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Had a Chance

We do this because we love it," the Crumbs guitarist Johnny B declares over a pint of Guinness in singer-guitarist Raf Classic's Spartan South Miami apartment. "There sure isn't any money in it." In this statement are enough grains of truth to brew a keg of stout. After eight years of fighting the good punk-rock fight and two albums on Lookout! Records -- the California indie label that inflicted Green Day upon the world -- the Crumbs are right back where they started: a misunderstood, balls-out, four-on-the-floor punk band with a huge local following and a tiny bank account.

The Crumbs creative team of Raf and Johnny B bonded during their yearlong tenure in Miami with noise/sludge band Cavity. When Classic tired of playing doom rock and left the group in March 1993 to start the Crumbs, he retained Cavity guitarist Johnny B and convinced prominent scenesters Emil Four and a Half and Chuck Loose to join them on bass and drums respectively -- despite the fact that neither Emil nor Chuck knew how to play. "We started out very simple," Johnny B states. "The songs were three chords -- just like they are now. You don't need to be a musician to play that stuff." Nor do you need to be a musician to enjoy it.

After recording an EP, I Fell in Love with an Alien Girl, on Recess Records, the Crumbs crammed into Emil's Toyota and departed for Los Angeles, beginning their now-legendary transportation troubles. "Our van made it to the first exit in Fort Lauderdale before breaking down," Classic recalls. "It looked like the clown car in the circus."

Eventually the Crumbs hooked up with SoFla punk label Far Out Records. Along with label mates Against All Authority, the Belltones, and Hudson, the Crumbs began a phenomenon never before seen in South Florida: massive local indie-label brand loyalty. Much like Sub Pop's love affair with Seattle or Merge's honeymoon with Chapel Hill, Far Out defined the new sound of the subtropics: head-bopping, danceable hardcore that gutter punks, college kids, Chelsea girls, and tough guys could all appreciate. Far Out showcases were regularly held in the Mudhouse, the dirt-filled patio in the Fort Lauderdale building that housed Far Out's storefront. As the shows grew in size, so did their outlaw element: During one performance someone reportedly pulled out a gun in the pit. By October 1995 the Far Out showcases were packing the 1000-capacity Edge (now the Chili Pepper) in Fort Lauderdale.

Soon the Crumbs became the first band in South Florida history to land on a large independent label. Lookout! president Chris Grenapple was impressed enough by the band's live set to offer the Crumbs a contract. The band temporarily relocated to Lafayette, Indiana, to record their Lookout! debut. Lafayette bored the boys out of their minds and forced them to concentrate on the recording process.

When the Crumbs returned home after recording their album and subsequently touring, drummer Loose left the band, and Classic brought aboard Marcio "Grim" Gemelli as a replacement. Immediately after Gemelli joined the Crumbs, they embarked on what was supposed to be a two-month, 50-date tour. The ensuing van disasters included memorable breakdowns outside Jackson, Mississippi; in the Mojave Desert's 117-degree heat; and finally in Albuquerque. After two weeks the Crumbs sold their cursed vehicle for $300, borrowed all the money they could, and headed home in a U-Haul. "Grim was so excited to go on tour," Classic chuckles. "After the third time we broke down, he asked: "Is this really how it is?' We told him, "Welcome to the Crumbs!'"

After a much-deserved break back home in Florida, the Crumbs began retooling their sound. "Even when we were in Cavity, we listened to roots music," Johnny B states. "When we started the Crumbs, it wasn't supposed to be serious, so we just played power chords. We weren't worried about playing the music we listened to. But when Grim joined the band, we had the ability to play more stuff -- so we did. We wanted to get away from the Ramones sound because there were so many bands doing the same thing. We wanted to make it sound like us."

In order to capture their new roots appeal, the Crumbs traveled to Memphis. At the end of each recording day, the Crumbs drank at Sun Studios and summoned the ghosts of Elvis and Howlin' Wolf. The finished product, Low and Behold, is a collection of ten rip-roaring tunes fit for both juke joint and mosh pit. Classic's vocals are snarled to reassure any punk purist that the Crumbs haven't gone soft. But just to tweak the Maximum Rock & Roll crowd, they breathe new life into the blues standard "I Got My Mojo Working" by giving it a neck-snapping tempo that any hardcore freak would appreciate.

Wary of another dis-as-tour, the Crumbs supported Low and Behold with a series of shorter journeys. For the next two years, they made frequent excursions around the United States, winding up at industry events such as the New York City CMJ music marathon in 1999 and Austin's SXSW music orgy last year. The Lone Star capital's combination of great music and cheap beer impressed the Crumbs, who decided to return there to record their next record. Unfortunately Lookout! was busy pushing all-girl punkers the Donnas and couldn't offer the Crumbs an acceptable release date. "We didn't want to wait around with our thumbs up our asses," Classic declares. "So we gave Recess a call, and they were down for it."

Back on their original label, the Crumbs this past August headed to Austin to record Out of Range, an evil, grease-stained, garage-punk record that fits right in with the town's legendary 13th Floor Elevators. The guitars rumble under layers of fuzz that would smother any Mudhoney fan. Classic's vocals still sneer, but this time the violence in his voice is muted by a time-worn, whiskeyed wetness that sounds more concerned with catching last call than inciting a barroom brawl. Even more significant is the Crumbs reclamation of Miami's punk heritage. Both '60s garage hellions the Tasmanians and '80s underground icons Charlie Pickett and the Eggs are represented with covers of their respective barnburners "Doing Me Wrong" and "If This Is Love (Then I Want My Money Back)." Classic explains, "Emil has tapes of every obscure Florida punk-rock band that's ever recorded. We loved those songs and wanted to spread their disease far and wide."

With Out of Range's release imminent, the Crumbs are already busy with new projects. The first chore is to break in new bassist Pep Flores, who came aboard when Emil had to find a real job to pay off some debts. The second is Pill City USA, a collection of new tunes and unreleased tracks to be issued on Recess this summer. And the Crumbs have already written half the material for an all-new record and are on schedule to record it by the end of the year. "We want to record another 20 songs and put half of them on an album and half of them on singles," says the hard-working Johnny B. "We need to remind the world that we're still here."

Asked to predict the Crumbs' future, Classic says, "I don't see an end to it. And even if everything goes to hell, we can always play Churchill's."

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Tom Bowker

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