"Right down there," says Brian Krumm, front man for noirish roots-rock combo the Great Crusades. "It happened a week after I moved to Chicago." He's sitting by the window of Wicker Park's Pontiac Cafe, pointing toward North Avenue and the spot where he was mugged nearly eight years ago.
"I was here at the Pontiac. I walked home alone at three in the morning," he says. "The main thing I remember is the guy had a really tiny gun--like a little .22--but he still smacked me in the face with it. I'd been drinking all night, so I only had three dollars left. I gave him my whole wallet and he was pissed: 'That's all you got?' I was like, 'Sorry man, I've been out drinking. Maybe you should go out mugging people earlier.'"
The robbery inspired "Are We Having Fun Anymore?," the opening track on the Great Crusades' fifth album, Four Thirty, released in February by the German label Glitterhouse. But despite the local color that saturates the band's music--their entire previous album was inspired by a dive bar in Humboldt Park--the new disc isn't distributed in Chicago, or in fact anywhere in the States. Neither are the previous two. The Great Crusades have been kicking around town for almost a decade without attracting much notice, but in Europe they've appeared on TV and earned rave reviews in mainstream outlets like Mojo, Uncut, and German Rolling Stone. "I never would've thought when we started out playing music that I'd be playing a show in Zagreb for 200 people," says Krumm. "Or some village in Germany in front of two or three thousand people. It's been amazing. It'd be nice if it was the same way over here, but how can I complain?"
The band's story begins a few miles east of Saint Louis in Collinsville, Illinois, the self-proclaimed horseradish capital of the world, where Krumm, bassist Brian Hunt, and drummer Chris Moder met as kindergartners. By fifth grade they were in a band together. "Our first gig was for our sixth-grade graduation party," says Krumm. "We played 'Stray Cat Strut' and some Foghat." In junior high and high school they began billing themselves as the Straight Curves. "We'd play Knights of Columbus halls, VFW halls--we even started playing bars as soon as we could drive. We sorta fibbed a little bit about our ages."
After graduating in 1989, Moder went to the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Krumm and Hunt went to the University of Illinois in Champaign, where they launched a new group called the Suede Chain. They released a couple CDs on Parasol's Mud imprint before disbanding in 1997, at which point Krumm started working on solo material that departed radically from the Suede Chain's eclectic art-pop. "I had a fascination with Tom Waits and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, but also stuff like the Replacements and Uncle Tupelo," he says. "After writing those first songs it seemed to make sense that they kind of fell somewhere in between."
The album that resulted, The First Spilled Drink of the Evening, came out on Mud in early 1998. It was the first to bear the Great Crusades name, and included contributions from Hunt and the Suede Chain's string section.
Later that year Krumm decided to move to Chicago. Hunt was already here, as was Moder, who'd spent several years in LA, and in short order they became full-fledged members of the Great Crusades. Another Champaign refugee, guitarist and keyboardist Brian Leach--former front man of power-pop outfit the Last Gentlemen--completed the lineup.
In 1999 Drink was picked up by the German label Trocadero, and the Crusades made their first tour of Europe. In 2000 the local Checkered Past imprint released Damaged Goods, the first of the band's albums to come out on Glitterhouse abroad. Since then all the Great Crusades' CDs have been available only as imports in the U.S.--even 2002's Never Go Home, which brought the band its widest overseas exposure yet, culminating in a 2003 appearance on the long-running German TV show Rockpalast. Their fourth disc, 2004's Welcome to the Hiawatha Inn, is the tribute to the seedy bar near their rehearsal space, where they met each week for a few three-dollar shot-and-a-beer combos before practice. Today it's called the Pizza Lounge, but back in the 20s, when it was a watering hole for factory workers, it was known as the Hiawatha.
Krumm decided he wanted the fifth disc to capture the intensity of the Great Crusades' stage show, so during their sessions at Lakeview's Rax Trax studio this past September the other three members all played in the same room--only Krumm was isolated. "We wanted to go for as close to a live sound as possible. I even did the vocals live," he says. "I had the microphone in the same room as my amp, which presented some problems later. But I think it turned out OK."
Four Thirty veers away from the atmospheric roots rock of the previous albums and toward loud, heavy classic rock. "A lot of that comes from growing up in Saint Louis and listening to this station called KSHE 95," says Krumm. "It's the home of Sweet Meat, this pig wearing sunglasses, which is their logo. They'd play Rush, ZZ Top, Sammy Hagar, AC/DC. You hear that stuff all your life, it's in your DNA."
Krumm's lyrics, though, are still straightforward and incisive vignettes pulled from his daily experience. "It's rare that I write something that's not based at least partly on a real life," he says, "whether it's mine or something I overheard on the bus or the train." Occasionally a song's subject matter--like the possibly criminal escapades described in "I Got Away"--make departing from the facts a necessity. "In songwriting half the time the names are changed to protect the innocent," he says, laughing, "and the other half they're changed to protect the guilty."
Behind Krumm's whiskey-and-cigarette-cured vocals, the band is raucous and muscular--it's easy to tell that the core trio has been playing together for more than 20 years. "Heathers Will Haunt You" is a slow talking blues, "Downtown" is a loose, upbeat stomp about bar rats at the Billy Goat, and "Billy Smashes It Up" is a Zeppelin-esque sludge rocker that tells the tale of the band's brief adventure with a crazed German tour manager.
Since the album's release last month, the Great Crusades have been racking up frequent-flier miles. They did a three-week European tour in February and plan to return for ten days after an April 30 gig at Schubas with the Deathray Davies. They hope to license Four Thirty to an American label--Krumm is in talks with two--or to release the songs domestically via iTunes, but as long as the European crowds keep coming they don't seem worried about the prospect of staying obscure in their homeland. "Not to sound cheesy, but we just consider ourselves lucky to be able to play and have people show up," says Krumm. "Hopefully it's starting to catch up over in the U.S. too. It just seems like a lot of positive things have been happening in general. I don't know if it says something about longevity or what. But we're feeling good about things."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.