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Pi Corp interview with Guy Bickel

Interview with almost forgotten space-rockers, but one of the most unique projects from USA. Pi-Corp was really an interesting project back in the early 70's from Cleveland. For the very first time you can read about them via interview we did with Guy Bickel. 

There is not much known about Pi Corp, but the LP is really an amazing mix what I would call raw and primitive space rock. I absolutely dig the vibe on it. How did the band formed? You were a trio, right?

Actually we began as a duo. Alan Howarth and I (Guy Bickel) were ‘in-between bands’ and working together as repairmen at DiFiore’s Music in Cleveland when we decided to join forces once again and pursue a serious electronic music direction. Since our main influences were Pink Floyd and Weather Report, we kind of combined free form jazz and electronic rock... worked our way into a spontaneous themed soundtrack style of music that was very difficult to repeat and almost impossible to chart with the synthesizer changes. I have one of Alan’s original charts… ya gotta see this…

Anyway, up until the music store gigs, Alan and I had been playing regularly in two different bands; Alan had an experimental electronic band called Braino with my best friend from high school Denny Geffert, Bruce Heigh, and Brian Risner was the soundman. I had a band called CatsCradle; an Emerson Lake and Palmerish sort of band with Rick Fischer and Jerry Moran. Bob Klemencic was our audio generator artist.

CatsCradle ended just as Bruce left with Brian to go the road with Weather Report. So I joined up with Alan and Denny and continued Braino. But Denny left soon afterwards to join a local cover band called Zephaniah Cross. Alan and I ended up in the music store.

Brian was like our George Martin. We had met years before when I was in a band called Uranus, then he went on to team up with Alan for the Braino era. He became the soundman at a little jazz club called The Smiling Dog Saloon. Weather Report played the Dog a few times and hired Brian away from us. But when he was in Cleveland, he was always at Earthman (pre-Pi Corp) and Pi Corp. He’s the one who initially suggested we make an album and mixed Lost in the Cosmic Void, just as it is on the album, using just a rack of 4-channel Shure mic mixers.
Almost a year later, Alan and I still had no drummer that could play with the kind of stuff we were doing and Earthman. We were on the verge of nothingness. Surprisingly, Denny pulled out of Zephaniah and rejoined Alan and me just when we needed him most. It was onward and upward from that point… and it all started with The Dirge.

Were you or other members in any bands before Pi Corp?

Alan had the most notches. He was already a vet by ‘71, having been playing in a couple of very popular cover bands early in his career; beginning with The Tree Stumps, then with Woody Leffel in a band called Renaissance Faire. He went on to play in The Silk with Michael Stanley. Following a brief stint with a ‘Derek and the Dominoes’ style band called Kin, he returned to Cleveland and fell into an electronic niche.

Denny and I had grown up together so our musical careers developed at the same time and we were in many of the same local bands from high school all the way through Pi Corp. Woody was in some local bands too; from Renaissance Faire to Black Rose, He joined up with Granicus, then back home to Believe. I’m sure there were more, but I lost track when I went on the road.

First REAL band I was ever in that made money regularly - Uranus, 1971, Rocky River, Ohio. Picture this - A REALLY long-haired band living a commune lifestyle in a flower shop with a greenhouse attached and a big school bus painted up hippie style in the richest suburb of Cleveland with the high-school a block away and the police station two blocks - Yep, we knew what we were doin!

The band formed in the very early 70's in Cleveland. What was the scene there?

It was great. We had major performance venues everywhere, all the clubs had bands, we had a 100,000 watt quad radio station (WMMS) that was involved everywhere and was responsible for breaking Bowie and Springsteen among many. And we had the Agora and The Smiling Dog; International acts every Monday and Tuesday at the Agora - from Kiss and Blondie and Mott the Hoople and King Crimson… then Weather Report, Soft Machine, and Chic Corea… at the Dog.

We were in the center of the music universe. God, I loved it!!!

Woody Leffel, was around the same year as the first recording of Pi Corp, in a really great hard rock band called Granicus. Was this his side project or what?

We were his Cleveland thing. Yeah, Since he and Alan went way back, they had a long standing relationship. Unfortunately, Woody didn’t care much for the whole “trippy, druggy shit”. But when we were doing something semi-structured, he jumped right in and began doing what he called ‘Speech-Sing”. Nowadays it’s called The Talking Heads. There are two cuts on “Let Them Eat Pi” that features Woody’s improv talents. If Woody couldn’t do it, it couldn’t be done.

Rockadelic Records released Lost in the Cosmic Void recordings back in 2001. These are recordings of the band from 1973 to 1976. How did they find you, was it Rich Haupt?

