NGC-4594 interview with David Bliss
1. Thanks for taking your time to talk about your band. First I would like to ask you about your childhood and teen years. Where did you grow up and what were some of the influences?
My pleasure – although you may find yourself crying ” Stop! Enough!” before we are done!
I was born in small town USA in 1945. One of those semi-agricultural towns that happened to lie in the shadow of a capital city, whose essential nature would inevitably be consumed in the suburban sprawl that was to come. But that was later. My early recollections there remain quite benign – lots of time outdoors; exploring landscapes, football in the street, baseball in the local farmer’s field; unlocked doors; secure family vibe, etc. – parents, and childhood itself obscuring the more sinister stuff going on in the adult world. The Macarthy Senate Hearings for instance.The bomb. The absurd ‘cold war’. I’m guessing you are probably too young to remember when world leaders spent their time and energy creating fear and paranoia amongst their citizens – much as religious leaders today promote fear and suspicion amongst their parishioners. God, what bullshit! Why do we grow up to be such assholes, I wonder?
Nevertheless, the generally relaxed atmosphere of my own youth clearly had a great influence on my life – greater than I would have guessed back then – as I remain fairly ‘laid-back’ to this day. Naturally I have since had the opportunity to see and consider how different life can be for other people. I know my good fortune. I could name other influences that you might also find silly coming from an old acid head, but you will only go ‘Yeah,yeah, – but what about the music?’
So of course, rock n roll sort of ‘officially’ started back then in the ’50s too, and yes, I managed to buy a 78rpm version of Elvis Presley’s ‘Don’t be Cruel’, and later, various 45s of Fats Domino, The Everly Brothers, Bo Diddley, The Platters, The Crickets etc, but I would have to say that my interest in music was not that great until an older friend and rock n roller somehow showed me how to visualise stuff I heard on the radio – simple stuff to be sure – on a piano keyboard, like in my mind’s eye, which I could later try to locate on a real piano – enabling me within 48 hours to play things ‘by ear’ – as he himself did. True! More importantly, it enabled me later to visualise stuff I heard in my head onto the keyboard and I began composing, if not actually ‘writing’ the music down. God, what a gift! He died a few years later at 18. In a hospital from shock treatments of all things. Fucking bastards!
2. Were you in any bands before forming NGC-4594? Any releases from then?
When I was about 15, I hung out with some guys a couple of years older than me. They were into all that beat stuff – Jack Kerouac and such, and the jazz that went with it, – all of which they turned me on to (as well as the occasional reefer that somehow found its way into our sleepy town). From that point on for the next few years I was listening almost exclusively to the likes of Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Charles Mingus, Gerry mulligan, Bill Evans, Coltrane, Adderly, Dizzy etc, and really, had little interest in mainstream pop anymore. I don’t know why I took so strongly to this music, but even now, it is to these bands I turn when I need something uplifting. I even formed a sextet myself – a band with no name, which played only at wild private parties! I was in fact never really good enough myself to be a jazz pianist – and far too lazy to put the effort in to become one – but then I wrote the material for this band, so my limitations were never really exposed – and the horn players were dynamite! Though still a schoolboy, in some ways it was the most adventurous and authentic stuff I ever did. No, there were no recordings ever made, and perhaps for the sake of my delusions that is just as well!
3. What was the scene in your town?
It would be wrong I suppose, to say there was no ‘scene’ in my town. It is just that I was never completely a part of it. Have you ever seen that film ‘American Grafitti’? That was something like the scene in my town in ’60-’62. Lots of beer and hamburgers. Bubbly girls, and boys racing their cars out on the stretch of highway that ran past the town. Lots of teenage drama around who was or wasn’t getting laid. You know. I guess – maybe because the jazz culture was kind of marginal – I saw myself as part of something more subversive and exotic than the usual high school stuff. Perhaps I was just more pretentious!
