From punky garage pop to swampy psychotic blues and primal electro noise, Perth post punk legends The Scientists have proven themselves to be one of Australia’s most influential and innovative bands ever. This Friday, October 27, the classic 1985 lineup of Kim Salmon, Boris Sujdovic, Tony Thewlis and Leanne Chock play the Rosemount Hotel, touring Australia together for the first time since 2007 They’ve also put out their first new music in 30 years – a double A-side single featuring Mini Mini Mini, a cover of 60s French icon Jacques Dutronc’s track, and a re-working of their own ’81 tune Perpetual Motion – to coincide. Via a crackly phone line from Sydney, ZACK YUSOF caught up with head Scientist Kim Salmon to run the rule over his amazing career, trying and ultimately failing not to mention the dreaded “grunge” word during the course of the conversation.
Four decades into their career and The Scientists’ sonic legacy remains unsurpassed in Australian rock, having inspired local guitar noise aficionados, Brit post-punkers, lower east side New York No Wave hipsters and Seattle’s flannel-shirted rockers to take notes and follow suit.
So many bands and trends have come and gone but almost four decades in and The Scientists are still going strong. How have you guys managed to last so long?
Well, we haven’t really played together that much; we haven’t been together for the whole four decades so that’s part of it. We’ve had a few reformations with a few different lineups over the years – not that many – but that has helped. The thing about it is that I think we hit on something with the music that we had. The music still speaks to me now. Whenever we revisit it, I always think, “wow, this is pretty good!” It says things (that) other vehicles don’t say for me and I think the honesty of it is what makes it work.
Today the local alternative music scene here in Perth is in a pretty healthy state with plenty of great local acts doing the business domestically and abroad. What was the Perth scene like back in your day and what was it like to be in a noisy punk band back then in the late 70s?
Well, it (punk rock) wasn’t in line with the times of Perth back then, that’s for sure. To give you a bit of background, in 1975/76 when I first got interested in that kind of music, what was going on, what was cool in Perth, was this kind of hipster blues thing which people probably don’t even know about now (laughs). There were bands doing this kind of authentic blues, not like the hippy blues scene from the UK from the late 60s, just bands trying to do really authentic Chicago blues. There were bands playing ragtime blues, others trying to do Chicago blues, a Chess Records kind of thing – a lot of that – and it really was kind of ultra cool and what the uni students were going to. But me and my friends found that kind of … well, we sort of liked it but playing the blues in Perth, you know? It didn’t seem quite right. Also, that scene was quite a bit older than us and we wanted something of our own.
When the punk thing happened, me and a few mates kinda started up some bands. There was The Cheap Nasties and The Victims. It took quite a while to catch on and it was well into 1977 before there was any kind of punk scene in Perth. And then, it really took its lead from the UK. I had The Cheap Nasties and that broke up and then I joined another band and that transmuted into The Scientists and by then, it was 1978. I think around then when there was a scene, it took its lead from the UK press pretty much but we didn’t. Back then, in the early days, we were doing a kinda pop-slash-punk thing which… we weren’t in line with the times, as I said before. That sort of pop thing which Perth is renowned for was sort of later and it’s a legacy that The Scientists can lay some claim to because I know that bands like The Stems were definitely looking back to that type of thing. It was in Sydney that things really started happening for me. It was the second line up of The Scientists and it was a different thing yet again.
That’s right. The band eventually moved away from Perth in the early 80s. What prompted you guys to leave Western Australia in the end?
