Sunday, July 22, 2012
Southern Culture On The Skids interview, 1997
Southern Culture On The Skids
interview and introduction by Daniel Coston
originally published in Tangents Magazine, September 1997 issue
Whether you revel in their splendor, or just walk away in a confused daze, Chapel Hill's Southern Culture on the Skids has always stood out amongst the crowd. The band's live show, an arsenal of chicken wings, limbo lines and diesel-fueled rockabilly, has been legendary since their 1983 formation.
SCOTS' already-loyal following expanded nationally when "Camel Walk," from their 1996 album Dirt Track Date, became a surprise hit single last year. Record sales and attendance at their live shows hit an all-time high.
With the release of the band's new album, Plastic Seat Sweat, on September 23, the band will expand their crooked horizons even further. Again recorded with producer Mark Williams at Charlotte's Reflection Studios, Sweat has everything from cocktail music and AC/DC-tinged rock to more keyboards, banjo and even the electric sitar, according to the band's lead singer, guitarist, songwriter and master of ceremonies, Rick Miller.
During Daniel Coston's phone conversation with Miller last month, they talked about the band's new record, their live shows, retro-roots music and the transcendental powers of El Santo, the famed Mexican wrestler and star of numerous B-movies during the 1950s and '60s (and to whom the band has dedicated a song).
Tangents: Touring has always been a big thing with you and the band.
Miller: I think that's the way to get fans. If you don't have a big name or a big hit or a top 40 album, there's really no other way for people to enjoy your music and really get to know you. I prefer it that way 'cause records can be so misleading. Some bands sound one way on the record, and then you see them live, and they sound nothing like that. But that's OK as long as it's a good live show.
Tangents: You guys also do so much during a live show, with the chicken and the limbo lines. Where did all that start?
Rick Miller: Basically, just out of desperation. Just trying to make sure that everybody was having a good time. Involving the audience is also a great way of making sure that everybody is having a good time, because hopefully, the show is entertaining to you, too.
The band is entertaining, but the minute that the audience starts to get involved, it just takes everybody up another notch. We play the same songs night in, night out while we're on tour trying to promote a record, and it can get a little bit old. Whenever you bring in another element like that, it throws another spin on everything, and I enjoy that. It keeps me on my toes.
Tangents: Was it a conscious decision going into the new record to expand things?
Miller: Yeah, definitely. We wanted not to just fall back on what we did for Dirt Track Date. I thought that it was a good record, but it was the same instrumentation for all of the songs. That one kind of started at point A and ended at point B, while this one goes all over the place.
Tangents: Were you surprised by the success of "Camel Walk?"
Miller: That was the last song that any of us thought was going to get on the radio. It's an old song. We've been doing it for a while. I'd say that for the last 10 weeks that we toured when "Camel Walk" was on the radio, 80% percent of the crowd that came to see us had only heard that song.
But I think we won them over. The people who buy Dirt Track Date say, "I heard that 'Camel Walk' song, and I bought the record, but I really like 'Voodoo Cadillac,'" and they like a whole lot of other songs.
Tangents: Is it a challenge to come up with new things that'll bring some of those people back? Obviously, you don't want to write "Camel Walk II" ...
Miller: No, we don't. [laughs] Once you have success with something, it's hard to get it out of your craw. But you don't want to keep repeating stuff, so I think that it's important that you set up new things.
We're always thinking, "What's the next 'Camel Walk?'" But I don't know if I want another "Camel Walk."
Tangents: What were some of your early inspirations when the band first started?
Miller: We started out doing this Crampy punk-rockabilly stuff, and then we started trying straight country with a rockin' beat, and nobody wanted to come see it.
Our shows dropped off like crazy. Our original bass player and drummer quit, and that's when I got Mary Huff and Dave [Hartman], and we just decided to woodshed for a while and go back somewhere between the two, and came up with this sort of swampy rock 'n' roll.
Tangents: I've noticed that there's been a polarization among people about your band. People either just love you, or they don't know what to make of it.
Miller: I'd rather have some of the people just scratch their heads and literally outright hate us than just sit there and be like, "Oh, they're OK." The people who like it, really like it. If we wanted to appeal to everybody, we'd be like Michael Bolton.
Tangents: That would be kind of weird, a country-rock Michael Bolton ...
Miller: God, there's plenty of them. [laughs]
Tangents: But it's not really country, anymore.
Miller: Everything I hear coming out of Nashville sounds like a second-rate Bruce Springsteen record.
There's some country stuff I like. I like Dwight Yoakam, and I like BR5-49.I've actually known those guys for a while. But I prefer stuff that's a little edgier. I like the [Jon Spencer] Blues Explosion -- bands that are taking the roots thing and doing something a little more aggressive with it.
I don't really care for bands that are just straight retro, either, because how many times can you hear "Bebop-A-Lula?" I enjoy that music, but for a career, trying to be an original artist, it's kind of a dead end.
Tangents: Why do you think a lot of bands fall into that?
Miller: I think that a lot of people think it's good enough to try and emulate somebody else. It's easier. You don't have to work as hard. You don't have to put as much of yourself out on the line with it, really.
Another thing is that you can't be too irreverent. You can't [mess] with it. That's the only way you can make it yours. And that's why I like bands that have sort of an irreverent attitude towards their music, and have a sense of humor and maybe a sense of irony. Something you can fool with, and I think that there's a big audience out there for that.
Tangents: Do you see these new songs changing and evolving over your next tour?
Miller: Yeah, I think all the songs from this new record we're playing better now than we did when we recorded them. Not to say that they're bad on the record. I think they're very good renditions, but the songs sound better to me now than they ever have, after a couple months of playing them live. We're also probably going to have a fourth person out on the road with us, playing some keyboard parts, some percussion parts, maybe even a little second guitar, too. We're kind of growing in that way. Trying to fill out the sound a little bit, and seeing what that throws into the mix.
Tangents: I have to ask. When you're singing the praises of El Santo, do you feel his power come over you?
Miller: Oh yeah, man. That's why when I try to get to someone on stage [to play El Santo], I look for the best person that I think can channel Santo's power.
It's an act of possession. It's like a spiritual possession, once you put the mask on.
Tangents: Would you describe it as a healing power?
Miller: Of course. The power of Santo surges through. You become an attractor to all things. Good luck sticks like glue.
He was the Madonna of his day. The David Bowie of the wrestling ring. He reinvented himself many times. When public tastes changed, he could change. In the 1950s, when monster movies were popular, he was fighting monsters. In the '60s, when it was secret agents, he became a secret agent, and never once did I ever see him fumble or fall. He was always Santo, always triumphing and always looking in control, and totally styling.
Tangents: I had to ask that question. I love El Santo movies, and Ed Wood and all that stuff.
Miller: If you can understand that sort of aesthetic, then you're gonna like our music. That's my aesthetic, too. I see things in those B-movies that I think are very positive and incredibly interesting.
Tangents: All right, then. If Southern Culture on the Skids were a B-movie, what kind of B-movie would it be?
Miller: It would have to be sort of a "Macon County Line" and "Walking Tall," but with a zombie theme. A zombie moonshine sort of thing.