The three members of former Knoxville band the Scenesters are all in the same room at the same time for the first time in 10 years. But judging from the happy chaos resonating from the other end of a phone line to Nashville, it sounds like scarcely a day has passed.
"Is O'Charley's sponsoring this?" chortles a more-than-slightly-buzzed Kevin Armbruster, revealing something about how long he's been absent from Knoxville. When drummer Armbruster and his mates last played a show together in these parts, O'Charley's exercised an egregious musical dominance over Cumberland Avenue, with an outdoor bar that hosted party DJs, patio bards, and cover bands of the worst ilk.
"I just flew in today, and we have totally rocked," says Armbruster, who now lives in Chicago. "We've worked out 20 new songs, and haven't even begun rehearsing the old ones yet."
Founded in 1994 when Nashville natives Armbruster and Eric Otto joined with Knoxville Catholic refugee Craig Fralick, the Scenesters paid loud, visceral homage to the alternative nation sounds of the early '90s. But while other bands of that era were busy polishing up and toning down grunge for FM radio play, the Scenesters' vibe was straight out of Sub Pop. They were more Mudhoney than Bush, more Mother Love Bone than Stone Temple Pilots.
And with each successive local release, the trio grew more musically daring, incorporating hardcore and underground influences into their already powerful, rafter-shaking sound. By the time the boys broke up and left town circa 1999—by then, the name Scenesters had been changed to the Blame—the band's Sup Pop jones had been traded in for SST.
"What we're doing now is more Blame than Scenesters," says lead howler Otto, who is also Superdrag bassist Tom Pappas' partner in the Nashville outfit Whip! "We all think the Blame was our best era, when we came into our own. Suddenly, we were all geniuses, but then we weren't together. Well, now we're geniuses, and we're together again."
The latter comment comes tongue in cheek, or at least beer in hand. But it's telling in that the Scenesters' fans were as fervent and devoted as those of any other band from their era—an era that included Superdrag and Scott Miller's late, lamented V-Roys, among many other notables.
After an acrimonious breakup in the late '90s—the three longtime friends are barely able to recall the reasons—the Scenesters wound up in separate cities. In Chicago, Armbruster founded the vintage '60s surf-rock outfit Avenue Boulevard with former Knoxville resident Steve Schmidt. In Los Angeles, Fralick took a day job as sales manager for the L.A. Weekly and now plays solo shows under the moniker CBF.
Over time, the old wounds healed. Armbruster and Otto began playing together again, albeit informally, when Armbruster visited home in Nashville during holidays. Then came a fateful conversation with Pappas and Superdrag singer John Davis about reuniting some of Knoxville's '90s rockers. And then Fralick called, his schedule allowing for a long vacation.
But what began as a reunion may become an ongoing project: The band plans to record a seven-inch sometime after its upcoming show. What happens after that is still wide open.
But things would seem to be very different for these Scenesters than they were for the footloose Fort Sanders slackers who left Knoxville in a shambles at the end of the last millennium.
This bunch has real life to contend with—real jobs and families and kids. Armbruster has a 2-year-old daughter, Jade, with his longtime girlfriend. Otto and his wife just had their second child; Otto's 5-year-old son Oliver is already taking on the burden of de facto roadie for his father's bands.
"He really takes care of us," says Otto. "He gets up every morning, makes sure we have breakfast."
But for all the years and for all the additional responsibilities, nothing seems to have changed much when Otto and Fralick and Armbruster pop open a six-pack or two, strap on instruments, and play full-throttle Scenesters rock for the first time since the Clinton administration.
"It all came together," says Fralick. "It was like, it's the right time for this to happen. Now we're going to take over Knoxville again. Maybe the world."