What's It Like 'In The Time Machine'? Billy Pilgrim's Kristian Bush & Andrew Hyra Reunite And Release Their Lost Album

Kristian Bush and Andrew Hyra's Folk-Rock band Billy Pilgrim originally recorded the album In The Time Machine over a period of several years and it only saw a limited release after the masters were destroyed in a studio fire, and even after Bush and Hyra's lives pulled them in separate directions. Several years ago, the former collaborators began to communicate again, but it was only during these strange times of spending so much time at home that a bigger conversation developed about the fate of In The Time Machine. 

The journey to bring the album back from its own temporally frozen state depended on a set of digital files and whether they could be brought up to standard for modern streaming and vinyl mastering. But the journey also slingshotted Bush and Hyra back into each other's lives, prepared to "Call It Even" on their differences, and as of the time Tower's PULSE! spoke to them on the day of the album's official release, they had just spent a fruitful week in a recording studio together.

You can take in our conversation below with Kristian Bush and Andrew Hyra, held on what was a very momentous day for Billy Pilgrim fans and for an album that has stayed out of the limelight too long. Or was it just long enough to speak to our times?

Hannah Means-Shannon: How are you feeling on release day? Any reflections on that?

Andrew Hyra: We’re feeling pretty good about it. We’ve had a pretty energizing week, doing some recording in the studio, and that’s kind of the first time we’ve been back working together on a day-to-day basis for twenty years.

HMS: Where have you all been recording?

Kristian Bush: We’re in Atlanta. For most of the work that I’ve been doing for the past 15 years has required studio space, so it’s very familiar to us. Andrew and I actually made a record there together before I became the proprietor, so we have time machines coming at us from every angle.

HMS: Am I right in thinking that you’re playing and streaming at a venue to celebrate the release of the album?

KB: Yes. The club down the street here where we started is called Eddie’s Attic. We were born out of it. We couldn’t imagine a better place to go and play, but at the same time, it’s completely closed. So we’re using this as a way to, hopefully, bring some light to clubs around the country that are struggling. To try to bring some focus to this struggle. If this place goes, so go all the people that this club would discover in the future.

HMS: That’s so true.

AH: It’s part of helping to support NIVA, which is the National Independent Venue Association. They go to congress and ask for money to try to get help to these places. I think it’s a cultural imperative and we’re excited to be a part of it. It’s strange to be at Eddie’s playing to an empty room when we’ve played there to a full room so many times. It’s a mix of emotions for us.

HMS: That’s wonderful. Thank you for supporting that.

I saw that your single “Call It Even” was released to let people know that the album was coming, and I saw your interview in Rolling Stone about that. I think I agree with that article that this was a great one to release first because it has this amazing emotion to it and captures peoples’ hearts. How do you feel about the reaction to this song so far?

KB: I love it. I was telling Andrew that it’s beautiful. One of the things that’s bubbled back to the surface is that we would talk to each other in order to unearth a common arrow on our compass. Each of those conversations influence how we pick songs and what we do. We like the messages of our songs. When you both like a message, the amplification of that is bigger than two people somehow. We’re not only singing that song, but we’re walking that. It’s literally us. So it’s easy to say it with conviction, that, “If we can get to this, you can get to this.”

AH: We’re living in a confused and chaotic place right now, but “Call It Even” is the perfect first message because that’s where we’ve stepped out of the time machine. We’ve stepped out of the time machine and the world is on fire. All this pain is bubbling on the surface, and there’s a political divide. You can write a political song, but the hardest song to write is really in back of the facts of a political situation and into the heart of a political situation. We need the bridges right now.

It feels like, right now, we’re in trouble. The healing has to take place from all of us, all of our fellow countrymen, and it’s up to all of us. That’s the muscle of forgiveness, and tolerance, and acceptance. As a duo, this is the right first step for us. This is how we got back together after 20 years, so this is the spirit in which we’re doing it.

KB: It’s also really cool to pick up a recording from many years ago, literally like we were in a time machine. Imagine you walk over, take a song out of a box and play the song like you just played it. We’re sitting around my kitchen, thinking, “What happened? There’s no way we made a record then for now.” You can’t get your head around it. But that it is applicable now, means that what we were chasing was true then.

It’s even more fantastic that we get to share it with people who we don’t even know, thanks to the internet, which didn’t exist then. Complete strangers may find comfort in these brand-new songs. How is that possible? It shakes you as an artist to remember that none of this is about you, it’s about if you can help.

HMS: I was going to ask you about how this song ties into your motivations right now, but you’ve already been answering that question in some of what you’re saying. This song seems very representational of where you stand right now, and what your battle-plan is for the band and how you’d like to operate.

KB: I love calling that a battle-plan.

HMS: Of course, it’s so wild, and we could talk for a long time about how wild it is that the album was always called In the Time Machine, and then this happened. That’s just utterly crazy. And, of course, Billy Pilgrim is a time traveler. All of that.

Can you tell me about rediscovering the tapes and how that happened?

