Local Wire

Heritage Hump: The Sciannas - "Body & Soul"

Every Wednesday is Heritage Hump Day! That's because every Wednesday from now to the end of the year or before someone really big stops us, Heritage Hump Records (a temporary subsidiary of Onus Records) and New Times will be bringing you a limited edition collector's item of a much beloved Phoenix band that walked the scorched earth of Arizona before the year 2000 A.D. We will honor that band with a commemorative digital single that you, the digital public, will have only seven days to download to your computers and smart phones before this single gets marked up to an exorbitant price as determined by the mp3 collector community. When that happens, a new Heritage Hump subject will be chosen and the free-for-a-limited-time-only cycle begins anew.

When it comes to local music, I am sometimes not unlike that old Davis Sisters song "I Forgot More Than You'll Ever Know." Having written and reviewed hundreds of bands over the years and having played shows with a good many musicians in various lineups and reinventions, it's inevitable that bands and their whole career arcs could fall through the cracks.

Case in point: a few weeks ago I saw The Black Rabbits playing a packed house at Chopper John's, and when I went to say hello to the band, a tall guitarist shook my hand vigorously and told me we already knew each other.

"It's Fran. Fran from the Sciannas. Remember?"

Instantly the first thing that popped into my head was the suits. I was able to forestall the onslaught of early senility when I googled their name and mine and found out that yes, this was the only band with the exception of the Zen Lunatics who sported a Latter-Day Saints dress code or what Fran terms today as" our quasi-Beatles shtick." Like the Lunatics, The Sciannas shared a prediliction for gleeful pop, and I'd written about them twice in New Times, as it turns out.

The first instance was in July 2003 when they arrived here from the East Coast and tried creating a support group called the Commission with other bands who had a similarly hard time breaking into a dead or closed off music scene.

For most Arizona bands, the arc they can expect their careers to take is not unlike that of the Sciannas. Take a bunch of transplanted musicians, in this case Connecticut-bred brothers Fran and Dan Scianna, and thrust them into a mystifying music scene where it takes months, even years, to hook up with the right musicians, or at least a bunch of guys who'll quit watching the season opener of Friends long enough to rehearse. The transplants play whatever acoustic gigs they can and scout musicians, as Fran and Dan did, until they found guys like drummer Dan Jewell who could help them achieve what they had formulated in their minds to be the "Sciannas sound."

Achieving this telepathy requires more patience and social graces than it does to merely accumulate friends, but when the band is finally ready to play out, a healthy percentage of pals from work and genuine chums will certainly come in handy. Early shows are well attended, thanks to persistent promotion and the fabled friend-of-a-friend attendance booster. After a few months of healthy shows, they book a show at a new club and notice there are only a dozen-plus people there. Two of them want you to hurry up so they can sweep the floors. The draw starts to dwindle. Friends of friends are no longer friends. Fans move away without e-mailing. Noncommittal types find commitments with someone who wants them to stay home to watch the season finale of Friends. It's a vicious cycle.

Some give up right there. Fran and Dan Scianna, however, felt there had to be a more methodical way of accruing and maintaining an audience. They formed a pact with other bands in a similar situation and called it the Commission.

"The idea had been tossed around for a few months," says Fran Scianna. "We'd played together on different bills with [bands like] No Lily and Initial J and came to the same conclusion that no one's going out to the shows. If we all supported each other, people would see other musicians in the audience and pretty soon they would start to bring other people."

The Sciannas have just finished conducting their most recent Commission meeting at Chaser's in Scottsdale. The meeting takes place the first Tuesday of every month and lasts roughly 45 minutes. There are no dues and no reading of minutes, just an informal pledge to support each other's bands. In attendance this night are members of No Lily, Initial J, a ska band from Cincinnati called the Busticles and singer-songwriter Bob Hermes.

As for suggestions on how to make their shows more eclectic and experimental, someone suggests Commission bands invite other Commission band members to walk up and perform a song. A commonplace occurrence in most music scenes, it happens at blues clubs whenever there's another guitarist or a horn player in the audience. It seems strange that it has to be put forth as a suggestion. Then, you realize you have trouble recalling the last time a local rock band did just that.

The idea of having like-minded groups banding together is a noble cause that runs its course when one of more bands changes its collective mind. By the following year The Sciannas were playing with bands outside of this comfort zone and had released a CD called "We Are The Sciannas," which I reviewed in a Homegrown column in October, 2004.

"We are the Sciannas/We drink beer instead of wine/We are the Sciannas/We wear suits and ties."

Any band that pens its own theme song is begging to have its own cartoon series with corresponding lunch box. And the Sciannas don't disappoint — the band's theme is a melodic doppelgänger to the Partridge Family's own mission statement, with an added reminder that "Spam is a form of swine." Immediately following, they burst into a short excerpt from the Simpsons' musical "Monorail." So no, you won't find Switchfoot-like sensitivity here — these guys maintain the levity of the O'Kaysions, a band of North Carolinians that scored a 1968 hit with "I'm a Girl Watcher." Several gals like "Cindy" and "Sweet Marie" get ogled on We Are the Sciannas, the quartet's fun 'n' frivolous debut, which features enough drunken call-and-response backgrounds to ensure nothing ever gets too thought-provoking. One thing is for certain: If these suited men in black ever double billed with the Zen Lunatics, it might look like Tempe was in the throes of a Botany 500 invasion.

It is from that album that Fran Scianns picks our Heritage Hump song for this week. Surprisingly, it isn't the self-referential "We Are The Sciannas" ode he found representative of the band's career but a song called "Body and Soul."

"I honestly couldn't tell you what the song is actually about and I doubt my brother Dan (the song's composer) would remember either," says Fran. "The song, to me, is a wild, late night, booze-fueled trip down memory lane. We billed ourselves as Happy Drunk Rock back in the day, and this tune kind of embodies that for me."

By the time the CD came out The Sciannas had changed personell. Kimberly Zinevich, who has kept up a musical partnership with Fran for 12 years and formed a management company and Schizophrenic Zen Records which will release a Black Rabbits EP in October.

"The Sciannas just put out the one CD and ended in 2008," she recalls. Fran went on to start a band called Studying Stones that put out one album and then started The Bellwethers with his brother Dan. He asked me to join the lineup in 2010 and we've been rocking ever since. Black Rabbits started put as an acoustic trio in 2013 called 3 of Hearts, but we rebranded to Black Rabbits when our drummer joined in 2015."

I guess the question everyone wants to know is, did The Sciannas make her wear a suit?

"No," she laughs. "I wish. I had to wear a dress!"

Black Rabbits'  next show is August 22 at Chopper Johns, and The Bellwethers are at the Rhythm Room on August 30.
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Serene Dominic
Contact: Serene Dominic