- Crystal Stilts »
Despite being around for the best part of a decade, Brooklyn's Crystal Stilts first came to most people's attention in the early part of 2009, courtesy of their excellent debut Alight Of Night finally receiving a European release. Recorded and released several months earlier in the States, it quickly established them as one of the brightest talents on the US underground scene. Several tours soon followed but then by the end of 2009; silence.
Not that they'd gone into hibernation or anything, unless writing and recording counts as such a thing. Indeed, many of the songs that were to appear on In Love With Oblivion, the follow-up to their first long player would be prominent fixtures in those UK shows the previous year. While their sound had already become more expansive and experimental from the more conventional garage band rock of those early recordings, the likes of 'Sycamore Tree', 'Alien Rivers' and 'Prometheus At Large' almost resemble a completely different band to the one responsible for In Love To Oblivion's predecessor.
Now, on a rare and extremely brief visit to the UK that will see them play literally a handful of shows, DiS caught up with guitarist and songwriter JB Campbell prior to their storming set at this year's Indietracks Festival.
DiS: It's two years since we last caught up with you. At the time you were playing your first shows in England, and since then you've become one of the most popular exports to emerge from the US underground scene. Did you ever expect that kind of response?
JB Townsend: I wasn't really expecting it but there was a glimmer of something because I kind of perceived that the type of music we were making might be received better over here. I thought there was a possibility something could happen but I never really expected it to.
DiS: I guess there were several English bands at the time using similar reference points but not doing it as well. One of the most interesting points is how long some of the songs which made it onto Alight Of Night had been around, which many people probably weren't aware of back then.
JBT: It was great for us. I mean, every time we played London - I think we ended up playing about ten shows there in 2009 - each one was more manic than the last, and they were selling out which was something we'd never been used to before, even back home. It was cool for us because I still think we're always developing as a live band, so although people were getting into the music and knew the songs for us it was another part of the learning process. I think when we played the Alight Of Night material back then we tried to strip away a lot of what was on the record, whereas now with the In Love With Oblivion songs they do sound pretty similar to how you'd expect them to off the album.
DiS: I remember you saying at the time when you were touring Alight Of Night that the second album was ready, and your set contained several songs which would later feature on In Love With Oblivion.
JBT: Because we started playing together in 2003 a lot of those songs that made the first record had been sitting around for a while so by the time it came to putting it out we were already well underway with writing the In Love With Oblivion material.
DiS: You've also changed drummers since, with Keegan Cooke having become a full-time member of the band. I know he designs your artwork, but what extra musical dimension does he bring to the band?
JBT: I think he's a lot more innovative for a start. He'll change things like the tempo, or suggest we implement new ideas within songs. He's quite an important part of the band really, almost like finding that missing ingredient. When we play live he brings a lot more to the songs that was perhaps missing in the early days. We don't have to tell him what to do, he tells us what he's gonna do and what we should be doing!
DiS: There's definitely a progression between records, particularly when I listen to songs like 'Sycamore Tree' and 'Alien Rivers' off In Love With Oblivion. What influenced these songs and would you say your listening tastes have changed between albums?
JBT: Oh definitely. My tastes have really evolved. If I compare what I listen to now with what I was listening to seven years ago they're at opposite ends of the spectrum. Some songs like 'Alien Rivers', I wrote that lick on a baby guitar, almost like a ukelele, just messing around with it. It was much later that it turned into a really monstrous dark song. I think we needed something kind of long, slow and dirgey on the record so 'Alien Rivers' was borne. With 'Sycamore Tree', that was our Seeds or Silver Apples moment. I don't think we were conscious of it at the time, but listening to it now, it definitely is.
DiS: You've been described as The Jesus & Mary Doors in one article I've read. What do you make of comparisons like that?
JBT: I guess if you were to look at more mainstream influences then those comparisons are plausible, but I don't really listen to either. I'm a big fan of what they do, but I wouldn't say they're my favourite artists. I was a big fan of the Mary Chain's first record, like maybe ten years ago I was listening to Psychocandy an awful lot, and it's up there with the best but I wouldn't say it had any influence on what we're doing musically.
DiS: At the same time, 'Through The Floor' is quite an old song which actually predates some of Alight Of Night. What made you decide to include it on In Love With Oblivion rather than its predecessor?
JBT: We wrote that song around the time we'd started recording Alight Of Night but didn't include it in the sessions. Why? I don't know...I honestly don't know why!