Gosh, Rich Haupt… what a good guy… he took a beating on this though… and through no fault of us or him… it was 9/11.

I had contacted Rich and sent him a cassette of the Lost in the Cosmic Void. He loved it, asked “where the hell have you guys been for the past 25 years?” and the next thing I knew, the album is on vinyl and ready to be marketed through Rich’s extensive, world-wide network.

It was all systems go around September 7th, 2001 and Rich began to put the gears in motion. We were finally going to release that album we had been talking about throughout the Pi Corp era and were thoroughly excited.

Then 9/11 happened a few days later. All world-wide anything was shut down, stopped, and pretty much destroyed Rich’s network. It ended that quickly. I believe Rich still has a pallet of Lost in the Cosmic Void LPs stashed somewhere if you know anyone…

What can you share about concerts while Pi Corp was active?

It’s hard to describe that era without going all melancholy. I feel that the time period between Abbey Road and Animals was without a doubt, the best era of music that there ever was. Technology was fueling music and both were bursting at the seams. Although we saw just about everybody from Led Zepplin on their premier American tour, to the Jeff Beck Group with Rod Stewart (Denny even saw the Beatles at Municipal Stadium), my concert awareness didn’t really begin until I saw Floyd do UmmaGumma in Case Western Reserve University Gymnasium. Alan, Denny, and I all attended that concert and it literally changed our lives. It was so different, so encompassing, so overwhelming, that it took us all to Mars and never brought us back. We were hooked on that style of music from that night on.

But as far as other concerts, if it played in Cleveland, or even as far away as Pittsburgh from 1967 on, we saw it. Saw Floyd 5 times during that era –UmmaGumma/Meddle/Darkside/Wish You/Animals, Crimson a few times, Yes, Tull, Genesis, Gentle Giant, Hawkwind, Nektar, Kraftwerk, and the list continues. Then there were all the Agora concerts - 100s of different artists over the years. If you were on a theater tour, you played the Agora.

Then there was our jazz side. Since all of us played in support bands that played regularly at the Smiling Dog, we saw and/or played with most of the jazz fusion and blues artists of the era. Was this a great life or what?

What can you tell me about the name?

Pi Corp – The Troops of Infinity says it best – Alan came up with it at a meeting in my apartment when we were trying to come up with a name that didn’t sound like a bunch of environmentalists. He said something like “Pi like infinity and Corp like corporation and marine corps… waddaya think?” We loved it.

Was there any original concept to the band, or?

 “MUSIK  -  SPONTANO  -  ELECTRIK” is on all of our newest products, but we felt pretty much from the beginning that our style of music had to come from within – it could never be written, it just had to happen. Except for Together and Just Another Song, everything on the albums and CD are totally spontaneous, never discussed, never rehearsed, heck, we didn’t even say what key it should be in. We just walked into the studio and said something like, “think fireworks, think space”… and then started playing. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. That’s how we fell into the whole themed music style of playing and little did we know that it was the beginning of Alan’s movie soundtrack career. BTW, think fireworks, think space turned out to be “Space War”.

Well, the Rockadelic album features songs from 1973-1976, what can you say about Pi Corp during these three years?

There’s a tongue and cheek story of how Earthman and Pi Corp came to be is the first and title cut on the Let Them Eat Pi CD. Marilyn Patterson, our only Pi’Onette, does a great job telling the story as the Sexy Computer Chick. But everybody pretty much revolved in their own orbit.

Pi Corp was a studio band that required continuous monetary support to exist. Therefore, we all had to have outside incomes… which was the main reason the band did not progress as a normal musical group would have. We eventually acquired a lot of material on tape, but that style of music quickly fell out of favor when cocaine moved in. And just about that time, the disco era was starting to creep take over… space music was on its way out.

You were for sure very hallucinogen inspired band, weren't you? What are your thoughts about that?

Well yeah… but actually we weren’t. The only time we had ever done psychedelics was when we did the LSD1 session. Even though LSD1 was memorable and it turned out extraordinarily well, none of us ever did acid again. Jobs, vehicles, apartment rent, studio rent, serious equipment habit, girlfriends, the band, other gigs… we were extremely busy and involved on at least three different musical fronts. We weren’t wasted at all… on the contrary, we were workaholics.

Alan and I both worked for local bands as sound men, we both had full time gigs at the music store in the beginning, we played as side men with local jazz legend Bill D’Arango opening for national jazz acts at the Dog, and we both spent every free hour building the studio, playing music and trying to further the cause. After a long day at the music store, sometimes with a club gig from the night before thrown in, pot was the only way we could wipe away the outside forces, the dreariness of 1973 Cleveland, and play with feeling and emotion. Other than pot when we played, we just weren’t into any other drugs at all.

