Brendan Howard, Author

My afternoon with
America's greatest rock and roll band

published in THE NOISE / NOVEMBER 1998

The Pills wanted to meet me at the donut shop down the street from their practice space at the Sound Museum, but I ran a little late and missed them. I couldn't get into the building until I befriended a guitar-slinging longhair, and then I had to wander the halls until someone could point me in the right direction. Having seen the Pills play their infectious pop-rock at numerous clubs in the past three years, I should have known to simply walk in the direction of the loudest practice room. Even with a heavy door between me and the amps, the melodic thunder of the Pills could be heard loud and clear. The walls were shaking with the sound of Jamie Vavra's drums and Corin Ashley's nimble bass packing a wallop across the hard-hitting guitar of Clyde O'Scope and David Thompson. The music faded after a short wait (Pills songs rarely stretch past the three-minute boundary) and I took that opportunity to barge into the practice space.

All four Pills are warm and genial. Seeing my notebook, Clyde puts on a sly grin and asks, "Are you going to grade us?" He knows better; I've actually come to talk about their upcoming CD, Wide Awake with the Pills, and the tour to follow. This past summer, the Pills competed in Jim Beam's "One Shot to Stardom" contest at the House of Blues and demolished everyone in their path. Weeks later, the boys traveled to New Orleans for the finals and won the whole shebang. They ended up with a plethora of prizes including studio time, a pressing of CDs, and a tour bus. Yes, a tour bus. "As soon as we get the keys," Corin jokes, "we're going to park the bus in front of T.T.'s, just to be cool." The itinerary includes gigs with such luminaries as the B-52's, 10,000 Maniacs, Reverend Horton Heat, and Juliana Hatfield, capped by a gig at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. David reminds me that the band has been hitching rides with buddies and girlfriends since their inception, and notes the irony: "The band without a car has a bus."

While I take a seat, the Pills go back into rehearsal mode. Corin explains that the band has been practicing one of his new tunes for a show this weekend. "Me and my girlfriend are celebrating our anniversary on Saturday," he says, "and I need to do something special to justify taking her to the Linwood that night." The new song, "Halifax," has a tricky bit in the middle -- the rhythm section has to switch gears while the guitar players are riffing hard, and the band needs to work out the particulars of that transition before the tune is ready for public consumption. Jamie watches the proceedings carefully from behind his drum kit while the other three -- solid songwriters all -- stand in a circle and discuss whether or not to throw in a little distortion. David demonstrates the technique, and Corin nods thoughtfully. The songs he composes are his babies; each one is full-borne in his head and any modifications must be considered with great care. The guys decide to give it a whirl and Jamie instantly jumps into action. David casually leans over his microphone, almost on tiptoe, and matches Corin's vocal sound with Merseybeat style. Clyde addresses the mike with aggressive confidence and bangs out the riffs with all the assurance of a Mod superstar. I notice a poster on the wall that reads NO BRITISH ACCENTS and can't help but feel the irony. I'm sure that's what the Pills intended.

The Pills started life in 1995 as the Penny Dreadfuls, rising from the ashes of groups with such unlikely names as Atlas Shrugged and BeBe Gallini. Their trademark blend of '60s pop, '70s punk and '90s style was quickly established and remains largely intact. A cassette from the early days features three songs ("All That Way," "Molly" and "Hobby Horse") and documents the nascent Pills sound with John Walton on drums. Since those sessions, they have bounced from one recording studio to another -- Wide Awake was recorded in three different towns. With a snicker, Clyde explains, "Our album was recorded at so many studios 'cause no one has ever given us one fucking dime to record with. We still owe some people a little know who you are! It's coming!"

The Pills are now putting the finishing touches on their CD for Jeff Marshal's Monolyth Records that includes their tastiest pop nuggets. The record kicks off with the insistent guitar of "All That Way" and doesn't give listeners a chance to catch their breath until the final scream of distortion fades away. Completists will be glad to know that the 1997 single "Scooter Gurl (She's So Faithful)" and its b-sides ("The Back of Your Head" and "Soft and Brown") will now be available on a format apart from green vinyl. Highlights abound, like Corin's hard-rocking "Real Real Gone" and Clyde's "Wide Awake," a psychedelic crowd-pleaser which lends the album its title. Longtime fans of the Pills will swoon over the inclusion of "Butternut," David's popular tribute to an insignificant loser with no pride. Corin is pleased with the results, but is careful to offer a disclaimer. "This is not an album in the sense that Village Green Preservation Society is an album. Ours is simply a collection of our best songs -- recorded by a cast of thousands -- continuity thrown to the wind. This one was mostly about trying to capture our energy. I would very much like to get down to the business of writing an album album." Clyde perks up at the mention of his favorite Kinks album. When asked how his record compares to that of his idols, Clyde says, "Our album doesn't stack up to theirs, but theirs doesn't really stack up to ours, either."