When I left in ’63 to go to university, the whole scene changed completely. The whole place was buzzing. All young people, with no restraints for the first time in their lives. Everybody in your face and laying their rap on you, and you could just be what you wanted to be. Wow! What an eye-opener! And there was a lot of heady stuff happening around us too. Within a few months of being there President Kennedy had been assassinated for God sakes! The war in Vietnam was beginning to escalate and get very intense, especially because anyone aged between 19-26 was eligible for the ‘draft’. Lots of protests against it.The struggle for racial equality was another big one going on at the time, with many opportunities to get involved. The ‘pill’ had arrived too, with an immediate flourish of unheard-of sexual freedoms – or so it seemed! Suddenly a running conflict appeared to open up between students and the ‘establishment’ over all sorts of things. And all that was before LSD hit the scene – the biggest disruptive influence to ever enter my life. All this stuff plus the making of many new friends was just more interesting to me than making music in any serious way. Bob Dylan was getting big – and interesting, although he was not really in the mainstream. Apart from motown stuff, I thought the popular music scene generally was rather uninspiring and irrelevant. Then the Beatles came along in 1964, and as their work slowly unfolded more and more outrageously with each new album, I found myself listening to pop once again, feeling this wasn’t as lame as I thought after all. Feeling that this was something that maybe I could do too. People will tell you about this band or that – and I have heard some fantastic popular artists over the years, Stevie Wonder, Dylan, Tom Waits, Steely Dan, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell – far too many to mention, but if I was hard pressed, I would have to say the The Beatles had the biggest impact on me prior to NGC4594. Maybe it was the sheer breadth of the writing or the excellence with which they performed it, or the acid times in which they worked, and the particular resonance it found in me, or perhaps just some unexplainable holistic thing – whatever, this shit was simply staggering to my sensibilities then. It still does.
4. How did you guys came together?
Well Danny and I entered university in the same year, and one way or another other became good friends. We ran with the same crowd. He was from New York City and had been exposed to lots of music, and I suppose, art generally. Always a step ahead of everyone else. A blues man at heart he nevertheless had heard a lot of jazz, folk, and even early workshop electronic music, which was unusual, and of which I was a big fan. You know, those really spacey symphonic pieces created on early synths and computers which filled up whole rooms? God I’d like to hear some of that stuff today. Anyway there was a venue of some kind on campus that hosted a lot of jams and original acts, at which the two of us did a jazz/blues turn occasionally, with me on piano and him on guitar or harmonica. But that was just for fun. A Saturday night thrill with a couple of joints down the hatch.
I think a year or more had passed before I bumped into Chas and Steve at a party. Danny already knew them. Chas was playing a new song he had written called ‘Colors’ on an acoustic guitar. A lovely optimistic sort of song. Folk music, in all its variations, was very popular at this time, partially I suppose, because of Dylan, Joan Baez and such. But also because it was a great DIY medium, like poetry which was also very big back then – yeah, there were poets at these gigs too! Nowadays some Westerners think they are above that kind of thing(poetry), but there are many places in the world where it remains highly valued and powerful, as it should be; full of heart, written in blood, getting the message out in difficult circumstances etc. Anyway, if you could play one of these instruments, a guitar, a banjo, a harmonica, a mandolin etc you could take it anywhere. You’re on a march, you’re at a party, you’re at a coffee house, you’re by yourself on the side of the road, you can just get the bloody thing out and start playing! Magic! Even better with singing! And if you have the wit and sensitivity to write good songs too, you have actually got all you need. That was Chas. He was just such a guy. I was not a big fan of folk music when I first went up to school, but then I met, heard and played with a number of these ‘folkies’ as they were called, and some of them were knock-out. What’s more I liked the way these particular instruments sounded with my own.
Steve was keeping his own counsel. The Bear. Mr. Zen. He too was skilled on several instruments, and, unusually, was also well-versed in jazz, blues and folk – although these things didn’t matter a great deal, because when we started to get together for occasional jams at the place where I was living, there was no real agenda except to make music – just to get the gear out, light up, and look for the groove. It was not even sorted out who would play what instruments. Danny and I were still full time students for Godsakes.
In the meantime the drugs scene had gone a bit mad. Everyone seemed to be smoking their heads off, and then LSD hit the campus with a bang. It was such an unexpected thing. The sheer power of it took me completely by surprise. It seemed like my life was being changed somehow on the inside, and that some new way of life outside was going to have to be found that was compatible with this. As my interest and use of this drug increased, so my grip on the demands of university and other more orthodox things decreased. I was aware of the same stuff happening up and down the country though, like a movement, and my main concern really became finding my way to, and discovering what I could do at the new frontier. Hahahaha! Yeah, man, it was that bad! Hahaha! Suddenly, the jams with Danny, Steve and Chas, which in fact had been taking up more and more time, took on a different light. And they were definitely getting more interesting!
