Scrawl continues to keep the drama to a minimum

The legendary Columbus trio plays a free outdoor concert at Secret Studio on Saturday, Sept. 30, and just might be working toward a new album.
Scrawl members (from left to right) Jovan Karcic, Sue Harshe and Marcy Mays
Scrawl members (from left to right) Jovan Karcic, Sue Harshe and Marcy MaysMeghan Ralston

Marcy Mays and Sue Harshe said Scrawl never suffered from having an overabundance of songs written prior going into the studio to record a new album.

“We never went, ‘We’ve got 22 songs to record and we’re going to pick the best 12.’ Hell no!” said singer/guitarist Mays, who joined bassist Harshe for a late September interview. “It was like, ‘We’ve got 11 songs, and you want us to do 12? Okay, great. We’re gonna write one in the hotel room then.’”

The music itself was rarely the problem. But Mays described herself as an exacting lyricist, and if a song didn’t feel true, and if she couldn’t see herself delivering it onstage, each word supported in its entirety by her whole being, she would discard it and move on. In some sense, Mays didn’t write the songs so much as live them and then will them into existence, which is one reason why even Scrawl’s earliest material still has so many layers to unpack – more than 35 years after the Columbus band’s debut, Plus, Also, Too, surfaced in 1987.

“Marcy’s lyrics were so unique – particularly, I think, in that time period,” said Harshe, who will join Mays and Jovan Karcic when Scrawl performs a free outdoor show at Secret Studio in Franklinton on Saturday, Sept. 30. “They weren’t angsty in the way punk rock can be angsty. They were more about how do we maneuver day to day? How do we get out of bed?”

“I have that weird, West Virginia, Southern Baptist thing where you’re supposed to understate horrible things, and I think that comes across in my lyrics,” Mays said. “There’s emotion [in Scrawl songs], but it’s not drama. And that feels kind of grown up, maybe. It wouldn’t have felt true to amp it up in that way.”

Mays and Harshe met in Athens, Ohio, in 1985, first playing together as Skull before adopting the name Scrawl prior to a show opening for the Meat Puppets at Stache’s that same year. The musicians and lifelong friends described the earliest days of Scrawl as one of continual learning – not just in terms of how to play their instruments (both said early performances could occasionally be rough) but of what kind of band they could potentially be.

“When I hear those first two records, I hear us wanting to burst out, and I hear that potential,” Harshe said. “And I love those songs, and I have no problem playing them today. But it’s just this vibe, and I hear these women wanting to break out. So, for me, it was probably the third record (Smallmouth, from 1989) where we really started to come together, even though it was a really bizarre recording experience.”

The members of Scrawl are no strangers to odd studio experiences. When the group recorded Plus, Also, Too, it did so in the basement of a friend’s house, where the musicians were forced to keep the volume down because the friend’s parents were home and upstairs. In 1988, the group recorded sophomore album He’s Drunk at Paisley Park, where they didn’t actually meet Prince, though they did see firsthand a refrigerator filled with the musician’s meat, which was helpfully labeled “Prince’s meat.” 

“And we were there with this fucking guy, and my amp was broken, and he didn’t care,” Mays said. “And he definitely wanted us to be more pop.”

“They all did – except Albini,” Harshe said of Chicago recording engineer Steve Albini, who helmed 1993 album Velvet Hammer. “He was the first one that wasn’t hired by a record label. He’s extremely independent and doesn’t give a shit.”

“He said he wanted to capture us as we sound, and he didn’t really have a dog in the race as far as what we should sound like, or what he thought a label might want from us,” Mays said. “And that was very appealing to us, especially after what we’d been through.”

From the earliest days, Mays said, record labels and the music media were continually trying to fit Scrawl into “the next big trend,” with tastemakers first attempting to package them as part of the Riot Grrrl movement and later Foxcore. This combined with the band’s complex history with record labels (they were dropped by Elektra and saw a deal with Rough Trade fizzle after two albums when the label filed for bankruptcy) has given both Harshe and Mays a healthy distrust of the music industry as a whole.

“I realize people who make their living as musicians depend on this industry, but for me, looking back on it, it’s nothing,” Harshe said. “It’s not anything about my life, about my friendship with Marcy, my marriage, my friends, how I create, how I decide to create. It’s nothing. It’s just this artifice.”

To illustrate this point, Harshe recounted a story from the years the band existed on Elektra Records, when a label attorney with whom the musicians had regular contact said they should visit her the next time they passed through New York City on tour, which they did. “And we stopped by to see her for 10 minutes,” Harshe said. “And we got fucking billed for that.”

Scrawl released its final album, Nature Film, on Elektra in 1998, and the label dropped the band six weeks later. But even in those years Scrawl went into chrysalis, Harshe and Mays remained close friends, and when they finally returned to music, they did so with the same spirit that guided them in the early days of the band. 

For Harshe, this is largely the magic of creating something from nothing – of a stray riff coalescing into a song as it ping-pongs between friends. And while this is also true for Mays, she said she’s more drawn to everything else that goes with being in a band with friends: the rehearsals, the stray conversations, the in-jokes, the goofs between the songs. 

“I went to art school, and it was great, because everybody had these studios, and you’d go in late at night and everybody’s playing music and doing their art and it was fun. And then you graduate, and you’re supposed to sit in your apartment and crank out paintings and I was like, ‘This sucks,’” Mays said. “And I have a similar relationship to music. I don’t do it for me. It’s not like there’s this solo album I’ve been dying to do for 40 years. For me, it’s a way to connect.”

And this connection continues for Scrawl. Though the band released its last album 25 years ago, Mays, Harshe and Karcic have been gathering for monthly sessions since early summer, gradually building a collection of instrumentals that the three hope will one day blossom into a new Scrawl record.

“There’s no pressure to get anything done, but on the other hand I’m definitely a person who only delivers shit under deadline, so that could be a problem,” said Mays, who along with Harshe expressed a desire to finally document the Karcic era of the band on an album. “At some point there has to be a deadline or I’m in trouble. No doubt about it.”

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