But the music was definitely geared towards that culture because that’s where the culture was at during the early 70s… before the recreational drugs turned from pot and acid to cocaine and alcohol. Cocaine screwed everything up!

Please comment each song from the LP.

Let Them Eat Pi
Bickel, Howarth, Patterson
Music recorded 1974-75  Narration recorded 2009
I wrote this ‘spaced-out’ tongue and cheek story about the history of Earthman and Pi. The music is 3 tracks of Alan with everybody screaming and carrying on in the background. Marilyn Patterson does a great job as the sexy computer chick.

Howarth, Bickel, Fischer, Risner – 1973
Brian took a chemically induced rap from the LSD1 session and reversed it. Quite

The Dirge           
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert – 1973-74
This was the first good session with Denny. It was actually quite magical. It was recorded soon after we moved to the big 3-room and were still Earthman Enterprises. We reached “it” that night.

Geffert – 1974. During a session, Denny was doing an impromptu and my little guy mic (AKG D58E) was picking up his drums and putting them through my bass rig’s Echo-Plexes and phase shifter.

Bickel, Howarth, Leffel, Geffert, Risner – 1974
This was the only song I ever wrote (it’s about the chick in the next song) and the first thing we ever tried to mix down to a 2-track, then back to the 4-track for Woody’s vocals and a lead. It’s a bit raw, but Woody sings the shit out of it.

Devil Weed        
Risner, Howarth, Bickel, Geffert – 1975
Okay, Brian gets top bill for this one. My girlfriend had just split and Brian was in town with some absolutely killer weed and I was bitchin’ about chicks and hell and Denny started this drum beat and Devil Weed happened.

Just Another Song           
Leffel, Howarth, Bickel, Geffert – 1975
Woody wrote this tune and played most of the guitar parts. This was the big Pi production number; a second attempt at mixing down multiple tracks. Four guitars; shades of Derek and the Dominoes. I think it’s a great tune. Woody gets there just before the vamp out

Howarth, Bickel, Fischer, Risner – 1973
This was our first recorded session; and with a real drummer after a year of being without. Rick had some time off from Thunderduk, Alan and I skipped Ed’s biggest and most important party in the world, and Brian came off the road from the Weather Report tour to engineer. And like the title implies, we ventured into the cosmic void. (Brian did not and therefore was able to capture the craziness) Needless to say, this is one of our most innovative sessions. Alan’s very first serious synthesizer stuff and one of our best sessions ever.

Space War         
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert – 1974
Alan said “think space, think fireworks.” We did a big 4th of July jam. We wanted to commemorate the holiday and the studio was only 600 degrees and we sweated our asses off. But the guitar was huge! Garbath rocked that night.

Howarth, Bickel, Geffert – 1974
Alan had just replaced a broken echo-plex tape and was testing it by saying shit. That’s just how these things get started.

Telerama Boogie            
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert – 1974
I had just gotten back from my Dad’s shop in Pittsburgh. The guys were itchin’ to play and I wasn’t even in the door and they just started wailing this Telstar kinda riff. I didn’t have time to even strap on the bass, so I just went for the keys.

Organ Over Easy             
Howarth, Leffel – 1975
This was the last thing ever recorded in the E. 59th St. studio. T’was somber. Woody is the w…

Howarth, Bickel, Patterson
Music recorded 1974   Narration recorded 2009
3 Layers of Alan-Mania with Marilyn’s excellent narrative introducing the long lost and newly resurrected Pi Corp mission logs. All of which are straight from four track.

Rock N Roll Show           
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert, Leffel, Risner – 1975
This track was the beginning of Woody’s official involvement. It was also my first bass lead and I used a Hagstrom 8-string. Woody’s impromptu vocals were friggin excellent.

Hash Market     
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert – 1976
Alan got a cello. It was the first time Alan ever played a cello. It just felt like a Middle East Hash Market for some reason. Very tasty synthesizer starts it out.

Can’t Slow Down            
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert, Leffel – 1975
A burst of brilliance. This kicks ass. We were playing around going nowhere when all of a sudden, the Gods of Zeppelin shined down upon us for a minute or so, then it went away… damn!

Power Cycle      
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert, Risner – 1974
This one got cut from the ‘Lost” album due to lack of space. So I remixed it straight from the 4-track. Bath was a headin’ for the soundtrack market on this one.

