WAKING UP TOGETHER: Great Lakes’ Ben Crum

The indie rock auteur discusses the different lives of his much-loved band. Hear some music here: www.greatlakesbencrum.bandcamp.com.

BY TIM HINELY

It was the self-titled debut in 2000 that was released on Kindercore that initially got me interested. I loved most everything on that label so when a CD by a band called Great Lakes popped into my P.O. box, I was excited to check it out. Like a few of the others under the Elephant 6 moniker (Apples in Stereo, Olivia Tremor Control, etc.), it exuded a sort-of grandiose ‘60s pop charm with bits of psychedelia, and some beautiful noise a la Pavement, too. Other records followed (including the brand spankin’ new, and very good, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge), and along the way, Crum lended his skills to bands such as Ladybug Transistor and the Essex Green.

The more recent Great Lakes records have been a bit darker, more guitar-heavy (less sunshine pop) than previous records, but still with excellent songwriting and an overflow of hooks. I wanted to know a bit about Crum and what made him tick, and when I shot some questions his way he was more than happy to expound and expand on his life from the early days until present day. If you’ve never heard the music of Great Lakes, then by all means check out one of their many releases—each one with its own distinct personality. Visit the band’s Facebook page, then read on, dear fans….

Check out the full album stream via our good friends at The Big Takeover.

Where did you grow up?

Mt. Airy, Maryland, though I finished high school in suburban Atlanta.

What was the first band that made you take notice?

The Descendents was really the first band that I was in to. I mean, I was discovering classic rock at the same time, but that 80s punk stuff was big for me. I came to them through skateboarding videos. They’re still one of my favorite bands, though I confess I haven’t kept up with their latest music. Fugazi was also an early big one for me. That first EP especially. I also loved, and still love, The Misfits.

When did you first pick up an instrument? Was it a guitar?

I was required by my mother, who played piano, to take piano lessons. She made me practice right after school. While sitting at the piano practicing my scales I could hear the other neighborhood kids playing and having fun. I found it miserable at the time. But my piano teacher let me come early to the lessons. She had a giant leather recliner and a nice stereo system with headphones. She’d let me play whatever records I wanted to listen to. That was my introduction to CCR. The main lick from “Down On the Corner” really grabbed me as a kid. That and the lead guitar part from “Up Around the Bend” had really caught my attention.

By middle school I chose to be in the school band. That lasted about one year. I think I mainly did it because I didn’t like the other options. I “played” saxophone. When I was about 14 I was watching Maryland public TV and I saw the One Night With You movie with Elvis. It’s taken from the 68 Comeback Special. I still love that stuff. I got out my mom’s old nylon string guitar and started teaching myself to play. I begged my parents to let me trade my sax for a steel string Guild acoustic. I took a few lessons, but those didn’t really take. I learned to play “Dust In the Wind” though.

What was your introduction to independent music? Was it hardcore? New wave? Something else?

I used to have a skateboard ramp in my backyard. All kinds of people would hear about it and come to my house to skate. There was an older dude who had a hardcore band and he gave me his 7 inch when I was about 15. That must’ve planted the seed in my mind that independently putting music out was something I could do. Before then, I don’t think it had occurred to me.

What was your first band? And how/when did Great Lakes come about? That was in Athens, GA, right?

It’s all kinda related, to me. The way I got started in doing music was that during breaks from college, around 92-93, I started getting together with high school friend, Dan Donahue, when we were both visiting our parents in Atlanta. We would write songs and record them on 4 track. We liked Galaxie 500/early Luna, The Flaming Lips, Pavement, Dinosaur Jr. And I remember he liked The Chickasaw Mudpuppies a lot and got me in to that stuff. He didn’t really play an instrument, though in the early days neither did I, really, so we both played whatever we could. He liked writing lyrics, though. That was his main thing. It always felt like a chore to me, and I was happy to have him be the lyricist. We called ourselves The Patty Melts. We had a song called “I’m Alive” that was kind of a fictional blues about how bad life was for the narrator, but the idea was that at least he was alive. A choice nugget of the lyrics, referring the guy’s wife, went: “ she’s a briarpatch with an eyepatch”, and later the narrator says:  “…gettin’ my ass up is a damn chore.” We made a pretty cool 4 track recording of that song. I had this homemade 4 string fretless instrument that my dad and brother had built. I’ve still got it. It was made out of paneling for the body and a piece of molding for the neck. The tuners were eye screws, screwed right into the wood. I tuned it to an open chord and played slide on it with a screwdriver as the slide. So we made this Chickasaw Mudpuppies-inspired song with that. By about 94 I started visiting Dan in Athens, where he was in college, and we would write songs and try to record them. Jamey Huggins, who was then in high school but came to Athens a lot on breaks and weekends, joined us on drums. We were all really into Teenage Fanclub by that time, and one night we stayed up all night and wrote a song that we thought was so good that we had to start a band one day. Even then, I was focused on the recording. Unless we had a cool recording of a song, it was as if it almost didn’t really exist. I think we all felt that way. I still do.

