JB Townsend of Crystal Stilts on the act's evolution and the influence of Velvet Underground
A few years ago, Crystal Stilts (due tonight at the Larimer Lounge), along with friends Blank Dogs, gained notoriety in the blogosphere for its reverb-drenched post-punk, which was notably different from everything that had been coming out of New York in the past decade.
As evidenced by the release of the band's debut full-length, Alight of Night, Crystal Stilts did not sound much like Joy Division at all. Rather, its sound evoked a natural fusion of jangly guitar rock and Phil Spector's Wall of Sound aesthetic without really sounding like a girl group or like the band wanted so badly to be one of those bands on Lenny Kaye's Nuggets compilation.
The group's latest effort, In Love With Oblivion, has the Stilts making even greater use of space and atmosphere, weaving together its shimmery melodies. In advance of the band's show tonight at the Larimer, we spoke with guitarist JB Townsend about the evolution of the band, its videos and the Trashmen.
Westword: In an interview with Popcorn Youth out of Ithaca, you said that Alight of Night was kind of a compilation of older material. How would you say In Love With Oblivion, other than the obvious musical development, is different from Alight of Night?
JB Townsend: We definitely trimmed down songs. We kind of had more songs that we recorded. But we recorded everything. I guess a lot of bands do that. But the process of making it was more of a band, an actual five-piece band, rather than a two-piece. Alight of Night I kind of did it more on my own. This was more of a group effort, although I produced it and did a lot of overdubs.
You're a guitarist, and I'm sure your rig has evolved over the years. What did you start on? At what point do you remember having the equipment you needed to make the kinds of sounds you wanted to, and what do you use now?
I started using a Tape Echo. A friend of ours had a Tape Echo machine when we first started. That kind of opened up a world of guitar sounds for me, like an analog tape delay thing. I was listening to a lot of SydBarrett-esque stuff. For a while, I just had a Telecaster, an Ampeg amp and tape delay. I think it was a knockoff of those, a Multivox. It had sound on sound; it had a really good reverb. I lost it a year ago. On the new record, we used a lot of Roland Tape Echo. Live, I use a tape echo similator -- a Roland. It looks like a miniature Tape Echo.
In Love With Oblivion has a sound that feels similar to what I've heard on Get Lost-era Magnetic Fields, and maybe the Smiths. Were those bands at all an influence on your own music, and if so, what about their music made the most impact on you?
I wouldn't say that those are influences -- I just fucked around with the sound. I think every song on this record has its little story of influence. For example, "Invisible City" is drawing from three or four dials, kind of combining a little bit of the Fall with a little bit of Pink Floyd, a little bit of Brian Eno or something like that.
It seems interesting to me that a lot of people who interview you all seem intent on some imaginary Joy Division connection, and when you mention The Velvet Underground, they gloss it over. What is it about the Velvet Underground that appealed to you initially, and how has your appreciation for that band evolved? You can definitely hear that influence in "Prometheus at Large."
I kind of like the non-musicianship of it, I guess. They were the first punk band, in a way. But they had an interesting eeriness to their songs, as well. It's kind of a cliche to have the Velvet Underground as an influence, but I still think they're really good, the way that they unfolded. They have really great songs and taste. You can't really not like The Velvet Underground, in my opinion. I can't help but be influenced by them.
When I first started listening to them, the first thing I heard was the first album. There's a lot of good stuff that's not on the four LPs. There's more than a couple of albums' worth of stuff. Recently I've been listening to the pre-Velvet Underground, like Lou Reed and Pickwick Records stuff.
Like the Primitives, too, and whatnot?
Yeah. There's other stuff, too. There's a bootleg compilation of it, and it's kind of crazy, and the songs, even with different singers, you can hear that early Lou Reed kind of thing going on there. He's not a great musician, but he has interesting rhythms going on.
Growing up in south Florida, how did you first become aware of and then interested in the kind of music that helped to shape the music you're making today?
I grew up in west Boca Raton. I lived a few places in south Florida, but I was born in Los Angeles. I kind of just started latching on to stuff you can get anywhere, like the Rolling Stones and the Troggs and things like that. Around that time, too, when I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, you could find stuff on the Internet, so it was easy to find Nuggets and stuff like that.
There weren't that many record stores, but I would go and get what I could. I discovered a lot of it on my own, but your friends always show you stuff. Brad worked at a record store down there and turned me on to stuff. That's kind of how I met him. It was called CD Connection [laughs]. It was kind of like a head shop/record store, pretty funny.
You've mentioned Psychedelic Horseshit and the Beets as being a couple of your favorite bands of late. I've seen both. What is about those bands that made such a positive impression on you?
The Beets, I don't know, they're an interesting band. From the start, they were kind of an outsider band to me. They'd play all the time. They're getting better and better, but they really do things their own way. I really like that. And they're talented. Juan is a talented songwriter -- he has a little bit of a gift. And Psychedelic Horseshit is just a cool band. They're nice guys.When the Beets opened up for Pavement in Central Park, at the end of the show, Juan was like, "Thank you very much. We're the Beets. Stick around for Pavement" -- as if everyone was there to see them [laughs].
How did you meet Mike Sniper, and how has he been helpful to you and your band?
I met him when we put out our first EP a few years ago. He wrote us saying he wanted to buy some EPs at his record store where he worked, which is actually where I'm at right now, Academy Records. He just bought a bunch from us wholesale to sell at the shop. Then I ended up moving in with him a year later, sharing an apartment, and we were roommates for a while. Brad still lives with him. Then he started BlankDogs and a record label and stuff. A productive guy. He's just a big fan and a friend and a word-of-mouth pusher for us.
I read in Analogue that you had been into the Trashmen. Obviously, most people have heard that band. What was it about that group that kept your interest enough to mention it?
I think at the time I had a three-disc set by them that I was listening to. I always knew them as an instrumental surf rock band, but they had a lot of cool vocal songs. They did a lot of covers, but I still liked them. I don't really listen to them as much lately, but I think they're interesting. They were kind of a cover band like the Sonics. I like the bass and drums because they feel so punky. If you took that out and laid in guitars and vocals from the late '70s, they could be the Ramones, basically.
The video for "Departure," by Kate Thomas, is interesting because it looks like footage from London in the late '70s. The video for "Love Is a Wave," by Army of Kids, is also visually interesting, partly because of the humor involved. Did you give either director any direction on those videos?
"Departure" has footage from a couple of places, basically, but I think Paris. A friend of ours is Army of Kids. He worked for the BBC as an archivist, and he had access to B-roll stock footage and stuff. He got permission to use it, and it's pretty cool. We gave them a little direction. I gave them some ideas, and they went to town. It's more them.
They should get credit for those videos. I just sent them a couple of clips in there and told them it should be fast-paced, old footage. I think I sent them the chimpanzee at the beach. Stuff like that -- kind of goofy and throw people off a little bit.
Crystal Stilts, with Force Publique, Overcasters and Double Shadow (DJ set), 7 p.m. Monday, May 16, Larimer Lounge, $15, 303-291-1007.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene with music features, additional online music listings and show picks. We'll also send special ticket offers and music promotions available only to our Music Newsletter subscribers.