Some months ago, by chance I was introduced to a band I probably would ignore if I had seen their latest release, What You Gonna Do? in a record store. Simply because I wouldn't look in "that" section - I only look in the hard rock and heavy metal section usually. However, since I received a promo copy for a possible review I listened to it and Crankshaft And The Gear Grinders from Anoka County, Minnesota had me hook, line and sinker. The band is the brainchild of Alex "Crankshaft" Larson and after a great conversation with the man I knew I had to share it with you all. So sit back and enjoy the story of a man with a distinct musical vision and how you turn prize money into three excellent videos.
For those not in the know tell us who Crankshaft is and what is the difference between Crankshaft and Crankshaft And The Gear Grinders?
Crankshaft is a traditional one man band, I play kick drum, a snare drum with a kick pedal on it, a hi-hat with a tambourine on top, guitar, and vocals at the same time, sometimes I add kazoo or harmonica. I've always kept my one man band free of loop pedals, so what you're hearing is a live one man show. Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders is a larger group playing the same songs as Crankshaft. The biggest difference is that a drummer replaces my one man kit, and I'm standing upright instead of sitting down. Being able to stand is a game changer for the performance side of the show, also it allows me to sing better. Typically if the show is billed as Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders you will be seeing a working three piece arrangement, guitar/vocals, upright bass, and drums. Sometimes I add a horn section, keys, backup singers, a harmonica, and an extra percussionist to the show, same goes for the studio recordings.
Judging by your stage name you're heavily into cars, am I right? Especially vintage cars from the 50's and the 60's. Is that a wrong assessment?
You're right, the first car that I paid for when I was a teenager was a 1959 Chevy Biscayne. It was missing an engine, and the brakes were bad. I installed an engine with the help of a friend of mine, Tom Haynes, and my younger brother Clint. Tom also taught me how to rebuild the brakes. Once I started that car for the first time and heard it run I was hooked. The first gig that I ever did under the stage name Crankshaft was actually at a car show.
To me who has just discovered you via your latest album What You Gonna Do? I think you musical foundation is in 50's rock, delta blues, surf, swing and a bit of zydeco which is such an eclectic mix. I even get some punk vibes. Am I totally wrong picking up all these variations?
No, you're right, I have an anything goes approach to writing and arranging music. I like a lot of different kinds of music, and those different musical forms seep into what I'm doing creatively. I'm writing songs how I hear them playing in my head when I come up with the lyrics. It's kind of an unconventional approach, I put songs together by relating the feeling of the music to the context of the lyrics, rather than making the musical style of the songs the basis of their conception, like (insert every one hit wonder pop album ever made). I'm reluctant to reach out to labels for this reason, I don't want my approach to be compromised because it's less marketable, and that's where the punk rock attitude comes into play the most. Sonically the punk rock is rooted in my relationship to my younger brother and the friends we hung out with in high school. I was the odd duck that was listening to Elmore James, Chuck Berry, and The Sonics, when my friends were listening to bands like The Dead Kennedys and Minor Threat. I think playing in a surf punk band with my brother and being billed with hundreds of punk bands in my early twenty's could have something to do with the edge that people comment about in the delivery of my songs. I can also say that I like digging into the guitar with a heavy right hand, I always have.
Are you a full-time musician?
Yes, I stopped working construction in August of 2010, since then I've been paying my mortgage payment and my bills with money that I earn playing gigs, selling CDs, and other Crankshaft related merchandise.
My one man show is pretty well developed, I played solo shows for almost two years before I considered adding pieces to the project, not to say that I'm done learning how I approach the music solo, but it is a bonus that I'm comfortable playing on stage by myself. Also, I don't need to communicate any of my ideas related to changing how I approach the music. Sometimes it's hard to communicate to the drummer that I'm working with where I want the snare pocket to land because when I'm by myself I just play it how I feel it should be. Interpretation is a big part of music, and depending on the guys that I'm working with on the next gig the feelings of the songs can change based on the personality of the players. I think that playing with a lot of different rhythm section players is forcing me to become a better listener, a better front-man, and leader.
Getting involved in music in 1996 playing in various projects and constellations through the years, Alex Larson became Crankshaft in 2008 and performed as a one man band around his native Minnesota. In 2010 he decided to go full time with his music, either as Crankshaft or with his new band Crankshaft And The Gear Grinders. Upon becoming a fulltime musician Alex has developed a strong DIY ethic and promotes his ventures diligently and admirably through mainly a rather busy live schedule. In that process he has built up a pretty big and devoted fan base which is continously growing. This is no more apparent than when it comes to his participation in Artist Signal's online competition in 2012.
