"It feels euphoric to let go of inhibitions": Girls Against Boys' Scott McCloud on punk epiphanies, 'sex-rock', and the return of TheKindaMzkYouLike

Girls Against Boys
(Image credit: GVSB)

Scott McCloud, frontman of Girls Against Boys and guitarist with Soulside, is a punk rock lifer.

Still a teenager when he and three Washington DC high school friends released their first record, an EP which also marked the vinyl debut of a certain Dave Grohl, thirty-seven years on, the charismatic American musician, now based in Vienna, Austria, remains in love with the sound of distorted electric guitars, and the life-changing potential of an open-hearted three-chord anthem.

"Over the Covid times I started learning all these songs from the old days, all the punk rock songs I grew up with, and recently I've been doing an acoustic punk thing," he reveals. "There's an idea behind it, because I was talking with [Dischord Records co-founder/punk legend] Ian MacKaye about how some of the folk music we grew up on was like punk, so now I'm playing Bad Brains songs on acoustic guitar. It sounds cool, it's pretty invigorating actually."

Next week, leaving his acoustic guitar at home, McCloud will bring Girls Against Boys - bassist Johnny Temple, bassist/keyboardist Eli Janney and drummer Alexis Fleisig - back to the UK and Ireland for shows in Dublin, Nottingham and London as part of their on-going 25th anniversary tour for their fourth studio album, House of GVSB.

It's been a while, so let's get re-introduced...

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What was the music that first grabbed you, and made you want to play music?

"I was a total classic rock kid. My first concert, in 1981, was Ozzy Osbourne with Def Leppard opening: a great show. I loved Ozzy Osbourne, and I still love that Blizzard Of Ozz album, it's one of my favourite hard rock/metal records. And before I knew anything about the punk scene I had a band called Birds Of Prey, who covered Led Zeppelin, the Stones, The Yardbirds... basically a high school party band.

"So then around the summer of '83, I met Bobby Sullivan, who became the singer in Soulside, and Chris Thomson, who became the original bass player in Soulside, at high school. They were kinda punky-looking, and Birds Of Prey had finished, so I thought, They look interesting, maybe I'll make a band with these guys... So basically my friend Alexis [Fleisig, Lünch Meat/Soulside/Girls Against Boys drummer] - who was another classic rock kid - and I joined Bobby and Chris and started our first punk band, around 1984. I'd heard the Sex Pistols by then, and I just thought that playing punk rock would be easier!

"But also in 1984 I saw my first DC hardcore punk show, which was Scream at the 9:30 club, and it just blew me away. When I was playing with my friends in Birds Of Prey, the idea of writing an original song like Zeppelin and the Stones seemed like such an impossible step, but in the DC scene you had bands playing all original material, and I kinda couldn't believe that this existed in my own town. So I was immediately totally converted and was totally full of energy for this Lünch Meat/Soulside thing. DC hardcore blew my mind right open."

In 1985, Lünch Meat released a split single Thanks [later re-pressed as Getting Shit For Growing Up Different] with Mission Impossible, featuring Dave Grohl, on Sammich Records, a label founded by Ian MacKaye's sister Amanda and your future GVSB bandmate Eli Janney. Did you know Amanda MacKaye from high school too?

"I think Amanda was at [Woodrow] Wilson [High School] too, but I didn't really know her from school, she was one of the people I met through Bobby. His big brother Mark was the singer in The Slinkees, Ian MacKaye's band before Teen Idles, so from really early on after I met Bobbi and Chris, we were hanging out at Dischord House. Dischord was kinda created to document the DC scene, but they couldn't release every band in DC, so the first record came out on Sammich, and then as a Sammich/Dischord split, and then, with Soulside, we were on Dischord, proper."

Summer 1985, in the Washington DC punk scene, was known as 'Revolution Summer', and saw the birth of a new post-hardcore/emo community. Was that summer as inspiring to you as it seems to have been to every DC musician I've ever spoken to?

"I think when you're the age that we all were then, in our teens, the difference between one summer and the next seems hugely important. In 1984, when I was introduced to the DC scene, there was already this kind of nostalgia for, like, the Minor Threat years, but then the summer of '85 was kinda a refresh for everyone, with lots of new bands coming into the scene, most notably Rites Of Spring.

Even now, when I remember the Rites Of Spring shows I saw, the hair on the back of my neck still stands up. It was still punk but it was more emotional, and spoke more to how kids feel, in a way, with these very romantic songs about first love and relationships, and this totally galvanised a whole group of young people. It felt like the whole DC punk scene was entering a new phase, which was a little less macho, less about skinheads and fighting."

So many of the Washington DC bands at that time didn't play outside DC - Ian MacKaye's own 'Revolution Summer' band Embrace never made it past Baltimore - but Soulside toured Europe comprehensively: what do you remember about your first time in Europe?

