Something Lost, Something Found:
Glenn Phillips Reflects on His Fiery First Musical Memoir
It’s been forty years since the release of Lost At Sea, guitarist Glenn Phillips’ first solo album. Forty years! That means it’s been that long since I interviewed him for my high school newspaper, Phillips being the first local Atlanta musician I interviewed. Ever.
It doesn’t seem like just yesterday that I was ready to graduate. Thankfully, it seems more like six or seven lifetimes ago. But the music on Lost At Sea sounds just as fresh, just as new, just as real as when I first took it home and listened to it in my parents’ basement four decades ago.
I’ve always heard Lost At Sea as a triumphant record. Not one of good over evil, nor one of joy over tragedy, which it most certainly is, but one of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. When you think you have nothing left, the will to break through, to create something better, on your own terms, wins out. It’s that “do it yourself” attitude that fuels Lost At Sea, DIY before there was DIY, independence from the norm, from the expected, indeed, from the required.
In 1975, no one was releasing their own records by themselves. Bands were looking to get signed by a major label at best, or a regional label at least. Having gone the major label route with the release of the Hampton Grease Band’s Music To Eat on Columbia Records, Phillips knew that to make the record he wanted, he had to do it on his own terms. By himself. Phillips recorded the album at home in his small, two-room Brookhaven duplex, produced it himself, pressed it himself and distributed it himself. The release of Lost At Sea pre-dated the independent label Stiff Records in England and the many indie records punk spawned, including The B-52’s “Rock Lobster” and “Radio Free Europe” by R.E.M. Lost At Sea was before punk, but, by it’s very nature, was punk. It certainly was different from anything else you could find in a record store at the time. An instrumental album, it was raw and visceral – and just as emotionally charged as any record with a vocalist. It roared with the thunder of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run, and gave guitarist Jeff Beck’s Blow By Blow a run for its money, two albums it shared shelf space with in record stores the first year of its release, but certainly didn’t share near the recording nor advertising budget.
To mark the anniversary of the landmark album, which certainly influenced local musicians in Atlanta and elsewhere to record and release records on their own, as well as to inspire others to follow their heart and not let their dreams die, Phillips’ Snow Star Records, in conjunction with Shagrat Records in the U.K. and Feeding Tube in the U.S., is releasing a 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition double vinyl set of Lost At Sea, featuring a flat transfer of the original analog master along with a second LP of previously-unreleased pre- and post-Lost At Sea recordings. In addition, Phillips will be performing Lost At Sea in it’s entirety, for the first time ever, reuniting with original recording musicians Mike Holbrook (bass); Jim “Mad Dog” Presmanes (drums); Bill Rea (acoustic guitar); and John Carr Harriman (cello); Saturday, May 30th, at the Red Clay Music Foundry.
In case you haven’t been paying attention the last forty years, or just graduated from high school yourself, Phillips and I discussed his career. I started:
The history of the Hampton Grease Band is as much legend as it is rumor, even though you attempted to set the record straight in the liner notes that accompanied the 1996 re-release of Music To Eat on CD. One “fact” fans of the record like to cite is that it is “the second worst selling album in Columbia Records’ history,” as if that in itself is a badge of honor. Was that the case?
A few months after the record was released, we were told by Columbia that it was their second worst seller, beaten only by a yoga record. Over time, that story has mistakenly been repeated as it being the second worst seller of all time, which given the fact that this took place 44 years ago, may not be the case. It was an extremely poor seller (at the time). The sales people at Columbia didn’t know what to make of the record, and as a result, some of them marketed it to stores as a comedy album, where it was filed alongside Don Rickles and Bill Cosby.
There’s the rumor that a second Hampton Grease Band album was recorded for Frank Zappa’s Bizarre/Straight label but never released.
Zappa was a fan and supporter of the band. His involvement with us dates back to 1967, when he recorded a conversation with some of us that was later used on his LP Lumpy Gravy. After Music to Eat came out in ’71, Zappa and Duane Allman convinced Bill Graham to book us at the Fillmore East, even though Graham had never seen or heard the band. We played there June 5th and 6th, 1971, with Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, the weekend that John Lennon and Yoko Ono sat in with them.
At one point that weekend, Frank asked me if I’d give him a guitar lesson in his dressing room. I was taken aback and told him he didn’t need any guitar lessons from me, but he said he wanted help with his picking technique. He told me that when he played fast runs, he did it with hammer-ons and pull-offs and that he wanted to learn how I was able to pick all the notes when I played fast.
Columbia dropped us not long afterwards, at which point Frank signed us, but we broke up before the second album was recorded. Bruce had heard the Mothers were looking for a new vocalist, and he decided to leave the Grease band and audition for Zappa in California, but he didn’t get the job.
Little Feat’s Lowell George was also a very early supporter of your guitar playing. The quote that you are “the most amazing guitarist” he’d ever seen is still a point of reference in articles about you. In fact, George tried to get you signed to Warner Bros. Records before you released Lost At Sea on your own.
