The Story of Think Tree

Simply put, Think Tree was one of the most important and incredible bands ever. They also happened to hail from Boston, MA. The story goes something like this. In 1986, all but one member had been in a short lived punk/keyboard outfit called Psychotech. According to this description from their last interview “It was kind of a hard-core techno band. It was sort of like a hard-core band with keyboards instead of guitars and we used to smash up keyboards and stuff.” In other words a punk/funk/keyboard outfit before the chili peppers OR nine inch nails or any of the bands that later blended hardcore and funk and/or keyboards and samples.

Consider the following historical factoids:

Meat Beat Manifesto formed in 1987 – a year after Psychotech had been tearing up stages at Boston clubs like Chet’s and the Rat and the same year Think Tree had its first show.

Nine Inch Nails started in 1988 – a year after Psychotech disbanded to start Think Tree. Think Tree had already been playing around Boston for a year by the time Nine Inch Nails was formed.

The seminal Chicago based industrial band Ministry was out around that time on Wax Trax, but they never had the groove and punk/funk angle that always found its way into Think Tree sets.

Think Tree included Peter Moore (keyboards), Will Ragano (guitar), Paul Lanctot (keyboards), Krishna Venkatesh (keyboards) and Jeff Biegert (drums). Their music and live performances blended punk/industrial aesthetics with progressive prog rock compositions played live with plenty of electronics. The video above is sadly one of the only ones on the web, but it gives you a good sense of the band at their prime. Just before the grunge tsunami hit and obliterated many lesser keyboard oriented bands, Think Tree represented the ultimate synthesis of keyboards and live punk/prog performance. In their reign as one of Boston’s most progressive and influential bands, they released Hire a Bird in 1989 as a 12″ single, a full length record “Eight / Thirteen” (which included “Hire a Bird”) in 1990, and the full length record “Like the Idea” in 1991. “Hire a Bird” was included in the Boston Phoenix’s Top 500 records of all time in 1999. They were also hilarious and irreverent to the end.

Here is a super funny interview with them on WMWM (Tufts University’s station) in 1991. It gives a good sense of their aesthetic and sonic palette as they keep interrupting the talk with goofy and ghastly electronic punctuations.

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Think Tree Interview on WMWM 1991

To say Think Tree was influential is to put it mildly. Rumor has it that they had a strong influence on early Nine Inch Nails (though they never did perform the Devo/Zepplin live mashup “Uncontrollable Hop” that Think Tree had planned for a special gust appearance with Reznor). Brian Eno was a fan as were many other forward thinking punk/progressive/industrial/electronic tweakers. They literally helped invent the genre “synthesizer oriented industrial prog funk”.

In the classic indy rock band story, their label Caroline Records never really gave them the support they deserved and so they never toured or got the distribution they needed to break out nationally. Once the grunge wave hit, lots of keyboard bands were kicked to the curb in favor of small guitar rock outfits with big narcotic habits. Although Think Tree paved the way for the genre, brainy synth punk was definitely out in the mid 1990s and their distinctly non-commercial aesthetic certainly didn’t help them convince the bean counters of their mass market potential. In 1993, Think Tree played their last show.

Krishna went on to form the even harder sounding El Dopa with his brother, Bassist Alex Smoller and drummer Danny Lee from Cxema. Will and Peter went on to form Count Zero, who continue the Think Tree tradition to this day. The Count Zero story is rich enough for its own long post (they have released 3 full length records, appeared in Guitar Hero, etc etc). More importantly, they are having a CD release party this Friday, May 13 up at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, MA.

Go see them Friday and be sure to scream out the titles of old Think Tree songs. If you are lucky, they might even play one!

Meanwhile, here is a little live mashup I made a while back with DJ Flack’s “The Story of O” and Think Tree’s classic “Hire A Bird”. Enjoy.

