After a seven year hiatus, one of the true heroes of the underground, Crisis, have re-emerged with a blistering and urgent new album, Like Sheep Led to Slaughter. The energy of the album is only surpassed by the energy of this multicultural metalcore band onstage. Pitriff caught up with Karyn Crisis and Afzaal Nasiruddeen in the middle of their tour with Soulfly at the Theater of the Living Arts in Philadelphia.
PITRIFF – Okay, you told me a little (prior to the interview) about the kind of crowd you’re dealing with right now…
KC – (laughs)
PITRIFF – How are the fans otherwise than these…you know, MTV crowd, like…the true fans…do you feel they’ve reacted to you pretty well?
AN – I think so. I think that on the whole, they’re genuine, and a lot of them who don’t know us, for example, they sort of listen to the first couple of songs and they get into it more and more, because our stuff, as you know, is not quite as predictable as some of the other bands that we’re on tour with, so it takes them awhile to really understand our groove, which is a lot different than most bands and their grooves. It takes awhile, but most of them are into it, you know? Especially now that we’re on the east coast (Crisis hails from NYC), so it’s a lot closer to our hearts, I mean, we feel more of a connection here. As you go west, it’s a little different; California is way different than the east coast in terms of heavy music.
KC – We went into this tour knowing it was a more commercial audience and the kids…the majority are not so in touch with the underground.
AN – Not at all.
KC – In the underground, you have music that bends the rules rhythmically, sonically, it’s a whole variety of stuff, whereas the more commercial stuff that has the bigger name is a little easier to jump to or get, so we went into it knowing that was our challenge, but that’s always an exciting thing as well. You do notice a difference in the crowd by area, but this has been the most, I’d say, consistent tour we’ve ever done.
AN – Yeah.
KC – The crowd reaction…there’s always some Crisis fans at every show, sometimes there’s more than at others, but by the end of the first song, people are looking, the second song they’re rocking, the third one the pit’s going, or whatever they’re doing to get into the show.
AN – They’re warming up, you know, it’s like a warm-up process.
KC – Which is great, though, you know, because you can’t preach to the converted all the time.
AN – Yeah.
KC – You need a challenge like that, so it’s been cool, you know?
AN – I think it’s also a lot of it is, every action has an equal and opposite reaction, so when they see us really putting out a lot of energy, which is coming off of the stage from each of us, synchronizing amongst each other as a band, the energy that goes out to the crowd, I think, slowly penetrates them, you know, it takes a few songs sometimes, but by the second, third, fourth song, as we heat up our temperature, their temperature gets heated up and then finally, that reaction happens and kids start going off. I notice that the kids that have their wits about them and aren’t totally trashed are like, wow, this band doesn’t really give a fuck, they’re just onstage doing their shit, and some of them see that, then they sort of surrender to you a little easier because they realize that, you know what? We really don’t give a fuck, it’s true! You guys who are into it, great, you’re not into it, fuck off. We don’t really care, you know? That’s the way it is.
KC – We really enjoy being onstage, that’s the fun part.
AN – We’ve been doing it too long for us to care about individual hecklers or whatever, we don’t give a shit.
KC – We also understand… (to Afzaal) I think you or Jwyanza said it well, that if there is a heckler, we know that we do what we do and it is pretty extreme, and from within we know we’re causing a conflict in the individual…
AN – Yeahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…
KC – They’re like, I don’t know, this is too crazy!
AN – Or I don’t know if I can like this!
KC – I don’t know! It’s too out there! Which is exciting, I mean, it’s fun, you know?
AN – It’s fun!
KC – It used to make me angry and then when one of you guys (to Afzaal) said that, I was like, yeah, that’s a great way to say it.
PITRIFF – That’s cool, man. So you’re looking out and seeing people kind of with this look on their faces like…whoa, holy shit, you know?
KC – Sometimes I see people with their mouths open or smiling, like they’re not sure what to think about it at first, or they’re delighted, and I always like to watch the crowd’s faces, you know? It changes through the show, they get more and more into it. It’s just, some people at first can’t believe what they’re seeing, you know, and hearing! It’s great, but the club we played at last night, at Crocodile’s?
AN – Crocodile Rock.
KC – One of the bouncers was looking onstage for another backup singer! (laughs) He couldn’t believe it! It’s fun, you know? I like getting different reactions.
PITRIFF – Because you have a chance to do the hard and the clean with your vocals.