I met Lowell in 1970, the first time Little Feat played in Atlanta. Grease Band drummer Jerry Fields [and I] had a side project group called the Stump Brothers, and we opened up for them. Lowell loved the band, and he and I became friends. After that, he’d call me when Little Feat was in town and ask me to sit in with them.
Before I recorded Lost At Sea, Lowell took a tape of me to Warner Bros. and sold them on the idea of signing me, and Lowell was going to produce the album. Then Herb Cohen heard about it. Technically, I was still signed to his and Frank Zappa’s company because of the Hampton Grease Band deal, even though Herb hadn’t spoken to me in a year, and he and Zappa were no longer partners. At the time, Herb was involved in lawsuits with both Zappa and Warner Bros., and he had an extremely combative relationship with both of them. Because of that, Herb told Warner’s that they couldn’t do anything with me unless they were willing to buy out my contract, which he’d let them have for $100,000. That was the end of my deal with Warner Bros.
There was certainly a pioneering spirit to your recording and releasing Lost At Sea on your own. Was it a bigger challenge than you expected?
Prior to Lost At Sea, I’d never heard of anyone putting out a record on their own. Of course, that doesn’t mean it hadn’t been done before that, but it certainly wasn’t as commonplace as it became a few years later.
Most people I talked to at the time thought the idea was kind of nuts, and the fact that I had no money, no professional recording equipment, no band, and no record deal didn’t exactly sell anybody on it. So yes, it was much more difficult to do it on your own back then than it is now, but thankfully, not impossible.
In the original liner notes to Lost at Sea, you mention your father’s suicide as a catalyst for making the album. Yet the songs themselves were inspired by living friends (including Lenore Thompson, pictured with Glenn at left).
While the writing of every song on Lost At Sea wasn’t initially inspired by my father’s suicide, the performance of those songs was definitely driven by the emotional struggle I was going through at the time. That record was motivated by my effort to turn a traumatic event into something positive.
When I made Lost At Sea, my intent was to hopefully create emotional instrumental music that was timeless and would retain its meaning over the years, regardless of trends or fashion. Ever since then, I’ve always thought of my solo albums as a sort of an instrumental musical memoir. On the other hand, I do enjoy working with lyricists and have made two albums with Jeff Calder under the name Supreme Court And of course, there was the Grease Band, where myself and Harold Kelling painstakingly wrote all of the band’s music, while our lyrics were usually an afterthought. “Halifax” is a good example of our convoluted songwriting process: I had written a ridiculously complicated 20-minute piece of music which the band labored over for weeks on end. Then it dawned on us that there were no lyrics. So I pulled an encyclopedia off the wall, opened it to a random page, and told Bruce, “Here, sing this,” while I extracted random parts of the text about Halifax and combined that with whatever words came to mind to make it all fit into the song’s melody line. Even back then, my main focus was always on the music.
Your playing style has evolved over the years. Recently you told me that while rehearsing for the upcoming 40th anniversary show for Lost At Sea, you had to “relearn” how to play guitar like you did on that record. What guitarists have been an influence on you and your playing?
I started playing guitar in 1966, at the age of 16. When the Grease Band recorded Music to Eat in 1970, I had only been playing for four years. When I think of influential guitarists from that era, Mike Bloomfield is at the top of the list. In fact, when we first started the Hampton Grease Band, we thought of ourselves as a blues group and the reason we put Bruce Hampton’s last name together with “Grease” was because we were following in the footsteps of our idols, the Butterfield Blues Band, who were named after their vocalist.
Although Bloomfield’s not as widely known today as someone like Hendrix, in his heyday, he was justifiably considered the most influential guitarist of his generation. The first Butterfield album opened up a whole new world to middle class suburban white kids. The intensity of the band’s music drew us in like moths to a light, and once we were drawn in, we kept going deeper and deeper into the history of the blues. That led not only to the discovery of a world of great music, but also to a social awareness of how sheltered our lives had been.
Likewise, Bloomfield’s playing on Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited album was key to the development of folk rock, and his improvisational thirteen minute title cut on Butterfield’s second album, East West, was the blueprint for the entire jam rock movement. Go back and listen to the debut album of just about any California psychedelic band of the era, and you’ll hear his influence on their lead guitarists, you know, Jerry Garcia with the Grateful Dead, John Cipollina in Quicksilver Messenger Service, Barry Melton with Country Joe and the Fish, even Carlos Santana and others. Of course, these were all great guitarists who evolved into unique players with their own voice, but Bloomfield was undeniably their touchstone, just as he was for [Grease Band guitarist] Harold [Kelling] and myself.
After you released Lost At Sea, the record caught the attention of Virgin Records’ Richard Branson in London, due in no small part to the legendary DJ John Peel playing it weekly on his radio program. Subsequently, Lost At Sea was re-released on Virgin’s Caroline label in the U.K., where you supported it with a tour.
