by Steven Goss
The lineup for Don’t Look Back at this year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties in upstate New York was pretty impressive. If you don’t know, Don’t Look Back is a series of concerts where artists are asked to perform a celebrated album from their oeuvre all the way through, from beginning to end. So, for example, fans at the New York festival enjoyed Iggy and the Stooges performing Raw Power and Mudhoney performing Superfuzz Bigmuff + Early Singles. This year also featured the Australian post-punk rock band, The Scientists, performing their popular album Blood Red River. While most attendees may not have been familiar with the band, their effect American music has loomed large, everyone from Jon Spencer to Jack White citing them as influences.
Last month, just after their appearance at All Tomorrow’s Parties, I had the good fortune of meeting Leanne Cowie, who has been behind the kit for The Scientists since the band reunited. This chance encounter provided me an opportunity to ask Leanne a few questions about The Scientists, her musical influences and, most importantly, her drumming. If, after reading this, you want to get a taste of band, especially Leanne’s stripped down raw and blistered beats, I suggest picking up a copy of their 2006 live album, Sedition.
Goldmine: The Scientists started playing in the late seventies, but you didn’t start drumming with the band until the early eighties. How did you get involved?
Leanne: I met The Scientists in 1984. I was an aimless 20-year-old who had escaped from Sydney to London with no particular plans, other than to not get a job and do something with music or writing. It just so happened that during that spring Kim Salmon [The Scientists’ lead singer and guitarist] and his family came and stayed at the house where I was living in Brixton. The Scientists had just relocated from Sydney to London and they had no money, but they did have a licensing deal with Rough Trade. I volunteered to be their tour manager. I didn’t have any prior knowledge as to the workings of the music business, but I was willing to do it for free as I had nothing else to do.
Throughout 1984 and 1985, I managed the band’s tours in Europe and the U.K. On the eve of The Sisters of Mercy U.K. tour, drummer Brett Rixon announced he was leaving. I bought Brett’s kit and he taught me how to read drum music, which wasn’t that hard as I could already read music. I didn’t play on that tour, instead Lucas Fox, who had played with Motörhead, stepped in at the last moment, but the vibe wasn’t the same. In fact, I was quite shocked at how different it was.
I continued being tour manager, roadie, driver, etc., but I also started learning some Scientists’ songs with Kim’s help and studiously watching Brett. I based the way I played on his style. He wasn’t a hard hitter and used minimal effort, which I liked. While I was teaching myself the drums, drummer Phil Hertz recorded the single You Only Live Twice with the band. I guess the intention was for Phil to keep playing, but I wasn’t involved in that decision. Phil didn’t quite fit in and certainly didn’t look right, which was important to The Scientists. I remember their first gig in London in 1984; everyone was shocked they had long hair.
Meanwhile Kim, Rod Radalj, [one of the founding members of The Scientists] and I were going to form a ‘60s garage band. I could keep a beat and we thought it would be fun. One day, while rehearsing, Kim and I started playing a few Scientists’ songs, but I didn’t think any more of it than just playing music. The Scientists were soon invited to support Siouxsie Sioux and The Banshees on tour. I can’t remember exactly when Phil left or how it happened, but again The Scientists found themselves facing a tour without a drummer.
Again, I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but I do know that after playing some songs with Kim and Tony Thewlis [the guitarist at the time] it was suggested that I join the group. Of course, I jumped at the chance and now I’m not sure I was being brave, stupid or both. My first public performance was in front of a hostile crowd of screaming Banshees fans in Preston. I remember being so nervous before going on, when the enormity of what I was doing suddenly dawned on me. I know I was terrible, but at least I could keep time. I couldn’t do a drum roll or anything like that.
Goldmine: Besides the band’s most recent release, Sedition, your main (recorded) contribution for the band was Weird Love. What was that experience like?
Leanne: We recorded Weird Love for the Big Time label and this was our first release in the U.S. It was my first time in a recording studio, so I was a bit like a kid in a candy store. I think we did the whole album in two or three days from memory. The songs were re-recordings of early Scientists’ songs and I suppose I played them as close to the originals as I could. Many of our songs have very distinctive drumbeats, which are integral to the Scientists ‘sound, so it was important for me to maintain the integrity of the songs.
Goldmine: You left the band before the release of the next album, Human Jukebox. Why was that?
Leanne: I played with the Scientists until the end of 1986. I can’t remember exactly how it all happened. Simply put, my chaotic personal life was spiraling out of control and it just all fell apart. There certainly weren’t any dramatic diva moments. Boris [Sujdovic], the bass player, left earlier that year to return to Australia. Kim later returned to Australia to live, where the band continued to play for a while. I stayed in the U.K. for another ten years.
