By Max Dropout
The greatest misconception permeating the American underbelly of social wreckage must be that suffrage is defined by boundaries of ethnicity. The warmth and spectacle of flaming racial division is, above all, a distraction from the rampant classism to which human beings, regardless of color or nationality, will inevitably fall victim. For if ever there should be any sense of unity or commonality discovered between the chaw-spewin’, cousin-fuckin’ trailer park Neanderthal and the forty-swilling, KFC-licking ghetto thug, the upper echelon might find one holy Hell on the stoops of its white mansions. Is it any wonder, then, that Cromwell’s merry Irish exploits (which fed the fine four-century tradition of white slavery in colonial America) have been stricken from state-issued historical texts? Indeed, Chuck D and Ray Pride’s ancestors might just have more in common than you think. Yes, Virginia, there is an underclass, and despite cultural differences, I’m as poor, pissed, sick, and unaided as the next bean-pie schillin’ whitey stomper… and though he might not be aware of it yet, there exists a bond between us: a sense of entitlement to the blues.
For at least two years, I pounded New York City pavement to the pummeling tempo of “The Truth About Money.” I was an agitator of the subway-goer, broadcasting the Crack Pipes’ hyper-mangled blues punk through banter-blocking headphones at an obnoxious volume. Those sonic lashings against the unfortunates surrounding me were my religious pamphlet, so to speak. This was some spiritual shit. Too complex for mainstream’s garage rock ga-ga trendiness, it was no postcard from Memphis, either; it wasn’t the blues as defined by journalists masturbating to Charlie Patton’s scales, or as interpreted by cookie monster pot heads. This was pure gospel, impaled by some ungodly yowl from the side of the train tracks where used condoms and needles grow like the poor man’s wild flower, sprung out of some unlucky concoction of toxic soil and black cat shit.
Prior to my first meeting with Ray Pride, I had built up an image of this music�s source as a weathered survivor of fiendish lower class distractions–a modern Apostle Paul to white trash–with stark, hollowed features and those candy corn teeth found only in junkie mouths. Almost three years after discovering the Crack Pipes, I found myself in the presence of the man behind the curtain, appearing before my eyes as precisely the opposite of what my imagination had led me to believe. The angelic Pride stood before me, with a warm handshake, a sober, soft-spoken manner, and at times, a sweetly-toned self-deprecating sense of humor. The people who suffer aren’t always monsters.
I had an opportunity to sit down with Pride recently and discuss the band’s latest effort, �Beauty School,� an experimental Afrocentric p�t� of psychedelia, funk, and stomp box blues. It ain’t confidential.
The first thing I wanna ask about is the title for the new record, “Beauty School.” Where’d that come from?
I have a hat that says “Baldwin Beauty School” on it. I’ve had that for a long time, and I thought it would be kind of funny to tie it in with the hat, and then it became a personal thing. I was thinking about beauty schools, and I kind of came up with the whole concept… if you’re watching TV, or listening to the radio, or you’re on the internet and you don’t filter everything that’s coming in, you’ll probably develop a pretty negative view of the world and humanity at large, so you gotta kinda teach yourself to look for the beautiful things in life. Otherwise, you’re just gonna get real cynical and focus on the negative, especially after 9-11.
How does it pertain to the new record?
The song “Beauty School”… it’s about a guy who wishes there was a school he could go to, to learn to find the beautiful things in the world. And then there’s this kind of reverential part, a churchy part, where he’s allowed to go to a beauty school, and he’s touched, maybe by a higher power… or… we don’t wanna define it too much. But it’s in the proud tradition of gospel songs. He has a revelation. The second part of the song, which is the electric part, is more upbeat, where he finds beauty in the smallest things. It’s all in the lyrics, which you probably can’t understand… (laughs)… maybe they’ll be posted on “the internet” someday, though.
Y’all don’t have liner notes on the new record?
No, we can’t afford enough paper to put the lyrics in our records (laugh).
Where’s Beauty School coming from as opposed to Snakes In My Veins?
