INTERVIEWS 101: Craig Elkins Uncut
June 23, 2006
Craig Elkins has worn a variety of hats, among them—musician, songwriter, vocalist, and front man of Philly’s (now-disbanded) rock quartet, Huffamoose. These days Craig has a new outlook and he’s wearing several different hats, such as husband and parent. He also has a new band, Craig Craigstofferson, and calls LA home. The new-and-improved Craig and I discussed Huffamoose (the band and the movie), his new rock trio, the music industry, parenting, and life on the sunny west coast. (This is an unedited version of the interview that appeared in Philadelphia City Paper in April 2006.)
Now that you’re in LA, I feel obliged to ask you for a sixty-second pitch—tell us, who is Craig Elkins?
Craig Elkins is very tired. Something about the air out here—is there less oxygen (in the air)?
It’s the same amount of oxygen only it costs more. For those who don’t know, when did Huffamoose officially disband?
Boy, you know what—I don’t really remember officially disbanding—I don’t remember a conversation. I guess we had one. I think we just fizzled out. Same old shit—everyone going in different directions. Plus, my front tooth had started to stain pretty badly so I needed to take time off and get that taken care of.
Everyone blames Yoko for the Beatles split, but actually it was Ringo’s discolored upper-right bicuspid. I sensed from the Huffamoose movie that there was a sense of exhaustion, that everyone in the band was completely burned out following the van tour and altercation amongst you the other band members. Did you continue to write songs following the band’s collapse, and were the tracks on A Final Blaze of Glory written during this time or more recently?
There was a huge sense of exhaustion and just overall uncomfortableness—if that’s a word, and Word is telling me that it isn’t— though for the purposes of this interview it is. Nothing like a band brawl to make everyone feel really great about themselves. Regarding the songs on Final Blaze, I wrote most of them while I was still in Huffamoose. For some reason we never worked them out. I’m glad we didn’t though cuz they have a whole different feel on this record. I think with Tom [Walling] and Chris [Siedel] I was able to create something a lot more rough around the edges.
Your new band is Craig Craigstofferson. If you don’t mind my saying, Craig Craigstofferson is one of the funniest band names in the history of bands. Either you’ll get the joke or have no clue. How did the name arise?
Actually came to me while I was sitting on the toilet. Funny how the brain works. Or how shit makes the brain work. I’m not saying I was putting one in—I may have been cutting my toe nails or putting lotion on my legs—and by shit I might mean “shit” not “shit.” Anyway, the name has continued to make me laugh even to this day.
On A Final Blaze of Glory, I immediately noticed that the songs are unmistakably yours. By that I mean they are replete with elements that define your music—smart, fully realized lyrics and unpredictable and eclectic structures and arrangements. At the same time there’s a raw, more stripped-down sound to this release than, for instance, the songs on Huffamoose’s I Wanna Be Your Pants. And there is a much less improvisational sound than, say, the Huffamoose’s indy release. Aside from your progression and evolution as a songwriter, do you feel a conscious or unconscious need to differentiate your current sound from that of Huffamoose?
I didn’t set out to make anything sound different from anything else. First of all, I can barely play guitar and I’m the guitar player. Secondly, it’s a trio. I did purposely go for an unproduced sound—as devoid as possible of extraneous instrumental hooks. I just didn’t feel like trying to sell the music. What else can anyone possibly do that’s original from a production standpoint?? Production is just starting to bore the crap out of me.
A lot of “popular” music is overproduced to the point of being devoid of anything resembling human emotion, as if the studio is the end-all and the music and lyrics are, at best, secondary. Was this your feeling during any particular Huffamoose release or were you pleased with the studio work of those releases?
I think we were all pretty sick over the sound of the first record (the independent release), but no one outside our circle seemed to notice how bad the mixes were. It was one of those things where the perfect mix would be up in 5 minutes, then, it’s time to smoke some pot, completely fuck it up for the next 10 hours or so, then try to get back to the original mix.
We actually recorded the original versions of most of the songs on the Interscope record in 3 days or so, just on our own. At the time most of the tunes were new to the label and, since we felt like we were probably going to get dropped any second—at least I know I did, they seemed to give us new life. Unfortunately, we had to re-record most of them because of quality issues but I think we came pretty close to the sound of those original demos.
