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Guitar Rock Sans Guitar
Originating from the…well, let’s face it, non-musical hotspot of Andover, Massachusetts, Crash Kings have made a name for themselves by becoming one of the coolest guitar rock bands in the country. Thing is, they don’t actually have a guitar player, and have no intentions of adding one to the lineup. Bandleader Tony Beliveau rocks a particularly badass clavinet, an electro-mechanical instrument that’s essentially an electric guitar played as if it were a keyboard – whammy bar and all. We recently had a chance to speak with Beliveau about his unique instrument, his band’s major label woes and the eventual release of the next Crash Kings record.
How did you get your start in music?
I started playing piano when I was about five or six, and I started writing music when I was in middle school. I continued taking lessons through sophomore year in high school and then I quit and just kept playing on my own and focused a lot on writing. I ended up at North Texas University for about a year and a half. Jazz piano mostly – that’s where I was introduced to true jazz. I was there when Norah Jones was there, before she was well-known. And then I dropped out of North Texas and moved back to Boston, where I’m originally from.
Oh, Performer’s hometown.
I grew up in a little town called Andover, actually. So I went back, worked for about a year, and then started Berklee when I was about 22. My brother and I had been playing music since we were in middle school; he took up the bass and went to Berklee first, even though he’s younger than me.
How did Crash Kings get started? Was that after Berklee?
Yeah, so in Berklee we had an organ trio that was really instrumental. I didn’t sing at all. I had sung in some other bands, but I didn’t really like my voice that much. Then I moved to New York and then to L.A. and then after graduating my brother stayed in New York. He was like, ‘Yeah I’m just gonna stay here, and we’re going to do our own thing.’ I ended up finding my voice and started writing more music. Then I sent my brother some tracks and I was like, ‘I’m singing some rock and roll!’ And he’s like, ‘Dude, when did you learn how to sing like that?’ and I was like, ‘I don’t know! It just… happened.’ So then he says, “I gotta play bass in this band’. He basically packed up and about a week later moved out here and we started Crash Kings.
The whole idea was to be as heavy as possible without any guitars.
So that was fundamental from day one, not having guitars?
Well at first my brother was like, ‘Maybe I can play some guitar and be the multi-instrumentalist in this band.’ But then when we started playing with our first drummer we were kinda like, ‘Wow this is really full,’ as if adding any more instruments was going to take away more than it was going to add, so we just kept it the way it was.
Can we talk about your clavinet for a bit?
First of all, it’s not electronic, it’s electric, so you don’t plug a clavinet in. I want to make that clear. The clavinet is essentially an electric guitar that is set up inside a keyboard. So inside you’ve got 60 strings, guitar strings, and on mine there’s a bit of a back story to it.
I was waiting tables at a restaurant and one of the owners was telling me about some Juno-106 synth that he had, and I was like, ‘Oh yeah I really want that!’ and he was like, ‘Oh, I’ll just give it to you.’ So we went to a storage unit and he was looking around and couldn’t find the synth. But standing up on its side I saw this clavinet and I was like, ‘Ah, that’s cool. You have a clavinet!’ and he was like, ‘If you want that thing you can just have it. It’s just been sitting there for 15 years. It’s got some whammy mechanism on it.’
Were you familiar with the clavinet when he gave it to you?
I didn’t really know anything about clavinets at this point. So he gives it to me and I bring it home and it’s barely playable. It has missing strings and the hammer tips on it are completely shot. I go online and do some research, and what happened was in 1978 there was a guy named Buddy Castle who decided to retrofit clavinets with whammy bars. And he started this company called Castlebar. They did a run of maybe 20 of them and apparently eight of the chassis were no good; they just weren’t working properly so they were thrown away. So only 12 ended up lasting. He started this company with the idea that you could send your clavinet to him and he would outfit it with this whammy bar.
How long did that last?
The company didn’t do very well. There weren’t enough people with clavinets really interested in this kind of thing, so nothing really happened with it. The only person before me that was known to use it extensively was George Duke.
But he used it as more of a gimmick…
Yeah, exactly, kind of a gimmicky sort of thing.
So, anyway, I go online and I start learning where I can buy clavinet strings, and then find out where I can buy clavinet pickups. And then I figure out how to restring this thing. So I ordered the strings and the pickups and it takes me about three or four days to restring the whole thing. Then the strings go out of tune, so you gotta tune it, you know, 10 to 15 times. Then once I finally got it tuned I was like, ‘Alright, I’m going to bring this out to my studio and plug it into a tube amp.’ Because in my head I thought, ‘It’s got guitar strings, its got pickups…’
So you’re thinking it’s gonna sound like a guitar?
It should sound like a guitar! And now that I can pitch bend I should be able to isolate each note with enough distortion to be able to do this. But I had no idea, so I brought it out and sure enough it was doing exactly what I wanted it to. If you wanna bend up to E, you have to hit a D. So if you want to hit the E, you have to think D, and then bend up to E and vice versa if you want to bend down.
