Cornerstone 2000: An Interview With Scientific

It’s the perfect Cornerstone story. I stumble in halfway through a band’s set and get blown away by their music. Although I don’t buy a CD then, their music still rattles around inside my head for months, until I finally do get a copy, and discover it’s as good as their concert had promised. As if you couldn’t already guess, I’m talking about Scientific and their show at Cornerstone 1999.

After exchanging some quick e-mails with Christian Lee Wargo, Scientific’s lead singer and songwriter, it seemed like a perfect idea to ask him if he’d consent to an interview at Cornerstone 2000. We met up at their table in the merchandise tent and trudged around for a few minutes to fine a place to talk. We eventually ended up in one of the air-conditioned trailers that serves as Cornerstone’s offices. There, I sat down with Wargo and Jane Ann Cotter Burnett, the group’s new keyboardist, where the following brouhaha was recorded for posterity.

Jason: In one of the e-mails you sent me, you mentioned that you were really excited in the direction that Scientific was heading. Sounded like you had a bunch of new members coming in, with kind of a new musical direction. You seemed to have a whole new outlook on how the Scientific thing was going. Can you elaborate on that?

Christian: Yeah, basically there are 2 new members. Janie filled in for Noah on keyboards and Kevin came in on bass for Jonathan. And I guess most of the excitement was over the fact that I feel like I’m getting over a dry time, in terms of writing. The first CD was actually written during a dry time for me, so I felt like the newer stuff was reaching back a few years to when I really felt like I had an idea of what I wanted. I had very specific ideas of what Scientific should be at one point and then when I moved to Chicago somehow I lost it all. I think it was through various relationships… just strange relationships, I lost my identity somehow.

But having the new members kind of brought back the excitement, because they are totally into it. I think Jonathan (old bass player), to some extent, a drawback to Scientific because obviously, his heart was in Unwed Sailor. There was never much of a connection between us musically. When we talked about bringing him into the band it was kind of… well, I was hoping he would bring into Scientific what he brought into Roadside (Monument).

I think we both agree that that wasn’t ever going to happen. It’s nobody’s fault, but it’s just that those relationships are hard to make. Anyway, the newer stuff — it’s not the best I can do by any means and I’m already past it all and ready to move on to the next thing — but it’s fresh and exciting and it feels like the old days when I had been in a routine of cranking out like 10 songs a week.

Jason: So is it basically the same sound as the first? Is it still somewhat new wave or have you gone away from that?

Christian: No, I think that was definitely a phase of mine. It was never anything I was really into before that year or even still now. I’ve always liked some 80’s music, but it’s not an exclusive thing. I think my favorite songs on the first CD, which are ​“Jett Black” and probably ​“Mysterious Line”, are the least 80’s sounding songs on there. It was never a direct, ​“Oh, let’s be an 80’s sounding band”, it was just kind of a phase I was going through. I was listening to a lot of Kraftwerk, Neu!…

Jason: All the old German krautrock stuff.

Christian: Yeah, and New Order obviously. And most people think of the obvious ones like The Cure, but that was never where I was coming from, but it kind of got directed along the way. It’s fine with me, I’m not scared of the comparisons.

Jason: So you’re definitely more into the krautrock stuff like Neu!?

Christian: Sure. I love more obscure things. I love poppy stuff and avant-garde stuff. Every other day I’m switching back and forth, it’s U.S. Maple one day and the Motors the next… both ends of the spectrum, and you can kind of tell that with some of the stuff that we are doing now… [At this point, the recording gets a little muffled.]

Jason: Kind of like Tortoise or Stereolab’s stuff?

Christian: I’ve never been a fan of Tortoise, but I’ve always liked Stereolab. I’m more up for their sounds. I love their organ sounds. You can hear that all over the new album.

Jason: So you’re going to be playing a lot of the new stuff during the set tomorrow?

Christian: Yeah, I think we’re only going to be playing 3 or 4 of the old songs, but there [are] only 12 songs in the whole set. We’re just trying to put on a good show. We’ve only had this lineup for about 4 months. We’re just going to do the best with what we can right now.

Jason: (turning to Jane) You used to be in S.S. Bountyhunter as a vocalist, correct?

Jane Ann: Yes. Vocals, keyboards, and some guitar.

Jason: What was the reason for leaving S.S. [Bountyhunter] and joining Scientific?