Meanwhile, I was in a band in college in Birmingham, Alabama with some friends. We were first called a few different names that I’ve forgotten, but when we started playing shows we were calling ourselves Wonderock, like a superhero or something. We had a couple good songs, actually. I remember getting some encouragement from the sound guy when we played our first show at The Nick. He was a pretty grizzled old guy, Johnny Mack, and he came up to us after our set and said begrudgingly, “Well, my toe was tapping and my toe don’t lie to me…” One of the members of that band, Craig Ceravolo, moved to Athens with me in 96 and went on to play in the earliest version of Great Lakes. Another member of that band formed a band called Three Finger Cowboy. They were on Amy Ray’s label and, I think, did a tour or two opening for The Indigo Girls. After that band I had a short-lived band with Craig, Jason Hamric, and Jamey, called Alaska. Craig, Jason, and I all lived together in Southside, and Jamey had come to Birmingham to stay with us for the summer. I think we chose the name because of that line in “Stephanie Says:, “It’s such an icy feeling / It’s so cold in Alaska”. We also called ourselves Cherry Valence for a bit (this was back before there was a band called The Cherry Valence). Anyway, that band had 3 members of what would become Great Lakes in it. I tried to convince Jason Hamric to leave Birmingham and move to Athens with us, but he wasn’t into that idea. He definitely would have been in Great Lakes, though, if he had moved with us. Great player, and great guy. So, anyway, in Athens, Dan joined us as a lyricist, and we merged Alaska/Cherry Valence and Wheelie Ride and The Patty Melts and became Great Lakes. And then Great Lakes evolved over time. But it wasn’t until 2009 or so that the current iteration, the longest running consistent lineup the band has ever had, came together. But Great Lakes is really more than a band to me. It’s what I consider my life’s work as an artist.

Tell me about your tenure in both the Ladybug Transistor and the Essex Green.

Well, when I got to Athens I arrived right as the Elephant 6 thing was coalescing. The first Neutral Milk Hotel and Olivia Tremor Control records had just come out and they blew me away. Elf Power, too. All those guys were into 4 track recording, like us, but, of course, they were way more advanced. We became friends with that whole group of people. And then, after years of recording (including really learning how to record), the first Great Lakes album came out on Kindercore/E6. Ladybug Transistor had a connection to E6. Their album The Albemarle Sound had certainly caught nearly everyone’s attention that year. I mean, if you liked Love and The Beach Boys and Van Dyke Parks’ Song Cycle and stuff like that, then that record was pretty much made for you. We loved it. That and that Lilys record that sounded like The Kinks (Better Can’t Make Your Life Better). Through E6 connections some of the people in Ladybug asked the Kindercore guys to release the first record by their other band, Essex Green. Kindercore happily did. We played a show or two together with Essex Green and Ladybug in Athens, which was fun. We hung out and kinda bonded over shared musical tastes, they way you can only really do when you’re in your 20s, it seems like. A few years later when I moved to Brooklyn they were some of the only people I knew. Jeff Baron, of both bands, immediately asked me to get together with him and Mike Barrett and play some music. We quickly realized that not only did we all love 60s psych and pop, but we also really loved old country music and the whole Flying Burrito Brothers style of country rock. Because we each knew so many country songs, and because we just loved to play, we would get together and play a lot. Mike and Jeff lived together, and had a cool little low volume set up in their apartment, and we’d hand out and play for hours, swapping instruments and trading off singing lead on all kinds of stuff. Eventually we started doing some of Mike’s originals, and Jeff and I would do some tunes. We talked about making a record, possibly of Mike’s original songs, and probably should have. But for some reason we ended up not doing that. But, like I said, we had a bunch of fun. It was also like some kind of music school for me, in a way. Jeff and Mike helped me train my ear to hear the changes, and to improvise. Previously, a live show for me had been about basically just executing what I’d written beforehand; but I came to see music differently through that experience of playing with those guys. I mean, with them, nothing ever sounded the same way twice, and I learned to love that. Then, soon after, Essex Green didn’t have a bass player for a tour they had booked, so they invited me to play. Tim Barnes (Silver Jews, Royal Trux) was on drums for the first tour or two that I did with them, and between Jeff’s great guitar playing and Tim’s incredible drumming and way of listening and responding, it was a great experience. That lineup of that band was definitely one of the best bands I ever played in. We did a tour or two with other drummers, and despite the fact that the Essex Green songs are great and I love playing with them, there came a point when I decided to bow out and focus on a new Great Lakes record, which became Diamond Times. But after that album came out Gary of Ladybug found himself without a guitarist. I guess Jeff didn’t want to do it at that point, so I started playing guitar with him. We did several tours, sometimes with Ladybug Transistor and Great Lakes on the same bill, and then we made what I call the Buckingham Kicks album together (officially titled Can’t Wait Another Day). I wanted to change the band name to Buckingham Kicks and release a self-titled debut, because the album we did was so different from previous LT albums, but Gary decided against that. The great thing about joining Ladybug Transistor, apart from playing with Gary, who is one of the better singers around, was that I got to play with longtime Ladybug drummer San Fadyl. He was another fantastic drummer, and he taught me tons as a musician. After he died tragically, my days in that band were numbered. But Gary soldiered on and made another record, and he’s still doing stuff now. I think he’ll keep making great records for a long time. I’d like to think that I’ll do more stuff together with the Essex Green/Ladybug Transistor folks. We’ve talked about wanting to do something, but logistically it’s a little tough. Maybe one day, though. There’s a new Essex Green coming out soon, though. I’ve been listening to it and it’s great.

