Gary Jarman glares out from his Portland basement, straight down his laptop camera, with the defiant thousand-yard-stare of a war film hero fresh from sprinting across a minefield into enemy fire.
“It was,” he deadpans with a hard-bitten pride, “a proper David and Goliath story.”
‘Indie rock hero’. It’s an epithet lobbed around with abandon at anybody who’s ever set off a burst of pyro with a windmill chord but, really, they look like this. Three dedicated, gig-hardened rabble punk brothers from Yorkshire who, just one year ago, were a wreck of a band, destroyed by the grinding machinations of the music industry, virtually broken up by default. Then, alone but for a helping hand from one David Eric Grohl (to whom we’ll come later) the Jarmans steeled their deepest principles, put their entire lives’ work on the line, took on The Man… and won.
They emerge from the heat of two years’ battle holding aloft a brilliant eighth album, ‘Night Network’, fired up with pride and determination. If they gave George Crosses for guitar music, they’d be gleaming right now from the leather lapels of The Cribs.
“I was scared that we’d look back on our time as musicians and be bitter about it,” Gary continues, “because we threw the towel in and didn’t come out with anything.”
For 15 years and seven albums, The Cribs had been one of the 21st century’s most acclaimed and authentic garage pop bands; now they were laying down their livelihoods for the cause. Jarman vs Industry was, in essence, a fight for the soul of alternative rock. In 2017, just as their Steve Albini-produced seventh album ’24-7 Rock Star Shit’ hit the Top 10, the band were stopped in their tracks by an unexpected split with their management which, Gary says, “essentially put an end to the campaign there and then.”
Deciding to self-manage and keen on a ‘year zero’ fresh start, at the beginning of 2019 they began digging into the detail of their business dealings only to find that, via various backroom deals of which they’d been unaware, the rights to their entire catalogue didn’t rest with the righteous indie-minded labels they thought it did, but with the conglomerates they’d always spurned.
“It was a huge blow,” says Ryan Jarman from his New York apartment. “A complete shock because this was stuff that had been done covertly and without our knowledge.”
“We’d always been very principled in a way that’s kind of out-of-date in the modern paradigm,” Gary adds. “Back then it used to be really important to us to not sign to a major and do things in a certain way. So we stuck with an indie label, but those entities do deals with other people, which we should be consulted on but weren’t. We found out that our principles of not selling our music to big companies was completely moot anyway because our music ended up being owned by Universal, which was crazy.”
The brothers were additionally galled since, in the wake of 2005’s second album ‘The New Fellas’, they’d turned down what Gary describes as “an offensive amount of money” to sign to Interscope in a deal to be funded, bizarrely, by Tom from MySpace. “When you find out however many years later that your music ended up with Universal anyway, we might as well have done that deal, even though we didn’t want to, that stuff rankles you,” Gary argues. “It’s the work of three brothers from a small town. Why the fuck is it owned by some fucking big-shot in Beverly Hills?”
“Our first album cost us £900 to record and we funded it by working in a factory for weeks,” says Ryan. “I’ll be damned if some huge mega-rich corporation is going to take that away from me or claim ownership of it… Our catalogue and all our songs, that’s everything I’ve got to show for my life. That’s my entire legacy.”
The coming years turned into a living hell for The Cribs. Determined to wrestle ownership of their music back before recording another note for the fat cats, the band put together their own legal case. For 18 months Gary would find himself on 3AM conference calls with major label lawyers using delay tactics to wait them out. “They really underestimated out tenacity and our work ethic,” Gary grins. “When lawyers were hitting us with their classic legalese, they didn’t think that we were gonna go back and pore over this stuff for all hours. We were dogged to the point where it became a vendetta. We’d educated ourselves so well on the whole thing that eventually we beat them… We proved our case.”
Then, last October, an even larger parent company emerged claiming that they owned The Cribs’ music, so the band had to build a second case and endure further months of legal nightmare. “That was the point where it was mentally and psychologically the most difficult,” says Gary, “because you have to invest a lot of money into doing these things and if you lose, you’ve gambled everything you’ve done and still come up with nothing.”
Ryan adds: “We went into last Christmas thinking we could lose everything and end up completely broke with no catalogue. It was scary.”
The pressure took its toll. “That entire time it was very difficult to say we were actually not split up,” Ryan continues. “There were points where somebody would be like, ‘I can’t deal with this any more. I don’t wanna gamble everything on this – let’s leave it here; it makes sense’. But then that same person would be the one to ring back up later with a complete change of heart, going, ‘We’ve got to fight it – this is insane’.”
“The fear was, if we’d thrown the towel in we’d have always looked back with resentment on the time that you spent as a musician,” Gary says. “I cherish it. You go, ‘They can’t take away your memories’ but essentially that would happen because you’d look back on it ruefully.”
