Since moving to Nashville in 2001, Chris Crofton has — as a cutting alt-comedy standup, frontman of his hard-hitting, power-riffing Alcohol Stuntband and podcast, and college-radio personality — carved out a place as the local rock scene’s favorite funnyman. For a time — years he spent in a drunken haze — that recognition was enough for him.
“Alcohol made me impatient,” he tells the Scene, sipping coffee instead of cocktails, “and if I couldn’t get what I wanted career-wise, then I would just take getting drunk. I’ll just go for, ‘Maybe someone will recognize me at FooBar and tell me they like my band,’ and that’ll be good enough. But that meant I was gonna sleep ‘til 2 p.m. the next day, not send any emails, not make any phone calls, not do any of the stuff.”
That all changed when he dried out two years ago.
Recently, Crofton, now 45, found himself sober, recovering from a failed relationship, living in an East Nashville apartment with no kitchen and nothing to lose, and ready to take a shot at making it as a standup. So he’s moving to L.A.
“I have a compulsion to communicate certain things,” he explains. “I think that’s what made me write songs and get onstage to begin with. Now I’m back to that, and I’m grateful for that, and the only reason I’m leaving Nashville is because I’ve saturated this market, basically. … I wanna work at it and see if I can do it in a substantial way. I’m hoping to be a substantial standup.”
Crofton says goodbye to Music City with a May 14 appearance at The Stone Fox, a must-see for anyone attending (or headlining) next week's Wild West Comedy Festival. In a candid Q&A with the Scene, Crofton talks about alcoholism, why he needs to leave Nashville, and why he might come back.
What was the Nashville rock scene like when you moved here?
I played 12 off 12th, and there were, like, two other rock bands here. I’m not kidding: There were probably, like, eight rock bands in this town. So I looked around and I was like, “We can be the best rock band in this town.” It didn’t occur to me, though, that no matter how good of a rock band you are in Nashville, nothing happens. … It was not really clearly thought out, and I was drinking a whole lot.
People are definitely more accessible here, I think. That makes it an easier nut to crack.
Right. And then what happens, though? That’s the question.
Well, for a long time it felt like a bubble. Now, it feels like, "Well, maybe something will happen."
If you have long hair and you’re 19, something might happen. … Since I quit drinking, I reevaluated a lot of things. Like, being drunk at FooBar and having people recognize you as a person in a band or being a comedian feels like momentum, but you’ve just got to be careful because it’s probably not.
Is there a liquid-courage factor as well?
It just feels good. It feels like I’m playing shows; I’m being appreciated; I’m rubbing elbows with people who may be able to help me possibly, that kind of stuff — what my therapist would call “magical thinking”; that you’re on this trajectory towards success, but in reality you’re drinking at a bar on Gallatin Road.
Was there a watershed, rock-bottom moment with the drinking, or did you realize it had been a gradual descent?
Someone close to me asked me what my biggest problem was and the first thing that came to my mind was drinking, and I almost didn’t say it, and realized that made it even worse. So I said it, and then that person said they weren’t really interested in getting involved with someone who was drinking a lot and so I said I’ll step, then. …
I just think I got a window into sensible thinking, and I think I’m an alcoholic. And like a lot of alcoholics, I didn’t think I was an alcoholic because I was always full of alcohol. But I had a moment where I really, truly saw a change.
I always was ambitious. Seriously, I mean dead seriously, [I’ve been] passionate about trying to write good songs; the standup, it sort of pains me to be known more for being a standup than as a musician, because I just think musicians are a lot cooler. Period.
If you’re known for being a standup first and a musician second, you’re just comedy rock? It’s like a Jack Black thing?
I try to keep them very separate. The songs are sort of funny, sometimes, but I write two kinds of songs. There are two subjects I like: Basically, deranged subject matter for rock songs, and relationship subject matter for sad songs. And that’s pretty much my rule.
Where does acting fit in?
I did the theater in New York, but it was another kind of thing where it was super competitive. I got involved in a pretty good, pretty connected scene — I met Hal Hartley — I was sort of in a position to maybe do something if I got my shit together or got serious about something. But instead I went to Block Island, Rhode Island, and mowed lawns for the summer because I felt stressed out, and drank. I think there’s always been a lot of fear of success. I feel much more respect, in Nashville, in the last two years, for what I’m doing, just because I’ve been [sober].
Do you think you’ve been better at it too?
I think I’ve been better at it, and I think I take myself more seriously, even though I did always take myself seriously. I always saw a person that was going to have an upward trajectory in my life and I felt like I was leveling out.
