From Scimitars to Ukuleles: An Interview with Suzy Callahan and Scott Tyburski

Some music just stays with you through the years. You may forget about it for a while, it may get lost for long lengths of time in the flotsam and jetsam of life, but you always find it again (or maybe it finds you.)

Ever since stumbling on the Devils Wielding Scimitars’ Worry Dolls CD in a sale bin at a mall record store in the early 90s and buying it – even though I had no idea who they were but it looked like it was cut from the same cloth as old R.E.M., the Reivers, and 10,000 Maniacs, which was a high selling point in my eyes – its been a welcome collection of songs to return to periodically. Music that always feels right for the moment.

Promo photo session for Worry Dolls, Pasadena, MD circa 1989

The band had a rocky ride in the 1990s, but when lead singer Suzy Callahan resurfaced in the 2000’s as a solo artist, with her Devils co-hort and husband, Scott Tyburski, accompanying her, the music was just as good, and I’m still listening and enjoying.

I suspect the pair, at least in their Devils Wielding Scimitars days, got a bit tired of being compared to 10,000 Maniacs and Natalie Merchant. Yet, the similarities are there. Both bands had names at odds with the music they played: a lyrically literate, jangle-pop sound (oft-times referred to as “college rock” in the 1980s) with distinctive, melodic voices in their frontwomen. Both of those women also later went on to record primarily under their own names.

And, though Maniacs/Merchant are better known, Callahan and Tyburski have also turned out consistently strong music for over 30 years. In that time, their music has changed some, from electric band-based rock to a more singer-songwriter acoustic style. That’s generalizing, of course. Like most inventive artists, they can’t be categorized so easily.

Always possessing a gift for observation and turn of phrase, Callahan’s lyrics have become more honed and perceptive.  Throughout her catalog, you’ll hear both the whimsical and the somber… sometimes within the same song. Tyburski, as well, has expanded his range of instruments and recording skills.

I caught up with them from their home in Maryland to talk about the old days when they were scimitar wielding devils to their upcoming new album (Magic), the current state of the music business, and, um, urban tap dancing…

Music To Eat: Suzy, I read somewhere that you’re originally from the UK. What brought you to Maryland?
Suzy: Clever answer: An airplane. Non clever answer: I grew up partially in the UK because my father worked for the NSA [National Security Agency]. There are listening bases there. NSA headquarters are in Maryland.

MTE: Scott, are you a Maryland native?
Scott: Yes.

MTE:How did Devils Wielding Scimitars form?
Scott: Suzy and I met in college and I coerced her into recording some vocals for me. We eventually formed the Bulldogs in 1985 and released “I Want to be a Boy” (we finally got the song on Spotify last week) which was a local hit on WHFS and from there changed the name to Devils Wielding Scimitars.

[A young Suzy and Scott (on guitar) in I986. Dig that psychedelic guitar solo.]

MTE: What’s the origin of the Devils Wielding Scimitars name and, in retrospect, do you think that name helped you, hindered you, or neither?  It almost sounds like the name of a death metal band.
Scott: I think it helped get people’s attention. Some Spotify editors chose it as the coolest band name ever. So at least it stuck in people’s minds. It does sound like metal, but that was sort of the point, to have something unexpected.

MTE: I discovered your music through Worry Dolls, which is your most well-known release, issued on a strong independent label, San Jacinto, and distributed by Rough Trade. How “big” were you then – were you touring, opening for big bands, playing bigger venues…?
Scott: We did get the most traction out of that recording, because of Rough Trade. What happened there was a guy who worked for Rough Trade and then went to Elektra, wanted to sign us, sent us a tour budget, recording budget, merchandising, etc.  Then his boss went to the beach and listened to Worry Dolls and changed his mind at the last minute. But they still agreed to distribute it for San Jacinto. We opened for a few major acts – the Indigo Girls, Cindy Lee Berryhill, people like that. We didn’t really tour, we made it as far as Lancaster, PA and Philly where we did some sold out shows at the Kyhber Pass because the Philadelphia Inquirer had done a big write up about us before the show.

[Non-album song “Blue Rain” live at the 9:30 Club, Washington D.C. 1991]

MTE: Why did it take you eight years to follow-up Worry Dolls?
Scott: Kids…
Suzy: …and that’s a good thing. Also, we recorded the Billy Indian stuff which Elektra had an interest in, with Pixies guy mixing, but in the end it all fell apart.
Scott: When Rough Trade gave up on us, our previous contact there  tried to get us signed to Elektra. We had the Billy Indian material already recorded at that point. By the time that fell through, we’d moved on to a different style, and Kramer then wanted to put our next record out through a distribution deal with MCA he had going. We drove to his studio [Noise Studios] in New Jersey and recorded and mixed III in 3 days. The MCA deal then feel through also. So III came out independently. Back then, this type of thing happened to countless bands – the era of the A&R person. Those days are gone. But that’s what took up all of the time between releases.

You know, just for record, in a zen sort of way, I’m really happy all those things failed. I’m not sure we would have had children and that’s a more important thing to me, my family. So screw Rough Trade, they got hosed in the end cuz they didn’t sign us! Who says the internet isn’t great.

MTE:Any good road stories?
Scott: We did many shows at CBGB for various industry people like 10,000 Maniacs’ manager and the people from Elektra. But it was always virtually empty, and the resident sound man there was mostly drunk. One night, he didn’t like our kick drum sound so he came on stage drunk and basically broke the drum by kicking a hole through it. Elektra wasn’t too impressed with that move.
Suzy: Just the usual drive eight hours on a snowy road so you can play for an empty room. Not that I’m complaining.

