IT'S BEEN an eventful couple of weeks for Crazy Bag Lady. Their frontman, Josh Sterno, has a shiner (self-inflicted, a souvenir from a house show) and some unrelated canker sores, but they're healing up.
The band just returned from a tour with label mates Burnt Books, playing all manner of venues, including a straight edge house in Ohio where they were served some rad vegan salsa and a girl was shot in the stomach a couple of blocks away.
In Baltimore, a woman informed Sterno that punk is dead and he ought to give up and start playing black metal. Ah, it's good to be home.
For a band with a sound that sends the needle on the barometer of heavy music completely haywire, Crazy Bag Lady's strength has always been in their ability to win over a crowd—any crowd. And they fight for it. Sterno's hung from his toes on rafters, run outside and jumped on top of a parked limo, faux-strangled himself with mic cords.
He has a rare ability to both be an over-the-top showman and an inviting everyman, always playing with the line between crowd and band.
"Sometimes shows are weird at first, then boom, we play," says drummer Daniel Lynch. "Whether you like us or not, you're at the show now."
Their first LP, Hunks, is CBL in an entirely new medium, unprotected from the churning, sweaty shell of a show. Available May 1 on Retro Futurist Records, even folks who have seen the band multiple times (and if you go to rock shows in Savannah, you most likely have) will hear something new and wonderfully difficult to define.
"People have said repetitively that it kind of makes them think about '77 punk," says Daniel.
"I don't really think about it much, but I do think about the time frame. Punk was going out, the straight-up rock, garagey, Ramones-type punk was going out that era, then there was new wave, and post-punk, stuff like that. So it makes sense. We're not straight-up punk—we're not a straight-up anything band."
The offer from Retro Futurist, the label founded by Kylesa's core members, was perfectly timed; Crazy Bag Lady was playing any and every show, feverishly cranking out new material to diversify their setlists.
Catch 'em three times in one week, and you'd see a different show every time. The material was tighter than ever and all of the songs were ready to go; no fussing or studio tinkering here.
"We went in there and [producer/engineer Phillip Cope] said, 'if you guys are easy to work with, I'm easy to work with,'" recalls Sterno.
In two days, they'd tracked the entire album, holed up in Columbia's Jam Room Studios.
"We basically cut the whole record musically the first day," says Daniel.
Sterno sang for seven hours the next day; after that, it was time to mix. It's exactly how they wanted to do it—aside from some doubling to beef up the guitars and Sterno's vocals, the band played it straight.
"It's just our first record," says Daniel. "When we were there, we just wanted to have a recording of what we did."
"The songs were already written," adds guitarist Derek Lynch. "We didn't need to expand them anymore."
"We were so anxious," Daniel remembers. "'Get in! Let's do it! It's about time!'"
The frenzy of a CBL show requires each member to lock into their instrument; it's a collaborative effort of wrangling a beast into submission, with every man for himself. Going into the studio was an entirely different experience.
"[Live], we're not thinking of the songs being just like, songs," Daniel says. "We're thinking about what we're doing onstage. Josh is going nuts doing whatever he does, we're focused on trying to keep up—it's really fast stuff. We want to have a good time, but we don't want to stray and lose the momentum that we're playing."
Don't mistake difference for dilution.
"The aggression is there—the intensity, the speed," Derek asserts. "It's just clear. That's one thing I love, though—I don't write the lyrics, that's Josh and Daniel. And I love the lyrics on this album; you can hear them all."
On first listen, Sterno's vocals are almost jarringly different; then again, this is a documentation of a frontman in a sound booth; the vocal impact that comes with the physicality of leaping from speakers and hoisting fans in the air is absent.
Derek tells Sterno that he sounds comfortable on the record, and he's right; the musicality of Sterno's voice is front and center, and there's a brightness never captured live. The lyrics, usually buried in a live mix, step up as a vital player on Hunks, riddled in anxiety and frustration, with a few love songs thrown in the mix.
"A lot of the dynamics that we do that are easier to mix than when we play them live," adds bassist Zak Barnum. "It was kind of overwhelming for us, too, when we heard them."
"When we play a show, people come up and say, 'man, that's a really cool punk show,'" says Daniel. "They think it's some junky, trashy punk show—which it is—that's the experience. That's the foreground. The background is the songs. So on this, it's like, the foreground is the songs. Which is odd for us, but the more time it's taken, the more that I'm super-stoked."
The record's a scorcher, but damn if it isn't catchy as hell. In the end, the Bag boys' ability to write a great hook is what makes them so great. Add the live show, and it's no wonder they've charmed people of all musical tastes.
"We've come from pretty weird places where the thought is usually, 'who cares what you think?'" Daniel says. "But you hear the record and—some of these are poppy...you start wondering, 'how is this going to hit?'"
Sterno wonders if snobbier listeners will find it too clean, quickly verifying that he doesn't care if they do. While the band's anxious for feedback, outside opinion is in no way going to alter the CBL way.
"We fall on a really weird place in heavy music," says Derek. "We are just heavy enough where metal people can like us, and we're just weird enough where people who like experimental stuff can like us. We don't have a home, per say."
The Hunks release party bill is a celebration of local bands with Sins of Godless Men, Curb Dogs, and Garden Giant, the latter playing their first show. In some ways, it'll feel just like any other night at Hang Fire, a stage on which it seems CBL spends much of their waking life.
However, with a full merch table in the back, it's guaranteed to be anything but. CS