|Active from 1996|
Members Ben Crum
|Record label The Elephant 6 Recording Company|
Albums Wild Vision, Ways of Escape, The Distance Between
Similar Jill Carnes, Black Swan Network, Von Hemmling, Echo Orbiter, The High Water Marks
Great Lakes is an American rock band formed in Athens, Georgia, in 1996. They have been based out of Brooklyn since 2002. The group's original lineup consisted of Ben Crum, James Huggins and Dan Donahue. Huggins' involvement dwindled over time, and Donahue and Crum split acrimoniously in 2008. Crum is the only original member remaining, and he continues to perform and record as Great Lakes, with various supporting members. Donahue and Huggins are both currently releasing new material with various groups as well as their principle songwriting outlets, Dream Boat and James Husband respectively. Donahue has contributed lyrics to several other bands' albums, including Of Montreal's City Bird, Elf Power's The Taking Under, and Bear In Heaven's Space Remains. Donahue has designed art, album covers, and videos for the bands MGMT, Pavement, Belle and Sebastian, and R.E.M.
The group started as a songwriting partnership between Dan Donahue and Ben Crum. With James Huggins III, the band officially formed in 1996. The original lineup also included bassist/vocalist Craig Ceravolo and performed one show at The Nick in Birmingham, Alabama, under the name Cherry Valence (not to be confused with The Cherry Valence). For a time the band was also called Wheelie Ride, before it changed to Great Lakes.
In their early days, Crum, Donahue, and Huggins collaborated in songwriting, occasionally aligning individual pieces into one full song. From 1996-2008, Crum wrote the music and Donahue wrote the lyrics. Huggins became heavily involved as a multi-instrumentalist who only occasionally participated in songwriting; he contributed "Virgl," which was featured on the CMJ magazine CD included in the publication's US circulation in 2000; the short instrumental "Free Scene"; and the bridge to "Parachutes." Donahue considers himself to have been the conceptual center of the group during this period, but Crum considers the claim to be wildly untrue. According to Crum, he and Donahue wrote the songs collaboratively, and Donahue wrote none of the band's music—only its lyrics. Donahue claims he added many psychedelic soundscapes and other effects to the band's recordings, but according to Crum, Donahue's role in the band was limited to writing lyrics, making visual art, and playing synthesizer and organ during the band's live appearance pre-2005.
During the production of the band's first album and the heyday of The Elephant 6 Recording Company, the band created a live lineup: Crum handling most lead vocals, guitar, bass, and piano; Huggins on drums, various keyboards/synthesizers, harmony vocals, and a variety of other sounds; and Donahue operating as the lyricist and art director. By the album's release, the group's rotating lineup had swelled to around a dozen or more of both live and studio members, at times including Dottie Alexander, Bryan Poole, Kevin Barnes, Derek Almstead, Andrew Rieger and BP Helium of Elf Power, The Essex Green, and Ladybug Transistor, with major contributions from Heather McIntosh on cello and Scott Spillane of Neutral Milk Hotel on horns.
2000 - 2008
Great Lakes released a self-titled debut album in 2000 with Kindercore Records, along with a 7-inch single with Happy Happy Birthday to Me Records. The album was produced by Crum and Huggins, and mixed by Robert Schneider of The Apples in Stereo. The LP package included a psychedelic 3-D cut-out mobile meant to sit atop the vinyl record and spin as it's played, designed by Donahue (who did all of the group's art design and album sleeves during the time he was in the band) and Chris Bilheimer.
After releasing a number of singles, including a split 7" with Elf Power, they released their second album, The Distance Between, with Orange Twin in 2002. Their sophomore effort was conceived, recorded, and mixed by Crum, Donahue, and Huggins in Crum's home studio in Athens, Georgia. It was selected as one of the top ten overlooked albums of that year by Magnet Magazine, which noted the band's ability to "spew out a fuzz-laced garage assault" and complimented their "knack for fusing melancholy with feats of ballroom levitation". The band did a tour in Europe, including stops in Scandinavia and the UK. A highlight stateside found them supporting Belle & Sebastian to a sold-out crowd at the Tabernacle in Atlanta. During that year, both Crum and Donahue relocated to Brooklyn and continued writing, while Huggins toured with the band Of Montreal. He remained an occasional recording and arranging contributor to Great Lakes, but no longer performed live with the band.
The third Great Lakes album, Diamond Times, featured songs written by Donahue and Crum, and was published in 2006 by Empyrean Records. Diamond Times is the last recording to feature many of the original performers, including Huggins, Poole, Alexander, and Barnes. It includes numerous contributions from other NYC-based musicians, who were dubbed over after the initial "live" band tracking in Athens in 2005, under Crum's direction and with Jason Nesmith engineering. With their third LP, the band's sound evolved into what Uncut magazine called "powerful, accomplished pop music" and "utterly great".
Crum assembled a new three-piece lineup to tour behind the Diamond Times album, which included Kyle Forester on bass and Kevin Shea on drums. This lineup toured the US with The Clientele in 2005, and toured Europe multiple times in 2005 and 2006 with Ladybug Transistor and others. This particular lineup of the band sounded like this.
2008 - Present
Since 2008, the band has gone through numerous lineup rotations, toured Europe and the Eastern US, and performed regularly in New York City. Their fourth album Ways of Escape in 2010 was the first release to feature Crum as sole songwriter. Of the album, Allmusic wrote: "On the group's fourth long-player, lone founding member Ben Crum holds the reins, and his gentle delivery, lyricism, and obvious love of late-60's and early-70's country and folk-rock help make Ways of Escape the perfect late-summer road trip companion." With its frank, personal folk- and country-influenced songs, the record has a bare emotional style that's far from the innocent optimism and lighthearted psychedelia of the band's early records. Ways of Escape is notable for the introduction of vocalist Suzanne Nienaber, and features, among others, Kevin Shea of Storm & Stress on drums, Joe McGinty on keyboards, David Lerner of Ted Leo and the Pharmacists on bass, and long-time Great Lakes contributor Heather McIntosh on cello.
In 2011, Crum reconvened the group of musicians who played on Ways of Escape to begin a new album, Wild Vision, which was released January 22, 2016. The Vinyl District called Wild Vision "a creative peak for Crum and Great Lakes," Magnet Magazine called it "intimate-yet-psychedelic," and The Big Takeover called the record "a masterful collection of modern country-noir."
The current lineup features Kenny Wachtel on guitar, Chris Talsness on bass, and Kevin Shea on drums, in addition to Crum and Nienaber. This lineup has continued to play regularly in and around New York City.
Singles and EPs
A Little TouchedGreat Lakes · 2000
Ways of EscapeWays of Escape · 2010
Night HeartsDiamond Times · 2006