LIVING IN OBLIVION Crystal Stilts

Far more than just another band of
NYC scenesters, the trippy indie combo makes timeless recession-proof rock.

 

BY RON
HART

 

For a
lifelong New Yorker, the ever-changing landscape of our precious city over the
past decade in the name of gentrification is enough to make you wanna drink
yourself silly outside the former location of the recently shuttered Mars Bar
down on the Bowery before staggering over to Ludlow to pass out beside the
vacated shell where Max Fish once stood. Just looking through the listings
section of the Village Voice is
enough to give you vertigo with the onslaught of new clubs, pubs, restaurants
and concert halls popping up all over the place, as establishments those of us
from the area have spent many years frequenting continue to disappear before
our very eyes with each passing month.

 

But while
the faces of Brooklyn and Manhattan continue to receive a continuous,
controversial side-by-side makeover that serves as some yuppie’s idea of
progress on a seemingly weekly basis, it is great to know that the Metro area
still manages to be epitomized by some of the finest, most forward-thinking
bands in America today, a tradition that is as old as the storied history of
rock ‘n’ roll itself. And representing the very best of the new breed of talent
currently making waves across the Five Boroughs is Crystal Stilts, whose
arrival onto the NYC music scene five years ago after migrating up Interstate
95 from South Florida was crucial in its late ‘00s
revival following the post-Strokes era.  The group’s unique sound, a scholarly blend of
gothic art pop culled from Spacemen 3 mindfuck jams, Paisley Underground jangle
and the finest moments of their record label, Slumberland Records, hits a fever
pitch on their second full-length, In
Love With Oblivion
, the group’s most exploratory and realized album to date
– and one of the finest releases of the still-young 2011 thus far.

 

BLURT
recently had the opportunity to have a digital chat with founding members Brad
Hargett and JB Townsend about the creation of their long-awaited follow-up to
2008’s Alight The Night, the present
state of NYC, their interpretation of the word “oblivion” in the
context of recent world events and, of course, vinyl, among a host of other
topics.  

 

In Love With Oblivion is available at finer record shops
near you for less than ten bucks. It is strongly suggested you pick up a hard
copy of it, if anything for the outstanding, Carl Sagan-esque cover art. (For
more information on the band, check out their official website.)

 

***

 

BLURT: The new album has a more
expansive vibe than Alight the Night.
Was there a lot more experimenting, or, dare I say, jamming in the studio this
time out? What did you guys do differently this time on a sonic level?

JB TOWNSEND: There was definitely more freedom in the studio this time. It
wasn’t carte blanche, but we made sure we had all the parts we wanted before we
went in to mix. It was a different approach from the first one because there’s
a band instead of me playing most of the instruments. There’s a lot of spontaneity
on both records though. I guess a lot of people think that the band that
was around at the time of the last record was the band that played on it, but
that record is 90 percent me doing the music save a couple bass lines. The way I
wrote at first was also different because I was playing a bass drum whilst
playing electric guitar, so that sort of stripped a bit of the intricacies out
of the guitar playing. We were a bit more pressed for time and money for the
last one as well so there’s some restrictions there, but I wouldn’t say that it
effected the sound too much. We have alternate mixes of a lot of stuff that I
hope will see the light of day for superfans sometime in the future; I’m going
to say January 2022.

 

Where does the title of the new LP
derive from and what does the word “Oblivion” mean to you in 2011?

BRAD
HARGETT: Well, to be honest, “oblivion” is the important word there isn’t it? If
I kill the ambiguity of that word by saying exactly what it means to me
it would damage the phrase’s potential. I will say that oblivion to me is a
place outside of yourself, your identity and your ego… and that there
are many ways to get there.

 

How do
the recent events in the Middle East and Japan harbor your sense of gravitas
with your concept of the term oblivion?

BH: Well, I’d say the American public is kept in a
constant state of oblivion regarding such things. It’d be interesting to know
what percentage of the American people are even aware we’ve bombed another country.
And once the immediate emotional impact of the tsunami deadened and news
ratings were no longer spiking, it’s basically swept under the carpet. Americans
are meant to consume, not to think! All that said, that has nothing much to do
with the album title.

 

How did you guys link up with
Slumberland and what is it that keeps you on the label? 

BH: Trust
and sympathy.

 

Do you have a particular favorite
album on Slumberland that has inspired you as a band?

JB: Probably the Black Tambourine 10 inch compilation. Andy has more high
school nostalgia with the label, but that and the Aislers Set records are sort
of the main inspirations on the label for me, personally.

