Scruffs get back to basics

Scruffs leader Stephen Burns (left) with guitarist/engineer  Adam Hill, crossing the famed intersection near the Beatles' Abbey Road studios in London.

Scruffs leader Stephen Burns (left) with guitarist/engineer Adam Hill, crossing the famed intersection near the Beatles' Abbey Road studios in London.

For the better part of 35 years, Scruffs leader Stephen Burns has stayed the course. From the band's debut, the still brilliant 1978 LP Wanna Meet the Scruffs, to the newly released and equally inspired Kill! Kill!, Burns' muse has rarely wavered, sticking close to the Southern power-pop template he helped pioneer in the 1970s.

"I like what I like, and I do what I do," Burns says with a chuckle.

For Burns, this latest project represents a return to his native Memphis, and the band will mark Kill!

Kill! with a pair of shows this weekend, including a CD release Sunday night at the Hi-Tone Café.

Burns has resettled in the Bluff City -- he recently bought a home in Midtown -- following a decade of travel and time spent largely in Scotland. He was first introduced to the country by his friend, late Big Star singer Alex Chilton.

"I went over for the first time in '98. Alex took me. He said, 'You should come to Glasgow, everybody knows your stuff there.' At that point, I was thinking about recording the first project I had done in some time. And he was right; everybody knew my work and was offering to play."

While in Scotland, Burns would fill the Scruffs' ranks with notable musicians including Teenage Fanclub's Francis Macdonald and Stevie Jackson of Belle and Sebastian. Eventually, another Belle and Sebastian member, Bobby Kildea, and Edinburgh-based drummer Mark Rodgers would come to form the core of the band's lineup with Burns.

Recording a quartet of albums in Scotland over the years -- including Love, The Scruffs, Pop Manifesto and Conquest -- Burns would return to Memphis to mix the projects at his longtime studio home, Ardent.

It was through the connection at Ardent that engineer/guitarist Adam Hill came into the Scruffs fold, becoming a fully integrated member by the time the band began working on Kill! Kill! two years ago.

A loosely knit concept album, Kill! Kill! seizes on the darker aspects of modern life, Burns says. "'Kill' is just an operative word. There's so much physical killing going on in the world, it's as if we've turned this horrible corner. If anyone had told me when I was making Wanna Meet the Scruffs, that the world would go this way, I would've been shocked. We were so hopeful back then," he says.

"So the material on this album are like pop-love songs," Burns says, "except at the end, the guy doesn't get the girl, the girl commits suicide, then the guy commits suicide."

Cut at Ardent in late 2010, the album is also pervaded by the spiritual and technical influence of the Beatles. "While we were here working at the studio, that Beatles Mono/Stereo box set came out. One night during a break, we went through all those tracks and we were so knocked out by it."

Inspired, Burns decided to take the unique step of completing Kill! Kill! as a double disc, with the songs mixed and released separately in both mono and stereo versions. The album was given its finishing mastering touches at the Beatles' old haunt, Abbey Road Studio in London.

A back-to-basics pop approach serves Burns well on Kill! Kill! "He tried to keep all the songs at 3 minutes; that was another influence from that Beatles box set," Hill says. "Also, we cut it all as a band. No one ever re-cut their parts. We cut it all four of us playing in the room."

"The idea was to get back to being a four-piece, completely a four-piece band," Burns adds. "I'd expanded the band outward in Glasgow. But this was a return to that notion."

Even so, more than a few notable guests do crop up, with cameos on the new LP including R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck, Young Fresh Fellows/Minus 5 leader Scott McCaughey, as well as locals the Vest Brothers.

Last week, to launch Kill! Kill! nationally, the Scruffs made an appearance at the South by Southwest conference in Austin. The festival was highlighted by a documentary and concert tribute to fellow Memphis cult band Big Star.

The resurgence of interest in Big Star has had a residual effect on the Scruffs, who were always considered fellow torch bearers for that unique Southern-rooted Anglo-pop sound.

"Don't get me wrong," Burns says. "We had an appreciation for all the music that came from Memphis. A lot of us loved soul music, the stuff like Sam and Dave that was so prevalent and powerful. But we were a minority, if you will, who were fascinated by these British sounds. I just always wanted to write melodic pop songs. And I'm still doing that."

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The Scruffs

With the Driftwood Ramblers, 10 p.m. Saturday at the Poplar Lounge, 2586 Poplar. Cover is $5. For more information, call (901) 324-6550. And with Buxton, 9 p.m. Sunday at Hi-Tone Café, 1913 Poplar. Cover is $5. For more information, go to hitonememphis.com, or call (901) 278-8663.

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