ABOUT PELL MELL
by Steve Huey
Pell Mell was a tremendous rarity: an instrumental combo who landed a major-label deal in the wake of the alternative rock explosion touched off by Nirvana. Its most prominent members were better known as producers, and with their highly sporadic recording schedule, it took them nearly a decade of existence to issue a widely distributed album. Their music could be seen on some levels as a forerunner of post-rock, sharing its eclecticism and fusion of acoustics and electronics, but shying away from its more self-conscious avant-gardisms and free-form qualities. Instead, contrary to their name, Pell Mell was melodic and usually tightly structured, much like the instrumentals of the early rock & roll era. In fact, those instrumentals -- especially surf guitar and its formative influences, like Link Wray and Duane Eddy -- were a palpable influence on the group. However, not wanting to be pigeonholed as mere revivalists, they switched up their attack with touches of funk, punk, Krautrock, dub, and vintage ambient, among other sources, which resulted in an atmospheric, effects-laden sound that was certainly aided by its creators' production prowess.
Pell Mell was originally formed in 1980 in Portland, OR, and spent the next four years playing around the Northwest. During that time, several members came and went, with founding drummer Bob Beerman anchoring the band. In 1982, they issued their debut EP, Rhyming Guitars, on the small Indoor label, as well as a self-released, cassette-only live album, It Was a Live Cassette, which they recorded as a trio. Keyboardist/effects man Steve Fisk -- who would eventually become the most successful outside producer in the band -- joined in 1983, and the following year, the band decided to relocate to San Francisco. Their lineup solidified to include Beerman, Fisk, bassist/guitarist Greg Freeman (who left his main gig with the Call in 1984), and guitarist Bill Owen. Owen was, in turn, later replaced by guitarist David Spalding, the onetime guitar tech for the Call. Another cassette-only release, For Years We Stood Clearly as One Thing, appeared on the then-fledgling K Records in 1985. In between, Fisk issued the first of several solo cassettes, a stream of which would continue into the '90s.
Pell Mell came to somewhat wider national attention via their association with the groundbreaking SST label, which issued the first widely available Pell Mell album, The Bumper Crop, in 1988. It consisted of recordings from the first half of the '80s, and while the song selection overlapped with For Years, the versions on Bumper Crop were generally shorter and more concise. By this time, Fisk was working as a producer for groups like Screaming Trees (also on SST), Beat Happening, and Soundgarden; he soon went on to helm several tracks on Nirvana's Blew EP. Freeman was also beginning to branch out as a producer and engineer, initially with Bay Area eccentrics Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 and singer/songwriter Barbara Manning, and later with Royal Trux.
With its members having split to live in different cities, Pell Mell didn't reconvene until the early '90s; by that time, SST had reissued Rhyming Guitars. 1992's Flow was actually the first album on which David Spalding was a fully integrated member of the group, and it was also their tightest effort to date. Microsoft licensed one of its tracks for use in a television commercial, which helped bring the band to the attention of Geffen Records. Signing to the label's DGC imprint, Pell Mell completed its hugely unlikely major-label debut, Interstate, in 1995. In the meantime, Fisk had begun playing with two actively recording side projects, Pigeonhed and the Northwest indie all-star band the Halo Benders (which also featured Beat Happening's Calvin Johnson and Built to Spill's Doug Martsch). He was also producing new artists like Unwound, Some Velvet Sidewalk, the Geraldine Fibbers, and Boss Hog, among others. Writing some of the songs together by mail, Pell Mell completed a follow-up to Interstate in 1997, but DGC -- somewhat predictably -- dropped them not long before its scheduled release date. Matador stepped in to issue the album, called Star City, which was produced and engineered by cult favorite Tchad Blake.
Pell Mell subsequently went their separate ways. Fisk and Freeman both continued their blooming careers behind the boards, while Spalding went on to play with the reunited Love Tractor. Fisk and Beerman later reunited in the more electronic-oriented Cut-Out, which issued its first album in 2003.