By Avinash Mittur
Over the last few years, the Pacific Northwest has been gaining a reputation for housing some of the coolest underground heavy metal in America. Hailing from Portland, Crag Dweller are one of the freshest additions to the new resurgence of heavy rock music. On Sunday August 25th, I had the chance to see these guys play a house show in Concord, a suburban city in the East Bay area of California and I was thoroughly impressed by their energetic, yet impossibly tight brand of brawny, muscular stoner rock. After the show had come to a close, I had the opportunity of chatting with the band-bassist/vocalist Cliff Martin, guitarist/vocalist Rich Vivarelli and drummer Travis Clowe. Enjoy the conversation below, and be sure to catch the band on tour this week with Ovvl.
So you guys are on the road right now with Ovvl, right?
Cliff: Yup, we’re on tour for the next week, and we’re heading down to Tijuana.
Oh okay, will that be Crag Dweller’s first time in Mexico? Is that your first international show as well?
Cliff: Yeah, it’ll be our first time ever in Mexico!
Travis: It is our first international show, and we’re also playing Vancouver, BC next month or maybe the month after. We’re getting a couple stamps on our passports!
So this tour is in support of your debut, ‘Magic Dust’?
Rich: Yeah it is, but there are some new songs that we’re playing actually.
Travis: We’re trying to make a new album really quick, that’s kind of why we’re workshopping all the new stuff on the road.
‘Magic Dust’ came out about a year and a half ago in early 2012. Are you completely happy with the way the album turned out? Anything you would like to go back and change or do differently now that you have the benefit of hindsight?
Cliff: Well, there’s always something we want to go back and change, you know? It’s never perfect.
Travis: We did it in what, three days? So you can definitely hear the urgency on there, I think it shows and I kind of like it.
Cliff: It definitely has a real warm and kind of a punk feel when it comes to the recording, kind of that old-fashioned analog feel in a way.
Oh, so are you saying that you tracked to tape then?
Travis: Yup, we did reel-to-reel for the tracking, and then went DAT to digital.
One thing I notice with power trios like Crag Dweller is that their albums are often a direct extension of how they sound live. Was this the case with you guys or would you say you’re a different beast entirely in the studio?
Cliff: I think ‘Magic Dust’ is a very accurate representation of how we sound live.
Travis: We really pushed to do that actually.
Cliff: We recorded all of the instrumentation live, then of course we did the vocals separately.
Crag Dweller is from Portland, OR, but you guys are no stranger to the Bay Area.
Cliff: Absolutely, and this run is my favorite time down here yet.
So you’ve been able to see a lot of the kinds of shows that we can offer underground bands: dive bars in SF, warehouses in Oakland and of course, these house shows all the way out in the East Bay. So what is Portland like when it comes to live underground heavy music?
Cliff: It’s mostly in small dive bars, a few clubs… Not so many house shows anymore. Portland used to be famous for really great house shows.
Travis: We try to support the underground music scene when we can. We try to do those really small shows often, and we try to host the house shows as well as playing them. We played with The Shrine from LA and Dirty Fences from New York at Rich’s house, which is our practice space and it was awesome. It was just like, “Holy shit, this is really happening?” It was cool. We try to do that as much as we can, even though it’s a little bit tricky.
Cliff: We’ve played with a lot of punk bands, and we’ll do shows with the doom and stoner bands too. Somehow we kind of cross over.
Travis: We kind of fit right in the middle of all of that, we’ve even played with some black metal bands too.
I know that Portland has been a hotbed for underground black metal lately.
Travis: Yeah! A lot of noise and black metal. The whole Pacific Northwest really.
Rich: You know, we even played with Black Breath too over in Bellingham.
Travis: Yeah, Black Breath were pretty intense.
Rich, I take it from your accent that Portland isn’t your first home?
Rich: Oh, I’m French man. I came to Portland like six years ago. I was visiting a friend, and I just never ended up going back.
So how did Crag Dweller form?
Cliff: The three of us have been playing for three and a half years now. We had another band before that which was a four-piece. That fizzled out and we just kind of stayed together as a trio and formed Crag Dweller. As this arrangement, we’ve been playing for a year and a half.
Travis: This one really has a much more natural feel to it. The other band was more dark- dark is great, but this is so easy to do and it’s what we want to do. It’s the most natural band that us three could possibly make.
So was this the music you three grew up on, stoner rock, Motorhead, punk etc?
Travis: Yeah, it was just kind of everything we listen to and love that we try to incorporate.
Cliff: We do all have different influences overall.
Cliff and Rich, you two do a trade off vocal thing from what I saw onstage earlier. When you’re writing songs, how do you decide who is going to sing what?
Cliff: We just make up some shit and whoever makes it to the microphone ends up singing it. [Laughs]
Rich: It’s like “Are you gonna go? Oh, well alright, we’ll both go.”
Cliff: It’s a feel thing, whoever feels best for the song or whoever might need the slack during the song.
So when it comes to the new material, how does it differ compared to the stuff on ‘Magic Dust’?
Cliff: It’s probably a little more funky in a way.
Rich: There’ll be some more heavy stuff too.
Travis: ‘Magic Dust’ is a little more metal- the new stuff is metal too but I don’t know, it has a sway and a funk to it. We’ve been exploring and getting into that vein.
Do you have any concrete plans for hitting the studio for album #2 yet?
Cliff: Yeah, the plan is for us to get in there in the next couple of months.
Rich: We’re definitely going to take our time with the next album.
Travis: Yeah, maybe we’ll spend more than three days this time. [Laughs]
So how did you end up getting hooked up with Ovvl for the tour?
Travis: Those guys have always really liked our music. We did a show together once, we kept in touch through email and we told them that we were going to come down anyway. They said “Oh, well let’s just do a tour!” and that’s just kind of how it worked out. We’re really happy to go down with them. To be honest, I can’t remember when it was exactly that we met them. It’s always a haze when you make friends like those guys.
Cliff: We’ve done so many shows together by now that it feels like the relationship has always been there and our time together starts to blend.
I think I’m about finished up here, anything else you all want to throw out there?
Rich: Just buy our shit man! We’re broke. [Laughs]