Forming in Perth, Australia in 1978 and operating for just shy of 10 years in a series of fits and starts accompanied by line-up and locale changes, the Scientists nevertheless carved out a distinct place for themselves in the punk pantheon. From the band’s initial slabs of garage pop to the primal swamp rock of the band’s primary line-up to the rock deconstruction of its swansong album, the Scientists created a singular racket that perfectly balanced vitriol and headier impulses.
As such, it was very welcomed news when the only constant in the band, singer Kim Salmon, reunited the line-up that recorded the classic Weird Love album to play a series of shows in the States and elsewhere a few years ago. (They had previously only been to the U.S. to play an All Tomorrow’s Parties weekend.) The tour led to recording, and the fruits of those efforts, Negativity (In the Red Records), saw release last month. I caught up with Salmon (who I had interviewed once before) via email to get the details on how this all came to fruition, especially during pandemic times.
You once told Fred Mills that the Scientists were fueled by negative energy. Is this album the embodiment of that?
Kim Salmon: “Fueled by negative energy?” Haha! I sure did say strange cool things back in the day! Is Negativity the embodiment of that? Dark, primitive, and full of bad vibes was what we were going for back then. Does Negativity possess these qualities? That’s for the audience to decide, but we try our best!
I saw you play at Union Pool. What was the impetus for that reunion tour?
KS: Well, it’s convoluted. There was the Numero series of reissues and boxset back in 2016 or thereabouts. Tony Thewlis came down to Australia in 2017 for a snorkeling holiday and the band decided to book a tour of Australia around that. Our support act in Melbourne was a chap called Emmett Kelly going under the moniker of The Cairo Gang. He plays with the Ty Segal Band, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and various projects of his own. When we met, he said, “Man, I know so many people in the States who’d just die to see your band.” He stayed in touch and decided to have a go at booking us a U.S. tour. He’d never done it before, but we were guileless enough to give him a go. He followed through with two separate tours of the West Coast and a couple of extra dates and an East Coast tour with some extra dates. They were both very successful. You saw us on the first one.
Not to take anything away from the other line-ups, but what is it about this one that made you want to reunite?
KS: We could have a go at resurrecting any line-up (or band for that matter), but it has to be able to pay for itself and cover any lost income for those of us who need to work, which is all of us, unfortunately. The cynical reality is that it is only this line-up that could attract the opportunity to reunite and tour the USA. In other words, attract some guileless muso to want to have a crack at booking a tour. This line-up is the one closest to the Scientists Mach 2, i.e. the one that recorded Weird Love, the first album we did that had a local release in the USA.
How would you characterize the different phases of the Scientists?
KS: I’ll try and avoid the glibness and have a go.
The first phase was a kind of conglomeration of post-punk power-pop with a touch of Baroque.
The second phase gets called “proto-grunge” and “swampy,” but I like dark and primitive and full of bad vibes. Boris says it’s a basic throb with a hideous din over the top. Tony thinks it’s some kind of deconstructed James Bond theme music, and Leanne thinks it’s a rock & roll holiday party.
The third phase was short-lived. It recorded The Human Jukebox. It is in many ways the incarnation that expressed my vision the most, even though it was more of a collaboration of its three members (Tony Thewlis, myself, and Nick Combe, a.k.a. Arthur Lager) than the second line-up, for which I wrote the bulk of the material. This third phase was also like a segue to my next band, the Surrealists.
And how would you compare the Scientists and the Surrealists? Kind of in keeping with their names, it seems like the Scientists are something specific whereas you’ve gone in a multitude of directions with the Surrealists.
KS: I think the “something specific” you refer to is really the Scientists Mach 2. Really all the phases of the Scientists and the Surrealists have been for me the same trip. You get older, you get jaded, you thirst for a new kind of kick, so you explore. You need to indulge your whims and desires, and therefore, you have to evolve to be able to sustain the ability to satisfy these urges. The Scientists imploded in 1987, and I continued on with the Surrealists after that.
Do you know when you’re writing a song whether it’s for the Scientists or the Surrealists or solo?
KS: As my last answer implies, I’ve been on the same journey for a lot of my musical life. However, in order to survive playing music over a long period of time, one needs to adapt over the years. In my case, as with many musicians, I think, that adaptation hasn’t been so much linear as branching out in different directions. I think some of these resultant adaptations have been defined by styles that have made it obvious that I’m writing for that particular project. As an example, I’m involved in an acoustic folk-country endeavor with Died Pretty vocalist Ron Peno. Well, of course, I’m going to write acoustic guitar picking parts for that. I’ve got other very different projects that define themselves in exactly the same way, like my six-guitar, twin-drum onslaught of prog metal called Salmon. It’s obvious that I need to purposefully build the material for that out of the heaviest riffs that can be composed.
Are you the type who is constantly working on music or do you tend to work only when it’s time to make an album?
KS: I’m terrible! I never write songs until I absolutely have to. Having said that, I have over the years learned to be open to ideas and concepts when they occur and have evolved a kind of random mental storage method, so when I need to come up with something I can go.
How did you put this album together during the pandemic? Was it particularly difficult?
KS: Let’s dispel this preconception right away! Negativity was entirely recorded and sequenced before the pandemic. Even the artwork (always the last thing that holds the rest up) was well underway as we entered lockdown.
