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Scrawl (Puncture, 1989)

Looking at this so many years on, I notice that my writing could have been less intrusive for a start, but nothing I say embarrasses me too much, which is a relief. I was glad at the time to find that not only were Scrawl an inspiring band with a lot of heart, but they were also nice people to meet: funny, down-to-earth, just plain folks. After this interview was conducted, the band had a long, rough career in the 90s, weathering the collapse of Rough Trade US, releasing albums on Feel Good All Over and Simple Machines before finally finding a (seemingly) empathetic sanctuary on Elektra until the major label stabbed them in the back by suddenly dropping them immediately after the release of their final album, Nature Film. (Well worth picking up, despite the many remakes of older material; until you have heard their definitive take on “Public Image”, you have not lived a full life!) They won’t be forgotten.

You (meaning me—the lamenting rock writer) get sick to death of reading your own excessive hype in your favorite zine. You vow to cool it and never get overexcited about anything again. Then along comes another band to blow you away with sheer simple perfection, demanding nothing less than your most florid prose. And you can’t explain why.

The facts then. Scrawl are three young women from Columbus, Ohio, with three albums out: Plus, Also, Too… which they released themselves on No Other Records, and the new one on Rough Trade, He’s Drunk, which was recorded at none other than Prince’s Paisley Park Studio in Minneapolis. (Friends of the band report that much merriment ensued when they discovered the costume room.) And you could not have picked three more down-to-earth, unstereotypical gals to invade the regal one’s fantasy factory. It seems Prince has to rent out studio time these days to pay the bills for his monstrous stage shows, so the doors of Paisley Park have opened to unglamorous musical geniuses like Bob Mould and dry-witted sensible Midwestern feminists like Scrawl. Good. He’s Drunk resonates from the speakers with a full-bodied groove that brings out the best in this band’s stream-of-consciousness confessional garage tone poems. In terms of sound quality, Scrawl have progressed from the rough, K-like charm of their debut to the haunting strum sonics of the best Flying Nun recordings. The voices of Marcy Mays (guitar) and Sue Harshe (bass) wail in close harmony like backwoods Everly sisters over a backing reminiscent of Dragnet-era Fall or something equally jagged and hypnotic. There’s something X-like, too, in the way Marcy and Sue trade off lines or harmonize on lyrics that read like random snatches of everyday conversation or sly observations from a diary. Scrawl’s words find the passion, drama and irony in everyday life, and feast on it. Terri Sutton recently wrote that rock and roll was about a “lust for feeling”. no wonder she loves Scrawl.

On their first national tour, Scrawl swung through San Francisco in February. Prepared with a list of questions compiled by Maati Lyon and myself, I managed to catch them between an in-store performance at Rough Trade (accompanied only by guitar and tambourine) and leaving to play at Gilman Street in Berkeley. We found a small room stocked with pizza and beer, and tried to get serious.

First I asked about their backgrounds. Marcy was born in Charleston, West Virginia; Sue is from Westerville, Ohio (just outside Columbus); and Carolyn O’Leary (drummer, relatively quiet but sarcastic) comes from Chicago.

Marcy: I grew up in a very small town. It didn’t even have a rock and roll station, just a gospel station. Then when I got to high school there was finally a rock station we could hear—forty miles away. So musically my upbringing was really weird. I listened to Burt Bacharach and Ray Charles a lot, ’cause my mom and dad had the records. I didn’t even buy records…until TED came along. Somebody gave me a Ted Nugent tape and that changed my life!

Sue: I’m from a small town. One of the fastest growing suburbs in the United States—that’s Westerville’s claim to fame.

Carolyn: Plus the town’s been dry since Prohibition.

Sue: The Women’s Temperance League started in Westerville. At our church.

Carolyn: You can’t buy beer inside the city limits.

Sue: You’re not supposed to drink it, either.

Marcy: Anyway we have pretty standard Midwestern backgrounds with parents who are supportive…

Sue: Yeah, every time I call my mom she says, “OK, just don’t drive at night, and we’ll see you in a couple of weeks!”

Marcy: My dad always wanted to be in a band himself. One day my neighbor asked my dad to buy me a bass guitar so I could play in his heavy metal band. And my dad went out and bought me the guitar!

When the punk rock virus finally hit small-town America, Marcy and Sue responded. Marcy joined “a thrash band…not hardcore”, while Sue studied classical piano at Ohio State while playing bass in a hardcore band called No America. Then came Skull—“a joke” formed by Marcy and two others. Marcy explained: “None of us knew how to play, we were like maybe a funnier Butthole Surfers. We did a lot of stage antics because we couldn’t play.”

