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Q&A: Scarcity Of Tanks' Matthew Wascovich On Not Being A Poet, Cleveland Punk, SST Records, And Releasing Two New Albums On The Same Day

Scarcity of Tanks, live in Brooklyn in 2007.
Scarcity of Tanks, live in Brooklyn in 2007.

Bottomless songwriting pit machinist Bob Pollard has some friendly in-state competition from fellow Ohio native and Scarcity Of Tanks guru Matthew Wascovich. The Clevo skater/sporto/wordsmith/punk dude—the lone constant in SOT's revolving universe of all-star avant-rock beasts—is touting two new LPs (via his own Total Life Society imprint) that bustle with his crud-bathed white-noise blues. Instead of conveying just his hometown Clevo-punk history, both discs channel the dissipated bowels of scum central Manhattan before it was overrun by condo-lined high-brow-ness and music-space shutdowns.

The skronk-dripping double deuce of Vulgar Defender and Fear is not Conscience was recorded here in New York, and the bushy beardo managed to pluck a righteous backing band out of this city's killer underground rock depths to realize his SST Records-flavored, NYC-inspired art-rock vision. Oneida/Man Forever drums master Kid Millions, punk-jazz provocateur Weasel Walter, saxman Jim Sauter (of avant-jazz noisemakers Borbetomagus) and Necking's Nick Lesley descended on keysman Don Godwin's Gowanus studio with SOT regular and electric eels guitarist John Morton, armed with Wascovich's cerebral-cum-bombastic wordage and sticky guitar-anthem hugeness.

Fittingly, Wascovich will commemorate release day with a show here in New York. Sound of the City caught up with Wascovich via email as he was laying down vocals for Toothless Grin, a band he's in with a host of punk rock and avant-garde purveyors.

Have you ever considered moving out of Cleveland, to, say, New York for the benefit of giving Scarcity Of Tanks a different level of exposure? Some of your collaborators are here like Weasel Walter and Kid Millions of Oneida and Man Forever.

I've thought about moving from Cleveland, but it doesn't seem to make much financial sense. And with how the music industry works now, or doesn't work, I don't know if Scarcity Of Tanks could exist in a city like New York. I also considered moving to Europe but I'm not sure that's valid either. Cleveland is pretty small-minded in mentality but that doesn't necessarily mean it's any worse than a bigger city. I guess that I have not had a compelling enough reason/s to leave. Some days this place is nice and on other days it is a total shit hole. Even within the last 10 years, Cleveland was the 14th-largest area in the U.S. We had an economic output equal to that of Ireland. I'm not sure where we stand now. I used to have an interest in what made cities tick, but I have lost much of this desire to keep track of things. So it's not like this is a rural area. But the Cleveland region has lost hundreds of thousands of jobs and nearly every year, Cleveland ranks in the top five of poorest and most violent cities in America. It's weird even calling this part of the country the Midwest. Look at a map; we are more accurately to the north and east of things.

When Scarcity Of Tanks gets press, Cleveland's historical musical lineage always seems to be the reference point (and the band name dropping predictable: Pere Ubu, Rocket from the Tombs, electric eels, etc.).Yes, you've played/play with Clevo legends like John Morton (electric eels) and John Petkovic (Cobra Verde) so that adds fuel to that talk. Do you consider the Cleveland music scene as an albatross and put on this holier than thou pedestal that you've had to live up to with your own band?

There's not much written about SOT, so when you read something it's typically from a writer who is already into Cleveland musical history. For me, I like the groups that you mentioned but I don't take it into consideration when I create songs. I can relate, on some levels, to what each of those historical groups may have gone through but it's a different time. I have either played music with some of those guys that you list, or I have hung out with them, and they assure me that SOT is drinking from the same water that they were in the 1970s. That's kind of nice in a way. This notion of relating to other generations is important to me. Not that I need it, but it does validate things a little bit. I've felt that way when Jack Brewer, Tom Watson (Slovenly/Red Krayola), Michael Yonkers, Mike Watt, Steve Mackay (The Stooges), Jim Sauter, John Morton, and many other who have worked with SOT. It's heartening and affirming, though I am not trying to sound too precious here. I should add that I'm only referencing older members of the group. There's been a ton of people younger than me, or my peers, who have made some great music in the group. I try not to discuss it too much because interviews are typically short and I don't want to unnecessarily dwell on the membership of the group. Who cares who has played in the group, or who is currently in the line up? If you want to check out what Scarcity Of Tanks is doing, then the music should come first. There's already interviews, or reviews, out there about the group that just don't help matters. They are either factually off, or they make comparisons that don't fit. They paint a picture that isn't accurate. The writer or magazine may, or may not, have their own agendas. The record may be well reviewed but get a lower ranking because Total Life Society Records does not buy ads from their magazine. Shit like that. Maybe this goes to your Cleveland point about people bringing up this fact when discussing us? Yes, I was born and raised in Cleveland... but so what?

