A founding member of The Raybeats and 8 Eyed Spy, Pat Irwin had his roots in jazz and the avant garde, studying with John Cage and befriending the likes of Brion Gysin and William S. Burroughs in Paris. But once he moved to NYC and played CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, his musical path took a punk turn and, for nearly 20 years, he traveled the world as a member of the B-52s. Now, he continues to pursue a number of eclectic projects. Valerie Simadis spoke with Irwin about his multi-faceted career.
When Pat Irwin moved to New York City in 1978, he became a founding member of two bands, The Raybeats (with George Scott, Don Christensen, and Jody Harris, from the Contortions) and 8 Eyed Spy (with Lydia Lunch and Jim Sclavunos, from Teenage Jesus.) In 1989, Irwin joined the B-52’s and performed and recorded and toured all over the world with them until 2008. Their first gig at CBGB eventually led to cross-country tours, and, once the ‘Love Shack’ video was released on MTV in 1989, they took off on an eight-month world tour.
“That band has a lot of goodwill, and that was something that was kind of new to me,” he recalled. “I hadn’t really thought about it like this, but the songs brought something to the audience that the other bands, Raybeats and 8 Eyed Spy, didn’t. This was like sharing joy, it was like a community.”
Although Irwin majored in American studies during his tenure at Grinnell College, a fellowship for international study in Paris would set him on an entirely different career path. Recalls Irwin, “My proposal was to interview expatriate American jazz musicians…Dexter Gordon, Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron…”
During his stay in Paris, Irwin befriended Brion Gysin, along with his collaborator and friend William Burroughs who encouraged him to put off his college work and play music. While in Paris, Irwin studied under composer John Cage and began to play at local clubs around the city.
Eventually, Irwin left his pad at Ile Sainte-Marie and traveled to New York City. Like many musicians during this period, his goal was to play CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, but once that dream was fulfilled…what next?
I sat down with Pat to discuss his expansive career, beginning with his early days in Paris, his tenure with 8 Eyed Spy and the Raybeats, touring with the B-52’s, and his latest album with the ambient country band SUSS.
PKM: Tell me about your hometown. Where are you from originally, and where did you grow up?
Pat Irwin: Well, I didn’t really grow up in one spot. I grew up in the Midwest. I’d have to say that because my family moved so much, so I’m comfortable saying I’m from anywhere. The last place I lived before I went to college was in a northwest suburb of Chicago called Palatine. Rolling Meadows, you know, somewhere in there. But I had lived in Cleveland, I lived in Minnesota, we lived in West Virginia. I finally kind of parked in Illinois. I was born in Utah.
PKM: Did you move around a lot because of your father’s job?
Pat Irwin: Yeah.
PKM: What did he do?
Pat Irwin: He was a miner. I have memories of being in West Virginia, eastern Ohio, and western Pennsylvania. Then he became a salesman of some mining equipment and that would take him all around. He was always on the road, always traveling. All places like Montana, northern Minnesota, North Dakota, all around the block. I sometimes can’t believe that he did that stuff.
PKM: What was that like for you as a kid? That transient lifestyle.
Pat Irwin: Well, it was all I knew. I got used to it. When my studio was in the Meatpacking District, I remember getting a phone call and this guy going “Is this Pat Irwin? Are you Pat Irwin?” And he started saying “My name is Mike Englander. We were friends in Cleveland.” That was great. He remembered coming over to my house, listening to records and stuff. And he’s a percussionist. He played all of the percussion on the cartoons like the ‘Animaniacs’, and a lot of movies. He’s a big deal. He also played all the percussion and drums on a cartoon that I scored called ‘Pepper Ann’. So, the advantages are, since I’ve lived in different areas, I run into people that I know from time to time.
PKM: Speaking of instruments, what was the first instrument that you learned to play?
Pat Irwin: Clarinet.
PKM: Was it something that you learned to play in school?
Pat Irwin: Oh definitely. But I wanted to play it, and I still have it. I haven’t played it lately, but it’s a beautiful instrument.
PKM: Did you play in any bands in your hometown?
Pat Irwin: In Illinois? Sure, I played sock hops, I played high school dances. For my summer job, I went out on the road.
PKM: Did you play with other groups, or did you have your own group?
