[Photo: Connor Feimster]
Casey Crescenzo is a workhorse and a creative force to be reckoned with. For a decade-plus, Crescenzo has dedicated a majority of his time and energy to his band the Dear Hunter, which as of this Friday, September 9, will have released six full-length studio albums and a sizable collection of EPs. This really underplays the amount of content and additional elements attached to this catalogue, though, as much of Crescenzo’s output—and probably his most notable—is made up of an incredible, conceptual series revolving around one storyline. Told over the course of six installments, the Dear Hunter’s Act series is nearing completion as the band prepares to unleash its fifth part and Crescenzo gets started on the finale (which is expected to be a huge departure from what fans have come to anticipate from its delivery up to this point).
We spoke with Crescenzo about his development as a musician, writer, and band leader since starting the Dear Hunter in 2005. We also discuss the final two acts in this series and dive into the history of his ever-evolving band.
I think, more often than not, the Dear Hunter gets portrayed almost as a solo project of yours with other contributors who come and go. There’s certainly some truth to that, but you also have guys like your brother who have had pretty lengthy stints with the band.
CASEY CRESCENZO: Not to sound like I’m charitable by any means, but I do take as many opportunities as I can to express my gratitude to them. The amount of work they do, I don’t want it to go unnoticed. I try, as often as I can, to not draw any more attention to me specifically over anybody else. There were a few years there where, because the band’s lineup was so up in the air, we were doing things like promo photos were just me. I think that was more out of self-preservation than it was trying to say “I am everything about this band.” But, as time went on and this lineup ended up being what I would honestly say is the best lineup the band has ever had—and the most comfortable I’ve ever been with anybody—I try and take opportunities to make sure we can do promo photos as a band, that the liner notes reflect everybody who’s a part of it. I think because of the nature of this band starting as a project of mine and the amount of work that I still put into it, I think that people associate it with me first. But, I would never downplay the amount of work the other guys put into the band and how much they mean to the records. These records wouldn’t be near what they are if it weren’t for their involvement.
Act V being announced less than a year after IV was released was obviously a pretty big surprise. Do you have to take like the Star Wars route and have everyone involved sign their life away to stay quiet about it or is it more of an honor system?
We’re not a big band; the staff is very small and very tight-knit and has been working together for a very long time. We’re just not big enough for these things to really enter into it. If something is leaked, [it’s usually] the business side of things; it’s never just like a close friend of the band who just wanted to be shitty. [Laughs.]
You took a pretty lengthy break from the Act series between III and IV. In a situation like that—having time to reflect while away—do you find yourself facing any regrets about having committed to a six-part series so early on, especially after it had become solidified as such with fans?
The thing I regret isn’t committing myself to these things, it’s talking about them. I think that having talked about it being six parts definitely adds this element—it’s not a negative element—but it became tedious replying to people, while I was doing Migrant or The Color Spectrum, like, “Where is Act IV?” Even if people didn’t mean it this way, it seemed to devalue anything else that I could be doing. That was the thing that was regretful, was that by making these big, sweeping claims so early on, with the fan base that we have, that’s just sort of the thing that they want. It’s not like, “We just want another record”; it’s “We want this very specific thing.” It makes creatively branching off—the word that I want to use is “dangerous,” which is a hilarious word to use for this—but it essentially makes it a different criteria used to make the decision of what I’m doing next, and that’s an element that sort of bounces around in the back of my head. But, all those things being said, what an amazing problem to have.
I feel like Migrant was pretty overshadowed, being sandwiched between the ambitious heft of The Color Spectrum and the long-awaited return with Act IV.
It’s a low-key record; it’s not a bombastic, in-your-face record. The creation of it was very selfish for me in that I wanted something that would be more relaxed and more of a palate cleanser for myself. I think because of that, coupled with all those other factors, it was very quickly overlooked because it was so different than the general flow of things. With the fans who were really die-hard for the Act records—I think that because there was this concept to the The Color Spectrum, to them it sort of legitimized having EPs like Blue or Yellow. But with Migrant it was like, “Well here’s just a record.” I think that for a lot of people, that wasn’t necessarily what attracted them to the band, or that the promise of just getting a record wasn’t the most exciting thing, which I can understand.
When you’re writing music—specifically for the Act series—do you struggle between focusing on and fulfilling your own hopes and expectations of what the music should be versus those of the fans? How much consideration of what you think the fans expect goes into the writing?
