SOUTHERN CULTURE ON THE SKIDS Interview with Rick Miller
[Originally published in Rave magazine, 14/06/05]
Some bands wear the “retro” schtick like their flaming skull tattoos or $80 bowling shirts. You know what I mean? It’s an accessory, like the regulation greaser’s slick cut, and I suspect a good way to get starry-eyed rocker girls into the rumble seat for a good ol’ serving of pork pie.
Then there’s bands who eat, breathe, shit and make whoopee with this stuff.
SCOTS last graced a
Miller, along with singer/bass player Mary Huff, the go-go goddess with the big hair and fuck-me boots, and the upstanding, bespectacled drummer Dave Hartman, has turned the sleepy town of
...inhibited! “That’s it. And we share the same penal colony background. I tell ya, we were just in
The new album Mojo Box sounds like it’s back to basics. “It’s the first record we did from start to finish ourselves in our studio. When we made the last album we tracked it at the studio but it wasn’t finished enough to mix it at. On Liquored Up... (2000) it was much more of a countrified thing, and a little more production polish on it. And I think with Mojo Box, we just wanted to do a more rock’n’roll record. We’re a three-piece again - last time we were a three-piece was with Dirt Track Date (1995).”
Is Crispy (Chris Bess) playing keyboards on this album? “He only played on one song. He’s doin’ his own thing - he’s always had his own side bands, and he ended up wanting to do them full time. It was cool, ‘cause I was ready for a change. I got kinda tired of the keyboards, and I just wanted to take it back to being a raw, rockin’ three piece. And that’s kinda where we’re at now. It’s actually great fun.”
He was a great focal point for that ‘98 tour. “I think he added almost more visually than he did musically, because he’s such a character. When he gets those overalls on, he looks like somethin’ out of Hee-Haw!” He was a BIG boy. “Well, he was a man of massive appetites! My favourite part was watching him eat chicken - he would literally take the drumstick and eat all of the meat off it, and then play his piano with what was left! (laughter) We’d have to take the keyboard in periodically just to have the grease and lard cleaned out of it!”
Like the Cramps and Tom Waits recording in their bathrooms, there must be a real trick to capturing those warm, organic sounds. “The studio that we have is all analog, and I think that’s important. And it’s also a big room, so we can all play together - we don’t have to build our tracks so much. So basically we can do all the rhythm tracks and even some vocals live. That’s the way to do ‘em.”
In their 20 year history, SCOTS have evolved from indie labels to a major, and since 2000 back to indie. I’m guessing that independent is the way to be.
“We had a run of good luck on Geffen with that song Camel Walk - that was the last song we ever thought would EVER get on the radio, but it got quite a bit of radio airplay here in the
Is it still fun? “Yes it is still fun, and one reason it continues to be fun is that we feel like we’re in charge of our own destiny.” And it may not have been the case if you’d stayed with Geffen? Rick laughs with conspiratorial glee. “I KNOW it wouldn’t have been as much fun! Heh heh!”
Unedited interview with Rick Miller 20/05/05
I saw the last show in
Oh, so long ago! I was looking my last work visa today for the first tour - it was like, “Wow! ‘98?” And you know what was so funny about coming to
I guess you remember playing in the old church (the Chelsea, now the Rev).
Yeah, I remember the show there as being one of the wildest of all of our Australian gigs.
I was your Chicken Boy.
Oh, you were? Shoot, man, then I’ll prob’ly remember you!
I was so trashed I almost fell into Dave’s drums.
I remember the stage is kinda high there, right? I mighta been a little worried about your well-being! (laughs)
It was a fantastic show, and it really did prove that SCOTS knows how exactly how to get an audience moving and shaking. Or do Australian audiences just get it?
Well, I think it’s a combination of both. I think Australian audiences do get it, and they like rock’n’roll and they’re not too....
That’s it. And we share the same penal colony background. I tell ya, we were just in
The Sixfthick guys say hi - I think they’re going to come backstage and drink your rider dry.
Well that’s nothin’ new. A slab of stubbies, right? Deeeep stubbies!
Oh, that’s right, and they’re closer to you guys, right?
A little closer, yeah. That’s the Deeeeeeeeep North. (laughter) Is Sleazefest still going?
Yeah, I talked to Mary about that today. We don’t put it on anymore ‘cause we got too busy, but the local bar here in town, they’ve continued the tradition. It’s stayed pretty good - we had a couple of lean years for a while when the bar changed hands... but we had a great one last year, and this year’s shaping up to be a lot of fun, I think.
