interview by Guitar Doug
photos by RJB PHOTO
"I went in wanting to be Eddie Van Halen and came out as an authority on soul and rhythm and blues" – Knuck
DragStrip Riot is a popular Seattle rock band that has been around since 2001. Throughout the years the line up and sound has changed, but one constant has remained: singer/songwriter/guitarist Knuck has been the heartbeat of the band from the start. When I asked current bassist Nils Scurvy what Knuck's legacy to DragStrip Riot is, he answered "First off, Knuck is the legacy of DragStrip Riot." Nils, who was once a fan of the group, referred to it as "winning the rock lottery" when he was asked by Knuck to join DragStrip Riot. Recently, drummer Johnny Moon, who takes a no-nonsense approach to drums, has been brought into the band.
I rank Johnny or "Moony" as he is known to friends, as one of my personal favorite local drummers, not because what he plays, but what he doesn't play. Some drummers like Jim Laws of The Valley, Troy of Drown Mary and Shawn Johnson of Mos Generator can wow audience members with speed, strength, poly-rhythmic drum fills, double bass wizardry, and other types of drumming acrobatics. The problem with other drummers is that they can overplay when the music does not call for it. This not only annoys the audience, but destroys the basic structure of the song and turns the rhythm section into a carnival ride that's come loose from its tracks. Or as some call it, "Playing a bunch of junk that does not need to be there." Johnny keeps perfect time and plays only what is needed, similar to the work Charlie Watts is known for with The Rolling Stones.
Song writing is kept front and center in DragStrip Riot with emphasis on the vocals and lyrics. This contrasts many other Seattle bands who focus on blistering guitar solos and showing off musical chops. Keeping the song writing out front may be the biggest secret of success for DragStrip Riot. Another key ingredient is that a core group of fans, many of whom I know personally, are more loyal to this group than probably any other local band. The people I know who follow DragStrip Riot don't like Dragstrip Riot, they love DragStrip Riot. There really does not seem to be much middle ground.
The fact that the fans are relating to the song writing was evident the first time I saw DragStrip Riot live. During the set, I looked around and noticed several people singing along word for word with every song. Live, the group never overplays or drowns out its own songs with volume in order for lyrics to carry the music and certain points to the audience. Knuck will also switch from electric acoustic guitar throughout a set, paying attention to dynamics throughout each song. Dynamics is a musical term for the increase and decrease in volume of the group while keeping the speed or tempo unchanged. The concepts of dynamics is crucial to jazz and classical music, and actually written into the sheet music, but is something that tends to go totally over the heads of many Seattle rock bands that play only at one volume from start to finish.
One final key to the success of Dragstrip Riot is the amazing ability of the band to network with the media. They are constantly able to land a deal to be covered in a magazine, be played or interviewed on radio, and all sorts of other wise PR moves. They were even just produced by Jack Endino. These guys literally seem to know everyone who is anyone in the Seattle music business. The band is featured this month in a magazine called NW Tattoo, which is available in stores everywhere. I scanned through a copy myself at 7 -11 just the other night. So, for those who care about song writing, check out the bands music on-line or head out to one of the shows. Who knows, you may end up being one of the folks who does not like Dragstrip Riot, but one of the folks who loves Dragstrip Riot.
Where did the names Knuck and Dragstrip Riot come from?
Knuck was derived from a word my friend Brady and I came up with for beating the shit out of someone... "knuckledump". When I joined the Rooks Car Club many years ago, club leader Duke nicknamed me Knuck, cuz it was shorter and perhaps because it's also short for a knucklehead motorcycle, but I'm not sure if that played a part in it.
The band name came from a 1958 movie that I'd seen not long before forming the band, and I'm also a fan of New Bomb Turks who had a song of the same name. It kept sticking out in my mind as the perfect way to capture what the music I was writing was trying to convey. I'd actually decided on the name before I'd written the first song.
What is your musical background and formal training?
I started out singing along with Montrose and Judas Priest songs at age 11. Soon after a fascination with soul music and 50s rock n roll took hold, and I developed my own singing style taking cues from soul, country, and metal. I'm not much of a screamer, but I'm happy with what my voice can do. Nils can actually sing alright too and that's what makes our harmonies sound so full.
I started playing guitar at age fourteen, first learning Highway To Hell, and took lessons from a fella named Tim Lerch for 5 years at the Academy of Music. He later went on to become a Buddhist Monk and gave up guitar playing altogether. I went in wanting to be Eddie Van Halen and came out as an authority on soul and rhythm & blues. My guitar style became a mixture of Brian Setzer, Eddie Van Halen, John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley and Angus Young. Because of the John Lee Hooker and Bo Diddley obsession, my playing is very rhythmically oriented with some fancy shit just kinda sprinkled on top.
