The Scientists

Swampland Soirée:
The Scientists Dig It Up and Revel In It

“The Scientists were fueled on negative energy – a negative sort of group. A bit like the Stooges, the way the group worked is very similar. There’s not many groups that have worked that way, and I think the result is intense energy.”

That’s Kim Salmon speaking, and the co-founder/frontman of Australia’s skronky/swampy/fetid/feral Scientists pretty much nailed it, as American fans are also primed to learn this month when the band hits our shores for what is, amazingly, only their second U.S. tour despite having a legacy that stretches back to the late ’70s. Interestingly enough, though, the above quote isn’t contemporaneous. Rather, it was plucked from an interview I published nearly three decades ago, in Philly rock zine The Bob, for whom I authored a regular column on Australian music, titled, appropriately enough, “The Wizards of Oz,” and which featured the Scientists and Salmon’s subsequent bands pretty much every time they emerged from a recording studio or embarked upon a tour.

Yet Salmon’s words ring truer than ever in 2019, as anyone who saw the group – Salmon, guitar/vocals; Tony Thewlis, guitar; Boris Sujdovic, bass; and Leanne Cowie, drums – on their much-belated initial American tour in the fall of 2018 will attest. There’s plenty of YouTube evidence from that U.S. sojourn as well, from the nihilistic sonic pipe bomb of “Set It On Fire” (originally appearing on 1983’s Blood Red River) and the dirty slapback punk of “Braindead” (the group’s recent 7” single for In The Red); to the dirty, Suicide-like mutant blues that is 1985’s “Murderess In A Purple Dress” and the group’s stone classic, “Swampland,” a throbbing slice of, yes, swampy glam that somehow manages to quote Sonic Youth, the Stooges, and T. Rex all in the same arrangement. The latter tune in particular is a force of nature, powered by Sujdovic’s relentless one-note bassline, Cowie’s equally hypnotic syncopated thump, Thewlis’ extemporaneous riffing, and Salmon’s dissonant-twang responses plus yipping/howling vocals.

Not bad for a group that was deemed counted out and down for the count in 1987, when Salmon, exhausted by the legal and label troubles they’d endured since relocating from Australia to London three years earlier, decided to pull the plug. He’d been helming the band since its Flamin’ Groovies/New York Dolls-esque early incarnation circa 1978-80 and through myriad lineup changes that would eventually see the arrival of Thewlis, Sujdovic, and late drummer Brett Rixon, considered by most to be the Scientists’ classic lineup; a subsequent embrace of a darker, swampier, noisier vibe heavily influenced by the aforementioned Suicide and Stooges alongside the Cramps and the Gun Club; and the London move, which found them touring with the Gun Club as well as the Sisters of Mercy and Siouxsie & the Banshees, but never truly providing the musicians much more than a just-scraping-by level of income. And despite a growing American fanbase, a general level of disorganization for the Scientists meant that a theoretically lucrative tour of the States was never really an option. Meanwhile, their Australian fanbase had gradually withered during their protracted absence from their homeland.

Salmon, on the eve of the band’s 2019 tour and reflecting on that dark period now, explains, “I think our leaving Australia early 1984 was the problem. Out of sight, out of mind! Especially with all our hassles keeping us from making a big successful splash in the UK. It really was a case of too many things going wrong for us. We had loads of record company and touring interest, and despite some detractors, a lot of UK press. Rixon leaving [in 1985, to be replaced by Philip Hertz, followed by Cowie, née Chock] was the first problem; then we had a huge row with our Australian record label, and it was impossible to move.

“We had based ourselves in London from 1984. Just being around and surviving in order to try to capitalize on what was being handed to us took all our energy. We couldn’t just serve anything up. We needed authenticity, and we were acutely aware of that, and what’s more, weren’t interested in being something else anyway. In 1986 Boris had visa problems and had to leave. We replaced him, but it never was as good without him and actually became a drain. We managed to revitalize things very briefly with a complete change of members—me switching to bass and going three-piece with a friend of mine. It was Tony, Nick Combe on drums, and me. We recorded [1987’s] The Human Jukebox before disintegrating in a blaze of anarchy. That lineup was never going to last. It was actually more self-destructive than the ‘classic’ lineup.

“Plus, our legal problems were a huge drain and refused to go away. I ended up back in Perth with a very heavy heart, and only by moving on with [post-Scientists bands] the Surrealists and the Beasts of Bourbon was I able to feel any kind of lightness in my life. The only thing that would have worked would be for the legal stuff to be lifted and being given lots of money to function and record and live off. That just wasn’t going to happen back then.”

Still, like elephants, rock fans have a unique ability to never forget. And somehow, over the years the Scientists had cultivated a core following that included far more prominent personalities than just yours truly and my fellow fanzine scribes; think Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Indeed, several Scientists reunions at the behest of their acolytes –2006 for the Mudhoney-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival in London, the following year’s ATP festival, a few Australian dates in 2008 with Sonic Youth, and appearances at ATP’s “Don’t Look Back” series in 2008 and 2010 – suggested that the Scientists’ beaker was still very much capable of boiling over.

