"For some people, we'll always be that band that lived in that house the police would always come out to." Scream's brilliant DC Special album is a love letter to a city and a punk scene that continues to inspire outsider art worldwide

Scream 2023: (from left) Pete Stahl, Franz Stahl, Kent Stax, Skeeter Thompson (Image credit: Joel Dowling)

In the mainstream history of rock, Scream are significant only as the band Dave Grohl drummed for before jumping ship to join Nirvana. But this simplistic, reductive definition does the Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia hardcore veterans a great disservice, for within the underground rock world, Pete and Franz Stahl's band are rightly acclaimed as influential, inspirational, trail-blazing artists in their own right.

Officially formed in 1979, Scream's origin story actually dates back to 1977, when 15-year-old guitarist Franz Stahl began jamming on Jimi Hendrix, Kiss, Funkadelic and Lynyrd Skynyrd covers with two classmates from J.E.B. Stuart High School, bassist Enoch 'Skeeter' Thompson and drummer Bennett Kent Stacks aka 'Kent Stax'. When vocalist Pete Stahl joined the group Scream were still searching for an identity of their own, but after seeing Washington DC punk heroes Bad Brains - "the greatest fucking band in the world" in Pete Stahl's recollection - the quartet were drawn into the emerging DC hardcore scene.

In 1982, the quartet would record the first full-length album on Dischord Records at Inner Ear studio in Virginia. Co-produced by the label's owner/Minor Threat vocalist Ian MacKaye, Don Zientara and Faith guitarist Eddie Janney, and released as Dischord 009 in 1983, Still Screaming was a fierce declaration of independence from a band never constrained by punk conventions: "We're from the basement, we're from underground," Pete Stahl sang on We're Fed Up. "We want to break all barriers with our sound." That ambition would be more fully realised on their second album, 1985's excellent This Side Up, recorded as a quintet, the group now featuring a second guitarist, Robert Lee 'Harley' Davidson.

"I would go to see them any chance I had," Dave Grohl recalled in his 2021 memoir The Storyteller. "Lead singer Pete Stahl stalked the stage like a vagabond Jim Morrison possessed, bassist Skeeter Thompson held down the grooves with concrete time, and guitarists Franz Stahl and Harley Davidson (yes, you read that correctly) were a blinding duo of crunchy rhythms and solos... I would often fantasize that I would be in the crowd at a Scream gig and an announcement would come over the PA system - 'We apologize for any inconvenience, but due to an emergency with their drummer, Scream will not be able to perform tonight. That is... unless there is someone in the audience who can fill in for him...' and I would jump up on the drum set and save the day."

Grohl joined the band of his dreams in 1987, and toured with Scream as they promoted their third album, 1986's Banging The Drum. The young drummer played on two records with the band, No More Censorship (1988), and Fumble, recorded in 1989, but shelved until 1993, due to Scream's first act winding up in 1990, soon after Grohl's departure for the Pacific NorthWest to hook up with Kurt Cobain and Krist Novoselic. The Stahl brothers subsequently formed the criminally under-rated Wool, with Pete later going on to front Goatsnake and Earthlings?, and Franz reuniting with Dave Grohl in Foo Fighters, and playing with J-Rock star J, a founding member of Luna Sea.

Last year, 30 years after the release of Fumble, the group re-emerged with a brilliant sixth album, DC Special, the announcement of its release cruelly overshadowed, just 24 hours, by the death of Kent Stax.

DC Special is a fitting tribute to the drummer's memory. Featuring guest appearances from Ian MacKaye, Dave Grohl, Brian Baker (Bad Religion, ex-Minor Threat) and a host of harDCore legends, and recorded, once again, by Don Zientara at Inner Ear in the weeks before his legendary studio was evicted from its longtime location, it's a very unique type of concept record, weaving the history of music in Washington DC into the story of the band.

Ahead of Scream's imminent return Europe with fellow DC veterans Soulside, Louder spoke to Pete Stahl to get the low-down on the album, and his insider's viewpoint on a tight-knit, supportive music scene that continues to shape outsider art worldwide.