You were basically putting everything you’d ever worked for on the line for your DIY punk principles? “That’s true,” says drummer Ross from his Wakefield drum room. “If we weren’t going to at least try to come out the other side of it, what hope is there for any other little bands?”
This indie-rock equivalent of throwing themselves on a grenade came to a head in June 2018, when the band supported Foo Fighters at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium and agreed it would be a fitting place for their last hu-roar.
“One thing we’d never done as a band was play a stadium,” Ross says, “so once we’d done that we were backstage and we didn’t have any gigs in the diary, we were thinking, ‘Maybe this is a nice full circle – we’ve done everything’.”
“When you finish a tour and you can’t release music, you’re essentially not a functioning musician any more,” Gary adds. “We’re having this really rough time – we were so burned, we didn’t trust anyone and we felt like everything had been this façade and no-one actually cared. Nirvana are the reason that me and my brothers picked up guitars, really, and Manchester was like a second home to us. It was the perfect place to leave it.”
Enter one Dave Grohl, who was, quite frankly, having none of this shit. Over drinks backstage, they told him of their woes. “He was listening, nodding along,” Gary remembers, “and then he was like, ‘Fuck it, forget about it – you’re supposed to be musicians; make a record. You’re not lawyers, you’re not accountants… The rest of this shit will work itself out’. It was really clarifying, Dave Grohl saying, ‘Make a fucking album’.”
“Dave Grohl has a Foo Fighters-slash-Nirvana museum with a fucking great studio in it” – Ryan
Dave offered The Cribs the use of his private LA studio (Gary: “It’s like a secret club”; Ryan: “It’s basically a Foo Fighters-slash-Nirvana museum with a fucking great studio in it”) to record a new album away from their industry hassles. Having been writing to relieve the stress (Ryan: “Music to us has always been an escape”), they already had an album ready to go. So in just two weeks they produced ‘Night Network’, a classic Cribs blast of scrappy emotional garage pop – now with added Beach Boys – that thankfully shows no hint of all the Queen talk that abounded on tour.
“Occasionally [Foos drummer] Taylor Hawkins would show up naked except for his swimming trunks,” says Gary, “just come in and want to talk about Queen with us. He’s a Queen nerd; he’s got so many stories about hanging out with those guys. Sometimes you’d lose a few hours out of your day just listening to that. It was like an escape; it was the only positive thing that happened in those two years and as a result we didn’t take any baggage into the studio at all. We just went in and really enjoyed it.”
By the start of the year, The Cribs were finally out of limbo, their crackling new album primed, their legal wrangles settled, their music their own again and their passions re-ignited.
“When we got it all sorted,” says Ryan, “we were like, ‘2020 is gonna be amazing…’”
One evening in March, Ryan Jarman left his apartment in Queens, New York, and walked straight into 28 Days Later. “It was pitch black outside,” he says. “Everything was locked down. No shops had their lights on; it completely changed overnight. It went from being the city that you know it to be to being a post-apocalyptic wasteland.”
Having not been reading the news, Ryan was completely unaware that his small neighbourhood was suddenly ground zero for the US Covid outbreak. “Where I live was the absolute epicentre of the entire world, basically,” he says. “It’s been a bit of a nightmare. Ambulances constantly waking you up at all hours of the night, which is really bad for your psyche, especially when you’re locked in a small apartment. Once summer hit, it became unbearably hot as well. By that point we were really climbing the walls.”
Before long Ryan’s girlfriend, US musician Jen Turner, was hospitalised for a week with the virus, with Ryan unable to see her: “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t do anything. I was just losing my mind in the apartment.” As a result, he understandably has little time for the likes of Ian Brown’s Covid hoax diatribes: “My girlfriend’s grandad died from it and my girlfriend’s been hospitalised by it, so I know for a fact that it’s real.”
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the country in Portland, Oregon, Gary was at the epicentre of Covid’s political fall-out, and directly in the path of the wildfires raging across the State.
“There’s been a lot of unrest here with the [anti-lockdown] protests downtown,” he says. “I’d be getting phone calls from worried family members thinking that Portland was on fire, but it really wasn’t. But the Oregon wildfires, that was frightening because it blocked out the sun… We were worried that we were gonna have to evacuate and you did start getting advice from the local county to make a plan for that. When you’re in the dark every day and you can’t go outside, it did start to feel like the end of the world.”
From the relative safety of Wakefield, Ross chuckles. “I was like ‘fucking hell, there’s gonna be an asteroid showing up next’.”
The Cribs have tried to remain active during the pandemic, planning socially distanced gigs around the release of ‘Night Network’ and recording a new Zoom live version of their chest-bursting 2007 poetry-punk collaboration with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, ‘Be Safe’, arguably lockdown’s primary redeeming feature. “We thought it was pertinent for the time,” says Ryan. “The title of the song was a good message at this time.”
