Perfect Sound Forever

The Scene Is Now

L to R: Dick Champ, Phil Dray, Jeff McGovern, Chris Nelson

Philip Dray interview
by Jason Gross (February 2001)

"... you will hear threads of sound that were nicked and embroidered upon by such Metropolitan area worthies as Yo La Tengo, Chain Gang and Sonic Youth (combos lucky enough to share a  contemporaneous place with The Scene Is Now in space/time continuum). It is now only left to you, the wily hepster living far from the physical pull of Manhattan's Lower East Side, to complete a circuit and allow the wonderful motes on this album to settle upon and shape the aesthetic beaks of the hinterlands. You've got nothing to lose and so goddamn much to gain. I mean, wow. Y'know?"
Byron Coley

"You can never say enough about The Scene Is Now"
Ira Kaplan, Yo La Tengo

Isn’t it a horrible indictment against the New York City school systems that students are not taught about local heroes like The Scene Is Now?  I mean, how many local bands attract members of Pere Ubu and the dB’s while getting one of their tunes in YLT oeuvre (“Yellow Sarong”).  Just the sheer will of force that has made them endure from the early ‘80’s right up to now should be an inspiration to any youngster.

What I’ve found most lovable about them is the way that they deftly defy categories: I’ve heard terms like ‘pomo chamber rock’ and ‘modern jug band’ thrown at them but it’s not adequate and truth be known there probably isn’t any simple way to explain TSIN.  And therein lies their charm.  There is an undeniable amateurism to their work that is maybe only matched by Half Japanese and is surely as heart-felt and rigorous as any ensemble that Jad Fair has put together.  You want yearning, howling vocals, instruments that zoom around in deceptively simple patterns?  You need the TSIN in your life then.  An excellent starting point is The Oily Years compilation on Bar/None.

As the group’s latest incarnation mounted a series of shows at local haunt The Tonic last summer, I caught up with founder/mainstay Phil Dray to find out the secret of TSIN’s non-success.  Enormous thanks to Robert Sietsama for the great hook-up.

PSF: What kind of musical interest did you have before TSIN? Any previous bands or any kind of musical activity?

 My own musical background was fairly slim. I had played drums in a cover band in Minneapolis, where Chris and I are from. I took up kybd becuase it seemed a lot easier to move around than a drum set, plus I had ambitions to write songs and I'd found that being the drummer one was more locked out of the actual arranging/composition aspects of being in a band. At least it seemed that way to me.

PSF: How would you describe the New York music scene just before TSIN started?

 I moved here in 1977. The rock scene at that time was basically centered around just 2 clubs, CBGB and Max's Kansas City, and this kind of constellation of bands such as Television, The Ramones, Blondie, Talking Heads, Richard Hell, and some others, although even by then many of these groups were becoming well-known and starting to tour out of town. Sort of as a reaction to this wave of punk or New Wave bands, there arose several what were called No Wave bands -- DNA, The Contortions, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks - whose music was rather atonal, idiosyncratic, etc.. Chris and I were in a band during this period called Information with Rick Brown (later of Run On).

 PSF: How did TSIN come together? Was their any idea or game plan behind the group?

 The ethos of the band, such as it was, and this was true of The Scene Is Now, was to try and write and perform material that was original and that avoided certain hackneyed rock and roll ideas, both musically and lyrically. And I suppose it's important that part of the concept was that one's approach and enthusiasm was more vital than expert musicianship, which none of us really had.

