- Joe Gross AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Originally published Wednesday, August 30, 2006
This is the story of a band from Austin
This band formed in the early '80s, rising out of the speed and energy of the hard-core scene. Tiring of that genre's aesthetic strictures, the band looked to older psychedelic rock and overseas post-punk for inspiration. It had a maniac for a singer, surreal and spindly riffs and a really great drummer.
No, not the Butthole Surfers.
The band was Scratch Acid, and the term "legend" isn't entirely inappropriate. It existed from 1982 to 1987, released two EPs and an album and played around 120 shows.
Some of the members went on to form what became backbones of '90s underground rock in Austin: the Jesus Lizard, Rapeman, Sangre de Toro, Ministry, Areola 51, the Damnations and more.
Scratch Acid will play a reunion show at Emo's on Saturday, followed by a set the week after at a show in Chicago celebrating the 25th anniversary of Touch and Go Records. These will be the reunited members' first public performances in nearly 20 years. This is their story.
David Yow (singer, Scratch Acid): "I moved to Austin in '75. My father was an Air Force pilot. I lived there from '75 to '88. I think my seminal punk rock experience was going to Raul's on Halloween night, seeing the Huns. Seeing bands like the Dicks, the Big Boys and the Surfers made me rethink music. I was in Toxic Shock soon after."
David William Sims (bassist, Scratch Acid): "I was a little younger than the other guys in Scratch Acid, and I liked the stuff kids my age liked: AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. I started going to Raul's, started going around the time '60 Minutes' did that report about punk, trying to make it sound like the most awful thing that ever happened. They showed some footage of Johnny Rotten, and it was something I'd never really heard before."
Brett Bradford (guitarist, Scratch Acid): "I grew up in Dallas and Salt Lake City. I got a guitar before I went to military school, a '74 Fender Strat I still play. I followed a girlfriend to UT and ended up playing in Sharon Tate's Baby, which became Jerryskids. After Jerryskids, Rey (Washam) and I knew we wanted to keep playing together."
Rey Washam (drummer, Scratch Acid): "Brett and I were in Jerryskids. We were at a Dicks show in the fall of '81, and Yow, who was in Toxic Shock, asked me if I wanted to be in a band around the time Shock and Jerryskids were ending."
Sims: "I had been playing guitar for a few years and was going to be in my first band. Those guys were a bit older, and they were going to practice at the house Yow and I lived in. I showed up and started acting like I was in the band, and so I was."
The foursome, along with singer Steve Anderson, were brought together at least in part by an increasing lack of interest in conventional hard-core punk.
Yow: "When you start getting really, really fast, it takes some of the the power away. Slower tempos are more like getting beat up."
Washam: "We didn't want to sound like East or West Coast punk. We definitely didn't want to just play that fast thrash."
Sims: "I think I objected to the generic qualities of a lot of what was going on in hard-core. I was a lot more interested in (post-punk bands such as) Public Image and Gang of Four. We could agree on the Beatles and locally on the Butthole Surfers and Big Boys."
Yow: "Public Image, Killing Joke, SPK, Chrome, Led Zeppelin, Ramones, Motörhead, Fear."
Bradford: "Before we ever played a show, we knew we wanted to be our own favorite band."
Throughout its career, the band was most frequently compared to the Birthday Party, the maniacal Australian band best known as the launching pad for singer Nick Cave.
Sims: "The Birthday Party was one of many."
Washam: "I liked them, but I don't really hear it as much of an influence. We liked stuff like (jazz-rock band) Return to Forever, and nobody ever mentions them."
Yow: "I remember doing a radio interview with Michael Gerald from Killdozer, and the guy doing the interview mentioned how much the bands were influenced by the Birthday Party. Honestly, I was a little ashamed at how much I was taking from Nick Cave. But Gerald says, 'Influenced? (Expletive), we rip 'em off!' And that was the end of my embarrassment. It's natural for someone you admire a lot to have a lot of influence on you."
The original Scratch Acid lineup began in the late fall of '81 with Yow, Washam, Sims and Bradford, with Anderson on vocals. Yow played bass and Sims played second guitar. They parted ways with Anderson in '82 and moved Sims to bass and Yow — who was popular in Austin — to vocals.
