Scud Mountain Boys
Scud Mountain Boys
Country rock band
Northampton, Massachusetts-based Scud Mountain Boys are at heart a rock band, but one might not know it after only a quick listen to the quartet’s three albums. In fact, many reviewers have reported almost passing the band up before listening more closely. Writing in Option, Brad Lips reported atypical introduction to Scud Mountain Boys: “On a first listen, mood seemed so much the point that I missed their oddly poignant lyrics (‘Down by the water, as the waves beat back the sand/I can count the love you gave me on one hand’). I had to challenge my assumptions about innocuous-sounding, hooky ballads, but Scud Mountain Boys are well worth the effort.” After a self-released cassette tape, a CD on a tiny record label, and then finally signing with a larger independent label and releasing two recordings, the Scuds broke up in the Fall of 1997. However, the primary songwriter, Joe Pernice, continues to record on Sub Pop Records and is poised for his music to induce the same kind of double take from a much wider audience.
The Scud Mountain Boys began simply as the Scuds in western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley in 1991. With
Members include Stephen Desaulniers (bom June 27, 1965; left group, 1997), vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and bass; Joe Pernice (born July 17, 1967), vocals, acoustic and electric guitars; Tom Shea (born February 1, 1968; joined group officially, 1996), drums, mandolin; and Bruce Tull (born June 9, 1955), electric guitar, lap steel, pedal steel.
Group formed in Northampton, MA, 1991; changed from hard rock to country rock sound, 1993; contributed to Hit the Hay (Swedish compilation) on Sound Asleep Records, 1994; released self-recorded cassette Pine Box and Dance the Night Away CD on Chunk Records, 1995; signed with Sub Pop Records and released Massachusetts, 1996; re-issued Pine Box and Dance the Night Away as The Early Year, 1997; group disbanded, fall 1997; Pernice continued to record with Sub Pop Records, 1997-.
Addresses: Band —Scud Mountain Boys, c/o Sub Pop East, 10A Burt St., Dorchester, MA 02124. Record company —Sub Pop, 1932 First Avenue, Ste. 1103, Seattle, WA 98101. Website —Official Scud Mountain Boys site: www.subpop.com/bands/scud.
the Gulf War going on and all the news about Saddam Hussein’s feared Scud missiles, the band latched on to the name. Back then the group played loud rock ‘n’ roll in local clubs and had an appreciable number of fans who would frequent their live shows. But after those shows ended, the three main members—Joe Pernice (vocals, acoustic and electric guitars), Stephen Desaulniers (vocals, acoustic guitar, piano, and bass), and Bruce Tull (electric guitar, lap steel, pedal steel)—would retreat to Bruce’s kitchen to unwind. There, late at night, the trio would break out their old country favorites, playing the songs they thought too quiet and too slow for live performances.
The band found that these were the songs they really lived to play, and that lugging heavy equipment to clubs and stomping their feet on the floor to loud music wasn’t their calling. So after the last in a string of flighty drummers had left the group, they decided to make a change—to go “slowcore,” as a number of alternative country bands were labeled (in contrast to the “hardcore” punk sound of groups like Dead Kennedys). Adding the country-sounding “mountain” to their name, the re-christened Scud Mountain Boys played their first show around 1993. They described the stripped-down approach to Northampton’s Union-News music critic Joyce Marcel: “We took simple gear like acoustic guitars. We borrowed the kitchen table from the club. We sat down in chairs around the table, put a lamp on it, and had a convenient place to put our beers and ashtrays…. Then we played our set. We have yet to play a gig standing up.” Scud Mountain drummer Tom Shea, then a local musician in a band called Hoola Popper (named after a fishing lure), would occasionally accompany the trio on mandolin for Glen Campbell cover songs.
In keeping with their simplified approach, the Scud Mountain Boys preferred to record in the same kitchen that spawned their new direction. They had tried recording in a small studio but found it alienating. Tull later told the fanzine White Bread about the experience: “We were very rushed. I was playing in this cold and drafty hallway with my guitar and amp where I couldn’t see the rest of the band. I was trying to look through this crack in the doorway to see them.” So a four-track recorder captured the sounds for 12 original songs and three covers of songs originally performed by such diverse sources as Jimmy Webb (“Wichita Lineman”), Olivia Newton-John (“Please, Mister Please”), and Cher (“Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves”). Originally sold as the Pine Box cassette, the tracks were later released on vinyl by the indie-rock label Chunk Records in 1995.
As an album, Pine Box carries the mordant tone set by its title’s reference to a plain coffin, and features songs like “There Is No Hell (Like the Hell on This Earth)” and “Freight of Fire.” The lyrics tend to the subjects of loss and longing, with a tone of resignation that suggests some inner ability to deal with the pain. Pernice told James Keast of the website shmooze.net that he was interviewed by the New Music Express and the interviewer’s first question was, “Do you have a terrible life?” He replied that he probably would if he didn’t have music as an outlet to express himself. Examples of this seem to abound on Pine Box. In a line from “Peter Graves’ Anatomy” Pernice croons softly, “Old age for a body, decay for a crown/Don’t ask for nothin’, you’ll never be let down.” And yet the voice is not one of selfpity. Writing for Addicted to Noise, Chris Nelson described Pernice’s vocal quality as one that “can convey the deepest of emotions without sounding contrived or melodramatic, a gift that is intensified by the fact that he happens to be an excellent writer whose poetic imagery brings to life his painful, tragic stories.”
