Post-SXSW 2014 Interview: The Crookes

By on Friday, 4th April 2014 at 11:00 am

The Crookes were a hot commodity at this year’s SXSW, so much that I never was able to pin them down myself for an interview. Instead, I sent over the questions I’d prepared to ask the Sheffield band in Austin after they returned to England so they could answer them while enjoying the comforts of home. They were kind to answer my many queries on what it was like to be playing shows in America again, the making and recording of their forthcoming album ‘Soapbox’ due out on the 14th of April, and what’s next for them. Read on…

We last caught up with you in May 2013 at your show at the Scala in London. You’ve since signed with an American indie label called Modern Outsider, and conveniently, they’re based in Austin, which makes visiting at SXSW a breeze, I would imagine. What was the courtship like?
George Waite (vocals / bass): Quite short in truth. They asked, and we said yes. That is not to say that we’d have taken any offer – there are a lot of charlatans out there and we’ve met a few. Ultimately, we went with Chip and Erin because they are honest and we liked them. Having them in our corner makes a huge difference when it comes to SXSW and our U.S. adventures.

What was it like to play – and headline – an industry showcase hosted by your American label? Does it feel like you’ve come a long way, or does it feel like everything’s going according to the master Crookes plan for world domination?
Tom Dakin (guitar / backing vocals / keys): It certainly feels like we’ve come a long way. It’s been an honour to headline the Modern Outsider showcase, particularly since we’re a relatively new band to their roster. The support they’ve given us has made all the difference to the way playing in America feels. The USA can be a dauntingly large place for us to go to, small islanders that we are, and to have the label back us as they do makes it a more realistic prospect that our music might find some more fans there.

A couple weeks prior to coming out to America, you all were interviewed on BBC Breakfast, discussing a grant you received from the UK government to break America. Before I left DC, I spoke with some other recipients of a grant, Public Service Broadcasting, and it sounds like it is a pretty big honour to receive, not to mention a massive help in advancing your career not just here in the States but beyond too. What can you tell us about it? Are there strings attached?
George: We’re incredibly grateful for the grant. It allows us to further our efforts in the U.S., which could have stalled otherwise. We love playing in America – so many of our influences are rooted in that culture – but we don’t go over there to make up the numbers. We’re not tourists. We are serious about making inroads there and this grant enables us to try at least.

This was your third SXSW. Now that SXSW has become old hat to you, how did this year feel compared to showcasing in previous years?
George: This year felt a lot less intense than previous years. Maybe because we are veterans now, but Modern Outsider certainly did a lot to put us at ease this time. Like I said, having them in our corner really gave us a lift. Also, we had played Dallas before coming to Austin, and were heading to LA after, so that took a lot of pressure off SXSW as the be all and end all.

You played a good handful of songs from your forthcoming album ‘Soapbox’, out in April. How do you think they were received?
Tom: We’re really happy with how the new songs are being received. It seems crazy that we gave these songs their first live airing at a poolside stage in Dallas, with the whole gig bathed in that Texan evening light. It’s hard to believe that they could travel so far from our gloomy attic writing rooms.

Lammo was certainly impressed; he commented on Wednesday 19/03 on his 6music evening programme that it warmed his heart to watch people down the front for your turn Saturday afternoon at Latitude 30 / British Music Embassy singing along and knowing all the words.
George: Yes, and it’s incredibly heartening for us to see that from the stage too. We rely on the crowd to contribute to the atmosphere, which is why our favourite gigs are usually the raucous ones, as opposed to the most technically adept. Having people sing along is always a help as well in case I forget the words.

