You wouldn't know it to scan the room, but the four dudes gathered in the living room of a rented Woodbridge house on a recent Sunday evening are the core of one of the most productive, dynamic and vibrant gangs of sound and vision this city has birthed in the last few years. They operate under the umbrella moniker Scrummage, which includes the psychedelic, hyper-witty, surreal electronic outfit dubbed Lord Scrummage (which recently self-released a stunning full-length, From the Future), the wildly diverse (country, disco, show tunes and indie-pop!) Just Boyz (whose new EP is downloadable) and the experimental-Americana project called Bones, among other incarnations. Their collective CV includes records by all of the above-mentioned bands, plus recordings under the names Benny Stoofy, Lenny Stoofy and Minikin.
Given the endless stream of bands, recordings, videos and events, the casual attitude tonight is genuinely surprising. You imagine they'd be the stereotypical manic closet genii who get reluctantly summoned from their basements. Instead, the lanky gents that comprise Just Boyz and a good chunk of the core of Lord Scrummage — Ben Christensen, Conor Edwards, Eric Chodoroff and Antonio Manzari; missing tonight is Alex Lauer — are slouched, seated and working away in Christensen's home. Potato chips get consumed at an alarming rate as they discuss the latest permutations of the revolving cast of characters comprising what could be the most convoluted companies (in the repertory sense) on the Detroit scene.
But it's a constant, casual churn that has created some of the freshest sounds from Detroit's perpetually churning underground music scene. The Lord Scrummage aesthetic is like some wild hybrid between the short-attention-span basement DIY of our city and Ann Arbor's fertile noise underground (American Tapes, UFO Factory, Wolf Eyes, Hive Mind et. al) and the communal spirit of Baltimore's Wham City collective that has given the world such wild and accessible luminaries as Dan Deacon and Animal Collective.
For three years, the dudes ran a successful indie venue, Scrummage University, in their Eastern Market loft, which catalyzed a new scene of twentysomethings to make and enjoy experimental noise, out-there indie rock … and beyond. Moreover, the University connected a fresh generation of Detroit music heads to the underground scenes blasting out of other U.S. cities.
The first incarnation of Scrummage University was the sort of "make-your-own-scene" joint that has kept the spark of Detroit's music underground firing. In fact, the venue was founded by the guys as a place that specifically offers a genuine alternative to traditional venues.
And so they got lucky and had great neighbors who dug what they were doing. Word spread quickly. With little to no publicity, crowds of curious kids showed four nights a week.
"Basically, everything that could go wrong, didn't." Edwards says.
They weren't so lucky with their second space — a converted former toy factory on Van Dyke that was a haul for the casual fan. That didn't keep them from landing big undergrounders such as Silver Apples. Still, the second home of Scrummage University failed.
"We kinda knew early on, 'This just isn't happening,'" Edwards says, sounding genuinely bummed.
Nevertheless, they stuck together and kept making music and art as a collective. And "collective" is the key word here. Their home/practice space/recording studio is shared, too, with a few other co-conspirators — including visual artists Bill Meese and Bill Powers. (In fact, the living room's ringed with hanging works — Meese's collages; richly hyper-real oil works by Powers; and stencil works by yet another Bill.) To say the Scrummage family tree is convoluted would be the height of understatement.
"It is a little crazy," muses Christensen about the bands manifold manifestations. "It's to the point that it's hard to explain even to friends. …"
But for the Scrummage guys — at the ripe old age of 23 or younger — this is what they've been doing since, basically, their voices changed with puberty. The consistent thread is a quest for stimulating sounds that inspire them and a loyal following.
The core Scrummage/Just Boyz dudes first met in eighth grade, when they were Birmingham middle schoolers with a yen for making sounds.
"I think we probably started out trying to do Rage Against the Machine covers or something like that, all just for fun," Edwards recalls. "But it ended up sounding nothing like that."
That early experimentation led to the formation of the band, the Gremlins — which Christensen describes as some kind of hybrid, new-wavey, Sonic Youth outfit. It was out-of-step with the majority of other high schoolers at the time, but perfectly in-step with a growing cadre of fellow outsider kids that included future Scrummagers Manzari and Lauer.
"We won pretty much every battle of the bands [at the school]," Edwards grins. (For the record, the bands that Manzari and Lauer were in often placed second in those competitions.)
"We didn't know that 'Scrummage' had anything to do with rugby or anything like that," Edwards says. "'Scrummage' was just a word our friend Bill started throwing around back then. Just one of those words he used a lot. So we adopted it."
Cool parental units also helped the cause. "We just had really cool parents," Edwards continues. "They let us come downtown to shows and they'd let us have shows in their basements! We actually had Paper Red play a show in my parent's basement. So did Wolf Eyes.
"We started going to shows at the Detroit Art Space and noise shows at Behind the Green Door [run by uni-monikered noise scene mover Greh]," Edwards recalls. "And it grew out of that. The idea has never been to push or promote one band above the others. It's more like they all operate under this kind of umbrella. And whoever's available to work on a project or isn't busy at school or something becomes the band."
"Basically, practicality is our deadline," Edwards continues. "Like, if we know we're going on tour, we'll work to finish up a recording so we have something to take with us."
Those tours have recently taken the boys around the country, where they've reconnected with old friends — some of whom they've hosted at the University — as well as playing with kindred spirits at house parties, traditional venues and hybrid spots.
"We just try to do everything with a sense of humor," Christensen says. That humor surfaces in most everything they do, whether it's playfully championing outré-femme rapper, Breezee, or art featuring their cat.
This coming weekend marks the second performance of Just Boyz, a band formed in the downtime while some members of Lord Scrummage had to concentrate on being full-time students.
"I guess it's just more the idea of performing as a 'live band' with traditional instruments," Christensen says. "We started out using this MDC sampler as a compositional tool, and then we try to re-create the songs in a band setting with instruments."
There are elements in the Just Boyz sound that recall more mainstream influences than in Lord Scrummage. Country, disco, show tunes and even the odd snatch of lilty pop find their way into the musical mix.
"In a way, I guess this weekend's show is like a reunion show of sorts," Edwards grins, but only half-deadpan. And that half-deadpan/half-serious trade likewise seems an apt description of damn near every project this musical mischief-makers have added their moniker to thus far.
Download Just Boyz EP Sorry Ladies at justboyzzz.com.
Just Boyz performs Sunday, Jan. 31, at Cass Café, 4620 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-831-1400. With Prussia. And Scrummage Moving Pictures — an evening of videos, animation and visuals from various Scrummage-related artists — takes place Thursday, Feb. 4, at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238.Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]