Crystal Stilts Keep Their Balance

Published June 15, 2012

ABOVE: CRYSTAL STILTS. IMAGE COURTESY OF THE CHEF

As a concert attendee, the energy of a show is always hard to predict. Some of the most riotous acts yield a less than kinetic experience, and vice versa. For Crystal Stilts, the venue and crowd are all part of a larger experience that draws their sound together—no matter the reaction. Which is perhaps exactly why crowds can’t stop coming back for more. Original members JB Townsend and Brad Hargett aren’t looking to pacify anyone.

Started in 2003, Crystal Stilts has now grown to a five-piece band with the addition of members Kyle Forester, Andy Adler, and Keegan Cooke, and the band has signed with Slumberland Records. From In Love With Oblivion, their 2011 sophomore album—a space-age Western set to the melody of a rock anthem—to the most recent EP, Radiant Door, Crystal Stilts places as much attention to the background as the foreground; in their songs, voice and instrumentation co-mingle in a meshed, rather than layered, manner. As Hargett himself says of the band’s influences, Crystal Stilts’ sound “seems to move with you, to live and breathe… less like music, more like a world of its own.”

AVERIE TIMM: Just to get things started, how’s life lately? What has been going on in the realm of Crystal Stilts?

JB TOWNSEND: Things have been going good. We’re currently writing for our third LP and planning a West Coast tour as well as a brief tour in Europe this summer.  

BRAD HARGETT: The West Coast tour is planned for the end of July, and the short European jaunt is in September. Other than that we’re really trying to work on some new songs from new angles. Looking forward to getting another album recorded.  

TIMM: Since the last time you spoke with us, your EP, Radiant Door, was released. How did you imagine people listening to Radiant Door?

TOWNSEND: I suppose I envision most people listening to it on their mp3 player with headphones, because statistically that’s the format where the songs exist the most. I think when we mix, I try to think of it played on headphones, in a room on vinyl, or at a really loud volume at a bar or club or something, too.

HARGETT: Personally, I wish it was the way I heard a lot of my first records growing up. My dad was a bit of a hi-fi geek. We’d build our own speakers.  I’d lie in bed listening to great, old Koss headphones through a classic Kenwood receiver. I also had a direct-drive turntable from about age six until just a few years ago. They just don’t make equipment like they used to and it’s a shame kids spend most their time listening to shitty mp3’s on tiny, little earbuds. I do, however, love the idea of people listening to our records on the move… whether driving, or walking. A lot of the songs from Alight of Night were actually inspired by above-ground subway rides, with the city swimming by.

TIMM: Whom do you cite as influences? Do these influences change with each album?

HARGETT: I always wish I could answer questions like these easily or succinctly, but there’s just such a range of music I love that it’s basically impossible to narrow it down. To give something that might be less expected: I’ve always listened to a lot of ambient music, or music that just seems to be a living atmosphere of its own. Erik Satie’s music does that for me. Eno’s ambient stuff, especially some of the less heralded ones like The Plateaux of Mirror, Apollo, On Land, or The Equatorial Stars with Robert Fripp, I love. I’ve probably listened to Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II (the double-disc second version, that’s almost completely devoid of beats) more than any other piece of music in my life. I spent a three-year period listening to that on every subway ride, walk through the city, and nighttime at home. A roommate at the time told me he thought it would eventually drive me mad. Tim Hecker has actually become quite well known in recent years, but I remember seeking out and consuming his first couple of releases that probably only had a thousand copies made: Haunt Me, Haunt Me, Do It Again and Radio Amor.  Miles Davis’ stuff, like In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew has a similar effect on me.

TOWNSEND: They certainly are ever-changing. There are artists that are kind of the best, that I’ll never dislike, but I may or may not apply their influence to our music. Sometimes a song will germinate as being one way but by the time it’s recorded it could take on a different course too. I really like to blend influences to weird recipes. I’d like to think that we embrace spontaneity whilst maintaining a somewhat anchored format. We’ve been discussing that a lot lately: to some extent trying to break free from the pigeonhole. The new songs are a bit more dynamic and we plan on crafting the next LP the best we possibly can.

TIMM: I love the Western undertones that seem to infiltrate both In Love With Oblivion and Radiant Door; was there something that triggered this sound to surface?

TOWNSEND: We all like that kind of music, and certain aspects of many different categories of music that translate to our thing. Lee Hazlewood is a massive influence on me, but then I might want to borrow some sound from some jazz record or something you would never think we’d steal from, or a bass tone from some ’60s African song, etc.

