Formed in 1982, Long Island, New York's Crumbsuckers transformed from a raw hardcore band to a tech-heavy thrash unit within the span of two albums. 1986's Life of Dreams is considered one of the finest hardcore debut albums of all time. Released two years later, Beast on My Back saw the Crumbsuckers still delivering their material with the intensity one would expect from a hardcore band, but with the kind of guitar work and arrangements usually reserved for metal groups like Megadeth and Annihilator. While many of their fans were thrown off by the stylistic shift, Beast on My Back is an absolute monster of a record.
On April 7th, Real Gone Music will be reissuing both Crumbsuckers studio albums on one CD. Featuring new liner notes by NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980 - 1990 author Tony Rettman, the reissue was given the remastering treatment at Battery Studios.
Since most music outlets always seem to concentrate on Life of Dreams, I decided to focus our attention on Beast on My Back for this brand new interview with Crumbsuckers bassist Gary Meskil. Currently fronting his long-running hardcore-flavored metal band, Pro-Pain, Meskil took some time out to talk about Beast on My Back and the group's breakup in 1989.
Life of Dreams is considered a seminal crossover hardcore album all these years later. Do you remember what the initial reaction to the album was from the music critic community?
Yes, the initial reaction was very positive from the press and from the fans. One thing that I'd like to stress is the fact that the term "crossover" never existed in the early days of the band. We were considered to be a hardcore band from day one, yet with time the scene began to naturally evolve via taking on certain metal elements. After the infiltration of the scene by record labels and the subsequent feeding frenzy to sign bands such as ourselves, the press coined the term "crossover" to describe the new hybrid of hardcore and metal.
Guitarist Dave Wynn quit the band in 1987, about a year after Life of Dreams came out. What led to that and how did Robbie Koebler come to take over the slot?
Dave Wynn split with the band in order to settle down and pursue a family life. He is a talented guitarist and overall great guy, and we hold him in high regard. Robbie Koebler was a logical and capable replacement, as we knew Robbie from High School on both a personal and musical level. We felt that anyone who is a guitar understudy of Steve Vai should at least be worthy of an audition with Crumbsuckers [laughs].
A lot has been made of the shift in styles from Life of Dreams to Beast on My Back. The latter is clearly a more technically-minded metal record, but it still retains the energy of the older, hardcore-leaning Crumbsuckers material. Was there a conscious decision to head in that direction for the second album?
For us it was a natural progression and transition. Most fans don't know that more than half of the band's existence took place before Life of Dreams was released, so for us that album was sort of a "greatest hits" collection of our early days. Beast on My Back was much more representative of our later ambitions in terms of where we musically intended to go. The recording sessions for Beast on My Back did not run smoothly, however, and as a result the album had to be remixed. For my ears, the production is a bit sterile and not as timeless as Life of Dreams. I want to give props to the late Norman Dunn (R.I.P.) for producing what is considered to be a timeless classic.
Were you worried that your pre-existing fans might reject the new sound?
No, not at all. The greatest artistic achievements are made via taking chances and not by playing it safe. We could have been "just another band," but we wanted our music to be perceived as new and interesting. If we were solely looking for acceptance, I'm sure we would have chosen a different name [laughs].
Tell me a little about the recording sessions for Beast on My Back. The band headed to Los Angeles to track everything at Eldorado Recording Studios with Randy Burns, a producer best known for his work with Megadeth. What was the experience working with him like? Was he hands-off when it came to the material, or did he offer up arrangement suggestions?
Our experience with Randy was good, at least for the most part. We chose to work with him because we were such big fans of Megadeth at the time, and they equally enjoyed our work as well. During our time in the studio, we occasionally felt as though Randy just "didn't get" what we were trying to do, and that was frustrating. Perhaps the big musical progression from Life of Dreams to Beast on My Back came as a bit of a shock to him, too. He had no involvement in our material or our arrangements.
Did Chuck Lenihan record all of the rhythm guitar tracks on the album? I know both he and Robbie handled leads, but I had read somewhere that only one guitarist did all of the rhythm stuff.
