Despite the fact that the creativity of Scott McCloud is basically associated with the 90’s, it started the long before Girls Against Boys. Prior to the formation of one of the cult band of the 90’s, Scott discovered punk-rock that led to the foundation of Soulside. Brutal and uncompromising hardcore-punk that literally became a point of entry for Girls Against Boys. Later on, three of four Soulside members had moved to New York and put out a series of records, uniting with their former producer – Eli Janney. Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, Cruise Yourself and House of GVSB became a significant part of the 90’s sound evolution.
Recently, Dischord Records put out Soulside’s newest single– “This Ship” that became band’s first release in 30 years. We spoke to Scott McCloud, about his hardcore roots and getting to playing with Soulside again, about growing up in the 70’s and songwriting, about feelings and writing approach, about the formation of Girls Against Boys and artistic identity.
Girls Against Boys were basically formed after Eli decided that he needed musicians to form the band itself. At that point, you, Johnny and Alexis came from Soulside and started playing as Girls Against Boys.
That’s actually not accurate about the formation of Girls Against Boys, it was really an evolution… so let me clarify. Girls Against Boys, before it even had a band name, was a studio project consisting of Eli [Janney], Brendan Canty and I sang on 2 songs. This was the late 80s. It was called a “studio project” because that meant creating the songs in a recording studio, track by track, rather than writing songs as a group, which was a new idea for us at the time. A few sessions were done resulting in 3 songs [Amy Pickering, from Fire Party also sang a song] and then Brendan soon departed to focus on Fugazi. Nothing was happening for a while. Soulside finished a monster European tour in 1989, after which time Eli and I decided to continue the project, and together wrote the basics of a few songs, which led to the recording of the 90’s side of the first EP “90’s vs 80’s” which both Johnny and Alexis from Soulside also played on. “Stay in the Car” etc…. Eli was basically a 5th member of Soulside as he’d engineered many of our records and toured with us doing live sound and we were very close friends. I moved to NYC in 1989 and the project was dormant for a while, until Eli organized the songs and self-released the “90’s vs. 80’s” EP. It was actually a mutual friend of ours Melody Kirshner, who suggested the band name to Eli. “Because that’s how it really is,” she apparently said. Even after the EP was independently released nothing happened for a while. Alexis, Johnny and I were playing in a band in NYC with Mike Fellows [from Rites of Spring] called Little Baby. But it was moving very slowly. I really liked the 90’s side of the Girls Against Boys EP especially, so eventually convinced Eli to move to NYC and join the three of us to make a real band out of it. At that time Eli was engineering albums with producer Ted Niceley [who would later produce 4 GVSB albums overall] and it took a little convincing to get him to move. Alexis and I secured a big loft rental in South Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and the real band started to come together around 1991-1992.
Recently, Dischord Records put out a 7-inch by Soulside titled “This Ship”. It was recorded in Prague during your last year tour. How did it feel to get back together, to get back to this project itself?
Yes, it was great to record again with Johnny and Alexis and Bobby as Soulside. Really, it’s something I didn’t see happening – not for any particular reasons – but it started by Johnny and Alexis sending some sound files, parts back and forth. Bobby had a lot of great lyrics. And it all came together. I hadn’t been playing that much electric-guitar. I do play. But I hadn’t done much of it for a while. So, it was great to just plug in and go a bit wild like we used to – with sonic noises and stuff like that. It’s really liberating, to do it again.
Following your words, you discovered the scene in D.C. at the age of 14-15. What it was like at that point and what impression did you get after being attracted by big rock shows of the 70’s and 80’s?
Growing up in the 70’s, I first started hearing rock music, maybe at 10 or 11…I had a paper route delivering the Washington Post. I used to deliver papers in the morning, and had a transistor radio. Before the sun came up, I’d go out with my papers, putting on the radio (DC101) and I could hear things like AC\DC, Foreigner, Ozzy Osbourne, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin…I mean, this music, that’s what formed the idea of rock-music to me. That’s what I thought rock-music was, superstars on the radio and in stadiums and the whole system of how it works didn’t make any sense to me, until I discovered – through Bobby [Sullivan] and some other friends in high school, this whole other world of local music that was happening in Washington D.C., which really blew my mind at that time. I was immediately converted to that. And it came over our lives because it was so powerful – to be able to… Even with limited amounts of knowledge in music, form a band and play your own music. In the D.C. scene – minimal music experience wasn’t a prohibition for making songs. You can make songs with just one chord. Who cares ? This is your expression. That was incredibly liberating. Just the idea, and also in terms of punk-rock community… I’ve always thought that independent music is first of all, simply music. Not a particular “sound” or style. Its music made independently. And shared independently. That discovery of an independent scene absolutely altered my life.
