Wednesday, April 8, 2009

“Scrummage” refers to a collective of young musicians in Detroit. They produce their own brand of music on their own terms, at their own loft and through their own record label. The founding members are little older than twenty-four, but over the past eight years they’ve garnered a cult following unequaled in Wayne County. The core group of bands share members, and new groups form all the time as members leave for college or depart on national tours.
The title “scrummage” does not refer to a particular style of music. Its sound runs the gamut, from psychedelic rock to electro-trance to country. Although the tightly knit group shares ideas and inevitably sonic elements, musical technique is secondary to a common philosophy: “Have a sense of humor about yourself, or else what you’re trying to do isn’t worth anything to anyone else.” Co-founder Steve Barcus cites comedian Andy Kaufman as a primary source of inspiration, and explains that their cult appeal stems from a public sense of irony. Band members sometimes wear masks or take on a certain character’s physicality in order to live out the stories they tell in their songs. “So much mythology was created just for fun,” says Barcus.

The scrummage mindset is most comparable to ‘60s psychedelic rock. Like that movement’s relation to rock music in general, scrummage is “more subversive” than typical independent music (Hicks, 73). It employs “new forms, unusual chord progressions, sophisticated technology, and novel gadgets to undermine the conventions of…the whole cultural environment” (73-74). In terms of modern influence, one can hear touches of Animal Collective, Sonic Youth, the Flaming Lips, and various “noise” bands. Altogether, the scrummage movement is one of the more vital and freewheeling subsets of current “indie” music in America. Their albums are released through Scrummage Records, and most shows at the “Scrummage Hotel” in Detroit are completely free.
The following songs have been plucked from scrummage’s eight-year-long history in order to illustrate how its wide range of voices have changed over time. This music could only exist in modern America’s intertwined sonic community. Like the pioneering American artists who’ve come before them, scrummage musicians refuse to stand still. New frontiers continue to await them.

...................BACK TO THE BEGINNING.......

1.) Scrummage, "Monkey In My Head"

This track represents the official beginnings of scrummage, back when that title was the name of an actual band of middle-schoolers (Conor Edwards, Bill Power, Ed Christensen). Note how relaxed their playing is. Scrummage didn't take themselves too seriously, but they were clearly interested in jam experiments. This aesthetic would later spread to most all bands within the "scrummage" network.

2.) The Gremlins, "Ferngully"

Once the members of scrummage reached high school, they hooked up with Dave Rosman and Max Fabick to form the Gremlins, a group that would stick around for a while and start to garner a cult following. Among area bands, they were perhaps the most self-aware, pulling complex pranks on other groups in order to infuriate them and subsequently conquer every "Battle of the Bands" possible. This is an early demo from 2001.

3.) Ductape, "Somebody Get Those Bees"

"These cats started off as a couple of weird middle-schoolers who amused us," says Barcus. No one knows for certain just how Eric Chodoroff and Alex Lauer caught the ear of older scrummage kids, but whatever happened was meant to be so. Barcus insists that "as they grew up, they became incredible musicians and are still right at the core of things." This early demo from 2001 documents the inane sense of humor that drove most scrummage, no matter how advanced the music would later become.

4.) More Like Magma, "Bitch"

As the scrummage group continued to prank other bands, they'd often start new groups and keep members' names secret. More Like Magma is one of many, many examples. The young men began to manufacture legends about themselves, a tantalizing desire which would only amplify as time went on.

5.) Bonedaddy, "Nipple Juice"

Ben Christensen worked on his own solo material while the bands continued to produce music collectively. Many other members also experimented on their own time. Christensen later became known as "Bones." This track is from his first album. You can hear a more melodic sensibility with this one. Scrummage groups would continue to blend noise with easier-listening.


...............RADICAL CHANGES.......................

6.) Bones, "LUNGS"

[Listen at top of page]

This track exemplifies the incredible eclecticism of scrummage. Christensen kicked out his "daddy" and began to work simply as "Bones" in 2005. Like other scrummage artists, he showed no fear utilizing electronic beats and a heightened commercial sense as those resources became available to him. Most renowned popular artists would shudder at the thought of altering their sound so radically.

7.) King Christenstein the 10th, "Ol' Zombie Eyes"

Listen at

Today, Christensen continues to explore new avenues of composition. Somedays he's Bones, and on others he wears the "King Christenstein" crown for a mellower sound. This track showcases his delicious mixing of down-home acoustic guitar with electro melodies.

8.) Benny Stoofy, "Bloody Axe"

This track takes us back to 2002, at the forming of a unique group of scrummage artists calling themselves "Benny Stoofy" (Alex Lauer, Conor Edwards, and Dave Rosman). Their title comes from a made-up, schizophrenic character who would supposedly force band members to play violent music with him. "He was a wild one," claims Barcus. Scrummage has never lost its sense of humor, as you can hear here.

9.) Benny Stoofy, "Take Off Your Pants"

Once 2006 rolled along, the Benny Stoofy character disappeared from the bands' lives. But because he'd scared them nearly to death while around, they continued to make music in his name. As typical for the scrummage scene, Benny Stoofy has refused to let their legends die. Their music, however, evolves as members' life experience continues to grow. Here, Benny Stoofy has calmed down quite a bit, choosing acoustic instrumentation over electric freak-outs.

