BLURTING WITH… Rick Miller of Southern Culture On The Skids

Too much fun for just
one fan: with their self-produced, self-released new album, the Tarheel
twangers are still preachin’ the blue-collar gospel.

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

There’s no point in beating around the book of journalistic
objectivity: Southern Culture On The Skids can do pretty much no wrong in my
book. But I back up that bias with nearly a quarter-century of firsthand
experience, having seen the Chapel Hill band perform since the days of their
earliest lineup and their earliest shows, shared more than a few bottles of
whiskey with ‘em and even wound up onstage as a guest musician (term used
loosely…) on a number of occasions.

 

Bias aside, though, I’m happy to report that their brand-new
album The Kudzu Ranch (released on
their own Kudzu label) has a little something to offer to everyone who calls
him- or herself a music fan, serving up as it does boatloads of backporch
twang, discombobulated garage/psych/surf licks, and deepfried-in-Dixie
blue-collar anthems. From hard-chooglin’ boogie (“Bone Dry Dirt”) and
kick-up-yer-heels dance moves (“Highlife”); to moody, jazz-tinged noir
(“Montague’s Mystery Theme”) and ear-twisting instrumental rock (“Slinky
Springs Milt”); to deftly-chosen covers, including a riotous take on Neil
Young’s “Are You Ready For the Country” and a killer mashup of Nirvana’s “Come
As You Are” and Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam”; this note’s for you, bubba (and bubbette). Folks who
order the rec direct from the band at the official website also get to nab a
free download featuring alternate versions and demos of some of the album tracks.

 

Southern Culture On The Skids  – guitarist Rick Miller, bassist Mary Huff and
drummer Dave Hartman, plus recent recruit Tim Barnes on second guitar – is a
North Carolina institution, Tarheel rock ‘n’ roll ambassadors determined to
preach the gospel as espoused in that none-too-subtle, ever-evocative moniker.
Put another way, their goddam reputation precedes them, and folks coming out to
a SCOTS show aren’t there because they want to furrow their brows and ponder
the deep metaphysics of life itself (well, unless you’re talking some esoteric
Duane Eddy, Dick Dale or Tony Joe White musical reference; then you’re welcome to go deep).
No, they’re there to shake their asses, and maybe toss a few chunks of fried
chicken back and forth like crispy brown frisbees. Meanwhile, the band has a
whale of a good time preaching that aforementioned gospel, something I was
reminded of once again this past summer when I caught ‘em at an outdoor street
festival, revving up and raving up like nobody’s business and generally inciting
the huge crowd to simply let down its collective hair. As Miller remarked to me
in an interview we conducted a few weeks after the concert, “Yeah, that was a good show, had a really good time.
I got nothing to prove anymore – I don’t care if there’s a hit on the new
record! I just want to have fun.”

 

“Fun,” in fact, has been the operative term for SCOTS
records and shows for as long as I can remember. They resume their fall tour right after Thanksgiving with dates extending into mid-December, so don’t miss
‘em if they head your way.

 

As the interview got underway, Miller and I started off
comparing notes on, of all things, our dogs – we both have border collies – and
our young sons, each of whom are showing interest in playing music. I mention
to Miller that I’m thinking about paying for guitar lessons for my son since to
date he hasn’t had sufficient patience on the instrument to let Daddy show him
some of the rudiments…

 

RICK MILLER: Well, you know, lessons were the opposite for
me. You never can tell. I remember I had one lesson I went to, and it was some
hippies trying to teach me “Greensleeves” when all I wanted was “Sunshine of
Your Love,” ya know? So yeah, the kid’s gotta like it. [laughs] My son Jack is four now, and he’s started a band with Mary
and I. He named it, and it’s called The Surf Creatures. He’s already come up
with some little song things, like – “Saturday, Sunday, no school Fun Day/
Saturday, Sunday, stay at home Play Day…”

    Kids are so funny,
man. We should do a kid’s record and let him write the songs.

