Washington DC's All Scars threw a noose around the bloated throat of so-called 90s "post rock", and then leeched out (and effectively reveled in) all of its most adventurous underpinnings. Based around the core lineup of Dischord Records vets Chuck Bettis (Metamatics), Dug Birdzell (Beefeater, Fidelity Jones), Jerry Busher, and then complimented by an ever-revolving group of guest musicians, the band released a handful of wonderfully psycho experimental records between 1997 and 2003.
In March of 2000, I saw the band perform at New York City's Tonic nightclub (R.I.P.), and then caught up with them again the following night at a show in bucolic Princeton, NJ. Although the interview transcript that follows was intended for the never-released 7th issue of the zine I co-edited at the time, a lot of what the All Scars had to say seven years ago is still very relevant and interesting today. (And by finally publishing it, I get to shed some guilt for not delivering on the hype that a feature in my rag surely would've brought about.... ahem.)
Chuck Bettis recently performed on WFMU with his new Brown Wing Overdrive project. You can check out the archive here. Thanks to Chuck for filling in some blanks in the lineage for me, and for permission to post the below All Scars MP3s. Right-Click/Read-On.
Transcript of All Scars interview at Terrace Club, Princeton NJ: March, 2000
Answers generously supplied by Jerry Busher (drums), Dug Birdzell (bass), and Chuck Bettis (vocals). All questions appear in boldface. Photos by Mike Lupica.
Primitive recording device was stalled, so we dispense with the pleasantries.
Going by the two albums you’ve released to date, it seems that the lineup of All Scars is somewhat fluid, giving me the impression that you guys are more of a creative collective than a traditional band. Is there any truth to that? Are there certain core members, and others who sort of come and go?
Jerry: Yeah, there has been. I mean, it’s not necessarily a conscious
decision. A lot of it has to do with people’s availability,
willingness, or whatever. The core has been us (Jerry, Dug, and Chuck),
basically. We’ve had a lot of other people come in. It came out of a
very loose kind of beginning.
And when did all of this start?
Chuck: Late ’96…
Dug: Actually, it was earlier than that. We played our first show, I mean, if you want to count the stuff we did with James, in January of ’96.
Jerry: We were just talking about that show earlier… I had just asked Dug, Chuck, and James to get together to come up with some music and play a show and call it All Scars. I sort of had it in the back of my mind that I wanted it to be a continuing thing that could change and didn’t necessarily have to be the same music or the same people, and that’s pretty much what it ended up being. We did that show with James, and that stuff came out on a single on Ace Fu [Records]. And pretty much, things just escalated from there. The next time we were offered a gig, James couldn’t do it, so we asked Brendan [Canty, of Fugazi] to play with us, came up with a whole new batch of music and did that show with him. We did a bunch of stuff with Brendan for a while and recorded the first full length album. And after that, if Brendan couldn’t do it, we’d play with somebody else. Then we went through a period where it was just the three of us playing as a trio for a while.
Now you just ran through several names there, and I know you guys all have a full laundry list of other bands that you’ve been a part of, and I think that’s given some people the idea that you’re a…
Jerry: No. I don’t look at it as a side project, or a supergroup, or whatever. To me, it just is what it is. And it’s been constantly challenging and fun and great to play with different people. People definitely get focused on who’s in the band, and who was in what other band, but it’s just musicians trying to create something, and I don’t really think about that stuff.
Do you think it’s a result of being from the DC area, which has always been a scene that, for whatever reason, people from all over the world watch like hawks?
Jerry: Yeah, there’s people who are definitely into [knowing] what DC people are up to, and it’s great, I’m not going to complain that people are interested. But if people are only interested because of where we come from, or the label we’re on, you feel almost categorized and, especially with this group, I like to feel really open, like we can do whatever we want. Sometimes it’s frustrating to think that before you hit the first note, everybody’s like, “Oh, they’re this.” But I think we’re shattering a lot of preconceptions, especially on this extensive tour because we’re not what a lot of people think we’re going to be.
