Love Tractor: Noah Fence interviews Mark Cline and Mike Richmond

On November 6th, Love Tractor released the remastered reissue of their self-titled debut album, one of many classics made by bands to come out of the Athens, Georgia scene in the early nineteen eighties. 

Here is my interview with two members of Love Tractor, Mark Cline and Mike Richmond.

Noah Fence: Congratulations on the reissue release of your remastered debut album. I just heard it today, and was quite stunned. I have been a fan of the album since 1982, when it was first released, and I heard stuff on the remastered version I had never heard before. Can you tell me how this came about, what motivated you to do the remaster and get it released?

Mark Cline: We have been planning on rereleasing our catalog for some time. The first album was a challenge as the ¼ inch masters had degraded, so for the sake of sound fidelity we decided to simply remix the entire record. Nothing was added or subtracted, we followed Bruce Baxter’s original mix. To shepherd the project, we enlisted the help of former bandmate Bill Berry [REM] (who knows a thing or two about great records) to produce the remix, along with Dave Barbe behind the board. Both Bill and Dave knew the album intimately, Bill had even written a track on the album. The goal was to produce a faithful remix, but just make it clearer.

Bill said, “it’s as if cotton has been removed from my ears.” It’s quite remarkable how great it sounds — how alive it sounds!

Mike Richmond: Thank you, the first album was not only remastered, it was remixed, so there are some subtle differences between the initial release and this re-release.  We did a reunion show at the Georgia Theater in 2016 and from that time on we have been doing more LT things.  We have continued to play occasionally and we knew we needed to get re-releases going since our catalog is out of print.  

Noah Fence: When the band first formed, the band was an instrumental band. Was that conscious choice or direction? Or was that out of necessity, as no one wanted to be the singer or write lyrics?  How difficult was it being an instrumental band? Were audiences receptive?

Mike Richmond: Not really a conscious decision, but one that just kind of evolved into being fine at the time.  When the four of us (Mark, Army, Kit, Myself) got together to play and write we had great chemistry and the musical interplay that we had going didn’t seem to be lacking anything.  We weren’t making instrumentals that just seemed like backing for a vocalist.  And it is also true that at the time no one wanted to sing or write lyrics. I’ve come to the conclusion that the genre known as Instrumental Rock is the red-headed step child of musical genres and making music of that type destines you to cult status at best. There is no such thing as a really popular instrumental group.  The Ventures were doing covers of vocal pop songs so I don’t really count them, but it seems that people need vocals and lyrics even if they are really bad.  That said, we did have some great shows playing all instrumental music and then other times the audience would look at us like we just landed from Mars. 

Mark Cline:  We were art students when we released our first and second albums— school kids, we were making the music we wanted to make with no constraints. None of the songs needed vocals — we didn’t set out to write an instrumental album; it just happened. Trust me, if a song had needed vocals, we would have added them, in fact we put aside one song with vocals as it didn’t fit the feel of the record— and not because it had vocals— the song appears on Around The Bend. We have always written albums, not songs, perhaps this is why we are famously slow in releasing material. The first album is, in our eyes, one complete work — not a collection of songs. Fans and critics who know our music, know that not one LT album sounds like the other. We honestly didn’t think of the album as an instrumental album…although it didn’t have a human voice. To our ears it is complete, it is narrative, it is highly melodic and to this day it sounds fresh. In hindsight, it was not difficult being instrumental as we had no other experience. Audiences loved us; New Order, The Smiths, and other local acts copied riffs from the record so for us it was mission accomplished.

Noah Fence: I find that because the debut album is instrumental, it has a timeless quality. It could have easily been recorded at present. The interplay between the guitars, bass and drums, and the choices made by the engineer in producing the album left it free of anything dating it to the year it was recorded. When you were working on the remastering of this album, did you find that to be true for yourself as well? 

Mark Cline: We are wary of musical trends or hackneyed musical tropes, as corny as this sounds we are very much influenced by each other as opposed to say, “New Wave,” “Hip-Hop,” or some other trend in music. This is not to say we don’t consume tons of music— we do, but certainly not in any way expected of a band. We consider all our records to be timeless, especially this first album. It was written as a single piece of music not a collection of songs. We recommend people listen to it in one sitting. It’s only 35 joyous minutes long.

Mike Richmond: I agree, that album has a timeless quality to it.  I have to play it regularly because that is how I keep in practice.  I put on the record and play to it.  I never get tired of it, it is evergreen and uplifting, I always get a sense of liberation playing all 32 minutes of it during a practice session. When I think of how many times I’ve had to play those songs live, practice them with the band and hear it over and over again during remixes, remastering. It is amazing how fresh it always sounds. 

