We all cope with hardship in different ways. Grief, stress, just feeling stuck for whatever reason. For Shane Greenhall it’s swimming that helps. For years, Those Damn Crows’ frontman has returned to the same local pool in Bridgend, South Wales, continuing during the pandemic when it was safe to do so.
Meanwhile he’d written a few songs, thinking about the nature of life and death. As always, his father – a talented country and blues singer, with whom Greenhall grew up harmonising – was a focus point. Eleven years ago he died of lung cancer. Directly or otherwise, he’s returned to Greenhall’s songs ever since.
“When you’ve had grief,” the singer tells us slowly, “it’s in all your songs. Even if it’s not specific, you can call upon that feeling, that emotion.”
One day, mid-swim, he noticed that one of the pool’s mosaic tiles was out of place, and clearly had been for a while. This was odd. In years of swimming there he’d never noticed it.
“And I’m very observant,” he says. “I’m very OCD in that regard. So I was quite shocked that I didn’t see it. I had to get out of the water and have a five, because the pattern of my breathing changed.”
Thus the title and core theme for Those Damn Crows’ new album, Inhale/Exhale, was born: the simple yet pivotal fact of breathing; its effect on our bodies; how we handle things; how we respond to unforgiving obstacles. The idea galvanised Those Damn Crows’ recording sessions in 2021, and tragically its relevance sharpened as Ronnie Huxford (drums), Lloyd Wood (bassist) and David Winchurch (guitarist) each lost parents.
“That’s the harsh thing about grief, man,” Greenhall sighs, “the world don’t give a shit what happens to you. The world is carrying on. If you drop dead today, the grass will grow over you. The same with concrete buildings. You know what I mean? So life continues.”
Controlling our breathing in order to improve our mental state is one of those ideas that most of us understand without really believing it. It seems too basic to be considered seriously effective. But it’s a central message of Inhale/Exhale. The axis between the triumphant highs and cathartic lows that make up this record – and, indeed, life.
“The bad patterns, the anxiety, the depression, not going out today, you’re not in control any more… it does stem from breathing,” Greenhall says. “If you want to control your breathing, you can physically do that. It’s the tiniest thing, and could be the difference between you overreacting and just having a minute. I’m not saying it’s going to solve everyone’s problems, but it is something we can do.”
Inhale, exhale, breathe in.
We meet Greenhall in the final run-up to the new album’s release. After sitting on the Crows’ third record for a year he’s gagging for people to hear it. While they’ll always feel the pull back to their home in Wales, Those Damn Crows have the music and the big ideas that should see them go far.
Friendly and ambitious, he still looks after the band’s merch, and has spent the day sending out orders – many of them Christmas gifts for fans who buy wholeheartedly into all things Those Damn Crows (music, coloured vinyl, T-shirts, jerseys, hats, own-brand hot sauce, coffee, beers…). He’s refreshingly unafraid of dreaming big: arenas, stadium shows, immersive visuals to match the driving, big-league hard-rock anthems on Inhale/Exhale, which they’re working on ahead of their UK headline tour.
“I remember seeing Muse in Wembley and being bowled over with their show,” he enthuses. “They had this walk-in army that came on stage, and the lights, and they had a ballerina up in the arena spinning round, and it was just so immersive. You didn’t know where to look. I love all that. It should be an experience.”
He breaks into a giggle: “I’ve really played it up now, haven’t I? It’ll probably just be a little TV in the background now…”
That’s the other side of Those Damn Crows: the humour and down-to-earthness that binds them to their audience in a very genuine way. This in itself doesn’t make them unique. Ever since proliferating social media channels started to erase the barriers between celebrities and private individuals, many bands and artists have built closer relationships with their fans.
But Those Damn Crows have taken this further – and, crucially, more sincerely – than most. They meet their ‘Crow family’ after shows. They know a lot of them by name. During lockdown they set up a podcast, Crowcast. Everyone in the band got involved. Guest interviews were mixed with group chat, fan interaction and in-jokes, showing the personalities behind the five different looks on stage: e.g. madcap “life and soul” youngest Lloyd Wood on bass, shades-wearing “quiet one” guitarist Ian ‘Shiner’ Thomas, moustachioed “batshit crazy” guitarist David Winchurch. Almost like the Spice Girls, Greenhall suggests, in rock form (“Don’t you dare put that in the mag,” he mutters).
A few days before our interview, they had their Christmas party at a bar in Cardiff. Resistant to contrived, extortionate ‘meet and greet’ packages, they sold select tickets at a very reasonable £5 a pop. David did DJ sets. They played a couple of acoustic numbers. They got drunk and hung out with their fans, no stiff autograph queues or branded backdrops in sight.
“It’s not just a Welsh thing,” Greenhall says, “but there is a sense of where we’re from. We only had each other, so it was a case of you’re only as good as the people you hang around with. Myself, Shiner and Ronnie knew each other since we were kids in school, so we’ve always had that connection. And when the band started getting successful we were at a certain age; we had families, so we weren’t acting like stupid little kids or spoiled little rock stars. We were humble. We were really appreciative that people were into our stuff.
“We have our moments,” he adds, “we’re not all singing and dancing lovely guys, some of us got tempers and stuff, but nine times out of ten we just want to have a good time. And that includes anybody else around us.”
