK you’re approved, let’s get together and play.’
RPM: When the Prefabs started out in the early pre-Internet ’80s, things were very different as far as methods and modes of gaining musical exposure go; mostly through word of mouth, fanzines, college radio, and through gigs like student lounges, basement house parties. Nowadays, it’s such a dramatically different landscape. On the one hand it seems much easier to reach many people via all the social media available. But on the other, there’s also much more saturation, and a barrage of information coming at us constantly. So, in some ways it can be harder to separate the wheat from the chaff, whereas back then, you could rally around a great indie rock/pop band that had ambition, struggled to be heard, and rose from the muck. So I wonder whether it’s easier or harder now to make an impression and/or find an audience than it was 30 years ago? And if it is far easier now for bands, is that necessarily always a good thing?
XEROX: Short answer… I really don’t know. If I could time travel and talk to my former self I could easily give a lot of commonsense advice about how to keep the band going and what to do with it. So I blame youthful stupidity as much as technology for whatever did or didn’t happen to us. But back then you could also easily be a lot more isolated. There was no virtual world to connect with or learn from. Physical location probably mattered a lot more. No googling, no sampling something on YouTube or whatever. Maybe the most interesting thing to me now is the sense that music today sort of exists in the same space at the same time. On iTunes or whatnot you can shuffle around everything from The Prefab Messiahs to Frank Sinatra to Nirvana to The 13 Floor Elevators or whatever and it’s all right there, available and convenient and essentially “equal.” Age and rarity and era and genre isn’t maybe such a big deal. So here’s The Prefab Messiahs, suddenly as fresh as ever.
RPM: Returning to the new stuff, what struck me is that, while nostalgic, the material is not an overly sentimentalized batch of songs. In fact, it’s the opposite: bracing, fresh, and retro at the same time; a juxtaposition of past and present. That’s not an easy balance or dynamic to pull off.
XEROX: Thanks! That’s a great description of exactly what I hoped the songs would sound like.
TRIP: I think when people hear it and appreciate it, it’s going to be like them scratching a weird itch they didn’t know they had. I like to think that when people hear our record, nobody’s going to think that we’re at least as old as their parents (laughs).
RPM: Were you at all worried or concerned at the outset that you would be able to capture (or recapture) the essence and spirit of what you guys were doing back in your 20s? That maybe you couldn’t go back again?
XEROX: That was a concern. In the last few years Kris spent a lot of energy reintroducing our original music to the modern world and was understandably reluctant to risk ruining that vibe (and his own reputation.) Mike is typically more wait and see about things, but I doubt he would travel from Memphis (where he resides) and commit time and energy to something that didn’t seem somehow worthy. I enjoy recording songs but didn’t want to do something that couldn’t specifically resonate as Prefab-ian. But we were never really a normal band. Our self image always involved some wobbly amalgam of grandiose cultural criticism and winking Dadaist cartoon. And ironically/sadly, what might have seemed like naive, youthful cynicism about Reagan-esque America resonates loudly again today. Also, our original recordings had so many accidental and random aspects to how they came out that it left a lot leeway. So it seemed worth a shot. If in the end we thought the new songs weren’t worthy we wouldn’t have released them.
RPM: So what are your plans for the Prefab Messiahs and your hopes this album, both immediate and long-term?
XEROX: I’m just open to seeing whatever happens and doing our best to and seeing how it goes. We’re already discussing a follow-up album concept. Taking it to the next level of evolution. Hopefully that’s a good thing.
TRIP: I think we all wished we lived closer to one another (to play and record), but there’s more than one way to be a band. I guess the sexiest way is to be 20-something and play 40 or 50 shows a year and criss-cross the country. We’re in a different position, but it still feels valid to us.
RPM: How has your work and time with the Prefab Messiahs influenced and impacted your creative/artistic life since? Has it played a role in terms of your outlook and perspective, musical or otherwise?
XEROX: I joke about it with Kris and Mike now. The truth is for many years I wasn’t able to appreciate The Prefab Messiahs. It seemed like a total failure at the time. We released no records, we never even headlined a show at a club. As far as I can recall nobody was begging us to continue. We were stuck in Worcester, Massachusetts. I clearly didn’t understand how to appreciate the reality and see it as a process. So for years I never even mentioned The Prefabs even as I kept making music and artwork and animation and whatnot. It’s funny to think that it took so many years to learn a lesson from The Prefab Messiahs. All you can do is just make stuff, do what you want the best you can, and it might connect with people and still mean something to you decades later.
RPM: Who do you think your audience is?
TRIP: It’s funny that here are people our age, in our 50’s, doing something that ‘Burger Nation’ (a nickname for supporters of the cassette-centric “Burger Records” label, which released K.Y.S.D.A) intersects with. I think our audience are largely 20-somethings who like hearing new music and like going to shows. I guess that’s always the case. Those are the people who are on the lookout for things. People my age (52) psyche themselves out to making new, young friends. And that’s kind of the way to keep going. If you’re only communicating with people your own age, you’re going to be communicating with people who are going out less and less, and you’ll be playing to small crowds and that’s disappointing. But I’m always on the lookout to meeting people of any age who share my hunger for new sounds. Too often, guys our age are at a point where they think they have to find their inner Bob Dylan or something like that. Nothing against Bob Dylan, but we already have a Bob Dylan (laughs).
RPM: And Bob Dylan does Dylan pretty well. From the vantage point of 2015, how close a connection do you still feel to your old material and your 20-year-old Prefab self?
TRIP: I’m very close to it, but the new stuff is much more well recorded. The old stuff was recorded in so many different situations that when we put together the anthology (“Devolver”) it couldn’t help but have this amazing, scrapbook feel that lets you follow us around to different rooms and weekends. I feel a connection to the ‘us’ of then. We were poor as church mice but we were having the time of our lives. And I really like what we’re doing now because we’re pulling from this long, strange history of having laid this weird egg 30 years ago. And now it’s hatching again.
Grab yourself a burger, er, some Messiahs here: http://burgerrecords.11spot.com/the-prefab-messiahs-keep-your-stupid-dreams-alive-10.html
For digital formats, visit the Prefabs Bandcamp: https://theprefabmessiahs.bandcamp.com/album/keep-your-stupid-dreams-alive