The passion of Scotty Irving

by Jordan Green

He sits on a dark brown Naugahyde couch in the open-air section of Krankies, a downtown Winston-Salem café that – along with a performance space and apartments – comprises the Werehouse, nursing a paper cup of coffee and working himself into combustible state of good cheer.

The house is somewhat less than full tonight and a sense of desertion has settled across the metropolitan Triad as homeless people drink outside in the fine spring equinox weather. It’s the day before Easter, the time in the Christian Holy Week between the passion and the resurrection. Scotty Irving, the beefy percussionist downing java, had wondered if perhaps he shouldn’t be performing this night, but soon banished the thought.

“When I noticed the date, I said to myself, ‘Should I do that?'” he says. “Then I thought, ‘Why shouldn’t I do that?’ I’ve been involved in several services this week, but there are no services today. If I didn’t do it, I’d be sitting at home wondering what could have happened.”

He erupts with an abrasive cackle that sounds like a signature for his paradoxical life.

If anything is irreligious about this endeavor, it’s probably less the occasion and format than the fact that the Stokesdale percussionist who performs under the moniker Clang Quartet has grafted his Christian faith onto industrial noise music. The earsplitting squawks and demolition noises paired with tribalistic percussion and trance-like performance art of the genre reach back to groups like London’s Throbbing Gristle and Berlin’s Einstürzende Neubauten that crystallized disaffection and angst into dissonant noise that stretched the definition of music.

Irving, who is 40, started the Clang Quartet 11 years ago as a side project when he was with Geezer Lake, a seminal North Carolina indie-rock band that made some waves across the state in the mid-1990s but never quite took off in the way contemporaries Archers of Loaf and Polvo did. Irving’s bandmates proved unwilling to pursue improvisation and noise as enthusiastically, and he figured as long as he was going to be true to himself, he might as well go all the way and incorporate spirituality into the music.

“I don’t think I’m the only one, but I’m the only in the public eye,” he says. “I’ve been told there are other people doing it, but if there are they haven’t made any attempt to contact me.”

Just then, a well-fed black cat hops onto the couch beside him. “Hey honey, are you the Werehouse kitty?” Irving asks, switching into feline voice to supply the answer – “Yeah, I’m the manager” – before continuing his spiel: “I didn’t mean to be the Lone Ranger, but I turned out to be. Tonto ain’t nowhere to be found.”

After his conversion at the age of 17, Irving spent more than a decade as a musician, keeping his faith to himself before starting the Clang Quartet.

“I went through a pretty dramatic transformation,” he says. “I had an experience where I was in my bedroom and I thought I was having a heart attack. Have you ever been on the Oaken Bucket at Carowinds where the bottom drops out and you think you’re going to fall but you don’t? I couldn’t move. I thought, ‘This is it. I’m going to die.’ I had no idea what was happening. I had a ‘road to Damascus’ experience. I saw a blinding light. I heard a voice as clear as yours saying, ‘Don’t you think you’ve waited long enough?’ I didn’t talk about it for years. For years, I just said, ‘I became a Christian – that’s great.’ I expected ridicule, major-league ridicule. I guess I’m sincere.”

All his gear is arranged on the floor off to one side of the room: a stack of cymbals, a snare drum, masks, the soundboard and a yoke made of bizarre fastened trinkets. He spends most of the performance – an entire piece about the resurrection of Christ – kneeling on the floor. The soundboard emits a loud series of detonations as he strikes the snare with stick, batons, mallets and fingertips. He pulls off the top cymbal, and spreads an array of others that are cracked and battered about the floor. The percussion sounds can range from aboriginal groans and cataclysmic assault to delicate patter and ominous thunderclaps.

The whole spectacle is thoroughly mesmerizing. Irving rocks back on his haunches, forehead glistening with sweat, as if being absorbing body blows and spat saliva. He dons and discards a series of masks – “representing different sins, ones that have plagued me personally” – rustles the yoke of heavy trinkets whose contents are strung between two stakes driven through bleeding hands and tosses it over his shoulders, rising to his feet in triumph.

The ritual is certainly more avant-garde than old-time religion.

“People have said, ‘I don’t think you’re listening to what God is saying to you,'” Irving will say later. He pauses for a moment and then jabs a finger for emphasis. “I’ve talked to God in a way you don’t even know.”

Then he stops to think about how it all fits together.

“Pardon the Grateful Dead-ism, but what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

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