Totally insane shit I’ve seen singer-guitarist Brendan Scholz do while incinerating a room with his band Deadhand: Butt his forehead into a microphone stand until the punctured skin bleeds, the mic goes dead and the clip snaps off. Make out hard with his (male) bass player—tongue and everything—while unleashing a ferociously shredding solo. Stop a song on a dime to parody a bit of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” before ripping back into a Deadhand original. Turn the stuffy indie-vibe of the Royal House into a raging, frothing lunatic asylum during the Pixies and Nirvana tribute-cover nights by nailing to the wall explosive tunes such as “Territorial Pissings.”
This is all minor stuff, though, when measured against what happened to the pale, lanky, tattoo-covered musician a few weeks ago. Exhausted from a just–concluded four-day East Coast solo jaunt, he did a show at Double Down Saloon. Two songs in, Scholz passed out, slicing an eye against the drum kit before face-planting into the floor. He twitched, his body seizure-wracked, eyes rolling into his skull.
When he came to, he didn’t know his name but was glad to be, he jokes, “surrounded by handsome men.” An ambulance ferried him to Sunrise Children’s Hospital, where an MRI revealed no problems. Discharged at dawn, Scholz was back on the streets, lighting a cigarette, eating nothing and awaiting the day’s inevitable carnage. He was ready, once again, to go beyond his physical limits to pursue his ass-breaking muse.
“I’m not getting any younger,” the 26-year-old says. “I don’t know what else to do except push myself as hard as I can.”
However, the craziest, hardest thing Scholz has done is lighten the volume and hell-for-leather aggression that earned him a rep as Vegas’ best-kept rock ’n’ roll secret and nearly secured him a major-label deal—twice. (Vegas Seven, in its 2011 Best of the City issue, named him Best Guitarist.) Scholz is performing and recording acoustic power-pop folk songs under the name Mercy Music in preparation for an EP. He claims it’s a move designed to showcase his classic songcraft, equally inspired by underdog punks (Paul Westerberg, Graham Parker) and overdog pioneers (Hank Williams).
His new music is hardly campfire-friendly. Scholz opts for rhythmic power chords, string-buzzing riffs and slashing downstrokes. He plays acoustic guitar like he’s wielding a Les Paul plugged into a Marshall stack. In every Mercy Music song, Scholz cleaves his heart out and staple-guns it, raw and bleeding, to his black-leather-jacketed sleeve. He gets a look on his face—which I observed in January during a Mercy Music set at Hillary Salon in the Arts Factory—that seems possessed, like he might smithereen his guitar against the wall … or you. You feel you’re in the presence of an artist who doesn’t give a shit what happens to him as long as he expresses genuine emotion in the context of a three-minute pop song.
Scholz has always been the kid Most Likely to Become a Rock Star. In 2002, the now-defunct Mercury put the then-15-year-old student on its cover for a story about how the Las Vegas Academy served as a training ground for local bands. For the next few years, Scholz slugged it out with his pop-punk outfit, Absent Minded. They recorded an album with Black Flag/Descendents/All drummer Bill Stevenson at his Blasting Room studio, but a deal never materialized and the album was never released. Then Scholz formed Lydia Vance, a blazing rock trio comprised of bassist Jarred Cooper and drummer Aaron Weislogel. They recorded an album with producer Michael “Elvis” Baskette (Escape the Fate), also unreleased. Labels remained skeptical. Then Atlantic Records flew the band to New York for a showcase during which Scholz got drunk (he’s now a teetotaler). Playing with fury, he sliced his head open on Weislogel’s cymbal. Confident it saw dollar signs, Atlantic offered a demo deal, but he failed to meet expectations.
“They kept asking me to deliver another Dookie,” he says. “I couldn’t pinch one off.”
When the deal collapsed, Volcom Entertainment offered the band a paltry $1,200 advance. Lydia Vance’s manager countered with $3,000. The label passed. The manager died. The dead manager’s wife took the reins, and Lydia Vance changed its name to Deadhand. Last year, the band self-released a nine-song EP. No one cared save for Hurley clothing company, which included a Deadhand song on a sampler CD. (Hurley will release a Mercy Music track on its 2013 spring sampler disc.) Deadhand unveiled a video for the song “Places,” in which the band members play costumed characters who bomb the Magic Kingdom. (The band was surprised no labels signed them as a result.) Epitaph said Deadhand looks cool but isn’t metalcore. Scholz was invited to join Falling in Reverse and serve as frontman/convicted felon Ronnie Radke’s guitarist and babysitter. Scholz declined. He was invited to play guitar on Epitaph-signed band Orange’s Dead Sexy EP for a few bucks. He accepted. He toiled in vintage music shops like Cowtown Guitars. He broke up with his girlfriend and mother of his kids and married, he says, the love of his life.
