You Only Live Twice: An Interview With The Scientists

The Scientists
(Image credit: Jurgen Dhont © muziekclub N9)

The Hoodoo Gurus; The Birthday Party; AC/DC; The Triffids; The Go-Betweens; Dirty Three; King Gizzard and The Wizard Lizard; The Saints. Grinderman.

God bless you all, but The Scientists got you beat.

The Scientists are – by a whisker, I’ll grant you – Australia’s greatest band.

It’s a minority opinion. I’ll grant you that too.

The Scientists added lethal doses of The Stooges and Suicide to the already highly volatile compound created by The Cramps, the Gun Club and The Panther Burns – the Holy Trinity that fused punk and American roots music. At their peak – roughly 1982 to 1986 – The Scientists were as good as any of those bands that so obviously influenced them. 

Often the mixture simply blew apart: The Scientists were wildly unpredictable live. But not on record. Their run of singles and albums at their zenith was astonishing, especially 1983’s Blood Red River and 1985’s You Get What You Deserve. 

That title became blackly ironic: The Scientists were never remotely financially successful, nor lauded beyond a cult following, Drugs, shifting line-ups, contractual shenanigans and sheer bad luck ground them into the dust by 1987. Yet several bands at the scuzzier end of US post-hardcore absolutely freaked for them: Mudhoney, The Cheater Slicks, The Laughing Hyenas, The Honeymoon Killers, Sonic Youth and Pussy Galore. 

Jon Spencer would later claim that, "The Scientists turned my head around and made a man out of me! They grew hair on my palms and made my socks stink!”

Although very sporadically active again since 1995, 2018 has been a momentous year for The Scientists. 

By their standards, The Scientists are now in the midst of a whirlwind of activity: 17 live dates across Europe already completed, 12 upcoming in the US; new material written and recorded - some of it already released as singles - even more in the can.

Astonishingly this will be their first American tour in their entire 40-year history.

These shifts are so seismic they are even billing this as a ‘reformation’.

Shit, they’ve even got T-shirts for sale at the merch table. 

The ‘reformation’ will be intermittent though. The Scientists all have jobs and all four of them are rarely on the same continent. Guitarist Tony Thewlis lives in London and works “for a charity organising bone marrow transplants”. The rest of the band live in Australia: singer and guitarist Kim Salmon in Melbourne, where he teaches music, drummer Leanne Cowie and bass player Boris Sudojvic in Sydney. Cowie is also a teacher. She laughs when Salmon refers to her as a ‘truant officer’; the full New South Wales nomenclature is ‘Home School Liaison Officer’. Sudojvic works in film - “director is the only thing I haven't done. Right now, I hire out a film truck” for location work. 

This current re-activation dates back to October last year. “Tony agreed to let us build a tour around his Australian snorkelling holiday,” explains Salmon. 

This sortie meant Thewlis would miss Lindsay Hutton’s 60th birthday party in Madrid. Hutton created the legendary fanzine The Next Big Thing and started the ‘Legion Of The Cramped’ fan club. The Scientists – huge Cramps fans all - go way, way back with Hutton. To make up for his impending absence, Thewlis “decided to do a version of Suicide’s Cheree, Cheree but changed it to ‘Lindsay, Lindsay’. So I recorded some stuff and then sent it to Kim and Boris to add to.”  

“Kim sang a version, which sounds nothing like Cheree but is really great,” continues Thewlis. “The recording process was so fun, we said ‘Let's try and do something else.’” These new recordings, The Scientists’ first in 31 years, were all done via Dropbox. 

Salmon describes the creative workflow thus: “I just gave Tony a whole load of shit and told him, ‘There’s good stuff in there, you just gotta dig for it.”

“And he found it.”

The first track to see the light of day was a Jacques Dutronc cover. “I had that song Mini Mini Mini in my brain,” says Salmon. “Conceptually, it's like The Scientists really, kind of garage-y.” Unlike Mick Harvey’s Gainsbourg projects the lyrics remain untranslated into English: Salmon sings them – Australian accent and all – in the original French.

“We also did an old song which I'd forgotten was available as a live bootleg,” Salmon continues. “I thought we'd never recorded it, so I said, “Let's cobble together a version of Perpetual Motion.”

These were both originally digital only releases to coincide with their short Australian tour/snorkelling holiday but “within a day of it being available, lots of labels were swarming around like seagulls to chips,” says Salmon.