Pat Irwin: I did have a group with my friends, but I also joined up with some older guys who I thought were the coolest, and we’d play at clubs. I was underage and I learned a lot of rock and roll songs that I’m glad I know. I was talking to Eric Ambel about it the other night. It was really a Midwest kind of rookie band thing where you had to do four, five sets a night. I never really thought I would be a musician. I just did it. I’m not so sure how I put it together. I remember when I lived in Iowa I had a steady gig at the Holiday Inn down by the interstate by 80.(laughs)
PKM: Later on, you attended Grinnell College, and you received a fellowship for international study. Tell me about your journey to Paris.
Pat Irwin: Well, that was a pretty big deal. I’m turning around and looking at a painting that an artist had given me when I lived there. It was the first big city that I ever really completely immersed myself in. I had gone to school in London for a minute which was kind of cool, but I had this grant. My proposal was to interview expatriate American jazz musicians and I ended up doing a little of that and got to know some pretty heavy musicians, some of them well known, some of them not as well known, but these were the first real…you know, they were just incredibly creative and unique musicians, all of them. Dexter Gordon, Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron. Very early on I started to meet other people who were there and one was an artist named Brion Gysin whose colleague and friend, William Burroughs, I met at the same time.
We got to be friendly, and they both sort of encouraged me to not do my college work, and play music. They had a connection with the composer John Cage, and he was putting together these workshops. Really, composition workshops at the American Center, and I studied with him and played in his band. That was an eye-opener. It was cool! There was a club there called Le Palace. New York bands were coming over and playing their first gigs, like Blondie, Talking Heads, Ramones, Patti Smith. I saw them all there. At this club, you would see Grace Jones, Jerry Hall, etc. It was a scene, and Paris is paradise, and it was my home! In fact, it was the first place where I really lived. William Burroughs was amazing, as was John Cage. It was a phenomenal experience. I was pursuing life, really. Enjoying every minute. When I was living in Paris, I was young and I didn’t really speak the language. I could kind of get by enough to order a beer or a brandy or buy cigarettes. My pad was in an incredible location, a place called Ile Sainte–Marie, which is a small island right behind Notre Dame. But it could get really lonely, too.
PKM: So aside from your friends at school, you didn’t really know anybody there.
Pat Irwin: I didn’t know anybody! Except these people I met, and the whole grant was, you just got a stipend, and you went out and you did it. As I learned later, that was hard. It was really rigorous. And if you got one of those grants, you didn’t want to mess around. It’s not like it was an obligation to do it. I played it out a little bit, but it was also an eye-opener. Many of the musicians I met were all there for the same reasons, but I was pretty naïve and idealistic.
PKM: You were sent to France to conduct interviews. What were you majoring in at school? English?
Pat Irwin: Kind of. Grinnell is a Midwest liberal arts college. There are a handful of them out there that are pretty small. The major was called American Studies and it was kind of a combination of English and history, so I wasn’t studying music.
Very early on I started to meet other people who were there and one was an artist named Brion Gysin whose colleague and friend, William Burroughs, I met at the same time.
PKM: When you began working with John Cage in Paris, was that when you knew you wanted to become a full-time musician?
Pat Irwin: I think I had a pretty good clue at that time, but I still didn’t know how I was going to do it. I started, in my mind to just say “God damn, all I want to do is get back to New York.” I remember saying to myself, I either want to play CBGB or Max’s Kansas City, that’s all I want to do. It was pretty funny because I did it, and then I was sort of like “God, now what?” So I got back to New York. I walked around and I found a loft on 27th Street. It was a huge abandoned place. I got a friend to share it with me, and it was like $200 each. I’m sure you’ve heard these kind of stories. There’s a reason why all that art and music was created during that time, and it’s because you could afford it. It was a pretty bleak area, but a lot of Manhattan was kind of bleak at that time.
PKM: Had you been to New York before you went to Paris?
Pat Irwin: I had popped in a couple of times without even really realizing. I had a friend from high school who lived uptown, and I would crash at his place. So I wouldn’t say I lived there, but I had spent a bit of time in New York. We would see a lot of bands, and I was basically crashing on his couch. I knew enough that I liked New York. I certainly knew that it had the greatest energy ever. I loved it.
