Crushed: We're an American Band

Dreams unfulfilled/Graduate unskilled/It beats picking cotton/Waiting to be forgotten

-- Replacements, "Bastards of Young"

Crushed chords are long, sustained and heavy. The sounds of concrete skies desolate landscapes. The vocals swing low, deep, almost ironic-sounding. The singer is skinny, like a stray, waifish, too, and the band just broods. The sound just broods. Like west Phoenix broods, if nothing else. The low cinderblock, the aging pickup trucks, the miles of dead lawns and electrical lines. It all makes sense, the brooding, and the band called Crushed.

This is west Phoenix, dude, not milk-warm Mill Avenue. This is the land of long-in-the-tooth Tesla heads, treasured eight-track players, and unshorn-era Metallica and Pratt radio. Where Prong and Tool still provide the soundtrack to cat torture, weeklong meth jags, speeding Pontiacs and single moms. Acres and acres, square mile after square mile. This is where Crushed -- Mark Lauer, vocals, guitar; Mike Halland, guitar; Michael Brown, bass; Jeff Garten, drums -- fits in. And they are damn good at it.

In a 1997 Hit Parader year-end readers poll, Phoenix rock 'n' roll band Crushed was voted one of five top new bands for the year. The group's video for its song "Incandescence" received rotation on more than 100 video outlets in the U.S. that same year. That same song has been licensed for use in video games and is still going strong on some East Coast radio stations. Glowing reviews for its debut Crushed on 911 Records appeared everywhere from online 'zines to glossy industry trades. Its debut made the top 25 in College Music Journal's (CMJ) prestigious metal charts in October 1997.

Album Network said: This is the debut full-length album for Crushed. A debut on a previously unknown label doesn't stay in the top 20 for eight weeks unless there's something seriously going on. . . . Crushed could easily find themselves battling it out with the big boys in the Top 10 very soon . . . a band with a big future indeed.

Cut to 1999. Crushed has no label deal and no money. All the boys are back on day jobs.

Six months ago, Crushed did a label showcase at the glorious Mason Jar for Atlantic, Epic and Roadrunner. Roadrunner Records wound up "dating" the band but nothing ever happened. Then the band found itself in the last hour of signing a deal with Atlantic Records; the lawyers were even nodding. Just before inking the contracts -- literally -- they get a call from a higher-up at the label saying it needs two radio songs from the band before any deal can be signed.

Lead singer Mark Lauer remembers: "You would not believe this call that we got. I mean, we told everybody, 'We got a deal with Atlantic, man.' The dude goes, 'I want you to write a song somewhere along the lines of Sugar Ray or Smash Mouth. I don't care what the rest of your record sounds like, we just need two songs to get on the radio.' Can you believe that?"

Of course the band was appalled. But it was hungry and ready to do another record. So after attempting two radio sing-alongs aligned with the Sugar Ray/Smash mouth formulas, Crushed conceded failure. No band as stylized as Crushed could conjure up to such tripe as per the label request.

The band called the record company back and said it had no radio pap to deliver. Atlantic said too bad.

For Elektra records this year, Crushed did an odd but brilliant rendering of the Psychedelic Furs chestnut "Love My Way." The track was to be featured on an Elektra release called One Hit Wonders -- a compilation featuring contemporary bands doing songs of one-hit wonders. The release was shelved indefinitely.

Over the phone, Mark Lauer sounds chipper and optimistic. Taking a break from his on-again, off-again job of cleaning pools, he talks about how crazy it is that some people still swim in the winter. Those people are the ones ensuring him employment through the lean winter months. He tells me how he is going to marry this girl he met on the road a few years ago.

"Cleaning pools is cold in the winter, dude. It's good for a musician, at least a singer, to do this job because I can sing songs all day long," he says, laughing.

Lauer has been playing in Phoenix clubs nearly as long as Bruce Connole. Like Connole, he was born and raised in Phoenix. Lauer's first band of any note was a mid-'80s pop combo called Mental Pictures. Mental Pictures did shows supporting Doug Hopkins' pre-Blossoms quartet Algebra Ranch.

