Of all the bands I've interviewed in this scene, Crisis remains one of my absolute favorites. Some of my most memorable stories in metal coverage revolve around this band, even during a misunderstanding between guitarist Jwyanza Hobson and myself at a gig in Philadelphia where an obnoxious fan grabbed a hold of enigmatic vocalist Karyn Crisis and yours truly got blamed.
Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and I think the now-laughable Philly incident cemented a solid relationship between Crisis and myself. I'd interviewed Karyn, Jwyanza and guitarist Afzaal Nasirudeen (nka Afzaal Deen) numerous times before the band split up for the second time in the mid 2000s. My fondest moment with Crisis was hanging in the rear parking lot behind a club in Baltimore no longer there, the Thunderdome. Crisis had opened for Kittie and Otep and after the gig, the band shared brew with me and we had a great discussion about civil rights. I only just learned a couple weeks ago from Jwyanza they had gone to another bar in a different part of town that evening and rode a mechanical bull in the wee hours of the night.
I also have to make note their former drummer Josh Florian went to the same college as I, Towson University, which made for a nice chit-chat in Philly.
The deepest discussion I had on-record with any of the members, however, came courtesy of Karyn well before I'd met the band face-to-face. I remember her racing to get home for the interview, while I was just starting to get a rein on my interviewing tempo. It came out to be a very relaxed, intelligent conversation between us. Thus I can't think of anyone better suited to kick off this series of uncovered interviews from my archives than Karyn Crisis...
Ray Van Horn, Jr.: Your early years in music were dedicated to formal training and then you decided what, it was too confining? Did you lean towards singing in metal to tap into unrealized potential?
Karyn Crisis: I’ve never had any formal training. I took cello and violin lessons, but I didn’t have any formal training for art and singing. I’ve always been involved in music since I was younger, singing along to my favorite musicians and “catching my voice at it” as I called it, to different types of music. I found my own voice that way.
RVH: Your vocal range is quite impulsive. I’d cross you between Bathory, Wendy O. Williams, Sinead O’Connor and Mike Patton. How in the world did you come up such a monster range?
KC: It was really all about experimenting. I grew up in a town where it was kind of a football jock town, so I was kind of your typical artist outcast. I took violin lessons from this Russian woman and so I had a lot of time by myself like when walking home from school, experimenting with my voice, singing and going to a lot of shows in Chicago. I’d listen to a lot of music that was left and center, and that influenced the way I heard rhythms. I’d just started when I was in middle school. I was a tomboy so I had a lot of guy friends who had instruments and guitars and four tracks. I started borrowing all of that stuff and I had an analog synthesizer and I just started making my own music on the synthesizer. Cocteau Twins was a real big influence on the more serious side to the sound I was experimenting with my voice. I didn’t really sing so much words exactly than giving my words a soundscape like it was a visual art.
RVH: Right on.
KC: And then a lot of Chicago industrial music—-my absolute favorite being Einstuerzende Neubauten-—was a huge influence on the heavier side of my voice. I would scream, growl and make different sounds. So it was really all about experimenting and recording my own music in my bedroom, in my house, and I just kept at it for a few years, the middle school years, then my high school years. I was never really in any band but I started my own project called Mangle Dorothy, which was me making a lot of samples and loops, kind of performance art music. Then when I got invited to audition for Crisis, I had to sing more metal-type songs, which is something I’d always been looking for. The style I’d developed, which is very instrumental and expressive, going from more ephemeral to angry, rage kind of stuff, was something I’d translated into a Crisis structure.
RVH: I’ve asked a few artists this already, but if you’d please indulge me, what is it about New York and metal and hardcore music? You know, everyone thinks of L.A. or they think of Europe, South America, and even in the heavy metal resurgence in North America, the New England area has become a county seat for the scene, if you will.
KC: I think the city lifestyle and the attitude of the east coast is a lot different. I moved to New York because I loved the whole city’s energy. It really is a concrete jungle in that there are people everywhere, it’s a 24-hour city, there’s always something going on. It can always be alive. It’s not as dangerous as it used to be, but there’s an element of danger in the fact that this is a city where the lifestyle is not as relaxed. You really have to work your ass off for whatever you have. There’s more of a DIY mindset and there’s just tons of little scenes everywhere, whereas out west it’s so much more spread out. I think it’s the electricity of the lifestyle there. In New York, the city specifically, you really do feel like you’re in the middle of the world. The east coast is also more racially diverse, but in general the lifestyle there is more fast-paced, more frenetic, a lot more stress during harsh weather conditions. Everyone’s struggling to survive in a way, and all of that breeds a lot of anger and frustration. I think my experience in New York was that I was so much more in-tune with the speed of the way the world was going. You get so much more in-touch with the electricity of life that you feel like you’re plugging in. I think that electricity lends itself to the whole spark of music.
