Michael Gibbons and John Gibbons have been releasing sonically devastating records for several decades now, most notably in the Philadelphia based psychedelic space-rock band Bardo Pond.The brothers are about to release Celestial Scuzz, the first Vapour Theories album since 2014 on Fire Records. Both Michael and John are known for their unrelenting and often-times face melting guitar playing styles, and Celestial Scuzz does indeed contain face-melting-ness, alongside some gentler aspects, and another excellent Brian Eno cover.
Admittedly I am quite a fan of Bardo Pond and their related side projects, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to have a chat about Vapour Theories, and the larger Bardo Pond universe. Due to circumstances John Gibbons wasn’t able to participate, but I managed to jump in a Zoom call with Michael Gibbons, just before the Biden Inauguration, for a rather lengthy and somewhat tangential conversation.
As one does these days, we started with the topic of life under COVID-19, and traversed topics such as how amazing songs can sit undiscovered on a tape for years, Trump, the demise of the Lemur House space, forthcoming reissues – basically if you are a fan of the band there is lots of great information in here.
Cyclic Defrost: What’s your world been like since the COVID hit over there?
Michael Gibbons: Oh, I can’t even. I can’t even. I mean fuck, this country, man. Where are you? Where are you in Australia?
Cyclic Defrost: We’re in Melbourne. So we were in lockdown for most of last year, but you know, we didn’t die. Well, a lot of people died, but it’s nothing compared to the what’s going on in the US.
Michael Gibbons: Hey, rub it in, man. (Laughs)
Cyclic Defrost: So have you been working through COVID or have you just been at home?
Michael Gibbons: It’s been so epic. John and I lived in this warehouse, the Bardo Pond warehouse – the Lemur House. And right before it happened, I moved and John moved. Suddenly we were moving out of the warehouse. He was moving to Delaware and I’m moving to a house I just bought, and in middle of that COVID hit. And it’s just been, I tell you what, it’s been the weirdest fucking year ever. Between Trump and COVID, it’s indescribable. It’s like what the fuck? It’s like walking around saying what the fuck every day.
Cyclic Defrost: And it’s still weird. It’s not getting any less weird.
Michael Gibbons: No, it’s getting extremely fucking weird. I wish I wish Hunter S Thompson was around to write about it. It’s absolutely bonkers.
Cyclic Defrost: It’s interesting that you’re talking about this because I was wondering if you would want to talk about these crazy political things that are going on.
Michael Gibbons: God, what else are you going to talk about?
Cyclic Defrost: It kind of framed the last year. OK, going back to what you were saying, so you and John were living together in the warehouse and that then all of this stuff happens, so therefore you can’t play music like normally cause you can’t move around. Is that what happened?
Michael Gibbons: Actually he moved out to Wilmington. It’s such a bizarre story. So he moved to Wilmington because he had a job there at a museum, he works at the Delaware Art Museum. He’s an art installer, art handler. He was working down there, commuting from Philly and he just finally had it. He’d been doing it for almost 10 years and he’s sick of it. He tells me he’s going to move to Delaware. I’m like, okay. This warehouse was cool. There’s a lot of younger people there now and it’s been really good, but everybody I knew was gone. There was one wall though that was leaning in on the studio, a 16 foot brick wall and I just couldn’t take it anymore. I was literally frightened of this wall for the last few years I was there. We were there for like 20 years. So I was like, okay if he’s out, I’m going to get out of here. So I wound up moving out, almost beating him, and then he found a place in Wilmington. Moving was traumatic, it almost fucked us up. We moved out of the warehouse after 20 years. And we were joking about, I was like, “hey, we should have never decided to move out there at the same time.” It just threw the fucking universe into chaos.
Cyclic Defrost: So Lemur House is gone now, it’s evaporated?
Michael Gibbons: It’s gone, yeah. Everything has changed. The band… we haven’t practiced since February. It’s been almost a year. It’s insane to think about.
Cyclic Defrost: That makes sense, I guess, because I was thinking it was a pretty quiet year for Bardo Pond. Normally you would have released stuff, but if you’ve got no space, did you have to set up a new studio space?
