by Dave Segal
If it weren't for the unlikely figure of Jeff Mangum, you probably wouldn't be freaking the fuck out over this latest Scratch Acid reunion. The major British festival All Tomorrow's Parties tapped Neutral Milk Hotel's enigmatic frontman to curate the fall 2011 edition, and he requested that the feral Texas noise-rockers perform at it. It was an offer Scratch Acid couldn't refuse, so they figured they'd build a substantial US/UK tour around the ATP date—which has been pushed to March 2012 for mysterious reasons.
Scratch Acid—singer David Yow, bassist David Wm. Sims, guitarist Brett Bradford, and drummer Rey Washam—initially split in 1987 after three shitstormy releases: Scratch Acid (1984), Just Keep Eating (1986), and Berserker (1987), all of which were collected on The Greatest Gift retrospective on Touch and Go Records. Their frighteningly delirious sound resembled that of fellow Austin loonies Butthole Surfers, but it also showed affinities with the whirlwind savagery of Australia's Birthday Party. Scratch Acid brought a sociopathic intensity to rock that had roots in punk and the Stooges, but their sound was much more texturally and rhythmically inventive than their Mohawked and leather-jacketed contemporaries. As their name implied, Scratch Acid's was a peculiarly eyeball-bulging brand of catharsis.
Scratch Acid briefly re-formed in 2006 to play Touch and Go's 20th anniversary concert, but Yow swears over the phone from Austin that this will be the last time the band will tour.
Scratch Acid's members are now nearing or in their 50s, so it must be somewhat strange to reinhabit these songs more than a quarter century after they were recorded. I ask Yow if they still resonate deeply with him or if he feels detached from them at this point.
"Um, I dunno," he says after a pause. "They're still fun. I'm not embarrassed. [Laughs] I don't know how deeply they ever resonated in the first place."
That statement is odd, because on record, Yow and company seem to throw themselves whole-hog into the songs. Maybe Yow approached them like an actor, like it was a role he was playing—or perhaps it more instinctual?
"It was kind of instinctual," he says. "I was really inspired by the punk rock that I saw in Austin—the Butthole Surfers, the Dicks, Sharon Tate's Baby, and stuff. All of those bands were a whole lot of fun to watch. There was no toe-tappin' goin' on. That inspired part of the aggressiveness and, like you said, the whole-hoggedness of our/my performance."
Seeing the Jesus Lizard—which included Yow and Sims—tear it up at the Capitol Hill Block Party in 2009 proved that these raging veterans had weathered the years incredibly well. Two years later, one wonders if Yow feels there's something he can't do as well in a live setting as he could in his 20s and 30s.
"Yeah," he admits, but adds, "vocally I think I'm better than I've ever been. Several months ago, for some weird reason, I took some vocal lessons. After doing this shit for 30 years, I decided to see if I could figure out what a half step is [laughs]. Physically, it was never easy. It's always been exhausting to do a show. But it's really, really, really exhausting now."
Singing Scratch Acid tunes must take a horrible toll on Yow's vocal cords. After all that howling, how does he keep them supple at this late date? "Suppleness? I oughta smack you," he replies, laughing. "Just beer and bourbon. And I quit smoking a couple of years ago, too."
That's good news: In 2008, Yow suffered a collapsed lung, a condition that had been building since 1987, when he broke a couple of ribs after colliding with a monitor. The situation culminated in Pittsburgh during a show with the LA band Qui. The lung "became completely loose and was lying at the bottom of my chest cavity. I could barely breathe. It was terrifying. They took me to the emergency room, and I'd had a lot to drink, so they thought I was just fucked up or coked up. They didn't seem to be taking it very seriously until the X-ray came back. The doctor said my lung looked like a dirty sock lying at the bottom of my chest cavity. Then they really hopped into action and drained it. I was in the hospital for four days. But it's all good now." Phew, that's a relief.
So on December 17, Scratch Acid go up against Dinosaur Jr., who are playing Bug in its entirety and being interviewed onstage by Hank Rollins at another venue. What's Yow's pitch to convince Seattle rock fans to skip that gig and see Scratch Acid?
