MFW INTERVIEW: Skum Rocks! Boys Just Want to Have Fun

Skum Rocks!: Boys Just Want to Have Fun
Posted on October 11, 2013 by Andy Markowitz on

Alice Cooper with Skum

Skum Rocks! narrator Alice Cooper with (from left) John Eaton, Hart Baur, Todd Mittlebrook, and Pat Burke of Skum.
Malcolm McLaren famously declared that the Sex Pistols couldn’t play, which (except for Sid Vicious) was patently untrue. Skum actually couldn’t play, and that was kind of the point.

Skum was launched in 1984 by Hart Baur and Todd Mittlebrook, soccer players at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. (Another teammate was Jon Leibowitz, who later changed his name to Stewart and tried his hand at comedy.) Lacking any musical background, they gained a regional following despite – or perhaps because of – their skill at not performing at their own booze-soaked gigs.

After graduating Baur and Mittlebrook moved the band to Miami, this time with some guys who could play. They partied with celebs, got courted by record labels, separated investors from their money, and flirted with actual fame – until the tapes of their would-be debut album, Lost at the Circus, were lost in an automotive mishap. By ’91 Skum was done, a footnote to the mad excess of the hard rock ’80s.

That’s the tale told in Skum Rocks!, a music documentary directed by Clay Westervelt that had its world premiere late last month at the Raindance Film Festival in London. And if it sounds implausible, Skum is back to tell you it’s all true, as Baur and Mittlebrook told me in a phone interview the day after the movie’s London debut.

The band – frontman Baur, “rhythm bass player” Mittlebrook, guitarist John Eaton, bassist Pat Burke, and drummer Tommy Craig – has remade Lost at the Circus, adding bonus covers recorded at the world’s two most famous studios, Sun in Memphis and Abbey Road in London. They’re looking for a distributor for the movie, which is narrated by Alice Cooper and features cameos from dozens of rock, entertainment, and adult-entertainment personalities of Skum’s acquaintance, including Jon Stewart, Kevin Bacon, Traci Lords, and members of KISS, Ratt, and Motley Crue.

And judging by their website and the media links dotting it, they’re not taking any of it too seriously and having a roaring time self-promoting, which seems to fit what Baur says has been Skum’s metier all along. He calls Skum Rocks! “a story about a bunch of guys who pursued the American dream in a very unorthodox fashion.” Cooper’s narration puts it more directly: “These guys may have been naive, they may have flat-out sucked, but nobody can say they didn’t go for it.”

MFW: When I first heard about this I was a little skeptical – I lived on the East Coast all through the ’80s and never heard of you guys. Now, I was in Maryland, and I understand you were mainly working Virginia to Florida, so maybe I was just a little too far north.

Hart Baur: We were a band that wouldn’t play clubs. We’d play our own events. We always wanted to be in control. We would book our own shows where we would get a yard, get a couple of bands to open up for us, put the money up for the kegs, and then suddenly you’ve got a thousand people and you’ve got a huge night going on. In the early days we never even really wanted to play. It was a lot better to be the headliner and then have some reason not to play, because we weren’t that good back then. It became more of an urban legend, did-you-actually-see-them-play thing. That completely countered anything that a real band would try to do. A real band would try to actually get there and play. We wanted to get on the bill, headline, and then not play.

Which begs the question, why be a band?

Todd Mittlebrook: If you lived in Maryland you’ve probably been to Williamsburg, Virginia. [William & Mary] is a great academic school, but it’s a boring town. There wasn’t even a damn bar. We were pretty close on the soccer team, and we wanted to meet more girls, and the way to do that is to form a band. The drummer, Hart, and myself formed a band, and then we quickly realized that we needed some help in the guitar area, so we brought on another guy by the name of Jon Tarrant. The band was around for eight years, and there’s a clear delineation. For the first three years in Virginia it was kind of a college band, a house band. We had a great time, got bigger in sort of a grass roots fashion.

HB: When we’d play it would be an event. We’d spend four or five weeks promoting the event. It would have a theme. Some bands play every weekend, three times a weekend – that defeats the purpose. We had a show. It was like, “Oh my god, they’re actually gonna play!” We might not play because the cops came and broke it down, or something would happen. Things would happen that would go wrong before the show, or after the second song the power would get cut. It was all planned out to get out of actually playing.

Did that piss people off?

HB: Not really. The band was fun. There’s no pretension, there’s no egos, there’s no “we’re writing songs that are gonna save the world.” People who would go see our shows had a freakin’ blast, whether we played or not. They’re there, they’re getting beer. We had some shows where we had a two-shot cover charge – you didn’t have to pay, but you had to take two shots at the door to get in. People were getting laid, it was just crazy. And we took that attitude to Miami when we got the real musicians.

Hart Baur (left) and Todd Mittlebrook in Skum’s early days.
There’s footage in the film of some of those shows. Did you guys shoot stuff? Was it just sitting around in boxes?

HB: It was all on VHS tapes. We dug through, we found it. It was amazing, all the photos we found. I was thinking, how in the hell did someone take all these pictures? I didn’t have a camera. There are some tapes of stuff that happened, I’m watching the tapes – oh my God, my wife’s in the next room, I’ve got to get this off. It’s like some orgy thing that we filmed. I didn’t even remember that being filmed.

It sounds like there might have been a lot of stuff going on that you wouldn’t remember.

