Music interview: Gary Jarman looks back on the making of The Cribs' breakthrough album Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever
The Cribs are due to return to Leeds this weekend, after a triumphant set last year at Millennium Square. Touring their 10 year anniversary of third album Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever, this will be the bands first time at the First Direct Arena.
Following on from my first interview with the band before they set off to record the album all those years ago, Gary Jarman looks back on the feeling and emotion surrounding the expectation of their breakthrough album.
You had toured second album The New Fellas relentlessly, building up a strong loyal fan base, but with little commercial success or consistent radio play. Most guitar bands of that era had struggled to get past album two. Was there any pressure from the label to make Men’s Needs more commerically viable shall we say?
It all goes back to the age old “lo-fi” paradigm. We were something of an anomaly during the New Fellas era – there was a decent amount of press attention on that album, and we were as you mentioned playing a lot of shows, so we were kinda difficult to ignore. At the same time, the record was not receiving much radio play outside of the specialist shows, due to the band being considered “too lo fi”. We heard that over and over again. But the singles were all charting in the top 40 – something we never expected, I might add – so we presented a bit of a conundrum for the playlisters and bookers in the wider media...they couldn’t ignore the fact that we had charting songs, but thought we were too abrasive for their audience.
From Wichita’s point of view, I think they were happy with our position and would have been pleased to just build on that with our third record. So there was never any pressure from those guys, really. However, we had signed a major label contract with Warner Brothers out in the USA, and I think that subliminally added to the air of expectation around the album. It just upped the ante a lot – bigger budgets, loftier expectations. I remember arriving at the studio in Vancouver to begin tracking the album, and the scale of the operation was just so markedly different – all of our gear had been shipped to the other side of the world, there were people unpacking it and setting it up for us, tons of different Warners people coming in and out to meet us and schmooze. It was hard to ignore that things had changed on that front at least.
MNWNW seems like a concept album of two halves. Ryan’s angst and vitriol against what was happening in the music scene at the time, and Gary’s romantic lament, a longing for home but realising you were drifting away from it. Would that be a fair analogy?
In hindsight, I agree with this – though at the time there was never any specific ideas to conceptualise the record or our approach to it. We would just always write about what was going on in our lives at the time, and try to channel that into inspiration. But at this point in our lives, we started to deviate onto our own paths, both metaphorically and literally, so we were probably writing from siginificantly different perspectives for the first time. I do remember one specific conversation that I had with Ryan whilst we were out walking down Coxley woods – I told him on my end I didn’t want to make another New Fellas, and wanted to concentrate on something more personal. He was supportive, but also concerned because we had been signed to Warners because they were excited about what the band had done with The New Fellas and wanted to build on that out in the States – so he didn’t want us to totally veer off course or second-guess and go against our instincts. The first song written for the album was I’ve Tried Everything, a lament, so I guess we knew we were looking to expand on The New Fellas from the get-go.
In a previous interview, you discussed that the sleeve art designer of the Sex Pistols album Never Mind The B******* s was approached to create the album artwork, but you opted not to use it. Will it ever be seen or used on any future MNWNW re-issue?
We had a couple of meetings with Jamie Reid and his agent, and discussed things that we liked of his, and what we wanted for the album art. We wanted something stark and graphic. Jamie went away and worked on the cover, but we weren’t really feeling the direction it was going in – using genitals and stuff. So he came up with another concept, but it was pretty late notice, right down to the deadline, and a bit hurried so we decided to move on. We actually had another concept that we put together that used imagery from This Sporting Life which was really awesome, and received the license to use the stuff – but the rules and terms kept changing so we got cold feet.
There was talk of a more all-encompassing set of re-issues for the first three Cribs albums to be released this year, with unheard tracks, demos, sessions etc, but because of a communication issue with our former label the project has now been shelved. We were actually intending on releasing the Jamie Reid artwork as part of the package! Maybe sometime in the future, hopefully.
There’s lots of references to Wakefield in the lyrics to MNWNW. The Merrie City not changing since ‘the 1950s’, Wakefield rugby ground being used as single artwork and references to This Sporting Life. Did touring the previous albums give you a renewed sense of Wakefield?
We were just talking about this recently, how most of our favourite bands had emerged from unlikely places rather than big cities, and how we feel like growing up and starting a band in Wakefield really was the perfect ‘apprenticeship’ for what we do. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
I think by the time we were making the third album we had seen so much more of the world than we had when we were making the prior records that it helped put things into context a little bit. We wanted to be able to own that part of our background as something that made us unique to a lot of the big city bands that we had been touring with etc. It was also whilst writing MNWNW that I moved to Portland, so again I had that context, being so far away. I think it just made me feel more protective of my identity or something.
