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Members include Ed Crawford (born c. 1964 in Ohio), guitar, vocals; George Hurley, drums; and Mike Watt (born c. 1958 in Virginia; married Kira Roessler [a musician]), bass, vocals. Addresses: Record company-- Columbia Records, 2100 Colorado Ave., Santa Monica, CA 90404; 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211.
Southern California's fIREHOSE rose from the ashes of the seminal postpunk band the Minutemen; the latter came to an abrupt halt when their influential singer-guitarist, D. Boon, died in a 1985 automobile accident. When bassist Mike Watt and drummer George Hurley decided to start anew with untested Ohio native Ed Crawford in 1986, they did so to carry on the do-it-yourself tradition of punk rock that had inspired them to play music in the first place. In the intervening years, fIREHOSE has established itself as a fixture in the mercurial rock world--"alternative" before it was fashionable and firmly independent even after signing with a major label. According to Billboard, the gruff, personable Watt has been elevated to "folk hero" status among record company executives for his keen sense of business in handling the band's affairs. This no-nonsense sensibility surrounds not only the band's logistical values, but its music as well; though the members of fIREHOSE eschew the brevity-at-all-costs ideology of the Minutemen, they strive to "make it econo," as one of their songs declares.
The Minutemen came from San Pedro, site of the Los Angeles harbor. The town has never hosted a thriving music scene--L.A.'s clubs are located mostly in Hollywood--but it was where Mike Watt and D. Boon grew up together as best friends. Watt was born in Virginia, but his Navy father moved the family to "Pedro" (as Watt would come to call it) when Mike was nine. In 1978 Watt, Boon, Hurley and a singer formed a group called the Reactionaries; 18 months later the singer had departed and the band's name had been changed to the Minutemen. They began performing wherever they could. "The only gigs we could get were opening for [L.A. punk luminaries] Black Flag," Watt recalled to Steve Peters of Creem.
The Minutemen sound wasn't nearly as one-dimensional as the quasi-metallic thrash and "destroy everything" lyrics of most punk; it mixed hard rock, jazzy passages, and a funky groove with terse, cryptic, and usually political messages and in so doing, significantly broadened the palette of independent rock. Their working-class backgrounds both differentiated the Minutemen from their bored, suburban colleagues and gave them more to sing about. Guitarist Greg Ginn, leader of Black Flag, signed the trio to his SST label and for five years, the Minutemen toured and released albums full of honed, evocative, furious compositions that were sometimes no more than 30 seconds long. "The stories we told were little moral plays and stuff, but I don't think that was our trump," Watt told Option. "Our trump was personality and fraternity and stuff like that. It sure as hell wasn't foxy looks."
One particularly enthusiastic convert to their eclectic sound was Ed Crawford. The 21 year old saw the Minutemen play in a small club. "Rarely have I been so moved by a live show," he told Creem' s Peters. "I got up on top of this damn bar railing, because I wanted to see this. To watch D. Boon up there like that ... I thought, 'Man, if he can do that, I can do that.' They really inspired me to think about rock in realistic terms." After seeing the band, Crawford--trained on the trumpet--bought his first electric guitar. A few months later, D. Boon died on the road somewhere in the Arizona desert.
Devastated by the loss of his closest friend, Watt was disinclined to do anything--let alone start another band. He hadn't even attended Boon's funeral. "I wouldn't carry D. Boon's casket," he recalled to Peters. "I wouldn't put him in the ground. He was too strong a man. I didn't want to put him to rest." Watt and Hurley tried playing with their friend former Saccharine Trust guitarist Joe Baiza but didn't feel any special musical chemistry. Meanwhile, back in the Midwest, Crawford heard--erroneously--that the surviving Minutemen were auditioning guitarists. He grabbed his guitar and headed for California, determined to find Watt and play with his favorite rhythm section. "I thought, if I have a snowball's chance in hell, I thought it would be because I'm from Ohio and he doesn't know who I am and I've never been in a band," the guitarist recollected to Option' s Scott Becker. "That's the only thing I have going for me. It was something I couldn't not try."
Crawford was right. Watt told Becker, "This guy kept calling me up, kept calling and calling," and he finally agreed to try him out. "Ed just wanted a chance to go for it. He was influenced by bands like the Police, U2, stuff very foreign to me. He didn't play electric guitar till he saw D. Boon. He knew a lot of our tunes like a hack would, note for note. It was like fate, like D. Boon landed on me out of a tree when I was a kid." Crawford struggled with the guitar, but his sheer determination touched something in Watt. "I knew he must have a powerful hankering to do it," he explained to Creem. "So I could really start over, you know what I mean? I knew I'd have a chance." Soon they were a band; taking their name from a Bob Dylan song, they began to play live. Their first gig was in June of 1986. "I remember it distinctly," Crawford joked to Becker. "It was all one big blur."
