October 2nd, 2011 marked the 10 year anniversary of the release of Scar Culture’s Inscribe on Century Media Records. Scar Culture was my life from 1997-2002.
A month after I moved to New York in 1997, a friend of mine handed me a flier he ripped off of a wall at Fast Lanes studio in Brooklyn. The exact details of the flier escape me, but scrawled on it were the basic sentiments that some dudes were looking for someone with metal influences to be their singer.
An actual band in New York City seemed like the big leagues for me at the time. I was 18 and brand new to New York- which is a big fucking intimidating place to a newbie. Besides the fact I’d never really been in a band before (high school never counts), I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a singer as I had always considered guitar to be my main instrument. Needless to say, the prospect of auditioning at once excited and terrified me. I called the number and spoke briefly to John, who instructed me to go pickup a demo of some tracks they were working on from the doorman at the Sam Ash drum shop.
A couple of days later, with my nerves not quite in check, I went uptown to grab the demo. When I walked into the Sam Ash drum store and asked for Duke as instructed the response was not the “Yo check this shit out! Can’t wait to hear it with vocals” fanfare I was hoping for. Instead he looked at me, tossed the demo at my chest and growled “You want to be singer? This demo is shit.”
I tossed that shit demo into my Walkman (holy 90’s!) on my subway ride home. 3 songs of mono tracked early Scar Culture material invaded my life for the next few days as I conjured up lyrics and vocal parts to the songs on the stoop of my dorm. About a week later I auditioned.
I like to think I came in and made that shit my own – but I may have sucked, not sure! I definitely remember being intimidated as fuck. Being 18 and fresh faced in NYC, these other guys seemed like they had worlds of experience under their belts whereas I had only dabbled in high school bands (remember? high school never counts). I thought I was out of my league. We blasted our way through the 3 songs and I left after about an hour. John, Duke and Sean were friendly enough that night, but stone faced when it came to visual feedback on how I’d done.
John called me a couple of days later to ask me to come down to another practice. I was through the fucking moon – years of pouring through metal and rock magazines and finally being part of a real band? It was amazing to me. I still didn’t know if I had the gig for sure at that point, but I was still ecstatic.
In fact, in the ensuing few practices I still wasn’t sure I had the gig- I don’t remember an official “you’re in” moment, but shit it must’ve happened somewhere. In retrospect things rolled quickly from then on out. We practiced our asses off and bonded through going to shows, eating crappy Indian food, hunting for obscure death metal CD’s and crawling through various Toys R Us’s to feed John’s Star Wars figure addiction and my quest for Simpsons paraphernalia.
There was an evening where John and I were walking through University Place throwing band names back and forth at each other – John was throwing out names with the number “4” in them – Furious 4, Fury of 4, Fantastic Four ( I chose the role of Ben Grimm); I on the other hand spewed out names that obviously came from a mind of a green idiot – with Skab being one of my gems. After rounds of completely lame back and forth, John came up with Scrape and proceeded to visually help me get the point by scraping his knee across the sidewalk.
We ran it by Duke and Sean, and Scrape was born (I seem to recall Duke saying “it is shit but I don’t care”). At this point, only about 4 months after my first audition, we had about 7 songs under our belt. John was the main song writer, and Duke would help structure the riffs he came up with. I would come in with lyrics and suggest changes for sections to make sense with vocal flow. We were ready for shows and John hooked up a gig opening for Brutal Truth at Castle Heights in Queens. Castle Heights (RIP) was the heart of the metal scene in Queens. I’d like to say we were well received, but it was such a blur of adrenaline and nerves that I cannot recall the audience.
The next few years were a whirlwind of shows, demo recordings, and relentless promotion to cement ourselves in the metal scene. I remember spending weekends screen printing cloth patches with our logo on them by hand in my bedroom. We played countless shows with local heavy weights like Internal Bleeding and Dehumanized, recorded an early version of the song Servant for the So Mote It Be compilation, got rid of at least a couple thousand demo tapes (which John and I would duplicate on our home stereo’s) and trawled endlessly at shows to get the word out there.
Frankly, we never really fit in. The songs we were writing and our live performances weren’t quite death metal, thrash, grindcore or hardcore – whereas the bands we played with fit neatly into those categories and their audiences seemed to demand a cubby hole of conformity for their bands; funny how underground music follows the same mindset as the main stream eh? We could travel between the metal subgenres easily, but support for our sound seemed hard to find. We won them over though – by persisting and moving through the scene – playing exactly what we wanted to play and performing how we felt we should perform. People started showing up to shows, out of towners knew who we were, those in the metal industry were aware of us. Oh, and for some weird fucking reason, we were pretty big in Poland. We ended up parting ways with Sean, who was a lovable and sweet guy but wasn’t moving in the same direction as we were musically.
After 3 years, it was time to record a real album. We had a couple of demos under our belt, but they didn’t do us justice. Through my connections interning at various metal record labels I got in touch with Billy Milano, who was co-owner of Big Blue Meenie studios out in Jersey City. Billy was reluctant at first, he’d never recorded or worked with a band like us. I met up with him at his office, checked out the studio and we chatted for a while over some sandwiches he claimed had the best cold cuts in the tri-state area. I could tell he warmed up to me as he gave me the pet name ‘Gandhi’ due to my Indian heritage. In the end he agreed to produce our record.
