(originally published in Arthur No. 9, March 2004)
HEAVY RIFFING: Legendary doom metal/stoner rock lifer SCOTT “WINO” WEINRICH lays some typically heavy thoughts about politics, music, hallucinogens and life on Joshua Sindell. Photo by Brian Liu
For a musician whose music has earned him such respect from his peers, the elusive, grim-faced figure known as Scott “Wino” Weinrich has always existed in a zone far apart from even the darkest cult spectrum of rock’s unsung heroes.
Wino grew up around the Washington D.C. area, and became well-known among the hardcore-punk-loving kids in the early ’80s as “that amazing guitarist” for Warhorse, a local metal band, later to be known as the Obsessed. Wino stood out in any crowd, not only from his formidable rep as a musician, but because he was an imposing, long-haired, denim ’n’ leather-wearing dude who, appearances aside, expressed solidarity with the burgeoning D.C. punk scene, led by such bands as Minor Threat and Bad Brains. In return, Obsessed shows were routinely filled with short-haired fans who wouldn’t have been caught dead at an Iron Maiden or Judas Priest concert. Black Flag’s Henry Rollins, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye and Nirvana’s Dave Grohl were diehard Obsessed fans, reverently viewing Wino out of a sense of awe and fear in equal measures. “Wino plays guitar with that up-all-night-drinking-Clorox sound,” Rollins once said admiringly.
In 1985, Wino accepted an invitation to sing for Californian stoner-rock forefathers Saint Vitus. They were his sole focus of musical attention for the rest of the decade as the band released several albums and EPs on SST Records, home to so many of the ’80s’ best bands. Joe Carducci, author of Rock and the Pop Narcotic, and Vitus’s SST producer, explained the appeal thus: “What I hear in Wino is a natural who’s not like other musicians. He always has a trailing shimmer on all of his playing, and when he is just doing downstrokes to mark the rhythm, he’s shaping that as well—dragging the rhythm from the guitar.”
Wino’s association with Vitus lasted until the early ’90s, when he reformed the Obsessed and released 1994’s The Church Within, his first record on a major label. Sadly, it failed commercially, and would turn out to be the final album for the group. Wino, cut adrift from music for the first time in many a year, spiraled into a life of drink, drugs and depression. He spent the much of the ’90s with a severe speed habit, homeless in L.A., on the skids, with an injured foot that had been so neglected it nearly was amputated. Somehow, he made his way back home to the East Coast, where he cleaned up and rekindled his passion for music…in a big way. By 1998, he had started a new band, Spirit Caravan, which lasted five years and two albums (collected on the new MeteorCity retrospective, The Last Embrace); joined the Tennessee doom-metal band Place of Skulls for one record, With Vision (Southern Lord, 2003); and, most important, formed the Hidden Hand, a power-trio that Wino feels has the most potential of any band with which he’s ever worked.
The Hidden Hand, named after the bandmembers’ belief in an unseen socio-economic force pulling the strings of world government, finds Wino (and his fellows) speaking out against the modern era’s dangerous neo-conservative thinking. Over the course of their debut, Divine Propaganda (again, MeteorCity) the Hidden Hand express solidarity with a wounded ecology, cast aspersions about the veracity of the mass media, and point an accusing finger at the Commander-In-Chief (“We didn’t elect you/God didn’t select you/We will reject you” goes the refrain in the album’s title track). The album’s traycard includes a list of authors and books that the band endorse, from political journalist Greg Palast to controversial theorist David Icke.
Both the Obsessed and Saint Vitus were considered wildly out-of-date and moldy by the standards of the cocaine-fueled ’80s. At a time when music was being sped up faster by hardcore and speed-metal alike, Wino’s bands were slow, stentorian, and somber; the lyrics were riddled with doubt and guilt. Most people dismissed them as dirty, druggy, Black Sabbath devotees. But, like Sabbath before them, the Obsessed and Saint Vitus—and now, the Hidden Hand—are true voices from the counterculture, decrying war and injustice while providing a needed alternative to the well-scrubbed suburban mentality that prevailed then, as it does now, in pop music.
