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.”
Fox provides some information on what made Kitcat and Gracious so groundbreaking. “Kitcat was the first person to put ‘lead’ sounds on both sides. Most bands had Mk II’s [and] used them as they were sold: the rhythm sounds on one side, and then flutes, strings, horns — the lead sounds — on the right side. But Martin was the first guy to contact the Bradley brothers [UK-based Mellotron manufacturers] and have his made custom, with lead sound on both sides.”
Both Fox and Bigelf’s drummer collect the beasts. “I have five now: three 400s and two Mk II’s,” Fox says. “One of Froth’s used to belong to Tom Waits, one to Mike Pinder…all kinds of stories with that stuff. I had a Chamberlin that had belonged to Garth Hudson of The Band and then to Gary Wright.”
Unlike modern keyboards, the Mellotron is absolutely full of moving parts. Each note on the keyboard has below it a strip of magnetic tape with three tracks (one for each sound) and a playback head mounted on a pulley-motor. When a key is depressed, the playback head moves along the surface of the stationary tape. The sound lasts only eight seconds or so; after that, the head has to climb back to the top before starting again. As such — and because it’s just plain old — the Mellotron is a notoriously finicky instrument. I ask Fox if he’s schooled in Mellotron maintenance.
Not him, he says: “Our drummer Frothingham is quite the crack technician,” he explains. “He’s very good with electromechanical stuff. But [our] Mellotron has really been low-maintenance because it’s used so often. There was a time — 2003 — that I had it all gone through by Marcus Resch in Sweden; he handles all the Mellotron upgrades these days. He has designed new motor boards, everything that you need to keep it running smoothly. The tape heads do need to be demagnetized now and then. Generally, they work if you use them.” He laughs and notes that “if you just grab one that’s been sitting since 1978, since the last Wings tour or something, it’s not gonna work.”
If you grab a Mellotron that’s been sitting since the last Wings tour or something, it’s not gonna work.
He continues on the subject of maintenance. “But a Mellotron is like a Marshall [amplifier] head, in that you can’t grab it out of storage and think that it’s going to work. You have to play it and keep it under maintenance. But ours — since we use it all the time — goes a long way. Maybe the gear lords — the gurus in the sky — have been good to us.” He alliterates, “We’ve made it our mission to make the Mellotron part of our mantra.”
I ask Fox for his thoughts on what makes the unusual instrument so special. “The origin of it is special. From an actual invention point of view, it’s special because it was designed as a ‘jingle machine’ — something for radio, for home use, to entertain with rhythms and chord progressions on one side, and you could play the melody on the right hand…sort of a hint of early sampling technology. Then musicians started using it in the studio on classic songs, like John Lennon with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. It was a bizarre invention by Harry Chamberlin.”
He continues: “For people that don’t know, the recordings inside are one instrument at a time per tape, or it could be sixteen violin players. But each tape is an individual sound. So it’s kind of like what turned into sampling. Which, of course, threatened the union: ‘People won’t hire a string quartet when they can just use a Mellotron!’ It’s a magical instrument in the sense of what it was, how it was designed and who used it, people like Ian McDonald, Tony Banks, and the Moody Blues’ Mike Pinder…that’s where the magic part comes in. Those guys ushered in progressive rock. And that sort of became the sound that everybody was obsessed with.”
The sound on Bigelf’s latest (Cheat the Gallows) is a bit, well, bigger. I ask Fox how that was achieved. “On Cheat the Gallows, I used a real 20-piece string section. I’ve been using Mellotrons for fifteen years — different sounds like the M300 strings, choir, orchestra…and they’re totally different from real players. You can’t get a Mellotron sound through a string section, no matter what you do.” Fox elaborates on the odd timbre of this keyboard instrument: “The Mellotron has that slightly not-quite-in-tune character. It is slightly out of tune; it’s not perfect. Everyone recording on a Mellotron — you’ve got a bunch of players and everyone’s intonation is slightly off, different from each other. And that’s what makes it good. It adds character.”
But that doesn’t mean that when you use a string section that they’re perfect either,” Fox explains. “All string sections are different: some have intonation that’s immaculate, and some have character. On the sessions for Cheat the Gallows, I was actually pushing them to have more character, to not be so immaculate. I wanted the strings to be strutting and harsh. Not like a symphony. I wanted it to sound like rogue pirates!”
I wanted the strings to sound like rogue pirates!
Sometimes the “real” sound is the goal, and sometimes the “artificial” tones of the Mellotron give the desired result. Both have their limitations. “I love real flutes,” says Fox. “I had a guy play a real flute on Gallows, and it was way better than the Mellotron. Because one of the things the Mellotron doesn’t have is good ‘attack.’ It’s not like having a flute player there live, having the attack of the mouthpiece. And the cellos…even on the Mellotron, it isn’t like hearing the sound of a bow on a real cello. So what I did is I combined the both of ’em!”