PKM: What year did you move from Paris to New York City?
Pat Irwin: Early 1978.
PKM: When you moved to New York, how did you become a part of the ‘No Wave’ scene?
Pat Irwin: I guess…through mutual friends. Well, a mutual friend introduced me to George Scott who was the bass player in the Contortions when I met him. He was probably just on the brink of quitting that band as they were making their first record. Or getting kicked out by James [Chance]. That was sort of a full immersion. He was friends with Lydia Lunch, and they wanted to form a band. I had seen Teenage Jesus. They opened for the B-52’s. I mean, that music just killed me. And ‘No New York’ was just coming out. So I wouldn’t say I was part of it necessarily, but I kind of peeked in the window. George and Lydia decided to form a band, and Lydia brought in Jim Sclavunos who was also in Teenage Jesus. Now he’s in Nick Cave’s band, and Lydia’s still Lydia. So we rehearsed like crazy downtown at a place called Tear Street which is a cool club, and that was kind of it.
I remember saying to myself, I either want to play CBGB or Max’s Kansas City, that’s all I want to do. It was pretty funny because I did it, and then I was sort of like “God, now what?”
PKM: You formed 8 Eyed Spy in ’79 and then by ’80, you had broken up because George Scott passed away. Were you reluctant to call it quits? Or had you already formed the Raybeats?
Pat Irwin: It gets a little blurry. 8 Eyed Spy was like a quasar. Lydia threw herself into the band at the very beginning like nothing else, and she was phenomenal. We just started to play like crazy in New York, and then we got gigs around the country. At the same time, it became almost too much for Lydia, and the further away I got from that, the more I realized why. At the time it wasn’t easy to see, but she was ready to move on. It’s just kind of the way she is, which I think is really cool, but at the time I was like “Oh shit, man. I wanna be in a band! What are you talking about?” So it wasn’t that we were breaking up necessarily, but it was definitely going in a different direction, or something was going to happen.
Somebody wanted to put a record out, and then George died, and that was just it. There was no way we were going to do anything without him. Whereas, with the Raybeats we decided to keep going. We didn’t really know what else to do. It was not easy to deal with your friend dying, and I still talk about that with other friends. We didn’t know how to deal with it. In the case of the Raybeats, we just kept playing. 8 Eyed Spy came first, and then the Raybeats started to play, and we weren’t going to play anywhere above Canal Street if I remember correctly, or maybe 14th. We just started to play more and the same thing happened. We played all the time, and we would play all around the country. I don’t know how we did it, but we did. So it kind of made sense. Danny and Don and Jody, we were all from the Midwest, and it had sort of a Midwest working band vibe, even though it didn’t sound like that (I don’t think!). We didn’t really know how to deal with George’s death except to just stick together.
PKM: The Raybeats were an instrumental surf rock group. Were you influenced by groups like The Ventures and The Surfaris?
Pat Irwin: Yeah, although we didn’t really see ourselves as a surf rock group. In fact, Link Wray really influenced the name. Some other influences were Booker T. & the M.G.’s and Junior Walker. George [Scott] was a huge instrumental fan. He had floor to ceiling 45’s in his apartment. You just couldn’t imagine these crazy instrumentals, and he’d play them all the time. Surf music was definitely a part of it, and The Ventures definitely were an influence. We ended up doing a TV show with them. If you Google ‘The Raybeats and The Ventures’, it should pop up.
But yeah, the Raybeats were an instrumental band. Although, toward the end we started to sing a little bit. I’m glad that didn’t last too long. We started recording this album with composer Philip Glass. We recorded with some members of his ensemble…it was crazy! And we never finished it. We didn’t mix it. Our record company didn’t want to put it out. So the tapes just stayed in Philip’s storage space for thirty something years, and he just put it out. There’s a couple of vocals on there. They’re just not songs, really.
PKM: Why didn’t the record company want to release the album?
Pat Irwin: Well, jokes on them. I don’t know what they were thinking because it was going in a really cool direction. To have Philip Glass playing a Vox Continental or a Yamaha organ on Link Wray’s ‘Jack the Ripper’, making roaring noise and feedback…it was amazing. But they didn’t think it sounded like the band, and they wanted the band. We didn’t really have a manager and we didn’t fight for it either. It was like “Oh, alright. Next.” We just flew out of town and played more gigs. I’m glad it eventually came out. When we found the tapes, it was like finding a present.
