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Scott “Wino” Weinrich has been making stoner rock for two decades. The rest of the metal scene has finally caught up with him.
On a recent Wednesday night in October, Spirit Caravan vocalist-guitarist Scott “Wino” Weinrich moves through the crowd at the Black Cat like an aging croonerbenevolent, kind, revered. Eyes follow him past the bar, up to the stage, and through the sound check. His fans are eager to show how long they’ve been buddies with him, that they’ve stuck around for the 20 long years that have seen the wax and wane and wax again of Weinrich’s fortunes.
Washington, D.C., is the cradle of what is now called stoner rockslow, melodic, doom-laden fuzz-metal influenced by the heavy psychedelia of Blue Cheer, Deep Purple, and early-’70s Black Sabbath. The genre’s heart-stopping bass and wailing guitar and vocals provided the soundtrack for youthful rock ‘n’ roll disaffection in and around the District until its twin brother, harDCore, overshadowed it in the early ’80s.
But Weinrich, who grew up in suburban Maryland and is one of the founding fathers of the local stoner-rock scene, has not budged an inch since his first band, the Obsessed, began to deliver the doom back in 1978. In the two decades since harDCore’s arrival, he’s seen his old D.C. friendsincluding Henry Rollins of Black Flag and Ian MacKaye of Minor Threat and Fugaziride a wave of success across the country and around the world. Weinrich, meanwhile, lived in punk’s shadow, enduring band breakups, recording contracts gone bad, and a European exile. Now, it seems, it may finally be his turn.
Stoner rock is growing again, with the proliferation of bands like Spirit Caravan, Eyehategod, and Queens of the Stone Age. Joe Lally, bassist in Fugazi and owner of the Tolotta record label, has recently re-released the first Obsessed album, as well as an EP and a full-length by Spirit Caravan. Spirit Caravan’s fan base at home is strengthened by the many shows it plays in the D.C. area, and the band’s growing popularity worldwide has allowed Weinrich to tour both Europe and the United States this year. Tonight’s triumphant homecoming, in fact, wraps up a monthlong national jaunt.
Onstage, Weinrich and his bandmates are metal caricaturesthey thrash their hair around and punch the air while shouting at their mikes. The audience wears everything from red Converse high-tops to leather cowboy hats. People in the crowd play out their souls on air guitars to the low, bass-heavy dirge of pre-glam metal that is Weinrich’s trademark. But Weinrich is not your average 40-year-old ex-druggie who kept on rocking long enough to knock up a few groupies and know a few guys who made it. He is a legend, and it suits him.
Weinrich’s soundprint is hard, dark, and deep. His songs have titles like “Melancholy Grey,” “Kill Ugly Naked,” and “No Hope Goat Farm.” And if anything’s going to make you play this kind of music for this long, it’s a nasty childhood and a huge authority problem.
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At 16, when Weinrich was accused of stealing a scale from his high school in Bethesda, the police handcuffed and paraded him through the halls. “My girlfriend was there, my mom was there, all these cops were there, and the entire student body was changing classes,” he recalls. Weinrich wasn’t too keen on going back to school after that and thought he’d work instead. But his parents wouldn’t have it. “So, to make things easy on everybody,” he says, “they declared me a ward of the court.”
He spent time in juvenile hall in Laurel and Baltimore. “That’s where I learned how to wrestle,” he laughs. But he didn’t go back to school, finally just earning a GED instead. “I was way more interested in jamming with people than I was in going to school.”
In 1980, after all “the schooling stuff” was over, Weinrich moved into a house in Aspen Hill with the other members of the Obsessed. Like their Dischord counterparts over in Arlington, all four members lived and rehearsed in the space, perfecting their slow, heavy, two-guitar rock. “Suburban people hadn’t really seen anything like that before,” Weinrich says.
But the band struck a chord. Lally saw the Obsessed at the old 9:30 Club in 1980 and was blown away. “That first show, there were a lot of punks there, but…the Obsessed had long hair.” And when the band started playing Sex Pistols covers, Lally says, “the punks were kind of like, ‘Hey, what the fuck?’”
The Obsessed, a bald and tattooed fan tells me during the Spirit Caravan show, were “to the D.C. punk scene what Motörhead was to the British punk scene: the only metal band that the punks would listen to.” Lally says that the Obsessed’s live shows had so much energy that the punks were compelled by themdespite the band’s long hair, black clothes, and eye makeup. “They just were kind of scary, I remember thinking,” Lally says. “Winohe just looked dangerous and scary, like he’d eat people’s flesh or something.” So Weinrich became friends with pared-down punk guys like Rollins and MacKaye.
Back in the day, before harDCore and metal went their separate ways, an old high school friend of Weinrich’s named Tito (whose last name, apparently, has been lost to history) became famous for throwing huge parties on several acres of land in the far reaches of Potomac. Tito’s parties created a lawless space where the young of the early ’80s could play. The Obsessed often used 50-foot extension cords to set up right in the middle of a field; they became Tito’s house band. “So many kids from this area,” Weinrich says, “have come up to me and said, ‘I took my first hit of acid at one of Tito’s parties,’ or ‘I lost my virginity in the woods at Tito’s party while the Obsessed were playing.’”