I think �Snakes in My Veins,� and the record before, �Every Night Saturday Night,� are both pretty similar. I see �Snakes in My Veins� as a polished version of �Every Night Saturday Night�… it’s almost the exact same record by the way the songs are placed. You know, “mid-tempo, mid-tempo, mid-tempo, fast”… almost the exact same kind of songs, too. Some short rockers, then a long jam. �Beauty School� breaks out of that previous formula, so maybe it comes across as more varied. On �Snakes in My Veins,� we had “Super 8 Motel”, this Dylan-sounding song. That’s pretty different. So was the murder ballad, “Jawbone Blues.” Then you had the more rocking songs, like “Avenues & Boulevards.” That’s way more soulful than a lot of the other stuff on there. We’ve even covered Johnny Paycheck. We’ve always been pretty eclectic and varied, but I think it sticks out more on �Beauty School� because we’ve broken away from doing the same amount of more rockin’ songs.
There seemed to be a lot more punk on �Every Night Saturday Night,� though.
Well, I wasn’t as good of a singer on that record. We recorded more of it live, and I would do live vocals, so it sounds raw. On �Beauty School,� I did all the vocals after we recorded the music. Because the songs are actually structured, as opposed to… the word “jams”… I know what it means within the context of our band, but other people, they’re gonna see that word and think “String Cheese Incident” or something. But we use the word jams for songs that aren’t necessarily structured, where I don’t have to sing the same thing, and the band doesn’t have to play the same parts every time. There is a basic riff, a beginning, and an end… like “Hooker’s Blues,” (which isn’t on any record that anyone will have), or “Downtown Diddly”–
That’s one song I wanna talk to you about, actually. You’ve been doing a version that’s relevant to the overseas conflict…
Yeah, I did it right around when the war started, or was about to start. In that original version, this kid’s caught in a cycle of poverty. He wants to get out of it, and make money for his mother, who’s been working hard, and so his little brother can have nice things. He doesn’t have any skills, except he knows he can make money selling pills, and gets busted after doing so. In the anti-war take, this kid is in the military for economic reasons. He doesn’t wanna be a burden to his mother, and he wants to bring some money in, go to college, better his life. It’s one of the few options he has. That’s the way it really is for a lot of people. So, in the new story, he’s doing tank support, and some sort of explosive goes off. He wakes up on a hospital ship and he’s lost his right arm. There’s a great song by Bill Withers, he did this anti-Vietnam song called “I Can’t Write Left Handed”… we reference that. But the main thing is, this kid’s life is changed, maybe ruined. It’s the same theme, different story. We did a different version recently, where we prettied it up and tried to make it so that we weren’t just putting a new story on top of the first one. It’ll probably turn into a totally new Bo Diddly-derived song.
Speaking of things changing… after recording Beauty School, which is one of the best records to come out of Texas in perhaps the last ten years, looking back on �13 Poison Sermons,� how do you feel about that effort now?
Not to shock too many people, but I was always a Beatles fan. Not everybody else in the band is, but I’m a Beatles fan. One of the things that the Beatles brought to rock n� roll was the concept of evolution. Musical evolution. They always seemed to be trying to better themselves or expand their musical palette, and that’s been a big influence on me. At that point in time, I was really proud. Some of that stuff is a little harder for me to listen to now, because I know what I was trying to do, and I couldn’t do it. Now, I can sing a lot better, or in a different style and it makes me happy that I can express myself this way. There are so many people I wish I could sing like, and in my head, I think I can do it (laughs), and then reality comes and hits me in the face.
You have a pretty calamitous holler. When I picked up �Every Night Saturday Night� back in New York, I developed my perception of who you are based on your voice and lyrics. When I first met you, I was pretty scared. I was intimidated by this image I had built up.
There’s some dark stuff in there, but that’s part of the reason we’re called the Crack Pipes. We’re gonna sing about stuff that happens on the bad side of town, when the sun goes down.
How much of it is personal experience?
I’ve seen a lot of that stuff. I grew up where there wasn’t a lot of sunlight. I grew up in Alaska, around working class people, who partied and drank and had their little blue collar soap operas, and at the same time I also read Faulkner and On The Road… all this great literature that celebrates the wild side of life. There’s a romance to it. We’re definitely, by strict definition, a romantic band. We romanticize this idealistic classic rock n� roll mythology. We’re carrying that torch on for a shrinking audience (laugh).
Austin can be dangerous for artists, because it isn’t challenging. You can fall into what they call the “velvet rut,” where you carve out your niche, and it’s comfortable and reliable. A lot of people are satisfied with that. Creative evolution, as you were just talking about, isn’t necessary down here to survive– it can even be bad. A lot of the older artists in Austin verge on parody, or caricature after a while. How do you fight falling into that? Is it conscious?
