Interview: Crystal Stilts

Leonard Pierce

By Leonard Pierce

on 04.14.11 in Interviews

Getting bogged down in the specifics of the familiar-yet-particular sound made by Brooklyn’s Crystal Stilts often leaves critics describing the trunk and tail of an elephant and concluding that it’s a whale. You can hear whole record collections in their songs – the Joy Division lows of Brad Hargett’s evocative vocals, the pumping highs of Kyle Forester’s Dunedin Sound keyboards, the gnarly Jeffrey Lee Pierce reverberations in JB Townsend’s guitar, but attempts to reduce them to any one of their influences inevitably falls short.

And with good reason – since their first single in 2005, they’ve been steadily and determinedly refining their sound. Their latest album, In Love with Oblivion, is the work of a band that’s finally arrived; it’s lively and unexpected, and builds naturally on all the sonic signatures they’ve developed in the past. It’s one of those rare records with the ability to shock from track to track; it’s stunning to hear such variance within a very specific musical framework.

eMusic’s Leonard Pierce caught up with Townsend and bassist Andy Adler via email to talk about how they assembled In Love with Oblivion, about being an American band with a ‘British sound’, and why they won’t be hauling a harpsichord on stage anytime soon.

Sonically, In Love with Oblivion is a great leap forward. Did you approach the songwriting differently than you have in the past?

Andy Adler: Perhaps the change or development in sound wasn’t so much deliberate as much as the result of the album being a different beast in both gestation and actualization. Where the first LP [2008's Alight of Night] was the product of two guys in a room, and was recorded largely using overdubs – with the songs taking a more simplified form due to the makeup of the band at the time – the new album was written and recorded as a fully functioning band, with at least basic tracks, bass and drums, recorded more live with just a bit of overdubbing. I don’t think it was necessarily preconceived or formulated, but a natural growth of different dynamics, circumstances and various vagaries.

The production has a bit more snap, as well. Did you do anything different in the studio, or take a new approach technically?

JB Townsend: More time went into the mixing and post-production this time around. We did some back-and-forth with the computer-to-tape, and vice-versa. The majority of the mixes are live takes from a board rather than computer-automated trickery. I mixed many different ways and then sorted the songs out after. There’s plenty going on in the stereo field as well as frequency gamut, yet the record doesn’t have the super-digital hi-fi 2011 thing going on, obviously. At first I even thought about mixing the record onto mono tape; that’s still something I’d like to explore, depending on the song. This record wasn’t recorded at some million-dollar studio. It was recorded in our friend’s basement studio on 2-inch, 16-track tape.

What’s your songwriting process? How do you work together to get a track into fighting shape?

Adler: Sometimes, JB will have a song largely worked out – or at least a solid part – which is then expanded, shaped, shifted, et cetera. Other songs come out of just playing in our practice space, a little note here or a chord there that is delved into, walked around, discovered and distorted. Brad is responsible for the lyrics and melodies, and sometimes something he does, or something someone else plays, will take the song in a new direction. Some have been quick to come, others we’ve labored over and played in endless variations before finding the right form. Other songs were largely written while recording, a bit more swish-swash, going in with no concrete ideas or arrangements – just using the studio to find our way.

You’ve talked in the past about the comparison with British bands, with the New Zealand sound. Does this frustrate you at all?

Adler: Well, people will write what they will write. Frustration may be overstating it; let’s say bewilderment. At times I have no idea about the comparisons drawn, or they seem wildly off base, or they seem more like journalistic tropes than actual responses to the record. Of course, there’s a litany of things that we hear in the songs that others don’t – and that’s not to say that one is more correct than the other. We do love many bands from both Britain and New Zealand, but we hardly turn our backs on our American lineage – or on any other countries, either. There’s always the “sounds like” game to be played with music, and we’re all guilty of it, so suffice it to say that some analogies seem apt, others make us scratch our heads, but no two people have the same musical background or ears.

There are bands and artists that never come up that would seem obvious, you know? We throw around names to describe parts of songs, like how a part should go, just as a way to reference things we are working on, or as little guides and ideas.

Is this a good time for you as a band, given the doldrums of the music business?

Townsend: Nah, it’s not really a big deal. There’s no money in the biz, really. I’m not sure if it’s better or worse now, because we weren’t around before. It may very well be a “mo ‘money, mo ‘problems” situation, though.

How much does live performance alter the way your recorded material sounds? Do you workshop songs at live shows?

Adler: Not so much workshop songs, though looking back, I guess we have at times. But playing live as a group has changed the process and results a bit, on this basic level of this album being more of a live recording that those previous. There’s something to be said for going in and recording a song you have played numerous times before – though there’s still much that can change – you can, say, find a new organ to use, or add a harpsichord, or a multitude of other things, really. This record also has some songs that were largely done on the spot. Some songs on the record we had been playing live for upwards of two years, so that does certainly have an influence.

Are you a band that looks back on your work after it’s finished, or are you generally looking ahead to the next set of songs?

Townsend: I do, sometimes – more as a reference, or after it’s mastered, to see how it came out. I try to worry about doing things differently at the time we’re doing it, because I’d much rather take a little time and make it sound right than put out something I’m not at least 99 percent sure about. You could always change something with mixing or improve upon it, but you have to draw a line somewhere. I do worry a little bit about making the live experience at least close to what the record sounds like, so getting carried away with overdubs can hurt. For instance, the chances that we’ll have harpsichord at any of our live shows are very slim.