January 14, 2001

Award-Winning Indie Rockers Do Their Best To Defy Description

By Jay Lustig - You never know what’s lurking around the corner in a Cropduster song.

A power chord or some country twang. Buoyant power-pop harmonies or a chaotic wall of noise. An off-beat chant (“I guess! I’m not! A people person!”) or some poetic story-telling (“The chief of police and the stewardess are engaged in quite a long, lovely first kiss/The hardest rain falls upon their heads and they don’t mind”).

This quartet, whose members live in Hackensack, West Orange and Weehawken, is immediately likable though its sound can’t be defined in a simple straightforward way. Everyone who tries to describe the band, in fact, emphasizes something else.

The band “mixes a British Invasion sound with Bowie and a more contemporary sampling quality,” says Martin Folkman, editor-in-chief of the Montclair-based “Musician’s Atlas.” This reference publication named Cropduster top rock band it its 2000 Independent Music Awards, a national contest for acts that are unsigned or affiliated with small labels. “I thought it had a nice amalgam of traditional and contemporary songwriting and performance,” Folkman says.

“Cropduster inspires a whole new label - ‘eccentric country,’ “ wrote Jordan Mamone in the trade publication, CMJ (College Music Journal), where Cropduster’s self-titled, self -released 1998 debut ablum rose to No. 56 on the college radio play chart.

“I loved their sense of humor,” says the Hoboken-based producer known only as Machine, who produced songs on both the 1998 debut and the group’s new album, “Drunk Uncle.” Machine, whose other credits include White Zombie, Pitchshifter and Clutch, fell in love with the first Cropduster song he heard, “Trevor Trailer Trash”; he eventually produced and mixed it for the debut album. “It made very little sense, and had funny sound effects, “ he says. “It was cute and catchy, and that sense of humor made it extremely lovable.”

It was the band’s professionalism, rather than its light-heartedness, that impressed Kenny Aronoff. A top session drummer who has backed John Mellencamp, John Fogerty and Melissa Etheridge, Aronoff was one of the judges of the Independent Music Awards, in which Cropduster’s “Nothin’s Gonna Change” beat out 320 other entries in the rock category. “I was really impressed with how well the song was recorded, and the musicianship,” said Aronoff in his written evaluation. “There’s a great feel to the song, and it’s well executed.”

The first version of Cropduster appeared about seven years ago, when old friends Marc Maurizi and Tom Gerke decided to record some songs together. Maurizi, 29, writes most of the band’s material and sings most of the leads, while playing rhythm guitar. Gerke, 30, plays lead guitar and sings harmony vocals, as well as the occasional lead. Drummer Scott Kopitskie, 28, and bassist Lee Estes, 22, joined later.

Gerke says the four musicians bring different but compatible sensibilities to the group. Estes is a “folkie,” he says, while Kopitskie is into “more beat-oriented stuff” like the techno-pop of Aphex Twin. “But we’re all into the same core stuff, like The Beatles and Pavement,” adds Gerke.

The name Cropduster was not intended to underscore the band’s alt-country side. Cropduster has some songs that could be classified as alt-country, but many that can’t, and they even poked fun at the trendy roots-rock movement in “Token Country Song/Post Punk Era Depression,” from their debut album.

Maurizi says he thought of using Cropduster as a band name after seeing the word in the John Steinbeck novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” “It has a negative connotation in the book, but the word itself has some power to it,” he says. “I had lists and lists of names, and when I got that one, I wrote it down and looked at it, and said, ‘Oh, I like that.’ So I called up Tom.”

“I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a horrible name,’ “ remembers Gerke. “But I ended up calling him back three days later, saying, ‘Oh wow, that’s a great name!” And he’s like, ‘That’s a horrible name.’ ”

“Tom kind of talked me into using it,” says Maurizi, “and it’s been our name ever since. It sort of takes on its own life after a while.”

The band is not associated with Bayonne-based Cropduster record label, whose roster includes True Love (see accompanying story). “It’s caused some confusion, as far as their Web site (www.cropduster.com) and our Web site (www.cropdustermusic.com),” says Maurizi, “but it hasn’t caused any major problems. Sometimes when they list shows for their bands, they say Cropduster instead of Cropduster Records, so our fans have gone to some of those shows. But nothing really bad has happened.”

While the 1998 debut came out on the band’s own label, MK Ultra Experiment, “Drunk Uncle” will be released this Tuesday by We Put Out Records, a new label owned by the Weehawken-based music promotion company, The Syndicate. The band will tour more heavily this time around, stopping at as many college radio stations as possible.

The Independent Music Awards should help the band make some college-radio inroads, too. “Nothin’s Gonna Change” will be included on a “Best of the IMA” compilation CD that will be sent to college-radio program directors and other music-industry types. It will also appear on the IMA edition of “Joe’s Blue Plate Special,” a syndicated radio show that is distributed to 1,000 college stations, and usually played on about 800 of them.

The band is also receiving exposure through the 2001edition of the Musician’s Atlas (featuring an eight-page spread on the contest winners) and its own page on the publication’s Web site, (www.musicansatlas.com). There, “Nothin’s Gonna Change” is described with the kind of paradoxical language this band tends to inspire: “Loose but not sloppy, good-humored but not frivolous."

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