If we’d speak about Soul-side at that point. “Less Deep Inside Keeps” – incredible record of hardcore era, super fast, a bit provocative, following the legacy of such artists as The Bad Brains, Minor Threat and Scream. How can you describe that stage in your creativity, especially how it felt being a part of this movement ? What attracted you personally in punk-rock?
What I found amazing about these bands you’ve mentioned – I never saw Minor Threat. But I used to see Bad Brains and Scream. And a lot of these bands – it’s just the raw power, following Iggy Pop’s reference. It’s kind of raw power of expression, disassociation and some… I’d say aggression. But positive aggression. It was like finding your own place, your own creative zone to do something. I played the guitar and for me it was like: “I can do that too? I have enough skills to make chords and do that stuff?” and again, it was so powerful. One of the things about punk-rock is a lot of bands kind of sounded similar. Because they were vibing off one another. We were picking up ideas from them – each other – about how to do it. But at the same time, very quickly we started experimenting – I think, over the course of Soulside you can see that the songs and material on the albums changes quite a bit.
Yeah. And since you started Girls Against Boys, you changed your musical accents. In this sense “Tropic Of Scorpio” sounds like a reference to your punk-rock roots – I guess it’s one of these typical types of punk-records of that era. But starting with it you got to the constant improving of your style. And after a year presented “Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby” – completely different work. With completely different energetics. Does it have to do with your approach at that point or it was more about your evolution as individuals?
I think it’s approach. And I think it’s… we were young. It took a while for Soulside to evolve into “Trigger” and finally “Hot-Bodi Gram.” By the late 80s. For me, after that, moving into Girls Against Boys-type-of-sound really reflected just wanting a change. But it didn’t seem like a huge change. We were entering our mid 20’s, basically. GVSB was the idea of making a sound still noisy and satisfying this sort of positive aggression, but also leaning back a little bit and… It’s hard to describe the difference. It’s sort of natural evolution to say: “Ok! We’d to the similar thing, But…” – when we started doing Girls Against Boys, I remember at the beginning, we were touring around and Eli was pulling out a keyboard and I could almost hear people in the crowd groaning: “Oh my God! Keyboard! Crap!” – But we were really into things like Killing Joke that utilized some of these things, like a noisy keyboard. We were into Wax Trax! Records and some of the early industrial stuff. It felt like a natural evolution. Soulside was a very adventurous group. I think, Girls Against Boys was, too. We just started slowing our edge down focusing on a different aspects of things that turned us on in the music. But apart from the addition of distorted keyboards it doesn’t really feel, sonically, like a major shift to me.
After your formation, all the members of Girls Against Boys relocated to New York. Later on, you wrote “Come To New York” – Paramount Styles’ song that on the one hand criticizes musical industry of that era: “get famous, get dead famous” and on the other hand in the chorus you sing: “I could never know why… Lord it was a real cool time”. Was there a certain duality you, as artists faced with living there at that period of time, musically?
Yeah, I think that’s the great way to put it. You’re right. I moved to NYC right after Soulside split. And then it ended up Johnny and Alexis also relocated there, and finally Eli. A lot of Girls Against Boys songs are about… They’re about many things, but some of the terminology, and many of the songs, are actually about the simple experience of being in a band. The songs were about what we were doing, what we were living. At that time… In New York, I remember the East Village – clubs were all around. There was still a bit of the late 70’s nostalgia lingering in the air. And almost every night you could see bands, participating, meeting people. But there was also something big going on. To provide context. Labels were picking up tons of artists. It seemed like a gold rush in a way, in the post-Nirvana boom. And I was always both fascinated by that, the whole picture. And also – very skeptical. So some of the lyrics can come off sounding negative and like you said, but I hope there is also come caustic humor, as well. The Paramount Styles’ song “Come To New York” (which came much-much later) it’s both loving some memory but seeing things in a different way…Even myself. Things I might have been after, in those days, or wondering what, if any, meaning all of this had.
One of the best features that united all your records is the amazing dynamics you created within your arrangements. Whether these are noisy-guitars parts or combination of your guitar and Alexis’ drums. How did you approach your writing process?
