Crayon’s “Brick Factory” sounds like the best ‘90s record you never heard. Give it two or three listens, and its lo-fi, occasionally off-key earworms will find permanent residence in your sense memory, not to mention your iPod and your record collection. So much so that you’ll wonder where it’s been all your life—particularly that time in your life when you were discovering your sexuality, hating school and sucking at sports.
Remembered primarily as the musical launching pad for Washington State musicians Sean Tollefson and Jeff Fell, who went on to form the seminal twee band Tullycraft, Crayon was a formidable act in its own right. The trio issued a self-released cassette, six 7-inch singles and its lone album, Brick Factory, in its four years of existence at the dawn of the 1990s. Today, the music sounds like lightning in a bottle, a singular yet familiar noise-pop brew that was utterly of its time, suggesting, at various points, Treepeople, Superchunk, the Dead Milkmen and Beat Happening.
The album has been out of print for most of the past 20 years, its reputation exceeding its availability. But in honor of its 20th anniversary, the venerable Happy Happy Birthday to Me label has released a limited-edition LP and bonus-track cassette with digital downloads; purchase both and you’ll get pretty much the entire Crayon discography.
At first, Tollefson, who played bass in Crayon, was apprehensive about releasing the reissue, because the band’s breakup still clouded his memories of it. But, he says, “when I finally sat down and listened to Brick Factory with fresh ears I thought, ‘Wow! Who are these kids? They’re crazy. It sounded surprisingly fresh to me. It felt like music being frantically made by passionate people I didn’t know. There are, of course, a couple points that make me cringe while listening to my younger self, but that’s to be expected. Honestly, I think the record actually stands up quite well.”
“I still don’t like my voice,” adds guitarist Brad Roberts, who split vocal duties with Tollefson. “And I wish the guitar sounded heavier on the album. There were some songs that definitely clicked, though. Jeff’s drumming is flawless throughout, and Sean had some great lyrics that still hold up.”
Part of the memorable tension in Brick Factory is its two divergent directions—the punk sensibility, which shone through on Roberts’ songs, and the proto-Tullycraft twee, which manifested in Tollefson’s. The trio was listening to music ranging from ethereal Sarah Records pop to the skull-crushing heaviness of Big Black, and integrated all of it into the teenage angst of Crayon.
“Our influences along with our lack of musical ability were mixed together in a naive cauldron,” Tollefson says. “If we had been better musicians, I’m positive the music we made would have been terrible. We were easily one of the more amateurish bands in [Bellingham, Washington], and we were also one of the most confident. At the time, I was convinced that we were one of the best bands in that local scene, but this sentiment wasn’t shared by most. We could headline and sell out the Middle East in Boston, but in Bellingham we were almost always the opening band for the opening band. It didn’t make any sense to us, and I think our songs benefited from this anxiety.”
Because the record never caught on in its time—the perennial fate of the cult classic—Crayon disbanded in 1994 with Roberts’ decision to leave.
“We had just gotten home from a six-week tour with The Softies, and we were about to go on another tour with Cub across Canada,” Tollefson recalls. “I don’t think Brad was having much fun being in the band and being on the road so much, so he decided to quit. At the time, I really wanted to continue, but in hindsight I think Crayon actually ended at the right point.”
“Part of me wonders, why was I so bummed out at the time?” Roberts says. “I was in a great band (pardon my delusions).” But, he says, “we were all very conscious of many people, especially local bar bands and indie-pop purists not liking us, and that gave us a bit of a chip on our shoulders. I think we were a very honest band that really tried to write good songs that would connect with people. I’m grateful that there are still some people who want to hear this record.”
Brick Factory is available now at www.hhbtm.com