KB: The original recordings burned in a fire around 2001. It was really tragic. My brother and I lost our mom about two weeks before that and then the studio with all of our stuff burned to the ground. Luckily we had finished the album. It was a labor of love that we’d been working on for three or four years, even while we made other music. It was really important, and we knew it was important, but we didn’t know why. We had manufactured 500 of them, and we had a release party at the Attic, and sold them all. Then that was it. Andrew went to California. My wife at the time suddenly got pregnant, and I started writing Sugarland songs.

When the pandemic happened, my phone kept ringing with people trying to reschedule things because they thought it wasn’t going to be very long. But then it just got longer and longer. Andrew and I had reconnected a couple of years before, so we had started to build a bridge, but also didn’t have much time to think about it. But then we said, “Wow, what do you think about this? Could we do it well?” Then we decided we would really embrace it. We sent it to people, and everyone came at us with open arms. All those people listening to it became the engine.

For Andrew and I, we love music, and it’s broken our hearts as many times as it’s saved our lives. [Laughs] You kind of need a team to trust that anything’s going to happen. With that encouragement, we walked into the big mystery of, “What does this mean?” Though it seems cliché, it kind of means that we have got to put the band back together.

AH: The way that I came to it is that my wife and I bought a house in Connecticut to fix up and to sell, since I’m a renovation carpenter. COVID hit right in the middle of that, and it was hairy since our county was maybe the worst hit in the nation. But when I started reaching out virtually, and started doing Facebook Live, that was such a release for me. Because I couldn’t talk to anybody, my friends were all sequestered, I was working 70 hours a week, my kids were home from school, and we were all stir crazy. [Laughs]

I’m reaching out via this new portal, and that’s getting my music muscle back. I hadn’t sung in three or four years. But I was reconnecting, and I was singing some Billy Pilgrim songs. People were turning up and saying, “Whoah! Where have you been?”. That’s how I re-emerged, organically from that place. The discussion that Kristian and I started a couple of years ago started to take on some energy and some life, especially with Kristian being at home as well. Reaching out virtually has been a real life-saver for artists. It’s been a strange tunnel to get to the light for this recording, there’s no doubt about that.

HMS: It’s been a life-line for fans as well as musicians.

AH: It helped me as a pressure-release valve just to express myself, because I was in a hurt place, like a lot of people are.

HMS: This album might not have been released in this way if not for COVID, it sounds like.

AH: Would you agree with that Kristian?

KB: I think we wanted to release it, but I think a lot of the push back was, “Why?” It was almost as if the album said, “Because you need it, dumb-ass.” I think it probably would have come out, but the medicine it was offering wasn’t necessarily in demand. And right now, it is. This is a time when you have enough time to listen to albums. If not for COVID, we would still be increasing the speed of our lives, shaving off time by not sleeping. The converse of this is mind-blowing, asking, “How many things had to line up for this to work?”

HMS: I have had people say to me that they are listening to albums straight through for the first time in years. Are you recommending that for Into the Time Machine?

AH: One of the reasons that this has always been one of my favorites is that it was conceived as a concept album. That’s how we see it. When you listen to it, front to back, there’s no space between the songs in the first half. When there is a space, it’s when you would flip the record over. We’re lucky enough to make it into a vinyl project and we’re doing some new recordings to finish it out as a double-album.

I was going to mention before, this week of coming here and playing together, and getting back, has been incredibly affirming. Now we’re here and the interesting part is, what comes next? Kristian’s an established recording star and I’m a carpenter. What’s that record going to sound like? That’s a really interesting story to me, and it’s mysterious and exciting.

HMS: I wasn’t sure what your plans were, but now that you’ve clarified that you are making new music together, that’s very exciting to me. Did you have to do anything to the original recordings to get them ready to release, and how did you decide what new material to add alongside the existing songs?

AH: All we could do, since we lost the stems and the masters in the fire, was out of the digital file that Kristian had. We sent them through a mastering process that helped levels bump. We couldn’t really do anything between tracks or anything like that.

KB: As we were figuring out what to add, I’m a habitual creator, so I was like, “Let’s add everything!” But during this process, Andrew and I went through the journey of listening to our old records together, and with some of the people who made them. And we did it all on Zoom.

Right after we all listened at the same time, we then talked about it. To me, it was like a living, breathing, 33 1/3 book. We had all the memories flow back of recording and writing. We started to dig in our old material, and we truly considered old material for this album.

The band that my brother is in is called Dark Water, and someone came up with the idea of doing a collaboration between Dark Water and Billy Pilgrim on a song or two on this album. As we dove down that hole, we got to the end of it, my brother said, “You’ve only got four minutes and four seconds.” And Andrew and I had written a song together the previous night that was four minutes and three seconds.

HMS: No way!

KB: We walked all the way up to the last ridge of the last groove of the last side of the record.

AH: That’s how we roll!

HMS: That is precise.

KB: In digging through a bunch of boxes I found a lot of things, and Hannah, you will love this. I found an article in Billboard, a big new idea that they were celebrating was the first ever Tower Records Tour. Billy Pilgrim did a Tower Records tour of America.

HMS: No way! You are blowing my mind! That is so awesome.

KB: At the time, it was as revolutionary as any of us could imagine. Why would you go around and just do in-stores?