"I want to make something like Odessy and Oracle or S.F. Sorrow," says Corin, "and I believe we're just getting to that zone. We've all been listening to The Who Sell Out a lot. I want to make a record like THAT. Clyde can write the 'Odorono' bit."

David mentions an upcoming project that will surely reveal their influences: "We're involved in this Kinks tribute -- it's not a tribute album, really, because it's a vinyl 45 with four songs by four bands. It's going to be a really cool thing. The Figgs and the Gravel Pit are going to be on it, and we're big fans of those guys. Then there's us doing "Picture Book" and the Revelers. All four bands independently picked songs from the same album -- isn't that weird?"

"It's fate!" says Clyde.

Fate has little to do with the success of the Pills -- from what I can tell, it's more about blood and sweat than anything else. The three senior members of the Pills have been in the trenches for a long time, and had a great deal to share with The Noise:

In writing the songs on this CD, I was very much influenced by a group of younger Mod kids that go to bars like "What a way to go-go" and "The Pill" on certain nights to hear the music that matters to them. I really tried to write songs for the people in those clubs -- almost like an outside observer. The greatest influence of Mod on this record is not anything as ephemeral as a haircut, but rather the society that I found in those clubs. I'm not one of those kids, I'm trying to write for them. Mod is an ideal, not just a fashion, and yet the main surface elements of it -- basically being really young, really thin and really British -- are beyond me.

I think our sound has gotten bigger. Even though our guitar tones are still what a musician or engineer might call "thin" as opposed to Van Halen-sized stacks of Marshall amps, our sound fills a room better these days. It's more bombastic. I don't think the style of the songs has changed too much since we started -- mostly hyper-pop-rock with a couple of excursions into ska or mid-tempo pop. But this is good; we like it that way.
Corin: We have gotten much better at not letting the music get the best of us. I really believe that our set is harder to pull off than the average band's. At most moments in most of our songs, every member of the band is playing at the edge of his ability and singing and jumping around. There's never a time when we're just vamping on first position G for a whole verse or anything like that. Back in the day, our aspirations occasionally outstripped our abilities.

The sum of the Pills is greater than its individuals. We are a band of four guys continually fighting for the spotlight, although many a musician would argue this approach (understandably) this seems to work pretty well for us. There has always been a lot of drama surrounding our band -- there's a lot of drama on this record. It will be interesting to see if anyone can spot it! Happy, sad, melancholy, always up-tempo. Maybe all a good band can do is be an extraordinary example of human behavior: extreme in nature, definitive, microcosmic and usually drunk.

Contrary to what Clyde and Corin might tell you, the name was my idea. A friend of Corin's thought we sounded like a Mod band and deserved a Mod name. I said the only thing I know about Mods is scooters and pills. The Scooters would not have been a good name. (However, there are some excellent bands with terrible names. What would you say to a bandmate who suggested The Police?)
Clyde: That's a damn lie. I had a whole list of names, including the Miracle Pills. We all arrived at the same name simultaneously. It's fate!

You take any other 21 year old drummer and put him in a room with a bunch of old geezers telling him what records he should listen to, it won't work. Jamie saw how important Keith Moon is to me and did me the honor of actually checking it out. I really respect him for being open-minded that way. You try telling some other young drummer that it's cooler to play like Bun E. Carlos than that guy from Soundgarden and see how far you get.

No one in the band wears boring clothes to a show. We don't go for outlandish costumes, but no one shows up in their street clothes either. I personally like the look of wearing a suit jackets or nice shirt and then jumping around like a madman. If there's a "Pills look," that's it. Not to mention Cory's jumpsuit and crazy Mod sweaters.

True story -- Bruce Caporal (Boy Wonder) was filling in on drums for a little while. We dragged his ass to a handful of bullshit-nowhere gigs from Worcester to Philadelphia. We were driving back from a particular crappy gig in Western Mass at three in the morning, having spent our money on beer and food. By the time we got to the final toll on the Mass Pike, all of us were completely out of money. We all looked at Bruce, who pulled out a $10 bill and muttered, "Fuckin' Pills."

Rock's biggest threat lies in the industry that has grown up around it. It's lawyers that directly control what records the average kid thinks are important-and then when the kid starts a band, he or she is influenced by the shit that some asswipe in accounting thought would be a viable project due to their overall financial picture. So we may be getting some pretty lame bands in the next few years.

