Coming in From the Cold
Who the Hell is Craig Ross?
It's hard to believe that this is the same guy last seen in concert tastefully bending and grooving to rhythmic pop music with the dulcet soul tones of an African-American albino singer. Because contrary to what he might think, people do know who Craig Ross is: He's the guy who isn't in Storyville anymore. Along with vocalist Malford Milligan, Ross was a driving force in both Stick People and Storyville, but the latter band has now existed longer without him than it did with him -- three years. So perhaps the real response to Dead Spy Report should be "Where?" As in, "Where the hell has Craig Ross been?"
Mostly, he's been at home, watching late nights become early mornings as he tinkered with noises, knobs, melodies, and multi-tracks in the cracked concrete-floored garage studio he's been building with producer and former Glass Eye bigwig Brian Beattie. He's sitting there right now, in fact (he claims the cracks are a hedge against "standing waves"), but at the risk of sacrificing that all-important journalistic sense of place, the exact location shall remain unrevealed. (All I can tell you is that after Ross and Beattie took me there blindfolded, I thought I heard planes taking off, and water crashing against rocks, and the unmistakable sound of oil derricks.)
From this spot and a few others Ross played and produced the lion's share of the music on Dead Spy Report; much of Kathy McCarty's Dead Dog's Eyeball was also done with the same equipment, occasionally while Ross was in his bedroom trying to sleep. Beattie, John Hagen, Roy Taylor, and drummers Pam Barger, John Paul Keenon and (ex-Stick Person) Thor are among the locals who helped Ross out. Even so, the record is a decidedly one-man affair, though Ross isn't looking to impress anyone with this self-actualization.
"That wasn't the point, it's not like, `I did it all, I'm wonder-kid,'" he says. "But a big part of what I do is write the stuff while I'm recording it, and I tend to try a lot more shit that I wouldn't do in front of other people." Yes, the man is a little shy. When he left Storyville, he didn't really have any serious musical plans, and rediscovering (or reinventing) yourself is a daunting process, especially when you haven't opened your mouth for public consumption in a long time. "Especially," notes Ross, "when you have [Milligan] who could sing anything doing every song you'd ever written."
But there were sounds in his head that didn't make sense in the context of Storyville. "One day I just said, `Wow, there's a thing that I do on guitar that fits more with what I do by myself. With a singer like Malford there's an expectation that you'd have an instrumentalist who can keep up with him. I didn't think I could. I kind of felt like the little guy with the moustache in Hall and Oates." (That would be Oates.)
Storyville had done its share of record company dances (the current version of the band ended up signing with Atlantic's TAG subsidiary), and that whole process left Ross underwhelmed. With encouragement from Taylor, who is, besides a close friend, a producer, soundman, and tour manager, Ross went to work without thinking about who might hear his music, or whether or not it would be released. "Things change when you have to sit there and think about who else you have to make happy besides yourself," he says.
"I was completely disgusted with the music business, so the last thing I was thinking about was getting a record deal. I don't think [record companies] consciously put pressure on you, it's more a perceived pressure. And usually when they're courting you, they're gonna tell you everything you wanna hear anyway. Then the real truth comes out when the deal is signed." At the same time, he allows, "Eventually I wanted to be able to not have to make futons for a living." And eventually, he didn't have to, thanks to a series of acquaintanceships and coincidences that prove it's easiest to get what you want when you aren't looking for it.
First, Ross accidentally ended up with a manager when former Two Nice Girl Barger, who was playing in a band called Pretty Mary Sunshine in Seattle, asked him to join up on guitar temporarily. Ross had just left Storyville and wasn't fully immersed in his solo work yet, so he ended up in Oklahoma City at a recording session. Oklahoma City, of course, means only one thing when it comes to rock & roll, and these particular sessions were indeed overseen by Flaming Lips producer Keith Cleversley.
Cleversley passed Ross's tape to the Lips' manager, Scott Booker, who liked what he heard. "He just called me out of the blue, and said `Hey, do you need a manager?,'" recalls Ross. "Well, sure, yeah, why not? He's a good guy, and now he's one of my closest friends, too." Further down the line, another Lips crony, producer and Mercury Rev mainstay Dave Fridman, helped mix the song "Kill The Morning." Meanwhile, Ross's friend Taylor was out road managing for Lisa Germano. "I told Roy, please send Lisa a tape, I'd love for her to have a tape, because I think she's amazing," he says of the beauteously unsettling songwriter/violinist.