Crawford's melodic, wailing vocals were a far cry from D. Boon's pointed proto-rap talk-singing, and his relatively less-aggressive guitar stylings forced the rhythm section up front. "It was like the tail wagging the dog," Watt told Becker. "Drummers and bass players aren't supposed to [lead] the guitar player. But me and George are weird players." Watt's inventiveness led to ever more supple, soulful basslines against Hurley's nimble percussion. The first fIREHOSE album, Ragin', Full On, released by SST in 1986, begins with Crawford singing the first song Watt wrote for him: "Brave Captain," about an uncertain leader stumbling to marshall his troops. "Consistently interesting, if occasionally tentative, Ragin', Full-On should lead to some formidable sequels," opined Jon Young of Musician. The band released two more albums for the independent label, If'n and fROMOHIO --chock full of ringing guitars, angular funk, tricky arrangements, and Watt's cryptic "spiels," or lyrics. Musician critic David Gerard felt the former album "was an unusually sharp, concise piece of rock commentary," and the latter "no exception." The band also released an EP for SST called Sometimes.
For the most part, fIREHOSE recorded their albums quickly and cheaply; they spent the majority of their time on the road, where the power of their sonic assault could be fully communicated to fans. In 1991 the band made an unexpected move, however--they signed with a major label, Columbia. Though many of their supporters feared a sellout, fIREHOSE quickly dispelled such concerns with their eclectic, loud next set, Flyin' the Flannel. It was around this time that "alternative" rock, exemplified by heavy, punk-influenced "grunge" bands like Seattle's Nirvana, lay siege to the charts. One multiplatinum alternative album, 1991's Blood Sugar Sex Magik, by longtime L.A. stalwarts the Red Hot Chili Peppers, was, in fact, dedicated to Watt. "Alternative," to the horror of Watt and his cohorts, had become fashionable; the flannel shirts he had bought at thrift shops for years were suddenly being sold in fancy boutiques. "I know all about this grunge," he scoffed to Option. "It'll blow over in a year."
Watt particularly impressed his new employers with his business savvy. While most bands survive on advances and tour support, sacrificing later profits that the companies "recoup," fIREHOSE never took a penny to go on the road. "Most bands tour to promote records," Watt revealed to Billboard. "We make records to promote tours." He further noted in an Option interview, "We go out there in the van, and these [record company] guys see the shelf unit and the safe welded to the floor ... they've never seen this. They're used to signing $10,000-a-week checks to keep bands on the road." fIREHOSE's modus operandi, he added pointedly, is "punk rock"--not just a musical style, but "a way of doing things." Peter Fletcher, a marketing executive at Columbia, expressed to Billboard his amazement that "Mike can take care of himself start to finish. He gives us a tour booked six months in advance, drops the album package on my desk." The company only has to "get the record in stores and they'll do the rest."
1992 saw the release of the Live Totem Pole EP, a collection of mostly cover tunes. Rolling Stone noted of the outing, "Crawford has grown to be a compelling singer and incisive guitarist" and added, "this rowdy latest chapter will no doubt delight the faithful." Watt took some time to develop a side project, a two-bass and vocals band called Dos that he'd formed with his wife, Kira Roessler, formerly of Black Flag. But fIREHOSE issued another blast with 1993's Mr. Machinery Operator, which was produced by Dinosaur Jr. leader J. Mascis. Featuring a bevy of guest players, more of Watt's growling vocals than usual, and a sprawl of ambitious songs, the album nonetheless promised more than it delivered, according to Rolling Stone' s John Dougan, who called it an "indulgent hodgepodge." Still, Dougan remarked, "Bands this good don't go bad overnight. Mr. Machinery Operator isn't a harbinger; it's a misstep."
Whatever the fate of fIREHOSE records with critics, the band has demonstrated its ability to survive adversity through camaraderie and hard work; the ethic of "punk rock" that encouraged the Minutemen to pick up their instruments has helped Watt, Hurley, and Crawford through changing times and the labyrinth of the music business. Ultimately, Watt confided to Creem, it's about getting on a stage and performing: "If I'm not shuckin' 'n' jivin' in front of people, I feel like I'm failing miserably."
by Simon Glickman
Band formed in San Pedro, CA, 1986; released debut album, Ragin', Full On, SST Records, 1986; signed with Columbia Records and released Flyin' the Flannel, 1991.
- Selective Works
- On SST Records Ragin', Full On (includes "Brave Captain"), 1986.
- If'n 1987.
- Sometimes (EP), 1988.
- fROMOHIO 1989.
- On Columbia/Sony Flyin' the Flannel 1991.
- Live Totem Pole EP 1992.
- Mr. Machinery Operator 1993.
- Billboard, May 1, 1993.
- Creem, July 1987; July 1988; June 1993.
- Guitar World, November 1991.
- Musician, April 1987; July 1989; September 1989.
- Option, November 1986; May 1993.
- Rolling Stone, February 6, 1992; May 27, 1993.
- Spin, March 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Columbia Records publicity materials, 1993.
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