CRYSTAL CASTLES with PARALLELS, WILL MUNRO and MIKEY APPLES at Wrongbar (1279 Queen West), Thursday, February 21. $13.50 advance at Rotate This (sold out). Limited tickets available at the door. 9 pm. Rating: NNNNN
T.O. electro-punk terrors CRYSTAL CASTLES tackle the world on their own terms, trading distorted guitars for a decrepit old laptop and riding a wave of buzz that defies even their own expectations.
Alice Glass is missing. Not milk-carton and missing persons report missing, not Amber Alert missing, but she might as well be. Neither her bandmate, Ethan Kath, nor their manager has any idea where she is or how to contact her. They have no idea why she’s a no-show for this interview, or when, or even if, she might be lured back to do one.
If any other local artist skipped an interview – without so much as a phone call! – we’d just start looking around for the next hot band to write about. Crystal Castles even gave us a hard time about shooting them for the cover. They must feel we want them more than they want us.
Of course, they’d be wrong, but their attitude is understandable.
Over the past two years, the rowdy synth-punk duo have toured constantly. They sell out runs of 7-inches as soon as they’re released and have become darlings of the UK music scene despite doing everything they can to keep their faces out of the media.
We’d love to get Glass’s version of the CC story. She’s very much the onstage face and voice of the band, while Kath hides inside a hooded sweatshirt behind his laptop most nights However, offstage he’s the one who does the talking, which reinforces Glass’s image as a wild blur of motion that can’t be contained or pinned down by conventional means. Onstage, she’s usually lit only by strobe lights as she pogos around, shrieking her lungs out and fearlessly jumping into writhing mosh pits while wearing a nice skirt.
“The live show is where Alice comes in. She’s the face of the band and fills up that space quite nicely,” admits Kath, as their recently com-pleted album plays on a laptop in the background of their manager’s downtown apartment.
“As soon as I saw her perform [with her old band, Foetus Fatale], I knew I could trust her and that I wouldn’t have to look over anything she does. Whatever she’d put on my tracks would be fine, and she’ll never write a clichéd lyric.”
They’re cocky and a bit difficult, but so were the Sex Pistols, and like them, they’re causing near-riots without even a full-length album to their name.
“Riots” might sound like hyperbole, but check out the YouTube footage of their appearance at the Rough Trade store in London. The police may not have had to break out the rubber bullets (yet), but these sure ain’t polite folk-pop gigs.
“For its grand opening, the store had a different show booked every night for a month. Ours was one of the first few, but our fans went so mental that they started breaking things in the store – a few coffee tables, a CD rack. Then the store cancelled the rest of the shows.
“I was being interviewed on the BBC live on the phone, and they were like, ‘So we heard you’re third in the series of shows at Rough Trade.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, about that.…’
“I announced on the radio to all the other bands that the shows were cancelled because of us,” Kath laughs with some obvious pride.
After a long hiatus, Rough Trade brought back in-store appearances, but now it only allows 40 audience members, instead of the 200 inside and 300 outside that Castle-mania unleashed.
It could have been worse, though. A Crystal Castles L.A. after-party got so raucous that the police brought in a helicopter to break it up. Seriously. And that was after they played a club gig that had security working overtime.
“I’m not sure why, but for that show the fans felt the need to get onstage to hold onto Alice as if she were Morrissey. One security guard kept ripping them off and throwing them back, but they just kept coming. Finally he called for backup, and there were six security guards onstage with their arms linked, and kids were still trying to get over them. One kid tried to jump over them, got his head cracked open, and as they’re dragging him off the stage to throw him out he started grabbing toward me.”
If you’ve been unaware until now of the bizarre success of this Toronto synth-punk duo, welcome to the Internet era.
Crystal Castles gained international attention after a UK record label discovered a rough recording of a mic check dubbed Alice Practice that the band put on MySpace in 2005 and forgot about for six months. This led to a series of limited-edition 7-inches on various hip UK imprints that sold out immediately. Suddenly, Glass and Kath were being courted by labels amidst a whirlwind of touring over the past two years.
“The bidding wars in some countries were pretty intense. They just kept throwing bigger numbers at us. I think it’s because they work so hard promoting bands and then no one cares. No one promoted us and everyone cares, so they all want a piece of that.”
That sounds kind of snotty and overconfident, but it appears to be the truth. At least for now. The buzz about them transcends the incestuous blog scene and bypasses the UK music mag circus. Crystal Castles don’t seem to need or want much from any record label except reliable distribution.
“The label in Japan wanted to bring us out to do three days of press to introduce ourselves to the country. We wanted to play a show while we were there, but they felt we weren’t ready. They reluctantly let us do one show, and it immediately sold out. They were shocked.”
An hour after the show, Kath was signing iPods for more than 70 fans waiting around the stage back door.
“The label was like, ‘I guess we didn’t need to introduce you after all, because everyone already seems to know you. Our job will be easier than we thought.’”
