Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A better, brighter Scandinavia: New bassist A Mean Salmon speaks out on his transition from fandom to bandom

Joining a band that has already spent years honing their sound is never easy. Even the most well endowed musician will feel a quiver of anxiety as they approach a celebrated body of work, redolent of past successes. But when the musician is a fan of the band in question, this anxiety strikes a rich and bittersweet note. In order to rise and meet the challenge, must they make mortal what was once to them divine? Rock history is littered with stories of how fans and bands have negotiated this dilemma. Now is Scandinavia’s turn.

Long time fan and all round bass-hound ‘A Mean Salmon’ joins Scandinavia as they regroup following the disappearance of their Singer-at-Large, Nadim Samman. Samman decamped to Berlin shortly after recording the band’s second album, ‘The Gods’, and rumour has it he can be found mixing with the down-and-out in Charlottenburg’s Kumpelsnest Bar.
Samman proudly displays some of his peccadillos
The new line-up are now back at Guy Denning’s Granary Studios in Lamberhurst, Kent, putting the final touches on their follow-up to ‘The Gods’. They are sanguine about Salmon’s prospects for making a smooth transition from fandom to bandom. According to the group’s resident multi-instrumentalist, Tommy Parkinson, the problem that rock bands face when recruiting new members stems from a longer process of cultural change in the rock world.

Parkinson ponders rock history
Traditionally there has been a strict relation of dependence between fan and band: rock bands need fans, but fans need rock bands even more. In recent years this relation has become more fluid, and the border between band and fan has become porous. Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear of bands wilfully effacing the distinction between fan and band.

Norway’s Turbonegro, for example, have pioneered a new form of fan club modelled on motorcycle gangs. The aspiring Turbojugend, as they are called, can apply to the band for permission to start independent chapters in new towns and cities. These chapters periodically meet up to drink together and fraternise, but the climactic union comes at Turbonegro concerts themselves, where the band and fans fuse into a beast with two-hundred hairy man-backs, all clad in sweaty denim cuts. It should come as no surprise then that when the band’s vocalist Hank von Helvete decided to step back from the band, his replacement, Tony Sylvester, was drawn from the ranks of the Turbojugend.

The Turbojugend prepare to enter Tony
Sylvester has done reasonably well with Turbonegro, but the band has yet to recapture the glory of their debut album, ‘Ass Cobra’. This is not uncommon, because when fans join bands they set in motion a deicidal process that is hard to forestall, let alone reverse. We all know this, but at every turn we are confronted with late rock music’s myth of upward mobility. Fans, we are told, can scale the Mount at Olympus and join the pantheon of Rock Gods, providing they have big enough hearts and crazy enough dreams.

This at least is how the reformation of 1980s giants Journey has been narrated. After years in the wilderness following the departure of their original vocalist, Steve Perry, the San Francisco band found a video of the Filipino singer Arnel Pineda while surfing on YouTube. Pineda was immediately called to the aid of the flailing band, and before long he was on Oprah’s couch with them, where they all traded stories of how their union had transformed everyone’s lives for the better.

According to Oprah, Pineda has ‘reignited the soul of a band whose Journey had stalled’. For the group’s original guitarist Neal Schon, ‘just knowing Arnel’ has made him ‘a better guy’. For Arnel, though, joining the band has turned him into literal proof that the band’s most famous lyric rings true: ‘Don’t Stop Believing’. After a difficult childhood in the slums of Manila, Pineda had turned his rock dreams into a reality. 

Arnel and Neal improve each other's lives onstage
Oprah is famous for peddling such myths, but Pineda and Neal are not the only ones to cast the trials and tribulations of rock musicians in this light. Steven Herek’s 2001 film, Rock Star, tells the story of Chris Cole, a fanatical fan of the heavy metal band Steel Panther. Cole faces constant ridicule for staying true to his teenage dreams, but when his voice comes to the attention of the band, he is brought in to replace the band’s original singer Bobby Beers.

Cole eyes up a cardboard cutout of his hero Beers
Cole quickly meets and surpasses the standard set by an ageing Beers, but as the lifestyle catches up with him he starts to let things slip, and before long he too finds a younger fan in the crowd, ready and willing to overtake him. He passes his microphone over to the fan, and the scene fades out as his successor runs out onto stage to take his place.

Cole's band mates watch as he begins his downward slide
While the film itself is flawed, Cole’s story nevertheless reveals something important about the how the ideology of the rock band functions today. We tell ourselves that great rock bands arrive fully formed, having already found each other in the stars or the suburbs, but we know very well that the life of a band is shot through with compromise, mundane coincidence, and above all hatred. And money.

