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[Music Issue 2014]

On the edge of everything with Mercy Music’s Brendan Scholz

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Brendan Scholz has been someone’s favorite local musician for as long as he’s been at it.
Photo: Adam Shane
Max Plenke

On the corner of Sixth and Fremont, Brendan Scholz sits, chin in palm, ankle on knee, with a cigarette in his hand. I will not see Brendan without a cigarette for more than five seconds. I’ll lock eyes with him even less. And in the course of an hour, he’ll give away four cigarettes and two dollars as spiritual investment, saying, “I always feel like the bottom is going to drop from under me, so I need all the karma I can get.”

He meets me early to talk about his latest project, Mercy Music, its bottom still intact. Early on it was incorrectly dubbed as folk until he put down the acoustic guitar and picked up drummer Mike McGuinness and longtime bandmate and bassist Jarred Cooper. Musically, it’s classic Scholz—the right formula without being formulaic, poppy but sharp, catchy as hell, plenty of self-loathing and ready-for-radio hooks. And he’s optimistic about it. But Scholz’s optimism always comes with a heap of begrudging suspended reality.

His career started with his high-school self-dubbed pseudo-punk band Absent Minded, its highlight reel including an EP with Ryan Greene (Fat Wreck Chords/NOFX) and a record with Bill Stevenson at the Blasting Room. Next came Lydia Vance and a demo deal with Atlantic Records. That morphed into Deadhand, what Scholz once called beating a dead horse, finally fizzling out after his bandmates didn’t want to tour. Frustrated, he started playing out alone. Enter stage left, Mercy Music.

The lack of recognition was never because the man can’t write a song. He’s been someone’s favorite local musician for as long as he’s been at it. It’s not even that he doesn’t look the part. He looks as rock ’n’ roll as it gets, like he’s been this way forever, like he swung out on an umbilical cord while playing a Gibson. Behind a microphone, he looks cut and dyed to be on a magazine cover, his tongue sticking out of a screaming mouth that cartoonishly stretches from his eyes to his collar bone. What I’m saying is, based on historical evidence, he should already be exactly who he thought he’d be. But something always goes off the rails.

Mike McGuinness

Mike McGuinness

“I can’t honestly say it was anything in my control,” Scholz says. “That’s the thing that helps me deal with it. ... I don’t know the realistic side of having hopes and dreams as a successful rock musician. I blame the period of time I’m in and the way the system is. I don’t blame myself. I chose something that’s an uphill battle, whether it’s subconscious or not. I’ve had offers to play for bands in styles of music I don’t like, and I’d make a decent living doing it, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Anyone with a small amount of common sense would’ve done it already. But I just can’t.”

Scholz’s story isn’t about a triumph of spirit. It’s about the begrudging will to continue despite every single deck on every single table being stacked against him. The way he talks about pushing on after exorbitant rejection isn’t like a runner who sprains his ankle but must cross the finish line. It’s more like a man who fell down a well that is slowly filling up with age and responsibilities. And again, like every time before, he finds himself on the unsteady cusp of Making It.

But making it doesn’t mean what Absent Minded Scholz needed it to be. It’s something smaller than The Next Big Thing. I guess we can call it road lust, tour envy, rock ’n’ roll’s success measured in miles instead of sales. He welcomes hitting the highway for months of the year, and right now it’s hard to tell if it’s acceptance built on a foundation of maturity or exhaustion. Maybe it’s both. “I’m really confident in this project. With or without help from anybody, I think it speaks for itself. I’m not trying to be bigheaded, but it feels right. For once, I think playing might be enough.”

Jarred Cooper

Jarred Cooper

I know we’re both physically on the street corner, but I have to believe he’s somewhere else and I’m just sharing coffee with his tattoos. He’s looking across the street, but he’s really looking at the future of the band. What it is, what it’ll never be, whether that bothers him. After some chatter about his high school days, his job, his kids, he pauses, and thoughtfully says, “I’m not gonna stop doing this even if it doesn’t take off. I’ve never been the flavor of the week, so to stop now if nobody gives a sh*t, again, would be stupid. I’m a lifer. Whether I’m 40 and still doing it ...

I will be, if I’m still here.”

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