February 28, 2003
SCOTT AMENDOLA: DIVERSITY IN THE FIRST
By Greg Burke
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
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!"
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
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
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."