Nowhere are these factors more evident than in the recent history of rock goliaths Metallica. While initially lauded for their lean brand of speed metal, the band has since lurched from crisis to crisis, growing ever more bloated each time. The first of these crises came with the death of their original bassist Cliff Burton, whose pick-free playing style was the foundation for their sound. Upon his death, the other members of the band found themselves torn between a hint of sadness and their now insatiable appetite for booze and fame. In the end they resolved to go on as if nothing had happened. Enter Jason Newsted.

Newsted was a die-hard Metallica fan, and on the surface he was the perfect choice. Every time the band played, he would become a Dutch Windmill in the night, whipping his undercut around with psychotic passion.

But behind all the head banging something was clearly awry. In lieu of a proper mourning for Burton, bandleaders James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich found themselves bullying their new bassist without relent. Constant comparisons meant that Newsted could never escape the spectre of his predecessor. For the most part he remained confined to the margins, an outsider in his own band.

Burton haunts Newsted from beyond the grave
And so Newsted was confronted with the archetypal fan-cum-band-member dilemma. When one joins a band, they are no a longer fan. But the band is no longer itself either. Lost between these two non-places, the new recruit has two choices. The first is to remain in liminal discomfort, watching as his soi-disant band members fall further and further to earth. The second is to stiffen his sinews and head for the summit to be with the Gods, leaving behind both the band and his fandom.

Newsted went with second option, eventually leaving Metallica to pursue his ill-fated Echobrain project. When that failed he back pedalled, joining the Canadian band Voivod, who were striving to recreate their former glory in a way not dissimilar to the Metallica Newsted had just left. Finally, when that too grew tired, Newsted decided that he was the messiah, and began a band called, simply: NEWSTED.

For their part, Metallica have again gone on in bull-headed denial. After Newsted’s departure, they embarked on an aggressive hunt for the ultimate bass mercenary. In the end they chose Rob Trujillo, a behemoth in his own right, famous for playing in the LA crossover outfit Suicidal Tendencies.

The heavy metal commentariat turn on Newsted
Rock critics immediately began comparing Trujillo to Burton’s original replacement, but the band opted to instead compare Trujillo’s pick-free playing style to that of Burton himself. In a truly cringe worthy scene in Some Kind of Monster, Kirk Hammett and his band mates congratulate each other for ‘not settling’ (like they did with Newsted), and speak in pseudo-spiritual terms about how they could almost feel Cliff in the room when Trujillo played the song ‘Battery’.

Trujillo enjoys an insider status always denied Newsted
This attempt by the band to resuscitate their dying creation myth was understandable; they were struggling. Yet beneath the appeals to a wholeness now regained were the usual suspects: compromise, coincidence, and hatred. And money (Trujillo was bought off from the start with a million-dollar golden handshake).

Trujillo himself has excelled in the band, but Metallica as an entity has morphed into a giant cartoon whose delusions Trujillo is only too happy to indulge. He is their only levee in an endless battle with the waters of decline, and he doesn’t seem to mind getting wet.

What then of Scandinavia? Where does this band find itself in the cosmic order of things? Are they with the gods or the mortals? How will they negotiate the entry of a fan into their body musical? Will they succumb to the deicidal rot that is laying waste to bands like Metallica? Will they drink too deep from Oprah and Journey’s jar of snake oil, mistaking themselves as each other’s salvation? Or will they chart a new path?

As any true Scandinavia fan will know, the band is well attuned these sorts of challenges and pitfalls. Their first album, ‘Good Living’, was an exploration of what it means to live a good life – as good a sign as any of a band with its feet on the ground. Meanwhile, their second album, ‘The Gods’, paid lip service to their enduring concern with the theosophical dimensions of rock music. With their third album, tentatively entitled ‘Our Future City’, the band brings these two themes together, posing searching questions about humanity, mortality, and transcendence. If any band today can survive a fan joining its ranks, it is Scandinavia.

A new Scandinavia commune beneath the crashing boar
On the obverse, if any fan can survive entry into their favourite band, it is Salmon. After years of being Scandinavia’s only fan, Salmon has recently had to welcome new followers to the fold. Throughout this process he has displayed a selflessness that makes him an ideal addition to a band as committed as Scandinavia. At the same time, though, he has always felt his best when overflowing, stretching upwards, and making a mockery of the meek. These dual qualities will stand him in good stead as he and Scandinavia begin their dance with the cosmos.

A Mean Salmon mounts Olympus in Lamberhurst, Kent
Where many bands before them have failed, this one will not... 

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