Bla bla bla. What I’m trying to say here is I’m guessing most artists wish this or that sounded differently but in the end it’s not solely yours or your band’s concept or vision that makes the record. Dig? No? Either do I—I have no idea what I’m trying to say here.
What’s the secret to your lyrical diversity? James is a poetically heartbreaking story. Songs like Sweet Thing and Ring are beautiful love songs. While tracks like My Dad’s New Hit Song and Beautiful Town define a wry sense of humor. How do you manage to stay diverse in lyric writing?
James was one of the first tunes I wrote; same with Ring. It pains me to say it but Kevin [Hanson] actually wrote Sweet Thing—just an amazingly beautiful tune. The old Craig would of let that slide—the new Craig is all about honesty—but he can still drink heavily. As far as the other tunes are concerned—I can’t think of an answer that won’t sound cliché. I just get on a roll and go with it. My songs are about one-third “Wow, I’m really loving where this tune is going” and about two-thirds “Ugh, I just wanna finish this thing.”
Your lyrics sound to me like free verse, and free verse has no structure at all, unlike a song, which usually has each verse hanging together in terms of meter or syllables more than a stanza of poetry would. How are you able to make these verses of disjointed lengths (and sometimes disjointed rhythms) hang together as a song and to sound so melodic, when you would expect the end result to be jangled?
I really have no idea. I guess I’m just awesomely gifted. An overdose of sitcoms mixed with narcissism probably has something to do with how great I am.
Is writing (lyrics) always a solitary venture?
Yes, writing lyrics is always a solitary venture. I’ve never successfully written with anyone else. Typically, I write a melody—take it as far as I can get it, then the chords then the lyrics. Lately though, I’ve been writing the whole thing at once. There’s too much demand for hits to break it down like that anymore.
Huffamoose recorded a Christmas song entitled Hanukkah & Christmas Hand in Hand (a clever variant of Felix Bernard’s 1934 Winter Wonderland with sharper lyrics and terrific arrangements). Was this a fun venture and something that you’d consider doing again?
That’s my favorite Huffamoose recording! I think it’s probably the only one we ever cowrote—It was a great time, we wrote it, recorded and mixed it in a few hours. It still gets played here and there. I know, because each time it’s played I get a gigantic royalty check. Also, while I’m thinking of it, Erik Horvitz is a large part of why anything we ever did had any kind of vibe. He helped us produce most of the Huffa stuff and also engineered the Interscope and the Shanachie record. He’s a dick, but he’s talented. Great artist, too—one of his paintings, “Earl Finkle’s last hunt,” is on the cover of the Craig Craigstofferson CD. Anyway, we recorded that tune at his studio in South Philly—Meatlocker Studios. He’s got a lot of his animation stuff at meatlockerstudios.com if the one person who’s gotten this far in the interview is interested.
No one will ever accuse you of Green Day-ism (i.e., that whole sophomoric “three chords and we’re done” style of popular music). Are you self-taught, and when you compose a song do you develop the lyrics and music independently of one another, or is the process more conjoined?
Most of the time, it’s all separate. I’m not really self-taught—I went to music school, Berkley, Temple U—but I really think that my laziness and attention deficit disorder have contributed in a positive way to my songwriting skills. I just sort of half learned stuff and then in the process of trying to cover up my ineptitude, I came up with my solid-gold songwriting style.
Is there now or was there previously a feeling of pressure to conform song-wise, i.e., to write in a style that could perhaps best be described as mainstream commercial in hopes of reaching a wider audience through radio?
Yes, definitely in the past—the label wanted a more mainstream sound and I’m sure that leaked into our tunes. Really though, most of the reason we sort of lost our jam thing was because when we first got together we didn’t have too many tunes and had to stretch them out. Kevin is a beyond-belief amazing guitar player but I’m pretty sure that even he got sick of “Okay, it’s time for the 20 minute guitar solo over 2 chords.”
Not to delve too much into the past, but when did you graduate Temple University? Were in a band by that time? How did you meet Kevin, Erik, and Jim?
I didn’t graduate—I moved to Los Angeles in 1990—I think it was my junior year. Then back to Philly, married, Huffamoose, kid, back to LA. I met Jim and Erik at Temple and Kevin had just moved to Philly from Spokane and I needed a guitar player for a NYE gig. Thrilling stuff. I didn’t really start my music career until I turned 30 though.
XTC’s Andy Partridge, stopped touring because of stage fright. The Beatles elected to concentrate their efforts in the studio and stopped touring. What are your thoughts regarding playing live?
