Stuntman Reissue Feature – Jason Sievers (BUMP!)
If the mid-90’s Neurolux had a house band it would be Boise’s Stuntman. They weren’t the only local band playing that stage regularly, but they owned it. Whether they were headlining a local bill or opening for touring legends like Polvo, Stuntman’s loud, dual guitar assault was as defining as the blinking crown that adorns the Neurolux stage. Their newly reissued debut–on vinyl for the first time–is the perfect time capsule of that era and snapshot of a young band at the top of their game.
Though the band was technically new, Stuntman singer/guitarist Scott Schmaljohn, in his mid-20’s at the time, was a Boise veteran having played with Boise hardcore band State of Confusion and local legends Treepeople. The later moved from Boise to Seattle during the early 90’s and recorded several albums for C/Z Records before co-founder Doug Martsch returned to the Treasure Valley to launch Built to Spill. Schmaljohn brought in Pullman, Washington singer/guitarist John Polle of the bands Ignatius and Thin Section to replace Martsch for a final Treepeople record and some touring.
“John Polle was the last second guitarist for Treepeople, so when we decided to put Treepeople to rest, we continued writing and jamming together to form Stuntman, ” says Schmaljohn. “[We] normally wrote songs individually, brought them to practice and then we crafted our parts by jamming on the song. More often than not, it would start with a part or a riff and we would jam and build on that starting point. Then we would write parts around the initial part to make a song. John would sing the songs he wrote and I would sing the songs I wrote generally”.
Stuntman set up shop in Boise, recruiting Polle’s Thin Section bandmate Sean Lennon to play bass and Boise’s Mike Rundle to play drums. Rundle also played with Dirtboy and Kid Corduroy. Stuntman continued where the Schmaljohn and Polle’s last band left off touring and playing showcases at places like Austin’s SXSW festival. When it came time to record their debut album they returned to Seattle studio John and Stu’s where they had recorded the final Treepeople album. It was produced by John Goodmanson who also recorded Sleater-Kinney’s “Dig Me Out” around the same time.
“Bleed” opens their self-titled lp with a thick Sean Lennon bass line before the guitars rush in and Schmaljohn shreds his vocals singing “Bleed for me!” (eventually giving way to resignation: “One more day to get it all wrong”). At times Schmaljohn and Polle play parts resembling lead and rhythm guitar, but more often their guitars feel like different colored stripes chasing each other around a musical candy cane. On songs like “Nosedive” Rundle keeps up with the guitars, matching Schmaljohn and Polle’s frenetic riffs with quick burst drum fills, but elsewhere Rundle’s drums seem to be the only thing keeping the band from spinning out of control. Likewise, bassist Lennon is usually in lockstep with Rundle and his bass provides a nice melodic counterpoint when the guitars go haywire.
The treble-based sparring continues unabashed for most of side one and culminates with what might be the best one-two punch on the album, Polle’s “Slaves” and Schmaljohn’s “Nosedive”. Each song delivers a potent mix of vocal and guitar hooks. “Slaves” feels as anthemic today as it did back then. It’s easy to see how the lyrics appealed to a bunch of college students and service industry workers drinking at the Neurolux in the evenings: “Your Slaves can laugh, you’re slaves can act/ Your slaves say they love you, just don’t turn your back … I never really meant what you wanted me to say / You want a lifetime, I can give you a day” “Slaves” ends with an intense guitar rave-up that segues into “Nosedive”, a perfectly titled song that showcases Stuntman’s penchant for a fast/faster dynamic. It’s also one of Schmaljohn’s catchiest tunes.
The vinyl format casts this album in a new light for me. Side One feels a little more monochromatic, but it succeeds by rocking really hard and ending with a pair of single-worthy tracks. Side Two is a little more dynamic. From the bluesy and woozy “The Feminist” (featuring a distorted Schmaljohn vocal) to Polle’s “Wax Pattern” (a pretty tune that builds to a rocking crescendo), Stuntman show they can paint in some different colors. That’s not to say they stray too far from their 90’s guitar rock path, but you can feel the push and pull between their NW guitar rock DNA and the possibilities of indie pop and post-rock. “Wax Pattern” opens with some delicate guitar and vocals displaying a vulnerable side of a band that was all about swagger. Acoustic-based album closer “Good Enough” features future Built to Spill member Jim Roth adding tasteful pedal steel guitar to the mix and it would feel almost countrified were it not for some spacey guitars and Schmaljohn’s school of hardcore knocks vocals.
Another highlight of the album’s second side is “The Devil”, an instrumental that races from beginning to end like it’s scoring a drag racing highlight reel. The song perfectly demonstrates Stuntman’s capacity to build a song on forward momentum, hairpin turns and a couple of moments where they slow down long enough to survey the wreckage before laying the throttle down. They could do it on record and they could certainly do it live.
Stuntman put out one more record on a Canadian label before fizzling out like many of our great local bands. Scott Schmaljohn took a break and then resurfaced in The Treatment and The Hand, his long-running rock trio that put out a fine new album in the spring of 2017. Drummer Mike Rundle played with System & Station after Stuntman eventually moving with that band to Madison, Wisconsin. These days he’s back in Boise playing and touring with a variety of artists including Jeff Crosby, Andrew Shepppard, Kayleigh Jack and Emily Tipton (as well as drumming for a DJ-mashup band called GiggleBomb).
John Polle and Sean Lennon briefly formed a band called Harlem in Boise after Stuntman. Lennon calls Harlem “possibly the best band I was ever in” and the two shows I saw made a pretty good case for it. Lennon also played with Boise’s The Left Coast and Caustic Resin, moving to Seattle and Los Angeles, where he recorded some tunes with Mark Lanegan, Duff McKagen, Mike Johnson and Geoff Reading that never saw the light of day. He eventually ended up in San Francisco where he had played in the bands Tough Love, Freddie & The Aztecs, Meercaz & The Visions and Off Campus (a project that has been off and on since 2007). John Polle moved to Arizona and played with The Solace Bros before switching to drums and playing with a band called Discos. He played baritone guitar in Lenguas Largas and occasionally plays drums for them now. His main band these days is Whispering Wires, who recently toured with Built to Spill as did Lenguas Largas.
The new vinyl reissue of Stuntman’s debut comes from a fan in North Carolina and is well-worth a second listen from indie rock fans in Boise and elsewhere. It is pressed on beautiful blue vinyl. A handful of them are at the local record store waiting to be snatched up by old fans and discovered by new ones. EJ Pettinger’s wonderful colored pencil cover art still looks awesome. The dedication to Bob Stinson–the tragic Replacements guitarist–still sums up the spirit of Stuntman. Like Stinson, Stuntman embodied the side of rock and roll that is serious about not taking itself too serious… I never saw them play a sloppy show, but they legendarily sabotaged some of their opportunities and always seemed to be just a step away from “making it”. But they succeeded in crafting a debut that stands up 20 years after it first appeared on CD. The reissue isn’t just a nostalgia trip; it’s a rocking, breathing document of one of Boise’s best.