Germano returned the compliment and when she heard her ex-collaborator Malcolm Burn was in Austin working with Charlie Sexton, she suggested he contact Ross. Ross wrote a song for Sexton's record, and soaked up a lot of producing and engineering knowledge from Burn on the side. The busy producer subsequently recruited Ross for other projects, including his own forthcoming record as well as discs by Patty Griffin (who ended up jettisoning the Burn sessions to release her demos), Shawn Colvin, and Marc Cohn. In the end, Burn did one track ("Everybody's Faking") on Dead Spy Report and his New Orleans colleague Trina Shoemaker mixed three others. Germano, who plays and sings on the record's "I'll Never Burn," also made Ross a member of her touring band and used him (as well as Thor) on her yet-to-be-released Excerpts from a Love Circus.
Got all that? To recap: Our Odyssean hero now has a manager and several formative professional experiences. Soon, he would also have 26 songs, more than enough for the makings of a record. D.I.Y. types usually gravitate towards either lo-fi bedroom ennui or unctuous hi-fi displays of musicianship, but Ross did neither. Instead, he made an intimate but expansive record that veers between psychedelic dreaminess, swampy fuzz guitar-rock, and edgy pop hookery, his engaging whine and plaintive melodies suspended in a misty ether of feedback, echoes and arpeggios.
"A lot of it revolves around the sounds that are going on," Ross says. His particular cocktail of strangeness and songcraft reflects his passion for the likes of Burt Bacharach, Tall Dwarfs, and French pop from Francoise Hardy to Stereolab, but he's also a bit of a classicist, putting his own skewed spin on a variety of well-known, but nevertheless impeccable, influences. This subject inadvertently surfaces while I'm telling Ross (sorry to namedrop, but there's just no other context in which to put this) about the way Elastica's Justine Frischmann walked into Brent Grulke's house last summer and immediately wanted to know where his Wire records were. Ross agrees that this is a bit of a cliché, and jokes, "It'd be like me walking in somewhere and going, `Where are your Neil Young and John Lennon records?'
"That's a weird thing for me," he continues. "People are saying `Oh, there's a lot of John Lennon-sounding stuff' and I'm like, `Look, I'm not trying to sound like John Lennon. Please tell me it doesn't sound like I'm ripping him off.'" It doesn't, but there is a certain vocal resemblance there, mostly because of the warm, raspy tone Ross uses to compensate for a voice that's not technically virtuosic. Besides, he says that if anything, the model for his solo flight was actually Paul McCartney's one-man weirdo trip Ram.
Then there's the Marc Bolan question, as raised by the lead-off track, "Mudslide." With its percolating, glammish guitar and deadpan vocals, a heavy hat is definitely tipped in this case, though Ross writes it off as an accident. "The T. Rex thing, the vocal on that song was the last thing to go down there. Brian just kind of walked in while I was doing the vocal, and he goes, `You should try singing that quieter.' So I did, and then I went, `Oh wow, it sounds like fucking Marc Bolan!' But then it was like, `I don't care,' 'cause it was a week before I went to master the record."
Despite his caveat about record companies whispering sweet nothings when proferring a contract, Ross signed with MCA because, well, they told him exactly what he wanted to hear. Then they actually followed through on their promises. "I said to MCA, `This is the record I want to put out. Do you want to put it out? If you want to put it out then I'll sign.' I held out for a really long time. What was most important to me was that I could produce or coproduce all of my records and nobody could remix anything or go back over it."
Since then, things have gone swimmingly despite the fact that the A&R person who signed Ross -- and several other key players at the label, which has undergone major restructuring since Seagram's purchased it -- has since left MCA's employ. "But strangely enough, everybody seems to like the record," says Ross. "I have no earthly idea how it's gonna be marketed. The scariest thing about it is that, being a solo artist, people are going to go, `Oh, he's from Austin, he's either a blues guitarist or a singer-songwriter.'"
They'll find out otherwise soon enough, perhaps when Ross leaves the confines of the studio to hit the road. That probably won't happen until September, but he's tentatively planning to work with Scott Garber, former Gretchen Phillips Experience member Andy Loomis and drummer Keenon, who is in K. McCarty's band (as was Ross on her initial solo tour). No matter what comes next, Ross has made a record that he's happy with. It's as simple as that.
"I'd just rather put out the record and have people hear it, let people come to it naturally and like it or not like it," he says. "I can't imagine going through all of this shit if I was 25. The thing that I've learned is that people don't necessarily have to like your record, it's okay." In any case, he figures he's got hype -- or rather, the utter lack of it -- on his side. Not having expectations is an approach that has served him well so far.
"I didn't get signed because a bunch of other people were after me and Scott didn't pick me up because people were talking about me," says Ross. "So I'm hoping the same thing happens with the record. If it does, it'll be a nice surprise. And if it doesn't, nobody's gonna go `Oh, another Austin artist down the crapper.'" n