Jane Ann: Well, I’ve lived in that same town for my entire life, except for a short period when I went to school in Ohio. I just knew it wasn’t where I wanted to be anymore. I loved being in S.S. Bountyhunter, who were some of my closest friends, but I got to know Christian and I became really good friends with a lot of the people in the community and it was so clear to me that that was where I wanted to be. Then a few months later, after I had been living there, Christian was offering me to be in Scientific and I knew I still wanted to play music and I’d rather be in Scientific than any other band I could think of.

Jason: Are all of the members in Scientific also in JPUSA?

Christian: Yes.

Jason: Is there any effect of being in a community like JPUSA that kind of brings to the band that you can tell? Not so much musically, but spiritually? Is there a strong support behind you?

Christian: I think I wish there was more of that. I think it’s real easy anywhere to forget about that whole side of things. For me, it’s never been the tangible kind of thing. My spiritual life has never been something that’s a part of my everyday… I have to really try at it. Applying that to the music is the exact same way. If you listen to the lyrics of my songs, they are full of doubts. That’s really where I am. I have a lot of doubts. That’s why I really value the community because I can create a network of support if I want to. It’s not like they’re chasing me down, trying to get me to pray more or something, but when I need it, it’s there. Of course, we always need it, but there are weeks when I’m more self-sufficient than I should be.

As far as the band goes, I think the community’s definitely the underlining force and it (scientific) wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for the community. Besides bankrolling us, they are really supportive, more than I thought a group of adults could be. The adults there like our music, legitimately. Glenn Kaiser constantly tells me that we’re his favorite band and listens to the CD all the time. He has a lot of interesting albums in his collection that you wouldn’t think of.

Jason: I noticed something similar to that at your show last year. I kind of walked in late and stood at the back of the audience and I noticed a huge mixture. I saw a lot of the kids there, but I also saw a lot of older folks there. And they were definitely getting into it. That was probably the first impression I got of Scientific. The band was crossing all these different lines and it really impressed me. I thought it was truly cool when this old guy looked at me and said, ​“this song rocks!” — I think it was ​“Mind And Body.” That’s what really impressed me and gave me the feel that there was a strong community behind you guys being part of JPUSA.

The first record was released on Escape Artists. Was that just kind of a one-off label or a faux label?

Christian: Definitely a faux label, it was a means to an end basically. We had no real direction behind it. It was a good idea, but it was real spontaneous. It was kind of like, ​“Hey, we don’t want to be on Grrrr Records, so let’s put this out by ourselves and start our own label.” We tried for a little while to keep it going, but I felt like I was really the only one with any kind of vision for how to make that happen… and then I realized that you don’t have to build a bike factory if you want a bike, it was also the realization that I wanted to be in a band more than I wanted to create a label. So I just reevaluated.

There were a lot of disappointing things that went along with that because we had plans of putting out some releases, but that’s obviously just going to be in God’s timing. As far as labels for Scientific… We’re still just kind of blindly looking for a place to call home with lots of different options which are not wholly appealing to us all. For right now, Burnt Toast works.

Jason: How did that come about?

Christian: Well, I’ve known Scott for a while. He had helped Scientific before I moved to Chicago. He’s always been really supportive. We were just e-mailing each other about the festival (Cornerstone) and stuff. He wanted some of his bands to come. Then looking on his web page I found this little deal on the front page. Something like, ​“Burnt Toast Vinyl is an artist cooperative with the label recouping only the cost of manufacturing and the artists getting everything else…“ And that sounded like a pretty good deal to me. So we did a small pressing of about 1000 CDs for the EP and the 7”, too. He’s just a real great guy and he’ll bend over backwards for you if he believes in you.

Jason: I recently just picked up the new EP and it seems it’s really going well. The Burnt Toast booth commented on how they were selling it out. So I don’t think you’ll have too many problems recovering your losses.

Christian: Yes, I think it will do well… make sure you tell your friends to buy the vinyl too.

Jason: Anything else you would like to mention?

Christian: Well, we are going to be touring in August. We are going to do a small tour of the east coast. But, mainly what I want to instill upon people here is that we really need the support of people like you. I mean, I’ve never been in a band before Scientific that really tried hard to do anything and I’ve been surprised so far at the network of friends, different web pages, different zines. It seems like it’s hard to get into those kind of things. It’s like each town has it’s own little groove or their own little scene that’s happening and I just encourage people to find new bands that you believe in.

If you think Scientific, or Pedro the Lion, or Unwed Sailor, or any band is a gem in the midst of whatever, seek those bands out and really support them. Try to get them shows. It’s really helpful for us (speaking for Scientific). We’re not some ​“off in the distance” band that’s untouchable. I really just want to be friendly and network with people. Any help is much appreciated. We are open to share ideas with you.