You had played 7 shows across 5 days in Austin during the week, and in sorts of different situations; do any of them stand out to you, and why? (To those who were not in Austin for SXSW this year, to give you some context, just on Wednesday, the Crookes played a converted garage space [Empire Control Room] as part of a local radio station’s showcase in the afternoon, followed by the very cool Parish Underground that night where Modern Outsider was putting on their label showcase.)
George: The Parish show was definitely my highlight. We went on at 1 AM and the crowd was fantastic. There was a lot riding on our gig because we wanted to prove that, as an English band, we were worthy of headlining an American label’s showcase. We wanted to make Modern Outsider proud and we had a lot of fun in the process.

Tom, did you manage to find and see Kurt Vile perform? (This is related to an answer he gave me before SXSW as part of their responses to our TGTF Quickfire Questions.) Who else did you all see and who were you impressed by (or not), who were your standouts or who would you recommend we steer clear of?
Tom: I managed to miss every single band that I’d planned on seeing, including Kurt Vile, but I did stumble upon a few treats. It seems to be the case that SXSW is perfect for discovering bands by accident, but if you’ve already heard of an act, there will probably be a thousand other people who want to see them too so there’s not always a good chance of getting into the venues.

This year I discovered Triptides, a band from Indiana who were playing on the same bill as us for Music For Listeners (at a Mexican burger joint called El Sapo Friday afternoon). They had some very cool guitar sounds, and great songs. Also, we managed to catch Sweet Baboo, who is a long time favourite but I hadn’t seen his one-man show before.

You played a gig at the famous Echo in Los Angeles on Sunday as part of a Part Time Punks show there. Was this your first time in LA? What were your expectations of our West Coast, after having spent time playing shows in New York and Texas?
George: Yes, it was our first time in California, and it blew our minds. We arrived in Los Angeles after 4 days in the desert, and it took us a day or so to get our heads around the place. The scale of LA is crazy, but luckily we had a house in the middle of Echo Park, so we had a lot to explore on our doorstep. Literally, as there were hummingbirds in the front garden!

The show itself went really well. It is strange to find so many like minded people so far from home but Part Time Punks is a great night (the kind I wish there were more of in England!) and it was a thrill to meet people who had been waiting for years to see us play in their city. We could only thank them for their patience!

The album cover for ‘Soapbox’ is black and white like the ones for the ‘Dreaming of Another Day’ EP and ‘Hold Fast’, but it comes across more sophisticated with a touch of nostalgia. What’s the story behind it and how did it come about? The dots remind of a Lite-Brite pattern. (I’ve also seen similar lettering on the album sleeve of Patrick Wolf’s ‘The Magic Position’.)
Russell Bates (drums): I’ve never seen that before personally, but I can see how you made the connection, I suppose the initial idea came from the artwork of classic albums, the band having total prominence not clouded by anything external. I liked the idea of focusing the viewers attention entirely on the band. It’s a statement of intent.

The album is probably the best work we’ve produced to date in my opinion and the first where Tom played a big part in the songwriting. I wanted an album cover which showed this, that *this* is The Crookes. Almost like a self-titled album in a visual sense. I selected the font as I desired something subtle which blended into the black to give the picture as much prominence as possible. If you hold it a few feet from your eyes it disappears almost totally. [This disappearing act was apparent to my eyes when I got my copy in the post last week. See photo here. – Ed.]

Set the stage for us: tell us all about the place where you went to record the album. Us fans have seen the photos of the isolated church in the mountains of Northern Italy, but we want to know what it felt like to be there.
George: It was quite a changeable place actually. In the mornings and at night, it was quite eerie. We were so high up that the clouds would hang low over the house – a bit like that (Playstation video) game Silent Hill. But when the sun came out, it was stunning. You could see for miles down the valley and because it was autumn, everything was very colourful. I think these two extremes filtered into the mood of the record in some subconscious way.

