Paint Fumes

Lust for Life:
Paint Fumes Are as Tenacious as They Sound

I’ve already praised the sewage-smeared stomper that is Uck Life, Paint Fumes’ debut LP, in a review published in this very publication months ago. I’m not going to go track by track all over again, but it is worth noting a second time that the album is incredibly dynamic in its dirty garage-psych debauchery. They’re thoroughly electrifying – and that’s a high that can only be hit by songwriters and musicians who are, by nature, super-charged human beings. Paint Fumes are as insane and vibrant in real life as their rowdy, balls-to-the-wall recordings suggest.

The North Carolina trio’s frontman is Elijah Von Cramon, a sorta scraggly haired guy on the shorter side who typically sports an old-school biker cap and wears his ripped-up jeans tucked into his boots. He’s only one-third of the reason there’s something especially intense about the way these guys collectively operate, but his gumption could stand alone as proof of that claim. While walking home one evening last February, Von Cramon was hit by a truck. A broken hip and multiple fractures to his pelvis and shoulder were among the damages, which resulted in a slew of surgeries and a three-month hospital stay. His quick recovery is damn near miraculous.

“I was supposed to be in a wheelchair for like a year,” he says. “And then I ended up only being in there for four months, three months.”

This past October, he was back on the road again with guitarist Brett Whittlesey and drummer Josh Johnson. Compared to some bands, Paint Fumes really didn’t skip a beat this year. They didn’t drop off the radar, that’s for certain. They even released a three-song EP dubbed Sally in April. But, truth be told, they’re in the middle of a tough financial issue – and not just in terms of Von Cramon’s inevitably mountainous pile of medical bills. When the forced hiatus abruptly hit, Paint Fumes was weeks away from embarking on a tour of the West Coast and Puerto Rico. Their label, Slovenly Records, had already booked all the flights.

“Yeah, we still owe ‘em money. That’s pretty much all I gotta say about it,” Von Cramon laughs, then pauses. “We still owe ‘em money. But you know, I mean, they’re nice. We just still owe ‘em money. That’s all I gotta say about it.”

Von Cramon kept it short about the money complications, so I did too. He didn’t want to “put anybody down,” and neither do I. Somehow, Paint Fumes managed to make it to Puerto Rico during their recently wrapped post-accident jaunt. That’s when I, an Atlanta ex-pat living in San Juan, got to know them better. (Full disclosure: I helped organize their shows. But does it really matter? I didn’t make a profit, and I’ve got nothing to do with the Atlanta show that coincides with this feature. So suck it, ethics!)

While they were in San Juan, they recorded for the first time since the Uck Life sessions.

“It was with Los Vigilantes, a Bo Diddley song called ‘Elephant Man,’” Von Cramon says.

Jota Vigilante – of Puerto Rican garage-punk act Los Vigilantes, naturally – was able to get everything but his vocals when they visited his in-home studio, Von Cramon adds.

“The band name we’re doing is…Las Bolletos?” Johnson says, or attempts to say, rather.

Von Cramon can’t remember either – I hear him in the background: “Bo…uh, Bolleros?”

“How do you say pussy eaters in Spanish?” Johnson asks.

(I asked Jota once the interview was done. It’s Los Bolleros.)

“It’s [for a comp on] Slovenly, but it’s their sister label called Black Gladiator records. So we were like, we’ll do the Bo Diddley song on his record called Black Gladiator. So it’s a win-win situation. What do you call it, killing two birds with two rocks? One rock and two birds? Two rocks and one pipe?” Johnson chuckles.

Before Von Cramon reminded me they’d toured with Los Vigilantes, I thought Davila 666, with whom Paint Fumes played not long after forming, was responsible for their fondness for the Caribbean. I mean, it’s not often that a band from the states is so steadfast about a trip to the island.

“That [show] was maybe our fifth show that was not in my basement, because that was when I was running house shows,” Von Cramon notes. “That was right when we first started. Our first drummer was only with us for like three months, then Josh [Johnson] joined the band.”

Believe it or not, all of that happened only two years ago. Paint Fumes’ live show is so naturally volcanic, the fact that Johnson and Von Cramon didn’t even know each other beforehand sounds made up, like an inside joke gone rogue. It wasn’t until Johnson got an email from Von Cramon asking if he could perform – he has a solo project called Pinche Gringo – at a house show that they first communicated.

“He thought I lived in Canada. I was like, dude, I live like an hour from you. Well, he didn’t know all that until I got to his house,” Johnson recalls.

I hear Von Cramon say something about Bloodshot Bill in the background. Johnson clarifies: He hangs out with the Canadian rockabilly raconteur, so Von Cramon assumed Johnson must be Canadian too.

