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A Quietus Interview

Rock Is A Discipline: Scott 'Wino' Weinrich & Conny Ochs Interviewed
Toby Cook , March 9th, 2012 11:45

Rock & roll veteran Scott 'Wino' Weinrich has written a collaborative album with Conny Ochs entitled Heavy Kingdom. Toby Cook caught up with the duo to talk about rock & roll as a state of mind

You know the scene: you alight from your train at a decaying and deserted station, you make your way over the footbridge to the exit and it starts raining, suddenly and torrentially. As you make your way out of the station you find yourself facing the sole road towards your destination. It's long, with few distinguishing landmarks, and there is a palpable sense that, for some reason, shop fronts are closing and curtains are being drawn as you pass. Eventually, sodden, you reach your destination – an unassuming location, indistinguishable from most of the structures around it. You're welcomed in to the ramshackle abode and ushered down a lengthy corridor to small room whose thin ceiling only serves to amplify the noise of the downpour and instil a sense of claustrophobia that you try to repress, given who you've travelled here to see. Just across from where you're ushered to settle he sits, slouched across a small sofa, feet up, stomach protruding out from under his shirt, his elbow length hair, unkempt and greying, seems to fall everywhere. When he talks you listen. And he talks a lot.

You are not, however, the protagonist in some sort of Leone-esque western, and the man you have journeyed to see is not some sort of Native American wise-man who dispenses cryptic nuggets of wisdom and advice – which, it soon transpires, is a good job really. The man in front of you is Scott 'Wino' Weinrich, and when you ask him for advice the responses are often far less cryptic than they perhaps ought to be.

"You've really got to pick your battles man, you've got to make good decisions and you can't let emotions get in the way," he says when asked what he's learnt from a life lived in rock. "When you're young, you're wild, you're not going to make the best decisions every time because you're flying on fucking autopilot... Or at least I was. It's like, I fell in love with this girl, then I found out she was a prostitute, y'know?" Err, no, not exactly.

Despite this rather odd mix of sage advice and revelation, keep in mind this: rock is a discipline. It's not the kind of world where, after releasing two albums of saccharine pop songs about teabags, takeaways and having to ride your bike everywhere, you can retire-but-not-really-retire at the age of 25. No, once you're in it you're in for the long haul, and to that end there can be few more qualified to dispense their wisdom than the recently turned 50-year-old Wino.

"Don't have kids either!" he continues. "Well, not until you're absolutely ready, because if you care about your family that'll definitely end your career. I'm not saying don't have kids ever, because I love mine, but if you want to play rock & roll you're going to have to make so many sacrifices. The best gig you're ever going to get offered is always going to fall on either your wife or your son's birthday. For example, our last show in London fell on my middle son's birthday. I did the gig, because that's what I do. So there you go. It's all about sacrifice."

He may do what he does now it with remarkable prolificacy and reverence, but, as with most things in life, for a young Wino it wasn't so easy to get started. "I was hard wired to want to play rock from as early as I can remember – even younger that that! But I had a hard time at first, I didn't get it – it just wasn't happening for me," he says, recalling his first attempts to master the guitar at the age of eight. "But I can remember this one particular day where I was really frustrated and I was thinking about how badly I wanted to play guitar, but couldn't. It just wasn't clicking, and I remember that day I was real fucking pissed off, I focused and all of a sudden it clicked. I've heard other people say that too, and it's definitely kind of strange. I just wanted it so bad and then, all of a sudden, I could see."

What followed was a musical education that few of us could even dream about, an education that included being introduced to Neil Young and the Allman Brothers by a maths tutor who didn't actually teach him any maths, but did share with him copious amounts of Ouzo swiped from her parents liquor cabinet; catching Black Sabbath on the US jaunt of the Paranoid tour, something he describes as a life changing experience; and what can only be described as becoming a fugitive in order to see Led Zeppelin in 1975, as he explains.

"As a kid I was in and out of juvie [juvenile detention centres] for a while and when I got locked up in '75 I had tickets to see Zeppelin and to the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention, which was this huge bluegrass convention in North Carolina that was like a week-long party, so those were my two main goals at the time. I actually ended up getting out and seeing Zeppelin, but in order to do that I had to basically escape!

"My parents took custody of me to take me from one facility to another, where I agreed to shave my head and become a fucking robot, but I knew I could get away from my parents – I can get away from the cops sometimes, but I knew I could get away from my parents. So, at 15 years old I just fucking split. After that I was basically a runaway, sleeping in my girlfriend's closet... But I saw Zeppelin man; I can still tell you what Jimmy Page was wearing!"

It's this level of fervent devotion to rock - something many might think goes way beyond the realms of sanity - that eventually led Scott to form doom band The Obsessed (first in the late 70s, and again in the early 90s) as well as assume vocal duties for the influential, though often over looked, Saint Vitus. Yet despite going on to achieve not only respect and adulation in the underground, but also a degree of commercial success during the second incarnation of The Obsessed – when the group signed a major label contract with Columbia – he effectively gave up on music altogether when the band split for the second and final time in 1995.

