The Machine: A Living, Breathing Thing

The Machine onstage (photo from

The Machine are a four-piece band based in New York and dedicated to bringing the music of Pink Floyd to concert audiences. Since the last Pink Floyd concert (not counting the brief Live 8 reunion gig) was in October 1994, bands like The Machine are one of only a precious few ways to get a fix for a live Floyd jones. And the group — founded in 1988 by guitarist/vocalist Joe Pascarell and drummer Todd Cohen — are very, very good at what they do. The group performs dozens of shows annually across the USA and Europe.

One afternoon in 2009 I sat down with the group (Pascarell and Cohen plus bassist Ryan Ball and keyboardist Scott Chasolen) right before the sound check for that evening’s concert. Joe Pascarell explained how the band got its start: “When we started, it wasn’t our intention to have a Pink Floyd tribute band. We just got frustrated with all the crappy bands playing crappy music. We said, ‘let’s just form a band that plays the music that we like. I don’t care who’s gonna come…whatever.’ And we like Pink Floyd! So that was a lot of what we did. And you’ve got to remember, this was twenty years ago; not like now when there’s a tribute band for every band in the world. It was a unique thing.

“And,” Pascarell continued, “people would say, ‘Wow; you never hear a band play that music. Nobody else does that.’ So we learned some more. And some more. Eventually our set was like half Pink Floyd and half other stuff…and then this guy heard about us, and he said, ‘Learn more Floyd, and I’ll try and get you gigs as a Pink Floyd band.’ So that’s how it started; it wasn’t a conscious decision from the outset to do it. It grew out of the fact that we absolutely love this music.”

I asked the group if their initial Pink Floyd pieces were the more mainstream material, or if they launched their project by performing live versions of “Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast.” Pascarell punted. “Nobody’s ever asked us that. I have to think about it for a moment.” So Todd Cohen fielded the question. “The more mainstream songs. I don’t think we started doing the weird stuff until we were in a few years.” That jogged Pascarell’s memory: “Yeah. The catalog is so large, I think it was natural to start with the more well-known songs.”

 One argument holds that ninety-nine percent of the people don’t know there was anything before Dark Side of the Moon, and wouldn’t have had much interest in hearing the older tunes, anyway. Pascarell agreed that was true “until we became established, then we became expected to be able to play those songs.”

I wondered if the group found it a challenge to balance between pleasing different audience segments — those (like me) who are hardcore Pink Floyd fans, who come to the show hoping to hear “The Embryo” or “Cymbaline” or “Childhood’s End” — and the more casual fans who want to hear “Money” and “Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2”. Todd Cohen observed, “there’s no science, really, to figuring out what to do. It’s our ‘feel.’ It’s based on who’s there in the audience: is it a younger crowd? What kind of a venue is it? Are we playing what’s called a soft ticket — a festival, where people are coming no matter who’s playing?”

Cohen gave an example. “Now, tonight, on a Thursday in Asheville NC, people are coming to hear us. And it’s not the casual fan that’s going to come out on a Thursday night. We’ve played here before, and we’ve stretched out and improvised, and people liked it. Here, we probably tailor our set a little bit towards the jammy, improvisational stuff. But if you go and play in Orlando FL at a sit-down theater on a weekend, maybe it’s a little ‘safer’ set, with a majority of the more popular music. But even then, we throw in some older, weirder ones.”

Bassist Ryan Ball agreed, and added that “you have to loosen people up. And I think that’s something that this band is really good at doing. We introduce ourselves to the people through the music, and then after they feel comfortable enough with it, then we can go in a different direction. The second set is usually when that happens.”

Unlike the “real” Pink Floyd, The Machine maintains the spontaneity to change-up the set list mid-show if they feel the situation requires it. “You have to be nimble, and realize, ‘hey, this song would work with this crowd, so let’s do it,” said Pascarell. Ryan Ball noted that “we might be making the list for an evening’s show. And one of us really wants to do ‘The Nile Song’. So we put that in. But then we get onstage, and get a feel for that room. Now, we don’t want those five minutes to go by with everyone sort of staring blankly, thinking, ‘I don’t know what that is.’ So it might get cut during the show if that vibe is there.” Scott Chasolen posed the question to the rest of the band: “what do you think is the most obscure Pink Floyd song we do?” Besides “The Nile Song” (which doesn’t even sound much like a Pink Floyd track — Pascarell offers that “We play stuff from Syd Barret’s The Madcap Laughs album.”

The Machine. L-R: Todd Cohen (drums), Ryan Ball (bass), scott Chasolen (keys), Joe Pascarell (guitar) Okay, that qualifies as obscure.

The band is working on a new studio project; at press time it’s still under wraps, but they would reveal a few details about it. Pascarell said that “Our drummer, Todd Cohen, conceived of the project.” Cohen added, “It’s our versions of the Pink Floyd songs. We’ve been subtly tweaking Pink Floyd’s material for a really long time. And I think we add our energy and our personalities in a way that’s unique but not disruptive to the songs. And I felt that people — besides just our fans — would be interesting in hearing that. And we’re going to get some special guests to join us as well. I can’t say yet who they’re going to be.”

While other tribute acts — like Zappa Plays Zappa and Project/Object — occasionally make use of special guest stars, onstage The Machine has never gone that route. “Other than on the new project,” Todd Cohen explained, “it’s just not something that we’ve ever been interested in doing.” Not that they’re against the idea of being joined onstage by saxophonist Dick Parry or Roy Harper, Cohen said, but “we’re a band, and we enjoy playing with each other.” That said, he noted that “Roger Waters’ sax player lives in New York, and he plays with us often.”