 Without getting into a thing about who-joined-what-when, there was a transitional phase which led to the founding in 1982 of The Scene Is Now. The original group formed in '82 consisted of Chris Nelson, me, Dick Champ (of a famous Minneapolis band called NNB) and Jeff McGovern, who had played drums with Mofungo. There was really no governing principle to the group, other than we were trying to be able to play and record our own music, given our somewhat limited skills. Everyone in the band was knowledgable about music, not just in the manner of knowing who played second guitar on some obscure Dylan bootleg, but rather in terms of having a broad sonic awareness of various genres, so TSIN songs often were kind of making fun of some of these precedents, and juxtaposing them with lyrics that were bizarre or anyway different from what was usual. A song like "Social Practice" on our first LP was a good example -- it was based on quoitations from Mao's Little Red Book, employed a simple tune that was sort of an inversion of the old rock novelty song "Rockin' Robin," and featured a synthesized "Chinese Orchestra" string part that was an homage to those old "state music" albums that emerged from Beijing and Moscow in the '50's and '60's. Another was our first single "1150 lbs" that told the story of a misunderstood gorilla who becomes Public Enemy No 1. And so on.

Although we played out quite a bit, our main endeavor from about 1983 through 1985 was recording our album Burn All Your Records. We did this largely on a 4-track owned by Jeff M., at his apt on Canal St. This was a wonderful creative experience because we were all rather new to the process and because we were doing it at our own pace, as opposed to rushing in and out of a recording studio, we did quite a lot of experimentation and, this factor combined with the fairly high level of creativity in the music, lyrics I've already mentioned, paid off I think in a very good album. Plus we had all learned a lot so we were able to apply those things when we did eventually record in commercial studios. On our 2nd album, Total Jive, we moved a bit more toward a pop sound -- this was just a natural inclination based on who was in the group and what was going in the music world at the time. We have always been a group that sits between what people think of as New Music and what might be considered pop. We're not "new" enough or atonal enough to be to considred cutting edge, but nor are we talented enough or commercial enough to be seen as a "regular" pop group. Although to my ears at least the songs often sound very straightforward musically, critics have invariably described us as weird or from outer space or some such thing. Obviously, I guess we have always had both things going on simultaneously -- some very melodious muisc, but then some grating sounds of scrtachy gtrs, gut-wrenching vocals, etc.

By the time of our third album, Tonight We Ride, our membership was already starting to change... So maybe I'll leave off here, as the first 2 albums and our single, all released beween 1983-1986, form kind of the initial phase of the band.

PSF: On the debut, all the group members were playing a lot of different instruments. How did that come about?

 The multitude of instruments on the first album was a natural result of our curiosity to try various things -- again this relates to a sensibility that was of the time and not unique to us, simply that musicians were begining to think of themselves less as aspiring virtuosi who specialized on their chosen "axe" and more as people free to access any instrument, even if they could not literally "play it." The idea, I suppose, was that a little experimentation and shuffling musicians and instruments around might create interesting results. This was certainly borne out by our experience. On the first LP, for instance, Chris, nominally the guitarist/singer, plays keyboards on "Voltaire's Repair" and "5 cent shave"; I play guitar on "Voltaire's" and sing (something I never did) on "Railroad Boy"; and so on. In addirtion, as I mentioned before, because this was an album cut very much at our leisure, we had time to try out various things -- like, 'oh, let's see what this sounds like' -- that would have been impossible had we been working under other conditions.

PSF: How would you describe the politics of TSIN?

 It was not entirely consistent throughout the group. Dick and Jeff tended to be either apolitical or even somewhat conservative, Chris and I were sort of more vaguely anti-war, anti-capitalist, pro-women and also smitten somewhat by chic leftist ideology, such as Chairman Mao's thought, that we were not really serious students of. We did believe those things but our actual dedication to them did not go much beyond alluding to them in songs. Or avoiding traditional ideas about, say, be my girlfriend. Obviously, too, we saw what we were doing musically and lyrically -- just getting away from the mainstream -- to be in a way somewhat an act of subversion, hence the title Burn All Your Records. But we never deluded ourselves that we were revolutionaries or anything.

PSF: So you think it's wrong to see a heavy political influence in the group's work?

