Thursday, June 21, 2012

Chapter Thirty Six: "Review: French Letters - 'In Tongues"/Interview with Michael Crossley"

"Just play somethin'," Mike said, his back to the crowd. His Adam's Apple bobbed the tattoo of a crucifix up and down his throat and he cleared it with more tobacco smoke and looked to me for some guitar. I sat weaving in my chair, bourbon slopping onto my knee.

"Play what?" I said, blurring the words a little.

"Chords, anything. The crowd's gettin' weird. Just whatever it is," He started to turn back to face the faces looking at us. "Make it sound sexy."

There are times in people's lives when the twenties, despite beginning a particular fade, seem like they have lasted too long and will last forever, and sometimes your behavior is dead set on challenging that immortality. Michael Crossley and I ran in social and artistic circles in the late 1990s that often criss-crossed like bubbles in the night. We seemed to get along immediately, and soon were partners in words, drinks, and our own individual races to fall-down hard on some warm, dark, Lexington nights.

It was one of those special moments in times that occur in scenes, when you feel like you fell into a cusp of something. We were 20something ghosts that lived and thoroughly inhabited that open stage backdrop in the late 90s, completely and honestly immersed in creating a community of shared music, writing and spoken word, all of us collaborating and contributing and critiquing, feeling like we were birthing a new era of poetry and/or song at the moment. We saw versions of each other haunting certain locations every night. Bob tending bar topless and the unpredictable dangers hidden at the Hip Joynt. Hiding in the foilage of the back patio at McCarthy's.  The resurrection of that open mic at controversial Detour. And every night a beer at the original Buster's. We were our own little punk-hippy-weirdo-outcast circle that fed off each other, breathed by artists still surviving and working now: JT Dockery. Joe B. Roach. Trish. Crystal. Johnny. Charlie. Nick. Troy T. Warren Byrom. Anna. Others and others.

The Last Chances existed somewhere in there, taking up part of that time and space in a positive attempt at melding music and spoken word, trying to firmly formulate it into some loosened pattern that was half song, half poetic seance. Crossley and Joe B. fronted the band. I was ensnared on the guitar after Johnny quit one night. There were try-outs during a full performance, and trumpet player Warren helped quicken the audition down to me. To this day that always boggled my mind, because I'm sure I played the shittiest during the show, just drinking bourbon while all the competition were warming up. I guess I was warming up my insides.

Thanks to Roach for sending me the flyer

The Last Chances was a great experiment, experience and an interesting band to insert in the varied landscape that was Lexington's music/poetry scene at that time. Like most other endeavors, everything split; the bands, the crowds, the bars, the folks. Some stayed and started different bands, some moved on to different cites. I stayed in touch with Crossley for a while during his time and career in the pageantry of Cincinnati, where I knew he was keeping the faith, cranking out chapbooks of words and performing them. I discovered he traveled to Seattle due to Internet sightings. It was those same whispers on the social networks that I started to see he was playing again, and speaking again, and obviously writing again, this time through the microphone called French Letters.

French Letters started up in Seattle in 2009, founded on that tense take of uniting Crossley's poetry into a lyrical setting and creating a cohesion that roots and swims through several genres easily and adventurously. Their latest release is entitled "In Tongues," a follow-up to an EP called "Dead Letters." "In Tongues" doesn't trap itself in any one form or style, but instead positions itself astride several lines of music. A track like "When It Mattered" is a subdued bass, letting the words stand on their stage and deliver. The album then immediately begins to investigate differing portions of divergent habits.

All of the photos of French Letters are from

There are the funky jazz ruminations that lead "West Ashley Crosstown." By "The Less Girls You Know," its turned to upbeat rock and roll that burns a chorus that is hellfire catchy, finding the words sung Lou Reed via Jonathan Richman via, well, Michael Crossley. And that scripture stays throughout. "Southern Streets" is almost-country verses that head off with a rising chorus that sees phantoms of a Stones-ish tantrum. There's rockabilly being trapped and caught in the clever tributes of "One for Buddy Holly," and a twisted bluesy-American-rock transuding through "American Skeleton." And what begins as a lazy, walking pose of Crossley's prose, surprisingly erupts into an intense winding of percussion led by Luke Steitz's warmly recorded drums on the epic "Wallflower Among Women."