The Scientists chose Bang! Records from the Basque country run by Gorka Larruzea. The Scientists and him go way back also: Larruzea ran the La Herencia de los Munster fanzine and put out A Pox On You in 1987, one of The Scientists’ final releases.

Next out digitally was Brain Dead (Resuscitated), another old Scientists track given a major overhaul, hence the parentheses. This too will be out on vinyl - on In The Red Records - with SurvivalsKills on the B-Side.

When I meet them – at their gig in Eeklo, Belgium – the poster claims: “In mei van 2018 volgt een nieuw album.”

Not so.

Salmon: “My thoughts on albums and reformed bands is nobody really gives a shit about albums. They say, ‘When’s the album coming out?” and when you deliver it, they say, ‘Their old stuff’s better’. Sneaking the odd single by - people seem to be more interested in that. Because of the name, people think of us as this experimental band, but in actual fact singles were kind of our thing.”

In the first life of this band, this line-up of Salmon, Thewlis, Sudojvic and Cowie only existed for about a year in London from late 1985 into 1986.

It happened because The Scientists’ longstanding drummer Brett Rixon quit and went back to Australia. Although this was something that “was programmed into the DNA of the band,” believes Salmon, The Scientists were still unable to find a long-term replacement for Rixon.

Salmon: “The guys that we tried were great musicians - we had Jim Walker from PiL - but it just didn't work. The antibodies destroyed him; the body rejected.” 

The problem was still not solved when The Scientists went on a major tour with The Sisters of Mercy in March 1985. That The Scientists and The Sisters of Mercy both have songs called Temple of Love is “a total co-incidence”, according to Salmon.

The Scientists and The Sisters, Coventry Polytechnic, 14 March 1985 was the first gig I ever went to. Two of the great bands of all time - a dream bill - but all I can remember is the smell of dry ice. Drink or drugs had nothing to do with it; I was stone cold sober and in my school trousers. I think The Sisters of Mercy’s fans traumatised me.

“I think The Scientists traumatised you,” counters Cowie.

Salmon doesn’t think of that line-up as the real deal. “For The Sisters gigs we had this guy called Lucas Fox. He’s a nice bloke and everything, but it wasn't quite The Scientists. We could sell it as that, but you were being conned - good thing you can't remember.”

Nevertheless, The Scientists enjoyed having Fox in the band. “He had a big bag of Tony Hancock cassettes that got us through some long, horrendous drives,” remembers Thewlis, “and he did a marvellous Kenneth Williams impression.”

The disparity between Fox and Rixon was even more amusing. Thewlis continues, “We Had Love starts with drumsticks being tapped together - click, click, click - at the start of each bar. When Brett did that nothing of him moved except his two wrists, which moved maybe a centimetre each. No effort was expended at all. Lucas had every drum and cymbal mic’ed up - he had about 20 microphones around him. He’d do the click, click, click on a different microphone for every bar, stretching and contorting himself to reach them.” 

Thewlis and Sudojvic found this so hysterical, they would regularly mess up their own parts of We Had Love.

Fox had been in an early iteration of Motorhead and would go on to contribute vocals to The Sisterhood album Gift. It’s him reading from the AK-47 manual on Finland Red, Egypt White

Before Brett Rixon had gone back to Australia, he had sold his drum kit to Cowie, who was tour managing the band at the time. She was “not in any way intending to join The Scientists, it was just to mess about.” She had never even drummed before. “Kim and I would just jam and play some Scientists songs,” she continues. “It just snowballed from there really. 

“This band doesn't rely on musicianship at all,” Salmon continues. “It's about nuance and alchemy. Cowie also attributes her appointment to “the humour that was part of it, getting on with people”. In fact, Cowie had been friends with the band since they had first decamped to London; Salmon and his family had moved into the house she was sharing in Fulham.

As their new drummer, Cowie had to learn on the job. The Scientists “had to run her in on the Banshees tour - a high profile national tour” in late 1985, explains Salmon. According to the booklet that accompanies The Scientists’ boxset A Place Called Bad, the first gig was “a catastrophe… Luckily, there was a crash barrier between the band and the increasingly angry mob.” 

Was it really that awful? “Probably,” admits Salmon. “It was a baptism of fire, but however bad it might have been, it was actually The Scientists again.” 

