Crumb: New York’s indie experimentalists that soundtrack a city that never sleeps

The phrase “New York album” can mean many things. It can be a byword for early noughties indie-rock, for squalid ‘70s punk that sounds like it was scarped off of CBGBs’ sticky floor, for revolutionary hip-hop cooked up in the outer boroughs. In the case of Brooklyn’s Crumb, it means something completely different once again.

On ‘Jinx’, the four-piece’s debut album, they combine woozy synths, fragmented guitar lines and unusual sax solos to make something that flits between hypnotic indie jams and claustrophobic alt-rock with trip-hop tinges. It sounds like New York in that limbo period between the streets being populated with people heading home from bars, and the same people making their way to work in the morning. When the so-called city that never sleeps becomes uncharacteristically quiet and a little bewitching, the silence only shattered by the rumble of the subway or a blearing, wall-shaking siren.

Although they’re based in Brooklyn these days, Crumb actually began life at Tufts University, a little north of Boston. There, singer and guitarist Lila Ramani, bassist Jesse Brotter, keyboardist Brian Aronow, and drummer Jonathan Gilad studied music, computer and cognitive science, and psychology. “There weren’t that many people doing music,” Jesse says over the phone from New York (Lila is on the other line from LA), describing their coming together as different worlds within the student community “sloshed up against each other”.

Though they’re a tight-knit group now, at first that wasn’t the case. “When I first met Brian, we were both really shy,” recalls Lila. “We always joke about how we were really nervous around each other. I was kinda suss of him for some reason, I’m not sure why.”

“What, Brian?!” replies Jesse, the incredulity in his voice causing his bandmate to let out a big laugh. “Then we went on a hike together and he was actually the sweetest man,” she adds quickly.

It’s just as well their relationship changed because, while Crumb might not have come together with the intention of “starting a band and taking over the world”, as Jesse puts it, their audience had other ideas. They initially formed just to flesh out songs Lila had been working on, but something about their self-titled debut EP (released in 2016) and their enthralling live show struck a chord with people and things have snowballed from there.

“[We carried on] mostly just because of people’s interest in wanting us to play shows and make more music,” says Lila, but don’t take that to mean she and her bandmates aren’t enjoying the ride so far. “There were reasons for each of us to keep doing this for ourselves,” Jesse assures. “We were really interested in Lila’s songwriting and we were all finding new avenues to play our instruments, and then it was super validating and exciting, and made us look at the project in a different way when it interacted with the world.”

After releasing second EP ‘Locket’ in 2017 and graduating, all four eventually relocated south to New York to begin work on ‘Jinx’. Without the security of label funding plus with student loans to pay back, as well as the usual expenses of staying alive, a city as expensive as NYC could have chewed them up and spat them back out. “We’ve been really fortunate that the band has been able to support us for the last year,” Lila says, noting that she had it slightly easier with being able to move back into her parents’ house for a bit. “It does sometimes feel like all of the money that we make from the band goes to rent, which is kind of terrible, but we’re finding other solutions.”

Recorded at Brooklyn’s Rare Book Room studio (which has since shut its doors for good) with Gabe Wax (Beirut, Palehound), the album really took shape over Crumb’s tireless months of touring. “A lot of the experiences of being together on the road and that extreme versus being back in New York and not having a job have definitely made their way into the album,” says Lila.

In some ways, those experiences manifested in the subject matter, like the title track, which sits somewhere between real life and fiction, and was inspired by a car crash Jesse was involved in while on tour last year. In others, they’re in the music, the songs becoming fluid and changing shape and structure as they performed them more.

One of the album’s standouts, ‘Nina’, is a prime example of the latter, beginning life over the summer of 2017 and going through several incarnations before the band arrived upon what exists on ‘Jinx’. The eerie drift reflects the group’s aim to “create more space inside” of their music, stripping away what they call the “musically dense” nature of their EPs, leaving minimal but affecting melodies to cushion Lila’s haunting delivery.

The song, she says, tells the story of “a real person who’s simultaneously me but not me, and also a family member, and also a spirit.” “That’s the best answer I can give,” she laughs, acknowledging the complex web of characters she’s just reeled off. The video, meanwhile, features Twin Peaks and The Warriors actor David Patrick Kelly trampling through marshland in full camo gear.

Lyrically, ‘Jinx’ details Lila’s experiences both on tour and at home. On the slow waltzing ‘And It Never Ends’, she sighs, “The city is dense/And it makes me tense,” between verses that reflect on her childhood growing up in Brooklyn and her return to her hometown after spending a few years away at uni. “It’s about my relationship with New York changing, being there for such an extended period of time, and feeling isolated in the place that has been my home forever,” she explains.“It’s like the emo song on the album.”

‘Faces’, meanwhile, finds her singing: “All of my heroes are people I know/Never see faces that look like my own”. “I didn’t think anyone would pick that up,” she says brightly as she hears the lyrics quoted back to her. While the first half relates to her inspirations to become a musician largely being her own family, the second reflects a feeling of exclusion. “That line is about me feeling like there isn’t any representation of people who look like me in what I do,” Lila notes. The way Crumb are going, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other young people of colour reference her as someone who made them feel represented in the future.

In the meantime, though, Crumb are keeping their goals modest. Lila is more interested in seeing the different ways people interpret her lyrics and how the songs make them feel than glitzy achievements. “I just want as many people to feel understood and connect with it, and get some personal gains from it,” expands Jesse in agreement. With such a compelling record as ‘Jinx’ under their belts, it seems unlikely they’ll fail on those.