Eleven years ago, the recording of Scrawl's first album, He's Drunk, was interrupted when Sue Harshe had to return home to Columbus. Duty beckoned, in the form of college graduation. "When Mom and Dad pay for it, you're going to wear the cap and gown," she says. "Of course, it did take me six years."
When He's Drunk was released by Rough Trade in 1988, underground fanzines and big-market dailies alike wrote lovingly of the band, and have continued to do so. The band's music, influenced equally by post-punk and mainstream rock, has a feminine touch, but it isn't girly. The lyrics take honest, self-doubting snapshots of post-college womanhood: empty jobs, ambivalent futures, relationships creamed by jealousy, silence, and too many late nights at the bar. Scrawl was an alternative band when the term truly meant something.
The novelty of an all-woman outfit and the public's cresting boredom with late-1980s commercial rock should have paved a flower-petal-sprinkled path. But Rough Trade went bankrupt after Scrawl's second record, Smallmouth, was released. The band plodded on, intermittently spitting out well-received singles and CDs on indie labels. Drummer Carolyn O'Leary was replaced with a guy, Dana Marshall, who sharpened the sound. Inevitably, though, Scrawl would return home from shoestring tours with memories of empty clubs and broken-down vans.
"It proved pretty fruitless," Harshe says of the band's road trips. "It was pretty hard. As you get older, you hate to be away from your family. We've done tours that are just soul-crushing."
To pay the bills, Harshe and guitar player Marcy Mays (both write and sing, though Mays does more of each) worked as temps for eight years. "It is such a bizarre way to make a living," Harshe says. "You feel kind of bad about it. You feel bad for yourself, because you have no rights, and the employer is making out like a fat cat. But at the same time, it gave us what we needed, which was time."
In 1996, Scrawl accepted an offer from Elektra Records, which had a reputation for not pile-driving the creativity out of the indie bands it signed. But Travel On, Rider traveled nowhere. Last May the band put out Nature Film, a collection of odds and sods that includes six re-recordings of previously released songs, six new tunes, and a faultless cover of the old PiL song "Public Image." Harshe says the band came up with the something old, something new approach after watching Travel On, Rider do no better than its mini-label predecessors. "We worked our asses off, and [Elektra] didn't do anything with it," she says. "We thought, 'Let's have fun with it and not go into nervous exhaustion.'"
A month after Nature Film came out, Scrawl was dumped by Elektra. "We knew it was a matter of when, not if," Harshe says. "They're dropping bands who are selling 500,000 copies."
So many Columbus bands have been wooed, signed, and tossed aside like chew toys by major labels--Royal Crescent Mob, the Toll, Watershed, etc.--that musicians on High Street speak of their collective fates as the "Columbus Curse." Harshe and Mays, though, were better prepared than most to weather the disappointment. They'd known each other since college, when Harshe was studying piano at Ohio State and dating a boy at Ohio University, where Mays went to school. Each was the "token girl bass player" in a hardcore band. Mays moved to Columbus, and the two put Scrawl together so they could write and play their own songs. "We were friends first," Harshe says. "Surprisingly, we have not been at each other's throats. There's times when you're sick of each other, but that's due to the natural state of touring . . . We have very few musical conflicts. Marcy and I are kind of spooky. We both have a similar vision, if you can call it that."
But Harshe and Mays haven't spent much time looking for a new vision. The records they make today sound a lot like the ones they made ten years ago. The old tracks on Nature Film are precious for their archival value, but they also reinforce how little the band's sound--two-part harmonies over sludgy bass and Byrds-meet-Cheap Trick guitars--has changed. "It's been a criticism and been considered an asset," Harshe says. "Our songwriting has been consistent. I think it's definitely a lot more economical and stronger than it has been."
Harshe and Mays initially wondered if the pink slip from Elektra was the band's death warrant. Critics reviewing other female-fronted bands often refer to Scrawl as if it has already ascended to pioneer heaven (this week's daughters: Sleater-Kinney). "It is very bizarre. 'Godmothers of riot grrrl, forerunners of the Breeders, or insert-name-here,'" Harshe says. "It's become a joke." She adds, "There are nineteen-year-old kids saying we sound like Hole. It's funny, but it's infuriating, too.
"Damn it, we don't sound like Hole!"
Scrawl will never be accused of thinking like Hole, either. Obsessive careerists they're not. Harshe admits that the band's take-it-as-it-comes outlook may be suicidal in business terms. But at least, she says, the members of Scrawl have lives. Harshe and Marshall are married (not to each other); Mays has a steady boyfriend. Each has outside interests (photography for Harshe, building motorcycles for Marshall, painting for Mays).
"It's the first time we're not beholden to anybody, which is a scary and a great thing," Harshe says. "This is the time to make good decisions and hopefully do things right.
"We're not dead. We're somewhat viable."