The way that things have been going lately, some of us really needed The Cribs. It's only been three years since their last album, '24/7 Rockstar Shit', but that's a long time away for a band so relentlessly committed to being a band. Last year, The Cribs took a year out for the first time in the last fifteen years. They told the occasional interviewer that they were taking a break. Which was true, for the most part. It just wasn't the whole of it.
In light of the pandemic and the state of the world in general, Gary and Ryan Jarman are trying not to focus too much on the reasons they've been away. Everyone's got their own things to be dealing with, they say. So here's the short version. After '24/7 Rockstar Shit', things kind of imploded.
"Release week's always a crazy hustle anyway," says Gary. "Especially with that record, we dropped it on people really quickly. We didn't take any singles to the radio, we didn't do any press. We were just doing it like an experiment. Like 'let's just see what happens when we drop the record on people'. And then the release week was insane, because it was mid-week at Number 1. So we get to the end of that week, and everyone's buzzing, and literally the next day we break with our management. And we'd been with our management for fifteen years."
Practically overnight, The Cribs went from being in the middle of a 'really intense album campaign' to questioning whether they still had one at all. Disoriented, they decided the only thing to do was to self-manage and turned their attention to getting the lay of the land.
"And it turned out that the lay of the land was a complete mess," says Gary. "Like completely chaotic. Personally, I went from expecting to be touring a record to all of a sudden getting my accountant to send me accounts, getting my lawyer to send me legal documents. I was sitting up burning the midnight oil, just trying to figure shit out. We opened Pandora's Box, and we were just like, we're not gonna be able to do anything until this is sorted out. And that took two years."
Those two years were mostly spent going back and forth with labels and subsidiaries, trying to figure out who held the rights to what - and why, Ryan says, "they believe they own it".
There was the salt in the wound. The legal contests revealed that some of the professional relationships the band had built over the last decade and a half didn't count for as much as they'd thought.
"[What was difficult] was also the realisation that people we had trusted and seen as family since me and Gary were twenty years old had been…" Ryan trails off.
"Finding out that things weren't as they seemed was hard," Gary finishes for him. "I equated it to a divorce in a lot of ways. There's an emotional element to it, letting people go and accepting that people that you previously loved and cared about - which we did in our naivety - that things [with them] weren't as they seemed. The music industry is a business, we learned that the hard way. Our idealism essentially worked against us."
So that's the short version. You could also make the argument that the Jarmans' idealism was also working for them, though. What else could have made them dig in against better-resourced conglomerates week after week, other than an unshakeable belief in The Cribs?
They prevailed, anyway. In February, it seemed like things were back on track.
We all know what happened after that. The pandemic, says Gary, was like "climbing a mountain top and then getting kicked off the mountain at the end." They'd been so ready.
But nobody is under any illusions that theirs is the worst experience of the year, which is one of the reasons the band prefer to focus on the upside of things. And there have been upsides. Since they announced their new record 'Night Network' and released its first single 'Running Into You', their relationship with their fans has been overwhelmingly positive.
"It was just so visible how much people had missed us," says Gary. "When you've been locked down and isolated, to have that flood of goodwill and love expressed meant the world to us."
'Night Network' is lyrical and melodic, more similar to 'Ignore the Ignorant' and 2015's 'For All My Sisters' than the furious punk of '24/7 Rockstar Shit'. There are few hints to the difficulties of the last few years on the album, and even the ones that are there are sanguine. Album opener 'Goodbye' is the record's most explicit acknowledgement of recent events, but lyrics like "Goodbye to the ones who told you you're the one that's changed, spoken through veneers that help to keep his story straight" are tempered by doo-wop vocal harmonies. The Cribs aren't interested in holding onto a grudge, it seems.
'Night Network' exists partly because Gary, Ryan and Ross Jarman can't help but make music when they're together, and partly because of Dave Grohl. Obviously.
"We had to keep going back and forth to the UK, and because we would all be together we were just writing songs anyway," says Ryan.
"It's habitual," says Gary. "It's what we do."
They had been writing bits and pieces for a while when the band supported the Foo Fighters at Manchester's Etihad Arena in 2018. At this point, says Ryan, they "had one foot out the door". "We got talking to Dave Grohl, and he was like, 'fuck all that stuff, if you get it sorted out come out to our studio and make a record'. That gave us a small target to aim for. It was like, if we do get through all this it would be cool to go and make a record over at Dave Grohl's studio," he says.
Getting into the studio with the new songs wasn't exactly a turning point, considering the album was recorded while the business side of things was still in chaos, but it did provide a glimmer of hope.
"We only really made that album because we'd had that invite. It was from one of our heroes, and we just couldn't turn it down," Ryan says. "The positivity just came from the fact that we'd been given this opportunity by somebody that meant so much to us, so we got our act together."
"It was hard to see the forest for the trees at one point, because the business side was so all-encompassing. Once we actually got the guitars out, the contrast just made us really realise why we enjoy doing it," Gary adds.
Trust Dave Grohl to just appear out of the dark with a solution, like some kind of grunge knight riding in on a white horse.
Ryan grins. "I would hear stuff like that and think 'that's such bullshit,' you know, 'that's such an angle'."
