Words Tom Spooner
An abridged version of this Crystal Antlers interview appeared in Spindle Magazine.
It’s not easy being a band nowadays. The extravagant budgets and glamorous excesses of the 1970s are a distant memory as the world further descends into an age of austerity. And then there’s the Internet; a force that has simultaneously democratised the music industry and diluted the value of what artists produce. So how then does an honest hard-working band like Californian noiseniks Crystal Antlers keep afloat? By running their own chimney sweep business for starters.
“As an industry, it has no future in the long term, at least not at the scale we’ve seen in the past. There’s not enough money to go around to support all the extraneous people involved who aren’t creating anything,” the band’s frontman Jonny Bell explains.
“When we’re not touring, all of us have jobs but even then it’s not easy keeping a decent job when you’re gone all the time… I’ve been running my own chimney sweeping company since I was 19 and most of the money I make right now is going directly to pay for record pressing and promo materials.”
As much out of necessity as sticking to any ideals, Crystal Antlers’ approach to music is very much DIY. They make their own records; recording, pressing and promoting each release themselves. And that’s exactly what they’ve done with their second album, Two Way Mirror.
As Jonny states, “We’re already basically self-sustained doing what we do. There will always be small labels to help bands out, but I think for the most part it’s going to have to be a labor of love for anyone who wants to do this.”
The need to get involved with the album at every level has a bearing on almost everything the band do, right down to the album’s artwork by Raymond Pettibon, the legendary Californian artist behind iconic album covers for the likes of Sonic Youth and Black Flag:
“When we got the black and white artwork from Raymond, we were like ‘Alright! We can screen print these covers ourselves…’ We probably wouldn’t have been able to press many records if we had to pay someone else to do it.”
Thankfully, given the effort that has gone into getting the album out there, Two Way Mirror is a success; a blistering array of swirling textures from snarling distortion to surprising pop hooks to addictive surf guitar lines. The album also marks a clear progression, showcasing more depth, diversity and production values than their debut, Tentacles, and the 2008 self-titled EP.
“Our approach with Two-Way Mirror was decidedly different; we knew going into it that we needed to have more clarity than on our earlier records, but we didn’t have a specific direction when we started. The plan was basically to go to Mexico in an attempt to re-discover isolation, and just to try and let things flow freely,” Jonny states.
In Mexico, the band found themselves trying out new material at a local bar in return for meals, throwing in a few pop covers to keep the locals happy. It’s far from your typical recording retreat. It did have the benefit of developing some of the album’s most impressive tracks: “It forced us to start organizing and arranging some of the loose ends we were working on. We came back from Mexico with about 10 rough songs and went straight back on tour in Europe playing the new songs and seeing what worked and what didn’t.
“It took a long time for things to really take shape…There were a lot of loose ends at the end of the first recording session and we spent about a month just listening and trying to figure out how to finish it. We’d go in for a day here and there just adding intros, re-tracking parts and cutting out excess tracks; we really wanted to take our time every step of the way,” explains Jonny.
The album clearly benefits from this slower, more organic songwriting process whilst still capturing the intensity found on Tentacles and the EP.
“In the early days of the band, the songs were always on the verge of falling apart – we could barely play the parts we were writing, but there was strict underlying structure to the arrangements. That was the only way we could really hold on…and that aspect still remains, and I think that’s why there’s still a raw feel to everything. We also figured out that if we changed the keys of the songs to keys that I could actually sing in it helped a lot,” he laughs.
The album is awash with distorted riffs and exceptional guitar lines, none better than the gorgeous shimmer of Summer Solstice. Yet considering the album’s conception in Mexico and the band’s home of Long Beach, California, there’s a darkness lurking on the album that you wouldn’t expect from these sunny idylls.
“I think the darker aspects of the record have more to do with our experiences over the last few years rather than our locations while we were writing. Though both Long Beach and La Punta Banda do have some pretty dark things going on,” Jonny explains.
“I didn’t set out to write a record about making records or being a musician, but it’s hard to ignore how present those themes are in some of the songs. Hopefully, people can relate on some level, even if they haven’t been in my shoes–it’s a struggle just like anything else.”
The two-way mirror metaphor of the album’s title is one that seems to fit in with the double-edged nature of the lyrics and the notion that we inhabit an increasingly voyeuristic world.
“There’s significance to the title, but like most of our stuff it’s open to interpretation. It started as the title to the song Two-Way Mirror which had its own set of metaphors but later on, we figured out that it made some sense given our situation writing a record pretty much in isolation that would later become very public. It’s a strange thing putting something out there that was created in such a private way, and never truly knowing who’s watching.”
There is no doubt that Crystal Antlers are all about the music. It is refreshing to find a band whose priorities are playing together, making records, and taking it direct to the people through some pretty frenetic live shows. It’s an honest way of approaching music and a brave one in the current climate. The fact that they made a record as bold as Two-Way Mirror is testament to their integrity.
“I think given the state of things, just the fact that we were able to complete and release this record ourselves was an achievement. If it sells, we can afford to make more records ourselves and that would be ideal…maybe sell a ton of them and we can buy an island?”