Anyone who’s seen Crystal Castles’ live show knows it’s all about extremes; about pushing the noise level as high as it can get. The synths threaten to malfunction, singer Alice Glass shreds her vocal chords and the end result is screaming, sweaty catharsis with the crowd. “It’s all about connecting with people,” keyboard player and programmer Ethan Kath explains. “The live show is an experience for us, where we share sweat and blood with people, and spit.” I was caught down the front during Crystal Castles’ set at last year’s Parklife festival, and I can’t say I disagree with Kath’s assessment – blood and spit were indeed involved, and I only feared for my life a little bit.
That Parklife show in question was great, but when asked if he remembers much about it, Kath replies that for him and Alice, the band’s disasters are always more memorable than their successes. “We just toured South America,” he says, “and we played this festival in a forest that was hours and hours away from any town or city, so I guess it was really hard for anyone to find it. We had to ask children on the street where to turn and, like, a group of men walking sheep. We were like, ‘do you guys know if there’s a festival being set up around here?’, and they just pointed. This was after driving for four hours out of São Paulo,” he laughs. “We got there and it was freezing cold and raining, and everyone was hiding under trees. You remember things like that, you know?
“We got there,” he continues, “and CSS were DJing right before our live set, and there were twenty people there to see them. CSS are from Brazil – they’re local heroes, right? So that says a lot about the disaster of the festival.” The crowd eventually grew for Crystal Castles’ set – Kath remembers a hundred and fifty people or so braving the weather to check them out.
Sounds like one to forget – but he assures me it still wasn’t as nerve racking as the time the band’s road crew deserted them en masse. “There was another show this year where our entire crew quit, because it was just too hard,” Kath recalls. Apparently they wanted to tour with bands who didn’t tour so much… “They had all decided to leave us on the same day.” As one of the busiest touring bands in the world, that’s not really what you want… “There was a love triangle involved too,” Kath continues. “It was two guys and a girl, and they both thought they had a chance with her, so when she said that she was going home, they followed her.” This story had a happy ending for Crystal Castles, however, who had another crew within four hours. The love-struck roadies weren’t so lucky. “It turned out she didn’t like either of them,” Kath says, “which was actually pretty funny.”
Crystal Castles’ second album, released earlier this year, is an astoundingly good record, easing off on the distorted waves of electronic noise in favour of a spooky, early ‘90s-inspired dream pop sound. Alice’s vocals, harsh at times and ghostly at others, are woven around samples of Sigur Rós and Stina Nordenstam; while it’s a wintry-sounding album – and not without its scary, abrasive moments – it’s still a record to get lost in, and play over and over again. The band see their sweaty live shows in deliberate contrast to their recorded output. “We try to get people to connect with the live show,” Kath says, “and that’s the opposite of the albums, which we feel are really isolated, really lonely.”
Single Celestica, with its “When it’s cold outside, hold me” chorus, is one of the few songs on the album with discernible lyrics – the rest is more or less creepy abstraction, and you’re left more or less free to imagine that Alice was saying whatever you wanted her to. For me, not knowing the lyrics made the whole thing cooler and scarier – but when this is mentioned to Kath, he replies that Crystal Castles songs were never intended to be ambiguous. “The lyrics are totally clear to us,” he argues, “so we assume that everyone will be able to hear them. We never wanted to hide anything. The kid who runs our website put them up on there, so they’re available to see.”
Crystal Castles tour so much, they say, that they more or less live on the road – for this reason, most of their recording is done guerrilla-style. They set up keyboards, computers and sequencers when and where they can, to make the most of free time – one time, in Detroit, the duo recorded in an abandoned mall. “After we played there, there must have been three weeks off, so we found out about this strip mall that had been abandoned,” he remembers. “All the stores had just been left behind, and someone told us that we could set up our gear in any store we wanted to, and nobody would ever know or find out.
“The biggest factory in the area had shut down and everyone lost their jobs, which was, like, devastating for everyone, so a lot of people were leaving to look for work in other cities.”
Ethan and Alice made the most of their less-than-salubrious surroundings. “We set up our keyboards behind the store and lived there for three weeks,” he says, “in a cesspit filled with rats and whatever. It was like living in a ghost-town – it was completely isolated.” They kept to themselves throughout that time, not exploring for fear of being found out. “Most of the strip mall was boarded up, and we didn’t want to tear stuff down and draw attention to ourselves in case someone happened to be passing by,” he says. “We just hid in the store.”
Though a lot of their latest album, Crystal Castles II, was recorded in these kinds of settings, Ethan and Alice also spent some time in a professional studio – courtesy of friends they met on the road, Jacknife Lee and Paul Epworth. “We didn’t bring them in to help; it was more that we were on tour, going through their towns, and they invited us to use their studios, which was really nice of them,” Kath explains.
“I have great things to say about them both; they just let us take over their studios for like a week each, and they were just really nice to us,” he continues, before a pause. “Usually people aren’t that nice to us.”
CRYSTAL CASTLES play Big Day Out – alongside Tool, Rammstein, Bloody Beetroots DC77, Wolfmother, M.I.A, CD Soundystem, Lupe Fiasco, Grinderman and more at Flemington Racecourse on Sunday January 30.
Tickets are sold out, but check bigdayout.com for ballot info. They also play The Palace Theatre on Friday January 28, tickets from ticketmaster.com.au, 136100, oztix.com.au, 1300 762 545, Polyester City and Fitzroy, The Espy, Greville and The National Hotel, Geelong. Crystal Castles II is out now through Shock.