The Scarring Party defies conventional wisdom
When it comes to Milwaukee's own multi-tuned quartet The Scarring Party, things tend to veer far from the conventional.
With instruments like tubas, accordions, mandolins and banjos rambling alongside typewriters, 40-pound, cast-iron bells and eccentric percussion, the band finds solace in finding an uninhabited reaches of music away from marked genres.
The Scarring Party has a sound that takes cues from genres like '20s and '30s music hall. After a casual glance and then seeing them live with expectation of a revivalist group often leads to uncomfortable questions (i.e. the "Can you play something nicer?" or "Why aren't you playing more upbeat folk tunes?").
But the quartet -- featuring Daniel Bullock (singer, accordion and guitar), William Smith (banjo and cello), Isabella Carini (tuba and trumpet) and Christopher Roberts (percussion) -- has weathered these moments and continue to push forward with Bullock providing a ditty-like warbling voice (sometimes getting condensed through a copper microphone) primed for storytelling of dramatic, sometimes not-for-the-faint-of-heart darkly unconventional adventures.
While the band's only had two home shows in the past year, the Scarring Party's had plenty to do, prepping their third album, "Losing Teeth." The album saw the band not only finding the freedoms that quartet can bring but also continued to hone in their sound thanks in part to working in the studio with Brief Candles' Kevin Dixon and Call Me Lightning's Shane Hochstettler.
Prior to their release of the album at Turner Hall Ballroom on Friday, OnMilwaukee.com talked in depth with Bullock about the band's outside-the-box approach, where the stories usually dictate the sound and the path can twist in unexpected directions.
OnMilwaukee.com: "Losing Teeth" offers more of your intriguing sound. How would you describe it to someone new?
Daniel Bullock: Typically I tell people a little bit about the instrumentation like the accordion, banjo, tuba and really bizarre percussion, or more traditional percussion played bizarrely I guess. I try to shy away from calling it something as it creates this weird expectation. I think the whole point for us is to do something outside the known genre so that way we won't have to fall in line with any orthodox of any kind. If there'd be times you'd call it cabaret, people have the expectation with painted faces playing this revivalist old time music or something.
OMC: Something you'd say helps the band stand out from the rest?
DB: Yeah, I think so. Even other people in bands will tell me that they're in the same genre I guess, whatever hell genre that is.( Laughs) I find a lot of times that there's a lot less connecting those bands than you'd imagine, say within a rock genre that's kind of guitar driven. I think with guitar-driven music we have our ears trained for those differences so we know Green Day and the Flaming Lips aren't the same band, even if the instruments are pretty similar.
I think when you take rock instrumentation out then there's more of a tendency for people to lump things together that don't necessarily go together.
OMC: There's a wide range of influences with your website mentioning '20s and '30s music hall and Lomax Folkways recordings to '70s punk. What about this wide spectrum of genres do you think meshes so well together and gets the unique sound of the band?
DB: I think you can tie together some very different influences when people in the band don't necessarily agree on records or what they like. It's very hard for all four of us to point to and say we can all say we can appreciate that or like that. Part of what ties all those things together is being able to approach a song and thinking about an arrangement in terms of what our individual tastes are.
I can hear how '20s and '30s music hall might play into that, given the way the vocals or how some of the songs are arranged. At the same time I can definitely tell how stuff like early '70s punk can play into that because there's a little bit of that theatricality to it or kind of a coarseness or roughness to those songs, too.
Also, that they're short. When I think about early music hall music they're only a minute and 30 seconds long and what they'll do is reprise the song again with just an instrumental that people can dance to. When I was listening to those songs I would think of the songs as half their length and I noticed when we were writing our first album that all the songs were coming in at under two minutes.
Also with that connection were the short punk songs that I grew up listening to and ripping off in some way. Some of the early music hall and jazz standards I really liked and using them and meshing them together.
OMC: When the band first started out did you have this idea of meshing all these or did it happen more through practicing that this sound came together?
DB: I think we had some idea of what were striving for because after the first record there was a general consensus among us that we didn't quite nail it. (Laughs) So there was a lot of motivation to go back into the studio, come away from the light and fix everything we weren't happy with or like change things.