HMS: Do you remember any of the locations?

KB: We have pictures of some of them. I think Chicago, and also Texas. They laid it out for us, and we did it. We were easier to put in a record store than Stone Temple Pilots. We were also a little more like boy scouts. We might have been hungover, but we would never be assholes.

HMS: I’ve listened to Into the Time Machine and the sound is great. I can’t tell it was recorded in any unusual way. There are a wide range of sound traditions or influences coming out. Did going back to this album give you any ideas about what Billy Pilgrim’s sound is, how you would define it now?

AH: To me, so much of the glue is how our individual voices, which are unique in their own right, blend together. It was a harmony duo, so when I hear that, I hear the sound of it. We have a wide range as songwriters, so how we write for our voices and what we talk about when we’re writing a song, that is the really interesting wide palette that we’re offering.

To me, the sound comes from me and Kristian singing together, though anyone could answer that differently. To me, that’s elemental. That album shows an evolution from other things we had done. But that harmony thing suggests that we could do the same stripped down. That’s how we’d play live. Two guitars and harmony are what got the crowds energized.

KB: I agree with you, Andrew. That’s what people mention about us. It was almost unconscious, what we were doing. It was almost like we had two gears: Andrew and Kristian play an arena and try to be heard, or Andrew and Kristian play a Folk club and try to activate your heart.

We would use both those gears in both places. It was really cool when we were in a 200-seat club and blew the roof off. The poor sound guys. They looked like rattled parents afterwards. They didn’t know we would turn the jets on. For me, what really informed the soundscape of Time Machine was this kind of aggregate learning that we had done. My brother had been figuring out how to do all these loops. There was also Andrew’s ability to inject the melodies and chord-structures of bands like Radiohead on top of Folk music.

We’re huge U2 fans, so we thought big, but as big as the idea was in our mind, how could we make that small? The thing that stitches it all together, though, is that each song has a live moment in it that we didn’t know was coming. We would typically record as much live as we could, but that record became more an intentionally layered one than our others. The layers often came first, and then Andrew would sing into the layers, which gave him the opportunity for a live moment.

For a song like, “Come On”, the song got built around layers. What we all knew was that the one thing that made a song special was something you couldn’t repeat.  A fleeting moment. There were 70 recordings for that record and 11 songs made it.

HMS: Wow!

AH: We were also independent when we made those recordings, so to me, our most mature moment was also our freest moment, when we could be the most playful. That’s what I hear on those songs, too.

KB: You’re absolutely right.

HMS: In a way, this is a big Indie album. You made all the decisions about what would be included, which is great.

AH: The other thing that emerged on this record that hadn’t really emerged before was Kristian’s ability as a Producer. He had some really basic sonic tools, but it is so cool. This has now become a huge part of his life, but this was his first real foray into it.

KB: I think it was the first time that nobody stopped me. I would bring a demo in, and Andrew would say, “That’s not a demo. Let’s use that.” The more people encourage you in a situation like that, the more comfortable you get with your decisions, and you start to feel more responsible every time you pick up the instrument. I learned so much.

HMS: It really highlights how important that period was in your lives and the turning points it created. It’s still having its influence now, impacting current life in a lot of way, but especially this release.

AH: It’s reviving. It’s been a hard thing not to have this music in my life. It was a transitional moment for Kristian as a Producer, but mine just sort of stopped then. I made a couple albums with a local band in Atlanta, and put out a solo album, just to have music back in my life, because it’s always been something that helped me understand the world better. But life can take you away, I needed to make a living, so I learned to be a carpenter, and that took me away from the music. But now the time machine is getting me back to my voice and to music again. It’s crazy.

HMS: It seems like that could be pretty disconcerting if that suddenly just happened to you.

AH: That’s how disconcerting it would be for Billy Pilgrim if he just stepped out of the time machine. The metaphor can keep rolling.

HMS: You sound like you’re glad these bizarre things happened and that you’re happy that you’re back making music, though.

AH: Absolutely. I realized that when you’re in a challenging situation, the first thing that you reach out for are your natural gifts. That’s why the artist in society is so important. When society goes through cataclysmic things, the arts are the things that bring us through it. That’s true for the individual artist as well. A painter under duress is going to paint. For me, to get back to playing music, it’s always something that’s tapping me on the shoulder. It’s tapping me on the shoulder, saying, “You gotta sing man!”

HMS: Wait, what happened to the other 60 songs? Are they still around?

KB: Well, another thing that happened at the same time that we dropped Time Machine is that we dropped out first two independent records on top of it.

HMS: Wow, congratulations!

KB: So, the first thing we ever made it out. And so it Words Like Numbers. Those are the records that inspired Atlantic Records to sign us. What’s fun is that now that we are establishing that we are back, it won’t surprise people if we just keep putting music into the funnel.

HMS: Do you have anything further you’d like to say to readers about this new album?

KB: I’d say to readers, “If you think you remember, welcome back. If you never knew us, welcome. It’s okay to start now.” I would say, “Just go listen to this record. It will show you all the map you need to navigate everything we’ve ever done and everything we are about to do.”


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