Later in 1995 the Scud Mountain Boys recorded another set of tracks which became Dance the Night Away on Chunk. Including more four-track kitchen recordings, as well as others made a 24-track studio, the CD-only release featured drums on a few songs, another Jimmy Webb cover (“Where’s the Playground Susie”) and similar lyrical themes. As with the first record, soft sounds mask dark thoughts, and simple words are deceptively suggestive. Ira Robbins, of the Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, claimed that with Dance the Night Away “the Scuds barely disturb the silence as they whisper such slightly bent inventions as ‘Letter to Bread’ and Television’ (’send me a show/you’re the only world I know’). Although able to rouse themselves to a mild roots-rock roar…[they] make understatement far more engrossing.”
As word of these two powerful records spread beyond Massachusetts, a number of record labels became interested in the band. “There’s a million bands out there. It’s unexpected,” Tull told Union-News critic Marcel after the group signed with Seattle-based Warner Brothers affiliate Sub Pop Records. “We were a dinky band from Northampton, kind of unorthodox, and we probably didn’t play more than ten gigs out of Northampton.” Opting for a drummer to fill out the sound, the band brought accompanist Shea on board as a full-time member and set about recording Massachusetts, a 14-song album with a number of more upbeat songs with drums and electric guitar. Released in April of 1996, Massachusetts unleashed the floodgates of critical acclaim that had eluded its less-known predecessors. The New Musical Express rated the record a nine (out of ten) and opined, “Joe Pernice has the golden voice of the damaged, regret oozing from every word like wounded honey… rendering] glorious the utter inevitability of failure…. The best broken love and bad drug cocktail songs written in many a year.” Acknowledging the vast difference between Scud Mountain Boys and their country music forbears on the one hand, and new crossover stars like Garth Brooks on the other, Rolling Stone called the album, “country in that the songs are the honest, homespun sort that characterized country before it picked up a blow-dryer.”
Although the band’s sound has often been labeled as country music, the Scud Mountain Boys clearly see themselves as casting a wider net than that. As music writer James Keast put it on the shmooze. net website, “While the Scuds may be lumped in with Son Volt, Wilco and any number of other bands who are moving back to the traditional sounds of Hank Williams, they take their inspiration as much from hooky ’70s AM pop as from the dirty country road of Johnny Cash.” This assessment is borne out by the band’s covers of artists like Cher and Olivia Newton-John. Scud guitarist Tull defined the band’s style this way for the Union-News: “We’re roots rock, but steeped in a real punk tradition and with a decided country flavor.”
With the success of Massachusetts bringing increased demand for the first two albums, Sub Pop re-issued them as a double CD in 1997. That year also found the band adjusting to a full-time musical career. Pernice, for one, had to reconcile the new career path with the master’s degree in creative writing he had completed in 1996. Finding himself with a lot more time to write songs, he stacked up a few albums’ worth in a short period of time. He also devoted some creative energy to the Pernice Brothers—aside projectwith his brother, Bob, and recently departed Scud bass player, Desaulniers—and recorded a single, “Jimmy Coma/Monkey Suit.”
Perhaps this outside effort was a sign of discord among the band’s members, as the Scud Mountain Boys disbanded abruptly in the fall of 1997. Pernice remained on Sub Pop Records, however, and continued to explore what he found lurking in the cracks between rock, pop, country, and other musical influences. He told Keast that the world could expect more ‘round-the-kitchen-table musical stories from future releases: “I think the arrangements might get a little more complex, but none of us like particularly polished recordings. We like the little mistakes and stuff.”
(Contributor) Hit the Hay (compilation), Sound Asleep [Sweden], 1994.
(Contributor) Homegrown Harvest (compilation), 1994.
“Television” (7″ single split with Steve Westfield & the Slow Band), Chunk, 1994.
Pine Box (originally cassette, then vinyl only), Chunk, 1995.
Dance the Night Away (CD only), Chunk, 1995.
“Knievel ½ Way” (7″ single), Sub Pop, 1995.
Massachusetts, Sub Pop, 1996.
The Early Year (double CD Pine Box and Dance the Night Away reissue), Sub Pop, 1997.
The Trouser Press Guide to ’90s Rock, Fireside, 1997.
New Musical Express, June 15, 1996, p. 47.
Newsweek, April 29, 1996, p. 80.
Option, July/August 1996, p. 129.
Rolling Stone, December 26, 1996, p. 45.
Union-News (Northampton, MA), June 15, 1995.
White Bread (fanzine), 1995.
Additional information was provided by Sub Pop Records publicity materials, 1997.
—John F. Packel
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