 

BLURT: You should. A
lot of musicians in recent years have decided it’s cool to do a kids record and
not worry too much about taking a little holiday from their main thing.

Yeah, I don’t worry too much about being taken seriously. [laughs] That is not an obstacle for me!
And what I’d really love to do is make a record that both the kids and their
parents could listen to. There’s a lot of really bad, inane stuff out there.
But then, the Dan Zanes things are really cool; I love his sound. So if you
just get something that sounded good and had some grooves and beats and stuff,
and then just throw a kids flavor on it, I think it could be a lot of fun.

 

 My son’s favorite band is The Beatles, and
what led him to them when he was barely a year old was Raffi, who had a version
of “Yellow Submarine” on one of his records. Raffi was his gateway drug.

Well, I gotta say, I would never have discovered Eddie
Cochran had it not been for coming across that Blue Cheer album, Vincebus Eruptum, down at the Roses
five-and-dime one afternoon when I was about 10. I took it home and – whoah.
Bought it with my lawn-mowing money. That was where I got my first guitar, too.
Hanging down over the record bin.

 

 We had the same thing in my home down. The local
dime store with a small bin of records over in the corner of the room. Somehow
they started getting in stuff like Disraeli
Gears
and the first Steppenwolf album.

      So tell me a little about this new album
and your new label you’ve launched. Kind of coming full circle since you
essentially self-released your first EP and LP all those years ago. You’ve most
recently been on Yep Roc.

Well, we’ve got Red Eye [handling] the retail stuff for Kudzu Ranch. The Yep Roc deal was record
by record. I think that since we had the production facilities already – and
this really started back with the Geffen deal. We’ve always done our own thing
and recorded our own thing pretty much, but with Geffen we took the advance
money and went out and bought and eight-track half-inch Tascam. The first song
we ever recorded, “Red Beans and Reverb,” it got in a movie called Flirting With Disaster. We literally did
that song in an old garage, in this gas station we used to practice in and
where I lived in for a long time. We thought man, this is kinda the way to go.
And we’ve always kind of done it ourselves, 
managed ourselves, booked ourselves; it was only when it got to where we
couldn’t do it that we actually had the cachet to get someone to work with us.
We’ve been with Billions [booking agency] ever since.

      But then the
whole thing became us building the studio when I got the money, and then I
found a nice place out in the country to put it, and once we had all the means
of production, we really didn’t need any advance money. And when we didn’t need
advance money, we started questioning whether we really needed a label.
Especially with all these record stores folding, not being able to get any
national press and all that. We just thought we should try doing it ourselves when
it came time to do the new record. The numbers just keep going down and down
and down, so if you can sell instead of 25,000 records and making pennies on a
dollar, if you could sell five to ten thousand records and make five bucks a
record, well, you’re making the same amount of money or more, and that’s really
the bottom line for us.

 

 I came across an interview you and I did back
in 1995 and some of the things you’re saying now are echoes of some of the
things you said then, about having the means of your own production. A lot of
what we talked about in that earlier interview, bands are discovering now, in 2010 – but you’ve already been
around that track and have already discovered the logic to being totally
independent. Is that a pretty fair statement?

Oh yeah. I don’t see any change in our outlook since the
inception of the band, really. We’ve always been DIY as much as we could.

 

 And in that interview you also pointed out how
touring was your main source of income – that at that point, you hadn’t had to
work a day job in at least four years, either. Does that still hold true?

Yeah, sure. And now, what we’re hoping, with our own label,
is that we will start to see a bigger cut of merchandise and record sales.
Because being on a record label – even on a big one like Geffen, you just could
not depend on that money. You wouldn’t get it for months, maybe not even for
years because of accounting practices. I also remember how Geffen would take us
off tour to go do these radio shows; some radio guy says, “Oh, I might play
‘Camel Walk’…” or something. So they’d fly us from Minnesota
to Texas, while we’d have to pay our roadie
guy to drive the gear out to Seattle
where we’d hook up with him again – but we’d miss all our shows on the way. So
we’d say, okay, we’ll do this radio show, but if you take us off tour you’re
gonna have to reimburse us for the money we lose. Then I get a call from our
A&R guy saying, “Oh, the radio people are saying you guys are difficult to
work with, you don’t ‘want it,’ blah blah blah…” I said, “What I don’t want is
to go home and have to work at Kinko’s, which I’m gonna do if this keeps up!” [laughs] You know what I mean.

