Pillars of the 90s: Craw talk the Post-Hardcore Kinetics of Lost Nation Road

[This is the Ninth installment of the Pillars interview series. You can check out the rest here]

Artist: Craw

Album: Lost Nation Road

Year: 1994

Label: Choke

Favorite Song: "Sound of Every Promise"

The Bare Bones: Lost Nation Road is the sophomore full-length album by Cleveland post-hardcore unit Craw that was active from the late 80s to the early 2000s. The band briefly reunited in 2016 in support of their sprawling, career-spanning box-set.

The Beating Heart: There was and is no reason for me to even know about Craw. I didn't grow up in the Midwest hardcore scene, I didn't know any of the musicians who played in the band, and given the almost esoteric status the band has had – both during its time and after – the fact that I even know Craw exists is a kind of miracle. And yet that word – "miracle" describes both their music and their place in my musical life. I found out about Craw during the writing of this very blog somewhere toward the beginning of the previous decade, perusing through the now antiquated Mediafire-based blogs that would recommend bands lost in the sands of time (if I'm being overly dramatic), usually of the hardcore/post-hardcore persuasion. Craw was just one of those pleasant discoveries (pretty sure I found out about Regulator Watts and 108 in those blogs as well), but from the very first second I heard their music to this day I cannot but marvel that this miracle of a band even existed. Combining the force of 80s hardcore, the cerebral meltdown of late 90s bands like Botch or Coalesce, and the post-hardcore majesty and feeling of bands like Fugazi or Slint, Craw was both a band of its time and somehow also miles ahead. They exuded every kind of feeling – from unadulterated rage, to melancholy and even burst of joy, and in my mind represent an almost perfect storm of everything I love about music, from hardcore intensity to an almost metal-like ferocity.

All of these were the reasons I chose to include Craw in this project of mine, that aims to document the best music that came out of what is without a doubt the most significant musical decade for me personally, the 90s. It wasn't easy to choose just one album, since their entire catalogue to me is pitch perfect. But Lost Nation Road felt like a good choice, bridging the spectrum of beautiful weirdness the band seemed to personify, from its more hardcore-y roots to its latter more experimental stage. And so below you can find my recent interview with Craw's incredible guitarist David McClelland about the making of that unique record and also about what made Craw what it was.

Image may contain: 5 people
Craw, 1994. From left: Zak Dieringer, Neil Chastain, Rockie Brockway, David McClelland, Joe McTighe.

Before that, however, a few words about what this all is, and what I hope to achieve in an investigation of the great albums of the 1990s. I feel like what happened, inadvertently with the Albums of the Decade project was a documentation and to an extent consolidation of what it is that I have loved an admired about the music of the past 10 years or so. I began writing this blog as a way back into music and heavy music after something of a hiatus from metal in the early 2000s and it was for me an investigation not only of what I love but also why I love it. And those interviews were instrumental in my own understanding of my appreciation of music and, really of art more generally. However, having gone through that series as long as I have has also pitted me face to face with the understanding that the wellspring of my own musical inspiration as well as that of many of the artists I admire today – that weird, unique confluence of inspirations that made up the musical scene of the 1990s – had to be tackled in some way.

So, now that that's out of the way, follow us on FacebookInstagramSpotify (now also on Twitter!) and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, and check out our kinda-sorta podcast, MATEKHET (YouTubeSpotify and all that). On to the interview with David.

Is there a moment with a song or an album, maybe as a younger person, that really changed what you thought about music or made you want to become a musician yourself? Obviously there might be more than one of these, but anything that stands out?

Seeing the Beatles in "A Hard Day’s Night" and "Help" and "Yellow Submarine" made being in a band seem like the most fun and creative thing one could do with one’s life, and I started learning guitar when I was about eight. I know I’m not the only person who had that experience and that thought, but in my case it was strengthened by other things. I grew up outside of Boston in the 80’s. There was a lot of great radio then—lots of college stations, and even the bigger, commercial radio played a wide variety of things and had out-there late-night DJs. 