"Oh wow, well, out of all the tours I've ever done, it's the tour I remember most. Soulside actually toured the US quite a lot, and one day, when we played at Gilman Street, in Berkeley, we met this lady called Ettie Schwarz, who was one of the people who ran the Dutch independent music distributor Konkurrent out of Amsterdam. We were talking to her in the alley and she was like, 'You guys wanna tour in Europe?' and we were like, Er, yeah! So then I talked to her on the phone and she said, 'How long do you wanna tour for?' and I said, For as long as we can. And we ended up doing a three month tour, March, April and May '89.

The punk scene in Europe felt more 'grown up' than in the US. We thought, This is fucking real

Scott McCloud

"I remember it so well. We did a secret show in East Berlin - we went through Checkpoint Charlie without our guitars and went to a secret location in case the [East German state security service] Stasi was watching - we were one of the first American punk bands to play in Poland, we played in Yugoslavia, as it was still called then, and drove all the way to Greece, and it was completely nuts.

It blew our minds, because punk in Europe was so different to punk in the United States, to us: punk in the US was held up, in a way, by 'all ages' shows, so we were always playing to younger kids, whereas in Europe it was a much more 'grown up' scene, much more socially and politically active, with gigs in squats, and you'd meet people from resistance movements. In Europe, it felt like, this is fucking real."

There's one person at every punk show in Europe who's the most un-American punk ever, who hates America more than anyone has ever hated America. Did you have any confrontations with that guy?

"Yeah, there was definitely a few 'Ohhh, Americans... so the Americans are here now, huh?' types. Also, we were really young, I was like 21, so some people weren't sure about our motivations, so they'd be like, 'Is this for real for you, or is this just like a vacation?' But I feel like that European tour changed our lives, it had a huge impact on us. And years later, it also had an impact for Girls Against Boys too, because we had essentially the same circuit, initially. 

"One aspect of that tour that still resonates is that when you played shows in Europe then, and still now, in some places, was that you went for a meal with whoever put on the show, you sat down for dinner together, and it was a bonding thing. There were friendships made over those meals that are still in place for us today."

Soulside were still a going concern when Eli Janney and [Fugazi, Fake Names drummer] Brendan Canty started Girls Against Boys as a studio project. You sang on their first demo, which became the 'Eighties' side of the Nineties vs. Eighties EP, and on everything since then, obviously. At what point did you become aware of the existence of the GVSB project?

"I became aware of it on the first day that they did their first song, because Eli called me up at my parents' house and said, 'Hey, Brendan and I are in the studio, why don't you come over and sing a song?' In Soulside, I was playing guitar and singing back-up vocals, but over time my back-up vocals started to encroach upon things, so it was becoming kinda clear that I wanted to do something else, and maybe sing some lead. So when Eli called me up I went into Inner Ear Studios with them, and we did the song Skind that first day, and that was day one for Girls Against Boys. 

"Eli was kinda, sorta, like a fifth member of Soulside: he would travel with us sometimes, and do our live sound. He and I bonded over more industrial music - I was introduced to Wax Trax stuff and Big Black when I was living in Colorado for a time - and so we'd talked before about doing a more 'dancey' type project. I love the first Girls Against Boys EP, there's some cool songs on there, but it's more dancey than anything else we did. Because after that, when Alexis and Johnny joined - and they were in for the recording of the 'Nineties' side in 1990, just after Soulside split up - we became more of a rock band. 

"As I mentioned earlier, Dischord was documenting the punk scene in DC, so the idea when you recorded back then was that you practised your songs, and then you'd go into the studio and essentially make a live recording of your songs. But with Girls Against Boys, from the beginning, because Eli was working with Don Zientara at Inner Ear, the whole idea was, Well, let's just go in with no songs, and create in the studio. Which, for us, was a completely different idea, a new challenge."

Was the end of Soulside a painful time for you, or did you feel like that the band was coming to a natural end? 

"There were a lot of factors. All of us had taken a lot of time off school to do the band, and towards the end of 1989 I had the opportunity to go to New York and I applied to NYU Tisch School of the Arts and I got accepted, in the film program. And it kinda felt to me, like the band... we'd been touring the US for years, playing to kids, even in New York we'd be playing matinee shows at CBGBs... and I think in my head I was either done with music, or I wanted to be in a band that played at night, for other people our age. Soulside's Hot Bodi-Gram record isn't a hardcore record - it's an album that has a lot of elements, mainly because we were arguing more - and as young as we were, I think we felt at the time that we'd done as much as we can with Soulside. Back then it'd take about a year before you heard what anyone thought of a record, and maybe if we'd taken a little time out and then toured that record, we'd have stuck around a bit longer."

