Scott Crow of Lesson Seven: The Interview

Scott Crow Interview

Feature Photo: courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

For the uninitiated, Lesson Seven was an integral part of the underground Texas darkwave scene, which ran through the ’80s like the lifeblood of those who witnessed it.

At its epicenter was Scott Crow, the enigmatic champion of the genre, who fearlessly strode toward the most sorrid corners he could find, pushing the boundaries of an already eclectic genre further into hyperspace. When he was done, Crow’s Lesson Seven had a retrospectively legendary body of work, which by the way, the veteran musician, label runner, and activist is resisting now. And so, if the uber-awesome “Radiation” was your thing back in the day, the time is now to seize the day once more.

But that’s not all Crow has up his sleeve; for some time, his label, eMERGENCY heARTS Records, has fancied itself a champion of the disenfranchised. Indeed, Crow and his cohorts provide safe harbor for those beaten over the head within the music industry. To Crow, the crux of the matter is loaded with darkness which only exploits artists, but as long as eMERGENCY heARTS Records exists, artists have an honest outlet for their art.

As he prepares to revisit his past while forever moving his endeavor forward, Crow beamed in with to recount his origins amongst the Texas music scene, the bustling ’80s darkwave movement, his intentions in resisting the music of Lesson Seven, his efforts as a champion for oppressed musicians, and a whole lot more.

What first got you hooked on music?

I grew up in Texas, steeped in country music and working-class people. My dad was minor country music royalty as the drummer for George Jones and Tammy Wynette. He was one of the original Jones Boys from 1963-1975, and later when Tammy Wynette and George divorced, he played in her band until 1980. So I grew up around music around the house, at events, and honky-tonks as a kid in the ’70s.

The first song that had a profound impact on me early on as a small child was “Puff the Magic Dragon.” I cried when that song came on; it was the first time I understood the story and meaning of a song. That carried on as I was growing up listening to the stories and feeling the power of music.

I started going to rock shows as a kid; my mom would take me. I saw KISS in 77′ and from then on saw easily saw 100 bands of the big bands at the time, including, The Cars, The Who, Van Halen, Tom Petty, ZZ Top, and Black Sabbath; that list goes on between 1977 and 1984. Most kids went to the shopping malls to hang out; I went to rock shows. This was way before I was of age to go to clubs.

Once I could sneak into clubs, that door opened a whole diverse set of experimental, goth, noise, and outsider music from bands like the Butthole Surfers and the Flaming Lips and Skinny Puppy, and regional Texas acts that were inspiring. By the time I was a teenager, I knew a music career was my only way out of the world I was living in.

When did darkwave and industrial music enter your life? Who influenced you first?

There were three overlapping paths to discovering this kind of outsider or experimental music and subculture if you were a kid in the confines of 1980s redneck Texas. I was first exposed to goth, industrial, and lots of European new wave through the Dallas/Ft. Worth underground club scenes and an ‘avant-garde’ record store between 1984-85.

In 1984 two clubs opened in Dallas that became destination hubs for international artists and bands because they were so forward; a cool bar called On The Air, which later evolved into the Video Bar. The VJ, Bart Weiss, was a pioneer in video format and was curating all these rare European videos you couldn’t see on MTV or anywhere, like Cabaret Voltaire, The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, Test Department, and more. Bart would go on to found the cutting-edge Dallas Video Festival in support of the format for decades.

At the same Starck Club, the first club designed by Philip Starck opened and brought international acts that no one else would like Grace Jones, Chis and Cosey, and SPK. It also hosted very underground art and music videos on its myriad of monitors throughout the cavernous space.

During this time, the Record Gallery opened upstairs on lower Greenville Ave. It was the electronic, noise, and outsider space for visual art, music, films, and gatherings. It was where I was exposed to sounds as diverse as zoviet france, Mark Stewart and Maffia, and Clan of Xymox, and because the owner Steve Stokes developed a good friendship with Wax Trax, Play It Again Sam, 4AD, and Nettwerk Records, they had early exclusives, demos, and rarities before release. Record Gallery was also a place for audio and video tape exchanges. So, plenty of obscure, rare, and severely degraded tapes changed hands amongst us freaks.

Darkwave, as a term, didn’t come around until later years, but the music I was developing was along the lines of goth, electronic and industrial dance. Skinny Puppy, Tackhead, Clan of Xymox, and Twitch-era Ministry were the most inlunetialartist to me at that time. Those variant styles helped to give me a framing for the music I was creating. And please remember, in Texas in the mid-1980s, country music and jocks were the dominant culture. This music and subcultures challenged that on every front.

Scott Crow Interview

Feature Photo: courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

What are ten records from those genres that have shaped you most?

