Jason Cruz talks side project The Howl and balancing it with creation of a new Strung Out album

Jason Cruz and Howl – photo (c) Ursula Harris/Leo Snaps Photography

Jason Cruz is a burning the candle at both ends of late. In addition to his “day job” of putting the finishing touches on the music and artwork for Strung Out’s first studio album in five years, he also found the time to put out Good Man’s Ruin (April 29th via the band’s own Echotone Records), the debut full-length from his side project, Jason Cruz and Howl. But Howl is not your typical punk-rock-frontman side project…

Co-founded with Buddy Darling (The Darlings, guitar), Chris Stein (Saccharine Trust, bass) and Kris Comeaux (drums), Howl swaps out power chords and rapid-fire snare drum sounds for slide guitar, increased texture and groovier tones. The result is a dark, trippy, ‘spiritual’ album that tells of bad trips, lost hopes, pipe dreams and Indian curses (here’s our review).

Somewhere amidst the chaos, Cruz carved out a little time to chat with us about the not-your-average recording process for Good Man’s Ruin, the pitfalls of trying to balance two projects without going over-the-edge, and the goal of creating his own scene that harkens back to the Blue Note and SST Records days of yore. Check it out below, and be sure to catch Jason Cruz and Howl on tour with The Darlings and The Pullmen next month on the West Coast. Dates are here.

Dying Scene (Jay Stone): First and foremost, congratulations on Good Man’s Ruin. I was telling Gary (Strack, from PR firm Reybee Productions) when we were setting this up that it’s been in constant rotation since I first got my hands on a copy. I genuinely love the album, not just blowing smoke.

Jason Cruz (Howl/Strung Out): I appreciate that. It was a nerve-wracking thing for like the year that we were making it. I just wanted to make my money back, you know? I gave myself the goal that I would make (the album) and as long as I made back a little bit of money I put into it, and as long as nobody hated on it too much, that’s all I wanted, you know?

Maybe I cherry-pick the places that I get my information from, but have you gotten mostly good feedback on the album at this point? Everything that I’ve seen has been incredibly positive.

Yeah, that’s more than I expected. I get pretty determined on something, so I’m not going to give it up until I actually see it through. But I honestly thought kids were going to hate on it, I really did. I thought people were just going to write it off. I had no expectations for it, I just wanted to make a record with my friends. And I know everyone has a preconceived opinions about “punk singer gone folk” and all that stuff.

Yeah, right.

It’s like, whenever you try to do something, someone’s got a label for it, or somebody’s going to say “Oh this guy’s already done that.” It’s like, fuck, sometimes when you try to be a creative person, you’ve got to endure so much…it’s difficult to believe in yourself sometimes when everyone else has opinions, you know?

Well, and I feel like the internet certainly amplifies that, because you can find, maybe, six or eight people that are going to hate on something, and they hate on everything, and they do it so well because they’re on the internet and have nothing else to do, and those people become what you focus on and you gloss over the 48 or 148 positive things that people said about something.

Yeah, it’s tough sometimes, but what are you gonna do.

I do say that I think a round of applause is in order for you specifically for not going one of the two routes that people seem to go lately. Like you said, the punk rock singer picks up an acoustic and a harmonica and does the folk thing, or picks up another full band that sounds basically like a watered down version of their regular band. So I think it takes a lot of courage to go in a totally different direction AND to still attach your name to it. You could have just called it Howl, rather than Jason Cruz and Howl. So, to sign your name to it takes a lot of guts.

Haha…Or insanity! (*both laugh*)

Yeah, or that!

Talk to my girls… I think I drove my two girls nuts. I’m in the middle of making the Strung Out record, I’ve got to leave to go to the studio after this, and my poor girls have to put up with me up all night, wandering the house like a crazy person in my robe, talking to myself, writing. I feel bad for the people that have to put up with that end of it, you know?

Do your girls like punk rock daddy better, or do they like, the Howl, trippy, spiritual desert rock daddy better?

There’s no difference, you know? I’m just me. I paint (go here to see Jason’s work) all night, and if I’m not painting all night, I’m writing songs. It’s not like a different person, I’m crazy either way and they put up with it! (*both laugh*) All I can hope for is that if I’m going to put all this time in and put them at odds, I might as well try to do something significant. I don’t know…I can’t get a real job, yet. And if I can’t, I gotta do this and hopefully it turns out to be something kinda cool, you know?