And when you say whammy bar, you’re not talking about a pitch wheel like on an electronic keyboard.
No, no, it’s coming out of the top of the keyboard, just like a guitar’s whammy bar. You have to press down, and where all the strings normally flatten at the end of the clavinet there’s a chassis and the string kind of hooks around onto this bar and then there’s a whole mechanism to make it work. So when you press the bar down you’re tightening all 60 strings simultaneously.
When you’re down low it’s not going to bend the note as high, and when you’re up at the highest end of the keyboard you are going to bend the note as much as a major third.
There’s definitely a learning curve to playing it. And then with the overtone series and the overdrive, learning not to play too many notes and figuring out how many notes to play before it gets too muddy.
Does the clavinet pose any challenges on the road, as far as maintenance goes?
No, not really. Surprisingly, clavinets were really well built. D’Addario even made custom strings for it. They worked with Ken Rich, my keyboard tech, to take the original clavinet strings and improve upon them. So yeah, now when I’m touring it’s really easy. It’s doesn’t go out of tune as much as you’d think. And it’s very simple, so as long as your pre-amp is saturated well, you’re in pretty good shape. The worst thing that could happen is some lighting rig falls on it, you know? But I just took it on a plane and checked it in a flight case, and it’s all good.
I know that you guys had an album out through a deal with Universal. Where do you stand with them now? I was under the impression that you’re no long on the label? What’s the situation?
We were on Motown with Sylvia Rhone, who was the head of Universal. Something ended up happening with her and she left the label and the label ended up not folding, but just they became…not so much a label anymore. I don’t really know exactly how to describe that. To be honest, I still don’t know exactly what happened.
Did you guys not get a full explanation?
I think what happened was that her contract was up and then they offered her something else, but she didn’t like it so she left. And then, what we were told is the label folded, but I don’t know that that’s actually the truth. That’s just what we were told, that Motown was no longer going to be a label. This happened last year when we were in the middle of making our new record…
Which is always a fun time to find out about that.
Exactly. We’re recording this record and we didn’t have any A&R…
But at that point, you don’t really need that, did you?
We were kind of just left to our own devices for the most part. On the first record a little bit less, because Linda Perry, who had signed our band, took on the A&R [duties], which was cool. On the second record there was literally nothing. Sylvia came in after, in the middle of the record, and was like, ‘Wow, this is exactly what I had wanted for you guys. This is amazing. Keep doing it.’ Then she’s out of the picture and we’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ Our management calls us and lets us know that Universal Republic is taking on whatever bands they want; so then they take us on. But I don’t want to get too much into this because…it basically just didn’t end up working out.
They went from being, you know, the biggest record label in the world. And a band like us, obviously, we’re not gonna get the attention that we need, so we had decided that with the kind of record we were going to be making, that we wanted to go the more independent route. That’s sort of where we’re at right now.
But that’s all behind the scenes. Fans don’t understand why there’s such a lag between records.
Right. Which is unfortunate that it’s taken a long, long time and a lot of our fans don’t understand how the business works. A lot of things are just out of the band’s control.
We would have loved to put this record out last year. We would love to put this record out now!
Do you guys think you’ll be releasing it yourselves or are you looking for an independent label to help you out?
I think I would love to release it by myself, but I have no idea which direction we’re going to take. We have a bunch of offers on the table. Universal Canada has made it abundantly clear that they’re super excited about the record. We’re gonna do different deals independently worldwide; that’s our goal.
So the record IS coming out at some point. Can you at least tell us a little bit, stylistically, what to expect?
I think what to expect is a really different sounding guitar-rock record, one that sounds like there are a lot of guitars but actually has no guitars. They don’t sound like the guitars that you hear today on alternative rock radio. We actually tried to steer away from the radio thing, oddly enough. It was so funny because we had all this success at radio and then we were like, ‘You know, we really just want to build an audience from the ground up.’ We wanna get the grassroots audience. So that was the record we were going in to make.
We were lucky enough to have the major label budget to make the record that we wanted to make. And we wanted to really feature the clavinet, of course. The first record was like, ‘Let’s make a piano rock record. Let’s just mic the piano in so many different ways and use tons of different pianos and really geek out with the piano.’
And for the second record, we wanted the mastering engineer to say, ‘Wow, I really like those guitar tones’ and then for the producer to say, ‘There’s actually zero guitar on this entire record.’
Can you touch upon your songwriting process a little bit?
Usually when I sit down, it really varies; it depends where my mind is at. But for the most part when I’ve written songs, it’s all about the chorus. Finding a chorus first, not trying to start with a verse and just hoping you’re going to get to this big chorus. The songs that are a little bit more wild, I have to give my brother a lot of credit because I’ve sat down with him after writing a lot of stuff and he is so good at producing the songs that I write and helping me think of different ways to sing a part. Being brothers, it’s like having a writing team where we’re not afraid to tell each other how it is.