"Henry Rollins won't be at our show."
by Grant Brissey
On either side of this article, you will find geriatric tirades from Dave Segal, who encourages you to see David Yow's original group of noise terrorists, Scratch Acid*, and Mike Nipper, who implores you to witness some incarnation of Wheedle's Groove at Vito's. But for a certain-aged demographic that does not include septuagenarians like Mr. Segal and Mr. Nipper, Dinosaur Jr. is held in towering reverence.
Who of that generation could forget "Freak Scene," the college-radio hit that would lead to Dinosaur Jr.'s breakout album, Bug, which gave them a map that would eventually lead them to Sire Records (although frontman J Mascis would abruptly dismiss bassist Lou Barlow shortly after Bug). Barlow went on to focus on his other band, Sebadoh. Mascis and Emmett Jefferson "Murph" Murphy III and a rotating cast of bass players went on to create Green Mind and Where You Been, two of the greatest Marshall-stacked lead-guitar rock leviathans of the early 1990s.
But to understand Dinosaur Jr., we must go back to the beginning, to their hardcore roots in the Amherst, Massachusetts, band Deep Wound, which lived a succinct life after J Mascis answered an ad seeking someone to play "super-fast beats." Barlow would later join the fray, but the group disbanded after releasing just a few extremely rare recordings.
When I call Barlow at his LA home, he's not sure what he had for breakfast. "Um, I'm thinking that maybe I forgot to eat breakfast," he says. "My kids are up really early and I feed them, [pause] I think I had a couple forkfuls of beans. We fed our baby baked beans for breakfast this morning."
After Deep Wound, how did Dinosaur Jr. evolve from agitated hardcore to hazy guitar-rock brilliance with actual melodies? "Well, uh, this is gonna be lame, but I have to reference this song I wrote called “Gimme Indie Rock” with Sebadoh. It was one of our first singles. It goes “Started back in ’83/Started seeing things differently/Hardcore wasn’t doin’ it for me no more/I started smoking pot/Thought things sounded better slow.” [laughs] says Barlow.
I tell him that's hilarious, because I was going to ask if smoking pot had something to do with it (I'd not remembered the lyrics). "I was [smoking pot]. J was not. And there was a period of time where it seemed like really fast hardcore was the be-all and end-all of everything. But that was actually a pretty small chunk of time. I don't know if it was even a year long. And during that time, we were listening to bands like the Meat Puppets and the Minutemen, and then even Black Flag became this almost progressive, jazz-influenced band.
"We were like, 'Well, we're getting older and we like playing music, so let's play music. Let's challenge ourselves and let's branch out a little bit.' And when J entered college, he picked up a guitar and really embraced it as opposed to [drums]. And he just wrote reams of fucking amazing tunes. And it was around the time that we were [starting to think] underground music at that point was really amazing."
Barlow and Mascis took to bands as diverse as R.E.M. to the Birthday Party to the Stooges and MC5. "It was like, 'Holy shit—who knew?' So all the stuff we thought was cliché was actually totally amazing."
Fast-forward to 2005, and Mascis's manager contacts Barlow about a reunion and some Dinosaur Jr. reissues. "He just got a very, very ambitious manager who said, 'Well, you know what would go really good with these reissues? How about getting the old band back together, J?' And J was like, 'No way.' [Laughs] Then the guy said, 'Come on, J! What if I ask the guys myself?' And he was like, "All right, whatever. Do your worst.' When he asked, I said sure. I was ready to bury the hatchet and I'd keep hearing a couple songs, and I was like, you know what? I don't wanna live my life always going, 'Fuck Dinosaur Jr.' or 'Fuck J Mascis.' It had gotten a little old to me, I had done as much damage as I could do, slandering them and saying the word 'never' over and over again. I thought, 'You know what? Life is too fucking short.'" The results of their reunion were 2007's Beyond and 2009's Farm, two solid, consistent records that unsurprisingly sound like a hybrid of pre- and post-Barlow-ejection Dinosaur Jr.
And what are the original three up to before the tour? "Murph from Dinosaur is here, and J is sending us demos, and we've been listening and trying to puzzle out his parts and write some bass parts and prepare for this tour," Barlow says. "Murph's kind of living in my house right now. He's been living here for about three weeks or so."
I ask Barlow if he knows where J is right now. Because I heard he was at a hot-coal-walking convention or something. There's a short pause on the line. Barlow sighs and says, "Maybe... No, that would be great. I hope he's walking on coals right now [laughs]. He went through his golf period. I mean, he's done all the other stuff. That would be the next step in his weird story. That would definitely be deepening his rich spiritual life by walking on coals."
