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Noise Addicts

Lynch Pinhead: Crack's Rusty Gantt risks bodily harm during another chaotic show.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Pretty isn't everything. A day in the life of Cupertino's punk-noise surrealists, CRACK.

By Todd S. Inoue

ADRAFTY WHITE van rumbles down Highway 101 in a pissing rainstorm--destination Goleta, a small suburb near Santa Barbara. Rusty Gantt, Chris Smith and Cliff Dunn--three-fifths of Crack, Cupertino's finest noise rockers--are my guides for the five-hour journey. It's another long haul for a band that often finds its most receptive audiences far from home.

A haze of cigarette smoke envelops vocalist and songwriter Gantt. A crumpled, slightly more deranged version of Carl Sagan (known for his ability to break an expansive topic down to its basic elements), he passes the time by laying in the first cut against the absent two members of Crack.

"Let me just be the first to say, 'Thank God D. Kash and Fred aren't in the van,' " Rusty announces to peals of laughter. The missing components--drummer David Kashka, a.k.a. D. Kash, and guitarist Fred Sablan--are driving down separately.

Gantt, Dunn and Smith are better cut-ups than they are economists. The money they stand to pocket tonight in Goleta is paltry. The goal of the road trip is to play well, make a few fans, entertain the old ones and not get any equipment ripped off.

Cold air whistles through the Swiss-cheese frame of the van. The transmission roars full bore underneath our feet. All this noise can't contain the ongoing tirade, currently veering toward D. Kash's penchant for tardiness.

"D. lives closest to our rehearsal space, and he'd still be late," grouses Rusty.

"He could live there and find some excuse not to show up," adds Chris.

"Other bands, you could miss a practice or be late, and then maybe someone would go talk to him," Cliff says. "Not here. In this band, you don't make that same mistake twice."

Whoever isn't in the van gets ripped on, Rusty explains, but everyone picks on D. Kash because he's such an easy target. "He's always asking for it."

To complicate matters, the radio's broken. It's going to be a long trip.

Air Sablan: Crack guitarist Fred Sablan gets loose during a December performance at the Cactus Club.

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Underexposed Boobs

CRACK COULD never be the Next Big Thing. The band's brand of gooey pop, garrulous punk and eerie new-wave rock nestled between two slices of white-bread funk can turn off even the most tolerant of music fans. A scan of the band's Web site reveals scant press clippings--four of the five were written by me. Crack is not pretty to look at, let alone listen to. They make dusted drug addicts look like Boy Scouts.

Instead, Crack is one of the few Santa Clara Valley bands with a true cult status among a diehard mix of punks, students and malcontents.

The tour is just another way to spread the secret password. Goleta doesn't boast the glitz of the Sunset Strip, but it does have an all-ages venue, a place to crash, an honest proprietor and a gang of close friends. Going on tour also gives Crack an excuse to engage in the hedonistic activities that other bands revel in on the road.

Well, some of the activities. The group spends much of its time doing nothing but talking and waiting. The most illicit substance in evidence is adrenaline. The moment everyone hits the stage, all distractions and frustrations explode in a swirl of chords, hair and cymbal crashes presided over by Dunn's imposing glare. If only for an hour out of the entire trip, the band will finally unite. That is why I'm here.

All Quirk and No Play

THE BAND is cautious about having a reporter in tow. The slow whir of a tape recorder is enough to trigger vapor lock. To take the edge off, the members frequently take potshots at each other, like younger siblings goofing on the popular older ones.

"We're deceiving," says Rusty. "Everyone in the band is a tweaker, everyone in the band has problems--you just have to throw stones at their lower sides. It's like a social self-policing environment just to make sure nobody feels too happy about their life."

Despite the vinegar, cruising with Crack quickly transports the mind to other worlds, where quirk rules and pessimism is encouraged. The band members switch trains of thought quickly--from The X-Files to the Pixies, Twin Peaks to Killing Zoe. They obsess over lines from Dr. Strangelove and They Might Be Giants songs. Rusty will argue the relative merits of Prince's Purple Rain and the Vapors' New Clear Days.

