It says a lot about Crankshaft and his Gear Grinders that his name was inspired by a gig he snagged at a car show. Over the past five years, the man known on his driver’s license as Alex Larson has played seemingly played every venue in the Twin Cities metro area, from country roadhouse bars to suburban dives to some of the hippest venues in the heart of the city. While he’s been busy winning over fans one blues rave at a time here in Minnesota, his latest record, What You Gonna Do?, has started climbing the Americana Music Association charts in the U.S. and the Euro-Americana charts overseas.
I already knew Crankshaft was an engaging performer—just last month, I watched him tear through a set at Bunker’s in front of a whooping crowd, his black, slicked-back hair flying through the air as he assaulted his guitar. But what I didn’t realize was that he’s also quite insightful and charming off stage, and he speaks eloquently about everything from the roots of punk rock to his hometown of St. Francis, Minnesota.
I recently caught up with Larson to talk about all things Crankshaft in advance of his free show at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts tonight, which is part of the MIA’s Bike Night and also the second installment of our Local Current Live series at the museum. Over cold drinks on a hot summer afternoon, we chatted about Crankshaft’s origins, his ability to transcend scenes, and how he’s staying grounded as his music career picks up speed.
Local Current: Take me back to the beginning. What first drew you to music and led you to pick up an instrument?
Alex Larson: My mom put my brother and I in piano lessons when we were really young, between the ages of 10 to 12. The interesting thing about that is, I think I probably would have stuck with piano if I had had a different piano instructor. I’ve always been drawn to rock ‘n’ roll and pretty aggressive music, and I wanted to be like Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard. I think I switched from piano to guitar because I wasn’t getting that out of playing piano.
I ended up getting a guitar from my uncle when I was 12 years old, right after sixth grade. At the exact same time, my brother started taking drum lessons, and the two of us, that kind of started a musical bond between him and I, all the way through high school.
Did you have a band?
Yeah, multiple bands. The band that sustained the longest, we’re still doing. It’s called the Mojo Spleens, a two-piece surf thrash band. We grew up in a small town where there wasn’t much to do, and we would throw parties and play music for our friends. Country living, man. We grew up in St. Francis, and we would rent the gazebo from the St. Francis park department and have shows at the gazebo. We were so organized, for how young we were. [laughs]
Who were some of your earliest influences?
Booker T. and the MGs, and Link Wray and the Wraymen—I discovered both of those bands when I was 17 years old, so I got a pretty quick jumpstart on discovering the roots of rock ‘n’ roll. All my friends were listening to punk rock at the time, and I was kind of going backwards from there, trying to figure out where tough music was started. You end up working your way back to early rock ‘n’ roll, really, is how that works.
Another band I discovered right around the same time was the Sonics, from Tacoma, Washington. People credit them as being one of the first American punk rock bands. They recorded and released their first album in 1965, and I think the only reason they didn’t get huge here is because they were squashed by the popularity of the Beatles. They were kind of along the same lines as the Stooges, but three years before that.
How old were you when you wrote your first song?
That would be the summer of ’96, right after I was done with sixth grade. We started doing instrumental music, and we were beating on buckets and I had a little electric guitar amp. We were arranging songs that were super simple, because we were really young, but the songwriting started almost instantly.
I don’t really know why I was drawn to writing songs at that young of an age. I think it goes back to being raised in the country—I mean, if you grow up on a lake, there’s retired people and cabins. So there were no kids around where we grew up. Me and my brother would make music, we’d ride dirt bikes, we’d go waterskiing, and that’s all we did all summer long for a good three or four years of our coming-of-age.
That seems pretty good.
Yeah. It was fun. I think what helped me, or made me who I am, is the willingness to focus on something, and focus to completion. It taught me to do that, just because there was nothing else to do. You have an idea and then you execute that, and then when that idea is over you come up with a new idea. I found peace in that because it kept me busy, and out of trouble, and I also just love the creative process.
Do you think that’s why you went back to a barn in your hometown to record your most recent album [What You Gonna Do]?
The album that I did before the barn was very much a studio release. I recorded with a childhood friend of mine; he was the engineer. And the space that he has to record in doesn’t accommodate being able to record live. So I thought it’d be cool to record in a barn for that reason, because there’s plenty of space. So I thought, recording in a big room, we can utilize the room sound and use room microphones, record everything at the same time, and the band then becomes a unit. And I like that. I like the spontaneity of that. I like that you don’t have to record to a click-track. Also, I thought it would be cool to do it in my hometown.
You seem to play quite a variety of venues in the local scene—you play blues joints like Famous Dave’s and Bunker’s, and then cross over into the indie rock scene to play the Entry or wherever. Do you feel like you play to different audiences when you’re at different venues? What’s it like to travel between these different worlds?
Yes, they are different audiences. But “Johnny B. Goode,” by Chuck Berry, goes over well in any demographic. Absolutely any. I could play “Johnny B. Goode” at an illegitimate house venue in South Minneapolis for a bunch of crusty punk kids, and they would dance. I swear. So to put a blanket response on that, we’re all people, and everybody likes entertainment.
I think the biggest contrast, for me, would be playing in the suburbs, like the Valley Lounge in Eagan. That place is crazy. It’s a crazy biker bar, everything is filthy. There was a guy we saw there, he was obliterated, who took off his shirt, was whipping his shirt around, and started doing The Worm on the floor of this place. It’s just a totally different type of place. Country roadhouses are so different—you have to do a lot more standards, like Chuck Berry tunes, or Bo Diddly tunes, that people can relate to, to try and get the audience into what you’re doing. But then you can also hook ‘em and drop an original tune on them, and they’ll be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this band is great! This is original music?’
I think that’s what probably separates me from a lot of artists: I’m willing to do any type of show. Anything goes. I’ve done street performing in South Carolina, I’ve played at car club Christmas parties, private parties, weddings. I feel like I’ve done so many weird gigs. But it all comes down to exposure, and also just trying your best at entertaining your crowd. If you’ve got that tenacity to just keep pushing at it, then you sustain.
That is a rare quality, to be flexible and not have a preconceived notion of how the gig should go.
I think I learned a lot at a really young age from playing in punk rock bands. Because I never really had that opportunity to have that delusion of grandeur placed in me. We would play to crowds of 15 people, or we’d go on tour and one night we’d be playing an artsy, weird underground venue that didn’t have any people, and the next night we might play a club that had a lot of people. Or a club that had no people. And then do another weird gig that’s like a punk house or something. I think that helped ground me, in a sense. I’m still totally full of myself, though. [laughs]
You’ve done a lot of touring outside the state as well. What are your goals right now, in terms of exposure?
Sometimes I struggle with how hard I want to push to get at what level. Right now, things are as crazy as they’ve ever been with this project, and I’m able to support Rachel [Taubert, his wife] and I, and beyond that why would I need to get any bigger? There’s something cool about being on the heels of the scene, you know what I mean? Or being able to do whatever you want.
I just want to keep making cool artwork, and trying to figure out the balance of being a workaholic and enjoying life in a chill way. [laughs] I guess that’s the ultimate goal. Sometimes it feels like a juggling act, but it all works itself out.
Crankshaft and the Gear Grinders perform at Local Current Live at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts tonight, Thursday, July 18, from 6-9 p.m. The event is free and all ages. More info on the MIA’s Third Thursday events and tonight’s “Bike Night” here.