John and I scrimped and scraped (pun intended) to come up with the dough to record the album. This was no $300 demo, this was a $500-1,000 a day studio which was a big fucking financial deal for us. We had 9 solid songs – 2 of the songs I had auditioned with actually made it on the album: Dead Alone and Branded.
Recording Inscribe was a serious learning experience- I love recording studios, so I absorbed every moment of being in Big Blue Meenie’s hallowed halls. Duke laid down some fantastic drum performances. John did amazingly as well – he was pushed so hard by everyone there that I was worried he’d crack at one point, but he didn’t – even when Billy handed him one of Scott Ian’s (Anthrax) guitars and made him play all our riffs ‘clean’ to add definition to the buzzsaw riffs John shredded through. Recording layers of guitars (especially in the days of tape) is hard, you have to be exact with your layering or it’ll just sound messy. We were sans bass player so I put down the bass tracks (under my nom de plume, Lemme Wilson). Then I laid down the vocals. We even convinced Billy to lay down some backing vocals on Branded and The Devout. That’s his gnarled heavily delayed scream that opens the album.
When it was all said and done, we didn’t have a good album- We had a HOLY SHIT moment where we knew we had a GREAT album. Tim, Dan and Jay over at Big Blue Meenie did an amazing job with it. I was there for every day and moment of the recording, mixing and mastering process. I didn’t want to miss a thing. Though, sitting through a mastering session is like slowly watching hair push through your skin.
Not long after we were done, Frank came into the fold as our new bass player. Frank reinvigorated us – besides being funny as fuck, he was so full of energy and enthusiasm that we felt like a new band.
I burned copies of the album, put together carefully worded bios and cover letters and put them into presentable press kits. I hauled these off to the post office and mailed them to EVERY A&R person I could get address details for. I remember Billy looking at the list of people I was sending it to and saying “Gandhi, why the fuck are you sending this record to Motown”. I dunno, maybe they’d like it? This was all pre widespread internet adoption- if I wanted to fish I had to cast as wide a net as possible.
Relapse Records passed. Metal Blade passed. Fuck, those were the two I thought would dig it. There’s no downer like being excited about sharing something you’ve created with the world and then going through the inevitable numerous rejections. Weeks went by and I heard nothing, not even from Motown! I started mapping out how we could self-release. Then I got an email that changed my life. Steve at Century Media records was interested in learning more.
Talks with Century Media quickly escalated. They were flying out to NY to check us out and I was insanely excited and nervous. Nothing was set in stone. They wanted to see us play. They also wanted us to change our name and record a couple more songs for the record. The latter was no problem (they would foot the bill), but changing the name we had spent the past few years building up? Shit, we had merch printed that would be useless (unless we named the album Scrape I guess).
A week before Century Media was stopping by to check us out, Duke quit the band. He didn’t want to tour and felt that he would be holding us back if we signed. We got through our CMR audition by asking our friend Brian from Cardiovascular Sub Hypothermia to fill in. We pulled through and Century Media proceeded to move forward with us. Duke rejoined the band a couple of weeks later.
I had an entertainment lawyer I had met through a friend take a look at our contract as a consultant. He was kind and said it wasn’t a terrible contract, but he was honest and said that the $5K advance we were getting was the lowest he’d ever seen. Just make sure you remember that, you young budding rockers dreaming of the fame and riches that comes with getting signed. 5 whole fucking thousand dollars that you owe the label off of your royalties anyway.
Century Media met our terms on committing us to 3 albums instead of 7, but they wouldn’t budge on the name change, so we gave in and went through another christening. I had just finished a book that had resonated with me deeply, so I suggested the title of that book to the rest of the band and we were rechristened Scar Culture. This passed Century Media’s seal of approval. Our album art didn’t at first, though. We had this awesome thematic design from a great guy named Adrian Sol, but Century Media deemed it not metal enough so he revamped it (the only change we made was to change the human eye on the cover to a reptilian one). Whatever works.
We went back into Big Blue Meenie to record more songs. We negotiated that they didn’t all have to be originals, so we recorded the newly written Reform Reason and then chugged our way through covers of Surprise! You’re Dead by Faith No More and Wolverine Blues by Entombed.
Finally we had the album done, the deal was inked with Century Media and plans for touring were under way. We had a tour booked with Enslaved, Electric Wizard, Macabre and Diabolic – which is a pretty mismatched bill but ended up being a blast. Beforehand, though we were flown to L.A. to play Century Media’s Ten year anniversary party. You can see footage of this on the DVD that was released by Century Media. It wasn’t our strongest set, but hell we were green as shit compared to that insanely seasoned line up! When we got back, we spent our fancy advance money buying a 2nd hand van and set off on the road.
