Recruiting local guitar virtuoso John Crozier to play on your record is like calling upon one of the ancients who planned the aqueducts to come over and fix your leaky sink. Take Sniff, the new album by his longtime friend Jim Ruiz, on which Crozier's intelligent, versatile playing and generous, hands-off production provide grounding for a self-consciously light pop aesthetic. Or step outside the rock ghetto and consider Snow, a deliberately snail-paced local indie film (by ex-Funseekers bandmate Eric Tretbar) that has Crozier as a grizzled old scenester--"gettin' too old to rock and roll"--working at a drowsy coffee shop in the heart of the town that rock forgot. Stuck in a movie so gingerly paced you could grow moss on your eyeballs before it hit the hour mark, Crozier slyly slouches his way before the camera like he was ready to be picked up by Richard Linklater.
Which shouldn't be expected any time soon. Not many have heard of John Crozier, a man some fans consider the best guitar player to come out of Minneapolis since Bob Mould. The obscurity comes as little surprise, though, as the musician really has no real intention of being known at all. Crozier hates travel and won't tour. He won't stay in a single band long enough to tie his lot with theirs. He is remarkably shy and strenuously reclusive. "I don't even think of a Minneapolis music scene; it's like I live in another city," Crozier says. He peers toward Hennepin Avenue from underneath his black baseball cap, chin dangling about an inch above his knees, as we enter hour two of a late-night conversation on the steps of the Temple Israel Synagogue off 24th Street. "I hope that doesn't make me sound arrogant or something," he adds, "but I'm just not a part of it."
The Iowa-born, Winona-raised 41-year-old enjoys a more cultivated version of what my mollifying child psychologist once referred to as "a rich inner world." His penchant for staying put in the South Minneapolis house he shares with his sister and a second roommate has made him a bit of a local legend. And while he's loathe to turn his Howard Hughesian rep into mini-myth, he admits that he's more than happy to divide his time between his recording studio and his day (actually late-night) job as a proofreader for Stanton Publication Services. Something of a polymath, Crozier has of late been amusing himself "fooling around" with haiku, challenging himself with the second book of Remembrance of Things Past, and making music--some of it brilliant.
In a couple of months the world he habitually avoids will be introduced to a project called Ninian Hawick and a song called "The Scottish Rite Temple Stomp." Formerly released as a single, a digitally dolled-up version will be available as part of a Ninian Hawick mini-LP on the tiny Boston-based Grimsey label. On "Temple Stomp," Crozier leads singer Heather McEllhatton through a maze of references: to early-'90s shoe-gazer pop, New Order-inscribed dance music, girl-group melody, Johnny Marr jangle. It's all steeped in faux bagpipe drone and punctuated with three inspired seconds of unadulterated guitar squawk that could make Glenn Branca flinch. The record is a new-wave masterwork arriving 15 years after its time, and it's one of the smartest pop things to come out of Minneapolis in the last five years that isn't by Prince.
Yet this is only the latest accomplishment in a long line of them, including stints with Rena and Her Men, the Cavegurls (both with Ruiz), Muskellunge, the Wahinis, and the Psycho Daisies. Crozier can play pretty, or jazzy, or classic rocky. But on his best work there is definitely a John Crozier sound--a strident, yet somehow elegant, wail that has run like a crosscut saw through the last 10 years of post-Dü Minneapolis pop. It sculpts a mutant beauty around the fringes of what seem like pleasant indie-pop records. "I like stuff to sound good, but too much prettiness can drive me crazy," he says. "There has to be something there."
I first heard that something in 1994 when Crozier's fire wall of My Bloody Valentine-like guitar made Muskellunge's take on Hüsker Dü's "Chartered Trips" my second-favorite cover of all time (just nudged out by Hüsker Dü's cover of the Byrds' "Eight Miles High"). Last year he set up a clinic within the folds of So We Go, the breakthrough by local pop stars the Hang Ups, and ingeniously turned a very likeable album into a guitar paradise. On the song "Cornerstore," when Hang Ups singer Brian Tighe unsettled his band's prettiest hook with the line "I get the feeling something has died/I get the feeling it's coming alive," his sentiment's ambiguity would have melted into thin air without Crozier's gorgeous noise to anchor the image.
Crozier's life in music began in the early '60s. "I heard rock 'n' roll on a transistor radio," he recalls. "When I first heard the Kinks I thought they were at the station. I didn't know where the station was, but I just assumed they were playing [there]." When Crozier was a teen, his father got a job teaching history at St. Mary's College where Crozier studied for a short time before moving to Minneapolis.
He picked up guitar in his teens and joined his first band, the '60s-influenced mod-rocking Funseekers, in 1987. "I didn't make a record until I was in my 20s. I didn't get on stage until 30," he remembers. "I guess I'm sort of a late bloomer." Indeed, at times Crozier's strenuous self-deprecation and inveterate shyness suggest a man who is still growing into his impressive physical stature and daunting intellect. "People have made me out to be a hermit, but I'm not," he insists when presented with claims of his anti-stardom. "I just like to stay at home."
Chicago Sun-Times music columnist Jim DeRogatis, who played with Crozier in the short-lived '90s project the Wahinis, begs to differ, cheerfully evoking the hermit epithet to characterize Crozier's genius. "John Crozier is the strangest and most brilliant guitarist since [punk legend] Robert Quine," DeRogatis says. "He's easily the best guitarist Minneapolis has ever produced, but he's way too smart a person to fall into the rock-star trap. He just likes to wake up in the morning and have his tea and live his life. A certain kind of person assumes that if you're John Crozier and you're not on Interscope Records, you must be a frustrated musician, but he doesn't want that."
In fact, he wants a lot less than that. He will not take a compliment. When I finally come right out and compare his skill at brightening the corners of rigidly prescribed song forms to that of Thelonious Monk (that's right, Thelonious Monk), he hems for a second before almost leaping off the synagogue steps. "You know," he says, pausing for a moment, "I have been influenced by him."
He's also been touched by Wes Montgomery, Eric Satie, John Coltrane, Tricky, drum 'n' bass, and the Finish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara. In short, he has traveled, and he's brought the outer world to bear on his rich inner world.
"I feel like a real beginner," he says as midnight approaches and the traffic on Hennepin slows to a trickle. "It's like I'm still in training, and I may never get where I want to be."
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