The great thing about forming a band with established musicians is that there’s not much drama. Everyone has worked through their growing pains, replaced fragile ego with mature confidence, learned to play with others, and is ready to get to down to work.
Or, as Scrunchies drummer Danielle Cusack puts it, “We’ve all been in bands where we scream our heads off, so we’ve all gotten that energy out.”
“Except for when we’re onstage,” singer and guitarist Laura Larson adds, “and we scream our heads off.”
The three members of Scrunchies have gathered at bassist Matt Castore’s Frogtown home to discuss their new album, Feral Coast. A friendly three-legged pandemic dog named Hank soon loses interest in the humans’ pointless non-Hank-related chat and heads outside to protect the home from squirrels. Around that time, Castore’s daughter Mathilda arrives with the only thing this interview was missing—a large stick about the length of an almost-six-year-old. (Or at least about the length of the almost-six-year-old who foraged it from the park.)
Talking about the big stick almost made me forget to tell you the bad thing about forming a band with established musicians: The sort of people who say, “Yes, let’s do it!” tend to say that to other people as well, and eventually they have to make choices.
When Scrunchies formed in 2018, you heard the term “supergroup” tossed around in their wake, since each member had already made her name in a notable local band. Or two. (Three even.) Larson is in Kitten Forever and was in Baby Guts before that. Bruise Violet drummer Danielle Cusack had played in Tony Peachka with guitarist Stephanie Jo Murck, who had just formed Sass. Bassist Bree Meyer? She’s in Double Grave.
Careful readers will have noticed a reference earlier to “three members” and a male bassist not in that original lineup. Well, yes. Soon Murck departed to focus on Sass, leaving Scrunchies a trio—and making the 2019 departure of Meyer an occasion for taking stock of the project’s future.
“That was kind of a real turning point in the band,” Cusack says to Larson. “Because you were like, do you want to keep doing this? and I was like uh, yeah I do!”
Like many musicians who are not men, Larson and Cusack had had less than optimal experiences in the past working with musicians who are men. “I was really committed to having a woman, someone queer, or a femme-presenting person as the bass player in this band,” Larson says. But no one of that description seemed to be clicking, and Castore offered himself as an option.
“When he messaged us, I was like, whoa, OK. It hadn’t even crossed my mind—Matt’s way too cool for us,” Larson says.
Whatever reservations Cusack and Larson had about initiating the soft-spoken cis male into their gang faded after a night of axe-throwing in Milwaukee. Cusack turns to Castore and says, “That’s when you started opening up and I was like, oh yeah, this guy’s fun.“
“Axe-throwing is really me in my element,” Castore jokes.
Cusack refuses to allow the self-deprecation. “He got a bullseye every time.”
Castore, whose resume includes local hardcore greats Condominium, was no stranger. He had already recorded albums with Cusack and Larson, including Scrunchies’ debut, Stunner. And so, since the band had written most of Feral Coast by 2019, they were able to record most of its songs with their new bassist, in his home studio, A Harder Commune, by early 2020.
Then came The Great Pause.
But not even Covid-19 could keep Scrunchies apart. Well, it could, but it kept them no further apart than was CDC-recommended. “Laura would drive to my house and sit in the driveway in her car and we would talk,” Cusack says.
“She would read my tarot cards,” Larson recalls.
With a finished album in the can and the world in a confused upheaval, Scrunchies debated their next collective move. All three members had finished albums quickly in the past. “It’s been like, we’ve got two days in the studio—let’s do all the instruments one day, all the vocals the next day, and then the album is done,” Larson says. But their reluctance to toss their music into the uncaring void of the early pandemic gave them time to revisit and tinker, without sacrificing spontaneity.
“We didn’t spend much more time than we would have on an album in the past,” Castore explains, “but the time was spread out and that gave us the time to reassess details.”
“I just really wanted to be out there playing music,” Larson says. “To not have that was really agonizing. I was a little in denial about how futile it was to put music out.” She turns to her bandmates. “Do you guys have different perceptions of that time?”
“I thought we were all gonna die,” says Cusack.
“I was like, if we’re gonna die I wanna at least have a really good punk album come out first,” says Larson.
The good news is, no members of Scrunchies have died of Covid (or died of anything), and their really good punk album, Feral Coast, is out today. (Digitally and on cassette that is. Kinks in the supply chain and the gargantuan demands placed upon the vinyl industry by megapop titans means a record is delayed.)
At a brisk 11 songs in 32 minutes, Feral Coast is straight-ahead punk that doesn’t just carelessly let it rip. Castore’s bass, recorded crisply, provides the kind of melodic low-end that gives a guitarist room to maneuver instead of always filling space with rhythm chords, especially in tandem with Cusack’s fiercely controlled drumming. And Larson takes advantage of the freedom, dropping out entirely at times, adding a delicate figure to “The Houseplant,” or working out a killer riff against the rhythmic grain. All while delivering distorted, energizing rants in a style that’ll remind you of the ’90s even if you hadn’t been born yet.
Though the band is a focal point for Larson’s writing, she’s insistent that the work represents the band as a whole. “It all feels collaborative but it all feels right,” Larson says. “It doesn’t feel like I’m compromising.”
She credits her bandmates. “Danielle instantly gets it. She knows how to drum on any song that I write and Matt instantly knows how I want it to sound. I can struggle with taking something out of my head and putting it through my mouth and these two are really able to read my mind.”
And so now Scrunchies stand strongly on three legs. Like a tripod. Or like Hank.
With: VIAL, Liquid Lunch
Where: 7th St. Entry
When: Fri. Apr. 1, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $15; more info here.