June 29, 1995 * Vol. 5, No. 15
Round and Round
Crop Circles spin the alternapop wheel and come up winners
by Randall Brown
The crisscrossing genealogies of Knoxville bands often lead to stagnant rehashes of the same old same old, but there are other times when this incestuous
process finally throws the right mix of people together. Influences click and aimless jams solidify into real live rock songs. I could be talking about a number of scenesters, but this time I'm talking about Crop Circles.
At first glance, the band members don't even seem old enough to be scene
veterans. When I mention a band from 1987, they marvel at my memory of such an ancient era. Also, it's obvious from the clutter of their Monkees-style Fort Sanders crash pad that their favorite pastime is the mystic-fantasy card game "Magic, the Gathering"to the untrained eye, a sure sign of nerd-dom. But they cross the line from nerdity to coolness via their
in-house eight-track recording studio, strategically disguised as the upstairs
bedroom of guitarist Gray Comer.
Within the protection of walls lined with egg-carton acoustic tiles, Crop Circles gather to create their own brand of freedom rock-cum-alternapop. On tape and in person, it's a sound at once light and breezy, but charged with vim and vigoryes, at the very least, actual vim. Their three-part vocal harmonies float above guitar, bass and drums that run the gamut from a laid-back lounge vibe to a pounding frenzy. Throw in some classic '80s memories (Let's Active, the dBs, the Housemartins) and you're there.
Even with their youthful appearance, it didn't take them long to build a resume in the rock-and-roll game. Bassist Doug Campbell started his first band in town when he was 13, and more recently sat behind the drums with Knox rock expatriates Dim Kitchen. Vocalist Bill Hice handled bass for the
almost-made-it-sort-of-big Rapscallion Battery. Drummer Mike Dougherty earned his stripes in the late, great Soul Penny. And Comer played briefly with Sally Can't Dance (which morphed into what is now the Creeps).
The latest Crop Circles triumph is Brother, an eight-song tape produced right there in Gray's room and soon to be available to the public. It hasn't been an easy point to reach, though. Since they started playing their raw,
slightly agitated brand of pop a year and a half ago, they've seen enough of the rock-and-roll lifestyle to write their own "What's Your Name" or "Turn the Page."
"We were the last band to play at the Farragut [High School] Bandfest," proclaims Comer, with a certain touch of pride at such close involvement with the controversial incident. "We were playing when they shut it down."
Soon after that, the band's first and only show at Gryphon's Coin Laundry and Rock Palace ended in chaos when their then-bassist physically attacked Comer. "We were just messing around at the end of our set," explains Comer, "and he thought I was making fun of him. So he kind of speared me with his bass."
Despite the turbulent events of their short time together, the guys say they couldn't be happier. Friends through years of school and other bands, the four have a sturdy foundation. They didn't have to answer "musician wanted" ads. They peg their friendship as the key to their creative success.
"There's a whole lot of input from everyone. It's a melting pot creative
process," says Comer, "and I like that because everyone's input is equal. There are no limits. We're going for variety of feels and styles in songwriting."
Brother offers a healthy sample of said variety. Styles range from the
countrified "Clobber" to the high-tide surf of "Country Goodness" to the revved-up R.E.M. sound of "Public Access." Hice and Comer handle most of the lyrics, describing their wordplay as observational, rather
than an attempt to proselytize any kind of message.
"We're not going for that 'change the world to our way of thinking' type thing," says Comer. "We're not the Live type thing."
Instead, the band tries to recreate everyday observations of the average man. Hice carefully explains the in-depth Crop Circles songwriting formula.
"Sometimes the ideas are kind of disjointed. One verse could be about one thing, say a specific mood in a situation. The next verse could actually be about the situation. Or it could be the other way around."
On the flipside of such high-falutin' cultural debate, the band has worked up a cover of Del Shannon's "Runaway."
"It's one of my mom's favorite songs," Comer reveals. "It used to be the song my mom and dad danced to before they got married."
"Chuck Burnley [local promoter extraordinaire] freaked out when we played it at Manhattan's," mentions Hice. "He ran out and cheered."
Herein lies the lucky charm of Crop Circlesmoms love it, but promoters like it, too. They've found the mysterious happy medium between personal and commercial satisfaction. That mystery can be as elusive as the band's
namesake, those giant mysterious images carved into British wheat fields.
And what about the name, anyway?
"I made it up," shrugs Dougherty.
"Then the band just kind of happened," reveals Comer. "We were like, 'Well, hell, we already have a name, now we have to, like, write
songs.'" So let the curious knowCrop Circles are a natural occurrence.
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