Vertical Scratchers has covered a lot of ground in the course of a few weeks. It’s played the progressive Noise Pop Festival in San Francisco. It’s played small clubs in El Paso and Baton Rouge and New Orleans. It’s played the Hard Rock Café in Phoenix, where it shared a bill with both Pinback and Sir Mix-a-Lot. And it’s played Austin’s annual clusterfuck, South by Southwest.
Vertical Scratchers is a new act with a weeks-old album and this is what you do. You grind it out.
But if guitarist and singer John Schmersal doesn’t sound fazed by all of this, it’s because he’s been here before – sometimes literally. “When I was in Brainiac, we played one of the first SXSW in, like, ’96,” he recalled yesterday morning, calling from somewhere between Birmingham and Atlanta. “Enon played in the year 2000, and I think again in 2005. SXSW just keeps getting crazier every year. Other than the city and the festival making a lot of money, I don’t know how much a band benefits from going there.”
The histories of Brainiac and Enon tell a good part of Schmersal’s own story and twenty-year career. Eccentric and heady, these bands took the sounds of the past and reconfigured them to feel like the sound of the future. Sometimes the songs were giddy, sometimes they were sinister, but their hooks and riffs always lodged firmly into the brains of anyone listening. Both bands have since dissolved, like the fizzy potions they concocted: one ended suddenly, with untimely death of Brainiac lead singer Tim Taylor in 1997; the other slowly faded away, leaving behind a twelve-year legacy of seven albums – one of which, High Society (2002), is a dead to rights classic – and too many singles to count.
Schmersal decamped from the East Coast to California after Enon called it quits in 2010, and until recently, hadn’t released much in the way of music since doing so – an odd development for someone whose discography is marked by its abundance and frequency. Instead, he found commercial work. He produced other bands’ records. He spent a good chunk of time on the road as part of Dan Snaith’s Caribou, a band that fuses Nuggets nostalgia and electronic circuitry in a way not too dissimilar to Schmersa’s past projects. He ate tacos.
That drought ended in late October with the release of Fingerprint, the debut record of Crooks on Tape, Scchmersal’s collaboration with original Enon member Rick Lee. Four months later, he followed it up with Vertical Scratchers’ Daughter of Everything, another debut affair – this one for the prestigious Merge Records.
Daughter of Everything is the product of two men – Schmersal and former Triclops! drummer Christian Beaulieu – banging out at an LP in two days. It was recorded at downtown L.A.’s all-ages safe haven The Smell, after the duo had spent previous months writing and demoing material in the back of a tour van. “Christian and I had a relatively speedy honeymoon,” Schmersal jokes.
After almost twenty years of playing in bands that had attracted dedicated followings, what’s it like going back to the drawing board?
I’ve already accepted the fact that going on tour as a band, you’re either relying on your laurels – the fanbase of past albums or projects – or you’re starting from scratch. Depending on you perspective, it can be a trying place to be, but I love playing music and I love touring, so it’s to be expected.
I will say that the terrain is more lush to navigate these days, because there are many more bands than there were in the past. As far tours are concerned, it’s slim pickings. A lot of the clubs are already booked. There’s a larger volume of traffic, so it’s easier to get lost in the thick of it. And people have a lot of other stuff busying their minds, like, social networking and all of that crap.
But, for me, the reason that I still do it is that I love to do it.
You’re doing it not just with Vertical Scratchers, but also with Crooks on Tape. There are some obvious aesthetic and structural differences between the two projects. How do you distinguish the music made by each band?
It is relatively obvious. Crooks on Tape is me and Rick, who I started Enon with. When we started [Crooks], we were conscious about not making it about what Enon had done. We would just improvise and record everything. We thought that it was going to be more of an instrumental band. And as we jetted along, we realized that Crooks could be so much more if we allowed it to be. Just like everything that we’ve created before, it was like, “Why restrict it?” If anything, what that band doesn’t do is the kind of thing that I’m doing in Vertical Scratchers. We’re never using just a guitar, bass, and drums to play three-chord songs. That’s not the goal or the structure. But that’s not to say that the Crooks on Tape thing didn’t turn into a record of songs.
