U are now Entering Crazy Town
Eth “Shifty Shellshock” Binzer phones in from the road. He is being chauffeured to a gig by “two really beautiful girls” the day after Crazy Town’s third Ozzfest 2001 show. It was around this time last year that he went off the rails, nearly destroying himself and his band; now everything’s changed. “Last year, we had to leave Ozzfest after a week,” Shifty says. “This year, we came back headliners.”
Shifty and Bret “Epic” Mazur, the co-founders of Crazy Town, have a little studio set up in their tour bus and are already laying down grooves for their second record. The first, The Gift of Game, has sold 1.5 million copies and gone to Number Nine on the album charts on the strength of “Butterfly,” a sweetly floating ballad that’s atypical for these hard-rocking B-boys. “We have a lot to prove because of ‘Butterfly,'” Shifty says. “We have to prove we’re aggressive punk kids — a real band and not a pop act. If a band like Crazy Town can get into the Top Ten, that’s one for alternative rock; that’s one more spot that Britney Spears can’t have.”
Shifty has been sober eleven months, the most he’s been clean in a very long time. “It used to be more difficult,” he says. “I’m more happy now. Before, I was staying sober but thinking, ‘Why can’t I party like everybody else?’ This is my obstacle. I’ve got to complete this tour. I’m very confident that I will, but I always have to watch my step.”
YOU ARE NOW ENTERING CRAZY TOWN. Abandon all your baggage. Whatever preconceptions you may have about the state of twenty-first-century rock & roll will have to be left behind. Crazy Town is the place at the intersection of street credibility and pop savvy, where suburban rock parties with ghetto rap. Like most of the songs on The Gift of Game, “Butterfly” is a cut-and-paste collage of painful autobiographical truths and pumped-up player myths. But Crazy Town do not front about anything. They are privileged kids with criminal tendencies, who, as they themselves put it on “Darkside,” stepped over the line into “dreamlands of danger, dark-side pleasures, bad behavior.” Some of them are sober now. Some of them are not.
The day before a Las Vegas gig, we are scheduled to meet at Swingers, a punk-rock diner in L.A. The rhythm section — bassist Doug “Faydoedeelay” Miller and drummer James “JBJ” Bradley Jr. — are due at three. Guitarists Craig “Squirrel” Tyler and Anthony “Trouble” Valli at four. Frontmen Shifty and Epic at five. Naturally, they all arrive at once.
“This is a band that can teach everybody how to take drugs,” says Epic, who went to rehab to avoid charges of cocaine possession but still smokes weed and enjoys a glass of wine with dinner (his Dare T-shirt in the “Butterfly” video is a sarcastic gesture). “That’s part of what makes us who we are — the fact that we’ve been to hell and back, and here are the stories from our journey.”
For Epic, the long, strange trip began at age three, when his dad, Irwin, who managed Billy Joel’s career in the early Seventies, moved the family to the West Coast. Pops would take him to recording sessions, where Epic got schooled in rhythm by some of the world’s best drummers. Sometimes he wouldn’t be able to play because there was a mound of cocaine piled on a mirror on the snare. “There were a lot of addicts around,” he recalls. “There wasn’t nothing mysterious and cool about taking drugs for me.”
At thirteen, Epic got his first set of turntables and started break dancing. He attended L.A.’s Taft High with Ice Cube, Brad Wilk of Rage Against the Machine, and Everlast and Danny Boy from House of Pain, and spent nights spinning hip-hop in the city’s black clubs. He passed New Edition one of the tapes he made as DJ Epic and ended up remixing one of their tracks. Soon he had parlayed his experience into a production company he started with a guy twice his age.
They hustled, and prospered. Epic had a BMW, a downtown loft with a twenty-four-track studio and money stacked up in the bank, but he grew to hate remixing. The last straw was Sheena Easton. “She was no fun; I wanted to talk to her about Prince, and she wouldn’t say anything,” he says. In 1993, he gave it all up to work with Blood of Abraham, a Jewish hardcore hip-hop group. They recorded with some of the Black Eyed Peas, who introduced Epic to a teenage terror named Seth Binzer, who called himself Shifty Shellshock.
