Highly Contagious

Silver Scooter

photograph by Kenny Braun

One of the most troublesome stumbling blocks on the road of pop songcraft is subjugation. With few exceptions, a three-minute slice of pop heaven is not the domain of guitar heroes and deep thinkers. The pop ideal is a collective one in which individuals voluntarily conscribe themselves to the greater service of the song at hand. Reconciling such an ideal with rock & roll's tendency to attract those with an avaricious need for adulation is a tall order indeed.

The crucial factor that delineates a thoughtful, congruent local trio like Silver Scooter from the frothing pack of pop-cause-we-say-so outfits is the former's keen ability to put all the musical elements together in a way that leaves a mark. Each member of Silver Scooter is allotted their fair share of idiosyncratic nuances on the band's new Peek-a-Boo album The Other Palm Springs, but no one person emerges from behind the 15 highly-contagious tunes to thank all the little people and take home the prize.

For this, credit guitarist/vocalist Scott Garred, who has a knack for presenting bassist John Hunt and drummer Tom Hudson with songs that offer plenty of opportunities for engaging subplots. "Mostly for me, it's the words," says Garred, "but if the tempo suits the melody and the words, and my voice is able to fall into the place where it's comfortable to sing, those are all my favorite songs."

Putting it all together in a way that sticks to the wall without acquiescing to formula is another feather in Silver Scooter's cap. Although a song like "Intruder Inside" fits easily into the warm collegiate pop rubric of Superchunk or Built to Spill, Hunt's bass line undermines Garred's lilting guitar just enough to give credence to the dark lyrical content. The end result is a jangly sing-a-long about hatchet murder.

"I guess what I like about music in general is accessibility," says Hunt. "Being able to sing it in your car or have it hit you two days later to where you're going, `What the hell is that song?' because it's stuck in your head. That can go anywhere from a deodorant commercial to a Grifters song. Sometimes that's good and sometimes that's bad, but generally, that's what I like about music."

Silver Scooter's genesis dates back six years to when Hudson and Garred first started playing together in bands around Pullman, Washington and Moscow, Idaho, two small college towns separated by seven miles and a state line. The title The Other Palm Springs came from billboards welcoming visitors to Garred's hometown of Clarkston, Washington. Clarkston is also the somewhat ambivalent focus of Garred's socially shunned protagonist on "Clarkston, WA," though he insists there's no grudge.

"I love it there," Garred says. "I'm going home for Christmas and I can't wait to go, but there were maybe three or four of my really good friends that had any sort of artistic ambition. Everything else was just cheerleaders, football, basketball, keg parties, and stuff like that. It just wasn't very interesting. You kind of mock those things as you grow up, but I embrace the place as my hometown."

Garred and Hudson moved to Austin in 1995 and played in another trio called Unabomber before hooking up with Hunt, a former Bostonian who also plays guitar in Fivehead. With Hunt aboard, they reincarnated themselves as Silver Scooter in honor of a song they wrote about "a really lazy old man who put a lot of liquor in his coffee and could never get things started," according to Garred.

After two years of gigs and a number of 7-inch and compilation appearances, Silver Scooter wanted their debut full-length to capture their live presence and expand upon their penchant for four-track living room recordings. Producer Dave McNair, who's worked with Austin artists from Ant Man Bee to Stevie Ray Vaughan, proved to be an invaluable ally as the band recorded The Other Palm Springs at his home studio in May.

"We do a lot of four-tracking at home and we like to experiment with cheap keyboards and goofy stuff," says Garred. "We wanted to incorporate enough of that to where we still sounded like us, but we wanted to make a record. We didn't want to just go down and record guitar, bass, drums, and singing and then mix it really fast. That's kind of how our in-the-studio experiences have gone in the past. We didn't have a lot of time and we didn't have a lot of money. And although we didn't really have any money, Dave was really nice. He spent a lot of time with us and did just enough experimenting to get what we wanted -- maintain the essence of what we do live, but polish it up a little bit."