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Before we start properly Pete, I wanted to offer my condolences on your loss with Kent's passing. Obviously you knew he was ill, and there was a benefit concert for him at the Black Cat club in DC back in the summer of 2022, but the timing of his passing seemed particularly poignant and cruel.
"Yeah, that was kinda weird. Sadly, as we get older - and Scream has been around for 40 odd years now - we're in that season where we're losing friends and loved ones. Kent was diagnosed [with lung cancer] after we finished the record, so we we didn't know until after the recording process was done, and then we just tried our best to support him and his family. Battling that illness was difficult, and it's just so hard in this country with health care: he'd been a musician his whole life, working odd jobs to play with us and other bands, to pursue his path, and like many others in this country, he had to fundraise online for his treatment. I didn't expect him to go so quickly, and it's rough man, because he's my brother, and a big part of the record. It feels really surreal, and sometimes it doesn't feel right. I know that he would be wanting us to continue playing, but it's kind of hard without him: no-one could play like him. But i'm glad that we've got another record to showcase his unique talent."

DC Special is a record about family, community and the Washington DC music scene, so I guess that makes it even more relevant as as a tribute to Kent's passing. How did that idea of the concept unifying the record come about?
"We've been talking among ourselves about doing another record for a long time: I actually had time booked at Don Zientera's [studio] in 2015 or '16, but because we're so spread out across the country we could never quite pull it off. But one thing that definitely added to the great spirit of the record when we actually started recording was coming out of the pandemic. The pandemic also created the flexibility for us to work on music every day, which was a luxury that I've never had before: I've always been stage-managing bands or working odd jobs, or working at nightclubs to pay the bills. When we were locked down I had a rehearsal studio that I could escape to every day, and then Franz and I eventually started being able to get together and play. What spurred us on to put new recording dates on the schedule was Don [Zientara] telling me that the studio was closing, so then I was like, Oh, my God, we got to get in there and record before it shuts! So we put dates on hold for the beginning of September 2021, as it was closing at the end of that month.

When we went into the studio we were still dealing with the pandemic, there was still social distancing in place, so we set up a remote studio outside, because we had planned to have all these different people come play with us and hang out, and we needed to make an environment that was safe for everybody. So then, because Inner Ear was closing, a lot of people wanted to say goodbye to the studio, or to grab their master tapes from old recording sessions, so it turned into a real beautiful get together with people just coming over and hanging out. We had a bunch of barbecues, and everyone was coming together for the first time in a long time,  and so it became a really great celebration, and that adds to the feeling in the record.

But to pull back a little bit, yeah, once we began writing the record we wanted to develop the concept of telling our band's story through the history of the music in DC that birthed us, starting with The Hangmen, a band which my father managed in the mid '60s, and then moving through the '70s and '80s, with the bands that influenced us before we really started playing, and then our peers and people that we played with and looked up to, like the Bad Brains. So I put together a book of all the lyrics, with a letter explaining our vision for the record, and I sent it out to different people that we wanted to be involved with the recording, if possible. We wanted to celebrate us and the DC creative community through this record, but also kind of tie a thread from our background and through our lives to now. Not everyone was able to participate, but a lot of people gave up their time to collaborate with us, and lots of stuff was done in the moment, which was really special.

There are a lot of guests on the record, so how did you decide who played on which individual songs?
"That's a good question. Things kind of happened pretty naturally. We had some ideas of who we wanted on specific tracks, but schedules didn't always align, and we'd roll with that. Also, because of the lack of time that we had to flesh out the record together, collectively, just the core of the band, that left some songs as an open palette, so people could just come in and do their thing."

I imagine there were a lot of sort of old war stories being swapped, a lot of nostalgia, so was it hard for you crack the whip to ensure that the recording wasn't neglected amid all the camaraderie? 
"Not really, because, I mean, that's really the best part of being in a band. Every band that rehearses three times a week is spending half that time just hanging out and talking about your day, talking shit and cracking jokes. And swapping those stories, also crystallised things for me, and for everybody there, as far as like, why we're here and why we do what we do. Because through those stories and reminiscing we remember who we are, and who we were."

I know that Scream didn't necessarily subscribe to every tenet of the Dischord scene, but the new record is also a testament to its ethics and community spirit. Obviously people change, but it seems for musicians who got a sense of identity from that scene, it really formed who they were and who they remain.
"Yeah, that's true. When some people talk about Scream it'll always be, 'Remember those weird guys that lived in that house on Rock Spring Avenue? The one that the police would always come out to?' [Laughs]"

Was it an emotional record to make?
"I wish I could say it was emotional for me - I know for other people it was, because they would communicate to me how good it made them feel, which was very touching - but I was so focused on the project, because we had 18 songs to get done in a certain amount of time, and there were a lot of things in motion. But I had a great time, it was one of the best experiences of my life. But it's been really emotional, since Kent passed away, when we get together and start playing these songs: the first time we got together again we had to stop rehearsing a couple of times, because we couldn't get through some songs thinking about him."