 

 A lot of band bought into – and some still do
– the whole major label plantation system. It was so ingrained because nobody
ever told them there were other ways to do things. It’s taken this long, with
the collapse of record sales, to demonstrate just that to a lot of people. But
there have always been a few along the way like you that understood what was
going on. Recently Amanda Palmer, another person who understands, told us in an
interview that with the blockbuster system crumbling, music is moving to a
working-class economy, that bands deserve to earn an honest living but they
can’t expect to earn at superstar levels. That’s good advice.

Well, that was always my plan and our plan. We never wanted
– we had very realistic goals. We had a business plan as much as a plan on the
music and the schtick and all that stuff. We talked about things and we knew
what we needed to do to quit our day jobs and pursue the music thing. We knew
it would be touring, and maybe it would be some record sales. But yeah, that’s
exactly right. It’s always been that way for us.

 

 Is touring still fun? You are on the road a
lot. Does it ever get to be a grind?

Well, it gets to be tough when you finally have a kid, and
your wife is working, it’s difficult. The first two years we had Jack, they
just packed up and went with us; the first two years of his life was in the
van! But now that he’s older, it’s harder. I mean, I like playing! And I think
all bands that last, they enjoy playing. So no, I don’t have a problem with
touring. I mean, traveling gets old; airlines, the standard gripes. But hey,
what are you gonna do, you know?

 

Have you ever entertained
the idea of stopping performing and just doing production work in the studio?

I did that for a little while when Jack was born and [wife] Sara
wasn’t working. We needed it then; I had to work all the time. But I was lucky
because I got to work with bands I enjoyed and that I liked. They would come to
me. And it’s still that way. Like, I’m going to be working with Mad Tea Party
[from Asheville],
I love those guys. And I just got done with a great band from Charlotte called the Aqualads, just finished
their record. And then Dexter Romweber’s manager just called me and I might be
working with him this winter; he’s always a favorite of mine. So I’ve got
projects lined up. I had kind of quit doing the studio thing for a little while
because I had to get things done with the band, but now I’ve opened things up
again. And I love it – go out on the road for a few months, then come home and
go into the studio in January and February when it’s good to be inside. It
gives me ideas too.

 

Tell me about Tim Barnes,
your guitarist. How did he get involved with the band?

We’ve known Tim for a long time. He played in mostly
bluegrass bands, but he started doing some roadie work for us back when Mojo Box came out. We developed a
working relationship with him over three or four years, and then when he was
roadieing for us on Countrypolitan
Favorites
, which had banjo on a couple of things, we’d get him up to do
some banjo parts. After that record he said, “Well, let me play some guitar.”
And while we’re a three piece, I thought, okay, let’s do it, we’ll try it. And
now I kind of like it because it adds a bigger sound.

 

 You have brought in a fourth member from time to time…

That’s right, we had Michael Kelsh, then Crispy [Chris Bess,
aka “Cousin Crispy”] played keyboards with us. And we started out as a four
piece. It’s kind of nice live at least, because as a three-piece, you can go
wherever you want to go musically, but if you have a bad night everyone knows
it. It’s nice having a second guitar in there…

 

 … and then if you have a bad night, you can
blame Tim!

That’s exactly right! You hit a clunker and just look over
at him. “What did I do?”

 

On to the making of
the new record: Any backstory we need to know?

