Monday, August 06, 2007

Grateful, Fred

[pic above: Fred Erskine by Kris Mestdag. please don't sue me. thanks.]

something i've found: the more you care about something, the harder it is to write about. the reason is simple enough--you just want to do it justice i guess.

i've been thinking lately that Frederick T. Erskine needs some sort of online shrine and i might as well get the ball rolling. not to be a snob, but i'd be extremely surprised if more than like five people who are reading this have any idea who he is. and so it goes for a lot of rock musicians who aren't frontmen or members of Led Zeppelin: in jazz, they know your name, in rock they know the band name.

anyway, you might recognize some of the bands Erskine has played bass and/or trumpet and vocalized in over the years. i think the following is the complete and roughly chronological list: Hoover, the Crownhate Ruin, June of 44, the Boom, Him, Just a Fire. the period we're talking about is the early '90s through like last year. as far as i know, he's not up to anything currently.

ok, i guess that was the easy part, the "who the hell are we talking about here?" part. i love a lot of musicians, but only a few are like in the hall of fame or the pantheon or the uppermost upper part of my interest and enthusiasm. i've written about most of these heroes on Dark Forces at one point or another, folks like John Fahey, Andrew Hill, Booker Little and bands like Craw and Cheer-Accident.

Fred's definitely on this list and he's one of the rare rock dudes i'd single out from any particular band he's been in. the thing is that i haven't always adored all these projects; sometimes i've even gritted my teeth through music i thought was kind of crappy (ahem, late June of 44) just to get an aural glimpse of this dude's work.

UNBELIEVABLY GORGEOUS BASS PLAYING. i don't even know how to frame this. there's the visual image. i saw Fred several times, both with June of 44 and the Crownhate Ruin. he's a short, sort of stout, top-heavy guy with kind of a baby face and these sunken eyes. very, very unassuming and with this sort of mellow vibe when he's not up at the mike. he'd often raise his eyebrows while he played as if to say, "piece of cake." he'd also close his eyes and puff his cheeks out in this really funny way.

it's a cheesy concept/notion, but when i think of the idea of groove, i think of Fred. his basslines are these like dubby, ever-so-slightly fuzzed out bubbly things. he always played without a pick and you can hear it in the playing, it's just got this sproingy, springy aspect, but without any sort of slap or pluck nonsense. it's very very very difficult to be really really good at bass without sounding absolutely absurd and cheesy and Fred is one of the few to pull this off (as is Tony of Archaeopteryx and Stay Fucked, but i digress).

i'm not sure how best to intro Fred, but i think it's just by posting some tracks, no? here are two INSANE jams from Hoover, a band i absolutely cherish. they were part of the Dischord/DC scene in the early '90s, and their reputation pretty much rests on "The Lurid Traversal of Route 7," a full-length from '93, which is now available in a nifty remastered version (go here for ordering info).

Hoover - Electrolux

Hoover - Weeds

the second track here is from a self-titled EP the band put out in '97. as the text on the back of the disc indicated, this release was "intended as documentation only" (as opposed to all those other records that are intended as a substitute for the live performance or some other nefarious purpose--kidding, kidding). basically they reunited in that year to record a few post-"Route 7" tracks.

anyway, so "Electrolux" boasts perhaps the finest odd-time groove ever recorded, a fucking sick, hypnotic jam in 9. you are not going to believe the fucking fat, sick sproinginess of the solo bass intro. it's just pure tone, pure signal, buzzing and throbbing. dig the two little accents Fred starts throwing in at the ends of the measures at 1:52; dig how the bassline turns into one loooooong note when he starts singing; and dig also the total manhandling of the bass at 6:05 when the guitar drops out. at that last juncture, Fred is taking this 9 groove and fucking owning it: it sounds like he's wrestling a fat boa constrictor. and check the awesome hoarseness of the vocal...

Fred is the singer on this one too. i'm a huge fan of his voice. he can scream, but also whisper and let forth this sort of wounded croon. you don't get that in "Electrolux" so much as "Weeds."

"Weeds" is a brutal track, showing off one of Hoover's most awesome strengths, i.e., just fucking grinding a riff into the ground until you want to burst. people have referred to them as sort of pre-emo or whatever and i totally see that. it's very fraught music, sort of despairing and gloomy but intensely cathartic. most of all it's churning, grinding, minimal.

obviously "Electrolux" is that, but "Weeds" is in some ways even more powerful. the final verse is absolutely devastating. Fred is HOWLING. i'm talking about around 5:20. there is a downright scary amount of sweat and white-knuckle feeling built up at that point. people talk about Slint tunes like "Good Morning Captain" as the epitome of tension-release indie rock, but this stuff is just as powerful methinks.

anyway, got off the Fred topic a bit, but i plan to continue in this vein. have tons more tracks i'd like to post but i will restrain myself b/c i don't want to overwhelm. here are a few Hoover videos i've found. both, weirdly enough, are of the same song, the "Route 7"-ending tour de force, "Cuts Like Drugs" [for the sticklers: yes, it does end the album proper. last three tracks on CD are from a separate 7"]. the second vid is from the Hoover reunion show from 2005 at the Black Cat in D.C., which Joe and i and some other buds proudly trekked from NYC to see. it ruled.

