INTERVIEW: Jr. High
Sean Croghan (singer/songwriter/guitar)
By: Alex Steininger
Alex: What are your band goals for 1998?
Sean: I want to go back into the studio and do some recording with the new band. I also want to get on the road and do more touring...some touring, since we haven't really done any so far. And get a new album out by the end of the year, hopefully. Other than that we'll just see what happens, as far as labels and stuff go.
Alex: Do you have a lot of major label interest right now?
Sean: Just a little. Not a lot. There are a couple of people we just talked too, nothing very serious though. They expressed some interest, but for the most part they just want a CD.
Alex: Hopefully not Capitol?
Sean: It wouldn't be Capitol, no. I don't think that's possible though, especially with that little reference to Art and everything.
Alex: I was going to ask you about that, and since you brought it up so early, let's cover it. With Art being as sue happy as he is, were you ever afraid that when you wrote that line he'd come after you and sue you?
Sean: No, because I wrote it so long ago. That line is like three years old. It just came to me one day when I was walking around. And then I put it in the song, and I hadn't really thought about it until now. A bunch of people are like, "Man, I can't believe you said that." And I'm like, "oh yeah, I guess I did write that."
Alex: Wow, I mean, he's so sue happy. I would be afraid that he'd come after me with a lawsuit, especially with the Frogpond incident and everything.
Sean: Yeah, he's a bad man to cross, I guess. But for me, I don't even know the guy. The only reason the line appeared in the song was because it worked well. It's not even about him. It could be about anyone. If he wants to think it's about him, that's fine, that's his problem. I would just be like, "hey, I'm not talking about you." It's just a song about anyone.
Alex: So, talking about touring...are there any bands you'd like to tour with?
Sean: God, I have a zillion. I would love to tour with any number of Portland bands. There are lots of other bands as well. I'd love to go on tour with Apples In Stereo, Guided By Voices, whoever. But as for specifics, there just isn't one.
Alex: So you haven't thought about touring that much?
Sean: No, we have been mostly concerned with getting our record out. I mean, we are going to do a West Coast tour in June with Fluff. So, that should be pretty cool. When I was in Crackerbash we played a bunch of shows with Fluff, so it will be pretty cool. I am just looking forward to being out on the road again, it's been a long time.
Alex: Is it a relief to be back on stage and playing again?
Sean: Yeah, it is. It feels really good. It's what I love to do best. I haven't done it for a long time, so it feels really nice to be able to do this.
Alex: So what goes into good music making for you?
Sean: The first and foremost is to have a good song to start with. Which, for me, begins with me just goofing around at my house. I kinda go with the basics, and then just practicing the hell out of it. Trying different things, working with it. We'll play a song like we opened with Sunday Night [their March 29th show @ La Luna], which is just me and Brendan playing, and that is just the beginning stage. We'll play around with it, and it might end up sounding totally different than it did that night. We'll get the band involved, switch around things to make them feel right. Like it won't work in this key, so we'll try it in another. Busting our ass!
Alex: I also had a question about that song. You're hot off the release of a debut album, and now you're opening up shows with brand new material? That's amazing. Are you constantly writing new material?
Sean: We try to. We're always working on something new. There are songs we've worked on for awhile that we haven't played yet. We'll play out a song, and won't play it for awhile, work on it some more, and then change it around. But yeah, I always like to be working on new stuff. It keeps me from getting bored. Like songs on album, some of them are about three years old. Songs I wrote before Jr. High even started, so for me, I've very tired of them and want to play something new.
Alex: So the song writing process in the band works something like this: You'll come up with something, then you'll bring the band in on it, and we'll change it around and fit it into the right key?
Sean: Basically I write all the songs, so I'll be at home and come up with a guitar part. Maybe then I'll just play that guitar part for a really long time until I come up with something I like, then I'll take it home and work on it some more and come up with more parts, and then I'll bring them in on it and we'll goof around with it. We'll try different things, and we'll all make suggestions, and then we'll keep knocking it around. Then I'll work on lyrics, and we'll all work on backing vocals and everything.