One event that almost marred the recording sessions came when Hunt lost a part from the vintage Rickenbacher bass that gives Silver Scooter their urgent, New Order-influenced undertow. "I broke a string while we were playing at Hole in the Wall and this nut holding the tuning rig in place slid right off the back," Hunt recalls. "I didn't even know it was missing until later. We went back and looked for it, but we couldn't find it anywhere, so we had to get one made at a machine shop because they don't make bass guitars like that anymore.

"That's why we thank Able Machining on the back of the album. I recommend them highly."

Another conundrum faced the band when they found themselves with the precarious luxury of being able to choose a label for The Other Palm Springs. The band entertained offers from Crank!, an L.A.-based indie-punk label, and Peek-a-Boo, a small-but-spunky local label run by Travis Higdon out of his efficiency apartment.

"The guys in Mineral actually hooked us up with Jeff Matlow, who runs Crank!," says Garred. "We did a single with him and did a song for a compilation. Then he formally asked us to do some records for him.

"At the same time, Travis in response to Crank! was saying, `Y'know, I'm willing to take out a loan and put out a Silver Scooter record.' And the more we talked to Travis, the more that's kind of where our hearts were, but there was a time when we'd called Jeff and said we'd like to do it with Crank!"

Eventually, the band decided to go with Higdon and Peek-a-Boo simply because it was more of a handshake deal between music scene colleagues as opposed to a record contract requiring the services of a lawyer. "There was an issue of distribution with Crank!," says Hudson. "It's distributed by Epitaph, which is really big distribution, and Travis has just 10 or 12 independent distributors, so that was a tough decision. With Travis, we're going to have to work a little harder, but we decided we might feel more comfortable dealing with him rather than dealing with a guy clear over in California that we don't really know a lot about."

At this point, Hunt pops in with one more reason Silver Scooter went with Higdon. "We could all take him real easy," he laughs, "so if he starts fucking with us, we'll beat the shit out of him!"

Kidding aside, the trio quickly began to recognize the benefits of Higdon's skills as a cottage industrialist when they embarked on a 16-day, DIY-style tour earlier this year. The band managed to get shows every night they were out -- something of a feat for a relatively unknown band without the support of a booking agent. Moreover, they secured all the bookings without running up an insane long distance phone bill.

"I booked the tour through e-mail," says Garred. "Travis has a mailing list of all the people who've bought stuff from him, and he sent out a question asking if anyone would like to help Silver Scooter on tour. Then he got responses back and forwarded them all to me. I put a map on the wall, mapped them all out, and found out we had a concentration of responses on the East Coast, so that's where we decided to go. The people we e-mailed would tell the people they knew, so there were always people at the shows.

"I think because we did all the e-mailing, we went into a small fan base in every town we went to. I mean, we were in Racine, Wisconsin in the basement of a Lutheran church, and we were just getting done with our set when someone said, `Can you play "Cup and String"?'''

Despite the positive response they've received on the road (they plan to tour again in support of the new album next year), Silver Scooter believes their loyal-but-modest local audience is unlikely to expand. "I would doubt that our Austin fan base is growing," says Garred. "It could be, but we've probably reached our peak. I still think we'll only see a handful of familiar faces at our shows. I don't think we'll ever have a huge fan base in Austin."

Garred mentions Spoon and the recently disbanded Mineral as two other local acts that "don't get the respect they probably would in other cities." However, Silver Scooter stops short of blaming anyone for not being able to attract next-big-thing crowds. "I don't think it's the audience's fault," says Hudson. "It's just that when a band's local like that, who wants to go see 'em all the time? There are a lot of great bands here, and I don't go see them every time they play, but I would imagine someone from out of town would look at that and say, `Are you crazy? They're great!'"

Throngs or no throngs, Silver Scooter has no plans to curtail their local gig frequency. "It makes you think that you should treat it like you're an outside band and not play here more than once every four months, even if you are local," Garred says. "But it's fun."

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