Cabaret Voltaire – Covenant, Sword, and the Arm of the Lord
Mark Stewart & Maffia – Mark Stewart + Maffia
Skinny PuppyCleanse, Fold, and Manipulate
Clan of Xymox – Clan of Xymox
Einstrudene de Neubaten – Halber Mensch
zoviet france – Eostre
Sisters of Mercy Floodland
Tackhead – Tackhead Tape Time
SwansThe Burning World

Tell me about your newest release, which seems to be a mix of hits, demos, and new mixes. How did this one come together?

When I was touring for my first book Black Flags and Windmills, I noticed young people would ask about my old bands and their history in the Q&As. Eventually, indie rappers Sole (Tim Holland) and Time (Chris Steele) started encouraging me to get back into making music again.

I guested a spoken word verse on a track with Sole, DJ Pain 1, and Chris Hannah of Propagandhi in 2016 and kind of started to build from there. I started to look for my old music; I had lost all of it along the way by putting out calls on social media and reaching back to old friends and bandmates. Over the next four years, I re-discovered this body of music I had put together from 1985-1992. So a proper compilation seemed in order.

Along the way, some old demos appeared with alternate vocals on them. It was a mild treat for me to hear the lyrical development as I was gaining confidence in my words. I also recorded some cover tracks as Lesson Seven for the Numbers Covered COVID benefit records during the pandemic and put together one new track cobbled together from an old demo and new production, Falling Into Sleep, that features composer and singer Kerri Atwood.

Continuum of Time is a re-contextualization of a seminal Texas darkwave band that had disappeared in the modern era, and I hope gives us an opening for re-discovery by new generations. It will be followed by two remix albums for 2023, Memories of the future: ReMixes//RED and Memories of the future: ReMixes//BLACK. Both feature remixes from friends and collaborators old and new, including Meat Beat Manifesto, Adrian Sherwood, Dead Voices On Air, Televangel, MarkPistel, Clan of Xymox, Mark Stewart, SINE, Consolidated, Energy Fools, David Starfire, and many others.

With a lot of this music initially being recorded in the ’80s, what changes did you make?

I basically sifted through piles of tapes to find rarer versions, better sound quality, or demo versions of tracks. The biggest challenges were in having Mark Pistel clean and master audio that had largely come from 25-35-year-old worn-out cassettes from all over the world. They had varying degrees of sound loss, degradation, or just tape wear. All the master tapes had been lost decades ago. It was a fun treasure hunt, and it’s something we do across the label for all our artists who never made it past the analog tape world of the 80s-90s.

Many artists have the so-called “cringe factor” when they listen to their older work. Does that ever happen to you? If so, how has your approach changed?

Absolutely, there were long periods of time I couldn’t or didn’t listen to the music. I was very critical of my voice or the production; then, eventually, all the music got away from me. I only had 2-3 songs of my own. Most had gotten lost along the way. Then at some point in the mid-2000s, I re-bought one of the CDs and a vinyl copy of our single and ripped them. They had aged very well. By then when the retro-synth worlds had really come back (and in better ways). So, the music all of a sudden had a place and context.

What are your enduring memories of the ’80s darkwave scene?

Across all those club subcultures, we were all outsiders, misfits, and in a beautiful secret culture, we could all thrive in; for some, the first time in their lives at that point. We were the bad kids that really just didn’t fit in and rejected the hippie trappings still holding onto fashion and subcultures. Those scenes, like rebellious ones before us, were seen as a threat to the boring suburbs many came from.

I also value the naivety and earnestness of those scenes. How raw and undeveloped they were in Texas. When we see old films, like The Hunger or Liquid Sky, or new films that recount those eras, for example, they always portray this idealized version where everyone was fashionably beautiful, goth, or very arty. When in real life, that wasn’t the case. People still had ’70s remnants and dominant bad ’80s fashion going on. [Laughs]. That was reality. Once it was mainstreamed and you could get it at the malls and see it on TV, it lost its fangs, so to speak.

Can you recount the inception of “Radiation?” Does its enduring success ever surprise you?

“Radiation” was born out of a specific time in the US when we all feared that President Ronald Reagan was senile and had a death wish to fight the “commies” of the Soviet Union. The samples mock the simplicity of US policies in not dealing with the potential of catastrophic nuclear war. To me, the dance beats combined with the silly instructions taken from old-school films just made it more absurd. It was a way to laugh in the face of the very real threat during that time. I think the track has endured for over 35 years at clubs due to its naivety and very specific retro-sounds.

How have your experiences in life and as a musician altered your musical perception?

