Ten years ago in an interview with British journalist Allan Vorda, Clementine Hall, wife of 13th Floor Elevator Tommy Hall, verbally etched this epitaph for the pioneering psychedelic Texas rock band: "Our generation took a lot of drugs, and to some extent we were damaged by the trips we took. We thought we were going to change the world for the better. We thought we found better living through chemistry. It turned out the drugs did open the door to spirituality for some of us, but it also opened the door to death and destruction. The drugs stopped being our friends and became our enemies."
Though separated from the Elevators by a generation, Project Grimm's John Cramer has to laugh at that bit about chemistry. Back in the late '80s, his band the Mike Gunn conducted much the same experiment on themselves.
"For us it was always about pushing boundaries," he remembers. "It started because we were bored, but then here we were out of high school, and what did I know? I had no intention of going to college. So it was just 'Let's see how far out of our heads we can get.' And we got pretty far. Too far for me, anyway."
Cramer once played an entire gig naked save for his guitar. "I would get uproariously high on all sorts of substances and remember it all," he says. "I don't know if that's good or bad. Probably good. I did a lot of idiotic shit, and I had a great time, but I had to give it up in 1989. It was that or die. If you pit yourself against some substance, the substance is always gonna win. 'Cause it doesn't give up, and you have to. The trick is to have respect for what it can do for you, and we did for a long time and then we didn't, and then we kinda paid for it."
But Cramer will not give up in the face of what to a musician is the cruelest substance of all: indifference. Most of the Mike Gunn and Project Grimm's fans have either died, gone to jail, moved out of town or grown too old for the bar scene. Yet Cramer is still plugging away with the band and stocking the newsstand at the Alabama Bookstop.
Both band and day job have some kind of hold on him that he can't explain. "I left Bookstop for eight months back in '97, and I've been back for -- Christ, what has it been now? -- five years or something. Granted, I'm a complete loser, so that's got something to do with it," he laughs. "My big justification for working there was always the band thing, but since it's not exactly going gangbusters right now, it's kinda hard to justify like [puts on arrogant struggling musician voice], 'Well, this is what I do so I can play in a band.' "
One of the things rock critics do so they can call themselves critics (along with correctly and frequently using the words zeitgeist and eponymous) is to hyphenate musical genres, as in "prog-rock," "emo-core" and "post-neo-psycho-trip-hop-tronica." No such luck with Project Grimm. It's rock, pure and simple -- a poor fit in today's hyphen-heavy indie scene. Project Grimm has indie anemia, an irony deficiency. "We're not as tongue-in-cheek as most other independent-minded bands," Cramer says. "There's this big wave of bands out there that has this real strong '70s sound, but you can tell it's a fad or a trend. We're just too stupid to play anything else."
When indie music lovers turn up at Project Grimm's gigs at Rudyard's, they keep waiting for a punch line that never arrives. "We're much too rock for their tastes," says Cramer. "They're like, 'I don't get the joke. Is there a joke here? No? Well, then I don't understand.' "
Cramer hopes that a run of early summer gigs will finance the long-awaited release of Huge Beings, the band's second album. Cramer and company (co-founding member Drew Calhoun on bass and Texas Guinness Lover and Sprawl alum Bo Morris on drums) completed the album last year, but lineup changes have stymied its release. The album is far more textured than their first, requiring a second guitarist to recapture its sound on stage; it's a slot they've been unable to fill for any length of time. "We've been thinking about adding new members, but everyone either knows who we are and doesn't want to play with us, or they're so young they haven't heard of us, or maybe we're just not cool anymore," Cramer says. "Who knows? That's what happens when you're thirtysomething and you're still playing rock music."
A comment Cramer made to the Houston Press's Hobart Rowland back in 1997 is as telling now as it was then. "Music is the one thing that comes first over anything else," he said. "If I couldn't play music with my hands, I'd figure out some way to do it with my feet." Since saying that, Cramer has had plenty of reasons to leave music behind. Band members (not to mention fans) have come and gone, albums have languished unreleased, and Cramer has gotten married. Still, Project Grimm marches on, just for the joy of playing.
And when Cramer gets on stage, you can see why. He smiles maniacally when he plays guitar, his eyes even rolling back in his head a little. It's plain that his band is his chemistry for better living these days.
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