You always get to play them if you’re in town?
Yeaaah, we usually play ‘em, and we’re always in town for it ‘cause Mary actually booked some of the bands last year. She may be involved this year, I dunno - she was talkin’ about it...
I saw the video of the first one and it looked absolutely wild!
That’s the one with Hasil Adkins, right?
Man, that was sad news to hear about Hasil.
Yeah, it was. We were leaving for
Had you heard from him since then?
I used to hear from him all the time - he got a couple of guys who would manage and book him and stuff, and I kinda lost touch with him personally... ‘Cause he used to call me on the phone all the time. He used to call me from a pay phone at a truck stop. It was like three minute conversations that would last thirty minutes! Because he would start to tell me something, and a huge truck would roll by... “Rick, Rick, I can’t hear you no more... Speak up, speak up!” And then he’d start his story again, from the beginning of course.
Did you hear exactly what happened to him?
He had a heart attack in his sleep. People over here said he got hit by an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle)...
They tried to keep the legend going!
Exactly. I don’t know if it was a fight or an accident or on purpose, but I think somebody did run into him with one of those ATV four-wheelers not too long ago. But that’s not what killed him. He died in his sleep and they were saying it was a heart attack. A buddy of mine who was at the funeral sent me a picture, he had a cowboy hat next to him and stuff.
At least he went peacefully. He didn’t fall off a tractor. While playing on the top of it!
Let’s talk about the new album (“Mojo Box”). The first couple of SCOTS albums were kinda rudimentary, then the last album (“Liquored Up And Laquered Down”) was really lush and orchestral - some of the songs sounded like those huge Tony Joe White production numbers with the horns. “Mojo Box” sounds like it’s back to basics.
Yeah, it is. It’s the first record we did from start to finish ourselves in our studio. When we made the last album we tracked it at the studio but it wasn’t finished enough to mix it at. On “Liquored Up...” it was much more of a countrified thing, and a little more production polish on it, especially with some of the tunes like “Just How Lonely”...
That’s my favourite song on it. It sounds like Mary’s hitting the Tammy Wynette vibe perfectly.
Exactly! I wrote that song for her to sing, and I thought she did a spectacular job of it. I thought we might get a little radio airplay with that song...
Maybe in 1968!
I was told that later...But it was a lot slicker. And I think with “Mojo Box”, we just wanted to get back to around the “Dirt Track Date” kinda vibe, and just do a more rock’n’roll record. We’re a three-piece again - last time we were a three-piece was with “Dirt Track Date”.
Is Chris playing keyboards on this album?
No, he only played on one song. He’s doin’ his own thing. He’s always had his own side bands and stuff, and he ended up wanting to do them full time. It was cool, ‘cause I was ready for a change. And the keyboards were OK - I mean, he was with us for like four years maybe? But I got kinda tired of the keyboards, and I just wanted to take it back to being a raw, rockin’ three piece. And that’s kinda where we’re at now. It’s actually great fun.
He was a great focal point for that ‘98 tour.
I think he added almost more visually than he did musically, because he’s such a character. And he gets those overalls on, and he looks like somethin’ out of Hee-Haw!
Fred from SixftHick’s got a great story about him from when they played with you one Easter. He said he watched Chris eat an entire bag of Easter eggs, one after the other.
Well, he was a man of massive appetites! My favourite part was watching him eat chicken - and he would never give the girls all the chicken, know what I mean? He’d always save a couple of pieces for himself. And then I’d see him over there playing, and he would literally take the drumstick and eat all of the meat off it, and then play his piano with what was left! (laughter) We’d have to take the keyboard in periodically just to have the grease and lard cleaned out of it!
My favourite song off the new album is “Where Is The Moon Tonight”. I must be getting soft in my old age - I’m picking all the mellow ones! That one’s just sublime, though...
I wrote that one a long time ago, and we’d never really figured out how we wanted to do it. We were listening to some Nancy Sinatra songs, and my initial thing was I wanted Mary to sing it, but she kinda balked at it, she didn’t like it. So it ended up being my chore. I got her to do a lot of the background vocals. We sing together a lot on the Mojo Box album. And then we wanted a trumpet on it, like a Lee Hazlewood or a Billy Strange kinda thing. It just turned out to be kinda odd - it didn’t come out the way I expected it to, but I really liked it so we put it on the record. I gotta say though, it’s a difficult song to pull off live. You really have to sing it right, you know. After about three or four weeks on the road you’re a bit ragged...