I’m forever grateful to Virgin for flying us overseas for that fifteen-city tour with Steve Hillage. Those shows were in concert halls and finished up at the Rainbow Theater in London, but before the tour, we did a couple of warm-up club dates: one at the legendary Marquee club, and another with the Troggs. They were known for their big hit “Wild Thing,” and also for an infamous bootleg tape of them bitching and moaning in the recording studio. We shared a dressing room with them, and I got to hear some of their grousing first hand. I was sitting alone in the dressing room, when their guitarist, whom I’d never met, came in and started complaining. “Every goddamn, bloody, fuckin’ night, it’s the same, shitty-ass set – I tell you I can’t take it anymore. We’ve played the same, bloody, fuckin’ awful songs for thirteen years.” As he ranted, he took off his street clothes and changed into some high-heeled boots, tight pants, and a strategically torn, tiger-striped rock ‘n’ roll shirt, which was cut off just above his protruding midsection. Then he turned to me and asked, “How do I look, mate?”
It was an interesting time to be in England, especially for someone like yourself, associated with a label that had releases by both Mike Oldfield and the Sex Pistols.
We were in London when Virgin released the Sex Pistols album during the Queen’s Jubilee Anniversary week. It was all very patriotic, and because of that, the Sex Pistols’ controversial single, “God Save the Queen,” was banned from the radio. Regardless, the album and the single both shot straight to number one, and I very much related to the band’s fiery, independent spirit.
The punk movement in England felt like a spontaneous, kinetic explosion of rebellious, youthful energy. Curiously, the thing that reminded me most of London’s ’70s punk scene was America’s ’60s hippie movement, which of course, the punks detested. In any case, I felt lucky to have had a ringside seat at both – it was like watching an ominous, awe-inspiring, thunderstorm unfold before your eyes.
The four previously-unreleased songs on the pre-Lost At Sea side of the bonus record of the Deluxe Edition were recorded with a different band. In fact, those were the recordings you first played for Lowell George at your home in Brookhaven, which he then took to Warner Bros. “Second Time Around” is as powerful as anything on the original album, yet it didn’t make the cut. What happened?
I love that track as well, and we tried rerecording it with the Lost At Sea band, but it didn’t work out. As a result I ended up replacing it with the live recording of “Hubbler.” The band that played on side one of the bonus album was John Durham on rhythm guitar, Mark Richardson on bass, myself, and Jim Presmanes on drums.
That material was recorded six months prior to Lost At Sea, and at the time, the four of us were playing out under the name Buckhead. By the time I recorded Lost At Sea, Buckhead had broken up, and John, Mark and Jim went on to form Private Jet, which was one of the greatest bands to come out of Atlanta. They used to play Hedgen’s, and to be honest, they sounded better without me.
The four songs on the post-Lost At Sea side of the record feature the Lost At Sea musicians (pictured with Glenn at left, during a break in recording the album at his Brookhaven home) augmented with David Byrd. The songs show the different direction your music was taking, like the early versions of “Creeper” and “Sex Is So Strange,” which appeared on Swim In The Wind, yet they have more of an edge. Did you deliberately decide to reign them in once you started recording the second album?
The different direction the songs took was a result of changes in the band personnel. When Jim Presmanes left, Doug Landsberg started playing with us – they’re both great drummers who contributed enormously to the music, but they’re also completely different in style. On top of that, Dave Byrd’s involvement in the group was lessening due to family and work issues, and as we adapted to those factors, the music changed.
Your most recent solo album, 2003’s Angel Sparks, also reflects on the death of a parent. Do you see Lost At Sea and Angel Sparks as being connected?
Those two albums were very connected in my mind. While Lost At Sea was about my father’s suicide, Angel Sparks was done a few decades later at the time of mother’s death, at which point I saw things very differently. When my dad killed himself, it was the most traumatic experience of my life, but looking back on it all those years later, I saw it as the thing that had most positively affected the way I’d lived and the choices I’d made along the way. When children learn from their parent’s mistakes, they stop being mistakes – at that point, they become the most important gift a parent can give their child. That realization had changed my feelings about their lives, as well as my own.
What would you say best describes your approach to creating music?
}My approach has always been intuitive, and it’s motivated by an effort to find some kind of truth both in the music and in myself. It doesn’t lend itself well to marketing because the music that comes out isn’t easily classifiable, but that’s a price I’m happy to pay. For me, the unrestricted creative process is its own greatest reward.
The intuitive approach has remained the same over those five decades, but as I’ve changed, so has the music. For me, listening back to my earlier albums is like looking back through a photo scrapbook. When I see pictures of myself taken over the years, I always look a little different, but it’s always obvious it’s me, and the albums are the same way.
Making each album over the years has been like holding a mirror up to who I am. And of course, the hope is that the process helps make you a better person along the way.