Friday, August 17, 2012

Crazy and the Brains

Punk-rock has always been a difficult ideology to pin down, partially since it’s pocked with contradictions. Perhaps its most prominent is that so many who enjoy the genre—which was built by rule-bending and -breaking musicians who promoted musical experimentation and accessibility—subscribe to a strict set of standards by which bands are judged to be “punk” enough (or not).

These limitations and contradictions steered Chris Urban and Jeff Rubin away from punk-rock—or at least the pretentiousness that limited their creativity. Though they appreciated punk’s ethos and aesthetic, they were more influenced by those artists that challenged the rules of their respective genres rather than subscribed to them blindly. “Around the time that we stopped playing in our punk-band,” Rubin says, “we started getting into Bob Dylan and Tom Waits a whole lot. And Tom Waits obviously has the weirdest instruments ever, and I was really inspired by that.”

At the time, Rubin was studying percussion at music school and had access to mallet instruments, such as the xylophone and glockenspiel. “So we started writing really folky music with acoustic guitar and mallet instruments,” Rubin said. Calling their duo Crazy and the Brains, Urban and Rubin wrote songs with predominately punk-rock objectives: to do something different, something weird, and something fun.

Though the idea to incorporate mallet instruments into their sound seems novel, if not innovative and even visionary, the idea initially emerged more out of convenience. “We always would practice at his school,” Urban remembers, “and [the xylophone] was just there. So we were like, ‘Fuck it, let’s try this out,’ and it just ended up sounding cool.”

“Yeah, I had to practice a lot for music school anyway,” Rubin admits, “and this was my way of practicing in a band and practicing my instrument at the same time.”

Crazy and the Brains eccentricities were quickly celebrated and embraced, particularly by New York City’s anti-folk scene. “We didn’t know where to go, so that’s where we went,” Urban says. “And, I don’t know, we kind of fit in there. If you’re a fan of anti-folk music, you probably would be like, ‘Oh, you guys don’t fit in,” because we lean more towards punk.” But the band’s mix of scratchy acoustic chords and chunks of xylophone, along with Urban’s sly slur, won them fans at the SideWalk Cafe, anti-folk’s venerable epicenter, and caught the attention of Crafty Records, which released two six-song EPs.

“I had never really heard any of that [anti-folk] stuff before,” says drummer Lawrence Miller about watching the band’s performances as a duo. “When I started going to Crazy and the Brains shows and seeing people get up on stage and doing all kinds of weird shit, it was the opposite of folk; they weren’t playing these really drowsy country rhythms with these lyrics about war and society and all this bullshit. But what I was really watching was people going up on stage and doing something original, playing odd instruments and doing weird, off-the-wall style songwriting and arrangements.”

When Urban and Rubin were ready to try a “louder” version of their sound, they asked Lawrence and his brother Brett to play drums and bass respectively. Immediately, older songs like “Saturday Night Live”, which thrummed before with mellow energy, became bouncier, brighter, and somewhat wilder. Rubin’s glockenspiel still sparkled softly, accenting the stuttering xylophone as they had in earlier recordings; and Urban’s vocals still swaggered in a rhythmic monotone that let his acoustic steer the melody. But the playful pops of Lawrence’s snare and kick, combined with Brett’s mumbling bass, transformed Crazy and the Brains’ songs from rogue folk into proper pop.

As a louder four-piece, Crazy and the Brains released six-song cassette tape in 2011 called Don’t Need No Snacks on Baldy Longhair Records. Though some consider the cassette tape an archaic format, the band was excited to support an idea that so closely matched their own objective—to do something interesting, innovative, weird, and wonderful.

But cassette tapes also possess a certain attention-stealing appeal, the band says, and a certain weight. “If you go to a show and somebody hands you a Memorex CR-R with Sharpie on it wrapped up in a piece of printer paper,” Lawrence argues, “people are going to spit on it or throw it away or throw it at someone immediately because they don’t care about it. But if someone hands you a cassette tape that slips right in your pocket and actually has logos and good artwork and a download code, it imparts a more serious attitude. It feels more substantial.”

The songs on Don’t Need No Snacks are as deceptively substantial as their preferred format. A song like “Lindsey Lohan” might be about an obsession with the famously dysfunctional star, but Urban’s lyrics express a playful and poetic simplicity. “I’m not that rich but I got a lot a friends,” he murmurs, Rubin’s glockenspiel winking wildly behind him. “They all like my jokes and they think I’m really funny
 / We can eat at McDonald’s you don’t need to bring no money / 
If you do, it’d be cool; if you don’t, it’s alright
 / We can drink Olde English all night.”

Likewise, opener “Let Me Go” hops and twists with the spirit of classic rock ‘n’ roll. Having tapped his foot through the song’s whole first half, however, the listener might make a startling realization: that this catchy, crazy song consists simply of buzzing acoustic strings; the ping and plunk of mallets on metal and wood; the call and response of kick and muffled snare; a deep, groaning bass guitar; Urban’s reptilian tenor and the wild shrieks of his band mates behind him; and that’s it. There’s no distortion, no overdriven amps—sources from which punk-rock often gets its power. Instead, “Let Me Go” runs just on genuine energy.

Of course, the irony is that Crazy in the Brains, in their effort to steer clear of its contradictions, have created a band that epitomizes the essence of punk-rock. But, then again, Urban and Rubin never intended to defy punk in the first place; their intent from the start was to do something different, something weird, and something fun—the ingredients of punk-rock. “We’re obviously punk kids and come from the punk scene,” Urban concludes, claiming that punk is and will always be part of who he is. “We just didn’t want to do the typical punk thing—the ‘Oi Oi’ thing that you’ve heard a million times. We wanted to be creative and think of new things.”

And it’s within these innocent intentions that Crazy and the Brains have found the secret of punk-rock—that sound and aesthetic has never mattered; that it, like all art, is about intention, experimentation, expression, or some combination thereof—which is yet another reason why punk-rock has always been a difficult ideology to pin down.

Urbin, Rubin, and the Miller brothers originally recorded their Switchboard Session from New Jersey on a humid, mid-summer evening, but technical difficulties destroyed the files. A month later, after traveling across the country and back during a month-long tour, they re-recorded the session in the Miller living room. Urban played guitar and sang, Rubin played glockenspiel and xylophone, Brett Miller played guitar, and Lawrence Miller played drums.

"Let Me Go" and "Saturday Night Live" appear on Crazy and the Brains' 2011 cassette tape titled Don't Need No Snacks. "Birthday Song" on the band's 2010 Yellow EP. "Give Him a Great Big Kiss" is a cover; the song originally appeared on the Shangri-Las' 1964 single.

Visit the band's website for more music.

Sorry, but these songs were taken down due to space constraints. Please download The Switchboard Sessions, Volume Three for a track from this and other sessions recorded in 2012. If you're desperate for a copy of these tracks, please see the "About the Switchboard Sessions" page for info on how to contact the author.

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