They were a perfect team. Shifty wrote lyrics; Epic was a one-man band. They joined forces with a guy named Bernard Williams from a band called Hellbent who went — and lived — by the name of Kaos. On coke-and speed-fueled marathons, they’d bang out monster tracks, then go out partying and macking for a month. At times, their adventures were interrupted by court-mandated timeouts. It went on this way for years, until 1997, when Shifty and Epic both found themselves in rehab.
Throughout most of 1998, they went to AA meetings and worked on the early Crazy Town demos. Jay Gordon, their original bassist, helped out “before he found out he could sing, and then he dropped us like a body in the bay and joined Orgy,” Epic says. By then they had hooked up with Danny Ostrow, a record-promotions executive who has worked with Bush and No Doubt. “Danny was tweaked out on speed,” Epic recalls, “calling all the record labels, going, ‘I’ve got this band!'”
(Ostrow responds, “I’m clean now, but I’m not going to deny I was on drugs. I don’t like the way that was phrased, but OK, fine. I’ve been a promotion man for ten years, and my follow-through and my hustle is very methodical. Epic lived in my kid’s room, and I sunk every penny I had into helping them for a year of my life.”)
Ostrow kept Epic’s track record as a successful remixer under wraps, and in late ’98 they started putting a band together. DJ AM, a boyhood friend who had lived with Shifty and his mother for almost three years, was already aboard, manning the turntables. Faydoe assumed the bass slot. JBJ, who had drummed in Mary’s Danish and toured with the Beastie Boys, started to jam with them. Shifty brought in a guitarist named Antonio Valli, a skate-punk co-worker at a vintage-clothing store who called himself Trouble; Faydoe drafted a second guitar slinger, named Rust Epique.
Recording raged through the summer of 1999. Honoring the hip-hop that inspired them, Crazy Town covered “Only When I’m Drunk,” a 1993 track by Tha Alkaholiks. “They sounded faded, like they were really feeling those lyrics,” says the ‘Liks’ rapper, E-Swift. “We were out of our fucking minds,” Shifty confirms. The Gift of Game was released in November 1999. It was the realization of all their dreams and the beginning of a very long nightmare.
LAS VEGAS IS A CRAZY TOWN TOWN. BACKSTAGE at the Joint in the Hard Rock Hotel, Epic is pacing around in a new T-shirt that reads, I’M A LESBIAN. Faydoe’s says, I HAVE A CUTE PENIS. Orgy’s Jay Gordon lurches in, towering over everyone, clad in black leather and pancake. He’s here to re-create his vocals on “Black Cloud,” the Crazy Town ode to karma and transcendence, which he co-wrote. He spies Shifty on the couch, preoccupied with a girl in a sequined T-shirt.
“I’d give you a hug. . . .” Gordon offers.
“That’s all right,” says Shifty. “I’m making love to you with my eyes.”
Showtime. The group huddles up and recites an AA prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. The courage to change the things I can. And the wisdom to know the difference.” Hands come off shoulders; fists join together in the center of the circle. “Crazy Town,” they yell. “Fool!”
Onstage, Crazy Town are a loud, hard, kicking beast. Epic and Shifty feint and chop the air like B-boy ninjas, Squirrel hops around, and Trouble and Faydoe, guitars slung low on their tall, skinny frames, lope across the stage like those strange puppet people in The Lion King.
Back in the dressing room after the show, Epic takes his chances with a lighter and a crushed beer can that has been fashioned into a pipe. “I am a pothead,” he declares, “a laid-back stoner guy.” Shifty is savoring a Red Bull and arranging himself into a tongue sandwich between two local ladies. Trouble, who is trying to live down his name, has already gone up to his room with Kelly, his twenty-one-year-old model fiancée, to whom he proposed on Valentine’s Day.
SQUIRREL IS THE NEWEST MEMBER OF THE BAND. Born Craig Tyler, he picked up the bass at fourteen, inspired by Minor Threat and Black Flag. As a student at the University of Wisconsin, Squirrel burrowed into the nearby Chicago industrial scene and ended up with a group called Chemlab that dissolved over heroin. To earn his keep, Squirrel fell back on his sound-engineering skills.