Today, in addition to touring with the Hidden Hand, Wino can be found lending his searing guitar leads or distinctively craggy vocals to albums from Clutch and Dave Grohl’s Probot; that’s Wino in the Probot video, sharing a stage with his British analogue, Lemmy (Motörhead) Kilmister. The good Southern Lord will be re-releasing long out-of-print, vintage Obsessed and St. Vitus material in the coming months, while the Hidden Hand are readying a split 12-inch EP with Woolly Mammoth on McCarthyism, and a new studio album. Two more previously unreleased Hidden Hand tracks are due on compilations from Crucial Blast and High Times magazine.
While his famous friends still tend to refer to him as a “living legend,” Wino is remarkably approachable: a doting father to his two sons, happily living in rural Maryland. Arthur gave him a ring one afternoon…and he answered.
Arthur: You have some choice words for the current president in the lyrics to “Divine Propaganda.”
Wino: These are very urgent times. I have a happy life, my family has enough to eat and stuff, and I consider myself fortunate. What I don’t want to see is some kind of puppet king sitting up there telling people what they can and can not do. I’ve always had a problem with authority in my life, but I think as I’ve gotten older I can tell right from wrong. But the bottom line is, that guy was not elected fairly. Go to the website of someone who I consider a true American hero, journalist Greg Palast [gregpalast.com] or read his book, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy. Bottom line: They stole that election, and Palast shows how they did it with hard documents that turned up on his desk from people who were too afraid to put them out themselves, but knew he would. It shows how ChoicePoint Inc., the company in Atlanta that the state of Florida hired to establish their voter rolls, disenfranchised hundreds of voters in Florida by claiming them to be convicted felons, which doesn’t disqualify people from voting in Florida, but still managed to illegally keep people from voting there. He really points out how, in so many ways, that election was stolen in Florida.
Arthur: No shortage of conspiracy theories these days.
Wino: No way. Look at the events of 9/11. Are you familiar with Project For a New American Century? That whole neocon, right-wing organization? They espouse all of these neocon ideals, like war being a necessary tool. One of the things that they’ve talked about for a long time has been the necessity for a Pearl Harbor-like calamity in order to unify the masses and whip up the nationalistic sentiments. It’s fucking scary. I mean, when you start to read some of the non-mainstream publications, like Russ Kick’s Disinformation books and stuff like that, a lot of serious intellectual professors are doing this research into the events of 9/11, and there are so many unanswered questions about that. I’m sure I’ll be labeled a fucking crackpot for the rest of my life, but I’m gonna say it: I think 9/11 was staged to do exactly what it did, and what it did was to totally allow the neocons to get their talons into things a lot deeper and a lot quicker.
I know that it sounds crazy, and that nobody could ever believe for one second that our own government could ever do something as terrible like that, even with Bush getting up there and crying and everything. But who knows if he had known about it, too?
Arthur: You’re hardly the first “crackpot” to suggest such a thing.
Wino: Exactly. But I love this country and I’m seriously worried about what’s going to happen to us, especially since I have children now. Look how many people died in the World Trade Center. A few thousand. Well, in another three years in Iraq, those casualties there may be that high. What’s the difference? [The government] have no qualms about two or three soldiers being killed every single day in Iraq, and in another year or so, we’ll start getting close to those Trade Center numbers. Nine here in a helicopter, seventeen there in a helicopter, five more in a road bomb there … I have to ask myself, what’s the difference in their thinking?
What’s the use in using depleted uranium in all of our armor-piercing munitions that the Pentagon and the Army know is giving people cancer? That article in Rolling Stone about these GIs [“Is the Pentagon Giving Our Soldiers Cancer?” Oct. 2, 2003] will scare the living shit out of you! All of those people coming back from the first Gulf War who were hit by friendly fire–these people are red-hot, radioactive sick and dying. They can’t work, they can’t serve in the military, and they’re being discharged from the military with no benefits because the Army won’t admit that their radiation poisoning is from their own depleted uranium. They can’t, because it’s their best killing weapon. In Iraq, due to all of this radiation from the Army, the first question out of pregnant womens’ mouths to their doctors these days is, “Is my baby normal?” Basically, what we have here is this whole situation where [we’re saying], “Yeah, we’ll liberate your country, but we’ll fuckin’ poison it along with our own GIs. We don’t fucking care.”
