Did you miss the Cripples? The Seattle quartet pulled the plug in 2006 after a decade-plus of shocking listeners into agitated states of cathartic tension. Their three-year absence caused sorrow to descend upon the city's synth-punk aficionados. But now they're reuniting in order to celebrate the birthday of Funhouse co-owner/booking agent Brian Foss. Simple as that.
"He's an important part of the Seattle scene, and we wish the city had 10 more people like him booking shows and giving new bands a chance," the Cripples' Greg Heino (guitar, keyboards, voice) and Ross Marshall (keyboards, voice) explain via e-mail. "It's hard for bands to break in and get heard, and Brian loves music and loves Seattle."
If that motivation to re-form is admirable, the Cripples' original inspiration to get together in order to disturb the air with loosely organized noise coalesced around Heino's admiration of Marshall's record collection and synth playing.
"Greg and I were geeks and into synths and punk," Marshall recalls. "We really liked Devo and Japanese noise. We liked Pussy Galore, the Fall, and the Germs. We were in other bands, but it was always guitar/bass/drums, and we were bored. We lived in a small basement together in Seattle starting around '93, and it kind of became a peanut butter/chocolate thing: put weird nasty synth sounds into songs with good riffs and good hooks."
Marshall and Heino saw a void in Seattle's musical environment in the mid '90s. They proceeded to fill it with frenetic, jolting synth rock that slathered warped alarm-clock keyboard fibrillations and scathing guitar riffs into songs that flirted with chaos as righteously as they squeezed out naggingly catchy melodies. Their two albums for Dirtnap Records—2002's Dirty Head and 2005's Culture—brim with short, sharp shocks of wonky, sing-along skronk.
Casting his memory back to the Cripples' mid-'90s origins, Heino says, "The thing that was coolest about [that time] was lots of Japanese bands came through here all the time. And Fallout was still open. Did I buy records at Wall of Sound in the mid '90s? I can't remember, but if I did, that would also be a highlight.
"Gibson's was cool, too," he continues. "Gibson's is where we first worked with Brian Foss. Gibson's was very much a DIY public-access-channel kind of place, so there was a pretty big variety in the quality of bands that you would see, but usually there would be somebody interesting playing."
"Outside of the cool shit above, the mid-'90s scene-wise was kind of a black hole," Marshall observes. "It was the post-grunge era, and there were still many bands that were trying to 'make it.' It sucked. There were a lot of really bad bands. A synth wasn't punk at that point; only house and industrial had 'em. A lot of people kind of hated us during that time."
Speaking of which, the Cripples use many different synths to achieve their feral and unruly sound, none of them anything Keith Emerson might fondle.
"The synth used most is the Roland SH-101, the first of which I bought from some techno guy in 1993 for $100," Marshall says. "I really wanted it to sound distorted like a crazy, fuzzed-out guitar; I play it through a Soft Science guitar head and Fuzz Factory distortion. We also use other effects to really mangle the keyboard sounds, and we record everything through amps. And we really like nasty synth riffs. We like distortion."
In the Cripples' songs, a struggle between structured songwriting and unhinged noise-making occurs; the tension between the two impulses makes for a rewarding friction. Do the Cripples concern themselves with harnessing this almost uncontrollable energy into something most people would consider "coherent"?
"We emphasize 'song and sound,'" Marshall says. "I like things that sound different and are aggressive but still have something catchy in it so you might want to listen to it more than once. And I like the energy that comes from not overthinking things. So when we do a song, we show up with some ideas on a song/structure and most of the time some free-form happens after that, which is probably rooted in our love of Japanese noise."
For Friday's Funhouse show, the Cripples will also field bassist Erik Stockinger and drummer Brian Wallace. This gig is a rare treat for the band's fans; let's hope it spurs them to release the three albums' worth of material in their archives—and to resume making more exceptional pressure-cooker pop.