Round about 1979, 1980, we actually trekked over to Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney and we found that there was a lot of interest in us and we thought, “wow, this is great!” Then we came back to Perth and nobody gave a toss about us. We lost a member and became a three-piece band. Musically, we were going ahead but the crowds were dwindling and the interest for us just wasn’t there. One day, Ian and James (early members Ian Sharples and James Baker, on bass and drums respectively) came round my house and said,”we can’t do it anymore” and that the end of the band. We recorded an album posthumously called The Pink Album and that was it. Around mid ’81, I was approached by Boris (drummer Boris Sujdovic), who said that because there were so many bands in Sydney who sounded like The Scientists, maybe we should reform over there and we’d do a bomb. So I went over with Boris, asked James Baker if he wanted to join because he’d just moved to Sydney but he’d just joined the Hoodoo Gurus who were just beginning, so I got Bret Rixon to come along on drums and we hooked up with Tony Thewlis who was a fan of The Scientists. He thought he was joining a pop band! When we were in Sydney, James used to write the lyrics for me in the early days. When you write the lyrics, it pretty much dictates the way the music comes. When I started writing, I wrote about things happening in my life and it was a bit more dark and primitive.
So the music started changing…
Yeah. Tony thought he was joining this power pop band so his playing was almost like a reaction to this brutal music, which ended up makin it even more so! (laughs)
Then the band ended up splitting its time between Sydney and London…
Yeah. We had to move to keep the band happy. Brett was kind of essential to me as a writer. I needed a drummer like him who could play the beats that I wanted and he could make it work. Well, he was getting frustrated and jaded quite quickly and he was going to leave unless we relocated or did something really exciting so we went to London. We found an agency, we got on a touring circuit into Europe, got on a few festivals. We also hooked up with The Gun Club and toured the UK, got a bit of press… Things sort of happened really quickly for us. What I remember is that everything seemed to just fall into place.
Last year, the prestigious Chicago label Numero Group released a compilation of your recorded catalogue entitled A Place Called Bad. How did that reissue come about and how do feel about it when you listen back to your back catalogue?
Well, it’s good because I pretty much let them have a free rein as to how they put it together. They talked to whoever they liked, friend or foe, I didn’t care. I said to them, “you’re telling the story now” because there had been a few compilations out over the years. I drove the Citadel one which got released on the Sympathy For The Record Industry label. I had a major hand in that reissue and that was back in 2000. I put my spin on it and done it the way I thought it should have been done. With this one, I thought it was alright for them do an extensive reissue. I heard that they were a reputable label who would do a great job of it. What they did was a bit different to my story but it just shows that it (the band) has a life of its own. It’s out there and it has gotten bigger than us. History’s a funny thing but we’re happy about it.
How do you feel about being known as ‘the ultimate cult band’? That term could be a little backhanded but it seems to be bandied around a lot whenever people mention The Scientists…
Well, it’s got its baggage hasn’t it, because being a cult band means that you don’t get to become a major band. It’s a bit of a box but you’ve got to play the cards you’ve been dealt. If that’s what I’ve been handed then that’s what I’m playing.
The Scientists may have been a cult concern but there has been no shortage of really cool people dropping your name over the years – Thurston Moore, Jon Spencer… the list is long and impressive. Does this sort of thing give you guys a sense of validation?
Nah, hate it mate! (laughs) Of course we like it!
You’ve even been held responsible for inspiring grunge…
When all that started occurring… I got an email from Tony – I never see him because he’s over in London – saying, “what’s all this about us inventing grunge? I don’t want the Foo Fighters on my tombstone!” (laughs) That was funny.
You guys are returning to Australian stages in your classic 1985 configuration this month for a set of exclusive shows in a handful of cities, including a hometown show here in Perth and another one in your adopted hometown of Sydney. How excited are you guys about going out on the road for these shows and what kind of show can we expect from you guys?
We’re going to mix things up. It won’t just be Blood Red River, you know? There’s a song called Perpetual Motion for instance that was written between the first and second line up, sort of when we were finding our feet but in that darker, more primitive realm. We’re also going to revisit a Captain Beefheart cover that we did. There will be some of the 1986 type things, a couple of numbers off Human Jukebox maybe, some off Atom Bomb Baby. We’ll also be doing Mini Mini Mini, our Jacques Dutronc cover, a 60s thing. Because we were minimalist, we thought that song might be appropriate. It will be true to what we were. We are not going to reinvent ourselves. We are the same band.