Girls Against Boys, from the start, felt like a proper 'grown-up' rock band: did it feel liberating to you to have a new band that existed beyond the - perhaps self-imposed - constraints of the DC/Dischord community?

"It did. Personally I started to feel that I wanted to sing about things that were a little more risky, a little more... not dirty exactly, but a bit more adult, more 'after-dark'. I'm absolutely socially and politically conscious in the same ways as the DC scene was, but for me personally, yeah, I started to feel a bit constrained: I wanted to sing about going out at night, and capitalism, and drinking culture, and pleasure and entertainment... I wanted to go my own way, basically. And it was liberating.

"Every time we went to the studio I'd have lines where I would be thinking to myself, Do I dare to say these words? And it felt almost euphoric to let go of inhibitions. I remember recording [1994 single/EP] Sexy Sam in London with John Loder, and that song is just dirty, and kinda cool, but it definitely doesn't have a message, other than, life is a bit dirtier than we think it is."

The second Girls Against Boys album, Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, is one of the greatest alt. rock albums of the '90s, and at that point the UK music press was pretty unified in acclaiming you guys as the coolest 'new' band around. That must have been a good time...

"It really was. With the title, I remember sitting in some bar in Spain after a tour had got derailed, and there was a flashing ad for some late night 'sexy' TV show called Venus Luxure, so I wrote it down in my notebook. And when we finished that record and were looking for a name for the album I said, Venus Luxure No. 1 Baby, and Eli was like, 'That's perfect!'

"That album is dark and kinda mysterious... and it was around then that we started getting this 'sex-rock' or 'sexy rock' tag. We used to push back against that in the beginning, but after a while you get tired of arguing about it. [Laughs]. To be fair, the first song we sent to [new label] Touch and Go was Bulletproof Cupid and some of the lyrics are pretty suggestive, like, 'XXX... press it now... everyone wants to live that sexy ride'. But for a time it seemed like every photo shoot we got asked to do was in a red light district, and at a point I think that that image kinda started to detract from the music."

The UK and Europe really embraced your band on that record, perhaps more so than America initially...

"Definitely. I remember we played Irving Plaza in New York with The Jesus Lizard, and one review of the show just totally dissed us. But in England, everything changed with that record, as the weekly music press really got behind us. [Former Melody Maker-now-Classic Rock writer] Everett True was one of the first people to write about us, and people paid attention to him. And then because of the power of NME and Melody Maker, things started kicking off in Europe.

I remember we played the Trans Musicales festival in France, a very, very important festival  for us, and we were in the middle of the bill in front of, like, 7,000 people, and the place went fucking bananas. And after that, we played, like, 22 shows in France. Everything blew up from that record, and it felt great: it kinda felt like we were right, that there was something there in our musical vision."

So once your three record contract with Touch and Go was fulfilled, you got signed to Geffen: I didn't realise that one of the key players in that move, the label's marketing director Luke Wood [later the President of Beats Electronics] occasionally played guitar with you for a time in the band's early days.

"Yeah, Johnny went to school with Luke at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and so we met Luke when we played there, and he played guitar, and was trying to break into the music industry. We never chased a major deal, we were super happy being on Touch and Go, but this was around what I sometimes call 'the gold rush', where the major labels had tons of money from CD sales and they were throwing it everywhere, and there were A&R men trawling the East Village in search of bands to sign. And yeah, for us, Luke was involved.

"Initially, it felt to the major labels that we were resisting their advances, but actually we just wanted to fulfil our Touch and Go contract, because we loved that label. Which only made the majors go more crazy for us. I remember when we were touring [GVSB album three] Cruise Yourself in Europe, all the labels were following us around, buying us rooms in 5 star hotels, which was crazy, because we were still playing punk rock squats in Italy, for instance. So at a point we just thought, Alright, if we don't sign to a major now, we might regret it for the rest of our lives. I didn't think we were a commercial band who could break into the mainstream, but you're getting older, you have more responsibilities, and if there's money out there for us... okay, let's go for it."

The whole concept of 'the sell-out' is anti-art... and narrow-minded

Scott McCloud

In 1993, Steve Albini, another friend of Touch and Go, wrote his famous essay The Problem With Music, which talked about the fact that major labels all had cool, credible A&R guys at the time but that all the alt. rock bands who switched over from indie labels were getting fucked. How was the major label experience for you?

"That article was super-famous, and I remember being a little critical of it when it came out, because it explains one scenario of signing to a major, and to be frank, it's a scenario based around a really bad record deal. It doesn't resemble anything like the record deal that Girls Against Boys did. In the end, things didn't really work out for us, but a lot of that was down to factors we couldn't control: Seagrams took over the whole Universal group, there was a huge merger, and then Geffen was just gone.  And that really destroyed out band, basically, at the time.

