|photo by Marco Rapisarda|
A version of my interview originally appeared at nctimes.com/entertainment
With Crocodiles, a “devil may care” attitude comes naturally.
The San Diego-bred indie rock band has written or covered songs about provocative subjects (“Neon Jesus,” “Kill Joe Arpaio,” “Fascist Cops”).
Then there was the front of its acclaimed 2010 album “Sleeps Forever,” which depicted children gathered around an empty grave.
Just released third studio effort “Endless Flowers” could stir up controversy again among those who actually see the physical product image: a young man, minus clothes, descends a staircase while clutching a bouquet.
“Some people think the artwork of our naked friend is perverse; some think it’s innocent. It’s all open to interpretation,” said lead guitarist Charles Rowell, from what he called Crocodiles’ “home away from home” in Berlin.
Last year, following rock festival appearances there and recommendations from a tour mate, Rowell and singer Brandon Welchez temporarily relocated to the German capital to craft new tunes. Bassist Marco Gonzalez, drummer Anna Shulte and keyboardist Robin Eisenberg eventually joined them.
“It’s really picturesque. There aren’t many negative people around. As an artist, you’re able to live cheap and create a brand new persona for yourself if you want to - which is what we tried.”
Although Shulte is German, her Berlin travel tips were met with deaf ears by the party-minded guys. “She’s from the university school of thought and wanted to go to funny little coffee shops. We wanted to go where all the bruisers, thieves and prostitutes hung out,” Rowell said with a laugh.
So they reveled in city’s “sordid underground scene. We became friends with some of the main figureheads and found creative solace in characters we met in the bars (which never close). We’re one big dark sleazy family here.”
That musical brood began four years ago. Welchez grew up in Poway; guitarist Charles Rowell moved to Spring Valley when he was 15. They met while attending events at the Che Café and political rallies around the area.
After a stint in local band Plot to Blow up the Eiffel Tower, the pair brought an admiration of The Velvet Underground to Crocodiles (the name is taken from an Echo & the Bunnymen record).
Noisy feedback and distorted guitar-driven debut disc “Summer of Hate” emerged in ‘09 on Fat Possum Records and drew comparisons to Jesus and Mary Chain. Sophomore album “Sleep Forever” was produced by James Ford (Simian Mobile Disco, Arctic Monkeys) and the title track garnered a San Diego Music Award.
Despite a somewhat morbid lyrical tone (sample titles: “Stoned to Death,” “All My Hate and My Hexes Are For You”), the alluring result was a more psychedelic rock-tinged fusion of The Velvets, Spaceman 3 and Ride. The ensuing tour found Crocodiles expand to a quintet full time.
All the musicians recorded the more pop-leaning “Endless Flowers,” Crocodiles’ first on NYC-based label French Kiss Records (home to fellow buzz bands The Drums, Local Natives and Freelance Whales). Since the debut was self-produced, Welchez and Rowell had no problems taking the reigns.
“We did our homework and planned out how we wanted everything to sound. Having friends (in the studio) made it really easy. We had a really good time; it was a long couple weeks of partying.”
The loose atmosphere resulted in various noises and chatter on “Flowers.” Inspired by The Beatles’ “White Album,” Rowell said they consciously let more personality into the songs.
“We’re massive fans of how that had a strange collage of sound.” High on the oddness scale is one short and “creepy uncomfortable segue” between songs. It encompasses a white noise poem penned by Welchez and Rowell that was translated into German and recited by Shulte.
On “Sunday (Psychic Conversation #9)” and stomping “Electric Death Song,” Rowell experimented with guitar/analog tape machine manipulations a la King Crimson’s Robert Fripp.
Ebullient female harmonies – a pleasant surprise - crop up on the appropriately-named “Bubblegum Trash” and ‘60s-styled “My Surfing Lucifer.” The latter features the principle Crocodiles members’ wives (Welchez’s spouse is Dum Dum Girls leader and fellow former San Diegan, Kristen Gundred). Elsewhere, “No More Black Clouds for Dee Dee,” the singer’s love letter to her, could almost be a lost Smiths outtake.
Overall, Rowell feels the biggest difference this time around is in the songwriting, which he said is more emotional – a result of poetry readings the musicians did for each other on tour.
“It’s right there in front, whereas in the past, there was a wall of noise hiding it. We’ve shown more of our tricks and chord changes this time around. And there’s that naked guy on the cover. So we’re exposing ourselves a bit more.”
Crocodiles – whose members call different corners of the world home, but still comprises two locals in Gonzalez and Shulte - recently converged for a tour with The Temper Trap and show at House of Blues San Diego on Wednesday. A couple weeks ago, Rowell had yet to hear the band’s big modern rock hit “Sweet Disposition.”
“They’re Australian; they must be nice guys. My little sister is over the moon about the trip. She wanted to come along and take photographs.”
Crocodiles opens for The Temper Trap on June 13 at House of Blues San Diego and June 15 at the Hollywood Palladium.