Alex: So where do the lyrics come from? Life?
Sean: Life, yeah. They're always is some basis in reality, but a lot of times they're not autobiographical. I don't always write about my life, sometimes the songs will be inspired by something I saw on TV, or something I saw in a movie. Maybe even things I've heard about, or something someone said. Like, "that was a great line. I better write it down." And then it pops up in the song, but yeah, just about life pretty much.
Alex: So what do you enjoy and hate about the music industry?
Sean: I really love playing music. I love getting on stage and going to band practice to work on things. I love recordings. But the business part of it confuses and frustrates me because music business is an oxymoron. You have to make a certain amount of profits, especially when you get on a larger label. They start to demand that your record has to sell this much for us to support you. And a lot of times a record isn't going to sell a million copies for it to be a totally incredible record. It used to be that way, a lot more in the past, before bands like Nirvana and bands like that broke. There wasn't so much pressure on the bands, because everyone knew there was a limited audience. If you're Jesus Lizard you're not going to be like Puff Daddy, and if you're Apples In Stereo you're not going to be like that either. So, I think once we get on a major label they're just going to expect us to get radio hits. And with the kind of music we play, I don't think it's going to happen..
Sean: Maybe, but I don't know.
Alex: I think there are a bunch of numbers on here that could smash the charts with the right label push.
Sean: (Laughter) Maybe.
Alex: Is there anything in your musical career, either in the past or recently, that you would look back on and change?
Sean: Not really. Crackerbash, we could have changed things with that a bit. We were totally against the idea of ever being involved with a major label. If we would have reversed our policy on the major labels, I think we could have been signed. And that would have made life a little easier on all of us. But at the time we didn't want to be involved with the corporate labels, because they were big, evil, and wrong. But now I think all labels are pretty much the same, except for labels that are truly into it for the music. Like Blake Wright, the man in charge of Empty Records. Blake doesn't make any money off of it. He does it because he likes it.
Alex: So how did your deal with Empty come about? Was it purely because of your ties and relationship with Blake through Crackerbash, or did you shop a demo around and settle with him for the best offer?
Sean: Yeah, I knew Blake, and told him I had a new band. So he asked if we wanted to put it out, it was pretty much that easy. So we gave him some tapes and he was like, "All right, I'll put it out."
Alex: So you didn't shop it around?
Sean: Nope. We went straight to him.
Alex: What are the highest and lowest points the band has experienced so far?
Sean: The highest point was the week the record came out. I was on cloud nine the whole week. I was very excited to have it finally out. But the lowest point was within a couple of weeks of each other, Joanna and Dan had had enough of Portland and left the band. That was very low. I thought that was it for the band.
Alex: So how do you bounce back from something like that?
Sean: Paul decided that we should pretty much keep it going. He told me we should keep it going and just work on it. And as far as getting new band members, that came pretty fast. We already knew Brendan, he was a friend of ours and lived next door to Paul, as well as being in a band with Paul, so we got him. And as far as David goes, I just met him at a party one night and started talking to him. I told him he should come play with us, since he knew we were looking for a guitar player, and he was the only guy we tried out and I was like, "OK, you're in if you want to be in." And then everything fell back into place.
Alex: What made you want to be in a band?
Sean: The Beatles! I remember hearing the Beatles when I was a kid, and I thought they were so cool. And ever since then I always wanted to be in a band. From the time I was like nine years old I wanted to get a guitar and be on stage like Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Alex: So, when did you start playing?
Sean: I must have been eleven. I took guitar lessons for awhile, from a family friend. He wound up being in one of the first Portland punk bands ever. It was a band called Ice Nine, and it was like 1978, or 1977. And he gave me guitar lessons for awhile, and then I quit. He was teaching me classical guitar, and at the time I just wanted to learn Beatles songs, and Rolling Stone songs. So I quit, and five years later I bought a bass. I played bass for awhile, and then I got guitar and starting playing it again. Then I started working on songs and stuff. I just kept working on it for years and years.