In 1984, having built a dedicated audience in the East Coast megalopolis, the Obsessed made a deal with Los Angeles-based Metal Blade Records, but the band’s album was sidelined when thrash metal hit the scene. “Slayer was exploding, and there was a huge interest in death metal, or thrash as we called it back then,” says Weinrich. “So we never got our full-length.” That same year, the Obsessed disbanded and Weinrich headed out to L.A. to join St. Vitus.
St. Vitus was another slow, melodic metal band, but without the dark glam style of the Obsessed. Weinrich says, “The guys in Vitus were these hard-core total purists, so they were like, ‘Well, you sound like Ozzy, so we want you in the band,’ but straight up, they fuckin’ told me I looked like a fag.” Weinrich adjusted his style accordingly.
St. Vitus first recorded for SST, one of America’s most important ’80s indie labels, started by Greg Ginn of Black Flag. Then the band was courted by Hellhound Records, a German heavy-metal label that made St. Vitus its flagship act. Weinrich and his bandmates played in Europe to sold-out shows and were treated like stars. “The [band’s 1986] album, Born Too Late, had to do with alienation, feelings of being passed over by life, alcoholism, and the normal kinds of things that we were feeling at the time,” says Weinrich. “We felt really strongly about what we were doing, felt strongly about our roots.”
In 1990, when Hellhound asked Weinrich to put the now iconic Obsessed back together and tour Europe with a new release, there were problems with the guys in St. Vitus. And Weinrich wasn’t happy with the direction St. Vitus was taking. “The songs were really like monster-movie shit, just really weak. There was no, like, serious emotion to it I could really get behind,” he says.
Weinrich started having trouble with St. Vitus guitarist and songwriter Dave Chandler. “I’d promised Dave I wasn’t going to leave St. Vitus, but I couldn’t take it anymore. So I went to this rehearsal, and Dave hands me these lyrics and he says, ‘This is the pop song I wrote’ and I’m thinking to myself, What the fuck? I mean, this is St. Vitus, and he’s trying to write a pop song, you know? So I sang it a couple of times the way he wanted me to sing it, and after the second time I sang it, he looked over at me and goes, ‘Wow, Wino, you sounded just like Axl Rose on that one.’ And that was it. I never looked backI walked out and never came back.”
The regrouped Obsessed became popular in Europewhich allowed Weinrich to bring them back to the United States. Here, they won a contract with Columbia Records, ushering in what Weinrich says was “the worst part of my life.” The label released the Obsessed’s The Church Within album in 1994 but dropped the band after poor sales. That’s when Weinrich really started living up to his nickname. He lived on the street, where, he says, he drank, and bought and sold and binged on drugs of every kind. In 1995, he says, “I totally hit rock bottom, and I rode a bus from Lancaster, Southern California, to Maryland in a pair of shorts.”
Not long after, Weinrich made his most important connection with D.C. when he quit drinking. “The way that I chose to get sober was to ingest a fucking huge amount of psychedelic mushrooms,” he says. “Basically, I went downtown on the Fourth of July. Downtown is weird. The Masons built it; it’s all lined up on the Masonic plansthere’s lay lines there, which is why the Masons chose to build D.C. here in the first place, on the swamp, because there’s heavy energy lines here. So all D.C. is like a big energy focal point. So, you know, I took this big old dose of mushrooms, and I kinda just wandered around until I felt like everything seemed to be lining up for me. I just laid down and I
just had this incredible fucking trip. I fucking saw Buddha.”
Later that summer, two die-hard fans of Weinrich’s caught wind of his return from the West Coast, and they found him working at a musical-equipment rental company. He was sober, but he also wasn’t making any music. The pair decided to pull him out of his funk and persuade him to start playing again. They were Gary Isom and Dave Sherman, D.C. stoner-rock veterans who had played in bands such as Iron Man, Unorthodox, and Wretched; they are now the drummer and bassist, respectively, in Spirit Caravan.
And now, at a sober and optimistic 40, Weinrich is back into the music he pioneered two decades ago. And the genre’s following is burgeoning again. The Stoner Hands of Doom festival debuted as a daylong stoner-rock showcase in Centreville, Va., last August and grew to a weekendlong event held this past September in Youngstown, Ohio, that attracted legions of new and old fans. There are countless Web sites dedicated to stoner rock, and Spirit Caravan is off on another European tour. “Bands like us are filling a void,” Weinrich says. “There’s a nucleus of people that are really into hard guitar-driven music.”
As this music gains momentum, more and more people will look to D.C. and Weinrich as the keepers of the flame of stoner rock. It’s been a long time coming, but Weinrich seems to have been enriched by the long, hard journey. “It’s not about comfort; it’s not about getting paid,” he says. “It’s all about the fanatical love of the music, the fanatical desire to bring the music to the people, and an overwhelming feeling of being one with the music and the energy of
the people.” CP