Alight Of Night is one of those records that is already, even in the earliest stages of 2009, showing signs it will undoubtedly figure prominently in the end of year lists come yuletide. Its creators, Crystal Stilts have remained something of an enigma up until now. Having originally met in Florida, vocalist Brad Hargett and guitarist JB Townsend moved to New York and formed the band in 2002, releasing their first self-produced EP just over a year later.
The ensuing four years saw the band recruit bassist Andy Adler, drummer Frankie Rose, and keyboard player Kyle Forrester whilst honing Hargett and Townsend’s earlier compositions alongside newer material into something unassumingly spectacular and radiant.
Although initially released amid the pre-Christmas novelty façade at the back end of 2008, ‘Alight Of Night’ has found a new lease of life via last month’s re-issue, and with the band currently nearing the end of their first ever headline European tour, DiS caught up with them for a few words recently post-soundcheck prior to their Nottingham show.
How has the tour gone so far? I hear most of the UK dates have been sold out?
BH: To be fair, they’ve mostly been small venues, but no, its great. I mean, we really didn’t know what to expect, and even in places like Switzerland and Austria they’ve been really good turn outs.
JBT: Even some of the bad shows have been good. We played in Rouen in France and the opening band were like a real serious rock band in the Radiohead/Jeff Buckley vein, and a lot of their fans were there and left when we started playing, but those who stayed helped make it one of the best shows on the tour. We felt like five drunken delinquents taking on the world!
AA: Whether the place is big or small doesn’t matter that much really…we could be playing to 200 people or 50 people, it’s still a good feeling knowing they’ve made the effort to come and see us.
What kind of reaction have you received from the audiences in general on this tour?
BH: Its been good. We tend to play quite a mix of old and new songs – the older songs we play from the album are among some of the first songs we ever wrote while most of the newer ones we haven’t even released yet, so the fact people are getting into it means they must be having fun watching us have fun mixing the set up a bit.
AA: I’d say it’s a 50-50 split between old and new…we do try and mix it up a lot.
BH: I guess you’re always going to get louder cheers for more familiar tracks, but then because we’ve been playing these songs for so long it becomes more enjoyable for us to try out the newer material.
Some of the songs on the album are four-to-five years old. How come the album took so long to release?
BH: It’s always difficult when you’re doing pretty much everything yourself. The recording itself only took a couple of weeks, but the mixing became really laborious and then we ran out of money, which is why it was sat around for a long while. Somebody – Gary Olson - helped us to put the EP that was recorded a little earlier, and that seemed to draw attention from other people who wanted to know more about what other songs we had. Mike Schulman from Slumberland Records asked if we wanted to put out a single on his label and we gave him a whole album’s worth of material to listen to, and that’s how ‘Alight Of Night’_ finally ended up being released. We were trying to do it all ourselves as much as possible because we knew exactly what we were doing and didn’t need anyone else’s opinion, but we eventually did need somebody else’s money, so…!
Your lyrics are quite indecipherable in places. What influenced your vocal style?
BH: (laughs) My vocal style is inspired by ignorance I guess! I don’t really know how to sing or have any technical musical knowledge whatsoever. There’s two ways of writing lyrics; the literal aspect and how it sounds. I think I’ve just made sure to concentrate on both of them as they’re equally important. Writing the sound and getting a really good meter and a lot of rhyme helped me as well…for somebody who can’t technically sing very well, to have a good sound already coming out with a melodic sense in the words helped me conquer my insecurities about not being a good singer.
Brad and JB, your origins are in Florida. How did you end up forming the band in New York?
BH: We were friends back in Florida, always talking about music and stuff, and then we both ended up moving to New York at pretty much the same time, but didn’t start writing or practising and stuff until about five or six months later.
JBT: I found a practice space through a friend, and Brad had been writing lyrics…
BH:…I couldn’t really play anything so we were just messing around at that point. I ended up working in a record store with Andy and Kyle regularly came into the store – I knew him from college as well - JB worked in the same coffee house as Frankie, and it just took off from there. Looking back, I think the record store was the focal meeting point because there was this network of people always looking to form or join bands or just hang out with similar kinds of people…
AA: Working in that record store was where I met most of the people I now regard as my closest friends in New York.
Was the record store a main source of inspiration for the vast array of influences you can hear on ‘Alight Of Night’?
BH: Yeah I do think it helped a lot. I think most of the standard stuff people talk about in interviews we were already into but there are a lot of offshoots from those sounds that we hadn’t heard before. People like the Television Personalities and The Tronics and we got further into the New Zealand stuff.
There is definitely quite an English influence in your sound too, I’d say..
BH: It’s kind of funny talking to certain people over here because a lot of the English bands that I listen to they tend to turn their noses up at.
AA: I’d go along with that. Mention the likes of Comet Gain or The Yummy Fur or Lung Leg and people look at you as if you’ve just landed from Mars or something….! Comet Gain are one of my favourite bands of all time yet in England the response seems to be somewhat indifferent.
I have to say, the last time I saw Comet Gain at last summer’s Indietracks Festival it was a little shambolic to say the least, as some of the band didn’t turn up and a couple members from the band Shrag had to deputise for them at last minute
AA: Steph from Shrag played keyboards for us on the first couple of dates for this tour, and she told us about that.
I read an interview with you recently where you said that you hoped to have the second album out before the end of 2009 too.
BH: We probably have half of a record’s worth of new songs that are ready to go out there now, and another half that aren’t that far away from completion either.
JBT: It’s just a matter of finding some time after we finish this tour and putting everything together. I’ve got a lot of bits I’ve been recording on a four-track…
AA: That’s how we operate as a band really. There isn’t just one single songwriter…we all contribute in our own ways, which is why the process can sometimes take a little bit longer than in other bands.
BH: We have two new songs that will be coming out as a 7” single on Slumberland Records shortly. One is called ‘Love Is A Wave’, which we’ve played a lot and I believe may have appeared on some file-sharing site or another, and ‘Sugar Baby’, which we’ve also played every night on this tour so far.
Have you got a confirmed release date for the single?
BH: I think its due out in the US round mid-March time, and then I believe it will be distributed around Europe a few weeks later.
Have you changed your approach to songwriting on the newer songs?
BH: There are some. A lot of the lyrics were written separate from the songs, and then applied afterwards. Some of the songs were written in a lot less rigorous manner than previously, simpler even maybe. At the same time we’re still developing as a band, so we’re always going to be looking at different ways of writing and constructing songs as we progress.
Are you playing any festivals this summer?
AA: We’re doing South-By-Southwest in a couple of weeks time, then we’re back over here in May for Dot To Dot. I think we’ve been pencilled in for a few more throughout the summer but nothing has been confirmed as yet.
Finally, if you could choose a song that befits what Crystal Stilts are all about, what would it be? (cue heated debate)
AA: ‘Mother Of Earth’ by The Gun Club for sure…
JBT: For me it would be Voice Of The Puppets ‘I Don’t Want To Know’.
BH: It has to be ‘Meat Is Murder’. We write parody songs and that’s the perfect one, surely?
Photo by Toby Price