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“Every time we do an interview, some terrible thing is happening,” declares Crystal Antlers bassist/singer Jonny Bell.
Like the 2008 theft and unexpected recovery of their van full of equipment (license plate holder reading, “IT’S NOT EASY BEING PUERTO RICAN”) from the Prospector parking lot. Or the subsequent home-invasion robbery that didn’t get a miracle ending and leaves the band to this day playing stopgap gear. (“I’m still playing a $200 Squier bass,” says Bell. “I think I’ll keep it.”) Or the recent, explosive collapse of their label Touch and Go, which squeezed out Crystal Antlers’ roaring debut full-length, Tentacles, this spring before ceasing all but the most basic brainstem operation immediately after.
Right now, they remain the last band to put out an album on what was once one of America’s most powerful independents. They got the news while touring Europe; as they were taping a TV show in Amsterdam, the producer burst in, crushed and breathless, saying, “We just found out this is gonna be the last episode. They’re cutting our funding!”
“We’re like the Grim Reaper,” Bell said then. In fact, during that same tour, LA filmmaker Michael Reich was in the van, shooting a horror movie starring Bell as a musician pushed ever further into gory derangement. Life imitates the art it probably shouldn’t.
“I’m surprised how menacing I really look,” Bell says, reporting for this interview before reporting to work as a chimneysweep in OC. (Crystal Antlers are chimneysweeps by day, sporting the all-black outfit you’d expect.) He doesn’t look menacing. Rather, he looks—what’s an appropriate pioneer adjective? He was a Sea Scout once (the Boy Scout analogue to the Marines) and learned what knots will save your life (the bowline) and actually once saved someone’s life, though no knots were involved. Instead, he plunged into a roiling volcanic sinkhole without hesitation or thought and pulled out a man. He is a guy who—as the pioneers and the Boy Scouts and the Marines might agree—gets things done, no matter what.
“The more we stick to the ethics and the ideas we had when we started, the better things work out,” he says. Right now the Crystal Antlers are Bell, guitarists Andrew King and Errol Davis, organ player Victor Rodriguez, and drummers Kevin Stuart and OC legend Damien “Sexual Chocolate” Edwards. They came from punk bands who played Koo’s and Chain Reaction. And though alternate p-words such as “prog” and “psych” bloom endlessly in their press, they very much remain a punk band—in the Monks way, the Black Flag way, the Dead Moon way.
In fact, there is a story about the Monks, who were all hard-ass Army guys in Germany in 1966, playing music so aggressively advanced it was extraterrestrial. Of course they caused a riot, and the MPs fired in a bunch of tear gas, and the Monks’ organ player simply put on his Army-issue gas mask and played “Green Onions” until not a body was left on its feet. Think of that when you think of Crystal Antlers. They bathe their songs in waves of what Germans called “scree” (from twin guitars melting at the necks, from organ, from Bell’s striated vocals), but underneath is rhythm that doesn’t quit, even under military order, and a strange but affecting sort of melancholy. (“Dust,” “Until the Sun Dies,” “Painless Sleep”—it’s Ballardian desolation as track list on Tentacles.) It plays like Hawkwind realizing they’re under Albert King’s bad sign.
You can’t say they’re a bummer band. They win many fine friends between (and sometimes because of) the burps of misfortune, such as the mortician who sympathized with the biodiesel explosion in their van with a story about how the damn crematorium just wouldn’t stop leaking steaming human fat. (“I . . . can relate?” replied Bell.) But—like Monks and punks—they grind endlessly through everything that wants to grind them up. They dog through punishment work without whimper, and they practice like they were married to it, and even after high decimal ratings on Pitchfork (one of, if not the, highest for any local band?) they still answer every little e-mail from every little kid.
Which is why they just went from playing for 10,000 people in Barcelona, Spain, to about 100 people in a living room in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where people pronounce “California” with about three extra A’s but love Crystal Antlers so very much. It wasn’t Long Beach, says Bell, but it still seemed like home.
“We don’t wanna be rammed down people’s throats. We want people to discover us on their own,” he says. “Especially if you live in Fayetteville and you hear some band from California is gonna play your friend’s living room—you get a real sense of being part of something. It just felt like us—it felt exactly how it should feel.”