Goldmine: How did the band reunion come about and how did you get back together with the band?
Leanne: Over the years, I continued to maintain my friendship with the rest of the band and when they did a tour in 2002 to promote the CD release of the Blood Red River, Kim asked me if I wanted to get up and play a couple of songs when they came to Sydney. They played three nights and I got up each night and played three songs. It was amazing, I hadn’t played those songs for so long and it felt so right. There was a real vibe and excitement that we all recognized, but I didn’t think any more about it.
In 2004, Kim rang me and said The Scientists had been offered a six-week tour of Europe and asked if I interested. I had to work very hard to relearn the songs and get in shape. It took me a good six months because I don’t have big strong arms. We did this tour as a three piece, Kim, bass player Stu Thomas, who had played with Kim in the Surrealists, and myself. It was tough as a three piece because I had to play harder than I had in the past.
Then, in 2006, Mudhoney curated All Tomorrows Parties in the U.K. and invited us to play. This time we did it as the original 1985 lineup of Kim, Tony, Boris and myself; Brett died in 1993. It was the first time we played together since 2002, but again the chemistry, sound, and everything was still there.
Goldmine: Since reuniting, The Scientists have been playing All Tomorrows Parties as part of the Don't Look Back sessions, where artists play a classic album from their discography in it's entirety, in this case you played Blood Red River. How was that experience?
Leanne: In 2007, we did All Tomorrows Parties in the U.K. These shows weren’t technically part of Don’t Look Back, so they included songs from Human Jukebox and Blood Red River. Prior to leaving for the U.K. we also played some shows in Australia. This was the first time I’d played in front of an Australian audience since 2002.
In 2008, we began doing shows as part of Don’t Look Back, playing with Sonic Youth in Australia. I remember when Sonic Youth came to see us in 1985, so performing with them was a bit surreal. The series started in Perth, which was nerve-wracking for me because that’s where we're all from. If there are any fans that absolutely know The Scientists genealogy they’re in Perth. It was also really special for me because for the first time my family got to see me play. We then went on to tour with Sonic Youth.
Goldmine: In your recent New York appearance at Don't Look Back the other bands playing classic works from their catalogs was Sleep, Mudhoney, and Iggy and the Stooges? Was there anyone from this lineup that you were particularly excited to see?
Leanne: Playing on the same bill as Iggy and The Stooges was a dream come true. We have been hardcore Stooges fans forever, well most of us, and I didn’t get to see them when they came to Australia in 2006. Scott Asheton is one of my all-time favorite drummers and I thought they were awesome. For me it was all about getting to see The Stooges after so long.
It was a tough show for us. We hadn’t played together since 2008, we were jet-lagged and feeling the pressure. I personally think it was a great show but you can never tell what it sounds like at the front of house. I did feel a bit intimidated following the power drumming of Dan Peters and Scott Asheton, but there’s nothing I could do about that.
Goldmine: Who are some drummers you consider to be influences?
Leanne: For most things, I'm a big fan of understatement and drumming is one of those things. You don’t have to be a hard hitting power drummer to be effective. If you think about great jazz or blues, the drumming is about touch, not power. So the drummers who inspire me are perhaps less conventional in their styles. My favorite drummers are Mo Tucker, Scott Asheton, Brett Rixon and Clare Moore. I also think the British percussionist Evelyn Glennie is truly amazing.
When I first heard The Velvet Underground I was blown away by the simplicity of Tucker’s drumming. Her beats drive the music in an unobtrusive but organic way and are integral to the songs. This type of drumming is not power drumming, plus I like the fact that the drumming is interesting because it literally follows or leads the guitars/vocals. The way she used the kick drum on its side was fantastic. I also dig the fact that no one ever made a fuss about Mo Tucker being female, she just looks like one of the guys. This appealed to me enormously.
Scott’s drumming with the Stooges is similar, relentless driving beats and lots of tom-toms. It wasn’t until Raw Power that he started playing more fills. I know Brett was really inspired by Scott’s drumming, for example, Solid Gold Hell and Little Doll have a similar feel.
I admired Brett’s drumming style. He looked so cool when he played, hardly moving anything other than his wrist. He looked so laid back and he managed to give the impression that anything else was too big an effort.
Clare Moore is another great Australian drummer who I first saw in the 80’s when she was playing with The Moodists. She looks fantastic and her technique is superb. She can play anything. I once read someone describing her as not having “missed a beat since 1974.” Clare has never played the gender card either, to us it has always been completely irrelevant. It still surprises and annoys me that it’s a big deal to so many people. If I tell people I’m in a band, they usually assume I’m the singer. If I say I’m the drummer, they usually assume I’m in an all girl band. I certainly don’t think of myself as an influential drummer, in fact, at times I feel like a complete fraud.