[Cover photo credit to Wombat Fire]
Hard Rock band Crobot recently released their album Feel This in vinyl, CD, and digital formats via Mascot Records/Mascot Label Group, and and came off a two-month tour, but will be taking part in the Psycho Las Vegas Festival in August and have a European tour coming up in November and December. The self-proclaimed “Riff monsters” are known for their touring and high-energy live shows that always include traces of humor and plenty of joy in the music itself. For their new album, they seem even more determined to connect directly with audiences by digging deeper into the connection between music and our emotions, as you can deduce from the the album title, Feel This.
Interestingly, going on an emotional journey with each song also required a little more reflection from the band and a lot more willingness to wear their hearts on their sleeves. Even in feel-good songs like “Better Times”, you’ll find a more personal tone, and part of the big sound and bigger emotion of “Set You Free” stems from trying to find your way through a directionless territory. It’s relatable but also feels as authentic as “Golden”, Crobot’s new song paying homage to the legacy of Soundgarden and Chris Cornell.
I spoke with lead singer and lyricist Brandon Yeagley about how these developments came about and the ways in which they build on the band’s intentions and trajectory so far. We also spoke about their new experience of recording this album live and why it was necessary to set a piano (but not Yeagley) on fire to do justice to the album.
HMS: I see that Crobot has been pretty busy with live shows. Did you just get back?
Brandon Yeagley: We just got done with, for the most part, a two month run. Two tours were kind of rolled right into one.
HMS: I understand that you all are used to touring a lot, but after the past couple of years, it might seem new. Are you playing this new album out?
BY: It’s a strange feeling, but a welcome strange feeling. We’ve actually been playing this new material for a while now, even before we took it to the studio. We’re always the kind of band who likes to throw stuff out there and see if it floats. A lot of the material here were shoe-ins for the record and that made that process a little easier.
We always like to try new things, and that can leave a little bit of anxiety to see how fans will feel. That was true of “Dance with the Dead.” We had this chunk of time where we were writing 80s arena Rock songs and it felt good, right, and genuine, albeit very different from material we’ve released in the past. I think it was Bishop who said during the writing process, “I don’t know! This is the first happy song in a major key that we’ve ever done. Can we go minor in the bridge or something?” But it turns out that some peoples’ favorite song is “Dance with the Dead.” That’s really a cool thing for us to see because it shows that in our attempt to give something to everyone, we hit the mark.
HMS: I agree that there’s a lot of variation on the album in terms of sound and feeling, but I do see some common things in the themes. Obviously, as the title suggests, the album reflects the intensity of human feelings. I feel like the writing on the album takes risks and is very outspoken.
BY: That’s exactly what we wanted to do with this record. That’s what we try to do with any song, to encapsulate what we are and who we are, while trying to tread new ground. We always say that we don’t want to make the same record twice. We are influenced by Def Leppard, Van Halen, and AC/DC while still being influenced by Queens of the Stone Age, Rage Against the Machine, and Soundgarden. Given the circumstances the past few years, we’ve all dealt with a lot of emotions and I think that subliminally, and maybe unconsciously, that went into my lyrics. There’s a lot of the human struggle in there.
HMS: I think when you look at harder Rock, you get some bands who are really careful about how emotions appear in their work, to preserve a certain tougher appearance. Then you have some who, from the get go, have always been all about the emotion. Ozzy was one of those people who never held back on emotions, for instance, and I appreciate that tradition. I think people are looking for that more these days.
BY: Any comparison to Ozzy I will definitely take with open arms. I definitely see that as well. It doesn’t always have to be the macho mentality in music. For me, writing is a relief, and it’s part of what I need in my homeostasis and human nature. Sometimes letting go of those emotions is the only way that you can overcome them.
HMS: Do you feel these emotions on the same level when you’re performing them as when writing or recording?
BY: Especially recently, I’ve been trying to pay attention more to the fact that I’m going to have to be able to sing these songs every night, and I’m going to have to be able to sing them with conviction. In the infancy of the band and of my songwriting, I would try not to wear my heart on my sleeve, and I would make stories up to try to pull the emotions out of myself, but I now feel that it is okay to reflect and put yourself in the words, because I am going to have to get up there and sing these songs. In some sense, I have to preach my gospel, if you will.
HMS: It sounds a bit scarier! That’s putting yourself on the line, but I can see how that can help ensure that the performances are what you want them to be.
BY: It helps me overcome things, too, so hopefully I’ll become more comfortable with it over time. It’s a good practice. I also hope that it’s relatable and it can help people who are going through things that maybe I have gone through.
HMS: I noticed that the new album was being put on a playlist called “Active Rock” and it reminded me of this Scandinavian category I’ve heard of called “Action Rock”. I’m not totally sure what it is, but is this something you feel fits the band?
BY: “Active Rock” to me seems like another word for “Radio Rock”. But “Action Rock” is an even better phrase for it. I think I might steal that! I would love to be a part of “Action Rock” if there is such a thing. [Laughs]
HMS: The fact that you play these songs live long before the studio makes me thinking that you all are writing all the time, and then choose songs. Is that true?