Chuck: It’s mainly a genre thing. How people associate names and how that shapes the music of a group. Dealing with the rock genre, everyone thinks that if so-and-so is in it, it’s going to sound like so-and-so. And All Scars is an incidental concept within itself. It’s this ever-evolving cast of musicians and music, trying a new approach but continuing a tradition. What we’re doing is unique within the genre that a lot of the bands we play with are grouped in. Which, I guess is the shocking or appealing point—however it may be seen.
Jerry: If you look at music as a big picture, it’s not that unusual to gather different people together and play different music every time.
Seeing you last night at Tonic, I was wondering, how much of what you do, live or on record is straight-up improv, versus the amount that is scripted, because it does seem like different music every time.
Chuck: The tour has been all completely improvised.
[scooping jaw off floor] OK, because the thing is, it doesn’t look that way. And I mean that in a good way. I can definitely tell that you guys all feed off of one another on the stage, but I had no idea…
Chuck: Well that’s the thing—the best improv seems like composition and the best composition seems like improv.
Dug: One thing that’s interesting over the course of this group is the steady evolution from composition towards more and more improv. We went from actually writing and practicing songs with parts to composition in a conceptual sense of “let’s do this kind of a thing.”
Chuck: We would discuss moods, and mental scenery. And then see how that evolved into sound.
Dug: But now we just go up there! (laughs) We don’t even talk about it anymore, so it’s kind of cool in a way because what I see is us getting more used to each other. Growing in our ability to connect, or at least just being willing to take the risk of saying, “Shit, let’s go for it.” I don’t know if, four years ago, we would have just gone out and improvised.
Jerry: We talked about it, but’s it’s scary.
Chuck: Well, because [band members] changed so often, we were like, “Well these are their songs.” So when a new guest came, we would write songs with them, and eventually, it got to the point where we said, “Why don’t we just come up with a new set every time we play?” It was a stumbling block… we’d get frustrated at times, but every time we’d start to get used to something, we’d try to make it a little more difficult for ourselves so we wouldn’t get in this groove rut, where we’re so used to and comfortable with things. Even with improvisation, when people decide not to use certain instruments or try an instrument they’ve never played before, it changes everything. Also, even if we practice improvising for weeks on end, having a new guest come in even for one day changes the whole mood. The same thing goes for the atmosphere of the place we’re playing, the bands we’re playing with… We tend to retaliate in some way to what’s going on around us.
Now... Does… (very long pause) The idea of straight up improv is terrifying to me, but does that help you create a specific mood on stage? Is there a specific mood?
Chuck: I think, individually, there might be…
Jerry: We never talk about it if there is.
Chuck: We never say, “OK, we’re gonna go for this Bad Mother Goose thing tonight…”
Chuck: The most talking we do beforehand now is, “Are you ready?” And sometimes we don’t even do that. Someone will just start playing…
Jerry: It’s been interesting because we’ve never done this many [consecutive] shows as a band before, and obviously, never improvised this much. But you really do key off the room and the crowd and the atmosphere. It’s never how you think it’s going to be. We’ll play these shows where the opening bands are really cool and we feel like we’re really going to fit in well, and then we’ll play terribly. But then we’ll play with five hardcore bands and have a great show.
Chuck: It’s really hard, mentally, to come from a musical background that usually doesn’t do what we’re doing and attempt to do it. But you know, improvisation is as old as music itself. But to actually do it can be really frustrating because you realize how much control you have and how much you don’t have. In songwriting, once you have a song, it’s there. You have your formula, your format and you just go. And after the show, you think to yourself, “Oh, I played that note wrong” and that can upset you. But doing improv, live and in front of people, you get to pay extreme attention to everybody and everything. In that way, we’re highly sensitive to the environment. Luckily, in doing this as a trio for a while, we know eachother’s personalities and moods and we’re aware of how the others play. There are some tricks that we might throw in, to try to stump eachother, but other than that, I don’t know if Dug’s going to be really depressed (laughs), or if he's gonna swing his bass at me... You know, something random.