Alex: What do you want the listener to get out of your music?
Sean: Well, I want them to get out of it what they want to get out of it. And that could be a number of things. If they just want to have fun, I want them to have fun and dance. Enjoy themselves and have a good time. And if you're just in it for the melody and just crave a good melody, than I hope you get that. But if you're someone like me who just likes lyrics a lot, hopefully you'll find something that helps you understand the human condition. But sometimes you can't reach everyone the same way, so hopefully they'll have something they can look at and talk about how you have felt that way before too and how you're not alone, because we all have similar emotions. It might present itself differently, but hopefully the meaning is still there.
Alex: So why the move from the aggressive punk beats of Crackerbash to the poppier melodies of Jr. High?
Sean: Because I wanted to work more on writing good songs, songs that have more memorable melodies. Things I always enjoyed about music a lot. I always loved really catchy melodies you could just walk around and hum, and there are a lot of Crackerbash melodies you'd be hard pressed to hum while you're walking around the streets alone. I just wanted to get away from doing that, and I saw a lot of it going on already. I mean, there is a time and a place for turning up the amps and getting feedback, heavy bass, pounding drums, and screaming. And I saw a lot of it going on, and it just became too amusing, rather than being inspired. It didn't seem like it was being felt.
Alex: Do you feel your lyrics have changed from the Crackerbash days?
Sean: No, I'm still as bitter and cynical as ever. Just in a different way. Now, instead of screaming, I have to use a phrase to get the message across. Twist a phrase and use my brain a little bit more. So if someone screwed me over I need to put it in terms of having it no so blatant, almost laughing at it.
Alex: In your press pack you talked about "More Craft, Less Volume." Care to talk about which artists and bands inspired that thinking?
Sean: John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and bands like Squeeze, The Kinks, and The Jam. And The Clash, because they were loud, but they weren't like Dinosaur Jr. or Stereolab. Nothing like that. They were songs first and foremost, and you could take them away from the confides of the band and they're still good. There are some bands where you have to be into the band to get the songs...they're like a part of a package. Yet you could take a Bob Dylan song, and you could take it and have someone else do it and it was still good. But with some bands you need to have that band play it, or it won't make as much sense.
Alex: Also in the bio you talked about all the band members leaving, and you also mentioned how a friend recorded some material for a single and then ripped you off.
Sean: He really didn't rip us off. He was just a flaky guy. He paid for the recording, and I guess he's done this before a few times. He would record some bands and then it would all fall apart and go to the waist side. He'd then take off with the tapes, and this is what happened to us. During the recording his life got boring, so he decided to go back to New York. So he moved, and took the tapes.
Alex: What if he releases the recordings once you guys are big and starts to bootleg it?
Sean: I'm not really worried about that. I mean, the songs we recorded are available on the record, they were just different versions. It's not that big of a deal to me. I think he has music like "Walk Like A Man," or was it "Todays The Day" and "Incapable"? Anyhow, they were just early versions we did on an eight track. With Janet, but if he wants to release the stuff, go for it. More power to him, and good luck. Hopefully he'll send me a copy.
Alex: Do you feel as if in the eyes of the fans and the media you're still living in Crackerbash's shadows?
Sean: I think in some ways, yeah. That was the first band, and we got a lot of attention. But I think we're coming out of that now and we're coming into our own. For the longest time a lot of people would call us up and tell us how excited they were to have us play, because they loved Crackerbash. Sorry, it's not Crackerbash. I wouldn't even compare the two, there is just a lot more feel to it. So I tell people, "If you're expecting Crackerbash Jr., you're not getting it." And they were really bummed out.
Alex: Some bands like to re-vamp old material and bring material from their previous bands into their new project. Have you ever thought of re-doing Crackerbash material for Jr. High?
