The Crank Tank

"If you listen closely, you can hear me yell, ‘Elizabeth Warren can suck my dick!’ for no reason. It got oddly political.”

Nick Pichierri leaned back in his chair and took a sip from a brown glass bottle of Bud Light between laughs. He was talking about one of his lines on “Star-Spangled Cocker Spaniel,” a frenetic, booming song that he and three of his friends plan to release as a single for their upcoming album. The song features techno-style synths, rattling drums, and punchy, precise lyrics that all mold together to form a bucking-but-somehow-controlled track of oddball, rage-ready hip-hop. “This that bomb that make your feet go numb / She’s so wild, she’s so dumb / And it’s just my style when I beat the drum—HEY!” The lyrics give way to the evolving beat before Pichierri slips in his ludicrous political jab. And with that, Haff Deece’s first unofficial single is over.

Haff Deece is a collection of four 21-year-olds who make music in the college-dorm-room-turned-weirdly-professional-music-studio of one of the group member’s UNH Lodge apartment. Pichierri, who releases music under the name Nick Prolific, was the last member to join the group around six months ago. Before that, theroster consisted of Sam Stoehrer (AKA Eddy Crank), the group’s consummate technician and tenant of the Lodge apartment; Ben Smith (AKA Lil Brother), a straight-faced, hilarious rapper who’s constantly releasing a subdued stream of deadpan humor; and Jake Mitchell (AKA Foggy Motto), the musical Swiss Army Knife of the group who wears a goofy grin under uneven blonde stubble. The original three are high school friends who“monkeyed around in Garage Band,” as Smith put it, until they decided to take it a little more seriously. And then in the odd, unpredictable way life occurs, it all came together.

“It was fuckin’ weird,” Stoehrer said, leaning forward in his computer chair. “Jake slept over and I said, ‘Hey, I think I’m gonna be a rapper today.’ I said that fuckin out loud and I met Nick that day. He came up to me and sent me a fuckin song. Not to be corny, but it was like, maybe I’m supposed to do that shit."

All photography by Davis Cole

Stoehrer’s UNH Lodge apartment sits on the ground floor of one of the center Lodge complexes. His apartment has the typical college guy feel to it – strewn-about beer bottles, half-finished takeout containers – until you go into his room. Then you realize he’s got what essentially doubles as a professional studio set up in his bedroom. Or, as professional as possible considering the space and monetary constraints of being a college student. With guitars and keyboards lining the walls, a mic standing erect in front of his bed, and a desktop sandwiched between huge studio speakers, Stoehrer’s room gives off the vibe that he understands music on a nuts-and-bolts level before you even talk to him. That, and the precision of poster placement on his walls: framed Kanye picture here, Tyler, the Creator’s Golf Le Fleur shoe box pinned above the window there, framed Brockhampton poster here. It’s a very specifically curated room—so much so, that it even got its own name: The Crank Tank.

“It kind of resembles a fish tank in here with the lights. And then, you know, we all swim around,” Smith offered, adding a breaststroke motion.

“It kinda sounds like a place where we all jerk off,” Stoehrer said with a laugh.

“The Spank Tank!”

Not even 10 minutes passed in the Tank before I was offered a beer and a showcase of some unreleased Haff Deece songs. Which, it turns out, is nearly all of them. They’re aiming to release their debut group album, Glass Half Full, before the end of the year; until then, Stoehrer is letting the songs stack up on his hard drive.

“Our thing is, we’ll do it all night and then we’ll almost be done and we’ll be like, ‘Alright, I think we’re stretching ourselves out,’” Stoehrer said. “It’s better when you get the meat of it done then you come back later and finish it.”

“We have so much unreleased fire, though,” Mitchell added. And he wasn’t lying.

Throughout the course of the night, Stoehrer must’ve pulled up over 20 songs of theirs that were polished enough to show me upon my first visit to the Tank. And not only were the songs finished, they sounded professional. Almost too professional. Like, maybe these guys are secretly established musicians playing it cool by releasing all their new music under a new name. Like, maybe these guys ghost-write-and-produce for Brockhampton in their spare time. Like, how is their music that good?

