Arrr! Me Cutthroat Shamrocks
Keeping it loose and weird on the Gatlinburg poop deck
Don’t talk to Sicilian indie-rock band Uzeda about musica populare
by Leslie Wylie
"Homeless” isn’t quite the right word to describe Gatlinburg-area teenagers Derek and Benjamin, circa age 15 or 16. It wasn’t like they didn’t have a place to sleep every night; it was just that those places were mostly located in the mountains, on random rooftops and in graveyards. A few sympathetic mothers took them in, as did an ambiguous figure by the name of Mermaid. “We stayed at her trailer a few nights,” Benjamin, now a scruffy, gnarled lad of drinking age, recalls nonchalantly. “We were just wandering. We were figuring things out.”
They were also playing music, mostly because they didn’t have anything better to do. “That’s how the original sound started. We were drunk and banging on guitars with nowhere to go,” Benjamin says. “Not many people want to rent out an apartment to a couple of punk-rock guys, so we’d take the cash and spend it on beer and sit around on someone’s porch and drink and play.”
This went on for one, two, maybe three years—Benjamin can’t remember—and over time the duo managed to work up a handful of original punk-rock compositions. At some point, a now-defunct Gatlinburg bar called Skull Pigeons offered them a regular Tuesday night gig. The first show, they performed their miniature four-to-six-song repertoire in its entirety, and then, fresh out of songs, performed it again. “Everyone was drunk,” Benjamin says. “No one seemed to notice.”
It was a weird turn of events for Benjamin, who’d grown up in the mountains on a diet of bluegrass and gospel. Like unexpected houseguests, a steady stream of progressively less cohesive influences began entering into the duo’s music as the weeks wore on: mandolins, banjos, drum circles, traditional Celtic sounds, beer, pirates, more beer, a bassist named Guido, a drummer named Suavo, a congo-player named Johny Hyena. All that cranked into overdrive because, as Benjamin explains, “that’s what happens when you get rowdy. Things get faster. It just evolved—kind of like a long night of drinking. When it starts out it’s a little rough, but by the end of the night it’s fun.”
When they heard about Preservation Pub’s open-mic night, the band—now called Cutthroat Shamrock for a scarlet-hued variety of clover growing in Benjamin’s dad’s backyard—made the trek down into the valley. The unshaven, tattooed squadron showed up wearing leather jackets, looking ready to play some Ramones covers, but instead pulled out their beer-soggy interpretations of, as Benjamin puts it, “if bluegrass and punk-rock walked into an Irish pub and got kidnapped by pirates.” Pub owner Scott West offered the band a St. Patrick’s Day gig on the spot.
Now the band is playing Preservation Pub on the last Friday of every month and is looking forward to evangelizing in other cities in the region as well. One upcoming show the duo is especially looking forward to is at Johnson City’s The Hideaway on Sept. 19, which happens to be National Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day. Cutthroat Shamrock has a soft spot for pirates. “Every year, when National Talk-Like-a-Pirate Day comes around, we’re like, ‘Man, wish we’d booked a show for that day,’” Benjamin says.
The band’s own pirate anthem, “Drunk’n Pirate” (sung to the tune of “What Shall We Do with a Drunken Sailor?”), has enjoyed over 1,000 plays on the band’s MySpace, and Benjamin says it’s always a hit live. “No matter when we play that song, it gets the crowd rowdy and they’re drinking and spilling beer on each other. It’s not a sit-down-style gig.”
Truth be told (sorry mate), that’s what tends to happen with most of their songs. Cutthroat shows have a history of attracting disorderly crowds, including a regular entourage of fans “coming down out of the mountains and street kids and Knoxville punks and all sorts of women—girls who dance, and guys who don’t really know how to dance but they’re dancing because the girls are,” says Benjamin.
