CCR Headcleaner thrives on obstacles. Guitarist Alex Gargile is a quarter short for a cup of coffee. He's a part-time horticulturist up north, but not lately. Drummer Justin Flowers and bassist Mark Treise slouch against Community Thrift on Valencia St. where the second guitarist, Ned Meiners, is about to break for lunch. They look weary, wince at the sun, and dress like depositories for the thrift shop's rejected wares. A block away, Flowers predicts that his rent-controlled apartment will be sold soon.
But despite the many crises and trials detailed in our interview, the quartet still laughs a lot. The band insists that elation lives in the twisted heart of its brazenly loud and lumbering rock 'n' roll. CCR Headcleaner's debut full-length -- a dense barrage of woozy Southern riffs and turgid feedback -- bares the hopeful title Lace the Earth with Arms Wide Open. The album's positive reception and a recent tour with Ty Segall's power-trio Fuzz shows a career upswing, and the band is opening for White Fence and Parquet Courts at Great American Music Hall this Thursday, Jan. 23. But the chaos marking the quartet's four-year existence still lingers, even if they have to create it.
Cargile and Flowers credit the 2008 financial meltdown with spurning the group's genesis in Georgia. Shortly after, the members moved to San Francisco. As Meiners says of the city's job climate, "You can't just get a job washing dishes. You have to make a career out of being a dishwasher -- and they want you to intern first." With few vocational prospects, CCR Headcleaner booked its own two-and-a-half month tour of the U.S. in 2010 without a single proper release. That year, when SF Weekly struggled to corral the band for an interview, then-drummer Nick Givens said, "Every member of CCR Headcleaner is officially homeless!" Several lineup changes, bouts of homelessness, cassette releases, and a 7-inch later, the current quartet released a debut album in September. NPR even premiered the music video.
As Treise recalls of his joining in 2010, "They had this crazy tour and my life didn't have a lot of direction, so I said I'd play bass." Sarcastically, he adds, "Unlike now, where I'm closing tons of deals." They brought CDrs and hand-done T-shirts, but lost everything salable on the road. Flowers worried about Treise's gas station shoplifting compulsion, but he was the one to need bail. Cargile spins the tale positively: "Man, I fell in love with [The Jesus and Mary Chain's] Automatic while driving to pick up Justin from jail!" They remember that the sweet malt liquor Four Loko still contained caffeine, but other details are hazy. The group ruptured into two bands by the tour's end. One week, Cargile and Treise played a show as CCR Headcleaner in Chicago with a pick-up drummer, while Flowers helmed a different CCR Headcleaner line-up for a show back in Oakland.
Last year's tour with Fuzz was almost the opposite experience. Flowers recalls, "It was fun, easy, and we didn't have to look for food in the trash." Treise counters, "We ate food out of the trash!" Flowers clarifies: "We ate food out of the trash, but we didn't have to!" Questioned whether this incarnation -- with a proper full-length album and an upcoming split single with tour-mates Fuzz -- is more serious than before, Treise says, "We're probably more perceptibly serious to an outsider now, but survival is a lot more serious than comfort."
So the appearance of an ambitious reinvention for this long-running act is deceiving. 2010's botched mess of a tour still illustrates the quartet's flippant disregard for conventional success. Facing disaster with levity is precisely what gives the band its character. Now there are simply more people who appreciate it.
If a situation isn't dire, CCR Headcleaner's four members tend to make it so. Rather than despairing, they respond with loud music and black humor. The music video for the new album's lead single, "Steal the Light," appeared on NPR in September. It captures a low-budget light show in Treise's bedroom. An NPR premiere is coveted coverage for new rock bands, but it doesn't show that Meiners was ticketed for drinking in public just beforehand. Treise worked at a book bindery for the last five years, but he's yet to secure a new job. Now, he says, "My dad gives me most of my money, but not enough to be respectable." Treise jeers on, "I steal a lot of sandwiches from Starbucks. I only get caught when I'm lonely."
The saturated recordings reflect anarchic lives, and CCR Headcleaner's assaultive shows are like group catharsis, even if the audience experiences them as an attack. They're jarring and volatile. In John Dwyer's recent photobook, Vinegar Mirror, he included an image of CCR Headcleaner playing in a backyard. There's an effigy of San Francisco in front of the band. The band lit it on fire. CCR Headcleaner needs destruction, and San Francisco's unforgiving financial climate provides it for broke musicians -- but the band is adept at creating its own, too. Either way, CCR Headcleaner's members are happy to let their unwieldy and desperate lives inform the music. As Meiners says, "Guitar squall is a joyous thing."