THE SCIENTISTS: WE WOULDA KILLED IT!
illustration by felipe flores
Australia’s Scientists are as deliberate as murder itself. One of the first groups to inject the dark undercurrent of 60s pop into what was then becoming to be known as post-punk, founder Kim Salmon and company were like a lost soundtrack to a Hell’s Angels exploitation flick at their most calculated (“Swampland”) or a willful bad-trip at their most shambolic (“Solid Gold Hell”), but they could nail the fleeting lucidity of the comedown in their occasional poignant, broken ballad, too. (“It Must Be Nice”) There could have been so much more to this interview—we didn’t even break into Salmon’s tenure with Beasts of Bourbon or his every-itch-scratched solo career—but Salmon was frantically preparing for an impending [and first-ever!?—ed.] U.S. tour this October, so we had to stay fairly on the subject of one of Australia’s most revered and influential acts instead. Let’s dig in quick so he can get here, already… The Scientists play Zebulon on Oct. 2 and Oct. 3. This interview by Gabriel Hart.
How would you explain punk rock hitting Australia in the mid 70s? Was it as predictable as kids finding Stooges records?
Kim Salmon (vocals/guitar): There’ll always be people that have to have something more or different to what everyone else has, and with music that means the sort of kid that wants to find out about bands that no one else knows about. In other words—trying to be cool! Geography just adds more of a challenge and makes remote things even more special. Perth had a reputation back then as a cover band city but we just ignored it. There were enough subcultures so were able to avoid having to play covers.
Your band the Cheap Nasties were Perth’s first proto-punk group. Since this was before the term ‘punk,’ what kind of pre-punk ingredients would inform the band?
Kim Salmon: To be honest, the Nasties were in 76 and the term was definitely around by then. I’d heard the term used about an obscure—to me—US band called the MC5 and in the NME article I read that first inspired me to go on a quest for ‘punk rock.’ The term was used in relation to the sort of bands that played CBGB. All I had was that article and guess work. The Stooges and the New York Dolls were definitely mentioned and I had to go looking for things that shared the aesthetic … which I wasn’t 100% sure of. I guess this gave me a filter which helped me steer away from roots-y stuff, country stuff, proggy stuff—although I got it terribly wrong at times. I sorta thought Steely Dan would have qualified with their smart-arsed lyricism and urbane vibe. I was a bit in the dark!
What was your first taste of American counter culture?
Kim Salmon: That’s hard because I think the things that shaped my artistic output have been varied and not necessarily counter culture. Comics and sci-fi influenced me but they’re not exclusively American. Psychedelic pop and rock definitely influenced me but that couldn’t be seen as purely American. I was interested in the British stuff as much as American. Various modern art has influenced me but neither has that been exclusively American. Round the age of 15, I became interested in jazz but I’m not sure that’s counterculture—the same for the blues. I think the brand of punk rock that got me hooked was the US variety—all the CBGB’s stuff and what informed that, like the Stooges, Velvet Underground and New York Dolls. All that stuff was informed more by British rock than American.
The Invaders—the band that would soon become the first incarnation of the Scientists—had a more power-pop sound. Was this a conscious stylistic move or was your songwriting just getting better?
Kim Salmon: Actually the Invaders were far from power-pop. They aspired to a Stooges-cum-Dolls sound. I say ‘aspired’ as they didn’t really succeed … at anything really, except for being unpopular and a shambles.
The ‘Frantic Romantic’-era Scientists broke up right after you released the debut ‘pink’ album. Why?
Kim Salmon: The band actually broke up before the pink album was recorded. We’d travelled across the country from Perth to the east coast twice on the back of singles ‘Frantic Romantic’ and ‘Last Night,’ doing well over there only to return home to a complete lack of interest both times. We broke up in disgust at the beginning of 1980. Sometime later in the year some interested people wanted us to record an LP and funded it for us.
One misconception I’d like to dispel is that the Scientists went primordial swamp rock because of the Birthday Party, which is bullshit, correct?