There was also a lot of live music available. The Boston hardcore scene was, loosely, in its second wave. Bands like SSD and Jerry’s Kids weren’t really playing anymore, but bands like Gangreen and Slapshot were, as well as other weirdo bands like Kilslug. So my friends and I would go to every all-ages show we could, which included national touring bands like Husker Du, Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, and Meat Puppets.

I think it was that simple—loving music, starting to play guitar pretty early, and then being able to see bands live and up close regularly.

As a follow up, can you understand better now, with the years that have passed, what it was that grabbed you about that initial moment? Perhaps an element you retained in your own music?

I was really hoping to re-create the immersive live experience the best of those bands created—the volume, the controlled noise, and (because this was Boston in the 80’s) the sense of incipient violence—the sense that the pit was about to really blow up, and that the band was really about to start a fire, or a riot. I think on our best nights, Craw was able to produce something similar—at least, something immersive and overwhelming.

Could you speak a bit about how the band came together and whether or not you felt like you operated within a defined musical scene?

I met Chris [Apanius], Rockie [Brockway], and Joe [McTighe], in that order, at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where we all went to school. We all had similar, but not totally overlapping, tastes in music, and we had all played some kind of music with friends before, so starting a band together made sense. At first it was a way to connect with people socially, and to, in fact, create a little bit of a social scene. CWRU was (and is) pretty homogeneous, so it was natural for us to stick together. There wasn’t that much else to do – there were concerts to see downtown, etc, and a good movie house on campus, but none of us were in the student government or anything like that. 

At first, we didn’t operate within a real musical scene. Cleveland had a few different ones – a blues scene, a hardcore scene, and some other kind of alt/poppy bands – but we were way too out there for people to embrace us at first. There was a burgeoning metal scene, and it has only gotten stronger, but we didn’t connect with those people immediately. However, that changed when Derek Hess started booking punk and metal and heavy music at the Euclid Tavern. Every band from NYC going west, and every band coming from the west and midwest, played at the ET. Craw got to open for a lot of great bands, and I felt like our music made sense when seen on that national stage, rather than in comparison to other Cleveland bands. That said, we were of course friends with other Cleveland musicians, and would play shows with them—such a night could consist of four bands that all sounded nothing like each other.

Was there a time where you guys, whether as individuals or as a band did feel like you were, say, in the beginning, a part of a scene and that there was a moment where you understood you didn’t fit in anymore? Or that you were made to feel a bit more like outsiders? Or was it pretty much outsider from the get go.

The answer is kind of an inversion of the way you phrase the question— that is, at first we felt very outside of any musical scenes in Cleveland, but as we continued we began to find our place—and people began to understand what we were going for. Specifically, there was a hardcore/metal scene – Integrity is the biggest from that scene – that existed before we got together and never welcomed Craw, even though there were personal connections between Craw and a lot of them. Later, a more “traditional” metal scene began to shape up, and we were much more friendly with them (Will going on to play with Keelhaul, as proof) but of course our music didn’t strictly align. I think both the hardcore and metal scenes in Cleveland have evolved and developed in ways I am not fully on top of— and I am not sure those contemporary bands would see Craw as any kind of antecedent to what is happening now.

So, musically, Craw always felt outside of the Cleveland scene, and was always looking to bands from all over for inspiration, but in a kind of inter-band social way, we did find ourselves welcomed— that is, Craw got more and more respected, even by people who might not have “gotten it” on first listen, and as a group of people we attended nearly every show possible. So in the end, we did not feel like outsiders. I think the best way of putting it is that we, with the help of a lot of journalists and promoters, created a web of connections that we were able to lay on top of what already existed in Cleveland. Another way to say it is that when Craw started there were no bands that sounded like us, and by the end there were a few bands that sounded a little like us—but all those bands at the end knew who we were.

