In the oversaturated market of blues rock, a band really has to believe in their tunes to stand above the crowd. Cream, the Black Keys, the White Stripes, every White Stripes rip-off—in such an established form, it’s tough to get your work heard among the white noise of distortion pedals, bass and drums. (And yes, that noise is typically white, despite taking all of its inspiration from an art form pioneered by African Americans, blues rock as a genre was made enormously popular by pasty English performers.)
Catch non-pasty SA raw power trio Crown around town and it’s obvious that the three-piece believes deeply in their riffs and shredding them as viciously as possible. Groove-centric bassist Josh Borchardt holds it down on the low end as guitarist Carlos Zubillaga draws the most out of each bent tone.
Drummer Oscar Webber’s fill-friendly rhythms drive the trio forward, as Borchardt and Zubillaga swap vocal duties. With thick bundles of hair slapping around on stage, a blues rock style with a lysergic drop of psych and a badass take on “Helter Skelter,” Crown is one of the best live acts currently operating out of SA.
But Crown hasn’t always held such popularity in local music circles, taking some time to gain traction since forming in 2010. Like SA garage dudes the Rich Hands, Crown experienced a paradigmatic shift when they tightened from a four piece down to a trio. “We had to make a change from hearing the songs as a four piece to how they sound as a trio,” said Borchardt. “Now, we write the songs differently because we have to do the job of more people.”
Zubillaga added, “The less people we have onstage, the less room for error there is.” Wary of this slim margin, Crown is incredibly tight, switching between heavy riffs with dime-stop accuracy. “We used to not be too heavy,” said Zubillaga. “We’ve been getting progressively heavier so we’ve slowly gotten used to the change while keeping it tight.”
In January, Crown released the EP Thousand Men to Save the King on the sly, without much 210 hype or an album release show. It’s a solid, self-recorded collection of songs—particularly the scorching closer “Black Fleet”—but two years in the making, it doesn’t quite capture the band’s growth spurts in style and energy. “It took us so long that the songs felt dead,” said Zubillaga.
“Free stuff? It’s not free. That’s what we learned with the EP,” said Webber. “For the album, we decided to pay for a legit studio and legit mastering ’cause when you cut corners, it really has an effect.”
On the debut full-length Are These the Good Days?, Crown hit the studio with Austin producer Nick Joswick, short on time but with clear intentions for the final product. “We went in the studio without a lot of money so we only had two days to record,” said Webber. “Two days sounds like a long time but when you’re recording it’s not. We were nailing every song, only one or two takes.”
“We scraped together the money for recording and mastering,” said Zubillaga. “I’d work doubles, go record, come back and work doubles.”
Mastered by Brian Lucey, the Columbus, Ohio, engineer who put the post-production touches on the past couple Black Keys records, Are These the Good Days? proves the worth of Crown’s change in process. Though the album varies considerably in style, there’s a strong sense of cohesion from its single creative session. “We all like albums where you get everything you crave and that’s what we were shooting for,” said Webber.
On “Prelude,” Crown start off with a thunderclap of backmasking, a backwards-played jam that sees Good Days’ most psychedelic moments. On the next cut, “Drone,” Borchardt and Zubilla team up for a highway hypnotic melody as the band drives into a momentous jam. On “Olympus,” Borchardt applies a McCartney-like “Come Together” line, knowing when to hold off on vocals and when to punch the song into the next gear.
The band takes a breath for “Methylone Man,” as Zubilla takes the song solo on mandolin. “You make us feel fine in some twisted way,” Zubilla sings softly over the fragile mandolin piece, about MDMA’s active ingredient. It’s an “I’m Waiting for my Man” trip, looking for a dealin’ Irishman the day after St. Patrick’s Day—a “short redhead guy wearing a Leperchaun outfit, like a bad movie,” said Zubillaga. “Later that night I was sitting there writing a joke song, but it turned out to be pretty good.”
To name the album, Crown took inspiration from the goosebump dialogue of HBO’s True Detective. Borchardt recalls an interview scene in which Marty Hart, Woody Harrelson’s character asks: “‘Are you living in the good days, do you even know that it’s happening? Does everything need to go to shit before you realize that those were the good days?’ That speaks to us right now. We’re working shitty jobs, but we’re playing music for fun. Are these the good days? Does it get better than this?”
On the final track, “One-Eyed Neal,” Crown seems to ride out on some surf rock, but quickly transitions to a massive slow-burner to light fire to the album’s end. It’s an impressive conclusion to a timely debut album, yet one that still upholds Crown’s status as a band best experienced live. When these three get together, there’s no rock ‘n’ roll direction that’s out of bounds.
Crown feat. Lonely Horse, The Bolos, Antique Sunlight
9:30pm Sat, July 12
502 Embassy Oaks