For nearly two decades, Al Scorch has been making country and folk music with a punk ethos. This spring, he’s gone viral — twice — and not for this body of work.
First, he helped produce the track “Paul Vallas Hates House Music,” a song skewering the titular mayoral candidate. (From the intro notes: “Vallas said he hates House Music, is this the man we need leading our city? Why be so forthright about disliking Chicago’s most important musical gift to the world after the electric blues?”) It was a regional hit a few days before the election. Brandon Johnson received 52.2% of the vote; Vallas took 47.8%.
Then, last week, Scorch and collaborator Joey Santore captured and shared footage of a beautiful beast on their social media and YouTube channel, Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t. While kayaking down the Chicago River, the pair spotted a whopper of a snapping turtle, which Scorch lovingly dubbed “Chonkosaurus.” In fewer than 10 days, Chonkosaurus has been covered in The New York Times, The Guardian, WGN Morning News, WTTW, The Score, Block Club Chicago and dozens of other newspapers and TV news programs. You can already purchase official Chonkosaurus merch. People love the chunky turtle. People love Scorch and Santore’s Chicago accents even more.
“I don’t want to toot my own horn,” says Scorch, “but there is something to the fact that this turtle is exuberantly discovered by two guys who sound like they’re unloading a semi-trailer of frozen goods behind the Jewel-Osco.”
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We spoke with Scorch about going viral, his music career, the duo’s TV show and da accent.
InsideHook: There aren’t many other banjo players from the punk scene in Chicago. There aren’t many country artists producing political house tracks. There aren’t many country artists with house tracks and an interest in botany. Have you always been attracted to the out-of-the-ordinary?
Al Scorch: Yes. [I’m attracted to] whatever is interesting and speaks to me. I love music — a really wide scope of music, whether it’s sad country music, amped-up banjo punk music or collaborating with other artists to make house music. I love it all.
As for botany, I just like being along for the ride with my friend Joey, who is an extremely passionate botanist.
The margin of victory for Brandon Johnson was incredibly small. Has anyone from the campaign credited “Paul Vallas Hates House Music” as the difference maker?
I have had people say to me that the popularity of such a song might have helped at least raise awareness [among] people who were not going to vote or may have encouraged new voters to get out to the polls. It wasn’t just “Paul Vallas Hates House Music,” but all kinds of volunteer efforts by artists and creatives across the whole city.
People are excited and dancing in the streets in the video. And this other guy doesn’t like that, you know? You could take it back to like the really old country: “Mama doesn’t want noise played around here.” It’s a very deeply seeded idea in music: So-and-so doesn’t like this, and we’re gonna dance about it.
Your other recent Chicago-specific virality came with this month’s Chonkosaurus spotting. What led you to kayaking down the Chicago River?
Joey was in town because we were doing a live event later that day at Color Club in Chicago, a live screening of an episode of our new cable TV show called Kill Your Lawn. It was a beautiful day outside, one of the first warm days of spring, and I was like, “Let’s get in a kayak.” We called Kayak Chicago, and it was the first day they were open.
Let’s talk about Kill Your Lawn. It’s a bit of a home renovation show, some comedy and a chance to advocate for green living. Who’s the ideal audience?
I think everyone can get something out of it. The network that bought the show, EarthxTV, was going to be a Roku app. In the year and a half since they bought the show, they went strictly cable, so people can only see it on DirectTV, Spectrum cable and fuboTV, so the audience is going to skew older, more suburban. In a way, that’s really good because those are the folks who have the lawns and the means to do a larger-scale lawn-killing project.
You’re a fantastic live performer. Similar to Neko Case, you’ll have a crowd laughing before delivering a song that’ll have people in tears, like “Lonesome Low.” Do you find this comes naturally, the mixture of comedian and musician?
Yeah, there’s something there. It’s weird because both songwriters and comedians are trying to get to some kind of truth. This truth isn’t always a factual story. This truth is like a deeper truth, and a deeper logic, that causes the audience to recognize something within themselves and within their own humanity and create a safe emotional environment to sit with that truth.
Another artist who makes people laugh and has them crying is the late, great John Prine. “Sam Stone” is not a real person, but that story is real. The beauty and tenderness of a song like that allows people to sit with an extremely difficult truth and ponder it, and not just be overwhelmed by its severe sadness. Comedy does that as well. It creates this physiological state of being at ease and processing anxiety.
This ties to Chonkosaurus. Does it go viral without your exaggerated accents?
I don’t want to toot my own horn, but there is something to the fact that this turtle is exuberantly discovered by two guys who sound like they’re unloading a semi-trailer of frozen goods behind the Jewel-Osco. Go look at us on the WGN News clip and imagine us in a kind of tandem kayak together. You know what I mean? That’s what draws people in about Crime Pays But Botany Doesn’t: it is extremely highbrow parading as lowbrow.
But it’s not intentional. It’s an organic expression of who my friend is and who we are together. We’ve been goofing around and making each other laugh for almost 15 years. And we’re just kind of starting to share that with the world now in a big way. So yeah, there’s something to heavily accented Chicago guys out in the community together just coming across the turtle. A lot of these blue-collar, union folks on the northwest and southwest side of Chicago get a bad rap as being really close-minded, when there’s so much intellectual curiosity and appreciation.
How much do you amp up your Chicago accent when you’re doing TV?
My Chicago accent sits at a 3 or 4 in my everyday life. It varies with emotion and intensity. When I’m yelling at someone in traffic, it’s at a full 10. When we go on TV, it sits at an 8 or 9, especially when you’re on the frickin’ WGN Morning News.
You bike throughout Chicago. You work with bikes. You’ve hauled band gear on your bike. What’s an under-appreciated bike route in the city?
The Burnham Greenway on the southeast side, down way down south. It’s a great, great trail system down there.
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