It’s been four years since Craft Spells’ debut Idle Labor, Justin Vallesteros’s bedroom recording brimming with ’80s synths, drew critical attention — and easy comparisons to New Order.
“I do love New Order, so I couldn’t hate that,” Vallesteros says from Seattle, where he’s prepping for tour. Flattered though he may have been, his new LP Nausea is such a radical stylistic departure it seems calculated to get Vallestero noticed as a formidable songwriter and not just a gifted mimic.
An album ironically born of writer’s block, its more focused songwriting and surefooted melodies are largely due to the fact that Vallestero dropped out of the digital world while he was making the record. “Once I unplugged from the Internet, my senses were going insane,” he says.
Katy Henriksen talked with Vallestero about tuning out, letting go and triumphing over writer’s block.
Your debut Idle Labor was made in total isolation — a true bedroom recording. People loved it, so you toured extensively, then moved to San Francisco to be close to a creative center. But then you retreated right back into the bedroom for Nausea.
I felt kind of like a loner out there. In San Francisco, you’re either a DJ or in some garage/psych band. It was kind of hard to make friends, especially musician friends. Maybe I didn’t put myself out there enough, but it’s really isolating. After demoing on guitar in my bedroom in San Francisco, I just stopped. I hated it. I packed up all my stuff and moved in to my parents’ house in Lathrop, a small suburb in central California. I unplugged from the Internet and started writing again. I stopped playing guitar and focused more on piano and pretty much wrote every song on piano. It’s such a great place to write, because it’s so boring. It’s a blank slate. I started creating these worlds or atmospheres with all these songs and got really attached. Every time I’d go back to reality, I longed to go back into these songs I made that really comforted me. That’s the whole nausea [idea] — being between realities.
You said you honed your piano skills. How did that change your songwriting?
When I’m on the piano, it’s a whole different experience. On guitar, I just found myself writing the same old thing over and over again. I guess I became smoother with my songwriting. I got into a lot of composers — one was Ryuichi Sakamoto of Yellow Magic Orchestra. I was just really into his piano playing. After that, I tried to orchestrate songs rather than just write pop songs. I always wanted to be Brian Wilson growing up, so this is my start at trying to be Brian Wilson.
How were you able to connect with a new instrument?
Pretty much by pretending I learned the basic chords when I was a teenager, and then all of a sudden last year, I zoned in. My piano skills got better each day. Unplugging from the Internet, I was able to heighten my senses; I was getting better at stuff other than just the Internet. It was pretty cool.
Nausea uses a lot of organic sounds including strings and piano, whereas Idle Labor was pretty synth-heavy. What led to that change?
I was obsessed with the Mellotron and writing a lot of Mellotron leads over piano. Rather than keeping it dry, I added a lot of texture and warble, and all of a sudden it had this character that fit with the record. It was all this knotty stuff combined with synthetic Mellotron. In the studio I recorded on grand piano, and I had Macklemore’s violin player record the compositions I wrote out for him. I can’t say whether I’m a Macklemore fan or not, but I’m a fan of his violin player for sure.
You talk about “unplugging” from the internet. What led to that decision?
I have really strong feelings about that. The current age of streaming creates ADHD, where it’s easy to skip around, or [avoid] music you don’t like. Like on Soundcloud where people can see the drop coming [in a song's waveform] and they just fucking skip to the drop. That sucks.
I found myself with writer’s block, because I was just so adamant about things being perfect. I finally settled on “pretty good,” and that opened up my world a lot. I think people need to give some space for music. Instead, people are always looking forward to finding something new right after finding something new. It ruins the experience.
I’m letting music take me wherever I go. I go into restaurants and I’m always trying to Shazam shit. I’m that guy with the phone in the air. I’m just so down with music. I really try to respect everything in music. Of course there are some fucking runts — I read recently that there’s proof that pop music is as shitty as ever. Top 40 radio – it’s just insane how similar everything sounds.
You went from the extreme frustration of writers block to creating lush, ornate music. Describe the process of moving from despair to creation.
I had all these emotions, and was so attached to these songs — as if they were friends of mine. The lead melody for “Come Already” — that was a good friend I liked to visit a lot. I created my own world. I didn’t want to be in fake reality on the Internet. I wanted to escape. I have this thing when I dream at night — probably three days a week, I go to this really familiar place — this dream city I’ve had since I was 18. It’s the same place I always end up going to, and I was trying to revisit certain atmospheres when I was writing. It was just really nice and familiar.
Wow, a dream city. What is it like?
I just actually Googled it a month ago, and people actually have them and name their cities. It’s insane. The blueprint is the same every time. Certain places in that town have nightmares. Some of them are filled with anxiety. It’s cool. It’s weird. It always starts with a bus ride over this tall hill that looks like Stockton, California, and I go into this town that’s made up of a lot of familiar things in my life. There’s this really weird hotel that, when I step into it, I get sleep paralysis, or some kind of frightening nightmare. There’s this baseball field that’s open at night that “Still Fields,” the last song on the album, is modeled after. It has overgrown grass and shit. I just wanted to recreate the peaceful part of my dream in that song. There’s a lot of weird places in it.
I am in love with “Breaking the Angle Against the Tide.” Tell me about this song.
That was the first song finished for the demo. I wrote the music and I finally got out of my writer’s block. The lyrics are about finally breaking through all the anxiety and depression from not being able to do what you love. It’s a very evil thing, writer’s block. At the end [of the song] it’s like rushing up a hill — like, when the strings sustain, it’s like reaching a point where you can be done with that shitty process of writer’s block.
This is your first full album since your debut four years ago. Are you excited? Nervous?
I’m more than excited for sure, because I just can’t wait for it to be out there. I’m really curious how people will receive it. I noticed that the listeners on Idle Labor were mostly teens or something, so I’d hope they’d grow up with the music as much as I did. I’m excited to tour again. I think it’s been two years since we’ve played a show. I have to tell myself that sometimes it takes bands three or four years to release an album. In the ’90s, bands would take forever to release something, so there shouldn’t be much of a difference now. I don’t want to be redundant either. I could’ve written another “After the Moment” or “Party Talk,” which I like a lot, but I wanted something that could create a three-dimensional sonic listening experience for people. It’s a good record to put headphones on and get stoned to.
You grew up in California and you’re huge on Brian Wilson. Do you feel like he resonates with you more because you grew up there?
I have a lot of stories about Brian Wilson. As a kid, all the beach songs were my first introduction [to him], but when I was 17, I got really into Smiley Smile, and that shit fucked me up. Brian Wilson’s voice became comforting. He’s just a voice of reason for me. He always had this sincere voice. As he got older, he got weird — which is cool, too. One time I met him at Amoeba Records where he was signing the Smile reissues. He was sitting with his wife, and I brought up my record and just wanted to tell him how much he meant to me. He just autographed “Brian” and then his wife yelled at him saying, “Your name is Brian Wilson,” and he was like “I don’t want to.” And then I was like, “Don’t worry about it, I’ll take that ‘Brian,’” and walked away. That whole interaction was good enough for me.
When I was like 21 I took — oh god, my parents are probably going to read this — I took ‘shrooms, and I remember at a very peak moment in a very dark room someone turned on a light-up cup. Someone put it in the middle of the dark room, and the patterns were going with Brian Wilson’s voice on “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.” After that, I think I just wanted to be him forever.