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Maryland's doom-metal godfather had a pretty good year--for once

Photographs By Sam Holden

By Michael Byrne | Posted 1/6/2010

There are few cult figures like Scott "Wino" Weinrich. Heavy music has set aside a very special kind of reverence for the singer/guitarist, who helped develop and codify doom metal's slow-motion gnash of ponderous tempos, bleary riffs, and vocals growling the language of end times. Now nearly 50 years old, the Rockville native has, over the past three decades or so, fronted two seminal metal bands, the Obsessed and Saint Vitus. He has piloted vital Maryland outfits the Hidden Hand and Spirit Caravan, made music with Dave Grohl under the Probot handle, and, finally, in 2009 issued his first-ever solo album, Punctuated Equilibrium. He recently joined together with fellow heavyweights Scott Kelly (Neurosis), Al Cisneros (Sleep, OM), and Dale Crover (Melvins) in supergroup Shrinebuilder. The highlights of Wino's career have been exceptional--and aren't ending anytime soon--and the lows have been, well, a very rock 'n' roll kind of awful, to say the least. 

On Christmas Eve, I sat down with Wino at a Baltimore bar to talk kicking drugs, record deals gone south, and why angry music will never die. 

City Paper: This has been the year of Wino--Shrinebuilder, a Saint Vitus reunion, a solo album. What do you make of it?

Scott Weinrich: It's pretty surreal. Here it is, I'm almost 50, and all of a sudden our style of music is back in vogue. I'm not going to fight it, obviously. It's interesting. I've said this before but, [it's] the times we're in--the negative times summon it. People want something a little bit more, something to fill that hole. It's hard to pinpoint.

It just seems like heavy rock won't go away. 

CP: You're playing solo now for the first time, can you talk some about that?  

SW: For a number of years, I was a stay-at-home dad. I had to turn down a lot of tours. So I raised these three kids and, me and [my ex-wife], we started to not see eye to eye. So we separated. At first, I thought it was going to be cool, but when you throw the kids into the mix, it can be pretty rough. It's been the biggest thing in my recent life. It's kind of a cloud.  

But, during that time period, I found the time to do the Wino tour. I [had] decided I was going to retire, [and] I got a full-time job as a stagehand. But, also right around that time, I got clean and sober, started to feel really good. So I decided I'd do it one more time. 

Me, John Paul [Gaster, of Clutch], and this kid Jon Blank, we recorded my first solo record. It did really well--huge amounts of press, really, really well-received. So we were on the road and everything was cool except that Jon Blank was an on- and off-again heroin addict. Basically, he got cleaned up and we did a kick-ass European tour. We had four days off, and he OD-ed [and died]. That was a heavy blow.  

We ended up with Brian White, from Dog Fashion Disco. We carried on. The Wino band is back for now.  

CP: You've also reconvened Saint Vitus . . .  

SW: A lot of years went by [since Saint Vitus broke up], and by 2003, there was a big demand. So, I called all of them--it was really hard to call them. But we made our peace and did a reunion tour. The shows were big. After all of the years, people were into it. At that time though, we still couldn't sell out the Empty Bottle in Chicago. The capacity is 500, and I think we sold 480. It was like, Fuck! We still can't do it. So, that was pretty much it until we decided to do another tour several years later. 

CP: That brings up something kind of interesting--the difference between domestic and overseas crowds. Like, here at Sonar this fall, Saint Vitus only drew a few hundred people, but over the summer at Hellfest in Paris, you were playing to thousands.  

SW: [At Hellfest], Vitus played on Friday. There were two stages. Heaven and Hell--Black Sabbath [with Ronnie James Dio]--played right before us [on the other stage], and I expected it to be a totally dead hall [for us], after Black Sabbath. [But] 300 kids fucking pack up and run, not watching Sabbath, just chanting "Vitus." That's really when I knew something was going on. Sabbath is fucking playing, and there's already 300 kids packed up against [our] stage chanting "Vitus." That was a really big day for us. 

I joined Vitus in 1987--'87 till '91 or '92. Back in those days we were like Spinal Tap. We'd get billed with a bunch of punk-rock bands, and then we'd play and people would be like "This is a joke, right?" 

We played the Whiskey A Go Go with, like, three thrash bands, and we got to one point where you could literally hear fucking nothing. Dead silence. For Saint Vitus to be on this wave of popularity now is just crazy. Kids see now their favorite guitarist wearing a Saint Vitus shirt, they're going to go investigate it. For the first time ever, I'm starting to see really young fans. Really young. 

CP: How did you get involved with Saint Vitus back in the day?  

SW: Weird circumstances pulled me to Saint Vitus. I was ready to get out of D.C. and Vitus came to town, and they were supposed to play in Baltimore, but didn't show up. Now, this was in the days before cell phones. Turns out the driver left the singer at a pay phone. So he missed the show, but rolled in late and stayed with a friend of mine, who then played them some Obsessed. They heard my voice, knew the singer was going to leave, so they invited me to join.  

