Release show with Four Hour Friends and Misty Lyn & The Big Beautiful - (photos: Marvin Shaouni)
“Detroit is super rural…almost. It’s like the biggest-small-town you’ll ever see. It’s so incestuous and small, yet…huge. It’s this planned urban city, with all this grit and concrete, but then, with sort of a rustic, rural nature to it.”
Steve McCauley pauses. “Maybe our music sounds a little bit like Detroit looks.”
~Interview: Scarlet Oaks~
McCauley is singer/guitarist/harmonica-ist and songwriter for local quartet Scarlet Oaks. We let that last bit of late afternoon coffee tinged philosophic conjecturing linger for a moment, brought on by my asking him about the unambiguous country twang stitched into the rough rock fabric of their pop ballads.
Scarlet Oaks formed as 2006 became 2007, with drummer/singer Noelle Lothamer joining McCauley and his brother, bassist Pat. Since that fateful winter, the band has recorded and released an EP (Innocence Isn’t Easy), weathered the hindrance of line up rotations (which saw, among a handful of players, brother Pat move on) and to finally settle in December of 2008 with bassist Joe Lavis and guitarist James Anthony.
McCauley returns to their sound-as-the-city comparison. “It’s very unpretentious,” then, with a blunted chuckle under his breath as he singles out his sound against the city, “I would hope,” then continues, “but then, also, it’s like gritty nastiness mixed with… ‘Oh, there’s a pheasant, just walking down the street! How beautiful?’”
The images were painting set close to blending the romanticized beauty and meditative calm of the rural clashed with the hunched shoulder hustling and honked horn whirl of the urban – otherwise crudely defined, and, in Scarlet Oaks case, almost perversely simplified, as a blend of country and rock.
“It’s almost like two worlds just colliding,” says McCauley. “I guess that describes where I work, and where I live…”
Location coats the conversation.
We cover where he works, painting and restoring houses in Ann Arbor, where U-of-M students clash with mellowed liberal baby-boomers, and where he lives, Woodbridge, which he refers to as “the most gentrified” area of Detroit.
Location is also the first and strongest distinction McCauley notes, when regarding their latest EP, Canadian Dew. “I wrote a lot of (these songs) while traveling. (The title track)’s based off a road trip I was on, through the west coast/pacific northwest, through British Columbia. That’s about love-gone-wrong. Going on a road trip is a good way to figure out if you’re love is gonna work…”
“Location is such an important part (of the EP). Even just being here. ‘Snow in Michigan’ was written on one of those, just, horrible February days.” The song references, as well as love, life and location, the wayward blizzard-to-melt schedule of the Mitten freeze that often leads to brown, car sloshed slush.
McCauley played with his brother in Fifth Period Fever (with Stephen Palmer of Back In Spades), a self-described “hard-rock thing” that, towards its end in 2006, had the McCauley’s starting to slip in a bit of a country thing.
In late 06, FPF dissolved into just the brother duo. With a show booked that November, they tried out a number of new drummers, finally fitting with Lothamer who had, then, just left Troy Gregory & The Stepsisters (and whose resume also included Outrageous Cherry and The Alphabet).
“We all grew up on that blue collar rock n roll,” said McCauley, name dropping usual suspects like MC5 and Stooges. “And Bob Seger, though, unfortunately, my parents were listening to all the wrong Bob Seger records. But…just gritty rock n roll. I was always into punk rock, like Negative Approach, and a lot of Michigan, Chicago and mid-western punk bands.”
“We never wanted to be a country band.”
Innocence Isn’t Easy (on Bellyache Records) had toe-tapping rhythms, easy-rockin strums with hazy, wafting wails of pedal-steel and sunny guitar tones that wobbled and whined in that playful, distinctively western-sounding manner.