Though their strange success story may be credited to the power of the Internet, don’t expect them to be spokespeople for the demise of the record label. They want their fans to hear the music, and apparently the fans actually do still want to buy CDs. Their MySpace page is flooded with messages from people trying to find their still-unreleased disc.
“People assume that because everyone talks about us, there’s a CD in the stores,” Kath says.
That won’t happen until late March, when Montreal-based Last Gang will drop their self-titled disc in stores across North America and the UK.
The label is so concerned that the album might get leaked online that it hasn’t released any preview copies, so we’ve been listening to the disc while we talk.
Nevertheless, a widely downloaded and reviewed version has been passed around the file-sharing sites, which will cause much confusion when the real album actually drops.
“I originally gave Alice a CD of 24 songs to choose from back when we first started, and some kid took 16 of them and put them up on the Internet as the album, and people have been reviewing it. I’ve actually read some very positive reviews for the 2004 demos.”
The real album is sort of a chronology of the band, starting with some recordings from 2005 and ending not long ago. If you only know them from the notorious mic check song Alice Practice or their Klaxxons remix, you may be surprised at how many soft and melodic moments join the high-octane distorto-dance listeners associated them with. The last track, an atmospheric ballad based on an acoustic guitar and 40 layers of Glass’s voice, sounds more like the work of a shoegazer band like Slowdive than anything you’d hear in a hipster dance club.
Which brings us to the biggest Crystal Castles contradiction: they make music for dance clubs but don’t actually like dance music.
They see themselves as a punk band that happens to use synths, but you’d swear some moments on the record are gritty underground house music from the early days of Chicago.
Kath and Glass hate it that journalists sometimes characterize them as an accident, but how else do you explain how two people who hate disco are so good at it?
To add to the strangeness, Crystal Castles have had considerable critical success crafting dance remixes for other indie bands, the last thing you expect from a pair you’d have a hard time dragging to an actual dance club.
“We started doing remixes because bands were contacting me when we were in desperate need of money. It was just good timing. Bloc Party wanted to pay us to remix their song, so I just chopped their vocals up over a Crystal Castles song we weren’t using.
Photo By Irene Barros
“The thing I like about doing remixes is that I can get our fans some more Crystal Castles songs, sneak them another taste, because I used all unreleased songs that were just sitting on my laptop.”
Somewhere overseas, a handful of indie bands are feeling like they’ve been used. But what did they expect? Crystal Castles are a punk band, even if they don’t sound like it, and you have to expect them to behave like it.
“On the road we listen to Sonic Youth, the Stooges, Joy Division, black metal bands like Emperor, Mutilation. We’re not going to be listening to dance music.”
Glass and Kath first decided to work together because they loved all the same bands: AIDS Wolf, Sick Lipstick, Femme Fatale.
“We wanted to do something like that without copying it, so instead of distorted guitars we’d use fucked-up keyboard sounds. But at the same time, I love New Order and Joy Division, and wanted to use those kinds of dance beats. That’s what we set out to do: AIDS Wolf get into a fight with New Order.
To approximate the brutal attack of noise bands, they needed keyboard sounds that weren’t your usual trance presets, which brings us to the whole Nintendo-pop sound they swear has nothing to do with video games. Journalists and bloggers love to classify them alongside that whole chip-tune scene, bands that use actual video game technology to make lo-fi electronic music. But arcade nostalgia is the last thing the Castles want to reference.
“We both hate video games. We were just breaking apart electronics and toys to get annoying sounds. AIDS Wolf is going to annoy you with guitars; we’re going to annoy you with the insides of old electronics.
“It’s circuit-bending, basically. You can get sounds out of any electronic device by opening it up and poking around. You can open up your watch, if it makes a blip, you can sample it and then use it as a synth.
“A long time ago I collected a bunch of sounds. I just opened up everything I could and recorded it all. My favourite ‘instrument’ was a circuit board from the early 70s that was made to teach budding electricians. Every time you fucked up a circuit, it’d make a blip, and that was my favourite.”
Even if the similarity was unintentional, you can’t help but associate that 8-bit sound with 80s arcade machines. The fact that Crystal Castles is also the name of a vintage video game doesn’t help, even if the band is actually named after the home of cartoon vixen She-Ra, Princess of Power.
Understandably, they might not want their career described as a series of unlikely flukes and happy musical accidents.
But as much as they claim they sound exactly as they planned, they’ve still “accidentally” managed to succeed in areas they care little about or were even unaware of. Electro-house heavyweights Justice and MySpace brat-rapper Uffie show up to see them in Paris, which doesn’t quite make sense for a band that wants to be AIDS Wolf beating up New Order.
Then again, as Alice’s absence clearly demonstrates, Crystal Castles don’t really give a shit what we think and probably love that the rest of us find it hard to make sense of their success.
Live Video Footage
Crystal Castles - Crime Wave: