THE WEEK IN DECEMBER last year that U Sco set aside to record their second album, Treffpunkt, was not a good one.
"Have you ever seen that movie A Serious Man?" asks bassist Jon Scheid, causing his bandmates, all crammed around a small picnic table outside Tiny's Coffee in Southeast Portland, to burst out laughing. "It was like that; a storm of ominous circumstances. I got food poisoning that week. Ryan [Miller, guitarist] was having problems with his equipment. All of us were really, really busy on top of it all. And it was 10 degrees outside."
For most bands, those unhappy events would have had an adverse effect on the sound of the finished recording, but for U Sco, it provided an added element of uncertainty and chaos to an already chaotic and unpredictable sound.
The instrumentals on Treffpunkt are composed with the precision of a jazz ensemble, but U Sco plays them with the speed and volume of a technical metal group. Sometimes that's rendered directly—as on the album's title track, which begins in full post-bop mode with Scheid playing stand-up bass and drummer Phil Cleary shuffling gently behind him. But without warning, Miller pierces through the song's center with a heavily distorted guitar line. It becomes a battle for supremacy as the competing rhythm and melody lines wrestle and pound into each other like rams.
Most often, though, U Sco avoids expectation, with songs that sound like ZZ Top viewed through a peyote haze ("Iguana House") or allow a Helmet-like assault melt into six minutes of ambient drones and cymbal washes ("Glm Lrkr").
As meticulous as their work sounds, the trio often approaches writing new material from a less than serious place.
"It'll start with a joke that we play for about 30 minutes, and then we have to stop," says Cleary. "But then that's how we've made some of the cooler stuff."
Scheid adds, "Usually it works out that I'll stop playing and whatever beat Phil's playing is fine. Then I'll have to write something good over it."
That they're able to create such impressive work from such an offhand approach speaks to the remarkable skills the group has as players (Miller studied jazz guitar for years, and Cleary took lessons as a kid while exploring his own studies in jazz and rock styles). Their varied musical interests are crucial, too: During the course of our conversation, the three dropped references to Hella, Tool, Dave Brubeck, Peter Brötzmann, Wilco, and Alice Coltrane.
It's also a testament to the strange, indefinable chemistry that goes into making a band work really well or not at all. On U Sco's part, harmony is evident when you spend even a little bit of time with the three of them together. During our late afternoon hangout, I noticed that they all wore the same shade of sunburn, and it was fun watching them trade friendly jabs and make plans to possibly catch a screening of The Rover later that night.
"We've been friends for a really long time," says Miller. "We practiced in the same space initially and have been hanging out ever since. That's why we named the album what we did. It means coming together or a meeting place. Seeing how collaborative we are, it made perfect sense."