Mmmm, no, not really. We did that covers record [Countrypolitan Favorites, 2007] when Jack was born.  I thought that would be an easy thing to
tread a little water, but that turned out to be quite the deal. I realized that
to do a cover your own way is like basically rewriting the song, so that took
us a lot longer than I expected and kind of backed us up on starting on our
original material. We got started about two years ago, just kind of fleshed it
out in between touring, and it gave us the chance to play the songs live. So
probably half the songs we’ve been playing now for maybe six months or so.
Also, it was nice having our own studio because we could come in between gigs
and hit it a couple of times; the songs evolved over time, playing them live,
and they got better.

       So it all got
recorded over a couple of years at the Kudzu Ranch. I could not find any
unifying theme on the songs, so we just ended up calling it the Kudzu Ranch, where it was recorded. And
a lot of the songs were about the time I spent in Mebane [NC, near Chapel Hill
and Durham], where
I was living in the country.

 

 Speaking of subject matter, you’ve always had
intriguing titles for your instrumentals – for example on this one, “Slinky
Spring Milt”? Who or what does that refer to?

Oh, well, the studio is kind of in a bottom area, and right
around February or March when you feel the sap starting to rise, you hear all
these damn peepers over there. We were working on that song one night, and I
walked out and I heard all those mating frogs. When we first started it had
kind of a lilt to it, the tune did, and I thought, “Wow, man, ‘milt,’ ‘slinky-springed
milt,’ that’s the title…” Oh, it was so loud over there. And I’ve always been
fascinated by nature in general. I watch a lot of Discovery Channel and
National Geographic.

 

 “Jack’s Tune”: when I first saw the title of
that instrumental, I was thinking, “Oh, must be an old jazz cover or
something…” But I’m guessing you wrote that for your son Jack.

Yeah, it was. Something I was working on when he was small.
And it’s nothing that’s uptempo or jumping around and the same energy levels he
has! It almost has a melancholy feel to it, and I think our kids can bring that
out in you.

 

 Have you road-tested the “Come As You
Are”/”Lucifer Sam” Nirvana-Pink Floyd instrumental medley? And if so, at what
point do the flickers of recognition start to come over the faces in the
audience? Because it unfolds kind of subtly, particularly with the Nirvana part
being the first half of the song, and that’s not something you’d expect from
SCOTS. And then gradually becomes more obvious as you segue into Floyd.

Yeah, we have played it live. Sometimes it goes right over
their heads, but there will always be three or four faces that light up at the
Nirvana song. But then we lose those folks with the Pink Floyd part! [laughs] When we were working on it, we
did a tour with Los Straitjackets last year, and it sorta came from that. They
wanted to do a single of Nirvana covers, so we started listening to some songs
by Nirvana, trying to figure out what we wanted to do. I was listening to “Come
As You Are,” and at the same time, because I always have a copy of the first
Pink Floyd record on hand, I was listening to Nirvana and said to my self,
“God, that is like the same riff. Just one or two notes different.” So that’s
how it happened. It’s amazing when you start dissecting songs how it can be
just a note or a beat or an inflection. It was really fun, just one of those
musical things.

 

 That makes me think of something: your band
started out long before the time when labels had banks of lawyers to scrutinize
a song before its release in order to vet any potential copyright violations –
sampling, and whatnot. And you have always very liberally quoted from other
songs, particularly in instrumentals. Has anyone ever sicced lawyers on you for
something you’ve put out?

Nah, we don’t make enough money. There’s not enough blood in
the water for the sharks to start circling! But who knows, if something blew
up? I mean, “It’s The Music That Makes Me’ [on The Kudzu Ranch], that’s right out of a T. Rex song.

 

 On the new album Mary has some good songs. “High
Life,” for example, when you did it this summer – that was a real crowd
pleaser.

I wanted to get her some originals because she had just been
doing covers pretty much – I was telling her, you gotta sing more and sing some
originals. So we worked quite hard at getting her comfortable with the lyrics
and the songs, and I think the three songs she does on the record are really
good. And there are different versions of “High Life” and “Bad Boys” that she
does too, and they are available as a free download when folks buy the record.

