Scientists founder Kim Salmon on their first US Tour!
Formed in 1978 and slow-burning their way out of Perth, Australia, and through the 1980s underground, the Scientists are finally playing some U.S. shows this fall. News of these impending reunion shows and a new savage single on In the Red hit trash punk fans of many stripes like the landlord offering free rent for six months – it’s just something you never ever thought you’d see.
“Frantic Romantic” by the Scientists:
On the Stateside front, the Scientists have remained a definitive cult band, having never been able to tour over here, and given their original records have always been kind of hard to find, any reissues or compilations were usually limited. But, considering their ultra-fuzz crash-rock got progressively (regressively?) more sinister and noisy as it went on through the ‘80s, they actually garnered worldwide attention, falling somewhere between the wild roots wrangling of the post-punk era (Cramps, Birthday Party, Gun Club) and the ‘60s paisley garage revival of the mid-80s, some of the better exponents of which came from Down Under (Hoodoo Gurus, Lime Spiders).
And as is often the case, originals like the Scientists aren’t always the ones to cash in. Then the usual inter-band and contractual troubles came tumbling…But all that’s past, and right now it’s time to revel in the return of one of the most influential and mysterious punk bands to come from Australia, and that is saying something!
We talked to the band’s founder Kim Salmon.
PKM: Okay, let’s start with the latest action before we go back in time. How did the new In the Red single come about? Who plays on it — same people who will be touring this October? And does it mean there might be a new full album coming?
Kim Salmon: It’s the same line-up as touring, basically the line-up from 1985-6 that’s done all the reformation shows whenever they’ve occurred: me, Tony, Boris, and Leanne. No, I’m dead against us doing an album. No one’s ever interested in new material from reformed bands. It automatically gets unfavorably compared with the old stuff, usually with good reason. We did a single last year and we’ve got the one for this tour. I think we’ll just slip a single past the punters for each time we go out. Let’s face it, back in the day we were always doing singles or EPs. We only ever did three albums proper in the nine years we were going. Everything else out has been comps and repackaging. We’ve had far more of those.
“I suspect I must have had one of the first copies of the Ramones in the country because I’d gone to a store called 78 Records and put an order for it in before the album even existed. Eventually I got the phone call and bought it. One of the happiest days of my life!”
PKM: Yeah, like the great Sympathy for the Record Industry reissues, the Numero Group box set a couple years ago, other scattered reissues — do even you get a little confused with it all?
Kim Salmon: Yes! There are way more comps and variations than albums actually recorded as such by the band. It is confusing and frustrating as lots of people, especially the uninitiated, don’t really know there were two distinct phases. I just talk about Pink Floyd or Fleetwood Mac as an illustrative example.
PKM: Is there a kind of “Scientists mindset” you got back into when approaching this new Scientists material and tour, or is it just another extension of Kim Salmon and his music-making stuff? In other words, are the Scientists more of a band project, or do you still kind of lead the way?
Kim Salmon: No, it’s definitely not just me, but I do tend to drive it. The Scientists is really the hardest thing to come up with material for by far out of anything I’ve ever been involved with. This is precisely because there is a mindset. I don’t think any of us quite fully understands what it is. It’s a group consciousness kind of thing. But we can’t just play any old thing and call it “the Scientists.” We’re aware of that. It’d be the end of it. It’s why we’ve resisted the idea of doing new material until now.
PKM: OK, let’s go way back — HoZac Records is finally releasing an album from your first band, Cheap Nasties [pre-Scientists]. How did that come about?
Kim Salmon: We recorded the “album” live as a demo in the bass player’s living room through a mixing desk to cassette. It was done in 1977 after we’d been around about a year. I hadn’t heard it since until recently when the other guitarist/songwriter, Neil Fernandes, gave me a CD of the recording.
PKM: Did you resist having the Cheap Nasties stuff released before, or was there just not a solid offer?
Kim Salmon: I think the other Perth punk band who came slightly after us, the Victims, got all the attention from writers and punters because they were more obviously “punk,” and we’d disbanded by the end of the 1977. The rest of the Nasties transmuted into the Manikins, who were more pop than anything. (Ed: Captured Tracks recently released an amazing comp of Manikins material, From Broadway to Blazes.) The Nasties just got left behind. I’d moved on to the Scientists before too long and wasn’t really looking back.
PKM: Can you offer a quick history of the Cheap Nasties? How old were you when it started? And did everyone’s parents think you were nuts?
