"Clear Impetuous Return"
by Daniel Coston. Tangents Magazine. October, 1996
While there are many bands that climb to the heights of success, there are few who return to those heights again, years after they've fallen from grace. Jason and the Scorchers is one of those exceptions.
Roaring out of Nashville in 1982, the band mixed influences ranging from Hank Williams to the Sex Pistols to form a musical concoction many dubbed "psychobilly" or "country punk." Albums such as Fervor (1983) and Lost and Found (1985) gave the band worldwide acclaim, and a loyal fan base that still cherishes those records.
By the early '90s, however, after years of constant touring and record company pressures to produce "the next big thing," the group was beset by mediocre albums and personnel changes, and looked to be another rock n' roll casualty. But proving that some fires don 't die out so easily, the band's original four members reunited last year, and have now released their best album since their early glory days, Clear Impetuous Morning.
In talking to lead singer Jason Ringenberg, guitarist Warner Hodges and bassist Jeff Johnson last month before their show at Tremont Music Hall, I found three musicians who were honest about their past, and excited about their return to the limelight.
Tangents: Tell me about the new album.
Jeff: "Written in the country, recorded in the city" basically sums it up. Jason wrote a lot of stuff in Nashville, and then brought it down to my basement outside of Atlanta, and we just hashed it out with about a month's worth of rehearsals, and headed downtown to a friend of mine's amp repair shop. He has a studio in there, just a warehouse-type room that he gets really great sounds in, and everybody feels really comfortable.
Warner: It's weird. In some ways we literally went back to the way we did things years ago when there was just no money involved. We rehearsed at Jeff's house in the basement. It sounded like absolute hell, but if we could make it sound good in there, we could make it sound good anywhere.
And then Bakos Amp Works, the place literally is an amp repair shop. A vintage amp shop. The guy just has studio gear, but he really knows what the hell he's doing. He just helped us get sounds that we were looking for, and we really tried to get back to what the essence of the Scorchers is all about.
We made a real concentrated effort after the last record and we kind of got the train back on the tracks, we all sat down, and it was like, "Okay, do we all really want to get serious here, do we feel good about Jason and the Scorchers, or do we want to call it a day, or what?" Of course, all four of us were like, "Hell, let's just really bear down." Jason wrote some great songs, Perry wrote some really good hooks, we had good material, and it was just a good feeling across the board. Jeff and I produced the thing, and it was just natural. Everything happened really positively, and it was a real quick turnaround for us. Usually records take us a little bit longer. We got serious about it in September, October of last year, and by mid-June we had a mastered record done, which for us is a really quick turnaround.
T: Was that planned, to record in this guy's amp repair shop?
Warner: We originally went there to do the demos, 'cause it was a cheap place to do the demos. We walked in, and we were like, "Man, this place looks like hell." But by the second day, it was like, "Wow, this place sounds great. We could cut here." By the time we got the demos done, it was like, "Yeah, this is where we want to cut." Jeff had been saying all along that he wanted to record in a different city, a different vibe. We'd recorded the last one out in the country, and that was a good thing. We needed to do that at the time.
It was just a good call all the way around. The engineer was the perfect guy for us to work with. It all just fell into place. It all worked. Rehearsing at [Jeff's] house rather than going to SIR, and bringing all this gear and all this crap, it made us focus on the music.
Jeff: Back to the early days, that's what we always said. We rehearsed at Jason's house. There was no time limit. If the creative juices were flowing, we didn't have to stop. In a rehearsal studio, you're watching your watch...
Warner: ...sitting there, going, "Hurry up. We gotta load out of here in 30 minutes. C'mon, come up with a great idea."
Jeff: This way, after ten o'clock we could work on acoustic things if we wanted to 'til midnight. If they had an idea that they went to bed with, it would still be there in the morning. We'd jump right on it, and started on a fresh day.
Warner: In a good way, it forced us to just think "band," and "new record." We also quit doing shows. It was like, if we keep trying to tour while we're doing this, it'll take us forever to do the thing. So we said, "Let's quit doing shows." Jason really focused on the songwriting. Every time we got back together, we had three or four new ideas, and two that didn't work last time are really coming along, and we recorded literally everything he wrote. It was probably the best songwriting role that Jason's had in a long time too. There was no garbage, there was no weak songs.