From what I guessed from the photos, the location seemed quite desolate. Did that fit in well with the underlying ‘Soapbox’ theme of ‘The Outsider’, Daniel?
Daniel Hopewell (guitar / lyrics): Yes, but that was more serendipitous than by design. I was more attracted to the religious symbolism there; Catholicism is such a romantic religion full of saints and sinners and angels and demons and stigmata and transubstantiation (I think the word “blood” appears more than any other in our songs, so drinking red wine in the chapel was very fitting). Songs like ‘Holy Innocents’, ‘Don’t Put Your Faith In Me’ and ‘Straight To Heaven’ [not sure which song he meant here, as there isn’t one with this name on ‘Soapbox’ – Ed.] really fitted that location. There was also something clearly Gothic in that setting which naturally follows on from our previous Romanticism. It was like living in Bram Stoker’s imagination.

George, there was some film of you singing in front of a microphone that was situated in front of a big cross in the church. Was there any divine intervention, did you sense any ghosts while you were recording there? I’m not religious but whenever I walk into churches, I always feel this unearthly sense of power in them. Were there any sightings of apparitions or did anything unusual happen while you were there?
George: I’m not religious, but there was something about having San’t Antonio watching over us that had an impact. We did start to go stir crazy after a month alone in the mountains, and every noise we heard outside would start to take on greater significance. Russ actually took a picture of the crosses on the doors with the chapel light on inside only to discover that the shape of the crucifixes had been projected onto the trees outside – but upside down! That had us spooked for a while. Still no explanation…

Tom, you played piano on this album (‘Holy Innocents’), which was a nice bridge from spring 2013 single ‘Dance in Colour’, which also featured piano. Piano isn’t really a ‘traditional’ rock ‘n’ roll instrument the way guitars and drums are. Was including it part of this Crookes’ evolution I feel we’re witnessing?
Tom: I don’t agree that piano isn’t a traditional rock ‘n’ roll instrument – what about Jerry Lee Lewis?! [Let me explain where my question came from: as a kid I learned classical piano, but in terms of use today, I was thinking more along the lines of Lady Gaga and Sara Bareilles. – Ed.] I think using instruments other than drums and guitars is part of the evolution of the band, but only a small part. We’re always experimenting with different instruments and sounds but try to keep focused on making the best of whatever song we’re working on at the time. I don’t think I’d like it if a particular texture or sound used on a track became more important than the song itself. Piano is a nice change though, and although I can get a bit lazy sometimes when playing guitar, I don’t have that luxury with keyboards, which is definitely a good thing when it comes to songwriting.

Besides the piano, what was different this time about the making of ‘Soapbox’? I thought it was a great idea, though not practical for other bands, that you brought your producer Matt Peel with you to Italy for the recording. I imagined that affected things too?
Tom: Without Matt, we wouldn’t have been able to make the album out there. We demo all of our stuff at home, but making a releasable record that has all the songs hitting their potential as we want them to is something for which we definitely need Matt.

The main thing about being in Valle di Preone in that lonely church up in the mountains was the isolation. It being just the five of us, totally sequestered away from our home comforts, with no television, telephone or internet to distract us, we could totally focus on the album and the album alone. I think you can hear that in the recording, and coupled with the amazing sound of that church and the moody fogginess of the valley, it makes it a record we could not have created any other way.

The album feels ‘harder’ than your previous material. ‘Play Dumb’, the first single you released, felt like a kick in the teeth! Agree or disagree? (I forget now which Web site it was, they’d erased ‘pop’ from your genre description, so it only reads “indie rock” now.)
Tom: Haha! Not so sure about that. ‘Play Dumb’ sounds pretty damn poppy to me! Take away those fuzzy guitars and big drums, and there’s a pop sensibility at the core of it. We were feeling more aggressive and perhaps frustrated when we went away to make the album, though, and it’s definitely true that that comes through in the songs. I think the (closing) track ‘Soapbox’ is a good example of that. We let that one grow into something quite a long way away from its original concept, and you can hear on the record that we’re letting go of everything by the very end.

