On this episode of Memphis Musicology, we sit down with musicians Robby Grant and Jonathan Kirkscey to talk about their new album Mellotron Variations, a collection of original songs performed on obscure electro-mechanical keyboards known as mellotrons. We also survey the 2019 Memphis Music Hall of Fame class, who will be inducted in a ceremony on November 8th.
Long before sampling (which came of age in the early '80s), there was the Mellotron in the '60s. It's a brilliant contraption, an instrument with a traditional-looking keyboard, but one that triggers tape loops. Those loops might be strings, or horns flutes and more. On this new album, Mellotron Variations, John Medeski, Pat Sansone, Jonathan Kirkscey & Robby Grant form a Mellotron quartet. This song,"Pulsar," from Mellotron Variations, is out now, with a film from the group's 2018 performance coming very soon.
By Alex Greene
Regular readers of these pages already know about a particular musical niche in which Memphis has lately played a pivotal role: the Mellotron revival, which has slowly been gathering steam over the last two decades.
Collector and enthusiast Winston Eggleston, son of famed photographer William Eggleston, has instigated concerts featuring the 1960s-era keyboard, which uses analog tape loops to eerily recreate the sounds of real instruments and even whole bands at the push of a key. So far, the culmination of this has been the stunning Mellotron Variations concert in April 2018 at Crosstown Arts, in which local players Robby Grant and Jonathan Kirkscey were joined by Pat Sansone (Wilco) and John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood), presenting semi-improvised original pieces that showed off the evocative range of multiple Mellotrons being played at once.
A musical whim in Memphis has turned into a full-blown all-star project called Mellotron Variations, whose "Pulsar" from the upcoming self-titled debut album is premiering exclusively below.
Mellotron Variations was created by Robby Grant of the band Vending Machine, who recruited classical musician Jonathan Kirkscey in 2016 for a duo concert for Memphis' nonprofit Crosstown Arts. The initial collaboration was recorded and distributed in a limited edition, which was also used to apply for a $20,000 NEA grant for multi-disciplinary performances, which helped spur a multi-day Mellotron Variations festival during April of 2018, adding Wilco's Pat Sansone and John Medeski to the lineup.
When I opened the press release for this upcoming album release that was accompanied by a live set at Wilco’s Solid Sound Festival at MASS MoCA, there was one word that caught my interest: Mellotron. The instrument is similar in artistry and the complicatedness of a synthesizer, but not to put them in the same category when it comes to uniqueness.
"When I'm playing a real Mellotron, it's like I'm playing ghosts," says Pat Sansone, multi-instrumentalist for Wilco, who's in town for a series of concerts this week. It's not a comment you would hear about many instruments, but the Mellotron is unique. Its immediate precursor was the Chamberlin, in which strips of audio tape triggered by a keyboard could mimic various orchestral instruments. When a Chamberlin employee absconded to England with two of the machines in 1962, he created his own consumer-oriented model, and the Mellotron was born. The new instrument, using lower fidelity recordings, tended to color the sound of the instruments with its own warble and woof. Before long, it was appearing on records by the Beatles, the Kinks, and others.
For Pat Sansone, the mysterious, ethereal and beautiful sounds of the instrument known as the Mellotron captured him early on.
“I’m sure it came from my love for the Beatles as a kid. ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ which has that famous Mellotron intro, is one of the masterpieces of recorded music,” says Sansone, a member of Wilco and co-founder of The Autumn Defense. “From the very beginning, I’ve always been fascinated by the haunting quality of the Mellotron. It’s a such a deep instrument -- it’s been an obsession for a long time.”
For Winston Eggleston, his obsession with the Mellotron — the keyboard-based sampling instrument — began with the Beatles.
"As a kid, I was obsessed with the song 'Strawberry Fields.' I knew every part of it, and as soon as I figured out that flute at the beginning was not actually a flute but a Mellotron, I became fascinated by what they were," says Eggleston. "I'd hear other songs and wonder what certain weird sounds were — and it always turned out to be a Mellotron. It's just got that haunting quality that I was drawn to. I'd always fantasize about maybe eventually having my own."