HARGETT: We’ve been big Lee Hazlewood fans forever. Old country, country blues, and folk is a bedrock for us.  

TIMM: When you look out at a crowd, what do you want to see them doing? Is a Brooklyn crowd different than other crowds? And if so, how?

HARGETT: I guess I’d at least like to see them engaged, then hopefully moving around and dancing a bit. Brooklyn is actually very kind to us. Our shows here often get pretty rowdy. But every place is different. Some European cities are very well mannered. They’ll seem still and stone-faced throughout a song, then erupt with applause.

TOWNSEND: I usually don’t look at the crowd that much. It depends. It’s not a statement or anything. I find myself looking directly at individual people when I look into a crowd and it disconnects what I’m doing in my brain, and it distracts me from playing. I sort of need to zone out a little when I’m on stage to keep myself focused on the music. When I feel that there’s some connection and the sound is good, and the vibe is good, and people are really enjoying it—or if it’s a really easy song—I tend to look out more, usually in the corner of my eye. I’m not the best musician, so I find myself trying to concentrate really hard and channel what I’m playing into the audience. I think I’m saying more through my amps along with the audiovisual interplay we make along with the words themselves, so what my face is doing is not a priority for a concertgoer. I think the other guys are far more observant at shows, and they always say things like, “Did you see that crazy girl throwing beer and going nuts?”

TIMM: Crystal Stilts is playing at Northside Festival this weekend alongside other notable Brooklyn bands. Is being a Brooklyn band kind of like being in a permanent battle of the bands? There are so many good acts around, is it a blessing or a curse that Brooklyn seems to be at the forefront of music right now?

TOWNSEND: It’s been changing a lot. It’s really hard to tell with things like that until after the fact. Like, in 20 years, what would the impression be looking back? I think my perception of it is changing too. We’ve played through a couple mini-waves of Brooklyn music since we started, right? I’m honestly not even sure where it’s at right now. I think it’s a good thing but obviously Brooklyn these days isn’t a homegrown place—like Kingston or Memphis or Detroit, or some kind of concentrated, organic music city—with hit factory studios. I think of it more as a place where people from all over now reside and are making music and arts, because New York is one of the biggest cities in the world. There are tons of studios, practice spaces, venues, labels, scenes within scenes, and little vortexes outside of scenes within spaces outside of studios. A lot of labels that we saw start are doing well now, and a lot of bands that we had kinships with are now defunct. I don’t know, I guess it’s scattered. It’s definitely a positive thing that this place at least has the audience and the fertility to have all that.

HARGETT: We’ve been doing this in Brooklyn well before there was a “Brooklyn scene,” so I don’t think we feel any pressure from other bands.  We did what we did in a vacuum of our own making, and we still do. We know what we’re doing and don’t need any leads or inside tracks on the “next thing.” Besides, it’s the West Coast that ripped off everything Brooklyn was doing five years ago. They just added bad ’90s influences and leather jackets.

TIMM: Last time we spoke, we discussed the necessity of balancing work, music, and life as a band living in a big, expensive city. Do you find that the chaos has calmed down with time, or are you busier than ever?

HARGETT: It’s still a balance, especially with five members. We’ve been incredibly lucky to be able to continue building an audience that cares about what we’re doing. All the money in the world can’t buy that. Everything worthwhile is difficult to quote.

TOWNSEND: I’m probably busier than I was then, but in a slightly different way. It’s not the worst thing in the world to have a part-time job; it grounds you a little bit and keeps your head smaller.  There was a minute there for me when I was actively in three or four bands, but at the moment I’m trying to focus more on this band while those other bands have calmed down. I would like to make enough music in the future to where I wouldn’t need to have another job, honestly. We’re doing fine, but I think we need to put out more records and have higher guarantees before we’re really in the clear. We’ve never really had the desire to be stars, but I for one have the desire for it to be my living and to be successful with it. I didn’t go to university or anything, so it’s really all I have; luckily, it’s also what I want to do. I want to do other things as well, eventually, but I want to focus on this right now.

TIMM: What can we expect from Crystal Stilts in the future?

HARGETT:  A bigger stage act. More pyrotechnics, costumes, and choreography. But really, I hope another album I’m as proud of as the first two.

RADIANT DOOR IS OUT NOW. CRYSTAL STILTS WILL PLAY GLASSLANDS ON JUNE 17 AS PART OF THE NORTHSIDE FESTIVAL. FOR MORE ON THE BAND, VISIT THEIR WEBSITE.