- Walter Novak
- Do the math: Craw returns to an extreme-metal scene it helped create.
But then Scharf catches himself.
"No, I don't hope you like it," he adds with a grin. "I don't give a shit if you like it or not."
It's this kind of affable antagonism that has long defined Scharf and Craw, a band that has made a career out of pushing metal's buttons with a smirk. Scharf's words may sound flippant, but his general disregard for other people's estimations of his music has become a means of survival, considering all the obstacles Craw has hurdled over the years.
Formed 12 years ago, Craw quickly distinguished itself from the rest of the metal underground with a heady rethinking of extreme music. With the strangulating guitar playing of Bunton Ryder and David McClelland, the bipolar yelps of Joe McTighe (which brought to mind the slobbering schizophrenia of the Jesus Lizard's David Yow), the anarchic bass lines of Zak Dieringer, and later, Scharf's unhinged, blood-blister drumming, Craw was an antecedent for the burgeoning math-metal scene. The subgenre, with its disjointed, polyrhythmic charge, oblique lyrics, and gnarled songwriting, has earned favor within the metal underground in recent years and elevated bands like Dillinger Escape Plan and Converge to preeminence in metal circles.
So what'd Craw get for such innovation? Virtually nothing. The band's early records (released on Choke and the band's own Cambodia Recordings) suffered from poor distribution and have since gone out of print; Craw, for its hard work, has always lived hand-to-mouth. Scharf learned this the hard way when he first hit the road with the band, just weeks after joining in 1995.
"It was the most extreme peanut-butter-and-jelly tour I've ever been on in my life," he recalls. "Probably the most definitive moment of that tour was in Omaha. We were playing at the Cog Factory. We were going to go to the pizza shop down the street, so we invited the guys from Glazed Baby, who were touring with us. Joel Hamilton [guitarist in Glazed Baby] said, 'No, we already ate. We had some spaghetti.'
"'Really? In the van? How did you cook it?'
"'What do you mean cook it?'
"'You ate raw spaghetti?'
"'Yeah, we were dipping it in peanut butter.'
"That was their dinner. They did that every night. It was hard times. We were on tour probably four months out of the year, but not making any money, so we were spending eight months trying to dig ourselves out from this snowstorm of bills. And right about the time you got your life back to normal, you were on the road again."
Eventually, this took its toll on the band. Ryder and Dieringer both got married, and Craw stopped touring in 1997. Though the members got together intermittently, the band was on the back burner for everyone involved.
Then math metal began to take off. Suddenly, Craw's name was being dropped in fanzines left and right, by some of the scene's biggest players.
Gordon Conrad, a partner in Philadelphia-based Escape Artist Records, was one fan. "They seemed to pull the people who were on the fringes of the metal and hardcore scenes -- the more open-minded kids -- into this new direction and really opened their eyes to playing music for the love of music, but doing it in a different fashion than anyone had heard before and arranging things in such a way that it was mind-boggling at first listen," Conrad says.
"They're one of the more underrated bands of the last 10 years, as far as heavy music is concerned," says Aaron Turner, head of Boston's Hydrahead Records and frontman of the popular band Isis. "Seven or eight years ago, there were hardly any bands doing what Craw was doing, and they've influenced a lot of the bigger bands that are out now. Today Is the Day and my band, Isis, were influenced by Craw, and they've definitely had an impact on a lot of different bands. I think they're by far one of the most unique heavy bands I've ever heard."
Such acclaim slowly raised Craw's profile, despite the band's relative inactivity in recent years. Then, in 2000, Scharf ran into Turner at a Massachusetts metal fest, where Scharf's other band -- the equally abstruse Keelhaul -- was performing. It was there that Turner expressed interest in putting out a new Craw record, and Scharf ran with the idea. This year, the band has broken its five-year recording hiatus with its fourth full-length, Weedy Species, due in April on Hydrahead. It marks Craw's first release on a label with the finances to adequately back the group.
The time away has yielded one of the band's finest efforts yet. Species is Craw's most primal, streamlined album; it pulses with an immediacy not found on the group's previous discs. "This record is more of a rock record," Scharf says. "On the last one [Map, Monitor, Surge], the intros were longer, and it had a lot of brooding parts, a lot of epic-type stuff. Plus, it was one of those records that you had to listen to a lot of times to get -- if you even get that sort of stuff. This one starts off with more of a bang."
But will it bring the band the success that has long eluded it? Probably not. With Craw no longer touring -- which is crucial to the prosperity of extreme-metal bands of their type -- sales will likely be limited. Still, Craw has become mythologized in the metal underground, and its profile as an avant-metal forerunner is at a high point.
"I suppose it had to happen; somebody had to do it," Scharf says of Craw's role in the development of angular indie metal. "Somebody's got to be stupid enough to do something that won't sell, then go out and tour and eat out of garbage cans. We were dumb enough to do that. I'm sure there's people that listened to it, dug it, and drew some ideas from it, etc., etc.," he says with a roll of the eyes.
"I feel very sorry for them."