KC – Yeah, I don’t just do the masculine growl, I have a feminine side too, which really throws the loop in the whole metal and hardcore there. I do the more melodic or something a little more mysterious or creepy, and they’re like, wait a minute! (laughs) It’s different, you know, so it really throws a wrench in there, it’s awesome! (laughs)
PITRIFF – I guess not everybody gets the advantage like me, I’ve had Like Sheep Led to Slaughter for a number of months now, so I had the chance to let it really grow on me and get into it, I play it a lot, so you have your core fans, and you have a whole bunch of new people…I mean, how many times have been on the Ball now, two or three times, something like that?
KC – Something like that.
PITRIFF – Do you feel like you’re reaching a whole new audience now?
AN – Oh, yeah!
KC – Actually, every time it’s on, we get flooded with emails from kids who are like, wow, I’ve never heard you before, I went out and bought the album!
AN – And also, the bulletin boards and the message boards related to Crisis are getting much busier, so people…a lot of them are very honest, they’re like, well, you know, until last night I saw Crisis, I’d never heard of Crisis, but you guys blew us away, I mean, it’s the same types of emails over and over again. Those posts on SMN News, or whatever, just people saying, where the hell have I been, how come I didn’t know about Crisis all these years?
KC – A lot of people say, like, I’m sorry, I don’t know where I’ve been for eleven years! I didn’t know about you! That’s a weird reaction, to have a fan apologizing to you for not being there earlier! (laughs) That’s pretty cool.
PITRIFF – That is cool. So you guys after this are going to hook up with Kittie and Otep, right?
AN – Yeah.
KC – Just about ten days after this tour ends.
AN – We’re very excited about that, man, I think that’s going to be really fun, because I think that…in a way, it seems to me like…like it’s a first of its kind of tour, where if you really think about it, there hasn’t been a tour where three female-fronted heavy bands are going out nationwide in the U.S.
PITRIFF – I think it’s badass.
AN – I think it’s high fucking time that it happened. We’re really excited about it. It’s great, you know, eleven years of us being around, and then Kittie and Otep and them being around, but I think it’s great that it’s happening, man.
PITRIFF – And it’s cool that they both put out brand new albums, so all of you benefit together.
AN – Yeah, absolutely.
KC – Absolutely.
AN – I think it’s a great thing, man.
KC – It’s good timing.
AN – Very cool. I think it’s going to be fun.
PITRIFF – So what about this Ill Nino thing, you know, that they dropped off the tour?
AN – (laughs)
PITRIFF – I’m not looking for any smack talk on them, but it does help bump you guys in a better position, right?
KC – (laughs)
AN – (laughs) The fact is, man…the direct support slot…it’s a good slot, but it’s also a slot that brings a lot of heat from the headliner. So Ill Nino carried that heat for a long time, you know, and they’re gone now, so…
PITRIFF – So now it’s on you guys.
AN – (pause) So there’s a good side and a bad side. All I can tell you is this tour’s been very, very…colorful.
PITRIFF – More or less exhausting, I’m sure.
AN – Yeah, that too.
KC – (laughs)
PITRIFF – Well, of course, you guys went on hiatus for awhile, then you picked an excellent time to come back with metal really being back right now, so are you guys satisfied with how you’re running right now, at this moment?
AN – Yeah, I think the only thing we would wish to be different is…we have been around in a long time…the retail end of the market is very tough right now, so we’d like a lot more presence and a lot more CDs out there, but it’s tougher because there’s a zillion bands out there. So we’re battling that, but I think after the next tour, the Kittie/Otep/Crisis tour, I think the Crisis name will be back in circulation. It takes awhile, you know? We’re on bigger tours now, but we’re still battling the retail chains and trying to get them to carry more of our product.
KC – Yeah.
PITRIFF – So in a sense, you’re battling like…here’s a group of fans who know about you but there’s one copy in the CD store, so they have to wait until the next time it comes in.
KC – Right.
AN – Exactly, or they have to do special order, or they have to order it off the internet because they just can’t find it anywhere, and it ends up hurting the band unfortunately, because a lot of internet sales don’t get tabulated. So when you look at the overall sales, we’re selling a lot, but a lot of them aren’t on Soundscan. So you can’t say Crisis has sold these many thousands of records, because a lot of that stuff is not being tabulated. Needless to say, Soundscan is like the authority, so we’d like to make those adjustments and hopefully by the end of the Kittie/Otep/Crisis tour, things are going to be at quite a different level.
PITRIFF – You’ll come above the radar.
AN – Yeah! We’re still strictly underground, even though we’re on the Soulfly tour. We’re totally an underground band, people are like, what the hell is this? We’ll always be that, anyway, even if we’re selling hundreds of thousand records, I think the personality of the band won’t change, in my opinion. We’re still going to be messing with people’s heads, because that’s what we love doing.
