"Every time we do an interview, something terrible is happening," Crystal Antlers bassist/singer Jonny Bell told me in 2009. That would have been just a month or two after their label Touch and Go, arguably the last of the true American independents, released their debut, Tentacles, and then abruptly shut down, making Crystal Antlers a pack of punk-rock orphans. The interview before that, their van was stolen from the Prospector's side lot in Long Beach. Luckily, it was recovered, thanks to a serendipitously empty gas tank, causing the getaway to end just blocks down the street. Or wait—maybe the interview was around the time different thieves broke into the band's OC practice space and ripped off all their gear. That time, nothing was recovered.
But now something . . . not at all terrible is happening! It's just days away from the Tuesday release of Crystal Antlers' new Two Way Mirror, an album that's not so much a comeback as a counterattack against all the hard luck this Long Beach band are by now very used to. The "About Us" on their website would make a great first act for a biopic, with its matter-of-fact recounting of robberies, lineup changes, lost jobs and go-for-broke trips to the track. Conspicuously absent is the big break—the part in which the big label or the big journalist or the big whatever decides Crystal Antlers have paid their dues with exact change and more and kicks down . . . well, even a free lunch somewhere probably would have been nice! (Full disclosure: This reporter bought Jonny Bell lunch.)
Instead, the Crystal Antlers story is one about a band that just won't quit. "Struggle is an inherent part of being creative," says Bell now. "If you had all the money in the world, you could create a record like . . . Boston. If there's no struggle, there's nothing good."
Crystal Antlers perform at the Echo, www.attheecho.com. Every Mon., 8:30 p.m. Through July 25. Free. 21+.
This time, Crystal Antlers are doing everything themselves, he explains. Not just the fun stuff like playing the shows, recording the album and making the cover art—well, actually, they got famed Black Flag artist Raymond Pettibon to do that, repurposing at least one piece of artwork originally drafted in honor of the Archies' bubblegum classic "Sugar Sugar." They're releasing Two Way Mirror through their own label, Recreation Ltd., and monitoring every part of the process: distribution, online sales, even postproduction in Bell's garage studio. On a recent night, he had the whole band at his house hand-assembling one of about 10 different collectible versions of the album.
"I think everybody thinks I'm crazy!" he says, laughing. "But when we finally had all the packages the other night—the first phase of assemblage because part two takes place tomorrow—it was a really nice collective feeling. Like we really accomplished something. I remember going to FedEx and sending them off and feeling like we're giving away a child we spent a year and a half of our lives creating!"
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Crystal Antlers decamped for Punta Banda, Mexico, in February 2010, spending two distraction-free months demo-ing what would become Two Way Mirror and frequenting a local tavern, Los Gordos. After a long summer tour, they polished up the best tracks and spent fall recording, even tapping storied Sub Pop (and Nirvana) producer Jack Endino to do final mixes. The 11 songs that make up the final disc find Crystal Antlers at their most focused and confident, with the longest-lasting lineup since the band started. "By the Sawkill" is vintage Crystal Antlers—shredding, shrieking, rollercoaster dynamics and drums—but on the rest of the recording, Crystal Antlers flow and dissolve through almost limitless inspirations and influences.
The spirits of Barrett-era Pink Floyd, Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra are all at work here, but these are pop songs, too, with Crystal Antlers' recent characteristic melancholy magnified ("Sun Bleached," "Knee Deep") by rough waves of melody and strange but affecting moments in which a single instrument flickers in and out of scree and feedback. Closer "Dog Days" is their "Marquee Moon," a six-minute suite that surges into a ferocious climax, with Bell singing about holding on as the guitar spirals into the stratosphere. If it took all that struggle to get here, well . . . this is something good.
"It does grind us down a little bit," says Bell. "But ultimately, we have these moments when everything sort of clicks—when everything becomes really clear to everyone why we're doing this. Like the time when we played at Los Gordos. We'd play for a meal. The first time, the whole town came to see us. The whole town! Old people, babies—there was something so special about that. Like a unique life experience you'd never find anywhere else. That makes any petty bullshit like arguing and paying rent and bullshit like that fall by the wayside—that makes it really worth it."
This article appeared in print as "Better Luck This Time: With a residency in Los Angeles and a new release, Crystal Antlers learn to expect the good."