I’ve seen you hanging out at bars since you’ve stopped drinking. Has that been tough? Or has it been easy to adjust to not having it in your life?
I think I drank for so long — I started drinking when I was 14 and I drank until I was 42 — so I think that, for me, I’m done with it. I really feel like I just had a moment where I realized this is now or never. I’m 45 years old; I’m gonna be 50-something years old, and I’m gonna be quitting then? I just had an epiphany that if I wanted to get things done; like, if I really wanna be a full-time performer, and not a waiter, that I needed to make a change.
It sounds like drinking kept you in a spot where you were comfortable spinning your wheels.
Yeah! I enjoyed being a local celebrity. I really did. It felt like enough, as long as I was drinking. Then once I took away the drinking, I realized that … my worst instincts were starting to come out, which were just to be popular. I wanted that when I was a red-headed, bullied third-grader. …
So there was that insecure kid that I think, really, the alcohol kind of ... I just realized I was regressing. When I got into music, it was really because I wanted to [write] songs, not because I wanted to be popular.
Did drinking make it easier to go on stage? Or were you convincing yourself that being drunk enhanced performances?
I love The Replacements; I love Guided by Voices; I read No One Here Gets Out Alive. I was doing my best James Dean, basically. But I have serious aspirations, and I do feel like I’ve been able to do good work throughout, and I think I have something substantial to offer, artistically. I have something to say, and the clarity I’ve had since I quit drinking has made it so I can focus on that again instead of focusing on trying to be all things to all people.
With the songwriting, and with the standup, when you’re talking about artistically espousing your worldview, was the drinking clouding that? Has what it is you’re trying to say become clearer?
Well, let’s just say songs like “Pussy on Hold” … when I was drunk it was like, it’s almost political to be this dirty; this is important, urgent business I’m doing here; this is very far out and important stuff. To a person who wasn’t drunk, “Pussy on Hold” is really important shit?
When it comes to the element of it that’s “lifestyle music,” it might not make as much sense to write songs like that sober?
I might not go with my first drunken idea for a lyric now. Not every time. It was like I had a pact with myself — the same kind of “rehab is for quitters” pact I had with myself — it was the same way with, like, if I had an idea and it’s stupid, I have to keep it because I thought of it. I would describe it as a childish kind of approach. I don’t want to lose that entirely, because, god, Bon Scott was childish as hell, and I love Bon Scott.
My thing is always writing in a character anyway. I’m a bald man, and I’m wearing a black leather jacket, and I love that. My favorite thing about playing music is that when we recently played Cleveland, the guy in the band after us just said, “Wow, when I looked at you guys, I didn’t know what to expect. You looked kinda old. I certainly wasn’t expecting that!”
[Before], if I toured, we’d get to Murfreesboro and I’d already be taking acid or something — I’m on the road! “We’re at Harding Place, stop drinking schnapps." And I really was that way; it was a nightmare. So for self-preservation reasons, I was always afraid to tour. I feel safer now. I was afraid to go to L.A. and try to do standup full-time.
Didn’t you flirt with the idea of moving to L.A. five or six years ago?
I tended to get these breaks and then drunkenly just kind of, like, in somewhat of a spaced-out manner, blow ‘em off. I got this big acting award in 2001 from this film festival in Seattle — they made the award for me; it was supposed to be a break — and I just sort of went back like, “Well, I’m in a band in Nashville, so see you guys later.”
Then Neil Hamburger, seven years ago now, gave me this great, wonderful introduction to the L.A. comedy scene through Comedy Death Ray and introduced me to all these people, and I just came back to Nashville. I’m talking to Bob Odenkirk and he’s like, “So what are you doing?” And I’m like, “Well, I guess I’m gonna just go back to Nashville.” I should have said, like, “I live here! I can do something next week,” even if I had to hop a train to get back to L.A.
Do you regret that?
I don’t regret it, but I think I missed some opportunities because I was afraid of success because I also didn’t feel well enough. … I think it just was lost on me, if I promote myself as a drinker, I’m marginalizing myself. I think at same time I was aware of that, and that was a fear of success thing and a fear of failure thing. … “Wouldn’t it be better to be the guy that never lived up to the promise than to be the guy who failed?” I think that was my business model. … People have always been very, very supportive of me here in Nashville, I think they always gave me the sort of “Crofton, you can make it if you wanted to” kind of thing, and I was like, “This is a safe place to be.”
You told me earlier you think it’s possible that you’ll end up back in Nashville.
Well, I’m not entirely over being a local celebrity. So if I can’t pull that off in L.A., I probably will be back here very shortly.
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