 What I meant was that even though we were taking P.C. positions in our lyrics, quite eloquently in songs like "Bank" and "If Justice Hides," "Anthracite," and other cuts, I think, we were never under the delusion that we were really out there making strident political statements. Even our "political" songs express fairly generalized sentiments -- and even though we might be more willing to play a benefit than some bands, it's not like we were at the barricades, so to speak. It used to be a matter of debate years ago about whether being in a rock band was a valid way to express yourself politically or not -- we had a friend (who shall remain nameless) who was more inclined to shreik political messages to his audiences, and I never saw anyone really appear to take him very seriously, at least on that score. I think the answer is somewhat elusive. I mean, real politicos who do the dirty work to build coalitions and bring lawsuits against giant polluters might well take a dim view of anyone who claimed to be "political" by being in a band.

Although, on the other hand, Madonna probably did more to empower young women and girls than most full time feminist academicians; bands like the Who and the Stones and The Small Faces probably did more during their Carnaby Street phase to shake up the way young people viewed the world than some leftist youth bund. So I guess maybe all you can do is express things as you see them and if someone takes inspiration from it, that's great. Personally, when people tell me they like TSIN or that even there's something inspiring about the group (that's rare, but it's happened) I always assume they don't mean that they heard some political sentiment we expressed and were moved by it but rather that they admire us for being different -- which I think is worth a lot, if it moves them to take more chances or be more creative in their own life.

PSF: What were the live shows like for TSIN when you started?

 Our early live shows were fun for us but I don't think we ever connected with audiences live the way our records did. This has to do with what I said the other day about our not belonging anywhere -- I think to an extent people in "normal" rock clubs found us lacking in the kind of boffo R & R skills that really "deliver" a show, while we weren't all that successful, because of our pop orientation, in convincing anyone we were world-class art rock, either. In terms of live acceptance, we may have actually done better in our No Wave band, Information, which was more racous and noisy, but still delightful, simply in that we created a lot of sound and fury and hence more of a "statement" when we played live. Also, and this is why we may come across better on disk, I think of our music as being a lot about textures of sound and the brilliance of Chris's lyrics -- both elements that are best controlled and presented via recordings. If you listen to songs like "Gone For a Long, Long Time" or "Yellow Sarong" or "If Justice Hides," or any number of them, it seems like what makes the recording is the feel or texture of one or 2 of the instruments, some little loopy guitar part, the grabby accordion sound on "Gone," for instance, and then the words, all working together. We did much later try to replicate this more on stage...

PSF: What was the group trying to do in a live setting then?

We have done a few shows where we had numerous people on stage with us, even someone doubling the keyboard parts as we have on the albums, and it was amazing to hear some of the material live much as it was on the record. Unfortunately, that approach is as you can imagine hard to work out because the administrative chores of managing a 6 or 7 piece band are fairly huge, plus if you get people for just one show it's a major job to teach them a set's worth of songs... Although there's no denying that our albums with Tony Maimone and Will Rigby are good, and that they are great musicians, I personally feel like I prefer the creativity you get from just a small group of regular joes who can work with you steadily, contributing songs, figuring out little intricacies in the music. We are more or less in that mode now -- with Greg Peterson on guitar and Steve Levi on cornet.

PSF: Did you ever sense that TSIN was part of any music scene going on?

 I always find that "scenes" are more in the eye of the beholder, in that groups that are often lumped together by a critic, say, would perhaps not themselves find so much of a link. But that's not to say those categorizations aren't legit. It seems that in the early 80s there were groups that we must have had some kinship with. Critics have often compared us to Pere Ubu, Red Crayola, The Residents. We were active around the time Sonic Youth started up, playing in the same clubs, and of course we are friends with Yo La Tengo, Rick Brown and Sue Garner's old band, Fish & Roses, Mofungo, but I'm not sure what the common thread would be. I guess all these groups were sort of non-punk, non-New Wave. My wife calls it "Swerve Music," meaning I guess that's it's like regular pop music but slightly off-kilter. One friend described the first TSIN album as pop tunes being played underwater. As you know, we often seem to be playing a straight-ahead song but it just can't seem to come out without sounding kind of goofy. Take "Without a Song", an old Vincent Youmans standard from the '30's that we cover on Shotgun Wedding. We're playing the exact arrangement that's on an old Billy Eckstine album, and yet when you hear our version you know you're hearing it thru some kind of filter. Indeed, many of our songs are not complex musically -- they have only a few chords and those tend to be either major chords or a minor here and there -- it's not like we're using lots of sophisticated jazz chords or diminished 9ths or things like that -- but just by virtue of who we are it will come out sounding odd.

