Concert preview: Ex-Enon frontman comes back firing with Vertical Scratchers

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From the March 27, 2014 edition

Vertical Scratchers singer/guitarist John Schmersal is in the midst of a creative renaissance.

In October, he released the debut album from his group Crooks on Tape, an experimental collective he launched with former Enon bandmate Rick Lee. Then in February he issued Daughter of Everything, the first offering from the comparatively straightforward Vertical Scratchers, a Los Angeles-based duo that also includes ex-Triclops! drummer Christian Beaulieu.

This creative outpouring follows a five-year period where Schmersal held down a steady gig as a touring guitarist for Caribou rather than releasing any material of his own. The reasons for this, it turns out, are multifaceted. The frontman believed Enon had exhausted itself creatively — “I felt like all signs were pointing toward doing something else,” he said in a mid-March phone interview — and the years of touring and recording on a shoestring budget had drained his financial reserves.

“I had accumulated a lot of debt, and it wasn’t physically possible [to continue] without it being careless, so we decided to call it quits,” said Schmersal, 40, who brings Vertical Scratchers to Double Happiness for a concert on Sunday, March 30. “If anything it took a little while to get back to a financial place where I could afford to put out records and consider losing money to go out on tour.”

There was also an element of writer’s block that factored in. While Schmersal has never struggled to come up with fragments of melodies (Daughter of Everything, for one, comes on like a psychedelic swirl of ’60s bubblegum pop and slashing, guitar-driven ’90s indie-rock), words have occasionally proven more elusive.

“I think one of the other reasons why it’s been over five years since I [released] records is that I started feeling really troubled by the process of writing lyrics,” he said. “There are a lot of people saying things all day long. There’s Twitter and all this other stuff out there, and I wanted to feel good about what I was saying instead of just adding to all this noise in the world.”

So while lyrics on past albums tended to be more evasive (think Pavement-era Stephen Malkmus, or Rust Cohle at his most elusive), the frontman adopted a more straightforward approach with Vertical Scratchers, penning songs steeped in seemingly universal themes like love and doubt. Of course, filtered through Schmersal’s sensibilities, even these everyday concepts started to morph and take on unexpected forms.

“I wanted the songs to be simple, but I didn’t want those sincere love songs you’d expect from the ’60s,” he said. “There are certainly some of those elements, but we all know life is ultimately much more complicated than that.”

Joseph Armario photo