-Rhapsody in Red
-Intense lives shows and a new CD have Inside Scarlet ready to paint the town -Red-
by Lee Abraham
Turning to face each other, the bass and guitar players feed off each other's energy. Thump and strum become one wave of crunchy groove as the two mirror each other's gyrations. Leaning closer, Heather Tampa, bass player for Inside Scarlet, shouts something over the rock and roll thunder to crack up guitar player, Sharay Larsen. For a moment they laugh while bopping in sync, then Larsen suddenly whirls to the microphone. Gazing over the crowd, eyes fixed on an image only she can see, Larsen's expression channels passion as she sings. From pleasure soaked, toe-curling bliss to furrowed brow, sneering rage, Larsen is absorbed in the music.
"Sharay brings a very controlled madness," laughs Tampa. "She's got to have it in control, and there's an element of joy and laughter, but it's madness." A popular brand of madness at that. Together with Mike Cromer on lead guitar and Brian Festone on drums, Inside Scarlet has built a loyal following drawn to the band's moody kaleidoscope of ever changing sonic textures and stark images as drawn by the mind's eye of a male/female collective consciousness. That cross section of experience ultimately serves as the foundation of Inside Scarlet's unique and dynamic sound.
-Gently- is an Inside Scarlet song that was included on -New Music For a Jagermeistered Society-, a compilation CD of bands sponsored by the venerable buzz juice. The tune opens with a delicately picked acoustic guitar that is soon joined by haunting, breathy vocal. As the words float seductively over the music like the unearthly musk of the devil's mistress, a second voice, equally alluring, joins in briefly, then drifts away. Drums and bass kick in with a foreboding deliberation creating a tension that builds, only to erupt in a crescendo of crashing guitars and swirling vocals. From somewhere beneath the sonic rubble, strains of the acoustic guitar reemerge. This is the stuff of Inside Scarlet.
"I think the music is real," says Cromer. "It's not contrived and people respond to the honesty of it. Plus, I do think we do have a chemistry and maybe people are attracted to that too."
The onstage chemistry starts with Larsen and Tampa. Separately they're each excellent singers, together in two-part harmony they are as powerful as the sirens of Titan. Not only do they sing well, they can play too. On bass, Tampa rumbles with a punkish edge that gives Inside Scarlet an ominous, at times dangerous sound. On occasion she'll mix in a little jazz or funk, but most of the time she's painting the background in vivid shades of gray. "Heather definitely brings emotion to the band," says Festone. "If it's a really good night, she's at the top of the game. She's the fun one in this band."
Switching back and forth from acoustic to electric guitar, Larsen can add a certain softness to Inside Scarlet's sound, but when it's time to rock, she's all-electric. On stage, Larsen is the most animated of the group, tossing back her long dark hair while crunching power chords and prowling the stage like tigress in the wild. Making eye contact with each of her band mates, Larsen's vibe is a contagious open throttle of emotion. Cromer is also an expressive player. Loose and relaxed onstage, liquidy, signal processed leads flow effortlessly from his guitar like a mind-altering bottomless shot glass of Jagermeister. At the drums, Festone's straight-ahead, in-the-pocket style gives Inside Scarlet a pop sensibility that keeps the vibe from getting too heavy. Festone also has a way of keeping things loose, he always seems to be chuckling about something.
"That was one of the main things about Brian," says Cromer. "We were obviously looking for a good drummer, but I think more than anything, it was, 'Who can we get along with and have fun with?' He brings a bouncy enthusiasm to the band."
Having fun onstage is easy when you've got good songs and a band that respects each other. The times that aren't so easy are the behind the scenes ups ad downs when there's no audience to perform for, and only each other to count on. Perhaps the greatest test of any band's mettle is in the recording studio. Not only is everyone under a microscope to play and sing well, there's a lot of pressure to not waste time. After all, time is money in the studio.
For eight straight days in late October and early November last year, Inside Scarlet recorded at Master Control in Burbank. Spinning the first tape at somewhere around 10am, each day was a marathon session with the band staying 'til 1 or 2 in the morning. Sandwiched between a Rod Stewart session that wrapped up just as they got there, and a band called -Stimulator-, who had the studio blocked out 'til the end of the year, Inside Scarlet had no margin for error.
"It was challenging," says Larsen. "Once we were finished though, looking back on it, I'm really, really proud that we can all work like that under pressure. Michael levels out the two of us. He grounds us I think, and when we start going off, he brings us back in focus."
The recordings were engineered by Jeff Robinson of Toad the Wet Sprocket fame.
In an effort to tweak the material, Robinson got together with the band for extensive pre-production work, helping nail the arrangements -before- going into the studio. The extra work paid off. Not only did Inside Scarlet get the job done, they are happy with the results. "It sounds like us," says Cromer.
"We decided to call the album, 'Red,'" explains Larsen, "because it ties in with our name, which itself conjures up many images and ideas… the cover of the CD is a girl painted in red latex, but the way that it's done it kind of looks like a painting, and it's all these different shades of red."
For the record, the name -Inside Scarlet- came from stories Heather's dad told her as a kid about an invisible character named -Scarlet-, One day before a practice, Tampa was working on a song she was calling -Invisible Scarlet-. Larsen walked over, saw the paper upside down and thought the title was -Inside Scarlet-. Everyone thought that sounded cool and the name stuck.
Starting in the coffeehouses and working their way up to the bar circuit, the band has had only one lineup change since its inception a few years ago. Original drummer, Pete Contino left the band last spring as Inside Scarlet began to get more and more serious about taking a shot in the music biz. That's when they brought in Festone. The period of transition resulted in the band taking time off from playing live to bring the new drummer up to speed. In the process, the band reworked old songs, wrote new ones and began to gel as never before.
The songs on -Red- came about through a truly collaborative songwriting effort. Taping every rehearsal, the band makes it a point to experiment and if something interesting comes up while they're jamming, they go back to it and either create a new song or add something to a tune they've already been working on. Using this organic, collective approach to developing new material, Inside Scarlet has been able to create music that captures their collective vibe, rather than the singular vision of any one of them.
"These days, society is so desensitized about music in general," says Cromer. "It's almost like everything is a cliché, so it's like 'what do you do to make an impact on people?'… you know with movies when somebody gets his head blown off it's no big deal. So we really try to go from a songwriting and lyrical content."
Excited to pop the cork on -Red-, Inside Scarlet has planned a CD release party that will also feature Windward Records recording artists, Copperpot. "It's going to be a little different," says Larsen. "We're looking to create a mood and experience that kind of reflects all the different things we're about. It's going to be fun."
Once the CD is officially released and the band can refocus on something other than the album, they will book some out of town shows and take their quest for a record deal to the next level. They've put together a website (www.insidescarlet.com) with info on the band, show dates, etc. and their mailing list continues to grow from the packed crowds they draw at local gigs. With a CD in hand they're proud of, the band can now get back to what they love the most, performing.
"We demand peoples' attention," says Larsen. "Our shows are very intense. I feel the intensity come off the stage and just grab people, and it's like 'OK, this is us, here's our songs, listen to the words."
Evocative lyrics, compelling music, high-octane chemistry, whatever it is, Inside Scarlet has a lot of it. Bonded through the hell fires of the recording studio and collective rapture of their live shows, Inside Scarlet has tapped into a stream of consciousness beyond gender or ego. They just make the music they feel. That's why it works. Says Cromer, "I don't think we sound like anybody else."