 

When you guys first arrived to
Brooklyn from Florida,
was it an           overwhelming
experience for you? Where was the first place you gravitated towards socially
and why? And lastly, how do you feel about living in the city having now been a
resident for quite some time?

JB: When I first moved here I wasn’t extremely overwhelmed, but I definitely
didn’t know where anything was for awhile. I wandered and winded the streets of
Manhattan in
August looking for establishments that I could work in. It really feels like
the dark ages compared to now and compared to Florida that’s neon bright sunny
most of the time, a New York City winter feels like endless night – my memories
of it looking back are more night-timey is what I mean to say. Being born in L.A. and raised in South Florida,
a little cold concrete is a nice change.  I had an apartment in Northeast Greenpoint when I first moved here that hadn’t
been touched inside since the ‘70s and had tan and gold wallpaper with tan
couches. I had an old school red rotary phone with landline – plus no computers
or cell phones – so I may as well have been in the early seventies in my
bubble, not that I was fantasizing or intentionally trying to do that. I’ve
gone through phases with my relationship with the city though. There’s
obviously a lot of variables as to why a person is content with their life in
specific place at any given time, I suppose.

 

BH: Well,
I lived in the Bronx initially, but I was
maybe a bit overwhelmed [in a good way]. Not socially or
interpersonally at all, but with the sensory input, which probably
came through in songs like “Shattered Shine” and “Spiral Transit.”

 

How did your time in NYC factor
into the songwriting for In Love With
Oblivion
?

JB: I’m not sure exactly but I think it’s kind of more of a question of one’s
aesthetic fate and what has effected me whilst being here. Besides one’s
musical DNA, it’s sort of, tastes that develop because of certain people or
environs or happenstance and all that. I think also that you have less time (or
at least I have less time) to just laze around and jam out over here. So I
think that instead of writing a whole lot, the frequency gets concentrated so
you write less but write varied songs. For me, and I think for most people, if
I write too many songs in one specific time they can end up sounding similar.

 

How often do you guys go out and
catch shows around the city? What were some of the most memorable gigs you’ve
attended recently?

JB: I probably go to a show on average about 1.5 times a week. Lately I’ve just
been seeing a lot of my friends’ bands and stuff.

 

Like
whom?

JB: The Surprisers, The German Measles, The Beets, McDonalds.
 

Do you have a favorite club to
play in the city?

JB: That is actually kind of a tough one! There are quite a few venues that all
have their flaws and things that suck about them. Some venues are good to play
at, but not very cool or fun to go see shows at and vice versa. Then there’s
the whole sound thing which is rough, too. We usually have [our own] sound guy
in NYC.

 

If
push came to shove, what spot would you say has the best sound in the city
right now?
JB: I’m not sure of a specific one really. I think rooms that have strong
sound systems in smaller areas are the best. It really varies. In New York, it seems like
there are either DIY type shows that have poorly rigged little practice space
PA systems or, on the other hand, there’s the legit venues that have super high
tech sub-atomic bass systems that sound really weird. Webster Hall is
definitely the worst we’ve played.

 

What are your thoughts on how much
NYC has changed in the past five years?

JB: I don’t
want to go on one of those “When I was a kid I could get ’em for a nickel”
type rants, but I do think in the short time I’ve been here (about nine years)
the east village as well as Williamsburg has really changed. Makes me think the
of the Mr. Show sketch when Bob is
walking around the city looking at things and saying how they’ve really changed
and then sees a street light turn red and says “Wow, you’ve really
changed!”

 

Is there a particular bar, club or
venue that has closed down that you miss the most? Which one and why?

BH: For
me, it was the Rocks In Your Head record shop. They employed me. Opening a record
shop at noon on a beautiful Saturday in SoHo
is a nice way to (barely) earn a living.

 

Brad, do
you have a favorite story from your Rocks In Your Head days?  

BH: That
would probably be Benicio del Toro sauntering into the store with two ladies
and buying a Criterion copy of Fear
and Loathing in Las Vegas
. Courtney Love also called me “too cool for
words” while we discussed Mazzy Star, which, in reality, terrified me. Flea
would always spend upwards of $500 while Anthony Kiedis would make out with his
twenty-something girlfriend while being rung up. But actually now that I
think about it, it was probably Dan Marino coming in the store just a few
days after I’d started working there. Having just moved from South
Florida (and having been a lifelong Dolphins fan), it seemed
a portent that I’d come to the right place. He bought the new Springsteen
record, by the way.

