Hooks ‘N’ You: The Crayons, “What Color Are You?”

Written by Hooks 'N' You, Music, Popdose Interviews

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No, I’m not dead, but neither can it really be said that I’ve been resting, either. Sorry for the monthlong interim between columns, but I was in Los Angeles July 7-23 covering the Television Critics Association press tour, and I returned to a combination of family stuff and car issues that kept me hopping for well over a week after my return. To give you an idea of what my luck was like with my car, it died on my wife while she was in a McDonald’s drive-thru and involved trips to the AAA Service center and Pep Boys as well as two trips to the Hyundai dealership to work out the issue. And while I was borrowing my father’s truck during all these vehicle woes, the truck managed to get a flat tire and have its battery die on me. As for the family stuff, well, as it happens, that brings me to the subject of this week’s column.

If things had gone differently, this column would’ve run last week or even the week before, because the intent was to have it go live on the week of my daughter’s third birthday. Her name is Allyson Faith Harris. She was an in-vitro baby, and we’re pretty sure the doctors at the New Hope Center for Reproductive Medicine slipped a few extra “cute” and “smart” genes into her petri dish, because she’s both things, and this isn’t just typical proud papa crap — a few weeks ago we drove past a Chick-Fil-A, and the kid said, “Look, Daddy, they have an indoor play area!” A few months ago I told her I thought we didn’t need to put gas in the car until the morning, and she put on a pouty face and said, “I’m so disappointed that we’re not going to the gas station.” This was a two-year-old. I don’t know where she stands on an emotional level, but at the very least she’s got a pretty darned advanced vocabulary for her age. As for the cuteness, you be the judge:

Allyson stayed on the bike — this time.

Yes, as you can see by her shirt, the kid is into music. She could name all four Beatles before she was two, her favorite songs are Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind” and the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina,” and, perhaps most importantly, when she hears the Crayons’ “Allyson Fell Off the Bike,” she immediately says, “That’s my song!”

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Who are the Crayons? That’s a fair question. Heck, even I didn’t know who the Crayons were until I discovered them on the sixth volume of the ongoing series of International Pop Overthrow compilations, but when I happened upon their selection, a little ditty called “Allyson Fell Off the Bike,” I was enamored immediately. The slightly ominous riff at the beginning of the song instantly made me think of Echo & the Bunnymen’s “The Killing Moon,” which was a surprising enough touch to hear on a collection of power-pop artists, and with my interest held, I was so swept up in the huge chorus that I knew it was time to head straight to my computer and find out if the Crayons had an entire album.

Fortunately, they did, and its title asked a highly appropriate question for a band called the Crayons: What Color Are You?

You’ve no doubt already gotten the impression that I’m decidedly partial to “Allyson Fell Off the Bike,” which serves as the album’s opening track. It’s no coincidence, of course, that my daughter’s name bears the same spelling as the name in the song. My wife and I had been trying to figure out what we would call our forthcoming bundle of joy, and although we knew her middle name was going to be Faith (due to a friend reminding us that “you have to have faith if you’re going to have Faith”), we still hadn’t figured out what her first name was going to be. Well, one day, while I was sitting at my soul-numbing office job, that Crayons song came onto iTunes, and it was like an epiphany: what about “Allyson”? I’d be giving the song too much credit if I said my daughter was named specifically for the song, but in all of our discussions, “Allyson” had never come up (and, even more oddly for such a big Elvis Costello fan as myself, neither had Allison). I called my wife, and she loved it. Voila! Courtesy of the Crayons, our daughter had a name.

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It was an added bonus that we loved the lyrics to the song, and that we heard so much in them that fit our situation, particularly the opening line: “I think about a girl I don’t know.” We’d been trying for so long to become parents. We’d invested a lot of money in the process, too, and it was finally going to come to fruition, but the early months of the pregnancy had their issues. Frankly, it was all very nerve-racking. Like many first-time parents, every hiccup had us fearing the worst. But when we listened to the lyrics and heard that Allyson was saying “Don’t expect too much from me,” it helped us to keep our perspective that, even though we’d waited so long for this miracle, even miracles can prove trying.

Even setting aside my personal connection to the track, however, “Allyson Fell Off the Bike” is a fantastic song, and it’s not alone on the album. There’s no question that Keith C. (otherwise known as KC), frontman and songwriter for the Crayons, has a solid education in the world of power pop, but he’s definitely not a one-genre kind of guy. The ’80s alt-rock feel of “Allyson” hovers around “In a Jar” as well, but when Bruce Brodeen got a copy of this disc he dropped Del Amitri’s name as a point of comparison; though KC isn’t by any means a dead ringer for Justin Currie, you can certainly hear it come to fruition from a musical standpoint on a song like the closing track, “A Sunshine Parade.” The power pop is there, too, with nuggets like “Can You Feel?” and “Surround Me” spotlighting solid verses and instantly catchy choruses. All told, it only took one spin of What Color Are You? to know that it wasn’t going to be hard for me to keep an eye on the Crayons’ career for the long haul — and that was before I named my kid after one of their songs!

Given that connection, however, our family has forged a unique relationship with KC thanks to the wonders of MySpace. We’ve never actually met him (though we hope to change that when the Crayons go back on the road in a few months), but upon Ally’s birth, he sent her an autographed CD, and he regularly checks in on my MySpace page to say hello, look at her pictures to see how she’s growing, and even to send her birthday wishes. As such, I knew he’d be agreeable to answering a few questions about his band, their history, this album in particular, and, of course, what it’s like to have a child named after one of your compositions.

So how did the Crayons first come into existence? Because I might be wrong, but I’ve gotten the impression on occasion that sometimes it’s been a proper band and other times it’s been “KC and whoever’s available to play when he’s inspired to record.”

