When The Cribs announced, back in February, that they’d be marking the tenth anniversary of Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever with an in-its-entirety UK tour, there were more than a few eyebrows raised. There were any number of reasons why Wakefield’s band of brothers didn’t fit the usual profile for that sort of affair – not least because, unlike most who book themselves similar trips down memory lane, The Cribs’ best years are by no means behind them. 2015’s For All My Sisters met with the strongest reviews of their career, and culminated in a massive outdoor ‘homecoming’ show in Leeds’ Millennium Square last July.
Anyone with much of a grasp of The Cribs’ ethos will know that nostalgia should seem like anathema to them; the reason that they’ve outlasted most of the groups that were considered their contemporaries back when Men’s Needs came out in 2007 is because they’ve always baulked at the idea of a comfort zone, instead challenging themselves and their fanbase with every passing release. That was true of Ignore The Ignorant, which saw them welcome Johnny Marr to the fold for a polished set of indie rockers recorded in Los Angeles, and of In The Belly Of The Brazen Bull, the sprawling three-piece follow-up that swung wildly between chaotic lo-fi and fist-pumping panoramas that concluded with a four-song, ten-minute suite that they cut at Abbey Road.
Even when For All My Sisters signalled a nudge back towards more melodic climes, it was in a manner consistent with the band’s penchant for doing things their own way; this was their own skewed take on pop, with Ric Ocasek of The Cars on production duties and the likes of Weezer’s Pinkerton as clear reference points. It was still a long way from Men’s Needs, and there were misgivings within both the band and their fanbase about revisiting past glories when they’d already moved so far past them. Ultimately, the tour was a triumphant one, ending with a another huge Leeds show at the city’s arena, but it left the trio looking for a way to kick back against what might have been seen in some quarters as precisely the sort of thing that this group is meant to stand against – sentimentality for its own sake.
Happily, they already had just the tonic in the can. As far back as 2012, the Jarmans had been reported to have worked with legendary producer Steve Albini in Chicago, which seemed like the perfect fit for a band as no-nonsense and Nirvana-obsessed as this one. Only one track made it onto Brazen Bull – the suitably rough-and-ready ‘Chi-Town’ – with a handful more songs left on the back burner until there was time to finish and release them. These Albini sessions quickly took on mythical status amongst the Cribs faithful, and when rumours that the tracks might surface in 2015 hot on the heels of Sisters proved false, fans might’ve been forgiven for wondering if they were ever going to materialise.
It seems serendipitous, then, that they put it off long enough to be able to release it now and put a very different complexion on their 2017 than if it had been defined by the Men’s Needs tour. Immediately after they wrapped those shows, they began to tease new tracks ‘Year Of Hate’ and ‘In Your Palace’ online, even though they were only initially made available on seven-inch at select record stores. They announced 24-7 Rock Star Shit, a full LP cut with Albini, less than three weeks before its release date. Everything about its rollout is consistent with its sound; raw, uncompromising and unvarnished, a stylistic return to their first two albums but carried off with the confidence of the old hands they’ve since become. In the final days of the intensive run-up to the record and with Ross, Ryan, and Gary holed up at a Leeds studio to nail last-minute B-sides, the latter called in to discuss their latest return to their punk roots.
DiS: How far does your work with Albini actually date back? Is it all the way to Brazen Bull?
Gary Jarman: That was the genesis of it, yeah. When we were writing that record, we had tons of songs and ended up with a fourteen-track album, which is too many, in my honest opinion. There were B-sides on top of that, and then the stuff we did with Albini, which really just seemed to stand alone. We felt like they were too strong to use as B-sides, and they just had their own identity anyway, separate from Brazen Bull. That’s why they’ve ended up sounding so cohesive and so ideologically uniform; we sort of knew from the very first session years ago that they were always going to make more sense kept together than they would have done broken up.
It always seemed like yourselves and Albini were a bit of a match made in heaven – you’ve got such similar approaches.
When we first started, we were very much purists. I don’t mean that in an analog or old-school way, but more in that we believed a recording should just be an idealised version of your live show, and that there shouldn’t be any sort of trickery involved. We didn’t want to do anything we couldn’t replicate on stage. Over the years, as we had a bit more success on the radio or in the charts, things changed psychologically, and there was sort of an expectation that we’d maintain a status quo between records – which we always really pushed against, and in doing that and experimenting, we left that ethic from the early days behind. By the time we went to work on Brazen Bull with Steve, there was a part of us wanting to return to the old days.
