Friday, September 12, 2014

Dan Vallor On Reissuing Game Theory's Blaze Of Glory

I had the privilege of chatting with Dan Vallor, who co-produced Omnivore Recordings' recent reissue of Game Theory's first LP, Blaze of Glory. Originally released in 1982, Blaze of Glory has been unavailable in its original mix since shortly after its original, limited release. Dan and I chatted about this reissue, the late Scott Miller, and Omnivore's plans for the rest of Game Theory's long out-of-print catalog. Dan's enthusiasm for Game Theory's music and his determination that his friend's music be released with the love and care it deserves was evident at every moment during our conversation.

Could you give me a little background on your involvement with the band?
I met Scott and the band in the late winter/early spring of 1983, shortly after Blaze of Glory came out. I was introduced by a friend of mine who was a DJ at San Francisco State's college radio station, and was friends with Steve Wynn [Dream Syndicate] who was at UC Davis's radio station at that time. Scott was friends with Steve, and so we met through that connection.

And you served as a tour manager for them?
Yeah, I was their tour manager and sound engineer. My first tour was after Distortion was released and shortly after Real Nighttime was recorded, so this was the Fall of 1984. I had done some tours with Tav Falco's Panther Burns, The Rain Parade and The Long Ryders and I had worked with Game Theory around California and after Distortion came out. After Distortion's release we did a cross-country tour that ended rather catastrophically (we sacrificed the return home half of our tour when a better offer was dangled in front of us but that offer never came through…this resulted in a level of stress and poverty that eventually splintered the band). And then we did another tour in '85 with a new line up (just Scott and I from the prior tour) when we recorded Big Shot Chronicles in Winston-Salem. And then I took some time off and didn't do any touring for several years until the last lineup, the unreleased lineup, with Jozef Becker and Michael Quercio. We did a couple brief West Coast trips with that lineup. That was, by far, the best of all of my touring experiences.

I think there might be a track that came out on the Tinkers To Evers To Chance compilation from that lineup.
Right. Scott had mixed feelings about some of the original recordings on some of his older material. At the time, he wanted to re-record an Alternate Learning [Scott's pre-Game Theory band] song. He very much wanted things to be in a perfect state based on where he was at a given time creatively. So he wanted to re-work some of the original tapes, re-record some things, remix other things. He did that for Tinkers To Evers To Chance and for the Distortion of Glory CD that was released on the Alias label.

But Blaze of Glory is coming out now in its original form, re-mastered from the original master tapes?
That's correct. The band formed in August 1982, and I think they recorded Blaze of Glory in December of that year. It was fast-moving because by late winter it was out. And that's what you hear with this release.

I was curious about the artwork. I've never seen a copy of the original album, and I go to a lot of record stores.
You wouldn't have necessarily seen it unless you lived in Northern California, the Sacramento/Davis or Bay Areas. I think Scott sent some out to some radio stations and record stores to try and get greater distribution. But, the album was pretty hard to come by outside of Northern California.

So it was originally packaged in a garbage bag?
It was packaged in a small, white kitchen garbage bag. Inside was a lyric sheet and on the outside were stickers pasted onto the plastic bag. The Omnivore LP reissue is on a plain white sleeve with stickers that are similar to the original stickers that were pasted on. It was their idea but it's pretty much what my original copy looks like now, because storing an LP in a plastic bag is not really ideal. I remember the day we left for the tour in '84, I had a stack of the LPs that were already slightly warped from not being stored in jackets. I gave them all to a DJ friend from Berkeley who had driven up from the Bay Area to see us off.

That can be problem that with innovative packaging for LPs. You'll find that with copies of Public Image Limited’s Metal Box too.
Yeah it's funny, the first Alternate Learning 7" EP, which well preceded Blaze of Glory, was packaged with about ten pages of small inserts of varying sizes inside the sleeve, and some of those warped as well because there was so much bulk inside the sleeve. That imaginative packaging that Scott did was great, but sometimes it was hard on the vinyl.

Whose idea was to get this stuff reissued? Who was the prime mover behind this project?
Well Scott and I had been working on getting things out again for quite some time before he passed. And it was kind of a long process that had become rather frustrating. He had turned the effort over to me to figure out where to get them reissued. After he died it took a while for me to have the strength to revisit the project, it was hard but I eventually continued to work on it…it remained as important to me as it had been to us.

So this is very personal for you?
Yes. Immediately after he was gone I was sort of out of my mind. I couldn't think about reissues. Then in December of last year I tentatively approached a label that I thought he would've been really happy to be on, and they were very receptive but it didn't fit into their release schedule. Essentially we were in the midst of conversations with that label when I got a note from Robert Torin (who was the photographer for Game Theory and Loud Family) saying I should talk to Jonathan Segel from Camper Van Beethoven. They were in the process of reissuing their Virgin albums on Omnivore and Jonathan approached me and asked whether we would be interested in working with Omnivore as well. I knew Pat Thomas from his days in San Francisco (he owned Heyday Records and released albums from Barbara Manning, Chris Von Sneidern, Crazy Horse and many more), so when the discussions with the first label broke down, I went straight to Omnivore and said "let's do this." It was very easy to come to terms with them and they were very enthusiastic. Most importantly for me, Omnivore were in total agreement with Scott Vanderbilt (whose label owns the original albums) and myself about releasing these albums without exploiting Scott's passing and with respect for Scott's family.
I can't say enough good things about Omnivore. I knew we were in the right place when Pat went to pick up the original master tapes from Scott Vanderbilt, and he had all these boxes of tapes in his car, and he called me and said it was emotionally overwhelming for him to have all that stuff with him. To be honest, it was emotionally overwhelming for me to hear his response and to know that the tapes were finally in the hands of a label committed to doing them right after all these years. When you hear something like that you really know you're in the right place.