10.) Benny Stoofy w/ Bones, "Courtney and Ohio"

Listen at

This track is a current example of Benny Stoofy's doings. Here, they team up with Christensen for an amusing tale of young love. Why such extreme musical changes from year to year? No one would have thought this band could include easy-going hand-claps on their early demos. The answer lies in how closely scrummage artists live together. If one person has a new musical idea, another band will often steal it and incorporate the same sounds into their own recordings. So many artists jump from one band to the next that the entire scrummage scene has been able to retain a unique sonic vision, whether individual members are aware of it or not.

11.) Mannikin, "Dance the Night Away"

Steve Barcus is a member of Mannikin. Here we find them in 2005, enveloped in dance beats and upbeat feelings. Barcus has said he feels limited in his songwriting, as though he's "not as liberated as some other [scrummage] artists." Had other scrummage kids been interviewed, they may have said something similar. It is clear, though, that Barcus has a musical vision all his own. This track proves that amongst friends living together, there's rarely been a lack of new ideas.

12.) Mannikin, "Edge City"

This track showcases the band in 2006, as they moved into their second musical phase. "It was a conscience decision to be edgy," says Barcus. Noteworthy here is the Pink Floyd-esque coupling of grand vocals, electric keyboards and guitars.

13.) Speakeasy, "Honey Bee (Early Mix)"

Here we have Barcus in a very recent phase, in his dorm out West at college. With little resources to pull from, he continues to experiment. This particular track continues to evolve in live performance, as do most scrummage songs.

14.) Eudemonia, "Luck"

Listen at

These sonic explorers were most in their element at a live show, using an audience for its energy but completely focused on their art at the same time. Note their extended electric jams. Such mastery of the instruments is rare in many new groups. Their name comes from an Aristotelian term meaning "the art of being happy."

15.) Eudemonia, "Windowside Cradle"

Listen at

Now disbanded, Eudemonia was "the raunchiest, most psychedelic, garage-rock" on the scrummage scene. Fellow artists could never predict whether their shows would be good or not. They were a full rock band with guitars, more traditional than other scrummage groups but very experimental (in their own way).

16.) Dr. Dali, "Ghost"

Dr. Dali (Dave Rosman) was an original member of the Gremlins. Always vital to the core of scrummage, he is a very talented songwriter who Barcus claims can "create an impressive song out of anything." This track is from his early demos.

17.) Dr. Dali, "Blanket"

Rosman's prowess with the electric guitar can be easily heard here. He mixes those sounds with a casual vocal style and strummed acoustic guitar. The flavor is uniquely scrummage.

18.) Grass Canyon, "Tabula Rasta"

Nick George records under many alias. This was a name he used mostly while working with a specific scrummage artist named "Josh" in 2006. Note the extreme dynamics between noise rock and easy bopping.

..................THE SCRUMMAGE HOTEL................

19.) SLUFTER, "Meatier Weakness-Descend!"

Listen at

SLUFTER is a one-man band who never played live under that name. "That’s a recording thing," says Barcus. He joined Benny Stoofy eventually, but here on his own you can pinpoint his influence from outside the scrummage sphere. His particular electronic style brings a unique sensibility to current scrummage shows.

20.) The Mood, "Boobs"

Listen at

This is Dave Rosman's band (seperate from Dr. Dali), which exists in Oregon but communicates very closely with the core Detroit scrummage group. Their music has an organic feel, but utilizes new technology. Listening to this song in tandem with early Gremlins recordings, one is immersed in just how far "scrummage" music now extends itself.

21.) SLUFTER, "Two Days in Chicago"

Listen at

This track exemplifies SLUFTER's continuing experimentation. Tracks like this find themselves coming together in the studio. The artist brings what he learns there into his work with Benny Stoofy. Thus is relationship between recording and live performance an back-and-forth act of sharing between scrummage musicians.

22.) PRUSSIA, "Great Lakes"

Listen at

This band is another friend of the core scrummage collective, more "poppy" than others but with a similarly humorous perspective on Michigan living. Their ode to the Great Lakes may speak to any bemused citizen of this economically-dwindling state.

23.) PRUSSIA, "Sometimes Someone Different"

Listen at

This track is new, but reaches all the way back to the doo-wop era for inspiration. Echoey vocals are typical of scrummage, but such use of piano and pop styling proves their love for the entire musical continuum.

24.) Lord Scrummage, "Dead Dogs"

Listen at

This band is a collective of original scrummage artists (hence the name). They fuse what they've learned and experimented with over the years and up with sounds that are unique for even for the scrummage scene. They play live to great success. This track is more danceable than some of the artists are when playing alone.

25.) Lord Scrummage, "Kabul ft. Leaf Erikson"

Listen at

This track represents the future of scrummage. Hip-hop is a major musical force in Detroit, and scrummage artists are wise to include it in their continuing evolution. Their experience with bizarre soundscapes is an ideal rap playground.


That's all for today, folks. Thanks for riding with me through the history of scrummage. This is only a single percentage point of what's really out there, so strap on your hard hats and take a trip to the Scrummage Hotel this summer.



"Scrummage Hotel" photography by Dan Epstein, copyright 2009.

Special thanks to Steve Barcus for the interview, Tom Wolfson for the connect, Nico Ager for the inspiration, and Dan Epstein for his exhilerating photography.

Print source
Hicks, Michael. Sixties Rock: Garage, Psychedelic, and Other Satisfactions. 1st. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999.