During the autumn of my last year in school, Minty came to live in the flat as a room became free. He brought a flute and some percussion stuff with him and became a regular fixture at the sessions. Minty was really into the music in a big way, and was the greatest advocate of dropping everything else and forming a proper band. I don’t remember if at that point we were actually looking for either a drummer or a singer. I mean Steve could play the drums, and the rest of us could sing, but our weakness in those areas became more evident as the rest of the sound got better. However, a friend of mine knew a guy from his home town who could do both, and we decided to get together one afternoon. This was Bob. We must have been writing music by this time in order to have something to show for ourselves, and a good job too, as, unlike the rest of us fakers and scallywags, he was actually the real thing. Check out some of the snare work on ‘Going Home’ and other tracks. It is not your standard fare. His voice speaks for itself. Hey! Hahaha! Of course it does! Sorry! Yes, he was a musician’s musician, with all the schooling and band experience that might be required already in place. His commitment to us however meant that we would have to commit to him, and by extension, to ourselves as a serious band, which we finally did, withdrawing from the university scene completely to get our shit together in a house by the sea that Minty’s family owned.
5. Do you perhaps remember some of the early sessions you had?
What followed was one long continuous session that lasted about 3 months, during which we got to know each other better, played music constantly, got high and partied hard, following the time-worn formula for enterprises such as this. Our equipment was set up round the clock in a room at the back of the house, and there was hardly ever a time when it was empty. Sometimes one of us, sometimes two, most times all, practising, jamming, writing, trying to get a couple of sets of stuff down tight for the next step. Lots of people came and went, and lots of drugs went down our necks for better or worse, and sometimes it was hard to tell what exactly was going on, but always, there was the music. We lived and breathed the stuff, until we were finished.
6. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but you officially released only 1 single called Skipping Through the Night / Going Home on Smash records, right?
Yes, that is true. It was a ‘double A’ side as they were called in those days, when the usual practice was to put any old tosh the ‘B’ side. ‘Going Home’ was in fact the more promoted track, but Danny’s ‘Skipping Through the Night’ came out so strong, it just couldn’t be considered a ‘B’side. And over the years, during which this record seems to have enjoyed a robust afterlife on the net and on compilations, it has been ‘Skipping through the Night’ which has proved the most popular with listeners. It is not hard to see why. Terrific lead vocal from Bob, great flourishes from Minty on the flute, and some tasty little bits of back-up and instrumentation throughout the song from the rest of us to stitch it all together.
How did you get signed to Smash records?
But in reality, Chas’ excellent and less controversial ‘Colors’ was originally the intended single. In fact it was this song, during a demo session for Mercury – the parent of Smash – which caught the imagination of the producer, and won us the record deal in the first place. Quite soon after signing with Smash, we went along to the studio to record it as our first single, but being a bit inexperienced in this format, we somehow managed to make a cock-up of it. Normally this was a ‘bread and butter’ song for us to play, but on this day we just could not do it justice, and the more we tried, the worse it got, until, after thrashing it to death, we had to go home with our tails between our legs. That’s just the way it goes sometimes!
How many copies were made?
To be honest, I have no idea how many copies were made or how many were sold. I heard it sold reasonably well in the first instance, out on the West coast, and was even some San Francisco DJ’s pick of the week, but we were stuck on the other side of the country, and therefore not in a position to promote it! Worse, it was getting no airplay at all on the East coast, and so had no chance there. All a bit silly I’m afraid. However I know of at least one guy who bought a copy in New York, because 40 years later he opened a channel on youtube (Play Them Again) on which ‘Going Home’ is featured! Which is rather nice. In fact everything good that has happened from a ‘public’ point of view, started happening 40 years down the road, when the band was barely a memory in our own minds! How weird is that?
How do you remember studio sessions?
I personally have never found studio work that easy or enjoyable through the years, and by the time the mixing is mercifully over, I am usually sick to death of the song. But when we did the ‘Going Home/Skipping through the Night’ session a couple of months later, it all seemed to flow like honey straight out of us. It was virtually a ‘live’ session, with very little overdub. Lovely!
7. Did you play any concerts? If so please share some crazy stories that happen! With who all did you play and of course where was your touring territory?
Do you mean by concerts, large venues, like auditoriums and such? Or just gigs? Most of our professional time was spent in New York, and so our gigs were mainly in Manhattan clubs, like the Cafe a Go Go, and Trudy Hellers, and to be honest, I think these smaller venues suited us better. We were never a band for jumping about all over the stage, and weren’t normally that dramatic to see, although in the earliest days, we performed in front of a backdrop of light and painted panels, created and ‘played’ on a ‘light piano’ by a great friend and artist, Bud Swenson, which added an exciting visual dimension. A bit of that stuff can be seen on the cd (but not the album). We did play on the same bills as Jethro Tull, Blood Sweat and Tears, Frank Zappa’s early group The Mothers of Invention, The Doors, but I have no great tales to tell there, and any acquaintantanceships usually took the form of chilling backstage and checking out each other’s bands! We did do a couple of larger gigs right at the start before going to NYC, one backing a large soul revue, and another back at the university we had all attended, which was particularly good – like a massive party. Towards the end of our time in New York we did a free concert in a park with several bands including Country Joe and the Fish, Clear Light, Group Image etc. That too was a good gig and a good time – but I still think we were best suited by a more intimate setting.
