STILL BLINDED BY… The Scientists

“The Scientists were fueled on negative energy—a negative sort of group. A bit like the Stooges, the way the group worked is very similar. There’s not many groups that have worked that way, and I think the result is intense energy.” (Special thanks to In The Red Records, which has just issued a new 12″ EP from the band. Above photo by John Boydston – also check out his BLURT photo gallery of the band’s April 21 Atlanta show. FYI, original Australian show handbills pictured below are from the band and fans back in the day, via the editor’s archives.)

BY FRED MILLS

That’s Kim Salmon speaking, and the co-founder/frontman of Australia’s skronky/swampy/fetid/feral Scientists pretty much nailed it, as American fans were also primed to learn this month when the band hit our shores for what was amazingly, only their second U.S. tour despite having a legacy that stretches back to the late ‘70s. They kicked things off April 11 in Chicago, headed across the midwest towards the northeast, dipped down through several southern states, and were set to wrap April 24 in L.A.

Interestingly enough, though, the above quote isn’t contemporaneous. Rather, it was plucked from an interview I published nearly three decades ago, in Philly rock zine The Bob, for whom I authored a regular column on Australian music, titled, appropriately enough, “The Wizards of Oz,” and which featured the Scientists and Salmon’s subsequent bands pretty much every time they emerged from a recording studio or embarked upon a tour.

Yet Salmon’s words ring truer than ever in 2019, as anyone who saw the group—Salmon, guitar/vocals; Tony Thewlis, guitar; Boris Sujdovic, bass; and Leanne Cowie, drums—on their much-belated initial American tour in the fall of 2018 will attest. There’s plenty of YouTube evidence from that U.S. sojourn as well, from the nihilistic sonic pipe bomb of “Set It On Fire” (originally appearing on 1983’s Blood Red River) and the dirty slapback punk of “Braindead” (the group’s recent 7” single for In The Red); to the dirty, Suicide-like mutant blues that is 1985’s “Murderess In A Purple Dress” and the group’s stone classic, “Swampland,” a throbbing slice of, yes, swampy glam that somehow manages to quote Sonic Youth, the Stooges, and T. Rex all in the same arrangement. The latter tune in particular is a force of nature, powered by Sujdovic’s relentless one-note bassline, Cowie’s equally hypnotic syncopated thump, Thewlis’ extemporaneous riffing, and Salmon’s dissonant-twang responses plus yipping/howling vocals.

Not bad for a group that was deemed out and down for the count in 1987, when Salmon, exhausted by the legal and label troubles they’d endured since relocating from Australia to London three years earlier, decided to pull the plug. He’d been helming the band since its Flamin’ Groovies/New York Dolls-esque early incarnation circa 1978-80 and through myriad lineup changes that would eventually see the arrival of Thewlis, Sujdovic, and late drummer Brett Rixon, considered by most to be the Scientists’ classic lineup; a subsequent embrace of a darker, swampier, noisier vibe heavily influenced by the aforementioned Suicide and Stooges alongside the Cramps and the Gun Club; and the London move, which found them touring with the Gun Club as well as the Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie & the Banshees, but never truly providing the musicians much more than a just-scraping-by level of income. And despite a growing American fanbase, a general level of disorganization for the Scientists meant that a theoretically lucrative tour of the States was never really an option. Meanwhile, their Australian fanbase had gradually withered during their protracted absence from their homeland.

Still, like elephants, rock fans have a unique ability to never forget. And somehow, over the years the Scientists had cultivated a core following that included far more prominent personalities than just yours truly and my fellow fanzine scribes; think Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Indeed, several Scientists reunions at the behest of their acolytes—2006 for the Mudhoney-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in London, the following year’s ATP festival, a few Australian dates in 2008 with Sonic Youth, and appearances at ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series in 2008 and 2010—suggested that the Scientists’ beaker was still very much capable of boiling over.

Salmon, on the eve of the band’s 2019 American tour and reflecting on that dark late ’80s period now, explains, “I think our leaving Australia early 1984 was the problem. Out of sight, out of mind! Especially with all our hassles keeping us from making a big successful splash in the UK…”

Read about the entire tale below. With the kind assistance of In The Red, I conducted an email interview with Salmon prior to the band leaving Australia and heading to the States. (Portions of this conversation previously appeared in the April edition of Atlanta music mag Stomp & Stammer, as the band’s US tour itinerary took them to Atlanta for shows on April 20 and 21.) As mentioned, their final show will be this Wednesday in Los Angeles, although they will also be back in early July for the Burger Records 10-year anniversary bash.