When did you move to Brooklyn? What prompted the move?

I moved in 2002. I think I stayed in Athens a little too long for me. I’m not saying people shouldn’t stay in Athens. It’s a great place and I love it. But I was there 6 years, and it’s a small southern town, you know? That has its up and downsides. I think I should have left a little before then, but I didn’t for some reason. The way I actually ended up moving is that my girlfriend at the time was moving and I came along. We promptly broke up, but I stayed in New York because I liked it. Though New York is expensive, it’s a fun place to raise a family. We got to the Catskills, we have a great beach nearby, and we live in a community that is progressive politically. That goes a long way.

Tell us about the new Great Lakes record, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge. Where was it recorded? Who played on it?

Dreaming Too Close to the Edge, the 6th Great Lakes record, ended up being the third in a series of three records that sort of share a lyrical theme. The previous two, Ways of Escape and Wild Vision, are much more country-inflected, however. I think those two are good records, but they’re kinda heavy in terms of the moods and subject matter. This new one feels more fun to me. The subject matter is still pretty heavy, but the songs are back in major keys again. I think it’s a really strong batch of songs. I’m proud of it. I think with Ways of Escape I finally really found myself as a songwriter. I think the stuff I’ve done since that record has been my best work, and this new one feels very strong to me.

The lineup is pretty much the same as played on the previous two records. The drummer is Kevin Shea. He’s been with me for over 10 years now. Suzanne Nienaber sings with me again. Kenny Wachtel plays some guitar. Joe McGinty is back on keys, and Dave Gould on bass. There are a couple other people who played on a song here and there, Luis Leal played mellotron on a aong, and Andrew Rieger did a guest vocal on one song. They’re great musicians, all of them. And just nice, easy-going people. I have no intention to shake up that lineup. As long as those lovely people want to play with me, they’ve got the gig. Of course, it’s different when you’re in your late 30s and early 40s. We’re not trying to tour the world, and I really don’t have ambitions beyond making what I think are good records, and maybe playing the occasional show.

As for the recording of Dreaming, the drums were recorded at Brian Eno’s old space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. I think Martin Bisi has been there for 30 years or more. There’s a documentary film about the place. It’s now called Seizure’s Palace (when Jason LaFarge is behind the desk). It’s a huge room, but Jason’s got a great handle on getting good drum sounds in that space. A Boredoms record or two were done there, as well as several Swans records. It’s a great and really weird space. The keyboards were tracked at Joe McGinty’s vintage keys studio, Carousel, in Greenpoint. I played with him and got to know him through Ladybug Transistor (especially when we were rehearsing with Kevin Ayers, but he was also a good friend of San’s, too). Nearly everything else was done in my home studio. And I went to Don Piper’s Brooklyn studio to track vocals. He’s got a Neve desk there, and gets nice sounds. The record was mixed by Steve Silverstein, who mixed each of the last three records. Steve and I have a long relationship of working together, and he’s great.