What was it like working with Alex Kapranos as a producer? Did he bring any new ideas or instrumentation in that you hadn’t considered before?
Going back to what you were saying about making a more commercially viable record – out of everyone involved in the album, Alex was the person with the greatest perspective on this, and the desire to help the band understand that. He had been enjoying huge success with Franz Ferdinand, and in a cool way too – he was no sell-out. He was a really good person to entrust that side of the process to – cos for all of their success Franz were still an artistically good band who were very well respected. So we trusted his opinions in that regard. He genuinely believed in us and wanted us to fulfill the potential that he thought the album had. And that meant taking more time over the songs, adding a few more layers etc – things that before we had always been adverse to.
You’d have all been in your early 20s when the album came out, have your opinions changed about the album over the years and where does it sit in your catalogue of work?
Out of all our albums, it’s the one that my feelings kind of bounce back and forth on the most. For a long time, I was a bit uncomfortable with the record – with our first two being so raw, I always felt weird that the vocals were so dry and upfront in the mix. Cos the words are kinda personal, you know, and so I would struggle to listen to the album. Andy Wallace, who mixed it is a real master and a legend in the mixing world – and he is known for sitting the vocals front and centre and making big radio records. We have so much respect for him, and his experience, that we trusted his opinion. But I never really could get my head around that element.
More recently, I have been listening to the record a lot to prepare for the tour and I love the way it sounds. It’s so unique – I can’t think of another record that is anything like it sonically. Alex was so meticulous in the construction of the layers on every song that they all have their own palette. It’s really cool. I’m just proud that we made that record at that time, stepped up our game. Alex really assisted with that psychologically as I have mentioned. Most bands never have a breakthrough album, and so because of that it has a special place for us, I guess.
Going to club nights in Leeds, you couldn’t go out without hearing a Cribs song, but that wasn’t always true of the surrounding cities until the single ‘Men’s Needs’ was released. Was there a sudden shift in perceptions’ of the band or a sudden burst of previously uninterested parties joining in and trying to capitalise on the success?
To be honest, the clubs were always really good for us. We were embraced in the smaller towns in a way that a lot of our peers weren’t, and the big cities were always on it too, so we always felt embraced in that regard. Our problem was more at radio and TV. But yeah, when the third record came out a lot of doors that were previously closed to us started to open up a bit. But, I have to say in some of the cases it didn’t really feel cynical – more just that people were respectful of the way we had climbed the ladder. Maybe I’m being naive but I felt like some of those people were happy for us. Of course, we were resentful in some ways that we had been shunned for being lo-fi before, so we were pretty bratty and wouldn’t just play ball with some of the people that had rejected us before.
Will we be hearing MNWNW in its entirety through its running order, and will any new material be heard at all?
Yeah, we’re gonna play it in order. Seems like the right thing to do. Probably bring out some of the B-sides that we never really play too. As well as some of the usual favourites.
For three lads from a small town, you’ve had a phenomenal career to date. What memories of either recording or touring MNWNW do you look on the fondest?
I think the writing process was the best for me. We worked really hard, every day, and there was so much excitement around the demos. We had a lot of US labels trying to sign us and flying us out to wine and dine us and stuff, and we KNEW we had these really cool demos that no one had heard yet. I think it felt like we were finally reaping what we had sown and it was genuinely exciting. Those are always the best times, because the business side has not yet
kicked in – which always changes your opinions of the songs whether you like it or not. But when it’s only the three of us that have heard those songs...man, that’s just the best. The recording sessions up in Vancouver during the Christmas of 2006 were also really nice for those reasons too - hearing it all come together, sharing in everyone’s excitement.
As a band, you have always been against encores. It’s true that a lot of bands are touring anniversary shows, but this feels like a big thank you encore for the fans that have been there from the beginning. If you could say anything to fans for the support over the years, what would it be?
Yeah, we have always seen encores as a cheap showbiz trick, that is disingenuous and phony. We would rather play all the songs at once without needing to put that little break in where people have to beg you to grace them with your presence once again oh mighty ones!
We have always felt a huge debt of gratitude to our fans – in the days when the media overlooked us in favour of more processed bands, it was our fans that bought our singles on word of mouth, came to our shows, and championed us to the point where those people could no longer ignore us. They totally buoyed our entire career in that way. So, whenever we go on tour, or put a record out, we try and make sure that the people who care about us get as much value for their money as possible. That’s what this tour is about – they wanted it so who are we to say that this record is in the past?
The Cribs play at First Direct Arena, Leeds on May 20. www.thecribs.com