“That’s not what we’re about, making people happy,” Scientists mastermind Kim Salmon warns pleasantly enough on the eve of the legendary Australian band’s first-ever tour of the United States, which includes shows at Zebulon on Tuesday and Wednesday, Oct. 2-3. “We’re unprepared for everything — that’s our creed.”
The singer-guitarist’s quiet, calm demeanor and dry wit belie the fuzzy storm of side-winding garage-rock riffs and urgent post-punk rhythms that The Scientists have stirred up since forming in Perth, Australia, in 1978. There has always been a rootsy, Cramps-y, trash-rock vibe on such hard-driving tracks as “Swampland,” “Atom Bomb Baby” and “Human Jukebox,” but Salmon’s and Tony Thewlis’ guitars also jet out in postmodern directions that alternately jangle and shimmer when they’re not otherwise savagely ripping it up with distortion and rusty junkyard echoes.
The general atmosphere of unsettling dread only deepens with the undercurrent of Salmon’s dark vocals, which range from the febrile, moody-blue crooning of “Blood Red River” and the shadowy “We Had Love” to the feral howling of “Murderess in a Purple Dress.” Salmon’s restless singing puts him in the same class as fellow tortured Australian frontmen Nick Cave and The New Christs’ Rob Younger, while The Scientists’ heavier-than-punk guitar sound has been cited as a primary influence on Mudhoney and other grunge bands.
“They’re really good friends and have been for a long time,” Salmon says about Mudhoney, who joined the bill on the first two nights of The Scientists’ tour in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle over the weekend. They recorded a limited-edition album with Salmon in 1995 that was titled Until … and eventually released in 2010 under the name Kim Salmon & the Guys From Mudhoney. The Scientists’ other professed acolytes include Jon Spencer, The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
“It was always very shambolic,” Salmon recalls about The Scientists’ early days, speaking by phone from Silver Lake not long after the quartet flew in to LAX. “We always tried to salvage a show out of it.”
After playing guitar in Perth’s first punk band, Cheap Nasties, Salmon left in 1977 to start a new group with bassist Boris Sujdovic called The Invaders, although they would change the name to The Scientists the following year. There have been various incarnations of the group in the ensuing decades, including early lineups with guitarist Roddy Radalj (Hoodoo Gurus) and drummer James Baker (The Victims, Hoodoo Gurus, Beasts of Bourbon). But for the debut U.S. tour, Salmon has assembled the quintessential mid-’80s version of The Scientists with drummer Leanne Cowie, bassist Sujdovic and guitarist Thewlis.
“It’ll be a different set every night, very true to what we did in the ’80s,” Salmon, 61, says about the new tour. “We do have to have some consideration for an audience who’s waited forever to see you. … I pick a song; I have a list of all the songs. I don’t do it any order. You don’t know how it’s going to go down.”
Salmon reckons that he’ll draw some set-list selections from Weird Love, a 1986 collection of remakes of The Scientists’ early singles and EPs. The group recently released a 7-inch single on L.A. label In the Red Records, with a new, “resuscitated” version of the fuzzed-out alienation anthem “Brain Dead” along with “Survival Skills,” a brand-new track. “‘Survival Skills’ is kind of a 1970s Bert Jansch folk trip with the guitar playing, but when it’s played on electric guitar, it loses that completely,” Salmon says of the song’s spidery arpeggios and slowly creeping feeling of menace.
“There’s a little bit of a following for me but not like with The Scientists. I’m aware that The Scientists have a particular mindset,” he says about the type of songs he brings to the band.
Born in Bunbury, a coastal outpost in Western Australia, Salmon eventually left Perth and relocated The Scientists at various times to Sydney and London. He now lives in Melbourne, whereas Thewlis commutes from London, and Sujdovic and Cowie reside in Sydney. “Perth’s an outdoor kind of place,” Salmon says. “As a teenager, I realized I’m not an outdoor kind of guy. I thrived more musically when I left Perth.”
Over the years, Salmon has been an occasional member of swaggering Australian roadhouse nihilists Beasts of Bourbon, crooned sleepy country ballads in The Darling Downs with Died Pretty’s Ron Peno, and shared lead vocals with Hoodoo Gurus’ Dave Faulkner in an electronica-flavored alt-pop project called Antenna. He’s also fronted such stylistically varied combos as Kim Salmon & the Surrealists and the more soulful, funky and horn-laden Kim Salmon & the Business.