Jeff: The songs were so good, we didn't want to contaminate that over-production, so we kept it simple, and not fence ourselves in with a lot of elaborate bulls--- that a lot of studios have, and it kept us on the track of just making a Scorchers rock record. An honest record, where we just try to texture it in the moods of the songs, rather than effects and overdubs.
T: Jason, has the way that you write songs changed over the past 15 years?
Jason: Yeah, I think it's always been a process that was at first just simplifying the process, and being a little more direct. Then I think I became a little too direct, actually. I had to open it back up again with this last record. I think it always changes.
T: Has the way that you put the songs together changed?
Jeff: It kinda got back to the way it used to, via us all being in the room and arranging the songs, and everybody giving input. "That doesn't feel right. Let's try this," or try that. Everybody voicing their opinion, and just hammering it out.
Warner: It did almost get back to the old days. The original impetus was the idea from Jason, and we'd take it and do s-turns with it, or be like, "Yeah." Nine times out of ten, the song either clicks immediately, or we work it to death. There's no middle ground.
Jason: Sometimes. The only disagreement I have on that part is the last song on the record, "I'm Sticking With You," which just evolved over a two-month process. It was a 3/4-time folk song. Gradually, it just became this epic psychobilly anthem. [Laughs]
Warner: I heard it the first time you did it. I just didn't think you guys would go for it.
Jason: Even 'til the end of the process, I wasn't sure it was gonna work.
Warner: Even the demo was weak.
Jason: Even to the last mix. The guys who put the mix together, 'cause the song's just all over the place, the guys just nailed the mix, and it finally made sense. And it's one of the strongest songs on the record now.
T: What was the inspiration for the album's title?
Jason: I was hanging out at his place when we made the record, sleeping at his place. We'd wake every morning, and it'd be real clear and cool.
Jeff: You said something about, "Gee, it's a beautiful morning." And I said, "Call it that," and then it evolved into "cool, clear morning."
Jason: Or "sweet morning air," that was the first one. Then we gradually added words and changed it, and that's how that became it. It's interesting, because when we first proposed the title, it didn't go over very well with people around the band. But now, fans are really reacting strongly to it. It is a very strong title. "Clear," "Impetuous," "Morning."
T: You've gotten a lot of good reviews for this new record. Are good reviews something that you still get excited about?
Jason: I think the great thing about this band is that we still get excited about everything. We still get excited about playing a room with lots of folks, or no folks. I know that when I had my breakfast and opened up USA Today, and we were in it, that was a lifetime moment for me.
Warner: For Jeff and I, 'cause this was the first one that we got to produce ourselves, and there's that second-guessing after it's totally done that, "Well, I hope to God that you're so off-base." We knew that Jason dug it, Perry really was into it. Jason wasn't sure about the idea at first. It's a real weird step. The band producing itself. Most labels aren't into that.
Jeff: Originally, we would produce the demos, and then a producer would get a hold of that and perfect that.
Warner: Theoretically. [Laughs]
Jeff: But I think we've got a handle on what the band sounds like to us, with being on stage with this monster every night. And then the engineer we used is basically a genius, I think. In getting just the tones, where the separation is not too glossy. It's still raw, but it's enough in the mainstream where it will translate. It won't offend anyone.
Warner: To take that point further then, yes, when the reviews started coming, it was like, "Okay, we didn't miss the nail on the head." 'Cause there is that second guess. It's like "Well, we dig it. God knows what everybody else is gonna say." It's really cool when you start reading that stuff and it makes you feel good about your work. My God, you pour your heart and soul into a record, and the last thing you want to see is somebody slice it to pieces.
Jason: I was kinda worried about going into it, 'cause it's such an ambitious record. Sometimes people want to slam ambition, and it hasn't happened so far. People have been saying what we felt about it, that it's our strongest record, or very close to our strongest record.
Warner: Also, we've been around 15 years. It's kinda hard to do. The first couple's easy, but as you go through time, it's hard to make a record that goes "Wham!" again. Pushes the envelope again, which is what we wanted to do.
Jeff: Essentially, we picked up where we left off with Lost and Found. We got off the track a little bit there just by being naive, and being caught up in business of music. We kind of lost our focus, but now I think by seeing the damage that that can do, we got it back, and directed it back to where it should've been all along.
