Bad Santas: Talking 20 years of The Scrooges, a Boston holiday tradition

David Unger and Pete Knipfing reflect on their Santa-themed Stooges cover band before their 20th anniversary show in Somerville

Photo Credit: James J. Fortin

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It’s commonly accepted that the holiday season officially begins at various points between Thanksgiving and early December. For some it’s when the Boston Christmas Trees lot sets up shop next to O’Brien’s Pub in Allston, and for others its the start of all those drunken holiday office parties. For the past 20 years, there are those who officially mark the start of the holidays by getting shit-hammered drunk with The Scrooges, Boston’s Santa-themed Stooges cover band that has not only gotten the approval of Iggy Pop, but has also somehow become perhaps our city’s most appreciated rock and roll holiday tradition.

Formed back in the late ’90s after frontman and music scene veteran David Unger felt divine inspiration while taking a piss during an Iggy Pop show on Lansdowne Street, The Scrooges have been dashing through the December snow ever since. Honoring The Stooges three classic albums — 1969’s The Stooges; 1970’s Fun House; and 1973’s Raw Power — they’ve brought together members of Boston bands like Doc Hopper, Lamont, White Dynomite, Cortez, Random Road Mother, Rock City Crimewave, and Hey Zeus, all in the name of dressing up like Santa and blasting out some timeless garage rock.

They celebrate 20 years of good tidings, good efforts, and mostly good intentions this Saturday (December 22) at ONCE Ballroom in Somerville, joined by a ho-ho-wholesome lineup that also welcomes Rock Starve, a tribute to The Bags featuring members of Roadsaw & Milligram; Your Shitty Future, a Bronx tribute featuring members of Cocked N’ Loaded and Doc Hopper; and Set Fire, who will be playing their own damn songs. In advance of this “anniversary ball,” Vanyaland caught up with Unger and guitarist Pete Knipfing over drinks at Deep Ellum in Allston to get the definitive word on just how the fuck all this happened.

Michael Marotta: Ok, so take us back to the beginning. How’d this get started 20 years ago?

David Unger: I was seeing Iggy Pop at Avalon, or Citi, back then, and I was in a state of mind that was of a higher consciousness at the time. I was in the bathroom taking a leak and it just kinda came to me. I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be funny to dress up like Santa and call it The Scrooges’?

Was this during the holiday season, or…

Unger: I don’t remember. I don’t even remember.

Knipfing: It was a very long time ago.

Unger: Jeeves was in the stall next to me and I started giggling. He was like “What are you laughing about?” and I was like, “I just got this fucked up idea.” [laughs] It must have been before the holidays because I remember thinking, I gotta get right on this.

Knipfing: You had a good idea. When you got a good one, you got a good one.

Unger: So I called a lot of my friends who I thought would like The Stooges. And the first edition, Darryl Shepard was in it. You know Darryl, right? Darryl wouldn’t wear the suit. He was actually the true scrooge. We had a show at Charlie’s and he showed up and he was like “I’m not wearing it.” [We were like] Ok, that’s cool.” Then we had a drummer, who couldn’t really play this kind of music. He played other kinds of music great, which made it very interesting. And then the next year one of the guys had a kid, so I had to get another guitar player but I thought “I’ll get two!” So I got Pete and Scott.

Knipfing: I think we were living together at the time.

Unger: Yeah we were roommates.

So this core has been together for a while?

Unger: Yeah we’ve had different drummers, but the guitars, the bass and myself have been pretty much the same. After that first year, yeah. Every year — sometimes I feel like I don’t want to do it, then I think [grumbles] “We have to do it.” And then I’m like “Why did I not want to do it?” It’s so much fun, you know?

I mean, for me the hard part for me is practicing. Because I really, I love the band, they’re my favorite band. So to hear the songs played poorly, it gets me pissed off! But now we’re at the point where we had our first practice the other day and it sounds fucking great — we’re good to go.

Knipfing: It only took 20 years…

Unger: Yeah, but imagine like Year 12 and they still can’t play “Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell.” I’m like, oh my god kill me.

Is it like riding a bike, that first practice of the season?

Knipfing: No. It’s like learning to ride a bike. All over again. Back in the day we used to get so fucked up, like relentlessly all the time.

Unger: At practice… yeah…

Knipfing: And we were all in different bands so we didn’t think about these songs [during the year]. We were all in bands releasing records and touring all the time, and it would become Scrooges season, and we’d start practicing and then I’d get pneumonia from doing drugs with all them —

Unger: You blew out your knee that one year….

Knipfing: I did. That wasn’t even that long ago.

Unger: That was for your party [motions to the interviewer], at The Phoenix. You were wearing a big thing, you couldn’t even move.

Knipfing: I tore my ACL on like the 15th of December, and the show was like three or four days later. And I had to be helped on the stage. That was the worst — those were dark days.

Unger: That was actually one of the funnest gigs, though. That was a good time, that was a fun one.

Knipfing: A few days later we were at Atwood’s and I played in a wheelchair.

Unger: I still can’t believe we all got up on stage stage together! Wait… did we? I don’t even remember.

What would you say has been a highlight of the past 20 years?

Unger: CBGB’s?

Knipfing: That was a great one!

Unger: We played to a bunch of Asian kids who were dancing, they were loving us. They wanted to buy our record when we were done. I was like “Go to Tower!”

Knipfing: So what happened was, was there was a giant bus of Asian tourists that got dropped off at CBGB’s. And they all came into CBGB’s as we were playing Stooges songs dressed as Santa, and they were trying to open my butt flap on the fucking suit… I’m hanging off the stage, soloing and shit. It was funny.

Unger: The one at The Model was wild.

