Released in mid-September on Sacred Bones, Crystal Stilts latest — and third album to date — Nature Noir finds the quintet in the headiest, most expansive mindset of their now decade-long venture as a band. To put it simply, the quintet got hippie as fuck, and the kids have reason, again, to lie around on bean bag chairs in their parents' basement, light some fucking candles and listen to a full album.
I got a chance to hook up with co-founding member and guitarist of the Stilts, JB Townsend, for a Bloody Mary and some hungover banter one Saturday afternoon before the band’s national tour in support of Nature Noir. Townsend, sunglasses on, attempted to muster up enough strength to answer my questions through the haze of a head-splitting hangover. We met at his part-time gig; a bar over on Graham Ave. in Williamsburg; a joint he would have to open up following our conversation. Luckily, as a bartender, you get to play Dr. Hangover for yourself in desperate times. And the medicine located in the racks behind our conversation will only help to lubricate our talk of postulating Nature Noir as an “urban hippie” album, hating indie-pop, being a guitarist who doesn’t really want to play guitar, how the Stilts are better suited for Sacred Bones than Slumberland Records, and the “ten-year mark.”
Does ten years together as Crystal Stilts seem more like a number or an accomplishment?
It’s funny because I noticed a lot of reviews that say the “ten-year mark,” but we weren’t really a band for like four of those ten years. We were just practicing. We were a band, but we weren’t doing the whole rigamarole of the band so it was really easy for the first five years. I was in my mid/early-twenties and we just practiced and played music once or twice a week.
I dunno. Maybe it’s a number. I feel like it’s been more like six years. That’s how long we’ve been really working.
When you moved up to Brooklyn from Florida over a decade ago, did you foresee yourself in a long-term band?
No, not really. We kind of joked about it. I was interested in music, but I didn't have a band. I didn’t really have many aspirations of doing anything like that. Brad [Hargett] was going to school — that’s why he moved up here. I moved up here with my girlfriend who had a place in Greenpoint that her family owned, so I had a really cheap deal on an apartment. That’s one of the reasons I moved here. We moved here before it sucked. There was no ten-year plan.
With Crystal Stilts progression through three albums, EPs, various singles, etc. it seems you’ve caught a cohesion, expansion and dynamic that wasn’t present on your previous efforts. What do you feel was different about this particular recording?
It’s been really weird for me. I don’t really know how to process it now because I’ve listened to it so many times. When you record something it’s like…
It’s been in the works for like a year…
…and you’ve heard the songs ten thousand times. I have no angle on it. I don’t know if it’s good or bad or what. I have no idea.
Is a song like “Future Folklore” boring to play now?
No, I love playing the songs and I like the songs. [Playing those songs] has become free jazz to me now, it’s all free jazz. I can’t even tell, I’ve listened to the songs so many times.
There are songs that I like. We meticulously wrote these songs, and there’s also a lot more of ‘em, too.
Was it with a different approach that you recorded Nature Noir?
It was a different approach because [Nature Noir was written] in the present. A lot of those albums were old songs that we had recorded. With [Alight of Night] I think Brad had a tape recorder, and he went through the tapes of our practices and found the songs. Like, ‘What about that song, what about that song?’ We had a few tapes of stuff. There could’ve been a whole other album if we worked harder back then… this one was pretty practiced, studied.
Do you feel like you guys got hippie on this album?
[Laughs and walks behind the bar]
There’s an inside joke because of the “hippie” thing. I’m gonna get another drink…
No one’s mentioned anything like that before?
No, never. That’s why it’s funny. With a lot of my friend’s my nickname is “Hippie Dude,” which is horrible. Growing up in Florida I hated hippies and the Grateful Dead and all that shit that people like out there. In high school there were tons of hippies, like the ‘90s hippie kind of thing. And I was kind of against that. I kind of like the Grateful Dead now…ridiculous.
I’m so fucking hungover, I went to bed at like 7 [am]. I was here, actually, then went over to my friend’s.
[starts to make a Bloody Mary]
What’s all in that?
Lime juice, Guinness, Worcestershire, extra hot horseradish, celery/salt/pepper mix, regular salt, vodka, tomato juice…
Now your all set up with your Bloody Mary. Nature Noir: urban hippie album?
Is it? I guess it is.
Noir is associated with seedy metropolitan action, right? With that juxtaposed with “nature”, and you do have “crystal” in your name…
Maybe. It sounds like Jim Thompson. I’m related to him, he’s a writer, like a noir, pulp writer. He’s my grandma’s brother. But he writes books that would have a title like that. Maybe not “nature,” but like “Savage Night.”
I had been listening to your album in August prior to its release and noticed you played out near Woodstock in the Catskills around that time, which seems like the perfect setting for those tunes because it’s super hippie up there. Well, if the venue was outdoors in the woods and all that. What was it like, how did it go?
Yeah, Kingston Block Party.
It was really fun actually, but it was a weird scene. It was exactly what you would expect, but it was in the city. Instead of being in the nice, rural setting, it was actually in the main strip of Kingston. It was a little tacky. There was a lot of old hippies and weirdo guys. There was probably more people in that audience that have actually seen the Velvet Underground then in any other audience we’d ever played to. Just kind of old New Yorkers.
Tell me about your guitar playing on Nature Noir and how you’ve advanced over the years as a guitarist with Crystal Stilts.
If you’ve even.
The thing is I don’t even really want to be a guitar player. I want to make music, but I don't think of myself as a guitar player, even though I am and I’ve played tons of guitar and that’s what I do. I play rhythm guitar. I don’t practice guitar at all. Never. The only time I play guitar at home is when I think I’m going to write something. I don’t know scales, I just kind of freestyle on guitar. Play the chords with the rhythm or whatever. I’m guessing it’s advanced because I’ve played more, and what I want from a guitar has changed. I have different tunings now — which complicates the live show because I have to change guitars and use capos and shit. I was kind of sick of the regular “E” tuning so I dropped it down. I don’t know.
You were putting out albums on Slumberland — which is known for shoegaze and post-punk — where as Sacred Bones, your current label, has a more variegated pool of artists. Was a Sacred Bones LP release something more of what you were looking for at this point?
I think so, definitely. It’s not like ‘Oh, that band sounds like they should be on that label.’ I don’t think we’re one of those bands. I don’t think we really fit on Slumberland sonically, even though I love that label and I think Mike Schulman’s taste in records is more like ours. The other stuff he puts out isn’t necessarily congruent with us. We’re a little bit darker. But not as dark as some of the shit on Sacred Bones…
You’re not exactly Pharmakon.
Yeah, exactly. It’s funny, because of the label you’ll get billed on an indie-pop fest but then we can also play some other weird, dark thing.
Is that where you guys prosper, in that sort of “weird, dark” setting?
I just don’t like indie-pop at all, like that twee shit.
What, you’re not a Camera Obscura fan?
[laughs] I hate it.