Mark Glenister in conversation with James Cox
Just over 2 years ago, London band Crows played a triumphant fundraising gig at Peckham Audio in South-East London. The gig was to raise funds for their upcoming appearances at the SXSW Festival in Austin a week or so later. The atmosphere and mood that night felt different to any previous Crows gigs, new songs had been aired to great acclaim, and the band themselves played as if something big was on the horizon, it was a euphoric night for all those in attendance.
However, that feeling and the belief that Crows were about to take Austin by storm, were curtailed suddenly due to a Worldwide pandemic, something big had indeed been on the horizon, just not what anyone expected.
SXSW cancelled, a lockdown imposed after the infection and death rate in the UK grew rapidly, similar events being played out in every corner of the Globe. For the band, this meant the album just sat there, recorded, but without a record company to push and promote it and more importantly with a live music scene closed down and with no indication as to when or even if it would open up again.
We all know what has happened since 2020, and how the bands we love managed to survive (as did most of the venues) and are now back playing to packed venues and releasing new songs and albums.
So, on the eve of the release of the much anticipated 2nd album from Crows ‘Beware Believers’ - I sat down with Crows front man James Cox, to discuss those 2 years, the album, their eventual debut at this years SXSW, and lots in between.
I started by asking James how the SXSW Experience was….
“Yeah, it was great. We kind of went over with zero expectations, I didn’t want to celebrate until we stepped off the plane and had instruments in our hands. Hotel Lux lost their instruments on the way over, I saw that and was like ‘I am not saying a word until we are on American soil, with all our instruments in our hands’. So we went through customs, our instruments turned up and then I was ‘Fuck, we are here, we made it’. We were then met by Ismail, who is this photographer, and he drove us around all week, took us to all our gigs and we stayed at his place whilst we were there. He is real Austin local, a great photographer and just showed us proper American hospitality. He was invaluable, he wanted us to get the real Austin experience, so showed us around after we landed so we could get an idea of where everything was. We landed at 6pm and had our first gig at 1am, so he took us to the venue, dropped our gear off and then showed us Austin.
It was literally a whirlwind from there, it is one of the most intense weeks I have ever had in my musical career by far. Its similar to Great Escapes, it’s an industry festival, you are going to be playing loads. Its going to sound shit, you don’t get a proper soundcheck, its literally in and out of gigs as the changeover is super-fast between the bands. But we didn’t have a bad gig, the first and last were the best I think, but again we didn’t know what to expect. The first one proper kicked off, because it was 1 in the morning, on a Tuesday, everyone was very excited. There was a mosh pit, it was packed, it sounded awful. Steve’s guitar sounded mental for the first parts, all of us were like ‘what the fuck’s going on’. We hadn’t even tested if the gear worked, its different power over there, we thought we had bought these transformers that would regulate the power. But as soon as Steve started playing, again, its probably the first time we have played without it being Steve’s amp. Everyone knows its Steve’s amp and he always uses it, but it was great though. The first gig, even though we were exhausted, it did set us up for the week and I was like ‘Yeah, we will be ok’.
So, we played 7 gigs in 5 days. The daytime ones were all really good as well, playing in these small pubs and bars. But, on the Friday I had completely lost my voice, I literally couldn’t speak, it was terrifying as we had 2 real big gigs left to play on the Saturday. So, I’ve totally lost my voice, had a major freak out, Cal (Manager) has sent me back to the house, well I took myself back reluctantly. I hadn’t drunk all day, was just drinking water, hot tea with lemon, I was doing anything to protect my voice and get it back. Hot tea in Austin Texas is not great when its 30 degrees outside and everyone else is drinking ice cold margaritas!.
But I was really good, I didn’t speak, I had to have a note on my phone saying ‘I’ve lost my voice, I can’t speak to you, I am really sorry, the band is called Crows’ because you had people coming up to us saying loved you the other night what are you called again? Everyone was being really chatty, but I tried to talk, I’d open my mouth and nothing was coming out. Cal was like ‘Stop fucking talking’ so I decided to go back to the house, and really rest up and hopefully be ready for the Saturday. I woke up on the Saturday and still couldn’t talk properly, my voice is still a bit fucked now because I have been talking non stop since we got back.
But I did some vocal exercises, continued to drink water until the first gig which was at 7pm, did another vocal warm up there and was like ‘I think I am going to be ok’ managed to get through the first show and felt good, said to the band that I would be ok for the late show at 11pm, had a couple of whiskies and I was fine. And that 11pm show, was the best one, it was the Bad Vibrations/Wide Awake showcase with Cymande, Los Bitchos, Faux Real, Nuha Ruby Ra, Qlowski and obviously us, in a really cool venue which was packed.
It was nice as we obviously knew a lot of people out there from London who work in music, and some friends as well, people who don’t work for us directly kept coming up to us any saying ‘Everyone is speaking about you, you are the only band that people are saying have you seen Crows blah blah blah’ which is nice. Luckily this year everyone kept saying also that it was a lot more chilled out this year than it normally is. I think by 2019 SXSW had become quite corporate and way bigger than the capacity that Austin has to hold it. You’d be seeing someone like Kanye West in a small venue, it became more about that rather than seeing new music.
