Crocodiles

The Politics of Pop:
Crocodiles Bite Back

San Diego’s Crocodiles are inadvertently reminding us that what is accessible to the masses isn’t necessarily drivel. They’re a fuzz-lovin’ group whose influences are often grittier than the glitter of their eternally melodic brand of noise pop – a mix that makes them likeable, even radio friendly.

But they are by no means a slick, baseless studio band. They’re still very much independent, operating on the whims of their own artistic inclinations with no pipe dreams of selling out their hometown arena. In a way, they’re tinkering with today’s standards of credibility – in essence, the politics of pop.

What’s easy on the mainstream ear is hard to define. Songs deemed popular by radio stations, record sales or Spotify listens have ping-ponged on a spectrum as vast as the ways we’ve gauged popularity over the years. A tried-and-true characteristic of many a successful tune, however, is the ability to sing along to it – and there’s no shortage of those in the Crocodiles’ repertoire. The band’s most recent LP – their third – is Endless Flowers, and it’s chock-full of hummable, danceable songs, like the cheery-sounding but lyrically depressing  title track, the more raucous “My Surfing Lucifer” and “Bubblegum Trash,” a cute-meets-grit ditty that channels girl groups in its high-octave vocals and background la la las. Even their self-recorded 7-inch debut, Neon Jesus, is quite the jammer.

The catchiness factor certainly makes Crocodiles’ sound more generally appealing. Their reach apparently extends even to fans of the Temper Trap, a band responsible for one of those infuriating “if I hear this shit one more time…” songs. (For anyone who generally manages to avoid hearing mainstream or adult soft rock radio, I’m talking about “Sweet Disposition” – and I envy your ignorance.) They just wrapped up eight dates with the Australian band at high-capacity venues like Stubb’s in Austin and the Hollywood Palladium in L.A.

“The Temper Trap thing, that wasn’t really our idea,” says frontman Brandon Welchez. “I wouldn’t have chosen a tour like that, but the business people around us obviously want us in front of bigger audiences. I don’t know, we do what we do. Obviously a big audience would be great. But it’s not important enough to us that we would compromise what we do as artists, we just do what we do. If it finds an audience, that’s amazing, but if it doesn’t, that’s fine as well. We just want to make records that we’re happy with and play shows the way we play shows. Whatever happens, happens, I guess…you know?”

Welchez seems to need to qualify his credibility as a musician at the mere mention of the Temper Trap. He wouldn’t say anything else about the tour, really.

Maybe because Welchez and company honestly have little business being lumped in with a band like that. To be clear, by “a band like that” I mean one whose initial introduction came via a seasoned, big-shot producer known for his work with Silverchair and whose mushy-brained songs end up on the soundtrack for film and TV work such as (500) Days of Summer, Greek, The Roommate, One Tree Hill and a season of the UK’s Big Brother.

Before the tour, Welchez apparently was among the lucky few who’d never heard the band.

Further disqualifying Crocodiles from those ranks is the fact that Anna Schulte of the Slits is now the band’s permanent drummer. Even if the band looked like Blink-182, they’d still be taken somewhat seriously solely for the inclusion of Schulte.

And from the get-go, they simply aren’t one of those bands. Their first 7-inch, Neon Jesus, was released on Zoo Music, which Welchez co-owns. He founded the label in 2008 with Dum Dum Girls ringleader Dee Dee, whom he married that same year. They met one night at a bar in San Diego when their former bands were on the same all-local bill.

In an early afternoon phone call, I ask Welchez how Zoo Music is going. He tells me to hold on, then whispers to Dee Dee for a few seconds. They’ve just woken up. “It’s up to you,” is all I can decipher.

He tells me that in addition to upcoming LPs from Dirty Beaches and Punks on Mars, their collaboration as a couple, Haunted Hearts, will likely release a 7-inch.

None of that sounds typical of a band that open for the Temper Trap, and that’s not the last of the evidence in favor of Crocodiles as a legitimate, good band. The fact that Dee Dee is Welchez’s wife shouldn’t count too much. The fact that Joanna Newsom dates Andy Sandberg doesn’t make her any less an indie-folk weirdo, right? To be honest, the creep in me felt compelled to include the bit about Dee Dee and Welchez in bed, regardless of whether it worked for the story or not. Sorry for the confusion.