Kim Salmon: Well, yes—that is bullshit! The reason we changed direction is I’d wanted to go that way from the start. I thought the Invaders would be like that as well. The thing is … when [drummer] James Baker joined up and we became the Scientists, he and I went with what came naturally. He’d used up his ‘punk’ inspiration and was well into something that referenced the 60s pop thing. It had a sort of ironic and post-modern sort take on that, although I didn’t know that term at the time. One day I heard the Cramps and thought ‘Damn!’ I went straight for the swamp! I must admit I saw the Birthday Party in late 1981 and realized that they weren’t the artsy-fartsy thing that I thought they were—they were in fact doing something kind of like what I’d been wanting to do. Their sound, however—like the Moodists and the Laughing Clowns—was something I didn’t understand or attempt. I just liked them all for what they were and we went on our merry way, which was also—I gotta say—completely different from Radio Birdman or the Saints who have also wrongly been cited as influences on us.
Did it feel sacrilegious to re-record all those early 80s Scientists songs for the Weird Love LP? To me, it may have been the only instance in history where it improved the songs and cemented the band’s character.
Kim Salmon: Maybe … we’d just signed a big deal and the label wanted our back catalog which was unavailable due to an ongoing dispute with our ex-indie label over ownership. We’d done extensive touring after [drummer] Leanne [Chock] joining the band and hadn’t had a chance to write new songs. We got Richard Mazda to produce it—he’d done Wall Of Voodoo and the Fall so he seemed a good fit. I look back and think that in the good old days before indie and punk when bands got signed and had A&R people nurturing them, getting them tours, finding producers … This is sort of what this album is like if that could have happened to us. The image and the sound are crystalized wonderfully and the playing is tight and the production puts it across with lots of hooks! What could be bad about it? Hell … if we coulda had Weird Love out at the start! Man, we woulda killed it! But that’s only what might’ve been and it’s not worth dwelling on.
How do you define Australian ‘tall-poppy syndrome?’ Did the Scientists fall victim?
Kim Salmon: I’ve ignored the ‘tall poppy syndrome’ all my life. I wasn’t particularly popular at school growing up, so it’s in my make-up not to give a shit about popularity. If anything, this has worked against me more than any tall poppy syndrome. I have a natural inclination to thinking that if something’s popular then it probably sucks … so maybe I’m part of the syndrome! [laughs]
You supported the Gun Club on their Las Vegas Story tour in 84. What mind-burning moments stick out?
Kim Salmon: Jeffrey was one whacked-out dude and that Kid was a hell of a nice guy with great taste in clothes. And scorching gigs from both bands! We were out to blow them off stage but it really just upped the ante. It was a fabulous tour!
There’s a movement of sorts called ‘Beach Goth’ that the Growlers have inspired in Southern California. It makes me think of your song ‘Hell Beach.’ Was there a real ‘Hell Beach’?
Kim Salmon: No—it’s just a motif and a minimalist concept with lyrics off the top of my head. It was never actually rehearsed. I played some shit and the band jumped on it. Playing it live over time would have pared it down.
Was there a concrete concept behind ‘Human Jukebox’? To me, it’s the Scientists most unhinged, non-linear song—like it may have started as an experiment. It stayed with you—you even named your first post-Scientists group after it.
Kim Salmon: What happened was that the band that signed the deal with Big Time imploded, but before long Tony and I went in to a demo studio with our friend Nick Combe—A.K.A. Arthur Lager—and basically jammed, although Tony claims he doesn’t ‘jam.’ We were going to call the album Blue Velvet as we covered that in the session in much the same deconstructed way as the Surrealists a little later, but found out that David Lynch—who we were all fans of since Eraserhead—was about to release a film with the same name. ‘Human Jukebox’ was a distorted Eddie Cochran/Suicide sort of riff I had that the band jumped on the moment they heard it. I improv-ed a vocal with a phrase Tony told me came to him in a dream—‘I am a human jukebox.’ We didn’t practice or anything. What you hear is what happened sometime early one morning in that studio under a trainline in Brixton! It was cheeky of us and Big Time didn’t want to know about it. A ‘deal breaker’ I believe they call it!
THE SCIENTISTS WITH LAVENDER FLU AND PRETTIEST EYES PLUS DJs RYAN WEINSTEIN AND MR. PHARMACIST ON TUE., OCT. 2, AT ZEBULON, 2478 FLETCHER DR., LOS ANGELES. 8 PM / $15 / 21+. AND WITH LAVENDER FLU AND THE LAMPS PLUS DJs RYAN WEINSTEIN AND MR. PHARMACIST ON WED., OCT. 3, AT ZEBULON. ZEBULON.LA. 8 PM / $15 / 21+. VISIT KIM SALMON AT KIMSALMON.BANDCAMP.COM.