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The story of think tree – DJ Pace

Massachusetts Graffiti History Vol. 1: MAST and SPRAY

MAST_Freight_Train_Graffiti_p102

To celebrate the recent release of the book The History of American Graffiti by local author Caleb Neelon and co-author Roger Gastman, I thought it would be good to share some additional detail on a piece of Massachusetts’s graffiti history that did not make made it into his book. Though I am still waiting for my copy, I did skim the chapter in the bookstore and was blown away by the amount of history they cover. Neelon and Gastman clearly did an incredible job and I offer this as a friendly addition, both to my own chapter and to his, not as any kind of criticism. As I learned when writing my own version of our local history, there is no way to get it all the first time. That’s why we need to work together to get it straight. [Ed note: Caleb emailed this AM and explained that he was the one who connected Freight Train Graf folks with MAST and that both he and Spray WERE in his chapter on Mass. A real honor given how much he had to include. Apparently, its just me that has trouble getting it right out of the gate and he certainly needs no help from me! LOL and sorry to doubt you from a mere skim, Caleb!]

Back in the 1980s, a Lowell MC/DJ/Dancer/Writer by the name of MAST/Def Rock was rockin’ the Shaughnessy Projects and tearing up the train yards. Back in the early days, there was much less specialization in hip-hop than there is today. Def is a classic example of what I call a 4 elements b-boy. In other words, he could dance, rhyme, rock the decks and get UP…all at the same time. Dudes like him are rare (non-existent?) among the up and comers who seem to focus on one, or at most two, main skills. Like all fields, it seems hip-hop has undergone a degree of specialization as it has evolved. (Correct me if I am wrong about this and there are more young 4 elements b-boys/girls out there than I am aware of).

Back in the day, there seemed to be many more who could do it all. He was (and still is) one of those dudes. As such, he deserves our undying respect as a founding father of the art out here. And like many of the best from Mass, Mast didn’t get the credit he deserved. Luckily, he is still at it and still dropping heat (focusing on the music now rather than the less legal forms of the practice). Go check out his shows up at the Stone Church (recently rocked with Just Ice and Lyrical) and get his latest release Progress/Regress! Its free up on Archive.org fergawdsakes people (but you should really send him a check anyway for helping to create hip-hop for you).

Not only was he the mastermind behind monstamind/megabug and the engineer/DJ behind Excalibur’s 1997 Butta Messenga/Les Miserables (with a young MC Lyrical on the mic), he was also a well known freight train graffiti artist writing as MAST. Living near (and eventually in) the Lowell freight train yards, his early train pieces got him enough recognition to appear in the 2006 book Freight Train Graffiti. The picture above is MAST and his partner SPRAY (rip 1994) rockin’ red jackets in their “iron playground”. Note that like many things Massachusetts hip-hop, the title suggests a low status position in “eleswhere USA”. Come on man, it was right up in Lowell. Elsewhere my ass. Dude was all NATION – besting the hardest of the early MBTA bombers in geographic reach at least.

Freight Train Graffit Cover

The book quotes him as follows:

“My house was directly across the street from the biggest freight yard in Lowell. I had anger against the freights because those things woke me up in the middle of the night. I could step out of my house and there I was in my iron playground. I knew every nook and cranny of the freight yard; it was packed tight with trains. You couldn’t even take flicks of most of them because they were so close. The trains would pull out before you could see it too. We had three cabooses we used to hang out in. We brought turntables down and turned it into a writers bench. We had a power supply for the turntables — plugged into the weigh station for the trains. We actually did live in the freights: For a very long time, SPRAY and I were both homeless. We had these three cabooses that we painted, bombed and partied in and brought girls back to and drank wine in. During the cold winter, we stayed inside the engine because they kept it on all night. Graffiti was a big movement; Lowell was crushed out because we wanted it to look like New York.”

Can you even begin to understand having that kind of history in this hip-hop life?! Respect to all the Massachusetts originators out there and peace to my man Def. Give him respect due. Still wondering…go check the Battle Yell video! Underground hip-hop like it always was meant to be. RAWWW!

peace

pace