Crystal Castles: interview
Edgar Smith tries to get a word in edgeways when Ethan Fawn and Alice Glass talk action comics, obscure noise bands and video games
James Murphy said in early 2007: ‘In my experience, people looking for progress aren’t actually looking to move things forward, they’re looking to be perceived as a forward thinker. It’s about vanity rather than any altruistic motives for the art.’ Time Out listened and agreed. Thanks to
a widespread paranoia that alt-pop has exhausted its potential, bands that capture the mass Ritalin-grade attention in the second half of this decade are the ones who have come up with different sounds. But reducing music-making to a hunt for newness has given us a mass of groups either looking blankly back at the 1980s for some pre-fetishised synth sound or making facile combinations of different genres
(ie indie and electronica).
Crystal Castles use entirely unique sounds thanks, as Ethan Fawn (the beat-making half of the band) explains, to ‘this circuit-bent Atari that I bent in a 48-hour session in 2003 or 4’. They also cross genres (albeit unintentionally) which has lead to the dubious term ‘techno-metal’ being thrown their way. But they construct good, critic-confounding music, making them the perfect artists to lead by example. Time Out caught up with them, fittingly given their distaste for celebrity, at Dalston’s Nobody Inn. The night before, they played the Purple Turtle (‘Are you making that up? They allowed it to be called the Purple Turtle? There’s more than one Purple Turtle?’), headlining the first night of this year’s Camden Crawl. They shudder at trying to imagine the usual Turtle crowd ‘Oh, like jocks?’ suggests Alice Glass, the lyrical (and sociable) half.
‘Like frat-boy rapists?’ asks Ethan quickly adding that ‘we don’t have any control over where we play, so people shouldn’t associate us with any of that.’
There are more commonly applied associations from which Crystal Castles are keen to distance themselves. As we shall discover, this can make them a little prickly towards outlanders and, at times, each other. Ethan has intense brown eyes which promise a lurking malevolence; last week, he reduced a French journo to tears. He also frequently finishes Alice’s eager sentences – at one point she disappears, annoyed, for a cigarette.
Leaning forward, shoulders hunched and constantly tapping his lighter on the table, Ethan busts a few misconceptions. Firstly, ‘We don’t like any computer games. We’re not named after a computer game. It’s a coincidence. Everyone always asks about it but I’ve never seen the game, I’d never heard of it,’ says Ethan. ‘They’re a waste of time,’ says Alice. Furthermore, she adds, ‘I fucking hate action comics. They’re fucking unreadable.’
Neither are they keen on being lumped in with the electromob. ‘We’re influenced by the noise scene,’ says Ethan. ‘We came together ’cause we both loved the same obscure noise bands. We didn’t want to copy what they were doing – we wanted to put a new spin on it, so we thought: instead of using distorted guitars, we’ll use circuit-bent keyboards or whatever.’
‘We liked bands that experimented in abrasiveness,’ says Alice, ‘we tried at the beginning to make everything as abrasive and harsh on your ears as possible and now – ’
Ethan interrupts: ‘That’s the only reason why I was sampling from a circuit-bent Atari, because the sounds were annoying.’
‘Annoying people still evokes an emotion in them,’ says Alice. ‘When you hear a bunch of crazy sounds you’re gonna feel something.’ And this is the heart of the matter – without emotional content, originality and uniqueness are utterly trivial. Crystal Castles have this pinned down nicely. In songs where it is almost impossible to decipher any words (‘I’m gonna put my lyrics up… it’s mind-blowing how people are completely, completely wrong,’ comments Alice) they still convey a shed-load of meaning – Burial style – in splintered melody and melancholic drum-loops. As a result, their long-awaited debut LP is an exceptionally heavy record, full of tunes their fans have known for literally years. However, the performance of electronic music has not settled to a standard, leaving Crystal Castles and similar outfits’ live shows vulnerable.
This was evidenced in the shows they played at The Scala in December last year, although the fault lay partly with the audience; a crowd somewhat compromised by their own sense of stratospheric cool. Mention of the Scala shows touch a nerve already tweaked by the Inn’s
pub-moderne styling and fretwank-heavy playlist. ‘We did a live show and people wanted more and – ’
‘We didn’t have any more,’ fills in Alice.
‘So I did a DJ set,’ continues Ethan. ‘Yeah, it was a set of my own stuff [by which he means Crystal Castles]. We hardly ever do that. That was one of two times we did that. Let’s just forget about this. You can’t tell the difference between us playing live and DJing? What, were you high or something?’ He fiddles with his lighter on the table.
‘We’re always experimenting with how we play live. When we started it was me on drums and sequencer, and her on vocals. Then we added a keyboard that she would play, then it was just me on distorted bass guitar and she’d sing. It’s always changing…’
‘Tonight our friend’s gonna be playing drums,’ says Alice. ‘He’s in a one-man band called Parallels, we dragged him out of that.’
That evening, an appreciative Dingwalls boils over the line of security walling-off the stage. Alice, in a soaked Minnie Mouse T-shirt, screams at them repeatedly; ‘Fuck off, right?’. If Crystal Castles can make a bunch of gig-hardened Camden crawlers act like apes, imagine how well they’ll go down in suburbia where, so we read, the kids are entertainment-starved and violent. What a way to forward-think.
Crystal Castles plays The Works on May 1 and the Mean Fiddler on May 14. Their self-titled album is out now on Different.
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