We had a general idea. It's kind of hard to imagine bringing a tuba into a band and not knowing that's going to affect the outcome. (Laughs) With the instrumentation, where most of the choices were being made, at the time we didn't really know how to play the instruments in a way that we were super comfortable on them. Isabella, who had been playing tuba for a while, definitely was the most capable person while the rest of us were limping along and trying to learn our instruments.
But that also helped us with not really being influenced by anything as it was hard to play other people's stuff. It was hard to write something that sounds like them either. It was easier to have things sound ramshackle and off kilt when you don't really know how to do the alternative. And over time you become more comfortable with instruments and arranging for your band. Over time your records can sound improved and a little more fleshed out and you don't sound like the same band so you don't have to worry about repeating yourself.
OMC: The songs have a bit of a gloomy/end time side but also a little humor, not really in the laugh out loud way but in a subtle dark way. How would you describe the songwriting process?
DB: A lot of the songs start out more or less with a narrative and a character. I don't know if they're necessarily apocalyptic-oriented but they tend to be a little dour. I don't know why that is. Some songs do start out with narrative and a character and some kind of slight story arc. It's hard to imagine the character from beginning to end and have a tumultuous conflict that's going to be solved in a three minute song, or two and a half minute song. Typically the events either end up being more dramatic or things don't always come to a beneficial end for the character.
Most of the songs start out with a narrative and more lyrical and then we compose and add the arrangements. There's very few songs were we have a part in mind. Though that was how we did the title track for "Losing Teeth." That actually originated from composing something first. I just brought in this rhythm part and we all liked it and realized we needed to write something and tie this in. It's really difficult. It's like if you built a wash for an outhouse and later tried to expand it to a house or something. It just seems kind of backwards. I don't think I'd want to make a habit of writing that way.
When you start with writing lyrics sometimes you do things that influence the arrangement that make it a lot more complex if you did it the other way around...As a band we can pursue each change in the structure, whereas when you have it all written out you just pound lyrics into it and make sure syllables and everything fits into it.
OMC: One review mentioned there was a bit of humor in the songs.
DB: When terrible things happen to fictional people it's usually funny. I don't know why that is. I tend to find humor in that because it didn't happen to anybody real. I also think if it's vaguely dark and humorless it's difficult to listen to and it's not very much fun to people either.
OMC: You've said elsewhere that "Losing Teeth" is more polished than the previous two. Did this could from working with the two producers/engineers (Dixon and Hochstettler/Howl Street)?
DB: They both were able to get a lot more of a polished sound. I think it's because instead of playing elements of the record live, everything's isolated and clean sounding. It's the product of recording in a room instead of someone's garage. I think both are really gifted. It's a strange thing where during the recording process something sounds like your instrument normally does in a room, just because we hadn't had that before. They were really able to get that for us.
OMC: You also have mentioned that that growth to a quartet has affected the sound and expanded the possibilities.
DB: Everyone is the band has had to learn to multi-task a little more and take on additional instruments. Which in the studio isn't that big of deal but in the live setting it's pretty fascinating to watch how at different points in the song William will both from banjo to cello. You really think in terms of fours. What can we do in this point of the song to dramatically change the sound? We like to branch out and try different instruments and take a break from doing the same thing all the time and also lets the band get more economy out of the arrangement.
OMC: While the music's great on it's own I think your singing voice takes it to a new level. Could you talk about finding that singing voice?
DB: When we were starting out as a band I had a cooper microphone that was very thick and had a canned kind of sound like the microphones from the 20s and 30s. It was more of less the tone of that mic and I didn't have to do much vocally to achieve a vocal sound that I wanted. After the first record I liked how that mic sounded still and wanted to use it live but on the record I noticed that it was separating the vocal from what the rest of the band was doing.
It sounded like someone was doing the vocals over the telephone ... A friend of mine said "Hey maybe you might want to try without that microphone on the next album." It was a little bit nerve-wrecking to figure out how to maintain the same vocal sound while not using that microphone that much in the studio.
It might have been affected by that but I wasn't too self-conscious about that or integrity or anything. Now it seems silly ... we don't need singers to sing exactly like they talk ... I have that vocal sound so much now that I'm mining it some more.
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