The Banshees tour ended at the Royal Albert Hall. “I sat in the Royal Box”, reveals Sudojvic. “I heard back then that anything that played there, they get invited and then decline, so the tickets can be sold.  So I think Prince Charles and Lady Di got invited to The Scientists.” 

“They wanted to come along,” continues Salmon, deadpan. “But Her Majesty frowned upon that. Charles would have loved to - he's a good bloke.”

Also on the bill were Fur Bible, featuring Patricia Morrison and Kid Congo Powers. The Scientists knew them both from a tour the previous year when The Scientists had supported The Gun Club. In fact, Powers’ first contact with The Scientists had been even earlier. When the band had found out they were the support, they got Powers’ address off Lindsay Hutton. Salmon recalls that “me and Tony wrote a letter to Kid saying, ‘We're going to support you guys. Just make sure Jeffrey (Lee Pierce) lays off the drink because we’ll need it.’” 

Nevertheless, all was not cordial at The Albert Hall. “Patricia Morrison and her manager,” says Salmon, thought Fur Bible should play above The Scientists - a view which ultimately prevailed, perhaps fortuitously. “We were ramshackle, deconstructed as all fuck,” admits Salmon, “and that’s saying something for us.” 

“The thing I remember from the Albert Hall,” says Thewlis, “is Siouxsie's mum in the dressing room picking up all the sandwiches” because she didn’t want them to go to waste.

“We met Sonic Youth for the first time that night,” adds Salmon. “They wanted to be really helpful about us getting a US label, particularly Kim (Gordon).”

Neither a US record deal, nor a tour happened though.

“The problem with our Australian record company was the reason we never made it to America,” believes Sudojvic. The Scientists were signed to the Melbourne label Au Go Go and try as they might, they could not get themselves released from their contract. With The Scientists ascending, “they were not going to let go,” according to Salmon. The schism was so complete that The Scientists ended up recording new versions of their songs as the album Weird Love for Karbon run by Nick Jones. 

“I've listened to Weird Love recently and thought ‘How the fuck did we not make it?’ The production is really good,” believes Salmon. “You really get that other side of the 80s that isn't keytars, bad hair and high pants. We kinda sorted that whole Cramps/Gun Club thing - various bands tried it, but we totally nailed it.”

But Jones was unable to wrest The Scientists away from Au Go Go. “We couldn't get the recording put out in America,” explains Thewlis “Au Go Go cocked us up.”

Shortly after, Cowie and Sudojvic both left the group. Thewlis and Salmon continued until the bitter end: a final gig at The Shenton Park Hotel in Perth in October 1987. It was not a Last Waltz-style glorious send off. “It was a shambles of a thing,” says Salmon. Although “I thought it was good because it lived up to our ideals of deconstruction and driving everybody to the door.”

“The Shents” – a legendary Perth venue - has now been converted into retirement flats. The Scientists are not quite ready to check out the brochure just yet. They are clearly at their most active and focussed in years, but truth be told, this isn’t really a ‘reformed’ line-up. These Scientists have been on several micro-tours and festival bills since 2006.

Luck seems to be with them this time though. The upcoming US tour originated in a chance encounter. On the last Australian tour/snorkelling holiday, the support act in Melbourne was The Cairo Gang aka Emmett Kelly, the guitarist in Ty Seagal's band. “He told us he knew so many people that would love to have us go out to the States,” explains Salmon. “He saw the gig and really liked it. He said, ‘What if I have a go at being an agent and sorta book this?’ He's done a fucking amazing job.”

The Scientists have actually played in the USA once before though, at the ATP in Monticello, New York in 2010 curated by Jim Jarmusch. Salmon: “People came up to us and said, ‘I've been waiting decades to see you guys.’ A lot of the interest in the US in the band has been since its actual existence. In the ‘80s word got over there and since then it's grown.”

Australia has been good them too. The last tour “wasn't monstrous but we didn't do too badly, so I can't complain about Australia,” says Salmon. “That last tour funded our recordings and getting US visas, which are not cheap. We made enough money to a fuel us for a year.”

This line-up is playing “mainly what we were doing in 1985 and some new material”, says Salmon. This will be the case on the US tour and it is certainly the case at the N9 in Eeklo.