I was with Saint Vitus for many years--[we] were on [seminal indie label] SST for a minute. Pretty unhappy with SST, actually. SST, in my eyes, [became] the epitome of everything they hated. They became the corporation. 

CP: Speaking of your other old doom band, the Obsessed was on a major label for a short time. 

SW: When we got signed to Columbia [in 1992], a lot of people predicted our demise. That was my first experience working with a major label. We didn't even have a record out, and we're touring with White Zombie. Our manager was like, "You gotta do it, you gotta do it." So, it was us, Prong, and White Zombie.  

That was a funny tour. The kids didn't know who the fuck we were. I knew we weren't going to break into the big time, even though we were signed to Columbia. The reason was that we were a three-piece band with no lead singer. Kurt Cobain had just killed himself--you had grunge, and these bands had a lead singer. And they were like, How do we market [the Obsessed]?, and they figured they could do like a biker/outlaw thing. Back then Mötley Crüe was like "Girls, Girls, Girls" and the biker-rock bands were everywhere. 

I thought the single should be "Streamlined," like a 3-minute kind of upbeat motorcycle anthem, right? It was a song we liked and played, and I thought it should be the single. Columbia thought so, too. But the other dudes in the band were like "Dyed in the Wool," on principle. Like, this song is not indicative of our sound, so we choose this [other] one. We shot ourselves in the foot, totally. 

CP: Do you regret not putting your foot down?  

SW: Yeah, but at the same time, chalk it up to experience. At the time, my personal life was gone, my love life was gone. I was getting high, I was getting invincible.  

And then, I met this girl, fell in love with this girl. It turns out she was a prostitute. I didn't know this. Periodically, she'd fly to New York City to "dance." I was OK with that. That was the deal.  

Then one day she told me. We were touring with the Melvins in West Virginia. I talked to her on the phone, and she broke this crazy news about her not dancing, about her working in a house. I told her I didn't care. But, to her, I was gone. And that was it.   

So that was goin' on. And my brain is getting torn every way and, at the same time, I had also developed a speed habit. It seems like a good idea at the time, until you're really fucking strung out.  

So, that was all going on right when we got signed.   

CP: How did it end with Columbia?  

SW: [Columbia] fell asleep on the Truth Exam [album], and we never got to release our second record. Basically, what they did was exercise their option for a second record. The A&R [representative] goes, "I want to take you all to lunch. Where do you want to go?" So we go to this place we always go, and he says, "I've got good news and bad news. Which do you want first?" And we go for the good news. And he says, "We've exercised our option for the second record." Openin' up the bank, basically. Which was good, because after the last tour they'd cut us off [financially], basically, with no reason why. And we're starving.  

Then, he says, "They want you to redemo to be a little bit more commercial. You guys don't want to do that, you can walk away from the deal." And, well, we're punk-rock, so that was it. We walked away.  

When that happened, I was pretty despondent. I just didn't care. 

CP: Did Columbia kill the Obsessed? 

SW: Columbia killed the Obsessed, pretty much. We carried on for a little while.   

I killed the Obsessed. I was untogether, pretty strung out. At that point in time, drugs became my primary focus.   

CP: You got clean after? 

SW: [On my] first date with my wife [in 1996] we went down to the National Gallery, and after that we went to a party. And some dude just started fucking with me. What my wife saw on our first date was me split this dude's head wide open. I realized that if I hadn't been so drunk, I probably would have stopped hitting the guy. So I decided then I would quit drinking. I decided drinking was the main problem.

CP: Can you tell me about Place of Skulls, one of your lesser-known bands? 

SW: [Bandmate Victor Griffin]'s always been one of my best friends. He became a born-again Christian, and I obviously don't believe in denominations. I believe in God, not in a traditional sense, though. And we agreed to disagree.  

We did one record, and I fucking love that record. We never ever played a live show. And that was that. 

CP: After that came the Hidden Hand?    

SW: And then the Hidden Hand came about. This was the [George H.W.] Bush years, and we were getting kind of pissed off. The bass player was a great guy, a fucking genius, but he couldn't get behind the fact that it always seemed like it was about Wino, Wino, Wino. I really tried to give him as much credit in the press as I could. I tried my hardest to make it not about Wino. Bottom line is I had a deep discography, and he was in a band that did one single. It was hard. He said he felt like a second-class citizen.  He refused to play, or didn't want to play, any of my old band's songs. 

It was a good band, and my most political band. I was really getting into politics and then, of course. Bush came along. It was just really fucked up. We did that first single [on McCarthyism Records, owned by City Paper contributing photographer Josh Sisk], which I just thought was bombastic. I thought it was really great. Then we did Mother Teacher Destroyer, which to this day ranks as one of my all-time favorite things I've done. That record is maybe the top one.  

