Scratch as Scratch Can

The Itch take personnel changes in stride and keep on cranking

Rope swinging stageside. Wearing body-electric suits made from Christmas lights. Jell-O wrestling with members of Jack Off Jill. Ritualizing breakfast at Denny's. Playing shred-it-or-forget-it rock -- just some of the characteristics that collectively make them the Itch. Their philosophy is simple. They were a band, they are a band, and they will continue to move forward as a band. "We are a band of evolution," announces singer Miles Hie.

This "evolution" has lately entailed a new and heavier sound and a couple of rounds of musical chairs with bandmates. Since Hie and bassist Mick Who formed the group in October of 1990, they've made an indelible mark on the local scene, leading them to a spot on the compilation disc Unsigned: 11 of South Fla.'s Unsigned Bands and the recording of their current demo Pillow, a six-song cassette packed with energy and exploding with funky bass and guitar lines.

Hie's vocal signature boasts as much attitude as Johnny Lydon's as he bounces from hip-hop funk to hard-core rock. There's no escaping this groove.

Another Hie point on the tape is the vocalist's interaction with then-guitarist Brent Jest. Jest took over the guitar parts so Hie could hone in on frontman duties. Hie's experience as a guitarist works to create a unity between the singing and the soloing -- no tension is heard in the competition for space. Jest's performance isn't short on ornamentation, and he isn't afraid to venture past the fifth fret.

With Pillow the Itch also manages to completely circumvent the snares of commercialism. It's a played-out comparison, but parts of their music make it sound like the Itch has been sharing rehearsal space with Red Hot Chili Peppers. In a twisted way there is a trace of truth in this: Last month Brent Jest went to L.A. to audition for the job of new Peppers guitarist. He actually did share rehearsal space with them.

"I went to the studio where the auditions were being held and I saw kids going in and coming out two minutes later," recalls Jest. "I watched kids practicing all of the Chili Peppers's music and I realized that I didn't know any of their songs. I'm freaking because kids are coming out crying, and one guy even smashed his guitar against the wall."

Jest was asked to come back later that Friday afternoon. "I got past the guitar tech and then I went into a room with Flea and the drummer. They threw out rhythms and I soloed over them. I was told to come back on a Monday when Anthony [Kiedis] would be there. We jammed for a couple of hours." According to Jest, he kept in contact with the band until two weeks ago, when their label (Warner Bros.) notified him that he didn't get the job. "It's true that I didn't tell the guys in the Itch that I was going to L.A., but I just didn't want to get to be 40 years old and wonder what would have happened."

Although Jest was gone only four days, the rumors made it back before he did and they've been dogging him ever since. "I told the band the same night I got back what happened and that they should start auditioning guitar players. Even though it didn't work out, it was a sign for me to go my way and for them to go their way. I feel nothing bad for the Itch. They deserve to get signed. I think their music is awesome." Jest is in the process of putting together a new band. He already has a bass player, a drummer, and seven songs written. "This is my first time writing lyrics. It was easy because of all of the emotions that I've gone through."

Jest isn't the only one who got the itch to leave the Itch. Drummer Dennis Dean was replaced by Keith Cronin early this year, before Pillow. According to Hie, Dean was moving in a different direction musically, and the departure was a mutual decision.

But when Jest announced his plans to leave, the Itch immediately began the hunt for a new guitarist -- they had gigs booked. The news came the night before a scheduled video shoot for "God Is a Pillow," so Erik Kothern from Naked Rhythm filled in.

Then Mark Montesi, a guitarist with seven years' experience, heard about the Itch auditions through a friend. "Seriously -- I took the audition very seriously," Montesi says. "I'd heard them play a couple of times before."

"Mark's a great player and he sounded like he took the audition seriously," says Hie. "He adds a new twist, but it's definitely still the Itch."

No one will ever accuse this band of wasting time. After just two rehearsals, the re-grouped Itch has already played out twice and plans to release another tape of material they had been working on before Jest's decampment. The title track, "Bulldozer," as well as the other songs, surpasses the sound achieved on Pillow.

"A lot of people don't know this, but Pillow only took about ten hours to do," says Mick Who. "It's just a snapshot of all that's going on."

Because the band is notorious for visual as well as musical dynamics -- Who is perfecting the art of sustained flight while playing -- the pressure is definitely on them to come up with something for their next show, this Friday at Squeeze. Mick Who did mention something about blowing up the singer, but he's also sure that can only be done once.

Meanwhile the Itch has continued mailing out demo tapes, receiving responses from California, Texas, and Canada. "We're getting our butts sniffed," Cronin says eloquently.

"We've had a killer response so far," adds Hie. "And I think that this show will be a turning point."

The Itch performs at midnight on Friday at Squeeze, 2 South River Dr., Ft. Lauderdale, 522-2151. Admission costs $5 and $7.

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