He was on the road mixing for Tommy Lee’s Methods of Mayhem; Crazy Town were the opening act. One night in Detroit, when guitarist Rust Epique had gone to Los Angeles unexpectedly, Squirrel stepped in. Not long after, the job was his. The new lineup got ready for their big break; Ozzfest 2000. There was just one problem: A few months before, Shifty had fallen off the wagon, not with a whimper but with a bang.
They lasted one week on Ozzfest. It happened in Charlotte, North Carolina. After too much partying, Shifty was sleeping it off and missed the show. DJ AM was the first to go home to Los Angeles. Epic and Faydoe followed the next day. Squirrel went to New York.
JBJ flew to Miami to visit his girlfriend. He’d seen a lot in his thirty-nine years playing drums. His parents were musicians, and James Bradley Jr., 43, was a prodigy. At age four, at a party for the Olympic boxer then known as Cassius Clay, he climbed onto the drum kit, wowing the crowd with a solo and ending up with his picture in the paper and a contract at Paramount Pictures. (He was briefly seen in Cool Hand Luke.) From 1977 to 1981, JBJ toured with jazz trumpeter Chuck Mangione. There was reefer and booze and cocaine. He tried them all, but by the mid-Nineties, he recalls, “My demons called to me. I hooked up with these girls who were couriers from South Central [L.A.], and then that’s when I found crack. Even when I was totally smoked out of my brain, I was still able to show up and do what I had to do, but I was losing weight and scaring everybody. I was Walking Death.”
In 1995, he found AA, and with Crazy Town, he found his purpose. But all his experience with drugs and sobriety couldn’t prevent JBJ from wondering whether this was the last chorus in the ballad of Shifty Shellshock and Crazy Town. For two days after leaving Ozzfest, JBJ was a wreck. “So I just said, ‘God, I’ve got to let it go,'” he says. “‘Please make sure he’s all right.'”
He wasn’t. Both Shifty and Trouble, who had similar appetites for self-destruction, were MIA. Trouble picks up the story: “After Ozzfest, I wasn’t sober enough to be put on an airplane, so I stayed in a hotel room for two days. And when I went back to L.A., I wound up OD’ing. I flat-lined. They told my mom that I was about two minutes from not making it. After a few days in a psych ward, I called our managers and said, ‘I’m going to be indisposed for at least forty-five days. I’m going to rehab.'”
He’s been clean ever since. “I still don’t consider myself sane,” he says. “I just know for sure that I go to a really scary, fierce, terrible place whenever I put anything in my body. But I’m never gonna tell you I regret my past, even a single second of it, because I am what I always wanted to be. I do a lot of what I do today for this band. And this is the great irony: All of our parents are proud of us now.”
ON THE WAY BACK TO LOS ANGELES, THE CRAZY Town bus pulls up to a Del Taco. A gawky teenager comes by to pay his respects. He has recently had his tongue pierced, so he lisps when he speaks. “How long have you had those thleeves?” he asks Faydoe, pointing to the bassist’s tattooed arms. “I’ve been thinking about getting thome.”
Faydoe lifts his chin in a sign of solidarity. “Once you get started,” he says, “it’s hard to stop.” This is something he knows all too well. Faydoedeelay — born Douglas Warren Phillip Miller, a bicentennial baby, in Torrance, California — started doing heroin at thirteen, tried to set the family’s house on fire and hung out with Shifty in a gang called the West Side Crazys, “doing graffiti, running a lot of dirt, black-market things.” He bounced through schools, a correctional academy in Idaho, jails and rehabs. By twenty-one, he was living with a girl from the East Coast whom he met at AA. Just before Crazy Town signed their contract, he moved out. “I spent five or six days living with my dog in my van parked in front of a friend’s house,” says Faydoe. Recently, he got engaged to a girl he’s known for ten years but never had the stones to approach.
“Women are my worst weakness,” Shifty says as we board the bus. He’s been “that motherfucker who had all the pussy,” he says, but he’s been hurt, too. “My butterfly ripped my wings off. I am good at making girls happy, but love has to be a joint venture.”
