ABOVE: CHUCK CRISS
Some people find an apartment on Craigslist; others find refurbished computer parts or “miscellaneous” romances. Chuck Criss of the band Freelance Whales found his dream music career. A 28-year-old multi-instrumentalist from San Francisco who had just moved to New York to work in advertising, Criss typed “banjo” into the Craigslist search engine and up popped Freelance Whales, an indie rock band looking for a new member. A week later, he was in. Five years later, he’s toured the world and released two successful albums with them. Now, Criss is releasing his first digital solo album, titled : = : = : = : = : = : = : = : = : = :.
There’s nothing normal about Criss’ story, so why should his own album be any different? “I didn’t want it to be a word,” explains Criss regarding his indecipherable title, which repeats the “:=” symbol nine times for the nine songs on the album. “I know that could be perceived as being kind of pretentious, but I thought it would be more pretentious to come up with an actual title.” The title is also a reference to the codes used in Journey, a video game created for the sole motive of communicating with other players using no words and no text, just musical chime. “That’s the nerdy sub-level of why I did it,” he laughs.
Growing up, Criss wanted to be a bluegrass banjo player. “The music I gravitate towards is stuff that feels homemade,” he says. “Especially in high school I was into stuff that—and I don’t mean this in a bad way—felt attainable. Like, ‘Oh, I could do that.'” His younger brother Darren Criss, who is now on Glee and recently starred in the film Girl Most Likely, was a talented guitar player from the very beginning, so Chuck chose to pick up other string instruments. He’s since been trying to rid the banjo of its “creepy Deliverance connotations,” and bring it to the modern music scene.
Criss’ solo album embodies this “homemade” feeling in more ways than one. He produced it in the comfort of his own home with the help of his wife, Lucy, and its relaxed, simple vibe allows listeners to feel the same way he did about bluegrass—like they could do it at home, too. Unlike modern music from artists like Skrillex, “who sound like they’ve pounded like nine Red Bulls or something,” Criss admires more relatable music that “doesn’t rely on a lot of production muscle.”
The video for the album’s single, “Will I See You Again,” which you can stream above, combines public domain footage of historic San Francisco with the 1940s Disney movie Hawaiian Holiday, in which Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck fool around on string instruments, much like the Criss brothers did in their basement growing up.
FOR MORE ON CHUCK CRISS, VISIT HIS BANDCAMP.