"What happened [with the split] was that I went through a really hard letdown," he says, his body language slightly - but noticeably – tightening and his tone becoming more sombre. "In those days your goal was to be signed to a major label – for anybody who wanted to play rock that was the dream, of course, it's a licence to fly! So we got signed to Columbia, and, well, I was too young, I didn't put my foot down and I didn't assert myself with the band enough. I knew that we needed a hit single – you're never going to do anything unless you have a hit, right? – and I knew the song that the record company liked ['Streamlined']. But the other guys in the band were really adamant that that song wasn't really indicative of our sound, they wanted 'Blind Lightening' to be the single – but it's a six-minute dirge, the vocals don't even start until 2 minutes in! So, I might as well have pulled a gun right there and then and shot my fucking big toe off, because that's what we did.

"Like I said though, I was young, I was struggling and living hand-to-mouth for a really long time, and I got a little bit distracted," he continues. "The bottom line is that if I'd insisted that 'Streamlined' had been the fucking single it could've been different."

This self imposed exile from music was to eventually last for a little less than five years, and it's fair to say that since his return he has enjoyed the most productive period of his career to date, having formed Spirit Caravan and The Hidden Hand, as well as becoming involved with Place Of Skulls, Dave Grohl's Probot side project and a recently reunited Saint Vitus. And that's without even mentioning his most recent escapades: the acoustic solo album and the alt-metal supergroup Shrinebuilder. But what was it that brought him back?

"[After The Obsessed split] I got really depressed, I got really heavily into drugs and just went wild for a little while - I ended up with some very weird people," he admits, loosening up once more. "What happened eventually was that I decided I was going to move back to the east coast, where I spent my youth, and regroup. Around that time I took a huge mushroom trip too and decided to go completely sober, and that's when I put Spirit Caravan together.

"It seem like a really long road to starting Spirit Caravan, but [Dave] Sherman and Gary [Isom], who I knew from my days on the east coast, were not only really enthusiastic but they knew so many of my songs that after the first jam we could already play half a set. All of a sudden, the road didn't seem so long. It was a really, really great time, and pretty prolific – it's kind of a shame that it didn't last."

Such endeavours as Spirit Caravan and The Hidden Hand ultimately met abrupt and untimely ends. But whilst there have been numerous obstacles and tragedies in Weinrich's life since the demise of both bands – notably a separation from his children and the death of his friend Jon Black, who provided bass duties on his previous solo LP Punctuated Equilibrium – it's a measure of the man that rather than disappearing into a void of drugs and near vagrancy as he may have done before, music has provided him with a cathartic outlet. Since Punctuated Equilibrium, Weinrich has been involved with Shrinebuilder, formed Premonition 13 and released a solo acoustic LP, Adrift - an album he admits was "pretty much about letting off steam because my personal life had recently gone a little bit haywire again".

"I was actually told by somebody that I really respect recently that the he thought the record was going to tank," he adds. "But I'd been having some problems and vented them - it's better than loading your fucking shotgun and going postal, right?"

So, where are we now? Rather fittingly, it was a chance meeting whilst touring Europe that led Weinrich to his current musical venture, Heavy Kingdom, a collaborative LP much in the vein of Adrift with the almost unknown singer/songwriter Conny Ochs.

Ochs himself explains, during a later meeting, how the two came to play together. "I was supposed to be the driver for Wino´s Adrift tour and was also to play as the opening act," he says. "We first met at the South of Mainstream Festival where the Tour was kicking off and then had a wild time for seven weeks, we got used to jamming backstage almost every night and, later, to jamming on stage too. There was just something in the air, it felt like we were on a playground.

"The idea that we should somehow get more focused came from Andreas of Exile On Mainstream though, so when we met again, in Berlin around Easter, we got into writing and recording from day one," he continues. "We let the other one in into what we usually would do on our own, which for me was very special, particularly when it came to lyrics. That's a different kind of trust. To walk with another one means to trust him and for him trust you too. Not in the sense of practical things but with a sense for what happens with the other and respecting it, yet still adding something to it – it's about having total trust of each other's judgements. That's rare."

It's a story familiar to almost everyone who has worked with 'Wino' over the years, and one that's unlikely to change anytime soon. As we said earlier, rock is a discipline, a way of life. To bastardise a well-known phrase, it's not just a place but a state of mind too, and back in our plastic roofed meeting, with the rain finally abating and our time nearly up, is there one last piece of advice for us from a man who has lived virtually his entire life in near slavish devotion to rock & roll?

"In the end life is all about the fear and the control," Weinrich concludes. "And trust me, a lot of people really want you to fail."

Sage words, indeed.