PSF: What was the origin of Lost Records? Did you come about from TSIN and/or Mofungo? What was the aim of making this company?

 Lost came about because we wanted to put out our own single ("1150 lbs") and we were not optimistic at that point about getting signed to some record label. Not that we ever really were. Chris and I had been in that band Information that was a No Wave band in the late '70's in NYC, and because the whole NY scene was so happening musically at that time, we actually received more interest from record producer types at that time. Mitch Easter produced some demos we made. By the mid-'80's, however, when TSIN was about to release records, the alternative rock scene was very underground... I think R.E.M. was about the only group that had a "deal." Anyway, we chose LOST because Chris is always losing everything... and it turned out to be a wise choice, looking back now. After having had Twin Tone put out some of our disks, I'd have to say it is more fun to put stuff out yourself, because you have more control, and you're not always upset because the record company is messing up. I've always liked the technical aspects of manufacturing records or CD's... going to the plant and all. One weird thing was when Burn All Your Records was being pressed -- out in Newark -- I was sort of the point guy going out to the plant to put the album thru production, and the man who was in charge of the project at this presing plant. I went out there one day and asked for him and a secretary told me he'd passed away of a heart attack. I always wondered if he just couldn't deal with that LP.

PSF: What was the songwriting process with TSIN? Did each member bring ideas to the others which were then developed by the group?

 Songwriting has largely been a matter of my writing the music and Chris writing the words, although there are many exceptions. We got into the habit long ago of just saying "by TSIN"... I think that was a reflection of the fact that everyone really did contribute a lot. I might come in with a piano lick, but then someonme else would add a part that would pretty much change the direction, and then the lyrics would go on... we were never the kind of group where one person came in with all the parts written in his head and dictated what others would do. So being involved in this more open process as we were, it never made sense to say 'Song by Chris Nelson' or what have you.

 It would have been hard to assign exact songwriting credits because we felt the process was fairly collective. Dick never brought in any original song ideas, Jeff did, but he was very self-conscious and would quickly withdraw them if they were not going well. Chris and I share a kind of loose approach to song writing...I mean, we could sit down and just write a song in about 5 minutes. It might not be any good, but at least we'd turn something out. I say that because I think that has been an advantage over many musicians I know who belabor songwriting, struggling with something for months and sort of agonizing over it until they actually come to hate what they're doing. I guess we're much more into Process -- get something rolling, even record it, see what you got, try not to get too hung up. Of course even as I say that I should clarify that we both do work hard at the craft aspects of it. I might noodle around with a keyboard part for months before trying it out, and likewise Chris will devote himself to his lyrics. And we always are very serious about choosing what we'll actually play or record, we just ACT carefree doing it.

PSF: Since no group can exist in a vacuum, in the early days of TSIN, who did you see/imagine your audience to be?

 Audience? I don't know if we ever had a particular audience in mind. I have that neurotic but probably typical thing of thinking what I do is really great but then also thinking it's lousy. Some of our stuff I've thought was quite good -- like Burn and Shotgun Wedding. I recall being dispapointed that none of the small labels we shopped Shotgun to were interested. You know, it was like 'Are you crazy, this is a great album!' But then other times, like at live shows, I just want to melt through the floor (becuase) I think we sounded so bad and discombobulated. Basically, I've come to accept that many, many people will not like TSIN, maybe 'cause they can't get past Chris's unusual voice, but then there are enough folks out there who are sympathetic and do get it and enjoy the music. So it's nice to know that it's connected with someone. It's been a long time since I thought of who our audience might be, in the strategizing sense. I think I gave up after we set out consciously to write a 12" disco hit and wound up with "Tin Roof." After that I just figured well we're never going to be Madonna or Prince.