     Folks will ask
me, “How do you choose which versions are going to go on the record?” Sometimes
we’ll play a version that’s not like the one on the record, so I thought it
would be nice to include some of that stuff so people could see what we go
through [in developing] the songs. Like, for “Bad Boys,” we literally had a
hard rocking one, and then we had the garage rock on that wound up on the
record, and we even had a rockabilly version. It wasn’t just a demo – we
tracked the whole song and mixed it. Then in the end, Mary picked the one she
liked best. We did the same thing with “High Life”: we did an acoustic version
then an electric version.

 

 Have you ever considered doing a box set or
rarities collection with a lot of unreleased stuff like that? I know you’re
pretty prolific. And I’ve got tons of cassettes of demos you gave me back in
the early days as well.

Well, I think we’re working towards that. I think the next
thing we want to do is pool a lot of that stuff. Like a lot of bands that have
been around as long as us, we’re digging up all kinds of stuff. And not only
that, after five, seven, ten years, the rights to a lot of your stuff reverts
back to the band. That has happened now with the Geffen stuff, it’s happened
with the TVT stuff. So we can rerecord any of that, or actually use some of the
versions that were on there. So I think we are going to be doing something like
that in the future. We can pull from stuff way back in the day, cassette copies
too – there are so many old cassettes of us.

       With the Internet,
and people being able to download things so easily, I think for fans of the
band they’d dig it.

 

 And you’ve recently remastered Too Much Pork for Just One Fork, right?
A lot of those songs you still play live. Why did it take so long to revisit
that album?
[Note: TMPFJOF was the
band’s second full-length, originally released by Chapel
Hill label Moist in 1991.]

Well, with that, we’ve had the rights for years. We bought
them when Moist went out of business back in the mid ‘90s. But we just never –
you’re always looking to the next thing, you know? It never occurred to me to
spend much time looking backwards until recently. But I think just the way the
music business has gone, the Internet… and also getting the rights back to
other things, you do start thinking about reissuing them. So basically, that’s
what we did.

       We remastered
it down in Charlotte, Dave Harris and I [at Studio B]. That was [recorded] back
in the early days of CDs and it did not sound that good! [laughs]

 

 I listened to it the other day along with the
new album and was thinking “minimalist SCOTS.” It’s a favorite of mine, but
wow, what a difference in sound from then to now.

Yeah, and we’ve gotten a little bit better since then, too! [laughs]
I’ll tell you, though, I love that minimalist sound. And one thing about
getting into your back catalog, in starting to listen to that stuff, I miss
that kind of minimalist aesthetic. I think our next record will be more along
those lines, you know? We’ll see.

 

Pork also was a kind of visual document of the band at that point
in time as well. The photos in the booklet, taken by D. Kent Thompson, are both
candid and, with the live shots, full of action. In my collection I have one of
his classic images from that same period, and it depicts you in the eye of the
storm, with girls all over the stage and dancing frenziedly, one of them with
her eyes squeezed shut and in mid-leap… those were good times.
[Note: see photo at the top of this page.]

Oh, you’re right. Those shows were a ton of fun. My favorite photo shows this guy wearing a headband, he
would always be at the shows, with his arms outstretched like he was bowing
before me. I wonder if kids still have that much fun at shows nowadays?

 

This also brings up
the matter of your self-titled first LP, the vinyl only album, and your 4-song Voodoo Beach Party debut EP on 7-inch
vinyl. Can we expect those to be reissued? Somebody bootlegged the LP and the
EP together onto a single disc back in the late ‘90s – did you know that? I
always thought that was interesting that someone that was crazy enough about
SCOTS to approach that project. Both records are definitely fan favorites.

No, I didn’t know that! Yeah, I’ve seen both of them going
for quite a bit of money. I’ve still got some from the first batch, maybe about
500 that I silk-screened myself. The cover drawing was done by Matt Neal, Bill
Neal’s son, who was seven at the time. So yeah, we’re gonna put it out! I’ve
got a virgin copy of [the album] and I’ve already talked to Dave Harris about
this, we’re going to go down [to Charlotte],
he has a turntable, and we’re going to remaster that LP along with Voodoo Beach Party.

