Crystal Antlers
Reaching Wide
by Ron Wadlinger

Even though we’re not yet a third of the way through 2009, Crystal Antlers seem to have put a whole year’s worth of work in already. The Long Beach, California–based band has done extensive tours of Europe and the U.S. with plenty more dates planned, and April brings the release of the group’s first LP, Tentacles, on Touch and Go.

Tentacles expands on the sounds heard on last year’s self-titled debut EP. The bulk of the tracks sound like mini-explosions, taking an interesting form arising out of the six-member band’s wide influences, which range from punk to soul to traditional Mexican music. A nice dynamic plays out over the course of the album, with the noisy, all-out guitar attacks that highlight the Crystal Antlers live experience alternating with more relaxed passages that make nice use of the group’s organ and expanded percussion. It’s a compelling listen, and one that lives up to the hype that has brewed over the past year.

During the band’s recent post–South By Southwest tour, singer/bassist Jonny Bell checked in with me while the band took a pit stop in the middle of the Arizona desert. We spent some time surveying the band’s whirlwind trip from fledgling band to recording artists on one of the more storied American independent labels.

How did Crystal Antlers form? Had you guys been involved with other bands previously?

Jonny Bell: Kevin, Errol and I met in high school music class. Our teacher was out for most of the year being investigated for child molesting. So, there was no teacher, and we just experimented around with all the horns and the band instruments. A few years after that, I started this band with them. Then we had a friend, Victor, whose background is in mariachi—he’s from Mexico and he’s really good at playing music—so he started playing organ with us. And then a little while after that, Damian joined. He was on tour with us in Oakland, and he just got up on stage and started playing, basically, and he’s been playing ever since.

Then, about a year ago, Errol left the band. He went to Thailand, and Andrew joined the band. Andrew and Damian used to play together, and the rest of us played in different punk bands.

When you were working on the first EP, did you have any kind of inkling that the word about you would spread so quickly?

JB: No, really we didn’t have any expectations. We were just kind of making music and recording it. No question, we wanted to tour all over the world, but we didn’t have a record deal or anything.

It may sound cliche, but you have a pretty unique sound. Was that something that you intentionally formed, or did it develop more organically?

JB: When we started, we were playing punk music, and we wanted to do something a little bit different. I think the sound is pretty much a result of us playing together and trying to expand on playing punk music and learning how to do it along the way.

There’s been a lot of mythology surrounding the music that’s come out of California. How do you see yourselves as fitting in with all that?

JB: We’ve worked with part of the California punk scene. The guy who put out our first record—he played drums for Flipper. We recorded up in San Francisco at this studio owned by the guy who was the drummer for the Sleepers. So that’s definitely a lineage that we’re attached to a little bit, definitely like California punk stuff. Plus a lot of that comes out of the Long Beach area, where we’re from.

Was your approach to recording the new album in any way different to the approach you had for the original EP?

JB: There was more of a rigid schedule than there was with the EP. But as far as actually in the studio, it went pretty similarly to the way we did the EP. We did most of the tracking live, and then there were very minimal overdubs. We tried to get a live feel for the whole thing. And we worked with the same engineer in the same studio in San Francisco.

Also, on the EP, we worked with Ikey Owens from Mars Volta; he produced it. On the new record, we didn’t work with a producer. It’s just us recording our songs, basically.

Given that the album has a unified, cohesive sound, I’m wondering if the songs were written specifically for the album or if you had stored up a bunch of material over time.

JB: That’s funny you say that, because I see it as a bit disjointed, in a good way. A couple of the songs were written before we even recorded the EP. A couple of them were songs that we were working on around the same time as and were considered for the EP, and then most of them are brand new songs that were written with this record in mind. It wasn’t really a conceptual thing. We just wanted to have a good balance of all the different types of stuff that we do. Especially since it’s the first record, it gives us more room to expand.

Are there any bands that you guys feel are contemporaries of yours, or that you’re all particularly in to?

JB: Yeah, there’s bands that don’t really sound anything like us, but we appreciate. Our friends from San Francisco called Girls, they’re like a new band. A lot of different people that you meet on the roads. Monotonix are good friends of ours.

I saw you play with them here in Columbus for the F Yeah Tour last year. What was being on that tour like?

JB: It was crazy. It was chaos. At the Columbus show, I think everybody ended up sleeping at 20 different places. The bus got stuck in an alley and crashed into a van. That tour was indescribable.

Were most of the stops like that, or was the Columbus one just particularly weird?

JB: Well, Columbus was where the bus crashed, and that’s where a lot of people kind of snapped. But yeah, the entire tour was chaos. You had five different bands—more than that really—trying to travel around on a bus powered by vegetable oil.

Right now you’re in the midst of another fairly extensive tour. How does this one compare to the others?

JB: I don’t know. There’s definitely more people at shows. The reaction has always been pretty positive, even when we were playing to just five or six people sometimes.

What do you guys have planned for when you get back?

JB: We’re working on a movie right now with our friend Michael from We’re going to be doing a score for that, and then we’re about to start working on a new record, too. And we’re going back to Europe three more times this year.