Dazzling Killmen's Darin Gray on Craw, the Best Weird 90s Post-Hardcore Band You've Never Heard

"The only reason I felt that they did hone their craft the way they did was because they felt they had to; they felt compelled to be great."

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May 6 2015, 3:03pm

Craw photo courtesy of Karen Novak

I've recently relaunched a Kickstarter campaign to help reissue some of my favorite albums of all time, the first three LPs by Craw. During the 90s and early aughts, this unclassifiable Cleveland band made some of the strangest, most intense and most eerily beautiful music of the post-hardcore movement. In conjunction with the fundraiser, I'm speaking to various noteworthy friends and fans of the band who share my passion for Craw's largely forgotten work.

Enter bassist Darin Gray. During the past two decades, Darin has worked with an insane array of noteworthy musicians, from experimental bigwigs Jim O'Rourke, Loren Connors, Chris Corsano and KK Null to Wilco members Glenn Kotche—in the duo On Fillmore—and Jeff Tweedy. (If you caught Tweedy's eponymous project making the late-night rounds recently, you've seen and heard Darin play.) Darin was also a core member of Dazzling Killmen, a ferocious, 90s-era progressive post-hardcore band from St. Louis. Craw and Dazzling Killmen were best buds—two groups from small scenes making crazily rigorous heavy music during a time when that was far from the norm—and to this day, Darin recalls them as one of the greatest bands he's ever seen. I caught up with Darin via phone recently, on a break between his tours with Tweedy, to talk about what made Craw so special.

Noisey: How did you first hear of Craw?
Darin Gray:
I was thinking about this, and I don't remember how Dazzling Killmen and Craw began with each other. But I think it was probably through Nick [Sakes, Dazzling Killmen guitarist/vocalist], who had some type of connection with one of them, and I do know that we drove specifically all the way to Cleveland to play a show with them at the Euclid Tavern. So we drove up there, and we had never heard them, because of course, at the time, there was no way to hear them. I don't know if their first record had come out. Do you know what year that record came out?

Yeah, 1993.
No, definitely it was not out. It was before. We played and then they played, and when they played, I honestly will never forget that. I've played thousands of shows now, and it's etched in my memory. In fact, I can still smell the smell of that show, and that room, watching them play. I was completely blown away. Completely blown away.

And also, I had this overwhelming feeling of not being alone anymore. Dazzling Killmen, we always felt alone. And it wasn't just that we were thinking, "Oh, we're so unique; we're so original." It was more like, we were from a small city [St. Louis]. No one here really cared what we were doing. When we would play out of town, the response was not great, at least at that time. And hearing Craw really made me feel less alone and made all of us feel less alone.

And also, I think probably at the time, live, that was the most unique band I had ever heard. There really isn't another band like Craw. They're a completely unique entity. And I remember just thinking, like, "Wow, someone has worked as hard as we have on a completely different thing." It wasn't that Craw sounded anything like Dazzling Killmen, and quite the contrary, really nothing like it. I could tell, I could hear that they had honed it and worked on it to the highest level. And at the time, there weren't a whole lot of bands out there touring that were like that, that had honed something to that high of a level.

The only reason I felt that they did hone their craft the way they did was because they felt they had to; they felt compelled to be great. And to be the best they could be. And for no other reason. There was no gain. There was absolutely nothing to gain, and I could tell they knew that. Because we were playing that first show with them in Cleveland, and honestly, man, my guess would be there were 25 people there, maybe 30. I don't know. I do know that the people that were there were super demented and super weird. I remember people, like, wrestling. I remember all the audience sort of wrestling each other to the ground. It was really a weird, weird crowd.

And from there, we would stay with them when we played there. We played there as much as we could, and in fact, we loved Craw so much that we would drive from St. Louis to Cleveland with no other shows and drive back. I remember even driving up, playing the show and driving back the same night, because people had to be at work the same day. We loved them; we literally loved them. And all of those guys were just the absolute most golden guys on earth. And then we started sharing shows. They would come down to St. Louis and play—I think maybe three times, maybe four—shows that we would set up for them down here, and they would open for us. The response here was probably the response they got everywhere, just people being perplexed. Even with their own crowd and even in their own town, people were pretty perplexed, man. You know? For me, honestly, I was not perplexed by what they were doing.

Yeah, I can relate to that. When I first heard their music as a teenager, I was a pretty strict metalhead. And I related to the heaviness of Craw, but there was so much of it that confused me. After spending about a month with the first record, though, I was ready to turn my back on metal because Craw seemed so much deeper to me.
So deep. I do know what you're saying. And especially at the time, in metal. At the time, metal certainly wasn't what it is now—certainly not. I was in from the first chord.

I've always felt like Craw and Dazzling Killmen were a genre of two.
Agreed. That don't sound alike, which is the weird thing about it. It's a genre of two of bands that do not sound alike, that maybe at the core figured out a way to be heavy, if you will, without the baggage of genre.

