Scott “Wino” Weinrich: The Dogged Determination of an Underexposed Rock Legend

Wino: Punctuated EquilibriumWino: Punctuated Equilibrium (Southern Lord, 1/26/09)

Wino: “Release Me”

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Seventeen years after his first show with Saint Vitus, singer and guitarist Scott “Wino” Weinrich stands on stage performing the songs that help launched a generational flotilla of doom. It’s July 1, 2003 at the Double Door in Chicago. The crowd for the only American Saint Vitus reunion show is packed near the stage, but there’s standing room at the edges.

Weinrich recalls, “It was cool but also a little bit sad. It took however many years, and we couldn’t even sell out the show.” Five hundred devoted friends and fans — it’s a respectable but modest turnout. After decades of playing to crowds ranging from handfuls to thousands, he still can’t fill a medium-size venue.

This shouldn’t be a surprise; in fact, it’s expected. Weinrich has always been just under the radar, a musician’s musician. Over the years, he’s collaborated with a gamut of rock legends, including members of Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, and Death. His fans include Henry Rollins, who says, “Scott is one of the heaviest people known to mankind. Just listen to the music; the man matches it well.”

Dave Grohl recruited him, along with other celebrated heavy-metal icons, for his Probot project, where Wino contributed vocals for “The Emerald Law” and played guitar in a live version of the band along with Grohl and Motorhead‘s Lemmy Kilmister. Greg Anderson, who, as a member of Sunn O))) and co-founder of Southern Lord Records, is one of the parties most responsible for the current influx of doom bands, cites Weinrich as an “immeasurable influence. The intensity and passion of his playing are unprecedented. He is not in a class of his own. He is the class and the owner.”

Everyone related to heavy music has a Wino story or two, the best of which are off the record. There’s a duality about the man — he’s well liked, always regarded as a generous, friendly guy, but also known as a fiend, perpetually recovering from one addiction or another. He’s the most famous guy in heavy metal of whom you’ve never heard.

As a teenager, Weinrich helped synthesize the burgeoning DC doom-metal scene of the late 1970s, playing guitar in Warhorse, the band that became The Obsessed. Neither interested in mainstream glam metal nor the counter-culture thrash movement, The Obsessed and other local groups like Pentagram purveyed a slow, bluesy take on psychedelic hard rock.

Despite scant recordings — one eight-and-a-half-minute EP and a single — the band had a tremendous influence across the music underground. Fugazi‘s Joe Lally briefly lived with the band and remembers, “After Wino became the singer, that’s when [the] intention behind his writing became clear to me. When Wino started singing, you really felt, ‘Hey, this shit is serious.'” Though his range wasn’t as wide as some of his contemporaries, Weinrich was nearly unmatched in his intensity and warm soulfulness. As he honed his musicianship and songwriting skills, he also crystallized an interest in motorcycles, booze, and crack cocaine.

The next several years saw Weinrich play in a number of bands. He moved to LA in 1986 to front rising band Saint Vitus, but after three years decided that he needed to write music on guitar again. He left to reform The Obsessed with new rhythm players, including the MelvinsDale Crover and KyussScott Reeder back in Maryland. Paradoxically, his lust for chemicals rarely affected his musical prowess. “Back in the day, people used to ask how I could play so smooth when I was that wired, but you get used to it,” Weinrich says. And despite more than the occasional binge, he’s kept his friends closer than most.

“Fugazi was touring Germany in the [early] ’90s, and I don’t remember what city we were in, but between songs I heard someone yell, ‘Joe!'” Lally recalls. “It was clearly Wino. After the show, he asked us for a band photo because Hellhound was going to release the first Obsessed record from 1985, and he wanted to include photos of friends. He didn’t seem to be too together at the time, and I wasn’t sure I’d ever see him again. Still, he carried that photo in the pocket of his leather jacket for the rest of the Saint Vitus tour, and it got on the record sleeve. I was pretty shocked when I saw it there.” After The Obsessed parted ways, the mid-’90s ushered in the era of his stoner-doom project, Spirit Caravan.

“I got kind of tired playing in bands full time. It was really starting to become unproductive. At the end of the day, I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to do this full time?’ I didn’t.”

In 2002, Weinrich joined The Hidden Hand, his most experimental endeavor to date. Like every Wino trio, this one toured relentlessly, devoted to the ideal of DIY live music. While many players burned and dropped out, Weinrich kept at it, finding fresh musical allies. “When [we were] able to tour with The Hidden Hand, it was one of the high points of playing music for me, period,” reflects Mike Scheidt, YOB guitarist/vocalist. “Wino has that killer balance of great songwriting, true heaviness, and honest emotional depth borne from living a hard life and surviving long enough to tell the tale.”

Over the years, Weinrich’s playing evolved, assimilating more progressive, psychedelic nuances. Politics also infiltrated his lyrics, which previously tended towards philosophical and metaphysical themes. The Hidden Hand disbanded in 2007 after some nasty in-fighting on a European tour, and Weinrich attempted to take a break from music.

“I got kind of tired playing in bands full time,” Weinrich admits. “It was really starting to become unproductive. At the end of the day, I asked myself, ‘Do I really want to do this full time?’ I didn’t.” These are the kind of thoughts that lead one to record a swan song, but instead, Weinrich started a new project and booked six months of gigs. Jean Paul Gester, an old friend and longtime drummer of Southern rock band Clutch, had other plans. Weinrich says, “We’re good friends and had always talked about recording a record someday. Jean Paul was so enthusiastic that it was contagious. It was all the push that I needed [to continue making music].”

