By STEVE MASCORD
“TO sell art in the first place is borderline comical.”
This comment from Whitfield Crane, Ugly Kid Joe’s 46-year-old frontman, comes in the middle of a longer monologue and is never expanded upon.
But for a band caught in the cracks between hair metal and grunge at the end of the 1980s, it’s a statement that places Crane firmly in the latter genre, ideologically at least. You can’t imagine Gene Simmons uttering anything remotely similar.
By the time you read this, Crane and his bandmates Klaus Eichstadt, Cordell Crockett, Dave Fortman
and Shannon Larkin will be in Australia for the first time since 1997, and as a touring band for the first time since ’93, doing a run of capital cities on a co-headlining bill with Skid Row.
In ’97, Crane came to Oz straight from a “hedonistic, decadent” stay in Goa, India to promote an album called Motel California. The band broke up before any of the promotion could take effect.
The 2011 reformation of acts such as UKJ – the 1992 cover of ‘Cat’s In The Cradle’ went to number one in Australia – is hardly an original tale. Hundreds of bands of that and older vintage are dusting themselves off in the bars of the world as we speak. But, says Crane with a southern California surfer’s drawl than spits out “stoked” more than once, “my goal has always been – and still is – to try and have an original reaction to it all, you know?
“When we were kids, we travelled around the world and rode this crazy wave where we played clubs to soccer stadiums. We had this crazy experience. We were young and excited and scared and all the things that come with it. And then we weren’t a band for 15 years, right? I’ve done different bands, I’ve done Medication, Another Animal or whatever.
“Twenty years later, as far as being in Ugly Kid Joe, I didn’t think it would ever manifest. Not ever. So we got back together, made music and have been touring for the last two years once again. Clubs, again, to soccer stadiums. I guess I’m grateful.
“What I notice happening – and I can only speak for me … what’s important in my existence is that I want to sing songs, I want to be creative, I want to be inspired, I want to inspire.
“A lot of times, with the human condition, you might get a family or a mortgage or a car payment or whatever it is and you’re just using music as something to pay your bills. Then you’re losing sight of what a great thing it is to be involved in the creative process.
“To sell art in the first place is borderline comical. But for me, I’ve gone through the whole thing. I’ve gone through what many have gone through and study the histrionics of what has killed people or what has embittered people … I get it, I get all that.
“I’m just trying to make it through, be stoked, go play shows and be creative.”
Eichstadt and Crane formed UKJ in Palo Alto in 1989. The name was a comical repost to the LA band Pretty Boy Floyd, in the same way the Celibate Rifles parodied the Sex Pistols. As Ugly As They Wanna Be was reputedly the highest selling debut EP of all time.
Ugly Kid Joe’s trajectory was steepened by “Cat’s In The Cradle”, “Everything About You” and “Neighbour”, all ofwhich many dismissed as novelty songs from an act that sounded metal but looked grunge. So when Crane and co headed in a more earnest metal direction, the songs had typecast them to an extent and they sometimes even refused to perform them live.
“In, like, 1995, we had the Menace To Sobriety line-up and we were badass,” Crane recalls. “Then Seattle came and decimated everybody, including us, and there was nothing. It was like ‘shit, I just got my chops and I was just ready to do it and then the universe was – like – negative’.
“So of course, when it first re-appears, with all of us in the old guard together again and celebrating and making music together, it’s like ‘I forgot about you guys’. Because all of us, we never hated each other. Equally, we just drifted apart. So now we’ve been through that, we’re older, a little wiser and we’re touring around the world.”
All of which begs the question: what drives a band like Ugly Kid Joe, especially if their singer has identified “paying the bills” as an anti-creative imperative.
“If you ask me, success is getting to do it,” Crane argues down the line from California, during an interview which – he says – is interrupted briefly by the police.
“Making a buck – fair enough – and playing kickass shows. For me personally, I love performing and was born to do it. I feel the best when I’m doing that – show day. You can give me 200 seats in a club or you can give me 100,000 in a soccer stadium and I’m going to shine.
“So for me success is getting to do it and making some good choices. Like … apply some wisdom to not repeat some actions you might have done when you were a kid and new in the business. And be stoked about what you get to do.”
The current tour is a reprise of a European trek in October which Hot Metal caught in October and can thoroughly endorse. UKJ’s set was highlighted by Crane’s energy and guitarist Eichstadt wearing a Justin Bieber t-shirt.
“We were closing with ‘Ace Of Spades’ on the Skid Row/Ugly Kid Joe tour recently and we have that in our back pocket,” says Crane, a close friend of the Motorhead camp.
“But of course we’re probably going to have to whip out some AC/DC tools for Australia. You’ll see, it will be a surprise.
“In Australia, Skid Row will close two and we’ll close two. That’s how it will go. I go for what’s fair. Let’s go two and two. That’s how I like to do it.”
UKJ formed a close bond with Melbourne Rockers Dead City Ruins, who are back for this tour, during the European jaunt. “We had the chance to pick and choose which bands should open up and of the bands, we went ‘yes, Australia!’,” says Crane “They’re like a younger version of us. They’re up to no good, let’s just say that.”
When they return to the US, they’ll start recording. “We’re writing. We’ll come back to the United States at various times and we’ll start working. We’ll get in the studio with Dave Fortman and Sonny Mayo, premier premier producers … one of the cool things we have wiht Ugly Kid Joe is we can do it in-house, all in-house. We’ll work on some songs, work out what the smartest amount of songs is or just release a single or whatever but for sure we’re going to be creative and launch some stuff for 2015.”
Crane advises all bands considering reformation to give it a go. “The music could have sucked, no-one could have cared. We were surprised anyone cared, really. “
And if still being around is the proudest achievement of Crane and his band, then defying classification must be a close second. I mean, what sub-genre of rock DO they belong to? Most of Ugly Kid Joe’s contemporaries are trading on the scene they were once part of (it’s the only thing that links, say, the Quireboys and Loudness).
“You know, Ugly Kid Joe fits in everywhere, and nowhere – right?” Crane chuckles.
“We’ve always wondered ourselves. You tell me when you know.”