Kim Salmon: I was in a sort of prog outfit with Dave Faulkner (Victims, Hoodoo Gurus), Neil Fernandes, and some other guys. Dissatisfied with the band’s lack of impetus and constant navel gazing, I was ripe to be taken in by an NME article about CBGB. Charles Shaar Murray wrote compellingly about a sub-world populated by people with names like Johnny Thunders and Joey Ramone who wore black leather jackets – and that was the end of it for me. I was going to search out punk rock and form my own band no matter what! Dave and Neil weren’t immediately convinced by any of it, so I looked to my old school friends Ken Seymour and Mark Betts and drafted them into my own punk band. It was at the start of 1976 and I was 19. As there were no records by CBGB bands out, we didn’t know what punk sounded like at first, but we got hold of various things that had been namechecked, like the Dolls, Velvet Underground, and Stooges, and found the Modern Lovers too, but probably had some suss things in there like Brian Eno and Led Zeppelin. We tried a couple of singers including Dave Faulkner (once he’d come around to it) before getting Neil in. Neil had a beautiful bluesy voice which probably wasn’t terribly punk.
The Cheap Nasties’ theme song “Cheap and Nasty”:
I think our parents were just bemused by it all, until UK punk hit the tabloids, and my mum saw a news report on punk and said to me in dismay, “Tell me this isn’t what you boys are doing.” Eventually we got my friend from art school, Robert Porritt, in to sing, and things definitely improved for the band as he was very charismatic.
“Hit and Run” by the Cheap Nasties, 1977
PKM: Is there a story that pops out of your mind that kind of encapsulates the Cheap Nasties?
Kim Salmon: Funny, it was a band practice argument between Neil and I that ended the band, but it’s the last show that has the craziest story:
We’d been hired by the police department for an end-of-year bash (literally, as it turned out). I remember some bikers showed up. We were having a break between sets, and one of the bikers handed me a beer which I downed in one. They were all round me. I think they didn’t approve of a squirt like me trying to look tough in a leather jacket. Anyway, the guy then handed me a beer glass full of tequila which I downed. He was smirking at me and then handed me a jug of beer which I then attempted to down. I don’t remember the rest, but it was recounted to me thus – the bikers went up and punched the singer splitting his lip and causing him to need stitches in his forehead. I, full of several litres of Dutch courage, had gone to the bikers telling them they weren’t going to get away with punching my friend, to which they continued smirking.
I had to go to work the next morning. Then I went around to Ken and his housemate’s place on the way, and they were amazed by how chirpy was. They told me what had happened as I remembered nothing after the beer jug. I was obviously still drunk. It was one of the longest and most gruelling workdays ever. Robbie was OK and didn’t seem to care about what had happened.
“I was ripe to be taken in by an NME article about CBGB. Charles Shaar Murray wrote compellingly about a sub-world populated by people with names like Johnny Thunders and Joey Ramone who wore black leather jackets – and that was the end of it for me. I was going to search out punk rock and form my own band no matter what!”
PKM: So how did that band end and Scientists begin?
Kim Salmon: So after the Cheap Nasties breaking up, only to reform about two weeks later as the Manikins, Rod Radalj, who had just taken up guitar and formed a band with Boris Sujdovic, told me I could join his band, but I wasn’t allowed to play guitar. I had to sing. There was already a guy called Mark Demetrius singing for the band and they were called The Exterminators. Somehow that didn’t matter to Rod and he just changed the name to The Invaders, and Mark was gone. We were pretty shit, I gotta say.
Eventually, the Victims broke up and I pounced on the opportunity and contacted their drummer James Baker. He said he’d give us a go as long as I did play guitar. Turns out that Baker and I were able to write tunes together pretty much straight away. When we convened on the porch of “Victim Manor” after our first jam we workshopped names. We wanted something that captured the primitive spirit, and it wasn’t long before Baker suggested The Scientists. I was not going to let that one go by.
PKM: People tend to mythologize that “original punk era.” Then you talk to people who actually lived and played in it, and they’ll tell you, “Oh shit, the early shows, there were like 10 people there, and no one cared.” So, what were the early shows of the Scientists like? What kind of venues did you play in?
Kim Salmon: Ha ha! There were like 10 people and they didn’t care. For real. This was Perth! Firstly, our material was an affront to the punks as it had a definite melodic bent. It sounded like “pop.” It was still jagged and rough, but it was pop. We pretty much had to go to venues that didn’t normally hire bands and approached them with the proposal of them not having to pay, but instead us having a cover charge and covering the expenses ourselves. It actually worked. The Victims had already done this quite famously at Hernando’s Hideaway, previously a jazz style nightclub. Our place was a pub called the Governor Broome. It actually took off after a while.
