Phantom Tollbooth

Phantom Tollbooth

interview by Francesco Nunziata

An interview with Dave Rick, guitarist of Phantom Tollbooth, a band that crossed the second half of the Eighties with a creative synthesis of post-hardcore, noise-rock and progressive.

How did the Phantom Tollbooth project got started?
Gerry and I were from the same town in Long Island (NY suburb) where went to high school together. We had a band in our junior and senior year that actually wrote original tunes though we never really got out of the basement. We played a few parties, but most of the other kids had no interest in and couldn’t comprehend the punk rock weirdo art shit we were doing. It was nascent music. 
At the same time Ger and I had a small group of friends that listened to music together, went to shows in the city together, bought records and zines together etc. We were also all learning about film, art and food at the same time.
We all went separate ways for a while when it came time for college, but I flunked out and came back home. Gerry was going to school locally and we started jamming again. We put ads in the Village Voice to find other like-minded players. Ira and Georgia, before they were Yo la Tengo, put there own ad up, too, and I joined them on bass as they were getting off the ground. Around the same time, one night we found ourselves in an hourly practice room in the city with a singer who was trying to put a thing together. We started jamming and things totally clicked with the drummer, Jon Coats. But the singer dude wasn’t digging it and literally just walked out. And that was it, Phantom Tollbooth was hatched like a gnarly baby bird.

Where does the name Phantom Tollbooth come from?
It’s a great children’s book by a mathematician, Norton Juster. It was eventually made into an animated feature film by Chuck Jones. I suppose it never made a dent in Italy. But, it’s a thing people around my age remember.

Did you have any other musical experience before forming the Phantom Tollbooth?
I started playing bass at around 14 and jammed with anybody and everybody in town. As I said above, eventually a little social circle of like minded freaks (guys only, mind you) coalesced around music and other interests. Some of us started making noise together. Gerry picked up the bass and I moved over to guitar - we were supposed to switch back when Ger got more proficient but it didn’t happen.

What kind of music influenced you while growing up?
img_20180929_00011_1538226381We were really lucky to be in NY in the late 70s and far into the 80s. We were white, male, middle class, suburban teenagers starting out with the usual classic rock stuff influenced by older siblings, school, the general way of life. Zeppelin, the Who, Hendrix, Stones, Yes, southern rock. But, when that circle of friends coalesced we each brought different predilections that kind of stuck out. Other kids our age weren’t going from Zep and Cream back to the Yardbirds, and from the 70s Who back to the 60s Who. And they weren’t tapping into the less of obvious corners of the Blues and Soul and Jazz, and certainly not Garage and Psych stuff like the Elevators or the Pebbles comps. And those kids certainly weren’t going back or forward with punk or weirdo shit, either. Or anywhere near Capt. Beefheart despite all the Zappa fandom.
Creem magazine, Trouser Press, Punk Magazine, The New York Rocker were all publications I could actually find on newsstands. They were my bibles! And even the NY Times, which was always in the house, was covering NY downtown stuff. All the people and groups in the Legs/Gillian "Please Kill Me" book became our next foundation - Velvets, Stooges, Dolls, MC5; Ramones, Richard Hell, Television, Blondie. And of course, the Pistols, Clash, Damned, X-Ray Spex, and wider still to the Germs and Pere Ubu. Then we found No Wave like DNA, the Contortions, Mars and all the Lydia groups; those sounds and free improv from Frith, Zorn and others generated the next leap. But, we were 17-19 years old in the early 80s, so while we were finding out about the past, we were also discovering the future: All the stuff in Azzerad’s “Our Band Could Be Your Life” WAS our life. The Minutemen, Black Flag, Meat Puppets, Saccharine Trust, Husker Du were gods to us and we got to see their earliest NY shows. At the same time, we saw Sonic Youth, Swans and other adventurous NY bands from some of their earliest gigs. Mission of Burma from Boston was and is a tremendous part of our genetics. And, yes, hardcore was definitely a part of the brew. But, we mostly stuck to the bands that were good, and often weird, regardless of whatever scene bullshit. Speaking for myself I think more of cities and artists influencing each other, rather than the social demands of dopey teenagers. So, San Francisco to me was equally the Residents, Dead Kennedys, and especially Flipper. DC/Virginia/Maryland had great bands like Minor Threat, Government Issue, Scream, Void and others that I valued as music and musicians, not doctrinaire lifestyle crap. People from LA that we loved were older, like X, Gun Club and the Flesheaters. I guess it was broadly punk, but you certainly couldn’t guess what any of them sounded like without hearing them!

