Howl at the world
Jason Cruz discusses creative process and his latest musical project
By Michel Miller 04/17/2014
If Jason Cruz had a visible aura, it would probably look something like fire. Fueled by a deep hunger to create, he makes no distinction between life and art — they feed off one another in a continual fury of expression interrupted only occasionally by the ironic din of the skaters next door and the fluffy pink, sugar-coated requests of his 4-year-old daughter who buzzes about with equal velocity.
As much as things have changed for Cruz since his band Strung Out signed to Fat Wreck Chords in the early ‘90s, they’ve also stayed the same. The 40-year-old vocalist, painter, photographer, poet and designer has survived every rite of passage into adulthood — punk or otherwise — with a brush in his hand, a microphone in his face, a word or two on his tongue and a skateboard beneath his feet. But as it goes for those who walk the endless path, the steps are fraught with danger, temptation, distraction — and the muse can be a seductive shapeshifter, always beckoning, rarely relinquishing. It’s enough to make a man howl.
Good Man’s Ruin, the first full-length from Jason Cruz and Howl, is a plaintive wail in the desert of the human experience circa 2014. It’s not so much a total departure from what Cruz has done with Strung Out as it is a different language. Recorded over the course of a year in an old Hollywood mansion and at the legendary Casbah in Fullerton, Cruz and Howl — Buddy Darling/guitar (The Darlings), Chris Stein/bass (Saccharine Trust), Kris Comeaux/drums — have crafted a thoughtful exploration into the darker side of the human psyche against an upbeat, sexy soundscape that’s a country-punk cocktail with a shot of psychedelic. And if you think you’ve heard that tune before, well, probably not in this particular dialect.
Cruz took time away from his art (and a few domestic chores) to talk to me about work ethics, band chemistry and the magic of making music. Jason Cruz and Howl will debut the video for the song “High and Lonesome” at Bombay Bar on Saturday, April 19, along with a live performance and special guests The Pullmen and Goldy. Good Man’s Ruin, which was mastered for vinyl, will be released on April 29. Digital copies will also be available on iTunes, Amazon, Kingsroadmerch.com and Interpunk.com.
VCReporter: It appears that your professional life has always been connected to your creative pursuits. Have you ever had to work a crappy job to survive?
Jason Cruz: Yeah, I’ve been on my own since I was 17. As soon as I was able to mow the lawn my dad made me mow everyone’s lawn. I worked at LAX. I dropped out of high school, so I had to work. I started the band and worked in between shows and tours — laying carpet, silk screening, the worst shit ever. It’s an art to survive as an artist. Anyone can be an artist and say they’re an artist, but if you’re not feeding yourself and putting a roof over your head, you’re kind of failing, in a way.
How different is the world from the early days of your career and how has that affected all your forms of expression?
When I started, it was all about the DIY thing. People were struggling to grow up, the DIY thing was what punk was all about. Now with the death of the record industry and the [rise of] Internet, DIY won in a way. Anything is possible. You can do whatever you want. You can market yourself, you don’t need anybody’s help anymore. That’s the main difference. The only limit is the limit of your imagination. You can make yourself an empire. That’s the coolest thing about what’s going on right now.
Are you more inspired to write and paint by what makes you angry or what makes you happy?
I’m not an angry person. My daughter’s made me see the beauty in the world. I have a dark personality but I’m not an angry person. You can look at it as needing to be heard. The desperation of needing to be heard and having something to say. I’ve always been able to express myself. I’m more hyper-aware of what’s going around me now; it’s made me very acute and I take what I do more seriously because there’s more at stake.
At what point did you begin to feel the itch to do something musically apart from Strung Out?
Six years ago. I wasn’t the same person as I was when I was 17, but I didn’t want to make Strung Out something it wasn’t. I appreciate it more now because I’m not trying to force it to be something else. I was growing unhappy and there were expectations about who I was and what I was supposed to be, and I don’t feel that anymore. I have a lot to offer, and if no one is listening I’m going to do it anyway. The simple truth about what I do is, I work hard and if I have a moment I’m going to try to create something. Strung Out afforded me a lot of time to pursue other things. My dad taught me a work ethic at a young age and I try to apply that to being a very creative person. It is a discipline doing the work. I always tell kids that and I’m going to teach that to my daughter. If you have an idea, that’s one thing, but you have to implement it. You might be the only person who believes in it but that’s the hardest part. You have to believe in yourself. It’s a mind fuck.
What was your process for forming Howl and how has it evolved?
It started out with me and my brother, who is a fantastic flamenco player, and my best friend Chris Stein and then I got Buddy from The Darlings and it just clicked. I’m a very fortunate person to be surrounded by such amazingly creative people. I do a good job of bringing people together who mesh well. Creating something that’s bigger than the individual parts. And I think that’s what’s important about keeping a band together — maintaining the chemistry. No one likes it when a band switches members all the time. You’re characters in a play, and people like their characters.
Was there something you were specifically trying to accomplish or satisfy with this record?
Yes. Making kind of a weird druggie record that wasn’t auto-tuned. We recorded the drums in an old Hollywood mansion. I made sure everyone got vibed out. The whole recording process was vibed out. We really tried to not pretend like we’re in a 100-million-dollar studio with the clock ticking. I wanted it to be the exact opposite of that and the characters involved and the way we did things was spiritual in a way. We tried to make it so you could feel what we were talking about.
Did you write in the studio?
No. We had our material ready to go. You have to be prepared. If you’re going to approach a project, preparation is everything but you also need room for spontaneity. Magic happens when you’re prepared.
There’s a feminine quality to some of the songwriting on the record and women are somewhat prominent on it. How influential are women in your creative process?
I’ve said that a million times, that I bring the feminine vibe to Strung Out. There’s so much bravado to the metal [stuff]and I’ll be the first to admit that. The female figure is so inspirational to me. I paint my girls. I can’t really explain it but it does fuel everything I do.
How is Strung Out Jason different from Howl Jason?
Strung Out Jason doesn’t exist; Strung Out exists. I don’t go in with any kind of ego or expectations. I know exactly what to expect, what my job is, what’s expected of me and what I have to do to make these guys happy. I’m like a piece of a clock. I’m part of a team. Howl is different. It’s my spirit. It’s all Jason Cruz and I’ve got Buddy and Chris reinforcing it but turning it into something new at the same time.
I would think comparisons to Mike Ness’ solo stuff are inevitable. Was he an influence?
He was one of the first punks to acknowledge Hank Williams and Johnny Cash and American country music. He was the first guy — and John Doe and Exene too. That sad country music that I fucking love. I lived in Palmdale for a few years and that whole desert thing is a part of that too and Mike Ness made that cool. It’s beautiful sad music and it’s not cool to be a punker and listen to that. If you’re any kind of musician at all you’re going to find out who influenced your heroes and who influenced them and you’re going to follow that train of thought to find out who you are and what you love.
When you have a loyal fan base, do you feel an obligation to provide what fans want or is the obligation to yourself as an artist?
That’s a gnarly question and I think ultimately it’s with yourself. You’re not going to make good music if you’re not happy and fulfilled. It’s your obligation to challenge your fans. I have to show a new perspective to people who are expecting me to ’cause that’s my job. You have to take them on a journey but also show them something familiar. It’s a big game, and if you’re’ going to make a living at it you can’t deny the people what they came to see and at the same time show them something new. At the end of the day you’re an entertainer.