"These songs are more introspective," says songwriter Rik Cribb of his latest batch of recordings. "That's why I wanted to take my time with this. I wanted this to sound like me."
The Charleston songwriter and his long-running band The Problems celebrate the release of a self-titled mini-album this week with a gig at Art's Bar & Grill — a venue that's hosted many a Saturday night for the band this year. A veteran performer in the singer-songwriter circuit, Cribb has been playing particularly heavily in the last year — both as a solo acoustic act and with accompaniment from a rotation of tag-team members known as The Problems. The six new songs sound more sophisticated and confident than those he wrote in previous years.
The sessions for the new collection found Cribb on rhythm guitar and lead vocals with drummer Jeff Mangan and guitarist (and City Paper contributor) Doug Walters on hand. They recorded some of the tracks with engineer Chris Chamberlain at The Shed studio facility in Mt. Pleasant. Cribb engineered and mixed some of the songs himself at his home studio facility. Local sound wiz Jeff Leonard mastered the final mixes at the local Ocean Industries studio.
"We started at The Shed and did the basics in like three days ... then it took three years to finish," Cribb chuckles. "I initially put on a lot of guitar overdubs and extra stuff."
Halfway through the making of the album, Cribb spent several months at a time away from home, working on an industrial project in Kuwait.
"When I got back from Kuwait, I realized that there was way too much stuff going on — too many guitar parts," he says. "Plus, some of them were actually out of tune [laughs]. We stripped it down to the guitar, bass, and drums, and basically started over."
Cribb grew up on and around the Isle of Palms, playing music through most of his youth and teen years. He fronted the horn-driven ska-rock ensemble SKWZBXX in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By 2002, he'd stepped away from the spazzy side of things and formed a twangy pop-rock group with his two younger brothers, bassist Billy Cribb and drummer Derek Cribb. Known simply as The Cribb, the guys briefly relocated to Los Angeles, where recorded and released an album titled Theo Wilson Square.
They returned to Charleston from California in 2004, playing a handful of gigs before splintering into different directions.
"With SKWZBXX and The Cribb, there were a lot of other influences, which are great," Cribb says. "But to really sit down, stay focused, do your own thing, and try to come up with your own sound is like the hardest thing to do. It can sometimes be difficult to do without making it sound contrived, or like you're trying too hard."
The Problems started taking shape in 2005 when Cribb and Mangan started playing out as a rock duo (White Stripes-style). "I think I clicked with Jeff first," Cribb remembers. "He's one of the most mellow people I've ever met. Great drummer."
A string of loose bar gigs allowed them time to try out new song ideas with a variety of guest players. Most of the songs that landed on the new mini-album solidified during these early shows. By 2006, Cribb expanded the duo into a quartet, adding Walters and bassist Manny Hagman.
At this week's Art's gig, drummer Tommy Hamer (of The Fire Apes, among other pop/rock projects) will be filling in for Mangan, who's been laid up with a serious back injury in New York for much of the year (he's due back in Charleston this fall). Bassist/guitarist Jeff Bateman (also currently with The Fire Apes and SuperDeluxe) will be subbing for Hagman, who's busy in the Columbia scene these days. Keyboardist John Fitzgerald will be on hand, too.
"Coming back-and-forth out of the state, and out of the country, I ended up having more time to lay down a few better tracks than what I had done," Cribb says. "Listening to it and thinking about it helped. The initial tracks went down about three years ago ... I hate to say that [laughs]."
Taking their time seems to have worked. Some songs are pure Americana-rock, others are more lonesome and beautifully melancholic. Cribb tags "Carolina" as the most romantic track of the bunch. It's a favorite among local fans. "That song has been around for about six years," he says. "I wrote that one when I first moved back from L.A. and started playing it out.
"I think the thing sounds like Charleston, and it feels like Charleston," he adds.
The frontman already has a new collection of tunes ready for another studio session — one that he assures won't take years to produce. "I want to blow it out wide next time," he says. "I'd like to take three days, mix and master it, and just throw it out the door. This noodling around with it was a great learning experience, and really a lot of fun, but it was very involving. When you get in the middle of it, and people are asking for it, you can start drowning in it."