Scammers' Phil Diamond and the art of punk crooning 

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Photo by Barrett Emke

The plural nature of the name Scammers implies a group, but it's just one guy — Phil Diamond — plus a Boss pedal, a looper and sometimes a synthesizer. On a Saturday night in late June, Diamond was setting up his rig on the floor upstairs at MiniBar. He wore denim shorts and a Southwestern-style tank top that revealed his tattoo-covered arms. A punk-heavy crowd of about 30 gathered in his general vicinity. Eventually, a programmed drum-and-synth beat rang out from the speakers, red and green lights started flashing on the looper, and Diamond stood up and brought his microphone to his face.

Diamond has a gentle demeanor and kind blue eyes, but as Scammers, his performances are confrontational and vaguely sexual. There is humor, but there is also darkness. When the loop came back around, he charged into the crowd and sang the entire first verse right up in a random guy's face while contorting his body around him. Later, pogoing around the crowd, Diamond knocked a full beer out of another man's hand, drenching a few audience members. After the song was over, Diamond crouched over his equipment to queue up the next song. He looked over his shoulder. "Sorry to whoever's beer I spilled," he said. "I might be able to — uh, in theory, I can maybe get you a new beer."

"Punk crooning" is the simplest way to describe a Scammers show. Diamond flails about, singing dense, literal lyrics in a sultry, dramatic baritone. He favors the kind of intimate environments where he can touch the crowd: house shows and DIY venues like the Pistol Social Club, the now-shuttered West Bottoms space where he landed upon arriving from New Orleans, back in 2010.

"I lived at the Pistol for the last two months it was open," Diamond told me recently. "In New Orleans, I worked at a coffee shop with Aaron Hawn, who was in a KC band called Mythical Beast, and he suggested I move up to KC. He put me in touch with some people, and that's how I ended up here. The Pistol was kind of my intro to KC."

Diamond grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, and studied classical guitar at Virginia Commonwealth University. But he didn't like the classes and dropped out. "I thought it would be more of a conservatory atmosphere, but it was more homework-oriented," he said.

By the time he got to KC, he had ditched the guitar. "Really, I'm a guitar player," he said. "But I came to feel like I couldn't sustain a band by myself by just playing guitar. So I bought a cheap drum machine and figured out how to make some songs with it."

In 2011, as Scammers, Diamond released the Crucial Sesh EP. It's a rough recording; Diamond does a lot of morose talk-singing over cheap-sounding drumbeats.

"I think I was writing as if I didn't have my own sound," Diamond said of that period. "I was taking a lot of phrasing from other bands I liked, specifically Interpol."

But a few things on Crucial Sesh work. "Legitimately Poor" is the kind of bleak, uncomfortable listen that ends up getting lodged in your head. Its confessionals — Don't ask me what it means/I hate all of my tattoos/I was trying to look unapproachable; No I don't have a car/It's not 'cause I'm some sort of vegan or hippie/I'm legitimately poor — are specific and direct, and Diamond's delivery is chilling. It's not a song you'd put on a mix, but it hints at an original voice.

"I think people have generally given up on lyrics, except in rap and hip-hop," Diamond said. "I try to be really honest and not use the kinds of stock phrases that nobody would ever say in 2013 — things like, I love you so, or whatever."

Diamond's next move was Magic Carpet Ride, a sort of concept record about the movie Aladdin. (There are, naturally, some sexual undertones; one track is called "Rub My Lamp," and the cover is a subtle depiction of an oral-sex scene blended into a Persian rug.) Crucial Sesh feels like it was conceived and recorded in a few days. Magic Carpet Ride does not. On opener "Blue Satin," the arrangements are immediately more thoughtful, and there are more moments that you might even identify as melodies. "A Whole New World" has a Talking Heads groove running through it.

Most noticeably, Diamond sings with more confidence. He credits Nick Banister, who has recorded vocals for every Scammers record since Magic Carpet Ride, with bringing his voice out of the punk gutter. "I just give him my tracks. He has a higher-quality way of doing vocals," Diamond said.

Lillerne Tapes, a tape label in Lawrence, took notice of Magic Carpet Ride and did a limited-edition release of it. Since then, every Scammers album has come out on a trendy, obscure label outside the Midwest. Conventions, from 2012, was released by Copenhagen's Skrot Up. Scammers' most recent, Cover You, is out via Portland, Oregon, label Field Hymns. Diamond has a September deadline for a new record for Jehu & Chinaman, a U.K. label.

"I had lived in KC for a few years, and I often missed what I felt was a small but insanely creative and fun music/party scene," said Gabe Holcombe, of Lillerne Tapes. "I thought Scammers totally embodied that feeling of catharsis and the letting go of inhibitions. I like that Phil is constantly producing music, playing shows and going on tours. Everything he does is honest and real. He just represents everything that I like about the current DIY scene at large."

"I heard about Phil from some Finnish friends who were road-trippin' around the U.S.," said Ishmael Isenglass, of Skrot Up. "They'd seen Phil perform in a basement or a backyard at a friend's house somewhere in Kansas. What attracted me to Scammers was the uncompromising approach to expressing his personal vision of what grandiose pop should sound like."

Diamond says he has been struggling lately with what direction to take Scammers. "I tend to bounce between wanting to be dance-y and fun at live shows and wanting to do heartfelt, ballad-y stuff for recordings," he said. "But I'm running out of dance songs that I like. The new stuff is going in a darker direction, I think, but with maybe more of a club feel to it. Some of my stuff in the past has been almost too literal, so I'm trying to pull that back a little on new stuff because the new stuff is just so close to home."

At the moment, Diamond is settling back into KC. (He moved to Los Angeles earlier this year but ended up returning after a week; a woman was involved.) He did a 20-date U.S. tour in the spring, and has been planning another one. He estimates that he has been around the country about 10 times already. "I have a handful of cities where I've gotten to the point that the draws are pretty good," he said. "Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver, L.A., Missoula, KC."

As Scammers' MiniBar set in June was winding down, Diamond started in on probably his best song to date: "Cover Me," from his Cover You album. He backed into a load-bearing wall and writhed against it, singing, And maybe one day you will be proud to say/I used to work with him/I knew Phil Diamond/And he was a jerk. Two newcomers shot each other arched eyebrows. Diamond yowled on: Gluten-free everything, gluten-free everything, gluten-free everything. Eventually, he placed his microphone on the floor near his gear and walked out past the crowd and around the corner. The looped beat echoed over the speakers for another couple of minutes, but Diamond had already said everything he had come to say.

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