PKM: Where did the Raybeats play their first show?
Pat Irwin: I remember that. It was at an art show called the Times Square Show. Keith Haring and a bunch of artists rented this storefront and they asked us to play, so we did. Two days after that we played a theatre on 23rd street called the Squat Theatre. They were really hospitable to us, and It was a cool scene.
PKM: In recent years, have you played any Raybeats reunion shows?
Pat Irwin: We played at Philip Glass’s 75th birthday, and I think we played a benefit for Danny [Amis] who had some really high medical bills. Then there was a club in Atlanta that asked us to play, and we were going to do it, but it never came together. Luckily, we’re all friends which is kind of cool, but we’re all doing other things.
PKM: In 1989 you began touring and recording with the B-52’s. How did that come about?
Pat Irwin: When we first started, our first gig was at CBGB’s. I know there’s something in your interview with Cindy [Wilson] where you mention session musicians. Well, we weren’t session musicians. We were friends. If I’m remembering correctly, Kate called me and she said, “Well we’re gonna play for a couple of weeks”. At this time, the record wasn’t out, and no one knew that it was going to be anything. We played CBGB, we played little clubs in Connecticut and Rhode Island, and we started to go across the country. The record came out, and for whatever reason Warner Brothers at that time said we’ll do a video. We all flew back Upstate and that’s when we made the ‘Love Shack’ video. We just flew in for a day and we flew back out, and as we were going across the country MTV was doing it’s thing, and that just took off like a rocket. So it became the height of their fame.
8 Eyed Spy was like a quasar. Lydia threw herself into the band at the very beginning like nothing else, and she was phenomenal.
PKM: You played keyboard and guitar in the group. How long was the first tour with the B-52’s?
Pat Irwin: It was long. It was really long. Like I said, in my mind, Kate said it was going to be three weeks. It wasn’t going to be that long, but it ended up being 18 months long! We had two Top Ten singles at the same time. It became this huge thing where we ended up playing Radio City Music Hall three nights in a row, Saturday Night Live, and Central Park in one week. Let me tell you, it was phenomenal! I mean, to be playing in South America and having a whole soccer stadium of people yelling back at you “Planet Claire has big hair!” Or “Living in your own private Idaho!” It was just…this is the band that I want to be in. I mean, it was cool!
PKM: How long did you end up staying with the B-52’s?
Pat Irwin: A really long time. Eighteen years. That’s longer than most bands stay together. The high points were really high. That band has a lot of goodwill, and that was something that was kind of new to me. I hadn’t really thought about it like this, but the songs brought something to the audience that the other bands, Raybeats and 8 Eyed Spy, didn’t. This was like sharing joy, it was like a community.
PKM: You mentioned earlier that you read my interview with Cindy [Wilson], and that you were at the Mudd Club show when the stage caved in. Do you remember exactly what went on that night?
Pat Irwin: I do. They borrowed an amplifier of mine. I remember because I had moved and I lived at the end of the alley. We were performing at the end of a play at Club 57 that Sam Shepard and Patti Smith had written called ‘Cowboy Mouth’. And for some reason there was a huge lobster costume, and I don’t remember why…some character. This guy L.B. Dallas designed the costume, but I think the director of the play brought it down and threw it on stage when the B-52’s did ‘Rock Lobster’. It kind of freaked the band out, I remember, and I don’t blame them. It’s really unsettling to have anything, let alone a life-size lobster thrown on stage. The Mudd Club stage was built so it would come apart. It was just platforms and they would unhook or pull apart to make the dance floor bigger. It was a tiny little place. Well, that came apart and the stage kind of imploded! I definitely remember it. It was a prop from that play that I was in. I mean, the thing was life-size! You know, I wonder if I can dig up a picture of it…
To have Philip Glass playing a Vox Continental or a Yamaha organ on Link Wray’s ‘Jack the Ripper’, making roaring noise and feedback…it was amazing.
PKM: What is your favorite moment of touring and playing with the B-52’s?