So I think this year it became more chilled and less corporate, which we really benefited from, because essentially it was everyone going there for what it is supposed to be which is seeing new bands, or bands that are coming over from outside of America. I think we really benefited from that because it meant people were talking ‘Oh have you listened to that band Crows’ and we played just enough so that everyone could catch a show”.
So, I am guessing that at any of these shows, you don’t know who is in the room and how important they could be?
“Absolutely, no idea at all. Most of the time I don’t pay attention to that stuff, Cal will know but I am like ‘just don’t tell me’ Because it just makes me nervous. I will still put on the same show, there are no worries about that its just the build up to a show. I just say don’t tell me as get really nervous anyway, so if someone says ‘Oh this person is here’, I am like ‘why the fuck did you tell me that, now that’s all I am thinking about’ – Its not that I am going to play any differently, because when we start I forget about anyone being in the room. Its just the pre gig thing, don’t tell me, just let me freak out as I normally do without the added stuff. But the entire thing was great, and we now have multiple different agents wanting to take us on in America, we actually have a choice which is quite rare between a few agents who want to represent us.
We have been on calls all week with various agents, getting to chat and seeing who we feel are the best fit for us. Hopefully, and this is all depending on a few things, we could go back to America by the end of the year or early next year. We literally achieved everything and more that we wanted to by going to SXSW. I’m still buzzing from it now, again it went so quickly just because you would wake up get ready, drive to the venue, play the venue, go and find something to eat. And there are then a million bands you want to go and see, friends you want to catch up with and before you know it, its 2am and we should probably go to bed as we have 2 shows to play the next day, it goes so quickly. But, we are honoured to have been able to play and it’s probably one of the best experiences of my life – And hopefully not the last time we get to play America”.
So, what happened to Jith’s (Bass player) eye? - I saw the social media stuff where it looked really sore.
“Again, this is classic Crows. He was just taking his contact lens out and he gashed his cornea. Bless Jith his last two days weren’t that good, he was in a lot of pain, he had to go to an eye doctor so experienced the American healthcare system.
Its just Crows isn’t it, something had to happen whether its me losing my voice or Jith hurting his eye and having to wear an eye patch. It was really bad bless him. I remember the last gig, we came off stage and I asked him if he was ok, he was like ‘No, I’m in a lot of pain’. All we wanted to do was celebrate, but there’s Jith with a badly swollen eye and in a lot of pain”.
Do you feel that you approached SXSW differently this year, given everything that has happened in the past 2 years and how close you were to going in 2020?
“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, we have been chatting about it. To be honest I am kind of glad for so many reasons that this was the time we went. Had we gone in 2020, had the pandemic not existed, the festival would have probably been this big corporate event that probably we would have got lost in. Probably wouldn’t have met or had as many people see us as we wanted to. Also, not that I don’t like Silver Tongues (1st Album), I think the 2nd album has made us more confident and we believe in ourselves more than perhaps we did with the 1st album. We are so happy with it, its such a concise album from start to finish. Its much more of a statement than the 1st one.
The first one was more of a collection of songs that had been written over a period of time. Where as this record we wrote it in about 3-4 months, as a record. I think its way more cohesive as a record, some of the songs are quite punchy and fast, which is want the Americans want, they want a new fast-paced heavy band. There are multiple factors and reasons as to why I am happy it happened now instead of 2020, not that I am glad the pandemic happened, but I am glad we went to SWSX when we did.
We didn’t change our approach so to speak, we didn’t have a gimmick, although we did discuss perhaps getting a Seb replacement (Seb was a large fake Rottweiler that used to sit on the stage, until its sad demise at a festival in 2019) to be on stage with us. In the end we decide to just be us, just be Crows, people know what to expect when they come to one of our shows. I just feel we had better music to showcase”.
Onto the Album, Beware Believers gets released on Friday (1st April). I was fortunate enough to hear it a while back and after repeated listens I still think its amazing. You used the word ‘Statement’ earlier, I really feel this is your statement of intent as a band. This is you as the band that you want to be, it’s a pretty relentless album from start to finish. This was all recorded prior to 2020 wasn’t it?
“Yeah we were tracking it in January 2020, so we had most of it done by the second week of that January. If you think about it, Sam (Drummer) didn’t write any of the songs on Silver Tongues, he re-wrote the drum parts for him when he joined, but Lawrence the previous drummer had wrote those tracks. So all of the new tracks have been written with Sam, which obviously makes it a bit different, and as much as he doesn’t like to say it, he is a really good songwriter”
You can hear that in the tracks though, it sounds like you live and the connection with Sam and Jith is integral to this album and its sound.
“Yes definitely, yeah, what was the question again?”
Ha! So, in the past two years have you looked at it and thought about changing certain tracks, removing tracks or rearranging the track listing?