I think that is correct, but don't quote me on it. It was a very long time ago, but when I listen back to the album it sounds to me like Chuck did all of the rhythms. Both are exceptional "all around" guitar players.
On the Crumbsuckers Wikipedia page, it states that the tracks "Rejuvenate" and "Initial Shock" were written by a guitarist named Matt Cardin from your old neighborhood in Baldwin. Since he wasn't credited in the sleeve to Beast on My Back, I wanted to ask you if there was any truth to that?
Matt Cardin wrote the intro and bridge to "Rejuvenate" and I wrote the other parts. As for "Initial Shock," it was pretty much an equal musical collaboration of Matt, Chuck, and myself. We wrote all of those songs in the rehearsal room together, so each of us had a hand in it to a certain extent. The Crumbsuckers Wikipedia page is not entirely accurate.
I love that the album starts off with the elegant piano intro to "Breakout." Some people might have looked at that as some sort of statement.
Robbie Koebler wrote the piece on guitar, and it later morphed into a piano intro played by Chuck's cousin Mike Francis. I'm not sure if we were directly looking to make a statement, but a statement was made nonetheless.
Lyrically speaking, there are some really unique things happening on Beast on My Back. "Charge," for one, stands out. That song starts off with the following: "Eighteen and eight was the date / that the match was to begin / the king had said, 'The princess will wed the worthy knight that wins.'" There weren't any other bands in the crossover scene writing stuff like that.
[Vocalist] Chris Notaro wrote the lyrics to "Charge." From what I understand, he had quite the religious upbringing, and that influence was sometimes quite apparent in his writing. His lyrics are very special to the fans because they are so positive and inspirational.
Where was the album cover photo taken? I remember when I got that album as a kid; I hadn't seen the band live yet, so I assumed that you were the vocalist since you were in the middle!
The idea for the cover basically came about as a result of some record company boardroom mumbo jumbo. They wanted the cover to be a band photo because "facial recognition" was something they wanted to achieve for the band. We were young and a bit naïve and we didn't have such strong convictions regarding our "image." So, we went to the Long Beach (Long Island, NY) boardwalk to shoot some pics with a label-appointed photographer. The label later selected what they thought were the best shots, and we chose the one which we felt was the best from that lot. In the end, it won't win any awards for best album cover, but it's us.
Once the album hit stores, do you think the folks at Combat Records did a good job of promoting it? Did they give you guys enough tour support?
Combat did a fine job with it, and at that time they certainly had enough resources to do a bang up job with promotion. The scene was very healthy back then, and we gave them what we felt was a pretty "cutting edge" album to work with. Tour support was more than adequate.
What was the touring cycle for Beast on My Back like? Who did you go out with? Do any specific shows stand out to you?
We had a very successful US headlining tour with local support, we headlined gigs in Belgium and the Netherlands, and we toured the UK as main support for Onslaught. Shows which stood out were probably the one-off gigs we did with Megadeth and Anthrax in New York.
Why did the band break up after the touring cycle was done?
There were factions within the band who disagreed on musical direction. So, we split up in order for each of those factions to be able to pursue their musical aspirations. It was as simple as that.
Tell me about Heavy Rain, the band the Crumbsuckers morphed into. I remember seeing the name of the band on a Sundance bill once, but I never got to see you live.
Heavy Rain was a bit of an experimental project which involved certain members of the Crumbsuckers. I believe the band existed through 1989 - 1990. We wrote and recorded a handful of songs, and played a limited amount of gigs around New York. Danny [Richardson, drums] and I eventually decided to go back into playing a heavier variety of music, which later became known as Pro-Pain. The other members pursued more melodic musical ventures.
Listening to Beast on My Back now, how do you feel about the album? Do you feel like the album was misunderstood by the public?
Hardcore fans seem to appreciate Life of Dreams more than Beast on My Back and metal fans seem to appreciate Beast on My Back more than Life of Dreams. I don't know to what degree our work was misunderstood by the public (if at all), as sometimes it just comes down to taste. I do know that we had a very unique approach to our music and played it with conviction via a solid understanding as to what we were doing and what we wanted to achieve.
The Crumbsuckers will be headlining the second night of this year's Black N' Blue Bowl in New York City on May 17.