On “Opera to the Steakhouse,” thudding drums accompany Pichierri and Mitchell trading unhinged absurdist anecdotes; Pichierri kidnaps James Patterrson and forces him to write song lyrics, while Mitchell offers “a thousand-word verse you get immersed in—BLUES CLUES.” And on “Anaconda,” a high-register piano roll unspools and expands into an intricately-layered beat as the respective members of Haff Deece trade bars and let their voices enter the oblivion, transforming deeper and deeper via vocal effects (what they refer to as “crankifying”), like if Earl Sweatshirt’s “Knight” was made by a group of overly-caffeinated Brockhampton fans. Dense, technically-impressive rhyme schemes belted out from voices that sounded not only comfortable recording, but like they’d already developed their own unique styles and capabilities to blend them into a cohesive whole. Almost too cohesive.

“We don’t like boring shit,” Pichierri said. “We don’t want to sound like anyone else.”

Stoehrer leaned forward in his chair and clicked away on FL Studios, perfecting the mix and master of one of the unreleased Haff Deece songs. With a wiry build, a brightly svelte face, and alert, searching eyes, Stoehrer seems like he’s always thinking of the next thing he could be crafting, the next beat he could be building from scratch. A self-described Kanye stan and a disciple of the left-field ingenuity of Tyler, the Creator, Stoehrer is the distillation of a wide range of musical influences. From growing up playing the guitar, to loving Slipknot and JPEGMAFIA as much as he does “real, true hip-hop—the boom-bap shit,” Stoehrer defies easy categorization. He’s got dyed-blonde hair and wears merch that he made from scratch for Haff Deece. The one he donned this night was a baggy red long sleeve with images of Jar Jar Binks flipping his alien middle finger up above the word “Crank.” Above all, though, Stoehrer is the technical wizard of the group and a musical sponge, taking the bottomless well of things he taps into for inspiration, detonating it and making something wholly unique out of the rubble.

“He’s got so many beats on his fuckin hard drive,” Pichierri said of Stoehrer. “He’s got samples for days. As soon as we drop we’re getting sued by everybody. In the three days before that album gets removed from every streaming service, it’s gonna be lit, bro, I promise.”

Although all of the members of Haff Deece are exceedingly musically inclined (many of them produce songs for the collective too), Stoehrer produces, mixes and masters the majority of their work, making tangible the crazy ideas and occasionally-drunken creative outbursts that transpire within the Tank. Intermittently throughout the night, Stoehrer would slip away from the conversation, put on studio headphones, and sand away the rough edges of the goldmine of unreleased tracks he’s hoarding on his computer (“a little breathing room...for the artist,” as Smith sarcastically quipped). It’s a never-ending process for him, and one that he lights up talking about, eager to nerd out about the intricacies of music to people who are equally enthused. As he said, he’ll often have marathon producing sessions, staying up all night in his college apartment searching for samples, adding in instruments and chiseling down the marble slab of musical frenzy until it becomes a finished song.

“I’ll be in my room alone at like 5 a.m. and I’ll just be singing super loud,” he said.

“God bless Sam’s roommate bro, shout out to Steve,” Pichierri added. “I was screaming into this mic at 3 a.m. and he didn’t say shit. He didn’t say a goddamn thing! Steve’s a G.”

It makes sense that producing for this group is such an all-consuming task. In a more traditional group, it’d be fairly straightforward: all similar voices that easily fit within the same structure and style, making for a specific type of genre song. With Haff Deece, it gets a little more complicated.

You’ve got Stoehrer, who makes everything from “songs that girls like,” as he called his recently-released solo album Birdwatching, to blues tracks with gravelly vocals. Then you’ve got Pichierri, who’s more of a traditional lyricist, employing tightly-wound bars with a piercing, exacting flow, powerfully enunciating each and every word. If Kanye and Tyler are the pinnacle of rap for Stoehrer, then MF DOOM, Blu and Kendrick Lamar are that for Pichierri. Then you’ve got Smith, a sardonic, hilarious rapper who fires off as many cleverly dark jokes as he does titty lines in his verses. Along with rapping, Smith is an exceedingly talented but reserved artist who fills up notebooks with wacky, intricate illustrations that inevitably end up becoming the cover and merch art for the group. And finally, you have Mitchell, a multitalented musician who can do just about anything on a song, whether it’s spit brow-furrowing bars, produce sample-heavy heaters like “Opera to the Steakhouse” or use his voice like an instrument, bending and metamorphizing it in a wild display of vocal contortion. “Jake writes crazy fuckin lyrics, but his intonation and inflexion is so different,” Stoehrer said of Mitchell. “He’s like Young Thug—he’s up and down.”