Girls Against Boys has been a band for a while. So, the process has changed, somewhat, over time. In the beginning, there were some kind of great technological limitations, which I still think is a really good thing for cultivating a band’s sound. As the technology got more and more advanced in our recording and rehearsal sessions… there were positives and negatives, in my opinion. Once an idea is taped there is a sense that it’s harder to change or rework it. The creation can be rapid, but then the listening and reworking can feel time consuming and emotionally draining. The best thing in my opinion is to play new song ideas live before recording them, even before you are 100% sure what is going to happen. Because that can spark a bit of panic when a song is brand new and changing, live, and you don’t really know exactly where it’s going. This can create some great tension and atmosphere. We used to record ideas on a little boombox. Just like a cassette tape-machine. I used to take the cassettes, listen to them walking back home, or out at night in a bar. And a lot of these ideas were just jamming. There would be bits and pieces to pull out “This is good!” – to go back and we’d do it again but since we had no real playback, it still felt live and had potential to transform. The boombox actually had a really cool sound to it as well. Natural compression. Recording ideas on cassette tapes was a big part of at least “Venus Luxure”… I think technology does change the way music is made. How people create it and how people interact with it. How they consume it. So those early albums, I’d say Touch And Go-era stuff, was really about that. There was a lot of space, a lot of dynamic, a lot of excitement. Tension as well. Fear, anxiety, euphoria.
And sitting with the guitar in your arms, do you usually focus on some sort of reflection of your present and past or it’s all about being and improvising in the moment?
When I pick up the guitar, which is often, it’s all about the improvisation. It’s all about timing. Usually to me the thing that really turns me on is not really a sequence of chords, but instead the different intervals between notes, something that sounds a bit off, per se. Trying to come up with some sort of not-so-standard-intervals and then build on something going somewhere in between that in a song construct… It’s one of the ways I see it. And one of the things people used to criticize Girls Against Boys about is – it’s not like songs. As in “proper” songs. But our songs are as much songs as anyone else. They have parts. But they’re pretty noisy and they’re not following exactly standard popular music forms. And thats actually what I still like about them.
Just like Girls Against Boys did, you yourself, as guitarist created something on a verge of styles: “Superfire”, “Disco Six Six Six”, “Kill The Sexplayer”. But at the same time with all the harmony you had – within the band and as players, there was also a conflict presented within your music. So even after the signing to Geffen, the things you did didn’t sounds polished or different in any case. Can you say that this inner-musical conflict was a part of your punk-rock attitude?
I think it probably was. Not sure if I would have recognized that at that time. But looking back, it’s one of the great things about living ( laughs ). The ability of looking back – I think you’re right. I think, it was internalized, some sort of conflict that was like… I only feel happy presenting a conflict, not a proper pop song. The conflict was the interesting part.
I wouldn’t feel happy trying to write a Bon Jovi song like “Living On A Prayer” or something. I just wouldn’t find it interesting. Even though, a lot of people like that kind of thing… and I can appreciate the skill going into it. But I think what excited me about punk rock, and music in general, was imitations and positive aggression and the idea that making noise, which is somewhat non-commercial, can feel viable. And it’s hard to have that view and be on a major label, true.
Speaking about 90’s people usually say about how intense that period was for culture and music in particular. And I guess in this sense this intensity reflected on what you’ve been doing musically. While Paramount Styles is on the contrary – different. Your vocals have changed and musical accents as well. What has been moving you when you started putting this project together?
Interesting question. I agree with the part about the 90’s being a very interesting musical/cultural period. It absolutely was reflective in GVSB music. The post-Nirvana explosion in rock. But to cut ahead and answer; Paramount Styles started much later. After all that. I think I’ve always had a bit of a romantic feeling about music so probably I wanted to, in the end, find myself alone with some Gibson acoustic guitar trying to write songs in friends’ apartments. And that’s all it started as. Just a new challenge to say, well, why not try it? See if there is something behind all this. I think the Paramount Styles stuff speaks for itself. You kind of have to listen to it, to get it, it’s not easy to explain. It was basically a romantic idea of again ultimate limitations.
And while playing live, doesn’t it felt a little bit uncomfortable – to work within the different type of aesthetics, energetics and level of listeners’ involvement?
I think you mean playing acoustically, as with Paramount Styles vs GVSB? Actually, for me it’s not uncomfortable at all. Because again, for me, it’s not really that different of an experience as a performer. In fact, I really enjoy the feeling of playing more quiet music because one can hear the room, the space, you are playing in more easily. Loud volume music I also enjoy but its kind of blows away the room sometimes. Also, in a quieter setting we, the players, actually end up listening more to each other and playing off of what is happening rather than blasting through a set list. So… its a different but equally challenging situation.
With Girls Against Boys, your lyrics have always been abstract – “When you got. Nothing in the lemon. Yeah, when you got. Spiders on your ceiling…”. In comparison, it seems to me that starting Paramount Styles you changed your musical accents a little bit. Lyrically it became richer – with such songs as “Someone Else’s Playground”. Don’t you think that the change of musical accents reflected lyrically?
