How Kim Salmon of the Scientists Rose From the High Voltage Swampland
Ahead of the Scientists' last couple shows on home soil, we caught up with their bandleader Kim Salmon who revisits his early days navigating the Perth punk scene and discusses getting the core lineup back together for their first studio album in 34 years.
After pioneering the Perth punk scene with the Cheap Nasties in 1976, Kim Salmon formed the Scientists and has been at the helm of the influential garage-punk institution for nearly five decades. While the original Scientists dazed about teen romance with their knack of pop hooks and catchy choruses that were tough to shake, it wasn't until the band had another lineup change and re-emerged in Sydney that they crawled out of the ooze and immersed their powerful brand of demented swamp-rock. Throughout the eighties, this furious storm of Salmon's menacing, half-spoken vocals, fuzzed-out guitars, pounding basslines, and feedback-drenched freakouts paired nicely with fellow contemporaries The Birthday Party, Suicide, The Gun Club, the Cramps, and Tav Falco's Panther Burns. Following Human Jukebox and a blistering cover of Captain Beefheart's "Clear Spot," the Scientists finally called it a day in 1987 and Salmon rejoined the Beasts of Bourbon as their guitar slinger and formed the Surrealists, an even more brutal sonic attack.
For 20 years the Scientists appeared dormant, until they re-emerged at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in 2006 and supported Sonic Youth on an Australian tour in 2008. However in 2018, the band reunited their 1985 lineup composed of Salmon, bassist Bortis Sudjovic, guitarist Tony Thewlis, and drummer Leanne Cowie, and embarked on their first-ever U.S. tour. That tour eventually led the band to record and release two singles in 2018, the 9H2O.SIO2 EP in 2019 and eventually Negativity in 2021, the band's first full-length album in 34 years. With Covid-19 cases dropping, the band announced last summer their first Australian headline tour in six years, taking their new material on the road in February and March. Ahead of the band's last couple shows on home soil, we caught up with Salmon to dive further into his early days pioneering the Perth punk scene, how the Scientists ditched their power pop hooks for deranged swamp-rock, and getting the core lineup back together for their recent album.
Paperface Zine: Hey Kim, it's an honor to be talking with you. Tell us, what have you been up to lately? Looks like you've been keeping yourself busy with some Surrealists gigs ahead of this Scientists tour.
Kim Salmon: Yeah I recently did a national tour with two line-ups of the Surrealists doing two separate albums. I might think twice about doing something like that again. I forgot that I'm in my sixties, so I'm just recovering from it now! [laughing].
PZ: We understand you were a painter before you got hijacked into playing punk rock. What led you to painting and what do you enjoy most about it?
KS: All throughout my childhood, I drew and painted obsessively. Everything! Hot rods, cartoons, naked women, spacecrafts, landscapes, portraits, caricatures you name it! I just assumed I was going to be a visual artist of some sort. Finally when I made it to uni to study fine art, I started having dilemmas about what an artist actually was. I was filled with doubt for the first time. I'd never given it a moments thought as a kid. When punk rock came along in 1976, it was easy to find a purpose in that and reject art so I deferred my course after passing my first year. I have never really actually stopped drawing and painting. I just didn't do anything on any kind of scale. A couple of years ago, a fan and friend with curatorial qualifications helped me have my first exhibition, a retrospective, in 2018 and I had way more than enough to set that up so it became quite evident that it wasn't really a case of me taking it up again as I'd never really left it. I think of my art as a conversation that I'm having with myself and the world that helps me make sense of that world. I'm compelled to do it!
PZ: It's fascinating with how all the different bands you've been in that the latest one always feels like a reaction to the previous one. Do you intend to always evolve and reinvent yourself?
KS: I think what I've really been doing with all the various musical incarnations all my life is explore concepts that attract me. I've come to realize that's its really always just been an extension of my visual art practice such that was (and is). For example, starting a punk rock band was easy to think of as a conceptual work.
PZ: Back in 2021, the Scientists released Negativity, the band's first album in more than three decades. This album came together before the pandemic, but tell us about putting it together and how the sessions went. Did it feel like old times?
