Dense, nihilistic and always ferocious, Sea Scouts were one of the best bands to emerge from Tassie’s wildly original underground. Words and images by RENÉ SCHAEFER.
Sea Scouts were one of Australia’s most enigmatic bands, leaving a legacy of two hauntingly powerful albums and legendary live performances. Formed in Hobart in 1994, the band consolidated into what fans regard as their “classic” line-up of Tim Evans, Alex Pope and Monika Fikerle three years later. Developing a do-or-die philosophy born of punk idealism, Sea Scouts carved out their own sonic territory before choosing to call it a day at the high point of their career in early 2000.
Towering singer/guitarist Evans (Mouth, La Scimmia, Flying Phallus, Bird Blobs) celebrated his own “inbuilt obsolescence” while conjuring ferocious shards of trebly noise from his home-made guitar and creating dense, nihilistic visions of urban decay and isolation. In combination with Pope’s distorted yet melodic bass lines and Fikerle’s tom-tom-dominated tribal drum beats, the effect was startling. Sea Scouts whipped up an all-consuming tsunami of sound which seemingly sprang from a group mind highly attuned to the process of collaboration.
Evans had disbanded his former band, the popular punk act Mouth, and started jamming with bassist Zach Von Bamburger. Writing some rudimentary songs in jams, the duo recorded them with the aid of a drum machine, resulting in the EP $100,000 Mamal (sic). This recording was only available as a fragile 10” polycarbonate vinyl pressing and remains one of the most sought-after Sea Scouts artifacts. Eventually, the pair decided to recruit a drummer for live shows. One candidate was a young self-taught musician, Monika Fikerle.
Taking some time out from recording and touring with her current bands Love Of Diagrams and Baseball to reminisce about her fascinating journey as a Sea Scout, Fikerle recalls: “I had decided I wanted to play drums and I started practicing on my own. I heard through my friend Andrew Harper that Tim and Zach were looking for a drummer, so I went and had a jam with them. They had another drummer who had just tried out before me. He’d just walked out the door when I arrived.”
One of the elements that made the Sea Scouts sound stand out from the pack was Fikerle’s pared-down drum kit. “At that time I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had literally only been playing drums for about a week. I could only just hold a straight beat together. It was after a couple of jams that Tim said that he’d really like for me to try playing without a snare.
“Up to that point, I had used a standard kit, but getting rid of the snare and hi-hats opened up a huge opportunity for me to find my own unique drum style. Beat-wise, I just did what came naturally, instinctively following the rhythmic patterns of the bass and guitar, as I’d had no formal training at all. We played our first gig about three weeks after our initial rehearsal, at the Doghouse in Hobart, with Peachfuzz and Droplet. Everything was very immediate.”
Not long after that the band went to Melbourne for the first time.
“That was in 1994, 14 years ago. We played at the Great Britain Hotel and at The Empress. It was all so new to me; I had only just started going to shows myself and it was my first time in Melbourne. Reactions were pretty interesting. People didn’t really know what to make of the band at first. Even in Hobart at that time we only had about two fans. People just wanted to dance to some up-beat punk music. They were expecting it to sound like Mouth, but it was nothing like that.”
In the post-grunge era of the mid-‘90s, it was hard for Sea Scouts to gather a larger fan-base with their dark, abrasive sound. “It took a few years before people finally got it,” Fikerle explains.
Fikerle reveals that on their first sojourn to Melbourne, Sea Scouts did some recordings with local engineer Nick Carroll at his home studio. Unfortunately these were never released although she casually lets slip that she might have a cassette dub of the sessions somewhere.
‘A Screaming, Bloody Mess’
Soon after returning to Hobart, Monika left the band and for a while Sea Scouts had different drummers for every show until Tim and Zach decided to move to the Victorian town of Geelong. Attempting unsuccessfully to get a band together there, this period marked the end of Tim and Zach’s creative partnership.
“I’m not sure what they did while they lived in Geelong,” Monika ponders, “but when Tim came back to Tasmania he started playing with Alex and they set about trying out drummers. Andy Hazel [from Zach’s old band U.F.O.] was one of them. And just about everyone who could vaguely play drums had a crack.”
Eventually they settled on Sara May Libero, who appears on Sea Scouts’ first album Pattern Recognition, recorded on a 4-track tape machine on the first day of spring 1996 and released in 1997 on Chapter Music as a 12” vinyl LP.
The new Sea Scouts line-up followed this with a tour of Melbourne and Sydney in early 1998, having landed supports for US indie icons Pavement and Archers Of Loaf. I first saw Sea Scouts playing with Archers Of Loaf in Melbourne at this point. My memory is of a great show, not least for the visual impact of the band: Evans cut an imposing figure, lurching around the stage with his battered guitar, while Libero was standing up behind the kit ala Mo Tucker. To confound the audience even more, Pope was wearing black metal-style full-face make-up. The music was suitably apocalyptic – a screaming, bloody mess I immediately fell in love with.
