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The Pillbugs Hi-def psychedelic pop

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'We were never trying to make it big The Pillbugs' music was made to create a great listening experience for ourselves and to share it with others. If it made money, that would be great too, but it never really has. That's OK; we need people out there like that too.' Mark Mikel of The Pillbugs

I propose the radical notion that the finest of all psychedelic pop-rock bands did not originate in England or San Francisco, nor did they record in the 60s. Many legendary bands have tinkered with psychedelic music, but very few made the commitment for their entire body of work. For my money, the band leading the psych-pop pack in terms of quality and consistency was a quintet from Toledo called The Pillbugs, who released five albums of superbly-crafted songs bursting with uncommon beauty (two of them double CDs) between 1998 and 2008.

Think of Ray Davies's songwriting for The Kinks from 1967-1969 or The Zombies' songs on 'Odessey and Oracle' combined with Phish and Gov't Mule-caliber musicianship, and you have an approximation of The Pillbugs experience.

Original Pillbugs CDs routinely trade on eBay for $100 or more, but the music is now available for a fraction of that price as high definition downloads, meticulously transferred from the first generation two-track master tapes by head Pillbug Mark Mikel. The new Hi-Def 24bit (also available in 320 kbps MP3) downloads present the band's music in the finest sound quality possible.

Mikel admits that he can't tell the difference between the master tape and the new hi-res downloads. 'It's just as warm and beautiful,' he says. The Pillbugs' catalog, beginning with a generous 47 track best-of, is available at ThePillbugs.BandCamp.Com where listeners can check out the music for free. 'It's like a Godsend, really. I have this vault of music and I thought, Why not make it available again and do it right?'' Mikel told me.

The rock history books are full of bands that toyed with psychedelic rock at some point. Beck, R.E.M., Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, U2 they've all taken an occasional sonic side-road either as a laugh or, as in the case of XTC's moonlighting escapade as The Dukes of Stratosphear, a loving homage. But psychedelic pop-rock was The Pillbugs' method of operation from the beginning.

'For me, it's very hard not to make music that's not really of that style it's in my DNA,' Mikel said. 'If people start with the first Pillbugs album (1998), they hear full-force psychedelia.'

'Everybody has a different idea in their mind of what psychedelic music' really is,' Mikel said. 'It might be psychedelic like the Grateful Dead or Pink Floyd or Syd Barrett or Sgt. Pepper.' We couldn't find enough albums in that genre, and we thought we'd fill that void. We found out later that we were part of a big underground movement.'

In the summer of 1999, just over one year after the release of The Pillbugs' 32-track double album debut, they received some shocking news. Mark Mikel still becomes emotional as he looks back on that time and the personal struggle fought by the band's bassist and founding member. 'Mark Kelley was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer,' Mikel told me with grief evident in his voice. 'It was behind his lungs and interfered with his lungs. It grew around the nerves and went from the lungs to the brain. The radiation and chemo tore him down. Who knows what would have happened if he hadn't gone through that?'

Mikel produced and wrote or co-wrote most of The Pillbugs' songs, but he says that Mark Kelley was the heart and soul of the band. 'He was probably really the leader of the group in ways that none of us really saw,' he said. Throughout his illness, even in a wheelchair, Kelley contributed to Pillbugs recordings, culminating in the 2007 double album that many consider their masterpiece, 'Buzz for Aldrin.' Mark Kelley passed away on May 3, 2008, at age 45, while the band was putting the finishing touches on what turned out to be their final album, 'Everybody Wants a Way Out.'

After 'Way Out,' The Pillbugs parted and Mikel took a break before forming a new group, Dark Ocean Colors, with frequent collaborator Scott Hunt. A self-titled debut album was issued last autumn on the Rainbow Quartz label, and a new EP is available for download now on the BandCamp site.

The Pillbugs are a wonderful example of what happens when sublime songwriting meets masterful production and musicianship. Treat your ears and heart and give them a listen.

Mark Mikel has spent the last few months carefully restoring The Pillbugs' catalog in high-definition digital glory. Because he insisted on recording the band's music on expensive analogue tape, it's been a delicate process. Over time tape deteriorates, and with some of the recordings he found that frequent head cleanings were mandatory. 'With the earlier albums, the tapes were sticking and flaking,' Mikel said. 'I could transfer about 20 seconds, then I'd have to stop and clean the heads, put the tape back on, transfer another 20 seconds and then stop it again. Luckily, with digital editing, it's easy to join it all together to where you can't tell where those edits are, but it was painstaking at the time.'

While the band's output was previously issued by three different labels (one of them their own), the rights to the Pillbugs' material have recently reverted to Mark Mikel, whose immediate goal is to make all of it available again. 'For the first time, I actually have the legal rights to sell it and I'm happy about that,' he said. He admits that listening to the master tapes again has been an emotional experience at times. 'This process has brought back a flood of feelings and memories,' he told me. 'I realized that this is good stuff, and people need to hear it.'

From the time they formed, Mark Mikel has been clear that The Pillbugs were a collective unit even though he may be the member most closely identified with the name. The rest of the band made essential contributions to their recordings and live performances, and I asked him to share his thoughts about each of them.

Mark Kelley: (bass/vocals)

Mikel: He formed the band Mark was the one who called me initially and said, 'Hey, let's get together and form a group and we'll play your songs.' I said, 'Really? You want to play my songs?' He said, 'Yeah, I think people will like your songs and I have a drummer too.' He brought in Dan Chalmers and I brought in a friend named Glenn Blattner. The four of us formed that band and we played covers in addition to my songs.

