"I'd give anything to go back 100 years and be a piano player in an Old West saloon — or in some Western town that just got a pipe organ for their theater," says Scott Wexton, aka the Voodoo Organist, who's spent the past decade perfecting a unique blend of rockabilly verve, goth creep and lounge swagger. With a throaty vocal slink worthy of a sly circus barker come-on, Wexton evokes charismatic, larger-than-life singers like Screaming Jay Hawkins, Tom Waits and Nick Cave.
Although a road warrior by temperament, Wexton took an extended break from touring and releasing music in order to open a curio shop near Joshua Tree National Park in Yucca Valley, Calif., where he and his wife had settled to escape L.A. The experience of living in the Mojave Desert inspired Wexton's 2008 album, Darwin Dance Hall Days, but a year later, his wife lost her job and Wexton lost his health insurance. That prompted them to open Hoodoo, a quirky tchotchke, comic book, tiki and music store.
Now that the store's more or less profitable, Wexton is back on the road, and hoping to get back in the studio soon to record his seventh album, Organeddon. The time away also enabled him to reflect on his career, and after listening to his whole catalog, he's pretty satisfied.
"There's a natural and continued progression," he says by phone from his shop's counter. "Since the first album I've used various musical styles, everything from waltzes to mambos and whatnot. I'd started playing on the organ as my first instrument, and then getting into the creepy goofy goth scene it just kind of blossomed and grew into who I am."
Wexton also has a passion for Western ghost towns, which began as a recreational diversion during touring off-days. Darwin Dance Hall Days was inspired by a Death Valley ghost town that was, in fact, named Darwin. Wexton sees his fascination as a reaction to growing up in Detroit, which has gone from a city of 1.8 million at its peak to around 700,000 people, becoming kind of "an urban ghost town."
It was while attending a Detroit Catholic school that Wexton first took lessons from a church organist. He later fronted a pair of industrial-goth acts, Battery Acid and Nemesis, developing a friendship with another industrial music upstart from Cleveland, Trent Reznor. When Reznor's NIN took off, the 19-year-old Wexton imagined his own success was imminent.
A 1998 move to Nashville to join the band Today Is the Day shattered that illusion, so Wexton took off for San Francisco, gave up music, and worked a boring 9-to-5 at a printing press. But a near-death experience changed his mind. Suffering from his first outbreak of Crohn's disease, Wexton lost a lot of blood and ended up in a hospital ER.
"In recovering from that, I'm like, 'Fuck, I could have just died hating my life. So I was like, 'Fuck this, I'm getting out of the rat race and I'm trying to make it my own. I got out of the hospital, wrote the first record, booked the first tour and off I went," he recalls.
"I had no idea how a semi-satanic crazy weirdo one-man lounge act was going to go over in Billings, Montana, but I survived it without getting lynched. So I just kept doing it."