Smile Politely

The wacky wizards of C-U

What do get when you combine bicycle enthusiasts, blues, motown, and punk musicians, and a prevailing desire to be silly? “Crank Wizards,” C-U’s newfound surf-punk act, spawned out of a party at the Champaign “Ethnomusicology House” (residence of one past member of Sonny Stubble) last December. The ragtag trio may not have much experience playing around town, yet their sappy history of prior acts and roguery yield a promising mixture of surf-punk and tomfoolery to serenade the local scene with.

Guitarist J.R. Lill moved to Champaign from Bensenville for a change of pace with friends who were attending the university, and was once kicked off a train in Ohio for making awkward, statuesque poses. Kurt Schab came to C-U for graduate school after studying in Portland for his undergraduate degree, where he played bass with two small hardcore acts, Knife Talk and Between Planets. Molly Poganski, who moved to Champaign for her current job as the manager of the Living Letter Press, has played with The Vallueres in Bloomington, IN. She joined in on drums.

Though they haven’t released their first demo yet, Crank Wizards will play their first show at Error Records on Saturday with touring acts Dogbreath, Diners, Estates and 2194, and have a session planned with WEFT in September. In due fashion, I biked out to Molly’s house to talk with them and got a sneak peak at what they’ll bring to the stage this weekend.

Smile Politey: How did Crank Wizards band together?

Kurt Schab: We were at a house party and we’re in the kitchen talking, and somehow it came up that I wanted to play in a shitty punk band. And I was there playing with the guys from Sonny Stubble. [Molly] had friends who knew guys in the band.

Molly Poganski: I had to leave and he was jamming, and I was like, ‘Well, I need to talk to him though.’ So I wrote on my business card, ‘Shitty punk band!’ and handed it to him.

Schab: So it worked out pretty well. It was good running into her, and it took us a little bit to find JR.

JR Lill: I was really itching to play with somebody who played drums, and I just asked Nathan [Landolt] if he knew anybody, and he was like, ‘You should call Molly.’ Then I called Molly, and she said, ‘YES! Come over.’

Poganski: I had dental surgery that day, so I was really hopped up on painkillers, and I was like, ‘Yeah, totally! Come over next week to practice,’ which I probably would have said anyways, but I just remember being like, ‘This couldn’t possibly go wrong. I’m guessing he’s the best person.’ It was true, but when you get a stranger calling you, you have no idea.

Schab: I think it worked out better than that thirteen-year-old. We got an answer from a Craigslist ad from a kid saying, ‘I’m down to play. I have gear. Only problem is, I’m thirteen.’

Poganski: Maybe give us a call later, in ten years.

SP: How did you go from a “shitty punk band” to surf rock?

Poganski: I think we’re somewhere in between still [laughs].

Schab: I think everything we do sounds a little bit different; we haven’t yet converged on a single thing.

Lill: There are a couple songs that are a super surfy, and I feel those are the ones that Nathan heard. So he’s like, ‘You guys are a surf rock band!’

Poganski: I just think we wanna have silly fun, overarchingly.

Schab: From surf rock to party jams.

SP: Why choose “Crank Wizards” as a name?

Poganski: The name of the band comes from the song that Kurt wrote about a wizard that rides bikes. That’s definitely worthy of a band name.

Schab: [The lyrics are,] ‘Lives eternal / Rides eternal,’ stuff about showing up at a bike race, ‘Lightning bolt / Broken crankshaft.’ It’s pretty much just a string of bike parts and wizardly actions. I was inspired by riding with a pretty cool bike community here, and it reminds me of some of the people showing up at alley cat races that you’ve never seen before, who kind of look like wizards.

SP: What other lyrics have you written for songs so far?

Lill: I grew up reading this book called The Phantom Tollbooth, and there’s a watchdog wearing a big watch on him. I’ve always thought about that, and I love puns. It’s kind of like playing with words with the lyrics, ‘The clock is ticking / Did your watchdog run out of time? / Traveling in circles / Instead of a straight line.’ I really like puns, riddles, and wizard games.

SP: And your other songs?

Poganski: We’ll just yell R. Kelly lyrics over the song if we don’t know what to sing.

Schab: One of them is a permanent addition, “Surf Train.”

SP: Why R. Kelly?

Schab: He said he wrote a song about trains…

Poganski: In remix to “Ignition” he says, ‘Gimme that toot toot, gimme that beep beep.’

Schab: So I started yelling along, ‘GIMME THAT TOOT TOOT!’

SP: What drives your band to be so silly?

Schab: I think it’s fun because we don’t have any scruples about doing silly things; we don’t have any hesitation about doing something different. In Portland, I played with the Youth Orchestra there, and that was total seriousness all the time. But I had so much more fun playing with this jazz quartet, where we’d get hired for these jazz gigs to play for four hours. Most of the time people weren’t actually listening to you; you’re just playing at a coffee shop. So we’d throw in little idioms and clichés to pop songs and no one would notice. I remember we threw in this ‘O-wah-ah-ah-ah’ [sound] from the Disturbed song on the radio, and we’d always throw it in the middle of a Bossa song when there was a stop, and nobody would notice accept for the people who’d laugh at our stupid jokes.

Poganski: When I go to shows and everybody’s really serious and it’s like a big clique, it just irritates me. It also irritates me with bands that are like, ‘Everybody dance! You have to dance! Why aren’t you dancing?’ So I wanna fall somewhere in between where everyone has a good time and you can be yourself.

Scab: I believe they said it best, ‘You can dance if you want to, you can leave you friends behind.’

Crank Wizards will play their first show this Saturday at Error Records with Dogbreath, Diners, Estates, and 2194.

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