With the Enslaved tour, Scar Culture entered the touring arena and I entered the hellhole of dealing with booking agents. I’ve said this many times and I’ll say it again – I love playing shows, I hate booking them. You see, booking agents take a percentage of your tour proceeds but I kept running into the problem that they would never say WHEN they were taking their cut. This would lead to situations like a fondly remembered night in Dallas where I was taken out back by the club owner and held down while two guys with heavy chains in their hands came close to whipping the piss out of me. Why? Because I was asking for the money owed to us without knowing that our booking agent had called the club and said that he was taking the whole proceeds for the night as part of his fee without telling me. Looking out for my bands interest was turning hazardous for my health.
All in all, I love touring though. Sure, figuring out how you’re going to get the gas tank filled up and feed everyone on a whopping $75 a show was no fun, neither was sleeping in a smelly fart filled van in a gas station parking lot in the middle of a Michigan snow storm. You learn tricks of the road pretty fast – like try and park and sleep in a Walmart or truck stop parking lot so you have access to a bathroom throughout the night, which truck stops will charge you 5 bucks to use a shower instead of 7- essential crap like that. Despite the shit storm of inconvenience, there’s nothing like being on the road, seeing the land, meeting people and playing your music.
A week before we were supposed to finish a tour with Pissing Razors and December we had an accident with our van and ended up having to cancel the last few shows. We were back up and running to head out with Killswitch Engage, Soilwork and Hypocrisy in a month though. In true Scar Culture fashion though, nothing really went easy: Duke quit the band again 2 weeks before we had to leave on tour. There was no way we were able to get him to just pull through this tour while we searched for someone else.
We were worried. Century Media was worried, but we were insistent that we’d make the tour. We put up ads for drummers everywhere we could think of. A week before the tour was supposed to start, we got contacted by Alpheus Underhill who, in addition to having a one of the greatest names ever, was a fantastic drummer. Only problem: he lived in LA. That didn’t deter him though. He flew out to NY, crashed on my couch and learned the songs in the 3 days we had before we left for the tour. Our first few shows were a little rough, we were all still getting the groove of our set down. But we pulled it off, and our sets became tighter and tighter show after show. This was our longest tour by far. I would say it was one of our most fun too – the Killswitch guys in particular were a blast to hang out with, though they were having their own internal issues (this is the tour where Jesse, their first singer, left the band).
After wrapping up the tour in Seattle, we started the long trek back to NY. I was driving on our first leg and we were about 30 miles out of Spokane when our front tire blew out and I lost control of the van. We flew across the highway and managed not to smash into the opposing wall – instead we went into a ditch where the van flipped over twice and got totaled.
Miraculously, no one was severely hurt. Alphi had a massive cut on his head, Frank, John and I all had been whacked in the head with various flying objects – but no one broke any bones or had any major injuries. Our equipment even survived intact. Our van was totaled though. The cops ticketed me and we made our way to Spokane. Century Media paid for plane tickets back to NY (LA for Alphi) and we headed home.
That day still gives me the shivers when I think about it. Took a while before I could get behind the wheel comfortably again.
It took us a couple of months, but we got another van and headed back on the road with Mortician. While the shows were fun and the audience receptive, the tension in the band was rising. There was concern with how long we could survive on this lifestyle. Writing new songs was difficult as well. John didn’t have the musical rapport with Alphi that he did with Duke, and Alphi lived in LA between tours. We were all getting antsy and grating on each others nerves. The very real problem of finances and income was rearing its head as well.
I was also dealing with exhaustion in dealing with the management and tour management of the band. Depression was overtaking me and I felt in over my head with everything that I had to juggle for Scar Culture. There were rifts between members of the band that I couldn’t bridge, and that caused my own rifts with everyone. I also would come home and realize I hadn’t picked up my guitar and worked on writing songs on my own for months. It felt like functioning as a band was a thin thread for all of us, and I didn’t know how to corral everyone together positively like I had once been able to. Honestly, I felt like I was failing myself and my bandmates who I perceived as not lending the support I needed from them. I was taking this out on them too – I’ve always had a snide and cut throat temper, but it was coming out more.
None of us were having fun on our next tour with Origin and Crematorium. About 3 weeks in I announced to the rest of the guys that this would be my last tour with Scar Culture. I didn’t plan it in advance, it just felt right. I felt lost and not sure of my place with music in general. The only way I could see clarity would be to throw it all away. While I wanted to finish the tour, the rest of the guys didn’t after I told them I was leaving.
This retrospective really barely scratches the surface. Scar Culture meant the world to me for a large period of my life. I’m insanely proud of everything we accomplished – while we didn’t achieve traditional benchmarks of success, knowing the background and the work that we all put into it makes that irrelevant to me.
I still receive emails and messages from people who picked up Inscribe and dig it, and I’m glad we were able to impact a few people’s musical lives. I wouldn’t have the perspective I currently possess with my own music if it wasn’t for my time with Scar Culture.
Much love to my brothers who were in for the ride with me over the years: John, Frank, Sean, Duke and Alphi. Much respect to Roman, who I’ve never met, but who took on vocal duties after I departed. And much love to everyone who supported Scar Culture (and Scrape!) over the years. You shaped me and I’m grateful.
Branded by life, branded for life