Pop Music: Stranger than fiction
Friday, February 19, 1999
By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic
What do you call a band whose love of the classic American murder ballad manifests itself in a sound that allows room for instrumentation as non-Appalachian as theremin, synthesizer, tape loops, trumpet, drums and feedback-soaked guitar?
Some call it treason.
But purists are like that.
Erin "Scratchy" Hutter, the one on the fiddle and theremin, likes to think you'll one day view her band, the Deliberate Strangers, as gothabilly. Stephanie Vargo, a woman whose way with a mournful vocal may leave you wondering if she was, in fact, genetically engineered to sing of love and death in coalmining country, is currently high on the fad-resistant label, backwoods electronica. One tag no one in the Strangers seems real high on at the moment is the next-big-thing-that-never-happened, alternative country. Tom Moran, whose just plain chilling "Box of Pine" has everything you could possibly want in a murder ballad (and then some), says he isn't sure how well the Strangers fit with the artists you'd tend to read all about in the alt.country bible, No Depression - even before the fiddle player decided to order a theremin kit. For one, they've got a sense of humor. And the No Depression scene, as Moran says, is "prettyconservative. It's like bluegrass in a lot of ways. You're not supposed to make fun of anything. I mean, there's not that many humorous No Depression bands."
And even if the fit were perfect, you can't really blame them for trying to put some distance between themselves and a movement that's widely perceived to be dying, especially now that they're trying to bring your attention around to a brilliant new CD that doesn't need no stinkin' genre, "Mood Music For Snake Handlers." Vargo hopes she's wrong about the fate of alternative country, but says, "Unfortunately, I think it's reached its apex and it's gonna fade away. It had its chance..." "And nobody liked it," Moran interrupts, with a laugh. "When it came down to it, nobody wanted to buy it." Vargo points to Twangburgh, Rosebud's two-day alt.country festival, as one sure sign that Pittsburgh may not be the place for No Depression music to explode. "With all the time we put into Twangburgh, we didn't do as well people-wise as we thought we would," she says. "I mean, anybody who was going to be interested in the music in this area would have been there. There were a lot of out-of-town people who flew in, people who love to go to these festivals, but in terms of local population, it just wasn't there. I mean, House of Soul is going to draw more people all the time than this kind of stuff."
One problem Vargo feels the music may have is the fact that people can't quite get a handle on it. Is it Wilco or the Bottle Rockets? The Old '97s or Gillian Welch? "It wasn't defined enough as a genre," she says. "I mean, with rockabilly everybody had their little costumes and it's so defined as a genre." With fans of alternative country, Moran says, "You can't pick one out when it's walking down the street."
If it isn't exactly alternative country, the Strangers have certainly drawn their share of inspiration from a remarkably similar well to the one the acts in No Depression visit. Moran, a feedback-happy veteran of local punk heroes The Five, came by his love of traditional music through Vargo, his wife. She grew up Appalachian surrounded by music. Before they met, Moran's appreciation of Americana extended as far as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's "Will The Circle Be Unbroken." "But as far as anything really hardcore, I had no idea what it was like," he says. "Then she started playing the Stanley Brothers and Hazel Dickens and I was like 'Whoa, this stuff is way more gruesome than anything by the Bad Seeds.' "
When Moran and Vargo formed the band, in '94, it was bluegrass, as "Ladies, check your theremin at the door, please." Even then, the Strangers weren't what you'd call a traditional bluegrass band. "The very first incarnation," Moran says, "was me and Stephanie and Justin Sane and Pat from [local punk band] Anti-Flag. So that was the original idea. But the guys from Anti-Flag had to tour so much that they couldn't do it." It was good for one rehearsal. By the time they hit the studio to cut their first CD, "Hog Wild & Pig Bitin' Mad," the lineup was set at Vargo, Hutter (who answered an ad for "a lonesome fiddle player"), Moran and former Stranger Jimmy Earl Delmore, whose banjo provided the band with a far more traditional bluegrass flavor. They were careful at the time, says Vargo, not to alienate the bluegrass people.
"We were really concerned," she says, "because that's what we were playing. We were doing bluegrass open stages and those were the people listening to us. We had an Earl Scruggs-style banjo player and that gives you a sound that's pretty bluegrass."
Slowly, though, the band could feel itself evolving, much of it inspired by the fact the Hutter's outside listening tastes could bring a No Depression loyalist to tears. Nodding across the diner table at her bandmates, Hutter says, "I don't really listen to what they listen to. I'm more into electronic, experimental, industrial, gothic classical. We do come together on Hank Williams and a few other things." With a devilish grin, she adds, "like the Birthday Party." From the day she joined, she's been pushing the band to experiment. And in time it did. It's even using samplers now. And tape loops of banjos. The plan going into the new one was simple. As Vargo explains it, "We just thought we're gonna do what we want and we're gonna make it sound the way we want and we're gonna take risks. And there's a lot of takes that no one will ever hear because it just didn't work." When it did work, the sound of two worlds colliding is magic. For the album-closing cover of the spiritual, "Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down," Moran laid down a track of clawhammer banjo over the drone of a synthesizer that brings out the ominous Judgment Day vibe of the lyrics better than any traditional bluegrass arrangement would have.
Part of the reason the Strangers stopped caring so much about pleasing the purists is the fact that purists can't be pleased by anything other than pure imitation. "Once we added the drums, that was it," says Moran. "There was no turning back after that." In fact, one local bluegrass artist told him, "I worked 17 years to bring dignity to this music in this town and along come you guys." As a band that does its best to stretch the boundaries of tradition, the Strangers have heard some pretty strange reactions to their music. The night of the record release celebration at Rosebud, for instance, Moran says, "This old Italian guy called Andy the Accordion Player didn't like us at all because he said the fiddle playing sounded too Gypsy. He said we sound like a bunch of Gypsies and they steal your children and sell you bad oxen." Laughing, Vargo explores the admittedly tempting promotional possibilities: "Deliberate Strangers; We'll steal your children and sell you bad oxen."
Hey, it worked for Marilyn Manson.
Considering new promotional possibilities is nothing new for Vargo. The band has self-released both efforts, doing promotion at night after working all day on their day jobs. "The hardest part," says Vargo, "isn't making the music. It's the business end of it, getting things out to distributors, booking shows, doing promotions. You just have to always keep on top of it. I mean, Tom's on the Internet every night, just keeping an eye on things and making connections." When Moran first started surfing for connections on their new computer, she says, "he was typing in 'twang' and, like, 'hillbilly girls.' " Her husband laughs as Vargo says, "That was a bad thing to type in."
In June, the band will have a chance to re-explore its roots in bluegrass on stage at the Mountain Top Bluegrass Festival. Despite the residual chill of the last cold shoulder the bluegrass community gave them, Vargo thinks they'll do just fine. "The thing is, in terms of old-time mountain music, we're really traditional," she says. "That element is so 'in there' that it isn't difficult for us to do that. People that have listened to the old murder ballads - 'Knoxville Girl' and 'Pretty Polly' - they understand what we're doing." For as long as they're on stage at Mountain Top, they'll go back to being careful about not alienating the bluegrass people. As Moran says, "We're gonna do it bluegrass. No theremins."
Still the girl most likely to go against the grain of bluegrass, Hutter jokes, "Well, maybe an acoustic one."
Now that would be something.