I came to America.
I had lived in the North of England for over thirty years and never travelled to mainland Europe, or to anywhere else in the world for that matter. That’s probably quite unusual, but these days I say it was different times. It’s even possible that my friends had flown or sailed to various places, but I just never did. So to find myself in my thirties and visiting the United States for the first time, well, what a reinvention that was going to be.
It came just when I needed it to. I’d been jaded and just about getting by after leaving both the band that I had been in and my hometown too, and so was probably open for adventure even if I wasn’t particularly aware of it. My pen-pal at the time – who I’d been writing to off and on for years – suddenly offered the opportunity for me to visit her in Alabama; down in the bible belt, the deep South.
I knew very little about any of America at all, but I took her offer anyway. It just felt right for that particular time of my life.
It was in August of 1993 that my feet first touched American soil at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. I was so naive to world travel, time zones, and behaviour that upon arriving in the South in the middle of summer I thought that the temperature in the airport was going to be the same as it was outside; cool and breezy and fresh.
The automated doors to America then swung open and I immediately found out how wrong I was.
In a heat like I had never known before.
“What on Earth is that?”, I ask.
That’s how it is here, came the reply.
I get in the car and immediately wind the window down.
No, I’m told. You keep the windows up.
Air-conditioning, you see. I hadn’t known what that even was. We didn’t have it back home.
But eventually you get used to it and you learn to adapt.
I relocated to Mobile, Alabama, got married, was legalized, and got a job and settled in, working in a bookstore for my first work in America; eventually becoming the newsstand director, handling the magazines in a brand new store just outside of a mall, and next door to an established music and movie chain-store. I’d do that job for five years.
Which is how I first came across true independent music in the USA.
There was a great music magazine that was called CMJ New Music Monthly that came with a free compilation CD every month, and since my records were in storage after the journey over, I was open to anything that fired my imagination when it came to hearing new stuff.
CMJ New Music Monthly was unique in that it had a wonderful reviewing policy called ‘recommended if you like’, through which the music reviewed was compared to other artists you might already know about. I thought this was an excellent idea and had not seen it before.
NB: As new issues of music magazines were published the vendors that my store used were only interested in receiving the front cover of each magazine (containing the bar-code) sent back for full refund. They just didn’t need the rest, and so I would tear through the back issues for articles and art, and take home bulk copies of the free music CD’s. The remaindered magazines were then recycled on my day off from the job.
For several good years I would send music articles and free CMJ compilation CD’s back home to my mates in England, noting the contents of each package on yellow-lined paper so that I would not duplicate. I was a cottage industry of new music all to myself.
In Mobile, Alabama there wasn’t a good college radio station, and only one decent independent record store, so you had to work just that little bit harder to find via word-of-mouth or good reviews just what you were after. I’m mostly a fan of pop music guitar bands; with good choruses and hip-swinging tunes. Unfortunately I had landed in the states during the time of the last days of grunge – which didn’t appeal to me at all – and so the music TV and radio I did hear was mostly full of that kind of thing.
Despite the plaid shirt setback I discovered a great deal of new music in those first few years; from Low to East River Pipe, from Spain to Soul Coughing, Idaho, Small Factory, Versus, The Magnetic Fields, The Handsome Family. The list just kept on growing as more CD’s were ordered on labels like Teenbeat, Pop Narcotic, Kranky, Merge, Carrot Top, Feel Good All Over, Vernon Yard, and Parasol. In those days there weren’t many vinyl records being pressed, and if there were they weren’t reaching me down in Mobile, a good few years before the internet and the ease of buying music online. So mostly I made do with CD’s through the mail and from that one good local record store.
And then I came across Independent Project Records / Press based in Sedona, Arizona.
As I recall it was CMJ that reviewed a trio called Scenic in mid-1995, comparing them to Red House Painters, a band I’d bought a few albums by when I was in England. I loved the name Scenic – so evocative – and there was a snapshot of a sleeve and it too looked interesting. It was their debut album called Incident at Cima, an instrumental tour-de-force.
Ah, there’s going to be a problem right there, I thought to myself. The very idea of music with no words…
The truth is that I think I was a bit of a snob when it came to music with no words and typically just avoided it. I’m a great lover of lyrics, inner sleeves with song words on them, a really good turn of phrase etc. Surely the idea of a band playing with no singer at the front was going to lessen the impact of the music?
It was through another instrumental song called Nothing Lies Still Long by a band called Pell Mell, from a CMJ CD that crawled into my skin when playing the disc one night. It was the music of the long distances that are never far away in the USA, the endless miles stretching for hours that I’d started to travel. The song ebbs and flows as the journey grows. It’s the first track on the band’s album called Interstate, that I then bought on CD to play in the car on my own journeys. This was my introduction to the music of America’s highways.
Scenic, on the other hand, was the music of the desert.
I have no idea where my obsession with deserts comes from. I suppose you could trace it back to England and my love for the Australian band Midnight Oil, who similarly came a little late to me during another music drought in the early nineties, in the midst of what the UK press had termed baggy, a la Happy Mondays and The Charlatans, The Farm and Northside, and all of that hedonistic shuffly dance beat ‘lad’ bollocks. The Diesel and Dust and Beds are Burning period of Midnight Oil may have been a guidepost towards the desert, but it wasn’t as strong then as this was becoming for me here in the USA.
Even if I wasn’t exactly living in a desert climate I could almost imagine the heat from the swelter of my deep South summers. I could not even conceive of a place so empty, so vast, and so enticing. I could only dream of it.
Independent Project Records is a small graphic design cum record label operation that has been in business since 1980, based in Los Angeles but later relocated to the desert town of Sedona in Arizona. These days you can find them back in California in the town of Bishop. The head of the label and design studio is Bruce Licher, the owner of the hand-fed letterpress printing press that gives the label its unique graphic look. Bruce is also the lead guitarist in the band Scenic.
Since that first introduction to his band’s music I have purchased everything I could find featuring the Scenic name, and even though after twenty-plus years of living in the states I am still no nearer to actually seeing a desert, each time I play Scenic I can transport myself to the place where the music was made, on the outskirts of the great Mojave desert.
I.P.R has kindly mailed much of their unique artwork in the form of fliers, press releases, and cards which I then like to put inside the sleeves for the next person who is going to get my records after me. I liked that I could call up the label and someone would answer and be only too happy to oblige my occasional specific questions. You just couldn’t get that from the major labels. I.P.R. has followed me through various relationships, different addresses, and states of this country as I’ve wound my way to where I am living now;
For those who are discovering Scenic for the first time The Kelso Run is one hell of a place to start, with an edgy and frenetic fast-paced sound described by Rolling Stone as “a desert mirage rattle-and-strum that suggests Ennio Morricone dune-surfing in Death Valley.” I love that. The scan of the sleeve at the top of the post is of a higher quality, enabling anyone interested to read the story behind the title of the song, printed at the bottom of the sleeve.
Flip the record over and you find two quieter and more atmospheric b-sides – similar in style to the soundtrack to the movie Paris, Texas – in which the acoustic guitar is recorded so well that you can hear every squeak and buzz that the wood of the instrument makes. All three songs here are taken from the Incident at Cima album.
Also photographed on this post are two sheets of Scenic Post stamps, not official tender of course, that were created at Independent Project Press as promotional material for the album and single;
and last of all some remaining inserts that were included with the original clear vinyl issue of the single – mine being #0115 in an edition of 1200 copies from December of 1993, mere months after arriving in America for the first time.
The last word on this significant episode in my American life goes to Bruce Licher himself, via a handwritten note he included in one of my many packages received over the years from his excellent record label. Thank you, sir. You made the journey worth it.