In show business, who you know is just as important as talent and dedication. It's hard enough to be objective about music, simply because I'm passionate about it, but can I be true to my mission as a critic to help teenagers spend their lunch money wisely if I write about artists I know personally?
The Scene's Out of Sight, the third album by San Francisco's Actionslacks, bristles with taut, energetic, often touching songs that prompt the same adrenaline rush delivered by the Who, Sugar, and the Wedding Present. On the other hand, singer-guitarist Tim Scanlin (who was also responsible for the rock rag Snackcake) and drummer Marty Kelly are my pals. Does that mean my decision to interview Tim is a breach of ethics? When a record excites me this much, I'm not going to lose sleep over that question.
KBR: Which came first for you: writing music or writing about music?
Tim Scanlin: Writing music. And the thing that made me write music was Fables of the Reconstruction by R.E.M. Previous to that, I had been listening to lots of bad suburban metal, on which the guitar playing was pretty impossible from a 15-year-old kid's point of view. Then I heard Pete Buck and said, "I can do that." Listen to a song like "Talk About the Passion" on Murmur, and that whole riff is three notes.
KBR: When you started writing about music, did you feel at an advantage because of your understanding of music's technical demands?
TS: I did think that, and I still think that. In a best-case scenario, somebody who writes about music has insight into not only the musical aspects but also the logistical nightmare of being in a band. I cut artists slack when I listen to records because I know what a demeaning process it can be to actually write the songs, record the music, and put it out. That said, I completely respect the opinions of people who know nothing about music. Somebody downloading your song on Napster doesn't care that you had to work four jobs to record that album or that your girlfriend broke up with you. He doesn't care about anything except whether the music hits him or not.
KBR: Do you have trouble making interviewers appreciate that Actionslacks is a group, not the Tim Scanlin Experience?
TS: That really is the case sometimes. Marty is a phenomenal drummer, and a lot of our press is all about me, my songs, and my journalism career. Marty is a very humble guy, but I'm sure that bums him out to a certain degree. Our band would not be what it is if it weren't for him. Then again, we both understand it's better having an article that focuses on me than none at all.
KBR: So has your career as a writer and editor helped or hurt Actionslacks?
TS: It's probably helped, because I've managed to meet a lot of people that have helped us along. If it's hurt us, it's been mentally, because I know the whole music journalism racket—why people write about certain bands and ignore others. Journalists have a really bad habit [in that] they need to put you in a box, and God forbid you should ever try to get out of it because if you do, they're just going to go "does not compute."
KBR: You're still bitter about people dismissing your drum-and-bass project.
TS: [Laughing] Exactly! And maybe that free jazz thing was misguided, but at least I gave it a try.
KBR: J Robbins [Jawbox/Burning Airlines] produced your new album. Is it possible to gaze upon him without going blind, or is his godlike radiance just a myth?
TS: In addition to being what I consider a brilliant musician, J Robbins is one of the nicest people I've ever met. The combination of the two is frightening. He's massively talented, he has great ideas, and he has an amazing voice. He did a lot of singing on this album; and I would be two inches from the mike, singing my guts out, and J would be two feet away and he would be louder than me.
KBR: You guys once convinced your former bass player to pose in his underwear for me because I was reluctant to listen to your latest CD. Is that the most shameless trick you've ever pulled to curry favor?
TS: Probably. We sent a Hickory Farms basket to a booking agent—after we got the tour—because this person told me on the phone that he liked [sausage]. But you're just playing with fire by doing stuff like that. If the person doesn't bite, you look like a real jackass. The ultimate is Madonna sending Rancid naked pictures of herself, and they didn't sign to Maverick. That's brutal—because they still have the pictures.*
Actionslacks open for Girls Against Boys at the Crocodile on Monday, March 5; they are also playing an in-store at Orpheum Records at 5pm.