T: Was there a certain incident or incidents that brought you guys back together, and made you regain your focus?
Jeff: I bought the CD, and heard the band sober for the first time, and liked what I heard. [Laughs]
Warner: He thought, "Man, I'd go see these guys." We all sobered up. I think that helped immensely.
T: On this new album, you covered [The Byrds/Gram Parsons'] "Drugstore Truck Drivin' Man." How did you come to cover that?
Jason: When we started the A Blazing Grace tour, I brought it into the band. I just thought it was time to bring a Gram Parsons song, and we always do weird covers. It just thought of it as a live thing, and two, I just felt the song's the essential spirit of rebellion. It's a very rebellious song. It's always sung really laid back, and real mellow, like the singer's the victim. And I always heard those lyrics, if you sang 'em right and the band played it right, as the ultimate expression of rebellion. And it worked great live. The demo was okay, but we decided to take it further and cut it on the record, and it came out brilliant. The guys just produced it perfectly. The difference between the record and the demo is pronounced.
T: Do you feel a kinship to bands like the Byrds?
Jason: Oh yeah, certainly, in terms of that they were pioneers of something, and we feel that we're pioneers, too. People seem to say that about us. Musically, there's similar influences. The big difference, of course, is that the Scorchers are in the radical '90s. There's a lot of punk rock in there, high energy rock n' roll. In fact, you could probably say that that's what separates almost all country-rock, modern and old. (Modern country-rock) is very aggressive.
T: Speaking of that, how do you feel about the current mainstream revival of country-rock?
Jason: I think it's good for us on a career level, 'cause everybody talks about us as the pioneers of it. Whenever you've got people talking about you, that's good. I'm sure it'll peter out someday, and we'll still be there doing what we do. But for now, it's a good thing. And it's good timing for us, 'cause we're coming at people with our strongest record in ten years, and possibly our best ever, so the timing is just perfect. Life is good for us right now.
T: What were some of your influences that made want to mix country and punk rock? The term "country punk" has often been thrown at you guys.
Jeff: It was kinda accidental. [Jason] came to Nashville lookin' for a band. He wanted a raunchy country-type band, and he happened to fall on us. I don't know if I know what the ingredients are, really, but it just kind of happened.
Warner: The "country punk" thing, f--k, whether you like it or not, we started that. It wasn't like, "Okay, we're a country-punk band," that's the way we played rock n' roll. It just happens that we listen to Hank Williams, but we also listen to the damn Sex Pistols, too. It just shows up the way we play chord progressions and things. Hell, if you take the distortion away, you've got country songs. But if you distort 'em all to hell, all of a sudden you've got punk rock.
I don't know. People talk about that crap all the time, and it's just the way we play. It just so happens that we like to do hoe-down music too. There's nothing wrong with that. That whole thing about you've gotta categorize it, and pigeonhole. You've listened to the new record. There's God knows how many styles of music going on at the same time.
I appreciate that about the Scorchers. Playing guitar in the Scorchers is great because, s--t, anything you're capable of playing can be used somewhere. The only things we don't do (are) funk and classical.
Jason: Yes, but I'm bringing that into the next record.
Warner: On a couple of nights, it kinda sounds like free-form jazz. We listen to everything. It's all there. The Rolling Stones are there, Hank Williams is there, Merle Haggard, Sex Pistols, Bob Dylan, Neil Young. It's all there. But those are influences, they're not the music. If you don't take that and go somewhere with it, all you're doing is someone else's s--t. For us, I think it worked out great that we can do our own stuff because we could never play like Van Halen, anyway. We weren't worth a damn in high school when we tried to play other people's stuff. It sounded like hell.
T: Did your parents want you to be musicians when you were growing up?
Jason: It's different in every case. My parents really weren't sure about it. They were really supportive, but they were really worried when I started coming home with guitars. And then, the first summer I came home from college, I said, "This summer, instead of going out and working, I've got gigs in a whole bunch of bars. I'll make $40 a night, I could $200 a week doing this. This is gonna be great." What I'd done was gone off to a bunch of places and talked to them about it, and I thought I had gigs, which turned out I didn't have any of them. I was back working on the railroad again that summer.
