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Hardcore Progressive Acid Rock

An interview with Chris and Dana of Keelhaul

By Bob Ignizio



Keelhaul l to r: Chris Smith, Aaron Dallison, Dana Ambrose, and Will Scharf


“It would be nice to come home from tour and not have to eat Ramen soup for a month,” says Keelhaul vocalist/guitarist Chris Smith.  Yes, Chris and the rest of Keelhaul (Dana Ambrose - guitar, Aaron Dallison – bass and vocals, and Will Scharf - drums) are living the REAL rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.  “I work 60 hours a week for the month before we go on tour to pay my rent for two months in advance, and then come home and sit around and borrow money off people to eat.  Then in two months or so when everything is back in gear, it’s time to go off and tour again,” says Chris.  No H. R. Geiger designed microphone stands for these guys.  At this level, it’s all about the love of the music. 

Drawing on a wide range of influences, Keelhaul’s sound is described by Chris as, “…like post hardcore progressive acid rock.  To me it’s progressive in the sense that it’s not typical in the song structures, and we don’t play the same riffs all the time.  I think it’s kind of psychedelic in some ways.  If you want to put us in the ring, then the turnbuckles would be like King Crimson, and Neurosis, and Jesus Lizard, and the Melvins.”  As far as the band’s own progression from year to year, Dana says, “I think we just play everything better.  Everything is tighter, and everyone has a better understanding of everybody else’s style.  Same material, just better playing.  Everyone else is trying to be like Led Zeppelin where they can go from melancholy to super heavy.  But they put out two records that are totally at your throat, and next thing you know they’re like U2 or something.” 

Keelhaul came together in the fall of 1997 after the band Chris and Dana were in played its first (and last) gig.  “Will showed up at the gig, and when he found out our drummer was leaving he told us his band Craw wasn’t going to be touring anymore so we got together.  I played bass, Dana played guitar, and Will played drums.  I wanted to play guitar again, so we decided to get a bass player,” says Chris.  The trio soon recruited Aaron Dallison (ex-Escalation Anger) to handle the bottom end, and the line-up was complete.  “We finished writing all the material for the first album, and then the next summer we recorded it and went on our first tour in the Fall of ’98,” says Chris.  “The original concept was to be instrumental, but when we were writing the songs would just have parts that seemed to call for lyrics.”   

Initially Keelhaul’s debut album was released by Cambodia Records, a co-op label the band started on their own.  “Cambodia was supposed to be a collective thing and it just sort of petered out.  Each band puts out their own records, but we put them out under this umbrella.  Then we start building up a database of information between us like where to play or get stickers done.  But some people just didn’t get it,” Chris says.  The first album was eventually reissued by Escape Artist records, and their second came out on Hydrahead (CD) and Escape Artist (vinyl).  It’s been awhile since their last full length, but Chris says new stuff is on the way.  “The material is there for the next album, but it’s not refined.  Some of it’s still sketchy.  Some of it we’ve been playing out,” he explains. 

Keelhaul only play about a half dozen gigs a year around their northeast Ohio home base.  The rest of their time is spent touring out of state both on their own and as an opener for better known bands.  Chris says, “The east coast as far as Boston, Baltimore, and New York is all pretty good.  Also Atlanta and we’ve had some pretty good shows in Texas.”  Of course unless your band is one of the lucky few to be blessed with radio and MTV play, touring is bound to have its share of ups and downs.  Dana says, “If you do six weeks with 40 shows, 10 will probably be good.  The rest, not like they outright sucked, but unless you’re a huge band I don’t think you can have a good show every night.  You can have a show where they’re not giving you any beer and you haven’t eaten and there’s like seven people and five of them work there.”   

At the time I spoke with Chris and Dana, they were just gearing up for a stint opening for The Unsane.  “It remains to be seen how big it is, but it’s the second or third tour that we’ve been on with another band.  When we opened for Eye Hate God that was probably the first big tour we were on, but some of the shows sucked.  It’s our third tour with a band that’s bigger than us,” says Chris.  Regardless of how “big” a band Keelhaul tours with, however, Dana says it doesn’t make much difference; “For us, even if we were touring with Kiss, it wouldn’t change our schedule that much.  We’d still be hung-over, late for everything, and get fifty bucks to play.”  

Although no one in the band has any delusions of rock star grandeur, Chris does see the potential for other kinds of rewards.  He says, “Just recording and putting out records is the most important part of it.  I like touring, but I want to be able to tour more places, keep going further.  I’d like to get to Japan, South America, Australia.  I just want to keep covering as much of the world as possible.  We’re never going to make the radio playing the kind of shit we’re playing; we’re never going to make much money.  But hopefully it can at least be a vehicle for me to experience more of life and see the world, and maybe make a little money.” 

Visit Keelhaul's website.

Concert review and pictures:  Peabody's 03-31-03