Our talk finally turns ever-so-slightly away from Mellotrons. I ask Fox if there’s a “white whale,” a keyboard instrument he’s yet to obtain for his collection. “One that has eluded me for awhile now is the Arp String Ensemble — when you find them, the cases are almost always cracked. It’s not really all that desirable of a piece, but I used to have one and they have a classic sound.”
Then Fox mentions a real left-field oddity. “The one thing that would be a dream to get my hands on is the ‘Tonto.’ That’s the modular Moog hybrid that was used in the film Phantom of the Paradise. I believe it was designed by Malcolm Cecil; it’s mostly Moog modules but there’s some Arp and Serge components as well. If you remember the movie, it’s set up as this ‘cockpit’ sorta thing. You sit behind the controller; it’s a gigantic modular beast. I’ve been trying to get it for awhile. Mark Mothersbaugh [DEVO] had owned it for a few years. I would imagine it would be astronomically expensive.” And besides, Fox notes, “I have two Moog modulars already.”
Moog Music (now based in this writer’s hometown) pioneered synthesizers; the late Robert A. Moog is widely viewed as a father of modern synthesis. Even from the 20th row, the distinctive silhouette of a Minimoog was visible as part of Bigelf’s stage setup. The Minimoog Voyager is a modern update of the 70s classic. Is that what Fox uses? No. He has “an early 70s one. I’m not a fan of the Voyagers,” he admits. “I like the fact that they have MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface], so you can control something else, but the old ones have this mechanical sound, this rawness. The Voyager is simply too smooth for me.”
I ask Fox if he visited the Moog factory when Bigelf played in Asheville. He says that he met the Director of the Moog Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Moog’s legacy. The Director is Bob Moog’s daughter. “Michelle Moog was at the show. And I told her I like the old Moog stuff better. I mean, I can’t imagine anybody saying otherwise. If you had two in front of you, why would you not pick a vintage one? I mean, unless it’s a utility situation where you have to have the presets.”
Modern technology allows musicians to do a lot of things in the studio that weren’t possible before, and to do the old things quicker and more efficiently. So to what extent does Bigelf — that most retro of rock bands — embrace 21st century technology in the recording process? “It’s pretty much an analog situation,” says Fox, “but in this day and age — and on this record in particular — ProTools [software] was involved for editing. We had to deal with that and it was actually a good experience, because today nobody cuts tape anymore. I remember when we recorded Hex we wanted to slice tape and the engineer didn’t know how! What are you gonna do?”
Both realizing we haven’t discussed much about Bigelf, we change the subject. Fox caps off the first part of the discussion by admitting that “we could talk equipment forever!”
The Bigelf sound is informed by — among other things — the British progressive and psychedelic movements of the late 1960s and early 70s. Did Damon Fox grow up on a steady diet of prog? He recalls, “when I was a kid, that was the formative origin of it all, and certainly the genesis of all the things that I’m doing now. I was a child of the 70s, of commercial progressive rock. I wasn’t listening to Mahavishnu Orchestra, Soft Machine or Can or anything like that. It was Uriah Heep and Black Sabbath.”
But it’s not just the sounds of those bands that affected Fox. He cites a number of important visual cues from the era, and these give some insight into Bigelf’s careful cultivation of their own visuals. “When I was a child, three or four years old — I remember looking at the candles on the cover of Deep Purple’s Burn LP. And it used to freak me out: you turn it over and they’re all blown out, but they’re melted. That had a pretty big impact on me. You hear the music, and it’s really heavy. But I also remember listening to the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour and kind of being freaked out by that as well. You look at that walrus, and, to a kid, it’s a little scary. Demons and Wizards, stuff like that; those are really cool albums. But I was really into the Sweet, too. ‘Cause ‘Fox on the Run’ has my name in it!”
You can’t buy candles for twelve hundred bucks.
Fox relates an amusing related story. “In the 90s, my mother had received a Christie’s auction catalogue. It was a rock edition and it was huge — maybe two inches thick — and quite nicely done, too. I would say that 60-70% of it was Elton John’s entire wardrobe collection. Also in the book was the piano that Paul McCartney had in his flat just around the corner from Abbey Road Studios. But anyway, those Burn candles were actually for sale too. I think they were $1200. I think about it now, and I could kill myself for not buying them. I could have them on my fireplace or something. The funny part was, I saw them listed and I said, ‘Wow! The Burn candles!’ I ran to my room and got the record sleeve, and turned it over, and looked at them and they of course were the same candles. They’re burned the same way. But hey,” he laughs, “you can’t buy candles for twelve hundred bucks.”
