People here know it mostly for Sesame Place and the Reedman Toll autoplex. But thanks to a musician who used to be named Sean Scolnick but who now travels the world with his gritty good, folk-soul 'n' punk-spunked band as Langhorne Slim, the lower Bucks County town has been growing quite the rep for music hipness. And soon more than ever before, we're thinking, thanks to a just-out dandy of a fourth album called "The Way We Move" and a tour bringing him/them back to Union Transfer as the headliner Friday night.
"They started calling me Langhorne at the Solebury School in New Hope, after I got booted out of Neshaminy Middle School," Langhorne/Sean related in a recent phone call from the band's Ford Econoline van. "Making that school move was the best thing that ever happened to me. It saved my life, kept me from becoming a criminal. At Neshaminy I was characterized a 'troublemaker.' At Solebury they thought I was 'creative' and a 'free spirit.' And the nickname worked well with the music I was starting to make and the addition of 'Slim' I tacked on — inspired by the bluesman Memphis Slim."
Yeah, there's always been a hunk of gritty down-home howl in this guy, as well, even more evident when you see him working acoustic solo. "That's how I started — doing open-mic nights at places like John and Peter's in New Hope and the Tin Angel in Philly, where I got welcomed into the scene by supportive people like Amos Lee, Devin Greenwood and Birdie Busch. But I was always into a lot more than that. I grew up listening to WMMR and WYSP, a lot of classic rock and bands like Nirvana that my older brother was into. Then, as my tastes matured, I tuned into the weirdness on the Princeton radio station and then transitioned to WXPN."
While enrolled in the music engineering program at Purchase College, State University of New York, "which sounded like a better alternative than working at the Langhorne Sunoco station," he spent a lot of time hanging and performing at clubs in New York City — "getting sandwiched on bills between punk and hip-hop bands. So I had to toughen my game, become more of a showman, engaging the audience. I never want people sitting on their hands or worrying about the pants they put on. I want them up and dancing."
In his senior year, the guy essentially spent second semester on tour as opening act for the weirdly wonderful Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players, who delighted audiences with quirky rock scenarios illustrated with slide photos picked up at junk sales. "My college professors went along with the whole thing. They knew what I wanted to do, encouraged me to hit the road and gave me passing grades in absentia."
Reaching a high point, he believes, on his new album, Langhorne Slim sings of what he knows best in direct and forceful fashion — those eternal themes of love gone sour, the itch to travel on and the fear of being stuck in the belly of the whale. He also includes a tender farewell "Song for Sid" addressed to his two recently departed grandfathers, "who left me with the comforting feeling they were ready to move on to the next phase."
And what's not to love about his longtime band's deliciously slaphappy, "whatever works" campfire rock arrangements. The ensemble works out great on strummy guitar, banjo, electric organ/piano, standup bass and drums with those intensely soulful Langhorne vocals that sometimes evoke the phrasing and emotion of Otis Redding. "He's a major influence on my life," Langhorne allowed. "There's never been a better singer."
Thanks in part to his almost endless touring for a decade — and the recent breakup of a longtime relationship with a woman in Portland, Ore. — Langhorne's now a man without a permanent address, "trying to see how long I can get by without paying rent," he joked. He does come home regularly, though, to see his mom and grandmother in Lower Bucks, his other grandmom in Northeast Philly and his father in Blackwood, N.J., and to catch a Phillies game "whenever possible."
All that roadwork and reputation for killer live shows have grown quite a vociferous L.S. fan base, many of whom rallied to help finance "The Way We Move" album. "We did a Pledge Music campaign, similar to Kickstarter, where we'd put up different things for fans to buy to help us make the record. Of course copies of the album were the primary reward, but we also did house concerts" ($1,500 for an hour-plus set) "and I wore out my hand preparing almost 100 handwritten sets of lyrics to my most popular songs ["Say Yes," "Diamonds and Gold," "I Love You But Goodbye"], and I still owe people some self-portraits I promised to paint.
"Pledge Music gives a portion of every pledge to a charity like the American Cancer Society. That's a cool element. And it all feels much more DIY, hands-on and connected with the audience. Our goal was $15,000; we wound up raising $25,000, a beautiful thing. It's a different approach from the national record deal, where you get a budget of $100,000 or more that has to be recouped before you ever make a dime — and usually don't.
"Still, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself for this record," Slim said. "In a very deep way I needed to prove something to others around me but even more to myself, that no matter what happened in the fame and fortune department, this was going to be an album I could consider art that we'd all be proud of and could stand behind. I can say we achieved that. And hopefully the fame and fortune part will follow."