 

With bands being able
to handle their marketing directly to their fanbase these days, it’s gotten a
lot easier and makes sense monetarily to do it. Irmin Schmidt from Can once
told me, in a discussion about the band remastering and reissuing their back
catalog on their own label, how this, their music, was essentially their life
insurance policies that they can pass along to their children and
grandchildren. And I thought that was really astute advice. So many artists
fail to recognize how their music is their creative legacy, but in a very real
sense, it should also be their next egg.

And so many people don’t take care of their back catalog.
For example, someone else winds up owning it. Or it gets lost in the process of
so many record labels going out of business. You have to take an active
interest in your band to make it happen. Because record labels, my God – the
master tapes to our Geffen stuff were still sitting over there at Reflection
Studio in Charlotte.
Who knows where things go, you know? You have to actively pursue your back
catalog, keep tabs on it, and you’re right – it’s like an insurance policy.
Because if you have a legacy or you continue to be a band of some sort, people
will be interested.

 

 What do you think your legacy will be, ultimately, Rick?

Oh, I don’t know… [laughs]

 

 One question I like to ask musicians: If
someone walks into a graveyard 20, 50 years from now and sees a tombstone with
the words “Here lies Southern Culture On The Skids…” what would the rest of the
epitaph read?

[answering without
hesitation
] “No chicken, no show.”

 

Ah, I understand that
the Europeans took that notation on your tour rider quite literally. I think
you told me once how you were over there once and they didn’t quite “get” the
whole Kentucky
Fried deal and instead brought you these baked birds on platters.

Oh, man! It was in Norway, and they had baked us several chickens. And in Norway the
chickens can’t live there because it’s too cold, so it was like having
cigarettes in prison. [laughs] The
crowd started ripping the chickens apart, and I think I stuck one of them –
because they weren’t real big – on the headstock of my guitar. So there I am
with a whole chicken on my headstock and the cook was literally screaming,
coming out trying to choke me onstage.

      Sometimes we
don’t do it, sometimes we do, really depends on the crowd. With festivals we
usually do stuff like [tossing fried chicken into the audience] because it’s
always fun for the audience.

 

 Here’s a quote from 1995 – we were talking
about your shows, some of the songs and some of the humor that can go into them
and the general entertainment factor you aim for. You said, “If you get people
on your side early, they’ll go anywhere with you.”

And that’s true!

 

 But why do so many bands not understand that?
You’ll see them come out and dick around for 15 minutes. But if you get
people’s attention first – it’s like when a teacher goes into the classroom,
she has to get their attention first or they’re not going to learn anything.

Well, I don’t think they’re professionals. Especially some
of what you’d call the more “indie bands.” Maybe they lack confidence.
Sometimes I think they’ve got an issue with entertaining. Some bands think that
their non-professional attitude is a commentary. But it’s a schtick, just like
anything else, and to me, they’re wrong. And you’re right. It kinda goes back
to the whole Pied Piper thing. If you look like you’re enjoying yourself, they
will enjoy themselves.

       Because that is
the secret: to enjoy what you do. I don’t care WHAT you do; if you enjoy it,
the vibe you give off will pull people in. It’s like a magnet. And you can’t
continue to do it without getting something back, too. You can’t be a slave to
the audience either. And we keep making our own original music and doing our
own thing. But like I say, when you play live to a room full of people, c’mon –
it’s rock ‘n’ roll, and people need to have fun. It’s good therapy. For them,
and for me.

 

 Is being in the band your therapy, Rick?

Yeah! I love it! But you know, even before I was in the
band, I was an art major and I always liked making things. I think that’s why I
was drawn to the production end of things too. It’s fun being in the studio,
whether you’re painting or writing or… I just enjoy that time.

 

 

[PHOTO CREDIT: D. Kent Thompson; image taken at the
Milestone Club, Charlotte, NC, in May 1991. “For Editorial Use Only” –
amen to that, brother Kent. I dedicate this SCOTS piece to you
.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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