DiS: It's always been quite a prominent part of your live show, even two years ago when you first played over here.
JBT: Yeah, it always seems to go down well. I guess we play it early in the set because we treat it as a kind of warm-up. It's fast, uptempo and also very short. The original four-track version we recorded was actually a lot slower, and then we gradually sped it up over time. When we recorded the version that appears on the album that was only really a demo, but it seemed to mirror the way we play it live so kept it for the record.
DiS: Looking back over both records, is there anything you'd change or do differently with either in terms of production or maybe the tracklisting even?
JBT: I don't think there's too much in retrospect that I would change. People usually ask me about 'Love Is A Wave' and 'Sugar Baby' not being on either record but they kind of just sat on their own when we recorded them. I think that single works as a link inbetween both records, and if we were to add it to Alight Of Night or In Love With Oblivion it would sound out of place. The only regret I have is that maybe the production on the records could be a little meatier, because we do get saddled with the lo-fi tag. It's not exactly a hi-fi sound, but we're definitely not lo-fi either. I want to make a few records that are not necessarily clean in a pure pop way, but definitely more hi-fi like it meant in the 1960s, if that makes sense?
DiS: I guess as well that when 'Love Is A Wave' came out some people assumed you were changing direction.
JBT: I like that. I don't necessarily think we're capable of changing that much, but I like to try out new ideas and approach songs differently. We have a new EP coming out in November which will have a mixture of new songs, recordings from the In Love With Oblivion sessions that didn't make the album and a cover of the Blue Orchids song 'Low Profile'.
DiS: Reviews of both records have been very positive. Would you say that your relationship with the music press is quite amicable, and by the same token does it concern you that in the event of a negative review at some point this could change dramatically?
JBT: I think we have had a pretty good reception, partially because we're seen as being a little bit underground, which kinda helps, but I think it's more that we have fans who've become artists that we love in bands years later. I'm one of those people who is genuinely surprised when someone I admire says they really like our band. That probably means more to me than any review, you know?
DiS: You're now licensed to Fortuna Pop! in the UK and rest of Europe. How did that come about and are you fans of any other bands on their roster?
JBT: We met Sean Price from the label and he was really enthusiastic about our record, and at the time we were looking for a label over here and once he said Fortuna Pop! wanted to put it out it just happened. I like many bands on that label, Comet Gain especially, so it just made sense to us to be a part of it.
DiS: Indietracks is the only UK festival you're booked to play in 2011. What made you decide to play this one specifically and did you get approached to do any others?
JBT: I don't know how curators over here work but I did think we'd have more UK festivals this time around. Maybe because our record didn't come out until April we missed the boat? I don't know, I mean they could have booked us last minute too...It's kind of nice to play an Indie Pop festival because I guess that suggests we have some kind of crossover appeal to different audiences. I like a lot of that kinda stuff from the early 1980s, first wave Indie Pop stuff I guess you could call it?
DiS: How do you choose which songs to play for your live set, bearing in mind your back catalogue is growing at a steady pace now?
JBT: I will say that a lot depends on where we're playing and who we're playing to. We did a Psychefest in Texas recently and we catered the set to the type of audience that were there. We tried to make it as psychedelic as possible, which I guess is a long way from what we would have sounded like in 2003. At the moment the majority of the set is focused mainly on In Love With Oblivion, but we do tend to mix things up a bit.
DiS: Are there any songs which you no longer play live, and probably have no intentions of ever doing so again?
JBT: We never play 'Verdant Gaze' live off the first record, simply because we've never practiced it. I think we might have played it once back in 2005. There are a few songs from that record that we won't ever play, simply because I think we've moved on musically and those songs wouldn't fit in with what we're doing at present. Some of those songs are in a totally different head space as a band to who we are now.
DiS: Finally, are there any plans for album number three, and will there be an extensive UK tour in the foreseeable future?
JBT: We've probably got half an album ready besides this new EP that's coming out. I don't think we'll play any of them live for a while as they're still kind of at the brushing up stage. A couple of them are more or less finished but we're not comfortable with them enough for the live show. I think we might be touring here in November actually for the EP. Going back to the new album, I wouldn't expect it to be ready until at least a year from now, realistically. There's so many things we have to take into account, like the whole mixing process, then six months lead time around the release date and everything. These things take time.
For more information on Crystal Stilts visit their official website.
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