Pat Thomas has a creative spirit. After leaving Absolute Grey, the band he started with his high school buddies in Rochester, New York, he moved to the Bay Area. He founded Heyday Records in 1988, made several albums of original music, and began supervising the reissue of a number of classic recordings from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. He also wrote books and started Mushroom, a long-running band that plays largely improvised psychedelic music, tapping into rock, blues, soul, jazz and world music.
The new Mushroom album, Messages from the Spliff Bunker, was recorded during the pandemic. “Once we realized Covid wasn’t gonna stop after a few months, we started rehearsing outdoors, in the backyard of Marc Weinstein’s house,” Thomas said.
Weinstein is co-owner of Amoeba Music and one of Mushroom’s drummers. The other players on the current album include Erik Pearson on sax and flute, David Brandt on percussion, bass player Ned Doherty, lead guitarist Paul Hoaglin, Matt Cunitz on a variety of keyboard instruments and Thomas on drums. As the pandemic wound down, the band moved back into their studio.
“Mushroom albums are filled with improvisation,” Thomas said. “What makes this one different is, we weren’t planning to make an album. We were simply recording ourselves in our Oakland rehearsal space. As we listened to the playbacks, we realized it was better than random jamming.”
The sessions took place over a period of a few weeks. The music was recorded live, using a couple of mics and a MacBook. All the songs are first takes, with minimal overdubs.
There’s more than an hour of music on the album, free-flowing compositions that invite the listener to relax and drift into the soundscapes. “Looking For Adventure” is a collage of ’60s rock, soul and R&B, with hints of Steppenwolf and the Zombies in its guitar solos and spacey keyboard effects.
“I’m OK, You’re Not OK” has a strong backbeat, and a melody with a Middle Eastern vibe, supplied by Cunitz on the VAKO Orchestron. “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities” has a mellow, dreamy feel, with an undulating bass line. Pearson’s sax excursions, and accordion sounds provided by Cunitz, drift through the mix.
Thomas said the album’s title is an inside joke. “I was reading an article about the recording of Sandinista,” he said. “Joe Strummer kept a giant cardboard box in the studio, so he could crawl inside and smoke weed. Recording this album, I realized that everyone except me was going outside every 30 minutes to light up. Hence: Messages from the Spliff Bunker.”
Thomas grew up loving music. “The first albums I remember were Who’s Next and Thick as a Brick, by Jethro Tull. Looking back, they were the template for Mushroom,” he said. “I played drums as a kid because they’re tribal; you don’t need the knowledge of chords, notes and key changes.”
After Absolute Grey folded, Thomas came to San Francisco. He started Heyday to release the music of musicians he liked. The British indie label Rough Trade distributed the label. They had a successful run, with albums by Barbara Manning, Sonya Hunter and others. When Rough Trade went bankrupt, Heyday lost Thomas.
“I moved to Germany in the ’90s and worked for Normal Records,” Thomas said. “Heyday artists sold more albums in Germany than the U.S., so I helped promote them there. I also made a few singer/songwriter albums of my own for German labels.”
When he returned to the U.S., Thomas attended Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington. He earned a bachelor’s in American studies, using two books he’d written—Listen, Whitey!: The Sounds of Black Power 1965-1975 and Did It! Jerry Rubin, an American Revolutionary—as the basis for his thesis.
Over a period of two decades, Thomas coordinated reissues of hundreds of albums for various labels, including titles by Judee Sill, Pearls Before Swine and Tim Buckley. He currently works for Fire Records in London, as a reissue producer. Since 1997, he’s been the drummer and bandleader of Mushroom.
After a few years, Thomas came back to Oakland, relaunching Heyday as Heyday Again. His first albums on the new label are Messages from the Spliff Bunker and Material Wealth: Allen’s Voice in Poems and Songs 1956-1996, recordings made by Allen Ginsberg over the course of his career.
“In 1995, I recorded my own version of a Ginsberg song, ‘Don’t Smoke,’” Thomas said. “I sent a cassette to Allen. His team was amazed anyone would cover one of Allen’s songs. That started a friendship with Peter Hale, who now runs the Ginsberg Estate. I worked with him to produce two previous collections of Allen’s songs, so the estate contacted me about putting out Material Wealth. Ginsberg himself understood the idea of a ‘little company’ being better. He kept working with City Lights, decades after he was famous.”
Messages from the Spliff Bunker and Material Wealth: Allen’s Voice in Poems and Songs 1956-1996 will be released in early February. More details at mushroom3.bandcamp.com and realgonemusic.com/products/allen-ginsberg-material-wealth-cd.