Washam: "Yow wasn't the world's most proficient bass player, but he was funny as hell, and everybody liked him."
Pat Blashill (writer, photographer): "I was friends with Sims before the band. We learned how to slam dance at the same time at Raul's in 1980. Sims was always the silent but dangerous one. He introduced me to Yow, who was the funniest human I'd ever met. And he just became the world's greatest frontman."
It took some time for momentum to grow. Washam split for a time to play with the Big Boys, replaced for a few months by Rich Malley.
Washam: "How could I pass that up? In hindsight, I'm just glad they didn't kick me out permanently. It wasn't the best move I ever made; the guys in Scratch Acid were my friends."
Yow: "We wrote songs so slowly that it just took time that could have been spent on touring, which is why we didn't tour that much. We just weren't very prolific."
King Coffey (drummer, Butthole Surfers): "My first punk band, the Hugh Beaumont Experience, briefly shared a practice space with (Scratch Acid) when we moved to Austin. We were kind of star-struck. I first saw Scratch Acid at Studio 29, which is now the Texas French Bread on 29th Street. The Butt's drummer got his nose broke by a flying beer bottle, paving the way for me to join the band.
"They were the best new band in Austin, hands down. Rey was the best drummer in Texas, and the stuff they were doing was just so far removed from conventional punk rock."
The band finally released its debut EP, "Scratch Acid," in 1984 on the local Rabid Cat label. Many consider its well-recorded blend of chaotic riffs, thunderous drumming and Yow's disconcerting howls to be a landmark of American underground rock.
Steve Albini (guitarist, Big Black; recording engineer): "I have this theory that any decent record sounds good at 33 and 45. The first Scratch Acid EP sounded awesome at any speed. It's one of the first punk rock records that sounded like there was a really coherent aesthetic to its presentation. The sound of the record, the balance of the band — it's a landmark."
Coffey: "That entire first EP is just incredible, one of the best Texas punk records ever made, one of the essential Texas recordings. It was just so out-of-nowhere brilliant, and it was really cool that it was on Rabid Cat, a local label. (The Surfers) sold out; we went to California (on Alternative Tentacles) and Michigan (on Touch and Go) to release records."
Blashill: "When that record came out, it was clear to me they were completely different. I was so proud of them making this piece of art. There weren't too many bands you could say that about in Austin."
With the occasional out-of-town show and a few short tours, Scratch Acid's reputation as a fearsome live band began to increase exponentially.
Albini: "Oh my God, what an amazing band."
Blashill: "There was this old campus bar called Uncle Susu's. In those days, the punk scene was happening wherever club owners would let you play, and Susu's was the place to go for a season. No stage, the band was in a corner, and during the whole performance the crowd was surging and bumping into Scratch Acid, and they attacked the crowd back. Sims had a real murderous glint in his eye. A really loud and ugly sound, but you never wanted to miss them."
Sims: "It was interesting to going to places like Minneapolis and Seattle, where we were a lot more popular than we were in Austin. It was sort of a shock."
Jon Fine (guitarist, B—— Magnet): "They all looked like members of different bands. Yow in a flannel shirt, super scrawny and nuts, Sims with really long hair, which he flipped around — pre-grunge, remember. Bradford looking like a totally ordinary guy and Washam looking like he just got off a shift at a gas station, being this unreal drummer. They didn't seem to interact with each other, but the music was incredibly together, with this very aggressive rhythm section, and their shows had the texture of being an actual event."
Blashill: "I had a lot of fun photographing them. We once posed them in this creek. The image just made a lot of sense. They looked tattered and torn, covered with weeds. They were just the perfect sort of inheritors of this Austin legacy of 'nature boy crazy.' "
Coffey: "They played this trio of shows. At one, Yow was dressed as Hitler. The next show he dressed like (Butthole Surfers singer) Gibby (Haynes). And then the third he was on a cross dressed like Jesus and performed 'Damned for All Time' from 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' "
Yow: "We opened for Motörhead in Dallas in '85 after Spin magazine ran an article on us. This was my conversation with Lemmy: He was exiting their bus as I was walking past. We bumped into each other. He said, 'Excuse me.' I said, 'Excuse me.' "
Albini: "There was a degree of show business in other bands that was absent in Scratch Acid. You got the feeling watching them that they were being put through some sort of ordeal. It wasn't shtick.