But McCauley admits, you hear “country” and “…it turns people off. Being a country band, that never really was the idea, that’s just what we were listening to…” What they were listening to, included obvious points like Dylan and Young, Hank Williams and, for McCauley, rockabilly/country singer Johnny Horton (also known for location ballads). But on top of all that country were soul and R&B influences like Otis Redding, and punk shreds like X and bands who “lay it on the line” like Patti Smith.
“It’s mostly about just writing good songs, that’s the first priority.” For McCauley, who started out in high school bands on drums in the mid-90’s, and for Lothamer, whose playing in rock bands for a dozen years, McCauley concluded that they were beyond the “noisy rock band” thing and “trying to piss off our parents” and, with Scarlet Oaks, focused on songwriting, as well as adding a bit more of a quaintness and stateliness, with “folk, old rock n roll, old country, old soul.”
The founding trio started recording Innocence Isn’t Easy about two months after forming. “Frustrating” sums it up easily. It took six months – hindered by re-recordings and line up shifts. Guitarist Mike Munerantz moved “to the woods of Northern Wisconsin,” while bassist Ian Williamson started raising a child.
“Our band has always been on the cusp of breaking up,” McCauley casually quips. “Noelle’s always been there, we’ve always been on the same page. We sound like a band now, because the line up is gelling. In the past, we never had a chance to.”
Joe Lavis and James Anthony are the completing components – both joining in time to record Canadian Dew, which, as opposed to six months of self-recording, took just two days (with Jim Diamond), almost entirely live (at Ghetto Recorders). “Joe is such a solid bass player, he’s so tasteful. And James is one of the best guitar players I know.” The album sees a release show, Aug 15, on Bellyache Records.
Dew’s six songs had been written for a while – since Innocence took so long, ideas for melodies and lyrics were leaping through McCauley and Lothamer (the latter penning the waltzy ballad “Next Town”).
The sounds of Dew are warmer, fuller, with a shift towards a more upbeat vibe; boisterous guitar jangles and running rhythms under soothing vocal duets pairing McCauley’s slight rasp with Lothamer’s timorous coo. Innocence’s melancholy-tinged gothic Americana survives in Dew’s title track, while a fresher, more rock-heavy twang stomps its way through on fun freewheelers like “Old Lazy River” and “Scarlet Oaks,” (the latter not-necessarily being a band theme song, but McCauley’s ode to his brother and band co-founder.)
The intimacy of a swaying ballad like “Next Town” is immediate, and paints a swooning portrait of posited love between a humble country lady and a bustling city boy – perhaps aptly addressing our unpacking of Scarlet Oaks’ sound – the city boys (and girl) who have a reverence, a love, for the uncluttered quiet and old-fashioned style of those flatlands out in the mid-west, but still succeed in finding a beauty worth fighting for in the smoke-swathed corridors of their urban jungle.
Written by Lothamer, “Next Town” opens McCauley’s mental closet door and a glut of items come tumbling out. That he hopes Lothamer starts bringing more of her songs to the band and how he loves hearing her voice upfront. How he wants to do more duets with her, even if he’s self-conscious of sounding cheesy like some Tammy-Wynette-n-George-Jones thing. He talks about making the waltz of “Next Town” work with a full band, and considerations of trying to find consistency of sound, about spending more time together as a quartet to find that consistency, about planning tours, getting out on the road and heeding the advice of his old friends from the band Big Chief, “Never tour Wayne County.”
So yes. All of that. Spending time together, finding a sound and finding a road map for an upcoming tour.
But, on top of that – collecting the songs that McCauley already has written, for the next record – a guaranteed full length. “I have ideas,” said McCauley. “Not necessarily more production, no string section or anything, but doing more variety, trying to record in different spots with different people.”
“I don’t really know, half the time, what I think about our music,” he surmises, tying back to our opening conversation. “My lady is an artist, and I’m always asking her to describe it, ‘What does that mean?’ But then, she asks me the same thing about our songs. ‘I don’t know, sometimes it means something, sometimes it just sounds good.’”
August 15 - Northern Lights Lounge - w/Four Hour Friends and Misty Lyn & The Big Beautiful