Michael Gibbons: I’ve got one in the house, but you can’t be six feet away from each other, so we just haven’t. John and I have been jamming, but ironically, to finish off the story about Wilmington Delaware, it’s about 50 minutes to get there, so it’s just far enough. So he’s dealing with the commute, he moves down. I was working at a museum in Philadelphia and because of COVID I get laid off, they eliminated my position because the museums were falling apart. So I get a job in Wilmington, Delaware. So now I’m commuting too, how about that?! It’s like, how could the universe? And it was the best job, so now I’m commuting to Delaware anyway. So everything has changed. And the band… Luckily though I’ve been staying with John a couple of days a week. We’ve been jamming a lot, doing a lot of Vapour Theories, and ironically the record’s coming out at the same time. We were planning to do this record for like two years. It’s bizarre, it’s heavy though. Isobel (Sollenberger – BP vocalist/flautist/violinist etc) actually hurt her leg. She was working and she hurt her leg, but she’s healing up. It’s been tough man, just lately. But we’ve been jamming and I really like what we’re doing. The record is coming out at the same time, I wish we could hit the road though, it’s so weird.
Cyclic Defrost: That is weird. I just assumed that it was because you couldn’t do band stuff that you and John did Vapour Theories, but obviously you’d already planned that well in advance.
Michael Gibbons: Yeah. Isn’t that weird?
Cyclic Defrost: So I guess you used to just have everything set up and you could just go in and just sort of pick up and just hit record and jam. Was that the process? Does that mean you’re going to have to go back to the old style of going and booking a studio, like writing songs or are you just thinking about the future of Bardo Pond and what’s going to happen, or are you going to wait and see how the world turns out?
Michael Gibbons: Yeah, exactly. I don’t even know, it’s weird. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the band right now. I’m sure we want to do it. We can jam in my basement, I have it all set up. It’s not quite as big as that spot [Lemur House], but it’s not bad. But we can’t get within six feet of each other for more than a minute. So it’s been fucking intense, man.
Cyclic Defrost: Tell me about the process of the Vapour Theories recording. So you and John were recording bits and pieces, noodling around and coming up with songs?
Michael Gibbons: That record is weird. It spans a while and we would work on songs a lot, but they were just weird recordings. It’s funny because it’s almost like you have to find the improvs within the recording sessions, things I don’t even remember when I go back and start listening to stuff, it’s just like, holy shit. We record so much. Once we decided to do the record, I searched through and there was just a lot of weird stuff. Listening to us practicing songs and then this jam will happen and I’ll be like, oh I don’t even remember ever working on that. It’s fun. We worked on the Eno tune that we tried a cover of [The Big Ship], and the other pieces are either straight up improv, like we just jammed, and a couple of things we practiced, actually did some studio stuff. It was a real varied thing on that record. It’s a lot of improv with three or four songs that were actually tunes we were working pretty hard on, but concentrated, all done in a couple of weeks or something.
Cyclic Defrost: So were you overdubbing, like you’d find a piece and then work back over it? Or is it just that’s it?
Michael Gibbons: It’s a combination. There’s a little studio production, there’s some dubbed tracks, like the Eno song, The Big Ship.
Cyclic Defrost: That song turned out great. It’s funny because it sounds like Eno, but it sounds totally demented at the same time, and it’s like that cover that you guys did of Here Come The Warm Jets as well. The great thing about those Eno songs is that the melody he writes is just so clear, but then you can take it so far and it’s still like the song.
Michael Gibbons: That’s exactly the way it is.
Cyclic Defrost: Was Eno a big influence on you guys? Because it’s the second Eno song you’ve done, or is it just something that you just come up when you’re jamming because it’s fun to play and it sounds good?
Michael Gibbons: It’s funny. I don’t know if he influenced our music. It’s hard for me to say, but he influenced the way we think about music, or maybe we’re just huge fans of him. His tunes are so catchy they’re really fun to jam on or try to capture what he did. When we first started out we tried to do Sombre Reptiles and it was just like, [du du daaaa – recreates the melody of the Eno song], it was so much fun. So we always go back to doing one, you know? One night John was like, Hey I think I figured out something out, that’s Big Ship. I was like let’s do it.
Cyclic Defrost: It sounds like you’re having fun when you’re playing those songs. That’s for sure.
Michael Gibbons: The chord progressions are just so much fun to play.