Is Loose Trucks your own label? Do you release other music other than your own on it?

Yes. My old friends Andrew and Laura of Elf Power run Orange Twin Records in Athens. They put out a couple Great Lakes records, but for Wild Vision, the 5th record, Andrew suggested to me that there was really no reason anymore to give them a cut of the money. He just hooked me up with their distributor and I started my own label. So far, so good. But I teamed up with Mike Turner (of HHBTM Records, and the guy who released the first ever Great Lakes 7”) to help me with distribution this time. I think that’ll be a positive thing. The truth is, I’d never want to start a label, necessarily, but it just made sense for me to do it.

I haven’t released anything else on the label except the last two Great Lakes records, and I really don’t have any desire to do so.

Who are some of your favorite current bands or musicians?

Steve Gunn. I especially love Way Out Weather. That’s the modern record that I’ve listened to the most in recent years. I love the Fahey meets drone-y raga thing; but it’s the strength of the compositions and the melodies that I find elevates it above other records in that style. I also think David-Ivar from the band Herman Dune is one of the most criminally underrated songwriters around these days. And Bill Callahan has long been a favorite of mine. I think he’s peerless.

What is one musician you’d say who’s had the biggest impact on your music?

My biggest influence as a guitar player is/was Dean Wareham. First, I always thought his sound was really cool. And his solos and lead playing, from Galaxie 500 on, has all been consistently great. I mean, as a beginning guitar player I’d sing along with the guitar solos. It doesn’t happen that often, when the long guitar solo or outro is the highlight of a song, or just as good as the singing part. Wareham was kind of my guitar teacher in a sense, because the way he plays, it’s not super fast. It’s about the melodies and the feeling and the mood. Because his stuff wasn’t very technical, I was able to play along with his solos and lead parts pretty easily and figure out what he does and how he does it. Every now and again I still kind of think to myself, “What would Dean Wareham do on this song?” if I’m stuck trying to figure out a guitar part for a song.

Tell us about your day job as a teacher. How does it fit into your lifestyle? Any of the other teachers know that you’re a musician?

Well, I don’t have a very wild lifestyle, I can tell you that. I’ve got a 7 year old son and a 1 year old daughter. With a full-time job as a third grade teacher, I’ve got my hands full. Lots of responsibility. But I still find the time to play a handful of shows each year, and to release records regularly. I’ve kind of gotten into a pattern of working, that works for me. During the school year I write songs when inspiration hits. But then I have the summers off. That’s when I have more time to work on music. If I can get all the songs for a new record written, revised and ready to record by August, I can track drums for an album. And then the cycle of overdubbing on the recordings, while also writing new songs, can begin again. That’s really my pattern.

People I work with know I write and play music, and put out records. Sometimes they’ll come to the shows. Some of my student’s parent’s have actualy looked me up and bought my records. I leave a guitar in my class and we sing all the time. The parents know me as this gentle teacher who sings Paul Simon and Cat Stevens songs with their kids, but I could tell by the way they some of them talked to me about my music that they were a bit surprised, after hearing my music, at how thematically dark some of my stuff is. It’s not children’s music that I’m making, you know? If they’d asked me I’d have warned them.

As a teacher, I think about Robert Pollard a lot. He’s not only one of my favorite songwriters, but he made a bunch of his best records while he was working full-time as a 3rd grade teacher. It’s really not hard to balance teaching and music. The hours can be tough, though. I have to be on point at 8am when I have to face a class of 8 year olds. One of my regular working times is between 4am and 6am. It’s been less this way since we had our second kid, because I’m really tired from having a baby,  a 7 year old, and a demanding job. But I made most of the previous two records, and a lot of Dreaming, between the hours of 4am and 6am. That’s when my brain works best, anyway, I don’t even set an alarm. I just wake up naturally when I’m feeling inspired to work. It’s nice. The house is quiet, and I’ve got a tried-and-true system for recording electric guitars, bass, and keyboards silently. My wife is also very supportive, and often graciously allows me weekend mornings off of childcare duty so I can get some recording work done.  I’m one of those people that if I’m not recording and getting work done, I’m kind of irritable and feel unsettled. So it’s probably in her best interest to do that… (haha)

You’re the only remaining original member of the band., then? What’s that like?