It’s one of those songs you can’t really rely on schtick to pull it through.
No you can’t. The other thing is, that’s one of those songs on there where I think the individual parts are important, and as a three piece we never really got the right feel for it live. The other problem with songs like that live is, it’s like a locomotive in a way. Once you get the inertia going live, sometimes it’s hard to pull back enough to treat those songs the way they need to be treated, to pull ‘em off live, as in where you put it in the set. ‘Cause you can see, everybody settles right down. Either that or we play it too damned fast. You know what I mean? It’s not the same vibe. That’s why we don’t do it live. Now, we’ll do “Just How Lonely” live, ‘cause that’s got a little bit more of a “pop” feel to it, to me. And that song can be played at a faster tempo and it still sounds quite good. But “Where Is The Moon Tonight”, we tried doing it live for a while, but it just felt like we were kinda... fuckin’ the song up! (laughter)
It’s more of a lounge room song - late night, sipping whiskey...
Right, right, it’s a country thing. Now we used to do “Drunk And Lonesome” off “Liquored Up...” as a slow song, but that’s so geared towards the bar crowd. But “Where Is The Moon Tonight” is so romantic. Who knows - we used to open up for ourselves as a country band called The Pine Cones, and we used to do that acoustic. And that’s where I wrote that song. We were talking about doing a record as The Pine Cones, and doing some stuff like that in the middle of the set, like taking time out to actually do three or four songs like that. It’s something that we’re thinking about maybe on the next tour or the next record. I really like playing that stuff, but like I say, once the crowd is in a frenzy, it’s a little difficult!
I really like the stories on the website (www.scots.com) about recording the new album. It’s like reading about the Cramps and Tom Waits recording in their bathrooms - there’s a real trick to recording those warm, organic sounds.
The studio that we have is all analog, and I think that’s important. And it’s also a big room, so we can all play together - we don’t have to build our tracks so much. So basically we can do all the rhythm tracks and even some vocals live. That’s the way to do ‘em. On this record, because it did take a while to do because we were working on the road so much and building the studio, we got to play a lot of the songs live before we recorded them. It’s like when you make your first couple of records, you’ve been playing live for a few years and you get signed to a label, and then you come in and you knock these songs out you’ve been doing for years, and then you go right back out on the road, and then all of a sudden the cycle gets to where you have to write the songs, record them and then play them live. Because of the time limitations - you have to be on the road promoting, you get done with that and all of a sudden the record label’s going, “OK, it’s time for another record.” You take a little time to write of course - you can’t tour during that time - then you record, then you learn them all how you want to present them live, then you go out and do it. Then at the end of that tour you go, damn! We’re playing these songs so much better! This part sounds so much better than the original part.
You pick ‘em apart and put them back together...
Yeah, you wish you could just go back in there and re-record them all. That’s the way it goes. But on this one, we were on the road so much while we were recording it, we got a chance to play a lot of the songs live and feel them out in front of a live audience, and it’s the best thing for your confidence. And a song isn’t really a song until you’ve played it live. Sometimes what we do is we actually become a house band here in town in a little local bar. We schedule ourselves under different names, and we go in and try out all of our new songs. We don’t play as Southern Culture..., we just make up some weird name.
Like 2000 Maniacs!
Exactly! Or the Gore Gore Girls. And we play in drag!
When you were on Geffen, there was a time when you were on every second film soundtrack. One of the strangest place I saw SCOTS turn up was on Perdita Durango.
We had three songs in there. That was a wild movie, man! And that got us our first tour of
I know a few Aussie bands who head straight for
They really are ravenous for good rock’n’roll, and they really like to party it up. It’s really fun. It’s just these little tiny towns in the middle of nowhere - all of a sudden you’re playing these little bars and all these locals show up and just go crazy.
It’s real frontier time.
Yeah, it is in
Where’s the weirdest place that your association with Geffen took you? Apart from the set of I Know What You Did Last Summer...
Well that was pretty weird... Because they were doing dialogue, we couldn’t make a noise!
So you were bopping way in the background in total silence!
Totally silent! And all those dancers in the sand, they were dancing to total silence! It was surreal...
Now that’s acting!
