To write an all-encompassing book chronicling the highs and lows of Columbus music would be a daunting task. But when that tome is finally written, assuredly Scrawl will have their own chapter. Should teenagers of the future want to know the triumph and tragedy that defined that history, they’d be wise to dog-ear the pages in which Marcy Mays speaks – she’s got a lot to say on the subject.
Mays is one of few survivors of the ’90s explosion of Columbus rock – a time when everyone was being courted by major labels looking to have their stake in the alternative nation, only to be dropped just as quickly when the bottom fell out. She’s a sage when it comes to recounting the past, but doesn’t dwell on it. She was an insider during those halcyon days, but doesn’t believe there was ever a “Columbus sound.” Scrawl, which started as Skull in an Athens bar in 1985, has logged a lifetime of celebrated European tour stories and recording session nightmares, many of which Mays divulged during our hour-long interview. They’ve gone from college rock to spartan pop to bittersweet grunge in their evolution, yet, for the most part, Mays talks of the band as if it’s always been a work in progress. Like they just started playing yesterday.
As Scrawl remains relatively active, especially considering they’re veterans, they very well could have played yesterday, and likely on the stage of Mays’ heralded Ace of Cups. Lessons learned on the road with Scrawl, by cycling through the country’s best and worst clubs, dealing with shady promoters and flaky soundmen, have undoubtedly informed Mays when she took the giant leap towards owning and operating her own venue. In the few years since the club has opened in the Old North, it’s quickly become one of the city’s preeminent havens for live music. With a spacious patio, distinctive Czech beers, Ray Ray’s BBQ, and a near-perfect sounding stage, it has all the rec-room amenities required to make it a second home for locals.
And then there’s the name. When the Ace of Cups is drawn in a tarot reading it represents new endeavors – certainly apt in Mays’ second chapter – and the five streams that flow from the chalice represent our five senses rising to a heightened state – certainly applicable when it comes to the full experience Mays wants to provide in her bar. As for the future, she has visions of AoC becoming a desired destination for both local and national acts. Given her experience nurturing the humble beginnings of Scrawl into a world-renowned outfit, the future looks bright.
I love this line from one of your bios: “Long before the riot grrl movement opened the floodgates for the widespread emergence of female artists in the male-dominated world of indie rock, Scrawl carved out their own tough-minded yet feminine niche within the underground community.” Was that the intent when the band first got started? To be a champion for feminism? Or was that secondary to the music?
No. I think it was just that we were not good when we started. We were literally just doing what I would call performance art at the beginning. I had to learn guitar. We had to learn how to be a band together. I was in bands with guys and girls before and it had always been f*cking mayhem, with everyone doing crazy things to each other. With Scrawl, we were in a band to just have fun. There was nothing intentionally feminist about the music, but we were leading feminist lives by doing what we wanted to do and not really paying attention to what people wanted us to do. And that’s definitely reflected in the music.
It seems any time I read anything about Scrawl, it’s always prefixed by saying the band was “underrated” or “overlooked.” What’s your take on that?
It’s interesting in hindsight, and there are a lot of years of hindsight…there’s always at least one person in a band who wants to make their mark, who is not afraid to be the center of attention, who wants to be famous. We never had that. I think that led to us being more of a “band” and with that mentality, people tend to focus more on the songs.
The history of the band has been marked with a lot of good luck/bad luck moments. Signed by Rough Trade Records, then Rough Trade goes out of business. Signed by Elektra Records, then dropped by Elektra shortly after releasing Nature Film. If you could, would you have done anything differently?
Well, Columbus pushed us out and made us do our thing. We’ve always been a product of Columbus and there was a time when it seemed like every band in Columbus was being signed. We knew almost as soon as we had signed with a major label that this was not for us.
There are a lot of things I would do differently. We didn’t know we could fire an engineer. We didn’t know we could decline to work with certain producers. We were like slaves when it came to recording. I don’t think we had a good experience recording until we met [famed producer Steve] Albini. He knew what we should sound like when he heard us for the first time. He got it.