The Goleta trip is a homecoming for Rusty, who did three years of creative writing at UC-Santa Barbara and fell easily into the local music scene. One of his bands, a new-wave ska unit called Sparker, earned a devoted following. Currently, the Santa Barbara scene is empty. Nerfherder, Dishwalla and Toad the Wet Sprocket made moves to majors, while the rest of the bands are fleeing to L.A. Goleta is a dusty place to buy beer on the way to and from Santa Barbara. Little remains for Rusty except for a handful of friends.

"Most of the people I know moved on," says Rusty. "When I come back, it's like coming to a ghost town. All the landmarks are there, but it's gutted, and everyone's gone. Sometimes it's kind of spooky and depressing."

That in mind, the guys devote a lot of car talk to wondering if anyone will show up tonight. They rightfully worry that a Swingin' Utters/Joykiller show in nearby downtown Santa Barbara will siphon away the crowd. By the time we arrive, I'm convinced the show will be canceled, the van will break down and I'll be stuck in Goleta for the weekend.

Two other bands are scheduled tonight: close friends Shoegazer and an Orange County group called Supernovice. After a bean-heavy burrito pit stop in San Luis Obispo, the van pulls up to the Living Room, an elementary-school cafeteria transformed into a punk-rock club. Multiple couches and lamps offer a semblance of comfort. Water spots mark the ceiling. The "club" is closing in two weeks and moving downtown, so any redecoration tips are left to the wrecking ball.

Crack knows the Living Room well. The band recorded its first record, Pooberty, there. Over the summer, Crack returned and spent five weeks recording its upcoming CD, Losing One's Cool, with the club's proprietor, John Lyons. The Living Room doubled as a hostel; Crack recorded during the day and slept on the couches at night.

"Staying down here, we overdosed on work and freaked out a little bit," says Rusty. "It got past the point of fun."

Crack spends some time catching up with Lyons. While he takes a phone call, three kids approach. "We drove all the way here from Orange County," one kid says, excitedly. "Is a band called Supernovice playing tonight?"

"Sure," offers Cliff. "But the show doesn't start for three hours."

"We know," the kid replies, smarmily. "We're the band."

The fellas load in, happy in bagging a fresh one. Cliff shakes his head. "I just got faced."

We make sure to miss Supernovice.

Christopher Gardner

Horn-A-Plenty: Rusty Gantt watches as Cliff Dunn strikes a poses.

Bob Is Dad

'LOSING ONE'S COOL" is a conservative title for a band soaked in eccentricities, sculpted noise and bizarre lyricism. The Crack nucleus formed at Cupertino High School during the late '80s. The members knew each other from bands like Cajones and Zuni Fetish.

Every Christmas since high school, the members would assemble a ceremonial group for the day. Crack came together three years ago as a result of these jams. The name has nothing to do with drugs; it is derived from the scandalous result of a man's squatting on a photocopy machine. The image was subsequently reprinted on stickers and shirts.

As the origin of its name suggests, Crack loves the surreal. The band watched the entire Twin Peaks series on tape while recording Losing One's Cool.

"Between takes, we were trying not to wig out," explains Rusty. "Being down there for a week with everybody living in the same place, you go nuts. We brought it so everyone could relax. Everybody in the band either hadn't seen Twin Peaks or was already a fan, so it was an easy call."

David Lynch's ability to extract darkness from the seemingly mundane plays heavy in some of Crack's songs. "Unagolfer" pairs the notorious Unabomber with the idyllic sport of golf in a metaphor of internal struggle.

    I play myself, and I never win.
    but I keep trying again and again
    Scratch that, that isn't what I mean.
    What I mean is that the game never ends.
    Concentrate, keep your head down.
    It goes on and on and on, I putt along
    I take my time, and I shoot the sky
    Watch when it comes falling down.
    The lightning rod, the titleist
    Nature is the place where you play a game
    And you keep track of it.

Crack's reputation as the valley's musical outcasts endears them to a legion of South Bay music fans searching for something other than the revolving seven-day platter of punk, rap-rock, metal and jazz. Unlike the majority of bands in this area, Crack didn't follow the Like Me template; it earned its accolades and alienation just by being itself.

