You could probably use any number of descriptors for the music of U SCO and get away with it: Speed-jazz. Prog-punk. Technical avant-metal. Advanced calculus-rock. Ecstatic thrash. Phil Cleary, Ryan Miller, and Jon Scheid have heard it all before. But they don’t talk about any of it.
“We all kind of like to be surprised by what we’re doing," Scheid told the Mercury. "I don’t know if we would enjoy it as much if we felt it was in some identifiable structure, where you know what’s coming. We try to keep it undefined, which adds a level of mystery to it. That’s kind of exciting.”
Exciting is important when you’re 10+ years into a band’s existence. U SCO will celebrate both its 10th anniversary and a new album, Catchin’ Heat, May 27 at Show Bar.
As mundane legend would have it, the members' friendship blossomed at a MAX stop in Beaverton, where they would run into one another after playing at nearby practice space Bongo Fury. "We were in different bands, and we sort of just found each other through hearing each other in the hallway," Miller said.
They named their new project after Upsilon Scorpii: A star located in the stinger of the Scorpio constellation. "It's just kind of a joke because Jon and I are Scorpios," Miller explained.
The trio also shared musical interests, of course. Cleary and Scheid played in a math-y post-hardcore band called Duck. Little Brother, Duck!, and Miller was in a fusion-punk group called With Eyes Abstract. When they started playing together, the three naturally gravitated toward heavy and complex songwriting—often noisy and usually played fast.
“We all grew up listening to that kind of stuff and just enjoying being technical with our instruments,” Miller said. “I think we bonded musically because we all like a variety of music and are all capable of playing other kinds of music, but we just like to do it this way.”
Pretty soon, U SCO was releasing albums that sounded like playing ping pong with a leaky car battery. Or a free-jazz freakout at a club engulfed in flames. Or stacking every large appliance in Portland on top of a bulldozer then driving through Old Town, all the while trying to keep them from tipping over. Or purposely crashing that bulldozer into anything that moves.
Or all the above, plus the occasional rough-edged ambient interlude.
U SCO’s early work was typically composed with precision, then practiced till perfect, and recorded for posterity. More recently, however, the band has found more joy—and more paths to explore—by writing riffs, improvising off of them, and seeing what happens.
“We learned pretty quickly that we didn’t want to be a band that’s sort of insular, where one person is writing music and bringing it to the table,” Cleary said. “We wanted it to be more collaborative, to see that process spawn new ideas.”
Catchin’ Heat is U SCO’s first album in more than six years, though much of it was recorded pre-pandemic and written in a way that blurs the lines between composition and collaboration. The result is six songs that feel monolithic, from the euphoric opening jam (“high and rising”) to the twisting, turning “woe dimension” to the closer “abyssal hymn,” which is an epic of interlocking bass clarinet tones (courtesy of Golden Retriever's Jonathan Sielaff) that ascend into an almost spiritual experience.
“A lot of movements on the new one didn’t come from any one of us. It was all of us in the same room, working it out for years,” Scheid said. “It’s hard to tell the origin of any of those songs, and that’s what makes it special. We’re not looking to necessarily challenge ourselves at every turn. We want to feel something, too.”
In early 2020, Scheid moved to Seattle, and while Cleary and Miller would jam together, U SCO more or less went on hold for a few years. Now, Scheid is moving back to Portland, and the trio feels like they’re starting fresh, with no expectations about where the band will go from here–only that it will continue.
“It feels pretty open right now, which is nice,” Cleary said. “That’s how we like it.”
USCO headline at Show Bar, 1300 SE Stark, Saturday, May 27, 8 pm, $22, tickets here, 21+, w/ Teton and Avola