Southern Culture on the Skids: the finest in high-cholesterol, toe-sucking geek rock since 1985


By Steve Newton

“High-cholesterol, toe-sucking geek rock.” That’s how singer-guitarist Rick Miller describes the œuvre of his band, Southern Culture on the Skids. And he’s mighty proud of it, too. Miller’s been striving to produce the finest in high-cholesterol, toe-sucking geek rock ever since forming the band back in 1985.

“I think it’s been a consistent concern of ours,” says Miller, calling from Santa Fe, New Mexico. “Whenever people ask us, ‘Well, what does your music sound like?’ we try to tell them in the most unmusical terms possible, because musically it’s really hard to pinpoint. There’s so many influences, we just kind of throw it all together and see what we come up with—which works really good for us. It’s a cool way to approach more traditional roots music, ya know.”

Geeky toe-sucking aside, Miller’s trio—which also includes bassist Mary Huff and drummer Dave Hartman—exudes a sound that is part Tony Joe White swamp blues, part Slim Harpo hip-shake boogie, and part Creedence Clearwater Revival chooglin’ strut. It’s all coloured by a junk-culture, white-trash slant and—via Miller’s trebly Danelectro guitar/Supro amp combo—shot through with heavy doses of Link Wray and Duane Eddy stylings. (“I’d worship at both of their altars,” spouts the jovial Miller. “I’d genuflect in front of both of ’em!”)

The SCOTS story began at the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina, where Miller formed the band while studying fine arts. The greasy, trailer-park ambience of tunes like “Fried Chicken and Gasoline” and “Dirt Track Date”—the title track of his band’s latest album—makes you wonder where Miller’s painting and printmaking background fits in.

“I tell you what,” he says. “The fine-art thing is okay, but it’s too much of European tradition involved, you know what I mean? I figure like, if you’re an American, your legacy’s always gonna be the popular arts. I’ve always loved music, journalism, film, and stuff. I think that’s what we probably do best.”

As the songwriter in the trio (which plays the Starfish Room on Saturday, November 18), Miller often draws on his youthful moviegoing experiences in the southern U.S., birthplace of that near-extinct monument to lowbrow art, the drive-in. He spent many a vehicle-bound night soaking up the twisted vision of Roger Corman in films like Little Shop of Horrors and A Bucket of Blood; years later, his band would play its first gig opening for a dirty movie at a midnight-movie theatre.

“When we first got started it was when that North Carolina pop scene was happening,” he says, “with Mitch Easter and the DBs, and R.E.M. was real popular. So it was that Athens/southern-pop sound. Nobody really paid us much attention, ’cause we were goin’ for much more of a rougher, rawer, rootsy sound. The guy I formed the band with worked at a movie theatre, and every weekend they showed porno. He said, ‘Well, I can get us a gig, and we’ll play in front of Cafe Flesh.’ So that’s how we got our first gigs.”

Miller’s fondness for celluloid schlock can be heard on Dirt Track Date in the form of “Galley Slave”, an instrumental tribute to those wacky Italian sword-and-sandal epics.

“That’s dedicated to a Hercules film,” says Miller. “You know how in every Hercules movie—or Ulysses or Samson or whatever—they always have one scene where he gets kidnapped or becomes a slave and he’s gotta be in the bottom of that galley? They’ve got that big guy with the S&M leather gear bangin’ on a kettledrum, and everybody’s pulling on an oar. Well, that’s what that song’s about, and that’s a dance step, see—where you pull the oar back, you push the oar forward. Now the middle eight on that is where they always run afoul of some sirens on the rocks, when Mary comes in with ‘a-wah-aa’—that’s the siren effect. Very cinematic.”

One other effect, used unsparingly at the end of the new disc, brings the oily spirit of a dirt track right into your living room, whether you want it there or not. Miller lifted several minutes of race-car engine noise from an album he came across while scouring used-record stores, Sounds of Auto Racing.

“I’ve got a lotta auto-racing records,” reports Miller, “but most of them are kind of the high-end stuff—Indy cars and Formula cars. It was really hard to find one that was actually recorded at a dirt track, but this was a double find ’cause it was in stereo. So if you listen to it you can actually hear the cars going around in a circle, going from speaker to speaker the way they would go around the track. And we didn’t edit anything, man, that’s the whole track.

“I even wanted to do our record-release party at a dirt track,” adds the car-crazed rocker. “We thought that, if we ever did a video, we’d want to play while two cars jumped over top of us. Wouldn’t that be cool? Yeah, man. That’s excitement!”


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