Those were the days of the Hidden Hand. I thought that band would last forever, but the whole friction. So one thing led to another, and that was over.  

We were really, really inspired. [Bruce Falkinberg] was singing, so it wasn't just me. He was also an engineer, so he'd sit in front of a mic all night long playing with vocals. I thought the songs were amazing, like "Black Ribbons."  

We brought J. Robbins in to help us record it. He took a black cloth and threw it over the whole drum kit. And Dave [Hennessy] started playing and it's all muffled and that was the drum sound. Then I deprogrammed this [song] "Tom Delay," which is this noise meltdown thing that started off really fuckin' heavy. And I had this toy helicopter. Pull the block out and there's this photo cell and it makes a little helicopter noise. Jay hooked it up to this tiny little speaker to get a helicopter noise. That song was going to be called "The Assassination of Tom Delay," but we thought that might be unwise.  

Anyway, that was like the pinnacle.  

The next record we did was called Whiskey Foot, and I call it the "haunted record." Bruce came up with the idea of Whiskey Foot, which was like this spirit that was sort of a combination of a renegade slave and like a general of some kind, some kind of warrior, a righteous warrior, you know. It was a great concept, I loved the concept. I started tailoring all of the songs to the concept. We had all of these really cool theme-colored songs. I said we could do it, and Bruce was so engrossed with his idea and vision, it just fell apart. It started to fall apart.  

We didn't have any idea for a cover, and we got a package in the mail from the drummer of Iron Boss, and it was a book from the '30s called The Hidden Hand, with a hand-drawn cover, and it was really fucking creepy, man. On the cover of the album is the actual book. So we had the book, had the cover.

So, we take this trip. Bruce wanted to go to this graveyard by his house, an old graveyard from the Civil War days [haunted by] a girl in a gown, and we'd light all these candles and stuff. And things just started going south after that. Drummer's dad died. I went on vacation and came back and all the bass tracks were gone. It was really weird. The songs are good, but in my opinion it plays like shit. There's no fuckin' bass. It just got really weird.

CP: And what came after that?

SW: I did the Probot thing. What it was was Dave Grohl wrote all of these hard rock songs with each of his favorite singers from his youth in mind. I was honored to be one of them. We would sing on our song, and I played guitar on mine. And I fucking loved it! It was right up my alley. It came out really well. It was an amazing experience.  

That was pretty lucrative, and then they asked me to be in a video with Lemmy and Dave Grohl. And 70 naked chicks. The Suicide Girls were going to come for free. So I just played air guitar on this revolving stage with 70 naked chicks. They did three cuts of that before they could get it on MTV.  

This was right about the period where I was getting' disordered with my life, and I started taking some pills. This morphed with my second battle with addiction, which this turned out to be pretty unpleasant. It got too heavy, and I checked myself in. And I kicked it.  

So the way I would quit drinking was, well, I took a massive dose of mushrooms. Everything in D.C. is [built] on laylines and when you're tripping you can feel that energy. I walked around the city, cried, saw Buddha, looked up in the sky and saw interlocking patterns and shit. After the trip, I knew what I had to do. I went home, sat on the couch, and drank my last fucking beer. I was sober for nine years.  

CP: Your new band Shrinebuilder, is kind of a sludge/doom all-star band--how did that come together? 

SW: I didn't know Scott Kelly, but I like Neurosis. And I knew Al [Cisneros]--Al is really a visionary. When [Al] first came out of hibernation, he called me up and said, "Dude, I've got a backpack full of riffs." Kind of jokingly, we said, "What about Dale Crover?" But he agreed to do it. So we started getting together, slingin' songs around. We'd never all gotten together [and played], and we booked some studio time. We rehearsed all week and Thursday, it was about 11 o'clock or midnight when we had our first jam. And the next day, we went into the studio and did our record. The energy was so good, it was hot.  

Onstage live, when Al moves forward to sing, I can just feel the energy go fucking up. It's like here comes the visionary. It gives me chills. [Shrinebuilder] is just amazing.  

It's opening new doors, broadening my horizons.  

CP: Do your kids know you're a rock star?

SW: They do. They see the magazines. [The neighbor kid] is the one that looked at my face, asked me, "Are you a rock star?" Depends on how you define "rock star." Of course I'm not, because I'm not fucking rich. My kids were more excited when I got the cover of a motorcycle magazine.

CP: You're a rock star to a lot of people.

SW: To me, the reward is what you give to other people--if I can give people music to make them feel good, to get them through the day.

CP: Has it all been worth it?

SW: To be honest, I don't think I'd trade a single day. I've had some hard days, but you know what? It seems like it always works out.

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