The short, complicated pop of the Cali musical veterans, whose tour in support of their Merge Records debut kicked off this week and includes SXSW appearances.
BY JENNIFER KELLY
“I want my songs to go in a lot of different directions but still not be very long,” says John Schmersal whose new band, Vertical Scratchers, seems a lot simpler on the surface than it really is. “I want the songs to have parts, but I don’t want you to notice, perhaps, that there’s so much going in the song – and then it’s over.”
Schmersal has had his turn with complication on the outside – in the spazzy, stop-start, synth punk Brainiac and the electronically-charged pop-leaning Enon – but his latest project hides the surface difficulty beneath ease. Vertical Scratcher’s Daughters of Everything (Merge) is a collection of short, frantic, ebulliently unpredictable pop songs that fizz, crackle and then blink out just as you’re starting to get comfortable.
“The music is deceptive — pop deception — because the riffs are so complex and usually never repeat,” says Schmersal’s drummer Christian Beaulieu. “A prime example is the song ‘Chamber Maids.’ It’s the musical bridge between the land of feeling good and panic attack.”
Oddball for life
Schmersal has been making oddball pop his whole life, starting with the epileptic Brainiac right out of college and recording jittery landmarks Bonsai Superstar, Internationale and Hissing Prigs in Static Couture with them. When Brainiac founder Tim Taylor died in a car crash in 1997, Schmersal recorded a solo album under the name John Stuart Mill.
“I had finished Brainiac. I was trying to figure out where to end up and mourning my friend. So I made this solo record,” he remembers. “I think that the songs are very linked to what’s going on in Vertical Scratchers. Both records are intimate. The songs are introspective.”
Schmersal started Enon with Rick Lee soon after his solo album. “As we kind of developed our sound, it was a mixture of electronics and film, there were songs on those early records that were a little more straightforward. They were much like guitar based songs. Some of them had keyboards and some of them didn’t but it was allowed to run the gamut,” he says.
Enon was a cult favorite, but never achieved commercial success. The band faded out in the late aughts, as tours brought in less and less money. Schmersal started playing guitar on Caribou tours and moved to Los Angeles to break into soundtrack work. Then, in late 2012, he was at a Thanksgiving party at Melvins’ bassist Jared Warren’s house, and he ran into Christian Beaulieu.
“I had no idea he was a musician at first,” says Beaulieu. “We hit off in a non musical fashion first. But I was desperate for friends and jam prospects, so when I found out he was I reached out to him.”
“He was very smart about it. We hung out a few times chatting over pints about why we would/should even bother to start a new band,” Beaulieu remembers. “He had an idea that would get him stoked enough to try, he sent me some songs from his vault.”
Once the two of them – Schmersal and Beaulieu – decided to work together, Vertical Scratchers took shape very quickly and in an unusual setting. The first album’s material was mostly hashed out in the back of Schmersal’s touring van.
“We didn’t bother to rent a practice space because we didn’t really know where this was going and we wanted to keep things simple,” says Schmersal. “So I would work out these songs and then Christian and I would most often get together in the van. A lot of times I would just bring an electric guitar unamplified and he would just bring sticks and a couple of magazines and drum on the magazines in the back of the van.”
Beaulieu describes those early sessions as “Fun, hot, caffeinated!”
“We’d drive to a shady spot, sometime just a few minutes before street cleaning and work on the songs. I played a pillow, a magazine and the van bench seat. My kick drum was the floor of the van,” the drummer recalls. “I was comfortable in this format, I had done this a million times in Florida playing at friends’ houses and late night jam sessions. John would play whatever guitar was around but always electric so it was balanced.”
That lo-fi, unplugged aesthetic shaped the band’s sound and even provided its name, which references the scrubby, up-and-down rhythms a fast-strummed guitar. “I’d bring out an unamplified electric guitar into the van and we were playing through these things and it’s just loud enough so that he and I can hear what’s going on and he can work out his drumming,” says Schmersal. “And the unamplified sound of the guitar itself, the percussive nature of it, was really good, and I wanted that to be part of the recording. And so anyway, yeah, the scratching element, that’s sort of where the idea came from.”
Beaulieu grew up in South Florida’s metal scene. His first instrument is guitar, not drums. But paradoxically, Schmersal says, that guitar background is what makes Beaulieu’s drumming so interesting. “Christian’s not a drummer who thinks about fills or what’s coming in between. a lot of drummers end up breaking things apart into sections. The fill ends up being a separate part for them,” he explains. “Christian looks at a song as a whole piece. What he ends up doing, he’s more interested in accenting other things that are going on in the songs. Like, he plays the parts and then if he thinks there’s an interesting rhythm that happens in the vocals, then he’ll accent that.”
“Playing with John has been very important to me as a drummer. He shifts me into more dynamics and feel, less bombast. I like the challenge of it and it’s now becoming built in to my approach,” says Beaulieu. “I’ve learned a lot through John about space, shades of light and dark in reference to what/how not to play in important passages and where/how to come back from there as a fulfilled process.”
It all comes together
Schmersal and Beaulieu recorded Daughters of Everything at LA’s Smell, working quickly since Beaulieu and his girlfriend were moving from LA to San Francisco. They laid down tracks as a duo, then Schmersal worked on them at home, adding bass tracks and additional vocals. The band — augmented live by a bass player — tried out its songs at a series of low-key shows in California – and wrote three more songs in the process. One of them, “Wait No Longer,” leads off Daughters of Everything.
When I talk to Schmersal, he was just off a reunion tour with Girls Vs. Boys where he filled in on guitar for Eli Janney, who produced all three Brainiac albums. He was starting 2014 with a European tour for Crooks on Tape, his band with sometime Enon mate Rick Lee, and would switch over, in the spring to a Vertical Scratchers tour.
“In the beginning of this year I was studying film composition and trying to get some freelance work while I was finishing the record — I wasn’t getting a lot of work in general,” Schmersal recalls. “And now I’m so busy that I think that that’s very funny, the difference between the beginning and the end of the year.”
Photo credit: Joseph Armario. Go here to view the band’s tour dates, which include high profile stops in Austin during SXSW and take them across country then back through mid April.