It's easy to pigeonhole prog rock as a dead '70s thing," says Mushroom guitarist Erik Pearson. True: Prog rock has always been pop music's ugly stepchild, a sodden genre of pretentious concept albums that don't seem quite so interesting now that the CD age has whittled Michael Dean's record covers down to not-so-epic size. Throw in "Frippertronics," Spinal Tap, The Wall, and other such exhibits, and it's not too hard to see why the music doesn't mean as much anymore.
But in 1996, Pat Thomas wanted to see if he could make it work again. Arriving in San Francisco in 1987, he launched the Heyday label to release records by then-local folk-rockers Barbara Manning and Sonya Hunter, as well as his own work. His songs drew heavily from the holy trinity of '60s British folk rock -- Nick Drake, Richard Thompson, Van Morrison -- but, he says, "after 10 years of looking at it under a microscope, I kind of got really sick of it." Coming out of what he describes as "a really depressive funk" as the fallout of a six-year relationship, he went to Germany with Pearson to tour, and wound up changing his approach entirely. Songs stretched out to five, eight, 10, 15 minutes. "I really wanted to have a fresh start emotionally, musically, and otherwise," says Thomas.
By the fall of '96, he'd assembled musicians to record a new album, taping about six hours of extended jams, including one driving, Kraftwerk-reminiscent number, "Reeperbahn," which became the first Mushroom single ("It's our 'Whipping Post,' our 'Dark Star,' " says Thomas). At the same time, Thomas was catching the Miles Davis bug, diving into the late trumpeter's much-maligned fusion period from the late '60s through the mid-'70s. There was Thomas' key to finding a way to make progressive rock without being a pretentious bore: Davis pioneered making records that could be jazzy, and experimental, yet still rooted in a rhythm, and, though lacking vocals, vastly different from the somber noodling of, say, King Crimson. Thomas decided to "pick up this torch I heard from Miles," and also decided to change his stage name to Patrick O'Hearn (his middle name), as he's billed on all of Mushroom's five albums. In Germany, where Thomas' work has always been popular, he'd gotten tired of having to explain that he wasn't a folkie anymore, and a new name seemed the easiest thing to do.
For the most part, Mushroom albums are off-the-cuff affairs, improvised instrumentals recorded quickly, and with a rotating cast of members built around the core of Thomas' drums and Pearson's and Dan Olmstead's guitars: keyboardist and composer Graham Connah, ex-Stingrays bassist and '60s rock archivist Alec Palao, former Mommyhead keyboardist Michael Holt, percussionist Dave Mihaly, occasional Beck trumpet player John Birdsong, and bassist Kurt Statham (brother to Fuck's Kyle Statham -- Mushroom records at that band's Black Eyed Pig Studio in Polk Gulch). The loose approach can sometimes make the songs feel like On the Corner-styled ready-mades, meant more for the entertainment of the musicians than the listener, which was always prog's Achilles' heel. Live, the band made little effort to recall old songs, and Thomas told the other members that "every show, we're just gonna wing it." "It's almost like every record is a live album," says Thomas.
But on the new album Analog Hi-Fi Surprise, set for release on Aug. 24 (with a show that night at the Make-Out Room, and an in-store at Open Mind Music on Aug. 21), the band finally shows a more studied, compositional approach. A loop-happy, ebullient record, the group sounds driven more by the graceful guitar and keyboard work, with a focus on steady rhythm that almost suggests Mushroom has become a pop band. The songs are still extended epics (seven songs over the course of an hour -- do the math), but no longer do they sound so self-involved. "Our Buddy Miles" is an obvious tribute to Davis, a speedier "Black Satin," while an Eastern-influenced horn sound and rippling keyboards illuminate -- take a deep breath -- "The Evolution of Smells in an Underground Parking Garage After an All-Night Rave." (A friend of Thomas once walked him through a German parking garage, explaining the variety of smells that raves produced there.)
"[Mushroom is] definitely the first band that I've done that I think encapsulates this entire collection," Thomas says, pointing out the large but tidy array of records that fills the space of his Inner Sunset music room: a prominently displayed Charles Lloyd album; posters of Simon & Garfunkel, Miles Davis, and Van Morrison; stacks of books about pop music; and rows of CDs and LPs, with vintage David Bowie and Amon Duul singles lovingly pinned to the walls. Thomas argues vigorously that there's something on Analog Hi-Fi Surprise for everyone -- the attached sticker name-checks Air, Medeski Martin & Wood, Soft Machine, Herbie Hancock, and Tortoise, who arguably single-handedly revitalized critical interest in prog rock in the '90s. Thomas embraces the comparison ("I have to thank them for making prog rock into indie rock"), adding that "the thing I find interesting is that I know those guys have a strong music background, and I'm almost positive that they spend weeks and even months organizing the tunes and then recording them. And I think we get an equal result with a day's worth of work."
Thomas' music room also doubles as the office for his post-Heyday label work: With Russ Tolman, he operates Innerstate Records, a stateside distributor for the Dutch Inbetweens imprint, and Innerspace, which will release Analog Hi-Fi Surprise. (Heyday still operates, but Thomas left that label in 1992.) Innerspace has also released Money Doesn't Make It, an album by prog-rock legend Daevid Allen (Soft Machine, Gong), on which Thomas and Pearson both contribute. It's a relationship that Thomas and Pearson are eager to learn from, as they did when they found themselves opening for another former Soft Machine member, Kevin Ayers, two years ago. The band will also open for Krautrock icons Faust in November.
Pearson recalls a conversation he and Allen had during a tour of the Northwest. "We were agreeing that ... to watch a DJ push buttons on a PowerBook is just god-awful, boring -- no matter how great the music is, it's just a boring thing to watch. You can see that bands are starting to add musicians into it again, real drummers to play along with the drum loops. The natural extension is to get back to improvis-ing music."
Thomas hopes to expand the Innerspace label to include more than "just projects I have my fingers on" -- to create a haven for people who don't necessarily see "prog" as a four-letter word. "Playing instrumental music makes it a little bit harder to pigeonhole," he says. "Without the vocals, you have a wider palette not only to play from, but for people to listen to from their angle."
Or, as Pearson puts it, "With Jerry Garcia's death, all the Deadheads have to go in a different direction.