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."
One of the combo's most memorable gigs was an ill-advised date in Spartanburg, South Carolina. "The sound guy was a Nazi skinhead," Hunt says. "We totally didn't belong there. When we rolled into town, went in the club, looked at the people and looked at what was going to happen--a sort of foreshadowing--we said, 'Well, we can get back in our van and hit the road and go to the next town, or we can just play and sink deep into the culture and try to survive the night.' And that's what we did."
"We ended up swapping stories with the sound guy," Garred elaborates. "He shared with us his ideology about life--how he was really passionate about the Nazi skinhead movement that was happening in the South. And he talked about his ex-wife and the warrant out for his arrest in Georgia, and how HBO made this special called Soldiers in the Race War and how he was in the documentary bringing out this cake with a swastika on it and white chocolate chips."
"In the beginning, before we had had much beer, we were fearing for our lives," Hudson confesses. "Then, when we finally committed to the fact that we were going to be there for the rest of the night, we thought, 'We'd better sink into this. Otherwise, they're going to sense our fear and we're going to be killed.' So we just threw the beers back and went with it."
After a few encounters like this one, the novelty of blind-date touring wore thin; Silver Scooter has since secured the services of a booking agent. But the band's Web page still features an open call to anyone who'll allow the boys to curl up on their couch. "Just because we have an agent doesn't mean we have places to stay," Hudson says.
The simplicity of this logic is echoed in the band's sound, which was recorded on The Other Palm Springs by Austin's Dave McNair. "We were very fortunate that Dave McNair is a producer and engineer in town with a very good reputation, and he happened to think we were the greatest thing going on at the time and still does," Garred boasts. "He recorded the album on whatever small budget we could come up with."
McNair isn't accustomed to working on indie projects; his credits include albums made by the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and Sheena Easton. Because the Scooters realized that the oozing Easton treatment would embalm their cheery, ragged numbers, a certain strain arose in their dealings with McNair. "It was good, though," Hunt says. "That kind of tension helped us to explore more avenues, even though, for the most part, we just went back to where we came from."
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"I think Dave Mr. Superhero Producer learned quite a bit in that process as well," Hudson suggests. "I mean, he's just now discovering this class of music that's been going on for years that the college scene is listening to. And I think he's starting to understand, from our point of view, where a lot of those people are coming from, recording-wise, as far as really stripping down and taking away effects."
"You don't have to record an album with eight different guitar amps and five different drum kits, or record the drums first and then the guitar player comes in for three days to record the guitar parts," Hunt insists. "Dave let us record everything live--just captured what we do best live and then polished it up."
Silver Scooter's appearance at South by Southwest, which Garred paints as "an industry-fueled mess where there's no place to park and you have to wait 45 minutes to eat anywhere," was a test that the band passed with ease. "It was great," Garred allows. "It was a packed show." Just as important, the gig demonstrated that the same old thing can still stir when it's in the right hands. Silver Scooter's verse-chorus-verse formula isn't new, but the pointy heads who crowded Austin's Bates Motel found it to be as gratifying as a Happy Meal.
Silver Scooter, with Acrobat Down. 9 p.m. Sunday, April 12, 15th Street Tavern, 623 15th Street, $5, 572-0822.