Maybe it is a Welsh thing. Either way, the story of Those Damn Crows begins in Bridgend – and continues there today. A small, former mining town in South Wales, its staggering natural beauty has been offset by social turbulence. It’s a place of extremes. Success stories and grim tragedy. Surrounding forests, valleys and dramatic coastline offer the sort of living situation that would cost a fortune almost anywhere else.
Looking back on his childhood, Greenhall remembers a thriving area. Busy shops sat alongside pub jam nights across the county. As teenagers Greenhall and his school friends Ronnie and Shiner played these pubs, sowing the seeds for what eventually (a few years, a few other bands and two new bandmates later) became Those Damn Crows.
“There were so many jam nights around Bridgend,” he recalls, “the Porthcawl area, Cardiff, Swansea, even in the valleys and towards Maesteg, Nantymoel, Ogmore Vale, all over all those valleys, it was just thriving.”
In recent years a spate of suicides, mostly young people, has painted a darker picture of the town. On Those Damn Crows’ previous album, Point Of No Return, the band addressed this on Who Did It – a heavy testament to an issue that impacted family, friends and acquaintances.
“It’s very working class,” Greenhall says of the area. “And there’s this trauma, this constant changing of emotion, with these highs of someone breaking through, perhaps, into the rugby team, or someone passing away under really bad circumstances. It’s just constant.”
Today many shop fronts are boarded up, but Bridgend remains a dynamic, close-knit community. It’s still home to all five Crows (Greenhall, Wood and Winchurch in the town itself, Huxford and Thomas in the valleys). People know each other’s business. Greenhall says it’s like “Eastenders with aWelsh accent”. The highs and lows can be heard in the bright and crushing contrasts of the Crows’ music; the radio-ready choruses and deep, metallic crunch.
“I don’t know,” he muses, “maybe that says a lot about where our music comes from, and who we are as people.” He thinks about this. “Well, clearly it does.”
Recorded in late 2021 with producer Dan Weller (Monster Truck, Enter Shikari), Inhale/ Exhale channels Those Damn Crows’ world into a mix of moods and shapes. At its best it gives rock’s Alter Bridges and Shinedowns some serious competition. Man On Fire is an exhilarating slam-dunk of Foos-y guitars and melodies. See You Again (written by Greenhall about his father and nine-year-old son) is a breezy, buoyant singalong, with a bittersweet aftertaste. Waiting For Me closes on a deliciously menacing, ghostly note.
But it’s This Time I’m Ready that might open bigger doors. Initially Greenhall wrote it about the ongoing, one-way conversations between him and his dad. Once the song was recorded, it began to take on a new significance.
“This Time I’m Ready was the first song I sang,” Greenhall says, “and Ronnie had to go home because his dad was unwell.” He pauses. “Ronnie’s dad died a couple of days later. It might even have been that day.”
Not long after, guitarist Winchurch’s mother died, followed by Wood’s. For the bassist in particular, whose mum loved the band, the song was a real help.
“When we were doing gigs before the bigger ones, all our stuff went back to [Lloyd’s parents’] house,” Greenhall says. “Before we had the HQ. After every gig, we’d rock up there at stupid o’clock in the morning, wake them up and put all the gear into their living room. They never had Sunday dinner because they couldn’t get to the dinner table. They were wonderfully supportive.”
There was a moment between four of them, during the making of This Time I’m Ready’s deeply touching video that honours the people they lost. Thomas was recording his parts in the next room. Greenhall, Wood, Winchurch and Huxford were seated on chairs in a ring.
“Lloyd turns to me and says: ‘Thank you for writing this song, man,’” Greenhall remembers. “I’m welling up just thinking about it now. He was like: ‘I needed this, it’s helped me no end.’ And the next thing you know is that we’re all talking about our parents, and how it is for everybody. And Dave is saying: ‘Shane, I don’t know how you coped when knowing that your dad was going to die. At least when my mum died it was quick.’ And I was like: ‘No, at least I got to see my dad…’
“We all had these stories. And we’re all thinking that the other person’s got it worse. But ultimately none of us got it worse. Then Ronnie starts opening up about his dad – and obviously me and Ronnie grew up as kids, so I had a few memories of his dad – and then he starts getting upset, I start getting upset. We had this beautiful moment – while Shiner’s rocking out in another room.”
And isn’t that the thing that, more often than not, makes us fall in love with a song? The idea that it could be about us. That it’s personal, for a couple of minutes, while life goes on in the nextroom.
In February Those Damn Crows headlined venues across the UK, finishing up at Swansea Arena. Festivals beckon in the summer. More stages. Bigger stages. Space for the immersive, full-scale production and new audiences Greenhall dreams of – even if Bridgend is never far from his mind.
“Every time I go on tour, it doesn’t matter how bad it gets, I always want to come home,” he says. “I crave it. I crave the coast, I crave the beach, I crave the sea, the walks we can have around here. You can’t do that in a lot of places in the UK.”
As he said earlier, Bridgend is a place of highs and lows. Of scenic, stunning, devastating extremes, while life goes on. Everyday stories that have drawn so many to the Crows’ music – and to the Crows as people.
“We weren’t stuck in his room thinking: ‘We’re going to write a rock album,’” he says, “we were thinking: ‘We want all these songs to be singles, and have different vibes of up and down.’ Which is, I think, the whole point to the album. The whole idea of the album is, as brutal as life can be, it’s fucking beautiful as well.”