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A new row to hoe

Love Tractor plows fresh ground


It's a rainy Friday evening as Love Tractor's Mike Richmond leans back in a comfortable chair inside his Athens, Ga., home. More than 20 years since playing his first live show, the guitarist/vocalist still glows with the youthful good looks that made him a Classic City heart-throb back in the fall of 1980. Richmond smiles slightly when told that most published accounts of the original Athens new wave scene fail to acknowledge Love Tractor's rightful place alongside the B-52's, Pylon and R.E.M.

"We always get left off those lists," he says quietly.

Although they may not grace every Athens music historian's list of founding fathers, Richmond's band certainly left an indelible mark. And while other popular also-rans -- the Side Effects, the Method Actors, the Drastics, Mystery House and the Swindles -- all have quietly disbanded over the years, what continues to set Love Tractor apart from those unjustly forgotten contemporaries is the band's incredible longevity.

Originally organized as an instrumental trio, Love Tractor created colorful soundscapes as listenable as they were danceable. The group's dense layers of twangy electric guitars merged elements of the B-52's funky dance grooves with the grunting roundwound bass drive of R.E.M., but their presentation was smoother and more moody, bordering on ethereal. Reluctantly adding vocals, they went on to record an impressive six full albums between 1982 and '89, five on Atlanta's DB Recs (a best-of is in the works) and one for BMG-affiliated Big Time (This Ain't No Outer Space Ship, recently reissued by prominent New York indie Razor & Tie). While they never fully went away, next week Love Tractor mark their full return to music as Razor & Tie releases their first new album in 12 years, The Sky at Night.

Love Tractor first formed in 1980, after Richmond met Mark Cline at a Pylon show. Known in early rehearsals as Fuck Truck, the group switched to the more euphemistic Love Tractor once they began performing live at the end of the year. Cline's housemate, Side Effects drummer Kit Swartz, rounded out the initial line-up. "The three of us really liked Public Image Limited and we wanted to re-create that phantom disco sound they had, which we all loved," Richmond says. "That's how it started out, anyway."

Still in school and constantly broke, Richmond and Cline made do with what they had: Two guitars and a drum. Richmond's listening preferences ran to foreign art-rock and progressive groups such as Yes, Genesis, Tangerine Dream and Pink Floyd, but he and his bandmates soon discovered they were unable to reproduce those sounds.

Instead, the trio's sound emerged more like the twangy tones of '60s instrumental pop group the Ventures, and found acceptance at dance-happy Athens clubs and art school house parties, despite the absence of a singer. Love Tractor's rich, meandering compositions became more pronounced once they added their unconventional vocals. Paving the way for the future Athens pop perversity of acts such as the Olivia Tremor Control, a typically off-kilter Love Tractor tune might include something as odd as a chorus of four men simultaneously chanting, "Outside the Big Star! At 5 o'clock! With Ma!"

"At first, nobody had the nerve to sing," remembers Richmond. "Nobody had any microphones, either. I was the one who, after a while, brought singing in. But the emphasis wasn't on a singer/songwriter/frontman. It was the voice as just another instrument."

Richmond and Cline eventually recruited Armistead Wellford to play bass, but filling the seat behind their drumkit was an ongoing problem. Founding member Swartz often was unavailable, so the other members learned to compose and rehearse -- sometimes even play shows -- with an electronic drum machine taking his place.

"Then at some point, Bill Berry joined," says Richmond, "but Bill went back to R.E.M. when they started to tour. Swartz returned for a while, then Guadalcanal Diary's John Poe had a turn, before the group arrived at Andrew Carter, who played with the group up through 1989's Themes From Venus, Love Tractor's last album before the new The Sky at Night.

In the early '90s, with the band largely inactive, Richmond continued his education, earning a degree in art history and becoming a librarian. Cline worked at an art gallery in Atlanta, then another in New York, and later located to Italy for a while. Founding drummer Swartz married and moved to China. Other members migrated to Virginia.

Incredibly, however, Love Tractor never disbanded. Various members still met periodically in Athens, composing new songs and sometimes even recording. Steel guitarist Doug Stanley (currently in the Glands) and drummer Tom King joined in on many of these impromptu sessions, and Richmond gives them much credit for re-energizing the group.

By the end of the decade, Love Tractor had completed about three dozen new songs at Elixir Studios and friends' houses. They were introduced to an entertainment lawyer who began shopping their tape to labels. While they somewhat reluctantly got back into doing live showcases to attract A&R reps, Razor & Tie came around with a contract offer, Richmond says, "without seeing us play one note."

The Sky at Night finds the Tractor as adventurous as ever, mixing wholly new material with ideas held over from their '80s heyday. "Elevator," a dreamy, beautifully rendered tune graced with an irresistible guitar line, is among the older compositions, co-written with the B-52's Keith Strickland. As in the old days, Richmond's voice often is doubled with Cline's and mixed equally with their dual guitars. This is particularly apparent on The Sky at Night's opening tune, "Tree," which Cline describes as "like Martian country music."

Among the newer tunes is "Bright," which brings back one-time member, retired R.E.M. drummer Bill Berry, who plays percussion on what Richmond describes as a hollow metal bust of Nefertiti. "When we were mixing it, we told him to come in and add something. ... He gets a great sound out of it."

Another new one, "Antarctica (Widespread Panic)," is named as part of a quid pro quo exchange with fellow Athens rockers Widespread Panic, who had called one of their own songs "Love Tractor."

Although he openly expresses pleasure and satisfaction with The Sky, Richmond adds that he is in no hurry to hit the road to promote it. "If people like it, we'll record more," he says earnestly, "but we're not gonna get in a van. I'm not big on playing live. I've got a lot of CDs by bands I never saw live and probably never will. For now, I just love being in the studio, rehearsing and recording with the guys."

He smiles and leans back in his chair. "Hopefully," he says, "there's more of that in store."

Love Tractor's The Sky at Night is released March 6 on Razor & Tie Records.

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