HB: Oh, yeah, yeah. That’s what I’m saying. You went to the show and we didn’t play, but you woke up and you’d scored with a hot chick. “Man, I’m coming back. [Laughs] I don’t know what happened but I’m coming back. That was the best rock show I’ve ever been to.”

But at a certain point you guys did have actual musicians and started writing proper songs.

HB: Correct. A lot of the songs we wrote in the early days were restructured a little bit. We wrote them and we didn’t know what we were doing when we were writing them, but when John Eaton came in, he’d say, “This is a great song, let’s put this bridge here, let’s move the verse here.”

We’re really proud of [Lost at the Circus]. It’s a really good rock album. From a musical standpoint, it stands on its own in terms of hard rock, a punk, funk, poppish kind of sound. John Eaton is a brilliant guitarist. Tommy Craig is probably one of the best unsigned drummers in America. He session-ed with Duff [McKagan] and Slash a couple of times out in LA. When Steven Adler was getting run out of Guns ‘n’ Roses, he was in the pool of drummers to possibly replace Adler, but they went with Matt Sorum. But he’s at that level. And Pat Burke, the bass player, is just a straight up – he’s the quarterback of the musical team.

Todd, you’re credited as rhythm bass player. What’s a rhythm bass player?

TM: It’s a bass player who’s not too good but still wants to be in the band, so the band needs a better bass player to function.

Why did you decide that you wanted to become an actual band, as opposed to this performance art project of putting on gigs but not playing?

TM: That’s a good term, “performance art project.” I think the answer is, we were always the same people. We have always been friends first and a band second. We were always just a fun group of guys. But as soon as we started playing in Skum, the perception of who we were changed. Suddenly we were, for some cosmic reason, a lot more interesting to speak to. That’s pretty addictive. We wanted more.

The fact that you guys went to Florida, and primarily Miami – is that where you came into contact with all these celebrities who are in the film?

TM: Miami used to be a small town. When we moved down there South Beach hadn’t happened, there weren’t that many places to party. There was a place called Fire and Ice that was off the hook. We played a lot there. When people were in town they came there. It’s not like we went out to find these people. We didn’t seek some of the porn stars, we just became friends with them.

So everyone who’s in the movie is actually someone who did see the band or knew you guys back in the day?

TM: That’s right. Obviously we were closer with some people than other people. When people came into Miami, they came to Fire and Ice, and that’s how we got to know everybody.

HB: We had connections with a company called Cellar Door Productions [a major East Coast promoter in the ’80s and ’90s]. We had an in with one of the guys who worked with them, he would get us backstage passes to all the shows. We almost opened up for a couple of big acts. At the end it didn’t go through, but we’d be backstage, hanging out with these guys. It was a lot different back then. Now all the acts are a lot older. They get offstage, get on a bus, and go. Back in the ’80s it was a party. Backstage was backstage. People who hung around our group had fun, and that was really what the thing was all about. It never was about the music.

So how did it end? And what happened to the album?

HB: The tapes were being taken to be mastered. The guy who was driving ‘em, he never – his car was stolen, and the tapes were [supposedly] lost. The band at that point, people were like, it’s time to get a real life, time to get jobs. It wasn’t as driving as it had been two or three years before. You get older and decide, I’ve maybe got to be more realistic here.

Why did you start up again?

HB: It was the tapes. This guy called me, I guess it was five years [ago] now, and said, “I have a box with a bunch of shit in there, and your name’s on the side of it.” I go, “What’s in the box?” “Well, there’s boxes in the box.” “What’s in the boxes?” He opened them up and said, “Looks like there’s tapes.”

Was this the guy who had the car that was stolen?

HB: No, no – they’d put the tapes in the wrong car. It was a clusterfuck. This guy drove around with the box in his car for, like, 10 years, and he sold his car and put the box in his bathroom. Then one day he cleans his bathroom and he goes through the box – what’s in this thing? You know how boxes accumulate, it’s just there, you don’t ever look in it. So we went and looked at ‘em, and yeah, those are the tapes all right. The tapes were not in good condition. Pat, being the quarterback, said, “If we’re gonna do this we’ve got to re-record everything. If we’re gonna do it, let’s do it the best we can, because this is now our legacy, this album.” So we re-recorded everything, and we did the Sun studio thing, which was cool, because we’d never recorded a cover before. The only cover we ever did live was, we played a federal prison in Miami and we opened the show with “I Fought the Law.”

How did the movie get rolling? Whose idea was it?

HB: We started to film the remaking of the album. Someone got wind of that out west, then Clay Westervelt got wind of that. He started doing some research. He picked this up, we had a long talk, he read a lot of the old press clippings. He was like, this is really, really interesting. He started realizing who we knew, and from that it kept growing and growing and growing. It became much bigger than any of us expected. But we are guys who just sort of roll with it. As long as it didn’t interrupt our real world and our real lives and our families, we loved it and embraced it.

From the stuff I’ve seen on your website and the trailers, you guys are almost pushing it as a comedy.

HB: It is a comedy. We poke fun at ourselves. We revel in the fact that we were basically, from a musical standpoint, a bunch of fuckups who had a good time and didn’t take it seriously. It probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do from a professional perspective, but it was what we did.

Are you going to try and make it stick now that you’ve gotten back together?

HB: Well, we’re gonna release the album. There’s talk of a TV show in the US, we’ll see what happens. I’m not gonna get on a tour bus, [do] 50 shows. Unless they throw an incredible amount of money on the table. But I’d love to play a couple shows here and there, and go from there.

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