RVH: I feel you.
KC: There’s music everywhere, first of all. I think a lot of people are drawn to New York because of the whole cosmopolitan situation. There’s a lot of artists and musicians flocking there, a lot of writers, artists and musicians. These are people on a search for truth and answers to their questions in their lives. There’s such a chaos of things going on there and it breeds a lot of interesting, neat-sounding music. Since the cities and towns are now a lot closer together, there’s so much more opportunity to get together with people of like minds. Whereas out here on the west coast, things are a lot more spread out; I mean, any time you’re living in suburbia, there’s still a scene but it’s a lot more spread out. In the city areas like New York, you have so many people your own age interested in a lot of things you’re interested in, so you don’t have anything standing in the way like suburban zones or noise laws. (laughs) There you can let it all hang out and make your dreams come true.
RVH: Believe me, I know its allure! (laughs)
KC: It’s a hard city to live in, you know? There’s a lot of cool things about it, but at the same time it is like a grind. It feels like a meat grinder when you’re there! (laughs) All of your daily frustrations are just so magnified because you’re bumping shoulders with hundreds of people a day and everyone else is angry and everyone’s in a rush, but it is exciting. It’s a place where your imagination really runs wild because there’s so much external stimuli, you know; whether it’s the people or the subway or you’re living above ground or below ground, there’s just so much going on.
RVH: So Crisis was essentially formed with you, Afzaal Nasiruddeen (guitarist) and Fred Waring (original drummer). Take it from there. Put us at that meeting and how it all went about.
KC: I was living in the East Village for about a year and I finally had to escape the chaotic roommate situation. I was renting a room from a photographer and I was making music on my four track in my room. I think I had bars, a set of steak knives and stuff (laughs) and he was like “You’ve got to meet my friend Afzaal and Steve McAllister,” who produced the first few records for us. They lived just down the street by the World Trade Center. So he invited Afzaal over one evening and I played him my tape, he played me his and he mentioned they were looking for a female lead singer. Afzaal and Fred had been in an industrial band called Stalwart. They always liked to do things that were a little different and they really wanted to find a female lead singer.
KC: So he invited me to come to rehearsal and I think maybe a day or two before that he’s giving me a rehearsal tape, a song called “Drilling Me,” which was on our very first album 8 Convulsions. I had worked on the song until two in the morning, learning the words and the vocals until they instantly popped into my head. I was really excited and I called him and told him I was ready. I got a little bit of cold feet before I went in because I was a pretty quiet person when I got started. (laughs) I was thinking ‘How am I going to pull off this vocal style,’ you know? That was the only time I thought about it. Sure enough, I got to rehearsal, I met Fred, I met Gia (Wang, bassist) and the minute they started they asked 'Karyn, are you ready?' I asked them 'Can you play this song (“Drilling Me”) first,' in case they didn’t like what I was doing to it. We just started rocking out and I remember flying, jumping all over the place and I ended up on the floor. Gia was standing above me asking if I was okay (laughs) and I said 'Yeah, I’m great!'
KC: I went to the bathroom, came back and it was dead silent as they stopped talking about whatever they were talking about, looked at me and I thought, ‘Oh, man, they think I’m a loser, a freak!’ (laughs) I think the next day they asked what I thought about the name Crisis and they all started calling me Karyn Crisis because I was jumping all over the place!
RVH: Aside from your voice, your visual trademark is your floor-touching dreadlocks. How long did it take you to grow those suckers? (laughs)
KC: I think about eleven years! (laughs)
RVH: You touched upon multiculturalism earlier, which really resonates with me. Looking at your band, you guys are very multicultural as Suicidal Tendencies was during their crossover lineup. It’s not something I see you dwelling upon, but to me, the diverse ethnicity sends out the right message in an American society that is still subliminally racist.