A friend tipped Alex off about this online competition for independent bands where the winner would received $25,000. Unfortunatley it was a little bit too late and nothing came about from it. However, not long after the contest is over, he receives an e-mail from Artist Signal stating they will run the competition again. Much better prepared Alex enters and besides his profile on the Artist Signal website he creates a Facebook event called Vote Once A Day For Crankshaft. Aided by these two forums he started to spread the word and he made a vow to everyone who voted for him. If he won he would use the prize money to make three music videos.
After a while he claimed the top spot with quite some time left before the competition was over. Determind to win Alex went on a promotion spree in the truest DIY-style. He put up flyers all over his hometown; he printed business cards with the voting URL on them and he walked up and down the sidewalk of the busiest street in town holding a cardboard sign reading Vote For Crankshaft. This worked wonders because having lost the lead Alex reclaimed it and eventually won by a mile and a half getting 4,000 more votes than the runner up. Now the videos are done and a release party is being held at the club Famous Dave's BBQ And Blues Club in Minneapolis while the world wide release via YouTube will be on Thanksgiving Day. After the premiere viewing Crankshaft And The Gear Grinders will perform and all attendees will receive a DVD of the three videos.
The videos are pretty cool and actually stay very true to the story each song tells which is extremely rare these days. Usually videos have no connection to the songs, therefore that alone is refreshing with what Alex has created. In Waiting For Me Crankshaft sings about getting ready for a show and getting home late while his girl is waiting at home for him. Shot in both black and white and colour it is beautifully crafted and the switch in colours works wonders with the soft tones of the song.
Kingpin takes place in and around a bowling alley where this hot, tattooed girl is mesmerizing all the guys who this song is about. Each and everyone wants to be her kingpin but only one guy gets to take her home. One of my favourite Crankshaft songs and a cool video indeed.
The funniest video of the three is Fill It Up where Alex plays a disgruntled cement truck driver who's wife is cheating on him. He is looking for the playboy who swayed his woman and all I can say is...look out for that cement truck and it's driver. A very humourous video despite the cheating spouse.
Yes unfortunately, I wont be able to tour this fall like I have in the past. I was too swamped producing, directing, and editing to allow for the time it takes to book a tour.
What are your feeling about being on the road playing live? Do you prefer that to studio work or vice versa. Or is it an equal share between the two?
It would be hard to compare the two side by side like that because they are so different from each other. Playing well in a live setting takes serious focus, which is challenging and rewarding. Recording music and producing albums in the studio is different because you can produce things in a way that can't be replicated live. Sometimes it's for the better, sometimes for the worst, again, another challenge that can be rewarding when executed properly. I think that there is an art to doing each, but they are different skill sets.
Most of your albums have been released via Slab Town Music Productions, a strictly DIY label. Are you planning on staying independent or are you aiming for a major label?
My goal is to continue to make music and art that I believe in, if a bigger indie label or major label likes what I'm doing and is willing to give me the final say, I'm all in.
Have you received a lot of exposure with your music, both nationwide and internationally?
Pete Knapp just ran two radio campaigns for me, one focusing on the AMA chart in the U.S., and one for the Euro Americana chart overseas, we managed to stay in the AMA top 100 for ten weeks, and on the Euro Americana top 25 for 8 weeks. I feel very happy about the success that What You Gonna Do? received with FM radio, especially because it was a self-produced, self-funded release, and all of the material on the release was my own.
What's on your immediate agenda now that the three videos are completed?
I need to finish mixing a live album that I'll be releasing in December. I'd also like to start writing again, It's been a long time since I focused on that and I miss it. I wrote a song called Made To Race this spring, the song before that was I Wanna Play which was finished sometime in March 2012. I'm excited to write and arrange songs now that.
And with this I thank Alex "Crankshaft" for taking the time to talk to me. He's a busy man making his living creating great music just the way he wants it to be and he does it all on his own. With a real strong DIY ethic everything he makes goes back into his craft. The three videos being a prime example of this. Most bands who won $25,000 would just blow it on whatever. Alex made these videos instead, cutting his touring and recording schedule down to about zilch simply to keep a promise he made. And that's how you do it folks! Mark Thanksgiving Day off in your calendars for the world premiere of the videos AND check out Crankshaft And The Gear Grinders, you won't be disappointed.