Q&A: Crystal Stilts On The Making Of Their New Album, Nature Noir
It’s hard to believe, but Crystal Stilts — one of New York City’s finest purveyors of jangly, late-night gloom rock — have been making music together for a little more than a decade. Considering the years the band has logged haunting various rock venues around the city, it’s kind of amazing that their new album, Nature Noir, is only their third proper full-length. Building on the strength of their previous album, 2011’s In Love With Oblivion, the new Crystal Stilts record takes the band out of what one might imagine to be their most natural setting (presumably a very dark bar tucked away in the nether-regions of Brooklyn) and juxtaposes their aesthetic with what would seem like the most incongruous thing possible — nature. The resulting album still sounds very much like Crystal Stilts, but the songs on Nature Noir are shot through with a kind of emotional resonance that tended to get buried on previous albums. If that doesn’t make sense, then perhaps the band’s own press materials can sum up the new record’s cosmic ambitions: “Pleasingly distilled in celestial darkness, floating in a sea of color drenched dreams, and grounded in protean mythology ….” So yeah, that pretty much covers it. I called up guitarist JB Townsend to discuss.
STEREOGUM: What’s happened since the last record came out, which was in 2011? Did you guys tour a lot on the back of that record?
JB TOWNSEND: We did a fair amount — nothing too extensive. I think we toured maybe two and a half months and then we did a couple of weekend tours here and there. I think both of our LPs have been backlog records where we had all of these old songs… Like when we came out with our first LP, we had a lot of the second one done already because we had all of these old songs that we had already recorded. That first LP was actually recorded a couple of years before it came out. We’ve always been kind of ahead of ourselves in terms of writing. With this one, there were some songs that were from 2011 but then we wrote like crazy in the past year and a half — we probably wrote 25 songs at least. We still have a lot more songs that didn’t go on this album. It wasn’t because they weren’t up to snuff — we just wanted to get a really precise ten song, short record that was very to the point. There are some great ones that we have in the bag that we’re really excited to work on for another LP.
STEREOGUM: Did your way of working change a lot this time around?
JB TOWNSEND: A little bit. I definitely don’t like writing the same song twice. It’s sometimes hard to be conscious of that. I feel like you have to try and find little avenues within whatever our skills are to try and make stuff that’s interesting to us.
STEREOGUM: Are you the kind of band who is always working or did you take time off and go away and do other things — how does it usually work?
JB TOWNSEND: We talked about going somewhere remote to write a record, which I think we can still do. There were a lot of times where we’d plug in and kind of just start playing and it could turn into a cool song. It might be a little less structured but I think we’re capable of doing a totally improv record like that. But we wrote tons of songs and we just started honing it down.
STEREOGUM: Everyone’s here in the city, right?
JB TOWNSEND: Yeah.
STEREOGUM: And were the same people playing on this record that played on the last one?
JB TOWNSEND: Yeah, it’s the same. It’s an interesting way that we write because it’s not just like there’s one guy who says, “here’s the song” and then everyone just learns it. To some extent, I will write the changes or I’ll have an idea of the general feel of the song. I’ll have an instrumental song just on guitar and then we’ll write with that. Brad will do lyrics on his own. But then there’s other songs that we write together all at the same time and then there’s other ones where Andy will come up with a bassline and we’ll write around that. It’s a little loose and we’re very open to whatever’s good — there’s really no ego in the band.
STEREOGUM: You’re three albums deep and you’ve been doing this for a while now — over a decade. Do you feel like that process has gotten easier as you go along?
JB TOWNSEND: Yeah. As long as you have something to say, it’s easy. If you’re stumped, it could get hard but if you’re writing and you have some kind of fuel or inspiration then it just happens kind of on its own. I feel like we have material to burn so I feel like it’s fairly easy. But we’re also really careful and trying to do our best to make it as meticulously as good as we can.
STEREOGUM: I just saw the video for “Star Crawl.” Not only is it a cool video but it also really catches the vibe of what this record is like in the bigger picture. Where was it made exactly?
JB TOWNSEND: Our friend Dan shot a lot of stuff upstate and around New York. The idea was to have slow, scenic shots of nature and discolor them and make it look very surreal. They actually had a really hard time filming it — it was a nightmare. I didn’t go with him upstate, but apparently the camera that they rented had a broken battery so they tried to charge it with the car battery and then as a result the car died and they were stuck on top of the mountain. It was a nightmare, apparently. It’s really nice that people like it because it was a really stressful endeavor.
STEREOGUM: Well, you wouldn’t know it from looking at the video. Nature Noir is such an appropriate name for this record. You guys have such a specific aesthetic — it brings to mind a very dark and kind of romantic vision of New York City. Trying to marry that idea with something connected to the natural world is a pretty novel concept.
JB TOWNSEND: I think it’s cool. I have to give credit to Brad for that because he comes up with all of the literal stuff — all of the titles and lyrics are his doing. He doesn’t play anything in the band; he’s just a singer and writer. It’s funny because, when we’re writing, he sometimes doesn’t tell us what the lyrics are. We can get an idea from little snippets that we hear, but we don’t really know until we’re in the studio and the lyrics are turned up and clear that we know what the song is about.
STEREOGUM: You guys started Crystal Stilts in the early 2000s and it’s hard not to think of you as a very quintessential New York City band, even though I’m not even sure what that means at this point. When you think about who your contemporaries were when you first started and what the musical landscape of the city is like now, are you surprised by how things have changed?
JB TOWNSEND: I’m kind of surprised — it feels like a totally different time to me. I lived in Greenpoint in 2002 and I practiced at the old Pencil Factory and it feels like it was more medieval in a way. It wasn’t bubbling up — there was stuff happening in Brooklyn, but it was just kind of starting. And we were really underground because we had one single and we were really slow and we didn’t really care about playing live. For maybe four or five years, we only played live a couple times a year. We still had aspirations to do something cool, but it just took four or five years of figuring it out. At that time, the bands were definitely different. There’s definitely two phases of New York bands and we were part of a few different waves that happened. Then there was that 2008 indie pop thing that we were sort of on the periphery of.
STEREOGUM: It’s weird. Things felt really static to me for a long time, then all of a sudden I would see a band that was just some kids playing synthesizers at Glasslands and three months later they would have a song in a car commercial.
JB TOWNSEND: It’s really wild. It sounds a little pompous to say this, but…I don’t necessarily think we really paved the way for other bands, but we were kind of in the gutter. A lot of these bands can play just five shows and they put out a record on a hip label and then they’re set after six months. It’s funny… and kind of cool.
STEREOGUM: Yes, but it doesn’t prove sustainable for very many of them. Three albums and a handful of EPs over the course of ten years — does it seem funny to still be doing this band? I don’t mean this in a bad way, but I know how difficult it can be to live in New York City and be in a band. It’s expensive and competitive. Ten years is a long time to be able to sustain something.
JB TOWNSEND: The way I think about it is that, for the first five years, we weren’t really career-oriented and it was more of just a hobby. Now… I mean, this is all I have. I didn’t go to college and I don’t have any other prospects, so this is literally all I have. I want to make it work and I want something to happen with this band… and with playing music in general. It’s the only thing I really know how to do. We’re working on it and trying to get more serious — as serious as we can be with it as far as making a career goes. I think you just have to put out a lot of stuff…and after a while it accumulates. Eventually it takes off.
Crystal Stilts’ Nature Noir is out 9/17 via Sacred Bones.