Does the world really need another singer-songwriter? A lone gent on stage with only a guitar and a song … not a care in the world about whom he bores? Probably not. But what if that singer-songwriter is a one-man band who plays the drums, bass, keyboards, and violin (no, not all at once), and churns out a depressively ethereal album in the vein of classic Galaxie 500, without veering too far into self-pityland?
Okay, we’re listening.
Summer at Shatter Creek is the lengthy pseudonym of Craig Gurwich, a thirty-year-old resident of LA’s Silver Lake district. A former “professional” snowboarder (though he was sponsored, it was too early in the sport to officially call anyone a professional), he spent his summers at the foot of Mount Hood in Oregon, at — you guessed it — Shatter Creek.
“I figure the name Summer at Shatter Creek is a good representative for who I am,” he says in the politely eager voice of a young man who has never been interviewed before. “I would hang out, look at the sky and the creek, whatever. … It seems to define me more than any name I could possibly pick, when I think of my life and who I am.”
When pressed further, Gurwich clams up, though not out of privacy concerns. It seems that even he isn’t really sure why the name fits, but somehow it does. Perhaps it has something to do with his struggle with hyperactivity that had an outlet in athletics but at the same time gave him a nagging need for some serenity. “I was miserable,” he says of his teenage years. “I couldn’t control myself; my brain was always going off.”
Finally he cut sugar out of his diet and became a vegetarian, something that he says changed his life and allowed him to settle down and focus enough to be a musician.
But Gurwich still likes to keep moving. He takes lengthy, introspective walks through his neighborhood every day to sort out his thoughts like a good little singer-songwriter. He passes Beck and the Chili Peppers and all the other musicians who live there amid the dog parks, cafes, and a hipness that only relatively cheap rent affords. “I go for walks and I put on my headphones,” he says. “I turn up whatever I’m listening to and I think about every single aspect of my music. For me it is all-consuming.”
His obsession resulted in demo after demo, which, following a tip from a co-worker, he dutifully began mailing to Cory Brown, who owns the Berkeley record label Absolutely Kosher. The letters kept coming for a year and a half. At first Brown was a bit dubious, having already put out other one-man operations such as the Mountain Goats (aka John Darnielle) and Tin Pan Alley popster Franklin Bruno. “It’s also hard to break new acts,” Brown says. “Especially since no one in LA even knew who he was. But the stuff he was sending kept getting better and better, and finally he sent me a mastered record. What was obvious was that he didn’t sound like any one particular person … he wasn’t derivative of any one thing.”
The resulting album is full of Gurwich’s breathy delivery, in harmony with himself, fluctuating from high to low, each note strung on the musical bar like amber Christmas lights on the sad ol’ pop tree. It’s pretty enough to be chick music, but confused enough to speak to young men at crossroads. It’s spliced with that tinny-as-a-tuna-can ambiance, like an old phonograph recording of a piano bar at closing time. “He clearly has a lot of love and respect for texture,” Brown says. “There are some references to more arranged, contemporary pop, but also looking backwards to more arranged older pop like Harry Nilsson.”
The liner notes on the album, Summer at Shatter Creek, read like an autobiography: “When I was eight, I began to have epileptic seizures where my entire body would shake uncontrollably for minutes at a time, mostly occurring when I was waking from a nap,” Gurwich writes. “The doctors performed all sorts of tests on me, which usually involved putting a bunch of wires on my head in order to read my brain waves. When I was about twelve, the seizures stopped.” Hmm … okay.
The story continues through his parents, high school, and friends, ending with: “I usually spent my time hanging out at this creek in the middle of the woods. Somehow I’ve ended up where I am now. Wherever this is.”
The young musician seems to have stumbled through life, though not blindly, shaking off energy in fits and starts, trying to channel it into something worthwhile. Gurwich has finally settled on being a performer. “I always tried to push away music as a full-time thing, because I used to skate and snowboard so much, and I got burned out on both of those,” he says. “I didn’t want to get burned out on music — but it’s not like that at all. It gives me a feeling of completeness like nothing else I feel.”