KC – (laughs)
PITRIFF – (laughs) I mean, you guys were badass. I was very happy to be up here.
KC – Thanks. Awesome.
AN – Thanks.
PITRIFF – It does help knowing the music. Karyn, how do you stay…your whole jumping around routine, does that start wearing you out after awhile? (laughs)
KC – Not really, unless I get a cold, you know? There’s always a point on tour where someone gets a cold and it gets passed around, but I love it! I’m not one of those people who can really sit still and sing too much, I have to feel it too.
PITRIFF – Let’s talk about Like Sheep Led to Slaughter real quick. Karyn, I know you and I have talked about it once before, but kind of break down what all of you put into the album.
AN – Like Sheep Led to Slaughter has been a long time coming, like in the sense that it’s taken quite a few years for us to just say…the energy we put out, I mean, it’s been, what, the last album came out in ’97 and now it’s 2004, it’s been almost seven years that we haven’t put out a record. I mean, that’s a long time! We’ve had a long time to reflect on the music business, especially the metal scene. Seven years ago, even though we were out touring, the mainstream didn’t give a damn, I mean, there were no video shows, there was no radio airplay, you know, college stations that had metal shows was playing the stuff, but it was a different climate. I mean, now things are bustling, you know what I mean? And we were able to sort of capitalize on it, but beyond that, in terms of our music, what we found is that we’ve ended up inspiring a lot of musicians over the years, so what’s happened is the music…the metal scene has changed and come closer to what we’re doing, in a way. Not that I think anyone really sounds like Crisis, but there’s a lot of commonality that didn’t exist seven years ago, you know? So the cool thing is, a lot of bands that are successful today are bands that we’re friends with, bands that we’ve known, bands that have been listening to Crisis, and that’s a good thing for us, because it sort of opens a bigger door for us. So Like Sheep Led to Slaughter capitalizes what we’re doing, and I think it’s a little more understandable for people compared to our previous records.
KC – Well, along the lines of what Afzaal was saying, we started writing the record, we got into the rehearsal studio and started jamming and Afzaal started jamming on some ideas, just taking a slew of ideas…jams…not any real song songs, because we always do that in rehearsal, and what we found when the guys, Jwyanza, Afzaal and Gia were constructing the songs, when we found Josh Florian, the new drummer, we found out that he had been a longtime Crisis fan, and he’s a younger guy than all of us, and he’s from the east coast, Towson (Maryland) area, but he went to school in Boston and so he’d seen shows of ours all over the east coast, and what we found, like what Afzaal was saying, that our music had influence his (Josh’s) playing style. He went to school, he was a jazz drummer, and a master engineer, but he knew our catalog of songs, so in the past, finding drummers for us was always…and we’d find talented guys, but maybe they didn’t quite understand the weird, rhythmic sensibility that we have, or their spirit wasn’t in the right place to fit into this band, and so there was always a missing link, drummer-wise, that kept us from being what we wanted to be. It wasn’t hard for Josh to assimilate because he’d kind of grown up on our music in a way.
AN – Yeah.
KC – He’d listen to the songs and he showed up at these auditions playing extra songs that we didn’t ask him to play. And in fact, when we came to the first couple of rehearsals, he was so nervous we had a hard time getting him to open up because you could tell it meant a lot to him. He wasn’t taking it for granted that oh, I’m in a band now, I can just relax.
AN – Yeah.
KC – You know, he’s really been a full-time member and a full contributing factor, musically and getting all the business stuff done, so that added a lot to creating the album. We didn’t really expect that, that the whole process of starting the album happened before he even came into the picture, but once he did, everything just sped up for us.
AN – Also, the other thing that’s sort of an interesting aspect to all of this, is that amongst musicians, no matter how famous or rich or underground or extreme, there’s a mutual respect amongst musicians that really goes beyond fans and notoriety and success and what happens is that…when somebody has been inspired by your music, they might be millionaires today, but if they were inspired by your music back in the day, and they’re honest with you and they tell you, it sort of like, relieves them of this burden, you know? So we find there’s a lot of people who might be very successful today, but they were fans of ours and in Josh’s case, he’s not rich and successful or whatever, but he was another one of those kids who grew up to our music, who came up to us and was like, nervous, more because of the fact that he used to be a true fan, and there’s other people who were in a similar position and I think it’s a really interesting thing, because when you listen to music in your living room and you enjoy it, it’s not about money, it’s not about success and fame, it’s about what hits you emotionally, you know?
PITRIFF – Exactly.