Did you have relations with the hardcore scene? 
Tollbooth was peripheral to that. We never played any HC gigs in NY. We were on Homestead and played Maxwells and CBs (at night, no hardcore matinees), with other Homestead bands like Dinosaur Jr, Nice Strong Arm, and Touch and Go bands like the Buttholes and Die Kreuzen. Those were all great music events to both witness and be a part of. But, doing scrappy gigs in basements, squats and churches in places like Philadelphia (always the best town for us), Toledo, Ohio, or Eugene, Oregon, we’d often get kids screaming at us to play faster. At the same time we were fortunate enough to have some like minded people in their early 20s who tolerated us and sometimes even understood us. I think sometimes they even liked us! But, we never had more people happy to see us than a few key gigs in Germany!

How would you define your music?
Oh geez. I suppose we were very much of our time and lucky to have been. We played loud and hard, and sure, fast. We were almost brazenly copping shit from SST bands, especially the Minutemen. But, we were way NY and harnessing noise and discordancy was primary, not second nature. Frankly, I think the essence of PT was Gerry’s bass mangling. It was a slinky, twisting melange of chords, bent strings, and harmonics. Regardless of our obvious influences, his playing was almost completely original. He made some combination of George Scott (Contortions, Eight Eyed Spy), Watt, and six-string styled four-string slinging into a unique voice. 

Many talk about your music by highlighting a deep free/jazz influence. Do you agree?
Ultimately, no. We were composed to the hilt, so the only room for improvisation was between the notes. I guess in that regard, we were more Prog. We threw licks and noise in between spaces (maybe not always a good thing), but only featured a few “free noise” sections and a couple actual guitar solos. It was more the searching and completely open nature of early 80s NY improv - Frith, Zorn, Chadbourne, Christian Marclay, and so many others - that inspired us. Unfortunately, we didn’t truly explore their structures/composition or lessons of true improvisation, maybe just the textures. As far as jazz proper, we definitely didn’t learn to compose to cause and leave space for improvisation. Our playing and listening just wasn’t that sophisticated. I think when people think we had a jazz influence it just means they hear unison lines or contrasting riffs played with some recognizably jazz phrasing. And we had some odd time signatures. I’ve subsequently grown to better understand basic tenets of Jazz, and formally we did not embody them at all.

Thinking back to your albums, what are your feelings today?

"Phantom Tollbooth" (ep) 
I think our it’s our most coherent and focused stuff. We were blunt, fucked up, post-teens screaming and shouting our way out of our suburban bag. 

"One-way Conversation"
convers_01There’s definitely some great twisted shit on One Way, but maybe sometimes we were getting too diffuse. It’s only my opinion, I certainly can’t speak for the other guys, but I hear too much Minutemen, too much impatience, and lousy “singing” from me! Also, I could never figure out how the whole thing came out so thin sounding. I don’t know what happened with the recording and/or the mastering, but the record sounds like it’s missing entire frequencies. We were very top heavy for sure - Gerry played a very distorted Rickenbacker bass, and I played a thin Hagstrom guitar through a very distorted Music Man amp. But, nothing, especially the drums, sound like what they really sounded like. The whole thing’s covered in weird reverb and compression. We were neophytes.

"Power Toy"
It’s probably our overall best record. The sound is girthy, the aggro isn’t washed out in terms of sound, writing or playing. Our extended prog stuff is weirder than ever and damn proud of it. Again, my singing and attempts at vocal melody are awful and i should’ve stuck to shouting.

"Daylight In The Quiet Zone" (ep) 
This was recorded at CBGBs during the day when they would offer studio time. You’d actually play on stage like a gig and they’d capture you on multi-track tape. It sounds good! But, I think we did it under personal duress. The band was probably not too happy by then and we were not coming up with much new material. On the other hand, we got to put out covers by some of our favorite bands: MX-80 Sound and 45 Grave!