"He seems like such a superhero in a lot of ways," Gary says. "He always comes off like a superhero. And here's the best thing about this, and here's what makes it pure and why he's a genuinely good person; he probably has no idea how pivotal that was. If he was to read this interview he'd be like, 'holy shit, I didn't realise that did so much for them'. To him, that was probably kind of throwaway, but to us, it was a lifeline in a lot of ways."
It must be an odd feeling, to have spent your teens listening to someone's music in your bedroom or watching their live videos on TV, and then have that person appear in your real life as an adult and throw you a life-preserver. And yes, it would have been absurd to turn an opportunity like that down, but there was also a second, almost unspoken motivation for even taking that support slot in the first place.
"Me and Ry, back in 94, we used to sit in my bedroom and watch Live! Tonight! Sold Out! pretty much every night," Gary says. "So when we got offered that Foo Fighters gig it was like yeah, obviously we've got to do the show. But it also seemed like a good place to leave it."
Thankfully, it all worked out in the end. And Dave wasn't the only 90s alt-rock legend to have a hand in the new album. 'I Don't Know Who I Am' sees The Cribs reunite with Sonic Youth's Lee Ranaldo, who provided spoken-word vocals on the frankly iconic 'Be Safe' from 'Men's Needs, Women's Needs, Whatever'. This latest collaboration is more understated - less a state of the nation diatribe than a vulnerable musing on a mission connection - with Ranaldo providing guitar and backing vocals.
"We were back together just rehearsing the songs we had for the record, and then played a free form jam that we recorded on a phone, and liked it so much when we went in to record we 'learned' the jam exactly as it had been played that first time," says Ryan. "Then [we] sent it onto Lee to see if he'd be interested in working together again. Because we knew it needed a 'noise' guitar track [or] something free form, to go with the nature of the way the song had been written."
Lee didn't need much direction. Or any, really. Why would you bother trying to direct him?
"Basically, once we had recorded our parts, I told him he had free reign to do whatever he wanted," says Ryan.
"We always feel slightly sheepish before asking him to work on anything, because he is so important to us - but then as soon as we get to work we just forget about all that because he's so easy to collaborate with," Gary adds.
A lot of the process of writing and recording this album felt freer than usual, despite the chaotic circumstances of its birth. Themes of identity and lost connections crop up time and again, but Gary notes that those have less to do with their outward situation than it might appear.
"Because writing the record was something to take our minds off the business stuff, there's no real allusions to it whatsoever except on 'Goodbye'," he says. "Lyrically, it's our best record I think. We had a lot of time to consider what we wanted to say. What we were writing back in the 'New Fellas' days - 'Hey Scenesters', 'Mirror Kissers', really knee-jerk stuff - we were reacting to the scenes around us, and we were reacting to what was going on. And, you know, we were angry. This time, we're a long way in the future for a start, but we had time and space, and we could try and express what we wanted to express."
"It sounds pretentious, but my lyrics tend to be more stream of consciousness really," Ryan says. "I don't write them out or anything. So I guess that's just where my head was at the time."
He considers this for a moment. "I guess there's always those kinds of conflicts going on inside my brain."
"Me and Ryan work so differently," says Gary. He reaches off camera and comes back with a red composition notebook, flicking through it to reveal writing on every page.
"This is my book right here, and each page is filled. But that's just to make up, like seven songs. It took this amount to make seven songs because I write and rewrite and draft and redraft. It's inefficient. Ry works in a much more streamlined way than me."
Because they work so differently, Gary and Ryan tend not to write lyrics together. This time around, though, they found themselves teaming up to write something of an unintentional statement of identity. Partly inspired by a tongue-in-cheek comment from Ryan, 'Screaming in Suburbia' is gently nostalgic, a tender portrait of lost innocence and the feeling of being adrift even as you stand in the same place.
"It originally came from someone saying, 'what do you think the sound of your band is?' It's such a stupid thing to ask someone, like -" Ryan puts a hand to his chin in exaggerated consideration, "'- hmmm, indie rock, or punk'. So I just came up with, 'it's the sound of someone screaming into a pillow in suburbia'."
Later, with their time in the studio running down, they were in need of another song.
"I said look Ry, I've got an idea, but it's based on something that you said," says Gary.
The book came out, and Gary pointed to the note he'd made of Ryan's comment. Ryan wrote the chorus then and there, and Gary came back with the verses.
"It's the first time we've worked together on lyrics in a while, and I think that's why it came out good," Gary smiles.
"Actually, I lied when I said the industry stuff didn't figure into the record, because it does on that song. The first verse, that's us looking back on our experience."
They're still not interested in dwelling on it, though. Even though the song was inspired by their own lives, the band want to make sure that the door is still open for the audience.
"Hopefully, it's wide-ranging enough that people can apply it to whatever they want," says Gary. "It sounds a bit self-aggrandising, but that's what I was trying to get across."
The Cribs are back, and they're still singing for all the kids screaming in suburbia - past and present.
Taken from the November issue of Dork. The Cribs' album 'Night Network' is out 20th November.
Featuring Shame, Beabadoobee, Ashton Irwin, Boy Pablo, The Cribs and more.