I had no idea where this band was coming from, but it made me investigate just what was happening down there on the Apple Isle. It transpired that, unbeknown to us mainlanders, a thriving underground music scene had shot up in Hobart like fungus on a tree stump. Retrospectively, many people regard this era as a golden period of Tasmanian music.
Monika agrees. “I remember it being pretty amazing. There were bands like Little Ugly Girls, Stickmen and The Frustrations. There was not much of an influence from the outside. People just listened to each other’s bands and developed their own creativity. We didn’t have any good community radio. Obviously we heard popular alternative music at the time, but not as much as you would now. We probably had more of an affiliation with New Zealand music. A lot of people were listening to Alastair Galbraith, The Dead C and Peter Jefferies. There was a similarity in that they all came from a small, isolated place and we identified with that – the isolation.”
“The local scene was very small still, but very dedicated. There would be at least one good show happening every weekend. There weren’t enough bands really to put on any more. There were probably six or seven bands. At the time that seemed quite enough to me, because I really liked all of them.”
During the time when Libero was drumming in Sea Scouts, Fikerle was playing in a band called Surgery with Evans’ girlfriend Halszka. This in turn led to the formation of IOOIIOI, a group that featured Halszka on guitar and vocals, Evans on guitar and Fikerle on drums. “That band led to me rejoining Sea Scouts, because I was playing with Tim again. I’m not really sure why Sara left the Scouts, but I was super excited to play in the band again.”
Fikerle’s return strengthened the band whose audience had steadily been growing. “When people finally did ‘get’ the band, they really got it. All the shows in Hobart that we played with Stickmen and other Hobart bands were full of people dancing. There was a distinct difference between Melbourne and Hobart audiences too in the mid-to-late ’90s. There was a lot of dancing in Hobart, whereas Melbourne audiences were more subdued and thoughtful, which was confusing at the time.”
In between sporadic trips to the mainland, Sea Scouts set about writing what most fans regard as their most cohesive and powerful album, Beacon Of Hope. “Those songs came out of jams we had after I rejoined. We’d just start playing and a song would come out of it.”
Fikerle remembers the writing of the album being quite spontaneous. “There wasn’t a lot of discussion about the songs, just a lot of creative energy when we were jamming. It was a very natural process. Songs would just come together very quickly.” The band recorded most of the album with Dan McKay (Nation Blue) and Sea Scouts’ live mixer Leigh Ritson on 8-track in Dan’s bedroom in Hobart. They added vocals and some additional instrumental tracks in Melbourne with engineer Nick Carroll.
While in Melbourne, Sea Scouts also re-recorded the Pattern Recognition album with Fikerle on drums, in effect forming a companion piece to Beacon Of Hope. This represented a more accurate document of the band’s sound or, as they themselves described it, “less scabby”.
Both albums were co-released on Patsy, a label run by Laura MacFarlane of Melbourne band Ninetynine, and Unstable Ape Records. As Monika explains, the latter was not yet the highly successful and respected independent label it would become a few years later. “Unstable Ape was actually started by Tim Evans in Hobart. When Tim left Hobart, Matt Niedra and Tom Egg took it over. Tim Picone eventually established UAR in Melbourne, making it higher profile.”
‘Conquering The World’
Always ambitious, towards the end of 1998 Sea Scouts decided to set up camp in Melbourne for a while before heading off on an exhaustive overseas tour that would take in North America and Europe.
Touring with little or no money was hardly a foreign concept for Sea Scouts and in the absence of financial backing from a record company, they prepared for the trip in the only way possible. “We just had to earn money beforehand to pay for our tickets. Alex moved over to Melbourne specifically to get work, because he couldn’t get a job in Hobart. He just worked for two months to pay for his ticket.”
“Tim left Melbourne in March 1999 to tour as a guitarist with Ninetynine. Alex, our mixer Leigh and I then flew to America in June to join him and do our own tour. The tour was hard work, but it was my first time overseas and I completely loved it, it changed my life. We played every night and there were long drives. We didn’t have places to stay most of the time, so we’d sleep in the van or announce from the stage that we needed somewhere to stay.
“In America we did clear the room at a lot of shows, where people didn’t really know what to make of us.”
“In America we did clear the room at a lot of shows, where people didn’t really know what to make of us. We played with lots of hardcore and noise bands, but also pop bands. A bit of everything, really.
“George Chen from the Zum record label booked most of the gigs for Sea Scouts on the North American leg of the tour. His label put out our 7” single 'Word As A Weapon'. George was really helpful and lent us a van, equipment and hooked us up with people. A friend of his in America had somehow found our music and George really liked it.”