The Scientists don’t have a fixed set-list. Salmon takes a black book on stage with him. “It’s mostly full of gig poster art I’ve whipped up, lyrics, music ideas and lists of songs,” Salmon explains. The Scientists’ page is in the middle of the book. “It contains way more than we’d need for any one show. I pick songs out and construct it as we go,” he continues. The band have to be “attentive to what I’m doing rather than relying on something inflexible.”

“Also there’s a lot of graffiti/doodles in there. On The Scientists’ page there is an R. Crumb style nude yeti girl.” 

Salmon’s first song pick in Eeklo is You Only Live Twice, which sounds very much like prime Thin White Rope – which is a good thing – followed by Brain Dead, which sounds like The Cramps and Thin White Rope – which is an even better thing. Cowie does her best Nick Knox, Thewlis slathers lead feedback all over it.

Cowie can also do Scott Ashton. Actually on Solid Gold Hell, she does Brett Rixon doing Scott Ashton doing Little Doll. For this one, Salmon goes guitar-less. A couple of guys in front row take selfies with him. 

At the song’s close, Salmon reassures the audience that ”I’m not flouncing my hands around because I think I’m Michael Hutchence or anything like that. I’m conducting.” He also invites a cheer for Cowie. During the audience’s fulsome approval, Salmon notices that the crowd is overwhelmingly male. “She represents her gender in the band as much as the women in the audience represent theirs. We’ve got equal representation, I think.”

The audience is also fundamentally middle-aged, but some youngsters have come to party. Murderess In A Purple Dress gets a pair of hipsters - one a lumbersexual, the other in a fedora - freaking right out. It could be because Cowie plays the first of her few fills of the evening. 

Off comes Thewlis’s jacket for Blood Red River. It’s his turn to get a cheer at Salmon’s invitation. “Back in the olden days we would never have introduced the band. We were too cool, but we’ve lost that.”

“We wouldn’t be a reformed band,” announces Salmon, “if we didn’t want to push some new material onto you, that you don’t want to hear and don’t want to know about. but we’re gonna give you anyway”.

A lone scream of “Yeah!” from the crowd. “You don’t fool me for one second” is Salmon’s comeback before going into a trio of new songs: Survival Skills, Perpetual Motion and Mini Mini Mini. Salmon confesses to messing the last one up. “Those of you who are French speaking, you’ll have picked up that I missed out one line.” Doubtful, despite the number of francophones in this Flanders crowd. 

Set The World On Fire, on the other hand, that definitely did fall apart. At other times though, it’s hard to tell when The Scientists are just loose, when they are “jazz – Tony doesn’t call it jazz though” - and when have they have fucked up. 

Live in Eeklo, Belgium 2018. Pic: Jurgen Dhont © muziekclub N9

(Image credit: Live in Eeklo, Belgium 2018. Pic: Jurgen Dhont © muziekclub N9)

Their first peak in Eeklo could be a combination of all three. Is this what Salmon means by alchemy and nuance? Nitro has a brilliant, churning simplistic riff, Cowie’s drums and Sujdovic’s bass fused together. The Scientists are about half way through when it’s clear something’s not right: Thewlis is back by his amp, plectrum in mouth, a paper bag in hand. Christ, he’s restringing his guitar in the middle of the song.

Cowie and Sudojvic have no intention of budging from their groove, so it’s left to Salmon to vamp, firing off discordant lead lines, talking about String Theory and telling a barely audible story about Creedence Clearwater Revival and how “John Fogerty, he had two guitars” until Thewlis, restrung and retuned, comes crashing back. Utterly thrilling.

Thewlis had figured he “was going to be making a big, hideous, atonal din for the next 3 or 4 minutes, anyway” and could “just change the string while keeping the guitar howling…” Apparently, only breaking all six strings – which has happened – has stopped The Scientists in their tracks.

And then the gig goes up another notch: Salmon yelping like Alan Vega, Sudojvic and Thewlis staring at him for an age waiting for the signal to bring Nitro home.

“The Scientists have always thrived on chaos,” comments Salmon after the gig. “It’s a matter of fashioning a performance out of whatever fate hands us because nothing ever goes to plan…ever! Sometimes it’s better to run with the way things fall rather than try and get things back on course when they’ve been derailed.”

Then it’s Sudojvic’s turn to receive the applause: huge cheers, returned with a raised double-fisted salute from the bass player. Salmon: “Don’t, he’ll turn into a rock star”. Next is Fire Escape, Sujdovic immediately back into his usual pose: bent over his bass eyeing the frets.