Sean: Only on one song, "Back To School," off the WORKING HOLIDAY single on Simple Machines. But that's the only one. That's the only one that would really fit. I guess we could do "Bad Karma" and...nah, that's all in the past. I still do that in solo shows though, but not for Jr. High. Different people, different times.
Alex: With the band name Jr. High and the debut album called KILLER OF FRIENDSHIPS, is there any connection between the two?
Sean: No. You're the second person to say that. The term KILLER OF FRIENDSHIPS just comes from the novel THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV. It's a Russian saying that means cheating on your wife or your husband, and I thought it fit in perfectly with the theme of the album. Adultery is the KILLER OF FRIENDSHIPS, and on the album there is a lot of themes about cheating on your lover and not being true. Whether it is the person singing that is being unfaithful, or the person they're singing...the person that I'm singing about is cheating.
Alex: When you named it KILLER OF FRIENDSHIPS did you have any clue people would misinterpret it?
Sean: I didn't even think about it (laughter). A friend of mine came to another friend of mine and was like, "What's up with Sean? His band is called Jr. High and their album is called KILLER OF FRIENDSHIPS. He's so dirty. He should be over that by now." They're not connected at all, but you don't have to be in Jr. High to kill your friendships.
Alex: Why did you decide to release a 7", and then a month later release a full-length? Why not put them on the same album?
Sean: They were from different recording sessions for one. The fact that the single came out so late was just due to money things. The 7" was supposed to come out in fall, and the album in the Spring. But they were different recordings, but maybe we'll put those tracks as bonus tracks on the CD if the 7" ever goes out of print. I don't know if it can go out of print, but if it does, we might do that.
Alex: OK, you're a four-piece, but live you had a fifth person. A keyboard player. Any chance she'll be added as an official member in the future, or is she just a friend helping out?
Sean: She's a friend of ours, and she's been playing a lot of shows with us lately. There are a lot of keyboard parts I like on the record, and I think it was very important to have it live. And lots of the new material I'm writing she'll be playing on, but she is just like the un-official 5th member. She's not an official member, but there is a chance she'll be recording with us.
Alex: If she records with you guys, is there a chance you'll add her as an official member?
Sean: Probably not a member, but she'll definitely be playing. She goes to school, so she can't always go on tour with us. But when she can, she plays with us live. She doesn't have to be at every practice, but she's always welcome to be there.
Alex: So, do you work on her parts without her?
Sean: Yeah. There are some new songs that we're working on that we're going to include her on. We work on that during the practices, and she comes to a lot of the practices. But with the new stuff, she'll be more closely involved.
Alex: Before Jr. High and KILLER OF FRIENDSHIPS got a lot of press, you were playing a lot of solo shows. Any ideas on if you're ever going to record and release any solo material?
Sean: Hopefully, yeah. I have lots of material that has been sitting around on tape, but it basically boils down to having money to do it. I don't make that much money doing solo shows, and I don't make that much money doing my job, so until something brings in serious cash to be able to spend a $1000, or whatever it takes, in the studio probably not. But eventually, yeah. I'm not like Elliot [Smith], I'm not a four track wizard. That's never been my bag, so I won't record on a four track. I would rather just sit around and play my guitar, and then go into the studio with people who know what they're doing.
Alex: Would you release the solo material yourself, or would you want to shop it around?
Sean: Empty has already told me that if I wanted to, they'd put it out, so I have that option. But it remains to be seen if I get it done and someone comes knocking and wants to release it, and help me recoup some of the recording costs, then yeah.
Alex: Recently, at your last La Luna show [March 29th, 1998], you did an Elliot Smith cover. Is this a normal thing, or because Elliot was in attendance?
Sean: We have done that song a couple times. It was just a song I really liked a lot and wanted to learn how to play it. So we figured it out for a show we had it a few months ago, and then we just played it as a surprise for Elliot, because I don't think he knew we played it. He was there, and is a friend of ours, so I was like, "Let's play 'Division Day.'" Actually, we might record that song for a b-side of a single.
