By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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Los Angeles' La Crescenta suburb is hardly known as a hotbed for rock 'n' roll, nor is it the place you'd expect to find America's most prominent dance/rock group. But this far northern enclave in Crescenta Valley, tucked up against the Verdugo Mountains, is what Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland, otherwise known as the Crystal Method, call home.
The pair, old friends from Las Vegas who moved to Los Angeles in '89 and '90, are far from your average image-conscious techno-rockers anyhow. Looking more like the guys who plug in the equipment than the ones who strut about in Adidas gear, pounding keys and pointing fingers in the air, they're the embodiment of dance music facelessness -- the very thing that supposedly prevented the dance revolution from catching on with the American masses back before their single "Busy Child" hit pay dirt as the radio, TV and silver-screen smash of the late '90s.
You could say the Crystal Method hasn't done too badly with its lack of image. It was one of the first homegrown successes to ride the mid-'90s electronica wave, and one of only a handful of U.S. electronic acts to land a deal with a major label. Second only to Moby, it's still American dance music's most discernible export, even though Jordan and Kirkland haven't released any new music since their 1997 debut, Vegas, the record that launched them into the dance-rock stratosphere with big-beat anthems "Trip Like I Do," "Keep Hope Alive" and the ubiquitous "Busy Child." In the fast-changing world of dance music, where new styles appear faster than even Madonna can keep up with, that's some lasting achievement. It's also a lot to live up to.
Returning recently with their long-overdue sophomore album, Tweekend -- its title a reference to their agonizing perfectionism in the studio -- Jordan and Kirkland hope to regain their position at the top of the dance music pile with a slice of the same funky breaks, big beats, deranged samples and hip-hop vitality that brought them success the first time around. A record that's as energetic as it is instantly digestible, Tweekend isn't breaking any new ground -- but apparently that was never the point.
"Conceptually, we made this album in the same way as the last -- just making music for ourselves that we really like, and not trying to cater to anyone or anything," says self-professed knob-tweaker Ken Jordan unapologetically. "I think this time, since we had a record out already, it was a little different. We knew we wanted to make something better."
In effect, they're playing it safe, sticking with their distinctive dance-rock formula and adding in just a few new elements -- most significantly some big-name guests such as Stone Temple Pilots front man Scott Weiland, who contributes bewitching vocals to the album's most radio-oriented track, "Murder"; Aimee Mann producer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, reprising his role from the first album with delicious Wurlitzer parts and a breezy vocodered vocal that spices up the infectious "Over the Line"; Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello, who co-produced three of the album's tracks, adding some seriously trippy guitar parts to the two opening cuts, "PHD" and "Wild, Sweet and Cool"; and Beck's turntablist, DJ Swamp, scratching insanely on the first single, "Name of the Game," which is currently making the rounds on MTV. Add to all that a beefier production and some new studio toys to tweak, and Tweekend has a much more polished overall finish than its predecessor.
"The great thing about having your own studio is you're able to work on the track as long as you want," says Jordan, though he acknowledges that this freedom contributed to the four-year wait for the album. "And the problem with having your own studio," he adds, "is you're able to work on a track as long as you want."
Chimes in fellow tweaker Kirkland, "Ken and I work really well together and we try to balance each other out, but there's just the two of us in here. There's no other assistant engineer, there's usually no other producer. We take our time and come up with what we think is the best possible sound and the best parts, and sometimes we'll decide later on that it sucks, and we'll go back in and change it. We just keep going until eventually we both look at each other and type 'final mix' on the computer, and then we move on to the next one. We haven't touched, like, nine of the tracks on Tweekend for about two months now, so that's a good sign."
In contrast, the pair are fast and furious when it's time to hit the road. Often likened to Britain's Chemical Brothers because of their gripping performances and insistence on playing simply as a duo -- no backing band for the Crystal Method -- Jordan and Kirkland comprise one of the most exciting live acts in music, on the dance scene and beyond.
"Many people think we got signed because we were in the right place at the right time," says Kirkland. "But what they don't realize is we were doing this for years, way before we made our album. We were touring extensively, going out and playing one-offs in different cities around the country, playing raves all over the place, sometimes two or three in a weekend. We worked really hard at getting to be in the position to be in the right place at the right time. There were plenty of groups like us that were around in the early '90s, but no one was doing the type of tours we were."
Jordan and Kirkland are preparing to up sticks from their La Crescenta hideaway to embark on a 55-date U.S. tour to promote the new album, taking fellow Angeleno Uberzone along for the ride and possibly squeezing in some special guest performers along the way. And since it's worked so well for them in the past, they're going out again as a duo, playing as much as they can live on stage and tweaking the mixes as they go.
Were they not tempted to assemble a band?
"You know, I don't think we'll ever do that," says Jordan, acknowledging that while other electronic artists, such as BT, have used that strategy to great success, it's not really their cup of tea. "If Tom Morello wants to come out and play guitar on a track, or any of the people who actually worked on the album, we would do that. But we are the sounds we make, and I think it would be a poor representation to try to have a drummer or a bassist or anybody else try to re-create our sounds."
Adds Kirkland: "We could make it easy on ourselves and just play to a DAT or play records or whatever, but that's not really our thing either. We like to go out there and play. You know, there are a lot of tours out there this summer, and if somebody's willing to spend 15 or 20 bucks to come and see us, then we should definitely give them a show, and not just stand up there behind a pair of decks and smile."
Clearly the excitement hasn't worn off yet for these consummate road rats and studio perfectionists. But when it does, what next? Film scoring, à la fellow dance music artist BT, who provided the soundtrack for this summer's The Fast and the Furious?
"We'd love to score a movie, but we'd never get it done," adds Jordan, with a chuckle. "You're given the movie something like six weeks before release, and you know, we're lucky if we get one track done in six weeks."
So no big-shot Hollywood directors or starlets dropping by their La Crescenta studio and threatening their sleepy existence anytime soon. "No way -- our landlady would go crazy," says Kirkland, laughing. "She came right over one time after she'd read the Pamela Anderson TV Guide issue where she talks about her husband Tommy Lee working with the Crystal Method, and she's like, 'Isn't your band called the Crystal Method?' and we're like, 'Er, er, maybe.' We can't have her thinking we're in here partying with Pamela and Tommy."