That must really change what it means to have a good show versus a bad one.
Jerry: I’ve noticed that doing a good imrov show feels incredible. Much more rewarding than any other kind of show I’ve ever played. I don’t really feel like we’ve had a show where we’ve just fuckin’ sucked. When you have a good show, but you feel weird or uncomfortable, it’s so much worse than any bad show I’ve ever had. It’s so frustrating because the extremes are so amplified by it.
So then what are the two albums representative of? Is that material that was improvised in the studio? I know some of the last one was recorded live at the Knitting Factory…
Jerry: Well, the Ace Fu single with James was really structured, although loose. Half of the first album was looser, but still structured, and half of the second set was structured at the beginning but then we just let the tape roll and the whole end part is improvised. And that’s pretty representative of what we were then. The second album is definitely more representative of what the band has become because it features three different lineups, there’s improv and structured material on there, and it’s three or four sets of stuff we did with different people that we just spliced together.
Chuck: We wanted to document what we’d been doing with all these guests we’d been playing with. Which it does.
How have audiences been responding to you on this tour?
Jerry: It depends. Like I said, we’ve had shows with hardcore bands where half the crowd leaves [when we play].
And I would expect that with that kind of crowd, half of them are certainly not expecting to see something like what you’re doing.
Jerry: Yeah, obviously the music we’re doing isn’t that straightforward. But I still want people to like it. Do you know what I mean? I can’t get around that. Not everybody’s going to like us, and that’s fine. Some of the shows are crazy because you’ll see some people walk out, but the people that stay come up and are really excited and happy about the show and want to buy records. I mean, you can’t help it. Some people are going to hate this band, and that’s just the way it is.
Chuck: People who like us seem to really like us, and those who don’t really don’t. And I’m kind of glad about that. At the risk of being
redundant; this is what we are. We are a constantly evolving group of
musicians. Yet All Scars is no one. The only thing that’s definite and
will repeat is uncertainty.
That leads to my curiousity about the corrolation between the sounds you create and the way you physically present yourselves on stage. During the more mellow moments, it’s a very fluid experience, but then if it starts to erupt, your stage presence—Chuck’s inparticular—becomes very intimidating. And I notice that Chuck is now smiling, so perhaps I’m hitting on something you’d like to comment on? I find it interesting because that makes it much more of a complete experience of sounds and visuals, as opposed to the usual…
Chuck: We’re as much theatrical as we are musical. The whole nature of improvisation is: The first thought is the best thought philosophy. That’s the way I approach the situation. Dealing with the first thought and not questioning it. Letting your mind choose what you have to do and not second guessing it with what you’ve learned to do.
Jerry: The second thought maybe considers what the audience wants too much, or what the other musicians want to hear. I think our most successful shows are when people don’t think too much. We are thinking about the crowd. It’s not just us up there making a self-indulgent racket. There is a self-indulgent quality to the type of show we do… Some people say completely self-indulgent, masturbatory, or whatever. But that’s not our intention. I don’t want to get up and just make a bunch of noise.
There’s more in there.
Jerry: Yeah, hopefully. But you can’t worry too much about what people are going to hear or think. When we’re paying attention to the audience but not playing up to what we think they want to hear is when we have the best shows. On this tour we’ve learned that we have to please ourselves. At the beginning, when we were feeling things out, some of the shows felt like they weren’t going over, and we thought, “maybe we should change.” But from the middle of the tour up until now, we’ve been doing less and less of that and the shows have been getting better. We’re doing what feels like natural.
Dug: The biggest thing that goes through my mind when we’re playing is to listen and hear what everybody’s doing and see my place in it, so I don’t feel like I’m some accidental bass part that was just dropped on to a bunch of other stuff. To fit in, but not be locked in. How can I be part of this, and then where can I go?