For his part, Salmon admits he could sense that the band still had a potentially viable fanbase ready to embrace them.

“I was partially prepared for a number of reasons – I had known that there was interest in the band from people like Jon Spencer and Mudhoney. I had management in the U.S. for a while from 1995, and toured in 1996 with the Surrealists. That’s when I realized that there was a considerable cult following all ‘round the country.”

He’s quick to qualify that observation, though, noting, “With the Scientists’ absence over such a long period, I was prepared for the mythology that had grown around us to perhaps not match the reality. I was always mindful that people might think they were getting more – or less – than they’d bargained for. But I’ve always been confident that the Scientists are actually more than people tend to expect. It’s more complex and extreme in the flesh. And many of the Australian bands that we’ve been lumped in with, we feel nothing in common with, as these were bands that fitted neatly into a garage rock sub-genre. I think the main thing that set us apart from a lot of our peers was our intention to be unique.”

Salmon’s not shy, either, about detailing what his fellow bandmembers bring to the table in order to make the Scientists a unique proposition in 2019:

“I’ve been playing alongside Boris more than [any] other player. Although the band is essentially a democracy, Boris and I tend to work together and determine our strategies with regards to touring, presentation, recording. He is the minimalist drive within the band. It was him that reduced ‘Swampland’ to a pulsing one-note bass riff for the most part. His playing is deceptively basic sounding. No one has ever replicated the nuances that make what he does the very core of the Scientists.

“Tony is a totally unique guitarist. Incredibly proficient, but completely unschooled. There is not another player remotely like him. The irony is that one feels he’d be happy to replicate the stuff that he loves and isn’t that aware of how much better he is doing his own thing, good as he is at replicating. He used to be a crazy whirling dervish on stage and was often the visual focus of the band. These days, his crazy energy is focused more specifically on his sounds and less visual, though he does exude charisma nonetheless. I think his creative input is almost as a foil to mine. He claims to have gotten many George Harrison, Slade, and Glitter Band licks past my ears unnoticed. Like the Sex Pistols, for instance: Jones simplified Matlock’s pop complexities into a hard rock slab, while Rotten’s highly content-driven lyrics completely subverted the band from sounding far more pedestrian, like Free or something.

“And Leanne is our link to what Brett Rixon did. The rhythm was what made Scientists Mach 2 different from every other postpunk band around. When Brett left the band in 1985, we tried numerous drummers, all of them very proficient and capable of making a big contribution to the band. However, we simply weren’t able to bring on the ‘chemistry’ with any of them and we ended up getting Leanne, our tour manager [at the time], into the band, as she had recently bought Brett’s kit and taught herself the drums entirely from his recordings and having watched him. Her first gig was at the Barrowlands Ballroom in Glasgow, when we supported Siouxsie & The Banshees on their ’85 UK tour. By the end of the tour she had mastered the groove, albeit in a streamlined way. The chemistry was restored. This kind of tenacity cannot be bought or even found very often.

“I think we’re a classic case of one of those bands where each member tries to destroy the initial idea with their stamp, without realizing that this destructive energy is the creative force of the band.”

He adds that while’s he’s concentrating intensely on the Scientists now, he’s not shelving solo work altogether, and has a 7” single he plans to release in November to coincide with a biography about him that’s being published. He also plans to do selected solo shows when opportunities arise. (Worth additional note: Last year Salmon found time to reconnect with Tex Perkins and assorted Beasts of Bourbon alumni to cut a new album, Still Here, as The Beasts, which was released by Bang! in February.)

Ultimately, the Scientists have been an ongoing entity once again since the tail end of 2017 and not simply a vehicle for one-off festival performances. While 2016 saw the release of Numero Group’s superb career-summarizing Scientists box set, A Place Called Bad – newcomers to the gospel can also consult Sub Pop’s easily found 1991 compilation CD, Absolute, which distilled the group’s essential mid ’80s output – the group has also issued new singles on both In The Red and Spain’s Bang! label, and a 12” EP of new material is due soon from In The Red. So, do things feel different for Salmon this time around?

“I think it’s been a matter of unearthing the unique elements of what the band was back in the day without necessarily trying to replicate ‘the day,’” he says, emphatically. “For the new EP, I’ve done my best to stay true to what the Scientists are while still trying to push its boundaries. It’s a line to walk. The trick, I think, is not to worry too much about ‘the formula,’ but to allow the uniqueness of the band members to show through.

“Things’ll never be the same, but we seem to have gotten closer to the core of what the Scientists was. It was always hard to locate, but we seem to be digging it up and reveling in it.”

Photo by Denée Segall.