Well, it seems like it’s been working for you for a while. With the Howl project, were you and Buddy Darling the core of how the project came together, or was the goal to include Chris Stein and Kris Comeaux from the beginning?

Me and Buddy are like musical soulmates, you know? And Chris Stein has been my best friend since I was thirteen. So it’s basically just, Strung Out’s my day job, The Darlings are Buddy’s day job, Saccharine Trust for Chris. It’s all just friends that love a certain type of music and all wanted to play more on the downbeat. I wanted this to be the antithesis of what Strung Out is, you know? Slow and low. Creating a mood with tone, and not everything being so ‘uppity uppity’ and about the sound of the snare, you know? To write songs based on rhythm as opposed to based on melody. To start with a rhythm first, like, “do a bossa nova beat right here over this chord and see what it turns into” and exploring things that way. Nobody does that anymore…well, I’m not saying nobody does it, but the musicians that I’ve played with are so capable, and some of the guys in the bands that we’ve played with over the years are some of the most incredible musicians I’ve ever met in my life. And sometimes I feel like music is all starting to sound the same. The beats are all the same, and it’s just a copy of a copy of a copy. And I hope that things shift…I live around a bunch of Mexican people, I want to write some Mexican rhythms. I have German and Hungarian and Gypsy in me, I want to bring all that out.

So when the decision to start this new project comes about, who sort of directed the musical side of things? Sonically, there are a lot of different things going on on the album. Was there internal dialogue about trying to narrow it down to a particular genre, which I hate to use, or was it just “let’s be as free as possible within certain stylistic borders”?

You know, it all started with the simplicity of country music, but not wanting to be a country band. Like, I love country music. I love the simplicity of a three-chord Hank Williams song. I love it. But then, when Chris Stein plays a funky bass line over it, and then Buddy adds slide over it, and we put a weird beat to it, it turns into something psychedelic almost. We love The Doors, because The Doors celebrated American music, but at the same time made it kinda trippy and added a spiritual thing to it. To me, music is a spiritual thing. In our generation that scoffs at religion and God, and science is fucking blowing our world up, the only thing we have left is music. Music is our religion and our spirituality. I wanted to be in a band that when we play, we invoke something; something deeper than just trying to sell something and trying to be cool. To really bring the audience in to something spiritual almost.

Does it seem like the audiences that you’ve played in front of to this point are into that sort of thing and looking for that sort of experience from this project? Or are they looking for Jason from Strung Out and Buddy from The Darlings?

At first when we played shows, it was like “what are you doing? What is this?” It was hard. I admire my guys for sticking through some really awkward shows (*laughs*). And then when the record came out, people said “oh, now I get what you’re trying to do.” I’ve said this before, but I like to see when girls dance. I like to see when a guy grabs a girl they’ve been staring at all night and brings her up and puts his arm around her waist and dance with her and smile. In punk rock, we want to get that shit going, we want to get the pit going and get a rhythm going and get the crowd going, you know? It’s the same thing with this, but with Strung Out, it’s loud and we’re playing at you. But with this, it’s like, we’re trying to bring you in. We want you to come to us. I don’t know, I think it’s kind of cool. It’s a different approach. It’s more intimate.

It seems like…in one of the press releases that went out, it mentioned that you guys recorded at some unconventional locations, like old Hollywood mansions and dingy back alleys and stuff like that. Walk us through some of that, if you can. Why the decision to not just record in the studio like everyone else seems to, with ProTools, or even to tape. Did you need those sort of weird, off-beat locations in order get the right feel for the album and what you were trying to do?

Yeah, I think that’s the goal of this band; to play really awkward, strange clubs and bars. And then when we were recording, I had the opportunity to record at Grace Kelly’s old mansion. Like, fuck yeah, dude. Do my drums in her old living room? Get the guys a bunch of drugs, get a vibe going, get some bottles of tequila. But I only had a day there, and I had my guys under the gun big time, and they pulled it off. And I made sure that it was going to be an experience. So when you listen to the record, whether you feel it or know it or not, there’s experience that went behind the recording process. It wasn’t just this regimented “do this, this, this and this.” The situations that went on making this record, I hope, are conveyed in the way you feel when you listen to it. And I believe in that. I just think that you have to do things a little weird some times. Put a little bit more feeling into it. Put yourself in a situation that’s kind of awkward and strange and see how you come out of it. I think that lent a lot to the feel of the record.