Scholz still gigs in town with Deadhand, and he says his relationship with his bandmates isn’t strained by his pursuit of a different tack. Mercy Music finds him using his talents to grab the attention of a now-hungry-for-indie-folk industry that let Scholz go unsigned for years when he and his rock band were, as a fan put it nicely, “making The Used look like a bunch of pussies.”
“I got fed up with my bandmates because they don’t want to tour,” Scholz says. “They don’t need the risk. They’re in solid relationships and have jobs. So now the whole goal with Mercy Music is to be an independent contractor so I can pay them. I still love my band; they’re incredible musicians. They came with me to the studio to record a few full-band songs for the Mercy Music EP.”
Given his massive talent, volatile performances and industry scars, you’d think he’d be a raving, cynical egomaniac. But talking to him is like chatting with a shy yet friendly record-collecting nerd who just needs a little prod before revealing what he really thinks about Blue Öyster Cult’s Club Ninja album. (“Underrated,” he says.)
Onstage, though, he’s a wild animal. I’m not the only one to notice.
“He’s an introverted time bomb,” confirms Shoot to Kill Media founder Ryen McPherson, who has known Scholz for years and directed Deadhand’s videos and Mercy Music’s forthcoming video. “He doesn’t explode until he takes the stage. He’s the only person I’ve met who isn’t joking when he says he’ll die for his art. He contains the perfect ingredients to become a brilliant artist.”
The major element is Scholz’s deft touch as a songwriter. Consider the bracing melody of “With Love,” his grit-catching voice delivering wounded lyrics: Baby’s got the whole damn world/Goin’ out tonight to watch it burn. “Fine,” meanwhile, finesses Everly Brothers harmonies while detailing poignant scenes—The ashtray’s full/My soul is empty/Losing patience with the night—of characters struggling to rise above a tide of romantic loss and self-destructive impulses. The Mercy Music approach is less raucous than Deadhand’s, but the intensity is still red-lined.
Powerful as Scholz’s new material is, there’s a sense out there that his decision to retire the amplifiers is a calculated effort to reach a wider audience of hipsters. Indeed, not all Deadhand devotees appreciate a dramatic switch soured by a whiff of ambition.
“I can’t stand that hippie-beardcore-acoustic crap he plays,” laments hardcore drummer Gilbert Estrada, who has long championed Deadhand on website OneThirtyEight.org but pooh-poohs Mercy Music. “It drives me mad.”
Other fans are at ease with the milder stuff. PunksInVegas.com founder Steven Matview welcomes Scholz’s more-merciful-on-the-ears Mercy Music project.
“It’s certainly jarring to some,” Matview says. “Brendan is rightfully lauded for his guitar playing. But he’s also an outstanding songwriter. Mercy Music allows that side of him to be heard.”
And to be seen. Since launching his site in 2011, Matview has featured several videos of Scholz performing live and unplugged. Recently PunksInVegas captured him playing (under the Mercy Music moniker) his song “Undone” in a guitar store where he works. Impressed, the owner came out of his office to tell Scholz how amazing it sounded. Punk band Last Call’s Adam Blasco, helping Matview with a boom mic, was also blown away, telling Scholz how amazing it was. Standing there, equally bowled over by Scholz’s performance, I told him the same thing.
Still perched on a wooden stool, acoustic cradled in his lap, face scabbed from his Double Down blackout, Scholz got squirrely. He refused to make eye contact with anyone, grimacing as if in pain, rubbing his neck and face until his skin turned red.
“I have trouble taking compliments,” he said before abruptly exiting the room.
We all watched him step behind the store’s cash register, as he does nearly every day, to answer phone calls, comfortable to be out of the spotlight.
I listened for the ticking of an introverted time bomb, but all I could hear was Scholz politely answering technical questions about musical gear.
And I knew, later that evening, he’d be a different, self-lacerating beast onstage.