We change to keep it fresh for ourselves. Hopefully, the people who come out and see us appreciate it. On the last record, the Dylan-sounding song, “Super 8 Motel,” we did that and I thought people would hate it or laugh at it, and think it was stupid. But we were all huge Dylan fans. And we said, “Hey, let�s do this song in a kind of Dylan style. We love Dylan, and it would just be cool.” I really thought people were gonna hate that song.
“Save Me” is kind of a wild take, too…
…The first time we played “Super 8 Motel,” there was a lot of applause. I didn’t see that coming. I was really proud that the audience went with us. And “Save Me”… at that point in time, when we tried to cover it, I couldn’t sing it as fast as Aretha Franklin does on her version. When I got into Aretha Franklin and listened to a lot of her records, and that song came on, I thought, “What a great opportunity to play ‘Gloria’ without playing ‘Gloria.’” I’ve always been a big fan of Perry Smith’s version of “Gloria”… it’s amazing. But you can’t cover it really without being cheap. It’s the “Gloria” riff, but it’s a legitimate R&B song, so we get props for doing an R&B cover, have the fun of playing the “Gloria” riff, and that’s kinda where that came from. We went crazy with it.
Out on the road, what’s the response?
Usually positive when there’s people there (laugh). I was talking to the guys in the Deadly Snakes about this: there’s some great rock cities in this country, but they’re all about a hundred miles apart. You have Seattle and Portland, and then you have Chicago and Austin. Maybe not New York… but Cleveland… all these places you have to drive really far to get to. You play these towns in between and they don’t know who you are. They don’t have a cool record store. The internet is great, but it’s too overwhelming. I don’t know what the tastemaker is. Who will help you connect with your audience? We do well in Chicago. Ohio is a great rock n� roll state. Ohio is like Austin, where going out and seeing live music is an actual entertainment option. They like their rock n� roll and there’s some great bands out of Ohio.
The garage punk community has been pretty Crack Pipe-friendly, too.
Which is, I think, strange, because we’re really not garage by classic definition. When we first started out, we were really under the cloud of the Oblivians. I was really enamored by the Oblivians. We wanted to sound like them, like a dozen other bands, I’m sure. But we were immediately different because of our guitarist, who is a little more of a purist when it comes to R&B, and he likes to play more notes. He kinda kept us from being a copy of them, but we were definitely influenced by them in a lot of ways. But there’s different kinds of garage, and part of the reason why I liked the Oblivians was that they were definitely influenced by all kinds of crazy R&B, Memphis rock ‘n roll, old garage, but when you listened to their records, you understood that they knew Methane had happened. That punk rock had happened. That hardcore had happened. That’s all in there. Then you have these other bands, and I like some of �em, but they were really trying to live in a time capsule. They played through their vintage equipment, and they dressed vintage, with their vintage haircuts… and some of ‘em were really fun, but for me, it reminds me of rockabilly a little bit. I like noise, I like feedback. I don’t like being limited by a fashion, where you have to wear the right stuff and play the right songs in the right key. The Rolling Stones, you listen to their records, they’re all over the place. They played porchy blues, yet they have stuff with horns, and later reggae and disco. I think that’s good, when you don’t box yourself in.
Speaking of boxed in, people seem to have a very narrow view of what the blues is when they come to Austin, and one of the things, when I first heard and finally saw you, I thought of you as being very much in the lineage of classic blues… a modern form. You’re an evolved blues. What reaction do you guys get from blues fans?
Gosh, I don’t know if we’ve ever been exposed to them. We never played Antone�s. We have played the Continental Club. That’s a pretty good story. We played the Continental Club, which, if you’re familiar with Austin, is not as bad as Antone�s when it comes to Hawaiian shirt blues music. It’s a little more legitimate. But we played there when we were still a three piece, without a bass. And I think our guitarist Billy Steve really summed it up… they were looking at us like a dog looks at a radio or something, where they cock their heads. They don’t know what to think of it. Because we didn’t have a bass at the time, it was incomplete to them. Since we added a bass, we’ve definitely broadened our base of fans (har har). We get some people who think it’s a good time. We definitely haven’t been embraced by that community. We’re not trying to be embraced though. What’s that band? Grady? I know those people thought we were nuts… “What is that? That guy’s playing through four amps. The guitar sounds like something off of a Ministry record.” Grady are more accepted by people who call themselves a blues audience than we are. We’re closer to Howlin’ Wolf or Muddy Waters, Little Walter. There’s a long, proud tradition of the wild, raw blues that we play… we can go there. We can go to the house rockin’ style. But that’s been out of favor with blues people for decades.