Do you prefer one over the other or do you think you personally have to have both the Strung Out way and the Howl way of doing things?

You have to have both. It’s like the two hemispheres of your brain, the right and the left. They’re both very powerful, and you can’t survive on just one of them. You have to utilize both and both bands are like a certain hemisphere of my brain. In Strung Out, I’m being pushed to my limits right now. I feel like I’m going crazy. I’m being pushed in a different way, and I appreciate being pushed like that, you know? One helps the other and they both need to coexist and they both help each other.

What was your outlet for that before the Howl project came about? Does painting sort of fulfill that other side of your brain, or was this like tapping into something that you hadn’t really tapped into before?

I took it upon myself to pick up an acoustic guitar and start playing in front of people a few years back. I told myself that if I want to really be a competent musician, I need to do that. And that was a headfuck. The first part of the journey is to get in front of a bunch of people and play songs. And that was very difficult to do, but I think it made me a better performer, and I think it led to Howl. I think it all just started from that, and from having a lot of energy and driving the people around me crazy with that energy and needing to focus it on something else (*both laugh*).

Is the goal then to do both things going forward now? That way you have that sort of an outlet? Or to you think doing both would overwhelm you?

You know, Strung Out isn’t going to last forever. Not because it’s a young man’s game, but I don’t see myself doing it when I’m like sixty. That just looks stupid up there. But Howl, I can see myself doing when I’m like 70, you know? Howl will probably reflect my old age a little bit more graciously. Because the new Strung Out is going to be gnarly, and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do that shit when I’m 55 or 60! (*both laugh*)

And it does look weird when some guys try to do that, let’s be honest. I guess it’s nice for nostalgia purposes for bands to keep going and going, but at some point, it gets weird. I did see a band once, and I won’t mention any names, but they’d been around for a long time and took a hiatus and then came back out. And the lead singer, and I’m not joking, had to take a knee a couple of times because he couldn’t keep up with the speed and the intensity anymore. And I just thought…wow, you know, maybe it’s okay to hang it up.

You know, as a musician, punk rock reflects a youth-based culture. When we all started out, it’s a youthful anger, and it does evolve, and it’s been proven many times over that the older you get, you can still contribute to it. But you’re right, I think that sometimes it’s time to move on and not try to be young and not try to look young. I think that’s the thing, when you try to look a certain way, I don’t want to be that way. I want my music to reflect the age I’m at, I want to look the age I’m at, I want to act the age I’m at. Take that any way you want. I think there’s nothing wrong with being a musician and getting older, just don’t try to look like you’re fucking 18, you know? That’s when it gets silly.

There are a lot of dark thematic elements on Strung Out albums, but I feel like they are more macro-level, looking at the current state of the world. Whereas, I think there are a lot of dark thematic elements on Good Man’s Ruin, but they seem to be more internal, or as you say in “High and Lonesome,” based on romance and decay and Indian curses. Has that side of your writing been there all along and just didn’t have an outlet, or was that sort of a goal for this project, to foster that side?

I think it’s more of a stream of consciousness now. I think a lot of my early stuff came from a whole decade of war, trying to figure out who I am as an American, and what does it mean to be an American. And I think that’s been a big part of my writing; (there’s) my feminine side and then my penchant for war and who we are and I am as a person and as an American and what does it all mean. Who am I and who are we and where are we all going? That was a big part of Strung Out for the last 15-20 years. And I think now I am a little bit more accepting of what I am. I’m a little bit more of, like, ‘alright, I’m a fucking American. I am what I am and we are what we are, let’s see where we can take this.’ I think that’s where I’m at right now.

Is that a weird place for you to be?

It’s a beautiful place, man! Right now, all of those old fucks are dying or getting old. Everything that we fought for, everything that we tried to understand and everything about culture that’s affected us is coming around now, and we have a say in it now. I believe that this generation can represent America in a beautiful way. We have a lot to offer. American music has saved the world; it’s saved us a hundred times over.

