Music » Music Feature

Al Scorch plays roots music with unlikely roots

The Chicago banjo fiend talks about his inspirations—including freak bikes, DIY hardcore, and Kelly Hogan.


1 comment
Have banjo, will travel: Al Scorch and his favorite mode of transit. - SUNSHINE TUCKER
  • Sunshine Tucker
  • Have banjo, will travel: Al Scorch and his favorite mode of transit.

Al Scorch plays the banjo like he knows the most scenic spots on the Appalachian Trail. The 30-year-old roots musician, who grew up on Chicago's northwest side, takes inspiration from all over—he also loves hardcore punk—but his creative process is less about inhabiting different genres and eras and more about putting himself into other people's heads. "So much of songwriting is getting out of your own experiences and trying to think of what it's like to be other people," Scorch says. "When everyone tries to always be aware of experiences different than their own, and to extend people understanding and compassion, that's a world-changing thing. That's not to say writing songs saves the world—that is not the fucking case at all. It just so happens that the mechanism is the same."

Scorch sings from someone else's point of view on a few tunes from his new second studio album, Circle Round the Signs, due from Bloodshot on Friday, May 13. The jaunty, hyper­active "Want One," for instance, explores the pangs of addiction from the perspective of a pill popper. The song also appears on last year's Live at the Spirit Store, where Scorch prefaces it with a real-life anecdote about an addict who gave him a mystery pill while he was busking. (He still busks and Dumpster dives "on the regular," he says, but this story comes from a stay in Chattanooga about ten years ago.) Scorch sings wearily about bottoming out, giving voice to his compassion for this odd stranger: "That tiny little bottle / Feels big, empty, and hollow / When I get to the bottom / I am incomplete."

Scorch writes from a place of connection and empathy even when he's the narrator of his songs. He wrote the tender, forthright "Lost at Sea" after Hurricane Sandy sunk the tall ship HMS Bounty in 2012 with his friend Drew Salapatek aboard. Salapatek was rescued, but the wreck still gave Scorch a bad scare: "I thought of a world without you around / And I will not lie, my dear friend, it was the lonesome-est sound." Scorch says it took nearly two years for him to feel the time was right to write about it.

"Lost at Sea" is one of the more recent songs on Circle Round the Signs—the earliest is from 2007, the latest from 2015. They're all grounded in Scorch's life, but they've got little else in common. "You can sit in an office in Nashville, read psychology books, and write songs—but I'd rather just have experiences and meet people," he says. "That's where the inspiration for songs comes from—songs are the stories from life. They're the stories of everybody's lives."

Scorch is an outgoing guy, and he can lose himself in conversation—or, as he might call it, "jibber-­jabber." He's lived in Chicago almost all his life, developing friendships and professional relationships with all sorts of people—he has long-standing connections in modern folk, string-band music, and bluegrass, of course, but also in the punk-rock scene and the cycling community (especially the freak-bike club Rat Patrol). To celebrate the release of Circle Round the Signs, he's inviting the public on a free bike tour of record stores and venues on Saturday, May 14. Beginning at noon at Permanent Records, he'll bike to five different spots around town, performing short sets with his backing band at each one; the tour ends with a barbecue at Logan Hardware. He also plays a more traditional record-release show at the Hideout on Saturday, May 28.

Al Scorch bike tour
Sat 5/14, noon, Permanent Records, 1914 W. Chicago; 1:30 PM, Reckless Records, 3126 N. Broadway; 3 PM, Laurie’s Planet of Sound, 4639 N. Lincoln; 4:30 PM, Bucket o’ Blood Books and Records, 3182 N. Elston; 6 PM, Logan Hardware Records, 2532 W. Fullerton, free, all ages

Al Scorch
Sat 5/28, 9 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia,, $10, 21+

I asked Scorch to come up with a list of the local musicians who've inspired him to develop his voice and career, and then called him up to talk about them. The range of his choices should give you a good sense of the various scenes he's rooted in.

Ryan Durkin

Hewhocorrupts Inc. label cofounder, 97-Shiki front man

I think I met him through Douglas Ward from Fourth Rotor, 97-Shiki, and now Drilling for Blasting. I had been working on this record, Tired Ghostly Town, in 2011 or so—I put it out there online, or I was talking about putting it out there in the general sense. Ryan hit me up and was like, "Hey, do you want to do this thing I do, where I put out a tape and then donate half the proceeds to charity and then sell it on Bandcamp and do the same thing with that?" I was like, "Cool, someone cares." 'Cause yeah, man, nobody cares, so when someone does care, it really means a lot. He was the first person in Chicago who just got in touch with me out of the blue.

I'd released the same record on LP and CD. Ryan was at that show, at the Hideout, when we released that record and the tape was released. That show was a landmark thing for me. All these people from different communities that I've been a part of all my life in Chicago all came together. It just showed me the importance of trusting people to get behind your music and letting people help you. Ryan manned the merch booth all night and just held it down. It made me appreciate those roles even more, just so many unsung heroes in music—and especially punk and DIY music.

He stood at that merch table for six hours. He didn't have to do that at all, but he did, and it was awesome. The punk thing is almost like, "Man, this is how I'm rocking out tonight—my friends are onstage, but I'm rockin' the merch booth, or I'm running the bar at the show." Everybody brings that pride to it. Maybe that's some blue-collar Chicago shit, where it's like, "Hell yeah, I've got this shovel, fuck you!"

It’s hard to tell in this photo, but that banjo is just as happy to see Al Scorch as he is to see it. - SUNSHINE TUCKER
  • Sunshine Tucker
  • It’s hard to tell in this photo, but that banjo is just as happy to see Al Scorch as he is to see it.