I approach the guitar from the angle of avoiding what I hate as oppose to leaning towards what I love. What is usually left is some type of emission of everything and everybody I know patched thru a fuzz box and blasted against the hood of a Lincoln Continental with the white hot intensity of 1,000 suns! Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't the beauty is in the gamble.
Corin: After doing this for 15 years I still feel my toe shoot up in my shoe the second Clyde plugs his Les Paul into his Vox AC-30. That is precisely what rock is all about.

published in THE NOISE / 1998

I couldn't find anywhere to park on Lansdowne Street, so I dropped off my roommate Jeremy and parked in the Fenway. It took me a few minutes to walk all the way to Bill's Bar, which had been renamed "Pills Bar" for tonight's perfomance by the Pills. How did Corin Ashley pull this one off? I knew he had a lot of friends in town, but the Pills hadn't been frequenting the clubs in recent months. Guitarist Cory Harding had been on tour with Jenn Trynin, which meant Jamie Vavra's drums were getting a little dusty. In addition, guitarist/vocalist Dave Thompson had only just re-joined the group. Still, the transformation was complete: "Pills Bar" posters had effectively obliterated any evidence of the club's real name.

I paid the cover and immediately ran into my buddy Russ, who quickly bought me a cider. "Did I miss Quick Fix?" I asked.

"Yeah, they finished a few minutes ago. Jake Zavracky has really changed his style since playing with Boy Wonder. Quick Fix has a groovy, in-your-face sound, like Supergrass or something." Then Russ perked up: "Did you hear that the Pills won the contest?"

"The battle of the bands contest sponsored by Jim Beam? 'One Shot to Stardom,' right? That's awesome!"

"Fuck yeah," said Russ. "It's so cool that Dave is back with the group. Corin has a good ear for melodies and hooks, but it's just not a Pills show without Dave's aggressive pop-rock nuggets. Then there's Cory's garage/meth noodling guitar style. In my opinion, the friction between the guys is what defines the Pills."

"Careful," I said. "You sound like a rock critic. Or a groupie." I patted Russ on the back and waded through the teeming masses to find Jeremy. The place was packed! I ended up face to face with Jade Papillion, another local music luminary.

"I peeked at the set list," said Jade, who looked all charged up. "The guys are playing a lot of new songs tonight. 'Real Real Gone' and 'Nicola' totally rock -- I think Corin wrote those two -- and they're also doing 'Kissing the Dirt.' Have you heard that one? It's totally trippy. Cory's singing one called 'Wide Awake' or something. And wait until you hear Dave do 'Apologize' -- it's the best tune that Buddy Holly never wrote."

"What about the old ones?"

"All the classics are there -- 'All That Way,' 'Molly,' 'She's All Yours,' and 'Hobby Horse.' And get this -- they're doing a cover of 'Band on the Run' where they ALL take turns singing lead."

The Pills were now on stage, tuning their instruments and preparing to perform. They seemed to be getting along famously. "Cooperation is key," I said. "Corin and Dave are fantastic songwriters, Jamie's drumming is first-rate, and no one on the scene plays pyrotechnic guitar solos quite like Cory." I took another drink of cider.

Jade gave me a funny look. "Now you're going to say that the Pills are 'America's greatest rock and roll band' and 'a phenomenon waiting to happen,' aren't you?"

"Who's to say that they're not?" I asked, grinning.

Jade shrugged, just as a voice boomed out through the public address system: "Ladies and gentlemen, please give a warm welcome to the world's greatest unsigned band, the Pills!" Jade laughed out loud, and I made my way to the front of the stage. I found Jeremy up there, just in time to hear the band gallop into their first song.

Rumors, hearsay, legends -- all of them have a grounding in reality. The Pills rock.

(Lucas Finn)

published in THE NOISE / 1996

If you haven't done so already, I strongly suggest that you pick up a great CD compilation called Wicked Deluxe, if only for track number nine: "She's All Yours" by the Pills. This letter-perfect pop song inspired me to catch the Pills at at live venue, and now I'm hooked.

Gentle readers, the Pills are a phenomenon just waiting to happen. "She's All Yours" is no fluke; these fellows have penned a dozen or more songs that sound like future classics. Vocalists Corin Ashley and David Thompson have frontman charisma to spare, and when ace guitarist Clyde Harding throws in some harmonies, it's Merseybeat time ("Soft and Brown" and "Scooter Song" are good examples). If in-your-face pop nuggets are what you want, David delivers with "Back of Your Head," "Butternut," and "Molly." Clyde steps to the mike for a galloping song about muscle cars, and it's a gem. All along, drummer John Walton offers pulse-pounding support and great drum fills.

The Pills tore through the setlist with ferocious energy and made sure the audience came along for the ride. A broken string on David's guitar should have brought the show to a screeching halt, but instead Corin initiated a fantastic interlude with hilarious ad-lib lyrics about David's "strap trouble." A great moment in a great show.

While there was talk about a 7" release in the near future, that home remedy alone won't cure what ails you. For the full treatment, I prescribe a steady dose of the Pills, every chance you get. See this band!

(Lucas Finn)

© 1997- Brendan Howard
All rights reserved.