With Elektra, they had signed us, Built to Spill, Spoon, all at the same time. But we saw the writing on the wall and we knew pretty soon, they were going to drop us. So by re-recording older songs for Nature Film, we were basically saying “f*ck ‘em” by not giving them anything new.
And what are your thoughts then on major labels and the music “industry?” Was it a good experience?
I could picture myself being someone who could write pop songs and rake in the bucks as a pop songwriter. I think that would be a cool way to go. Trying to be the product that they are selling was just not what we wanted to be. You have to be very business- or fame-oriented to do that. People always say that we “almost made it,” but I think we totally “made it” as far as we wanted to go and then said, “f*ck this.” We weren’t cut out for it. It wasn’t us.
I have to ask, because this was something I never knew. He’s Drunk was recorded at Prince’s Paisley Park. How was that? Did you meet the man?
No. We saw his bird and we saw his meat. He wasn’t there at the time but there was a fridge in the studio that had packages labeled “Prince’s Meat.” We actually have video of that. The best part of that trip is that we got to hear whichever album he was releasing at the time on the console where it was recording. It was f*cking amazing.
Which brings us to now. How do you feel the music in Columbus has changed over the years? Is it as strong now as it was in your heyday?
I tend to want to judge things in the timeline that Scrawl traveled and we did things slower. Now it seems like a band forms and six months later they are out on tour already. I am worried about people who have good ideas and good bands who aren’t patient enough to let them flourish. It seems like the trajectory now is a lot sharper and the fall is a lot sharper. Back when we were doing stuff people weren’t in two or three bands, so I guess that is nice because you can wander off and do something else and come back. I love that there’s never been a Columbus “sound,” but there’s always been a great Columbus scene.
What prompted you to start a rock club?
I felt like there was this period when there was nowhere that Sue and I wanted to play in Columbus. That was crazy because there was nowhere we felt comfortable playing in our hometown. So once the band wound down and we paid our rock and roll debt by getting “real” jobs, [Mays is a now a system analyst for the state of Ohio by day], I knew eventually I wanted to have a live music venue. At first we were hoping that Surly Girl would be that place, but quickly it seemed the music would be secondary. But being there was a great experience for what came next because I did a little bit of everything.
You said that there was “nowhere you felt comfortable playing,” so what did you want to include at Ace of Cups that you saw missing from other clubs through the years?
I wanted it to sound good. That was huge. That’s the most important thing. I wanted the stage to sound good for bands and feel comfortable for bands. If it doesn’t sound good for bands they are going to be tense and not give the best show. I don’t want the show to be an incidental type of thing. It’s not a money-making machine or a sports bar with bands; it’s a live music venue. We’ve got a long way to go to get to where we want to be, but each day we get a little better.
Obviously your experience in Scrawl, dealing with promoters, sound guys and bartenders, has given you a good perspective to run a rock club. To what do you attribute your success at Ace of Cups?
I think the big thing was finding people around town who I knew were f*cking geniuses. The first thing we did was decide where the stage was going to be. That was before we even designed the bar. It sounds kind of technical, but I wanted people who understood the physics involved. I’ve been in plenty of clubs over the years so I knew how I wanted everything.
What’s the future of the club? What would you like to see it become?
As far as schemer/dreamer things, I’d love to have a second level above the bar. I’m not sure what it’s called? A “loge”? Of course, [soundman] Nick Shuld and I have a master plan to turn the sound system over again in the next six months. There are so many clubs opening and closing in the first year, that now that we’ve been open for a while we want to be on the radar of bigger shows that might not come through town. Columbus used to have that in the ’90s with Stache’s. It was a small place, but people were bummed if they didn’t get to play there. It would be awesome to be a place that people were disappointed they didn’t get to play. •
Catch Skeletonwitch, She Bears, Way Yes, Cliffs, Strangers in Daylight, and many more this month at Ace of Cups (2619 N High St.). For more visit, www.aceofcupsbar.com.