By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Before we go any further, let's get this out of the way: Actionslacks is a band. Four members are in the group now, there used to be three, and the number of members named Tim Scanlin remains at one. Remember that, and highlight or underline it if necessary.
There are those who will attempt to convince you otherwise, that Scanlin is the only one who counts. That Actionslacks is little more than a glorified solo act. Those people do not include Scanlin, who sings and plays guitar and writes most of the songs. Or drummer Marty Kelly, who's been around since the group formed in Berkeley in the summer of 1994. Or the new guys, bassist Ross Murray or guitarist-singer-keyboard player Doug Modie. They, of course, know.
Here's who will: People who know Scanlin from various day jobs he's had over the years. People who recognize his name from the pages of Snackcake, the 'zine he founded, or CMJ New Music Monthly, one of the music magazines he's written for. Maybe from Sonicnet, an online music site where he wrote and edited.
These people, music journalists mostly, will and do ignore the other members of Actionslacks. (Marty, Ross and Doug--remember them?) They will and do ignore the band's three albums, including the recently released The Scene's Out of Sight, to focus on Scanlin and his résumé. Not a word of which helps Scanlin write a three-minute pop song that sticks in your head for three days. Well, save for the part under Related Experience that says 1994-present: Singer-guitarist for Berkeley-based Actionslacks.
Fact is, The Scene's Out of Sight has a dozen such tunes, and it doesn't matter that Scanlin could've probably come up with a better description for them than that. For instance, try forgetting the chorus of "Tad Loves Kimberly James": "I like you/I'll tell you why someday/I won't jinx it trying to explain/I like you/You like me/It's simple and easy." It's as uncomplicated and beautiful as the Saturday rain Scanlin notices earlier in the song, but not nearly as overwrought as that explanation. The band is naïve, in a good way, especially on songs such as the title track or "Folding Chair" or "The Sun in St. Tropez." It's like each time Scanlin stomps on the distortion pedal or Kelly holds back until the last possible moment, it's the first time anyone has ever thought of that. And you're willing to believe them, completely. Whether you've heard it all before becomes a moot point, irrelevant, not even worth mentioning.
The point? They're good songs because they are, not because of who wrote them. So, for the last time, writing songs is much more difficult than writing about them. Obviously. Clearly. Time to move on to bigger and better things.
Or, in Scanlin's case, traffic school. At the moment, on a Monday morning at the beginning of April, that's exactly where he is. Not in "some stupid classroom somewhere," but in his Berkeley apartment, which is probably worse. Sitting at his computer, staring at the screen, putting in his time. He could be playing his guitar, or doing pretty much anything else. But no, here he is, his modem and phone line acting as ball and chain, trying to get his ticket taken care of before he goes out on the road for a month with Actionslacks. Which is why he's stuck in his apartment in the first place.
As tedious as it is, speeding tickets were the least of Scanlin's worries following Actionslacks' last tour. Scanlin left the tour with a ticket to pay; bassist Mark Wijsen left the tour, then left the band.
"He was going through a bunch of stuff; he was going to get married when we got back, and you know, his fiancee was trying to plan this wedding and he wasn't around," Scanlin says, taking a break from his defensive driving course. "I mean, he was out playing in a fucking rock band. That didn't go over too well. He was just totally stressed and super-cranky the whole time. Not to put it all on him, but I think he definitely contributed to that tour not being the most enjoyable tour. So when we got back, we kind of just said, 'Look, you obviously have other stuff to deal with.'
"We went our separate ways, and we're friends now, but it was a bit touch and go for a while," he continues. "Any personality conflict in a band can be amplified tenfold on tour. That's where you really understand whether or not you can get along with the people in your band, when you go on tour. Because you can't get away from each other, you know? And it's hard."
Scanlin's not ready to get away from Actionslacks at the moment, or anytime soon. With two new members in the van for the first time, the band is out supporting its finest album to date, The Scene's Out of Sight, though 1995's Too Bright, Just Right, Good Night and 1997's One Word still hit the spot when they hit the stereo. And Scanlin couldn't be happier--with the record, his band, everything.
"I mean, the band dynamic we have going on, personally, is by far the best that it's ever been. It's actually the first time that our band has been able to...Last night we had a meeting, and we could just sit around and talk shit for a couple of hours and not even talk about the band. And that's something that I don't think you can take for granted, because some bands are so dysfunctional. It's kinda like, 'Let's do this, do what we have to do, and then I don't wanna see you until the next time.' There was a point in our band when it was like that, and it's just really not a very healthy relationship. This one's a lot better, and we're all friends, which is cool."