Not only that, but it was in the middle of the night in February or March, so it was freezing cold! You can’t tell by watching, but Dave was literally three feet behind his drumkit - they obviously couldn’t take a chance on him hitting a cymbal or a rimshot or something (laughter). I mean, my hand is about six inches from my guitar. They had a huge PA, and all these dancers, when they’d say “cut”, all the crew would bring all their winter coats out to them , so they’d all be huddled in their coats, and then the director would say “thirty seconds”, and they’d run out and grab all their coats, and they would play the songs on these big PA speakers. So everybody would get the beat and start dancing, then we’d start playing along with it, and then cut the sound, and dead silence! And I would be staring there at forty people twisting away in the sand - to dead silence. In the middle of winter. In bathing suits. I swear if you look close enough, you’ve gotta see goose bumps.
If you’ve got a really good digital TV!
And we worked all night - we wouldn’t start shooting till midnight... till 4 or 5 in the morning.
I really dug the “Zombified” EP, and I’d love to see a movie-themed EP, like covers of the themes to The Wild Angels or Satan’s Sadists, or “The South’s Gonna Rise Again” from 2000 Maniacs!
Yeah, the tragic kettle drum from Blood Feast! It’s funny you should say that, because we haven’t put it out yet, but we did the DVD to Blood Feast 2: Buffet Of Blood. David Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis collaborated with the director for that, for that movie. And he wrote the lyrics that we played the music to for the theme song.
And we also did the incidental music, and you will recognize a lot of songs off “Zombified” on the soundtrack. Now, we didn’t get paid for it - what we did get were the rights to do an official soundtrack album. So when we have time - we’ve written two songs for it but we need two or three more to put in with the incidental music and some of the other stuff - I think what we’ll do is release it next year or somethin’ as the official soundtrack record.
You could always dig up that collaboration you did with Zacherle!
(Laughs) You know, we never even saw the guy. We had to get the music, you know what I mean, and then they took the backing tracks to wherever he was - ‘cause I thought I’d get to meet the guy! But it never came to that, they just took it to wherever he was,
That’s a shame. A missed opportunity to meet someone like Zacherle.
Somebody who’s influenced MY career.
The other guys I’ve got a sore spot for are the Louvin Brothers - did you ever do one of their songs?
Yes, we did “Great Atomic Power”. I don’t know if they wrote it, but I know their version was the one that influenced us.
I didn’t think it was theirs ‘cause the lyrics aren’t overly “Jesus-fied”.
Well it wasn’t over-the-top Jesus, but there’s a few lines in there about rise up and meet your Father, whatever... I always loved “The River of Jordan” too. Mary’s got the Bear Records boxed set of every song the Louvin Brothers ever did. It’s like eight CDs. That‘s a whole lotta Louvin! (laughter)
You went from indie to major label, then back to indie - I’m guessing that indie is the way to be.
We had a run of good luck on the major with that song “Camel Walk” - that was the last song we ever thought would EVER get on the radio, but it got quite a bit of radio airplay here in the United States. And it helped us out quite a bit, ‘cause we don’t make our living from selling records, we make our living from playing live. So that helped us out quite a bit. And I always figured if we could hold on to those fans that got turned onto us from some of that radio airplay, that we’d be doing pretty good. And we did. But I think ultimately that indies are the only place for a band like us. The odd thing is, both of our records on Geffen recouped all of our advances and we get royalties from it at the end of the day. But it’s not enough money for them. They’re “all or nothing” kinda stuff. Either you’re a huge hit or they don’t care. You’re just fodder. With an indie label they know how to promote a band on the road, and with their limited budget they do quite well, with knowing where to put it to get the most results. We’ve entered into much better financial deals - we don’t need to sell near as many records to make as much money. Especially now with our own studio. So we don’t take any advances, you know, we basically do a 50/50 profit share with the labels.
I was thinking you’d have more control over the copyright, the music...
Of course. Right before we left Geffen, they were willing to extend our contract for two more records, but they started to tell us what direction they wanted us to go in and what we needed to do to continue to be Geffen artists. And that could’ve broken the band up, you know what I mean? We’ve been an indie band for so long, we’d gotten used to doing what we do. So it was no big deal to say no to Geffen.
Is it more fun now? Or is it still fun, that’s the question?
Yes it is still fun, and one reason it continues to be fun is that we feel like we’re in charge of our own destiny.
And it may not have been as much fun if you’d stayed with Geffen...
I KNOW it wouldn’t have been as much fun (laughs). They would’ve dropped us anyway sooner or later. We got out at a good time.
See you at the show - and remember me when it’s time to pick Chicken Boy!
Yeah, come on back and we’ll have a
And getting bigger every year! It’s something in the chicken...
Dished out by a 30 foot Colonel! (laughter)