Friends of the Devil
What's in a name? According to Scott Pilgrim, guitarist for Portland, Oregon's favorite surf instrumentalists, Satan's Pilgrims, damned near everything. "When people hear the name 'Satan's Pilgrims' the first time around, they usually assume we're some kind of punk or heavy-metal band," he explains. "They honestly don't know what to think about it. In some ways, it has kind of hindered us. If we had gone with something like 'the Surf Guys' or whatever, it would have been easier for people to comprehend what we're about. But five albums later, I think it's a little late to change it to something else."
Nor should they. To date, the moniker has served Scott and his musical brethren, Dave, John and Teddy Pilgrim, quite well. Over the past seven years, the band has released no fewer than five dashing LPs, as well as a gymnasium-ful of singles and compilation tracks on such revered garage-rock labels as Estrus, eMpTy, Dionysus and K. They've shared stages with everybody from Man...or Astro-Man? and the Bomboras to Dick Dale, and, thanks to a new contract with Pennsylvania's MuSick Recordings, they will be touring Europe for the first time this fall. The band has even managed to use its ghoulish misnomer to its advantage a time or two. Last year, for example, the Pilgrims' creeper "Gravewalk" turned up on UNI/Geffen's Halloween Hootenany compilation, a disc that featured songs by such infamous musical spooks as Rob Zombie and the Ghastly Ones.
Still, those looking for similar chills from Satan's Pilgrims, the combo's shiny new long-player on MuSick, will have to look elsewhere, as there's nary a tombstone or shrunken head to be found within the album's fifteen stellar cuts. Rather, Pilgrims is a straight-up surf epic that owes more to the early pioneers of the genre--the Surfaris, the Chantays--than the Cramps and their campy offspring. The act's twang-charged rocket rides ("Badge of Honor," "Tears & Gears," "All Day Party [All Night Party])" blend seamlessly with the album's two cover tunes, Sandy Nelson's "Casbah," and the Ventures' "Hungarian Dance No. 5 (by Johannes Brahms)," while "Muthafuzz," a thumping fistful of brass and crusty fuzz, ably captures the garage-sludge feel of early Pacwest rockers like the Sonics and the Wailers. These bands, Scott notes, helped shape the Pilgrims' vintage sound every bit as much as, if not more than, many of their California-based ancestors.
"I think we're all definitely influenced by what was happening in this area back in the Fifties and Sixties," he reveals. "I mean, the Ventures are from the Portland and Tacoma area. And so were the Wailers and the Sonics and the Viceroys and the Kingsmen. Paul Revere and the Raiders started out here. So it was kind of hard for us not to lean in that direction, especially early on."
The guitarist is also quick to point out his allegiance to instrumental giants like Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Henry Mancini. But, Scott says, it was the live sounds of trash-rock vanguards Untamed Youth and the Phantom Surfers that first motivated him and his fellow players to form their own outfit. As he puts it, "we were all roommates in the same house at that time, and we were all doing our own thing. Teddy and I were in Crackerbash, and the other guys were in their own bands. One night we went to see those guys play, and we were all totally blown away. I had heard a lot of surf records, but I had never seen it played live like that, with the Fender reverb tanks and everything. It was sort of dark and mysterious--it just kind of drew me in.
"I'll definitely pay homage to those guys," he adds. "They were the ones who inspired us to do the whole thing in the first place."
Soon after, the boys started devoting their Sundays to the project, plucking out covers in their basement and playing the occasional house party. With some arm-twisting, they joined the Portland club circuit, performing under the tag Satan's Sadists, a name they lifted from an obscure, C-grade biker film. They later revised it to Satan's Pilgrims ("We wanted to be our own biker gang," Scott quips) and began donning Dracula-style capes in honor of the event. The band has since traded the costume-shop props for matching shirts and trousers, but Scott admits that in the beginning the garments helped add a certain element of campiness to their shows. "We kind of wanted to have our own look at that point," he remembers. "I think that was inspired a little by the Count Five. If you look at the back cover of their Psychotic Reaction record, they all had matching capes. There's been cape bands before. And I'm sure there'll be cape bands again."
The look, not to mention the music, certainly captured the attention of Dave Crider of Estrus Records. After catching their shtick at a local dive, he asked the Pilgrims to make an appearance at Garage Shock, Bellingham, Washington's now-mythic garage-punk festival, and offered to back their first seven-inch. As Scott puts it, "It's been a seven-year ride ever since."
In 1995, the Pilgrims followed up their debut with back-to-back albums, Estrus's Soul Pilgrim and eMpTy's At Home With Satan's Pilgrims. Two years later, the group's third full-length, Around the World With Satan's Pilgrims, hit stores. Sporting a handful of Pilgrims originals, as well as creative takes on Davie Allan's "The Fountain" and the Ree Gents' "Downshiftin'," Around the World was a stellar piece of instrumental magic for the reverb-impaired. Unfortunately, it was also one of roughly three billion pseudo-surf offerings to break in 1997, a year the aforementioned Phantom Surfers affectionately dubbed "the great surf crash of 1997" on an album of the same title. As a result, the platter went largely ignored. Needless to say, Scott wasn't entirely pleased with that less-than-monumental period in rock history. "I love playing the music," he confesses, "but to tell you the truth, I don't listen to as many of the new bands as I should. There's probably 95 percent of it that I don't pay attention to at all. I don't know, maybe they feel the same way about us. Maybe that's why we don't sell more records. But I just feel like we're more on the right track than they are."
Time will tell. Thus far, the Pilgrims appear to have survived the onslaught intact. In fact, the band's fourth effort, 1998's Creature Feature, was its most critically acclaimed yet, and Satan's Pilgrims are already creating a stir among the genre's fanatics. In addition, the quartet has just released a collection of monophonic garage-rock standards under the pseudonym the Chimps. Entitled Live at the Safari Club, the record is arguably the band's most controversial, in large part because it features (gasp!) vocals.
But that's not to say the band is ready to throw out their well-worn copies of "Wipeout" just yet. On the contrary, Scott reports that Satan's Pilgrims are alive and well and eager to take their new material on the road. At present, the group is in the midst of a brief jaunt with Deadbolt, the San Diego surf-doom act that proudly touts itself as the "world's scariest band." Such associations could well fuel the confusion surrounding the Pilgrims' sinister appellation even further. But the guitarist doesn't really seem to mind. In his words, "If people want to be a little bit afraid of us, that's okay."
Satan's Pilgrims, with Deadbolt and the Sinshakers. 9 p.m. Thursday, July 22, 15th Street Tavern, $6, 303-293-8003.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.