Alibi V.28 No.25 • June 20-26, 2019 

Music Interview

A Company of Navigators

Ron Crowder plumbs Burque’s musical river

Hakim Bellamy and Ron Crowder
Hakim Bellamy jams with composer Ron Crowder.
Photo: Heidi Belville

Composer and engineer Ron Crowder is a longtime member of Burque’s studio elite and—kinda like the dudes in Steely Dan prior to 2002—he was a rare performer until recently. But his music is all over the place. As the big cheese at at Albuquerque’s In Crowd Productions, he has worked as a session player, an agency composer, a teacher and a producer.

Crowder went to high school with August March at Eldorado High; they were part of a subculture loosely referred to as “the freaks.” Former Alibi Music Editor Michael Henningsen also attended the same campus but mostly hung with the jocks and played country music, which was a way cool thing back then. Gordy Andersen and Kevin Cruickshank, founders of the Burkes’ first real punk rock band Jerry’s Kidz, lived in the neighborhood and were recent graduates.

The place was indeed the City of Gold; in the years between 1982 and 1986, the high school in Burque’s far Northeast Heights produced some of this town’s most durable musical voices, influences and arbiters.

Crowder’s been working under those auspices since he was 13 years old. He started making recordings of all his friends, most of whom played in one of the many cover bands managed by Joe Bufalino in the late ’70s and early ’80s. He did a stint in those sorts of outfits, too, before turning to composition studies at UNM with Scott Wilkinson and William Wood in the ’90s.

Then, after a career marked by studio excellence, Crowder decided he wanted to play out. He found collaborators, put together a band and recorded an album titled Liberty. That record rocked the year 2017. Suddenly Crowder found himself playing to sold-out venues.

But it doesn’t stop there: This month, Crowder hooked up with Hakim Bellamy to film a rap-tastic version of the title track from his latest album. The video version of “Liberty” effortlessly melds divergent but related musical styles; it is catchy and cunningly groovy, authentically articulate and as hip-hop as it is rocanrol.

In order to find out what is up with all that—and to catch up, for realz, with a true home slice—I asked Crowder to stop by Weekly Alibi.

Crowder showed up ready for action with a Golden City yearbook, a copy of his new album and two cups of coffee from Java Joe’s.

Weekly Alibi: How’s it going, man?

Ron Crowder: Great! Thanks for the invite.

Tell our readers a little bit about your background, please.

I look at myself first and foremost as a composer. I grew up in a musical family. My mom was an amazing musician, a multi-instrumentalist. From the time I was born, I was singing and writing songs. That didn’t strike me as an odd thing to do, so I always did it. When I was a child, I always wanted to play the drums.

Is that where you started?

I started singing when I was very little, but like I said, I thought everybody did that because my parents were always singing and playing music. I remember being on the playground when I was in first grade, and singing and these kids kind of gathering around, thinking “What is he doing?”

But you thought of it as a natural, everyday form of human expression.

It was like breathing.

Edgar Winter, another natural musician, told me a story that’s similar to yours. He came from a musical family, too, and thought all people went around singing and playing music all the time. Winter was shocked when he realized otherwise, he told me.

That’s the exact situation I grew up in. We had music, my Mom was playing the piano every night. People were always singing. That was a normal thing. So, from there, I developed and interest in the drums and begged my parents for years for a drum kit. My dad didn’t want that to happen for obvious reasons: The noise. But when I was 6 years old, I actually had a babysitter buy me a drum kit, a kit from Sears and Roebuck. It came at Christmas. But I opened it up, and there was a hole in the bass drum. We took it back to Sears, and they didn’t have drums in stock. Somehow, I’ll never figure out how, my dad talked me into a Fisher Price record player instead.

That’s kinda cool, though.

Kinda. And I was happy at the time and got immediate gratification, but in a few weeks, I was like, “Wait a second!” Fast forward another eight years, and they finally saw my passion for percussion. But my Mom was always like, “What are you going to play on the drums?” or “Who are you going to find to play with—you can’t play anything by yourself on the drums!” I told her I would form a band. So they bought me a drum kit, and a week later, I had a band together. I only knew two beats and played them to everything.

What sorts of influences did you have back then?

An early influence on my early work—and you can hear it, if you listen—was Karen Carpenter.

What happened as you got older? I know the cover band scene rose and fell in Burque in the early ’80s.

While all of that was going on, I discovered Rush, I discovered Neil Peart.

Those were big discoveries for many rockers of our generation, que no?

Absolutely. It changed my direction as a drummer. As a kid, I had been a big KISS fan.

Did you know Henningsen? He was, like, the biggest KISS fan in the universe.

I knew that he was class of ’85 and that he was a huge KISS fan, too. Anyway, the Dynasty Tour was my first concert ever.

My parents wouldn’t let me go to that one.

I had been so passionate about them. I bought all the magazines, played all the albums every single day. It was in Tingley Coliseum; I screamed like a little girl through the whole thing. With Rush, I ended up immersing myself in all of their work for next couple of years and improving my skills as a drummer. I had some bands in high school, like Panacea.

That had Tom Bennett and Rich Monson in the band. Bennett, I know, still tours all over the country as a solo act. It’s a daring lifestyle. But Richard Monson died in a car crash in the late ’80s right?

Yeah. I still write songs with Bennett. I cowrote some of the songs on his debut album.

After high school and college, you started to make substantial contributions to Burque’s musical culture from the studio, separate from the club scene as it is separate from the recital hall scene; what’s that about?

It’s actually where I spent most of my time for the last number of decades. My first day in the studio, when I was 13, I had this feeling that this is where I want to be. I don’t know that I had the foresight at 13 to predict my future, but it was still a core experience for me. In my early twenties, I got hired by an advertising agency to be their in-house recording engineer. I didn’t know anything about advertising. I was doing a lot of commercials, working with ad people.

So you were writing commercial jingles, presentation soundtracks, video game music and the like?

Right. I love writing. I love creating, so I just went with the flow. But I was still writing songs at that time.

And somehow that evolved into a situation where you put the songwriting first?

Basically, what happened was that I wrote a lot of stuff for other people. I went out to LA to try and pitch my stuff. There were little bits of progress but nothing major. Three years ago, I decided to try and do something on the local scene. I put out four-song EP. I had a list of goals. One of my songs, “Better All the Time,” got nominated for an award in 2017. Then I met Jim Casey, the cowriter for “Liberty,” the title track of the EP. It had been a song for Hillary Smith. We couldn’t get here in [to the studio to record] but I was really starting to like that song.

And “Liberty” won the best song category at this year’s New Mexico Music Awards.

That was fortunate.

And now you’re doing a music video for it?

I just finished the video for “Liberty.” It’s going to be released very soon—on June 20 on YouTube. On my channel. I met Hakim Bellamy last year.

How is he involved?

As I was about to put “Liberty” out, my girlfriend kept listening to it and telling me “this song needs a rap in it.” She kept bugging me about it. My bass player, Milo Jaramillo, suggested Hakim. In the midst of that, my cinematographer was thinking about a concept for the video. We went to a possible location, a mural site where there was a press conference going on. Hakim was there, and we started talking. I sent him a link and a week or two later, he wrote me that the whole liberty concept was affecting. He raps where the guitar solos are. I heard his lyrics and cried.