Mellotron Variations—the new collaborative project from John Medeski, Pat Sansone, Jonathan Kirkscey, and Robby Grant—sounds like it could have scored an imaginary, chimerical Stanley Kubrick film. The quartet compositions of the great tape replay keyboard of the 1960s were originally conceived of as Mellotron duets between Memphis locals Kirkscey and Grant, before looping in the Medeski Martin & Wood and Wilco stalwarts. Doing so expanded the possibilities to an almost limitless scale, but one that rooted in a serene, and often severe, neoclassical aesthetic.
John Medeski is an American jazz keyboard player and composer. Medeski is a veteran of New York’s 1990s avant-garde jazz scene and is a member of Medeski Martin & Wood. His most recent project, Mad Skillet, released their debut album in November 2018.
Pat Sansone is a producer and multi-instrumentalist (guitar, keyboard, percussion, harpsichord) from the bands Wilco and The Autumn Defense.
Jonathan Kirkscey is a composer, cellist, and producer who performs with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Mouserocket, and is a co-founder of Blueshift Ensemble, a contemporary classical chamber ensemble. As a film composer, Jonathan has scored several award-winning documentaries, including Best of Enemies, directed by Morgan Neville, and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January 2018.
Robby Grant is a songwriter, performer, and producer who has recorded and released records for the past 15 years under both his name and the moniker Vending Machine. In the 1990s, he co-fronted and toured the country with Big Ass Truck. He’s a past member of the experimental group and currently plays with the garage-pop group Mouserocket.
The Mellotron is an electro-mechanical musical instrument developed in Birmingham, England, in 1963. It is played by pressing its keys, each of which pushes a length of magnetic tape against a capstan, which pulls it across a playback head. As the key is released, the tape is retracted by a spring to its initial position. Different portions of the tape can be played to access different sounds.
The Mellotron evolved from the similar Chamberlin, but could be mass-produced more efficiently. The first models were designed for the home and contained a variety of sounds, including automatic accompaniments. Bandleader Eric Robinson and television personality David Nixon helped promote the first instruments, and celebrities such as Princess Margaret were early adopters. It was adopted by rock and pop groups in the mid to late 1960s. The Moody Blues keyboardist Mike Pinder used it extensively on the band’s 1967 orchestral collaboration Days of Future Passed. The Beatles used it on tracks including the hit single “Strawberry Fields Forever”. The Mellotron became common in progressive rock, used by groups such as King Crimson and Genesis. Later models, such as the bestselling M400, dispensed with the accompaniments and some sound selection controls so it could be used by touring musicians. The instrument’s popularity declined in the 1980s after the introduction of polyphonic synthesizers and samplers, despite high-profile users such as Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and XTC.
Production of the Mellotron ceased in 1986, but it regained popularity in the 1990s and was used by bands such as Oasis and Radiohead. This led to the resurrection of the original manufacturer, Streetly Electronics. In 2007, Streetly produced the M4000, which combined the layout of the M400 with the bank selection of earlier models.
The Mellotron uses the same concept as a sampler, but generates its sound using analogue samples recorded on audio tape rather than digital samples. When a key is pressed, a tape connected to it is pushed against a playback head, as in a tape deck. While the key remains depressed, the tape is drawn over the head, and a sound is played. When the key is released, a spring pulls the tape back to its original position.
A variety of sounds are available on the instrument. On earlier models, the instrument is split into “lead” and “rhythm” sections. There is a choice of six “stations” of rhythm sounds, each containing three rhythm tracks and three fill tracks. The fill tracks can also be mixed together. Similarly, there is a choice of six lead stations, each containing three lead instruments which can be mixed. In the centre of the Mellotron, there is a tuning button that allows a variation in pitch (tempo, in the case of the rhythm tracks). Later models do not have the concept of stations and have a single knob to select a sound, along with the tuning control. However, the frame containing the tapes is designed to be removed, and replaced with one with different sounds.
Although the Mellotron was designed to reproduce the sound of the original instrument, replaying a tape creates minor fluctuations in pitch (wow and flutter) and amplitude, so a note sounds slightly different each time it is played. Pressing a key harder allows the head to come into contact under greater pressure, to the extent that the Mellotron responds to aftertouch.
Another factor in the Mellotron’s sound is that the individual notes were recorded in isolation. For a musician accustomed to playing in an orchestral setting, this was unusual, and meant that they had nothing against which to intonate. Noted cellist Reginald Kirby refused to downtune his cello to cover the lower range of the Mellotron, and so the bottom notes are actually performed on a double bass. According to Mellotron author Nick Awde, one note of the string sounds contains the sound of a chair being scraped in the background.
The Mellotron M400 has a removable tape frame that can be replaced with another containing different sounds
The original Mellotrons were intended to be used in the home or in clubs and were not designed for touring bands. Even the later M400, which was designed to be as portable as possible, weighed over 122 pounds (55 kg). Smoke, variations in temperature, and humidity were also detrimental to the instrument’s reliability. Moving the instrument between cold storage rooms and brightly lit stages could cause the tapes to stretch and stick on the capstan. Leslie Bradley recalls receiving some Mellotrons in for a repair “looking like a blacksmith had shaped horseshoes on top”. Pressing too many keys at once caused the motor to drag, resulting in the notes sounding flat. Robert Fripp stated that “[t]uning a Mellotron doesn’t”. Dave Kean, an expert Mellotron repairer, recommends that older Mellotrons should not be immediately used after a period of inactivity, as the tape heads can become magnetised in storage and destroy the recordings on them if played.