“I went to [Von Cramon’s] house and I did a bunch of speed, and we stayed up all night and became butt buddies, skateboarding…” Johnson says. “He helped me out through my speed-freak phase. He was sober at the time, and we just skated all morning. I was like, I really like your band, your band rules, but your drummer’s kind of terrible. I wasn’t asking to be in the band, but I was like, if you ever get rid of your drummer, give me a call.”

Within a month, he did.

“So we started playing, then went in the studio and recorded a record in like two hours then got on Slovenly, and now we’re doing what we do,” Johnson concludes.

While Whittlesey holds court as lead guitarist, Von Cramon adds an almost equally significant share of blistering handiwork. There’s no bass to underscore or guide Paint Fumes – only two guitars and drums – yet the trash-and-thrash tunes are still deep and booming. Surprisingly, Paint Fumes is Von Cramon’s sole foray into performing. He’d hardly played prior to starting the band.

“I mean, I’d fucked around a little bit, but not at all really. I didn’t know what I was doing at all. I didn’t know how to play a power chord or, like, a bar chord,” he admits. “I can’t barely tune my own guitar. I’m pretty bad at it. But I’m figuring it out – day by day.”

Up until 2011, Von Cramon spent the bulk of his time lording over Sewercide Mansion, his Charlotte home that regularly hosted basement shows. It’s where he honed his performance skills.

“When we first started off, it was so new for all of us that I was super stiff. I used to get really nervous, so I never went crazy,” he points out. “But once I got more into stuff and not scared…and everything started getting loose, shit would get pretty fuckin’ wild. I mean, that basement was a shithole. It got insane down there, like bad insane, like weird stuff would happen.”

How weird, exactly?

“There’d just be so many people there, and people getting so wasted. One time we found some dude jerking off behind a curtain. Super weird stuff. People smoking crack in the back, our neighbors. Just crazy shit,” he says.

The shenanigans were destructive enough that “no one can live there ever again,” he says. It’s currently condemned – and it was mostly Von Cramon’s doing, he confesses. Once he left, some “junkies” took over his portion of the lease.

“They ripped up all the carpet and stole the washer and dryer, and left. Yeah, so it’s even worse now,” he laughs. “But it’s not in my name, so fuck it, I’m not too worried about it. The last thing I know of is weird people living in there, like squatting in there. I feel really bad for the landlord. I feel really bad. But it was a fun time. It was a really fun time.”

Once Von Cramon decided to start Paint Fumes, he leaned on the rock ‘n’ roll acts he loved for lessons. He’s big on ‘60s garage and the Killed by Death collections of ‘70s and ‘80s punk, but he primarily relied on contemporary outfits when he started out.

“That’s how I started to learn how to play the guitar – listening to those things [like] King Khan and BBQ Show and Jacuzzi Boys. I listened to that stuff and tried to learn how to play their songs, because all their stuff is pretty simple,” he says.

Paint Fumes’ sound was so distinctively revved-up that their ascent was impressively fast. It’s just been two years since the firing of their starter pistol, and they’ve already played shows with a lot of the bands that Von Cramon looked to for training.

“It’s been pretty fucking surreal. That shit weirds me out still to this day,” he says.

They’re currently plotting a sophomore LP. The plan is to record in Puerto Rico with Jota Vigilante. Johnson even hopes to spend a while on the island before the gang journeys to Europe. He was recently hauled to the slammer, though, so he’ll have to wait until after his court date.

“I had an outstanding warrant for a drunk and disorderly charge, like eight years ago in Chapel Hill where I used to live. I thought I took care of it, but I guess I didn’t. I don’t know, I was on my way to the mountains and I was asleep in my friend’s car, and he got mad at me because I got arrested. But it was his fault because he didn’t have tags on his car. So it was weird. I spent all my tour money bailing myself out of jail, so I kind of need to go to court so I can get my money back. But I’ll probably just have to spend it all on a fine,” he sighs.

Johnson, like Von Cramon, possesses a generally forward-thinking mentality – in regards to music-making, at least.

“The jail actually sounded pretty cool. I whistled, and it was great. Like, the noise in there was pretty cool. I’d like to record in there – that’s what I told the cops. I said, ‘Can I come back and record in this room? It sounds good. Good acoustics.’ You gotta make the best out of wherever you’re at!” he laughs.

It seems there isn’t much that can bog down Paint Fumes’ drive. Jail, court cases, panic attacks, being plowed by a vehicle while on foot – none of those hurdles have legitimately slowed their stride. Despite having freshly wrapped a month-long tour, a handful of one-off dates are already on the books, and they hope to add more. I’m not surprised.

Photo by Tim Song.