Bob Mehr, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee Published 11:57 a.m. CT April 11, 2018
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.”
On April 21, Sansone will join John Medeski of Medeski, Martin & Wood, and Memphis musicians Robby Grant and Jonathan Kirkscey in a unique four-man Mellotron performance at Crosstown Arts. The concert is part of a free multi-day festival celebrating the instrument called Mellotron Variations.
Mellotron Variations is a sequel and expansion of an event originally created by Grant and Winston Eggleston in 2016. Eggleston — son of the famed photographer William Eggleston, and manager of the Eggleston Artistic Trust — is a longtime Mellotron collector, who has bought, built or restored a dozen different versions of the instrument, including one formerly owned by Deep Purple’s Jon Lord.
In April of 2016, Eggleston’s collection was used in a concert called “Duets for Mellotron” at Crosstown Arts. Grant (Big Ass Truck, Vending Machine, Mouserocket) and Memphis Symphony Orchestra cellist and noted film composer Kirkscey performed a set of original compositions and released a live recording of the material.
The event was an overwhelming success, with ticket demand requiring a second show, which also sold out. “That was shocking,” says Grant. “We went from the idea of doing a show for some friends in Winston’s den, to maybe doing a show at Crosstown – then we sold out both shows. We were surprised by that and the music we created too. We were very happy with where we ended up, with the performance and the record we made.”
This past year, Crosstown Arts helped Grant and Eggleston secure an interdisciplinary arts grant from the NEA to develop Mellotron Variations. In addition to the four-man Mellotron performance (which will feature visual/video accompaniment created by Eggleston and John Markham), the program will showcase Mellotron-based collaborations between Human Radio’s Ross Rice and the New Ballet, composer Robert Patterson and members of the Memphis Symphony, and the premiere of a Mellotron musical film featuring keyboardist Audie Smith.
The history of the Mellotron and the related Chamberlin, is a rich one. In the late 1940s, Harry Chamberlin invented the first keyboard-style sampling machine using pre-recorded tapes of various musical instruments and effects. These “Chamberlins,” which began production a couple of years later, were the forerunners of modern samplers.
In the ’60s, an associate of Chamberlin took the concept overseas to a British electronics company with the thought of developing the technology further. The resulting Mellotron would soon become a staple of the era’s pop music, made famous by the Beatles, The Moody Blues, Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis and Led Zeppelin, among many others. Locally, Beatles-influenced Ardent Studios owner John Fry became the first to purchase a Mellotron in Memphis, and the instrument was used to notable effect by cult rockers Big Star (and later revived for recordings at the Midtown studio by R.E.M. and others.).
The instrument takes pre-recorded sounds — violins, cellos, flutes, choirs, horns — and deploys them from a keyboard setup. As Mellotron scholar Donald Tillman notes, “The Mellotron uses a strip of magnetic tape, a pinch roller, tape head, pressure pad, and a rewind mechanism for each note on the keyboard. To our modern day technological sensibilities this cumbersome mechanical contraption seems kludgy as can be, especially as you're watching the tape rewind operation, but the fact is that no modern technology keyboard can come close to the quality of presence so characteristic of the Mellotron sound. Why is this? Because the tape playback mechanism is the musical instrument.”
“When you turn a Mellotron on it’s like starting a car,” says Sansone. “There’s lots of stuff moving around and spinning around and clunking, there’s a lot happening to create these ghostly sounds. There’s a real-world mechanism happening in that box.”
Playing the Mellotron is an art in itself — one dictated by the limitations of the machine. “One of the main things that’s tricky, or is a part of the learning curve of playing one, is that you have a limited amount of time you can hold onto each note,” says Sansone. “Each piece of tape only plays for about 7 or 8 seconds, they don’t actually loop. When you play a key you’re actually just playing a piece of tape and when you let off that key the tape immediately rewinds to go back to the start. So, if you’re doing things that need a lot of sustain, you have to learn how to fake that with your technique. That’s part of the challenge of it. There’s nuances and tricks to it.”
With the arrival of the first digital samplers in the 1980s, like the Fairlight, the Mellotron quickly began to fall out of favor. By the middle of the decade, further technological advances in samplers and synthesizers had effectively put Mellotron makers on both sides of the Atlantic out of business.
For Sansone, his experience with the Mellotron is inextricably linked to Memphis: the first time he saw one in person was in the mid-‘90s while working at Midtown’s Ardent Studios, and first time played one was a few years later at Easley McCain Recording. “If you find an old Mellotron in a studio, usually they’re in some state of disrepair – they’re famously temperamental machines,” says Sansone, chuckling.
By the mid-‘90s, the instrument had gained a kind of retro cachet and Mellotron manufacturing was relaunched in the 2000s by a Swedish-Canadian company that acquired the rights to the name, original tape sounds and patents.
“Sometime in the late-‘90s, the Mellotron and the Chamberlin, those sounds started popping up on a lot of new records," says Sansone. "That sound was becoming part of the pop vocabulary again. Recordings that Jon Brion did, or Patrick Warren who worked with Michael Penn and Fiona Apple, there was a Los Angeles art pop production style that incorporated the Mellotron and Chamberlin. It’s a sound that I’ve been utilizing on most things I’ve done the last 20 years as well.”
As a member of Chicago post-rockers Wilco, Sansone has used the instrument regularly live and on record. Eight years ago, Wilco bought one of the new tape Mellotrons from Sweden — and Sansone even recorded some custom sounds for the machine that are now commercially available.
“We have one of the new tape-based Mellotrons at the Wilco studio, and for live shows we take one of the smaller digital machines with us, which are also great. For this upcoming (Mellotron Variations) performance we're using a combination of vintage tape Mellotrons, newly built tape Mellotrons, and some digital Mellotrons.”
The concert from Sansone, Medeski, Grant and Kirkscey will be made up almost exclusively of new material the quartet has composed. “Earlier this year, we spent a few days playing ideas, playing off each other,” says Grant. “The way we were composing was really just jamming.”
Adds Sansone: “But because you have all these sounds, these orchestral textures, it’s like orchestral jamming, in way. It’s fun to be able spontaneously throw a big choir into the mix, or a string section or woodwinds, or whatever you want on a whim.”
Grant says that the upcoming show will be recorded, though there are no definite plans for its release. He also hopes to perform Mellotron concerts outside of Memphis – although given how heavy and delicate the instruments are to transport it’s a major undertaking. “But we might try and do some special events or festivals down the line,” says Grant.
In the meantime, local audiences will get a chance to hear multiple Mellotrons performing in way that’s never happened before.
“It’s actually the first time I’ve ever performed with other Mellotrons,” says Sansone. “If I’m on a recording session or even with Wilco, I’m the Mellotron guy. But this is the first time being part of an ensemble of Mellotron players. It’s going to be really exciting.”