The Cribs at SXSW: 'Bedroom weirdos' settle into their sixth album

Though the Cribs rose to prominence in indie’s last flash of mainstream success, they have endured by adhering to the rulebook of the 80s and 90s underground

“Fighting while naked is one of my nightmares,” says Gary Jarman while nursing a hot cider in a lower east side bar. We’re sitting opposite the Mercury Lounge in New York where his band, the Cribs, have a three-night residency as they set out to promote their sixth album, For All My Sisters.

The conversation has wandered into this odd territory after his twin brother Ryan mentioned that Gibby Haynes, the lead singer of the Butthole Surfers – who once reportedly clambered on stage at a Nick Cave gig completely naked, swinging for everyone in sight, after necking a full bottle of Jim Beam and four acid tabs, only stopping after being kicked in the testicles by Blixa Bargeld – occasionally turns up at his house in New York.

The Cribs were once known for their own acts of rock’n’roll debauchery. There was their “three songs and then off to casualty” mantra, the gigs where crowds would turn their back on them because they were so out of tune and, in an act that’s now passed into British indie infamy, the time Ryan jumped on to a table full of champagne bottles at the NME awards and ended up seriously injured in hospital.

But the Cribs of 2015 are apparently a different beast.

They use words such as “satisfied” and “comfortable” when they talk about life. Three years ago they released a singles compilation and also received an outstanding contribution to music award from NME a year later. They’ve dabbled with side projects like Exclamation Pony. All three Jarman brothers (Ross, the youngest, is the drummer) seem to be settling down as the band transition from enfant terribles to unlikely rock’n’roll patriarchs. Gary’s been based in Portland since 2007, while Ross resides in the band’s hometown of Wakefield and Ryan has recently moved to New York.

“We all lived through the band for ages,” says Ryan, who, before moving across the Atlantic, led an itinerant lifestyle away from his band duties and struggled with bulimia.

“As much as I love being in a band, when we weren’t on tour or in the studio, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I didn’t know where to go even. I didn’t live anywhere. I think that that was down to the fact I wasn’t thinking about anything outside of the band.”

That myopic, our-band-is-your-life attitude may have created problems off stage but it gave the Cribs a distinct edge. Despite crafting catchier tunes than most of their peers when they broke through with their third album, Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever, they were clearly different from the rest of the bands grouped together into the post-Britpop world of the early 00s.

“It was vibrant and exciting but it just wasn’t really us. We were bedroom weirdos. We were home recorders. We weren’t pop stars in the making,” says Gary. “It was weird for us to be able to compete on that mainstream level while operating in the way that we did, but then it would rub us up the wrong way when people would assume that you were part of that major label world.”

“We were acting different to other bands; that’s why the ‘antics’ would be written about,” adds Ryan.

If you wanted to pinpoint why the band stood out, it would be their adoption of the attitude of the 80s and early 90s American underground. In a move that could have come straight from the playbook of the Minutemen or Fugazi, when they signed with Wichita (the label they were on for 10 years), they said: “If you give us two grand, we’ll buy a van and tour for ever.” If the best part of the last decade counts as for ever, that’s pretty much what the Cribs did. They bought an old beaten up black mariah at a car auction and turned it into their touring van, sleeping in it, playing impromptu gigs in it and spreading their brand of recalcitrant rock’n’roll. They had simple, indie rock goals such as playing with lo-fi bellwethers Beat Happening and headlining the 100 Club.

As well as walking the walk on stage and off, the Cribs also embraced figures from the era that brought the world alt-rock. They’ve called on the skills of Edwyn Collins, Dave Fridmann, Steve Albini and Johnny Marr as either producers or bandmates over their 14-year career. Albini and Fridmann introduced a louder, denser version of the band on their last outing, In The Belly of the Brazen Bull, an album that the Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson said “couldn’t be more 90s if it styled its hair into curtains, donned a Global Hypercolor T-shirt and bought itself a ticket to Lilith Fair”.

For All My Sisters heralds a poppier Cribs and a return to the sound of their Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever album, which was produced by Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand. They’ve always been able to craft hooky indie rock (see the stripped back grandeur of Another Number or the sing-along charm of Martell), but on this album they teamed up with Ric Ocasek, the Cars keyboardist who gave Weezer’s eponymous “blue” album the sheen that turned them into geek-rock crossover stars in the mid-90s (the Cribs joined the band on their Weezer cruise).

Ocasek’s fingerprints are all over the album, with tracks like Mr Wrong and An Ivory Hand sounding like they could have come from Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo’s cutting room floor, while Ocasek’s signature keyboard lines add polish to the Cribs’ songwriting. It’s the kind of sprucing-up job that many predicted could make the Cribs bona fide pop stars. But “going pop” is something the band only sardonically acknowledge and have seemed unable to do even if they wanted to. When the band shot the video for lead single Burning For No One in the Bahamas, Gary’s plane was the subject of a bomb threat, Ryan was caught in the New York blizzard and when they finally arrived they were confronted with aggressive wild pigs that bit them while they filmed. According to the band, it’s the often-fruitful but hard-to-find hinterland between rock and pop that they’re aiming for.

“The Cars were this weird new wave band,” says Gary. “The music I always like is made by weirdos. It’s not made by regular dudes who sit down and try to make a perfect pop song – it’s these people who come from a punk-rock background.”

That might mean a glass ceiling for the band, but being the next Mumford & Sons was never on the menu for the Cribs.

“I’d rather be important to a small group of people than just wallpaper to the nation,” says Gary. “It’s like that Huggy Bear lyric: ‘This is happening without your permission.’ That was like our mantra.”

You get the impression they wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • The Cribs play Fader Fort Show (5.15pm) and Stub Hub Showcase at Clive Bar (10pm) on 18 March at SXSW; on 19 March at Container Bar, 90 Rainey Street; and on 20 March at The Parish, 12.35am


Lanre Bakare in New York

The GuardianTramp

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