I like the actual playing part of playing live. The thing that kills it for me and makes me never want to leave the house or the van is the before. Early sound checks, load-ins, and then 4 hours later the actual gig. I can’t stand that shit. What are you supposed to do with yourself in some nasty band room for 4 hours? I guess you could go hang out in the beer and vomit-smelling club itself. Have a drink, or 20—that’s what happened to John Stamos.
Jackson Browne expressed a similar opinion in The Load-Out (from his landmark Running on Empty release): “We just pass the time in our hotel rooms, And wander 'round backstage, Till those lights come up and we hear that crowd, And we remember why we came.” You’re doing an acoustic show this month (April 29) at Genghis Cohen. Do you feel more comfortable doing acoustic performances since the pre-show checks are virtually nonexistent?
Hmm—not sure, I’m a grass is always greener on the other side guy. Whatever I’m not doing—that’s what I wanna be doing.
Apologies for the following clichéd question, but when you aren’t playing music, what music do you enjoy listening to?
I’ve been checking out the new Hank Williams III disc. Did you know he put the dick in Dixie and the cunt in country? I expect to see his rehab record in the next 2 years or so along with a People Magazine article about tattoo removal featuring Hank. Other than that, Kansas Left Overture (they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore), Jil Scott, Kanye West.
Sorry, I’ve never heard of Hank Williams. You recently relocated from the Philadelphia area to Los Angeles to relaunch your career. What prompted the change in locale (aside from Philly’s craptacular weather)? Although you’ve only been in LA a short while, what are your impressions of life on the west coast? Has it, or do you suppose it will, influence what you write and how you write it? Aside from a house on the Pacific next to Cher, what do you hope to achieve?
In Philly I felt like I didn’t have to play music. I didn’t even have a guitar. On the few occasions that I did play, I’d just borrow gear. Then, one morning I was driving around listening to an interview with Arlo Guthrie and his daughter. They sang This Land is Your Land together over the phone. I have a 2-year-old daughter and I got all choked up. So I thought where is music always going to be reminding me to get my shit together? LA.
I’ve already written an LA tune or 2 and I’m independently wealthy so I don’t have to worry about money.
One aspect of the creative process that always intrigues me is in understanding one’s motivation and expectations. Many artists I know are, literally, “starving” artists who work several jobs and also work at their craft in the hopes that one day there will be a payoff that’ll enable them to quit the day-jobs and devote their full creative energies toward honing their skills and producing a volume of work that pleases them. I write and draw graphic novels not because it pays any bills (it doesn’t) but because I’m physically and mentally unable to stop. Assuming money is not a motivating factor, what aspects continue to motivate you to write music? Was financial independence ever an end-expectation or, do/did you consider yourself a musical-artist for art’s sake?
Right before I moved out here I met with a bunch of folks at Universal Music regarding the status of my publishing contract with them. Basically, I’m screwed, but they were nice about it. Gave me a bunch of ideas, “Let’s get together when you get into town,” etc. Anyway, one thing is this password-protected web page that contains the names of these super high-profile artists that need tunes for their latest projects. Like, “Christina Aguilera needs songs for her upcoming release—she’s looking for hits,” that sort of thing. I’m not above making a ton of cash so I tried my hand at it and wound up with an R&B tune about nuclear holocaust and the economy. My guess is that I can be as sleazy as the next guy but my sleaze IQ is pretty low.
Was your daughter’s appearance on Wobble On a byproduct of Arlo’s duet with his daughter or had you already planned to do this?
No, that was Johnny Myers (the guy who mastered the record) idea. Works though. It’s sort of sad.
How did you meet your new co-musicians—Chris Siedel and Tom Walling? How much of the end product of A Final Blaze of Glory was a collaborative effort?
Chris used to book a bar in Philly called The North Star Bar. Honestly I’d never really listened to his playing but he was such a cool guy I figured, how bad could he possibly be? Tom was the last Huffamoose drummer and he makes beer. The record was a completely collaborative effort. I didn’t realize how much so until I listened back to the mixes after taking a year or so off—those guys totally make the tunes work—most of my ideas sucked.
I think this is probably the new Craig, understating his input. You mentioned that you’re now a dad. How has parenthood changed your perspectives about who you are?
I’m still a neurotic mess but I try to keep my shit together a bit more for her sake. The first thing it did for me was to painfully point out all of my defense/escape mechanisms. Just blew them apart. Then I gained about 40 lbs.