I’ve divided the lines, in a way. The more straightforward things that could appear on an Enon record are now in the camp of Vertical Scratchers. There were several guidelines being used with this band. I wanted the songs to be to the point, but they were allowed to go a few different places before they ended. I wanted the songs to be pretty hooky, but not to abuse any of the hooks. I didn’t want to necessarily repeat things like verses. There’s maybe some semblance of a chorus, but there’s not a lot of repetition in any way. Those were the earliest things that Christian and I talked about.
What drew you to L.A.?
I came to watch the music industry die, and then the film industry right after that.
No, basically, my wife and I moved from New York [in 2007], and we probably should have moved from New York to Los Angeles – because there were a lot more job opportunities there for me at that time – but I felt like doing that would have broken up Enon, so we decided to build something smaller in Philadelphia. After a couple of years, the economy tanked, and it was impossible to find work anywhere. Then I started playing a lot more with Caribou, and it was evident that I was going to be touring a long time, so we talked about moving, because my wife really didn’t like living in Philadelphia anymore and I didn’t want to leave there alone for an extended period of time. First, we decided that we did not want to move back to New York. Then it was between Los Angeles and San Francisco, but I don’t have hardly any friends left in San Francisco and there definitely weren’t the job opportunities that were in L.A.
I don’t really associate with a lot of the things that people who have never been to L.A. associate with the city. Those things have hardly anything to do with my life in Los Angeles. My life is about tacos. And I definitely enjoy the sun. You know, I grew up in South Jersey from four to fourteen, so I have an addiction to ocean, and it’s great to be near it now. Just the change of perspective in general was a great part of moving to the West Coast.
You recorded Daughter of Everything in L.A. The Smell seems like an odd place to do it.
I was recording a friend’s band – Crazy Band, a great L.A. band that you should check out – and they didn’t really have any money to do it. They practiced at the Smell, so we just decided to do it there on the fly. We looked at dates in the calendar that weren’t blocked out for shows, and we found three days that we could use.
Separately, Christian was living in L.A., but was about to move back to San Francisco. He and his gal had given it a year in L.A. and decided that they couldn’t hang with it. And, at that point, we just wanted to document the Vertical Scracthers songs, since they were fresh in our minds, so we used the time and the set-up that I had for Crazy Band to record our songs. Those guys practiced one night and I set up mics around them, then Christian and I came in during the day – before they recorded – and did the basic tracks for our record.
It was very proletarian. The Smell is not a place that I would recommend to anyone other than as a means to an end. It’s a big, open room, so I could get some larger room sounds for the drums. I’ve always liked that in general – all of my recording stuff is outboard gear in racks. I’ve always wanted it to be that way. I don’t want to depend on a static studio space environment, although it’s great if you have something that you can use and trust. But I like different sounds, and I like going into different spaces that aren’t necessarily familiar. It’s difficult. It makes it a lot more challenging to create something that sounds good.
But, yeah, it wasn’t like, “Hmm, it’s between Sunset Sound and the Smell.” [Laughs] I mean, we made the record for nothing. We spent no money on it. And I’m very happy with the way it sounds. That’s the joy for me – it turned out right.
Where did you get the idea to mic the strings of guitar and capture the percussive quality of your playing?
I did it a bit on the last Enon record, Grass Geysers… Carbon Clouds . The guitar textures on that record are different, but it’s something that I’ve been conscious of before, and I liked that sound.
When we were working on the Vertical Scratchers demos, most of the time it was Christian and me in the van playing. For the demos that I made in my house, it was the same thing: I’d pick up an electric guitar not plugged into an amp. That ended up being the sound of the demos. And I started getting addicted to that sound, especially considering that a lot of the guitar playing was rhythmic and percussive, and it went really well with the ideas that Christian was using against the playing. So, I wanted it to be more of a focal point than it was with that Enon record. I wanted to be a main feature of the recording.
I know you and [Guided by Voices’] Bob Pollard go back to your time in Dayton. How did he come to be on the record?
