Keelhaul's Will Scharf Remembers the Forgotten Legacy of Craw
The drummer looks back on his days in the intense, stupendously weird Cleveland post-hardcore band.
I first met Will Scharf in the fall of 1995. I was a 17-year-old high school junior, showing up at a small club in a sketchy part of Kansas City, MO, to see my favorite band: a monstrously intense, stupendously weird Cleveland post-hardcore group called Craw. Will was, at that time, Craw's brand new drummer, who had recently piled into a van with them on just a few weeks' notice to embark on a nationwide tour. I didn't warm up to Will's playing right away. The machine-like precision of Craw's prior drummer, Neil Chastain, had enthralled me, and I had a hard time relating to Will's wilder, more organic approach. But the new lineup jelled and, two years later, produced its own brain-scrambling masterpiece: the long out-of-print Map, Monitor, Surge.
To this day, Craw remains my favorite band, the architects of the most challenging, moving and straight-up terrifying music I've ever heard. But very few people who don't share my early-90s Midwestern roots have ever heard of them. (If they have, it's as a footnote to masterful Cleveland riffsmiths Keelhaul, Will's other, better-known group, or via Bodies for Strontium 90, Craw's brilliant sayonara LP, which came out on Hydra Head in 2002, long after the band had ceased touring.) After years of wishful thinking, I'm finally attempting to remedy this injustice by launching a band-approved Kickstarter campaign, with the goal of reissuing the first three Craw albums as a limited-edition vinyl box set. I took this opportunity to catch up with Will, who remains a mercilessly self-deprecating gent and an absolute demon behind the kit.
Photo: the author, third from left, with a few of his closest friends and four fifths of Craw (including Will Scharf, second from right, mugging like a wackjob), in Lawrence, KS—1997.
So how did you end up joining Craw?
I was playing in a shitty warehouse with [guitarist] Chris Smith and we were doing what would eventually turn into Keelhaul. And I got a call from Rockie [Brockway, Craw guitarist and cofounder]; I think it was August of '95. And Rockie asked if I would be willing to do an upcoming tour with them and basically be in the band. Rockie and I had already played in a couple other bands at that point, so we were familiar with each other's playing. I was a big Craw fan anyway and already knew a fair bit of the songs.
I had about a month to learn the set. Right before that tour, Craw was opening for the Jesus Lizard, so that was my first show, which was pretty intense. And we only had four weeks' worth of practices. I was a little nervous, and I'm sure it showed in my playing, but it was a Jesus Lizard show, so everyone was probably shitfaced and didn't care anyway.
What were your impressions of Craw before you were playing with them?
I loved it. I'd never heard anybody do anything like that. The thing that got me the most was the arrangements. They did stuff that made me crack up. It was heavy and really weird, like, "How'd you guys think to do that?"
That was my impression: It was crazy; it was cuckoo; and it opened my mind to a lot of possibilities you could do with really just fucking music up, taking it and grabbing it by the tail and just spinning it around. Sticking everything into a blender and instead of using the blender, just taking a knife and stabbing it. I'm really grasping here; I'm trying to sound smart and creative, and I'm failing!
I always viewed you and Neil Chastain, the prior Craw drummer, as yin-yang players.
Oh, we're totally different players, dude. Neil knows what he's doing, and I don't have a clue what I'm doing. I hear the riff and I play along with the riff, and Neil knows exactly what the riff is; he knows all the ins and outs and the numbers and how to count it. I hear a riff, and I play it. I have no idea what it is; I don't really know what the time signature is; I just can feel it, so I know where the 1 is. I think I tend to dance around that stuff more, like play around the one as opposed to hitting the 1 every time. That's probably the big difference in our playing.
Can you describe the challenge of initially stepping into the practice room with Craw? Had you ever played anything that complex before?
No, I definitely hadn't. Craw might have a riff that was, you know, a minute long and none of it's in four or three; it's all in a wacky time signature, but the time signature changes every measure. It's intense to learn that shit, man. It was pretty nerve-racking for the first few practices. We were all kind of looking at each other, like, "Is this going to work?"
With Craw, you've got to write that stuff down when you're first learning it, because there's so many weird numbers. There was one song on Map, Monitor, Surge where the counts are, like, 4, 3, 2, 5, 4, 3, 5, 2—whatever. I had that written on my snare drum head all the time. I think I did that for like, three tours, till I could finally do it without looking at the cheat sheet.
You eventually established a really telepathic hook-up with Craw's bassist, Zak Dieringer. How did you two learn to lock in as a rhythm section?
