A musical whim in Memphis has turned into a full-blown all-star project called Mellotron Variations, whose “Pulsar” from the upcoming self-titled debut album is premiering exclusively below.
Mellotron Variations was created by Robby Grant of the band Vending Machine, who recruited classical musician Jonathan Kirkscey in 2016 for a duo concert for Memphis’ nonprofit Crosstown Arts. The initial collaboration was recorded and distributed in a limited edition, which was also used to apply for a $20,000 NEA grant for multi-disciplinary performances, which helped spur a multi-day Mellotron Variations festival during April of 2018, adding Wilco’s Pat Sansone and John Medeski to the lineup.
“Ideas like that can happen all the time,” Crosstown Arts co-founder Christopher Miner tells Billboard. “If you give people in the community the ownership they deserve over the resources of the space and opportunities, which is what we wanted the building to be all along.”
Sansone, who attended the 2016 Grant-Kirkscey concert, tells Billboard that he’s “a big fan of the instrument, kind of a Mellotron obsessive for years, so anything connected to the Mellotron is interesting to me. I met Jonathan and Robby and we just kind of kept in touch. The idea of revisiting it came up and they asked me if I would like to be involved and I said, ‘Of course…'”
Sansone, who’s never owned a Mellotron himself, says the nine pieces on the Mellotron Variations album were put together “sort of as any band would that’s just getting its sound going, just a process of jamming. The four of us got together in Memphis one weekend and we just turned the machines on and started to improvise. There were a few things Robby and Jonathan already had started, a few ideas that we built on when we all got together. But the majority of it just came out of improvisation and we recorded those and took the best bits and cooked those down into these pieces.”
Grant also created some custom sounds on Mellotron for the album, including some aping drum kits that appear on “Pulsar.” “He had some custom tapes he had made of drum kits,” Sansone recalls, “so he’s playing the rhythm on the Mellotron, which I thought was a really great sound. It’s the funkiest of the tracks in the collection. It’s such an interesting combination of sounds; It’s these sort of low, ominous drum sounds and them I’m playing a harpsichord part and there’s a clarinet part. It’s a cool, unusual combination of textures. That’s what I really like about it.”
Though Wilco is gearing up for its next album, due out in early fall, Sansone is hoping Mellotron Variations will be an ongoing concern. The troupe will perform at Wilco’s sold-out Solid Sound Festival June 28-30 in North Adams, Mass., and has an NPR Tiny Desk Concert as well as another concert in Nashville, both slated for December. “I love doing it, and I’m certainly up for doing more performances,” Sansone says. “And I’d love to write some new material. Hopefully we can all work it into our schedules and keep it going, ’cause a lot of fun and really, really interesting.”