BY: I think the process is always the same for us, which is that we write as much as we possibly can, up until the 11th hour of going into the studio. For this record, there were even a few songs that we wrote and finished when we were in the studio. Until the day we walk out and give the keys back, it’s not done. But I think the process of playing them live helps us get there a little quicker. An important part of our writing process is testing things in front of our fans, since we write music for them. We do write songs that we want to hear, but we hope that our fans still enjoy it.
HMS: I understand that you recorded this album a little differently than you usually do, but everything you’ve said so far about your goals seems to fit with the live, song-by-song approach this time.
BY: Yes, this was the first time we’ve done this. We’ve questioned that recording process the entire time we’ve been a band, but we’ve never really worked with someone who was willing to step outside of the norm, or maybe logistically, couldn’t make it happen. The way things are done is that you roll into the studio, have X amount of time, and you have a chunk of time to do drums, which you want to sound the same for the entire record, so you leave them set up, and the drummer goes through all the songs before moving to bass and guitar. That’s the usual process which is a matter of logistics.
But when we heard that Jay Ruston’s process was live, we were even more excited, because that’s the way that we’ve wanted to make a record since we’ve been a band. We just never got there until now. It was great for us as a band to experience this. I think we will probably never go back to making records the other way. It’s great to focus all your attention and energy on making one thing and not be scatterbrained. I enjoy being hyper-focused more than trying to put the pieces together on the macro level.
I would rather put 16-hour days into the studio and make sure it’s done, so when you close the door of the studio, you can feel better about things. The last day that we spent in the studio, we’d actually gotten everything done, and it was like Senior day. We just took it all in, enjoyed each other’s company, and just listened to what we had done. It’s crazy to think that we recorded 16 songs in 21 days and on the 22nd day, we rested. You do have to be super-prepared to work this way, though.
HMS: When it comes to songs, I feel like I have to start by asking about the burning piano in the video for “Set You Free”. Did you feel like the flames were blowing onto you?
BY: Oh, absolutely! Bishop tells this story all the time, “I remember seeing Brandon when we were shooting the burning piano, and in every shot, if you see it from the side angle, he’s leaning way back in the chair! His fingers are barely touching the keys!” [Laughs] The wind was blowing that strongly, in the wrong direction, and we only had one day to do it.
That moment in time was the only one we had to do the song, and the piano was on fire, so you don’t get many takes. I stayed in there as long as I could, and there was a moment when I said, “Alright, screw it! I’m done!” I couldn’t do it anymore. I felt like a Michael Jackson moment was about to happen and I didn’t want to be known for that. We almost burned down Texas with that one.
HMS: You must have been crispy the next day, or suspiciously tan. Why did this song in particular get the fiery piano treatment?
BY: Some songs take a long time to develop and to see what works, but “Set You Free” was one of those songs where the guys sent me the structure, and the next day I took maybe two hours to lay down my ideas. Then it sat on a shelf, and for that reason, we never really paid it too much attention. But then when it was time to make the record, it was one of Jay’s favorites, and we kept an open ear.
Once we got into the studio, we spent more time with it, and it was lots of peoples’ favorites. That was one of the ones we finished in the studio, and it’s turned out to be one of my favorites of any that we’ve ever done. It introduces the piano and takes things to a dynamic place, which is something we’ve always wanted to do.
HMS: It’s a really powerful song that totally works. Those are some big power vocals. The lyrics are really relatable. In the modern world, there’s a definite feeling of not knowing which way to go and looking for even the tiniest hint of direction. The song is open enough for people to bring their own feelings in, too.
BY: That’s the hope, that even though when I sit down to write, it may be based on my own feelings, and that might be different from how other people feel, that’s okay. That changes on a day-to-day basis, even. But it’s very relatable to be lost, and looking for validation in any capacity, whether learning that you’re on the right path or the wrong path. People seem really able to connect with that song.
HMS: A lot of these songs on the album have a little glimmer of hope or ambiguity to them, and I’m sure that’s something that people can latch onto as well.
BY: We try to keep a level of danger in everything that we do, and we try to keep a level of relatability, but we also like to have fun. We reflect on ourselves, but we also have songs like “Better Times” and “Livin’ on the Streets”. We don’t like to take things too seriously, even though this album has more reflection.
HMS: The song “Golden” has some history regarding Soundgarden and Chris Cornell for you, but that’s a pretty soul-bearing song with a little bit of a gentler musical approach.
BY: We like to work with different writers on every record, since it’s a good practice to learn from others, and we worked with Johnny Andrews, and “Golden” was one of the songs that came out of that songwriting session. The more and more we worked on it, the more and more it felt important. Soundgarden is a big influence on everything we do, but this song felt like an homage. The lyrics just came out and rolled off our tongues, and the song found its way into seeming like a tribute.
We fought it for a long while because we wanted to make sure that come from a genuine place and we didn’t want to steal or rip-off a page from anybody’s book. But, as noted, Chris is a huge influence on me as a singer, so it felt totally genuine. We called a spade a spade went with the thought process of it being a full-blown tribute to Chris. It just seemed like the right thing to do.