The Weird, Wild Legacy of D.C. Noise Musician Scott Phillips
Even in a scene that prizes pushing the creative envelope, D.C. musician Scott Phillips still found new ways to freak people out.
An adventurous performer who most recently made music under the name Gum Yummy, Phillips became enmeshed in the local noise community in the mid-1980s and quickly established a kind of infamy. After years of playing outre music in small venues around town—and thoroughly wigging out many people who saw him perform—Phillips died at the home of a friend in Northwest D.C. on Sunday, Feb. 2. The cause was a heroin overdose, according to his friend and former musical collaborator Johnny Hoppe. Phillips was 49 years old.
Hoppe and Phillips moved to the District in 1985, and the duo began playing open mics at Food for Thought under the name Sarcastic Orgasm. “They would sometimes get booked into shows with D.C. punk and hardcore bands, sometimes with Positive Force events,” writes Chester Hawkins, who performs as Semisolid (formerly Blue Sausage Infant). “They introduced a total wildcard into these shows [and] broke up the righteous tedium of the D.C. punk scene with their flair for psychedelic chaos—caged dancers, dissonant noise, et cetera,” he says. “The D.C. punk scene in the late '80s desperately needed their energy.”
After a brief move to New York, Phillips returned to D.C. in the early 1990s and began a new musical project, Chikmountain. The music was described by the zine Aural Innovations as “a wild and scary sonic experience that might even scare off a lot of noise fans.”
Phillips continued in that vein with his next project, Gum Yummy. “We used to love when his ‘band’ would don their fluorescent wigs and outrageous costumes and thrash out,” writes friend and former collaborator Ben Cassidy. “Sometimes it sounded really heavy and cool, other times it sounded like he was trying to be as grating and harsh as possible. It was so funny when snotty scenesters would get up and leave all pissed off because he didn't seem to take what he was doing super seriously, but all the old school D.C. experimental music guys knew what he was all about, and they'd get a huge kick out of it too.”
Hawkins describes Gum Yummy as “very theatrical, guitar-based noise, amplified contact-microphones in plastic face masks, a bit wild and confrontational experimental stuff. Always a spectacle. One memorable Gum Yummy performance at Pyramid Atlantic ended up with all the chairs in the place being piled up like a pyramid and Phillips rolling around the floor in a fit of bliss. Very loud. And very good fun.”
Jeff Surak, organizer of the annual Sonic Circuits experimental-music festival, describes Phillips as a serious guy who didn't compromise when it came to his art. “He was pretty intense. He took his insanity seriously,” he says. “He would get real uptight when getting ready to perform, everything had to be a certain way. I'd talk him back from the ledge and get him to chill. He was always willing to help out and had a wonderful and twisted sense of humor.”
Phillips began using heroin in the late 1980s, Hoppe says, but cleaned himself after an arrest, probation, and time in a halfway house set him on a clean path in the mid-1990s. Friends say he often spoke out against the use of hard drugs after that. But by the 2010s, Phillips started to feel restless, Hoppe says. He was a practicing massage therapist, but that career wasn’t giving him much satisfaction. He moved to Austin and then to California. “I don’t know when he started dabbling with heroin again,” says Hoppe, though he suspects it might have been in Austin.
Early this year, Phillips went to New York to visit his wife, from whom he had separated temporarily. Then he came to D.C., says Hoppe, to “tie up loose ends.”
In the District, Phillips stayed with a friend and had planned to attend a Chinese New Year party on the evening of Feb. 2. The friend and his wife went out for the afternoon, leaving Phillips at the house. When they returned, he had overdosed. A medical team tried to revive him in the ambulance, but when he arrived at the hospital Phillips was pronounced dead.
“He was a good-hearted person who struck a strange but beautiful balance between cynicism and tenderness,” says Hoppe. ““He was a good, decent friend.”
Photos courtesy Chester Hawkins/Intangible Arts