Absolutely! I used to be so critical of myself and others as we were trying to break down the old rock n roll structures. If Lesson Seven wrote a song that remotely had similar phrasing or structures to another song, we would trash it even if we didn’t know what we were trying to achieve yet. I felt it was supposed to come out fully formed, and it wasn’t, but then it was at the same time.

I learned along the way that we all use the same melodies, scales, notes, and time signatures, just in varying ways. So, I am much more forgiving in my own approaches to songwriting and in hearing it from other artists. Good songs are just good songs, no matter the genre.

Take me through the formation of eMERGENCY heARTS Records. What moved the needle toward you pursuing that direction? Why is it important for you to provide a platform for other artists? 

eH as a media hub has been a natural and organic outgrowth of my combined passions, ethics, and skillsets. It is a place where I can work within my anarchist ideas and collaborate with artists politically and artistically. It gives me a place to use my curious and creative mind across outlets to convey beauty, hope, and expression with artists I value.

When I started to re-release my music in 2017, I wanted to get a series of remixes for Radiation for its 30th-anniversary release in 2019. That started me down the road of reconnecting with old friends, collaborators, or artists that inspired me. Through that process, I realized that much of Texas’ electronic, experimental and industrial music that was created from 1975- 2000 had been forgotten outside a couple of bands.

Most of it had never made it from the analog to digital to online worlds. If you looked through the literature, you could find tons written on Texas psychedelic rock, singer-songwriters, outlaw country, and punk, but almost nothing on electronic and experimental music. There were scenes in every major city, and Texas was a pipeline for outsider/industrial music from labels like Wax Trax and Nettwerk. Bands within these genres would tour the East and West coasts, Chicago, and Texas. So, the label made sense to re-release the mountains of good stuff into the modern era.

Our label approach is twofold. We re-issue large back catalogs of music, film, books, video, and visual arts from obscure artists, and if appropriate, secondly, we get new remixes for songs. We treat the music as brand new because it’s reaching audiences that never knew it existed. I started this with my own band remixes and just expanded the mission as we went. I see what we do as somewhere between a label like Smithsonian Folkways and Joyful Noise. We document the past and give it historical context, with artists like David Glenn Smith or David May, but we also work with lots of outsider mid to late-career multidisciplinary artists who are still releasing great creativity like Mark Stewart (The Pop Group), dead voices on air, Angelo Moore & the Brand New Step, or Steve Marsh.

Lastly, we release new and emerging artists we are excited about, like darkwave artist SINE and experimental duo Toxic Water. To me, it became important to re-assess and make available all this great music that just disappeared from the collective minds and to support new emerging great stuff that floats our fancy, whether its hip hop, noise, synthwave, or any other electronic subgenre we like.

Is there an approach or ethos that your label has that you wish the labels you’ve personally been on in the past had?

There are a few pieces that make our endeavor different than most. We are mostly collectively run internally by other artists who work at the label and strive to be ethical in how we approach and treat all artists and people in the music industry. We only work with those who play well in the sandbox. We don’t need anything from industry assholes or people who think they are power brokers. They are mostly a waste of time and energy.

Although our roster is imbalanced, we actively search for marginalized and underrepresented people within these genres to support or collaborate with when we can. We strive for financial transparency for our artists and run no-bullshit 50/50 splits with them. We don’t try to own or control who we work with. We collaborate as long as it makes sense to all of us (and sense doesn’t have to be just financial).

Along those lines, we also recognize that the culture industry has largely collapsed for most artists to live on across all mediums, so we try to pay a higher rate for staffing and for remixes than most labels because we value all of us in this together. We try to make sure people get paid when and where they can – every time, not sometimes. All of our artists, including me, have been screwed over and treated with great disrespect by industry people in the past. To them, we were just fodder for their culture machines. eMERGENCY heARTS is trying to do the opposite, even if we fail at it sometimes.

These are pieces I value from my anarchist philosophies and have tried to carry across in a cooperatively run business model my whole life after leaving music.

How does your activism tie in with your music?

Through eMERGENCY heARTS, we get support and collaborate with people, projects, and movements with our art, deeds, and finances. To me, there is no activism; it is only actions that are integrated into my life. Music and art have always been a way to find a sense of place, share rage, tears, and joy, and educate or be educated about our worlds.

What’s next for you as you move forward, Scott?

At eMERGENCY heARTS, we have a full slate of releases for 2023 for a small project. We’re launching a podcast, a subscription service for limited edition 7″ picture discs, our first collaborative art books by me with photographer Leon Alesi, more vintage art films, a memoir by Mark Spybey of dead voices on air, and a Patreon for people who want to support the label to name some of the projects! We have a great small crew who are passionate and excited, so we’re gonna keep riding the momentum!

Feature Photo: courtesy of Howlin’ Wuelf Media

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