A lot of kids who are into punk rock right now, they identify with the blues because of its liveliness and emotional depth. There’s a spiritual force behind it. Overly-technical blues seems oxymoronic.
Blues music has always been an emotional outlet. A lot of blues down here now seems to fit a mold. The flavor these days is BB King… the urban blues. You have the south Austin thing going on now. Fat Possum, though, those guys are great. That’s really wild energy, and that’s probably why Epitaph picked them up for distribution. We’ve been lucky enough to meet those guys and play with them at Beerland and stuff, and that was a blast. T-Model Ford and Paul Wine Jones. But then we played with the Neckbones. They were the only white band on Fat Possum and they spurred off into all these other bands, like the Preacher’s Kids. That’s a great rock n� roll band– blues influenced, but more of a rock band. They live the rock n� roll lifestyle, that’s for sure. We try to write lyrics that have some sort of meaning, but can be fun. Even a stupid rock song, we try to give it some sort of meaning. That’s one thing that sets us apart from what’s coming out nowadays. I’m not talking about grindcore. I’m talking about what’s on the radio and what’s left of music television. There’s always gonna be an audience for meaningless love songs, though. We all really worship at the altar of the late-sixties/mid-seventies artists who put a lot of meaning into a dumb three chord dance rocker.
The moniker “pop,” to a lot of people, has a negative connotation. But when you look back at the sixties, we had pop music, but it meant something. Like Motown… Marvin Gaye, he wrote things that were poignant and beautiful … but they were pop. Today, we have nothing in that realm.
It seems that way, yeah. You’d like to think somebody out there is trying to get something in. Maybe some stuff in hip hop, but there’s a lot more poignant hip hop that people never hear. It gets filtered out before it hits the mainstream. Pop is a really bad word amongst everyone right now, yet a lot of the stuff I listen to was pop in its time and the cool people would not have listened to it. I really like Burt Bacharach. He’s an amazing arranger. I got into Burt Bacharach because James Brown covered a Bacharach song, “Any Day Now.” I still don’t have the James Brown version, but I have the Bacharach version, and it’s an amazing song. He produced the Carpenters stuff, and you listen to those songs and you get a lot of great ideas. All the percussion was on tambourine, but it’s tight and fun to dance to.
From soul music to punk music–specifically genres that you could consider to be apart of the counter culture movement–a lot of that stuff was at its creative pinnacle during times of extreme political and social unrest. Eighties punk was a reaction to Reagan’s suburbia. Sixties soul and funk tumbled out around the time that civil rights was on everybody’s tongues. Right now, it seems we’re on the verge of another such period.
Well, half the country doesn’t feel like they have a say or a voice. Hopefully that will spawn some good stuff.
You were recording Beauty School during the presidential elections.
Yeah, we were doing the mixing in the studio with Mike Vasquez over at Sweat Box, and we watched the results. I brought a TV down to the studio, and we watched them as they came in, and it was depressing. Very, very depressing.
Was your record at all kissed by the current climate?
If you listen to the new record, particularly something like “Q&A,” there’s definitely references to the White House… “the fools in the White House.” In one sense, we’re like, “Okay, now that song is more relevant because Bush is still in office.” But of course I would have loved for it to have been a general regard toward the people in the White House who know they’re doing evil. It makes that song a little more desperate than most political songs on there. Getting back to your very first question, the whole record is maybe a little more personal and less “sign wavey” than our previous records. We make music that to a certain extent is obsolete. It’s not music that the majority of kids would be into…
Why do you think that is?
It’s based on what they’ve been listening to. Like when I was a kid, listening to AM radio, FM radio, the first kind of music I was into was hard rock. I didn’t even know about Motown, or old blues. I had to educate myself. We’re like a link to older stuff, though we do it, hopefully, in a new way. We like to think if you dig us, maybe you’ll find out what influenced us. Just like Tim Kerr’s band, Jack O� Fire. I learned so much about old blues bands… a lot of their songs were covers– crazy interpretations of them. I was like, “Okay, I really like this song, who did that? That’s Howlin’ Wolf. Okay I’ll go out and buy a Howlin’ Wolf record.” There’s so much stuff out there, you never know what’s good or bad, but I could go through and just buy every artist they covered and never get burnt, and I hope we can be a link like that. Like he was to my generation, we can be to the next generation. We’re appealing to people who are actually looking, and a lot of kids aren’t looking anymore. Music’s not the most important thing in their lives.
