I feel fortunate to have retained any memory at all of seeing Negative Scanner guitarist and singer Rebecca Valeriano-Flores fronting her first band, Tyler Jon Tyler, at the Empty Bottle ten years ago. I’m foggy on the details—I doubt I could even tell you who else was on the bill that evening—but I absolutely remember coming to the conclusion Valeriano-Flores was a force to be reckoned with. Her bellowing voice wasn’t just a hair-raising surprise coming out of someone so small, it also flat-out commanded your attention. I was sure that wouldn’t be the last time I’d see her own a stage, whether in a club or a basement.
Of course, time has proved me right, and I do love the feeling. Valeriano-Flores has become a fixture in the city’s hardcore and punk communities, even booking DIY concerts herself. Occasionally a show might include, say, a workshop on four-track recording—she and Negative Scanner drummer Tom Cassling (who also played in Tyler Jon Tyler) held one prior to a March show at the Auxiliary Art Center. “It’s important for smaller bands who either don’t want to or can’t play a bar to get a good show,” she says. “Sometimes $50 can go a long way.”
Valeriano-Flores also abides by the unwritten law in hardcore punk that says anybody with one band has to play in at least one more—hell, at least two more. For her, those currently include the snarling, full-steam punk outfit Cyber Pink (which she also fronts) and a fledgling project with Coneheads bassist and front man Mark Winter that’s called Super Stupids on Hexavalent Chrome. But her biggest, most notable outlet since Tyler Jon Tyler broke up in 2012 has been postpunk four-piece Negative Scanner.
Negative Scanner don’t play hardcore punk in the traditional sense. By Valeriano-Flores’s admission, their postpunk sound has always been a little poppy, and their second full-length, Nose Picker (released last Friday by can-do-no-wrong Chicago label Trouble in Mind), skews further in that direction than ever. “It’s still a postpunk record, but where the debut was almost gothy, this one leans more into power pop,” she says. “Tyler Jon Tyler was poppy, so after that I went through a phase of writing darker, melancholy music.”
But just because Negative Scanner don’t write songs that writhe, splinter, and explode like an overheating Rollins-era Black Flag, that doesn’t mean they don’t embrace the ethos of bands that do. They’ve always fit in better in the DIY punk and hardcore scenes than anywhere else. Because Tyler Jon Tyler had come up in Chicago’s percolating garage scene of the late 2000s (Trouble in Mind, then a fledgling label, released their first seven-inch in 2009), at first Negative Scanner often got slotted on similar garage-heavy bills. And though Valeriano-Flores, Cassling, guitarist Matt Revers, and bassist Nick Beaudoin were still developing their chops and their sound (and thus didn’t necessarily perceive those bookings as incongruous), they never felt totally comfortable or welcome there.
“Early on, Negative Scanner played a lot of garage shows. We’d get booked at certain bars where I didn’t feel supported as a musician—no one was ever asking to collaborate or talking about music in a way that was engaging,” Valeriano-Flores says. “People booking and playing hardcore and punk DIY shows have been so incredibly supportive of Negative Scanner and interested in collaborating and playing music together.”
Today Negative Scanner are significantly more popular than they were in 2012, but even though they could probably play nothing but licensed venues, they’ve stayed busy on the DIY punk scene. They’ve also stuck to the modus operandi of that scene in other ways: Nose Picker was tracked entirely by the band on an eight-track cassette recorder at the Shake Shop, the Logan Square guitar- and amp-repair shop that Cassling owns. They later bounced it to quarter-inch tape and mixed it at Public House, the studio run by Dave Vettraino of the Hecks. “We even did the fade-outs of the tracks by ourselves,” Valeriano-Flores says, laughing.
Nose Picker is Negative Scanner’s best record to date: more cohesive and developed than its predecessor, it’s biting one moment, tongue-in-cheek the next. Everything about it feels like an expression of the band’s collective personality, right down to the silly album cover, where Valeriano-Flores happily digs deep for gold. Negative Scanner definitely know that only some of the bands who do it themselves actually want to, but they’ve had the chance to leave that world behind and decided to stay. Even better, on Nose Picker they sound delighted to be there.
Friday night’s “in the round” record-release show at Thalia Hall is in character for the band: they’ll play on the floor, surrounded by an all-ages crowd, in what’s probably the best compromise possible between trashing a musty basement and headlining an ornate concert hall.
Negative Scanner and Trouble in Mind Records have also provided the Reader an exclusive premiere of the music video for Nose Picker track “First Blood.” You can check it out below.
Negative Scanner headline; Warm Bodies, Deodorant, and the Pornography Glows open. Fri 7/27, 5:30 PM, Thalia Hall, $12. All-ages.