Ultimately, the Scientists have been an ongoing entity once again since the tail end of 2017 and not simply a vehicle for one-off festival performances. The previous year saw the release of Numero Group’s superb career-summarizing Scientists box set, A Place Called Bad (reviewed by yours truly here), while newcomers to the gospel can also consult Sub Pop’s easily found 1991 compilation CD, Absolute, which distilled the group’s essential mid ‘80s output. The group has also issued new singles on both In The Red and Spains’s Bang! label, along with the just released 12” EP for In The Red titled 9H2O.SiO2.

BLURT: First things first. I wrote about the Scientists and interviewed you back in the ‘80s, and then we finally met around 1996 when the Surrealists came to Club Congress in Tucson; our mutual friend, and massive Salmon/Scientists fan, music publicist Michele V had arranged for us to connect. And then, a few years ago, you and I did an interview for BLURT about the Darling Downs. So, in one sense, you and I go pretty far back. One of these days we’ve got to sit down and do some serious drinking! At any rate, going back to that US tour by the Surrealists,  in your liner notes to your ’97 Surrealists album Ya Gotta Let Me Do My Thing, you mention that the tour seemed to energize you, songwriting-wise, so much so that you were eager to go into the studio when you got home. Does touring still affect you that way? Have you been able to stockpile a lot of new material?

KIM SALMON: Fred, you’ve probably contributed a fair deal to the Scientists being present in the US these days! And yes, some serious drinking is in order… I think what I was referring to was more the freeing up of the creative process with a fresh lineup and the touring that greeted that lineup. The Surrealists’ first lineup was a mighty band, but for various reasons it’d grown tired and stale. I don’t tend to stockpile material; I prefer to just write when the need arises. I’ve probably made way too many records for how many I can sell, ha! The new record [9H20.Si02, on In The Red] isn’t strictly an album, but a 12 EP. I’ve done my best to stay true to what the Scientists are while still trying to push its boundaries. It’s a line to walk. The trick I think is not to worry too much about ‘the formula’ but to allow the uniqueness of the band members to show through. (Below: sleeve of new 12″ EP, 9H2O.SiO2, issued by In The Red.)

While the band did a number of reunion shows between 2006 and 2010, this time it seems to be sticking, as the Scientists have been touring relatively steadily since late 2017. Does it feel different this time around, and if so, what do you attribute this to? 

I think it’s been a matter of unearthing the unique elements of what the band was back in the day without necessarily trying to replicate “the day.” Things’ll never be the same, but we seem to have gotten closer to the core of what the Scientists was. It was always hard to locate, but we seem to be digging it up and reveling in it. (Below photo by Denee Segal / courtesy In The Red)

Relatedly, then, talk a little about what each member brings to the table, both onstage and in the studio? Tony and Boris, of course, have a lot of history with you.

Tony is a totally unique guitarist. Incredibly proficient but completely unschooled. There is not another player remotely like him. The irony is that one feels he’d be happy to replicate the stuff that he loves and isn’t that aware of how much better he is doing his own thing, good as he is at replicating. He used to be a crazy whirling dervish on stage and was often the visual focus of the band. These days his crazy energy is focused more specifically on his sounds and less visual, though he does exude charisma non the less. I think his creative input is almost as a foil to mine. He claims to have gotten many George Harrison, Slade and Glitter Band licks past my ears un-noticed!

I think we’re a classic case of one of those bands where each member tries to destroy the initial idea with their stamp without realizing that this destructive energy is the creative force of the band—like the Sex Pistols, for instance. Jones simplified Matlock’s pop complexities into a hard rock slab, while Rotten’s highly content-driven lyrics completely subverted the band from sounding far more pedestrian, like Free or something.

Boris is the minimalist drive within the band. It was him that reduced “Swampland” to a pulsing one-note bass riff for the most part. His playing is deceptively basic sounding. No one has ever replicated the nuances that make what he does—the very core of the Scientists. I’ve been playing alongside Boris more than other players. Although the band is essentially a democracy, Boris and I tend to work together and determine our strategies with regards to touring, presentation, recording.

Leanne is our link to what Brett Rixon did. The rhythm was what made Scientists Mach 2 different from every other post-punk band around. When Brett left the band in 1985, we tried numerous drummers, all of them very proficient and capable of making a big contribution to the band. However, we simply weren’t able to bring on the “chemistry” with any of them, and we ended up getting Leanne, [at the time] our tour manager, into the band, as she had recently bought Brett’s kit and taught herself the drums entirely from his recordings and having watched him. Her first gig was at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow when we supported Siouxsie and The Banshees on their ’85 UK tour. By the end of the tour she had mastered the groove, albeit in a streamlined way. The chemistry was restored. This kind of tenacity cannot be bought or even found very often.

