Being asked to leave his former band after two years of touring and making music left then 22-year-old Dear Hunter mastermind Casey Crescenzo jaded, scorned and wondering what he should do next. He could never abandon music altogether, but after all the work he put into The Receiving End Of Sirens he had reservations about starting anew.
His efforts and considerable talent had not gone unnoticed, though. After a demo he made on a whim began to circulate amongst his friends, and eventually reached the owner of Triple Crown Records, Casey was asked if he wanted to pursue The Dear Hunter full-time. “After a few weeks of thinking of what I really wanted to do, I realized that this music that had originally just been an outlet for what came out naturally aside from this band I was in was really the music that I loved writing and playing,” Casey recalls. “The idea of kind of putting together a touring band or that kind of thing was offered up to me, so I switched gears and it just became my main focus.”
That was in 2006, and after four full-length albums Casey remains in complete control of the direction of his band. He writes and produces all of the music and has final say about the players involved. “It’s always been sort of a rotating lineup,” he says. “And it’s not necessarily the way that I wanted it to be at first… you become so in love with bands like The Beatles that you just want to recreate that dynamic of the personalities and this tight-knit group of people.” But Casey relents that not everyone who has played with The Dear Hunter has the same goals or ideas of how the band works, or ought to work. Some have other obligations, and others want a regular life after a while. “It’s like everything that you could possibly imagine I think has happened at one point with this band.”
The idea behind the band as well as the first three albums, Acts I – III, came from a story Casey wrote about the life and times of a fictional character called The Dear Hunter. That is until the most recent release, a series of nine EPs (36 songs in total) called The Color Spectrum, available in a complete vinyl package (which recently sold out) or as a 14-track compilation CD for the less ambitious among us. The Color Spectrum is not part of The Dear Hunter (the character’s) story, but was done instead as a diversion before Casey decides it’s time to finish Act IV of the six-part series. Yes, Casey wrote 36 songs as a way of taking a break from a series that he is only halfway through. Talented or out of his mind?
It’s probably a lot of both, really.
Not your typical indie rock idol, bearded and burly, Casey is an obviously resolute and stubborn individual fully dedicated to music, not as a career but as an art. Just as he is careful to answer each question posed to him completely and with as many details as possible, he confesses that he also demands attention to detail from his audience. “I knew that I wanted to do something that was ambitious just because I like challenging myself. And on the other side, I like challenging the listener to a certain extent. You can’t just throw it on in the background and do whatever else you were doing. It’s intended to make a listener listen.”
“The most important thing about [The Color Spectrum] was personal growth or trying to learn and trying to grow as a songwriter and producer and musician,” he explains. “And wanting to take everything I’ve learned and everything that I go through and move forward in my life and apply it to the future of what I’m doing.”
If Casey got better after The Color Spectrum, the next Dear Hunter release will be his best yet. A wholly beautiful and contemplative offering, The Color Spectrum contains genres as varied and sundry as electronica, country, rock, alternative and pop, all guided by Casey’s high, soulful tenor which bleeds passion into every song.
The first track of the one-CD compilation, “Filth And Squalor,” from the Black EP (The Color Spectrum also includes white and black.) is a dark, sexy electronic track with a mellow but somehow threatening groove. Casey sounds as if he’s delivering the lyrics with a wry, mischievous grin. The only bummer is that the compilation only includes one track from Black. “Deny It All” from the Red EP is reminiscent of the Acts series with its countrified, rocking sound. “But There’s Wolves?” from Orange, just as you would expect, nods to Red but with a little more hard rock zest. The bridge takes on a summery pop-rock feel before the song hints at Led Zeppelin with a climactic guitar solo on its way out.
Perhaps the highlights of the disc come with the final four tracks, one a piece from Indigo and Violet and two from White. “What Time Taught Us,” from Indigo, reintroduces the electronic percussion of “Filth And Squalor” with a melodic bass line and some bells resulting in a strange but coherent stylistic fusion. “Lillian,” from Violet, is going to be a favorite for a lot of Dear Hunter fans. Easily one of Casey’s best ballads, the song winds up with tender vocals accompanied by throbbing violins before the chorus hits in grand fashion with violins galore beneath Casey’s crooning. “Home,” from White, is an ambient piano rocker, reminiscent of something Coldplay or The Killers would do with its big chorus and steady backbeat.
Casey finds himself playing many of the instruments on his albums, probably due to a combination of lineup and control issues. Incredibly, his resourcefulness comes without any formal musical training. He doesn’t know much music theory and he can’t read music, even though he writes mostly on piano. “I actually sat down when I was working on the White and Violet EPs in Long Island, I started playing piano because I was finishing up writing a song, and the guy who co-produced it with me, Mike Watts, he looked at me playing and he asked, ‘Have you ever had any lessons?’ And I thought he was going to say something like, ‘Because you’re fairly comfortable with the piano.’ And I said, ‘No, I never had any lessons.’ And he said, ‘Oh, because you’re playing horribly wrong,’” Casey laughs.
He credits his parents with instilling in him his deep love for sound. Both his mother and father are musicians and do it all very much by ear. “Growing up and listening to all the music that they exposed me to, and also hearing the music that they wrote and hearing them play, while I never actually had any lessons from them, it was kind of like you learn language growing up by hearing other people talk, I feel like I learned music by hearing other people play because I was exposed to it from such a young age.” He says Weather Report, Return To Forever and other ‘70s fusion artists along with The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Jimi Hendrix were subjects of many of his first sonic obsessions. Casey finds himself inspired by visuals, memories and other music. To him, it’s about recreating feelings long before specific chord changes, rhythms or other technical qualities.
As inspired as he is after having completed The Color Spectrum, Casey is not quite ready to jump into Act IV, but it’s not because he needs to rest his creative mind. His devotion to the story of The Dear Hunter requires that he live a life outside his studio. “As this character evolves and becomes older, I want to have more life experience to pull from for each record and allow myself to grow,” he explains. “Instead of attempted to write about a character’s life from beginning to end—and trying to write it all when I was 20 years old—I think at least taking six to 10 years, and allowing myself to grow and pull from those life experiences; that felt more natural for me.”
With such a string of quality releases behind him, surely the world will be listening.
The Dear Hunter will play Knitting Factory in Brooklyn on Aug. 12 and North Star Bar in Philly on Aug. 13. Find more info at thedearhunter.com.
[The initial version of this feature incorrectly stated that the song “Lillian” is from the Indigo EP; it is actually on Violet. Thanks to Ben for pointing out the error, and we apologize.]