Life After Brainiac: John Schmersal Of Vertical Scratchers Interviewed
, April 4th, 2014 07:14
Master Of The Dough, Stevie Chick talks to John Schmersal of Brainiac and Enon about keeping busy with Caribou, Crooks On Tape and Vertical Scratchers
Even if he'd never recorded again following the dissolution of Brainiac, John Schmersal's place within the annals of American underground rock would have been guaranteed. Schmersal played on the Dayton, Ohio noiseniks' two finest albums - 1994's Bonsai Superstar and 1996's Hissing Prigs In Static Couture - along with their final mini-LP, 1997's Electro Shock For President, his skronky and hectic guitar a perfect match for the group's brilliantly twisted synthscursions, Eno-esque vignettes and exhilaratingly kinky abuse of the punk/pop form.
After Brainiac split following the tragic death of frontman Timmy Taylor, Schmersal withdrew from the scene, releasing an album of charmingly frayed indie-rock under the name John Stuart Mill. However, he soon resurfaced with a new group, Enon, first collaborating with Rick Lee and Steve Calhoon of New York underground group Skeleton Key, before hooking up with Toko Yasuda (formerly of The Lapse and The Van Pelt) and Matt Schulz for the trio's most stable line-up. Utilising samplers and avant techniques in addition to a mercurial gift for melody and an antic desire to fuck with the form, Enon fired off a series of excellent LPs - begin with 2000's Believo! and 2002's High Society, if you're curious - before going silent towards the end of the last decade.
Lately, Schmersal's been most visible working alongside Dan Snaith as a component of Caribou's live set-up. But 2014 spoils us with debut albums from two new Schmersal projects: the inspired and brilliantly broken sample-rock of Crooks On Tape, reuniting John with Skeleton Key's Rick Lee, and the charming, gently psychedelic pop of Vertical Scratchers, pairing Schmersal with San Franciscan Christian Bealieu. Simply put, it's a great time to be a fan of this underrated auteur of left-handed pop and bejewelled sampler noise - and an even greater time to discover his work, if you're not already a disciple.
To commemorate his return to writing and recording his own tuneage, Schmersal spoke to us from his current locale, Los Angeles, in a rare quiet moment between tours and recording sessions, to discuss his movements post-Brainiac, in particular his two excellent new bands.
Let's go back to the earliest days of Enon... What were the origins of the group? How did you hook up with the guys from Skeleton Key?
John Schmersal: Brainiac was done, and I wanted to do something that extended from where that band was going - synthesizers, guitar tunings, futuristic ideas and humour -but also not be afraid to be more purely melodic at the same time. I already knew Rick and Steve from a tour Brainiac did with Skeleton Key.
When I moved from Dayton to New York, I knew I really wanted to play music with Rick, because I saw what he was doing with samplers on his own time - something that wasn't being fully utilized in Skeleton Key. I felt like Rick's work with samplers was doing something really unique - it wasn't about referencing musical sound-bytes in a nostalgic sort of way, like so many other artists were doing at that time. It was more about taking a sound that was interesting and re-contextualizing it in a melodic manner. That was exactly what got me interested in using samplers in the first place.
After a couple of albums, Rick and Steve moved on and you started working with Toko and Matt...
JS: After playing for a while as a three piece, we didn't feel like enough low-end was always being output, and so we discussed adding a bass player/ fourth member. In 1999, I did a stint playing on guitar with Les Savy Fav while they were touring The Cat And The Cobra. The last show was supposed to be with The Lapse in New York, but they didn't play the show.
I ran into Toko a week later, asked her what had happened, and she told me she had basically quit the band. Since we were looking for a bass player with something more to offer than just playing bass, I gave Toko a freshly minted copy of Believo! and she ended up joining us. Matt joined later, as Mr. Calhoon was not able to commit to the long-term touring engagements. I knew Matt from Ohio, as he is the cousin of my friend and former bandmate, [Brainiac drummer] Tyler Trent. Why did Enon eventually split? We just got to a point where none of us was interested in proceeding with it anymore.
In the interim between Enon and your new bands, you toured as a member of Caribou.
JS: And I'm still playing with Caribou. I love Dan [Snaith]'s music, and it's been liberating to pour myself into that band. It's also been a good challenge, as it's the first band I've played in that doesn't always have a fixed format for how a song is interpreted live.