KC: Yeah, I totally agree. We’ve always contended since the beginning of the band that we’re a multicultural band and especially in this day and age I think it’s a great image being a small cross-section of the world, different genders, different cultures, and we get along great! I don’t know what the fuck’s wrong with the rest of the world that they can’t get it going on, you know? But it’s true, racism is abound, especially with large portions of the country that deny that they may or ever have been racist. We’re all getting along on one level or another through music. Music attests to the fact that it is a common language for most people all over the place. Even lifestyles, you know? We’ve all found common ground with the music and if the band is helping the flows with the individuals so that they can work together, with each other, with different opinions, then you’ve learned a lot.
RVH: Crisis really hit the underground radar with Deathshead Extermination and The Hollowing with, as I would term it, an unorthodox hybrid of doom metal and hardcore, with your roaring vocals setting precedence...
KC: I think it seems there was a moment of time, and I guess it depends on where you stand or what your perspective is, but the things that started happening with Deathshead Extermination, when we started back in ’93, we never really just sat in New York and tried to make it big or to try and make a scene there. When we started off, we were so different that people didn’t know what to make of us, so we had to constantly get out into other towns and different states. That’s how we really built a following, was through our live shows and then we would sell copies of 8 Convulsions and the demo before that album at our shows. Around the time of 8 Convulsions, Marco Fabieri, who worked for Metal Blade, kept an eye on us for a few years and then finally came to us with an offer to sign with Metal Blade. After deciding on a couple of labels we decided to go with Metal Blade and although Marco soon left afterwards, by the time Deathshead Extermination came out, there was already a huge buzz about us because we were so active in the underground. We’d really gone all over the place. So for our first widespread-released album, that was really the beginning in a way.
RVH: How so?
KC: We had press all of a sudden, we had radio coverage, which was much less than bands have today. More college radio and indie ‘zines, even Metal Maniacs. That was what brought us onto the national scene whether we wanted it or not. Then we started touring around the country, so that was when things started as we toured around the country. It was a different thing for people to see a woman fronting a really heavy band, and that was the beginning of that situation in terms of going nationwide.
RVH: In the eighties it was a lot tougher for women to find any kind of respect in heavy metal. Have you come across any sexism in the industry these days? I know it helps having a group of guys watch your back, but in your opinion do you feel the scene is worse or better?
KC: There’s a few things going on. Back when we started in 1993 there weren’t many women touring. There were other underground bands like Fear of God...Dawn Crosby has actually just passed away, but she was there before I was, and there was some local bands like 13. They were doing some doomy kind of stuff, with growly, seething vocals, but I was the only one touring there and it was really hard to get tour opportunities and support in the industry because people thought this was too weird. But we always did amazingly live because people loved our live show. Over time, things have changed where the industry has opened up a little and let more female-fronted bands in, but you know some of them, okay, are created by A&R people; they’re not real bands! (laughs)
RVH: Gee, whatever are you talking about? (laughs)
KC: You know, they don’t write their own songs or play their own instruments on the recordings, but it’s good. It’s a great beginning, because in the underground there are hundreds of women out there involved in this kind of music these days. They’re just not on labels where you hear about them, but finally the industry is starting to open up and give voice to those women, which I think is great. I mean, yeah, we’ve experienced sexism on the road, and you know, even in terms of trying to get tours I’ve had a lot of famous guys in the big metal bands call me and ask me out on dates but they wouldn’t visit the shows, that type of thing. You’re shut out of some of the opportunities that male-fronted bands would get. So there definitely is a different kind of vibe there. I think a lot of guys in the heavy scene don’t know how to deal with you unless they’re dealing with you on a sexual level, but things are changing. It’s been proven that audiences are ready for this heavy music, because the ones that are out there are doing great! So there are a lot of exciting changes happening and people are starting to support it more and more. I think that’ll only grow and I think it’ll be less of an oddity the more female-fronted metal bands who get out there. It’s like the male world of heavy music; there’s bands that suck and bands that are just brilliant and are very unique, there’s a whole variety. We’re going to get more and more people throwing vibes out there and there’ll be such a variety it’ll be a more commonplace thing.
RVH: I agree.
KC: Look at the world of alternative music or even grunge back in the day. There were so many women involved, and for me growing up on a lot of alternative music, I was like ‘Wow, there’s women everywhere!’ There’s Siouxie and The Banshees, Bjork and there’s L7, The Breeders...