Zero. Absolute zero. [Laughs.] I feel that’s the most respectful thing I can do for fans of the band. That’s not to say I don’t hope that people enjoy it, but it’s a selfish process for sure. It’s just, “Does this feel right?” or “Is this saying what I want it to say or how I feel?” If it meets those marks then I feel like I’m good to go on it. I will say, though, that once it’s finished and I let other people hear it or turn it in to the label, it’s at that point that I start to get a little bit shaky and wonder, “Shit, is anybody going to like this?” or “Is anybody going to follow me down this path?” That’s usually the point when I become concerned with what our fan base might feel about a specific song or record.
We sort of touched on this, but over the years you really have had a frequently rotating roster with this band, but you typically don’t make a fuss with announcements and such about who comes and goes. From your perspective, why all the changes?
Essentially—the way the band started when I left the Receiving End Of Sirens—I was in this emotional state where all I really wanted to have was that communal feeling that you see a lot of bands have, that traditional story of a band being a bunch of friends. So, [at that time] I brought in a few friends of mine. I had come from years of touring in VFW halls and church basements so my personal threshold for things is infinite. I was very used to playing shows without monitors, sleeping on floors—none of that stuff really bothered me, [but] within a few tours these guys quit the band. Years later, I’ve had this exchange where someone who used to be in my band is like, “Dude, being in charge of a band is really hard,” and I’m like, “Yeah, no shit, man. It’s been hard the whole time, and it was hard years ago when you didn’t really get it.”
That was the weird foundation the band was started on, with these people who hadn’t really been in other bands and hadn’t really toured, who had this glamorized idea of what this lifestyle is. So for the first few years, it was people coming in and coming out. [There came] a moment when I realized that I needed to stop being so concerned with the lineup of the band being this solid thing. I had been trying to make it work for so long, but I wasn’t going to find people that would be as passionate about the thing I want to do as I am. The Color Spectrum was when I owned it entirely and understood that that’s just the way it needed to be. It’s all been based around what I would say is a disparate relationship between expectation and reality for these people who come in and leave. It’s like they get excited because there’s this creative thing; they jump in, they see the workload is staggering and they see the expectation is high, but then when the payoff isn’t that high or when we were doing tours back-to-back where the max amount of people we were playing in front of was 100 people—I think that wears on other people in a way that it doesn’t really wear on me.
I’m sure some of these people would say, “Well, Casey is an asshole and I couldn’t be in a band with him.” While I definitely recognize that I have personal flaws and try my best to work on them, I think the problems through time with this band have been much more than whether or not I was too sarcastic or expected too much work out of the band.
Most of your current roster, including your brother, has been pretty consistent for half a decade and more. You mentioned how comfortable you are that the band is the best it’s ever been. Would you say you finally kind of found that sense of community with these guys that you wanted when this project first started?
Absolutely. It’s just that I found it in my early 30s where I was searching for it through the entire decade of my 20s. But at that time, I was probably not mature enough to be a part of that either I don’t think. But, at this point, I view the Dear Hunter as this group of people. And that includes the guy who’s playing keys with us, Gavin Castleton.
As far as this ‘Final Act Tour,’ can you tell me a bit about what we can expect as far as set lists? Is this celebrating just Act V or the entire series up to this point?
I think it’s both; I think it’s celebrating the series as a whole but it’s gonna be geared towards Act IV and Act V. There are a lot of songs from Act V that I think we’ve been waiting a long time to play. Another reason for that is because the show we’ll be playing with the orchestra at the end of tour—those songs are primarily going to be Act IV and V songs because those are the records that the Awesöme Orchestra played on. If we’re going to be playing 14 or 15 songs with this orchestra, we wanna make sure that we are up to snuff on those songs throughout the tour. We’re going to try to include as many of those songs in our set as possible, but there will still be a decent mix of older songs. It’s just that at this point, 10 years on as a band, I think it’s OK to start phasing out music because we’ve kept it in tow the whole time.
You also announced ‘Story Time with Casey.’ Can you tell me the idea behind that and what you plan to do with that time?
Essentially, I didn’t want it to be just a meet-and-greet. I wanted it to be almost like a round table discussion, but the crux of it is that for anybody who wants to talk about the story itself and discuss elements of that, that’s sort of the foundation of it. I’m also trying to figure out other things I can do in that time frame that are more exciting than just sitting and talking about the story. There will also be more tangible items that we’re creating in secret for those people, but the heart of it is something that I’ve never really talked about at length, and I feel that at this point it’s OK to walk people through the story and the concept in general.
So I've decided- even though the "Story Time with Casey" is primarily q&a, IF you bring a children's story and want me to read it, I will.