Crooks On Tape sees you reunited with Rick from Skeleton Key - how did this come about?
JS: Rick and I always remained friends, and occasionally played music together after he was in Enon. He was already living in Los Angeles when I arrived there... I think we had been brewing about doing something new for a while. There's another Crook, too, Joey Galvan.
The idea with Crooks on Tape was to jump off from the springboard of how Rick and I first start playing, back when Enon began, in a totally improvised state. So the three of us would routinely get together and record everything we did, and not discuss it. Other than pressing record, incorporating new toys, or occasionally listening back to a few minutes of it, we were just really trying to have fun, like a band is supposed to be.
I don't think we were terribly concerned about what it would turn into. But we knew from past experience that our spontaneous nature meant a lot of good material lost because we weren't documenting it. So we just decided to document everything.
Crooks On Tape's debut, Fingerprint, indulges the more berserk side of your creativity - the twisted, Prince-meets-skronk avant-pop thing that first drew me to Brainiac. Vertical Scratchers' Daughter Of Everything, meanwhile, seems to play harder to your melodic instincts
- a great, tuneful breeze of a set. Did you make a conscious decision to pursue two projects that explored different sides of your muse and music?
JS: With Crooks On Tape, we just wanted to do something that interested us, and that pretty much meant 'anything goes', while avoiding the most basic tropes of playing guitar, bass, and drums in a typical song oriented format. As far as Vertical Scratchers is concerned, I wanted to take that common trope and instead use it as a limitation. One band [Crooks On Tape] is allowed to do anything other than be utterly basic, in that way, while trying to be captivating. The other [Vertical Scratchers] is trying to use the most simplistic and overused trope structure in music - guitar, bass, drums - and keep it interesting, from a song perspective. To me, the division between the two projects is very deliberate, if not totally obvious.
What's the story with Vertical Scratchers? How did you hook up with Christian?
JS: Christian is a San Francisco guy, but he was living in Los Angeles for a year, and I met him at a party. He hadn't played drums in a band since the 90s, so we just got together for fun and played.
We shared the same mindset about doing a band like a simple machine. We refused to get a practice space, so I'd just go pick him up in my van, and we'd work out songs in a really rudimentary way inside of the van, while it was parked on the street. I really hate commercial practice spaces and neither of us had a place to play loud and amplified so, we just decided we would use this as our device.
We'd just put together songs in a really simple 'muscle-memory' sort of way, like cramming for a test in your head. That way it wasn't about relying on amplifiers or effects or anything. When a song is good, it should translate in the most simple way, like on an acoustic guitar. I just fed him ideas that I had and we pursued what was interesting to the two of us on an un-amplified guitar, and if it worked there then it would work when we got into a room with amplification.
Robert Pollard of Guided By Voices cameos on 'Get Along Like U' on the Vertical Scratchers album - how did that come about? An example of some old school Dayton rock scene camaraderie?
JS: I think I've asked Bob a few times before about collaborating, and it just finally materialized. I've know him since I lived in Dayton back in Brainiac. I just felt like he was the singer of that song, you know? I sent it to him and he was into it. What can be said about Bob? He's so prolific that he's often overlooked. Bob is like air - I feel like most people take him for granted. He's written so many incredible songs, and he's one of my favorite voices.
What's it like having two groups on the go at once?
JS: What is it like? Very busy. I'm still playing with Caribou, and I filled in for Eli Janney over the past year in Girls Against Boys while they were playing reunion shows. Both Crooks On Tape and Vertical Scratchers release records and go on tour this year, and then, in the summer, I start touring with Caribou again. Kids, don't try this at home.
But these things go in ebbs and flows... This time last year, I was working on a lot of this music, but I felt more like a librarian or something. It was a super quiet and mostly introspective kind of time. I also haven't released any records in a few years, which was both on purpose, and also due to the fact that I've been seriously touring with Caribou since 2008. But I really love traveling, so this is the right occupation for me, and I have my work cut out for me for a while.
VERTICAL SCRATCHERS TOUR
Monday 5 - Ramsgate, Music Hall
Wednesday 7 - Leeds, Brudenell Social (supporting The Sonics)
Thursday 8 - London, The Waiting Room
Friday 9 - TBC
Saturday 10 - London, Brixton Windmill