I’ve always wanted to be in a band. I needed a name. I was thinking of bands like 10,000 Maniacs, where the name really had nothing to do with the sound, and I thought, “The Crayons!” That’s quite silly and easy to remember. The idea of a band is great, but keeping one together is no easy task. Until around 2000 I had always been pretty much a hired gun, playing bass. I had written a few songs but hadn’t really tried too hard. I moved to San Diego with an acoustic guitar, worked on material, and decided it would be KC and whoever came into my music world from now on. No more band breakups!

What’s your musical background? Did you grow up in a musical environment, did you start playing in school, or was it just a case of hearing a song and going, “Oh, I am so going to be a musician”?

It really all started with my mom’s collection of ’70s singles. She had this really cool stereo that looked like a piece of furniture. Inside was a turntable and loads of 45s — cool stuff like Pilot, Tommy Roe, the Carpenters, and Queen. And that, as they say, was that!

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You knocked out an EP in 2001 entitled 236 Astor, where you premiered an acoustic version of “Allyson Fell Off the Bike.” How long had the Crayons been in existence prior to recording that, and did it live up to how you’d imagined it would turn out?

Astor was just supposed to be an acoustic demo to get some gigs. I had just moved back to New Jersey and started playing a bit with Nick [Ferriero, former Crayons guitarist]. Some friends of mine were messing with recording gear at their dad’s garage. (236 Astor is the address of that garage in Newark, NJ.) So we went in to try out a few songs. Really, it did much more than I ever expected. I actually cringe when I hear it now, but that intended demo sold almost 1,000 copies and led to other things.

The first place I discovered you guys was on one of the International Pop Overthrow samplers. How did you get hooked up with that festival, and did you get a lot of feedback from being on that compilation? Besides from me, that is.

IPO was one of the best things we ever got involved with! David Bash is such a wonderful person and a true believer in what he does. He found us through Ron Haney of the Churchills. We did get tons of feedback from being on that comp. So many people found us just the way you did and looked for more from the band. I really enjoyed doing those shows, and I hope we’ll do some more in the near future.

What Color Are You? was actually produced by the Churchills. How did you fall into their orbit, and how did the collaboration work out for you?

I was in South Jersey at a friend’s office. On the radio comes “Beautiful,” from You Are Here. It froze me in my tracks. I thought the song and Ron’s voice were just about the most amazing thing I had ever heard. At the end of the song the DJ said, “That’s the new one from the Churchills, and they are playing tonight.” My brother and I went to the show, and, much to my surprise, there was not much of a crowd. We knocked on the backstage door and poured out our love for their sound. My brother gave Ron Astor. Not long after, I got an e-mail saying how much they liked my voice and songs. Nick and I were off to tour the south for a month, and somewhere in the middle I got a call from Ron, saying, “We must produce your next record!” Uh, okay! The collaboration was perfect; we had — and have — much synchronicity.

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Are there any particularly memorable anecdotes from the recording sessions for the album that stand out?

Well, we did the whole thing from start to finish in five weeks! We worked five days a week for about 15 to 20 hours a day! The funniest thing was that the studio was connected to a rehearsal space. This particular space had a lot of seven-string-playing metal dudes! Sometimes guys would come in and say, “Sounds great,” but you could see they wanted to scream, “Wimps!”

What are your favorite songs from the record, and why? And if we’re being honest, were there any tracks that didn’t turn out as well as you’d personally hoped?

Hmmmmm, tough question! They are all special to me in one way or another. I think my favorite track is “Cruz.” Musically, it had the power and darkness of tragedy. I had written it after being haunted by the news of my friend John being in the World Trade Center. I just kept playing in my head what his last moments were like. He was only 28 and working there a short time, and it really made it personal. I love the way “Say Hello” ended up. At first I had to sell that song to be on the record, but it is still one of my favorite songs to play live. As far as a negative, I can honestly say everything was perfect at the time! Before we started working, I said to Ron and Bart [Schoudel, also of the Churchills] that I didn’t want any apologies. “Don’t let anything go that we don’t love.” They are such amazing talents and got the best out of me, and they added so much to the sound.

You knew I’d get personal sooner or later: what was your reaction when you got that e-mail from me about how we’d been inspired by “Allyson Fell Off the Bike” while trying to decide on a name for our daughter? (Her third birthday was this past Friday, and when we played the song at her party she said, “That’s my song!” So she knows!)

Dude, that is awesome, and my initial reaction was disbelief! So many people ask about success, and here it is in a nutshell! Being on the indie scene and struggling, there is always a question: “Is it worth it?” Knowing that a song of mine had enough impact on a family I’ve never met was priceless. “Allyson” is a song that really helped build a following for the Crayons, and since the birth of Ally, it has that added “something special” for me. You can let her know I say, “It is your song!”

How has the new album, What’s Wrong With You?, been received?

Well, it took forever to get this one started. Once again, doing it with the Churchills was a great experience. I wanted it to be more of a collaboration with more guests and a bit more intimate. It has been well received in the press and with our friends and fans. It has been said to be a bit more personal and maybe a little darker, and I agree.

And, lastly, where do the Crayons go from here?

The million-dollar question! I have been playing with one of the best live lineups the Crayons have ever had, so the live show has really taken shape. We’ve had a licensing deal for “Not Beautiful” with MTV, and hopefully there are more on the horizon. We have been staying in the northeast this year, but I have plans in the works for some more extensive touring in early ’09. In other news, we just completed a track for a Winter Hours tribute record, we are filming an appearance for Fearless Music in September, and I am quite sure there will be another record in the not-too-distant future.