That a musician writes about his life isn’t a particularly remarkable fact. But when that life is pocked with a death wish, self-mutilation, substance abuse and a grocery list of mental illnesses, things start to get unique. This is the history of Nicholas Sprysenski, a 28-year-old local musician who performs as Crutch and the Giant Junshi, and these are the things that lurk beneath his captivating solo debut album, Caterwaul.
In person, he’s a lanky wet-dog of a man with eyes that flash a vernal, boyish twinkle. Throughout our conversation in an uninhabited alcove of a College Park eatery, he’s articulate and gentle. All of it belies a precarious and unlikely life that is the core of Sprysenski’s music. Despite his eight attempts to end that life, an astounding string of circumstances has kept him around.
In his last attempt, he slit his wrists. That’s how he discovered he had a rare – and in this case, lucky – skin condition. “If I apply pressure anywhere, it’ll start to swell and redden,” Sprysenski says. “The cuts actually closed themselves in the tub. I woke up about 15 minutes later and they had sealed shut.”
That was five years ago.
He’s been off meds since then and says he now carries a healthier perspective. “Everybody’s problems are equal to the worst problems in the world,” he says. “But there’s still hope and we have to stick together in order to make it.”
The cultured beanpole has an impressive sense of gallows humor about it as well, comparing himself to a comedic silent-movie protagonist who just can’t get things right. “I remember being young and trying to kill myself and throwing myself off the roof of our two-story house and landing in a bush,” he chuckles. “The worst thing that happened was I got a scrape up my arm from the bush and my father was so mad … I got grounded for so long for that.”
Another time, he set out to overdose on an entire bottle of Zoloft. “I just ended up hallucinating and missing school for a few days,” says Sprysenski. We share a good laugh over that one.
Caterwaul is Sprysenski’s first solo outing after a stint as the frontman for post-hardcore band the Punching Contest, and it’s also the maiden flight of Sleepy Bird Orphanage. Founded by his former bandmate Phil Siegenthaler, Orphanage is a new experimental record label tied deeply to some of the most industrious community-building circles of the local independent music scene.
He took the name Crutch and the Giant Junshi as an inside joke about his own life. (Junshi is a medieval Japanese tradition wherein a lord’s vassal commits ritual suicide if the lord dies in battle.)
It’s a pseudonym pregnant with dark metaphors of despair and damage, but Sprysenski thinks it “rolls off the tongue like the title of a children’s fairy tale.”
Sprysenski’s musical reference points are grounded in his troubled past. Mirroring the rawness of his reality, the lyrics on Caterwaul can be jarringly lurid. “I ain’t ashamed to say I’ve eaten garbage from the floor/ Didn’t have no money for my supper ’cause I was too poor,” he sings on the gritty “Steam Roller Derby.” It’s an unflinching willingness to strip his soul completely nude. This is music for which he has both artistically and literally bled, intensely human stuff. His head is haunted but his heart is on fire.
The wrenching yet literary songs on Caterwaul are lush with narrative power and meticulous detail. Sprysenski’s septic imagery is lovingly, artfully rendered in what he aptly calls “gutter romanticism.” His crooked rasp evokes Tom Waits. Neutral Milk Hotel can be heard in the delicate, unexpected instrumental gestures. His impassioned delivery is rooted in a true kind of emo, like Sunny Day Real Estate or the Promise Ring.
But the congress of these things, along with his outsider’s point of view, is an experimental folk that rattles and shivers.
The songs take quixotic turns, and Sprysenski’s singing can go from whiskeyed storytelling to childish rumination to madman outbursts (“Chicken Legs”). The music is unconventional but never awkward, as he demonstrates a keen sense of melody (“Berlin”).
The result is an odd sort of beautiful, and Caterwaul is a work that marks Sprysenski as one of the city’s most visceral songwriters. In a moon where style and sheen is the order of the day, his intensely direct viewpoint punches through the dulling white noise like knife-cold water to the face.
Sprysenski sees the power and poetry in that most human of qualities: imperfection. It’s a concept that both his life and his art harness and celebrate in true flagellant form.
“Everyone deals with pain growing up in different ways,” Sprysenski points out.
“I was very masochistic. I probably have over a hundred burns on my body. But everything’s symmetrical. It all flows. It’s equal.”
He reveals the burns on his arms and chest.
Sprysenski says, “Despite all the times I tried to end my life, the thought of what comes after death scares the shit out of me. The idea of not being able to think anymore terrifies me.
“I don’t want to die for the life of me now.”