Fox has been influenced by other styles of music besides progressive rock. “In my teens, I got into the whole British synth invasion of the 80s. I had a gigantic obsession with The Beatles and that’s still going on. That’s the cool thing about being bitten by rock and roll at a young age.” He muses that “maybe it doesn’t happen as much anymore because there are so many other things to distract kids today.”
But hope does spring eternal, and there are some encouraging signs that rock and roll isn’t dead. “I just produced a band called Paper Zoo here in L.A.,” Fox explains, “and they are nineteen years old. I met them when they were 14. Over the last five years, they’ve explored everything that’s out there on the net, progressive rock to 60’s pop music. All kinds of stuff: jazz, blues. It’s really exciting for me to see young musicians getting into the roots of where good rock music started.”
Sounding a bit like one of rock’s elder statesmen, Fox observes that “it’s a good thing, now kids are getting into classic music like Queen, Coltrane, Miles Davis and The Doors instead of Blink-182, Green Day and Everclear. They’re discovering rock and roll, and that’s healthy.”
Two members of Bigelf (Fox and drummer Frothingham or “Froth” for short) are American, and two are Finnish. How does an American band end up half full of Finns? Fox jokes that Bigelf is “the new Hanoi Rocks,” and then offers a condensed version of what he suggests is a long story. “We did a licensing of our music in Sweden to start, and it really took off. So we shipped our gear over there, and set up shop. There were a few lineup changes during that time. We were a trio for a while, caught up in an Atomic Rooster scenario, with me playing organ and Minimoog bass with my left hand. We met Duffy [Snowhill, bass] when we first went over to Scandinavia, and Ace [Mark, guitarist] joined soon after. That seemed to be the definitive lineup. That was the one that connected, and made Hex.
Cheat the Gallows is the group’s fourth album. Both it and 2003’s Hex are easily available, but the two earlier albums and the Madhatter EP are tough and/or expensive to locate. I ask Fox if plans are in the works to reissue these long-lost albums for the enjoyment of modern audiences. “We have plans to get those up on iTunes in the next couple of weeks,” he says. “Hopefully Closer To Doom  and Money Machine  will be out by the time we start Progressive Nation Europe, or just after that. We hope.” As of this writing, links to MP3s for all those albums’ titles do exist on Bigelf’s web site (www.bigelf.com), but the links are broken.
What may turn out to be Bigelf’s major commercial breakthrough is their addition to Dream Theater’s Progressive Nation package tours in 2009. I ask how such an opportunity came about. Fox recalls that “a friend of mine (Ray Amico) had passed a Bigelf CD to [Dream Theater drummer] Mike Portnoy; he thought Mike would dig it. Ray was familiar with us because Serj Tankian from System of a Down put out Money Machine. Next thing you know, Mike Portnoy’s got Cheat the Gallows in his hands. We invited him to a show in New York earlier this year; he came down and we hung out for a while. He then called us and asked, ‘Do you wanna do this European leg of the Progressive Nation tour with us?’ I almost died, because it’s an arena tour and Wembley is on the itinerary. We’ve never played in England, and now Wembley is our first show there.” Fox calls that whole idea “mind-shattering.”
So that explains the European leg. But Bigelf’s participation in the American leg that preceded it was a last-minute affair. “We were out on tour in July, and then got word that two bands on the North American leg were having problems. Mike called one day and said, ‘They’re out. Can you do it?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? Of course.’ I’ve got to thank Linda Perry [head of Custard Records] for that, because it costs a lot of money to do these tours. So thanks to her and Custard for making it possible.”
Fox admits that in today’s music marketplace, big-time success is elusive. “To be successful playing this kind of music is a challenge.” But he remains determined: “I’m not giving up on Bigelf, because I’ve met far too many fans who like this kind of music, not just us.”
There’s always going to be a need by the public, to go see musicians perform. Especially when it’s good music.
Speaking of “this kind of music,” Fox is credited with saying that Bigelf is thirty years behind the times and five years ahead. Or something like that. I ask him if he stands by that paradoxical assertion. “That’s actually something somebody else wrote about us, and I repeated it, and then it got attached to me. Unfortunately,” he laughs, “that comment was made five years ago! That was around the time Hex came out. In 2003, Bigelf was very different from what was ‘happening’ at the time, but things have changed. Wolfmother won a Grammy®. That just wasn’t possible — it wasn’t conceivable — in 2003. Mars Volta is selling out three nights at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles. Things are looking up.”
He continues. “I hope that there’s more of a prog-rock, psychedelic rock resurgence in commercial music. I’m certainly trying to push the boundary and get it to the point where it is commercial, where it can get played on the radio.” Because, as Fox readily admits, even today, “you really need to get on the radio to reach people.”
In the end, Fox believes that “the big focus of music is gonna be live. That’s where bands can make money. And there’s always going to be a desire, a need by the public, to see a live band…to go see musicians perform. Especially when it’s good music.”
Good music like the kind Bigelf makes.