KS: We'd (reluctantly I might add) produced three singles over the course of 2017-2019 in order to have something to promote our Australian, European, and U.S. touring that followed the Numero Group's release of our entire back catalogue. Due to us all living in different cities, they were actually done through internet and at no time was the whole band ever in the same room playing the same song in that process. Tony particularly had a problem with the material and expressed the desire for us to learn some material, hone it down on the road, and then go into a studio. In order to do this, the writing process that evolved was: teaching myself enough drums to try and find unusual and "scientific" grooves — I'd run out of the kind of two note riffs I wrote back in the day and drums was a new way to get inspired. Sending beats that I thought had that groove over to Tony in London for him to come up with some riffs which he'd send back to me to attempt to write words and melodies over. Once I had a bunch of these ideas, Leanne and Boris would fly down to Melbourne from Sydney and we'd jam the ideas into the shape of songs. Come late-2019 we learned we were to be inducted into the WAM Hall of Fame in Perth in November 2019 and so booked a recording studio there for the week leading up to that event. We recorded the bulk of the album there and then. Then that following January, Tony flew back to Melbourne from London so he and I could finish the album with arranging some strings, adding keys, BVs, guitar overdubs, and of course a lot of my lead vocals.
PZ: Looking back a year and a half later since its release, what are your thoughts on it? Where do you think it sits within the bands' catalog?
KS: I think Negativity definitely sits right in after Weird Love. It's important to differentiate between the Brett Rixon lineup from back in the Sydney and London years (1981-1985) and the Leanne line-up that happened just after, which in-fact recorded Weird Love. After Brett inexplicably left the band in '85, we'd tried to keep going with a number of top flight drummers ( eg one from PIL and one from Motorhead) but they all brought things that messed with the chemistry. Leanne, who was our tour manager wasn't even a musician when she joined and all she brought was eagerness, naiveté, and some simplified versions of what Brett had done. The end result was Weird Love. It was recorded in 1985 and was basically all the material that line-up could play and present to the U.S. label Big Time Records who'd just signed us at the end of our fertile, but chaotic three years spent in the U.K. In essence, we were able to convincingly present the band and its existing material to a new audience in the U.S. In reality the band was internally falling apart which it finally did at the start of 1987. From '87–2017 is essentially three decades where nothing happened except various repackaging back catalogue deals with various labels and for the band to get invited to play various festivals along the way. Eventually one of the back catalogue issues (Numero Group) brought enough interest to get the band up and touring in Europe, U.K. , and U.S. through 2017-19. Negativity is the end result of that touring. It's clearly and definitely the same band that played Weird Love and it works in the same way for the same reasons despite being quite different material. The fact that the material was conceived in a different way and is clearly different is what makes the album a success rather than an attempt to rehash something done before…..in my opinion at any rate.
PZ: What has it been like reuniting this lineup of The Scientists? Did you feel differently before about reuniting? This new album feels natural to what you four were doing in the eighties.
KS: In order to function and come up with new material in a completely different situation, we've had to completely evolve our process. With the Rixon, Sujdovic, Thewlis Salmon line-up it was a case of there being this unique and gorgeous brutish monster of a band that was, in effect, my muse. I was the only person who really got it and was able come up with the material to bring out that entity. I was the Tommy Ramone of the band. For Negativity, everyone has been involved in writing it. It was a necessary evolution as the band is no longer quite that dumb beast it was in the early '80s. It had already changed in 1985 in order to continue with Leanne in it.
PZ: Let's backtrack now. Take us through the early days of the Perth punk scene when playing in Cheap Nasties. How would you describe the scene?
KS: There was no scene when the Nasties formed in 1976! Or not one that we belonged to. There were only closet punks listening to their Stooges albums in secret and we certainly didn't know about those people. When we played our first big show in front of a blues band audience dozens of these punks came out of the woodwork to see us. Rod Radalj and Boris Sujdovic were there, James Baker was there, people met for the first time and planned band formations! The Victims were in fact conceived that night.
PZ: How did the Exterminators/Invaders become the Scientists in 1978 and what was your vision when making the switch?