And that's one of the interesting slants of a band like this; French Letters is both the originality projected through the music provided by Steitz, guitarists Connor O'Brien and Michael Puglisi, and bassist Courtney Steitz, and the fusion of lyrics, words, poems by Crossley, who spends parts of the album projecting in his swaggered voice, parts singing, and parts painting those letters with an aggressive, frustrated deliverance. I've heard Mike read about a hundred times; he doesn't come from that ugly line of spoken word poets that mumbles shyly at a coffee shop reading while staring at a paper and waiting for his organic Fair Trade Certified tea to cool. Nor does he read in that annoying ACCENTING every OTHER word to GAIN your momentous ATTENTION because his VOICE changes pitch and dynamic REGARDless of the content. Mike reads his poems based on its character and essence. And he also reads like he's fronting a rock band, which he is. There's some sway and arrogance to his delivery when he's waxing about sex and drugs, there's black strap molasses in there when he drips about rejection and falling, and there's nocturnal storms in his throat when he's burrowing into flashes of anger that can pop in his words.

"In Tongues"  follows all of these lines over the length of ten songs, ten poems. Along with the CD there exists a book containing Crossley's poetry, as well. It's good to see the poem/song "Fried Chicken" contained here, an homage to Crossley's time in the South, in Kentucky, and probably the tune that encompasses the style French Letters transfers. It saunters through sex, morphine, sex, heroin, sex and the magic of greasy poultry. All starting with Crossley's own charisma: "O, you got a junky smooth/ like razor burn/ and that laugh was a broken glass/ with all the shards still stuck up in there..."  Crossley's words have always been his own genuine convictions planted very rhythmically, whether on page or on mic. "You Golgotha, you ghetto,/ you're killing me, can't you see that?/ Haven't you noticed my horns/ you mad matador?" ("Southern Streets"). There's a beat there, and yeah you can muster beat poets in that comment, and you can charge the Bukowski horn or maybe the Billy Childish salute; at this point anyone who writes and reads with some confidence and without fear of popular opinion always gets those comparisons. Crossley's been writing this stuff for awhile; I think he has his own style at this point. Besides making music with French Letters, I'm glad to know he's still writing and cranking out chapbooks.

I was inspired to send some questions at my friend when I decided to review the "In Tongues" book/album.I didn't expect it to turn into a full-fledged interview, but by golly, it did.

american gloam: When did French Letters start? How? Who is in it?

Michael: French Letters started in 2009. It was sort of a one off. I wasn't writing or reading anymore when I moved to Seattle. A friend of mine had an art opening, and asked me to read some poems... I was nervous about it, so I asked a dude I worked with but didn't know to sit in and back me up on guitar. We liked what we had come up with, so I asked Luke (drummer) to record it in his studio just as a keepsake. Said guitarist was John E. Naffah, he's the rhythm player on "In Tongues," but he has since left because he had a kid... The drummer Luke, is married to our bassist Courtney, yet there is absolutely zero Fleetwood Mac drama. The lead guitar is Michael Puglisi, a diploma holding jazz master with a taste for metal. Our new guitarist Connor, a bartender of great renown, and me...

ag: How were things going in the Cinci scene small press/spoken word-wise? Lifewise?

MC: I was releasing chapbooks every couple of years, and getting a few high profile readings like the Cincinnati Center for the Arts' "Beautiful Losers" opening... But honestly, I was at the height of my addiction in that period. There's footage of me at the CCA reading, I have all of these bloody tissues all over my hands. It's because I made the guy who picked me up from Indiana (where I was living at the time) stop in his truck & buy me crack. I'd hit the pipe, get paranoid and stick the still hot pipe up into the foam under his passenger seat. Then... a few minutes later I'd have to reach up through the springs to retrieve it for my next hit, and over again ad nauseum. Tearing my hands open on the springs in the process.

ag: What made you leave for Seattle?

MC: I was a decade plus dope addict, I had pretty much worn out all of my resources and had managed to stay out of prison. I felt it's looming shadow though, and when my good friend's girlfriend moved out here to co-op, I decided to come along and find a west coast connection. I was mailing stuff to Maine at the time. Being from the Mid-West, Seattle has a reputation for being good at 2 things: drugs and music. As it turned out though, the dope out here sucked, and there was no way I could've flipped it. I lucked into a good job though, and actually found an ad for treatment on the back page of an alt news weekly that I got into pretty quickly. The treatment worked and I've never looked back since.

ag: Did you go anywhere else in-between Cinci and Seattle?

