Human Switchboard
The Wait
by Stephen Slaybaugh

Throughout rock & roll’s crowded pantheon, there’s been countless bands lost to the aether of time, their recorded output too small or obscure to make the kind of impression needed to get a lasting foothold. But so too have there been those whose remnants, while however scant, have been startling enough to outlast their origins by many years. Human Switchboard, a Northeastern Ohio outfit who only managed to record one studio album during its seven-year existence, is perhaps a name significant to just a small number of aficionados. However, the fact that that lone record, Who’s Landing in My Hangar?, is now being reissued in expanded form after being out of print for nearly three decades must tell you something.

Guitarist Bob Pfeifer, keyboardist Myrna Marcarian, drummer Ron Metz, and a succession of bass players, including at one point Dave Schramm, combined the darkened grooves of the Velvet Underground with the kind of bottled-up nervous energy that would characterize the post-punk and new wave to come. Pfeifer and Marcarian traded vocals, either track by track or, more often that not, within the same song, her Patti Smith coo a sweet antidote to his deadpan Lou Reed croon. They were capable of great mood swings, switching between rave-ups like Hangar’s title track to urbane reveries, with Pfeifer even singing in Slovenian when the song called for it (“Refrigerator Door”).

Hangar was originally released in 1981 on IRS subsidiary Faulty, and the band wouldn’t release another studio record before disbanding in 1985, despite recording demos at CBGB’s for a deal with Polydor that never materialized. After the split, Metz partnered with Dave Schramm again in The Schramms. Marcarian released a solo EP under her first name before forming Ruby on the Vine. Pfeifer also released a solo album after the split, but ended up switching to the business side of the music business, eventually becoming president of Hollywood Records. More recently he completed his first novel, University of Strangers and went on a book tour with fellow Cleveland rockers-turned-writers Cheetah Chrome (of Rocket from the Tombs and Dead Boys) and Mike Hudson (of Pagans). I caught up with him on the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

I was wondering if there was something specific that instigated the reissue as it seems long overdue.

Bob Pfeifer: Different factions of the band have tried to do it for many years and it finally got to the point of being really dumb not to do it. We’ve had offers for like 15 years or something. Maybe people have adjusted their thinking about things. Some of us have wanted to do this for a long time, but there was no event that spurred it.

It sounds like some people perhaps weren’t comfortable with the record being put back out...

BP: People had different views of what they wanted to do and who to do it with. Glenn (Morrow, owner of Bar/None Records) is an old friend of everybody in the band and that helped a lot. Different people wanted different people involved—it was silly! Stupid band stuff! It’s really dumb. It’s not about us, it’s really about people who like it, who appreciate it, and who can’t get it. That’s part of the point of putting all of that material out. There’s so many downloads, let’s just get it out there, because it’s not about us, it’s about people who like us.

Yeah, it seems like between the CD and the download card, there’s just about everything...

BP: There’s actually still more, different versions. But there is a lot, yeah.

What were the determining factors in what went on and what stayed off?

BP: I don’t know. Ron put together a bunch of stuff, I listened to it, and we made those decisions. Then we asked Glenn what he thought and Myrna. We thought those were the best tracks and it was the best quality stuff that we had in our possession at the time. Since that time, other things have come to us, which is weird, partially from the book tour. When I went on the book tour, I’d go to cities and people would come to me with CDs. So there’s other stuff, and there are master tapes that have been found, but it is a good representation.

How would you generally characterize your feelings about the band and the one studio album you put out?

BP: I don’t know what that means, “generally characterize.”

Is it generally fond memories?

BP: Yeah. I think we did a great thing. I always look back and am critical of myself and anything I was ever involved with or said or did. At the same, there were things when I went back and listened where I went, “That’s really cool shit.” I think the Switchboard and a bunch of other bands then should have maybe gotten more opportunities, in terms of the way the record industry was at that moment, and could have flourished and produced more music. But I think the band was influential to a small group of musicians that ended up doing good music, because I’ve met those people along the way. I’m glad for that: passing some tradition on.

I think the assumption people make when a band isn’t commercially successful is that they didn’t have any intentions of being commercially successful. You worked with some larger companies. Did you feel at the time that you were on the verge of breaking through?