We tend to romanticize songs and the individuals who write them. For example, your fans consider Ring to be one of the most romantic songs. Other songs you’ve written imply a sense of world wisdom and pragmatism. Thus, in associating the artist with the lyrics should we assume you are a pragmatic, world-wise romantic, or are you of the belief that fans are over-analytical (e.g., that just because an artist paints a grape on a stretched canvas shouldn’t imply the artist enjoys eating grapes)?
Hmm, how to answer this with a screaming 2 year old in the background? I’m certainly not pragmatic or world-wise. I’m definitely a romantic. Let me take this opportunity to tell you who I am with a little slice of my life. The other night my wife and I were getting ready to go out on the town—someplace incredibly sheik, stylish and unaffordable for most. I’m not the kind of guy who can walk around with his shirt off, let alone get totally naked in front of anyone including my wife especially lately. She was doing something in the mirror and I took my clothes off and carefully backed up toward the shower so she wouldn’t see my posterior. We have one of those glass sliding doors on our shower. I did this sort of swivel move, put one foot in the tub and while quickly lifting up the other slammed my knee into the metal edge of the shower door. Then, I slammed my foot down on the metal door track really hard. I’m pretty sure by this point everything was flappety-flapping all over the place and that my wife got a big dose of my fat ass. That’s basically me—unsuccessfully trying to control my universe and still somehow thinking that no one’s talking behind my back.
Whose idea was it to document the Interscope tour? How much of what was filmed ended up on the cutting-room floor? Do you feel the film captured a balanced portrayal of the events of that tour?
It was my friend Chris [Richter’s] idea (the director). I think I played a big part in getting him access to the band though. I’m not sure I’d do it again. I like the movie and I think it’s a pretty accurate portrayal but I can’t stand watching myself on film. Can’t do it.
Following the altercation between you and the other band members, was there a moment of realization by anyone of the irony that the documentary was no longer a snapshot of life on the road but the demise of Huffamoose (a result of life on the road and the pressures of touring/promoting)?
Funny, they were actually filming when that happened but they’d just gone to bed. I think it became apparent to them during the editing process. The whole thing is so Spinal Tap.
Were you surprised that Here Comes Huffamoose was so well received at the 2003 Silverlake Film Festival and was also regarded by Cameron Crowe as “one of the greatest rock movies ever”? Following the film’s release, was there ever a period when you thought, “Okay, the pendulum is swinging; let’s capitalize on this and regroup”?
“Capitalize” isn’t in the Huffa lexicon. Plus, it would have been sort of strange—“Hey everyone we’re the band that broke up in the movie and we’re back and better than ever! Please buy this product we’re hawking!”
In addition to the documentary, the DVD includes several great extra features including a series of hysterical short films produced by and starring Craig Elkins. These shorts presented a side of you that’s quite different from your musician persona. Had you ever thought of writing skit comedy?
I’d actually love to do that more than music. Seriously. I love that shit. It’s much more fun than songwriting or playing in a band with a bunch of sweaty, horny guys.
Have feelings between you and your former band mates mended? Have you listened to Kevin’s Bullseye release?
Yes and yes. I love Kevin’s record. That’s the remainder of Huffamoose right there. Those guys are great together live—really amazing. They’re currently called “The Fractals.”
What can you tell us about the song Don’t Even Try, Craig? I’ve created my own back story about the song, imaging that, at a young age, you were discouraged from participating in sports, though I’m probably way off in this assumption.
Yes you are way off! It’s basically, “Why even try to get my shit out there when this guy Gavin Rossdale from the band Bush writes these fake double-meaning lyrics. I just can’t compete with that level of pulling wool over eyesitness!” That’s where the lyrics come from—bad Bush lyrics.
Your first post-Huffamoose release is entitled A Final Blaze of Glory, a rather ominous title for a new debut. Are you planning on further collaborations with Chris and Tom or is Craig Craigstofferson a one-off project?
Good question. I might have to up the sexy quotient a bit—we’ll see. LA’s a tough town.
Craig Elkins made his LA concert debut April 29 at Genghis Cohen, Los Angeles. It was a wonderful, largely all-new set. Selections from A Final Blaze of Glory to sample and enjoy:
Privy To The Skinny
Aesop, My Friend
Samples of the entire album
Click here to purchase this music.