Cerebral corpse walking on brass horns : an interview with Johnny Scuotto
Photos by Felicia Wolfe
As a Star is forming in harsh abyss, collecting particles, sucking blank matter, heating, expelling colors and bizarre life forms – does it conceive metamorphosis? Does it willingly purchase a sharp razor to place above eyebrows and shave them bald? Does it progress through demented spasms as ritual death or visit a Hopi Skeleton House and laugh with those weightless about discarded melon? I’m betting this is Roman, in nature. As silver links dangle from fevered wrists. My question to you, curious reader: When is the last time you danced? If you can’t remember, you should visit the dead more often. I recall my hips shaking, lips curling, and legs twisting, as recently as witnessing, The Johnny Scuotto Band.
Johnny, as an artist, has been something of an enigma in New York’s music scene for a while now, and I get excited when I learn of a new project he’s involved with (I at least know it won’t be boring.) After a stint playing metal…literally, banging on metal with Art Grey Noise Quintet, he started a few good bands then went into hiatus. Recently, he has re-emerged with a group of players that get down to the essence of what rock music Is. I call it: scum dance-shoe polish-mod bop; call it what you will, it’s great to move to. Johnny’s showmanship is a sight to see. A pleasing combination of thoughtfulness and sleaze, as New York bred.
I caught up with Scuotto in DUMBO, BK, formally, simply, “The Waterfront”. Like Johnny, the neighborhood has transformed. Once a dumping ground for bodies and underground clubs, it is now a Hollywood representation of Brooklyn’s future. However, it does have amazing views, timeless factory buildings, and ghosts of quivering time stalking the grounds.
Pulse machines take notice – cumbersome tunics are no longer sliced to your liking. Hieroglyphs are nothing but English pudding smeared under black leather boots, sharpened to kill tough cerebral corpses. Masking tape will not help you create the labels you desire…
How ya feeling, Johnny?
Johnny Scuotto: I’m okay.
So, these recent songs I’ve had the pleasure of listening to, sound amazing live, and you seem to have captured this energy in the studio. Was your approach to recording focused on the live experience or geared more toward an “at home” listening vibe? I’m assuming ideally both?
JS: Both. You know, live is a completely different animal. Multiple elements come in and out. I think it would be boring if we always replicated what’s on the new recordings. Why keep doing the same thing over and over? It’s more fun experimenting. Hearing happy accidents. That’s what playing live is all about…to me. As far as the recordings go, I’m happy with how they came-out. We got our sound across.
Is this methodology how the band came about? Did you choose musicians based on their improvisational skills? I understand you write all the material, no?
JS: Yes. I write the tunes, then record on GarageBand. The skeleton of the track. Once that happens, I bring it to the band. They learn the parts then elaborate. They’re a big part of the process. They emphasis certain notes, add a few here and there — actually the bass player, Grant Parker, wrote a few of his own parts. He’s incredible. The main songs, however, come from me playing guitar and singing the melody, but yes, the band is great.
What inspired the new songs? I’d insist this seems to be a new musical direction for you. The upcoming album sounds more “straight-forward” than your past output which seemed brutal.
JS: Well, abrasive, yes. It was a different time in my life. I’ve evolved in a different way musically and artistically. I was a lot angrier back then. I still am, sometimes. Depends where and when you catch-me (laughs.) Honestly, I didn’t feel completely myself a few years back. Like living as someone else. I feel sometimes artists have to do that to find there own way. You know, step out of someone else’s shoes and find your own.
You have wonderful shoes.
Coming into your own, how much effect has New York City had on you? It is a place that is always changing. Scenes come and go, neighborhoods change, and as an artist, one can’t help but notice. As someone who has grown-up here, do you feel like a voice for a certain culture that expels from this metropolis?
JS: In a way. I mean, I take influence from what surrounds me, but I don’t walk around all day looking for it. Some of my stage performance comes directly from homeless people having fits. Mental illness is a real issue for me and how it’s dealt with in this city and America. Anyway, I’m not doing anything different. I’m taking from a lot of things I like and hope it turns into something uniquely my own thing. I think it has. I’m just putting my own story onto what others have done in the past. I enjoy, Lou Reed, Suicide, Leonard Cohen, Bowie is a big influence. Look…
I’m consistently observing music scenes as an outside entity. I prefer to not pigeon hole myself to one sound, look or sub-culture, as many of my contemporaries have done. My music is made for everyone. As soon as I’m too comfortable with my work, I make a drastic change.
Do you feel you have a “message” or “persona” you are exposing or pushing in your new material?
JS: I’m not really one for direct “messages.” I mean, I’m not trying to evoke a crazy change in society, but there are definitely things I sing about that one may consider political. I have lyrics about school shootings, based around kids with mental problems, as I stated earlier. This country has a terrible health system. These kids are not being watched properly and are being heavily or not at all medicated. Mental health is just not discussed enough. I put this content in a dance song. I want people to enjoy the tune, dance, but hopefully stop and say, “Hey, what are these lyrics?” I prefer hidden meaning.
You know…the terrorists are here. Running this country. On both sides. The deranged Right and the Bohemian Nazi Left. If anything, I’m singing against non-dialogue. I’m for freedom of speech. I feel we should attempt to find a common ground that helps everyone. I’m no spokes person for what freedom is. I just am doing what I want to do and that’s good enough. Push movement. Coming together. Bring some New York Street to the stage. Dark content. Dance music.
Well said. Final question: Life after death…any thoughts?
Amidst phonies, maybes, possibles, nostalgic cripples, caffeine filled baskets of Alphabet City, and comatose victims of malicious Brooklyn – often times truth can be found in curated bins.
Johnny Scuotto, in many ways like Lou and David before him, encompass a city that is as much theirs as they are It’s. His music over the years has progressed or more apropos, morphed, from guitars sounding as drills on skulls to Spector filled dance rock. If you don’t enjoy it, well, it’s not your city, is it? Beware though, soon your jukeboxes filled with memories will warp, and Johnny, will sing: “In the pale wind we fade to white, what doesn’t fly stays inside, from the cradle to the cage, such is life” and come for you sooner than you think.