The Musicians Union came round and tried to close it down, as we weren’t being paid award rates by the venue – ha, we weren’t being paid by the venue at all. Their argument was that actual union members were being put out of work, which was crap as no one at all was playing this venue before we got there! We were actually doing OK out of our enterprise for a while. However, Perth wasn’t really able to sustain the Scientists.
PKM: Where did you practice; what kind of space? I am going to guess that Perth did not have much of a history of rock ‘n’ roll culture, as far as places to buy equipment, records, places to practice, clubs, radio, etc… — but I may be wrong.
Kim Salmon: We practiced at Victim Manor, which was a rundown house leased by the Victims which no one would bring themselves to stay in. We got all our gear nicked there one day, but found it in a music shop not long after. The music shop just let us take it all back without any questions! Perth had lots of import record stores. I suspect I must have had one of the first copies of the Ramones in the country because I’d gone to a store called 78 Records and put an order for it in before the album even existed. Eventually I got the phone call and bought it. One of the happiest days of my life!
PKM: What would you say were the ignition pieces for the Scientists’ sound – aside from the Ramones of course – as far as current bands of the time, other Aussie bands, or even the situation of living in Perth?
Kim Salmon: None of that really. We were on the other side of the country and didn’t give a shit about Radio Birdman, the Saints, or the Boys Next Door. As far as we were concerned, we’d been doing punk as long on our own and didn’t need their input.
I think our early material came about this way: James seemed to have a fixed number of songs that you could call “punk,” and he’d drained that well in the Victims. He’d moved onto a kind of post-modern (my take, not his) view of sixties rock/pop. His whole style was about dandy fashions, ala Brian Jones, and the sort of baroque pop of the Kinks and the Stones. He’d sing some words at me, and as there were no discernible notes in his “singing.” it was up to me to create the melodies and arrangements. He’d say, “No not like that,” until I’d come up with something that sounded good, to which he’d say, “Yes, that’s how it goes.” I’d been wanting to do something more along the lines of the Stooges and Velvets, but this style was what came naturally to us, and so I didn’t fight it.
I think what we were doing was so far from Perth culture, including the recent punk scene, that perverse chaps like Baker and I thrived on the escapism of being so different!
The Scientists on the Countdown TV show, 1980:
PKM: Give us a kind of snapshot of Perth at the time, for a young person who wanted to go out at night and have a good time… or get the fuck out.
Kim Salmon: The latter. Perth is a sunny outdoor culture sort of place. Lots of beaches. Not really conducive to Rock ‘n’ Roll. Baker and I were definitely not “outdoor” kinda guys.
PKM: Much is made of the kind of sonic shift the Scientists made from the early, sort of power pop-ish sound to the move to a more fuzzed-out, swampy, punk-psychedelic, what have you. You just mentioned having wanted to move in a Stooges or Velvets direction. So did it feel like a natural progression to you; or was it due to some member changes, lysergic imbibing, etc.?
Kim Salmon: We’d split in 1980 in disgust at our unpopularity in Perth. We’d been across to the East twice and did much better, but could not get off the ground back home.
I found myself in an interim band with a High Fidelity record shop hipster by the name of Kim Williams and a very cool looking tearaway on drums called Brett Rixon. We were doing a mix of Cramps-inspired stuff to keep me happy and power pop to keep the other Kim happy. He did write the genius lyrics for “Swampland” though.
“Swampland” by the Scientists:
One day when we were playing to 10 people who didn’t care, the Scientists original bass player came up to me and said, “Waddya doing this for? We could get the Scientists back together in the east and do a bomb! There are loads of bands over there copying it!” He was actually right. We were just classically out of time and place, out of sync with everything – story of the band really.
Anyway, I called Baker who was now committed to being in Dave Faulkner’s band, the Hoodoo Gurus, and then asked Brett. Boris and I made our big plan, but not before Tony Thewlis persuaded me to have a “jam” with him. He was an incredible guitarist, so I let him join the band and we all reconvened in the Eastern states mid-1981. Without a drummer to write lyrics for me, I finally had to write my own stuff to sing. This is when the material/style of the Scientists really changed. I was able to write closer to my heart.
PKM: Any crazy stories about making your way across Australia / the Outback?