RVH: PJ Harvey, Juliana Hatfield, Lush...
KC: All those types of bands. They were everywhere, but if you look at the heavy scene, there hasn’t been quite as many, but there are starting to be a lot. Once that ball has gotten rolling as it has, you can’t really stop it. There’ll be more and more.
RVH: Whether you like them or not, Evanescence has helped break down the door of mainstream acceptance for female-fronted bands, which I think helps the cause for everybody else. Then there’s other groups like Kittie, Epica, Nightwish, Angel, what-not. Before them you had Girlschool, Lita Ford, Wendy O. Williams, The Great Kat, Vixen. The pattern was on the wall before.
RVH: Where exactly did Crisis go in the seven years between The Hollowing and Like Sheep Led to Slaughter?
KC: We moved to L.A. because we just couldn’t find any other labels out east that took us seriously, even though we were touring all over constantly and selling out shows. Everyone told us at that point in time that we were just too extreme. Too extreme for radio, you have a woman in the band on lead, blah blah blah, same old story. So we looked and we looked and we really tried to get another label but it wasn’t working out, so Afzaal kind of came up with the idea that why not have a change of scenery? L.A. is where all the business is; at that point in time, we’d seen so many tours come through the east coast, bands like Korn who had just started playing then and a lot of bands where we said 'Who are these bands? They’ve never played here before. Why are they getting on these huge tours in these big venues?' We found out the industry is a lot more plastic that way. It was also a matter of survival for the band. Our label wasn’t supporting us enough where we could grow to a bigger audience and they weren’t helping us out with better tours and there’s only so much you can do on your own. I mean, you can preach to the converted or you can grow. We’re all about growing.
RVH: Of course.
KC: So we thought that was an option because we could stay back east and maybe things could slowly grind to a halt, or could go out west for new options. Once we did that, we started getting settled into the town and tried to figure out what the scene was because it’s a very different vibe. Not long thereafter our drummer at the time quit. He said he was fed up with the music business and wanted to get out of L.A. So we were stuck without a drummer again. (laughs) It was hard for him because we have really weird time signatures and we’re the kind of band that although we’ve paid a lot of dues, we’ve also paved a lot of ways and we’ve influenced a lot of bands. We’re pioneers at what we do, but we haven’t really gotten the accolades or...we haven’t gotten a lot back, you know? A lot of people didn’t really want to support us. So if you’re in this band, you have to really be in it for the spiritual journey! (laughs)
We’ve always had trouble finding a drummer! So we decided that since Jwyanza (Hobson, guitarist) was actually a drummer for awhile, he started programming a drum machine and we started writing songs for the sake of writing songs and experimenting. There did come the time when we wanted to start playing out again and the music sounded so different from Crisis—-we were going to change our name—-before after awhile that ground down to an end and Gia, Jwyanza, Afzaal and I didn’t want to do Crisis or we just didn’t want to do anything that didn’t feel intense. So we started to search for a drummer again...
KC: I started it this time and I said 'Look, I’m going to find one (laughs) and we’re going to get the right one and we’re going to rock on!' So I started doing phone interviews and what I found out at that point in time is that when we met our then-drummer Josh Florian, he'd moved out to L.A. from the Baltimore area around the same time we did. He was a master engineer as well, so we started on him mastering that and keeping in touch with our website to see what was going on with us, and we found through Josh that our music had influenced a younger generation as well. He'd sat through a lot of old Crisis songs. He showed up at the audition knowing he was able to play a bunch of the old songs, and then it became a part of his vocabulary and so the drummer search wasn’t as torturous as usual because we’d had an influence on, you know, even drummers being able to play different kinds of time signatures, so that’s what brought us back.
RVH: Obviously Crisis’ music is designed to shake things up, and the spinal-fellatio implications on the cover of Like Sheep Led to Slaughter appears to be further extension of that ideal. Was that your intention?
KC: Most of the idea of that cover ties in with the whole title, like sheep led to slaughter. The idea is that we the people, living under the powers that be, are being led to slaughter, like sheep, you know? We don’t always question what we hear, we don’t always get the truth. True history really isn’t written in the books, and currently we’re blind. I wanted to take that idea of a sheep being led to slaughter, but I don’t like to tell you overtly what the idea is; I like to use symbols. I could’ve used a sheep being slaughtered or a knife going through a stud or something, but I stumbled upon the idea of a spine because the spine can be thought of in a way as a control center to the body. A lot of the nerves go to the spine and without a spine or when you have a broken spine, you really can’t walk on your own. You become paralyzed, right?