I just asked. I’ve wanted to do a collaboration with Bob before, and he was always like, “Sure!” But Bob’s always busy doing a zillion things. For this record, I had written some songs where I could hear his voice. When this song came down to being recorded, I was just like, “You know what? I’m going to ask him again.” And he was into it. It just happened. He works a mile-a-minute. He said, “Yeah.” I sent him the track. And I had it back in a matter of two weeks.
You mentioned touring with Caribou. What’s the experiences of playing in someone else’s band like? Is that something you enjoy?
Oh, absolutely, man. First of all, I love the camaraderie of being in a band. I love traveling. And I love Dan’s music. I love his records. Everyone in that band is a really smart guy. It’s like when I was Brainiac – it’s a great to feel like you might be the dumbest guy in the room. You feel like you’re swimming upstream and you have to bring something extra special to it. Everyone in the band has different talents and is very technology oriented, and that’s great for me, because all of the bands that I’ve ever been in have had a contingency of complication to them, and you end up learning new things. Different people have different little niches that they can teach you. It’s been nothing but great playing in that band. Dan makes the records – they’re his affairs – but it’s very democratic in terms of how it’s interpreted live. It’s more like being on a team than playing in his band.
And I’ve played in Girls Against Boys at different times, when Eli Janney wasn’t available to do it. Those guys are old friends of mine from touring and from Touch and Go [Records]. It’s the same kind of thing – it’s really natural. When I hang out with those guys, it’s like picking up from the last time that I saw them. There’s a lot of laughter. You know every day that you’re laughing all the time that it’s a good thing.
Caribou’s a Merge Records act. Did that connection play any role in landing on the label?
I don’t really know. I obviously know people at Merge, of course. I know there’s some fanship of my other bands there. But it really comes down to whether someone likes the record or not. Labels are really weird these days. There are a lot of labels that would release a lot of other records that they really love, but they’re afraid. They’re afraid to release things if they’re not positive that it can make money. They’re afraid of risks. But I don’t feel like Laura [Balance] and Mac [McCaughan] are of that mindset.
They were also one of the first people to write me back when I sent the record around. They were listening. I find that to be incredible, because Merge has already put out so many records and there are probably bands sending them records all the time. Just the fact that they had written back to me so quickly, saying that they really liked the record – that meant a lot. It meant probably just as much as when we agreed to do the record together, because in that stage when you’re passing things around and just wanting some feedback, I wasn’t even getting feedback from people. It was just like, “Well, no one fucking cares.” But people do care! [Laughs]
I saw a recent interview where you said you were a fan of the album format. Why is about the LP that speaks to you?
I’m the kind of person who likes to put a record on the turntable and listen a side all the way through – and sometimes listen to the same side all the way through again. There’s a continuity that I’m attracted to. If labels were at a point where they weren’t going to release albums anymore, I think that I’d probably lose interest. I’d probably call it quits. I love touring and I love playing music, but the attraction has a lot to do with that format. That may sound archaic to some people, but there’s something about how a band puts a record together. The records that I like the most are the ones that have a lyrical quality or tell a story while you listen to it. And then you turn it over and you put on the B-side, and the first song on the B-side blows your fucking mind, and it goes from there. That’s part of the challenge for me: It’s not just writing songs, but how you put them together and set up the listener to listen to whole package. The same thing goes for looking at the picture on the record – whatever little details you want to have in the artwork. That’s where my head is at.
Is there a Brainiac or Enon album that you find to be a favorite amongst fans you encounter?
It depends on who the fan is. Often, there are Braniac fans and there are Enon fans. People bring up High Society a lot. People bring up Braniac’s Hissing Prigs record a lot. It’s kind of shame – I feel like a lot of people haven’t heard the earlier [Brainiac] records.
It’s a weird thing: The record that I’m most proud of in a weird way is the Enon compilation record [Lost Marbles & Exploded Evidence]. Part of that is because the record was such a challenge to put together in a way that it stood on its own as album. There were all of these tracks that we pulled together and remixed. We worked everything over to try to massage it into an album format. Toko also feels this way too. I like the way that it flows. It has a story that it tells – beyond the story that it tells for being a hodgepodge compilation.