— Casey Crescenzo (@CaseyCrescenzo) September 1, 2016
Something I want to get back to is that in a letter you released to fans, you mention that Act V will be the final “rock record” in the series and that Act VI will be predominately different in some way. Are we talking like acoustic and electronic, or…? Can you elaborate on that at all?
[Act VI] will need to be something else entirely. I don’t think it’s just an album of any type of music. I know what I’m trying to do with it and I’ve already started the process of it, but it’s one of the things I just don’t want to say because if it turns out to fail I don’t want to bite myself in the ass. I know what it is and it’s very ambitious, I will say—and that’s not to pat my own back—it’s just almost too ambitious. I’m hoping it works out, but no, it’s not a record. It’s not going to be an acoustic record or an electronic record or an all-vocal record; it’s not going to be a record I don’t think. Looking at it as a story, it would not be a very enjoyable album. There will be a music element but I don’t think that will be the sole focus of it.
Up to this point, it’s just been very clear. From start to finish I’ve known what I wanted to accomplish and thus far it’s worked sonically, but I don’t see it working sonically for the last act of the whole story.
So as you’re in the final stretch of this thing, are you pleased with how it’s all developed since the beginning with your original vision of this story? Looking back, do you wish you had done anything differently?
Not necessarily. The things I wish I had done differently are more internal, like not getting so wound up about specifics, or the business of things, or myself having the wrong expectations of what success might be. But musically and creatively I feel confident in what I’ve done. At the same time, I have this bad habit of really hating the music that I’ve made once I’m about a year out from it. We did this tour for Act II and III where we were playing one record per night and I had to go back and listen to [those albums] to relearn some things and it was just like pulling teeth for me. I really like to keep my head on straight and my eyes forward. Going back and listening to those things, it doesn’t have the same connotations for me as I think it has for a lot of fans. It’s not that I regret it, and it’s not like there’s anything I wish I’d changed, but I just never really think about that stuff at all. For me, by the end of my life, my hope is to have a body of work that shows growth—and immense growth—and somebody who took every opportunity to learn and better themselves as a creative individual.
Have you had an opportunity to look beyond Act VI and consider what might be on the horizon for the Dear Hunter?
I actually do have an idea for a record that I’ve already been kicking around. Whether or not it comes around before whatever Act VI is going to be, I’m not entirely sure, but I will say that I know what album I’m going to be making next and already started kicking around some songs for it. There are future releases in the pipeline that are not very far off at all—like next year, hopefully early next year. I think I’m okay with finally stepping away from the traditional record cycle, and having the studio and the team that I trust, why would I allow the years to just roll on without doing the thing that I love doing? S
A version of this interview is featured in issue #53 of Substream Magazine, on sale now! The Dear Hunter’s newest album, ‘Act V: Hymns With the Devil in Confessional,’ is available to pre-order through Equal Vision Records before its release tomorrow, September 9.
The Dear Hunter tour dates:
9 – Portland, Ore. @ Doug Fir Lounge
10 – Seattle, Wash. @ Neumos
13 – Salt Lake City, Utah @ The Complex
14 – Denver, Colo. @ Marquis Theatre
16 – Minneapolis, Minn. @ Fine Line Music Hall
20 – St. Louis, Mo. @ The Ready Room
21 – Chicago, Ill. @ Metro
23 – Detroit, Mich. @ Loving Touch
24 – Cleveland, Ohio @ Beachland Ballroom
25 – Buffalo, N.Y. @ The Waiting Room
27 – Providence, R.I. @ The Met Café
29 – Boston, Mass. @ Paradise
30 – Philadelphia, Pa. @ Union Transfer
1 – New York, N.Y. @ Webster Hall
5 – Washington, D.C. @ Rock & Roll Hotel
7 – Carrboro, N.C. Cat’s Cradle
8 – Nashville, Tenn. @ Exit/In
9 – Atlanta, Ga. @ Terminal West @ King Plow Arts Center
12 – Orlando, Fla. @ The Social
14 – Houston, Texas @ White Oak Music Hall
15 – Austin, Texas @ Mohawk
16 – Dallas, Texas @ Gas Monkey Bar N’ Grill
19 – Albuquerque, N.M. @ Launchpad
20 – Phoenix, Ariz. @ The Crescent Ballroom
21 – San Diego, Calif. @ The Irenic
22 – Pomona, Calif. @ The Glass House
25 – Los Angeles, Calif. @ El Rey Theatre
28 – San Francisco, Calif. @ The Fillmore