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Scott Amendola: Diversity in the first degree

Thursday, Feb 27 2003
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Photo by Brandon Fernandez

GEARHEADS AT PLAY. IT'S DECEMBER, AND Scott Amendola, a do-anything drummer who lives in the Bay Area, is in town on business. He's staying at the Culver City abode of guitar melter G.E. Stinson, with whom he's previously performed in numerous situations. They're hashing over a mutual obsession: vintage effects boxes. G.E. is jealous.

Stinson: "He's been collecting this one device that is the most coveted looping technology — the Electro Harmonix 16-second delay. And he's got three of them."

What does Amendola use this rare mid-'70s protodigital artifact for?

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Amendola: "To sample myself. I've got this little pedal board, and I make weird loops and sounds." He finds employment for it with a couple of bands he's in — Crater and the Nels Cline Singers. "I do it primarily just to piss people off."

Stinson: "And it's working!"

Listen to Scott Amendola :

Yeah, that Scott Amendola is a pisser. Must be why everybody wants to play with him. Despite the 400 miles that separate his home from ours, he's in five bands with L.A. guitar star Nels Cline alone: the Singers, Crater, L. Stinkbug, the Carla Bozulich ensemble and (almost forgot) something called the Scott Amendola Band. He does side gigs, too, but he's honest enough with potential clients and neglectful enough of his own wallet that he sometimes turns down lucrative opportunities he doesn't feel right for.

He does, of course, suffer an occasional uncomfortable moment at the end of a sparse club night with one of his own groups. "Then you have to pay the band," says Amendola. "'You got change for a five?' 'Yeah, here's five dollar bills.' 'No, change for a nickel.'" That's when he flashes back to the sideman bankroll he passed up. "I'm thinking, 'You fucking idiot!'"

Scenes like that are really the exception. At 33, Amendola has been supporting himself as a musician for 10 years already. He's been on a bunch of albums; just out is the Amendola Band's Cryptogramophone Records debut, Cry. And crowds seem to be zeroing in on the electronically bedazzled Crater, of which he's a member — the group serves as a special peephole into the workings of the modern musical mind.

A week before the chat at Stinson's, Crater is cluttering up the stage of Santa Monica's Temple Bar. Wires and effects boxes are all over the place. And bandleaders are all over the place: Skinny bassist Todd Sickafoose and skinnier guitarist Nels Cline have their own groups; stringy-haired JHNO, manipulator of turntable, laptop and visual projections, often does a solo thing. There's a guest guitarist tonight: curly-locked Jeff Parker of the currently hot pop/art band Tortoise.

Crater breathes and grooves, breathes and grooves. Cline spiels a clean raga-type improvisation. Parker draws out some feedback before plunging into an effects-dripping solo. Sickafoose goes funky. JHNO disgorges aural smoke into the spaces between. Sometimes, Amendola just listens. Silence can be the perfect statement, he says. Otherwise, he sloshes à la Al Foster, or breaks loose into a clackety runaway-train rhythm, or gets all hermetic on his effects knobs.

Wah-wahs, crashing waves, underwater burbles, loops — after a while, as the steam builds, you can't tell which Crater member is playing what. Everything merges into a unity, a renunciation of self. And most of the time it adds up to fascinating music, for two reasons. One is that each of these players is himself a finely tuned receiver/amplifier. The other has to do with something Cline joked about before the performance, as he stood swirling amber poison in a little snifter: When you're dealing with electricity, be aware that you're not completely in charge. You can ride it, but you can't tame it.

As contemporary man melds with machine, life offers greater opportunities for trans-physical events, and these can be musical. When Amendola is composing, he often grabs an electric guitar. He talks about one day when he was getting busy with the instrument's satellites, the effects boxes. "I felt that I'd been practicing," he says, like a kid making excuses about his homework. "But I realized I hadn't touched the guitar in, like, an hour."

That pull toward sound abstraction has become a cultural touchstone: "Young people are so into electronic music — bands like Radiohead or Sigur Rós do these really interesting things with song. Or even someone like Elliott Smith, who sounds Beatlesque, but there's this strangeness to some of the production."

Just when you start stereotyping Amendola as a spark wizard, though, some other aspect of him breaks through. The groove monster. The avant-garde cymbal splasher.

Or the melodic jazz composer: That's the persona that dominates the Scott Amendola Band's acoustically oriented Cry, whose inspirations creep in from worldwide geographies. With Jenny Scheinman's mournful violin, the still ballad "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" could pass for Irish. So could "Bantu," which, in spite of its title and Cline's Afrobeat guitar, feels a lot like a jig. The long jam "A Cry for John Brown" floats on Amendola and Sickafoose's neo-Latin pontoons, decorated with Eric Crystal's tumbling sax and Cline's fret blaze. The slow-flowing "My Son, the Wanderer" draws on a rarely referenced Ellingtonian Arab-Indian vibe. By way of contrast, the CD showcases some radical textural improv, but the most anomalous selection, and the one that gives Cry the most gravity, is an all-out noise orgy on Bob Dylan's "Masters of War," sung with throat-ripping passion by guest artist Bozulich. Those who doubt the power of peace need to hear this.

ALL THESE VARIEGATED FRUITS ARE ESSENtials in Amendola's musical cornucopia, naturally reflecting his own tastes. On one hand he likes Pat Metheny and Peter Gabriel; edgier imprints were etched after he left his native New Jersey for Berklee College of Music in Boston, the town where he heard outsiders like drummer Jim Black and hung with musicians whose heads had been turned by the theories of bop-era renegade pianist Lennie Tristano. Upon arrival in the Bay Area in 1992, Amendola gained visibility through association with guitar phenom Charlie Hunter (with whom he drummed from 1993 to 1997), and gained entrée to the L.A. crowd via the constantly traveling NoCal saxist Philip Greenlief. Among many other gigs, he's worked in a trio with Sickafoose and pianist Art Hirahara, and played with Jim Thirlwell (Foetus) when Thirlwell scheduled a couple of club dates last year.

None of this suggests that Amendola much cares to merge with the mainstream. But to hell with it, you know? Our personal circuits are all getting interconnected anyway; who needs corporate conglomerates?

"It would be great if the record industry just totally bottomed out. If all these companies — like, three of them own everything, right? — went bankrupt, how great would that be? Because it has to restructure itself. It probably would take a while, but it would be really interesting."

The Scott Amendola Band plays the Temple Bar on Sunday, March 2.

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