AN – And that’s where I think Crisis really makes a difference in people’s lives, it’s really not about the commerce, it’s about the impact that our music might have had on some people, just like a lot of great bands that I’ve been into over the years who have had an impact on me. I don’t equate it into the dollars and cents, and that’s been a beautiful thing for this band, because after eleven years, we’re finding support amongst people, simply because we touched people over the years musically, and that is beyond metal, it’s beyond all that b.s., you know? Like Sheep Led to Slaughter is almost like the combination of a lot of those energies, it’s the same emotional energy that we had all these years, but it’s almost like a graduated version, it’s like we threw the gauntlet down, we’ve thrown the gauntlet down again for a lot of young bands who are successful, who might’ve listened to us years ago, and are doing great right now, we…I believe we’ve come up with a record that still stands the test of time and you know, listen to it in ten years from now, and then we can talk about Like Sheep Led to Slaughter. It’s not about now, that’s the cool thing. We felt the challenge, we felt metal was going to be generally successful, and from an artistic standpoint, as artists we threw the gauntlet down for a lot of bands. What started off as an original band in ’93, I feel we’re still original in 2004, and I think that’s what I mean by standing the test of time.
PITRIFF – Street teams. How do you feel street teams work for you guys? I mean, you offer your street team incentives and stuff like that, but do they do the job for you?
KC – Yeah, I mean, actually since we’ve been on the road we haven’t been able to do any…we’ve had some trouble getting the wireless going and keeping in touch with kids, and so I’ve sent out a message that the street team is closed, although we’ve gotten hundreds of people applying since we’ve been on the road. But there’s really never any way to know how much they do. At some of the shows where we’ve showed up, there have been people with the promos that I sent for kids to pass out. We’ve met a lot of the street teamers. I think one really cool thing about it is it’s just a way to keep in touch with your fans. Secondly, the reason we started it in the first place was just because so many fans were like, excited about us.
AN – They wanted to hang out.
KC – Yeah, they were excited we were coming back out and they wanted to spread the word. Now, we’re a small band on a small label, so we had a certain amount of supplies, so we can’t compete with a major label street team, even though we have those numbers of kids, so it has its positive and its negative. The negative is that we just don’t have enough supplies to keep everyone supplied with, so that’s why they came up with prizes and incentives to things maybe online or we’ll get posters made for the tour and they can print them out themselves if they have the time and stuff. I think it’s a good thing, although I have to say the one negative experience that we’ve had with it is this one person IM’d us, because we’re usually very available to our fans if we’re around and we have time on the computer, and someone IM’d you, Afzaal, and said, oh, you know, my friend just got a street team package, and the last package I sent out, I let kids know that there was hardly any supplies left, so what you get, whether it’s five CDs or ten CDs, that’s all that’s left, do something with it, if you have a friend, make it an important target. Because we started off with thousands of pieces and anyway, this person was really rude and said you sent my friend a few CDs, what are they supposed to do with it? Like we owed this person’s friend something, you know? I mean, this guy wasn’t even on the street team, or girl, whoever it was. That attitude really pissed me off, because you know, you don’t own us! If you want to help us out, then help us out, or if your friend has questions, even though there was a letter sent about it, then your friend can email me, but I just thought that attitude was out of hand, like, who the hell do you think you are? If you don’t want to help us out, that’s fine, but what is it do you think that I owe you? See, that’s the part of the street team where certain kids think the street team is about them, how much attention they can get at shows handing out CDs and pretending they’re important.
AN – Yeah, they forget it’s about the band, you know? A lot of that.
KC – And part of the reason that we never had a street team before is because we have fans who spread the word on their own if they want to do that. They believe in the band and want to spread the word, but again, it was started as a way to get in touch with our fans and where it will go now, I don’t know, it’s going to have be a thing that self-maintains itself for awhile while we’re on tour. It’s going to have to be kids who are going to have to figure out if they want to print out posters and hand them out on their own, but in general it’s been a cool thing for me, especially since I’ve been trying to do all the correspondence and meeting a lot of people and meeting them at the shows, which has been rewarding and really cool. But we’ll see, it definitely has a weird side to it, but it can be a good thing, too.
AN – The thing is, the bigger label street team is handled by managers and record labels.
KC – Yeah, it’s not handled by the band.
AN – So yeah, we’re self-managed and we’re on a small label, so our relationship with our street teamers is a direct relationship. We don’t have buffers and we don’t have you know…it’s like street teamers for a band like System of a Down, which is one of the bands who made the term ‘street team’ exist, actually, they started it, and they were very much in close connection with their street teamers and that’s how the word for System got out there, because I know they started to call people Street-Wise later and System’s manager called them Street-Wise. It became a street team concept and now they offer the street teams concept and service to any band if they want to pay for it, you know?
