Singer-guitarist Raf Classic of the Crumbs, South Florida's most fiercely followed three-chord, four-member punk band, shrugs while slugging down an ice-cold beverage. Along with other members of the well-traveled group, he reflects on the indignities of having a popular and well-respected but terminally poor and unlucky gig.
"Well, with Low and Behold the punk kids thought it was too rock and the rock kids thought it was too punk; completely misunderstood," Classic says of the quartet's underappreciated and oddly received 1998 release on Recess Records. After a dramatic pause, during which Classic's observation sinks in, the rest of the band goes into a debate over exactly what happened with that record.
It's a cool February evening. The Crumbs are kicking around theories about that record and reflecting upon their career over the hullabaloo provided by the Tobacco Road patio patronage and some band banging away on the first-floor stage. John Bonanno, the quiet guitarist of gargantuan skill, tries to explain how the album was an amalgamation of the Crumbs' love for roots music, quasi-bluegrass rock, and three-chord power pop. Marcio "Grim" Gemelli, the drummer, offers that it was lame marketing strategies that left the record cold in the water. Tono Vargas, the bassist, looks on, absorbing all the talk, stating that he is in fact the new guy and is concerned with the here and now.
All the while nobody is mentioning either the subsequent release on Recess, 2001's Out of Range, or the standstill period between then and today. The band's touring woes are legendary in the underground scene: van breakdowns all over the Bible Belt and a 100-plus-degree stranding in the Mojave Desert. If anything, the latter provided a cool-looking cover photograph for Low and Behold that was appropriate and on the money.
Nonetheless the more pressing matter, amid the beer-swilling and the French fry-sharing, is the new album, Last Exit, and the compilation of singles and B-sides, Hold That Shit Right. Long-time fans are no doubt concerned with the periods of inactivity and confused and bemused by the sudden commotion. "Small tours in support of the album would be ideal and as many shows locally as possible," says Gemelli. The small tours make sense considering manageability and time constraints. The band members are all committed to jobs and some to marriages and children. They are not snot-nosed teenagers trying to get drunk and laid. These are thirty-aught-year-olds with a decade in the game.
Here are the years since Low and Behold in short: Drummer Chuck Loose (presently with the Heatseekers) and bassist Emil Busse split with the band. Gemelli was brought in from Classic's now-defunct side band the Basicks, and the bass spot became a revolving door. In one incarnation, Getback frontman José "Pepe" Flores provided rhythm during the creative stages of Last Exit and the subsequent tour and live support. After he switched back to fulfill his commitment with his full-time band, the Crumbs brought aboard an acquaintance by the name of Toro. A few live shows ensued, but Toro, a traveling man, got an itch for the road and set off.
Vargas, a friend and rehearsal space sharer (formerly of the Preachers), stepped in. A strong player with a keen feel for the Crumbs' version of rock and roll, he blended harmoniously with Gemelli's four-on-the-floor skin-pound. His precision-oriented bass lines solidify the background for Bonanno's guitar. Classic observes this midway struggle casually: "We have everything set and then we gotta show the songs to a new guy, he learns them and then we gotta do it all over again." Vargas, an easygoing fellow, smiles while chewing his burger. They might playfully chide him for being the "new guy" all they want, but he has stepped up to the plate big time -- helping create merch and hooking them up with a new Website. He's proud of his two cents: "It'll have streaming videos, MP3s, photos, news, everything a good, user-friendly site should have." The site (www.thecrumbs.net) will launch this month.
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Back in the present at Tobacco Road, some semblance of subdue has befallen the quad, the patrons have died down, and the newbies downstairs have paused between sets. The lull allows consideration of the current two albums. Last Exit is an exquisite fourteen-track slab clocking a few seconds under the 40-minute mark. It retains the rawness and fuzziness of Out of Range and at moments, the self-reflective nature and crispness of Low and Behold. But the comparisons end there. "People were a little puzzled by Low and Behold, word of mouth on it wasn't as favorable as with the first Lookout! [Records] album ... almost like people thought they'd have the wrong record slipped inside when they bought it," says Bonanno.
Last Exit follows the Crumbs' pattern well. "Hobos" and "One Last Score" are sizzling tracks any diehard punker could slam to. "Till Next Day" shows the sensibility and narrative of old-time guitar-slinging crooners. "Trouble on My Trail" and "Dangerous Distractions" employ the first-person whiskey-soured western persona to a sweet badass tone. Bonanno's guitar playing is almost shamlike; can this quiet man really plug in and tear it up like some cold-blooded motherfucker? On "Nasty Child" (gasp!) did they done gone and distorted everything, including the drums? And it sounds good! Here's another one in need of magic suspension of disbelief: They recorded it at Miami Dade College's Studio M.
Having satisfied the two-record deal with Lookout!, the Crumbs found Virginia's TKO Records a willing associate in releasing and supporting the album. Ex-Miamians the Beltones have already enjoyed two records and a European tour with the label. But true to the punk ethos that has in one shape or another guided the band through its decade of debauchery, the vinyl version will be available through Recess Records. And it is Recess Records that has put out the compilation disc, Hold That Shit Right. Included on it for you come-lately types is the Far Out Get All Tangled Up ten-inch, the unreleased Pill City demo (featuring a raucous version of the Eat's "Communist Radio"), and the "I Fell in Love with an Alien Girl" single.
The Crumbs survive on collective intelligence. They do not offer promises. They do manage to outline their needs as artists and musicians, even if the inherent mischievousness of their nature draws out stories from life on the road harassing ex-labelmates the Donnas and mock-hazing rituals they are planning for Vargas. Their needs are the same damn needs they have always had: to write and play the best songs they can. And when the funds roll in, of course, to record them.