Although Salmon has previously toured the United States with The Surrealists, The Scientists had played in this country only once before the current tour, when they performed the Blood Red River album at All Tomorrow’s Parties in Monticello, New York, in September 2010. “Los Angeles has a few similarities to various parts of Sydney and Perth,” says Salmon. “There’s a suburban vibe I’m quite used to in Australia — lots of spread-out houses and a lot of palm trees — as opposed to Europe’s dense cities.”
By day, he is a music teacher at JMC Academy in Melbourne. “It doesn’t go good with the ‘primitive rock’ credentials, does it?” Salmon jokes. “Colleges like to have someone like me — ‘He invented grunge!’ — on their books. If that’s what history is going to hand to me, I’ll take it. I got sick of denying it or being embarrassed it.”
Salmon credits the rest of the band for The Scientists’ sound. “Boris is the guy who’s always been there, right from the start. He’s tall and gangly. He’s kind of laconic and kind of the glue; he knows what’s a good idea and what’s a bad idea,” Salmon says.
“Being a good musician has nothing to do with good music,” he says about Cowie. “It all has to do with chemistry. Leanne wasn’t a musician but taught herself how to play. … She’s dark and angry, silent and foreboding, but she has a heart of gold once you get to know her.”
Salmon describes Thewlis as a fan of Cheap Trick, Blondie, The Knack and other bands with “pudding-bowl haircuts.” Thewlis is “more to the pop side of things,” Salmon says. “He was a bit frustrated by my Stooges/Cramps vibe. He’s the guy playing power pop at sound check. … But Tony’s quite a remarkable guitarist. He’s not a standard blues guitarist in any shape or form.”
Asked about his own influences as a guitarist, Salmon says, “Tom Verlaine is a good one. I found that by dumbing down my guitar playing, I could play Johnny Thunders. It’s a good thing to do. When punk came along, music wasn’t just about how much you know and being a ‘good’ musician with technique.”
In the past, The Scientists have covered “You Only Live Twice,” the theme song from the 1967 James Bond film, as well as Captain Beefheart’s “Clear Spot” and The Seeds’ “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” and “The Other Place.” “We don’t do too many covers this time around,” Salmon says.
Asked to comment about the recent death of his former Beasts of Bourbon bandmate Spencer P. Jones, Salmon says, “I’d visit him when he was sick every other Thursday. … So many years, so many memories — they’re all I’ve got now. I toured with Beasts of Bourbon at CMJ in 1991. Pearl Jam opened for us. The place was packed, and then it went down tenfold when we went on,” he remembers. “These festivals seem to be a bit of a con, if you ask me.”
Among Salmon’s many projects, he collaborated with Jones on the 2013 album Runaways, which featured a mix of the duo’s original songs and covers of classics by Iggy & the Stooges, Howlin’ Wolf, Kanye West, The Gun Club and Alex Chilton.
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For all his own reclusive (in North America, at least) rock-star cool, Salmon admits that he and Thewlis were geeky enough to send fan mail to The Gun Club back in the ’80s. “We toured with them in the U.K.,” Salmon says. “We wrote them a letter — ‘Tell the blond guy to ease up on the drink rider and save some for us.’ Kid Congo has been a great friend ever since. … I used to bump into Jeffrey Lee Pierce in Notting Hill Gate. He was a bit off the planet, but you just had to look at his lyrics and realize he’s a kind of genius.
“I used to run into Joe Strummer at the bank,” Salmon continues about his London days. “He always had a lot of money.”
He cites Wand and Ty Segall as among his favorite modern California musicians. “I try not to be stuck in my Melbourne ghetto. I don’t know what the scene is like here. I’m about to find out,” he adds. “I don’t mean to bore you — I’ll save it for the gig.”
The Scientists perform at Zebulon, 2478 Fletcher Drive, Elysian Valley; Tue.-Wed., Oct. 2-3, 9 p.m.; $15-$25. (323) 662-0966, zebulon.la.