With the Geraldine Fibbers on an extended hiatus, Carla Bozulich and Nels Cline break new ground with Scarnella.
From Ethyl Meatplow to the Geraldine Fibbers, husky-voiced singer/songwriter Carla Bozulich has taught us to expect the unexpected. Possessed of a brilliant gift for expressing bittersweet and kerosene-laced moods and emotions, the tempestuous Bozulich has emerged as one of the most innovative singer/songwriters of the 1990s. Just as Bozulich cultivated unusually dark, foreboding lyrical content on such Fibbers albums as Lost Between the Earth and My Home and Butch, so too did avant-garde guitarist Nels Cline explore uncharted, free-form jazz/rock territory on his work with the Nels Cline Trio, punk-rock icon Mike Watt, and the Geraldine Fibbers. When the two began to perform as a part of the five-piece Fibbers, Bozulich and Cline quickly developed a clearly visible rapport, feeding off each other's intensity and musical inclinations. It stood to reason that once the Geraldine Fibbers announced a break from their recording career, Bozulich and Cline would seek out other collaborative avenues.
With one well-received track behind them as Scarnella ("Hot Pants" on Zero Hour's SuperBad @ 65 James Brown tribute album), Bozulich and Cline set out on a Pacific Northwest mini-tour earlier this year with the intention of recording an album together. Scarnella's recently released, self-titled debut album, (most appropriately) on Steve Shelley's New Jersey based Smells Like Records label, amounts to a ten-song romp through clearly articulated compositions like "The Most Useless Thing" as well as a number of chaotic, unpredictable jams more reminiscent of Sonic Youth than of the work of The Geraldine Fibbers. "There's a lot of instrumental improvisation going on, and that's something that [Fibbers fans] aren't necessarily used to," explains Bozulich.
With only two band members, Scarnella relies on the versatility of both musicians to fill in the tracks: Bozulich concentrates on vocal presentation, the bass guitar, and her sampling keyboard, while Cline breaks loose on a drum kit and his many guitars. Cline, who is well known for coaxing unusual sounds and vibrations from his guitars using innumerable plastic toys, does not disappoint. "Nels plays the guitar like a madman," laughs Bozulich appreciatively. During one recording session, Bozulich recalls looking away and then looking back toward Cline and noticing that he was playing the guitar with a whiskbroom. "He'll play with anything," she attests. "Everything makes a different sound on the strings."
Bozulich and Cline first met while recording tracks for Mike Watt's critically acclaimed Ballhog or Tugboat, although they did not begin to play together until 1996, when the Geraldine Fibbers found themselves without a guitarist for a nationwide tour. Cline's success with the band on tour led to his collaboration on 1997's Butch. "We used to sit around and improvise all the time, just for fun," explains Bozulich of the time spent touring together as a part of the Geraldine Fibbers. "We would play guitars and play music that would just go off and float up into the air and go away... We enjoyed that a lot, and we started talking about doing a side project [as] a duo."
When interviewed separately, Bozulich and Cline admit to a phenomenal level of respect for each other. Cline, the lanky, thoughtful, and soft-spoken guitarist, speaks with heartfelt appreciation of Bozulich's honest, impassioned artistry and her sheer determination. "Ideally, I'd just like to play my own music and work with Carla," he says. "That would be my ultimate life." For her part, Bozulich believes that her collaboration with Cline was meant to be: "I was just telling someone that when I met Nels, my initial reaction was that I had quite possibly met the most amazing person I would ever meet in my lifetime ... and I've never had any cause to reevaluate that."
Bozulich also admits to being grateful to Cline for reopening her musical horizons. In her early musical work with punk bands like the Neon Veins, Bozulich toyed with the hybridization of punk, noise, and psychedelia. While the later output of the Geraldine Fibbers can similarly be viewed as a hybrid product of no-depression country and punk rock (among other musical elements), Bozulich nonetheless feels as though she "got more limited," at least insofar as on-the-spot experimentation was concerned. With Cline's influence and encouragement, Bozulich once again began to explore those aspects of her musical abilities. Bozulich and Cline have also collaborated on another new project, Destroy All Nels Cline, consisting of four guitars, bass, and drums. The group opened for Sonic Youth in Los Angeles earlier this year. Cline's most recent jazz recording as a part of the Nels Cline Trio, Sad, was also released this year, after another collaboration with Mike Watt on 1997's Contemplating the Engine Room.
While additional recordings for Scarnella are planned, the future of The Geraldine Fibbers remains somewhat up in the air. Bozulich, for her part, promises that the group will come back within the next two years with another album. But for now, fans will likely find more than enough emotive substance on Scarnella's debut release to keep them going until such a time.
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