I'll not ask you for a full track-by-track rundown, but could you pick out three or four songs that you think are the spine of the record, the key building blocks of the story?
"We kick off the record with DC Special Sha La La, which I feel really sets the tone for the record and paints a picture of DC, with references to different parts of our town. Then there's Bored To Life, which I wrote with Darryl Jenifer from Bad Brains, which is about a community coming back to life, and then Somebody Love, which is a song that we've had for a while, that Enoch had written about the friends of his going through the AIDS crisis, and what that did to our community, which is somewhat ironic given that we were just trying to deal with another killer virus.

Hell Nah is another major one, because it addresses a lot of the things lyrically that we had just gone through, with the attack on the Capitol, the reaction in our country, through demonstrations and activism, to the murder of George Floyd, and the polarisation of our country politically. Growing up in DC, before the internet, dudes would be hanging out on the corner, talking about politics, and so that song is reflecting that, and the call-and-response format is a nod to Go-Go, which was music specific to DC, that informed us and shaped our musical background. So that song is really crucial, because it's saying a lot about our upbringing, and about what's happening now. 

Then the first side of the record closes with Represent, which features an amazing rant at the end by Oman [Emmet, formerly Tomas Squip], who was the guitar player in Beefeater. I really hope people read the lyrics because I learned a lot from recording that song with him. If you remember during the pandemic, during the lockdown, people would go out on their balconies or porches and celebrate the medical workers and the frontline service workers that were out there working when it was really dangerous: at that time I was in Los Angeles, and I spent days recording people doing that, and I made a sound collage combining all the screaming and yelling, and people playing instruments, like a girl in my neighbourhood who played violin, and that's laid out underneath there. And it fades out into the sound of the ocean which was a place that I would retreat to during that time. And then that picks up on the other side of the record with Dead Cities which is another song referencing the pandemic.

And I'll just jump quickly to the end of the record, to Lifeline, which to me really represents a lot of the story of the record. That song comes from an experience I had with with Grohl when he was making Sonic Highways, and he was doing the episode about Inner Ear. He arranged an interview with Big Tony, the bass player from Trouble Funk, a crucial band in the in the DC Go-Go scene, and in DC music in general. We were driving around the neighbourhood, and he showed us the different places from his childhood, and the clubs where Trouble Funk started out. At one point we drove by this part of town, and he said, 'That that's where I got my first guitar, I was 14-years-old", and I said, Oh man, that's where we took our first band pictures, because just across the street is Malcolm X Park, and there's a burned out building where we took the photos for the Still Screaming record. So that song Lifeline is about, us and him, and people like us , pursuing those, our dreams through music. Bob Berberich, from the Hangmen, who've I known since I was 10-years-old, plays drums on it, and Michael Reedy, who was the singer in this really important band for us called the Razz, he sings backing vocals with Ian (MacKaye). Then the record ends with Call It A Night, which is from an old practice tape from, like, 1983, which is really close to my heart, because it's a song that we used to play at the end of every rehearsal when we were packing up. I think it really closes the record nicely."

It's pretty cool that a band can make their definitive record more than 40 years into their career.
"That's funny you say that, I don't know if most people would, but I'm just glad people are digging it. And I'm glad that we were able to like pull it all together, and that it can be relevant now even though it's a record that also illuminates our past."

So you're coming over to the UK and Europe with Soulside...
"Yeah, I wish they were on the record too, but none of those guys live in the DC area any more. We went to Poland to play a festival in a town called Lublin after we recorded the record, and we played with them, and had such a good time together, that we were like, Let's do some shows! We did shows here together and they were great, so next up is the UK."

Speaking of the UK, how did ex-Prodigy/Janus Stark/English Dogs guitarist Gizz Butt end up as your touring guitarist?
"Oh, man. One of the best things about being a minstrel gypsy is that you get to meet people from all over, and we met Gizz when I was working for the Foo Fighters and Franz was playing with them, and Foo Fighters were opening up for the Prodigy. Gizz knows everybody! He's full of really good positive energy, which is great for us, because we're old and we can get jaded and down on ourselves at times. Gizz keeps us having fun"

It's a shame that you don't know anyone in a band who plays stadiums worldwide, because it might be even more fun to play to 70,000 a night...
"Haha. I know what you're getting at here. But to be honest, we do our best shows in smalls clubs, and vibe is really important to us, so even if we had that opportunity, I don't think it would really suit us. It might be fun, but I don't think that is on the cards."

To buy tickets for the Scream/Soulside tour, go here.

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. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.