Daniel, for this album it was my understanding that as a band you took a different approach in that the lyrics were written first, which was not the case for previous Crookes’ releases. (‘The Crookes Laundry Murder 1922’ from 2011 album ‘Chasing After Ghosts’ and the way George sings its lyrics in a non-linear way comes to mind.) As a consequence, as a writer, did you find that more freeing artistically? Were the majority of the lyrics written while the band was away from Sheffield, as was the case for ‘Hold Fast’?
Daniel: A lot of lines came from old notebooks, just as they always do. The ‘Marcy’ lyrics were written one night when me and Russell were walking home through The Marcy Projects in New York (think of the subject as personification). But then those feelings of frustration and loneliness which I believe underscore everything came from being in Sheffield. [You can grab a free copy of ‘Marcy’ from this previous MP3 of the Day post. – Ed.]

Writing the lyrics first was liberating, certainly, but the melody is always the most important thing to me. Without a strong melody, people won’t come back to listen to the lyrics and work out what they mean, but once the melody to a song has hooked you, the lyrics invite the listener to keep coming back.

Did playing Bruce Springsteen in the van all the way down to Italy affect the way ‘Soapbox’ turned out? Were there any other new or recalled influences that came into play when you started writing and recording the new album?
George: ‘Darkness on the Edge of Town’ is one of my favourite records. There is a lot of sadness and melancholy on that which people probably don’t always associate with him. I think in terms of the frustration that he always nails so well, Springsteen was a touchstone for us. There is always that sense of defiance in his music and that is important to us because otherwise you start to sound like a bunch of whinging bastards.

What will be the next single, video…??? Will it be one of the songs that premiered in Austin? What can fans expect in the weeks leading up to the album release?
Tom: The next single will be ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’, which is the song we’ve been opening our sets with at our latest U.S. shows. We’ve been recording the video whilst on tour in America so expect to see lots of muscle cars, cacti and sunburn. That’ll be out before the album is released, and we’ll also be releasing one or two other videos relating to how the album came to be made. [Narrated by Russell, part 1 of the Making of ‘Soapbox’ series can be watched below. – Ed.]

You have an extensive UK tour lined up for April to start the week the album is released on the 14th of April on Fierce Panda Records, and it’s swiftly followed by a European tour. This will be your first big tour in a long time. Excited? Apprehensive? Are there places that you haven’t been to in a while that you’re really looking forward to playing in again?
George: Can’t wait now. America definitely whet our whistle for a longer stretch on the road. We always look forward to certain places – Sheffield (at the end of May at the Leadmill) is the very last show and I have high hopes for that one – but you never know on tour. It’s a complete unknown, even after so many. You never know what can happen. And that’s why it’s so exciting.

What festivals will you be playing this summer?
Tom: We’ll be announcing them on our Twitter and Facebook pages as they get booked in with us.

I am asked this constantly, from all corners of the United States; you have a lot of fans over here! When are you going to do a proper tour of North America?
George: We will be back as soon as is humanly possible! This year at SXSW we have been looking for people who will help to make that happen, and as soon as we know, we’ll tell you.

Now that album #3 is in the can, you’ve got these headline tours set up for the spring and I’m sure loads of festival appearances all summer, what’s up next for the Crookes now that you’re back to Sheffield?
George: Well, we’re home now and all we want to do is go and play again. That, and write the fourth record.

What would you like to say to your adoring fans? GO.
Tom: Go listen to Sweet Baboo. [I concur. Start with ‘Ships’. – Ed.]
George: There are times when I still find it strange that there are people out there that like our band but to those of you that do, thank you. x
Daniel: To quote the late, great Bryan Adams, “everything I do, I do it for you”.
Russell: What Daniel said, but totally sincerely.

Many thanks to the Crookes for their answers and Penny for sorting out this q&a for us.

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[…] for ‘Don’t Put Your Faith in Me’, which according to guitarist Tom Dakin’s comments in this interview with Mary, is set to be the next single from their new third album ‘Soapbox’ (reviewed by Mary back in […]

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