Illustrations by Ben Smith AKA Lil Brother

As a group, Haff Deece is something like if Odd Future grew up 10 years later and was more fascinated with “Nathan For You” and notebook doodling than with skate culture and horrorcore. Together, they’re intelligent but crude; articulate but vulgar; introspective but ignorant. They’re astute enough to talk about the motifs they sprinkle into their albums, but crass enough to initially title a song “Dark Woast: No Mix, No Masturbation.” There’s a constant tongue-in-cheek razzing about the stuff that college guys find funny, but also a world-weary knowingness that’s wise beyond their years. And with all the different styles they bring to the table, they still somehow sublimate it into a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts.

“I like being in a group because I would never make something like a blues track,” Pichierri said. “But then Sam just hops on his fuckin guitar and lays some shit down and I do what I can with the shit. I feel like I stan Haff Deece more than any other fuckin group, bro. I’m like, ‘Yo, Eddy Crank, Foggy Moto, Lil Bro, they’re like the best in the game right now.’ It’s just cool to stan your own shit.”

Before Pichierri joined Haff Deece, he was on a desperate search looking for anyone that likes to make rap in a region of New England where very few people like to make rap. After initially searching on Google for “recording studios near me,” Pichierri found an artist in Rochester, New Hampshire, named REDACTED. REDACTED told Pichierri if he paid him $30, he could come through and record. Without any other options on the table, Pichierri threw caution to the wind and drove the half hour to REDACTED’s basement studio. Upon walking into a hot-boxed room of weed smoke, Pichierri was greeted by REDACTED and another guy with a “fuckin neck tattoo that said, ‘Live Free or Die.’”

“So I’m like ‘Whatever, I paid my $30, I’m rapping,’” Picherri said. “So this guy comes through who is very clearly a Crip. It’s a thing apparently bro! The only time in my life! And then REDACTED made a joke, whether this guy was a Crip or a Blood he called him the other, then shit got very real in that studio very quick, dude. And I’m like, ‘I’m 19 years old, I’m tryna write a song about fuckin a chick. And now I’m about to get shot.’”

Pichierri made it out alive, and while he would eventually find the members of Haff Deece, he’s also stirred up plenty of side quests along the way—one of which includes making an album with his barber.

“Go to Main Street Barbers, book an appointment with Eric and just talk about hip-hop with him,” he said. “Last time I was getting a haircut he slapped me a CD with beats on it and shit. Because every time I get a haircut – it’s way overpriced there, I wouldn’t go there – but I just talk about hip-hop with him the whole time and I leave with like 10 album recommendations.

“It’s such a random thing—like, ‘Oh, I’m making an album with my barber.’”

All for a free haircut,” Smith deadpanned.

“I was saying I want to work on a solo tape, and then finally my barber’s like, ‘Here’s all my beats,’ so I’m rockin’ out with those right now,” Pichierri excitedly added. “Dude, he’s actually fuckin sick.”

Along with Pichierri’s collaboration with his barber, all of the members of Haff Deece have come out with solo material on the side. Stoehrer’s released the aforementioned Birdwatching and an album from 2019, Words I Like; Smith re-released his only solo album, It’s Raining in My Room, this last spring after reconstructing most of the project; and Mitchell made a beat tape, titled Foggy’s Minstrumentals, that he put up on Soundcloud. Yet through all of their solo work, it seems like the Haff Deece project is the central focus of the four bohemian minds.

“I’m just glad I found my crowd,” Pichierri said.

With his lodge being on the ground floor of the apartment complex, Stoehrer and company frequently acquire “drive-by fans,” as Pichierri coined them. On this Friday night, drunken, stumbling groups strolled by the window every hour or so and inquired about the music pulsing from the speakers inside.

