An Interview with Rick Miller from Southern Culture on the Skids by Wendy WWAD
Note: This interview took place in April, right before the Lonestar Rod & Kustom Roundup. Unfortunately, I got hammered at the SCOTS show following the interview and “lost” the tape recorder…until now.
WW: Once again you guys are coming to Austin to play the Lonestar Rod & Kustom Roundup. How many years in a row will this be? What kinds of cars do you guys drive at home?
SCOTS: I have no idea how many years it’s been…I think maybe 6 or 7. Time compresses when you get older. You know what I mean? I can’t remember! I have a 69’ El Camino. It’s a 350. It’s not a Super Sport or souped up or anything. Those are the hottest wheels I have. But I do love it. And Mary and Dave just drive vans, you know, work vehicles.
SCOTS: Yeah, we’re doing it ourselves. We started our own little label called Kudzu Records and we did those two re-issues. Zombified has 5 new songs on it so it’s a full length album now. We also did a new record last year called The Kudzu Ranch, which is all new material, and is on Kudzu Records also. It was the first record we’ve done on our own label. I don’t think we did a very good job of it although we supposedly had some management help. But we learned a lot and Zombified actually did a lot better. Doing it ourselves, we learned a lot of the ins and outs of the record business that we didn’t know already…retail-wise, that is. That seems to be what bands need to do these days, every little bit counts. It’s kind of the wrong side of the brain though, and I can’t say I really enjoy it.
WW: How did you first hook up with Mary Huff and Dave Hartman? How did the sound change once they joined the band?
SCOTS: Mary’s been in the band since 1987. Since she’s joined we’ve had a lot more flexibility. The girl that was in the band before her didn’t want to travel. One time on the road she was blowing her hair dry in a hand dryer at a Wendy’s, got up and cut her head on the hand dryer. So she quit the band the next day. Mary was hitchhiking down to the Carolinas to see a Butthole Surfers show, knew she was going to be in the neighborhood, called us up, auditioned and then she joined. She was 18 at the time, and had never had a real job. She had been playing music the whole time. When she joined what she gave us was a lot of flexibility, to travel, tour, woodshed, you name it. I think Mary and I musically share a lot in common. When you’re doing it for so long it’s like a family, a family act. And Dave played drums with Mary in a frat band in Blacksburg, VA. They had to sneak Mary in to play bass because she was underage. So they’ve been playing in bands together, I don’t know, since 79’ or 80’. Mary dropped out of college to be in the band. She was a cello player and music major in Richmond. So there was no turning back.
WW: Since you guys have survived over 25 years, what do you think is necessary to a band’s longevity? And did you have any idea this would end up being a life-long career?
SCOTS: Never in a million years. I actually have an education. I have an MFA from Carolina so I thought I’d be doing something art-wise. We started the band in college, and then all of a sudden we started making some money and things started happening so we just kind of went with it. I had no idea it’d last like it did. The reason I think we’re a band today is because we’ve always made our own decisions, good or bad. I think that’s what can tear a band apart, when they start letting outside influences tell them what they should do, or who they should be, who they should be playing for, what they should sound like…I think that will kill a band quicker than anything.
WW: How did you feel about parting ways with Geffen? Do you think it proved beneficial in the end?
SCOTS: When they wanted to part ways we said no problem. But Geffen was really good for us. When we got on board with Geffen, the A&R guy, Ray Ferrell, who had come from SST, liked us a lot and we really liked him. Geffen brought him over from SST when they signed, I believe, Sonic Youth. Ray was fantastic, and both of our records on Geffen recouped. So we still get royalty checks. The problem with Geffen was that they didn’t make enough money. We made money but we didn’t make enough money. That whole business was built on megabucks or nothing. They wanted to renew our contracts for two more records but they wanted us to change to a different demographic and appeal to a younger crowd. They wanted to get us into the malls and Wal-Mart, and we just didn’t think it was worth it. We said thanks but no thanks and we left. We’re still a band, and now a label.
WW: When did you guys first start recording at Kudzu Ranch? And how does the recording process come about?
SCOTS: Kudzu…it’s a weed actually. When we first started “wood-shedding” (when Mary joined, actually), we were all living in this house back in the country that was surrounded by kudzu, which is this weed that grows like crazy. The DOT brought it in for ground cover from Japan after WWII and it grows like 3 feet a day. It takes over places. They’re surreal looking, these fields of kudzu. In a field of kudzu you can only make out the shadows and outlines of trees, buildings and old cars that it’s started to envelope. Anyways, when we lived in a huge field of kudzu when we first started wood-shedding, and I think it was when we were recording Too much Pork for Just One Fork. That was the first kudzu ranch. We started recording at the place we’re at now around 2000. I bought a house and I bought it because the out building is bigger than the house. It’s over 2,000 square feet and it looks like a volunteer fire station. The guy built muscle cars and I’ve got a hydraulic lift in the studio. We haven’t figured out how to make it work on in the music end of things but…
WW: So you guys just do analog recording?
SCOTS: We’ll do both. We’re not picky. We’ll do whatever we think works. We did a box set of 45’s where it was never digitized. I found a guy with an old Norman lathe in Nashville, and drove the tapes over to him. He cut the lacquers and I drove them right over to United and had them plated that day. There’s some stuff that we’ve done digitally from start to finish. It just depends on the circumstance and the time. The studio has both though, analog and digital. You know, I mix everything in analog, no matter who I’m working with or what we do. I have this really nice Ampex ATR 102 half inch deck. So even if we track digitally, we always mix in analog. I don’t use any plug-in’s or anything, just an old rack gear and a Sony MCI board. That really tightens things up. You can hear the difference.