Once Covid set in, In The Red wanted to hold the release off until the pandemic passed and we could tour on the record. Eventually, it became clear it wasn’t going to pass and we weren’t going to be touring anytime soon, so we released it—a year and a half after it was recorded.
What got you through the pandemic (personally)?
KS: Painting! In fact, I always thought I was going to be a painter when I was a kid. I went and began to study fine arts at uni. After a year, I grew restless. I think I needed a break from school, so at the age of 19, I decided to defer. I always joke that I took a gap year and then my musical career, such that it is, happened, and I’ve been on that gap year ever since. Not being able to do gigs made me not worry about music and I did a mass of paintings. A watershed of watercolors. I even had an exhibition last year and sold about 14 works!
I’ve always thought that my music was my art in lieu of actually painting. It was a form of conceptual art or performance art or even theatre. They all scratch an itch, but the itch can be from a mosquito or any kind of bug on any part of the body. I’ve got lots of itches. I’m quite sick really!
“Safe” sounds like it’s about a mishap on tour. What’s the story there?
KS: “Safe” is about incidents that have happened to my girlfriend and other women I know at various gigs over the years, as well as something that happened back in 1985 in Amsterdam at a well-known venue there. It’s about how the people employed by the venues to make the patrons feel safe often do the exact opposite. In this song, my girlfriend gets her arse felt up and tries to report it only to find several others have had the same thing happen and nothing done about it. I’ve seen instances of women going out of the venue for a cigarette and not being allowed to re-enter the venue by the bouncers because the bouncers have deemed them drunk. In some cases, women have not been allowed to go back and get their bag or meet up with their partner, and sometimes they’ve not been able to get to their phone. In none of these times did the people in question exhibit any kind of offensive behavior to indicate that they were drunk. One time, I went out to find my girlfriend who was having this problem and I was told to leave the venue by the bouncer. The ensuing exchange is part of the outro of the song. The 1985 Amsterdam incident happened when, after the performance, the band got tired of some locals making stupid jokes about kangaroos. Boris started taunting back about wooden shoes. It began to escalate and before you know it Boris was having an altercation with these locals who turned out to be the security of the venue. Tony and I went in to help and we were promptly flushed out with fire hoses and turfed out onto the snow on the gangway.
I suppose there’s some irony in a dark, primitive, and scary band like the Scientists having a song about not feeling safe.
I think the album has a very sparse sound, less of the swamp-rock murk of earlier records, whereas the recent EPs seemed more keeping with the past. How purposeful was that, to diverge a bit?
KS: Not at all! I actually think Negativity is way more successful at sounding like the Scientists than the singles because it was actually recorded with the band together and the songs were written with the band rehearsing the material and knocking it into shape together rather than piecing it together via the internet as the singles were done. If it’s less swampy maybe it’s because we’ve all gotten too good at playing our instruments and lost the swamp vibe. Maybe the internet was our virtual swamp and our lack of skill at negotiating it was where the swampiness of the singles came from. But to be honest, to my ears Blood Red River was the last thing we did that sounded “swampy.”
I’m taking the piss, I admit, but I think people’s perceptions of such things are often a case of what they project onto the music based on their preconceptions. We’re all guilty of that!
In lieu of the opening track, have you always felt like an outsider musically, even as you have found an audience and been cited as an influence? Did you ever feel a camaraderie with other bands, either in Australia or England?
KS: That song is about the idea of being a savant who produces art, like the Shags, John Wayne Gacy, Tiny Tim, Captain Beefheart, Daniel Johnston, Henri Rousseau, Norman Lindsay… countless people. I’m just exploring the idea of being excluded from the world of your own art by being such a person. There’s a degree of paranoia in the song about actually being one of these outsiders. But to answer your question, we never really felt that much camaraderie with many other bands from the time, and even if we did, we avoided showing it.
I’ve seen you credited with inventing grunge. How do you feel about that?
KS: I couldn’t care less. It’s just another word for heavy rock, you know? Minor pentatonic scales with gruff voices over the top—big deal. But it’s never going to leave me alone so to all of those people who, possibly rightly, feel they’re owed, suck it up! I think I’ve done better stuff than grunge, but if that’s the thing history wants to dish out to me I’m not going to just ditch it. I suppose I have just ditched it in that statement. Haha!
Did you anticipate the band having this longevity?
KS: Not really. Once we’d run out of steam in 1987, I couldn’t wait to move on—even in the same direction. We did try to not be a product of the fashion of our time, even though I know we were just that. But somehow we had enough things going on for a whole lot of different people to see and hear different stuff in our output. Certainly, most of our fans don’t think we’re grunge. Some people think we’re art rock, some think we’re primitive, some think we’re psychedelic, some think we’re experimental, some think we’re free jazz! Many people can’t see sideways to see anything other than what they see. But I’ve observed this over the decades.
Do you feel like people are more aware of the band now? Does it seem like you’ve been a bit ahead of your time or, to use a horrible pun, constantly swimming upstream?
KS: Don’t cringe, man! It really is a family trait to live up to the salmon’s reputation. My great Uncle Bob told me when I was a kid that I’d go through life getting bored with one thing and moving onto the next and never going with the flow. And the reason he told me was “because you’re a salmon.”
What’s next for the Scientists? Is this the start of continuing activity for the future?
KS: We’ve begun talking to our European and U.S. bookers about touring next spring. We’ll work on a set that is a combination of our old and new material, and the performance and presentation of this ought to lead us somewhere we haven’t been. Hopefully, we can go there and take people with us!