The Crooks — drummer Ben Van Camp, 17, guitarist-vocalist Jordan Krebs and bassist Taylor Reynolds, both 16 — are knowledgeable beyond their years. But first a little backstory ...
Music writer-producer-hustler-legend Kim Fowley told me on the phone, Thanksgiving weekend: "The Crooks. High school boys who play like Led Zeppelin. Check them out." And when Kim Fowley tells me something, I always at least pay attention, since he's been a rock 'n' roll tastemaker-observer since the day Buddy Holly died. Matthew Smith was in the process of producing the trio's debut album when Fowley phoned.
I started to tell my friend Bob "Bootsey X" Mulrooney weeks later, "Hey, there's these kids Kim Fowley told me about that Matt Smith's working with—" and Bootsey finished the sentence: "Oh, the Crooks! They're great!"
All of which is to say the trio comes barreling right out of the gate with a pretty fine pedigree already. In fact, they played their first show ever Labor Day weekend 2007 with the Muggs, who they met simply by befriending that more established Detroit blues-rock trio via MySpace. There were subsequent shows with fellow "child" prodigy Cetan Clawson; Reynolds and Van Camp even served as the Hendrix-influenced guitarist's rhythm section for a gig. And they simply adore local blues-rock stalwarts Bluesong (who are headlining Smalls on Saturday, March 7, as part of Blowout) and it looks like the admiration is mutual.
Drummer Van Camp's a junior, the other two sophomores, at L'Anse Creuse High School in Harrison Township. Kreps and Van Camp have been playing together for fun since sixth grade; Krebs would overdub bass guitar on the early recordings they experimented with, again, just "for fun." Before the musical camaraderie, however, the two had been playing hockey together since third grade. "Then I found out he liked Zeppelin," says Van Camp. "So the first song we learned was 'Immigrant Song.'"
"They just played it over and over and over again," recalls Van Camp's father, Mike, who's driven the three lads to downtown Detroit for a chat.
"For two months," says the drummer. "We wanted to get it perfect."
Two years ago, Reynolds ended up in a high school algebra class with Van Camp. "I never talked to him or nothing," says the latter, "but then I heard he played guitar." The two longtime friends soon convinced Reynolds he should play bass instead. "I never played bass until we started this band," he now says. "Well, I never sang until we started this band," counters Krebs.
There's a long tradition of very young bands coming out of this area, most recently and notably the Muldoons and the Displays. In fact, drummer Van Camp now also plays guitar in that latter band, giving him double duty Saturday night at this year's Blowout. But it can probably safely be said that no young band has ever been any more serious about it all than these three kids seem to be.
"The Crooks are writing great songs at an age when most musicians are still trying to figure out how to play the riff to 'Smoke on the Water.'" says Matt Smith. "And they play their own material with the conviction of early Grand Funk Railroad and the 1968 Yardbirds with Jimmy Page. And they are just getting started! In a word, they are awesome."
"Matt keeps telling us to check out these '60s psychedelic bands," says Van Camp. "He tells us our music sounds like somebody or other," adds Reynolds, "but we sometimes have no idea who it is." They laugh. Such as? "Well, the band Man," replies Van Camp after some thought.
And yet, despite their unfamiliarity with obscure musical units such as Man, their tastes do run deep. They listen to both Rory Gallagher and Humble Pie, for instance. "Alright, I talked to Matt," says Van Camp, almost as though he's about to confess something, "and our vision is to someday make an album like Magical Mystery Tour. That's really what we'd like to do."
But although they share a mutual devotion to the Beatles — they currently only have three covers in their repertoire, all three from the Fabs' Let It Be album — they also believe it's their diverse tastes that make the band what it is. "The best bands have all liked some of the same stuff," argues Van Camp, "but they all have their individual favorites too."
"It's good to have a variety of tastes," agrees Krebs.
"I like real blues and a lot of garage," says the drummer. "[Krebs] is more into alternative rock. But to have a good band, you can't all like the exact same things."
So due to those diverse tastes, as well as their relative youthfulness, we thought it would be fun to end this with one of those jukebox jury blindfold things. And that's exactly what we did ...
"Wishing Well," Free
(Instant recognition among the three)
Reynolds: They're like one of our favorite bands too!
Van Camp: Simon Kirke is just so awesome as a drummer. And Paul Rodgers is ... well, Paul Rodgers. He's great. We thought about covering "Mr. Big." We do jam on it when we practice.
"Black Diamond," the Replacements
Krebs: Was that live?
Van Camp: I don't like those kind of drums or that kind of production.
(Consensus is thumbs-down ... but bonus points to these dudes for not knowing or caring that it's a KISS cover!)
"Over Under Sideways Down," the Yardbirds
Van Camp: I know this! I know this!
Dad Van Camp: You've heard it many times!
MT: Well, this isn't a test or Name That Tune. What do you think of it?
Van Camp: It's great. Is that Jeff Beck on guitar?
"Girl, You Have Magic inside You," Outrageous Cherry
Van Camp: Oh, yeah. That's great stuff. Matt is like ... he's like a genius.
Krebs: I also really like "Saturday Afternoon" by Matt.
Van Camp: And "Pretty Girls Go Insane." You know, we really weren't familiar with Matt's stuff before he contacted us. But the new [Little Steven compilation] album is really sweet.
"This Is Our Perfect Crime," the Von Bondies
Van Camp: That was cool. It was good. I liked the verses better than the chorus.
Krebs: Yeah, it sounded very '80s.
"Burnin' Up," the Jonas Brothers
Van Camp: [Halfway through] You can turn this off.
Reynolds: Kids listen to them at our school.
Krebs: I don't actually hate the Jonas Brothers. I think when they are finally allowed to do what they want to do, they won't be the Beatles, but they could be better than they are now.
"So What," Pink
Krebs: I hate this. You can stop it.
Reynolds: Some kids think this is "punk"!
"Down The Line," Buddy Holly (aka Buddy & Bob)
Van Camp: [After being informed who it is] I was going to say Buddy Holly! I knew I knew that voice. Buddy Holly is sweet. I went through a phase where I listened to him all the time. That was his first record? That was very cool!
Krebs: The intro to that song was used by a lot of people over the years.
"Pusherman of Love," Bootsey X & the Lovemasters
Van Camp: Wow! That sounds a little like the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams."
Krebs: That was a really good song.
Reynolds: Very cool.
Van Camp: I thought that was really good. I forget to mention that the MC5 was a big influence on me as well. I think we try to go for that same kind of energy. Same thing with the Stooges.
"Anything 'Cept the Truth," Eagles of Death Metal
Van Camp: That was cool.
Reynolds: Yeah. I really liked that.
Krebs: I've never heard them before.
Van Camp: A little T. Rex influence in there as well. We're big T. Rex fans. I listen to way too much T. Rex.
Krebs: We're forced into hearing it!
Van Camp: Yeah, anybody who's come to my house lately is forced to listen to T. Rex!
"Hotel Yorba," the White Stripes
Van Camp: I think everything Jack White does is good. So I, of course, liked it.
Krebs: I used to like the White Stripes until I started going to his [Van Camp's] house. He listened to them for a year straight. So I appreciated when he started playing T. Rex instead!
Van Camp: I love them. They're in my top five. Meg's not Ringo, for sure. But she fits with that sound. And she knows what to do and when to do it. I don't think it would be the same without her. It's like a perfect match. I love that simplicity.