Crystal Antlers find their stride with Nothing is Real

As his band heads for the UK this month, Jonny Bell reflects on punk, chaos and skateboards, and how they all helped shape Crystal Antlers' rollicking latest album

Feature by Will Fitzpatrick | 18 Feb 2014
  • Crystal Antlers

Understandably, Jonny Bell sounds tired. It’s midday in Southern California when he picks up the phone, and we appear to have caught the Crystal Antlers frontman during a break from his construction day job. “It’s, like, 80 degrees today,” he sighs when The Skinny enquires as to how he’s doing. It’s a bit colder here in the UK, we advise, and he chuckles wistfully. “Yeah, it’s colder everywhere else!” Grey-weather feebs that we are, we can only marvel at his endurance – but this isn’t about extreme working conditions. This is about his band’s latest album, a sterling collection of pulsating, sweat-drenched moshpit anthems. It’ll send your temperature soaring.

Back in October, Crystal Antlers released Nothing Is Real, their third long-player and their first since stripping down to a three-piece (completed by drummer Kevin Stuart and guitarist Andrew King). Whereas previous albums have skronked noisily and manically in the vein of acid-psychsters Comets On Fire, this latest effort seems much less complicated. In fact, you might even feel comfortable calling it an ‘indie rock’ record (the real deal, not the fucking Kaiser Chiefs) – there are riffs reminiscent of Archers of Loaf’s caustic melodicism, while Jonny’s sandpaper holler brings up bruises in all the right places. This new straightforward approach certainly suits them.

“We always planned on it being that way,” he agrees. “But during the process of actually making the record it ended up being a lot weirder than we actually intended it to be.” Indeed, the sprawling chaos of earlier works seems much more controlled this time round, so the few moments that appear genuinely unhinged (the flailing sax that splutters wildly during the triumphant Licorice Pizza, for instance) feel like exhilarating explosions. “The funny thing is that on some of the earlier records, the bits that seem chaotic were the most planned out. But the band has always been in a state of flux; we’ve always kept changing things round.”

It seems that reducing the ranks to a core trio – rather than, say, the sextet behind the band’s 2009 debut Tentacles – was something of a boon to the creative process.We prefer to write as a three-piece – everybody can pay a little more attention to each other. When you start playing with six people, it’s difficult to have clarity. We just had all of us playing solos at the same time…!” It also provided an opportunity for the three friends to come to terms with their collective musical identity: “It’s only at the end that you see the bigger picture. With each record, and especially with this one, we’ve allowed a lot more of the picture to be seen.”

“It’s only at the end that you see the bigger picture" – Jonny Bell

The indie rock tag doesn’t sit entirely comfortably with Jonny. “Growing up, we really didn’t listen to those kinds of bands. I was into either classic rock or metal, and punk was quite prevalent, living in California. But now, in retrospect, it’s been a joy to go and discover these bands that I had foolishly overlooked as a teenager, when I was only listening to Black Flag.” The overall sound of Nothing Is Real, however, means there will inevitably be comparisons to the US indie rock boom of twenty years hence. “That’s something that we hear quite a bit,” he muses. “People compare us to 90s indie and grunge, and it probably comes from the fact that what we listen to was the stuff those bands listened to. We’re sort of stuck in the past; we listen to a lot of older music.”

Now in his element, Jonny’s enthusiasm is audible when it comes to discussing his youthful musical endeavours. Bearing in mind the more complex sounds he makes today, does he view punk rock as a phase to be outgrown? He pauses.  “No… but I don’t think punk bands exist any more. That’s just some kind of word that people can identify with. Punk is something that happened in the late 70s, early 80s.”

But regardless of the sound or the initial impact, surely DIY is punk’s legacy?  "I think that predates punk; that’s just part of being an artist. The more control we have over the product, the better the art we create. I can’t understand why some bands don’t seem interested in that – the packaging, the artwork, or just what it means to create that. I mean, is there a difference between a 7" cover that’s been spray-painted by hand by the band, and one that’s just made in a factory somewhere? I recognise the difference, and I know that when I was growing up I always appreciated when the band had some involvement in that." 

It’s this dedication to the process that led them to hook up with C.R. Stecyk III, whose handiwork adorns Nothing Is Real’s striking sleeve. “He’s had a big impact on the culture of California,” explains Jonny. “He’s famous for a lot of things, but some of the main ones are tied in with surf and skateboard culture… he was part of Jeff Ho Surfboards, which was pretty revolutionary.” Indeed, Ho’s Zephyr Surf Team spawned a skateboarding team which proved hugely significant in popularising the latter sport as we know it today. It’s a pastime that continues to be very dear to Crystal Antlers’ hearts: “Growing up in southern California it’s kind of hard to avoid it. We all grew up skateboarding, it’s something that we like to do, especially on tour. And I surf almost every day.”

Having worked with Black Flag artist Raymond Pettibon on an earlier LP cover, there was huge appeal in harnessing Stecyk’s unique approach to graphics for their latest. “Raymond shaped the aesthetic of [legendary SoCal punk label] SST and the punk rock scene, and Stecyk did the same for skateboarding and surf culture, and I think that is how we’d like to be perceived to some degree. We were really conscious that it should be something new, and not just a rehash. We didn’t want just a Black Flag cover from Raymond, and we didn’t want Nothing Is Real to look like a surfboard. These are people that we respect greatly, and we admire their approach to creativity.”

The record itself certainly feels darker than previous efforts, from the opening couplet of “I pray for rain / I wait in vain” to closer Prisoner Song, with its bitter lament of “lost my legs and my will to live.” Jonny ponders this for a moment. “There’s a lot of things that are very grim… I try not to be too didactic about it, try not to speak too directly. I’ve had people write about lyrics to tell me there’s some sort of meaning that they’ve drawn from them, and it’s completely different from what I meant. But that’s really great, that’s sort of the intention of writing that way. Like, Pray is about my growing up in the Mormon church – it’s something I can laugh about, but you know, at the same time it’s nice to have something cathartic to let rip.”

Very suddenly, Jonny realises he has to return to work, bringing our telephone conversation to a rather abrupt halt – rock’n’roll, it seems, is not the glamorous career choice it once was. But whether fame and fortune are pipedreams or merely irrelevant to Crystal Antlers’ outlook, we still wonder about the point of all this cathartic noise. The answer is earnest and beautifully simple. “I’d like people to feel inspired in some way.” Nothing Is Real, then, is a pretty good place to start.

Playing Manchester Roadhouse on 27 Feb and Glasgow Broadcast on 1 Mar