Were the original master tapes all available and in good shape?
Yeah. So far everything has been usable. We had some trouble finding a few tracks, but ultimately we located everything. We had to bake the tapes to make sure that they were pliable so they wouldn't fall apart when they get put on the machine. We have all of the original recordings and they sound excellent. 
Beyond that, when I was working with the band I sort of obsessively archived and documented them. I would frequently run the sound that I was mixing into the PA and run a sub mix into a tape recorder to record their sets. So I've got a whole lot of live recordings. And Scott had also turned over a whole lot of recordings to me over the years (I suppose he was less sentimental about those sorts of things than me in many ways…probably less of a hoarder too). Scott gave me a lot of recordings that no one had ever heard and we did some recording together as well. Kristine, his wife, and I went through what he had kept, and I'm working on doing high resolution 32 bit digitizations of those tapes for Omnivore. There's a whole lot of unreleased material. Some of it is unusable, and some of it is transcendently beautiful. For instance, for Blaze of Glory we reached all the way back to junior high. We used some little humorous tapes that Jozef [Becker] and Scott made when they were in seventh or eighth grade. He and Jozef would do these little musique concrète kind of things, little experimental vignettes, mashup kind of things. And what I guess you could call little skits. They were sort of done in an Ernie Kovacs style (he was an experimental comedian from the late 50s early 60s). 
We also took one track off the first Alternate Learning EP, three tracks off the Alternate Learning album, and then a batch of songs that Scott had given to me. And we had some good live takes that were from the original version of the band. These came from a local show in Sacramento and a live in the studio radio broadcast from when the band was first starting out. 
Have you heard of The Twinkeyz? They released two singles in 1977, one was called "Aliens In Our Midst." It was this amazing DIY record and is considered a classic by the DIY crowd, and I agree with that assessment. The band broke up in around 1979, and we included a recording of the leader of The Twinkeyz, Donnie Jupiter, making his first appearance since the band broke up performing with Game Theory. That’s one of the bonus tracks on the album.

Dan shared a lot of information with me about the other upcoming Omnivore Game Theory reissues, but since the details are still in flux out I can't share them with you (yet). What I can tell you is that all of the original Game Theory releases, both EPs and full length albums, will be represented. Current plans include a special "golden ticket" item that will be randomly included with one of the releases. All the albums will be remastered from the original master tapes, and each will include bonus tracks. There will be some unexpected covers, and at least one song will appear as a bonus track in a much longer version than was previously released.

In addition Dan told me:
All the bonus material that was on the Alias CDs of Real Nighttime and Big Shot Chronicles will be on the Omnivore releases. Although there are a couple switches. The Alias version of Real Nighttime was taken straight from the Enigma CD that was very briefly available. So it was basically the same digital master used by both Enigma and Alias. And the mistake that they made on Real Nighttime was they took the cover of Todd Rundgren's "Couldn't I Just Tell You" that was recorded for Big Shot Chronicles and they put it on the Real Nighttime CD. And then they took the song "Faithless," which was actually Fred Juhos' (from the Real Nighttime lineup) song, and they put that on Big Shot Chronicles. So those and one other will be switched back to their proper places. It's the kind of small thing that I think needs to be corrected.

Now that you mention it, sound-wise it's kind of obvious that "Couldn't I Just Tell You" doesn't really fit on Real Nighttime. It does sound more of a piece with Big Shot Chronicles.
Yeah. Particularly the difference in drumming style between Dave Gill and Gil Ray. You know, Scott's work with drummers can't be understated. He picked great drummers with their own styles, and the drummers that he worked with tended to be very interesting and integral to the projects that he was working on. And the recording is also different. Real Nighttime was recorded in Newark, California in the East Bay, Big Shot Chronicles was recorded at Mitch Easter's Drive In Studio in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (where REM's early records and Pylon's wonderful albums were recorded). So it is a different sound with each recording.
Having received my copy of Blaze of Glory (on pink vinyl, of course), I can echo all the positive things Dan said about Omnivore. Every aspect of this reissue has been done right: the packaging, the liner notes, the bonus material, the sound quality. Omnivore even gets the little things like the metadata on the downloadable MP3s perfect. The music was beautifully remastered for LP by Kevin Gray at Cohearent Audio, and the pressing on pink vinyl is noise free.

The music itself is the work of an extremely precocious young man and his talented cohorts who are bursting with melodic ideas and discovering the power of the recording studio. Finally hearing the album the way it went down back in 1982 is a positively electrifying experience. Occasionally, Miller's grasp exceeds his reach, but the home recorded quality has a substantial charm all its own. If this were the last we heard of Scott Miller and Game Theory, Blaze of Glory would be hailed as an obscure masterpiece among those who dig smart pop music. As it is, Miller would go on to create better, more fully realized music, but this Blaze of Glory reissue demonstrates that everything that made Game Theory great was in place from the beginning, just sometimes in embryonic form.