Alex: Did he enjoy the song?
Sean: I don't know (laughter). He left right after the show, so I didn't get to talk to him that much. But I hope he did. A long time ago he played one of my songs at a show, so it was like pay back for him. It's really weird to see someone else on stage playing a song you wrote. "That's my song."
Alex: At the same show you invited Tahoe Jackson on stage to do some soul numbers with you. Is this something you've been toying around with, or is this something you're really interested in getting into?
Sean: Me and Tahoe or the soul stuff?
Alex: The soul stuff.
Sean: Well, it's always been something I've been into. There are lots of people I like. I love Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye, and the Temptations. I love that whole 60's R&B/soul stuff, but I always try to include a bit of that into Jr. High's material. But now we're getting more into straight soul. We'll see though. There are a couple of new numbers that deal with that sixties soul feel that will be on the next record. So...
Alex: So the next record is going to have an overall more soul theme to it?
Sean: Sort of like that. There will still be lots of pop, pop-punk, whatever you want to call it. I hate that term "pop-punk" though, it makes me think of Green Day or something. I don't know, not like there is anything wrong with what they play, but I don't think it's a very good description of us.
Alex: I wouldn't call you guys pop-punk. I mean, the punk characteristics are there, but you are definitely a pop driven band. Power-pop, with a punk edge to it?
Sean: Yeah, we're not The Ramones for damn sure.
Alex: Really, but who is?
Sean: The Donnas do a pretty good try.
Alex: So what are your thoughts on the "Portland Scene"?
Sean: Is there even a "Portland Scene" anymore? It's hard for me. I mean, I've seen three scenes rise and fall. The really early days when there was a really strong scene, and then there was the mid eighties/nineties Hazel, Crackerbash, Sup Pop scene. The X-Ray got it all going and everything. And during that period I felt a lot of kinsmen ship. But then the feeding freezing disbanded the scene, because everyone was too worried if they were going to get signed or not. That killed it for a long time. But I guess there is a scene coming around again. More communication...maybe it's because I've been out of the loop for so long? I'm just now talking to people, talking to musicians, and checking out young bands. And talking to these young bands makes me feel like there is more of scene going on.
Alex: So you feel as if everything is more close-knit?
Sean: Part of it is probably because I'm getting so much more into it. But now it is so much bigger. It used to be you'd go to a show and know everyone that was on the show. But there is a lot of bands and people I don't know. I'll go to a show now and won't know hardly anyone. So many new people moving to Portland, giving us a totally different feeling.
Alex: It's all those Californians moving up here.
Sean: Those damn Californians. I'm going to right a song about them (laughs).
Alex: Being as you are one of Portland's most talented musicians...
Sean: (shakes his head no). Alex: What? You don't think so?
Sean: I don't know. I mean, thank you! (laughs).
Alex: I know you're friends with Elliot Smith, and you've done a lot of shows with Pete Krebs, so I'm assuming you're friends?
Alex: Have you ever given thought to working on material with Elliot Smith and Pete Krebs, forming a "dream team" sort of band?
Sean: There was talk for awhile about Elliot and I forming a sixties type super-pop band. Kind of like what Apples In Stereo are like now. We've talked about it and stuff, but most of it is just drunken talk. We'll be sitting around and BS'ing with each other, but Elliot is so busy, Pete is so busy, and I'm so busy it just doesn't work out. Actually, Pete and I were supposed to start a Clash cover band. I was getting ready to release the record, and he is so busy with Golden Delicious and his own stuff, that it didn't work. I would want to practice Tuesday, and he could only practice Wednesday, and I couldn't, so it didn't work. Maybe someday though!
NOTE: Also checkout the Jr. High KILLER OF FRIENDSHIPS CD review and the Jr. High 7" review in the rock review section of this issue.