Tell me then—why were the Scientists unable to tour the US during the 1981-87 run? There was definitely a fanbase here…

It really was a case of too many things going wrong for us. We had LOADS of record company, and touring, interest, and despite some detractors, a LOT of UK press. Rixon leaving was the first problem, then we had a huge row with our Australian record label, and it was impossible to move. We had based ourselves in London from 1984. Just being around and surviving in order to try to capitalize on what was being handed to us took all our energy. We couldn’t just serve anything up. We needed authenticity and we were acutely aware of that and what’s more weren’t interested in being something else anyway.

In 1986 Boris had visa problems and had to leave [England]. We replaced him, but it never was as good without him and actually became a drain. We managed to revitalize things very briefly with a complete change of members—me switching to bass and going 3-piece with a friend of mine. It was Tony, Nick Combe on drums, and me. We recorded [1987’s] The Human Jukebox before disintegrating in a blaze of anarchy. It’s certainly a worthy album and as authentically “Scientists” as anything we’ve done, but this lineup was never going to last. It was actually MORE self-destructive than the “classic” lineup.

Could you briefly recount how you remember the initial breakup, and what, if anything, could have convinced you to stick together?

Our legal problems were a HUGE drain and refused to go away. I ended up back in Perth with a very heavy heart, and only by moving on with the Surrealists and the Beasts of Bourbon was I able to feel any kind of lightness in my life.

The only thing that would have worked would be for the legal stuff to be lifted and being given lots of money to function and record and live off. That just wasn’t going to happen back then

Have you been surprised at the level of interest in the band recently? What were you expecting from audiences when you finally mounted a proper tour of US for the first time, and were your expectations met?

I was partially prepared for a number of reasons. I had known that there was interest in the band from people like Jon Spencer and Mudhoney. I had management in the US for a while from 1995, and toured in 1996 with the Surrealists. That’s when I realized that there was a considerable cult following all ‘round the country. With the Scientists’ absence over such a long period, I was prepared for the mythology that had grown around us to perhaps not match the reality. I was always mindful that people might think they were getting more, or less, than they’d bargained for. I’ve always been confident that the Scientists is actually more than people tend to expect. Its more complex and extreme in the flesh. It certainly is apart from something as simple as a Cramps or Stooges style “garage rock” outfit.

On one level, the Scientists are elder statesmen of Australian rock, originally emerging at a key moment when a lot of bands were forming and some were getting a good bit of recognition internationally. Yet my impression is that the band never got the proper amount of respect in Australia during that initial 1981-87 run, despite your being a remarkably unique group that was sonically set apart from its peers. (Editorial aside: Indeed – when I was penning the above-mentioned Australian music column for US zine The Bob, on several occasions I received letters from Australian readers who had noted my, ahem, mild obsession with the Scientists and took me to task for championing a band that, in their opinion, were no longer relevant in terms of all things Down Under.)

I think our leaving Australia early 1984 was the problem. Out of sight out of mind. Especially with all our hassles keeping us from making a big successful splash in the UK.

The only touring we did after that was actually after the band had imploded – a couple of gigs in Perth and Sydney early 1987, and a tour with the Human Jukebox lineup later in the year (which was NOT appreciated, as it was different from the “Swampland” band). I think the main thing that set us apart from a lot of our peers was our intention to be unique. Many of the Australian bands that we’ve been lumped in with, we feel nothing in common with, as these were bands that fitted neatly into a garage rock subgenre.

Lastly, and kind of as an aside, I love the Kim & Leanne LP (True West, 2014) and would dig a Volume 2 from you. (More recently, there was also a reunion of the mighty Beasts of Bourbon, as The Beasts, and also an album for Spain’s Bang! label, Still Here.) What’s next for you in terms of solo records, non-Scientists stuff, and performances?

At the moment I’m really just thinking of coming up with Scientists material. It’s way harder to write that stuff than any of the other stuff I do! But also, I do have a couple of solo tracks I’m going to record for a 7” in June. It’s to go with the release of a biography about me in November.

I tend to write material when it’s needed rather than all the time. A bit like a mechanic who doesn’t work on his own car. However, I think I’ll be playing in the US with and without the Scientists over the next few years a bit more—which will eventually mean I’ll need to record some more solo stuff, which is sort of exciting for me. Actually, I’m looking at some US solo dates after Burger Boogaloo [July 6-7 in Oakland, hosted by John Waters and featuring Jesus & Mary Chain, Scientists, Dead Boys, and more]. The solo shows may be just me or with a band or both.

The Kim and Leanne project was really intended to give Leanne and me gigs to do in the absence of the Scientists. It was sort of meant to be what the kind of material the Scientists might do if they were around still… and now that the Scientists are, any Kim and Leanne material would be Scientists material!

***

Below, check out the band doing their classic “Swampland,” recorded by a fan in the audience on April 15, 2019, in Brooklyn, followed by “Solid Gold Hell” April 20, 2019 in Atlanta. They still got it.

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