Warner: My folks were musicians. This is what I do. I've never heard that whole "go get a job, be somebody" thing.
T: Another great song on the new album is "Everything Has a Cost," with Emmylou Harris. How did that come together?
Jason: It's interesting. That song was started back during the Thunder and Fire days. There was a bunch of great songs written that never made the record, because it was the height of corporate influence on the band. If the guy running the show didn't like the song, he just threw it out, and that was the end of it. In fact, three of the songs on this record were started in those times. "(Walking a) Vanishing Line," "Jeremy's Glory." When I started working on this record, I remembered that song, and I started working on it again. Reworked the lyrics, and wrote it as a duet. And I brought it to the guys, and everybody said, "Emmylou Harris." That was it.
Warner: "We want a girl singer. Who would that be?"
Jason: It wasn't even a question, really. We two or three other second choices, but she was first choice. I kinda know her a little bit, so I started calling her, and she came to do her part and did a great job. She was real cool about it. She's a real princess.
T: Do you believe the song's message?
Jason: Absolutely. You pay for everything you do, good and bad.
T: Is there anything that you have paid for your careers in music?
Jason: Yeah. Every good and every bad, there's a price for it, and the prices just keep going higher as you get older, but what you get gets better for the price you pay. The band's probably playing better than it ever has. What I'm seeing on the record, and what I think I'm gonna see on the tour, is the band still has the energy it used to have, or close to it, but our musical energy is dramatically much higher, so its making for really good shows.
T: What's a better subject for songwriting, good or evil?
Jason: That's a good question. I've never been asked that in fifteen years. Evil tends to interest people more. If you somehow can mix them together, that's when it's really good.
T: Has your fan base changed over the years?
Jeff: We get a wide variety of folks. It's been pretty much consistent, because there's no boundaries to a Scorchers audience. We get old people, young people, kids. We had a couple of teenage girls in front of [Jason] that couldn't have been older than 13, 14. But they knew the words.
Warner: We get older people that get into the country side of the band. The more slower, melodic side of the band, which is fine.
Jason: [to Jeff and Warner] Did you see the couple last night?
Jeff: They seemed they were a really happy couple, holding hands and digging the band. And we're like, "What is that?"
Warner: It's really weird. A few years ago, we did a bunch of Bob Dylan shows, and it the audience was like, 12 and 13 year-old kids; to 60 year-old people that were 30 when he started. That's what impressed me the most looking at his audience base. Of course, he's got a 30-year career to draw on, but it was everything from 13 year-old kids to people who ain't too (far) from calling it a day.
Jeff: There's just something for everybody. We played Bowling Green, Kentucky last week as kind of a warm-up gig. It was a line-dance bar. And then, when we played Finola, I saw line dancers come to the floor, and it just knocked me out. People are sitting there (and they) don't know what to think, and all of a sudden there is a song for them, and they're doing their little bit.
T: Does touring over a long period of time change you?
Jason: Yeah, you get lighter. [Laughs] You get lighter, and you get more wrinkles, but, you see, we've been on the other side of it. The first time around, we did a lot of touring, and don't think we appreciated what we had, 'cause it was so easy. There we were touring, and we're rock stars. Then we had it taken away from us, and now it's coming back. At least, we hope that it is. It seems to appear that way. I think it's more appreciated now, because if you're out there touring, and there's demand for you, and you're busy, that's a good thing. That's a really good thing, and I think I'm gonna dig being worn out tired, as opposed to the alternative.
T: Is there any subjects that you always wanted to talk about more in interviews, but interviewers never ask about?
Jason: This is my sixth [interview] today, so I think I've been asked everything. [Laughs] I think I'd like people to ask more about pre-Scorcher Scorchers. These guys all played together in high school, in little bands and stuff. Warner and Perry went to high school together. I think that would be interesting to find out about. I don't know very much myself about that.
Warner: Perry and I have been playing together 22 years. Jeff and Perry have been playing about 18 or so. Jeff doesn't want to talk about that. [All laugh] Forget that s--t.
Jeff: That's a little too long. Wait, didn't I just meet y'all two-and-a-half years ago?
Jason: [to Warner] How long has it been between you and Jeff?