Obviously there’s a great tradition of Midwest rock, punk, and hardcore, and it’s one that has always interested me. How big of a factor was it for your guys that you weren’t coming from a “big market” hardcore scene such as DC, New York, or L.A.? Did that change the extent of artistic freedom, when you look back on it, or even now?

Not coming from a “big market” scene mostly seems to have limited our possibility for support, really. We were on a Chicago label for the first two records, before they defaulted to being a distribution label, and they were helpful in getting those records out there and reviewed, but almost all our touring was done off our own contacts and phone calls and etc. There was always the idea that maybe we could sign to a bigger indie and get proper support, and that this might come with a bargain that curtailed our artistic freedom, but really there was no one asking. Another way of saying it is that we were free to make whatever music we wanted, and there was no one else invested enough to exert any control.

All that said, there was a huge amount of midwest music we all loved, and few of those bands sounded like anyone else either—Die Kreuzen, Killdozer, Big Black, Harvey Milk, the list goes on. So we were happy to be another midwest band that also didn’t sound like most other midwest bands. Now that I live in NYC, however, I do see how much it takes to be a band in this town. I’m pretty sure that if Craw had somehow relocated to NYC, or LA, we would have quickly succumbed to all the pressures and temptations and dissolved. There’s something great about being able to practice in the basement of the house you’re renting for $200 a month.

Lost Nation Road is very much a Craw album, in that it sounds like much of the aggression and tenacity on your debut was still there. But there’s a sense in that record of creeping melody, reflexiveness, and dynamics. What were some of the things that led the band down that path, and was it a conscious effort to do things different?

A big change is that we got Zak Dieringer on bass for Lost Nation Road. Zak is a monstrous musician, and he and Neil really nailed it down. In terms of the other elements you mention, we did want to bring in some other things, but it wasn’t that we wanted to turn away from what we had done on the first album. We just had a bunch of new ideas we wanted to cram in there. The idea of a stronger sense of melody, for instance, probably came from specific writing ideas – using certain intervals, having riffs/runs that traveled over two octaves, or trying to use a series of chords that didn’t come from the blues/metal/hard rock tradition.

That album has, at least in my mind, Craw’s best production, in that it retains that unhinged, pouncing energy while allowing all of the instruments to come through beautifully. Did you guys approach recording differently, or was it basically the same process only with more experience?

Basically the same process, with more experience! Same engineer – Steve Albini – same studio – this was his house, before Electric Audio. I think the biggest change was that we had played these songs live a bunch, had been in other studios for demo purposes, and we were just a more mature band. I like the way that album sounds a lot, myself.

A lot of hardcore, post-hardcore, and metal today really hinges on that out-of-the-box energy bands like Craw provided, and it really has become a mood of music that has somehow also made its way to the mainstream. Is there a sense that Craw, perhaps, was a band out of its time, or a sense of missing out on whatever you may have helped build?

Yes to both questions. In some ways we were not “of our time” and as we went on as a band, the music we played made more sense to more people more quickly, which really means that more people were becoming familiar generally with music like ours. As for missing out – we were over and done right before the digital world exploded, and sometimes I think it’s a miracle we didn’t completely fall through the cracks. However, I think the box set and reunion show we did has gone some way towards rectifying that situation. At least now the music is available online, and is on people’s radars, whereas for a while it was completely gone.

Looking back at Lost Nation Road is there anything that you’re especially proud of about that record? A song, a decision, a moment?

Personally, I think LNR is the high point of the band’s discography. The other records are great—I know a lot of people like the Bodies record I’m not on, as the songs are killer and the production is very modern—and Map, Monitor, Surge has a few of my favorite moments, but I think LNR happened when we were strongest as a band, and were benefitting from lots of touring and a sense that our star was rising. 

As for a moment – I’d probably say the first three songs, and the way they tie together, probably encompasses most of what we were going for as a band – super aggressive, super moody, surprising sounds and structures, etc.