So. Much. Drama. And yet so little has been written about Scarlet Symphony's music. So, let's be contrary and start there: The four-piece band of San Diego natives Gary Hankins (vocals), Aaron Swanton (guitar) and twins Zach (bass) and Josh Wheeler (drums) cranks out the type of rock 'n' roll that makes you feel stupid if you don't dance or at least shake around a bit when you hear it live.
Hankins, with the shape and stature of Jack the Pumpkin King, writhes and twists across the stage like Mick Jagger, only wilder and more rubbery, and often ends up intertwined with the microphone chord by the end of the set. Swanton, who's more squared and machine-like, cranks out the driving guitar riffs and screaming solos, dripping sweat while trying to equal the energy of the crowd, which, especially when the band plays all-ages shows, is as squirrelly and hyped up as the singer. And the twins form an eerily calm and cohesive rhythm section—their fraternal connection cutting through all the onstage chaos.
The crew were standing outside their new El Cajon practice space last week, smoking cigarettes, drinking Pacifico and going through their somewhat contentious past in a rapid-fire manner, which hardly allowed one to finish a sentence before another was off on another tangent. They were noticeably eager to get on with it, get past “the L.A. bullshit,” as it's now known, and start talking about Foundation, their upcoming full-length set to be released in February. The album could technically be considered their first full-length, since their first release, Vulture, was recorded hastily and then nearly ripped apart by the greedy hands of big-time producers promising big-time deals that never panned out.
The band formed in 1999, Swanton and the twins first, Hankins later. They floored the San Diego house-party and underground scene, and the “they're gonna break” whispers started quickly. That's when they recorded most of Vulture, but they only played one real show, at a place on El Cajon Boulevard called Club Venus, before one of Swanton's good friends died and he moved to San Francisco to sort things out. The band broke up, but the recordings got passed around and the excitement surrounding their bright future got even bigger, driving the band back together in March 2003.
Friendster existed in small circles; MySpace didn't—but the band still managed to get the sort of word-of-mouth promotion that spreads across a city faster than avian flu. It wasn't long before L.A. bigwigs were swooping down, clawing at the new glam-rock band with supposed record deals and label interest.
“It was a crazy time,” Swanton says, “because we recorded in different studios and lost all that music. We were trying to make a record—.”
“And every time we looked for outside assistance in progressing—,” Hankins adds.
“We ran into a few walls,” Swanton finishes.
“Yeah,” Zach Wheeler interjects, “and we just lost faith in people.”
“It was a weird time,” Swanton continues, “because the music industry was falling apart. So they got interested in us, but they were in the middle of falling apart, so all these weird things would happen: We'd get courted by a major label, and it would take us so far and so many things would happen, we'd go to the studio and record some things, and we'd go some place and we'd talk and we'd have a lawyer and be, like, is there a contract that's gonna be handed down? And then everything would be like poof, because now, like, I mean, Capitol Records isn't even in the Capitol Records building anymore.”
All the record-deal shenanigans led to break-up No. 2 in July of 2005. The Wheelers joined Society!, an Afro-beat band that garnered a lot of local attention, while Swanton and Hankins started UV Tigers, which they admit was just an excuse to continue writing songs. A few years flew by, and the boys decided they couldn't let such a good thing go—they made their grand reentrance into the scene at the 94.9 Independence Jam in 2007.
“I think now we know,” Swanton says. “We need to record records—that's all we need to worry about doing: be a band, play shows, record records. All the rest of the bullshit is just bullshit. If some record label says, ‘Hey, I like your record; I'd like to distribute it,' cool, but—.”
“But we're not going to be on some leash with some record label,” Hankins finishes.
Josh Wheeler only speaks up when the talk turns to Foundation, which consists of old stuff, new stuff, one live track and a few slower tracks they never play live because the energy always seems too high.
“If this article could focus on the new record,” Zach Wheeler says, “that'd be cool.”
“Yeah,” Swanton adds, “it's fair to say about the breaking-up thing that we're all pretty over it.”
Scarlet Symphony play with Say Vinyl and Drowning Men on Dec. 21 at The Casbah. www.scarletsymphony.net.
Photo by Rob Queenin.