Arthur: Where does the lying end? What about the chemicals that settled all over lower Manhattan when the towers fell, and New Yorkers weren’t told about the dangers the air posed to their health?
Wino: How many fucking lies can people swallow, that’s what I want to know. These people in government are so firmly entrenched now that they can just throw it in your face and say “fuck you.” That’s what Dick Cheney’s doing with the energy committee. Everybody knows that he was in bed with Enron. Everybody knows that Enron manipulated the California energy crisis. These people are now plea-bargaining their way into sweetheart prison sentences. Meanwhile, the poor are being completely exploited as a kind of forced working class. I’ve heard all of these crazy hypotheses, and I’ve heard people talking about the potential of there being slave-labor camps on the moon and all that some day. Sure it sounds like a wild conspiracy theory. But then again, the headline on the cover of The Washington Post this very morning is about Bush proposing that mankind has to start colonizing the moon, basically. It doesn’t sound so crazy anymore.
These brainwashed, Bible-reading, gung ho, “Bomb Baghdad” majority of Americans have their mouths wide open, bellies swelling with all of it, and they’re smiling away. They’re happy to be eating this shit! They think Bush is the greatest thing to ever happen to this country. Well, when their grandchildren are wielding a fuckin’ pick-axe on the Moon, I wonder what they’re gonna be thinking.
The gist of David Icke’s book And the Truth Shall Set You Free is that the general people of humanity, the good working folks, are all becoming kind of locked into a vibrational prison. There’s this whole onslaught of media, programming, and media control that is basically serving to lock everybody into self-imposed boxes. You know: Believe everything that the news tells you, and go quietly to the polling place.
Arthur: How are you a different musician now from that guy who liked to get “out of his head” fifteen years ago in Saint Vitus?
Wino: I think that the positive energy was always there. I always wanted to do the right thing. I never wanted to hurt anybody or rip anybody off. I just wanted to make good, positive music that would benefit people’s lives. And that was one of the reasons why it was kind of hard to hang with the Saint Vitus guys after a while. David [Chandler, guitarist] was on such a different trip from me, he was kind of a depressed-type person, and it really shows through in his music. His stuff is like, “I’m locked in this box, can’t you see how bad it is?” thing. Me, I was always looking for a way out. I would tell him, “Don’t you want to play better? Don’t you want to practice to get better?” I would buy records by guys like Allan Holdsworth and get fired up and think, “Wow, maybe I could play like this guy one day! Maybe I should play three more hours a day or something?” I always knew that one day I was going to give up all the crap in my life and dive headlong into music, I always believed that, even back then. Thankfully, I was able to do that.
Arthur: You recently filmed a video with Lemmy from Motörhead. What’s your history with Lemmy? Was he an influence on the Obsessed?
Wino: Lemmy was definitely an influence on me. I used to carry around a treatise he wrote about religion in my wallet back from when he used to write for Rip magazine. He talked about how all religion is about control, and it meant a lot to me. I just think he’s the consummate “lifer” kind of rocker, you know? He’s very hip. I’ve never really engaged him in a deep political conversation before, but I’d met him a few times before working with him on the Probot video. He’s a collector of World War II memorabilia, and somebody had left some Red Cross patches in my apartment a long time ago. I took them over to him and he was really excited about them, and bought them from me. That’s his main hobby and I think he’s very interested just in the whole pageantry of the German regalia. You can see him sometimes out at a strip joint in L.A. wearing, like, a Prussian officer’s overcoat with the epaulets and all that! [Laughs] I hardly think that he’s down with the ideology of the Nazis. He’s very fair and just, and wouldn’t for a second condone their thinking.