 

You recently returned from the UK. What are
your thoughts, as artists, on how the appreciation of music is viewed over
there in comparison to here in the States?

JB: Classism is a factor, I would say. I think they’re always waiting for
something big to happen musically.  They’re also really into the roles
that people have within the music community – promoters, managers, etc.  I
still don’t know exactly what to think of it.  It’s like doing a tour in a
place the size of Alabama
with a ravenous press system.

 

I’ve read in past interviews where
you’ve cited everyone from Ian Curtis to Jeffrey Lee Pierce to Randy Newman to
Ghostface Killah as your favorite sources of inspiration as lyricists. Who
inspired you guys lyrically for the new album?

BH: Virgil,
Baudelaire, Kool G Rap, Novalis’ Hymns to
the Night
, Gerard de Nerval, Leonard Cohen, The Egyptian Book of the Dead,
Ursula K. Le Guin, Aeschylus, Trish Keenan and maybe some Sappho.

 

Brad,
hit me with your favorite Kool G. Rap verse.

BH: I’d
have to just go with the first song I ever heard. Once the piano lick comes fully
in and the first verse of “Streets of New York” drops, he had me
hooked: “In the streets of New York/Dope
fiends are leaning for morphine/The TV screen followed the homicide scenes.”

 

Where do you guys shop for
records? Do you have a favorite record spot? What were some of the last albums
you’ve picked up?

JB: Academy Records and Record Grouch in Brooklyn
are the last decent outposts around for the most part. I got the “Stop
that Girl” single by Vic Godard and the Subway Sect the other day. I’ve
been really only getting singles lately.

 

What do you think about the
resurgence of vinyl among younger music fans?

BH: I
think it’s a way for younger intense, romantic music fans to separate themselves
from more casual, commercial listeners; the old “I’ve got it on
vinyl” declaration. It is also just a more enjoyable aesthetic experience
because of the records themselves and the rituals required to play them.

 

Speaking of which, you guys
recently helped put me onto a couple of bands I never got into before: Opal and
14 Iced Bears. What albums would you recommend I start with from each act and
who else would you suggest I check out the next time I visit my favorite local
record shop?

JB: I’m
not sure which album to check out from those guys honestly. I think 14 Iced
bears is a little bit similar in aesthetic to us at times but kind of another
coincidental similarity.
        I wouldn’t say they weren’t so much a direct influence but more of a
coincidental like-minded associated act, albeit 15-20 years our senior. One of
my other bands played with them in Brooklyn a
couple months ago. Very nice guys, I smoked some grass with them. 
        Regarding Opal, I have listened to more Mazzy Star and Rain Parade and I think that anything that
David Roback was involved in is pretty great. 


What is your favorite Rain Parade album?
JB: Emergency Third Rail would
be my favorite. I think there’s more to be said about what they were about
aesthetically in the context of music at that time more than the actual band in
the grand scheme of recorded music, although they’re great. I haven’t bought
LPs frequently in years though. I generally don’t buy records that are slightly
rare, because they’re too expensive and I tend to treat them poorly living in
the city and moving a lot… I plan on juicing up my collection again someday
when I settle down. I’m a singles man. I’m not an authority, but I think
there’s a lot of obscurity left in 45s in terms of records that are not available
digitally because they’re one hitters or something, or just forgotten gems.
It’s interesting to me.

 

Times have indeed changed since
the days when 14 Iced Bears and the Rain Parade roamed these lands as heroes of
the underground. Given the nature of now, how has your experience being a band
who has broken out in the wake of the Great Recession affected your outlook on
what measures success in the music industry?

JB: I kind of wish there was a way to know how many people own your record – like
including illegal downloads – mostly just out of curiosity. You used to be able
to say, “We sold X amount of this record,” which ultimately doesn’t
matter much but now it’s kind of an unknown fraction of a ratio of a quotient.

 

BH: You
don’t make music like we make expecting to become some huge rock act.
Considering people didn’t really buy music anymore anyway, I don’t think we
felt terribly threatened by the recession. I would measure success by how much
people like your music and how much it means to them, not how many units
are moved. Also, longevity; if a record is still important to someone 20
years from now, and if a younger generation can still discover and enjoy it,
you’ve been a success in my eyes.

        All that said, considering the state of
things, we do feel lucky that so many people are interested enough to come out
to our shows from so many different parts of the world. 

 

[Photo
Credit: Erika Spring]

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