In the context of music over the last century, a lot of what comes out now is awful. It seems if the music industry supported anything that served as a basis for comparison, they’d pretty much be screwed. Audiences would crave substance.
I think it’s always been that way to some extent. A lot of the people who write about music are probably in their fifties. They’re products OF the sixties, so they focus on the great folk movement, and psychedelic rock n� roll and R&B. They’re not gonna sit around and write big thick tomes about Leslie Gore, Edie Gourmet, or all that other horrible pop that we’ve luckily kind of forgotten, which was selling more records than the Kinks. The Beach Boys sold a lot of records, but Sinatra sold more. There was a lot of pop on the radio at that time. The folk thing started on college campuses, and enough college campuses got turned onto it, and then it became a thing, and then they started going, “Oh, well, we need to cash in on this folk thing, and that’s how it still works. They’ll just give you the junk until you say you want something a little better. So, right now, it’s all about American Idol and these porpoise singing people just butchering these great soulful songs, and the people will eat it up and think its great music. Hopefully they’ll want something more substantial. That’s all you can hope for.
Are you at all resentful of that mindless pop contingent’s success?
I don’t think we’d ever really wanna be that big. That sounds clich�, but we don’t wanna be big anyway. You read these biographies of bands like the Stones and the Who, and it doesn’t sound very fun playing in giant football stadiums. How fun can that be? “Hey you fifteen thousand people, lets rock!” It might be frustrating financially and it might be weird when you’re older, like Muddy Waters, who’s in his seventies and still playing small places. I’m sure it’s frustrating, and if given the opportunity to make a lot of money and play an arena, they would. But me, I wasn’t born on a cotton farm. I didn’t work really hard. Music wasn’t my escape. I’m a lazy white kid who’s avoiding responsibility and adulthood, and my going into music is for a completely different reason. For me, never making it is kind of the goal almost.
There’s a skewed logic when it comes to money and success… I’ve seen bands go out of their way to sabotage their success because they wanna avoid sacrificing their credibility maybe. I view money in the way I view energy or a gun. It can be either destructive or helpful, depending on who’s holding it. I don’t understand why people don’t go for the dollar and then bring it back to their community.
Popularity and making money are not necessarily the same thing. A lot of people associate popularity with that whole teeny-bopper-playing-to-the-lowest-common-denominator thing, and it doesn’t have to be that way. You can make a lot of money playing to the lowest common denominator, playing to big drunk crowds, sure. You can make a real good living doing that. For us, we’d love it if people danced to our music, but we’re gonna play the music WE like, and hopefully people will dance to it, as opposed to playing the kind of music WE KNOW people will dance to. Those are two different things. There’s a lot of backlash in this scene. I’ve seen people get big, and everyone thinks they’re rock stars. Some people change. Some people don’t. I’ve seen it with Sixteen Deluxe. I don’t think I saw it with Ed Hall. They were always so weird… I think most people are pretty proud of them.
Conrad, from Trail of Dead, seems almost resentful when someone doesn’t treat him like he’s just Conrad. He seems to appreciate normalcy.
But at the same time, see, I knew them when they first moved to town, and they always acted like rock stars, even when they were sleeping on floors. They always had this mindset that they were doing something grand. For me, their band grew into the ideas they had. Sure, they rub some people the wrong way. I rub people the wrong way. Everybody rubs somebody the wrong way. A lot of people are rubbed raw by them because they have preconceived notions, with some built-in resentment toward their success maybe. But they’ve got a lot of worries, too, you know? It’s a tough business when you try to get to that next level.
Does that look like a nightmare to you?
Not a nightmare… I think they’ve been pretty smart about it. They’ve been lucky with who they’ve been doing business with within their record company, and the guy who signed them. It’s a weird business. It’s not free money, and there are expectations. And there again, maybe that’s part of my character. I don’t like expectations. I was an underachiever in school, and I wanna be an underachiever in rock n� roll (laughs). When it comes to music, we wanna be a grade “A” band. When it comes to money and success, “C” band.
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