"Dries --> Cuts Like Drugs" (John Hiltz House, NJ, 199?)

"Cuts Like Drugs" (Black Cat '05)

(both of these are from a very cool music/video blog called The Sound of Indie, which is a real trove for anyone obsessed w/ arty and intense '90s indie stuff the way i am. trolling the clips, i spied Blonde Redhead, the Make-Up and tons tons more. check it out!)

and here is a rather drab interview with Fred (apparently the only one online) from 2000.

if anyone out there is a fellow Fredhead, please speak up. we need to stick together!


Anonymous said...

I'm with you, brother. I'm not sure I have anything to add though on the topic of Fred, you covered it pretty well.

I remember seeing Crownhate Ruin in KC...The drummer played so hard, not only did he physically nail the set into the stage to keep it from moving, but he also broke the mallet head of the metal part on his kick drum while playing. He grabbed another one out of his toolbox like it happened all of the time...Crazy shit.

Thanks for bringing me back.

Alex said...

i first heard the track "Weeds" on some random website about 5 years ago that may not even exist anymore. it blew my mind then and still does now.

Unknown said...

It was pretty amazing to see him team up with Al Dunham again in Abilene even though he wasn't playing bass. I wish I could have seen the Hoover reunion. I know people that were friends of his in Chicago and apparently he moved back to DC where he was going to have a baby. Hopefully he can find time to play some more music in the midst of being a new father.

Anonymous said...

Seems like a dying breed. Pure. So humble and only doing it for the sake of the music. I've seen every band he's been in except Abilene and it's always been a pleasure.

Anonymous said...

I saw Hoover a number of times and I was always captivated by Fred's playing. He was a huge influence on my bass playing at the time. Once I saw a bass in a used music shop that was nearly identical to the one he plays and I bought the thing right then and there.

Anonymous said...

I love Fred. I loved Hoover and I was fortunate to see them once. Fred's bass was almost as big as he was, but he totally fucking rocked it. I miss good music.

Anonymous said...

im totally into every thing your saying about fred i love his style what he does with a song i would like to see him of the cover of a bass player magazine to show the world the beauty that he has created.(but not to be a snob but alex dunham sings on electrolux it has taken me years to distinguish the singers in that band but yeah i have a video that proves it.

Anonymous said...

Fred, in my mind, must be one of the most underrated musicians ever. His bass playing and sound is totally unique. I wonder what his bands would have been without him? He totally got me thinking about learning how to play the bass properly and now (10-15 years after I heard Hoover for the first time) I just bought a bass. It might be too late for me, but it wasn't for Fred. How old was he when he recorded the first Hoover tracks? I guess it is a Ibanez Artist he's been playing all these years? Does anyone know?

mbnjmntrb said...

well.... he now lives in Indianapolis and has a new band called Freddie T & the People. their first show is august 8th. my friend is singing for the group which is comprised of Fred, some guy named Josh, my friend Dana, and Brad & Sal from Racebannon as the rhythm section. it sounds like a stellar cast.

Anonymous said...

Just to clarify.. i think he played a Washburn.

Anonymous said...

Erskine is most definitely amazing; was just listening to TCR today and still being blown away by the bass-playing. I always enjoyed watching him play live, though I haven't seen a band with him since June of 44 around 1999 or so.

Also, thats not Fred singing on "Electrolux" but Alex Dunham.

Great post, thanks.

mary said...

Here here... He played a show at the Wesley Student Center in State College, PA with The Crown Hate Ruin circa 1993. That show changed my life.

Anonymous said...

fred erskine is definitely the man when it comes to bass. he and alex dunham created some of the best jams in the post hc world. they are the only two white dudes who know how to reggae the right way.

Dubthetexan said...

Great article! You really hit the nail on the head - Fred is the alpha and omega of groove.

If only I knew about great bassists with such unique sounds and styles like Fred and Nick Pie of Shotmaker when I was a teenager; maybe I'd have stuck with bass a bit longer. After being introduced to 90's American independent music a couple years ago by a friend (who now plays bass in our band, and takes some influence from Fred) I'm now getting back into bass playing, motivated mainly by a desire to learn Hoover and Crownhate Ruin songs!

I really hope I get to see Fred play someday.