I hope that that’s true. I do. Because like I said before, with the internet, there’s a lot of negativity out there and there’s also a lot of music out there that doesn’t get a chance to be heard. So hopefully the music that has to be heard; the music that is capable of saving the world again, like it’s had to do countless times over, hopefully people can actually hear it. Hopefully they are looking for it, or at least know where to look for it.

I’ve given up on hope. To me, what’s that thing “create the world you want to create” or whatever. I can’t worry about what anybody else is doing anymore. I know that I’m trying my hardest to be a positive, creative person that puts beauty out into the world, and I believe in what I’m doing. I hope that I can inspire other people to do the same. That’s all I know how to do.

You put a lot of obvious work into, you mentioned the word “beauty” and I think that’s accurate. Whether it’s Strung Out or it’s Howl, it shows that you put a lot of work into crafting almost a scene for us to visualize. There’s a certain cinematic element, I’ve always thought, in Strung Out music, but I think more so in Howl. Are the two writing processes, at least in terms of lyrics, able to coexist, or do you have to get as far down as one rabbit hole takes you before you work on the other?

I don’t know, man. Any means to an end, just get the work done! (*laughs*) Any means to and end! It’s always different and it’s always a challenge. I try to work hard because I’m not saving peoples’ lives, I’m not a doctor, I’m not a cop, I’m not a paramedic or a neurosurgeon. I’m just a dude who writes songs. I do what I can, man!

You guys put this out on your own, right? Echo Tone is your own label, right?

Yes sir!

Why the decision to put it out on your own? Did you want to do something completely and totally by yourselves? Was there ever a pull towards going to Fat or somewhere else?

Here’s the thing. Every kid that I meet asks me for advice because I’ve been doing this for a while. What I came up with is that you can’t do it alone. You can’t go out on the road by yourself and expect to make it. Strung Out was a part of a scene. We got lucky that we were part of a scene in the early 90s, and that’s the only reason we made it. If we were by ourselves, we never would have gotten anywhere. So, with Howl…sometimes it’s hard to think of bands to play with that I know of. I wanted to create my own scene. I’ve got a couple of bands that I want to work with; The Darlings and a band called The Pullmen. I want to bring them onboard and create our own scene. To go on the road as a three-band bill. Because the only thing a label is good for these days is creating a hub. So when you see a band you like, it becomes “oh, I like this band, what else is on the label? Oh, this band is on the label, let me check that out.” It becomes a place where kids can go to find like-minded bands that sound like or vibe off each other. So that’s what I’m trying to do right now. As soon as I’m done with the Strung Out record, I’m going to put more attention into the label. I want to create my own fucking scene, man. Well, not my scene, but just something different that bands can latch on to, because nobody can do it alone.

You know, I grew up on SST Records. And when I look back, every one of my favorite bands was an SST band. It’s incredible the scope of that label and how much variety there was. Every band had a thread that connected each one to the other. That still exists, but that’s the secret to surviving, I think, as a musician. Like Blue Note with jazz music. You have to connect yourself to something bigger and be a part of that, and I guess that’s all I’m trying to do.

I know you’ve got a two week tour coming up with Howl and The Darlings and the Pullmen; any chance we’ll see a show like that on the East Coast? Is the plan going to be to do those sorts of shorter runs going forward?

Yeah, I think that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to do little two-week spurts and make it kind of a special thing. I leave with Strung Out in October, and that record’s going to come out pretty soon. In between Strung Out and my family, I’m going to hit the road with Howl. I want to play weird little bars and make it a cool experience, you know?

Yeah, I think that’s what the Howl sound calls for. Not a place like the House of Blues in Boston, but sort of a weird, dimly lit bar…

…(*laughs*) some place where you might do something you regret the next morning…

(*both laugh*)…right, a place where you’re going to stick to the floor and some dude might have a knife…

(*both laugh*)

Thanks again to Mr. Cruz for taking the time to sit down and do this interview with us! Be sure to pick up a copy of the new Howl record from Interpunk and catch the band on their west coast tour we mentioned earlier in this story.


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