Crack's ears soak up Bad Brains and the Boredoms but also set aside spaces for Men at Work and Hall & Oates (a goal of the band is to rerecord Men at Work's Business as Usual LP). Crack even turned Blondie's whip-smart "Dreaming" into a six-minute dirge.

Such alternating musical buckshot allows them to embrace unapologetically such pop conventions as scatted choruses, danceable rhythms and guitar solos, except they execute them, literally and figuratively, with mutant glee.

"Burger" is a dramatic romper-stomp set to a Devo-like pace. "Squat on a Grenade" tells a powerful tale of living life without home or hearth:

    Pull off the boards, into the hole
    Nobody would answer the knock on the door
    It might be warm, I'm freezing cold
    Is this all that I'll have when I get old?

"Bob Is Dad" lifts lines from Twin Peaks and My Own Private Idaho to portray tyrannical father figures. New-wave dance patterns dot "Shrivel Up Chuck" and "Squat on a Grenade." "Chopper" goes from Morrissey-like mope to primal scream in the same breath. The stutter-step breaks in "Surely My Temple" and "Overexposed Boob" eliminate pretense in the violent and jarring nature of the songs. In contrast, "Unagolfer" and "Eyeliner Made Me" rattle guts with sheer metal force.

Crack's lyrics run a chaotic course about want, a subject Rusty knows well. In Santa Barbara, when his funds dried up, he resorted to dumpster diving, a skill he picked up from Lyons. When Rusty moved up to Northern California, he lived in the band's practice space for two months.

"A lot of the lyrics are about things that you want and need that you can't get. They're also about the frustration about wanting something, and you can't get it," Rusty says. "Or wanting or needing things and not knowing why you want them."

Speed Freaks

RIGHT NOW, Crack wants some riot gear. Some of the Shoegazer guys throw donuts at them as they take the stage. The band swings back verbally. "This song is about tough guys like that guy and assholes like this guy," Rusty says, pointing out the guilty parties. "It's called 'Chopper.' "

The band jumps on the virulent "Too Drunk to Fuck" guitar lick as if it were a bucking steer and rides it into oblivion. Rusty's matted blond hair waves atop his stick-figure frame like a sea anemone. Guitarist Fred Sablan conjures up the pop noise of Frank Black with the speed of the Bad Brains' Dr. Know.

Cliff and Fred scream the opening lines, while Rusty wraps himself in the microphone cord and rampages across the stage shouting out the words. He whirls in place before falling into a fetal position. The band's momentum building, he gets to his feet, studies the crowd and spits skyward, letting the droplets rain on his face. An evil grin crosses his grill.

Fred spends most of the time pummeling his guitar, snapping his head toward his amplifier in recurrent waves. Cliff dances on stage like a 13-year-old Go-Go's fan while blurting his backup vocals. Other times he mugs menacingly toward the crowd, headbanging and flashing devil's-horn hand signs, his tongue flapping out. As the three men go bananas, the rhythm section--D. Kash and Chris--keeps up with steady precision.

Three songs in, Rusty is bleeding from his nose. The mix of DNA and perspiration courses down his chin, dripping onto the front of his shirt. The dark fluid makes him appear menacing--like Sid Vicious or the Germs' Darby Crash. Unfazed, he continues for two more songs before wiping it off on his shirt. He later says the blood made him nauseated.

As predicted, the crowd is small, around 50 people, but surprisingly knowledgeable. The front row calls for song titles, some I've never heard, and sings joyously along. The show has veered wide from the set list, fattened up with covers of the Divinyls' "I Touch Myself" and the Police's "Next To You," concluding with a speeded-up "Sea Urchin."

As the band packs up its gear, new converts offer cautious compliments, friends come up and say hi, a zine conducts an interview at the foot of the stage. Lyons, who served as sound engineer for the whole show, approaches with the band's cut: $65. Rusty refuses it initially, because the band still owes Lyons some dough for the CD's recording costs. Lyons insists they keep enough to buy beers and some gas to get home.