Yes, I think that’s true. The particular lyrics you mention (from “Super-fire”) came from very crude translations of French expressions. Basically, I asked French people to give me English translations for phrases about going crazy. So “nothing in the lemon, or spiders on the ceiling”, these words do have some meaning for French speaking people. And a lot of personal meaning to me. I’ve always liked abstract lyrics. Cut and paste. I mean everyone has done that: Bowie, all the others. William S Burroughs. Cutting up words and putting them in a hat and taking them out randomly to create a new meaning. This always appealed to me. But, I have to say, this doesn’t mean there is no emotional feeling to the words. Abstract lyrics, non-sequiturs, etc… This was just a way to avoid clichéd emotional content. Its also true, I think, that a song like “Someone Else’s Playground” feels less abstract to me. It’s simply a song about getting older and the realization that the world no longer revolves around you, as ever younger people are taking over. And I mean that in a good way. It’s like watching my kids outgrow playgrounds. I find that interesting.
A few years prior – in 2002, Girls Against Boys put out “You Can’t Fight What You Can’t See” that took your rock-n-roll basics and united it with punk-rock-type-of-attitude. What was the process of your work in this record and how it felt for you to get back to being independent after you’d already passed a major-label-band-stage?
To provide some context, after the Universal merger in 1998 (and after “Freakonica”) GVSB basically found ourselves without a real record label and yet still contractually stuck in the Universal cosmos. It was basically a worst-case scenario. Geffen was gone, for a while, and the only thought was maybe Interscope (part of Universal) would pick us up. Even though we had a 3-album deal with Geffen, that didn’t matter after the company basically collapsed in the merger. We had been making, rehearsing and planning, the songs which would end up being on this last album, for awhile. But, it was not an easy situation. In the end we were very happy to find Jade Tree willing to release this LP. (Its now available via Epitaph) But still, even as I think there are great songs on it, for reasons around this chaos it’s not a favorite effort. The hardest thing for a band is to last a very long time, to weather the changes in the world and remain relevant, especially as friends, and it felt like the time for GVSB has passed a bit… I mean, its a loaded conversation. “You Can’t Fight” is a good record. As my own worst critic, I sometimes dismiss these later albums and that’s sort of silly. All of it is still a history of a band, and the songs reflect what happened and what was happening in our band.
“The Ghost List” EP came our 11 years after becoming your last released work up to the present day. But it seems like nothing has changed for you. Of course, as artists you all evolved. But at the same time, your music sounds as truthful as it was. How does it feel for you to get back together – each time after a certain pause?
You know, I’ll make this one short. It’s not easy to reform bands and do things again and make it something further, or something more than it was. I like this EP a lot, my only complaint (again as my own worst critic) would be that it actually sounds too much like we always used to sound. Yet, to remain interesting, even to ourselves, one has to dig a little deeper? If we ever did anything again, I would prefer that it was almost completely different from anything we’ve ever done before. It’s like, as a musician, there is a limit to the positions your hands can make on the guitar that are the same as always before? You kind of have to explode it.
Once you said a very interesting thing I want to touch upon right now. The idea was that after finding your own inner voice you can also loose it easily. You got back together with Soulside, you got back with Girls Against Boys, in the late 90’s you co-founded New Wet Kojak – the same with Paramount Styles, your recent project. And all these things had been happening within the major changes in your life: you got signed to a major label, the band went on hiatus, you moved to Europe etc. What helped you not to lose your distinct recognizable voice once you found it?
Not sure where I said that but I still agree with it. If one thinks about any musical experiment as a potential to say something from deep within oneself then the question is when do you feel comfortable enough to do that? Is it a matter of age? Circumstance? Looks? Money? For me, there was a period in the mid-90s when everything seemed to flow very easily from conception to realization. A song like “The Kinda Mzk You Like” didn’t feel anything like a pretense, it felt, and still feels, like exactly who I was at that moment. When I am talking about “voice” I don’t really mean your actual physical voice or singing ability, but more a period of time where you are willing to take the ultimate risks to reveal, even if only a little, who you actually are? And this is something that takes a lot of factors to make real. You must feel comfortable, or at least comfortable enough to dare. To dare to even try to really articulate what is on your mind. Facebook and social media ask us this same question every time we log in: “What’s on your mind?” It’s a simple question, but what is on your mind, really? In music, that really means daring to say things, to give voice to things, which are still in progress. Tension in ones own thoughts. I’ve “lost” my voice, or a feeling of being able to do that, many times. But it comes back. That’s also just music and art and again, thinking, planning, and eventually daring. To do it. Something. Something which might actually reveal what is really inside of you.