As the others left, first Sue joined, then Carolyn, whose serious drumming ability inspired the group to improve instrumentally and aim at making music out of their noise. “We were just doin’ what we had to do as college students who were bored. It wasn’t anything big. You go from a small town to a university…you start seeing all these people doin’ their alternative thing and get intrigued.”

By the time the present trio came together, the name “Skull” sounded too heavy metal. They sat down and wrote a list of every word they could think of that rhymed with Skull, then decided the new name by playing bingo. The winner got to choose the name from the list. Thus, Scrawl was born. A good choice, actually. It goes with the artwork Marcy Mays puts on the album covers. I asked her if she scrawled with pencils before she scrawled with a guitar.

Marcy: Way before. I went to college as a painting major, if you can believe that! Looking at the covers I know it’s hard… I went to such a small school that all the art students knew all the people in bands. You always ended up being in a band and doing a show.

JNM: How do you approach songwriting? Your songs are all credited to Scrawl; are they actually written that way?

Sue: Musically they are, for the most part.

Marcy: I write most of the lyrics. Usually I write the more ballady songs by myself, the more rock and roll songs we write as a band.

Sue: Marcy had four or five songs ready when we did the first record. But this one was more of a collaboration…sitting and playing and coming up with stuff. we’re really prolific…

Marcy: We just jam. We don’t really put pressure on ourselves. If it’s gonna happen, it’ll happen.

JNM: You have two really strong songs, “Breaker Breaker” and “For Your Sister”, that treat the subject of friendship between women with the same amount of intense emotion that most rock and roll reserves for romantic love or male bonding. These songs are unique in the way they deal with basic things that don’t often get addressed in music even now. Did you consciously set out to make a statement here?

Marcy: Those are songs we really didn’t think about when we wrote them…

Sue: But I think that says a lot.

Marcy: People come up to us later and say things like, “Wow, ‘For Your Sister’, what’s that about?” I write lyrics completely off the top of my head, with whatever comes out. Those are both friendship and family-oriented songs. It never occurred us to edit them. We weren’t consciously trying to write like that. If you trust your intuition… We don’t try to figure out what we sing about. we just sing it.

Sue: It’s not conscious, it’s who we are. And that’s the way it is.

Marcy: We do spend a lot of time with each other.

Sue: There is female bonding.

Marcy: People can bond in all kinds of ways.

Sue: Some people in Columbus told us they saw us with a few of our friends and it was the closest thing they’d ever seen to male bonding. [Lots of laughter.]

JNM: Then there’s “Small Day” and “I Can’t Relax”, which are both very good at describing anxiety about relaxing, or guilt about not being driven to accomplish anything.

Marcy: Yeah it was funny…but those songs are true, you know. I’m sure everybody knows what I’m talkin’ about. Sometimes you think you’re doing a whole lot but you never get anything done.

Sue: There’s no real game plan going through our minds every time we write a song.

Marcy: Definitely not lyrically. The lyrics are just blurts that we stick together.

Scattered through the two Scrawl albums are some unusual cover versions. One of the most instantly appealing tunes on Plus, Also, Too is “Sad”, which starts as a lazily strummed sort of country doo-wop ballad then breaks into this chorus: “I’m sad, sad, I’m so fucking sad!” in hearty two-part harmonies. So where did that song come from?

Marcy: From the first band I was in; it was a thrash song. It was about fifty times faster, basically just the chords and “sadsadsofuknsad” at a hundred miles an hour. It was a local college thrash band. Then one day when we were goofin’ off we slowed it way down and liked it. So I called the guy who wrote it and said, “We do a real slow version of this, is that OK with you?” And he’s like, “Suuuure!” They don’t even do it anymore. Nobody does it but us. It wasn’t that great as a thrash song.

JNM: Where did you first hear “Rocky Top”?

Marcy: It’s always been on records, from the time I was two. They played a lot of bluegrass on the radio where I grew up.

Sue: It’s the ultimate traditional song.

Marcy: I’ve always known it but never quite knew the words; I guess we screwed up the words a bit on the record, but…it’s always been done real fast before. Very banjo-oriented.

Another cover is the old Hombres hit “Let It All Hang Out”—also covered on the first Mortal Micronotz album—which comes out somewhat mutated in Scrawl’s hands.

Sue: I have records my brother gave me from when he was 15, around 1965. That was one of them, a 45 by the Hombres! We did it once legitimately…

Marcy: And we kept forgetting it, and it kept evolving till…the words are now completely different, everything is different.

