Hot Damn Scandal: A collective ride of revelry, spirited storytelling
story by Frank Giokas
photo by Thaddeus Hink
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Jack Kerouac was a pioneer in expressing the blessed spirit of adventure. This odyssey of inspiration lives on through the kindred music of.
Mixing elements of jazz and roots folk, this clan of songwriters have a firm vision – to uncover beauty from the sorrows and grit of our modern world. Though the band have settled in Bellingham, they pull their magical works of art from the same space of initiation which moved the vagabonds of yesteryear. With songs born from a life of travel and living on the streets, Hot Damn Scandal are Americana storytellers here to share a world of symphonic musical parables. With an adventurous new record out in October entitled, The Gods Are Made Of Mud, the troupe shares how a life of artistic pursuit, created in fits of inspired bliss, will always yield the most high and glorious truth.
Born in Vermont almost a decade ago, lead singer/guitarist Pete Irving laid the roots for the genre crossing aesthetic of Hot Damn Scandal. They began on a whim, forming a traveling band from day one. Along with founding member Jess Carlson, the group featured anywhere from one to six members, “whoever happened to be along for the ride,” as Pete put it. Their early version treated music, songwriting, travel and adventure as one grand package.Together they would move with the seasons: northwest in the spring, summers in the northeast, winters in Florida. They would hitch hike, play shows and busk for cash, travel in vans and cars, stay with friends they’d made along the way. All the while, songs would present themselves in the still moments. The result was a huge array of poems and music which Hot Damn Scandal continue to use as a well spring for material.
The Hot Damn Scandal of today features Kris Staples-Weyrauch (electric guitar), Mickey Stylin’ (upright bass), Chandra Johnson (violin), Jane Covert-Bowlds (tenor saxophone), Jimmy Austin (trombone), Harper Stone (percussion), Ani Banani (backup vocals) and Pete (lead vocal/resonator guitar). The group grounded their nomadic temperament and settled in Bellingham in 2011. Here, they made a conscious effort to create “a successful performance, a spectacle” of their band’s presentation, Pete noted. Hot Damn Scandal are “a dance band,” who aim “to make a room full of people get down.”
Their 2012 full length release, Strange Tongues, celebrated their passion for collective songwriting and expanded the initial vision from their early days on the road. Inspired by the community of Bellingham, settling down was a turning point, and brought with it an increased caliber of musicianship. “It was a level of talent and training I haven’t been around before,” Pete explained.
The surface influences of jazz, rag time, bluegrass and folk inform their musical landscape but as Pete explained, it’s “not the end all be all. Part of us wants to stay innovative, more than idolize a bygone era.”
With their newest release, The Gods Are Made Of Mud, the band chose to push their musical boundaries into the realm of symphonic composition. The album features 19 guest musicians, adding nuanced color and subtle texture at every turn. With songs whose spark came from those early “hobo years,” as Pete described, their newest offering ups the ante in terms of dimension, refinement, arrangement and nonconventional song structure. It duly honors the band’s varied realm of influence including Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, Mississippi John Hurt, jazz greats Duke Ellington and Django Reinhardt as well as local artists, Petunia and The Vipers, Lucas Hicks and Baby Gramps.
Hot Damn Scandal view the world through a veil of parable, a filter of life experience and Christian imagery. Though not overtly religious, Pete pointed out that we are “steeped in it as a culture.” He noted the “weighted perception and heavy context” to everything the world of the Bible explains. As the group’s chief lyricist, Pete makes note of its value as a mirror through which to view our world. Influenced by its archetypal stories, he takes delight in re-interpreting the metaphysical imagery to “shake it up.” This lens infuses the poignant, storyteller dynamic inherent in Hot Damn Scandal’s music. The end results are informed, modern sagas which describe the beauty and pitfalls of modern society, honor the blessings of living with adventurous spirit and the sense of salvation found in the low points.
Hot Damn Scandal hope to demystify art and creation, to bring it back to the basics. “I wrote hundreds of bad songs before any good ones,” Pete shared. “It’s important to recognize the often, unacknowledged ways people look at art. It is a muscle. The only way to create things that are fantastic is to exercise the muscle. Give it the time.”
This unequivocal insight is key to unlocking the secrets of this enigmatic ensemble. They are a hard-working and passionate band of creators who do not seek to put musicians on a pedestal. Each member writes their personal component to the grander composition, to “find their own space,” as Pete described. Their wonderful chemistry is rooted in expressive, personal exploration and a community minded spirit to ground them as a collective.
With a full West Coast tour in November and more shows on the way, Hot Damn Scandal are excited for their future. For more, see their website at www.hotdamnscandal.com.