Crack is toying with the idea of moving to Los Angeles, just because it could play three or four different all-ages places in a week. All-ages crowds are preferred stock--the crowds are far more receptive, energetic and into buying T-shirts and records. Older crowds are often interested only in looking good and getting drunk. In San Jose, the fact that there are only two all-ages clubs leaves the band with lots of free time. Plus, the vibe is different in its own hometown.

"I'll tell you the difference between San Jose crowds and Santa Barbara," Fred says. "San Jose crowds will laugh at us and call Cliff Chris Farley; Santa Barbara crowds shout out song requests. At the No Means No show in Santa Barbara, we did our whole show from requests, and it rocked. They know our image there in San Jose; down here they know our songs."

Photo by Christopher Gardner

Cash From Chaos

A BARTENDER issues the last call at the Hideout, a cozy bar across the street, but Rusty is just getting warm. Over drinks and cigarettes, a deep discussion breaks out between him and Shoegazer guitarist Oscar. The ethical implications of riders, those nit-picky lists of food, towels and guaranteed payment for the band provided by the promoter, are being weighed.

"It makes you look more professional," says Oscar of providing a rider for promoters. "It sucks because I'm from the whole point of keeping it do-it-yourself. But the more I've done this, it's like, what does that mean? I've been playing long enough to get paid for the gas and for a meal. It doesn't make us any less punk rock or DIY."

The topic of punk-rock ethics gets Rusty wound up. "If it doesn't make me punk to want to eat dinner and have some beers after playing a show, then I don't want to be punk," he proclaims animatedly. "The punk aesthetic has kept good musicians in the gutter for years. When we first started, we would play venues so we can get whatever we can, but we've played more shows where we've gotten nothing than we have gotten paid."

Barely stopping for breath, Rusty charges ahead. "I'm not interested in some punk-rock aesthetic," he spits. "I'm as little punk as I can be. To me, the punk-rock aesthetic means I live in poverty, and I'm totally poor all the time. I'm sick of that. I'm working my ass off all the time. Those bands out there who are waving the punk-rock flag on show nights--it's great for them, but they're going back to warm sheets and a cupboard full of cans of soup that their mother bought for them. It's like screw you! How many of them have pulled food out of a dumpster and eaten it?

"Everybody who is in a band who is going out on the road is taking a risk. We're going to lose a lot of money, but we're doing this because we love this and want to do this. And clubs should be the same way."

Crack does enjoy handling its own business, but don't be deceived; they would be happy to let a label take care of tours, incidental costs and distribution. When Crack had a huge chunk of its gear stolen from its practice space three months ago, it only deepened a financial hole already gaping from the recording of Losing One's Cool. It's a steadily draining pace they've already grown accustomed to. Until the major labels come knocking, Crack is content putting out fires one by one.

Time for Bed

WE CLOSE the bar and head back across the street. Inside the Living Room, Fred and Oscar cradle their guitars, exchange road stories and play familiar riffs. Later, Fred will show me how they transformed the sink into a portable shower with the help of a cut garden hose. Outside, Rusty, Chris and D. Kash are camped around a case of beer, talking about anything and everything. Cliff sits on a couch, chatting with Lyons.

Around 4:30am, everyone except D. Kash and Rusty have staked out spaces and fallen asleep. Fred camps out on the empty stage, Cliff dozes on a couch and Chris cradles himself feebly next to the drafty sliding door, no blanket.

D. Kash and Rusty noisily enter and wake everyone up. Cliff groggily protests. D. Kash quickly wraps himself in a blanket and passes out. Rusty surveys the scene looking for mischief. He lands on my smelly couch, snapping me awake.

I joke that the band should phone ahead for a hotel next time.

"We could never do that, no way," Rusty whispers. His arms open toward the mass of sawing logs spread out across the room, and he lets out a gruff cough.

"Look, we have people sleeping in the same place we played tonight. There's people on the stage, on the couches. This is all we have. This is it."

Satisfied, Rusty staggers over to a vacant couch, throws the cushions on the floor, splays himself across it and quickly falls asleep.

Crack celebrates its CD-release party, with Soda, Shoegazer and the Ronnie Bauer Experience, Feb. 1 at the Cactus Club, 417 S. First St., San Jose.

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From the January 23-19, 1997 issue of Metro

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