Of the UK Government’s failure to support self-employed musicians during the pandemic, Ross says: “British culture and its standing on the world’s stage has always revolved around its contribution to the arts. We’re already a diminished country in the eyes of the world anyway but the idea of undermining its greatest export and its greatest cultural contribution to the world is profoundly ignorant.”
He adds that “the last 10 or 15 years” have seen “the arts being gutted and the devaluing of music in a commercial sense,” and suggests that people sometimes sees making music as “a bourgeois pursuit”, concluding that: “[They] forget about the people that make these things happen are working people.”
Since they made it not knowing if it would be their last, ‘Night Network’ is amongst The Cribs’ most honest and open albums ever. “It felt like we were on borrowed time a little bit,” Gary explains. “There’s nothing to lose. We felt lucky that we were getting to do it after everything we’d been through, so there was absolutely no excuse not to be completely unfiltered and put it all out there.”
Their industry tribulations are dispatched in gloriously serene ‘Pet Sounds’ harmonies on opener ‘Goodbye’, and from there they set about mistily reminiscing about their early band days on ‘Screaming In Suburbia’ (a track that began life during the sessions for 2007’s ‘Men’s Needs, Women’s Needs, Whatever’), honouring lost friends on ‘Earl & Duke’ and carving out lovestruck tunes such as ‘Deep Infatuation’, which suggest Ryan has come a long way emotionally since his lost years at the start of the decade.
During that time, his relationship with GLOW actor and fellow indie-pop star Kate Nash disintegrated due to his obsessive dedication to his music: “She’d complain about never seeing me because I was in the basement all the time constantly working on music, from the moment I’d get up to late at night. That started to drive a wedge between us, but I felt like there was no way I couldn’t choose the music.
“That is what I am and that is what I’ve always placed above everything else. It’s bigger than me and it’s bigger than my relationships; it’s bigger than any of us. That eroded our relationship and as that began to fail. Like any relationship, there was a slow death to it. I became depressed that I couldn’t do anything to save it and the symptoms of that are often to turn to self-medicating, self-harming. It’s a self-destructive path.”
He recalls moving into Ross’s spare room and feeling like a “burden”: “I had no idea where to start after that and ultimately I’ve always figured you just follow the music and somehow it all works out.”
“We had nothing to lose with ‘Night Network’. There was excuse not to be completely unfiltered” – Gary
And how. Listening to a record as bristling and relevant as ‘Night Network’, it’s baffling that The Cribs, considered one of the finest guitar acts of the last few decades and a formative influence on ‘00s rock, could possibly have found their way into VICE’s recent list of “landfill indie” acts.
“Since time immemorial,” Gary says, “there’s been that pattern of grassroots bands coming out of the underground, making it big on independent labels and then major labels desperately trying to commodify that, and a glut of major label bands come later. As far as lumping bands together, that’s reductive because there should be a clear delineation between what happened at the early part of the decade and what happened in the later part of the decade.
“The early part of the decade was typified by quite lo-fi, interesting and subversive acts on independent labels. It was very exciting; the power had been taken away from the major labels. [The early 2000s] were industrious and DIY. Everything was done by independent promoters and independent club nights; the power had absolutely reverted away from the major labels and the old-school music industry.
“It’s hard for us to see how our lineage compares to bands that were signed straight to major labels and had hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on them.”
“Having done our time on the underground and working with miniscule budgets as a DIY band,” Ryan says, “did we have an affinity with kids on major labels who’ve been recording in LA and had all the trappings of a major label? We didn’t at all and I don’t think any of our contemporaries from the early 2000s did either. We were doing our best at the time to separate ourselves from what was seen as the trend, because we just didn’t see ourselves as having come from the same place.”
With streaming putting a glass ceiling on the singles chart for guitar bands, could we ever see that sort of mass rock breakout again?
“With the more established paradigm of the [‘90s and ‘00s],” Ryan says, “there was always an incentive for working-class people to go to work and then spend their money and free time on playing in a band, because there was always that promise of getting a record deal that might change their life. Now that that incentive isn’t the same any more… With it being so easy to be able to record at home on computers, it’s a lot easier to dabble in stuff and not have to dedicate yourself to one thing. And that was a massive part of [our era]: dedication.”
Yet Gary is quick to add: “Guitar bands have receded back to the underground but hopefully that’ll work out to be a good thing, because operating away from the spotlight is usually where people come up with better things.”
Right now, though, what are The Cribs’ plans for the post-pandemic all-clear? Ross will rush to band practice, Gary will start to appreciate bars and airports more and Ryan will be getting as socially un-distanced as gravity allows.
“Once it’s all over I’m gonna start crowd-surfing again,” he grins. Dusting himself off and flinging himself back into the fray: the mark of a true indie hero.