Pat Irwin: Oh man. When we were playing Radio City Music Hall for the first time. I had heard about Radio City my whole life…and it’s one thing to look at bands, but it’s another thing to look out and see the audience. I’ll never forget that. And then the gig the next day that Cindy also mentioned, at Central Park. I mean, I can send you pictures of the audience. There were 750,000 people there. It was unforgettable.
PKM: Moving on to a bit of a different topic, when did you begin composing scores for television and film?
Pat Irwin: Well, I mentioned the Times Square show. One of the people who came to that was a representative for the network Nickelodeon which was just forming. Maybe he made a note about the Raybeats or something. Prior to that I was living with a performance artist named Julia Hayward, and she had made little films. So I had started to do it early on.
I had done a couple of episodes for a cool show called Tales from the Darkside. In later years, a woman named Betty Gordon was making a movie called ‘Variety’ and John Lurie did most of the score, but she called me up to do parts of it. So I did some additional music. So it was the early 1980s that I started.
PKM: Are you still working on film scores?
Pat Irwin: Yeah. There’s a Rocko’s Modern Life movie that I recently scored. I love it. I got to use all the same musicians that I did on the original cartoon. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time and to get together and play that stuff again was a gas.
PKM: Who are your main influences as far as composers go?
Pat Irwin: Oh…today will probably be a different answer than tomorrow. I know the original soundtracks to the James Bond stuff. It just flipped me out. I was recently listening to Thunderball and it still kills me. I mean, John Barry stuff. A lot of soundtracks influenced me early on, but I’m lucky enough to love classical music as much as I love rock and roll and jazz. I’m looking down at some records and, to tell you the truth, they’re Duke Ellington, David Bowie, Marvin Gaye, and Bill Evans. They’re in there. Philip Glass is a huge influence. All the Warner Brothers cartoons, Raymond Scott…whatever is in the air, I’ll take it.
PKM: You’ve been performing for a while with the PI Power Trio. When did you form this group?
Pat Irwin: About three years ago, and I only know that because a memory came up on Facebook. It’s really a cool story. I love that band, and I get so jazzed for that band. Sasha Dobson, who I didn’t really know had a gig that she did every Christmas at the Bell House with Puss n Boots, the band that she had with Norah Jones and Catherine Popper. For some reason this one year, Puss n Boots wasn’t gonna do it, but Sasha decided that she was. We had a mutual friend (who is now our bass player), Daria. Daria has a band with J. Walter Hawkes who lives in my neighborhood in Long Island City. He’s a trombone player, he writes music for cartoons, and we’re friends.
I was doing music with Walter, so Sasha asked if I wanted to play, and we decided to do a song together. It was Sasha’s first time ever playing rock and roll and I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. We did a Link Wray song ‘Jack the Ripper’ and she just lit up, and she played phenomenally.
It was so much fun, and unique and out there and special and perfect. Daria was so solid and cool, and we said “Well, let’s do it again.” Eventually Sasha called up, and then I put together this residency at a bar in Long Island City. But it happened slowly but surely. It wasn’t like “Oh God! We’re going to be The Beatles!”
PKM: What sort of gear do you use for the PI Power Trio shows?
Pat Irwin: Nothing special. I play a Fender guitar through a Fender amp. I’ve got this thing for Japanese guitars, too, so I use Japanese Teiscos and I use two different ones that are in different tunings, which is kind of a carry over from the B-52’s and Ricky’s influence. Which, I guess I would call him an influential composer.
PKM: What model Fender do you play?
Pat Irwin: The same guitar that I’ve used for a long time. I bought it in 1979 from Bob Quine who was in Richard Hell and the Voidoids. He didn’t like the way it looked, but he told me it was the guitar that he actually used on the Voidoids record ‘Blank Generation’ even though he posed with the black one.
PKM: Is it a Strat?
Pat Irwin: Mhm. I used that at every B-52’s show, every Raybeats show, and every 8 Eyed Spy show. I keep it pretty close to my heart. I love it.
PKM: What other projects do you have planned in the upcoming months?
Pat Irwin: I have this other band called SUSS. We call it ambient country. I love it. We also have a new album out called Chisholm Trail and a single that just came out called ‘Ursa Major’, available now wherever you stream music. I’ll keep you posted about the vinyl.