Sue: The only thing the same is “Let it all hang out!”

Marcy: It just happened. We tried to cover it, we couldn’t. I forgot the words and sang whatever came into my head.

The result is that after a half-hearted attempt to mumble through the first verse, everything suddenly breaks down and speeds up into a wise-ass satirical rap by Marcy about teenage girls buying designer punk outfits in the suburbs: “girl where’d you get that thing?/Got it at the shoppin’ mall…Black clothes, white white tan/That’s the way I catch mah man!” So when did malls start selling “punk” as a look in Columbus?

Sue: Gawd, I don’t even know.

Marcy: You can well believe it was probably in the mid-eighties. I mean, we certainly weren’t on top of it.

JNM: So what do the members of Scrawl do for a living?

Sue: I’m a glorified secretary. I don’t have to make coffee but I do have to type. I work for Ohio State University.

Carolyn: I work for the University too. I’m a “landscape technician”. It takes a lot of skill to…cut the grass.

Marcy: And I work for a state anti-hunger organization. I’m on a government grant to go out and see poverty in Ohio. It’s really…fun.

Sue: And there is a lot.

Marcy: Well, it’s a good job because it’s made me realize a lot of things. But I’ve seen bureaucracy and it’s far more hideous than I ever dreamed.

The subject of work brought up another subject, a big one: can an underground band ever support itself? Hardcore true believers classify any attempt by a band to make money from their art as a sellout or ripoff. But once you start doing it yourself you find out that rock and roll is an expensive hobby. One reason people give up playing music is the amount of money—not to mention time and energy—required to keep it going: strings, drum heads, transportation, and practice space don’t grow on trees, Jack.

The temptation to have a foolish major label toss a huge loan at you as you reach some small level of popularity can be almost too much. Scrawl are as yet a long way from that temptation, and they are too smart and skeptical to see a big record deal as the end of the rainbow. “Even then bands don’t make money,” Sue points out.

Marcy: No, and I’m kinda glad because then we’d be like, “we have to write a song, and we have to do this gig.” Now we still have the luxury of saying no.

Sue: It’d be like writing songs about writing songs! The only reason you write songs is ’cause you know people and you do things: you have a job, you deal with people. You don’t write songs because you’re a “songwriter”. You’re a songwriter because you need to express your life in some way. Some people do it through art, some people end up hitting their kids.

Marcy: Some people do it through Scrawl.

JNM: Why did you choose He’s Drunk as an album title?

Marcy: That’s the name of the drawing on the cover. It was just a picture I drew of a guy falling off a building.

Sue: A portrait. There are lots of people like that at Ohio State.

Marcy:They have to rope the street off to keep drunken students from falling into the street. I did a whole series of drawings after I went to a happy hour one Friday night at 6 PM—you knew they were gonna be out for the next two nights…

Sue: And drive! It’s a real oafy town. Lotsa guys saying “Let’s party!

Marcy:They’re farmers’ sons; no, not even that…more the “medium-sized towns where their dad is the mayor” kind of students who thought they were big shit in high school. It’s a real business and fraternity oriented university. These people line up for an hour and a half to get into one bar.

JNM: What’s the story behind “Green Beer”?

Marcy: You could get a full-size keg of green beer for ten to sixteen bucks after St. Patrick’s Day. They needed to get rid of it.

Sue: Actually it’s about two different parties we went to. One was the green beer party, the other had all these people…it was really weird, and I did steal a six-pack. And this woman brought her mother…it’s all true! And you’re hung over, you look in the mirror, you brush your teeth and you’re like, “My tongue is green!” Everything was green for two days. I can’t even drink from a green bottle now.

With two well-received albums behind them, the band has ventured on their first extended tour. They tell stories about their poor harassed male roadie, and a rock critic in Portland who wrote that their voices could “peel wallpaper”. All in all, they find the touring lifestyle a lark at this point. But what about the future? What happens when the thrill is gone? How seriously do they take the Scrawl project?

Sue: [laughing] Well, we’re under contract for another two albums!

Marcy: I really want to make a perfect record. I’ve been told it never happens. We wanna make a record that sounds like Scrawl.

Sue: If I die at 80, they’re still gonna find sheet music in my attic whether it’s published, or performed, or put on vinyl, or not. We’re still gonna write. You know, we all had experience with music before this.

Marcy: I’d find some outlet, if the band ever broke up. It might not be a similar one. It might be an acoustic thing or it might be playing rhythm guitar for fuckin’ Mudhoney, I don’t know. It’s a means of expression, and you’re always gonna need that whether you’re in a band or not.