THE DARK CARNIVAL: Crome Molly veterans keep rock ‘n’ roll interesting with their brand of theatricality
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
“The Devil” is into the details.
Seriously. Jody Sparks — the Knoxville resident whose alter-ego, known as “The Devil,” fronts East Tennessee metal act Crome Molly — is on the road in Fort Smith, Ark. By day, he’s earning a living to support his wife, Beth, and their five kids, who range in age from 6 to 18.
Installing medical sterilization equipment all over the country pays the bills, Sparks told The Daily Times via phone. And it lets him scout the trail for the bizarre pack of freaks that will soon follow.
“I’m out here doing preemptives — dropping off CDs, talking to club owners, setting up our summer tour,” he said.
After 10 years, balancing life and rock ‘n’ roll have become second nature. He’s been a musician long before Crome Molly started in 2002, as have all of the guys who are now part of the “Bloody Murder Circus,” as the guys titled their new album. But after a decade of grinding away at the rougher edges of the beast and beating his fists bloody on the doors of clubs, promoters and media outlets, it’s almost as if Sparks doesn’t know how to do anything else – nor does he want to.
Because Crome Molly, in a way, is his sixth child.
“For me, it’s gotten to the point where I’m not even looking at it as fun — I see it as we have message we need to be telling the world, and if I’m not up there telling it, nobody else will,” he said. “I still don’t curse on stage — your 5-year-old can listen to everything we put out. ‘Damn’ is the worse curse word you’ll hear me say, and that’s because my youngest listens to my music.
“It’s just a family thing — we’re not just doing it as a group of guys. We’re doing it as a family unit. Everybody in our families is pushing us to get out there and do this, and they support us 100 percent.”
And like any family history, that of Crome Molly has its share of outlandish tales, dark chapters and unbelievable escapades. Sparks is the only remaining original member of Crome Molly, and he was already tagged with his stage name before the group started. It does not, he emphasized, have anything to do with Satanism or the occult. It’s just a reflection of a particular personality trait.
“You’ve heard that expression, ‘The devil made me do it?’ Well, I’m one of those people who can talk anybody into anything,” he said. “I should’ve been a car salesman … or a politician. My friends were always saying, ‘Man, I can’t believe you talked him into that. You’re the devil!’”
Sparks grew up in rural Tennessee and Virginia, learning to play guitar on a beat-up six-string his aunt owned that would shock him every time he plugged it in. Unbowed, he pressed on, and eventually came to the Crome Molly fold as the band’s original bass player. He’d spent the previous five years in the local band Lust, which wrote a song (“White Devil”) about Sparks; he would later shorten it to just “Devil” and adopt it as his Crome Molly alter-ego when the band gave itself a full-fledged reinvention a few years back. (More on that later.)
From the beginning, he said, the goal was to take what was being done locally, crank it up to the point where the knob would break and make all other local heavy bands look like a cut-rate version of the Backstreet Boys.
“We wanted to do a band that was a level above all the other bands, kind of an all-star kind of thing,” he said. “When we first started, we were all members of the most popular bands around town, and we put Crome Molly together from that, kind of like a Velvet Revolver type of thing. Our goal was the have the most intense live show anybody’s ever seen.”
With fellow veterans from such bands as FaceShove, Wicked Intentions and Elysium, the group started out as a four-piece and played its inaugural show at The Prince Deli in West Knoxville, a venue to which Crome Molly returns every year for a holiday show that pays respects to the band’s roots.
“There was not an empty seat in the house,” Sparks said of that first show. “We filled the place to capacity, to the point where the fire marshal almost shut it down. I was so blown away by how many people actually showed up. There were probably 300 people packed into the Prince.”
Within several months, local radio station 94.3 FM had two Crome Molly shows in constant rotation; the band played such venues as the Electric Ballroom and Blue Cat’s (both of which are now closed) and immediately set its sights on getting out of East Tennessee. From the beginning, Sparks said, the guys wanted Crome Molly to be a road band. Their previous experiences in other groups made them realize the local heavy rock scene was a precarious one, and to ensure the band’s survival, they knew they had to bolt.
“We knew we’d have to step up and make a difference in the region or let it pass us by,” he said. “We feel more at home on the road than we do in Knoxville, just because of the band scene animosity we’ve experienced around here. We go out of town and play the same show we do in Knoxville, and people seem to appreciate it more.
“They accept it and bring us into their homes, make us a part of their families. They’ll buy our CDs, listen to them, get everybody they know to listen to them and the next time we come back through, all of their friends will be at our show.”
Many times, they come to see what, exactly, Crome Molly will do to top itself. The tipping point toward the band’s embrace of theatrics — the makeup, the masks, the alter-egos — took place in 2004, when James “The Mad Pirate” Jameson joined as Crome Molly’s new drummer.
“He worked for the band forever, and everybody knew him, but one night he showed up for practice, wearing that mask as a joke,” Sparks said. “And because he’d just shaved his head, the rest of the band didn’t know who he was – and I played along. He just came in and sat down, and the other guys kept saying, ‘Man, who is that dude? He knows all the songs!’ I just said, ‘I don’t know — he just showed up and wanted to be the drummer!’
“For his first show, we put him in a jumpsuit and handcuffs and had a police officer walk him in and escort him behind the drumkit, and after the show was over, he jumped up and took off running like he was escaping. The crowd went wild, and ever since then, every new member has wanted to do a character, too.”
The current lineup includes Sparks, Jameson, guitarist Rusty “Chief Smokin’ Cloud” Coleman, guitarist Brandon Bane and bass player Anthony “Jester” Gunner. The looks have changed over the years, Sparks said — sometimes influenced by fan suggestions, sometimes by the members’ twisted takes on various trends, but more often than not, they’re reflections of each man’s personality.
“The character, the attitude, the person — I’m that guy all the time,” he said. “I’m always the Devil; it’s just when I put the makeup on, it’s show day.”
Lately, the guys have taken to “dressing up” — wearing three-piece suits, which adds a dash of debonair and, strangely enough, enhances the creep factor. For fans who latched onto the band from the beginning, the changeover to a lineup that featured killer clowns as part of the stage show was too much; as much as they loved the music and the group, it triggered a few cases of coulrophobia, Sparks added with a chuckle.
But it threw open the doors to a whole new group of fans, he added.
“The Juggalos and Juggalettes, they became out fans, because Insane Clown Posse hasn’t really come out with anything in a while, and we paint up, too,” he said. “Now we have people painting up like us. The first time I saw somebody with makeup on like mine, I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’”
The differences between ICP and Crome Molly, however, are vast. For one thing, the Devil doesn’t do dirty words. For another, beneath the shtick, there’s a genuine level of musicianship that’s tight, professional and razor-sharp. And the band’s message can be communicated two ways — subliminally, and overtly.
However fans choose to take it is up to them.
“We have this habit of writing songs that are not going to make you throw your fists up and headbang, but songs that make you laugh and smile,” Sparks said. “Bands all over the world like us, the heavier the music is, the meaner and more aggressive and serious it is. What’s to say you can’t do the same kind of song but have fun doing it?”
And the message?
“Don’t be sheep. Open your eyes. Listen to what I’m saying.”