MC: I lived in Charleston SC briefly. I had done a quick detox and bussed it down there to write another chapbook. I was sure at the time that death or prison were encompassing me. The chapbook I wrote down there was called "Dead Letters 843," and it formed the basis of French Letters' earliest songs like "West Ashley Crosstown" and "Dead Letter Office," the first 2 songs we ever wrote as a band.

ag: Influences you turned to for French Letters and this recording/writing.

MC: When I got off of drugs, I distanced myself as far as I could from the way I used to be. I had to learn how to be responsible. I quit writing poetry, pretended to be right wing, started collecting guns. I wasn't listening to much music at the time other than Gaslight Anthem, Hold Steady, and Springsteen when we wrote the principal material for In Tongues. I mostly listened to survivalist podcasts or film podcasts. My first iPod was full of podcasts. That being said; I had started attending a community college, and was writing a lot. I knew I wanted to create the best spoken word album since Patti Smiths' "Horses." As far as a sonic inspiration for "In Tongues", it was Modern Lovers' self titled for 70%, the rest was all Velvet Underground. I'd cite Nick Cave these days, but back then, I'd never listened to him. People find that hard to believe.

ag: Is this the first thing by French Letters?

MC: No, we had put out a bandcamp EP called "Dead Letters" of some pre-mastered songs that feature on "In Tongues," as well as a bonus track that doesn't. "Melanie Says," a reworking of VU's "Stephanie Says." I love that song, but the guitarist swears he's out of tune on it, so it lives in the ether... Thank god there's a youtube video for it.

ag: More stuff from French Letters down the road? Playing live a lot?

MC: We are recording a single this week called "Los Alamos", and have 20 hours booked with a legendary Seattle producer in July to record a four song EP of straight up rock roll we're calling "Rats Off To Ya!" After that we have about 10 more fully realized songs that we plan on recording with Adam Prairie who produced "In Tongues." Four of them are blazing rock roll tunes, and six of them are ballads, so I lovingly refer to this LP as "Use Your Illusion 3," although the working title is "Dont Retread Me". But we write so frequently and fluently, that it will probably be a different album by the time we go in for the LP this fall. Playing live a lot? Yes. French Letters are a live band, we record live, we thrive in that environment. We are getting the oppurtunity to play bigger and better shows, and we're so versatile as a unit of songwriters that we can fit into almost any bill. From the neo-folk, or jazz jam bands to the fire breathing rock acts, we always adapt and destroy. Music competition is fierce in Seattle, and there are literally thousands of bands that fit into the broad genre of rock alone here. There are about ten clubs worth playing at, and two nights a week everyone wants to play out... We are getting the weekend bookings at those clubs, I see that as a good sign.

ag: Do you play much outside the city? How is the spoken word/rock n roll idea received? How's the spoken word/small press-ish scene in Seattle?

MC: Luke, Courtney, and Michael are all from St. Louis, I'm from Cincinnati, Connor is from Tacoma... And it still means so much to all of us that we get to be part of a great music scene. We could spend our whole lives trying to tackle Seattle alone at this point, and I don't think we'd want for more. Maybe that's just the now. But we all have professional jobs, touring is secondary to recording as far as I'm concerned. I've been involved in so many great projects that just vanish into thin air. Who knows though? We might be starting a label (Art Thug), and once we have a way to support ourselves on the road it might be an option. But honestly, right now, I just want our own city to love us. As far as how it's received? Well... People are passive here, but we also do attack them. Provocation aside though, as a spoken word band, you have no idea how hard it was to book a show back in our first year. "Well, we're spoken word, but trust me... We'll rock." Luckily a few bookers took chances, and I learned how to manage a band in the interim...All that being said, any band that lasts two years out here might be worth paying attention to. It's that hard. When we all moved here 5 years ago, Luke and Courtney and I went to some poetry slams together. It was horrible. I kept getting booed off of stage, and it soured me to the whole thing. I wasn't used to that kind of treatment, I wasn't used to having to even try that hard at it. So it's a good thing, the sour early reception. It's taught me that the band is a gang, and we kill together. We ain't shit without the sum of our parts. I've also since found my niche in this scene, I've been doing readings at the Richard Hugo House for the past year and managed to make a name for myself as a writer specifically, outside of the realm of performance. That means a hell of a lot to me, when I came so close to giving all of this up. This is who I am, I ain't capable of being anything else.

ag: What's the future plan for you or French Letters?