"I remember one time Yow had hidden cookie dough in his pants. At some point, he . . . pulled out a handful . . . and charged the crowd. Now, in a lot of circumstances, your first reaction would be, 'That's not real.'
"I was 100 percent convinced."
The band's album "Just Keep Eating" appeared in 1986. In the winter of 1986 and '87, Scratch Acid made it to Europe, where the band learned a few lessons about weather and the limited financial options in independent rock.
Washam: "Having been in Texas, we had no idea what real cold weather was. We showed up in jean jackets and cowboy boots."
Sims: "Someone told us in some places it was the coldest it had been in 400 years. We had this little Mercedes van that ran on diesel, and a lot of mornings, our tour manager would get up early and call his auto club, and this guy would come out with a little electric gizmo that would thaw out enough of the diesel to start the van."
Yow: "I couldn't believe we were going to Europe at all, and when we got there, we were told we had a roadie and it was Simon Bonney, the singer from Crime and the City Solution, a band we loved and one that was way more famous than we were. We asked him 'Why are you doing this?' He said, 'I get paid. I don't have any money.'
"Bonney (had some problems). He was a real snappy dresser, and we were getting ready to go out one night, and he had been in the bathroom a long, long time. He came out of the bathroom, face was all red, tears coming down and some vomit on his clothes he clearly hadn't noticed. He said, 'How do I look?'
"I said, 'You look great. Let's go.' "
By 1987, Scratch Acid hooked up with Touch and Go Records, the label that was home to such peers as the Butthole Surfers, Big Black and Killdozer. The band released its final EP, "Berserker," for that label later that year.
Sims: "That label was a revelation. The Surfers had turned them on to us."
Coffey: "I played (Touch and Go executive Cory Rusk) a cassette that Scratch Acid had just recorded for what would be the first EP. He freaked out over it and was angry that it was already scheduled to come out on Rabid Cat."
Washam: "Cory Rusk is an amazing person. I've been ripped off umpteen million times, and Cory just kept his word. You do not see that kind of integrity in the music business."
But by the spring of 1987, the time had come for the band to part ways. The band played its last show in May of '87.
Washam: "That last show we made like $1,000. That was a huge deal."
Albini: "Nobody ever said to me out loud, 'We're through after this.' But when they were on that last tour, there seemed to be this sense of resignation."
Bradford: "To this day, I can't believe that I was in the right place in the right time. I couldn't have written my own script any better."
After Scratch Acid broke up, Sims and Washam joined Albini in the short-lived Rapeman. Sims then teamed up with Yow in the Jesus Lizard in 1989. That band went on to comparative fame and fortune and lasted until 1999. Bradford has played with such acts as Sangre de Toro and Areola 51. Scratch Acid's catalog was reissued in 1991 on the CD "The Greatest Gift."
These days, Washam plays music in Los Angeles, the city where Yow is currently employed as a photo retoucher. He makes music occasionally with bands such as the Melvins. Sims works in New York as an accountant. Bradford plays music in Austin.
Yow: "I've had no interest in reuniting the band for money. When asked, I would just quote absurd prices, like we'd play if each of us could walk with $250,000. But getting the call to play for the Touch and Go show was a no-brainer."
Bradford: "I think playing together again was a lot more challenging than anyone thought it was going to be. I was having bad dreams about being up on stage. We got together for four days in July in Austin — six-, eight-hour practices. I think I'm kind of close to where I left off."
Washam: "It was strange counting off the first song after not having played it for 25 years. I was really surprised at how it sounded the same, but a little bit better, like we learned how to play."
Yow: "It was really weird. We're all old guys now, and some of it was really difficult. There's no way I could tour, do six nights a week.
"But man, we played 'Cannibal,' and I got chills."
In the same vein
If you're a fan of any of these albums, you'll probably dig Scratch Acid's messy vibe:
1. Nirvana, 'In Utero' (DGC)
2. And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead, 'Madonna' (Merge)
3. Led Zeppelin, 'IV' (Atlantic)
4. Tool, '10,000 Days' (Universal)
5. Gorch Fock, 'Gorch Fock' (Australian Cattle God)