BP: I never thought in terms of having a hit record or success or anything like that. We did what we loved and made a living. Making a living at music for a period is a great thing. Part of that had to do with low rents in Cleveland and our being more popular on the East Coast and getting East Coast money and bringing it home. You make a few thousand bucks playing in New York and then you go home and pay your rent for the next five months. But the point was that we just did what we loved.

What happened to us in those terms was we came to New York and we got a lot of press and record companies came out. Then we started doing demo deals with everybody, but we never got a major record label. Gregg Geller was head of A&R at Columbia Records and had signed Elvis Costello. He was a big fan and wanted to sign us and put us on the Elvis Costello tour. He had called attorneys. He went for the annual company meeting and it was Black Friday and they wiped out everybody. That was the luck of the Switchboard. The guy’s leaving for the meeting saying he’s going to sign us and comes back without a job. And this happened a couple times! So we never had the major label thing. When I later became a record executive, I came to understand what it takes to have a hit record, and we were never in a position to have that, and most bands of that era weren’t. Think about what was a hit in 1978. Donna Summer? The Eagles? We had nothing to do with that, so I never thought about being a hit. I just thought about doing what we loved doing, and most of the bands we loved never had hits.

At the same time, (Village Voice music critic) Robert Christigau wrote an article about Akron in ’78. Did it seem to you like there was an interest in the area at the time?

BP: Yeah, and New York Rocker had us on the cover. The Akron thing was funny because when Stiff Records put out the compilation and they had the “Akron sound,” nobody knew who any of those bands were. Nobody knew who Rachel Sweet was! But the press is always looking for something, something outside of New York, London and LA. It was Manchester, then the Athens thing for a minute, and later grunge, Seattle.

I wanted to go over the timeline real briefly just because there’s not a lot of concrete information out there. So you formed when you were at Syracuse?

BP: I was going to school in Syracuse, as was Myrna, and I read this piece that Robert Palmer wrote about a single by Television. I had some secondary connections to some of those people in New York. So I heard that and Patti Smith’s “Piss Factory,” and I said, “Oh shit, we should do this.” We had played music, but in Cleveland, we only had cover bands. I never understood the point of playing music if you are playing other people’s music. It seemed like a lounge act to me. So fuck it, go to school. That summer I went back home to Cleveland and I saw that there was a scene with Ubu, so I began playing and hanging out in that scene. We wrote some songs in a basement and went and played them. Then I asked David Thomas—Crocus Behemoth then—to mix them and he did. Our first gig was in Columbus, Ohio in the basement of Magnolia Thunderpussy, when I went to graduate school at Ohio State to study philosophy. So that’s the way it happened.

There was really no plan. We put the EP out and I mailed it to every person like yourself that I read in Bomp!, NME, and New York Times. All of a sudden, we had spreads in NME and Melody Maker and John Peel was playing it on the radio in England. In a week, we sold 3,000 records. We recorded a couple more singles, and I had to make a decision because I was in graduate school en route to becoming a philosophy professor. I felt like if I didn’t take a shot I would always wonder, so we found out that Hurrah’s was the club to play in New York and decided to play a gig and find out where we were in this whole thing. Lenny Kaye was working at Bleeker Bob’s and the record was selling there and he was into us. He made the phone call to help us get into Hurrah’s opening for the Viletones or somebody. I wrote to Christigau and anybody that was writing for anything in New York to invite them to come see us. Some of them did come, and by the end of the week, people were writing about us. A couple days after the gig, we got asked to open for, I forget, XTC or Gang of Four the following week at Hurrah’s. Then Maxwell’s, and we get asked up to Boston to do radio and play The Rat. Except for me inviting writers out, it was totally organic. So we decided to put our other lives on hold and try it.

We had an advantage as a Cleveland band. New York bands have to play their first gig in front of people and under a microscope. Being from Ohio, nobody knows if you’re playing Crazy Mama’s in Columbus or Pirate’s Cove in Cleveland or JB’s in Kent. You get to practice. We didn’t consciously know it, but you’re out of the light.

What was the reaction like back home?

BP: In Cleveland, there’s nobody there to support you until you are somebody in New York. We talked about this when I was on the road with Cheetah and David and Mike. There was a handful of people that was at all of our shows, and it was the same people. Once you go to New York or LA or someplace and you’re christened in some way, you come back and all of a sudden you have filled-up rooms. You’re playing to 12 people, then you go to New York and get on the cover of New York Rocker, and the local Cleveland press somehow hears that you’re noted somewhere else, and you come back and you’re playing to 500 people. You have no idea what happened. But we were never the Michael Stanley band. Those were the local favorites.