Swampland’s opening one-note bass-line is instantly recognised by the crowd. As Salmon sings about ‘alligator wine”, a guy in a Shellac T shirt passes through the crowd with a tray of beer, handing out free Primus. 

The Scientists finish with We Had Love: boiled down, incendiary, the band at their most Suicide so far. Then the chicken dancing starts. Primus is spilled. Another frenzy of squalling lead, Vega-ish yelping and growling, Thewlis staring at Salmon like he’s prey, the stage lit only by red footlights: the second peak of the evening.

It’s a powerful and dramatic closer, immediately counterpointed by The Scientists’ failed attempt to leave the stage. They think better of the required exit via the cheering crowd and just carry on with their encores. “We didn’t want to go anyway,” says Salmon.

Live in Eeklo, Belgium 2018. Pic: Jurgen Dhont © muziekclub N9

(Image credit: Live in Eeklo, Belgium 2018. Pic: Jurgen Dhont © muziekclub N9)

We get their “new direction”, another newbie called Hey Sydney, during which Salmon’s guitar strap breaks. This song must be jinxed: exactly the same thing happened at The Borderline in London six days earlier.

The Scientists close out their show with two tracks from the deathless Blood Red River: When Fate Deals Its Mortal Blow and Burnout

The Scientists are jovial and ferocious; self-deprecating, self-aware and absolutely able to tap back into their original primal power.

And this time they do leave the stage, Salmon in pink shoes, a jacket decorated with pink fish, carrying his pink guitar and his black book of songs.

The colour co-ordination is partly accidental. The fish are of course salmon pink: “I drew them on with fabric marker… wanting something different to the usual catholic iconography or skulls or whatever,” he explains. “My name seemed to offer the solution.” 

“However, the shoes were made in 1993 for me and were originally red but have faded to pink.” 

‘Reforming’ clearly suits The Scientists. 

But what of the Thewlis vs. Sudojvic confrontations that appear in the A Place Called Bad booklet? Thewlis is aghast at “him saying me and Boris were about to come to blows. Boris is about the only person I’ve never wanted to hit.” 

These tales originate with Philip Hertz, “the drummer before Leanne came in - an American; he just didn't understand Australian humour,” explains Salmon. “The schtick, the banter, the repartee - that was just people winding each other up.”

As well as the camaraderie, another secret to their robust revival is “paying attention to details,” says Salmon. “Of course, now I’ve said that we’ll fuck it up and get smug.” He notes – whether wryly or genuinely taken aback by his new-found capacity for micro-management – that the even the colour of the lettering on the T-shirts has been carefully chosen; the T-shirts have no images at all, just two words (“The Scientists”) on them, both in the same shade of blue.

Having some kind of masterplan would be utterly contrary to The Scientists’ philosophy though. Salmon explains: “Everything you do in life is really a salvage job. Some people say it's how you play your hand; I say it’s what you can salvage from what's in free-fall.”

The Scientists in 2018: escapees, crawling from the wreckage of their own history. 

It’s good to have them back.

09/28 Portland, OR @ Dante’s w/ Mudhoney
09/29 Seattle, WA @ The Neptune w/ Mudhoney
09/30 San Francisco, CA @ The chapel
10/02 Los Angeles, CA @ Zebulon
10/03 Los Angeles, CA @ Zebulon
10/05 Austin, TX @ Beerland
10/06 Austin, TX @ Beerland
10/07 Chicago, IL @ The East Room
10/09 Brooklyn, NY @ Union Pool
10/10 Brooklyn, NY @ Union Pool
10/11 Greenfield, MA @ The Root Cellar
10/12 Jersey City, NJ @ WFMU Monty Hall


Mark Andrews is from Warwickshire and lived and worked in the UK, Egypt and Belgium. His first book, Paint My Name In Black And Gold: The Rise Of The Sisters Of Mercy, is the definitive account of the early years of one of alt.rock's most original and influential bands. Mark has previously written for Louder about the Sisters of Mercy, as well as The Scientists, Gang Of Four (one of the last interviews with Andy Gill), The Mission, the Cramps, the Bad Seeds and more. He has also written for the Middle East Times, Bangkok Metro, Flanders Today and The Quietus.