"That article was interesting, and it pointed out a lot of interesting things, but there were also things that just weren't true. I mean this concept that you owe the label money.... it's free money, you don't owe anybody anything, you're not gonna get a royalty, but... you gotta sell a lot of records on indie labels too to get royalties.

"This whole concept of 'the sell-out'... Johnny has some strong feelings about this, Johnny thinks it's anti-art, and I agree: you don't criticise painters or modern artists for selling their work. The monetization of music is a tricky subject to talk about, but this is money for your art, and it's a bit narrow-minded to dismiss that as a 'sell-out'. But the music business has changed so much... it's funny thinking about the 'evil major labels', because along comes Spotify and   iTunes and they just ream everybody. [Laughs] Now these major label contracts look like a gift, they look like philanthropy!"

When Girls Against Boys bowed out in 2009, did you feel burnt by the music industry?

"I did feel really burnt. Every band is a vehicle for creating art, but it's also, whether you're on Dischord or Geffen, a little business. And what happened to us - and I think maybe this was not in Steve's article - was that after the merger we were stuck. Geffen was gone, and we got pushed to Interscope for a bit, but instead of just making a new record, now we were having to make demos, in order to get them to give us money to make a new record.

"And so in this limbo, our band practises became less about music, and more about discussing the predicament we were in: like, should we make demos or should we not? Should we bring a lawsuit to get out of the contract? And so, as a result, practise wasn't really fun anymore, it wasn't, Let's have a few beers and make some noise, it was all this heavy, heavy shit which dragged on for years.

"By the end of it, I was beating myself up, thinking like, I'm a failure or, Maybe if I'd sang poppier songs we wouldn't be in this mess... stupid shit that I shouldn't have been thinking, I should have been just making my art and enjoying myself. I was pretty destroyed to be honest, it took me a long time to be able to sing again, and to be happy with my voice, because that experience really chewed me up."

I went over to Prague to see you play with both Soulside and Girls Against Boys on the occasion of your 50th birthday and that was an absolute blast. Now that there's no pressure, and you're back out touring on your own terms, is it pure fun playing again, particularly when you see how much your songs still mean to people?

"It's amazing. And I'm glad you brought this up, because I've been enjoying playing more than I ever have in my life. I've abandoned all the guitar pedals, I just plug in, and just fucking rock out and it's so much fun. I was so self-critical for so many years, and now I'm thinking, Why was I like that? The more you enjoy yourself and just kick it out, the better it sounds. At this stage, we can appreciate the worth of our own songs, and just fully engage with playing them."

Soulside just released a new record on Dischord, A Brief Moment In The Sun, the first Soulside album in 33 years: that came as a nice surprise...

"Ha! Thank you! I think the pandemic, as scary as it was, acted like a reset button for a lot of people, myself included: it made me think, Okay, what's really important in my life? My family, obviously, but I also kept being drawn back to the music thing too, thinking about the friendships I have because of it, and the joy of the creative process. Johnny was galvanised by it too, he was spearheading it in the beginning, saying, Let's try to do some stuff, let's swap some tracks and just see what happens.

"There was nothing else going on as we were in lockdown, so I'd go down to my studio in the morning, and do a bunch of work, and it really became the most important part of my week. We had bi-weekly Zoom calls, and we liked what we were doing, and it just developed organically. It was also interesting because, unlike being all together in a room, where sometimes you can't hear exactly what someone else is doing, it allowed us to listen to one another in a different way, and afforded us a new level of analysis on the music, which I found really cool and inspiring.

The fact that it's come out on Dischord is amazing, it's like a full trip around the galaxy back to our roots and back to our old friends, who've always been there for us. It feels great to still be part of this whole story which has been such a huge part our lives."

So, the final question for you here is, what are the chances of a new Girls Against Boys record in 2023?

"Well, it's absolutely in my mind. We actually have a bunch of songs, because we wrote so many songs for the Soulside record, and some of them felt like they didn't fit so neatly within the Soulside template, not that that's a thing, as such, and some felt like they might work on a Girls Against Boys record.

We're thinking about it, and we're talking about it, and I really want to do it, and I think something might come of it, but doing a new record brings a load of extra elements along with it, in terms of touring and promotion and whatever. But the last round of Girls Against Boys shows have been phenomenal, and the new songs sound good, so while I can't give you a 100 per cent answer on that, I'm hopeful."

Girls Against Boys play Dublin Workman's Club (December 1, with Klubber Lang), Nottingham The Boat Club (December 2, with Dealing With Damage and Myopics) and London The Garage (December 3, with Dealing With Damage).

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.