"TO BE HONEST, this is one of the most interesting bands I've been in." That's something coming from John Schmersal, who had a stint with synth-punk experimentalists Brainiac in the '90s before forming his own band Enon a few years following the 1997 death of Brainiac frontman Tim Taylor in a car accident.
These days Schmersal is devoting most of his attention to Crooks on Tape, which he formed with longtime Enon partner Rick Lee in 2010. (Schmersal also fronts Merge rock devotees Vertical Scratchers and plays live bass in Caribou). Crooks on Tape, which also includes drummer Joey Galvan, released its debut LP, Fingerprint, a couple months ago. It's a record that mixes loads of nook-and-cranny sounds with big, shiny hooks. "It's important to state that this is a pop record," Schmersal says with a laugh. "Especially at a time when most people are just reading the top headline—they might think we sound like Phish for all I know."
Of course, that would be way off, but I see his point. The crux of Crooks is that the material is heavily improvised. It explains why Fingerprint took the better part of three years to complete. The band recorded everything they did in their practice space, resulting in a lot of material to sift through. From hours and hours of sessions, the three-piece trimmed it down to 12 tracks. Album opener "Duper" sounds like it could play in a futuristic discotheque, while "Tito's Riser" ("the most succinct improv on the record") gets lost in a funked drone.
One thing is certain: There's a lot to sink your teeth into. And while Crooks' music could be perceived as experimental, Schmersal doesn't really see it that way. "From my perspective, we're all really big fans of pop music. I don't know why more musicians don't have a more progressive take on pop."
It seems the real trick now would be taking this improvised pop machine on the road. Schmersal isn't worried. While he realizes some people like to hear the songs as they appear on the record, Crooks on Tape just isn't that type of band. "I'm as curious as anyone," says Schmersal of the upcoming tour. "That's what I like about this band—it's challenging."