Yeah, that's exactly the way I would put it.
With Craw and Dazzling Killmen, I think where they both came from were ghost towns at that point—total ghost towns. And there was nothing—I mean zero—to gain other than doing it. The only success was just to be great. Just to be so great. That's the only success. Even your friends didn't like it. You couldn't even hope to draw other people. You couldn't even dream of that; it wasn't in your head at all. It was just like, "We have to practice; we have to become great; we have to stay focused." There was nothing else. And I think it was the exact same for Craw. I really do. There was nothing to gain other than being the best band they could be. Also something unfortunate for Craw at the time was, it would be different now. There would be places they could present their music that would be perfect for what they were doing. It just didn't exist then.

I'll tell you one huge regret, man: We talked forever about doing a collaborative Dazzling Killmen and Craw record, and it just never happened. Man, I wish that record would've happened; I wish so bad. We talked and talked and talked about it. I remember one time, we were going to go to their rehearsal space, and probably one of us had to go back and go to work. Probably something stupid like that. I mean, I could go on. I love that band. I love those guys. There are definitely moments even today—when I'm feeling down, I just think about those guys and what they did, and it totally inspires me to keep going. It really does. I almost would feel like an asshole for not continuing. I feel like I owe it to them in a way.

Well, yeah, that's exactly why I'm doing this Kickstarter. I saw that band, and they were the high water mark for me. And later I went and checked out all this other music, got super into jazz and every other weird thing I could find, and I never found anything, for me, that touched that.
No way. Ditto. There isn't anything.

Yeah, and with Dazzling Killmen, at least you can go on iTunes and Spotify and listen to your final album, Face of Collapse. And a few people have heard the last record Craw did on Hydra Head, but to me, that's only the postscript of a long story, and people need to read the beginning.
The bands that came after them kind of were in the same realm and got all the accolades. But that's not those bands' fault.

Here's the other thing, though: I think sometimes people make the mistake of thinking a band has to be influential to be important. To be honest, I don't think Craw is that influential because I don't think it would be possible to be influenced by them. I don't think there's a band that sounds like them, and I think that's to their credit.
Agreed. At the same time, I can just speak from personal experience that they did inspire me. And I'm out here and I'm living and I'm making music. But I think a band like that, there's no way that a band like Craw would inspire another band to sound like Craw. Craw would inspire someone to be a more awesome painter, or be a more awesome author, or be a more awesome bike racer. [Laughs] Whatever it is. You hear that, you see that, and you know that your potential to be what you need to be is untapped. You haven't even started yet, and that's scary. It's like, "Oh man, if I really want to do this, I have to dig in now, because these guys are practicing four or five nights a week for no gain, just to do it." And it's like, "How much effort have I really put into what I want to be, and what I am?" That's how I feel like they influenced people.

Can you speak more about the particularities of what Craw sounded like, and what impressed you?
Something that I was enthralled with was their unique sense of rhythm and their unique sense of shaping time and manipulating time. Musically, the way that Craw manipulated time—and I mean the arc of time, like, I'm listening to a band play for 45 minutes. The way that they manipulated time in their music and space in their music was completely unique, because at the end of 45 minutes, you didn't know if you'd been listening to a band for 10 minutes or two hours or 10 days. The way they controlled and manipulated time—completely unique. And I've never seen another band do that at that level, since then.

But you know what else, really? Joe McTighe's singing and his lyrics. Come on, man. There's nothing like that. [Laughs] It's just completely… There's nothing like that.

Yeah, I agree. I heard that and thought, "Well, there must be other stuff like this." And I searched far and wide and there literally wasn't.
There's nothing. You know, one band that's a curious reference that really has nothing to do with that, but it was similar to me at the time because I liked them so much, would be Slovenly—they were an SST band.

Yeah, Dave [McClelland, Craw guitarist-cofounder] is really into them, actually.]
Well, I didn't know. But at the time, it wasn't musically that I thought they sounded like Slovenly; it was more like, Slovenly's singer was also super unique, and his lyrics were super intense. And what he was singing over almost seemed unrelated to what he was doing. [Laughs] But it was so integral to what they did. And I saw them live a few times, and they were an amazing live band. And some of the guitarwork, it's not similar, but I think you know what I'm saying. It was a reference point for me at the time, only because I liked them.

To me the overwhelming thing that I would love to leave you with is that Craw made Dazzling Killmen feel less alone. It was the first and only time that we heard a band and felt that we weren't alone anyone. I can't overemphasize that. There were times when we felt like we were in a covered wagon going west or something. Because we just pretty much thought that we were like the bands that we loved, like, "People are gonna come see this band just like we go see bands that we love!" And we were so wrong. So, so wrong. And we had it so much better and so much easier than Craw did.

Yeah, I can see the connection. Both bands showed me how to make heavy, complex, engaging music that didn't fall back on metal cliché.
Or even rock music. I mean, I actually think that that music comes from the practice room. It sounds sort of shallow, but I think it comes from honing and, like, microscopes. That music doesn't comes from someone's record collection; it doesn't. And obviously, everyone in Craw were big-time music listeners; there's no doubt about it. But that's not where that music's coming from. It's coming from the practice room, and from honing it over time.

Hank Shteamer is keeping it weird on Twitter - @DarkForcesSwing