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Joey Running Crane and King Elephant Rock and Return

By Tim Goessman

Sweat ran down Joey Running Crane’s face as more Dos Equis disappeared from the beer cooler on the porch. The hum of bugs and the flicker of fireflies hung over the woods around a southern Illinois cabin. “You really threw us under the fucking bus on this one,” Running Crane said, throwing a dark look at Michael “Booster” Bustamante, his homesick drummer.

I hung my head between my knees and kept drinking. Faced with failure, I couldn’t bring myself to continue documenting the band’s intimate porch conversation, part of my duty as a documentarian.

An underground pop punk band, King Elephant rose from the ashes of Goddammitboyhowdy, a hard-core punk outfit from the Blackfeet Reservation. The earlier group had been a success in the sense that three rez kids were doing something for themselves.

“We went on tours, we put out records, and we were proud of what we did,” Running Crane said.

But insecurity emerged when Goddammitboyhowdy members started questioning whether they were alienating non-native audiences.

“Are we really getting interest for what we’re saying?” Running Crane wondered. “Are we really getting interest for whether or not our songs are good, or is it just that we’re impressive because we’re three rez kids?”

Running Crane wanted to create a band that reached more people. He chose the rough, yet catchy, overdriven pop punk of King Elephant, performed with Bustamante, Ethan J. Uhl and Ryan Bilunka, as the vehicle to do so.

As I toured with the Browning band for 24 days, calling its 2005 Chevy Express home, my camera documented how the tour unraveled behind the scenes.

Starting in Missoula, the group first traveled west across the Pacific Northwest, with stops in a hippy house in Spokane, Washington, a grungy basement in Olympia, and a dive bar in Portland, Oregon. The musicians thrived off new surroundings, fans, and ad-hoc bunking.

But at the start of our eastward charge, in Boise, Idaho, money started to run out. In Cheyenne, Wyoming, a fender bender weakened spirits, and a botched show in Omaha further fueled frustration. Bustamente was talking on the phone with his girlfriend for hours, rather than spending time with the others. Money problems bred relational problems as the band’s founders struggled to keep their friendship intact.

After a house show in Illinois, racial slurs ignited Running Crane so much that the band had to force him back into the van. My own hands were shaking with rage, and only my commitment to film the tour kept me from lashing out at the source of the insults. In a separate incident, band members returned to their van, only to find one of its windows broken. Nerves tore. “We’re going home,” Running Crane said.

Since the tour, King Elephant’s 2005 Chevy Express has been repossessed. Without the van, the band was planning a northwest tour in May. Bustamante, who was kicked off the roster last summer, has returned. Next up: raising funds for their first LP, “Exhaust.”

Tim Goessman’s documentary about King Elephant is available for free on YouTube and Vimeo.