"Beard Of Lighting"
I love it! It was really fun to make. Some PT fans (I wasn't aware that we had any at the time) are a little offended by it. But, I say, “who gives a fuck?” We’re not scribbling over A Starry Night. Both Power Toy and Beard will always be available in some form and whoever those fans are already own one or the other or both. I’m very proud to say it likely remains Bob Pollard’s lowest selling record.

Tell us something about the genesis and musical techniques adopted in your albums.
I think I already covered some of that. But, I should point out that PT came after whatever the larger Rock culture thought was Punk, and before stuff got codified and marketed as Indie Rock. Ours was a relatively tiny world of bands, record companies, ‘zines, pissing into the wind. PT didn’t make history like some other people did, but we were a part of something that eventually got recognized. And I’m shocked and flattered to have been contacted by a person in Italy thirty years after the fact!

Speaking of "Beard Of Lighting": does it have a different mix than "Power Toy"?
Oh yeah! I had Spot send the original 16 track 2” tapes from Austin. We baked them, had them digitized, did a rough mix without vocals for Bob to work with in Dayton, Ohio. Then we got his new vocal files. He and Chris Slusarenko (he financed and released it) came to NYC to mix with me and Daniel Rey. Also included in this process was original 1” 8 track master for “Valley of the Gwangi” 7” A-side. Luckily we already had it since the studio where it was recorded in ny was long gone.

What about the critic and public reaction to your music?
I don’t think there was much of it. At this point you’re it! Seriously, though, it is gratifying when people find me on Facebook and profess to be fans. At least that’s a reason to keep treading in the filthy water of social media. (That and trying in vain to tell the world about what I’m doing now with music.) When people I admire like Pollard or Jason Loewenstein tell me our weird little band meant something to them I’m truly taken aback, honestly surprised, and simply grateful. When complete strangers come out of the internet woodwork to tell me they dug the records I’m just tickled and thankful.

What did you do between the release of "Daylight in the Quiet Zone" (1990) and "Beard of Lightning" (2003)?
phantom_tollbooth_foto_1538682125So, I quit the band before mixing Daylight. By then I was very involved with Kramer and Shimmy Disc. I appeared on a bunch of records, but was mostly involved in When People Were Shorter (bass), Bongwater and King Missile. Gerry and Jon had two bands together I believe from the late 80s to early 90s called Odd Man Out and Down and Away. King Missile was signed to Atlantic records and that was my primary thing (besides some other non-touring bands) until 1994 when my daughter was born. Between then and working on Beard I played in local bands, including at least one that still plays, The Martinets (bass) whose most recent CD was on the Italian MuSick label. The work on Beard involved me, Pollard, Chris from Off Records and Daniel Rey (Martinets, Joey Ramone producer) mixing. Since then we've all made music, though none of us have toured. Much of my info is on Wikipedia. I still play bass in the Martinets, played guitar/now bass in Wide Right and did my own mostly improv projects Stress Test and Overcat, both on Bandcamp. BobCarolTed is my most recent project, song based with me on guitar, and yelling, also on Bandcamp. I tried to find a label for BCT but nobody cared. I think people don't like it. I might not like it either, but I love it! I just started a new quartet with the current organ player for the local Missile gigs (my old pal Chris Xefos lives in San Francisco so can't play with us) and the drummer from Missile/Martinets/Stress Test/Overcat. We don't have a name yet but it'll be largely a noisy prog/fusion/psych kind of thing - Soft Machine, Tony Williams Lifetime, etc.
Also important to mention: Jon remastered most of the PT stuff and got it on iTunes and other streaming/downloading sites. No vinyl tho.

 Valley Of The Gwangi (Homestead, Ep, 1986)


 Phantom Tollbooth (Homestead, Ep, 1986) 
One-Way Conversation (Homestead, 1987) 
Power Toy (Homestead, 1988) 
 Daylight In The Quiet Zone (Homestead, Ep live, 1990) 
Beard of Lightning (Off, 2003) 
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