“Soul Full of Heart”
The first album Pat Irwin ever owned was an instrumental compilation on Dot Records. It was a fitting beginning for someone who would eventually make his living playing in an instrumental band and then do soundtracks for films and cartoons.
At first, Irwin’s musical endeavors didn’t meet with much encouragement. Rock ‘n’ Roll, after all, was merely an adolescent when Irwin started taking an interest in it in the 1960s, so he found himself with a fight on his hands against parents who hoped their son was merely “going through a phase.” Gradually, his parents grew less apprehensive and would even let their son use the family garage for band rehearsals. As the years progressed, the phase evolved into a full-fledged passion. Forty years later, the passion is stronger than ever, and Irwin still manages to add to an already impressive resume.
Since his father worked in the mining industry, Irwin moved around a lot as a youth, living in Utah, Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois (where he finished high school), and several other states. He graduated from Grinnell College in Iowa in 1977, and acquired such an affinity for the place that he still refers to Iowa as his home state.
After graduating from Grinnell, he acquired a research grant from the Thomas J. Watson Foundation, which allowed him to “live in Paris and [do] research on expatriate American Jazz.” He researched the music and its musicians, interviewing such people as Dexter Gordon, Steve Lacy, Mal Waldron and Bill Coleman. Although Irwin enjoyed the experience, he soon realized he had no desire to make his living as a journalist.
“I wrote one article for the Village Voice and a couple of record reviews,” he recalled, “and that was enough for me.”
While working in Paris, he became acquainted with painter Brion Gysin and writer William Burroughs, both of whom encouraged him to join a workshop being conducted by composer John Cage. This musical undertaking just reinforced what Irwin knew all along: “At heart, all I really wanted to do was to play in a rock and roll band.” So, at the end of 1978, off to New York he went.
He hooked up with an old high school buddy and they got a loft together on West 27th Street. (“No heat and no hot water,” he recalled. “Kind of like No Wave.”) He supported himself during the day working at a midtown deli while trying to line up work with various bands at night. Following a stint in a short-lived group called the Foolish Virgins, he made a contact that would profoundly change the course of his musical career. George Scott, a local bass player, happened to pass through the loft with a mutual acquaintance, and Scott and Irwin were introduced.
Scott had recently left the Contortions and he was in the process of piecing together a new band with Lydia Lunch. Scott soon asked Irwin to join the fold, and along with guitarist Michael Paumgarden and drummer Jim Sclavunos, 8-Eyed Spy was born. The band did pretty well for themselves over the following year, and during the fall of 1979, George Scott asked Irwin to join another band he was piecing together, an all-instrumental combo including Jody Harris (guitar) and Don Christensen (drums) that would be christened the Raybeats. Following his tenure with the Raybeats, Irwin segued into some behind-the-scenes work, producing records for Debora Iyall (of Romeo Void) and Love Tractor.
In 1989, the B-52’s were on the comeback trail. They had taken a few years off following the death of founding member Ricky Wilson. It may have looked like the band was kaput, but they were only hibernating. They came back stronger than ever with Cosmic Thing, a hit album that produced several hit singles (“Love Shack” and “Roam” among them). The success of the record resulted in a major tour, and they needed some additional musicians to round out their stage band. The late Mo Slotin, a former sound man for the Raybeats then working for the B-52’s, suggested that they see if Pat Irwin and Sara Lee (former bassist for the Gang of Four) were interested. As it turned out, they were.
“Even though I met the B’s back when they first landed in NYC, it was because of Mo that I was in the band,” Irwin stated. “It was a thrill for me to be in the B-52’s and to play that music.”
In 2007, Irwin left the B-52’s, thereby providing himself more time to devote to composing soundtracks for both film and television. Irwin started doing movie soundtracks in the early 1990s. His foray into cartoon soundtracks began with Rocko’s Modern Life in 1993, a job that came about because of his days with the Raybeats. Someone at Nickelodeon had been at one of the Raybeats’ very first gigs, “an art show in New York called ‘The Times Square Show.’” So, Irwin recruited Dave Hofstra (bass), Kevin Norton (drums), Art Baron (trombone) and Bob DeBellis (woodwinds); Irwin himself handled guitar and keyboards.
Irwin’s work on Rocko was impressive enough that other producers took notice. He has since penned music for movies like But I’m A Cheerleader and Drop Back Ten and he has continued with cartoons, most notably Pepper Ann, The Groovenians, A Little Curious, and the recent Class of 3000.
“I love writing music for cartoons,” Irwin said. “It’s like being inside an engine. Totally nuts and manic. You can break rules you didn’t even know could exist.”
Although Irwin has carved out a successful niche for himself in the industry due to his years with the B-52’s and his soundtrack work, he certainly hasn’t forgotten his humble beginnings, or the standout people and musicians he’s worked with over the years, especially his pals from the Raybeats.
“A while back I heard Don and Jody play a gig with old friends from the Loose Screws,” Irwin said. “Dave Hofstra was on bass. The music was fantastic. I couldn’t believe how good both Don and Jody were. I recall feeling that I couldn’t believe I had been in a band with them. They really play from the heart, and I think that shows up in the Raybeats – that band had a lot of heart.”
Irwin, Pat. Personal e-mails. 8 Feb 2004, 11 Feb 2004, 22 Feb 2004, 24 Mar 2004, 25 Mar 2004, 29 Mar 2004, 8 July 2004.
Interview on WUSB FM
Interview on ROOM TONE
Interview by Jason Sagebiel
Receiving honorary degree at Grinnell College in 2012
“Open Window” video
“The View From Here” video