Cyclic Defrost: So Bardo Pond have been together for quite a while now, surely you have heaps of unreleased stuff?
Michael Gibbons: Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff for sure. Even the jams that we’ve been doing since COVID hit, they’ve been really cool. I think we gave up on actually working on songs. It was just like fuck it, so we’ve just been doing improv, it’s fun. I really think it’s some of the coolest shit we’ve ever done actually just now. So the next record, I should get that together quick and just get it out.
Cyclic Defrost: Absolutely! Records like Gazing at Shilla with those side long journeys are amazing.
Michael Gibbons: Yeah, those jams on that record were just so stand out, and I listened to a lot of jams we did! With that record we tried to grab shit together. A lot of stuff I liked, but I’ll always go back and listen to the stuff that I was dismissive about, and then like later on I was like what the fuck, that was a great piece, man. But that record has really got some choice tunes, like they were all improvs too. I couldn’t believe that shit, that record.
Michael Gibbons: I’m glad it’s finally coming out. Matador’s going to be re-releasing everything, they’re getting ready to do that. All of them, man. It’s so cool.
Cyclic Defrost: That’s exciting. So when you do your ‘Volume’ records, like Volume 8, what determines a ‘proper’ album? Cause seriously, And I Will, that’s one of my favourite pieces of music in the history of music, and it turns up on a not ‘proper’ album. It’s like, how can you write such amazing music, and it’s just sitting off to the side?
Michael Gibbons: I don’t even know man. It’s an organic thing. I tell you what, that song. I didn’t even remember that song when I found it for that record. I had to get some material together, so I went back and I found that tune and I was like what the fuck, I don’t even remember us working on that song. I was like, you guys gotta hear this tune we did, we couldn’t believe it. We do so many songs. If you tour you’re practicing the tunes, you know? We really worked on that tune, I don’t know why we didn’t do that. I think we just got that tune and recorded it and I don’t even think we did it again until when we discovered it again. I think the last tour we played that song a few times.
Cyclic Defrost: So when did you write it? What era did it come from?
Michael Gibbons: I’d have to look at the date on the record, it should say. Maybe it doesn’t, maybe it spans the time, but that’s an old one. I mean we go so far back even the stuff that isn’t that old is old (laughs). That was a weird period. It’s gotta be like late two-thousands, mid two-thousands.
Cyclic Defrost: That’s fascinating. Cause like I love that song. [Rants for ages]
Michael Gibbons: That’s like the songs that are on Gazing At Shilla, when I go back and find that stuff that it’s like holy shit, you know. The ‘Volumes’ are all like that. I always go back in the vaults and find stuff. I’ll go through a bunch of stuff, and there are ones that have just knocked me out. Like even the new Vapour Theories, that record is just stuff that really freaked me out. It was almost like some of the tunes were the way we did And I Will. Now we are doing the Matador stuff, I went back and listened to some tapes. Luckily the guy we recorded with gave me DATs of our jams and stuff. When we recorded Amanita there was this tune, and I don’t remember us ever doing it again. We couldn’t fit it on that record but it was this sick song and I haven’t listened to it since we recorded it. There’s already a couple of improv songs. It was fun as hell, we’d really churn out tunes cause they’re so minimal. Then we weeded them out to the ones we really liked [for the album], but I couldn’t believe this tune. Just like And I Will, when I went back, I was like wow, this is the fucking best tune we ever did.
Cyclic Defrost: So is it coming out? When can I hear this thing? I want to hear it!
Michael Gibbons: It is going to come out, I’m just working on that. It’s going to be a comp of that tune and some other old songs we did. Isobel’s not on all of it, but it’s really cool. And some stuff that came out on Matador that was really rare. Some rare stuff on compilation records they did.
For the reader’s sake I have edited out long tracts on my nonsensical ramblings, but I assure you there were many. Many thanks to Michael for being so generous with his time, it was a genuinely wonderful conversation.
Celestial Scuzz by Vapour Theories is out February 26th on Fire Records, and is available in a glamorous gold limited edition piece of vinyl, and you can get that here . I would recommend snapping one up, as well as anything else by the band you can get your hands on.
I would also point the reader in the direction of this excellent 2001 interview by Tony Dale, of the Camera Obscura label, in Ptolemaic Terrascope for further background on the band, and also because it is an excellent read.