Something's amiss at the 1996 MAK Showcase. It's not the crowd, which is well-behaved and nearly 700 strong. And it's certainly not the performers; each of the first four bands plays a nearly flawless set. Every cog and gear seems to be in perfect working order, and maybe that's the problem. Maybe this machine's a little too well-oiled; maybe the collective demeanor is just a little too polite for righteous rock 'n' roll.
then someone announces the evening's fifth act and shoots propriety all to hell. A twitching and snorting herd comes thundering out of the walls as the Scenesters don axes and grab mikes, and there's a roiling, body-surfing, shoe-tossing human vortex swirling across the floor within moments of frontman Eric Otto's set-opening roar. No grooving. No shuffle-stepping. No pogoing. Just bodies a-flyin', much blood-mad grunting and the soggy FWAP! of flesh on flesh.
Why are all the wallflowers held suddenly rapt, swarming around like midnight moths on a lone porch light? Why are all the knuckleheads, heretofore unseen, suddenly climbing backs, riding hands and cracking skulls at center stage? Maybe because there's a certain ineffable something about the Scenesters, a slacker mojo essence to which only a handful of other Knox acts can lay claim. It's visceral, yet intangible; palpable, yet hard to define. It's the Rock Factor, and the Scenesters have it, in spades.
"Knoxville has the head-bounce syndrome," Otto says in a quieter moment. "You play a show, and everyone just stands there and bounces their head and stares at your frets. It's like 'Come on--are you rockin', or are you just cockin' off?'"
there's no question as to where the Scenesters cast their lot. Having come of age in the heyday of Sub Pop, these four 22-ish Catholic school refugees are unrepentant disciples of Cobain and Corgan, versed in the Gospels of early Grunge and hard-indie cool.
Their rambling two-story brick house on White Avenue is a tainted temple, a grubby, blighted shrine beset with bad furniture, cobwebs, and missing windows. If you fight past the front-porch roadblocks of endless bottles, pizza boxes and bulging Hefty bags, you'll see the altars: wall-sized black-and-whites and psychedelic velvet homages to living gods (the Pumpkins, in flowing Gish regalia) and fallen heroes (Cobain and fellow Seattle casualty Andy Wood).
But the sanctuary is in the basement, a dank and drafty maze of graffiti-covered yellow brick pillars, rusted radiators, assorted pipes and wires and lots of dirty concrete. Here, nestled among the cigarette butts and Bud cups, is a tiny carpeted stage, the hallowed focal point of a dozen-dozen keggers, and the place where the Scenesters place burnt offerings three times every week.
"It's definitely a music house--among other things," says guitarist Craig Fralick. "Between the bands who've lived here, the bands who practice here and the bands who've played the parties, almost everyone who's anyone locally has been on this stage."
The Scenesters came together in late 1994 after much band-hopping and intra-state mambo. Otto, late of Nashville's Father Ryan High, first joined Kingsport native David Curtright (bass) and Powell's Fralick (guitar) in the Callahans, a UT student "dorm band," two or three years back. The Callahans begat Pale Cast, which eventually begat the Scenesters when drummer Kevin Armbruster pulled up stakes from Nashville's Belmont College and headed East at his old Father Ryan schoolmate's behest.
Now, after a year and a half of party gigs and schlepping around local clubs, the boys boast a respectable following as well as 25 finished songs. Six of those tunes are preserved on "Paprika," a locally distributed tape available at finer music emporiums near you.
Most Scenester songs treat classic themes--young adult anomie and love gone awry. Otto confesses that much of "Paprika" was inspired by a former Pale Cast bandmate's tryst with his ex-girlfriend.
But Otto and Fralick say newer tunes focus on story-telling and deeper themes. "Juniper," for instance, recounts the misadventures of Neptune's stepdaughter, whose fabled beauty was forever lost when she seduced the husband of a goddess.
"It's still got that little whore ethic to it," Otto says with a grin. "But it's really about vanity. We're trying to get away from the more traditional rock 'n' roll ideas."
Which might be a mistake, because the Scenesters' music, potent fuzztone bludgeon edged with ragged white-boy slacker blues, possesses a raw, hormonally charged quality that lends itself to love-gone-bad and other worldly woes.
It's an edgy, combustible essence, evident on every song of every set the Scenesters play. You can see it when Otto, a gangling manchild with hollow eyes and (for now) purple hair, purrs into the microphone in a burnished bourbon drone, then recoils and curls up inside his bandmates' thunderous groove, thrashing away at his battered nut-brown Gibson SG.
Then it happens, without warning, when Otto explodes, leaps forward and SCRREEEEEAAMMMSS, consuming the mike with a galvanic guttural roar, as if the devil himself was branding his twisted slacker soul with irons forged in Hell.
Like a gas truck hit with a spark, audience and band ignite. Forget epic themes and high-concept folderol. It's the Rock Factor again, and the Scenesters have it.