PITRIFF – Right, right.
AN – Which I thought was a cool thing, but again the relationship between the band and the street team has to be a distant relationship in a way for it to really work and for them to go out and do stuff, because if it’s too close of a relationship, the kids tend to abuse that relationship, you know, and that’s where it gets weird.
PITRIFF – It’s where you have to draw the line.
AN – Yeah, unfortunately we have to draw the line because kids are kids, you know?
PITRIFF – Well, we didn’t have that back in the eighties, you know?
AN – No! (laughs) That’s the thing, man.
KC – (laughs) Yeah, it’s pretty wild.
PITRIFF – Kids today don’t know what that’s like. Back then you were just staring up at the wall at your favorite bands knowing you weren’t going to get to meet them. You felt like it wasn’t going to happen, and it didn’t.
AN – Also, kids today, the majority of them don’t realize how tough of a life the musician really has. They have no clue what survival for a musician is like, I mean, there are only a few musicians who can actually say they live really comfortably, you know? Just to give you an example, you can be a headlining band playing to thousands of people and you can be in that band and you could be a hired gun and be an employee of that band. The kids don’t know you’re an employee of that band, that’s the amazing thing, is that kids think, wow, that dude’s playing guitar in that band, he’s a rock star, he’s loaded, he’s got money, whereas the guitar playing is making five hundred dollars a week, man, you know, which is what you’re making or less than what you’re making! And all that…there he is onstage playing guitar and gets all the accolades from the kids shouting out, the horns and everything, but the dude is working for a company! The kids think it’s a band, but it’s not really a band.
PITRIFF – Is that the greatest misconception, in your opinion?
AN – It’s a big misconception about the role of the musician, you know, in terms of what’s a real band, what’s not a real band, I mean, our case, we don’t have those stipulations of hiring people, firing people, whatever, we don’t do that, we never did that because we always did this just for the love of it. The money is really not the issue, probably because we’re not making hundreds of thousands of dollars. As soon as you start making hundreds of thousands of dollars, you start thinking in terms of hiring and firing, you know? So there you go, that’s the big difference. But for us, I can tell you one thing, man. If we ever get to the stage of making hundreds of thousands of dollars, the organism and the way the band works is not going to change, because that’s really what makes Crisis Crisis. If we change the working of the band, then there’s no Crisis anymore, it’s some other band, you know? With hiring and firing, you know, one day it’s a different bass player, a different drummer, it’s just not Crisis anymore, because everything we write, we write as a family and a collective. We jam on stuff for hours, weeks, months, everybody in the band writes music.
KC – Not just that, I think this band, for us, it’s kind of an organism that has a life of its own, you know, we’ve had different drummers, not hired and fired drummers, but if someone’s attitude is not in the right place at that rehearsal or they’re going through something and they’re acting a little selfish, the band suffers. You really feel the impact of your energies in this band, and it’s the kind of situation to where you have to be in the right place, you have to be open, you have to have this like, purity of emotion and really believe it to have this band work, because when the shit stops working, the inner-workings, there’s a little imbalance.
AN – Yeah.
KC – So this is as real as it gets. This band, there’s nothing manufactured about it, there are no hiring and firing members, I hang out with my band, we’re not separate from each other.
AN – We don’t have an A&R person telling us what to do.
KC – Yeah, we do what we want, I write my own lyrics…
AN – Yeah, we don’t hire songwriters.
KC – But we respect what we are as a collective, because it’s a greater thing than we are as individuals, so it’s pretty neat, it keeps us in check, too.
AN – That, and the fact that after eleven years, we’re almost like the thorn in the big labels’ sides. We refuse to compromise and start following the formulas that the A&R person and the record labels use to create bands and to break up bands, and take a guitarist or bass player from one band, make them join another band which also another one of their bands, because, you know, a singer loses his band because they weren’t happy, they didn’t get enough money and the singer was getting all the money, so they’re like, no problem, we’ve got this other band that we’re about to drop, we’ll take the guitarist, the bass player, the drummer from that band and we’ll make them your backup band! That’s the new band! They do that every day.
KC – Yeah, it’s really fucked up.
AN – That’s the concept of a band in terms of an A&R person or record label.
KC – To wrap it up, we’d like to say we really serve the work. We don’t serve the money or the outside, we really serve the work.
PITRIFF – Very cool! Thanks for having me up here, guys!
By Ray Van Horn, Jr.