What’s next for the lot of Gatlinburg-bred rebels? They’re working on a for-real album, Benjamin explains, at Don Coffey’s Independent Recorders studio as a more official follow-up to their 2004 bootleg, Beer Soaked and Live . Translating the charmingly indignant energy they exude live onto disc sounds like a tall order, but Cutthroat Shamrock’s never one to back down from a challenge—whether it’s a drinking contest or the feat of displacing their indigenous Appalachian accents with an Irish lilt. Is it weird? Perhaps. But when you’re coming from Gatlinburg, maybe you’ve only got one of two choices: conform, or revolt hard. m
What: Cutthroat Shamrock w/ Pine Hill Haints
by John Sewell
Sicily-based band, Uzeda, has risen to prominence by producing a variant of the angular post-punk that was pioneered, primarily, by Midwestern Americans in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Listening to Uzeda’s recent long-player, the Steve Albini-recorded Stella (Tough & Go Records), brings to mind the abrasively artistic sounds of bands such as Scratch Acid, Rapeman, Slint, US Maple, and Australia’s The Birthday Party, among others. While Uzeda would fit comfortably with any of the aforementioned acts, the group’s Old World sensibility and geographic distance results in a singular permutation of sound. Somehow, Uzeda ushers in a sense of warmth and humanity to their sonic oeuvre, a feat rarely accomplished by their cold and purposely disaffected progenitors.
Ovviamente, la lingua Ingles funziona bene nel contesto della musica populare . The preceding sentence is the first part of a question emailed to Uzeda guitarist, Agostino Tilotta. Its translation: “Obviously, the English language works well within the context of popular music.” And while the language works well within the context of the music, Tilotta preferred the email interview format because of conversational difficulties we might have had by phone.
“The length and consequent necessary time for the pronunciation of Italian is longer,” explains Tilotta. “Italian is a wonderful, amazing language, with each single word having specific, detailed meaning; a perfect language for neo-realism movies, for drama and comedy, for all the active culture of the New Renaissance….” Conversely, the band prefers the English language for their lyrics.
The reader might conclude that the “conversational” banter of the email interview format is perhaps a bit stilted. That said, Tilotta is obviously in command of his expression through the written word. Asked how he would describe Uzeda’s music to an uninitiated person with scant knowledge of the vagaries of indie rock, Tilotta’s reply reveals how the prism of cultural difference refracts the question and its response. Or maybe this guy just enjoys playing word games?
“I would describe our music as a deep, Mediterranean yellow colour, including a touch of red, a drop of black, and a spruce of blue marine, in a bottom of white, mixed with surf green, all swimming in a tank of lemon yellow,” replies Tilotta. “To a child, I would describe our music as a magic toy-box, able to assume all the possible images invented by our fantasy. To an old lady, I would describe it as a night spent drinking Sicilian wine under a full moon in a sky full of stars and constellations.”
Alright then. While Tilotta is clearly in command of his palate, his verbal brushstrokes deliver some rather opaque imagery. Whether inadvertent or purposeful, the obtuse nature of Uzeda’s musical and lyrical oeuvre is key to the band’s allure. Something about not being able to pin down exactly what the group is communicating allows for widely varied interpretation: It’s as if the songs become intensely personal for each listener.
But don’t be misled by these descriptions. The Stella album is steeped in darkness, and any listener with an iota of interpretive skill will come away from the experience with feelings of dread, sorrow and pervasive angst.
Above and beyond the obvious cultural and geographical distances, what separates Uzeda from its musical peers is vocalist Giovanna Cacciola. Perhaps comparable to Lydia Lunch or Diamanda Galas, Cacciola’s singing style is the X-factor that imbues Uzeda with a human quality, albeit a damaged, bipolar humanity. Somehow, Cacciola’s vocalizations add a glimmer of warmth and hope that somehow eluded her antecedents, the Steve Albinis and David Yows of the world.
Asked about the pervasive darkness of Stella , Tilotta stays true to form, providing an all-purpose response that is applicable to everything, and nothing. “What we try to communicate every day, with our lives and through our music, is a sincere, genuine passion and love for all human beings,” explains Tilotta. “Our music is constantly and forever dedicated to those who struggle for the right to be themselves.
“What the band chooses, consciously and spontaneously, is to translate in music what we feel about the events happening every day on this planet, where crime is a fancy business owned by fascist governors killing thousands of innocents in the name of a fake democracy,” Tilotta continues.
“We have a lot of very good friends in the U.S., UK, Europe, and Japan. We don’t understand the concept of ‘ideal markets.’ As a band, we are people making music for other people. Music, for us, is a gift that we are amazed and happy to give, without prejudice and without restriction. We feel satisfied and enormously well-paid by watching people enjoy our shows.”
Who: Uzeda and Shellac