Who really needs an opening act when you have alter egos, right? For the Chapel Hill-based band Southern Culture on the Skids, this was a question well explored in the late ’80s when the group found itself without the funds to pay an opener. With their instruments by their side, they flip-flopped into The Pinecones, a laid-back, acoustic folk-rock cohort, before exiting the stage and returning as Southern Culture on the Skids, the dolled-up rockabilly shebang.
SCOTS frontman Rick Miller remembers raising some eyebrows. “We’d get stuff like, ‘Wait a minute, didn’t you guys just play?’ or ‘Were you guys related to that opening band?’”
The trio, featuring Dave Hartman on drums, Mary Huff on bass and vocals and Miller on guitar and lead vocals, revisits that ’80s alter ego on its new album, The Electric Pinecones. The record incorporates some of the old Pinecones band vibes into current SCOTS-esque electric rockabilly, surf-rock and Americana elements.
“I think we explored a more folky side of what we do with some melodies that were a little bit different for us, but there’s still a lot of variety on it,” says Miller. “We stepped back a little bit from trying to be more humorous, but I wouldn’t say we’re serious.” Miller notes that there are fewer songs about food, though a track titled “Rice and Beans” does appear.
Heavily influenced by his upbringing in the South and frequent trips to New Orleans on SCOTS tours, Miller leads the bluesy, swamp-like honky-tonk twang that makes its way on the album. He moved from North Carolina to California when he was 12 years old and returned to the Carolinas for graduate school, which was when SCOTS formed. “I think moving away helped to give me a different perspective,” says Miller.
The Electric Pinecones album starts out with “Freak Flag,” a surfy pop anthem that stresses the importance of loving who you are.
Miller says that song was influenced by his son. “If you’re honest with yourself and you’re who you are, you’ll be happy,” he says.
“Freak Flag” has turned out to be one of the band’s more popular tracks, with help from “Little Steven’s Underground Garage,” a syndicated radio show hosted by Steven Van Zandt (guitarist for Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band). It even earned the program’s weekly honor of Coolest Song in the World.
Miller believes that the band’s next album may have a similar feel to The Electric Pinecones. “I had a lot semi-finished songs that I didn’t get onto that record,” he says. “This has been a really good thing for the band creatively, by being able to step away from SCOTS and move in a different direction.”
Though SCOTS has earned ample success on Americana charts, the journey hasn’t been easy. Miller reminisces about living in vans and sleeping on a lot of floors.
“It took us 10 years before getting signed to a major label where we got a little bit of a bump in our career,” says Miller. The band has been on independent labels since its stint with Geffen in the late ’90s. But despite a rotation of band members in the group’s early years, it’s triumphed in its longevity as a trio.
“Sometimes I tell people that the secret to our success is the lack of,” says Miller. “We never got to that point where egos and big money decisions got in the way of us being ourselves, being friends and making music.”