SHIFTY WAS BORN SETH BINZER, A Rock & Roll love child. He was conceived when his dad, Rollin, was directing the 1973 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones and took up with Leslie, a former model who was working as his production assistant. Rollin had a lucrative career as a graphic artist, designing record covers for Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters. “My dad was the artsy-fartsy guy who did lots of cocaine and had weed all over the house,” says Shifty, who admits he helped himself to some of it. “The little bastard,” his dad says, laughing, when informed of this. “I must say I made a lot of bad decisions. I taught him how to roll joints when he was five.”
They were living outside Boston then, and Seth was a dirt biker, a skateboarder with a mohawk, a break dancer named Paco, and then a punk-rock Romeo, hitting it with girls two grades above him. He hung with Bonesy, the heroin-addicted drummer for local punkers the Straw Dogs. “Bonesy stole a car the day his record came out,” Shifty says gravely, “and he wrapped it around a tree and died.”
In school, Shifty was bad news. “Seth always tested off the charts,” says Rollin, “but they couldn’t keep him in class; he’d climb out the windows.” When Seth was eleven, he and his parents, who were having financial problems, moved to L.A. to start anew. A few years later, his folks separated. Seth took it hard and partied harder. When money was tight, he sold weed, running around town with a backpack full of spray paint and his book of rhymes. One day, when he was skateboarding, Seth was approached by someone who cast him in a Levi’s commercial. He acted for a while — you can see him in the opening scene of the 1994 comedy Clifford — but eventually got sick of it.
The money ran out, so he started selling drugs again. But things escalated. When he was eighteen, Shifty and his friend Kaos, who co-wrote early Crazy Town tracks, robbed another drug dealer. There was a gun involved. Shifty was looking at five years, but they copped a plea — assault with a firearm — and after ninety days in Chino State Penitentiary, he was released and put on three years’ probation with mandatory drug tests. He failed every one, but he was always honest. Finally, he was ordered into rehab and was released in 1998, feeling “like a little bull being let out of the stable.”
By 1999, he had a band and a record deal and was on the road, but his hard-won sobriety was turning into the white-knuckle variety. Back home he had a girlfriend named Cynthia. Both agree their relationship was infected with “the disease of codependency,” and both admit to their share of drama. “She put me through hell for doing what I wanted to do,” Shifty says. “She was on the phone 24/7 trying to make me come home.”
“I think we’ve both put each other through a lot of hell,” Cynthia agrees. “I did have a really horrible drug problem, and it took me to places I could never have imagined. We were both using and partying a lot, and the distance between us made it impossible to work anything out.” On the road, Shifty would sit in his bunk trying to read his AA books and hear people snorting coke and laughing until he wanted to “put a bullet through my head.” Instead, he put a pipe to his mouth. “I was going to show them what happens when I get high: Everything falls apart and the band ends. I remember saying, ‘If you guys don’t get sober with me, I’m going to go start a sober band.’ And I was smoking crack while I’m saying that. I was just a big fireball of chaos.”
After the meltdown at Ozzfest, the band left him behind. He came back to L.A., broke up with his girlfriend, stole money from the band and kept on rampaging. “I was running from my emotions, just submerging myself in psychoticness. And loving it. I have to scrape my ass along that bottom before I can save myself. I don’t think I’d be such a professional drug user if I wasn’t such a professional asshole selling them. Someone might look at me and go, ‘He’s got it going on.’ And I do. At the same time, I have a really hard time keeping it on. I have a problem with drugs.”
He’s taking contrary action, chanting with his dad, a Buddhist who got sober the day his son was sent to jail. He made amends to Cynthia, who is clean nine months now, by putting her in the video for “Butterfly.” “I had resentment,” Shifty admits, “but we’re talking again. I care about her a lot; she’s the most important person in the world to me.” He’s also seeing a shrink regularly. “Learning to deal with all the emotions is a difficult transition,” he says. “Being sober is like being high for me, like the weirdest drug I’ve ever been on.”
The Crazy Town bus reaches its final destination. Squirrel is chattering about how no drug in the world will ever make anyone in this band feel as good as when they’re making music together, and somehow this old rock chestnut rolls out of his mouth sounding just about right. Trouble is tossing away junk-food wrappers and cigarette butts. This is the nicest bus they’ve been on, he says, and he wants to make sure they get it again. “I almost feel like we’ve been through therapy,” Trouble says by way of goodbye. “It’s been intense. And kind of nice.”