Having conquered America, Sea Scouts traveled on to Scandinavia and Eastern Europe, where their tour itinerary included such far-flung countries as Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Holland and finally England and Scotland.
“The crowds over there went wild. They were literally tearing the venues apart when we played. They certainly got more excited than the Americans. They don’t really have that many bands coming through and at that time there were even less, because you had to get visas to go to all those countries.” I venture that maybe they were able to relate to the Sea Scouts’ sound more because it was darker and more intense than your average band. “That is true, but they loved Ninetynine as well. They wouldn’t let them get off the stage.”
One result of this tour was that the musicians built up a network of contacts and friends.
“When you tour, you make really good friends for a day or two. It’s always sad to say goodbye. Getting used to that was sad, but I made friends on that tour who I still go to see every time I go over there with bands now.”
Not all went smoothly though. “On the last leg of the tour we actually had to hitch-hike to gigs. The van died in Germany and we had to get hire cars to get to London, where Ninetynine were staying in a squat. Tim, Alex, Leigh and I then hitched from London to Scotland in pairs. I can’t really imagine doing that now. It was bizarre, but we were determined to play the shows we had booked. I remember walking by the side of the road in the rain, trying to get lifts on these massive highways. It was a bit like, ‘What the fuck are we doing here?’, but we managed!”
The band returned to Australia proud of their achievements, but also exhausted and as poor as ever. Soon after they settled back into life in Melbourne, Pope decided to return to a slightly less stressful existence in Hobart, while Evans and Fikerle opted to remain in Melbourne. Concurrently, Evans had also been thinking about branching out into different musical styles, so rather than replace the bass player, an amicable decision was reached to disband Sea Scouts.
The final shows in Hobart and Melbourne were some of the grandest and most intense the band had ever played, culminating in a huge farewell show at The Corner Hotel on 18 February 2000, supported by their friends 2 Litre Dolby, A Slow Loris and The Vivian Girls.
Some grainy black and white Super-8 footage from this show has recently surfaced on YouTube. Fikerle is enthusiastic. “It doesn’t have the live sound, but that doesn’t matter. It’s pretty amazing. I’d love to track down more of that footage.”
Since the demise of Sea Scouts, the various musicians have been busy with other musical projects. Von Bamburger played in Monster Monster Monster and is currently one half of Melbourne-based duo Go Genre Everything. Pope lives in Hobart and plays in black metal outfit Ruins. Evans led Bird Blobs through several different line-ups and later formed Bogan Dust in his adopted home of New York City. Fikerle played drums in The Bites for a while and is a founding member of Love Of Diagrams and Baseball.
Which leaves us to ponder the legacy of Sea Scouts. I tell Fikerle that in my opinion Sea Scouts’ albums remain unrivalled in their individualism and brooding intensity, especially since no other band that I can think of has attempted to explore similar ideas or develop the Scout sound further. She agrees that there were few bands who could be counted as Sea Scouts’ contemporaries.
“The indie bands around at the time were either more poppy or really quiet, so we played with bands that had a similar DIY approach. Apart from us, there really only were The Stickmen who were doing something similar. We played with them a lot and I think they were an amazing band. As far as I know, they only left Hobart once to tour Melbourne.”
She explains the band’s philosophy was specific to a particular time and place. “We didn’t have any money, but we wanted to make good music - that’s the Hobart way. In Hobart, at the time, if you got played on the radio a couple of times you would have been considered a sell-out. It was very anti-consumerist, people trying to be as lo-fi or un-commercial as possible. It was a reaction against the stuff we heard coming from the mainland. I don’t believe that exists in Hobart so much anymore now. It was a mid-’90s thing.”
Asked whether there are plans to re-release Sea Scouts’ albums, Fikerle isn’t so sure. “No, but I think it would be nice. I love those recordings. I still get a lot of enjoyment from listening to them. Even though I’ve done a lot since then, I still really appreciate the music Sea Scouts made. I often hear from younger kids, who come across these records, that they really like them too.”
And what about the rumoured “lost” Sea Scouts album?
“After Beacon Of Hope was recorded, we had pretty much put a whole new album together before we went overseas. Even on tour we kept working on new songs during sound checks. We were playing some of those newer songs live towards the end. Unfortunately the band ended and Tim wasn’t interested any more. Nothing came of it. I think it’s a shame, because I believe in documenting things.”
Sea Scouts discography:
$100,000 Mamal (1996)
10” EP, Infinity
Pattern Recognition (1997)
12” LP, Chapter Music / Infinity
Beacon Of Hope (1998)
CD LP, Patsy/Unstable Ape Records
Pattern Recognition (1999)
CD LP, Patsy/Unstable Ape Records