The Free Radicals: An Interview with the Crimea

Robert Collins

Major labels, Millennium Stadiums and Tours with Billy Corgan; The Crimea have done it all. Now they’re on their own, they’re breaking all the rules.

Davey MacManus and Owen Hopkin, the two members of The Crimea who’ve been playing music together since the Britpop era, have seen it all. In their time in The Crimea and their first band, The Crocketts, they’ve played more shows, had more adventures and experienced more highs and lows than any band you can think of. Meeting up on the eve of their biggest musical triumph so far, the album, Secrets of the Witching Hour, looking back only produces smiles.

“The Crocketts were signed to V2 in 97,” recalls drummer Owen, “and The Crimea got together in 2002.”

“The last Crocketts gig ever was at the Millennium Stadium with The Stereophonics,” smiles singer and guitarist Davey. “It was such a good party our guitar tech had a heart attack and died. It was after September 11th too. It was like the whole world was coming to an end. Not long after that show the first member disappeared. And our roof fell down. We were living in Forest Gate right by a railway line and the house used to shake. All the plaster fell down while we were having dinner. That was the final straw.”

For many musicians, getting dropped by their label, followed by the dissolution of the band (and the friendships within it) would have been a hammer blow. For Davey though, the alternative was too horrific to even contemplate.

“Life in the real world was so absolutely shit,” he assures us. “Working normal jobs, that kind of thing. All I wanted to do was get another deal again and get it going. We had maybe a year and a half in the wilderness. We were always moving towards trying to get a band going.”

“The songs that were being formed were too good to give up on,” recalls Owen. “The whole idea of The Crimea was too exciting to let it go and get into a normal nine-to-five, which is what the other two guys from The Crocketts did.”

“We were struggling for a while but then we got a deal with Warners,” continues Davey. “It took a while because there was the stigma of The Crocketts over us. The music was completely different but that’s how people judged us throughout the industry.”

It seemed unfair that The Crimea, with their gently heartbreaking alt-country, were being judged on the boozy indie rock of The Crocketts. That’s the music industry for you.

“I can’t ever remember Parva doing much before they became the Kaiser Chiefs,” notes Owen. “Or Contempo. They became Hard-Fi. But we did two albums and all of the industry had heard of The Crocketts. You couldn’t say that was the case with Parva.”

When Warners did come calling, it looked like all The Crimea’s dreams come true. What followed was a year of touring and intercontinental mismanagement on an unprecedented scale.

“They paid for us to live for a couple of years,” explains Davey. “We had a hell of a fucking time on Warners. We spent a lot of time in the States. We had decent tours with Billy Corgan, Keane, and Ash and The Bravery. The Bravery weren’t doing too well in the Deep South. No one gave a shit about their haircuts.”

“Billy Corgan is very elusive,” notes Owen. “He was just in his own little bubble. Even separate from his band. The whole thing was a weird situation. All these punters were there for his Smashing Pumpkins heritage.”

“They were absolutely gutted,” laughs Davey.

“He wouldn’t play any of it,” continues Owen. “It was just this dance music Depeche Mode nightmare. In the middle of this techno barrage he’d stop, get a guitar out, play the opening riff of Today, put the guitar down, and start up the techno again.”

“We were recording with James Iha in New York and I told him about Billy Corgan singing the Lord’s Prayer on stage for five minutes by himself,” adds Davey. “He was properly gutted.”

“Davey single-handedly scuppered the Smashing Pumpkins reformation,” grins Owen.

“It was fucking amazing,” continues Davey, “but we never managed to release anything to the American public. We spent a long time in America recording and working. We were going to release the album but then Warners in the UK signed us and we came back and released it here. Our American Dream ended without us ever shooting our load. We really felt like we were getting something going there but we never went back. That was it.”

With accountants on both sides of the Atlantic wondering why all this money had been spent on these Crimea chaps with so little to show for it, when the inevitable arrived, it didn’t surprise anyone.

“We got dropped purely on figures,” shrugs Davey. “They looked at all the money they’d spunked in America without even releasing a song. And the money they’d spunked in the UK and hadn’t got a great chart position. It wasn’t financially viable. We still had the band and everyone was still really up for it. We did a weird places tour last summer and they were all packed out. We were just starting to build momentum but we knew all last summer that the plug was coming. When you’re not on the Radio 1 play list you know it’s coming.”

Dropped by a major label for the second time, The Crimea did the only thing available to them. Make another album. Using the last of their Warners cash to mix the album, then getting pissed off with the results and doing the whole thing again in Latvia, the end result was Secrets Of The Witching Hour, the best record Davey and Owen have made yet. And all along they had a plan up their sleeves for its release. Because, for the first time in music history, The Crimea’s new album is available for download for free from the band’s own web site. Forever.

“We’re just hoping to get a shit-load of downloads,” reckons Davey. “Once it gets into people’s brains it’ll go and go. There’s a lot more work to do now we’re on our own, but it’s a lot more rewarding. There isn’t this massive chain of command. That’s what we enjoyed at the beginning.”

“There are other ways to make money in a band,” points out Owen. “The way things are going, people are making less through records anyway. So this is free for everyone, forever. It’s a way of getting music out there and reaching as many people as possible.”

“The other option was to sign a shitty indie deal and sell a few copies,” sighs Davey.

“This way we can just play. There’s still this feeling that we haven’t realised our potential. We’ve been sat on by a couple of labels for a long time and that’s taken the wind out of us. But every time we find another wind. I still feel we haven’t given it a proper go. Especially in the States.”

“They were feeling it when we played with Corgan,” points out Owen. “And they’d be loving it even more if they knew what was coming after us. They would have savoured their last drop of guitars before the keyboard onslaught.”

“We were selling 100 albums at every show,” smiles Davey. “Corgan was selling three. I still thought he was fucking great though. Playing techno at crowds until they couldn’t take it any more.”

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