Crocodiles recorded their second LP, Sleep Forever, in a way that may have helped them learn to stick to their guns, with award-winning producer James Ford. The Simian Mobile Disco member has worked with Florence and the Machine, Klaxons (he won the Mercury Prize for Myths of the Near Future), Arctic Monkeys and Beth Ditto.

“Our manager at the time and his manager were friends, and his manager told our manager that he was a fan of our first record,” Welchez explains. “Which was surprising to us…because it’s such a kind of homemade, you know, really rough little thing. But we found out he was a fan of it, and our respective managers thought it would be interesting for us to work together.”

Maybe the band cleaned up a smidge for Sleep Forever, but the sound quality didn’t affect the overall vibe.

“I think there’s…expectations on [Ford] that when he works with a band, the end result is supposed to be really radio friendly,” Welchez says. “He’s got a wider palette than that. He’s not really given the opportunity to explore that as often because of those expectations. Working with a band like us, there’s no expectations for us to have hits. We’re on independent labels and we’re allowed to do what we do without people breathing down our neck about accessibility or anything like that.”

At the time, the only official members of Crocodiles were Welchez and Charles Rowell, with whom he founded the band. The two met as teenagers at an Anti-Racist Action meeting in the ‘90s.

“Basically San Diego had this little punk scene that we were part of [and it] was kind of being infiltrated and overrun by neo-Nazis,” Welchez recalls. “[It was] like, and still is, a pretty big problem in southern California. I don’t know if Orange County is still the capital of that kind of stuff, but it definitely was in the ‘90s. And San Diego was no exception. It had its own Ku Klux Klan chapter and there was a pretty big problem with Nazi skinheads. And obviously the punk scene was something they would gravitate toward – fuck with kids, beat people up and ruin our shows and stuff. [Rowell] and I didn’t know each other but we were part of the same scene, and that scene kind of banded together in some way to oust these people. So I met him at one of those meetings, I guess in ’98 or something like that. And then we started playing music not too late after that, maybe a year or a year and a half later.”

Welchez goes on to explain that they successfully expelled the unwelcome neo-Nazis. When I ask how, he plainly responds: “Violence.”

“Everyone was scared to do anything. But it just got to the point that, yes, we are all little but five of us can do some damage to one of them. They never came in huge groups – one or two or three or four of them would come to our shows and completely run them and ruin them,” Welchez says. “It just got to the point where it was like, this is our scene. I don’t even know if we could articulate it correctly at the time, but it’s like, ‘We’re trying to do something positive and creative and you’re just fucking assholes. You thrive on hate,’ you know. Enough is enough. We just kicked the shit out of them eventually. In groups. And they got the message.”

That kind of solidarity – and how Welchez refers to the endeavor – likely carried over into Welchez and Rowell’s work in music. Not to diminish the seriousness of being bullied by neo-Nazis, but Welchez and Rowell face some hardships with Crocodiles. Compromise in the name of success is one. How many bands started out decently but handed over their dignity in return for widespread fame? That decision is part of the politics of pop. Crocodiles’ effect on those politics is apparent when I ask Welchez if he and Rowell are still politically active.

“I think that everybody, whether they realize it or not, is political. I think you can’t go through life without politics. Everything is politics, down to where you choose to spend your money and what you choose to do for a living. It’s all politics,” he notes. “I’m definitely political. I’m not someone that is on the frontline of any protest or anything like that, but we have our politics… The way that we choose to make a living and try to put food on our tables, we’re not cogs in some machine that we don’t agree with. We’re not making money for some boss that we don’t agree with, or some corporation that we don’t agree with. We’re artists, and we’re trying to generate a living for ourselves through art, and do something positive and possible affect other people. I think that’s political in and of itself.”

I’d rather Crocodiles don’t tour with a band like the Temper Trap ever again. I bet Welchez feels similarly. But even if they do, at least we’ll know they’ll sound the same.