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Paint Fumes Unleash Cache of Catchy Love Songs on ‘Real Romancer’

Band celebrates new single, European tour and album release with Snug Harbor show

A musician in the band Paint Fumes plays guitar and sings into a microphone
Paint Fumes (Photo by Puck Byrne)

Back in January 2011, the riotous and raunchy punk band Paint Fumes played its first show, unleashed from the dank, graffiti festooned basement of Sewercide Mansion, a notorious party house on Woodvale Place in Charlotte.

The band’s adrenalized crunch dominates their earliest tunes. “Egyptian Rats,” the title song of Paint Fumes’ debut EP, erupts in a squall of feedback before descending into the chaos of Brett Whittlesey’s ratcheting guitar, Josh Johnson’s clattering drums and singer/co-founder Elijah von Cramon’s razor-blade vocals. It’s a thunderous roar with zero separation between the instruments and vocals, and yet an insistent and catchy melody lights up the ensuing cacophony.

 

Pop craftsmanship has always been part of Paint Fumes’ brilliance. It simply took the power of love to bring it to the forefront on the band’s latest album, Real Romancer, which hits the streets April 14 on Dig Records. The band celebrates the March 3 release of its “Book of Love” single, as well as the start of its fourth European tour, at Snug Harbor on March 8.

Von Cramon calls Real Romancer his favorite Paint Fumes album.

“It’s more mature,” he says. “It’s a record I never would have thought I would have written, but always wanted to have written.”

In the meantime, Paint Fumes’ frenetic, go-for-broke music has contributed to a growing body of punk-rock folklore about the band, augmented by von Cramon’s adventurous life.

During his career, von Cramon encountered an uncleanable carpet stain at Sewercide Mansion, where a previous occupant killed himself with a shotgun. His then-girlfriend Sidney Nieboer had an alien encounter at Sewercide that she subsequently shared with Queen City Nerve.

A severe accident a few years later left von Cramon pronounced dead for five minutes. As he slowly recuperated from his injuries, he performed in side project The Rolling Lords while confined to a wheelchair.

In 2020, while on a third European tour, the band’s van was burgled in Barcelona and all of Paint Fumes’ personal property, instruments and equipment were stolen. Then a COVID lockdown nearly stranded the band at the border of Italy and Switzerland. The band’s van was one of the last to get through before the Italian authorities closed the border.

“There’s a weird Paint Fumes curse,” von Cramon insists.

Committing Sewercide and recuperation

The son of reggae musician Edward “Iword” Sprinkle and nephew to Queen City weatherman Larry Sprinkle, von Cramon has spent his whole life in Charlotte. He remembers Ziggy Marley stopping by the family home to visit his father, who split from the family when von Cramon was 3.

The Paint Fumes frontman is related to German royalty, with the full name Baron Elijah Nico Erdmann von Cramon. Despite these regal connections, when von Cramon’s grandmother first came to America, she could only find work making merkins for strippers. 

Exposed to skater videos, von Cramon was drawn to the punk rock that comprised the culture’s soundtrack.

Moving into Sewercide with Nieboer, von Cramon started booking bands for basement house parties. After a bad experience with psychedelics plagued him with panic attacks and suicidal urges, von Cramon found relief in learning how to play guitar and planning to start a band.

Influenced by The Ramones and Los Angeles blues-punks The Gun Club, Paint Fumes wasted little time taking off. A five-hour recording session yielded all the songs that appeared on Egyptian Rats as well as Paint Fumes’ debut album Uck Life. Connections forged at house parties, namely with Slovenly Records owner Pete Menchetti, led to Uck Life’s 2012 release on his label.

After breaking up with Nieboer, von Cramon moved into a house on Parkwood Avenue. A few weeks before Paint Fumes’ first scheduled European tour, von Cramon started crossing the street to the corner store. In the darkness, a truck with its lights switched off rounded a blind curve; von Cramon never saw what hit him.

“I woke up in the ICU with them hammering a rod through my knee,” von Cramon says. With a shattered pelvis, torn ligaments in both knees, a shattered hip and brain trauma, von Cramon had to relearn how to walk and was in a wheelchair for much of 2013. All the while, he wrote songs.

When von Cramon recuperated he was ready to tour Europe. Whittlesey, however, couldn’t go and Johnson briefly quit the band, so von Cramon recruited drummer Ian Rose and guitarist Ben Carr to go overseas with him.

 

When this version of Paint Fumes returned stateside, it recorded If it Ain’t Paint Fumes, It Ain’t Worth a Huff (2016) in Puerto Rico with Whittlesey on guitar and Carr on bass. For the album’s release, the band switched from Slovenly to Get Hip Recordings.

“Puddle of Blood” is a standout track on the album. After a twanging ominous opening, the band gallops into a Spaghetti western-style rave up. This time von Cramon’s vocal is higher in the mix.

A man stands on stage wearing a cape that says Paint Fumes
Paint Fumes (Photo by Puck Byrne)

Paint Fumes find love

The original Paint Fumes trio reformed to record What a World (2019), von Cramon’s response to another breakup and the rise of Trumpism. On “In My head,” von Cramon’s snotty Stiv Bators-style vocal advances a pure pop melody through a cacophonous maelstrom. Although the album’s sound is smooth, the songs are thematically dark.

“A lot of people’s true colors came out [then],” von Cramon says. “It was like, ‘Damn, people suck.’”

Things only got worse. A third European tour brought the Barcelona van break-in, with the band nearly getting stranded in Italy; von Cramon barely got out of Berlin before another lockdown. Upon his return to Charlotte, he lost touch with Whittlesey and Johnson. Eventually, von Cramon replaced his stolen guitar and started playing music with his roommate Nic Pugh of Jaggermouth and Dreamboat.

Instead of burying pop melodies in punk songs, von Cramon had started writing more overtly pop melodies. The first song he wrote when he got back home was the Rolling Stones-style country rocker “Still Lookin’,” which appears on Real Romancer. Pugh plays slide guitar on the tune.

 

Then von Cramon met someone and fell in love. 

“It was an unconventional relationship,” he says.” It had a huge impact on me.” 

Even though the relationship ended after a year, von Cramon feels his ex-partner has been his muse. 

“[They have] inspired the most songs I’ve written ever, and I like all of them,” von Cramon says. This time, instead of penning tunes about panic attacks, heartbreak and desolation, von Cramon has been writing about love.

With Pugh on bass and Alex Greenberg on drums, von Cramon turned to Joe Boyland of Comino. Boyland took the guitar parts of the demos that von Cramon wrote, and improved them without fundamentally changing them.

The band’s new pop approach was emphasized by Real Romancer producer Dan Dixon, who applied his expertise to details like guitar tones and baking vocals. 

“We’ve never had a producer before,” von Cramon says. “He was amazing.”

Attention to detail and a pop sensibility is at the forefront of new single “Book of Love.” Here von Cramon specifically requested that Greenberg open the song with the drum beat from the Ronettes’ 1965 hit “Be My Baby.” Through plangent reverberating guitar chords, von Cramon’s vocals sail, emotive and unbridled: “Past lives gone by/ You took me by surprise/ Another lonely night…”

Paint Fumes’ pop harvest may have been sown long ago, but it finally blossoms on ‘Book of Love.”

“A lot of people go off our old stuff,” von Cramon says. “I want them to realize that we have more depth, and I’m capable of writing more than just some punk song.”


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