How exactly do you approach songwriting from start to finish?
As the principal writer in the camp, most of the song ideas start with a theme. I think of a line or a little melody that I think is cool and work it out from there the way a painter would paint a dollop and work the edges of the paint outwards. If I'm angry, I plug in a guitar and distort it and play loudly until something comes out. If I'm somber or pensive, I'll only play finger-style on an acoustic and Nils and Johnny will help me make it into a rock n roll song. I generally write the words, though Nils helps with phrasing from time to time and lets me know if my lyrics are sub-par.
Nils, your story of joining Dragstrip Riot is a pretty interesting one. Why don't you let the readers in on how it came about.
When I moved to Seattle from Portland about 8 years ago, I was so enthralled by the local music scene here. There were so many good bands and so many good clubs, that I was going out to shows five nights a week, taking in all the awesome bands. Dragstrip Riot were one of my favorites, because they sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before and had blends of everything I liked - rock, punk, blues and rockabilly songs about evil women and heartbreak all wrapped up with a bad ass live set. I'd be at every show in front of the stage pumpin my fists and singin' along to every song. Then I'd go home wasted and play along with the cd. Eventually, I became friends with the guys. knuck heard I played guitar and approached me at a party and asked if I would be interested in playing in the band.
Of course I jumped at the chance. Even though I was a bass player, I figured I could learn or fake it. This was one of my favorite bands and I wasn't going to miss my chance to share a stage with them. They eventually ended up needing a bass player. We had a tryout in my living room and I already knew all the songs. So two practices later, I was playing my first show with DragStrip Riot, opening for another of my favorite bands, The Red Elvises at the Fenix Underground. I couldn't have asked for a better first show. It was like winning the Rock Lottery, taking the step up from being a fan in the front row and onto the stage playing with a band that had inspired me.
How would you compare the band as it was then to the band as it is now with you in it?
Before I joined DSR had an upright bass player and I play electric bass with a pick so the sound ended up being allot tougher as I brought my punk rock roots to the band. Shortly after I joined we lost our second guitarist so instead of trying to replace him we stayed a three piece and it tightened up the sound even more. We've gotten away from the rockabilly sound and the new stuff we've been playing is straight forward kick ass rock.
You know Knuck pretty well. What do you make of him as a performer/person and what he has contributed to the legacy of Dragstrip Riot?
Well, first off knuck is the legacy of DSR. He started this band back on 2001. I could always relate to Knuck's songwriting and remember the first time I listened to "The Damage Done" and the lyrics were right out of my head. Knuck's an amazing songwriter, guitar player and singer and it's great to share a stage with him. We're always feeding off each others energy.
Johnny Moon takes a straight forward approach to drums, somewhat along the lines of Charlie Watts. How important is it to have a drummer who is playing "less busy" to the overall Dragstrip Riot sound?
Johnny is amazing. He'd been a friend of the band for years and was filling in for us long before he joined the band. We once called him an hour before we played hells kitchen when our last drummer couldn't make it and he drove down and killed it on the spot, so he was a natural choice when we needed a new drummer.
He's solid, hits hard, the guy keeps time like a clock. He doesn't clutter the songs, just keeps it simple and rock n' roll and his old school style blended perfect with all the styles we were playing. We were lucky enough to snag him before somebody else did. You might know johnny from The Load Levelers, The F-Holes or Los Gatos Locos. The guy's been around. He knows his shit and I'm stoked he's part of the band now.
Johnny, what's your formal background in music?
I started playing drums at 8 years old in my Elementary school band. My mom set aside an hour each day that I could practice in my room and no-one could complain. I had a 30 ft head phone cord running to our Sears best stereo and I'd play to Emerson Lake and Palmer. Carl Palmer has always been a huge influence on me, along with playing Nugent, Deep Purple or just practicing rudiments. I bought my first drum kit and took private lessons with paper route money, and played through Jr high and High school. During high School, I went back and taught drums at my Jr High.
When did you start playing in the bars and clubs?
1st band at 13 and 1st tavern gig at 17. Played the Seattle scene through the 80's in numerous bands (Jet, Inflatable Dates, F-Holes).
Almost lost my arm in the early 80's to an industrial accident which has impaired me a little but didn't hold me back for too long. Hooked up with LGL in the 90's and just recently DSR. Dig the hard hittin' attack these guy's have.
Look for DragStrip Riot on iTunes and Rhapsody. New merch and albums in the coming year.