Was that a bit of an eye-opener, going back to working so straightforwardly?
It was more of a refresher, really, in that it reminded us that as long as you’re well-rehearsed, you plug in and you play the song well, you’re going to have a good-sounding record. That’s Steve’s whole thing, and we trusted him on it, and in that first session, we cut four songs in three days. When we went back to record 24-7 Rock Star Shit, we did the whole thing in five days. We knew that these songs didn’t need labouring over in the way we might normally – tightening them up, adding harmonies here or keyboards there. When it was done, it was done, and some people might think that’s a dogmatic approach, but these tracks were better served like that.
It’s hard to imagine something like ‘Rainbow Ridge’ with a load of guitar overdubs on top of it.
Totally. If you think of a record like Bakesale by Sebadoh, which is one of my favourite records since I was a fifteen-year-old kid – would those songs have been better if they were produced by Andy Wallace? Fuck no! That doesn’t make me a lo-fi enthusiast and it doesn’t mean I want to ghetto-ise my own music. It just doesn’t make sense to overwork some songs, and we knew we were ready to go back and finally make this record when we had some that would sound best when they were presented in this stark light.
When did you actually get back to Chicago to record the album?
It was at the end of last year. We were in the studio in December, finished it and mastered it over Christmas, and then jumped straight into rehearsals for the Men’s Needs tour. We had it for a little while and kept it on the quiet, basically. We got together to write for 24-7 throughout 2016, mainly in Portland on our downtime. I think after Sisters, we realised it was time to finish the Albini stuff, because we always kind of react to the previous record and that was one where we’d taken a similar approach to Men’s Needs and really tried to enhance the pop sensibilities – there was a lot of perfectionism on our part, so we were excited to do something a lot more immediate this time.
It didn’t feel like an accident that you started teasing the record right after you played that last Men’s Needs show at Leeds Arena. Were you trying to kick away from the nostalgia thing as quick as you could?
My initial idea was actually to release the record the day after the Leeds gig. No announcement, just leak it ourselves. That was partly because of the tour, which we had a feeling we were going to do while we were recording because people had been asking us. We had a little bit of trepidation about it. It seemed weird to be going back. I don’t mean that in any sort of derogatory sense, but it’s just that you don’t want to feel like you have to rely on something like that. At the same time, we want to do things we know people will enjoy, and we were flattered and honoured to be asked. We did end up sort of wanting to mitigate it, though; it made us more motivated to get something new out. Looking back’s all well and good, but we wanted to have a hard reset the day after the tour, which is why we put out the ‘Year of Hate’ seven-inch and started teasing a new album. It’s why the next UK tour won’t be a normal one, because we’ve just done one of those – our ideas for that are going to fit with the ethic of the record, which is all I can really say for now.
Why didn’t you end up putting the whole thing out straight away?
There was a bit of a compromise in the end. I mean, to me, that seemed like the perfect way of cutting through all the bullshit. The promotional side of things doesn’t really come easily to me or my brothers – we don’t want to be salesmen. We’ve never liked blowing our own trumpet, because we don’t have that sort of self-confidence. We thought doing it like that would mean there’d be no pressure, but there’s an expectation from the label and from management to do certain things to help make the record a success, and I totally understand that. We ended up with this compromise where we’d only announce it with a couple of weeks to go, and we kept the singles secret, too, until people started picking them up at certain record shops.
Did it turn out to be a better way of doing things?
I’m not sure if it has. I like that it’s been really quick and intensive because I think it suits the sound and attitude of the album, and I enjoyed the perversity of making the singles difficult to get hold of, keeping them off the internet to begin with, because everything’s so immediate these days. Now, though, I just want to get it out there. I think this process might have been harder than a regular release, and I thought it was going to be dead easy. It’s stressful, keeping secrets, and I’m not really into playing games – I much prefer just getting my teeth straight into it.
You always had a reputation as a DIY band...
True, but you should see how DIY we actually have been with this record! We’ve got our own imprint now, Sonic Blew, which we asked for when we signed to Sony, and we’re taking that side of it very seriously. We’re basically A&R-ing this album ourselves, really involved in the nuts and bolts of it. Maybe we’re just control freaks, and always have been, but it’s been so full on. It’s why I was so weary when you first caught me on the phone earlier. We’re a bit shell-shocked.
The pop-leaning touchpoints on the last album, like Weezer and Pavement, were really clear. Were there similarly obvious punk influences on this one?