“That shit’s fire, you make that bro?”, a group of drunken guys asked after hearing the beat for the possible outro of their album.

“Do you guys wanna come over? We’re in E-20, you guys should come by,” another group asked, this time a cluster of girls coming back from the bars.

“We’re kinda doin’ shit right now but we can come by later,” Stoehrer said with a smile.

“Girls love rappers bro,” Pichierri said afterward, mocking the common stereotype. “It’s not a big deal bro; chicks be running up on me all the time. I’m not even totally tryna go over there. It’s no big deal. Another one? I’m so tired from the sex I was just having. Alright...I guess.”

For Haff Deece, making music is both a cathartic creative outlet where they can say whatever they want to say with no ramifications – which inevitably includes a range of both hilarious off-color jokes and poetic confessionals about their anxieties – and something they aspire to turn into a lucrative career.

“When I watched (Tyler, the Creator’s) Grammy shit, that shit affirmed to me, ‘Okay, I should probably try to do music for a living,’” Stoehrer said. “Because I watched him perform ‘New Magic Wand’ then I watched him win the Grammy, and I was fuckin so happy for someone else to win an award, you know what I mean? So I was like, ‘Damn, I wonder how’d it’d feel if I fuckin won one.’”

Although they take music seriously, they don’t approach it with a solemn intensity; they frequently mock the gravity of art, and constantly refer to “both” of their fans. Not having fun would defeat the whole purpose of what they’re doing.

Most of the Haff Deece “recording sessions” aren’t recording sessions at all—they’re just four friends messing around, watching YouTube videos or whatever else grabs their attention, and when inspiration strikes, they duck into Stoehrer’s room and let the chaos commence. They frequently mention the “oofs” that they make, which is their neologism for songs created on a whim in a matter of hours. “Puthy Hungies,” currently the group’s only song on streaming services, was an “oof” made the first time they met Pichierri, before he was officially part of the collective. And “Donna and Midge,” an “oof” that includes an organ sample and Mitchell rapping “I’m the dopest here, the Yogi Bear,” was made while the group was watching “That ‘70s Show.”

“We were so gassed the night we made the ‘Donna and Midge’ song,” Pichierri said, recalling the night with an enlivened amusement. “We went out and started recording shit for a music video with no concept or idea of what it was. It was just a sequence of me jumping over Jake leapfrogging. We had a fist fight in there. I’ve never seen that since we recorded it—I have no idea what’s on there.”

“There was a little bit where (Nick) was a pizza delivery guy,” Mitchell said before doubling over with laughter.

“This is just what we do—we don’t fucking go out really,” Smith said. “Like, this is like, ‘We do this—we deserve the fame!’”

If the four bandmates had the opportunity to solely focus on music, they’d do it in a heartbeat. But for now, Haff Deece is more of a passion project sandwiched into the cracks of free time between other responsibilities. Pichierri and Stoehrer are UNH seniors who both work part-time jobs on the side. Pichierri is an English major who works at Wildcat Pizza (“I make a mean calzone on the regular bro—it’s a really controversial calzone”), and Stoehrer is a business major whose family is in charge of baking all the private-label breads at Market Basket. Meanwhile, Smith works as a “warehouse whore” as he called it, going from warehouse to warehouse working various jobs, and Mitchell works as a hardscaper building patios.

“I’m capable of going to work and going home and fucking watching TV and being okay,” Smith said, “but it’s so defeating to do that, week after week after week.”

“That shit sucks though,” Stoehrer chimed in.

“That’s why I want to pursue something that’s not fucking that at all. A hundred ways to one.”

“Joe Rogan said, ‘Find the thing that fuckin makes you go, and just keep going.’”

Despite the various responsibilities they’re forced to delegate their time to, music is their medium of self-expression; something they’ll do forever, regardless if they can make a living off it.

“For me, I’m gonna do this no matter what I do in life, if I end up being this or that,” Pichierri said. “On the side, I’m always spitting fuckin verses. And if I can make that work to my financial benefit, all the better. Either way, I’m rockin out with these fuckin bars.”