MTE: Suzy, you got into acting after DWS. Could you talk a bit about that?
Suzy:  Well, as a kid, I had always wanted to be an actress, but when I auditioned for a play in high school I saw that other people had a lot of natural talent that I felt I didn’t have. So, I didn’t try anymore (sad violins). Then, when I got older, I decided to give it another shot. I took years of acting lessons and auditioned for a lot of community theater stuff. I got a couple of comedic roles. I continued to go on auditions, but found I was competing with people who had driven four hours at night to audition for a local church play. I was like, wow. You are way more dedicated than I am.  Then I realized I was way too lazy to continue auditioning and studying. So I decided I would become an urban tap dancer. I will continue this story on my next interview.

MTE: What were some of your music inspirations back “in the old days” of the band and now? And, related to that, what are your favorite albums by others?
Scott: I had Fragile from Yes on 8-track in the 70s. I wore out the tape. First concert I saw was The Who at Capital Centre with Keith Moon still alive. Still the best show I’ve ever seen. For new/recent people, Courtney Marie Andrews’ album Honest Life is really great. We liked it so much we asked the guy who mixed it, Floyd Reitsma, to mix our latest. He’s fantastic!

MTE: What are your favorite songs of your own?
Scott: “People Change”, “See Through“, “Senorita” (our White Stripes phase) and “Holding Pattern” (new one.)
Suzy: I usually like whatever the latest song I’m working on is. I also like the songs that other people tell me they like.

MTE: How did the ukulele make it’s way into your music?
Suzy: I started playing the uke a little while ago because I wanted the inspiration of a new instrument and I fell in love with it.  Except for the E major chord (am I right?  ha ha a little uke humor for ya). I recorded several of the latest songs live with the ukulele because there is a certain feel when you sing and play at the same time. I have a really beautiful tenor ukulele. There is a famous quote that I will now butcher, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitation.” Orson Welles, I think. Anyway, I think it applies to the ukulele. It’s so little and only has four strings.

MTE: I like a lot of the album art on the Suzy Callahan solo albums. Who did the art on the ones that are similar to each other, including your latest, Magic?
Suzy: The paintings are done by our daughter, Lydia Tyburski. []

MTE: What’s the story behind the clay art on Big, Helpless Sleep?
Scott: Daughter did that as well. Based on The Neverhood. If you’re not a gamer, this is the game where Willie Trombone mentions falling into a Big, Helpless Sleep. It’s part of the puzzle.

MTE: I like the cover songs on the last two albums – the stripped down version of Abba’s “I Have a Dream” and the really inventive take on the Bangles’ “Manic Monday.” Is the part at the end of “Manic Monday”-  “the listen, listen, in a crowd…” – another cover or an original you merged on? Apart from obviously liking the songs, what drew you to covering them?

Suzy: Thanks. The “Voice in the Crowd” bit is from an old Sandie Shaw song that I liked. Scott had the cover ideas.

MTE: What is your experience with the “music business” such as it is, these days?  Many artists are saying it’s not worth making albums any more and touring/performing is the only thing that makes sense. They usually mean that from a financial standpoint, but I’ve always thought there’s gotta be a reward and satisfaction in recording too. If from an artistic standpoint, if nothing else. What are your thoughts on the subject? Is the more “lo-fi”, acoustic nature of your last few albums a result of doing things with less overhead?
Scott: With streaming and YouTube, music is essentially now free. Napster prevailed. Which is not really a bad thing, it’s just different. So financially, I think you have to play shows or get placements in films or tv shows to get anything going. Or have connections with the press! We got some songs into a reality series on TLC, and from that our song “Your Picture” shot to #4 on Amazon’s country singles chart, ironically. But it’s short lived without sustained presence.

I personally love records and I love the recording process. It is rewarding and its different. Our lo-fi, and maybe the deluge of acoustic music and over saturation of indie folk, is I think directly related to just mechanics, i.e., what sounds good (and is possible!) on digital home recording gear. Much harder to do the Albini/full band/real studio thing. That takes decades of knowledge. 10,000 hours minimum.

Suzy: I think the biz now is the same in many ways in that very few artists are able to get enough attention to sustain things. Once you get the attention, you can build on that of course. Duh. I like to explain things that everyone already knows and that Scott already said.

I have to have some sort of reason to sing and write songs other than just doing it for the sake of it. Linda Rondstadt, one of my heroes, says that 90% of her singing is done alone just for the love of singing. I’m thinking about that these days. I don’t really enjoy recording.

MTE: I think you mentioned in passing in an email to me, Scott, that this might be the last album?
Scott: Well, I always say that! But we’ll see how it goes. If we can get something going or incentive, maybe there’s a few more songs left.

MTE: What is your “day job” (from songs like “Funereal Procession,” I gather you’ve had some pretty mundane ones!)?
Suzy: My current job is teaching English as a second language to adults. It’s challenging but I like it. I had a string of officey type jobs before I started teaching, that were stifling. I’ve had a lot of jobs: waitressing, bartending, grocery store cashier, department store cashier, fruit stand, babysitter, temp work, shoe salesperson, secretary, receptionist, house cleaner, doctor’s assistant, por ejemplo.
MTE: So, lastly, the new album –  why the title “Magic”?
I should also mention that’s a cool and atmospheric fade out on “Money in My Hand”…is that your dog barking in the background?

Scott: Yes! Our dog, he was in the room while I was recording the dulcimer track. And started barking at the UPS guy. It was a magical moment?

All the Devils Wielding Scimitars albums are available through Bandcamp, as well as Suzy Callahan’s solo work:
Devils Wielding Scimitars 
Suzy Callahan


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