Never Sell Out On You   
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert, Leffel – 1975
Woody used to call this kind of vocal “Speech-Sing”. This was the 2nd installment of our new direction: Woody’s stories with an underlying soundtrack. Talking Heads WAY before The Talking Heads.

Nowhere At 3AM            
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert – 1974
It was very late, we were burnt out. I think Denny and Alan had just gotten back from a Rainbow gig, but we had to accomplish something before going to Chung Wah’s.

Warped Pew     
Howarth, Bickel, Geffert - 1975
Yes, it is warped!. Sometimes ya just don’t understand why, ya just do it. I think Alan turned the corner.

At the height of the Earthman Enterprises transitioning to Pi Corp era, we had our base of operations; the coolest and most innovative electronic music rehearsal studio anywhere. Although it was in the shittiest part of Cleveland, walking into the studio from the dilapidated second floor hallway was like being transported from the inner city ghetto to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

On one end of the tri-room facility we had the ‘control room’, on the other end was the workshop. But the large middle room was our rehearsal space. Alan’s quad array was up on stands all around the room, my four West bass cabinets sat directly beneath them, and Denny’s massive drum set, surrounded by large, free-standing sound baffles, was set up in the middle.  To top it off, we hung some large futuristic looking grey foam panels in black frames, set up Alan’s old Hawkwind style light show, and put it all on top of a plush white carpet.

The room looked like a magical electro-musical mother-ship. It was very cool. You would have thought we could have taken at least one good picture.

We want to thank:
Dave Yost Bruce Heigh Phil D-Angelo Ed DiFiore and everyone at DiFiore’s Music Wally Westburg and Westgate Music Roger Bohn and the Smiling Dog Saloon Chung Wahs Chinese Restaurant Hank LaConti and Everyone at the Agora Agency Recording Studios WMMS - the best radio station in the world Buddy Maver and Rainbow Canyon (Mushroom) Bill D’Arango and Skip Hayden Pink Floyd and Weather Report Zephaniah Cross The Pirates Cove Richie Whittington

Pi Corp was:
Alan Howarth- Synthesizer, Guitar, Flute, Keys, Engineer
Guy Bickel- Bass, Keys, Whiney Vocals
Denny Geffert- Drums, Percussion
Brian Risner- Engineer, Screamer in Devil Weed
Woody Leffel- Lead Vocals, Guitar
Rick Fischer- Drums and Percussion on ‘LSD1’ and ‘Introid’
And our newest 2009 Pi-onette, Marilyn Patterson- Narrator on Let Them Eat Pi and Organic

How did the recording sessions look like?

There were no ‘official’ recording sessions; the tape ran for everything we did. We have hundreds of hours of stuff on reel to reel 4-track. Since everything musically was spontaneous, you never know when you’re gonna get to “it”. “It” doesn’t happen very often and you want to make sure the tape’s rolling. We missed a lot of good stuff because the recorder was off. On the other hand, we have tons of stuff that is literally, Shiit.

What happened?

Ya gotta see the movie (The Cause). If I tell you in this interview, then you’ll know how the movie ends. Yes there’s a feature film script written and waiting to be produced. It’s all about the 3 year Pi Corp era. It’s definitely an indie film; and with a Pi Corp music soundtrack, it’d be pretty cool. We’re shoppin’ for producers… if anybody is interested.

I understand you had troubles finding a label, but tell us more about the gear did you used?

Actually, we never looked for a label. We didn’t make it that far – the band ended just after “the incident”. (add cliffhanger music here) And with regards to the gear, there’s a great little segment in Deeper Into the Void that features the equipment. Plus, it would be more fun to watch than for me to list out all the stuff.

In 2010 there was an album out called Let Them Eat Pi. What's that about?

It all started when my friend Walter turned me onto a record company in Italy named Alma Karma. They make retro records on vinyl, pretty good quality, and they were interested in picking up where Rich left off… and we wanted to add some trax to sweeten the deal. I had been working on resurrecting some of the old Pi tapes that didn’t make it to the Lost album, so it seemed like a fun thing.

Well, to make a long story short, it took a year from initial contact, but we did get a small batch of Let Them Eat Pi albums made. The album was pretty much the entire Lost in the Cosmic Void album with 4 new tracks. But Greece’s economy was tanking right about then and it was affecting Italy and Spain. One day Alma Karma was gone and I could never get hold of them again.

But I released the U.S. version CD with all 19 tracks soon afterwards. It’s quite a collection of music. It spans all three years, from the LSD1 session with Rick Fischer in 1973 to Rock N Roll Show with Woody late 75/mid 76.