*David Yow provides the only convincing argument not to see Dinosaur Jr. (see article above).
by Mike Nipper
I bet it's late in the week and you have your sights set on a kick-ass weekend, right? So you ask yourself, "Self, there are THREE potential shows you wanna see... BUT... do you wanna go watch a funny little man act all crazy and sing like he's yelling through a tin can, who maybe, possibly, will jump off the stage and land on your head while a bunch of middle-aged balding yobs in grandpa hats AND black leather jackets push each around other like it's 1985? OR should you go see a deafeningly LOUD show with a bunch of skinny, bearded, obsessive culty church of indie-rock-changed-my-life nerds who seem to ADORE Sally Jesse Raphael–style 'big glasses' and will sing EVERY fucking word to the songs while standing perfectly still in an apparent trance? Oooooor... should you go to Vito's, that top-class-everything-is-covered-in-RED-pleather lounge and watch some top-class Seattle soul/funk luminaries GET IT ON?! Hmmm, soul AND funk? Well, Self, you LOVE to GET DOWN!" The choice is simple: Vito's!! No sweaty old dudes, no uncomfortable nerds... just sweet groovy jams!
As all clued-in Seattle folks know, over the past few years, local label Light in the Attic has been unearthing, celebrating, and reissuing local black music. That is, perhaps, forgotten local black music of the late 1960s and early '70s. Huh? FORGOTTEN?! Yeah, I know—but it's not a shock, I reckon, as Seattle and its surroundings have been a hidden pocket of HAPPENING GROOVES for, like, EVER, and in them late '60s early '70s, the only thing anyone elsewhere in the country knew in terms of Seattle music was maybe the Ventures or Heart. (Ahem) It's such bullshit, too, considering the Wailers fucking beat the Beatles to playing proper "beat" music AND getting it on a 45 by FOUR fucking years—it was 1959 with their vocal track "Dirty Robber!" Right, so the genius has always been here, but no one outside the Seattle area was listening. So this rediscovering of Seattle's soul/funk past started with the 2004 compilation album Wheedle's Groove, which eventually gave us the documentary Wheedle's Groove, AND encouraged members of the various groups to get together and perform their old songs in a review-style show. Of course they call themselves Wheedle's Groove, natch. Way to keep the BRAND NAME up front, y'all!! I'm not sure how often they play out, but it is with some frequency—I've seen 'em three times in the past year, and I know they've traveled to Portland. Also, they've even recorded a new album, Kearney Barton, with Seattle's GREATEST recording studio knob twiddler/producer/engineer/hoarder of the same name at his famed home studio, the very literally named Audio Recording.
So Wheedle's Groove, the review/group is an awesome sight to see... they've got a stage FULL of funky, and 45 or more years of playing to back that shit UP. It's all top-notch, but my personal fave is when Pastor Patrinell Wright, who was known as Patrinell Staten when her Sepia label 45 (now rated at $3,000) was first issued, comes out and sings her songs "I Let a Good Man Go" and "Little Love Affair." Whoooo-whee!! So. Good. Anyway, the show at Vito's is part of a monthly ongoing Wheedle's series. I think this is the third night of the Wheedle's "project" performances, however none of the shows are the full Wheedle's Groove, instead focusing on individual members or groups of the current collective. They perform with lineups close to the original groups as they were when their singles were issued or as they were when they were a working band. Tonight's performance will feature members from the group Cookin' Bag and Septimus, Herman Brown will be the bandleader. Shit YES!! You can bet they WILL be cookin' with extra GREASE! Cookin' Bag are known, and were included on the just-released Wheedle's Groove 45s box set compilation, for their 1971 seriously wicked-deep funk double-sider "This Is Me" and "The Song I Sing" (Solid Gold). They bring the thick, velvety flare-grooves and proper heavy-bottomed FUNK!! Uh-huh, I can't imagine tonight being anything less than outstanding.
Okay, there you go, my vote is for a sweet, soulful sit-down and/OR some easy, greasy dancing to some of Seattle's FINEST soul and funk sounds. You know, it's not that I'm too old to dig re-formed '80s underground groups, but I'd rather get wet from my own dancing sweat than get it flung on me from some middle-aged bald guy!
This story has been updated since its original publication.