PSF: In your own opinion, what was different about Total Jive from the debut? Was the group's approach or dynamic different by that time?

 Total Jive is an album I've come to like more lately. At the time we did it we were having some personal problems in the band, I think related to the fact that we had done the first album sort of by hand on 4-track, which was a unifying expereince, but then for Total Jive Jeff refused to go through that again and so we wound up recording in various studio surroundings we weren't used to. In addition, LOST had gotten involved with Twin Tone at that point and we felt we had to hurry and turn something in, so there were always cuts on TJ I felt were not all they could be, as opposed to our expereince with Burn, where we had gone over everything rather meticuilously. I still wince when I hear certain things, although you know how it is -- after many years you start to care less about things that seemed immensely bothersome at some earlier time. Stylistically that album was kind of a departure from Burn. I think it was partly just a mattrer of having moved a bit away from the No Wave period and feeling sort of more confident about utilizing melody. Even in earlier things we'd done, we always had a soft spot for pleasant little tunes. I think there's always a process you go through. When you're younger, you are more aware of what styles and approach you are using, but after a few years you tend to relax and do more or less what you want and not concern yourself overly much with whether Eno would approve or whatever...

PSF: With Tonight We Ride, how did having Tony Maimone and Will Rigby on board effect the band's work? Why did Dick leave the group at that point (or just before that)?

 Tonight We Ride was sort of a halfway album -- half with the original TSIN, and half with the new lineup of Tony and Will. Jeff left the group in May '87 because his wife had a baby and, as I mentioned once before, he had always been hard on himself and disappointed that he'd not been able to be more creative in the group. The irony was that it had been his doing as a producer that had made Burn such an artistically successful album, I thought, and yet he didn't want to go back to that kind of home-style recording. Dick, who left in Dec '87 to go to grad school, had a similar issue, and I've encountered this a lot among musicians and maybe you have to, in that once it became clear that the group was not going to be "successful" in terms of touring and record deals, they began to focus on their own limitations as musicians and worry that the time they were commiting was not worth it. I don't mean to say that position is not legit, but there are some musicians who derive enough pleasure from it to stay active in music no matter what, and others who are practical-minded enough to cut their losses if their enthusiasm and prospects have waned. Because obviously it's a lot of time to commit.

PSF: The sound of the band better produced at this point- more arranged harmonies, atmospheric synth. Would you agree? Was that conscious?

 As far as the production values go, I can't speak for Chris, I think we were both consciously seeking a more sophisticated pop sound to our recordings and also just had ourselves progressed as arrangers, musicians and producers, so that we couldn't help make a somewhat more polished product. Obviously, adding Tony and Will also abetted this process. Tony at that time had possession of many of Pere Ubu's old analog synths and used them on some of the cuts on both Tonight We Ride and Shotgun Wedding; he also was very adept in the studio at making song-endings neat, that kind of thing. In retrospect, while I always thought Tonite We Ride and Shotgun Wedding were very good albums, a lot of folks still prefer the earlier albums because they are sort of clumsy and simplistic... so it goes to show you never know. As you probably know, it's a common trajectory for musicians to think that they want their music better-produced but then at some later point start trying to re-create the same roughness and confusion that attended their earlier work.

PSF: Shotgun Wedding seemed like a low-key release as it was cassette only. I myself only found out about it when you told me it existed. Was this on purpose? Was it an intentional temporary swan-song in the band's recording career?