At the reading, you were talking about how awful Cleveland was in the ’70s and how you couldn’t wait to get out. From my understanding, the city is on the decline, so I’m curious if you’ve been back recently and how you think it compares to back in the day.

BP: I’ve only been back twice in recent years, and once was for the wake of my little brother and the other was for the reading at the Rock Hall. You always have a romantic notion about going back, but we were staying downtown and the whole place was a ghost town. Public Square was empty during the day! The hotel we stayed in was in an arcade with shops on the first floor. All the shops were closed except for lunch hour! It was barren.

More so in than in the ’70s?

BP: Yeah, back then I couldn’t have imagined that! But part of what all of us were referring to when we were talking about the oppressiveness of Cleveland was that what we were doing was hated by the establishment, for lack of a better term. In New York, when CB’s happened and Max’s was going on, the press was on it. It was a cool thing. In Cleveland, with the exception of Jane Scott, the local press didn’t want to cover us. The Scene, the local alt-weekly, didn’t want to hear about people making noise or doing something different.

Why wasn’t there a second album?

BP: Because we kept running into these situations where labels wanted to do demo deals with us and... because we were stupid and didn’t continue with the label we were with. We could have, but we didn’t. That’s when I look back at the business mistakes. Why wasn’t there a second album? I don’t know. There should have been. We kept writing material and kept playing.

Speaking of business, how do you think your experience in Human Switchboard influenced you one way or the other once you got into the business?

BP: It made it easier for me to talk to artists. The first time I walked into Chris Cornell’s apartment, he had a copy of my album in his collection. That puts you in a different position than someone wearing a tie, so to speak. I was also able to go into a studio and actually maybe contribute something, like talk to somebody about their songwriting. One of the most flattering things that happened to me was when Queens of the Stone Age were playing in Phoenix and Mark Lanegan was with them. I signed the Trees. I went back to see him and he went into something very specific I had taught him about songwriting. I think Mark Lanegan is one of the greats, so maybe I was able to contribute like 1% to something that is great. But that’s the difference: being able to talk to a musician differently.

Having done the book, did you find any similarities between writing songs and that kind of writing?

BP: I always wrote, whether it’s music or anything, because I had no choice, in the sense that it’s what got me through the night, to quote Lennon. It’s just what I had to do. Interestingly enough, when I wrote the book, that’s when I was suddenly writing music. I hadn’t been creative in that way for many years, and I had found the need to be creative again. Really, it’s similar in that they’re different forms of expressing the same thing. When I’m troubled or depressed about something is when I actually create. I hate to be cliche about it, but that’s when I do it. The fact that I was writing fiction rather than music didn’t make any difference as far as the purpose it served. But like I said, I wrote a ton of music during that period too. That’s where the Tabby Chinos come in.

You have an album for them coming out, right?

BP: We have a lot of music, but we haven’t figured out how to put it out. We put some out on a download card in the book and we put some up on Facebook. That was actually a Facebook story. Cynthia Sley and I friended each other. We had known each other for 30 years. She’s originally from Cleveland then moved to New York with the Bush Tetras. I sent her some music that I had recorded on a dictaphone. She liked it, so I told her to sing on it and do whatever she wanted with it. Somehow Don Fleming, of Gumball, heard it and put music on it. Then Pat Place, then Jim Sclavunos—it just got passed around. It was again very organic, but what we are going to do with it, I don’t know.

I think it’s interesting that you are again doing the male-female thing for the singing. Is there something about that dynamic that draws you to it?

BP: Well, I have a fundamental belief that I can’t sing, so I need a foil who can sing. Back when Myrna and I did it, there wasn’t The Kills or Boss Hog or other bands who did that, so that made us different. There was us and X who did that.

Did you feel like having a woman in a band was forward-thinking?

BP: I don’t think it was conscious, but I did come out of end of the ’60 and early ’70s and I viewed women differently than cock rock views women. I view music as sound and I think it added another texture, a female voice and a male voice together. I guess there was more of a political thing to it than we knew at the time. A lot of things you do at the time and it’s not conscious, it just seems right. Probably our views of men and woman were different so it could be different.

Will there be any sort of reunion to promote the record?

BP: I never say never, but I would have to say no. I don’t think that’s possible.