Interview w/ Upper Mississippi Blues Musician Crankshaft
16 Jul, 2012
Words By Richard Morales, Music Editor for Dig In Magazine
For more on Crankshaft visit:
Alex Larson has been performing under his alias “Crankshaft” for almost four years now. His stylized alter ego is a fascinating extension of his Midwest upbringing, which combines his love for primitive musical forms (blues, punk, surf rock), with his adoration for classic automobiles. Although he has devoted himself to playing raw, fuzz-driven downhome blues, Crankshaft could not have been imagined prior to the early punk scene. The DIY ethic that so many highly influential indie bands are known for, is alive and well in both the attitude he brings to the stage, and his understanding of the music business. The thing that allows Crankshaft to find fulfillment in his art lies in the fact that he is not idly waiting for a major label to descend down and “discover” him. Rather, he is an ambitious, self-sustaining musician who controls all aspects of act, from the songwriting and recording to the merchandising and promoting.
It’s reassuring to know that individuals like Crankshaft exist, especially in the current state of popular music. The underlying fear that inhibits most bands to be willing to risk everything and make their music a full-time endeavor, has become almost taboo subject matter considering there is not a fashionably lucrative “scene” to latch onto. Crankshaft, on the other hand, has decided to push all his chips to the middle of the table gambling either success or poverty. With his long string of upcoming live performances, two studio albums under his belt, and a dedicated following that is quick to spread the word, Alex “Crankshaft” Larson seems destined to achieve the former.
I sat down with Alex on a mild autumn day at the same coffee shop I interviewed his friend Kevin James a few months before. He just returned from his “East of the Mississippi” tour which was a month-long excursion that took him from Chicago to New Orleans and back around again. Dressed in a hooded sweater, jeans, and beanie, at first glance he is almost unrecognizable from the well-groomed Crankshaft whose suit and tie has become his trademark. Still, he presents a very charismatic and playful attitude, and I notice that his energy is refreshingly contagious. As we catch-up and begin chatting I can’t help but feed off his vibe which makes the course of the interview all the more enjoyable. [February 4, 2012]
Richard Morales: So you’re back from your East of the Mississippi tour. In your opinion how successful was it?
Crankshaft: I would say it was extremely successful. First, we didn’t have any major breakdowns, and we made a ton of contacts which was kind of the goal. I would say the most successful part of the trip is that we actually came back and didn’t lose any money. More so, the success was through the people that we met; the friendliness was incredible. Like, when we were in South Carolina I got a phone message from this dude, Nick Savage. He was like, “Hey this is Nick Savage, I was Bo Diddley’s saxophone player for twenty years, checked you out on the internet, saw that you were coming to the Kickin’ Devil, really like what you’re doing, if you have a chance give me a call.” I called him back and asked him if he wanted to sit in with me and he did. So I got to play with Bo Diddley’s saxophone player. I mean, just making that connection was a success in my mind.
RM: And what local venue connections did you get from the tour?
C: The interesting thing about going on tour is that the first time out, I was just scoping out to see where the idea of Crankshaft goes over well. We were just basically scouting it out because we had no contacts. Most of it was booked through the internet. Now that we have made contacts in all these different cities I think the next time out, it will be way more successful in a sense that I won’t have to save money to go on tour, because going on tour I essentially lost a whole month of income. The funny thing is, even in places where the attendance wasn’t that great we still met people that were in other bands, and they were like, “Well if you come back through town hit us up because we’ll get you a better show than this. You’re good, you deserve to play in front of people.”
RM: Now your wife Rachel, who is also your photographer, went on tour with you. Tell me what it meant to have her with you.
C: Before I even decided to go on a national tour, I knew I wanted to bring her along. First of all, to have somebody there all the time as a constant is very important to your mental health if you’re going away for any length of time. What happens is, somewhere in that span of time you kind of lose perspective of your own personality and you just start breaking down. I knew that it was important to bring somebody with me that I’m good friends with and my wife was obviously the number one pick. I didn’t get homesick one time when we were gone and I know it’s because I had my wife and my dog there. I think if she didn’t have a job that required her to work throughout the year, if it were my choice, I’d go one month on the road, two months off the road all year round. But it’s all hypothetical, until I hopefully become successful enough to support both of us…and be able to pay for our health insurance. (laughs) It’s the most retarded thing in the world but health insurance is putting a damper on me taking Crankshaft to another level. It seems silly but covering all your bases is pretty important before moving onto the next step and make sure you’re not going in over your head.
RM: What do you envision as being the next step?
C: I’d love to take on two more pieces and play as a power trio, locally. I like the camaraderie of playing with other guys. I’d like to be able to stand up and play guitar which will free me up to put on more of a show, that’s my next biggest goal.
RM: And you want to be more established to do that?