Modie and Murray weren't around when Actionslacks recorded The Scene's Out of Sight; their parts were played by, among others, bassist Aaron Rubin of The Mr. T Experience and Samiam, bassist Jeff Palmer of the Mommyheads and Sunny Day Real Estate and singer-guitarist Chuck Lindo. But another one of Scanlin's new friends was there: J. Robbins, singer-guitarist for Jawbox and (now) Burning Airlines, and a producer who has recorded The Promise Ring, The Dismemberment Plan, Jets to Brazil and a slew of others. Robbins is all over The Scene's Out of Sight, adding guitar, vocals, piano and percussion to the disc, besides recording most of the songs. (Palmer and Pell Mell bassist Greg Freeman also recorded a handful of songs on The Scene's Out of Sight.)
The collaboration with Robbins began innocently enough, with Scanlin and Kelly sending Kim Coletta--who runs DeSoto Records and was in Jawbox with Robbins--a copy of One Word, not expecting too much. They did it "just for kicks," Scanlin says, "because we're such massive Jawbox fans. I sent her a copy of the album just, like, 'Oh yeah, I'll send it to one of our heroes. Why not?'" They weren't expecting Coletta to e-mail them soon after, saying she loved the album, saying she and former Jawbox guitarist Bill Barbot had taken a road trip and listened to One Word 30 times, saying she'd passed along the record to Robbins. "I totally thought it was a joke at first," he admits. "Because we just hold Jawbox in such high esteem. I think that band was so amazing."
Robbins and Scanlin struck up a casual friendship, crossing paths at shows, talking to each other every once in a while. Eventually, when Burning Airlines was playing in San Francisco and Actionslacks was opening for them, Scanlin asked Robbins if he'd consider producing the group's next album.
"No hesitation," Scanlin recalls. "He was like, 'Just tell me when and where you want to do it.' He's definitely one of my favorite musicians and also just one of my favorite people. In addition to being incredibly brilliant as a musician, he's also one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. He's just such a sweetheart. It's kind of annoying, actually." He laughs. "It's like, 'You're so talented and you're such a nice guy. You should be a dick or something.' But he's just a really cool person."
Although Robbins flew to San Francisco to work with the band at Tiny Telephone studios, the band plans to head to Washington, D.C.--Robbins' hometown--to record with him at Inner Ear Studios, a recording environment Robbins "knows like the back of his hand," Scanlin says. "Everything he does there sounds awesome." Scanlin wants the next album to be less black-and-white, less quiet-loud-quiet, something different than he's done before. Texture, he says, will be the key word for the new album. "I want to explore that gray area between super-quiet and total ape-shit guitars," Scanlin explains.
But there is one problem standing in the way of Actionslacks and a new album: Drummer Marty Kelly isn't leaving the band, but he might be leaving the city. For good.
"His wife is getting her doctorate in art history, and she's looking for professor jobs all around the country, so there's a good chance that he's going to have to move to another city, which is going to kind of throw a wrench into things," Scanlin says. "So, you know, it looks like we might have to pull a Pavement thing, and trade tapes in the mail and get together for strategic rehearsals and stuff. But we're definitely committed to doing it. I mean, there's no question that we want to put out another record. It's just going to be a little bit more difficult. Although I'm kind of excited, because I'm really into the idea of, instead of writing songs and then flogging them for two years and then recording them, I'm really into the idea of writing them and then laying them down in the studio when they're still really fresh."
And he's already got another idea how to keep music fresh for him. It also solves the problem of how to continue as a band with one member living in a different city: Make it two members living in a different city.
"If Marty moves, then I might move, too," Scanlin says. "I wouldn't mind a change of scenery. As much as I love San Francisco, I kind of feel like it might be time for a little change, a kick in the pants. It's always good to meet new people and kind of challenge yourself a little bit. I'm not ready to totally settle down. I wouldn't mind going out and meeting some new people and living somewhere else. It kind of just kicks you in the ass, you know? It's real easy to get complacent and sit around your apartment and write about the same shit all the time. I just think it's cool to shake that up. It's like writing songs with a new instrument. It gives you a bunch of new ideas."