Noah Fence : Do you have plans to remaster and reissue more of your records? Your second album is also a favorite of mine, and considering how well the debut album has benefited from being remastered, I would love to hear a remastered reissue of the second album.

Also, prior to the release of this remastered album, the band released a seven inch single for Record Store Day, were the songs on that release new recordings? Are there any plans for the band to go into the studio and record new material?

Mike Richmond: Definitely, the second album is being prepared now.  I like our second record more than the first record.  It’s probably my favorite of our records.  Following that, we are also going to re-release our entire catalog.  The 7”, 60 Degrees Below and Festival became 60 Degrees and Sunny and FESTI-vals.  They aren’t re-recordings but we did add new things that emphasize the repetitive nature of those tunes.  The additions were influenced by the music of Phillip Glass.  We were recording new music until the Pandemic shut things down.  Very excited about our new music and we have at least 2 records worth of tunes that just need to be finished when things get back to normal more or less.   

Mark Cline:  We are in the midst of assembling our entire catalog for rerelease, “Around the bend” is up next, it will get a remaster and perhaps some bonus tracks. We are discussing timing of the rerelease now.

Regarding Record Store Day: In remixing the first album we knew we wanted to do something unique for RSD. After having played these songs for many years some of them had evolved, and we wanted to capture that with three special mixes. 17 Days, 60 Degrees Below and Festival had evolved over the years and now seemed the time to do enhanced mixes of the songs — along with the regular remixes. So, these are not new songs rather we have captured how the songs have evolved over the years. They are fuller, longer in places shorter in others, Instruments and dynamics have been enhanced, they are really lovely you have to hear them. 

As Mike said we have two new albums ready to record, certainly one is absolutely ready to go. I Think if Covid hadn’t hit one certainly would have been finished. I’m quite excited by it —the music is remarkable.

Noah Fence : I have a confession to make, when I first heard your version of the Kraftwerk song, “Neon Lights,” I did not know it was a cover. At the time it was released I had not heard of Kraftwerk or that song. Your version of that song is fantastic. I have heard other people cover it, the band Luna for instance, but I prefer your version.  Being a band out of Athens Georgia, which I assume means fundamentally the band is a dance band, is that what motivated the choice to cover that song? 

Also, I have heard that you performed under the name, “Wheel Of Cheese,” doing all cover versions and welcoming fellow Athens musicians to join you on stage, any chance there are recordings of these performances waiting to be released?

Mike Richmond: Ha! A lot of people say that.  I was backstage after a Flaming Lips show several years ago and Wayne Coyne said the same thing about Neon Lights.  We are all fans of Kraftwerk and decided to play it live, probably at a Wheel of Cheese show initially.  Most of the songs that Wheel of Cheese performed were barely rehearsed, we trashed them, everybody got drunk and it was a crazy wild time.  Certainly not your typical cover band.  We realized that our version of Neon Lights was actually pretty good so we went into the studio to record it and were just amazed at how good it came out.  There are probably some recordings of the Wheel of Cheese.  On one particular night Wheel of Cheese consisted of Warren Zevon, REM, Love Tractor and a few others.  Songs we did were, for example: Electric Avenue, Girls Just Wanna have Fun, Country Boy Can Survive, Roadhouse Blues, Rebel Rebel, Disco Inferno, You Dropped a Bomb on Me, Shattered.  I can’t imagine what a live recording of that night sounded like, but it probably sounded like a big mess, but probably a lot of fun to be in the audience and drinking.  Honestly, I don’t want to hear any WOC recordings, the memory will suffice. 

Mark Cline: We have all been huge fans of Kraftwerk, and you are not alone in thinking the song was ours. People say our version is the best, I have to agree, I do like Luna’s version. It was a song that we could really make our own, it lended itself to our style of music. The one requirement of an Athens band from our era was you had to be danceable, the Athens scene was a very participatory scene — the audience was as important as the band. To me our version of Neon Lights, is best illustrated as such: the band in an old Mercedes bumping down a southern red clay dirt road with NEU! blasting out of the 8 track stereo.

Wheel of Cheese was a way for us to blow off steam. Love Tractor and other Athens bands had started touring heavily, and we of course were expected to stick to our catalog on our tour dates, Wheel of cheese was a release from those constraints. Any Athens musician was welcome to play, the only rule being no rehearsal. So anytime Wheel of Cheese played you could expect members of The Method Actors, REM, Pylon and more to be onstage jamming out tunes. To explain Wheel of Cheese fully would take another interview. 

Noah Fence: Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions today. Hope you and your families are all safe and well.

MARK CLINE: Thank you Noah!

The remastered reissue of “Love Tractor” is available now digitally and on LP and CD.

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