Arthur: You’re against the whole “joy-riding” aspect of taking drugs, right?
Wino: It can be a gas! It’s a lot of fun, but the first couple of times you trip on anything is when you get the most from it. As it becomes more of a recreational thing, I think you’ve stepped over the real, true use of the drug.
Arthur: There was one particular psilocybin trip that influenced you for the rest of your life, correct?
Wino: I’d taken Peyote [mescaline] before, and I was definitely aware of the differences between natural drugs and man-made drugs like LSD. Psilocybin gives you more of a “body high”; you go through a physical transformation before you have the mental. Your body reacts to [psilocybin] in dramatic ways, it’s like, “Euggh, what’s this?” You’re bent into forms, and slowly but surely, that queasy nausea kinda leaves, and colors start to become more vivid. Acid or hallucinogens should be used for enlightenment, I believe. Well, I guess maybe I shouldn’t be saying to anyone to not do anything, but if you take a hit of acid just to go sit and ride the subway all night long and drink beer, I kind of want to say that that’s not the best application. I think that the best application for taking it is when you’re up on a mountaintop by yourself, looking at the stars. There’s more of a connection to be made. I used to think that once you tripped on LSD, you realized the futility of life. I’m not sure that I believe that anymore.
So, yeah, I had decided to give up a lot of the things that had been bringing me down. It was a cleansing operation. My lifestyle in California had peaked: My use of methamphetamine and alcohol had led me to death’s door. I felt that some last vestige of survival somewhere inside me was telling me to get out. So I got the fuck out of California, and went back to my hometown. I was still drinking real hard, but I went home, beat on my parents’ door, and stayed with them until they were miserable. I finally reached the point where I knew that the next stop for me was to end up in jail. I was still a loose cannon.
I decided that I had to do something. I had this big handful of mushrooms and I fuckin’ ate ’em. There I was, walking around D.C., around the Mall there. Historically, that entire area was laid out by the Freemasons. Before, that place was swamp-land. There’s something special about that area, and that’s why it was picked for our capital. There’s ley lines there, energy lines that cross in certain ways, and the Masons had the knowledge from the Egyptians from where they used the Earth’s energy to be harnessed for different purposes. They knew the importance of that sacred geometry. So, I just kind of wandered around until I felt “lined up” with everything in one spot. I laid down in that spot and stared into the sky, and the sun became “father” to me … I was experiencing a lot of dark and light thoughts, experiencing a kind of serpent-like energy, which in a way felt good, but also seemed to have nefarious feelings, too. And then on the other side, there were all these “cat” feelings, where there was a jaguar spurring me on, which really felt very empowering. I was really feeling this incredible duality between the two, this position between light and darkness, which I took to mean the influence of the snake and the jaguar. I am so into the Mayan and Meso-American myths and stuff, and that was all having its effect on my psyche during this trip. That’s when I started to see these “step” patterns all around me, and it felt to me as if the clouds and the heavens were putting on a show for me. My hands and my arms felt like they were being pulled into the right positions, as if I was walking in a trance. I really felt like I was aligned with everything: the Earth, the sky.
Now, right in the middle of this fucking trip, I heard this big ol’ voice in my head say, “You know what, buddy? You’d better stop fuckin’ drinkin’!” This certainly wasn’t something that I didn’t already know. I wasn’t in any kind of denial prior to this trip, because sure, I knew that I had a serious problem, I knew that from day one. But the bottom line is, the trip became a supreme motivator. The next day I was very burned-out and hung-over. I remembered that I was screaming the name “Quetzalcoatl” and trying to climb up sunrays. Just lying there, crying and screaming, just another fucking wino on the street to anyone passing by.
This was a very transformative experience, and it’s very hard to describe the way that it ties into my music, because I certainly wasn’t listening to any music during this trip. In the past when I really wanted to give my music the true test, I’d listen to it while tripping. I remember the first time I did that with [The Obsessed’s] The Church Within, and I was blown away, moved to tears. I threw in some Coltrane after that, and it was all over! [Laughs]