In performances by The Machine, there’s an interesting balancing act between remaining faithful to the original Pink Floyd arrangements and the musicians adding their own “color” to the songs. For example on “Echoes” in the middle part, the guitar runs are faster than anything that Dave Gilmour’s done on record. Pascarell said that they balance between self expression and being a human jukebox by “collectively just being aware of what we’re doing. When it’s right, it’s sort of an unconscious thing: you get to a part of a song and think, ‘we can go here now. It’s gonna be good.’ I don’t think we ever get too radically far from the intent.”

“Like in ‘Echoes,'” offered Cohen. “You play that main melody in the solo, and after a few times, I think people would be bored if you just stuck to that. So Joe’s tearing into something that he wants to do, and people get excited.”

“And then the other guys hear something,” added Pascarell, “and then they play off of that…”

“It’s a live music experience, observed Chasolen. “So you’ve got what you’re used to hearing, what you want to hear. And then there’s this other dimension to it.”

“But,” countered bassist Ryan Ball, “I think all of our individual sensibilities fall within the vein of what Pink Floyd has done.” So audiences shouldn’t expect a bluegrass jam in the middle of a tune. Pascarell laughed, “Yeah. We’re not, like, a thrash band on the side.”

“Sometimes we miss the mark,” said Chasolen, “but that’s part of the experience anyway. When we go off on a tangent, it might not always what the room needs at the moment in time…”

Pascarell interjected: “But it might be what we need. That’s a good point. Sometimes it falls flat…”

“It’s a living, breathing thing,” said Todd Cohen.

Playing together as long as they have — twenty years for Pascarell and Cohen, eleven years for Ball (keyboardist Scott Chasolen is the newest member) — one might expect the group to have developed musical cues to allow them to tweak the performances in real time. “‘Cues’ is too strong of a word,” Pascarell insisted. “It’s almost like breathing; it’s unconscious.”

Producer Bob Ezrin [The Wall] is on record saying “These guys are great.” And while the Pink Floyd organization hasn’t commented publicly, “Roger Waters knows about us,” said Todd Cohen. “And Nick Mason knows about us. But…unofficially,” he stressed. Then he proudly added, “Roger Waters’ son has seen us several times.”

On every tour from early 1972 onward, Pink Floyd augmented their four-piece lineup with other musicians: vocals; sax; second guitar; on The Wall shows, a whole set of doppelgangers. But The Machine performs without extras. Doing so, admitted Pascarell, is “a humongous challenge. It’s a constant challenge. We’re always evaluating things, maybe changing this sound…”

Todd interjected, “Scott is playing guitar parts on the keyboard. Joe is playing two guitar parts at once. One of us is using his feet to play a part…” Pascarell added, “It started out, it was just the four of us. But as things went along, we took it as a sign of pride, that hey, we can do this with just four guys.” Still, he admitted that “there are a few songs we haven’t done,” like “One Slip” from A Momentary Laspe of Reason, “because they simply can’t be done with four guys.” They do sample sound effects, but don’t use any sequencing or tapes to round out their onstage presentation.

So much of the Pink Floyd live legend is based on their live shows, and there’s a hardcore collector community that chases down every extant live bootleg of the band. The Machine turns to these recording for inspiration as well. “As a matter of fact,” admitted Pascarell, “I brought one with me on this tour. I have the demos of The Wall [titled Under Construction]. Some fan gave it to me, and we’re gonna listen to that. Growing up, all I listened to was bootlegs. You can learn a lot about the songs by hearing how they evolved, I think.” The group’s 1970-71 era includes music that is among the best-loved by many of those hardcore fans. Like the guys in The Machine: “On those bootlegs, when they were playing ‘Echoes,’ and “‘Fat Old Sun’, I think that’s some of the element that this band brings to the music,” said Pascarell. There’s a rawness to the ’71 Floyd shows, and The Machine tries to bring that lack of slickness to all of the repertoire, regardless of when it was originally recorded.

The band places a high value on giving their audiences an experience to remember. They ended our interview by posing a question to me: “What song do you want to hear tonight?” I put in a request for the relatively-unknown 1972 cut “Obscured by Clouds / When You’re In.” They looked at each other and smiled, and Pascarell promised, “We’ll try it during sound check and see how it goes.” I don’t believe they’d ever performed it in front of an audience before. Then at the show, keyboard player Scott Chasolen approached me right before the quartet took the stage, and solicited yet another request. Flummoxed, I came up with “Wot’s…Uh The Deal.” They graciously played both in a rousing, nearly three-hour show that covered selections from Obscured By Clouds, Meddle, Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, Animals, The Wall, A Momentary Lapse of Reason, and The Division Bell.

Asked to comment on the popularity of the many tribute bands plying their trade, Pascarell demurred. “I would feel uncomfortable doing that. But I know that in the case of this band, I hope it’s because we’re good at it, and because the music is quality music. And it seems to me — I’m 47 — that the amount of quality music that’s around becomes less and less over time. I think that every generation discovers this music, and they want to hear it performed.”

There’s a definite commercial appeal to what The Machine does, and it extends beyond merely pleasing older fans who want to hear the music of their salad days re-created. The audiences are wide-ranging in age; not just a bunch of forty- and fifty-something guys. “We wouldn’t be doing it if that were the case,” laughed Pascarell.”