I do hear an SST Records influence in Scarcity Of Tanks. Do you identify with the music Greg Ginn released in its heyday as much as Cleveland's storied history? What music did you actually grow up with and were inspired by?

Yea, I/we often get the Jack Brewer/Saccharine Trust comparison. I don't know. Jack is a brother to me. He's played in SOT. I love him much but SOT and ST are very different groups. When I was very young, I was ordering releases from SST and Dischord Records. These labels had a huge effect on me. I was a skateboarder and I heard about SST, Dischord, The Big Boys, and JFA this way. I can't understate how important this was to my development. Twenty years later, when I started to associate with some of these guys, they couldn't believe that I had bought their releases when I was so young. To this day, I get musical advice from Ian MacKaye. He is always open and helpful. In the 1990s, I had seen Cobra Verde but was not so much influenced by them other than by Petkovic saying to me that I should be a singer in a group since I had good words. I always bought CV releases. Petkovic is a great front man and musician who always has fresh musical ideas. Regarding DOS, I was too young to have seen them by a few years but liked those records.

 

Scarcity of Tanks, "Let You Accident" (live in 2011)

Todd Tobias is another Ohio staple. You've worked with him, and his work over the years with GbV and Bob Pollard is well documented. GbV doesn't seem to be mentioned much when SOT is covered. Is that a Dayton vs. Cleveland thing? What role did GbV play for you in your schooling of music? How important are they to you and SOT?

Many people in my group are as old as Pollard and GBV so that might have something to do with why there's no reference between the two groups. I like what Bob does in all its forms, especially Circus Devils with Todd Tobias. Tobias is a Clevelander and was in good groups for the last 25 years. He's a hell of an engineer and musician and damn nice. Todd recorded our second album, Bleed Now. SOT is recording an album with Todd this April and we are excited. I don't think there's a Dayton vs. Cleveland split. There's not many spaces to play down in Dayton (which is 200 miles south of Cleveland), so I think that affects many Cleveland groups.

I also hear a "classic rock' sound in Scarcity Of Tanks.

I have always liked classic rock. I like to listen to the Rolling Stones and Glands Of External Secreation. Or AC/DC and Han Bennink. Or Black Sabbath and Albert Ayler. Or Rick James and Wooden Wand. Or Neil Young and Oxbow.

What is the songwriting process for SOT? Your current lineup is fractured, with some members here in New York and others spread out elsewhere and do you write lyrics specifically knowing they will be for SOT or do you know what will be for poems and what will be for songs?

I'm writing lyrics and chord progressions all the time. I have pieces of paper all over my apartment, in my van, in my pockets. Whenever I get an idea, I try to write it down and come back to it. For 2012, we are releasing four albums so I need a lot of song lyrics. I'm also working on a few other recordings that need lyrics so I'm very focused and busy in getting these things down. A lot of poems that become songs get tweaked to fit with music. They have to fit the vibe and meter of each tune and there are some things you can do in a poem that don't translate well into song. Poems can be wide open whereas a song has to tighten up. However, in a song, you can repeat phrases which I hardly ever do while writing poems.

Do you see yourself as a legit front-person/singer/songwriter/performer of a band (a la Pollard, Brewer or David Thomas) or as the poet you are reciting (speak-singing) your words as music plays behind you? Do you have any reservations about being the role of the singer who doesn't play an instrument live?

