(Note: Here's something I've been working on this whole week, with the permission of Sarasota. It's a long piece. I really enjoyed writing it and I hope you like it, especially Sarasota since this is about him. I didn't really show him drafts or stuff like that, so this will all come like a big long surprise for him. So, SURPRISE! I finished it! and here it is!)
I’m at Starbucks, drinking a Mocha, just sitting here outside with my sunglasses on. My notebook and pen are on the table, waiting, just as anxious as myself.
Just so you know, Justin is not late. It’s just my habit of being where I have to be a few minutes earlier. In this particular case, I left more than a few minutes earlier because I had to get a new notebook, since my last one was already full of scribbling.
A cheerful “Deeeeeeee!” comes from behind me and I stand up to greet Justin Crowell, whom you may know as the man behind Sarasota. Yes, it’s only one man. It may sound hard to believe when you listen to the first songs of Things Alive, but after a while you remember how advanced technology is by now and then it all makes perfect sense. “Am I late?” is the first thing he asks. We walk inside to get his coffee, and I get my journalist mode on. “I’m the one who asks the questions here, sir” I point out, dramatically, and continue with a smile “talk all you want, I’m a fast scribbler and owner of an eidetic memory”.
The story behind Justin Crowell as a musician starts at the sweet age of four, when he used to pretend to perform music strumming a tennis racket or singing into a hockey stick… as many of us did too, I’m pretty sure. During high school it evolved into a more serious desire, so he tried to write songs “but only came out with goofy shells for improvisation within”, he tells me. In his first year of college he tried to produce under the name Peter Tomorrow (http://www.myspace.com/petertomorrow try Late October Should Be Red), but then decided to give up on pop. Why? No idea, he shrugs when I ask, and replies simply “I guess I just happened to be listening to tons of Ghostface Killah and MF Doom and I thought ‘I think I might be able to do this’". So, over the next year, he put together a hip-hop album. It was mostly done after he graduated, recorded and produced almost entirely in France, where he was living for a while (this album can be found at http://chewbacules.com). Back in the States he gave it another shot when he was living with his parents for the summer. And instead of writing an entire song and then recording and producing it, he tried to do the whole thing at once, sort of going through it blindly. It was then when the song Blasting came to life, the most personal song he’d written to that point, and he was really happy with it. It’s got a lot of vocals and instrumental layers, which was an approach he’d never really tried before. “At one point”, he says laughing, “my dad came into my room and said ‘I think I just heard some animal noises coming from your room’".
Shortly after that, Justin moved to Sarasota, Florida (hence the name of the one-man band). It took him several months to get things going again, and finally in January it all seemed to kick off for the better. But with every single song that he started he realized he had no idea what he was doing, and he stumbled along blindly, trying hundreds of sounds per track.
Things Alive was entirely recorded in Justin’s apartment with a partially disassembled drum kit, a brand-new computer and digital audio interface that he’d blown a large portion of his savings on, a vintage Yamaha keyboard “that was my older brother's (until I stole it)”, an Ibanez AS200 guitar and Fender Hotrod Deluxe amp, beer-bottles, some pots and pans, the washing machine (on Things Were Bad), and a bunch of toys and other junk that was found at thrift stores and things to make weird noises with. He has been mostly a guitarist throughout his life. He got really into jazz guitar at the end of high school and through college, but more recently has expanded into percussion and keyboard instruments. He tried to avoid using the guitar while making the album, since he was more interested in putting together collections of sounds that didn't have any obvious instrumental origin, but didn't necessarily sound digital. The Chiller and Things Were Bad were two of the last songs he wrote for the album, so guitar is more prominent there. White Lying is actually a new version of a song he had written back when he was known as Peter Tomorrow. Working on the album took days, weeks, and months, mixing and EQing each song. Although Justin had read a fair amount on the subject, he’d never really taken it to practice before. It was overwhelming at times, working full time, then recording and producing well into the night, but it made him feel better than doing anything else. He wasn't really happy with his life, and the relationship to Sarasota (the town) was a complicated one. And although he describes it as “an ugly and sad place in a lot of ways”, he felt connected to it. “I guess the album is almost completely about those connections, how strong they can be, even when you're completely conflicted over them”, and Justin says this with a hint of sadness yet hope in his eyes. Glassed Chance is a good example of a song about a place and the people connected with it. He sort of moves back and forth in the album between talking about a person and a place. Tethered is all about Sarasota, feeling alone there, and wishing for the tethers of childhood (“they hold you down, but you're less likely to blow away, you know?” he says, sipping the last bit of his coffee).
