By Nick Bynum of Rock Edition
The first thing that most of us think of when we hear the word rock ‘n’ roll is a clavinet, right? Well, that’s what one Los Angeles-based band thought. Originally from Boston, brothers Tony and Mike Beliveau formed Crash Kings in 2006. This rock trio, consisting of drums, a bass, a piano, and a clavinet have made their mark on the ever-evolving genre. With the use of their clavinet, a type of electro-mechanical keyboard where each key is attached to a guitar string, Crash Kings have helped redefine the tools of rock ‘n’ roll. Their latest album, ‘Dark of the Daylight,’ fuses the unique, guitar-like sounds of their clavinet into a tight musical package, creating a distinct, alternative sound.
Keep reading below for our chat with Tony (vocals, piano, and clav) and Mike (bass) on how Crash Kings got to where they are today.
I know you’ve been asked this about a million times, but what brought you to not include a guitarist in the band?
Mike: We do get asked that a lot. Tony originally started the band with just him and the drummer and I was in New York. He sent me some demos of songs with him singing and playing piano and drums. It was literally a piano keyboard through a little amp and super raw. Really just high-energy rock ‘n’ roll on piano. I was like, “Wow, this is so cool.” I originally thought the best way to add to it would be sort of just an auxiliary-type person: just play bass on the tunes. He was like, “I want you to do something with this!” And I said, “Well, we could play a little bass, a little keyboards and some guitar.” But then when we put it together and I just added bass to the band we all thought, “This is it.” We just found that we had the fullest sound that we could possibly have with just the three of us. It made a challenge for us to have a band without the guitar because it challenges our parts and everything to be different and unique and to still have that rock edge to it. With a guitar you can only go to the same sort of things and you get used to hearing it.
Going off of that, do you ever feel that it’s harder to have a “complete” song, so to speak, since you don’t have a guitar in each song?
Mike: It is a challenge, but that’s the fun part of it. It’s not ever a hindrance. Plus, Tony has this clav-keyboard. If you’ve ever seen us live it really fills it out as much a guitar trio would, if not more. You can actually hit more strings than a guitar could.
I’m not going to lie, I had never heard of a clavinet unit I started listening to you guys. How did you discover it and make it a part of your band?
Tony: It was actually given to me. I was waiting tables at a restaurant and I was talking to the owner who used to own a studio. We were talking about analog synths and there was this one I really wanted. He said, “Oh, I have that. It’s been sitting in my storage unit.” After the work shift, we went over to his place and he couldn’t find it, but I saw this clavinet. I had heard about them, but I didn’t really know much about them or how they worked. I pointed it out and he was like, “Oh yeah, that thing has been sitting here for about 15 years and I think it has some whammy thing on it, so if you want to take it go ahead because I’m not going to do anything with it.” So I was like, “Okay, cool!” I took it home and I opened it up and I saw that there were real guitar strings and that there were 60 keys. For each key there was one guitar string so there were 60 guitar strings and they have guitar pickups. There were some broken strings and it was all out of tune — kind of whacky — so I just sort of figured out how to restring it and put hammer tips on it so it would sound all even and smooth. Then, when it finally got all tuned up, I took it into the studio and put it through a tube amp and it sounded really cool. Then there was the learning curve of figuring out how to play it and pitch bend the notes and do that kind of thing.
How did you go about learning that? Did anybody else know how to play it?
Tony: No, nobody ever used that keyboard really. George Duke used it on one thing back in the ’70s, but only for one song. It was more like a flashy novelty thing and I wanted to use it in a lot of stuff and use it more as a musical piece. I just sat there and like any musician should — which they don’t, they don’t sit in a room and just practice their instrument anymore because there’s the Internet and other stuff — I played it for hours and hours and hours. I spent years and years of my life playing piano so I started to transcribe different solos from guitar players that were my favorite. We actually did a video called “Evolution of Guitar with No Guitar” featuring that keyboard. That was great practice for me to learn that keyboard and for us to figure out how to adapt that into our setup.
If anyone needs to learn, they should just come straight to you from now on!
Mike and Tony: [laughs]
So I read that you pride yourselves in the fact that you don’t have any prerecorded tracks during your live sets. Do you feel that that makes your shows more fun to play?
Tony: It just makes it more live. We tried to do it and have a click track and it just made the whole band a slave to the computer. We’re anti the computer unless you’re recording or demoing or something like that. We try to deliver a good ol’ fashion rock ‘n’ roll show. We do use synths and keyboards to try to carve out a modern sound. It just makes it more free if all of us play together. If the song is going to be fast one night, the song is going to be fast that night. If it’s going to be slower, it’s going to be slower. That’s part of the show and that’s part of the energy of putting that out and having all the vibrations coming off the stage.
I’m a full believer in that, man. When you guys sit down together to come up with new material, where do you get that inspiration?
Mike: That’s always a tough question.