“No not really, the only drastic thing we have done, well not that drastic is that we got this guy James to add some strings on it, some violins and cello which are very low in the mix on a few songs. But even this was early in the mix, we had the time to do this and it sounded really cool. I guess vocally I changed some stuff, the chorus to Slowly Separate we actually wrote whilst I was doing my vocal segs in the studio. I wasn’t happy with what we had done in the tracking sessions earlier, so that was something that came a bit later. But in fairness it was all pretty much there from the initial sessions.
We wanted to keep the ball rolling so much after Silver Tongues was out, we weren’t rushed but we wanted to record it quickly, to be ready for the next year and remain in cycle, and not have a 5 year gap or whatever in between albums. So we were really solid with working with the producers, making sure it was ready to go, ready to be recorded and again to make it sound live, the more you fuck with it the less its going to sound like we do. And like you said, I think this sounds like us playing live, which is cool. The 1st album semi sound like us live, but I didn’t think it quite captured it, whereas this one does”.
How is it working with Bad Vibrations and Fuzz Club now you’ve joined their ranks?
Really, really great! Fuzz Club have been really great, and have released so many great albums over the years, When we were young the albums they bought out were such an influence on us, so its just been amazing to work with them, its been a long term dream come true. Its been wonderful experience working with both parties. Its nice to have people who believe in you and want to invest in you, its makes such a difference.
The early reviews have been so positive, that must mean a lot?
Again, the PR team behind it (Amy) have proper smashed it, loads of interviews, podcasts. And the early reviews have been incredible. I’m just waiting for Pitchfork to rip us to shreds, but you never know. I find a lot of reviews pretty generic in what they say, they’ll be sent the press release by the PR team, and they will basically regurgitate the press release and not even really listen to the album.
You can read the word for word and its just been lifted from the press release. But, pretty much so far it seems they have all listened to and formed an actual opinion about it, its really good, its truly humbling to see the response and how genuine the response has been from everyone. We are being including on playlists, lots of radio play, its good, I’m fucking happy!.
You seem it, and with everything that has gone on in the last two years, you’ve had this album waiting to release, the last few days and next few weeks must feel like a whirlwind?
The past 3 weeks have been whirlwind! Yeah I am really excited, the tour starts on Tuesday (5th), we have an instore at Resident in Brighton on Sunday (3rd) which I think we are going to paly the album in full at Resident (album length is 37 Mins 59 Secs). We rehearsed the other night and I had forgotten how difficult it is to sing, but it will be alright, it will. I love that record store (Resident) so it will be really nice, as we haven’t been able to do any other in-stores due to scheduling, but I am glad we are doing the Resident one.
We are playing some venues we have never played before, Pink Room in Manchester, we’ve not done the big room there. We haven’t played the venues at Sheffield, Birmingham or Glasgow. We are playing the Brudenell, which we have done before, but we have Lumer with us there whom I love.
And the Scala will be your biggest London venue to date?
Yeah I was trying to think of our progression of London Venues, I think we started at the Blackheart, then the 100 Club, then the Dome, then 9294 and now the Scala……and everything in between as well.
Do you have a favourite track off Beware Believers, or does it change day by day?
Hmmm, it’s actually been changing quite a lot. I really liked ‘Meanwhile’ but recently it’s been ‘Sad Lad’ the album closer (a song about the late great Daniel Johnston) – I wrote a poem on the day that he died, and then we needed lyrics for this track, and the poem fitted perfectly, didn’t have to change a single thing. It does change all the time, ‘Healing’ is another song I love, but it’s a hard one to sing, as its quite personal to me.
There’s not a track on it that I don’t like, sometimes you can be a bit meh when it comes to a particular song, like for me weirdly on the first album its ‘Tired & Failed’ (My Favourite song) but again that’s a really personal song for me, which I don’t like to sing or play it very much because the subject matter cuts deep. That’s kind of like ‘Healing’ on this album but not as much, its all good.
With the tour have you got a setlist yet or do you do it last minute?
We generally write the setlist 10 minutes before we go on. It just keeps it fresher that way, and then even that can change on stage sometimes, I will be like ‘No, lets not play that, lets play something else’. We will be playing a good mixture, but its hard as we will be playing for 45mins to an hour, so its tough to decide which tracks to choose from the albums and the EPs. We will try to keep it fresh and change it every night.
And with that we wind the chat down, we have a brief discussion about whether weasels are rodents, favourite type of Crow (Grey Chested Berlin Crow), that brown sauce is better in a bacon sarnie, that James feels Timothee Chalamet would play him in a film of his life, and that James prefers briefs to boxers! (there is a reason why, but its not for publication).
I’ve been following Crows since their first album, and I’m lucky enough to know the band and have seen them many times. They never disappoint, they always play an amazing live show and this album reflects the energy, darkness and power of their live shows. I really hope they get all the success they deserve after the past 2 years, this album should certainly bring them to a wider audience.
It's definitely their statement of intent.