The Scarring Party is a fast up-and-coming Milwaukee neo-vaudevillian five piece, mashing up quaint sonic antiquities with modern macabre sneer. Lead man (handling vocals, guitar, accordion, and some banjo) Daniel Bullock, tuba-ist Isabella Carini, and bass maestro Michael Carey sat down with me to shoot the tumbleweed one week after the self-release of their debut, "A Concise Introduction."
What is a scarring party? I looked it up but came up empty.
MC - Didn't we all have horrible acne as children?
DB - Yeah, I think so, um, I think if you look it up you just get us, and then a bunch of acne scar references (laughs).
IC - Specifically Tara Reid. You know, the whole breast implant thing.
DB - Tara Reid? She had acne? She's like the basis for our band. That really works out pretty well.
IC - We're all secretly fans.
DB - It's more just kind of an evocative pairing of words. I think everyone thinks of something different.
IC - Especially that we're a hardcore band.
DB - Yeah! (The three of them laugh) We should probably learn one hardcore song, like we should make one, and then we have a way to start the show.
IC - If we could start a pit it'd be great.
DB - It'd be great.
MC - I'm all distracted by the Tara Reid thing now, was her show "Tara-dise?"
DB - We have a name for the tour now. That's way better than 'Attack of the Glass Spider,' or whatever the hell it was... Without Jim here there's just a shortage of bad tour names.
MC - I think you have to wait until you're on tour to come up with the tour name.
DB - You do?
MC - Yeah.
IC - Well, Jim is pretty good at coming up with random things, so, like...
DB - I'm sorry, we got... (laughs)
ME - No it's okay, I'll work it in...
You've been together for a little over a year, did you start out with this line-up? Or what has changed since the first day?
MC - It's the same five.
IC - It's just when Blayne went to India for a few months we had Willy come and fill in. Well, when he (Blayne) went to Germany we didn't really replace him. He went to Germany for a few months, and then he came back for a while, and then he went to India and we had Willy from Dunebuggy fill in. He was excellent.
DB - He was really good. The first couple months he was gone, in Germany, we actually did our first show without him, so, all the songs were done with guitar and banjo because there was very little accordion in any of the set because we couldn't cover both ends of the songs without him there. So, we did the first show and we did seven songs or whatever, and it was pretty good.
IC - Our set was probably good seeing as how we were in the space of a living room. We were at Broad Vocabulary, in the back.
DB - We did our first show in the little back corner of that book store and...
IC - There were people sitting on couches, and...
DB - It was nice to do that show first though, because after that we never really felt like, we couldn't really complain about how much space we had. Everything felt a little bit bigger. Like at Bremen Café, it's like you're on a card table, Mike had to be on the floor.
IC - You're teetering on the edge.
DB - There's no room for one more person. I think normally they just have like one guy and a latte.
IC - And there's us with all of our crap on this thing. 'How close can we get to the edge before falling off,' that was the question.
ME - A quintet is bigger than most bands out there, it seems like, a three or a four piece... did you consider the space thing when you said, 'okay, let's have this band with all these instruments?'
DB - No, we were really short-sighted on that (laughs). It was more just like, 'what would sound good?' Originally, when we were bringing everything together, we were looking at... Mike offered to play upright bass, and then we knew we were going to need a drummer, and I asked Blayne 'cause I knew he played banjo, he was with the Tossers for a couple years. And I knew that as far as musical taste goes, there was a lot of overlap, well, we don't only, but we listen to a lot of stuff that's 80, 90 years old most the time. It kind of makes it, it's a little easier 'cause you want at least one person in the band you can kind of communicate with without having to be articulate. Like, 'do the nun-nuhn thing from the uh-(cough) record,' and they're like 'oh yeah, that.' But, yeah, I never really thought of how much space a tuba and a double bass take up. But it's totally worth it.
With all the styles of music out there, what drew you to this one, or is this just what came out?
MC - Well, originally we tried to sound like Minor Threat, but it didn't work out.
ME - That's how Jack Johnson started out. He bought an acoustic guitar and played Minor Threat songs.
IC - I'm pretty sure everyone secretly wants to be like Minor Threat.
DB - "Guilty of Being White," that was gunna be the first cover, then everything was supposed to fall into place after that.
ME - I'd love to hear the tuba part.
DB - (Matter of factly) It's really fast. Yeah, but, I don't know. I think that, well, the first songs were things that we went through in practice for things I'd written a long while before that. I'd done "Anywhere" and "Ocean Bottom" a couple of years ago. But when I was demo-ing stuff, I'd use a Radio Shack keyboard to do a lot of the instrument parts. Stuff like accordion or organ or guitar or banjo and mandolin, those things I would put on for real. So these Radio Shack sounds sounded like really cheesy and awful, but I kind of knew what I wanted the songs to sound like. Then after a couple practices it still didn't sound like the stuff that got demo-ed before that, but I actually like how it sounded much better than what I had in mind. I think it came off with a much better translation. I don't miss the Radio Shack keyboard at all. They might, but I don't.