Knipfing: We’ve had a couple of good ones at The Model. We had a few times at the Model…

Unger: Did we?

Ok, so what was a lowlight of the past 20 years?

Unger: Our summer show. I dunno if it was for my birthday, or…

Knipfing: They were all for your birthday.

Unger: Yeah.

[A Deep Ellum waiter shows up at the table] Have you ever seen The Scrooges play?

Waiter: Yeah, Absolutely, I think they are …delectable.

Unger: We aren’t talking about food! Wait are we now?

Waiter: As a big Iggy Pop fan myself, I appreciate the effort put forth by this man.

Unger: The summer one was actually the worst one ever.

Okay, tell me about that!

Unger: We had a different drummer. We had this guy Leather Vic, who was a really great drummer, but not for Stooges. He was more of a —

Knipfing: Metal guy.

Unger: If this was a Uriah Heap cover band… Yeah. I just remember it was really really hot. It was at O’Brien’s.

Knipfing: No, we’ve done a bunch of fucking summer dates.

Unger: We did?

Knipfing: A summer one at O’Brien’s. We did one at Radio.

Unger: Whaaat?

Knipfing: Yes, we did one at Radio. And we did one… uhh…

Unger: I remember we did one at Radio and they sold out of beer! They had no beer left when we were done.

Knipfing: No like half-way through.

Unger: Yeah like halfway through the night. Everybody just drank all the beer.

Knipfing: I think we played a summer BBQ at Great Scott.

Unger: Yeah I dunno. Maybe I wasn’t in the band then. You got a different Santa that night!

So obviously with The Stooges, the catalog is locked in.

Unger: We stick with the three records.

Yeah, so how do you decide what to play? Do you mix it up or do you bang out the same shit?

Knipfing: Well we do bang out the same shit. But we do play “I Got A Right.”

Unger: Yeah that didn’t make a record. We tend to play ones that have more melody, I guess you can say? You have three records, that’s like 20 songs. You cant play ’em all. If we played the weird ones people would be like “Uhhhhh”. Also the ballads don’t work out too well when you got three loud guitars, so we stay away from that too. I dunno, we just pick our favorite ones from those three records and there you go.

Knipfing: Stick to ’em.

Unger: Yeah. I mean I’ve been wanting to play the song “Funhouse” forever. [grumbles] “Don’t wanna learn it!” [mocks bandmate] …It’s one chord! One chord. At practice the other day I got behind the drums and went “It goes like this [makes drumming sound, hits table with hands]. Can you do that?” He’s like yeah. I’m like good, we learned the song. There we go, I’m happy now. I’m a happy Santa.

Knipfing: There are valid points to learning new shit and not learning new shit. Because what generally happens is… we have learned other tunes to the point where we could almost play them at shows. Where we could take a chance and fuck them up, but sometimes what happens is we’re just too drunk to do it.

Unger: Why take a chance?

Ever play for someone who just wasn’t feeling it, and was like WTF is going on here?!

Knipfing: Us.

Unger: We’ve train wrecked a few times. I always get hyper critical of myself because I feel like I’m letting Mr. Pop down, even though he’s not here. Maybe he is.

Knipfing: He’s over there.

Putting a positive spin on this, what’s the greatest show you’ve ever played as The Scrooges?

Unger: Greatest, or like, most fun?

Where you walked off the stage and were like “We just fucking did it!”

Knipfing: Wow.

Unger: Last year at ONCE was pretty fucking —

Knipfing: That was pretty awesome.

Unger: It’s usually our last show of the year. Like our first will be fun and it will be rusty, and the second will be better, and then the third will be like “Oh we finally got it! See you next year!”

Knipfing: Remember when we played Pianos in New York with Sons of Kyuss and we slept in the Blue Man Grpup’s warehouse or wherever the fuck… that was a pretty good one

What year was that?

Unger: Tough question.

Knipfing: 2004? 05? The Phoenix party [in 2012] was pretty good.

Unger: Someone put a clip on Facebook and I was like — normally I don’t like to watch that stuff — but I was like “Oh, that’s not bad!”

I read in the press release that Iggy Pop actually knows The Scrooges exist. How’d that come about?

Unger: I met Iggy Pop when he did his Skull Ring solo album, when he first got the Stooges back together. He did an in-store at Newbury Comics. I was with Poundy, our bassist. It was a big to-do. First you had to get wrist bands, and then you had to wait in line. He did the in-store, it was him, and Ron Asheton, and Scott, Scott played, his kickdrum was his suitcase, and he had like cardboard boxes. And they did did an autograph signing… We finally get up there, I brought my copy of Funhouse, and I’m like hey guys listen “I’m in this Stooges cover band we only play between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we’re called The Scrooges.” Iggy’s signing my record and he looks up at me, and he goes “That’s the coolest thing I’ve ever heard!” And I went… I just floated out, I don’t even remember what happened after that. He’s got these beautiful big eyes and we’re just like [squeals]. We were like little girls.

You guys gonna be doing this for another 20 years or what?

Knipfing: No.

Unger: I have an idea for a holiday movie, kinda like Bad Santa. It’s called The Scrooges, with each character playing a role and it will all loop together. Working on the script now, gonna pitch it to Universal. Sitting in with all these executives… Tarantino is interested. [clears throat] I mean I’m gonna love The Stooges for life. Someone says “Hey you wanna play Stooges songs?” I’m the first fucking guy in line.

THE SCROOGES 20th ANNIVERSARY BALL + ROCK STARVE + SET FIRE + YOUR SHITTY FUTURE :: Saturday, December 22 at ONCE Ballroom, 156 Highland Ave. in Somerville, MA :: 8 p.m., $12 :: Advance tickets :: ONCE event page :: Facebook event page :: Featured photo by James J. Fortin