Not explicitly, but I think subconsciously there’s probably things that have crept through again, because like I said, we were trying to go back to the approach we had when we first started. When any band starts out, it’s really heart-on-sleeve and really honest, so our influences were really evident, because you’re just writing songs that you think sound good and sharing them, without any preconceptions. You write without second-guessing yourself, and you’re not sitting around wondering where a song might fit into the band’s canon or whatever. What you end up with is a really pure distillation of the band’s ideals, which sounds pretentious but actually it’s the opposite – you’re just trying to be sincere. This record was like that, because we did it so quickly that you don’t have time to think about anything other than the songs themselves.
Did that stop you from focusing about the fact that, for a lot of Cribs fans, this Albini record is something they’ve been waiting on for years? That must’ve been a lot of pressure in its own right.
Yeah, that was liberating. It helps you not to worry about other people’s expectations or whether it’s played on the radio or where it might end up in the charts. That’s why I’ve got no hangups about this album and have such a good feeling about it – I haven’t had to live with it every day like I did with the rest. We didn’t have a record, and then five days later, we did. I didn’t end up feeling precious about every little detail – I can put it on and it’s almost like somebody else’s record. It really just is what it is, and some people will really love it for that, and others might find it jarring. I get that it might divide opinion, but I hope people will give us the benefit of the doubt, especially because it’s something we’ve done before on the first two albums.
Those two are the ones that have always been held really dear by the hardcore fans.
And this was really a reminder of why that is, you know? I did sometimes used to think that when people said they loved those albums because they were lo-fi, they were just saying that because that was the cool opinion to have – that thing of everyone always preferring the early work. I think that’s actually really quite genuine, though, because this approach really works well for us. Come to think of it, I never enjoyed listening to slick records as a kid; me and my brothers were always more into home recordings. That’s not to say that I feel less attached to the albums that we’ve made that were more polished, because we were aspiring to something with them, and that was fulfilling because we were never supposed to achieve on that level or be in that arena. This one’s just much more in line with the early days of the band.
How did you settle on the title? You were selling t-shirts with it on as far back as 2012...
It’s a good slogan, and obviously totally snarky. I think people know that it’s basically the antithesis of our ideology, and we liked how absurd it was to apply that to an album that takes the complete opposite tack. It stemmed from a very candid conversation we once had, where we’d used that phrase to describe people who think they’re above things. Somebody overheard it and said it’d make a great title. It’s just like when we put out a Best Of in 2012 and called it Payola; we never had any fucking help from anybody. Even when we had hit singles, it wasn’t because we were getting any mainstream support, so that was an absurd title and so’s this one. It’s a big part of the spirit of the album.
Now that the Albini record’s finally done, how did the experience of working with him compare to how you’d imagined he’d be beforehand?
It was pretty much exactly what we’d expected, and I say that in the best way possible. Steve has a reputation, and it’s not that he courts that reputation – it’s more that he doesn’t really give a shit what people think of him. In the music industry, that can be hugely surprising, because caring about how you’re perceived can feel like the nature of the game. Steve just does his thing, and people want to work with him because he’s the best at what he does. Everyone knows his name because he’s worked on some really big records, but that’s meant his reputation has almost ended up bigger than himself, and that’s put him in situations where major labels have sent artists to him thinking that they’re going to get another In Utero or Surfer Rosa and he’s had to tell those bands “I’m not going to write your songs for you”. He can’t finish the songs for you, and he can’t rehearse them for you – you have to show up ready to go. People think that’s a bad attitude, because they think of the producer as being the guy with the big ego who wants to affect the way a record turns out.
I remember him talking in Sonic Highways about how he views his job like a plumber, so he’s paid that way, too – for the hours he works, so he won’t take royalties. He seems like one of the most honest guys in the business.
Yeah, so his reputation for being acerbic is definitely overstated. He’s really helpful, really professional, and from an ethical standpoint, he’s beyond reproach. He won’t take any more money or credit for anything than what he feels he deserves, so he really is a paragon of integrity, and people forget that. They just remember stories about In Utero getting rejected and think it was because Steve was a firebrand and not because Kurt Cobain was a punk rock motherfucker. This was the easiest and most satisfying process we’ve had making a record – we went in for five days and came out with a record that sounded exactly like we wanted. For that sort of album, Steve’s the best producer in the world.
24-7 Rock Star Shit is out on 11 August via Sonic Blew. For more information about The Cribs, please visit their official website.
Photo Credit: Steve Gullick