 Shotgun Wedding was made during a kind of a weird period for us, because after Jeff and Dick both left it did feel kind of strange... it would be like Chris and I alone in our practice space and part of me was thinking 'Oh, we can't start til the other guys get here,' and then it would sort of hit me: they ain't coming. Because Tony and Will were never really members of the band per se, but more like friends lending a hand. Anyway, we did plow along and continue to work on songs and then that fall of 1988 went into the studio and cut Shotgun Wedding. The odd thing was that Tony had gone off on a year-long world tour with the Mekons so he wound up just coming in and doing some synth overdubs. The bass was played by a friend of ours from Minneapolis, Rusty Jones. I think with that album we did hit a wall, emotionally, because we both felt that it was about the best we could do and yet we had no interest from any record folks in putting it out. We had lost our deal with Twin Tone and afterwards we went into a hiatus period.

PSF: There were no releases in the '90's. How dormant was the band actually? How much were you gigging?

In the '90's, of course, Bar None brought our our anthology album, but Chris and I never really broke up... we would get togther and work on material and in about 1995-96, went into a studio in Brooklyn and recorded another album with Tony and Will. It's called Let's Straighten It Out and will be released by ourselves probably in early 2001. In the early '90's we had tried appearing as a duo, but Chris didn't like playing without more backing musicians, so we only did that a few times. Then we didn't play in public at all until about 1997, when we decided to mount these big shows with pro guys playing with us. Those were fun I think we both recognized that it might be best to have regular colleagues in the group. Around this time (late 98 I think) a strange thing happened when Greg Peterson moved here from Iowa. He's only 24, but knew a lot of our material and is a fantastic musician, so it was sort of a no-brainer that we'd ask him to join the group. Then, we had met Steve Levi, a horn player, who is an excellent songwriter and was looking for a group where he could get some of his songs performed. His background was in jazz, but he had this kind of secret life as a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith, snd so it's worked out nicely. This is the lineup you saw at Tonic this past summer.

PSF: With the current line-up of TSIN, how do you feel about not playing with a proper rhythm section (bass, drums)?

 I think as the singer Chris misses the rhythm section more than I do. We never opposed a rhythm section by any conscious strategy -- it was more that the 2 people we met who were willing to be part of a permanent set-up were Greg and Steve and neither played bass or drums. We also appreciate the different kinds of music that will arise out of varying instrumentations, and not having the drums has made it easier for us to practice in people's apartments, that kind of thing. Lastly, because Chris and I have both played drums and bass ourselves in recording and also onstage, we feel confident that if we wanted to record, for instance, we could put down those instruments.

PSF: What's the future of TSIN? Given a plethora of resources, what the TSIN like to ultimately do?

 As for the future, well, we're more or less at that point where we're carrying on as a kind of hobby -- we don't have lots of fans or followers, and we're only going to spend money not earn it doing this. In a certain way we have an advantage over some other groups that were hellbent on stardom or whatevr, in that I think we always knew we were outside that tradition, so to speak, and would just do our own thing and take what came, so we were able to avoid the inevitable sense of failure and "what's the use?" feeling that afflicts a lot of groups -- although it would be dishonest to say we have not had those moments ourselves on occasion.

PSF: Why, in your own opinion, has it been important to continue TSIN for so long?

 The whole idea for the group, even the name The Scene Is Now, has always been built on a kind of hubris that we in one way had no business being a band at all because we were mediocre musicians but would be a band anyway, that we of all people would act super-confident and have albums with names like Burn All Your Records and Total Jive, in a way just flipping the bird to both regular "society" and also the rock milieu, so we have a bit of a teflon coating when it comes to being assaulted, and this answers your last question maybe about why we have stayed together. Chris and I met in high school in 1966, and even though we don't always get along, we have found that of the many people we've collaborated with we get along musically with one another very well, so out of the same spirit of defiance I guess sort of informally decided the group will never break up. We may be inactive for long periods of time but will never give up the ghost entirely.

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