IC - It was weird hearing those few demos, 'cause, the first practice I remember you were like, 'Here are some headphones, listen to this. This is kind of like what I want it to sound like.' I listened to it, and I was just like, 'wow...' Not what I expected at all.
DB - That's really funny, 'cause I don't think Isa said anything as to whether she liked it or didn't like it the first two months or whatever. Every single time I'd talk to Blayne about it, he'd say 'Well I guess it's okay, she keeps coming back. She keeps showing up to practice so I guess it's alright.' But there wasn't really a reaction of like, 'Man, this is great,' or 'Man, this is awful,' it was just sort of like, 'hmmm,' you know?
IC - Just go with the flow... And then I turned into a big jerk.
DB - Yeah, but it happened to all of us.
Do you think you have any advantages because you play such a unique style of music?
MC - Definitely.
IC - Yeah.
DB - I think it's all advantage, for the most part.
MC - Well, if you're a rock band you have to find, when you're describing yourselves to other people, you have to find that small thread of difference that separates you from all the other rock bands, like, 'oh, we have two guitars... but we don't play the sixth string at all.' That's the difference. You end up narrowing it to try to find something that sets you apart from everyone else where, with us you can just look at us and know that we're not going to be like... we don't have to worry about it.
DB - We don't have to worry about comparisons to Television, is basically the advantage. We can go to sleep at night and never have to worry that someone will describe our music as post-punk because it happened after 1979. It's a nice relief, you know? It's a lot easier for people to recognize your sound, recognize your band, and also it comes back to not competing with other bands.
IC - We were talking about that the other day, we played our first Mad Planet show with a lot of punk bands and they didn't know what kind of band we were before we played there basically so it was really funny when we showed up for sound check and we were the first band. We brought all this crazy stuff in and the sound guy didn't know what... he's really awesome, Pat from Mad Planet. He's been really great with not having a heart attack trying to do sound check with us. It was really funny, I don't think anyone was expecting that at a punk show.
DB - And then after the show no one was like 'What the hell was that?', they were really, really supportive. People have always been offering help setting us with shows or help us out by doing this or that, I think that's great.
What advantages do you think you have, if any, because you are in Milwaukee?
MC - People actually enjoy things here. It's not like Chicago where even if you like something, you can't show that you like it, 'cause that would be a sign of weakness.
DB - I don't know that that's necessarily the nature of Chicago - is that they don't show that they like it so much as that everything is, you really have to overwhelm people. It's very, very tough because there are so many more bands in Chicago, and also it seems like the ratio of bands to venue isn't quite the same as it is here. You're dealing with a much more jaded group of people. If you dislike 70% of the bands, that keeps down the number of shows you get to go out to. I think that here, I think that because that same audience goes to so many different shows, it seems like they're really open to like something that's really different and kinda weird. I really like playing here. I only played a couple times in Chicago, and it was alright, but you have to overcome a certain amount of pressure, because there's a lot of music there... like Chess Records. What are you going to do, play blues music there? They know what blues music sounds like, they know what jazz music sounds like, they know what everything is supposed to sound like. You go in there and they have certain opinions and certain expectations, you have to deal with that. Whereas here, it's not that there isn't the legacy, there's not the legacy or the creeps, it's like, 'We want something, anything!' It will always be the home of the Violent Femmes to me. I think about that a lot actually. The Violent Femmes. Just puts a big smile on my face.
There seems to be a few bands now that dabble if not base themselves in mostly forgotten styles - do you see yourselves as being part of that group of bands voluntarily, or is grouping bands something only us journalists do?
MC - (DB starts to speak) Wait wait wait, I don't think Dan... I think other members of the band listen to that type of stuff, but Dan is the main songwriter, I don't think listens to bands, like, I imagine you're thinking the Decemberists, or the Dresden Dolls, stuff like that, and I don't think Dan listens to them at all.
IC - He didn't even hear the Decemberists until we were recording.
DB - We were doing the mixing and it was a day when we went up to mix, and she (Isa) brought a Decemberists CD. (Remembering) 'oh, that's an accordion, that's kind of neat.'
IC - On the new one (Decemberists CD "Picaresque"), the mariner's revenge song...
ME - Yeah, that's exactly what I was thinking.
IC - I think there's one other song on there too that kind of caught me as 'yeah, we kind of sound a little bit like that. It tells a really good story and it's very vivid in how it describes everything.
DB - It's probably more likely that, I don't know the name of the dude that, but I image that I listen to the same folk music or something like that has the same accelarondos.
MC - Colin Meloy.
IC - Yeah.
DB - Yeah, that's it. I read that once
IC - He's in another band too, Tarkio. It's really cool.
ME - Yeah, that college band he was in... I read that somewhere.
IC - It's really neat. I just randomly heard about that CD they just put out.
MC - I think all the bands we rip off have broken up already. (DB laughs) 80 years ago.
DB - I'm really big into Fred Astaire, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter stuff, Fats Waller, more like... what I would call easy jazz. I suppose people could dislike it, but they would be total ass holes (laughs). There's that stuff, and really old folk stuff, really old blues, like Jonathon Fire-eater or something like that. I really do like punk music quite a bit, I mean, we all have really pretty diverse tastes I think combined... like the Captain Planet of record collections because it resolves ecological disasters.