C: I would have to be in a good financial position to do that, because I’m relying on it for income. Like all the guys that I hire to play with me are top-notch players, and they would be less likely to go on tour and not get paid. And I’ve got an agreement with them that I won’t even call them up if I can’t pay them. I kind of did that on the principle that they’d be more likely to play with me. The way I pay them is based on piece labor, or whatever you want to call it. They take a share of the band and then I take two shares. So…(thinks to himself) what’s easy math? If I get hired to play a private party for 1200 bucks with a three-piece band, both the guys would be getting three hundred bucks and I’d get six. Me and my brother used to call it pirate share because pirate ships used to run on a scale like that, where every guy on the crew was one share and the captain was two. That’s how I ran In-go Construction, my brother made 33% and I made 66%. But you know, with running a business or running a band, the leader is taking the brunt of the responsibilities so it only makes sense. I would say that younger kids would probably frown upon that idea, like, ultra-left wing kids would be like, “You slimy capitalist.” But the longer you’re around, the more you understand if you ever take a project on yourself and run it, you know that it takes a lot more work than just showing up and plugging in and playing…everyone that I’ve hired on is totally cool with it, because they’re all dudes that have been doing it long enough to know that that’s not a bad deal.
RM: Let’s back up a bit. How did you first come up with the concept of Crankshaft?
C: I started practicing for the one-man band back in 2008. When I first moved to Anoka I discovered that they had a car show, and I thought it would be hilarious to play out on the street for tips. And in my moment of creative thinking I thought it would be sweet to go over there with like a radio flyer wagon, and have a bass drum that says “Crankshaft” on it; then bring it down to the car show and busk on the street.
RM: So you already had the name?
C: Yeah, Crankshaft is like a handle I’ve been using since junior high. Crankshaft just has more to do with my mechanical mind, you know. It makes sense to be called Crankshaft because it’s part of my personality; but it started out as a funny hobby/project…then I found instead of focusing a lot of my energy on how I was earning my income at the time, which was construction, I thought it would be smarter to focus on music since Crankshaft was getting more successful with every month that I was doing it. It was not planned at all. It just happened to be that people really liked what I was doing and I realized I could make good money at it, so I thought ‘why not.’
RM: Now your act is based out of Anoka. What are there financial advantages and disadvantages of being based out of a suburb rather than being located in a city?
C: The biggest advantage is that there is no one in the suburbs that’s doing what I’m doing. This makes me unique to the suburbs and makes the pay better, if you’re talking straight pay. You could flip that and say if I had been focusing on doing shows strictly in Minneapolis I might be to the point where I’m drawing well enough that I could be collecting door cover and making more money in Minneapolis. I’m very conservative about moving to Minneapolis because it’s just tough to make money there. Like any city that has a strong music scene, it causes the price paid to musicians to get driven down. It’s like a basic supply and demand thing—I’ve heard the same thing about Austin, Texas.
I think it’s a lot easier to make a living playing the suburbs, you know. I even play south of Minneapolis like Hastings or east to Stillwater. Pub Monique pays me well enough to hire on two pieces and do Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders. What I get paid in Stillwater I’d have to draw a ton people to get paid like that at a Lee’s Liquor Lounge or The Turf Club; and a lot of booking agents aren’t willing to book you as a solo band because they’re worried about your draw—because that’s how they get paid…but Minneapolis is where everything is happening, the DJ’s from the Current hang out and check out the scene, and writers, reviewers, and what not; they’re trying to figure out what’s going on. But now that I’m doing it for a living I just got to be really careful about how much I’m getting paid at gigs, because it’s essentially like going to a job. It’s a bummer to think of it that way, but it just goes back to applying what I learned from being a contractor to what I’m doing with music…and it seems to be working.
RM: In thinking of it that way, do you ever get frustrated with the business aspect?
C: I try to not get into that, but you come across situations where you can get bummed out from time to time. Whether it’s a bar owner that’s not willing to give you a raise after you’ve been drawing really well for a really long time, or dealing with drunks. The negativity about the business aspect is counterproductive. When it all comes down to it, you are providing a service to the venue and your fans. Your job as an entertainer is to put on a good show. If you have to put somebody in their place that’s heckling you, that’s one thing; but it’s important to keep a positive spin on your live show. Especially if you’re talking to fans, you don’t want to talk about a venue owner that is a douche-bag, you know. It’s important to convey a positive message.
RM: Is it difficult to separate Crankshaft from your personal life?
C: The hardest thing is setting aside time that doesn’t have to do with Crankshaft. You know, I play shows three nights a week and then during the day I’m doing stuff like posters, or networking with venues, and the list goes on and on. Mixing business and art together can allow you to become a workaholic if you really like what you’re doing.
RM: Tell me about how you got the array of musicians together on your latest studio album Junkyard Rhythm?
C: Networking, man. That’s pretty much what it is. Well, Mr. Mark is one of the bass players on the album; he owns the shop (Mr. Mark Music) up the street. He gigs with me every once and a while. Bruce McCabe, I played a gig with him: “Howlin’ Wolf’s 100 Year Birthday Party.” Harold Tremblay, the DJ from KFAI, who is friends with Bruce, came up to me after my set was done and was like, “Hey man, Bruce McCabe really dug what you were doing.” I introduced myself and months later I just got his number through Mr. Mark’s shop. I left him a message and he called me back like two days later and wanted to play on the album, which is like a huge asset. He played piano for Johnny Lang, and with Lamont Cranston and The Hoopsnakes. He’s definitely the biggest guest musician on the album.