When Mark passed, we found out how much he really did because in a way, I think we took him for granted when he was around. He was probably really the leader of the group in ways that none of us really saw. He took care of everything and made sure everything was right.

Mark Kelley was originally a drummer he was a great musician who could play a lot of different instruments. He took up the bass and filled that role for us. He became very good on bass and he started to become a great writer too just before he passed. You can hear it on 'Happy Birthday' (the third Pillbugs album, issued in 2004) which features the last compositions he wrote.

(Note: On 'North of Reality,' co-written by Kelley, the final song on the last Pillbugs album, 'Everybody Wants a Way Out,' Mark Mikel faded in Kelley's original demo of the song near the end of the recording. 'It's like he's back for a couple of measures and then he's gone again,' Mikel said.)

Dan Chalmers (drums/vocals)

Mikel: Dan has always been one of the greatest guys, 'right from the get go.' He is always willing to go above and beyond to get the part right. He wanted to be my drummer, I think. I was a drummer and he knew he had to be good for me to want to use him instead me drumming on all of my songs. The zeal he always had for the music was completely invaluable to me. Mark and Dan both wanted to play my music and were enthusiastic about it 'Let's do it!' - and that really got me going. Dan Chalmers he was definitely the rock. The guy can play all night long. I don't understand how he can do it with the amount of energy he played with.

Scott Tabner (guitar)

Mikel: With Scott's new solo album ('Last Summer on Earth' is also available on the BandCamp website), you can hear what he brought to The Pillbugs. Scott is my oldest friend I've known him since I was about 6 years old. We were in 'pretend' bands together when we were kids, and we grew into a real band together called Marikesh. We lost our way for a little while, and then he came and joined The Mark Mikel Hallucination, which became The Pillpugs. I love him.

Dave Murnen (percussion/vocals)

Mikel: Dave is hilarious an incredibly funny and talented guy. Dave is about six years younger than I am. He's an incredible talent who can do anything vocals, lyrics if you need lyrics for a song, Davey will have them for you in five minutes. He'll just sing them 'OK, here you go. That's it!' (laughing) We were really lucky to have him, but I don't think he ever felt fulfilled in his role as a percussionist in The Pillbugs. I think now, in hindsight, he realizes how valuable he was.

A Q&A with Mark Mikel

Dow: Choosing a band name is almost always a tricky thing. Did you come with the name The Pillbugs?

Mikel: Mark Mikel: Yeah, it was one of those puns - kind of like The Beatles but with a slightly trippy aspect to it. Remember the 'Gilligan's Island' episode when that rock band The Mosquitoes showed up and the girls formed a group called The Honeybees (laughing)? It was just kind of an inside joke we couldn't come up with a better name.

Dow: Is it true that, for the first concert you played as The Pillbugs in 1997, you covered The Beatles' 'Abbey Road' in its entirety?

Mikel: Yeah, that's true. We did that in Bowling Green, Ohio a college town. We always took the weird way starting with a limited edition CD called 'Blatant Rip-Offs' it was us covering the songs of other bands from the Toledo area. Then we did our first album - a double CD with 32 songs designed to be more psychedelic than anything anyone's ever heard. It seems like we were always trying to set some kind of precedent.

Dow: How many shows did the band play over the years?

Mikel: Not as many as you might think. We probably only played about 50 shows under the name The Pillbugs, but they were always kind of big shows. We opened for E.L.O. and Peter Frampton when they came to town those were great shows. I remember Bev Bevan (E.L.O. drummer) needed a floor tom and Dan Chalmers lent his to Bev. I was watching their show and thinking, 'Dan's floor tom sounds just like the floor tom on the E.L.O. record!' (laughing) It was amazing how they got their sounds.

We played the International Pop Overthrow festival several times and did shows in L.A. , New York City and Chicago for a show. That festival is put on by David Bash (for the past 14 years, Bash has been gathering some of his favorite Beatles-influenced bands to play showcases in various cities around the world). That L.A. show in 2001 did a lot for us. Mark Kelley was on his honeymoon and came to L.A. from Hawaii. I drove out with Scott Tabner. Dan and Dave took a plane. It was a unifying experience to go through that together as a band. We were just these local guys having fun in a recording studio, so it was kind of cool to do those shows.

Dow: When you went through the master tapes for these new HD downloads and listened to the music you guys created, did any memories come back of the sessions?

Mikel: Oh yeah it's funny, I remember little things that happened when we were recording them. Like Mark Kelley scowling at me when we recorded 'And as The Days Go By' because I had his Martin (guitar) and I was playing the 'diddle-iddle-iddle-iddle' section on the neck to get that sound and he was so worried about his guitar. It was just one take because Lord knows I was never going to be able to do it again (laughing).

Dow: The first of the new downloads was the 47-track 'best of.' How did you decide which songs would make the cut for that?

Mikel: It was a combination of years of getting people's reactions to the songs the ones that seemed stick out as being most people's favorites. Scott Hunt helped me pick a lot of them, and it was hard. He'd say, 'Well, this needs to be on there,' but it was one of those things where I had to say, 'We can't have everything.' I remember Scott said, ''Illuminating Drink' needs to be on there! How can it not be on a Pillbugs' best?' That's one that I saved for the Hi-Def reissue of the first album, which is up for download now. We weeded it down to a really good representation of what The Pillbugs recorded in those 10 years. I didn't want it to be too challenging of a listen. I wanted the lineup to have that Pillbugs diversity to it, but I also wanted a selection of songs that hit you immediately.

Mike Dow is part of The Mike and Mike Show airing each morning on Kiss 94.5. Connect with him at and

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 May 2012 14:57

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