Yeah. I’ve been the only original member of the band for over 10 years now. But it was really only for the first 2 records that the original members were a big part of the band, anyway, to be honest. And even then it was really just the first one that was the product of genuine collaboration. Back then it was me and Dan writing songs together, but by the time the first record came out we’d put together a big band that also featured Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal, Scott Spillane from Neutral Milk Hotel/Olivia Tremor Control, Bryan Poole from Elf Power, and Derek Almstead, Dottie Alexander, Heather McIntosh, and Jamey Huggins as a multi-instrumentalist and our main drummer. Jamey and I really collaborated very closely on the first record, in terms of working out the instrumentation on the songs. That was a really good, positive collaboration. And, truthfully, it hurt me when he chose to pretty much leave the band and focus on Of Montreal. But I understood his decision. They were getting really popular, and I couldn’t blame him. Then, in 2002, I moved to Brooklyn and Dan followed not long after, and once we’d both left Athens that was basically the end of the original lineup. Dan and I kept writing songs together, though, with him writing the lyrics and me writing the music. We went back to Athens to record Diamond Times, and a bunch of the old crew pitched in and played on the record, but by that point I’d formed a pretty strong connection with Jeff Baron of Essex Green and Ladybug Transistor, and had convinced him to come down from Brooklyn to Athens with me for the recording sessions. He ended up playing a big role in terms of making that album what it became.

The last released songs that Dan and I co-wrote, apart from one that made it onto Ways of Escape, came out on Diamond Times in 2006. After that album came out, I put together a 3-piece lineup of the band in New York, to tour behind that album. We did a long tour of the US, opening for The Clientele. It was Kevin Shea on drums, and Kyle Forester, who I also roped into The Ladybug Transistor as a keyboardist, on bass. We did a few tours of Europe with that lineup, too. What’s strange is that, though it’s not the original lineup, we played more shows together as a 3-piece than any previous or later Great Lakes lineup ever played, yet the three of us never made a record. Kyle left right before we began recording the 4th record, Ways of Escape. Around then Dan and I had a disagreement over the musical direction of the band and he abruptly moved back to Athens. Him leaving really turned out to be a great thing for me. Kevin Shea was happy to keep playing drums with me, and I wrangled a bunch of great NYC-based players to help me make that record. Towards the end of that process, Suzanne Nienaber started singing with me. As soon as we started doing stuff together I thought it sounded great. That lineup ended up being the players I’ve continued to work with for a decade and counting. We made Wild Vision together, which, to me, really felt like a highlight in the band’s discography, and then we made the new record, Dreaming Too Close to the Edge, together, too.

Looking back, I think I went out on my own at just the right time. I was feeling weird about singing somebody else’s words. And it felt so much better to sing my own. Dan also just wanted more say over the music than I was willing to give him. I think a lot of artists reach a point where they get fed up with making art by committee. At a certain point, you need control to really realize your vision. I’ve done 6 Great Lakes records now, with the most recent 3 being made without any other original band members. And it’s the 3 I’ve done on my own that I feel most proud of, to be honest. I’ll never disavow the early stuff, and if you’re a fan of unabashed 60s psych-pop then that’s the Great Lakes stuff for you.

The thing about bands continuing on without original members is tricky. A lot of times those bands aren’t very good without the original lineup. But I always think about The Byrds when this subject comes up. My favorite Byrds records are the ones Roger McGuinn made without Gene Clark and David Crosby. I mean, I love the Gene Clark solo stuff, and that first David Crosby solo record, too. And of course the early Byrds stuff is great. But those late Byrds records are the ones I like the most. I like to think of Great Lakes like that. Maybe some people prefer the early stuff, and that’s fine. But I’m just going to keep on doing my own thing, regardless of what anybody else thinks.

Any closing comment? Final thoughts? Anything you wanted to mention that I didn’t ask?

I’m always focused on what I’m doing next. I’m working on the 7th Great Lakes record now. More and more, I find myself drawing on more of my influences from the time when I was starting to play music, lthe stuff I was into in my early 20s. Dinosaur Jr., Pavement, Sebadoh, Luna/Galaxie 500, Teenage Fanclub, Guided By Voices, Built to Spill. Not that there’s a cohesive sound there, but that combination of sounds is really where my heart is lately. I’m working on the next record now and I can feel it going in that direction. It’s not at all thematically connected to the other records. I feel like it’s going to be good.

Thanks for your interest in my music, Tim. I appreciate it. (L-r in the top black-and-white photo: That’s Kevin Shea, Suzanne Nienaber, Kenny Wachtel, Chris Talsness and me.)

All photos by jami craig except the daytime outside shot, which is by Diego Britt. 

 

 

 

 

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