RM: So were you trying to get guest musicians on every track?
C: I guess I wanted it to be like a giant collective. Using different musicians gave the album multiple textures. From a producer’s perspective I just utilized different guys for their specialty, you know, which in the end made the album more dynamic. That was the biggest advantage in having that many people play on it.
RM: And now you recently put out a live CD. Is that different from anything you’ve put out?
C: Oh, yeah. Everything that I’ve done so far with Crankshaft has been different. The 7″ was just me and an acoustic guitar. My first CD, Suckin’ Gas & Haulin’ Ass, was basically me and my one-man band that I recorded myself in my basement. And Junkyard Rhythm is totally the opposite idea in a sense that it’s a full band, heavily produced and mixed. And then Live at the River City Saloon is what you heard on a Sunday. It was really fans who convinced me to do a live album. Lots of people were like, “I’d love to hear a live album from you,” and the impact grows every time someone says that. Any good performer should take advice from their fans, if you’re not doing that I’d say you’re irresponsible as an artist, or just arrogant. It’s important to give people want they want.
RM: Where does most of your inspiration come from, both musically and lyrically?
C: Musically I play what I want to hear. Most of the time the instrumentation is derived from me sitting on my couch and totally fiddling with my guitar until I run across some kind of a cool lick, then I record it so I don’t forget it and then I might use it later on. As far as the lyrics go, most of it is personal experience. A lot of the tunes are written just from things that I’ve witnessed around me or things that have actually happened to me. I think it’s important to sing about things you’ve actually experienced. Funny story, I ran into this photographer and we were talking about my station wagon, and I got ‘Crankshaft’ painted across the side. I was telling him I put a new engine in, and he was like, “Oh, you do all that yourself?” I was like, “Yeah man, Crankshaft.” He was like, “Well, six months ago I was doing a photo shoot with the Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and I started talking motorcycles with them and here I find out that three quarters of the band had never even driven a motorcycle!” (laughs) I guess I never want to put myself in that position.
RM: Because your livelihood depends on the fans, do you find yourself writing with your audience in mind, perhaps wondering if a song will go over well?
C: I still write whatever I want, but then I figure out what goes over well and what will take a total nose dive after I’ve played it for an audience. After I play a song half a dozen times I know whether or not I should put it on an album. I think it’s important, as both a performer and a songwriter, to entertain the audience. Putting something on an album that’s close to your heart that won’t translate to people, I think is pretty selfish. I think it’s important to feel out tunes to who is listening to them.
I definitely have that general public idea on the backburner, but in the foreground my writing is both important to me and relatable to other people. I guess the biggest conscious effort would be to not throw an “effin-heimer” into the song, because my grandma wouldn’t want to hear that; so someone else’s grandma wouldn’t want to hear that either. So that gives you a good idea of how I write.
RM: One last thing before we end. Tell me about the incident that happened at the local Minneapolis radio station “The Current.”
C: The Current is an incredible resource for the Minneapolis musician, because its owned by Minnesota Public Radio so there’s no commercials; and it appeals to people more prone to go to shows. In the last three years it’s gotten to be more of a corporate radio station format where they’re pretty conservative about the music they play…when they first came out it was an eclectic radio station, there could be Buck Owens and REM back to back— I think they’ve kind of gotten away from that.
But the “Request Bomb the Current” campaign came to be because I was frustrated about my responses from the music directors—I mean it’s totally reckless, I still can’t believe I even did it—but I decided to run a request bomb campaign to try and get on the radio. I got seven hundred people on my emailing list that I contacted. And it just happened to be that when I set up for that request bombing day I had like six gigs right before that Monday and I handed out about a thousand hand flyers, and I mentioned it on Facebook. Then, I found out that I just irritated the shit out of everyone at the station, but it all goes back to the ‘any press is good press’ thing, you know. I’m totally on their radar now. One of the DJ’s sent me a really nasty email and pretty much said, “This is the worst thing you could possibly do to your relationship with this station.” Then the local dude sent me one like four paragraphs long saying how what I did was reckless. The funny thing is, in the end the dude decided to play me on the radio anyway.
RM: Did you send them a press kit?
C: Oh, I sent them like six press kits. I sent each one of the daytime DJ’s a CD, the local music director, the national music director, and the local show host, and never got any play out of it. And I think, you know Junkyard Rhythm is thirteen tracks long, I’m pretty confident in about five of those songs; like they’re really solid songs and radio ready. The whole album was mastered and the songwriting is pretty decent. Anyway, I just got irritated and decided to request bomb them and it worked…It’s like a weird head game because I’m not really sure how much they actually got pissed off. Maybe some of them were like, “This guy has got some crazy determination to take on the Current.” It’s like the biggest indie station in probably a six state area. I think I might have gained some street cred with some of the people at the station. (laughs) That’s probably like the best thing about being a musician is doing insane things like that.
*Crankshaft performs every Thursday night at the Eagles Nest Lounge in Robbinsdale, MN.
For more information visit: www.crankshaftmusic.com