The CD is more representative of the entire Pi Corp project than Lost in the Cosmic Void. Lost was recorded and mixed down to 2-track back in 1974/75. But the newer tracks on the CD were taken straight from the master 4-tracks and digitally re-mixed… actually mixed for the first time. They also feature more of Woody’s speech-sing.

After you disbanded, what happened during the late 70's onward?

I starting touring with bands in early 76; started with Eric Carmen, moved up the ranks over the years and ended up doin sound with Zappa, then hit the R&B circuit for a while until I move to Florida and became a concert promoter production manager.

Alan stuck it out in Cleveland the longest, then moved to LA where he ran into John Carpenter at a party. Carpenter needed sound effects for his new movie called Halloween. The rest is history Alan became an award winning film sound designer and composer.

Brian was on the road with Weather Report until there was no more Weather Report, then with other bands in the jazz world, then moved into TV and film sound.

Woody did Granicus for a while but things went awry, Woody moved back to Cleveland, played in some local bands and married his childhood sweetheart.

Denny moved to LA, kept playing drums for all kinds of bands, then moved back to Cleveland and became a teacher.

Rick continued playing and is still playing in bands around the Northern Ohio area.

“Deeper Into the Void” is a new project of yours. I would like if you could present it to our readers.

It’s something quite different actually – In a nutshell, Deeper Into the Void is a high definition, 30 minute dose of aural insanity presented with a fun and compelling 3D, psychedelic perspective. It’s also a great 40th anniversary slice of Pi.

LSD1 (the 9 minute track that is on Lost and Let) was just one part of a very memorable day-long musical romp through the cosmic void. We compiled some of the more interesting segments from that day into a thirty minute soundtrack, then added a chroma 3D stylized video that captures the vibe of the journey. It features the LSD1 back story, the gear, the musicians, and what was going on in 1973 Cleveland.

That day was our first session with a real drummer, Rick Fischer, in almost a year. It was also Alan’s very first musical endeavor with his new EML 101 synthesizer. And to top it off, Alan and I decided to skip the music store’s first, big, employee appreciation party that our boss personally invited each one of us to, and thought it would be a good idea if the session made a small detour through the cosmic void. Good plan, huh?

Anyway, up until the session with Rick, the synthesizer was pretty much not a ‘playable’ machine. It was not musician friendly. Alan had had it for a few months and was producing sporadic sound effects, but not ‘music’. It didn’t really use notes… and the rhythms achieved with the sequencer made it almost impossible to play along with. There was a serious learning curve and most advanced functions of any kind required patch cables. But it was so cool!

But on that historic day in 1973, the Gods of Owsley shined down upon Alan and it all came together in such a spectacular way that it was then we knew we were on the right path.

Deeper Into the Void is organic psych synth at its very best. Yes! You will come away with altered brain waves and thought patterns after just one listening with headphones while wearing the glasses.

Any future plans, any regrets?

Future plans? Resurrecting as much as the Pi Corp stuff as possible and get it out there. Plus, I would love to get this movie in gear. But right now I’m concentrating on getting Deeper Into the Void out there.

Regrets? Yeah, I wish we would have released Lost in the Cosmic Void when we recorded it, when that kind of stuff was popular. As I mentioned before, the ‘trippy, druggy shit’ was going out of style very quickly and after the incident, everybody quickly lost interest and went their own ways. (It was quite an incident)

What is on your turntable right now and what are you reading, Guy?

I find it very difficult to relate most of the new stuff happening in the rock world – sounds like I heard it all before. Dream Theater does some really great stuff and I love Hammerhead on Jeff Beck’s latest album, but nowadays I’m more of a jazz fan. I listen to Acoustic Alchemy, Esparanza Spaulding, Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke, Weather Report, Steely Dan, Joe Zawinul’s stuff, Chic, Herbie, Victor…

Wait, there is a new group I dug for a while – The Asteroid Galaxy Tour – Their first single was in my head for so long it was beginning to drive me crazy. I had to take daily doses of Steely Dan to make it go away. But the lead singer (Mette Lindberg) was so gorgeous, she even passed Deborah Harry and Stevie Nicks in my private list of stunningly gorgeous chick lead singers. 

My reading is now confined to trade rags (computers, music, theater, sound…). I have between 4 and 8 I read each month. Since I do computer graphics and 3D animation, I need to stay very much on top of things. Plus I’ve begun writing screenplays; “The Cause” being one of five completed.

OK, I think we pretty much covered the whole story of your band. Would you like to send a message to our readers?

Buy gold and silver. Eat plenty of dark green leafy vegetables. An please pick up a copy of Deeper Into the Void and help keep the cause alive.

Interview made by Klemen Breznikar/2013
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