"I remember standing outside Anderson's Fifth Estate talking to Doug Hopkins," Lauer chuckles, "and he has to excuse himself to go throw up. Then he just comes back and starts talking to you again."

From the dust-heap of Algebra Ranch rose the pop tones of Undertow. Undertow was a cadre of local celebs and included drummer Alan Ross Willey, ex-Gentlemen Afterdark guitarist Robin Johnson, Lauer on bass and Harry McCaleb on guitar.

Seven years and various lineup changes later (exit Johnson and Willey, enter Rich Contidino, Mark Cady and Jerry Stevens), Undertow varied its poppy Wire Train/Replacements stance and adopted a heavier UK-inspired metal sound. The band dissolved in 1992, after much love and demo money from Sire Records, and building a huge and loyal local following.

"Really, Sire was the only thing we had going, and we were really close to getting the deal done [with them] but it never came through," Lauer says. "Sire Records' interest came at the tail end of our time together, and it just let the air out."

Crushed was born later that year after Lauer answered a classified ad posted by a band in need of a singer. Heavy local gigging, big crowds and little media appreciation ensued. In 1996, when the labels came panting, the major California indie upstart 911 inked the band. 911 flashed much enthusiasm and dough. In 1997, 911 released the band's debut, five-song EP. Shortly thereafter came the full-length Crushed.

Then somewhere in Texas in early 1998, midway through its second U.S. tour, Crushed got word its label just went belly-up. Undaunted, Crushed kept on touring, staying out for another month. It had a month of label tour support left in its account. Then it went from dealing with a hip label that understood the music to dealing with a bank.

Everybody knows bank people are no fun, particularly for a rock 'n' roll band living some childhood reverie crisscrossing the country meeting chicks and doing rock 'n' roll shows.

"After 911 was done, all of a sudden some bank in California owned our contract," laughs Lauer ruefully. "We had to deal with bank people!

"The bank goes, 'Hey, you remember that tour van the label bought you? Well, you can buy it for only $7,000.'"

The band bought the van from the bank. Later, it sold the vehicle for $10,000 when the insurance payments became unmanageable. At this point, Crushed had gone through its entire record company advance. The bank even owned the band's master tapes for its debut record.

At the time of the 911 bankruptcy, Crushed was doing well. On a national Canadian MTV equivalent called Much Music, the band's video was becoming a hit. The band had to cancel its Canadian tour. The single was doing extremely well on hard-rock radio in America and many insiders considered Crushed to be a shoo-in to the big time.

Lauer says the label spent too much money in all the wrong places. A common complaint among bands on new-moneyed labels that after a few short years flop like fish out of water.

As a prime example, Lauer cites 911's lavish launch party at Hollywood's Billboard Live. Exorbitant spending and swollen optimism were the main courses of the night.

"They had these huge screens called JumboTrons erected outside the club," Lauer says with a derisive snort. "We were on them via video cam from the stage inside the club.

"The label paid for an open bar that was completely open to the public. It was crazy. They put us up in this swanky hotel right off the Sunset Strip. They gave us each a luxury suite. We'd call each other up and go, 'Uhh, what are you doing? I'm bored.'"

After another year of more promises, unfulfilled dreams and record biz lows, the Crushed morale is still high. Four months ago, the band scored a management deal with Slayer and Machine Head's representatives and is currently working on new songs. Crushed recently turned down a tour with dinosaurs Dokken and Great White, seeing no point. Next month Crushed has yet another showcase, with five record companies having already made commitments to the show.

"You know this business sucks," chortles Lauer. "And that's where we are at still, a kind of holding pattern. We rehearse, we always write new songs, work our day jobs and play around once in a while."

Lauer had to go, more dirty pools in west Phoenix calling, and more songs to hum and sing.

But before he hung up, Lauer asked me the time-honored question musicians often ask when they suspect that time is running thin: "When are we supposed to stop? What am I gonna do if this doesn't work out?"

Crushed is scheduled to perform on Friday, December 17, at Boston's in Tempe, with Fu Manchu, Speedealer, and Hillbilly Devilspeak. Contact Brian Smith at his online address: brian.smith@newtimes.com

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