Christopher “Crash” Richard tells his story of leaving New Orleans for Los Angeles after Hurricane Katrina in the song “High Wall,” a sparse and soulful tune, sung over emotive organs and aching guitars.
“It tells the story of me coming here,'” says the former Deadly Syndrome frontman and current Magnetic Zero, who released his first solo album, Hardly Criminal, this summer on Community Music. He adds that, yes, the high wall in question is the levy, but there's more to it than that.
“It's more like: when disaster comes, when tragedy happens, can your protective wall ever be high enough? All the treasures we store and things that feel so important — at the end of the day they're just gone.”
He would know.
After Katrina, he was stuck outside the city, unsure when he'd be able to return. That's when some high school and college friends asked, on a whim, if he wanted to head to L.A. with them.
So he migrated West, landing a job as a production assistant, thanks to his P.A. experience working with Johnny Knoxville on the Dukes of Hazzard remake. Of his decision to “flee for the coast,” a theme woven throughout Hardly Criminal, the singer says with a laugh that he has a knack for “failing upward.”
“I was chewing on my nails wondering what the fuck is gonna come of my life,” he says, “but I was also lucky. For some people that was such a bigger question than for someone like me. I was just working on films, just a little pip squeak with friends going to L.A., and I could throw the dice. But a lot of folks weren’t at the tables.”
Regardless of whether he's benefited from luck or privilege, he's certainly made the most of his opportunity.
Not long after Richard landed in L.A., a co-worker at Dickhouse, Jackass's production company, heard him sing at an open mic night on Abbot Kinney and invited him to start playing music, which led to three albums from their group, The Deadly Syndrome, one of the L.A.'s finest contributions to late-aughts indie rock.
During their time together, they gained a reputation for raucous live shows (the whole band often attacked the drum kit during their closing number) and received widespread critical acclaim — even getting hailed as L.A.'s possible answer to Arcade Fire — despite never being able to quit their day jobs.
“We almost named the second record Nights and Weekends,” Richard says of 2010's Nolens Volens, the haunting, soul-searching record they self-released after parting ways with Steve Aoiki's Dim Mak label, which put out their debut. “Because that was all the time we had to put toward writing, rehearsing, recording, and playing it.”
Around that time Richard had also started doing occasional back-up vocals for Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. The bands sometimes toured together, and two Edward Sharpe members helped produce the first Deadly Syndrome record. Richard says he was drawn to the “circus” quality of the Zeros, which jogged memories of Crescent City art circles. (He studied performance art at LSU and sang with a gospel choir after high school.)
“It had a bit of flavor like home. It was like New Orleans in the sense that there were just all these different characters, sort of an artist community,” he says. “We did some tours supporting Ed Sharpe, and there was one leg from San Diego to Dallas. After Dallas, our band was heading home. I'm on the bus with Nico [Aglietti, guitarist and producer of Ed Sharpe] and the guys were like, why don't you just stick with us? So I took that trip and started to get more involved.”
By the time of the third Deadly Syndrome record (All in Time, 2012), each of the other three bandmates had gotten married. Richard would eventually make a commitment of his own, as a full-time back-up vocalist and percussionist in Ed Sharpe. That partnership led rather seamlessly to his solo project, which Richard considers a kind of time capsule of his thoughts and feelings between the end of the Deadly Syndrome and the beginning of his relationship with Ed Sharpe. Hardly Criminal, then, represents a series of transitions — between New Orleans and L.A., between the Deadly Syndrome and Edward Sharpe, between indie rock and folk.
Since we first heard the creeping oohs and ahs of 2007's “I Hope I Become a Ghost,” Richard's voice has had an elegiac quality. That's very much on display in new tracks like “Mine, Always Lioness,” and “Almighty Equal.” But now it includes different nuances, as he seems to draw on sounds from deeper roots — the Prince-inspired funk and gospel of “Motion Animal” and distinct Big Easiness of “If God Was a Cajun.”
Fittingly, when Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros write and record their next album in November and December, the band will do so in New Orleans. Richard can return home both literally and musically, even if he's in a totally different place than when he left.
Crash plays the Troubadour on Thursday, September 25 in support of Rocco DeLuca.