Tony: It’s always what you’re feeling in that moment. Maybe I’ll hear something that I really dig. I may think that that vibe is really cool or I may like the way that guitar sounds and I’ll try to do it with the piano or the keyboard. Everything’s been written. Nobody is creating any core progressions, especially in rock ‘n’ roll. There are no rules like who’s better or worse. Just because we decide not to play recorded tracks or we decide to make records with no guitar, it doesn’t mean that we’re better. We definitely don’t think that.
I know you’re a Zeppelin fan, but what else influenced you, musically, growing up?
Mike: Yeah, that’s also tough because it ranges so much. It’s hard to know what influences you and what the beginning of that is. It’s always tough to pinpoint who your influences are without giving this laundry list of musicians. We definitely listened to classic and alternative rock growing up. We grew up as 14, 15, 16-year-olds during the age of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Soundgarden and all that. That was an inspiration for us. Flea was definitely an inspiration for me as a bass player. Musically, we’ve come so far from that, that this band is a throwback to our initial goals. When we started playing music, we really wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll and we had a rock piano trio when we were in high school. Tony and I decided, when we started this band, that we wanted to have a raw rock ‘n’ roll band because that’s where we come from. That’s our roots, basically, musically. We wanted to do a return to our roots and it’s just proved that that is the way for us because we’re just really happy with what we’ve come out with. And it seems natural to us. We still listen to jazz and electronic music and hip hop and reggae and world music, so all of that is there somewhere. You know what I mean?
Yeah, it’s all subliminally merged in there.
‘Dark of the Daylight’ dropped in June. How do you feel you’ve progressed in that album from your last?
Tony: I think that this record was a direct product of us doing exactly what we wanted to. Over the years, from the beginning of our first record into touring, we saw where our strengths were as a band. When we started playing and made our first record, we didn’t truly know who we were or where we were going. We just saw that we had the opportunity to make a record with Dave Sardy — who is a phenomenal producer — and he kind of helped shape and mold our band and got us through the door. He was like, “You guys are this: this piano-rock trio.” When we realized that the whole clavinet with the whammy bar was winning our fans over, we decided it would be cool to make a record featuring that. We also wanted to push the envelope a little bit more with going into our experimental roots a little bit. Just kind of tapping into that and having full control of making a record with an amazing producer, Nick Launay, who worked on ‘Dark of the Daylight’ with us. He shared that same vision of “let’s make a record featuring that clavinet because it’s never really been done before.” We just took some risks with him and made it as exciting and interesting as possible. When you come out to see the show it’s not the same sounds the whole show. You have all of these different sonic things going on. It was a way for us to expand from being just a piano-rock trio to being more of a, dare I say, synth-rock trio. That isn’t [the right word]. The clavinet isn’t a synth; it’s like its own thing.
It’s a clavinet. [laughs]
Tony: [laughs] Yeah, it’s not a synth at all! But yeah, we just wanted to push the envelope a little by featuring that keyboard.
Is this your first time playing at Bowery Ballroom?
Mike: Hell yeah!
Tony: Always wanted to play here.
Mike: I lived in New York for a couple of years and Tony lived here for a little while. It’s just one of those classic New York venues. When we saw it, were both just like, “Wow, we’re going to headline Bowery Ballroom!” In a way, it was definitely, at some point, a dream of mine. So today is a dream-come-true reality thing. I want to headline the Bowery Ballroom; check it off the list! [laughs]
Tony: We were here maybe 12 years ago watching Squarepusher and he was one of our favorites! We went through a huge electronic phase of listening to a lot of artists from Warp Records like Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Autechre, Boards of Canada, and that kind of stuff. Tom Jenkinson, who is Squarepusher, is one of the most phenomenal bass players I’ve ever seen. And he was probably a huge influence on Mike too. When we saw him here, we were like, “Man, one day we’re going to play this room!” So it’s probably one of the biggest highlights of this entire tour.
Nice! Is this also your first show with Nico Vega?
Mike: No, we’ve been touring with them.
How’s that been?
Mike: It’s been great. Each band brings out their own crowd and we’re sharing our crowd with them. We’ve been friends with them for years and years so it’s fun.
Yeah, they have some cool stuff. Last question: what are your plans after this tour?
Tony: We started demoing out new songs for a new EP. I think the goal is going to be to go in, touch those up, get the pre-production done, and go right back into the studio and record more music; put it out next year on our own.
Back in LA?
Tony: Yeah, because we can. We don’t have to wait for anybody.
Mike: We’re fully independent now!
Tony: Yep, we’re fully independent. We call the shots now. We haul our own gear.
I guess that’s not the best thing. [laughs]
Tony: [laughs] We drive our band.
Mike: [laughs] Yeah, that’s the trade off.
Tony: But there’s a complete freedom to it all. Whenever we want to put it out, we’ll put it out. We’re excited about that.