Kim Salmon: We started playing on New Year’s Eve, 1982, and pretty much conquered Sydney from then, touring Melbourne regularly to create a buzz down there. When Swampland came out exactly a year later, we seemed to be expanding our fan base enough to go to Perth, Adelaide, and Brisbane. We really didn’t get to the more regional places as Brett was always threatening to leave, and I think the grind of that and playing to less cool crowds would’ve ended it for him, and this was unthinkable for us as his playing was a real lynchpin in our sound. We did get stranded in the Outback a couple of times in transit and did think we were going to be killed by the locals each time, as they wanted to have some fun with the city slickers. More in our heads than anything as I don’t think they were actually trying on anything malevolent, just showing off. If you’ve ever seen the Australian classic film, Wake In Fright, you’d have a picture of it.
Trailer to the 40th anniversary rerelease of Wake In Fright, which Nick Cave has called “The best and most frightening film about Australia in existence.”
PKM: Once you started recording more, releasing records abroad, touring more — did you find a kinship with other like-minded bands like the Cramps, Birthday Party, Lime Spiders? Did it feel like some kind of “movement?”
Kim Salmon: We toured with the Gun Club in UK in 1985 and we definitely were kindred spirits! We never really had much to do with the other ones you name, and certainly did not feel any camaraderie with bands like the Lime Spiders. Other than them, we didn’t really get to have much to do with anyone we could have that camaraderie with. Maybe a little bit with Siouxsie and the Banshees, but they’re really nothing like us. We met Sonic Youth and hit it off with them, but that was like five minutes. At the very end in 1986, the Human Jukebox lineup of Scientists had Spaceman 3 support us in Birmingham or Manchester (can’t remember which) and we got on well with them and thought they were cool.
PKM: How did the original lifespan of the Scientists end, and when?
Kim Salmon: In 1985, after a stunning start in the UK and Europe – we’d toured with the Gun Club, Sisters of Mercy, and the Banshees; we’d been the hit of European festivals like Pandoras Box and Futurama (let’s face it there was no one like us); and had labels lining up to sign us – things started to go wrong. Brett eventually did leave so it was going be tough getting the right nuance on the drum kit. The chemistry (pardon the pun) that fuelled our creativity was kinda gone without him.
We had a HUGE copyright dispute with our Australian label and basically weren’t able to operate, i.e. sign up to any label with any clout to promote us. This was because without owning our back catalogue, which had round 20 songs like “Swampland,” “Happy Hour,” “We Had Love,” we had nothing. We eventually signed a lucrative deal and re-recorded everything. This became the Weird Love album, which benefitted from all of the songs having been well and truly played in, and having a top-notch producer, Richard Mazda, who’d done Hex Enduction Hour for the Fall and had a hit with “Mexican Radio” with Wall Of Voodoo.
Leanne had joined the band for the Banshees tour. Previously she was our tour manager, but she bought Brett’s kit and taught herself to play drums from learning only his beats. She was the first successful “transplant.” Ha ha. You can hear her playing on Weird Love. That’s testimony to how much she’d progressed in a short time! We were able to play all our material, have it sound right, and feel good about it. The vibe was still there, however she wasn’t a muso, and as soon as the song stopped she’d put her sticks down. New material just didn’t seem to be happening. We did a couple more tours after Weird Love, but Boris had visa issues and had to leave the UK, so that was pretty much the end of it. We imploded.
Tony, me, and a mate of ours called Nick Combe, aka Arthur Lager, decided to go into a demo studio at the end of 1986. We pretty much jammed out a whole album one night, and that became Human Jukebox. We offered it up to our new label with whom we had a half-million dollar (or pounds I can’t remember) deal, but its content was basically a deal breaker!
PKM: Did you have any concerns regarding these upcoming reunion shows — especially having never toured over here?
Kim Salmon: We actually did play once – 2010 ATP New York with the Stooges doing Raw Power. What do you want me to say? We’re worried we’ll be exposed as frauds? I think any artist has that fear whatever they do, and going somewhere new will trigger those fears. But not really.
PKM: Would you consider yourself a record collector? Either way, what would be your top five most prized albums you would never get rid of?
Kim Salmon: Ha, I actually sold a lot of vinyl in my own punk purges and actually bought some of it back in’ shops for considerably less than I paid for it. But no, not really,
Anyway here goes: Bitches Brew – Miles Davis; Marquee Moon – Television; Let it Bleed – Rolling Stones; Sister Lovers – Big Star; The Stooges debut.
I do listen to music made in recent times with boys and girls in the bands, but these are the ones that all happened to me at a formative time, and it’s hard to shake them. Most of my fave contemporary bands from Melbourne are girl bands. That’s just an aside due to me looking at my list and realising it wasn’t PC.