MC: Well... Here's the deal. I swore I would grow up and leave behind foolish hopes of becoming a famous writer, or poet, or performer. When we started this band, I was miserable. I had landed my first good paying job and I was clean, but I hated my life outside of those two simple facts. I called the Army, they said they could take me into NCO school provided I had a certain amount of college credits, I enrolled in school. My professor coaxed me into writing again, but not poetry. Poems were always an irrational art to me. I considered myself lucky that I could still drink beer and smoke weed without having an urge to use harder things. I take it as it comes, then I make it into what I need, a junky art if ever there was. I started this band, got what I was looking for, and forgot about the Army. Thank god, I'd be in Afghanistan right now instead of typing this here...I still want to be a writer, it's the most important thing in the world to me. Learning how to write songs has been a great thing over the last year, because it allows me the free expression of writing a poem, without having to access the lows I used to submit to in order to write said poems.

As far as French Letters? That's my fam. I will accept nothing less than total Seattle domination, then we go on tour. Hometown tour first... St. Louis, Cincinnati, Lexington, Tacoma.

Start this label, make it an LLC, record an album a year for the rest of my days. I got my muse, and they happen to be my favorite people in this world...With a band this good everything I want is really only a question of how loud you want to ask for it...

ag: What was that band we were in together in Lexington? The Last Chances? I see French Letters continuing some bits of that idea, although it sounds totally different with a different direction. What other bands have you been in since leaving Lex that combined the poetry with the rock n roll so much that its a full band like this. I mean, the difference with the Last Chances was it went from just having some folks play behind you at readings to being an actual cohesive band of the same people, which seems like what you've created with French Letters...these are songs and its a rock n roll band, as far as I'm concerned. Just wondering what the history was that led to this incarnation.

MC: French Letters are a natural continuation of Last Chances'. This is the band I've always wanted. Everyone in the band comes from such different places musically, yet we all come together so naturally and organically. We can play anything. Funny story, last summer I decided I wanted to do a country side project with Connor (before he was in the group) called Nam Vet, I started thinking about the reasons for this, then realized I could just ask the band if we could do a few more country tunes, which they were down for. Now we have more country songs than I'm even comfortable with, but that's really a testament to how good these players are. Our sound now is different than it was on "In Tongues." We adapted to cut throat hipster club policies, and still came out sounding unique all of the time. I love that about a poetry reading, I still don't prepare for those, I just figure out the stage time I get and read dry... That was the beauty of Last Chances, we were always improvisational and had brilliant moments of which I have documented proof, but also, I'm sure we had some horrible takes that people suffered through too. The difference now is just like a writer that's toiled away at a typer for a decade or more, it's found it's voice.

You and J. Todd were there the first night I ever met what is now French Letters' rhythm section. My hip hop group at the time (Ill-Literates) had put on a show called Abuse that the Smacks! played at. My rhyming partners cousin was an MC from St. Louis that had also driven up to be on the bill, they ended up getting in an argument over some perceived slight and not playing that night. But they were there all of the same, I met them while sitting in a plush red velvet booth next to you two. Flash forward a year or so later, they are back in Cincinnati on a visit, we're all at a pizza joint and Luke and Courtney are talking to said rhyming partner (Christopher Eyre) about moving to Seattle in the next year, they all made plans to do so... I said "Nah, hell no."

I found myself out here a year later, and remembered that conversation. So I looked Luke up on Myspace, and asked if they were still coming out? He said they'd be here in the next few weeks, they had Michael Puglisi in tow...And the Steitze's started dragging me to poetry slams.... That's how French Letters started.
Now we all live out here.

"In Tongues" by French Letters is available through group's bandcamp page,, iTunes, and at the Seattle records stores Wall of Sound, Easy Street and Sonic Boom.

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