Interview: Crystal Stilts
Crystal Stilts is very much a band’s band. Although they draw comparisons as routinely tasteful as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Joy Division and The Velvet Underground, the real appeal of the Brooklyn outfit is altogether less classifiable. The band sounds entirely at home in their mОlange of gloomy, melodic garage rock; from the staunchly adroit riffs that could have been lifted from obscure ‘60s R&B 45’s, through the crunchy organ trills and cavernous reverb, to the cryptic, plaintive baritone of Brad Hargett’s vocals, it’s clear that this band isn’t trying to be anyone but themselves.
Despite sounding stylistically straightforward on the surface, a closer listen to their latest album, In Love With Oblivion, reveals an unsettling juxtaposition of light and dark. The music itself is at once lucid and hazy, the lyrics both plagued by and fascinated with an impending chaos. It feels apt, then, when Hargett answers the phone with an apology, as he retreats from a chaotic scene unfolding outside his Brooklyn apartment with ambulances sounding in the distance. Still, when I mention the comparable air of menace that lurks in many of his band’s songs, Hargett disagrees. “I don’t think anybody is going for that at all,” he says. “I think JB [Townshend, guitarist] even made a bit of an effort to make tunes that were a bit more sunshiney this time around.” It turns out that rather than being intentional, the darkness of their music is simply a byproduct of its genesis. “The things that drive me to write a song are things that are dark. If I were happy, I don’t think I’d write a song,” Hargett explains. “Why bother writing a song if you could go ahead and live your happy life? The process of writing is the process of trying to come to terms with things [which are] a bit darker.”
If the Stilts’ new record In Love With Oblivion shows any kind of departure from the brooding, ad hoc garage rock of their 2009 debut, it’s that it is, at least for the most part, a little brighter. The ocean, and water generally, is a common motif running through the album, which casts a peculiar blanket over the unease. “To be honest, almost all of the songs are either straight from dreams, or inspired by dream imagery,” admits Hargett. “The ocean is something that features in my dreams a lot. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to explain that, [but] I do think that the ocean is a big huge metaphor for the unknown. I think that it comes up a lot as an image in songs, because it represents that aspect of your life that is unknown, the future.”
This sheds some light on the aqueous trills of tracks like ‘Alien Rivers’, a seven-minute jam that incorporates the howling of a kettle into its layers of disorienting textures, amidst tape feedback and spiralling organ. It doesn’t sound like the kind of dream that would be much fun to have – and Hargett explains that the conception of his part in the songs isn’t always wilful. “There’s two different ways it can happen,” he explains. “I started writing down my dreams. At first you wake up and write it down, and it’s just a bunch of nonsense. But then you go back to it and it seems more sensical. ‘Through The Floor’, the first and final verse, I actually woke up repeating those words.”
A closer inspection of that track – the album’s chipper second single – reveals the words: ‘Figures are forming, finding the door / the numbers are trying to say something more.’ In other instances, In Love With Oblivion’s tracks are reconstructions of dream situations. “With songs like ‘Invisible City’, there was a scenario in the dream: I was holding a feather, and someone took me and guided me down into a tomb, and she fed me. That’s literally what it was,” he says. It’s a simple detail which is characteristic of what makes the band’s music so compelling.
Beneath their pronounced stylistic faНade, there’s much to marvel at – which is a shame given that Crystal Stilts seem to attract so many tags casting them simply as an act indebted to cult bands. “I think the Joy Division thing is overdone because it’s solely related to the sound of my voice. It’s just the fact that we sing low and neither of us are great singers, so we don’t have much of a range. And then there’s comparisons like [that of] a man in his mid-forties coming up to us after the Brighton show and telling me that we reminded him of the Doors so much. I might think a song like ‘Alien Rivers’ … to us, that’s more like a Mazzy Star sort of thing. And unlike Hope Sandoval, I’m not a woman, so it ends up reminding people of the Doors more,” says Hargett, exasperated.
At the end of the day, pidgeon-holes are just part of being a successful band, regardless of the hidden depths the music might hold for its makers and its fans. “It’s one of those things where you never really think of anything specifically when you’re writing a song, you just put chords together that sound nice, and by the time it’s over…” he trails off. “It’s just the nature of music journalism, to try and reference things so that the reader can understand it without hearing it.”