Craw had a three-man rhythm section, for sure. Rockie was just as much of a bass player as anybody; and sometimes Zak was more of a melodic instrument, and Rockie was more of a bass player. Zak's really easy to lock in with, man; I'm sure he's easier to lock in with than I am, by a long shot. He's a great player, man; he's super percussive, and he knows where to put the dead notes and the spaces, and all of that stuff. He's badass.
He and Rockie and Dave [McClelland, Craw guitarist and cofounder] were big on helping me with the arrangements—nodding or looking over at me when the change is coming. Because every once in a while—well, at lot of times—I'd just get going and… [Jokingly] "Here comes the change; the change is coming up. Is he gonna get it? Let's look at him and make sure he gets the change. He's off in la-la land. He's in Will's World."
What do you remember about the material on Map, Monitor, Surge, the first Craw full-length you played on?
The thing on that record that I think is cool is the three real short songs. Those songs ["Killer Microbes Devour Cleveland," "New Plastics Diet Alters Man's DNA," and "Parasitic Dad Evades Biocops"] were all Dave's. He came to practice one day and said, "I've got this song that's a minute long," and it took the whole practice to even somewhat play through it. The whole thing is like one riff that's a minute long.
The band was pretty gung-ho about biting off new material. That was one thing about Craw that was awesome. A lot of other bands and musicians, they want the stuff that's easy, the low-hanging fruit. But Craw was a band that was not afraid to obsess over five seconds' worth of music for a whole practice.
What were your impressions of Joe McTighe, Craw's vocalist? What was it like being in a band with such an eccentric frontman?
Joe was probably the most divisive singer I've ever been in a band with. He's either a zero or a ten; no one's gonna give him a four or a six. I'm definitely a ten, because I know what he's about, and if you listen to what he does, it's like, "Holy crap, dude." He's channeling some weird, crazy shit. But sometimes, people can't handle the atonality of it, the psychotic-ness of it. He sounds cuckoo, and it's unnerving to people. They start looking around, like, "What's going on? What are you doing?"
Joe wasn't a singer at all. He was just a guy that got thrust into a band, and I think that's one of his greatest strengths. He wasn't playing by the rules of vocal tradition. So it made him sound like a really disturbed, messed-up, tormented individual telling a story about this crazy thing that happened in his life.
Will Scharf with Keelhaul
Can you talk about the transition between Map and Bodies for Strontium 90? It seemed like the band became much more streamlined.
Yeah, absolutely. It became more of a rock band. It was pretty simple: Dave said, "I'm moving to New York," and we continued on as a four-piece. It definitely changed the sound of the band, because Dave almost functioned more like a keyboard player would. I hate using words like "atmospheric," but he was the texture guy, the layer guy, like putting this crazy, wacky, weird, interesting, cuckoo thing over what would ordinarily be a bunch of chugging and riffing. And I like a bunch of chugging and riffing; I'm a metalhead, so that's fine with me. But when you add the extra layer on, it's like sprinkles on a cupcake, and Dave was the sprinkles.
Over the past ten years or so, as Keelhaul has become more active, have many people come up to you at shows and mentioned Craw?
Very rarely. Nobody remembers the band, unless we go to France. If I bring ten Craw CDs with me on a Keelhaul tour and we're in France, those ten CDs will be gone in one show.
That's interesting, because Craw never played in Europe. How do these French fans know of Craw?
Got me, dude. They're like, [French accent], "Oh, zis Craw! I like zis band!" And the next thing I know, I don't have any Craw CDs left to sell.
Were there other early-90s bands that Craw felt a kinship with, stylewise?
I think one of the reasons Craw was never successful, is that Craw didn't have a lot of kinship with a lot of bands, stylewise. Craw did its own thing.
Dazzling Killmen come to mind, for sure. Probably more than any other band that comes to mind, they were on the money with what Craw was doing. Even though the Killmen, that's one of the bands I hold in the highest regard, so I would hesitate to compare anything that I was doing to that.
How do you view the legacy of Craw today? Are you proud of your time in the band?
There's no legacy at all, man. I can tell you that. There's zero legacy; nobody remembers the band.
But I'm proud of it, for sure. And I got a shitload out of playing with Craw, because I learned so much about what was possible with music that wouldn't occur to most people. Just that you can fuck with [music], and things don't have to be in groups of four and eight and 16, and you can take something that's in this time signature and butt it right up against something that's this, and then leave a weird space here, and turn this upside down. You can just do wacky stuff—the possibilities are endless.
Hank Shteamer is on Twitter - @DarkForcesSwing