Mark Messing

Mucca Pazza musical director, Opera-­Matic executive director

I played this show at the Hideout when I was 18. It was a benefit for Bike Winter, which is a winter-biking education advocacy group. One of my first communities in Chicago, before the music community, was the bicycle-­activism community around Critical Mass—in 2000 to 2004 or 2005. That and Rat Patrol. My world was bicycles—and it was simultaneously music, but it's hard to get into music when you're, like, 16, 17, 18, 'cause it's all bars and clubs, and everybody's in their 20s and they don't want to hang out with you. Through the bicycle community there was this show at the Hideout, and I was like, "I wanna play."

Mark was at that show—he's a bike dude, and he'd go to the Hideout all the time. He reached out to me after that through Alex Wilson, who runs West Town Bikes (where I worked for a long time) and who shared space with Maestro-Matic, Mark's company, on North Avenue. So Mark was like, "Hey, who's that guy who hangs around who played that show? We need to hire all these singers and performers for this corporate music gig." He hired me when I was 18, on this gig that was like two weeks long, and there were 30 musicians on it—it was, like, live street performances with music.

That gave me the bug. I was like, "Man, you can just do gigs, and you don't have to have a fuckin' regular job and shit? OK, I'm in, I don't want to fuckin' work a job where I have to go be somewhere. I want to do this thing that just comes naturally to me that makes me feel really good, and I don't have to fuckin' answer to anybody all the time."

Mark's a lifer career artist, man. Whether he's composing music for films and plays, or working with Opera-Matic, doing all this amazing community engagement through art in the parks and giving communities a space to collaboratively reimagine the futures of their neighborhoods. His continued work of just doing art not just for art's sake, but for the sake of the community—to raise questions, to answer questions, to bring people together, and to bring people a voice. That's really inspiring.

Annie Saunders

Former front woman of This Is My Fist and Ambition Mission

I met Annie a couple times out on the road. When she moved back to Chicago, I started seeing her more. She was in Ambition Mission—I love that fuckin' band—but I wasn't around for that. I was still trying to figure shit out and make friends. I was a kid on the northwest side—there's shit going on, but you don't know how to fuckin' do it. It's so important to connect with people who were around for things that happened that you weren't there for—I feel like there's kind of these flame keepers of stories and old-school shit, who would just keep the culture alive and remind people of things that happened, how things were, and how things are.

Annie's just such a nice person, and a really nice friend. There's this weird thing about punk—not a weird thing, it's a great thing that happens in a really special way—where you know about people in bands and it's not because they're famous or something, it's because they're like, "Oh yeah, these are so-and-so's friends who do this over here." There's always that kind of attitude.

Annie was always someone who encouraged me to be funny. She was always like, "You're fuckin' hilarious, man." That made me feel good about continuing to do that onstage between songs, and not be afraid to just run my mouth and say whatever ridiculous shit I'm thinking.

Kelly Hogan

Wisconsin-based singer-songwriter

I don't know her that well. We maybe met in passing once or twice, but she's someone that I looked up to and admired from afar as a role model and an example of a career artist who's talented, focused, driven, consistent, and just always themselves. She's so hilarious and really smart. The cool thing about Twitter is I get to see that about her—I'm always cracking up at her tweets and stuff. She puts out solo records that are amazing, she sings with everybody and road-dogs it on tour—she's an amazing, inspiring example of how to carve out your life as an artist.

I first became aware of the culture around the Hideout and Bloodshot and kinda got hip to that as a young person—like, "Whoa, this is a whole thing, a whole community of people." That show I mentioned that Mark saw me at, at the Hideout—that Bike Winter fund-­raiser show—Kelly was the bartender, and I remembered that. I didn't realize it until a few years later. I was like, "Oh shit, that was Kelly Hogan!"

She had her dog; she was just opening the bar. Putting that together and being like, "Oh yeah, everybody just has jobs and just hustles as hard as they can on all fronts." Realizing that context and learning that lesson for me, like, "Oh, shit, that's the bartender for that show." She's got so much soul, when it comes down to it. Soul comes from having soul, being of the world, real and human. The person who's exhausted from tour and the person who's here early opening the bar with her puppy—that's the soul that's onstage and on the record.

La Armada

Chicago hardcore band, originally from the Dominican Republic

I met them through some friends in Pensacola. I had seen them play once or twice before; they're just always on point with their beliefs, put that into their music, play fucking revolutionary hardcore, and are at home in Chicago in this awesome way. They're welcoming of someone who's different than them. I don't play crazy hardcore music. I like to see that music live, and I like to listen to some of it for specific instances—it's very powerful music. I can't listen to it all the time. Let me tell you, it's hard to be a young, dumb person with a banjo trying to play hardcore shows. People are like, "What the fuck are you doing?"

Again, it's like, going to a place you don't know anybody, just 'cause you want to check out the music and try to make friends, but just feeling like a weird, awkward fuckin' nerdy dork. I'm up in my house listening to Woody Guthrie, practicing banjo and shit, and I'm like, "Man, I wanna go drink a million beers and fuckin' thrash tonight." That vibe carries you when you roll up at a house show and you don't know everybody and everybody knows each other—you're just like, "Ah, my God, so much anxiety."

I'm a north-side dude. I didn't grow up by anything—that house-culture scene coming out of Pilsen is so deep and has such an identity and a sense of self as a scene. I would go and check shows out and be like, "OK, cool, I'm just a weird loner here." And La Armada, after I met them through my buddy, they were always super nice to me. They fuckin' thrash and it's so fierce and so good. Those are some shows that I think about, when I need inspiration for, like, "I just want to destroy this music right now."  v


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment