The Crystal Method has been cranking out goat-slaying electronic breaks since 1994.
Like Underworld, the Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim and a handful of other electronic musicians, partners Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland have a signature sound that will have you shaking your ass whether you hear it at a rave, in a video game or in a commercial. Even if you don't think you know the Crystal Method's music, chances are you've at least heard the unsettling, knob-distorted funk classic "Busy Child," with its gospel-like "get busy, child" vocal sample. The song was a single off of their 1997 debut album, Vegas, and thanks to the magic of licensing found its way into living rooms everywhere via a Gap ad peddling $10 pocket tees to the masses (the same spot also co-opted skateboarding culture).
While Madison Avenue has landed Jordan and Kirkland some corporate cream, the success has done nothing since then to dilute their sound. While they work with synthesizers and software to build tracks, the partners first and foremost are music lovers with strong pop songwriting sensibilities. They've developed a sound that works as hard-core dance music at its finest -- but can find approval with even the most blandly casual of ears.
Maybe even with your mom.
Jordan and Kirkland have crafted their finest work over the past decade working within the once-trendy, still-developing "breaks" genre. "Breaks" tracks are built around hard-hitting, syncopated kick-drum beats similar to what you'd hear from a marching band or from a thumping hip-hop track (as opposed to the repetitive four-to-the-floor beats of house and trance). And they're almost usually built around funky bass lines. "Breaks" rose to prominence in the United States and globally under the aegis of the "big beat invasion" of 1996, but unlike in Britain, the genre never gained much traction on these shores. Even in the Crystal Method's hometown of Los Angeles, "breaks" nights are a rarity that take a good bit of spelunking to find, which is a goddamn shame and all the more reason to check out the duo's latest DJ set, whatever your musical preferences might be.
The Method, following the success of Vegas, released Tweekend in 2001, an album of original tracks that sold more than 1.5 million copies. They followed that release the next year with a mix album called Community Service. Then Jordan and Kirkland crawled back into the Bomb Shelter (as their studio is known -- no word on whether Dick Cheney ever drops in for onion rings and milk shakes) and crafted Legion of Boom, their third album of new material, which is scheduled to hit stores on January 13.
After working with Tom Morello, Scott Weiland and others on Tweekend, Jordan and Kirkland enlisted former Limp Bizkit guitarist Wes Borland, vocalist John Garcia of Kyuss, and the rapper Rahzel, among others, to help build their new Boom -- and boom it does. "Born Too Slow," the song featuring Borland and Garcia, epitomizes the strengths of this group's sound: hard, banging, metallic, thumpy, catchy and danceable. And the vocals work, too.
During their last pass through the desert Southwest, the Crystal Method had a run of luck so bad that it would have sent the members of Spinal Tap sprinting for a therapeutic crystal treatment with their astrologer back on the tour bus. But like Jeff Bridges' white-Russian-and-doobie-loving Dude in The Big Lebowski, the Crystal Method persists.
Recently, we chatted with Kirkland about beats, roofs, life and knowing when to say when to tweaking -- tweaking knobs, that is.
New Times: Things didn't go exactly as planned during your last trip to Arizona. What happened?
Scott Kirkland: We love coming to Phoenix and Tucson, but we had some technical problems on our live Tweekend tour. [At] the Phoenix show we had power problems. All of our lights and all of our sound and all of the PA were going through one generator, which doesn't help the gear. I lost half of my keyboard set, and it was a less than spectacular show. [At] the Tucson show we had to cancel because the venue we were playing at the roof was falling in. Uberzone played and he has a lot of bass in his set and chunks of the ceiling were falling down. Then Adam Freeland was DJing and he had large chunks of stucco and ceiling falling close to people who were dancing and very close to him. Our set has more bass than both of them combined -- so we were concerned and had to cancel the show.
NT: How did the Community Service album and DJ tour affect the music on Legion of Boom?
SK: Delving deep into breaks and dance music, preparing for that record, getting the songs together, and touring heavily influenced the sound of the [new] album, especially tracks like "Bound Too Long," "High and Low," "Starting Over" and the single "Born Too Slow," which has rhythm and bass that are dance-floor friendly. There's so much great music coming out of the breaks scene from DJ Hyper and Adam Freeland and Elite Force.
NT: Many DJs are trying to cross over into the producing/artist album arena, something you guys have done since day one. What was initially appealing to you about creating original music?
