Charlatans of Pop

Why I Believe in God (Or Craig Krampf, at Least)

In eighth grade there was an after-school program called MathCounts in which all the future engineers and programmers got together to learn number theory concepts that went beyond algebra and geometry. Not only did it prepare young students for the kind of mathematical thinking that college would require, but it also served as a preventative measure for adolescent dangers like having fun or kissing a girl. One day, Mrs. Schultz taught us how to find the number of diagonals—lines that connect non-adjacent vertices—in any polygon, and she did so by showing us what she believed to be an efficient counting method. Ever the intellectual malcontent, I thought her process cumbersome, and a better set of instructions just came to me, as if it had been revealed in a daydream: subtract three, multiply, divide by two, done.* After ten minutes or so of verifying that my way was in fact a sound and stronger and boy geniuser alternative, she conceded and then started to gush. “How did you see that? How did you know it would work for all cases?” As much as I wanted and still want to be adored by everyone, I remember thinking, “Slow your roll, baby. It ain’t that big a deal.”

And it wasn’t that big a deal, because inspired moments like that have little to do with the people who receive them. Those flashes of inspiration come from and belong to God, or, as I like to call it, the G-word. I use “It” because the idea of a personal God like that in the narrative of the Hebrew Bible is, to say the least, outmoded. While I’ve always been a credulous person with regards to objective goodness, I can’t claim any knowledge of the divine in the epistemological sense. Maybe I’m being romantic, and maybe It is nothing more than a psychologically codified institution, nurtured by tax breaks and regalia, reinforced by guilt trips; but then, it would have been extremely implausible for me to have encountered that diagonals formula elsewhere prior to that moment in eighth grade. I didn’t read about number theory at that age, and I had no incentive to even pay attention. It was just an experience, and I believe in the G-word because I experience It on a daily basis—I hear It in my headphones, I see It in the face of a beautiful woman, and I even get a chance every now and then to midwife more of It into existence. To know It is just intuition, an unconscious reflection of the secret harmonies of the universe…

Speaking of hippies, the greatest musician I ever played with is Craig Krampf, a drummer whom I outrageously misjudged when we first met. I had just moved to Nashville, my day job was playing for Josh Gracin, and I was also playing on the side with an indie rock band called Cassino (previously Northstar, for all you ex-emo people). Cassino is an acoustic folk-rock thing of understated intensity—dark stuff, and gorgeous—and this guy Craig had produced their first album, Sounds of Salvation. He was going to play drums at the next few shows because the other drummer hadn’t been working out, and, believe me, he hadn’t been. I was in a bad mood the night I met Craig, and that was exacerbated by the fact that I had to drive damn near thirty minutes to rehearse at his house. When he opened the door and I saw a man of near sixty dressed like The Dude with grey hair down to the middle of his back, I thought, “Who is this fucking hippie, and why did I waste gas for this?” To make matters worse, all he set up was a tambourine and a snare drum that he was gonna diddle with his fingers. Less is more, sure, but for Christ’s sake. So we played a song, and the moment he hit his tambourine was a revelation; it was the most glorious sound I’d ever heard. Afterwards I put down my bass and proceeded to kiss his ass for thirty minutes. That’s when I became friends with the man who invented drum triggers, has the tastiest four-on-the-floor in rock history, and was also the inspiration for the Muppet Animal, a distinction often mis-credited to Keith Moon.**

Good music happens between the lines. For the same reason you wouldn’t want to auto-tune Billie Holiday’s vocals, you don’t want a drummer who only plays perfectly in line with the click track, not all the time. Craig and I both know this, and that’s why we play well together. Cassino’s music is sparse, particularly for bass and drums, and its internal clock is driven by an unrefined yet eloquent relationship between the lead vocals and two finger-plucked acoustic guitars—like a babbling brook, with reason but not rhyme necessarily. Craig and I found that our attacks always aligned, no small feat considering the staid chaos of the rest of the ensemble. At one rehearsal, he acknowledged that very point to me: “You know we’re landing together on everything, right?” he said, and I nodded as if to wonder if there were any other way. Then he said, “Not everybody can do that. You’re one of us.”

At the time, I took what he said to mean that maybe I had what it took to be a big-time session player, but I’ve come to realize more clearly what Craig meant: we’re both believers. It’s a G-word thing, how things fall into place if you let them, or how beauty finds you if you open your heart to it. For us, Credo in unum Deum translates into “I believe in the bass and drums finding the One at the same time,” and not because it’s correct but because it’s righteous. To miss it is a sin, because to miss it is to pull everyone away from the G-word, to rope listeners into the rarified airs of self obsession—a total dick move. On the other side of the coin, to discover a mathematical truth or to compose something of timeless beauty is to do a simple courtesy to humankind.

The G-word is a sphere of infinite truth, and our only access to it is intuition, an awareness that mysteries transcendent are waiting to be borne in our souls and then manifest in the form of symphonies, iPads, and Crystal Pepsi. As a dude who deals in making things pretty—or nasty—I don’t think it’s my job to defend God, a concept that brings a smirk to the lips of almost anyone with a brain or the courage to be alone. No, it’s my job to wipe that smirk away and implore the world to bring God back, to reevaluate our understanding of It and realize It is the only thing that’ll help us all find the One and save everything from going to shit—or raise the bar above Skrillex, at least.

 

*To whom it may interest, the official formula for finding the diagonals of a polygon is s(s-3)/2, where s equals the number of sides. It had been proven and published elsewhere long before I came up with it, but it was new to us at the time.

** Craig’s first major gig as a sideman was playing for the Turtles in the early seventies. He made his first cover of Modern Drummer in ’79 when he played on the #1 hit “Hot Child in the City,” recorded by Nick Gilder. He went on to make hits out of “Eye of the Tiger,” “Under the Milky Way,” “Bette Davis Eyes,” and “Oh, Sherrie” (which he co-wrote). He has also recorded for Alice Cooper, Alabama, Melissa Etheridge, and, oh yeah, TOWNES VAN ZANDT. He is a legendary session player.

Hesiod James is a Nashville sideman. He plays bass.