Warner: Between all three of us, it's been about 18 years. Jeff and I actually had a band, and Perry played in and out of it. Perry was so damn young, we couldn't get him into bars.
Jeff: If we'd have a fight with a drummer, we'd drag him down there to fill him in.
Warner: We'd put a hat on him, and sneak him in. Perry was the first guy I met when I moved to Nashville. I was playing with Perry in my parents' basement when I was 15, and he was 12. I'm 37 now. That's 22 years.
[At this point, a young fan in his 20s came up and immediately said, "Hey man, your new album kicks ass!" He also said that he wasn't sure at first if the abrupt ending to "I'm Sticking With You" was intentional]
Jason: My mom didn't know what to make of that at first, either. It just cuts off. I like the song.
Warner: That s--t right there is why we're here, period. To me, that's the only goddamn reason to be here. When people say that, everything else doesn't matter.
T: Looking back, do you have any regrets, anything you'd change?
Jeff: I'd have a larger bank account.
Warner: All kinds of regrets, and things you think you'd do different. But by the same token, if the stuff that happened didn't happen, then we wouldn't be sitting here.
Jason: I think I would have enjoyed the early days more. I was kind of obsessive in those days. I was kind of an art monster, and very sensitive. I think I could have enjoyed those things that happened the first time around. I know I'm profoundly enjoying it know. I look back on those first tours of Europe, and being on the cover of all three English newspapers, which I didn't even really appreciate.
Warner: It was like being on Rolling Stone three straight times.
Jason: It was really cool. Those kind of things, I was just too young to realize it. Packed houses everywhere in the world.
Warner: But you're young, dumb and full of c--- at that point. It's like, "There's no end to all this great stuff." I don't know about the other guys, but I look at it completely differently, because it was taken away. And when you get that back, you treat it a lot differently. You can real get mushy and all kinds of s--t with it, but the end result is that I've never enjoyed playing more than I do with these three guys. I had the chance to play with some other folks, but it just wasn't the same.
Jeff: There's a certain energy that just happens. I don't know how to explain it, but I've played with a bunch of
better musicians, and it just doesn't ever lock in, and you don't feel that electricity. Something about this band, it's done it from the first rehearsal, and it's in our pocket. We can pull it out.
Warner: I like telling people it's damn near like Jeff, Perry and I learned to play together. Perry and I really did when I started playing guitar, and we all feel the same things. The other night in Bowling Green, we made a mistake and we all stopped at the same part in the song. We couldn't have planned a stop in the song and rehearsed it any better than the stop was, and it was a f--king mistake, but we all three did it. There's a chemistry there that you just can't get anywhere else. You can find a bunch of better musicians, but what makes the band work, you can't put your hands on it. If you could, everybody'd f--kin' be doing it.
T: Is the music business designed to homogenize bands, or is that just the way it happens sometimes?
Warner: [Shaking his head] I don't know, man. When you're young, you just want that record deal. You get that record deal, and then you realize, "Oh s---t, I'm fighting Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson..." The music starts taking a back seat, the business part takes over. You gotta have that together, or you get f--ked, and the music suffers.
We're in a situation now just after years of mistakes where we kind of know what not to do, and we try as much as possible to keep everything out of the way so we can just make music, and it's hard. It's difficult to do.
Jeff: It's easy to get caught up in that. I don't know if it's really homogenizing the music, but you lose your focus on it. There's so many things that are thrown in your path, where you need to do this, you need to do that, that the music takes a backseat. But we've got it now where we've got good management.
Jason: Self-sufficient, real supporting.
Jeff: Yeah, and Jason's back to being an artist, rather than having to be a business guy, even though he could, but there's only so much you can do in a day.
Warner: But the problem is, it becomes so much of that, that there's no time to work on new music. No time to create, 'cause you're busy trying to protect everything else.
Jason: It's a difficult balance, keeping the balance in line.
Jeff: It's two different worlds.
Jason: Yeah, it is two different worlds. You got to take care of that other world, but you can't let it swallow it up. I think that's one of the reasons that Clear Impetuous Morning is so good, is that we all just threw everything aside when it was time to make this record.
