The plan was not for the scheduled interview with Bigelf‘s leader Damon Fox to focus primarily on equipment. But to some extent, that’s how it worked out. As a keyboard player myself, I was especially fascinated with Fox’s use of the legendary Mellotron as his primary instrument onstage and on record. The Mellotron — a bizarre keyboard instrument invented in the 1960s and popularized (albeit briefly) by groups including the Beatles, the Moody Blues, King Crimson and Yes – has always been a controversial instrument. As the first in a line of precursors to what we now know as sampling technology, the mighty Mellotron occupies an important spot in rock music’s history. But for all intents and purposes, the ‘Tron fell out of popular use decades ago. Occasionally, retro-revivalists (like Matthew Sweet or Lenny Kravitz) will use it on a recording; more often — and quite ironically — the Mellotron’s distinctive tones are themselves sampled and used on popular recordings. But Fox and his prog-psych-glam band Bigelf have made the Mellotron — the real Mellotron — a centerpiece of their image and their sound, onstage and off.
Having seen Bigelf onstage this summer, I witnessed the road crew trundling out what looked like a Mellotron onto the stage. And it sounded like one when played. But due to the rarity and fragility of this 1960s beast, I have to ask Fox: is it the real thing? “It’s absolutely a real Mellotron; I wouldn’t have anything else,” he asserts. “On tour, people actually ask me, ‘Are you really playing a Hammond organ and a Mellotron, or are they just stage props?’ And I want to say, ‘I should cast you into oblivion for asking that! Of course they’re real!’” Fox’s touring Mellotron dates from around 1972. The instrument occupies a special place in his life and career; he notes that “I wouldn’t know [Bigelf drummer] Steve Frothingham if it weren’t for the Mellotron.” The two met during the process of Fox’s purchase of one of the keyboards (he now owns five).
The storied instrument — produced in several models but in limited numbers for about a decade beginning in the early 1960s — often comes with a back story; this writer had the opportunity to purchase a Model 400 in 1985 for (the now shockingly-low price of) $500. But owing to a lack of funds, the transaction never took place. So does Fox’s Mellotron come with any interesting stories? Fox says that the one used onstage doesn’t, “but all of the other Mellotrons and Chamberlins [a similar instrument that actually predates the Mellotron] that Bigelf has possessed certainly do have stories. I have a Mellotron Mk II Music Console — that’s the double one; it’s the last Mk II ever made. It’s actually a hybrid; there’s no other Mk II like it.” The Mk II had two keyboards with separate sounds for each. “It originally belonged to Martin Kitcat of [early 70s UK progressive group] Gracious. He used it on the This Is… album. Martin actually came over to see it in 1996. He hadn’t played it since 1972. We hung out, and I played him some Bigelf stuff. He coined the band ‘post-nuclear Beatles.’ I thought that was really hot.”