By the time we reach this part of the conversation, my toes feel numb and I feel the need to walk. We stand up and throw the cups in the trashcan and start walking, just anywhere, without any guidance. I tell Justin that when you’re talking and walking at the same time, it’s good for the conversation to not have a certain place to go, only if the conversation is good enough. When it’s not, then you hurry up to get to wherever you have to get and end the conversation politely. It may sound mean, but go ahead and try and tell me how it went. “You’ve been letting me talk all this time and haven’t really made any interruptions, y’know” Justin points out. “Well, if you must know… I have a terrible concentration after having a nightmare, and I had one last night. So I haven’t really interrupted you because I need to catch all the words to remember them. I’ve been scribbling a lot but those are mostly notes or words I don’t know in English and later I will look them up in the dictionary”. He forgets English is not my first language. Or maybe I forgot to mention.
Also, this is the part of our very interesting conversation where I ask the million dollar question about my favorite subject: HitRECord. A friend sent Justin an email a few months ago saying that she read about the site and thought that he would really like it. One of the biggest issues he’s faced over the years is a general unwillingness from others to collaborate. He wanted to put a band together, or put together an album with other people, but became so frustrated that decided to do the album on his own. So when his friend told him about HitRECord it just sounded amazing to him. Also, Brick (directed by Rian Johnson, though it's most likely you all know that) is one of his favorite movies, and he quotes it a lot, especially “I need words”, so hearing that our very own RegularJoe was involved just made everything even more amazing. A man passes by us and tips his hat to Justin, congratulating him for picking such a lovely girl to be around. I stand still with a confused look on my face. At last I turn around to tell the man that he’s my brother (he’s not), but the man has disappeared completely. As if he could walk through walls. Neither of us knows what really happened to him, but I shake my head, “Nevermind, just keep talking. You were telling me how you found HitRECord”. He uploaded his music one random night, and started looking around the site. It seemed like a great place, and he checked back occasionally, maybe thinking that it would be really fun to try some stuff out over the summer when he had more time. “I was totally shocked when Things Alive made it to the homepage. And all the things that people said… everybody was so nice and supportive I couldn't believe it!” I tell him I know the feeling, when Train Now Leaving was featured in the home page I spent the whole day hyperventilating about it. I looked pretty ridiculous, but I was very proud of myself so I didn’t really care about it. “Honestly, I’m really hoping people would use my music in other things, videos, or just anything. I would love to see stuff I do re-contextualized” Justin says, and I take the opportunity to correct him, “we call them RE-mixes, dear”.
His favorite songs on the album are Tethered and Things Were Bad (and I tell him that my favorite ones are Tethered and The Chiller). He’s really proud of Tethered, he re-worked that song for months, and it sounded completely different at the end of each week. He says that it best exemplifies the aesthetic that he was hoping to create for the album. Things Were Bad is another favorite because it feels like such a long and intense emotional experience for him. It's probably the most positive song on the album, and he says he’s half-embarrassed of but half-pleased with the lyrics. It's honest and triumphant, “I guess”, he adds to this sentence.
The title, Things Alive. It took him a long time to come up with that title, but once it hit him, he really liked it. I start laughing quietly at the nonsensical thought of a word hitting Justin, in the literal sense. I explain to him that I laugh at things that aren’t really funny or that I take literally and play the image in my mind. As a response he gives me a funny look, half-way between “I’m about to run away” and “you’re insane, but it’s okay”, which is not something you can describe, you have to see it. “Just keep talking, man” I say. He smiles and continues, “It has just the right level of ecstatic to it, I think”.
The name, Sarasota. He couldn't think of anything that could be more appropriate than the name Sarasota. The town is so deeply ingrained in the feeling of the music, and it's behind all of the lyrics. Although he doesn’t live there anymore, Sarasota is a huge part of his life. It’s where he met most of his friends, and it's sort of a home base where they can all meet up in the future.
And speaking of the future, there’s an EP coming up as soon as his friend Chris Connover is done remixing the songs, and it should be finished in the next few weeks. It's very different from the album Things Alive, the songs are a little more raw, a little more moody, and have a much more restricted sonic palette. He’s also working on a couple of other projects this summer, one of which may feature folk songs sung by his mother. Next year he will be working on a short film about traveling through the USA, and he will be doing all of the music for that project as well.
“Your future seems brighter than mine!” I joke. “I’m gonna spend most of my days in college, and around HitRECord… which you should do too, by the way”.
We say our goodbyes and go our own ways. My day ends talking on the phone with my dad and him trying to convince me to walk a few extra blocks because he forgot to buy cake for dinner. "What are we celebrating?" I ask. My dad knows that even when it comes to food I'm not a huge fan of buying it if we really don't need it, so he simply replies "Your unbirthday" and hungs up, succesfully tricking me into walking the extra blocks.
(another note: the parts in this story that are true are the facts that Sarasota gave me. The rest is only possible if time travel has been succesfully invented. What's also truth is that my dad tends to convince me to buy cake but then paying back by telling me that we're celebrating my unbirthday.)