Warner: When we all made the group decision to do what we did, we were like, "Okay, now we're f--king musicians for the next six months. That's all we are." We're not musicians trying to find a T-shirt deal, or musicians talking to the record company about management, and all this s--t. But it's very difficult to do. When you get to that point where there's gobs of f--kin' money, you think, "Wow, I can really be a musician now." Except that if you're not protecting your gobs of money, somebody's gonna f--kin' be taking it. It's a real weird thing.
Jeff: Just gotten back to a family, organic-type feel. When we were broke, I was living in the back of my car basically when I met Jason, and it was like, "Okay, we can go over to Jason's and play music, and it's warm in the house," and we just got this feeling going. There was no distractions, and by doing [Rehearsals for the new record] at my house, we got back to that. We could have barbecues together, and everything was connected rather than like, rehearsal halls, like we were talking about earlier. With rehearsal halls, you got someone coming in right behind you. It just doesn't connect to do the same to write and do production, pre-production. Things like that.
Warner: You can't create on a time clock.
T: It's a sappy question, but in the end, does it all come down to your music?
Jeff: That's what it is now, because nothing else really matters. If you don't have the music, you don't need businessmen. You don't need a record company. So we looked at it like, let's have a good time with this, and not take this too seriously. I heard Jason say one time that we were gonna make some good music, we were gonna have a good time, we're gonna try to make some money for the gigs, and do it as long as we can. Anything else is just corruption, and just a road to ruin, which is very true.
I'd like people to come see us and all, but I don't have a quota, like, '0h, we've gotta have ten thousand next year." We just do what we do. If people like it, fine, if they don't, they don't gotta come. [Warner, loving what Jeff just said, laughs and exclaims, "I love you, man!"]
Warner: That is it, in a nutshell. We made some records in the late '80s where the record company was like, "Give us a hit single! Give us a hit single!" And we didn't give them a hit single, and we made bad Scorchers records, trying to placate them. As opposed to "F--k it. Let's just do a Jason and the Scorchers record."
And for us, the rewards are different now. We made a great record that the four of us liked when it was done. There ain't many of them that we've done that way. By the time you get to the end, and it's mixed, mastered and done, you're tired of it.
Jeff: I don't know if you've ever been around making records, but there's a lot of replays, a lot of problems that arise. This one, when I took it home and listened to it after it had been mastered, it was as fresh as if we just started it, and usually it's like, I don't want to hear that for six months.
Warner: You put so much time and effort into it, by the time it's done, you're already semi-tired of it. I don't mean that in a bad way, but you are. You've heard it so many times, and then you get to go out and play it every night. And it was cool for the four of us to finish the record and go, "S--t, this is a good record."
We knew we were on to something, but it was even better than we thought it was gonna be. And the record company was pleased, which was real cool. We want them pleased, but it wasn't like we've got to make this for them. We made the record for us, and they liked it too. Cool, gravy.
Jeff: That's the way it's turning out, 'cause I knew in my heart when I heard the playbacks, that if this thing gets stinkin' reviews, if everybody says it's the worst record we've ever done, I knew it wasn't. I knew that it felt like it used to be amongst the four band members.
Warner: And you know what, that's almost it. Back before we ever had a record deal, we were traveling around in the van, and we were lucky if we had one motel room to sleep in, we had a blast. We were just too damn stupid to know it. That's all we were trying to achieve, was to make a record that we all dug again, and we did, so the rest of it is all gravy. Hopefully, we sell some records. We want to. We want everybody to hear the damn thing, but it's okay. It's all we can ask.
Jason: There's bigger rewards to play for this outfit. There's a big price to pay, too, but there's bigger rewards. One of the biggest rewards of my 20 years in music was when we were making the record, it was every bit how it sounds. People have been saying that about us. "It sounds like you were having a great time making it," and that's how it was.
Moments like when we went into the solo on "Tomorrow's Come Today" right out of nowhere. The first time I heard the mix to "I'm Sticking With You," just priceless moments. That day with Emmylou Harris. When I drove down to Atlanta, and they'd already got two basic tracks cut, and then I heard "Drugstore Truck Drivin' Man," and it just rocked.
Warner: Yeah. Jason came down late, expecting us to still be getting kick drum sounds, and he walked in, and we had two tracks down. It was like, "Yeah, we're moving!"
My thanks to Adele Parrish of Myers Media for setting up this interview, and to Jen Plantz of Mammoth Records for recommending us.