(originally published in Bootleg Magazine, August 2007)
By Brian Tucker
Scott Crowder probably had one of the coolest dads in the history of parents. Imagine the son of a pastor in Virginia being told at the age of sixteen, “Alright, we got to get you some Led Zeppelin. You got any Sabbath?” While Crowder grew up in the church devout in his faith he wanted to be a rock musician.
The father wasn’t a musician, but a dedicated fan of music. But growing up in the sixties culture, his father wasn’t a hippie either. The ensuing years would see him become a non-denominational pastor with Pentecostal roots. Crowder grew up in Hampton Roads, Virginia, eventually moving to Richmond given it ‘s proximity to the DC scene.
“Richmond is a strange area of music,” he explains. “There’s three or four colleges. It’s urban, but still the south, which culminates in an interesting mix. It’s a good birthing place for music.”
In later years he attended bible school in New York, where he met his wife. Crowder had questions such as, what is a Christian’s place doing rock music that wasn’t evangelism – just making music? He investigated that idea at the same time wanting to spend his life making music.
“I make music based on how painters make decisions, communicating through their art. You have to know what everyone does in order to be able to do what you do well, to know how to talk through song, through oil paints – whatever the medium. The more I studied art the more I found my voice.”
This philosophy was reinforced by his father. He’d say, “You want to play drums you need to listen to John Bonham. You have to pay attention to the people who do what you want to do well if you want to learn. If you’re gonna rock, this is how you rock.”
In Crowder’s band Dark Little Rooms, he drew a line early on, separating what the music was for. There was never any desire to capitalize on the growing trend of Christian based rock; the sole reason using that niche to make money. Nor was he interested making music as a utility or tool to affect others.
“I believe a certain way but I’m not going to force something down someone’s throats. This is entertainment,” he says.
The band name is derived from a Scott Walker song, the ballad “Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore.” The Walker Brothers were big in Britain and the song notable for its wall of sound. The song was about recollecting a past relationship in dark little rooms, on rainy afternoons.
Crowder played piano in Dark Little Rooms, a mélange of American Music Club and Radiohead – piano and rock he describes as unadulterated love for big guitar and piano rock.
“The same emotional landscape of gospel, let it out all out kind of thing.”
The band recorded quickly after forming but never gave itself a fair chance. They played a lot, changed band members only to record again. Children came along and the band splintered.
“There wasn’t enough steam to sustain the attention.”
There was interest in the band after it closed up shop. But with that incarnation seemingly finished Scott wanted to do something. As he pressed into his material more he gained a better sense of what it was. While in Virginia he recorded the material that comprises Foolish Beauty.
In the duration he became a father and moved to Wilmington, North Carolina in October 2005 with his wife to start a new job. To release the album he started his own label, Blind Sea Records, which also is releasing an album by the band Marionette.
Foolish Beauty is not a religious record in the obvious sense. While his beliefs are on the record it doesn’t sound like what one may instantly typecast as a religious record. It’s a somber and moody record unorthodox in song structure.
“If someone labels me that I’m not going to necessarily argue them. Would you say The Joshua Tree a religious record?
The central concept is foolish beauty; the theme being that things one might think are beautiful, are foolish in another perspective. He points out the need to be onstage in front of people, something about it that’s to some extent foolish in a sense.
Foolish Beauty is an album of older songs and new ones brought together to compliment those ideas, recorded at four different address in Virginia on home recording equipment. He explains that the record was recorded in loneliness, in solitude, in excitement, in both deep and light moments.
Originally titled 1975 – 2004, as if the recordings were by a musician who’d dies and recently discovered, Scott passed on the inside joke in favor of the title Foolish Beauty. Nearly all the songs were recorded in a burst of creative expression, both free form and organic.
The music is raw, harrowing yet beautiful from beginning to end. Sounding like Pete Yorn and Bono (“Nothing I Wouldn’t Do”), songs are gentle and then brooding (“Wide Awake”), sometimes angelic. On “With Help From Bees” the guitar creaks and moans, like nails pulled from boards. It transcends itself, to airy picking and vocals, moaning “No No No No No.” The heart of the song is sullen but becomes a sweet lullaby born seemingly out of bad dreams. “Holding On” is thick with husky Leonard Cohen-esque vocals and dripping piano notes, lurching like a character on a Lynchian lost highway.
On Foolish Beauty it’s uncertain which the real Scott Crowder vocally, as his tone skips about. His fuzzed out vocals on “Beauty Queen” sound like a male PJ Harvey, lightly snarling vocals a la Chris Whitley over a funky looped drum beat. Think Portishead but far more spare. “Devotion Song” is a spare acoustic number whose gentle throaty vocals serve as Bono mixed with Springsteen sincerity about the Holy Spirit.
“I wanna record a song – start the drum beat, play a keyboard part with a whole song in mind, just see what happens. Then, put all the layers and then sing over it.” Sometimes he wouldn’t play the song again until a show, playing it for the first time. “It’s very experimental.”
He played all the music on Foolish Beauty. The title track and “All That I Am” were recorded in one take.
“Foolish Beauty” just happened; I didn’t even know it was something I wanted to keep until a couple of months later when I went back to my recordings.”
Released last spring, it is a complex record, but one not easily forgotten. He describes it as Nebraska meets Echo & the Bunnymen’s Ocean Rain era. It’s a multilayered collection of songs, surprisingly stark. With multiple listens, there’s more you pick up on. A layer gets peeled back and you see a little more. Positively speaking it’s a difficult record, challenging to the ear, navigating between moody and reflective, not something digested at one sitting. Every song is like a chapter of different books.
“Someone told me that the whole sounds like songs from movies you’ve never seen,” Crowder says.
Several songs were sitting around but the process of the album wasn’t weighted to the idea of wanting to make a record that sounds specific, or do a record without live drums.
“If you can find yourself in a record or art, and you can see yourself and you relate to it, in some sense you’re bringing yourself into it. Great art that has lasted, there’s something strong and individualistic about it, and there’s something about it that we can attach ourselves to.”
The record has a lot of ambiance difficult to translate to the stage. The genuineness heard on the record will sound different live, pared down and altered. Played lived, Scott says the songs are “more stripped down, the mood’s a bit different. Sometimes a little more rowdy, a little more subdued.” In April the original members of Dark Little Rooms played together in Richmond in conjunction with the album.
“I was in heaven playing these songs with a full band.”
At a recent New York show on July 4th the set embodied the solitary man onstage, with Scott digging into the starkness of it, not unlike Springsteen’s Nebraska.
Scott Crowder will perform in Wilmington for the first time Sunday August 12th @ Bella Festa with David Dondero.