Siobhán Kane talks to Crystal Stilts’, Andy Adler, ahead of their Dublin show with Girls Names, tomorrow night in The Grand Social
Crystal Stilts was born out of a friendship between JB Townsend and Brad Hargett, and started life around 2003. It took an expansion of the band (now five members) and another five years for their first record Alight of Night to appear, and when it did, its fogginess and sense of tattered pop charmed; as did Hargett’s strident baritone which provides a pleasing metronome amidst the swaying dishevelment of songs like ‘Crystal Stilts’ and ‘SinKing’.
Something the band does very well is the way they create a brooding atmosphere, helped out by Hargett’s dreamy and unknowable lyrics, and though there are countless influences and references, they wear them up rather than on their sleeves.
Their second record In Love With Oblivion is more expansive, with all five members contributing in a more measured way, which might have something to do with the longer gestation period of the recording and mixing, as well as last year’s collaboration with David Feck of Comet Gain (Cinema Red & Blue) which might have loosened things up a little. And while Hargett sounds as world-weary as ever, there is a jauntiness to proceedings, providing a different kind of drive. Perhaps the clue remains in the lyrics, which are more precise but more surreal, set amidst the familiar menace and playfulness; swerving from tenderness on ‘Silver Sun’ to Dali-esque on ‘Invisible City’.
Andy Adler of the band talks to Siobhán Kane
Crystal Stilts has had various incarnations, expanding into the five piece we see now. JB and Brad have had a long friendship, and have been playing for years, did you also start playing music quite early on?
I started playing guitar and taking piano lessons when I was small, and we are all mainly self taught, and then started playing properly in an informal way. Keegan [Cooke] our drummer now, hadn’t played much drums before, we were friends with him and we thought because we shared a similar aesthetic, that was a good reason to collaborate and go from there, rather than bring in someone who could simply play well.
That seems to have informed your second record, it seems somehow more cohesive and inclusive.
It’s a little more varied, that’s true. Both records were recorded differently. The first record was largely JB playing everything himself, whereas the new record included all of us and has more of a live feeling to it. The circumstances of recording have influenced the sound somewhat. We all had jobs and other things we were doing, and you just can’t walk out on all those things, so in some respects it was nice to record something and then have some time to figure out what worked and where we wanted to go with it, rather than trying to compress it all into a certain amount of time, where you stop listening to it with fresh ears. Sometimes though it felt like it was going on a long time, and mixing took a while, but I think it has been worth it!
We recorded it with Gary Olson, who has a studio called Marlborough Farms and we spent a lot of time. The studio is in his house, and he is a friend, so there was a real homely feel to the recording process with this one, I think we work better that way. You know, the first record was recorded really quickly with JB doing overdubs, but he and Brad weren’t happy with the mix, and through lack of funds it took a long time to sort out. It was probably a year and a half after it was recorded that we could go back and give it a proper mix that we were happy with, it had a long lifetime, actually, that first record.
There is such a warm sound on this record, which must have something to do with the cosy studio, but also what you use, I believe you use a lot of analog and older equipment?
Yes we do. For the most part we record on to analog tape. We did some overdubs with computers when we ran out of tracks, but mainly it is recorded on to tape and I think it gives it a warmer quality, the amps and microphones are probably older as well. I have a really ratty bass that I have had since I was a teenager, and is really beat up, it is incredibly ugly, but can withstand a beating, and keeps on working, which is good in this band! I don’t know if we have a particular allegiance to anything in particular in terms of equipment, Kyle [Forrester] has a nice homemade organ that he built with a friend of his, a modified thing, so that’s probably his favourite piece of equipment. I think because we have lost a lot of equipment over the years we try not to get too attached, which is unfortunate, but the older stuff is great.
You have that lovely mixture of referencing older sounds, equipment and influences, but also being thoroughly modern. However. it must be strange being in a band at present, as things have changed so rapidly in music over the last decade.
I think it is a very changing world out there, so it is hard to grasp as we are in the midst of it, especially where we are situated at the moment. It is so different to even, say, ten years ago, the structure and labels and distribution are all changing by the month. I think in some ways things are more difficult, then some things are more easy. It is definitely easier to get your music initially out there now, you can release digitally, and it is easier to get music out in the sphere, but I don’t know if that is for the best or not. It’s hard to tell, people still buy records now, but people are buying less physical records, though there is a broader network of music than ten years ago, when it was focused on fanzines and publications that perhaps weren’t graspable.
Someone I really admire is Dean Wareham, who has continued to be creative, within the changing landscape, it must be heartwarming that he is such a present and supportive fan of yours.
I think Dean has been so impressive to be able to do that, and maintain a personal and purposeful direction, when all of this other stuff has been going around. He has been so great to us, and it really means when people like him or Sonic Boom let us know that they like what we are doing, we deeply appreciate it, especially because these are people that we have long admired.
Water as a metaphor keeps cropping up in Brad’s lyrics, I wonder if in some ways that is because you are all living in such a big city, and nature takes on a more abstract form?
Certainly! I think living in such a large city means I have a very different relationship to nature, it becomes more abstract and distant than if I were living somewhere more rural, where it would be a tangible, more everyday thing. So living in a big city, I think nature can take on this metaphorical and mythical quality.
New York itself has become a kind of metaphor and mythical as well, especially for musicians, do you feel that quite keenly?
Definitely. I moved here in 1997, so in some respects it is what I am used to in terms of living, but it is also an ever-changing city. I think we are all somewhat less inclined to go out and be midnight revellers [laughs] but it definitely plays a part in what we do, I don’t know how necessarily thought out it is as much as us not being able to help it shape our music. There is a certain urban quality that runs through New York, and its history has always played with that, for example a certain kind of drone music has come from that, and there have been outgrowths of other kinds of music from that. With us, its influence is not necessarily planned, but you somehow find yourself usurping these things that are already there, specific sounds in New York that you hear in your daily life.
That’s interesting, because it is an unconscious thing, and I remember reading that a lot of Brad’s lyrics come from his dreams, and that one of the verses of ‘Through the Floor’ actually came from something he woke up saying.
I think for Brad a lot of the lyrics come for dreams, he is very conscious of the unconscious [laughs]. A lot of lyrics on this new record comes from dreams, he logs them down and gets songs from them, it is a fairly potent thing. It is probably a literal lyrical thing more than musical content, though.
The musical content is so layered, it has a kind of swirling, all-conquering effect.
Thank you, that is something that we have tried to attain. A lot of the songs are mainly within cohesive pop song structures, but within that again there is a relationship to a more abstract sound that works on a less literal, conscious level. It is one thing we try to do – have that dialogue, and then eliminate both sides from a different perspective again.
Is that tricky to navigate live?
We do some rehearsing, but not a lot. Some songs are a bit difficult. There are a few different ways these things can go – some of the songs we have been playing live for a couple of years, and when we went to record them we switched some things around to make them more interesting for the recorded version, but then there were some songs that weren’t fully formed at all,but when we recorded them they took shape, so we had to learn how to play those songs live more than the others. The new record really has a mixture of both kinds of sets of songs, so there is no one real answer! Though through playing a lot this summer I think we are comfortable playing them now, at least I hope so [laughs].
- Stream their new Radiant Door EP here
- Read more about their Dublin show taking place in the Grand Social on Friday 4th November