KS: The Invaders was Rod and Boris' band. They took pity on me, as the Nasties had just recently split and then reformed without me to form a much more sanitized pop version called the Manikins. Rod let me join as long as I didn't play the guitar which left me on vocals. I'd hoped to play more hardcore punk and less pop-orientated stuff, but the guys inexperience at their instruments hampered us. When James Baker suddenly became available due to the Victims splitting we conveniently lost our drummer and James agreed to come and have a jam with us. By the way, I DID eventually play the guitar [laughing]. With James and the twin guitar attack — a combination of arpeggiated lines and power chords there was a very distinct sound. We got about three songs out of our first jam. James and I instantly fell into a song writing combination that had this pop leaning but was definitely still punk. It seemed pointless to fight it. It was a winning combination and it wasn't long before we were throwing out more songs than most bands even wrote.
After our first jam we elatedly cracked open some beers on the porch of Victim Manor and decided that we wanted a name that conveyed how primitive and caveman- like we were….like the Troggs or something. James was being ironic and said the Scientists…and I simply could not let that go! There was no going back for me!
PZ: That Scientists EP from 1980 is one of my favorite releases of all time — such a pure, unabashed embracement of power pop and punk, which typically aren't terms associated with the Scientists given its later phases. What are your thoughts on those earlier days?
KS: This early incarnation of the band did eventually venture out of Perth to the East Coast of Australia for a brief period of touring at the end of the '70s and ironically did much better there, but we were unable to sustain the touring and returned to Perth where we became disinterest in what we were doing which forced us to quit. Our legacy from that time was the "Frantic Romantic" / "Shake (Together Tonight)" single, the self-titled EP you mentioned, and the self-titled "Pink Album." All of these became collectible and the cult grew. I got no beef against Cheap Trick or Big Star, but I'm always bemused at how this version of the band appeals to the power pop contingent.
PZ: How would you describe the various phases of the Scientists?
KS: Well I'd say that there's the various incarnations of the mark 1 Scientists that played that more melodic '60s pop version of punk or what you might call power pop. Then there was a brief transition period with the Rixon, Thewlis, Sujdovic lineup when we just moved to Sydney and hadn't yet written any of the new material we needed to really define the new band. We played a mixture of the old material and ideas that we were trying out. It didn't really cut it for me and only the song "Swampland" remains from then. As soon as we recorded that single, we ditched the definite article from the front of our name. That's what people generally call the mark 2 Scientists and that's the version that nailed the dark and primitive approach to rock 'n' roll. We pretty much ruled the Sydney inner city scene for three years then moved to the UK…. and while we didn't rule the place, we did make a couple of ripples. In 1986, Boris had to leave U.K. due to Visa problems and we attempted to keep going with another bass player. It worked ok for live for a while but there wasn't enough of the old chemistry left to really keep on, so it fizzled out. At the end of '86, Tony and I teamed up with our mate Nick Combe who'd been influential to me for a few years and had the same kind of taste and attitude as I did. I played bass and Nick played the drums. We went into a London studio and pretty much improvised what became the last Scientists album for three decades, Human Jukebox. I'm very fond of this album as, to me, it's like a last hurrah of something we'd lost with Rixon's departure. It was the return of the crazy chemistry that made the band burn! In this case however, it was destined to basically just explode and die. Ironically, we toured this album and line-up round Australia with Brett Rixon added to it, him alternating with me on guitar and bass. The punters HATED it! Until towards the very end of the tour when people had given up just wanting the hits and realized that there was something there that was actually very close to what they liked about us in the beginning. But it was too late….and there's the '85 line-up. This is the band we have now! Sorry for that convoluted answer…
PZ: The Scientists supported The Gun Club on their Las Vegas Story tour in 1984. What mind-burning moments stuck out during that tour especially the show at Leeds?
KS: Why focus only on Leeds? That whole tour sticks out in my mind as a great time hanging with a bunch of kindred spirits and blitzing England!
PZ: You're embarking on the Scientists' first Australian headline tour in six years coming up in February. What are you looking forward to this most bringing the new album to the stage?
KS: Just bringing songs like "Fire Escape," "Atom Bomb Baby" and "Murderess" together with new ones like "Make It Go Away" and "The Science of Suave" and seeing the way the band evolves with the new combination.
PZ: What's it like reconnecting with fans and reaching a new audience?
KS: It's very different every time we get back together! It's like 7 Up!
PZ: What sort of legacy do you hope to leave behind with your music?
KS: To leave something that might get discovered in a new and different epoch and have relevance in that time of discovery.
Negativity is out now on In the Red Records.