Interview: Tuscadero’s Melissa Farris

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Remember Tuscadero, the cool, indie rock band from D.C. that formed back in 1993? Remember The Pink Album? It’s all coming back to you now, isn’t it?  If not, allow us to refresh your memory or just indulge us. Tuscadero were one of the most prominent bands on the roster of Washington-based TeenBeat Records before later signing with Elektra. The lineup: Melissa Farris on vocals and guitar, Margaret McCartney on vocals and guitar, Phil Satlof on bass and piano and Jack Hornady on drums. Their name was derived from the “Happy Days” character Leather Tuscadero, and they released several 7” inch singles, an EP and two full albums. Across their catalog, they displayed a knack for writing clever, punk-infused pop songs with a nod to girl groups and laced with a D.I.Y. aesthetic.

It turns out they never really “broke up,” they just haven’t played a show for a really long time. Needless to say, you can imagine how excited we were to find out that Tuscadero will be playing The Black Cat’s 20th Anniversary Party. The iconic club is located on 14th Street in Washington D.C., just a couple of doors down from where it was first located when opened by owner Dante Ferrando in 1993. Tuscadero frequently played the first iteration of the club in the early 90s, and will help The Black Cat celebrate its anniversary with a performance on September 14th, the second night of a two day celebration.  We caught up with Melissa Farris to talk about the early days of the band, reforming and the importance of costumes.

 

Weeping Elvis: Tuscadero formed in 1993. Yikes those 20 years flew by. What are some of your favorite memories from the early days of Tuscadero?

Melissa Farris: For some reason, Tuscadero had an exceedingly large number of craft projects, and those were some of the funnest things we did early on. Margaret and I made lots of costumes, mostly out of felt and/or lamé or anything sparkly that might distract from our less-than-stellar musicianship. We also used to make prizes to toss out to the crowd at shows — bribes, let’s call them — I seem to recall one set of necklaces that we made by mixing liquid polyester resin and glitter in my basement and pouring it into ice cube trays and letting it set overnight. We probably shaved a few points off our IQs because of the lack of ventilation. Good times!

Another fun thing about Tuscadero is that we came of age right around when the Internet was born. One night, we were at a BBQ at Teenbeat HQ in Arlington, and Mark Robinson showed us an early message board about various Teenbeat and D.C. bands. I think it may have actually been the first time I had seen the Internet. There was no design, just bare bones html text. Anyway, there was a comment about us, and it was so priceless we later used it as a review quote in the ads for our last album: “Tuscadero? I wouldn’t piss on them if they were on fire.”

Man, the early Internet was full of dicks, I’m glad it’s gotten so much better over time.

Tuscadero had some huge success in the mid-nineties. You were probably the biggest band on Teenbeat. What was the transition from the indie label world like to when you later signed with Elektra?

Well, I would beg to differ about being the biggest band on Teenbeat — Unrest certainly has that distinction. As for the transition, Elektra’s banquets were not nearly as good as Teenbeat’s, and their crazy, major-label numbering system made little to no sense.

You guys are playing the 20th anniversary of Washington, D.C.’s Black Cat in September. How did that reunion come about?

Dante  emailed me, I emailed Phil, Margaret and Jack, they emailed me back, I emailed Dante. There may have also been a text message in there somewhere. 90s me would have been seriously impressed with how futuristic these arrangements were.

What’s it like rehearsing with Margaret, Phil, and Jack at this point verses 20 years ago? 

Will get back to you once we practice! We wouldn’t want to upset the old fans with a mistake-free set.

What have you guys been up to since the band broke up in 1998?

Well, Jack, Margaret and Phil all have adorable, awesome children. I have an adorable awesome dog. Mostly we don’t get to wear costumes to work anymore. Also, we never actually broke up — we reform, it seems, about every 5 to 7 years to play a show, like a lazy, out-of-practice Voltron.

What songs from the Tuscadero catalog are looking forward to playing the most?

All the ones that have the word “Song” in the title, which is a surprisingly large number. I guess we did that to pre-emptively dispel any doubt that we were actually playing what we considered to be a “song.”

Any advice you’d give to a young band or musician who’s just starting to record or tour?

Costumes! Also: Invest in a tuner. It may seem like a silly expense now, but you’ll really see the payoff once you all try to play at the same time.

What are three of your favorite songs or albums from 1993?

I just had to Google “Top albums of 1993” because I can’t really remember that far back. I don’t know, man, I’m sorry; I probably was mostly listening to that first Mercury Rev album and the Hair soundtrack and Johnny Cash. I was super into the 7 inch of New Radio/Rebel Girl by Bikini Kill & Joan Jett, though, which I believe came out in 93 and I still think is perfect, and listen to at least once a week. But now I listen to it on my computer because THE FUTURE IS NOW.

 

Thanks to Melissa Farris for talking with us and a big happy anniversary to The Black Cat.  Their celebration runs two amazing nights of shows and will be a rare opportunity to see some of D.C.’s most beloved bands, some of which are reforming just for this amazing set of shows:

Friday, Sept. 13: Max Levine Ensemble, the Shirks, Ted Leo, Girls Against Boys, Gray Matter.

Saturday, Sept. 14Coup Savage and the Snips, Mary Timony and Nathan Larson, New Wet Kojak, Tuscadero and Shudder to Think.

 

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Pat Ferrise grew up loving ”the punk rock” and “new wave.” His years at one of the nation’s top college radio stations ultimately led him to a 15-year run as music director of alternative music icon WHFS Washington/Baltimore. Rolling Stone magazine named him of the most influential programmers of the 90s. He’s recorded two albums under the moniker Trampoline for the now defunct SpinArt label. He lives in Baltimore and takes no credit for writing this bio.