SK: I had a synth before I had a turntable. I had a guitar before I had dance records. Starting out producing, we fell into the band thing from having the passion for electronic music and the rave scene in [Los Angeles] in the late '80s. We started making music and it turned into a band.
NT: On Tweekend and now on Boom you're collaborating with rock and hip-hop artists. What makes for a good collaboration?
SK: We've worked in the past with other electronic artists who program and work the way we do. We ended up running into each other in the studio just reaching for the same thing at the same time, both being on the same path in terms of ideas or production style. Working with someone like Wes Borland or Tom Morello who record differently and have different backgrounds has really allowed us to be creative and come up with different ideas in the studio.
NT: What's your process like when you work with other artists? Do you want them to enhance the Crystal Method sound or to take it somewhere else?
SK: We jack up the drums quite a bit and the way we mix things, our writing style -- these are all things that contribute to what the Crystal Method's sound is. But bringing in Wes Borland and John Garcia, we had a desire to hear something we hadn't done yet.
NT: How did you decide to work with Wes Borland?
SK: When we brought in Wes, we had a lot of ideas that we wanted to see if he could work with. Being in the studio, he set the vibe. The Broken Glass track we had this strange synth melody and it had a jazzy, funky feel so he started to take off on that idea. When you work with someone as talented as Wes, you give them the direction the song is going in and then they bring up something that will go with that.
NT: You've been writing catchy, danceable, stand-alone singles that work as pop songs since you started releasing tracks. What's appealing about writing stand-alone songs?
SK: Our first single was "Now Is the Time" back in '94, and on the B-side we had a track called "Dubalicious Groove," and it had a whole different vibe. That was something we tried to do on our first two 12-inches and that we have a great deal of passion for in the studio. If we just sat in the studio and did every track at 127 or 130 [beats per minute], it wouldn't be as interesting. The job wouldn't be as fun. Working on that kind of music all the time, you get worn out. You get tired of the tempo. You run out of ideas. Each album has a narrative and each song goes in a different direction. That's something that's helped keep us going creatively. To me, it's not a great album unless you can sit down and listen to it from beginning to end. We always try to make albums that you could listen to on your drive or at home from beginning to end and not skip around.
NT: How does your approach to a DJ set differ from a gig where you do a live set?
SK: When we do a live set, it's pretty scripted. We know the songs we want to play; we know the order. Sometimes we'll skip a song or extend a song, but for the sound guy to be able to mix the set, we have a laid-down set list we work off of every night.
When we DJ, we've got a crate of 50 to 60 records each, and we'll only be able to play 30 of them at the most. Out of those 100 or so records, we've got to come up with something that works for that crowd and that night and that environment, but there is no script. We want something fresh and exciting for us and for the audience. And we fuck up all the time. We never claimed to be the greatest DJs, but we do have great music and spend a long time finding and buying records and using our resources to get records from DJ friends around the world.
NT: When you're working as a team DJing, is it tough to maintain that serious look when you're not spinning?
SK: When I see pictures of us playing live, I think, "Goddamn, I'm really intense." I'm very concerned about what I'm supposed to be playing and doing it well so the track can be all it can be. But when we DJ, I act a lot different. I'm usually smiling a lot more and having more fun. When Ken's DJing, I'm usually getting into what he's playing and trying to hype the crowd.
NT: What do you enjoy about DJing that you don't get out of a live gig?
SK: Not being so intense. I love getting to play longer and getting to play different records. On the Tweekend tour in the U.S. alone we did 65 to 70 shows. By the 30th show, although you're trying to keep it fresh, you run into moments where you're in the middle of a song and you go, "God, I've played this song quite a lot lately." It gets a little tedious after a while. As a DJ, you can get a record that day or have someone e-mail you a track and you can put it on CD-R that night and play it.
NT: That whole DJ team dynamic can be a funny thing. I was just reading on a message board where people were going off on one of the guys from Deep Dish because he was chasing chicks when he wasn't spinning . . .
SK: That's what Ken does. Ken's a good cruiser. I'm more comfortable being involved and listening to what he's playing and thinking about the next track. I probably drink more than I should, but I like to stay close to the decks. When you go out, people want to talk to you. I like to get into the set. So does Ken. But he does more of the cruising for chicks angle. He's a single guy and he should be doing that.
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