8. These days we can find some compilation with your music….
Yes, I heard rumours of a couple of psychedelic compilations from a long time ago – Japanese I think they were – on which both sides of the single appeared, although I have never seen or heard one. I suppose they were just copied from the record at some point, but who cared? Up until a few years ago, thoughts of the old band were fairly infrequent for me, although thoughts of the guys and the times still flashed enjoyably through my mind. Nevertheless, in some respects this is your most interesting question…
If you had tried to find any information about NGC4594 on the net, at any time up until the last few years, you would have found virtually nothing, and you would have to wade through pages and pages of astronomical sites (because the band was named after a particular galaxy) to find any reference to us at all. Now, all kinds of stuff about the band comes up straightaway – info, the cd, the record, the youtube, etc etc – and none of it was generated by us, except that once upon a time, nearly half a century ago we made a rather insignificant single! The rest of the stuff that appears on the current cd/album was not even released, or even produced to be released at the time, and the band eventually crashed. Why would anyone think it worth their while to resuscitate it 43 years later? – Why would they even have heard of us for that matter? How on earth did we acquire fans enough to sell copies of the cd in 15 different countries around the world? Yet I have corresponded with people from Europe who couldn’t possibly have known about us back in 1967, who have been fans for years – not just of the single, but sometimes the other stuff too! Bizarre! It just goes to show – in case anyone needs reminding – that not everything is under one’s own control.
I can only think that the existence of the single on these unauthorised compilations over the years must have created a small but widespread fan base of the band. Also, an old friend had already leaked the rest of the stuff into cyberspace via the old Mercury recording, as a backing track to a short film he was putting together. Thirdly, and crucially, this same guy – Cove, as he was known – who would require another page of this interview to discuss properly, created a blog about the band for some reason about 6 years ago. It did not last long, but left as these things do, a contact point as it drifted around in space. And finally, a genuine fan Gray Newell, and a colleague in the trade, John Reed – neither of whom was known by us or even from the US – collaborated to assemble and release all of the stuff together in a new cd, as a project of their own. And following that, Antoni at Guersson records in Spain – himself an avowed fan of the band decided to release a vinyl version. To be honest, we were almost innocent bystanders!
9. What happened next and what are you doing these days?
Back then? Well when we hit the end of the road financially the band split up, and when the band split up, we really split up – not spiritually really, but certainly physically – as within a very few years we would be literally thousands of miles from each other. Yes, I’m sure there would be some tales to tell about how individual time has subsequently been spent, everbody’s journey etc, but in truth, I don’t even know what those tales might be, as incredibly, there has been very little contact between us all. Amazing how this shit happens with such nonchalance, and the years just roll by! One of the great side effects of the NGC reissue has been the renewal of these relationships – those that could be. I must mention here the untimely passing of Chas, our guitarist, and author of ‘Colors’. He would have found all this current stuff most amusing. A good friend, and all-round excellent dude. Hasta la vista, mate.. For my own part, I still write and play music privately, and would even record it I could get my bloody head around the new recording technology, but in fact I paint houses for my crust of bread. So it goes.. The rest of us have all been involved with different bands at some time or other with varying aspirations and success, (Steve in fact made an album with a jazz band called Sunship) but all would probably regard this particular band, NGC4594, as being the one which – for reasons unknown – contained most of the disparate elements, including timing and plain dumb luck, to have been successful. That did not happen as things turned out in 1967, but then – again, for reasons unknown – the same elements combined again 43 years later to lay a little culty credibility on us, if not exactly rampant success. What a trip! Yes, the artist in me would have preferred the opportunity to have produced and recorded the ‘missing’ tracks properly on an album way back when, as was promised, but I’m cool with this. There is something both amusing, and karmically satisfying in the way things actually worked out, with the thing bursting out of the cosmos of its own accord. Hey man, we’re global! Hahahaha!
10. Thank you very much for taking your time! Would you like to share anything else with the readers of It’s Psychedelic Magazine?
It is therefore a misconception to think that what you say and do just falls out of you into the space nearby and just dies there; that it remains in one place and has no impact -whatever it is – although it usually takes a few years under the belt to realise that truth. So the message I would share with your readers is never to lose heart. If you have something to say or sing or show, get it out there in the best shape you can. And live long! Someone always sees!
Interview made by Klemen Breznikar / 2011
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