The Crooks are alright

They outgrew Howlin' Wolf as teens. Now it's about Crimson and Gong, yo

The Crooks play PJ's Lager House Saturday, June 2, with Hit Society, Factory Girls and Bad Mics; 1254 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-4668.

"Hope I die before I get old," Roger Daltrey sang before, y'know, getting really really old and continuing to sing that same song, a half-deaf Townshend by his side, in enormo-domes around the world. As the Crooks move from their teens to their early 20s, they are taking an entirely different approach. OK, they're not old and they're not aiming to die anytime soon either, but the last thing these lads want to do is stagnate. With that in mind the Crooks, formerly a well-drilled but fairly standard blues-rock bunch, have gone psych on our asses. (Of course, true psyche was born of a certain drug-aided mind-set that was really all about context and also making mom and pop really angry, but that's a different story).

The band, girl-magnets all, is guitarist-vocalist Jordan Krebs, bassist Taylor Reynolds and drummer/vocalist Ben Van Camp. The three-piece formed in '06 when Krebs and Van Camp began writing together, eventually pulling Reynolds in to play live. 

Van Camp says that, though the band didn't set out to emulate anyone, a blues sound naturally and organically crept in. 

"We just wrote whatever happened," he says. "We were all into the blues at the time, so our early stuff is a lot more bluesy than anything now. I think it just happened how it came out. We never really talked about how it sounded. The old blues changed my life when I was 11 or 12. That's when I discovered Howlin' Wolf. I found one of my dad's old records. When I think about it now, it seems crazy to be that musically mature at that age."

It does indeed sound crazy. At 11 years of age, most people are allowing their musical taste to be shaped by the mainstream media and playground peer pressure. To discover Howlin' Wolf and not just give it a chance but to actually enjoy it and move forward as a young musician with those wails ingrained in the mind is very rare. 

So that was the Crooks, version 1. The band played all over Detroit, in every dirty venue that didn't ask their age and at every festival that would have them. They recorded a fairly well-received self-titled album in 2009, produced by Matt Smith of Outrageous Cherry, and things were looking good for the Crooks. They weren't threatening to take over the world, but they were a respected teen combo, always worth a look if they were playing on an evening and you weren't already doing something.

But then the boys grew up. Most late teens grow into the blues, not out of it. But the Crooks started listening to jazz, psychedelic music and prog, and the sound, nay their minds, expanded. 

"We've sort of lost the blues aspect, and we're more out there," Van Camp says. "We're more jazz influenced. There's some psychedelia in there. The songs are structured more, pop-wise, without sounding anything like pop. A couple of years ago, I discovered the Soft Machine. They sort of changed my thought process around regarding how music could be played. Those guys are pretty insane. Bands like Gong too. We're maturing as songwriters and becoming less afraid of doing things. There's less thinking than there was before."

The irony there, of course, is that we're making Van Camp think about the very thing he claims involves no thinking during this interview. That kind of pressure leads to this forced answer when asked what inspires his songwriting. "Things just pop out of nowhere," he says. "It just happens. It just pops into one of our heads. It might be the cosmos, like some kind of energy that you can't see or feel. I've never really listened to something and got a song from it. I feel something and the song happens. All good songs come from somewhere else." 

It should be noted that he said that line about the cosmos and energy without laughing. Similarly, when asked if the Crooks' music is better enjoyed at a sunny festival than a winter's night in Hamtramck, he says, "I'd say summer is the right time to hear our music. Winter-time slows down the atoms and in the summer everything's moving a little free. No one's afraid to move."

The Crooks is a trippy, psychedelic band who some might choose to enjoy while dosed up on hallucinogens. Fortunately, you don't necessarily have to be tripping your tits off to enjoy the band, you just need to be open to very long songs, unorthodox arrangements, and King Crimson covers.

"Last summer, we agreed to play a fundraiser at some motocross track up in Birch Run," Van Camp says. "That was just weird. Motocross people are strange. They were looking for more of whatever country is these days. Pop-country crap. And we came out. We played King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man." They weren't ready for that. We played a 25-minute song and freaked everybody out which is always fun. We like to freak people out. People were yelling out for songs, like 'Freebird'."

See, the truth is that, while the Crooks flit between jazz, blues, rock, blues-rock and the like, while these young men are finding their musical feet, they're having a blast creating inventive music. They are the rare opportunity to follow and observe a young band grow in an era when the idea of a "true" band rarely exists because everybody is in everybody else's band.  

"We've improved in every way we could," Van Camp says. "We've become better musicians, better songwriters, and gotten better at playing live. So we're less afraid. We can do whatever we need. We feel like there are a million possibilities. Plus, we're seen less as kids and more as just guys now. I like that a lot."

The Crooks are skilled, certainly. They've put in years. Those who fake it piss Van Camp off somethin' rotten. "People that act like they have more talent than they actually have, I'm not into that," he says. "It's alright to act like that if you can back it up. I don't really get pissed off about much though."

Bloody hippy. Good think the Crooks dig playing around the Motor City. "I love Detroit music," Van Camp says. "I love the energy and the attitude of Detroit. The music that comes out should have that attitude. I've been seeing a lot of bands now that don't really have a Detroit attitude, which is disappointing to me. I don't want to rip on these bands, but it just seems that there's a lot of more pop and less of the Detroit grit. It seems that Detroit music these days is not really Detroit music. There are a few bands. I don't know, I guess it's just the times. There are still tons of shows going on every night."

The Crooks play the Lager House this weekend and it'll be the band's last show as a trio as they are adding Kyle Schanta, of the Sights, to the lineup. Van Camp says that's the natural next step. "We want to take it to the next level," he says. "I'd like to be playing places like the Fillmore. I think that we have the talent to and we're young enough. I see good things."

Typically, Van Camp ends on a positive note. "I've been feeling pretty good about everything."

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