KC: You have almost no movement and there’s all sorts of bizarre similes for the idea of being paralyzed. When you discuss someone’s moral character, if you’re trying to say someone is evil or a scumbag, you’d use that expression 'Oh, he’s so spineless.' So it’s not a symbol of swallowing a spine, it’s the spine being ripped out. I want to show it as control, as in something’s being done to us by the powers that be at the level of a shepherd they would be.
RVH: Nice, man! That’s deep, and it coincides not only with the lyrical content you write, but also your visual art. I’ve had a look at some of your work and there was one piece that really stuck on me, “Scraping the Pins Along the Skin.” The pasty white skin of your subject and the ethereal stitching of his mouth along reminded me at first glance of the Quiet Riot mask...
RVH: I took it as a faceless identity constricted and yearning to be heard, but we could also interpret that as another form of manipulative control as we discussed regarding the title Like Sheep Led to Slaughter. Whether this was your intention or not is one thing, but I think good art just allows the viewer to interpret it the way they want to.
KC: Definitely! It’s all open to interpretation. I definitely have a message but I like to use symbolism, because when I write the songs where I create the whole subject matter, I go on this journey of concepts and I take down a concept. Maybe I’ll get an idea and I’ll look it up in a thesaurus and see what else is said about it and then I’ll get a storyline or idea and I’ll chase this concept. I feel like there’s a certain message there, but if someone else wants to take a journey and try to figure out their own meanings to the songs, that’s also a form of communication and exploration. With my visual art, the drawings, the paintings, my photographs, they’re very open to interpretation. I tend to have a certain set of emotions that I somehow transfer to my subject when I’m taking a photograph, for instance, and I get what I’m looking for. In terms of what it means, my ideas are pretty open and so there’s even more room for interpretation. I think that’s what’s great about visual art; you can make it whatever you want it to be.
RVH: Time for one of my favorite questions. Especially since you're so animated onstage, take me there with you. You’re getting prepped, you come out to a bunch of raving maniacs in the crowd, and then...
KC: Well, if you’re me and you’re in this band, you’d stretch out a little bit and you start feeling this excitement from the crowd. You feel this energy coming from your bandmates and you feel like you’re ready to go there and just explode into this awesome power. There’s a lot of smiles and good vibes going around and you get onstage and all of a sudden I guess we all turn into superheroes in a way. You feel like you’re plugged into an electric socket and if you like art, you feel like you’re part of a living painting. These lights and people, you feel this electricity and the people are giving this energy back to you and you’re giving it to them. The sweat, the life, the energy...you really lose track of time. You just get caught up in this world and the show itself goes by faster than you can imagine. But while you’re onstage you feel like you’ve achieved the best thing you could ever achieve as a human being at that moment of time and you feel like you have this power you normally don’t have and you’re standing alone all by yourself. You feel really connected, really electric. It just feels like the best thing in the world.
RVH: What I draw off you and Crisis is you have multiple interests, you’re not afraid to take a chance, you throw it all out there and to hell with whoever doesn’t like it!
KC: (laughs) Exactly!
RVH: That’s my interpretation. How would you describe yourselves?
KC: I mean, that’s definitely one aspect of it, especially with the music. The whole band, we really are all about the music, the expression there. Really stripping ourselves down raw and exposing our emotions, letting that shit come out. You really can’t do that sort of thing if you’re worried about what somebody else thinks, because somewhere along the line you might look like a fool. You might hit some really intense nerves and we’ve always been like that. Even growing up when I was younger, I stood out like a sore thumb and I really didn’t give a fuck what anyone else thought. I’ve been on this journey and I’m looking for answers. I ask a lot of questions and I’m always searching. In order to do that, in order to grow and to learn new things, you really do have to take risks. We’re all about that and we enjoy connecting with our fans at our shows and we enjoy connecting with each other. Our deep love is in the rehearsal room jamming, and everything else that happens extra is a complete bonus. Our place is really to make people think. You can love us, you can hate us, but we’re just there to make you think.
Transcript and all photos (c) Ray Van Horn, Jr.