Toe-sucking geek rock

When I was a degenerate college dropout in the mid-’90s — working in a laundromat, sustaining my body with frozen pizza and bad beer (the latter acquired via my roommate’s older brother’s driver’s license) — I was listening to a lot of music, probably with more attention and with more openness than I have before or since.

Billie Holiday, Dick Dale, Doc Watson, Iggy Pop and Robert Johnson were always blasting from the stereo, forming the regular soundtrack for our four-room, four-roommate duplex in Carrboro, just outside of Chapel Hill. But at the top of our play list, probably getting more mileage on the CD player than anything else, was Dirt Track Date, the 1995 release from North Carolina rockers Southern Culture on the Skids.

A phone call to SCOTS front man Rick Miller helped explain why Dirt Road Track fit so seamlessly with that varied mix of musical legends. SCOTS blossomed out of a similar barrage of seminal performers to create a sound as authentic as that of any of those luminaries who came before.

Miller grew up in the Piedmont town of Henderson — tobacco country — where he was exposed, early on, to a wide variety of American music.

“When I was really little, we only had an AM radio station in Henderson,” he explains. “And because half the town was white [and] half the town was black, [the station] had to satisfy both audiences. So, man, I was lucky enough to have a radio station that would play anything from the Beatles to Booker T. and the MGs to Aretha Franklin to Buck Owens. I remember loving it all.

“I never really got into one music that I thought, oh, this is my music,” he adds. “Plus, I got to see at an early age where all this stuff kinda crossed over into one another.”

Miller’s extraordinary informal musical education continued when, as a teenager in the late 1970s, he moved to California with his mother. There he acquired a taste for surf music.

“Then punk rock hit,” Miller recalls, his thoughts fragmenting in the face of his continued awe at the immensity of that musical moment in 1977:

“I never had … music has never been so … you know what I mean?… It’s like, wow! … You were there.”

And still, what Miller calls the “cross-cultural cross-pollination” of music in his life continued, as when he saw Ray Campi & the Rockabilly Rebels open for The Clash on the latter group’s first U.S. tour.

“That’s when I decided to start a band, you know?”

Miller later returned east to study art at UNC-Chapel Hill, where the first of several incarnations of Southern Culture on the Skids was born.

Miller, by then well acquainted with the ramen-noodle-dominated diet of working artists, confesses that he never felt he had any choice except to play music professionally.

“It never occurred to me that there was any other way to live,” he adds, “because I was doing what I wanted.”

And though Southern Culture on the Skids was born on the UNC-CH campus, Miller says he’s never felt that SCOTS was defined by the regional music scene. From the very beginning, his band wore its Southern-fried influences openly in a scene then dominated by fratty bands like The Connells and Dillon Fence — and now known as one of the epicenters of indie rock “college” music.

“The music that the South is steeped in is jazz and blues, country, hillbilly, race records, all that stuff, you know what I mean?” Miller asks. “And it’s raw, and it’s primitive. It’s got a sense of humor. Songs about eating and screwing, stuff like that. Which isn’t on the higher level or higher plane that a lot of these stuffy academics wanted to hear in their rock ‘n’ roll.”

“We’re saying, hey, this is what it’s all about, and it never got any better,” continues Miller. “To me, it was all about really loud drums and loud, raunchy guitar.”

Miller isn’t much interested in music that, he says, “doesn’t have that pulse — it doesn’t make you want to dance; it doesn’t make your libido sort of exercise itself, you know? Which I think good music should. Somewhere there should be the potential for loss of control.”

So what has SCOTS — which now includes Mary Huff (bass, vocals), Dave Hartman (drums) and Chris Bess (keyboards) — assembled out of all that history of blues, country, jazz, honky-tonk, rockabilly, surf music and punk?

“We call it toe-sucking geek rock,” declares Miller. “It’s a little weird, but it feels really good.”

The band’s most recent release, Gigantes de Pop, a recording of a late-1997 show at the El Sol in Madrid, Spain, is available through SCOTS’ Web site, and it makes for an excellent introduction to their music.

Despite the fact that the El Sol audience’s grasp of English was limited to “We want chicken!” (poultry joining sex and drinking as recurring themes in SCOTS songs, and buckets of the Colonel’s secret recipe making frequent appearances in the band’s stage show), and Miller’s Spanish didn’t stretch beyond “!pollo frito!”, the music transcends linguistic barriers. And in the end, everybody rocks out.

(The CD also features an appearance by Santo the Luchador — who, Miller teases, may indeed appear at the band’s upcoming Asheville show, if the Mexican masked man’s spirit manifests itself in the appropriate audience member.)

So if you find you’ve abandoned guitars for synthesizers, if you’re memorizing lyrics born on a computer screen instead of a bar napkin, if you’re not smiling when you sing along to songs anymore, if you’ve lost your way through the record store, then consider Southern Culture on the Skids’ arrival in Asheville a chance to get back on your musical tracks.

For as Miller assured his slightly confused audience in Madrid: “It don’t matter, it don’t matter. You’ll know what it’s all about when you hear this song.”

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