The other piece of the puzzle was bassist Jon Blank of DC’s Rezin. “I knew that he was good, but I didn’t know how good,” Weinrich says. “He learned all of the songs so fast, and there was really good chemistry.” Given Clutch’s tireless touring schedule and Rezin’s waxing profile, the real challenge was getting everyone into the jam room and studio. “There wasn’t a lot of putting stuff off,” Weinrich says. “We knew that we had a time frame, and we did it.”

The resultant album, billed simply as Wino and titled Punctuated Equilibrium, was recorded in two sessions, half of the songs at a time. Multi-session records are usually a hodgepodge of sounds or muted by digital normalizing, but that’s not the case with this record. The album sounds as if it was recorded live in a practice space. Weinrich says, “This is the best-sounding record yet.”

The music is all over the place, spanning the gamut of styles that Weinrich has refined over the years, including doom, blues, hard rock, and psychedelia. Weinrich’s relaxed but limber guitar playing makes it sound easy. Punctuated Equilibrium is a twisted mass of tree limbs, each song reaching in one direction only to bend in another. “I think [the album] is vaulting Scott into a new arena,” says Bobby Liebling of Pentagram. “There is some incredible ear candy, and he’s branching out towards much more diversified material than ever in the past…not to mention the guitar playing, [which is] murderous.”

The most ethereal (read: “trippy”) song on the record is “Wild Blue Yonder,” a six-and-a-half-minute ride on a spaceship. “We went into the studio with just the framework and guitar melody — that’s all we had,” Weinrich says. The result is an acid-rock freak-out on guitar that’s anchored by a relentless bass line and drum work that wrap time signatures around multiple phrases. It’s seamless; you’d think these guys had been playing together for years.

Other songs on Punctuated Equilibrium bare the distinct stamp of the accompanists. “One thing about Jean Paul is that he loves crazy timing,” Weinrich says.”It’s fun for me too, especially on songs like ‘Eyes of the Flesh’ and ‘The Gift.'” The latter of these is a bonus track from the extra 10″ record. Weinrich says, “I’ve only ever played it with one other drummer who understood it. Jean Paul and I hammered it out in two or three nights, and Jon learned it in one fucking night.” “Eyes of the Flesh,” along with other tracks like “Secret Realm Devotion” and “Gods, Frauds, Neo-Cons And Demagogues,” showcases Weinrich’s uncanny ability to wail out sustained notes and slow bends. Tracks such as “Silver Lining” exemplify his ability to scream melodic leads that don’t soil his warm, monolithic guitar tones.

Punctuated Equilibrium is an ambitious and varied record, showcasing musicians at the top of their games, and other musicians have continued to take notice. In April of 2009, Weinrich headlined the 14th annual Roadburn Festival in Tilberg, Netherlands with a once-again-reunited Saint Vitus.

Meanwhile, an acoustic version of his solo band played South by Southwest in the States. Last January, Weinrich announced yet another new band, Shrinebuilder, an underground-metal supergroup of sorts, featuring Scott Kelly of Neurosis, Al Cisneros of Sleep and Om, and Crover. The group will release an album in September of 2009 and is planning a brief tour. Kelly has commented in interviews that “Wino has been the keystone of this idea from its inception. It wouldn’t have been worth doing, and it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been part of it. Lightning.” That’s to say nothing of Weinrich’s rumored electronic project as well as the acoustic affair, Peckerwood. No one can accuse him of being a slouch.

When asked about the last time he had a drink, Weinrich cracks a joke: “Ten minutes ago [writer’s note: it’s 9 a.m.]…nah, just kidding. I gave up drinking and hard drugs a long time ago.” Not that he doesn’t knock back a cold one every now and then. As for the cocaine, he’s remarkably candid. “It was fucking great — that’s why I did it,” he says. “It just becomes a lifestyle choice. You have to stay on it, tear apart your house every day, or you live a normal life. There came a point when I just had to live a normal life.”

That life includes three kids — Nick (who wants a Moog keyboard), Maxwell (who wants his papa’s gold chopper), and Alexandra — as well as an estranged wife, Diana. “I was a stay-at-home dad,” Weinrich says. “I raised them from the cradle. Once Diana and I stopped seeing eye to eye, things changed rapidly.” When he’s not spending time with his kids, hunting down vintage guitar gear, or watching The History Channel, he’s struggling to figure out new technology. “I traded a friend of mine for a G4 laptop. I need to figure out that phone thing to talk with the kids while I’m in Europe…Skop?”

Punctuated Equilibrium has had a positive reception with both critics and fans. “It’s about timing,” Weinrich asserts. “It’s always been about timing, and it’s never been right for me before. For some strange reason, things are coming together now.” He relates his touring schedule — wall-to-wall shows with the Wino project on the road with Clutch, more Saint Vitus reunion shows, Shrinebuilder, and miscellaneous engagements through June 2009. At age 48, 30 years into his career, it’s an odd time for a foray as a solo artist, but it’s just what Weinrich needs.

“To be honest, this sort of gave me a shot in the arm. I felt like this record made me feel better about things; it made me want to keep playing.”