First, I don't go around claiming to be a poet. I'm not trying to be coy or something but I'm not into that title. Yes, I've published poetry books since 1987 but I simply do the work. I've never fit in with the poets, especially academic poets, of the world. I flunked English in high school. So, I do see myself as a singer. I do play guitar and I have played guitar live in SOT but I want to have a front person to this group. I don't want an instrument getting in the way of my singing. I'm definitely not trying to do some spoken word shit. That makes me cringe. The whole idea of the Poet riffing on top of bebop jazz in some self-important way is disgusting. I relate more to the singing by Biscuit of the Big Boys or by Jos of The Ex. There's a record store owner in Cleveland who once said he didn't like Scarcity Of Tanks because we were some sort of "poetry music." This guy could not have been further from the truth about SOT and clearly doesn't deeply listen to our music. Unless he considers any music with words to be poetry music. Maybe he does?

You play/played soccer and were even awarded a college scholarship for your talent. Knowing how punk rock, etc. and sports has always been an "at war" type of thing, did you have issues with the jock vs. punk rock aspect of things?

Plenty of people like/play sports. Pollard played baseball at the same college as me. But I hear you. There's a ton of punks who are just as much a bully as any jock. There's a lot of those types in Cleveland. So fuck it. Yea, I do like soccer. I was driving Omar Souleyman (Sublime Frequencies) around on his U.S. tour in 2010. We were watching the World Cup games at every chance we could and kicking a ball around in Detroit. That's fun, man. If that's lame to someone, I could give a fuck. To me, that is real life.

 

Scarcity of Tanks, "Never Private Clubs" (live in 2011)

Let's talk about the two new albums. Two separate brand new LPs released on the same day is sometimes viewed as an ego-driven kind of excess thing. (Bob Pollard, Guns N' Roses!) Did this cross your mind when you decided to release two?

Nah, it's not an ego thing. I had enough to put out two albums right away out so I did it. I don't really like double albums because I hate having to get up and flip the sides. There will be four SOT albums coming out in 2012. During the first four years of the group, I did not release anything, so maybe I'm catching up?

Vulgar Defender and Fear is not Conscience feature essentially the same lineup with the exception of Don Godwin, who plays on one of the discs. Did you write the songs with this lineup of musicians in mind? How did you bring such an all-star cast together?

When we finished our third album, Sensational Grade, in Cleveland last year, I wanted to quickly write a new album. That version of the group couldn't get it together, so I called guys in New York whose music I really dug. Weasel has been involved with all the SOT albums so he was a no-brainer. I wanted Weasel to play bass so the best drummer for that is Kid Millions without question. I wanted horn since we had not had sax on a SOT release since the first one, No Endowments. I asked Jim Sauter because Borbetomagus is one of my favorite groups. Nick Lesley of Necking had set up SOT shows in New York for me for years. I always liked his drumming and attitude. I knew that he played guitar, too. During the session, I also found out that he was at one of the earliest SOT NYC gigs in 2005 when I had Kevin Shea on drums and Brook Gillespie on guitar (with me on guitar/vocals, as well). I asked John Morton because his music has been very important to me and still is. I didn't think that he'd say yes but he did.

This is a far cry from my early Cleveland days, when I could not get anyone to play in SOT. It was absurd. I had to get other artists to take up instruments that they did not know how to properly play in order to get things moving. Many, many people in Cleveland thought we were lame and ignored us. Hell, even now, we don't register in that town. But fuck it, it makes no difference to me. SOT has never been a Cleveland group, or part of a Cleveland scene, and I am completely grateful for that. I used Don [Godwin] to engineer the albums. He was in Impractical Cockpit and now plays in Raya Brass Band and Callers among other groups. He had played live in SOT before and has a great personality and work ethic. His engineering skills are great, so I booked time with him at Phantom Center in Gowanus. I knew I needed someone who was organized, attuned to the SOT aesthetic, and patient. He fit the bill and handled the pressure well. We wrote the albums in the studio. When you have this kind of group, things should move fast and they did. We recorded the two albums in two days and I had about 2 more days for vocal overdubs. There's a third album coming out of this same session that Weasel is editing and mixing and I'll record vocals for later in the year.

Jim Sauter and Weasel, two musicians toting a serious free jazz/improv/experimental pedigree, play on the two new discs; Kid Millions is no slouch, either. Did you purposefully want to veer away from the rock edge and Cleveland music comparisons of earlier releases into more artsier, noise and free jazz terrain? The new stuff is faster and noisier. And are you into free jazz and is that something you want to incorporate into your own aesthetic?