MC - Can I have the heart ring?
DB - You can have the heart ring (laughs). I think Jim would like to cause earthquakes.
Have you gotten any negative reactions?
DB - My mom didn't like it. Yeah, she...
IC - My mom said it was weird and then now I get phone calls of her playing one of our songs on the computer and singing it in the background and it's really weird but hilarious.
MC - I'm sure it's going to happen, but hasn't happened yet, at least not to me...
DB - People love to hate on things, you know? It's fun to hate on things, especially if you don't like it. If you don't like it, it's like the greatest feeling in the world. I think it's just because we don't have a message board. And we never will. All the people that hate us can't figure out where the MySpace page is.
Was it difficult adjusting themes from yesteryear to parallel current situations?
DB - No.
MC - I think all our songs are really kind of modern allegories. I think that a lot of bands that have older sounds kind of end up playing songs that are about older subjects, like say, working on the railroad or something. I think that's something the Scarring Party really avoids. Our songs are about really, really modern subjects. There's hidden messages and deeper meanings that touch on things that are happening now.
DB - The whole next record is about a bad cell phone plan. I think it's really going to keep us from being too anachronistic. Except when cell phones go out of fashion and we've got some sort of chip in our brain or something. Man won't pranking be fun then. You know, we'll talk about shitty HMO's or whatever, it's not fake, it's more like there's real elements of stuff that's actually relevant today. And those things too, if you don't mention certain things by name it'll be relevant again. You're always going to be governed by horrible people, don't worry, I wouldn't sweat it. There's always going to be this kind of savage veneer over everything, so, that's timeless. You don't have to worry about that. You don't have to sweat that going out of style.
MC - But, my mom was asking about, apparently my aunt didn't know what "Eat Your Young" was referencing, so I was like, 'It's from the 1800's, there was this joke, eating the Irish babies 'cause there was so many of 'em, great source of food.' I figured I couldn't explain it.
When I was listening to the CD, the microphone stuck out, and it's a constant element...
DB - I definitely wouldn't use the microphone the same way again on another record. But I'm still probably going to use it for performances the same. It really helps for the vocals, it's as integral to the tone as anything I'm going to be able to do with my voice. It's actually a lot better, because it makes my job a lot easier. I don't rely on it entirely for the vocals to sound like it belongs in that song, but it helps out. I looked for that microphone for a really long time.
ME - Where'd you find something like that?
DB - From a guy who custom builds microphones. I read a review of it in the recording and engineering magazine then went to a Web Site and heard some samples and said 'Oh my God, that's it! That's the one! I've been looking for this for, like... ever.' (I'd been looking or it) for years and years then I found it, so I saved up the money and got it. It's a beautiful microphone. And now I need to get a second one 'cause I'm deathly afraid something's going to happen to it.
IC - One of the sound guys are gunna steal it.
DB - Oh, totally, every show after word they're cradling it in a baby blanket or whatever... 'I think you're all done, all packed up! Time to go, bye!'
MC - One of the things, with the microphone, It kind of helps Dan with the tinnier, higher voice sound, but on "Peter's Spine" there's also Dan's other voice, the really kind of blues-y thing during the chorus.
IC - Everyone thinks it's someone else.
DV - Wait, are you serious?
IC - (Laughing)
MC - Yeah, that's him too. He's on this song writing community on the internet, and he's got this other song that the Scarring Party will never do but it's sung entirely in that voice. So there's a completely different dynamic or direction we could go in if we ever wanted to do that.
DB - There's lots of voices. See, that's the fun thing about having no integrity. I think that when people treat vocals like they sing in one voice, and they have that same vocal through most of their songs, and I treat it more like the tone on a guitar. If you didn't change the amp setting on your guitar, for like three records, you'd be like U2 or something. (Laughs.)
Have you worried a lot about being gimmicky?
DB - I'm more worried about people writing it off as a novelty then I would be worried about people not liking it. I'd rather be a genuine band that people hate than the novelty that people enjoy for a while.
IC - And we try different things. So it's not like 'We're the band with the bell,' or, the other thing was when we had Kathy play violin on the CD. It wasn't on all the tracks because that's an effective instrument that you can use as an accent and it's really impacting if you use it just once in a while. If it was on every track you might not notice it as much. Well, she's an amazing musician so you probably would because it's her, but as a general rule, it's a very decorative instrument that made those tracks sound really great. But if we had her on every song then it would become really gimmicky.
MC - I think we try to avoid it by, like, we're a lot more pop than a lot of the other bands that use old time music and we use modern song structures and try to make it accessible, not weird for weird's sake. Plus, like they were saying, we always try and do things like, say, on the next album we might use some Indian instruments.
DB - That might be unavoidable (laughs). We don't try to force anything in the song that won't fit. The reason we're making this music is because I don't hear it in the older music I love and I don't hear it in the newer music I love either. To be able to make the thing that's missing from your record collection, that's what we want to do. Even if that means you have to hear "Ocean Bottom" four hundred times. In a year. It's a little bit worth it. It's kind of worth it. It might be worth it, we don't know.