Southern Culture on the Skids embodies the work ethic that a band needs to survive over three decades in the music business. Making their bones in the venues that dot the college streets in Chapel Hill, N.C., they hustled throughout the South until the major labels came calling, and then hustled back once the demand for niche rock bands died down.
Don’t take the niche label as a backhanded compliment. It’s just hard to look at a band whose members’ onstage outfits are almost as important as their instruments, and whose setlist of redneck surf/rockabilly tunes include such titles as “White Trash” and “Cheap Motels,” and not realize that there may be a particular audience more receptive to this musical message than others.
Rick Miller, lead singer and guitarist for SCOTS, reminisces about the good old days on DGC Records (the “alternative” side of Geffen Records), quickly acknowledging that the business was much easier when left in the hands of a resourceful label that could push its artists.
“When we were on Geffen, the people at the distribution arms of the company were very much ‘music’ people, and they were very good for us,” Miller says. “I miss that part of being on a major label, and I don’t really like the business side of having my own label, as you have to deal with a totally different side of the brain.”
But these days, there’s more control. “You don’t have to answer to a radio department or be told that you don’t want it bad enough because you won’t do free shows in the middle of a tour,” the singer says with a laugh.
One of the positive aspects of handling both the production and distribution of your own music is taking advantage of the little surprises that fall into your lap. Through mutual friends, Miller struck up a friendship with the B-52’s’ legendary frontman Fred Schneider, and quickly the pair realized they wanted to work together. After months of difficulty in clearing schedules, Schneider finally found himself booked for a few shows within driving distance of Miller’s Kudzu Ranch Records headquarters, and the end result was 2015’s Party At My Trouse. The seven-inch single sold out immediately upon its Record Store Day debut and was quickly expanded into a 12-inch EP after its initial success. “We just partied at night and recorded during the day, and that’s what we came up with,” Miller says. “It was fun, because we had used some loops and we started thinking about giving it a dance vibe. We had never done anything like it, so it ended up being a really fun little side project.”
Miller has also become a master at finding ways to make money with the Ranch that would escape other bands lacking his resources. When a friend came along with the request to option one of SCOTS’ earlier songs for a television cooking program, the band leader saw a way to finally solve a longtime problem with an old business associate by, in essence, remaking their 1994 release Ditch Diggin’.
“We just wanted to make money,” the singer says, explaining the concept behind 2013’s Dig This: Ditch Diggin’ V. 2. “It’s all about money. The original masters are owned by a guy who owes us money, basically, from way back in the 1990s. We rerecorded it, and we were only going to do the one song, but then we thought, ‘We can actually play a lot better now,’ so with the help of some hindsight, we just knocked out the whole album. Most of the songs are pretty healthy rewritings of the originals, regardless.”
Perhaps it’s only right that this SCOTS release is a rebirth of a prior album, as the band continues to evolve over time. Miller acknowledges that the band’s mainstream appeal was short-lived, but after laughing off a record exec’s suggestion that they attempt to court 16-year-old ska fans in the late-’90s (“I mean, look at me, I’ve got gray hair!”), they went with a Crock-Pot approach to building a lasting fan base that has served them to this day: low and slow.
“Most people know us from ‘Camel Walk’ [the band’s hit single from their 1995 Geffen debut], but I wouldn’t say it’s representative of our body of work. We knew that at the time, of course, but after the song was released to radio we had crowds of 1,200 showing up instead of the 100 that were there over the past 10 years we were in that town. We figured at the time that if we could keep 10 to 15 percent of the core audience that discovered us through this one song, we could have a pretty good career for a while, and that’s exactly what happened.
“At the end of the day, you still have people show up at shows only asking for ‘Camel Walk,’ and others calling us a novelty band, but we do a lot more than just that,” Miller says. “Sometimes it gets old when people only identify you with one song, but it had its good parts too, y’ know?”