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On the surface, Silver Scooter, an obscure band from Austin, Texas, is little more than a trio of geeky Caucasians squeezing punk pop from a guitar-bass-drums lineup. But although such groups are as easy to slag as generic cigarettes, the archetype obviously has a deep-seated appeal: After all, the roster at this year's South by Southwest Music Conference, an Austin-based gathering that's touted as the music biz's most important, was dense with acts that met this description. Silver Scooter, which was part of the SXSW bill, separates itself from the pack as much as any card-carrying member of the crowded genre truly can by ably purveying slightly romantic, somewhat cynical rock euphony. But according to drummer Tom Hudson, the other distinctions between his band and its musical cousins are almost impossible to quantify.
"I think that lies in the hands of the music enthusiast who likes us," he says. "But we're going to do what we're doing, regardless--even if we sound exactly like some other band. I don't know what I'd do differently. There are thousands of fans of music who go, 'Yeah, it's three or four white guys with guitars and stuff playing that type of music, and I don't like their music--but I like this other band's, and I can't tell you why that is.' There are little hidden characteristics that people can't put words to..."
Such qualities aren't always latent, especially when Silver Scooter is involved. A single listen to the act's debut long player, The Other Palm Springs, will sear several melodies into one's brain. The hooks are so heavy, in fact, that they frequently inspire endless rounds of Name That Riff. The game of figuring out the original sources of Silver Scooter's sounds is one with which singer/guitarist Scott Garred is quite familiar. "We get a lot of that," he concedes. "Sometimes it's flattering, but oftentimes, I've never heard of the bands they're talking about."
Bassist John Hunt agrees. "Somebody compared us to Number One Cup, and I only heard them just recently."
Other touchstones are less puzzling. "Tom's drumming gets compared to the Feelies and a few other Eighties bands, like the Fall," Garred reports. "And John, for his bass playing, gets a lot of New Order comparisons, which is appropriate, since that's all we listen to when he's driving the van."
Other Hunt favorites include Buffalo Tom, Dinosaur Jr, Sebadoh and Dumptruck--the very groups you'd expect a Boston transplant like him to prize. Likewise, Garred and Hudson are drawn to the acts they listened to while coming of age in the Pacific Northwest. In addition to Mudhoney, Screaming Trees and Soundgarden, Garred admits to a great fondness for grunge's patron saint: "I grew up really loving Neil Young and whatever singer-songwriters were sitting at home doing it themselves."
The bandmates, who got together shortly after converging on Austin three years ago, started out writing what Hudson calls "some stellar pop songs." Shortly thereafter, they were wooed by Crank!, a Los Angeles label that has a plum distribution deal with Epitaph Records. But the performers eventually decided to cast their lot with Peek-A-Boo, a tiny Austin firm run by one Travis Higdon. "Our gut feeling and our hearts all told us to go with Travis, because he was a friend and he had been there from the very beginning and was willing to take out a personal loan to put the album out," Garred says. "We knew we would have to work hard, but we really love the sense of pride that we get from doing it all ourselves like this. One day Peek-A-Boo will have the distribution that we turned down with Crank!, and it's nice to know that we are going to be one of the reasons why Peek-A-Boo finally gets the distribution it deserves."
Hudson echoes Garred's fervor: "That we get to work for it is what I look at as a reward. I don't know if I learned that from my dad or what, but when you put a lot of work into something and then it actually works out--like our first tour, which we booked through e-mail--you get done and you're like, 'Wow, we did that all on our own.'"
Of course, this approach is not without its drawbacks, as the musicians learned during their first two tours, which were set up using Peek-A-Boo's mailing list, the Internet and a taped-up map of the country. Label head Higdon asked anyone who had purchased Scooterabilia if they would host or otherwise help the group during its jaunt; he then forwarded the responses to Garred, who decided on a route based on the geographical concentrations of fans. The resulting itinerary led the band down a crooked path of curious one-night stands at dive bars, house parties, church basements and the like--and the job of making sure that none of them fell through never seemed to be done. "It took about an hour of my day, every day, just to respond to people, to check up on other people and to make sure things were going okay," Hudson notes. "Getting from someone committing to 'Yeah, I'd love to have you play in my town; I'll set it up' to actually getting a show confirmation--that's hours of the day on e-mail. And you don't know anything about these people. You only know their personalities through e-mail, and, as you know, that can be highly misleading. We went to some towns and played with some bands that we had no business playing with."