SCOTS: Yeah, I record bands from all over…but regionally mostly.
WW: Didn’t you guys originally start Sleazefest?
SCOTS: Yeah, we started Sleazefest way back in, I think, 1994 or something like that. Chapel Hill is a great place, but it’s really known for indie music. A lot of garage-surf-rockabilly-roots type bands, not really Americana…well I guess its all Americana. It was all rock-n-roll, and they would come through and wouldn’t do very well. But we had this great little club called the Local 506, and we started putting it on there. We had Ronnie Dawson one year, Hasil Adkins… It would be young bands and old bands and what we’d always try to do was keep a line of continuity from one generation to another, of that genre and style of music whether it’s garage, surf, r&b…And it was all in a club that held 200 people, and it lasted for 3 days. It was really a lot of fun. It’s not happening any more but who knows? Maybe we’ll bring it back.
WW: Having played all over the world, what are your top 3 places to play? What are a couple of places that you’d like to play that you haven’t yet?
SCOTS: Well, we’ve never been to South America, and I’d really like to go there, especially Brazil or Argentina. I hear Argentina has got a great music scene. My favorite places to play? Probably Australia or Spain. Spaniards love rock-n-roll, and they like to party. They’re fun, just plain fun. I don’t know how to explain it. And the Aussies are the same way! They like to drink, have a good time, and have a great sense of humor…
WW: You guys are known for your stage antics. Was that a part of your shtick from early on? Obviously a lot of it is improvisational, but do you guys also choreograph your stage shows sometimes?
SCOTS: Back from early on, I just knew that we needed to have some sort of niche…some sort of shtick to make us stand out. So Mary started wearing dresses and wearing wigs, drawing a lot of influence from Bobbie Gentry and women like that as role models to try to look like. My Dad was a farmer and he worked in overalls, so I figured I could work in overalls too, you know?Dave wore a Southern lawyer type of hat and seersucker suits. We decided we would write songs mostly about where we lived, and who we were, and our history and how we fit into the whole thing. So Southern Culture on the Skids…that’s what we’ll do. Now the chicken evolved out of just playing live…literally. We were playing this little Mexican restaurant in Harrisonburg, VA, and there were 4 people there, 3 guys and 1 girl. All these guys were doing was hitting on the girl; nobody was paying attention to us. So we’re playing, and for our dinner buy-out, the guy bought us a box of chicken and it was sitting on the side of the stage. And this homeless guy walks in the door, walks right to the stage to our bucket of chicken and reaches in (we hadn’t eaten yet) and pulls out a piece of chicken, starts eating it, and kind of watching us and kind of tapping his toes. I said “Hey, that’s our dinner man. You’re welcome to a piece but why don’t you come on up and be a part of the show”. So he jumped up on stage and did this little dance that I like to call the homeless shuffle. He looked like Gene Gene the Dancing Machine from The Gong Show. All of a sudden the 3 guys and the chick in the audience were were all of a sudden paying attention to us so I thought, hmmm, audience participation is a good thing. I’ve seen Bo Diddley do it, now if we had a good looking girl from the audience rather than a homeless guy it might even work better. So, we just started doing it. We used to get our own chicken till’ we got robbed at gunpoint in Mobile, AL trying to get chicken at a place that didn’t sell chicken after 10pm. It was a pretty sketchy neighborhood. So the next day I called our booking agent and told them to put “No chicken, No show” in our contract. It’s always a kind of chemistry experiment…you never know what you’re going to get. Some nights it sucks, some nights it’s awesome, some nights it’s average, some nights you don’t even do it…but you never know what you’re going to get. It’s fun for the band because the audience members are always wilder than the bands when it comes down to it.
SCOTS: I think a guitar was the first instrument I got. I tried trombone in grade school but I didn’t like the rigors and the discipline of band. So I got a guitar at a Five and Dime, some Japanese thing. I took about 3 lessons but it was all these hippies playing Greensleeves so I bailed out on that and just started listening to records. I didn’t want to be playing Sunshine of Your Love! I was probably 12 at the time. It was on and off until I started the band and started getting serious about it.
WW: What’s your favorite thing about Austin? Least favorite?
SCOTS: Least favorite thing is the traffic, hands down. There is no doubt about it. We’ve been coming here for so long that we’ve seen it grow immensely. I remember when the San Jose’ was a crack motel! At least that’s what I always thought it was. So yeah, the traffic and all the growth are my least favorite things. But my favorite thing? The people. I really like the people here and we’ve developed so many friendships here.
WW: If you were condemned to death, what would you request as your last meal?
SCOTS: It wouldn’t be fried chicken I can tell you that! Maybe a Texas T-bone or some brisket! No I take that back. It’d be some Carolina BBQ…a pulled pork sandwich, tater tots, coleslaw and a red velvet cake.
WW: What’s your definition of success in rock-n-roll?
SCOTS: Quitting the day job. It happened in 91’, I haven’t looked back and it has been the high point of my career.
WW: What can we expect from the SCOTS in 2012?
SCOTS: We’ve got to start working on a new record! I’ve got a 6 year old and he comes up with some really cool song titles. Maybe we’ll make a kids’ record…I have no idea! I’ve been jamming with him (he plays the drums), and he came up with the band name The Surf Creatures and writes songs like Saturday, Sunday, No School Funday and Too Spooky To Poop…really funny stuff. We started writing some new demo stuff so hopefully we’ll have a new record by the end of 2012.
WW: Well, we’re all looking forward to seeing you guys!