Yes, your take is largely correct. I wanted it noisier and less of an explicit, traditional rock edge than some find on our other records. However, upon repeated listens to the Cleveland albums, there's way more challenging stuff on them than may be realized. You need to spend a committed amount of time with our work. Isn't this true about any art? I have been listening to Sun City Girls records for years and still find new things. In fact, I was listening to a bunch of Flying Luttenbachers -album after album—and I had to tell Weasel that it was blowing my mind(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGPpDhR7Hic). It was like I was hearing all of it for the first time but with more clarity or something. I couldn't believe it. I mean, some of this stuff I had already played hundreds of times.

But back to the NYC albums. I still wanted the sound to swing. I do like free jazz, or free improvisation (in its many forms). I've moved SOT into this ground of being musically structured with room for thoughtful improvisations within the structure along with almost completely structured words. Lately, I've been listening to Central European gypsy, Arab-North African, and Southeast Asian music, and it's seeping into my mind and maybe it's affecting my music. I employ rules and have parts to our sound where there aren't rules. The newest record that we are writing right now in Cleveland has beats and string instrument arrangements influenced by Western Saharan, Indonesian, and Turkish groups but played in a way distinct to SOT. It's much like life. You can try to plan it all out but if you are not open to things, Life will kick your ass.

I don't see much free jazz as a genre coming into SOT. Hell, I don't think Jim or Weasel see what they create in those terms. With breaking down music in to genres, one has to be careful to avoid the marketing of music. In the end, SOT is about making music and it's a heavy responsibility.

 

Scarcity of Tanks, "Death Fast" (live in 2011)

Are you content with to releasing records on your own under Total Life Society? Do you have interest in signing with a known label? It seems like you'd have some record label options thru your collaborators.

I've talked to a few bigger labels, but so far it does not make sense. Bigger labels start talking about wanting a group that already makes money and it just goes south from there, and then, I look at their roster and their roster sucks, so it's hard to buy into their views. I am open to investigating things, and it'd be nice to not have to do every damn thing; and I mean everything. But if the tradeoff is some person who doesn't give a fuck about my group, well, it's not worth it to me. It's the comedy and hilariousness of it all—a lot of these booking agents and independent labels don't even bother calling back. Who needs it? I don't know. It all forces me to work harder, to keep it lean, but I'm in good company with labels like Agaric, ugEXPLODE, Young God, Fire Breathing Turtle, Ex/Terp, Dischord, Sham Palace, Trd Word, and Abduction—all doing their own things.

Will the lineup for the show on the 21st be the same as on the new records?

Yes, everyone who played on the new albums will be playing. We are doing 10 or 11 songs from the two new albums. We plan to record the gig too.

What's the feasibility of assembling everyone from the LPs and do a full-on tour?

Sure, we could do one-offs and festivals. That's the plan. A national tour? No way. The economics would never work.

What's next for Scarcity Of Tanks?

We have the release show. And then I am back to Cleveland to work on a new album with Cleveland guys. We record that in April. During March I will be finishing the third album from the NY session. These two other albums will come out later in the spring.

You also have other projects like Mag Resistance. What's the story there? Mag Resistance is Mark E. Miller and me. Mark was in the killer late-'70s no wave band called Toy Killers, which still exists today. I'm really into Toy Killers and met him through Weasel. We did a vocal-only tape in 2011 for My Dance The Skull. We plan to do more recording but want to get together to do it. He's in Oakland. Mark really is an original and his music should be heard. A good place to start is the Toy Killers' album on unEXPLODE. My Dance The Skull is an energizing force in London that publishes poetry and art books along with more experimental music tapes. I did a poetry and painting book called Fantastic Animals with Aleksandra Waliszewska during 2011 from MDTS. Aleksandra is a Polish painter based in Warsaw who painted the cover of SOT's Sensational Grade. She's great.

And Toothless Grin with Brewer, Byron Coley, Chris Grier (Ultimate VAG), Pete Mazich (Secondmen), Thurston Moore, Rawl Morales (Killer Dreamer/Missingmen), Petkovic, Jerry Trebotic (Secondmen), Tom Watson and Watt? That's an insane band.

We started this group a few years ago. It's slow going with so many guys in it and us being spread out across the U.S. Watt has to mix all our parts and he's doing a great job. Who knows when [an album] will be done or come out? As of right now, it's about halfway recorded. It's pretty cool sounding, and it's a synthesis of all our different musical points of view.

Scarcity Of Tanks play their record release show at Secret Project Robot with Sightings and Guardian Alien on Saturday.

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