Having cut their teeth in the furtive rave underground of Los Angeles and their native Las Vegas, the Crystal Method – then a duo of Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland – burst onto the scene towards the latter half of the 90’s, boasting a distinctive, big-beat sound that was both informed by the burgeoning, electronic dance music coming out of the UK and augmented with their own inimitably American blend of swagger. Landing like a scud missile during the heady decade of grunge, their 1997 debut LP, Vegas, delivered the same techno wallop as British counterparts like the Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy, but came imbued with a rafter-shaking rock’n’roll swing and dirty slabs of soulful funk. Later albums found the duo experimenting with different styles, tempos and collaborators, but still pushing boundaries while making dance music that appealed to club-hopping ravers and leather-clad rockers alike.
Huge success and multiple projects, singles, soundtracks, albums and tours later, however, the Crystal Method found itself at a crossroads. When co-founder Jordan informed Kirkland that he was ready to get off the roller coaster, a decision had to be made. Today, 25 years after first starting the band and 21 years after releasing their watershed debut album, Kirkland is initiating the next phase of the Crystal Method without his partner. Amicably parting ways and tying up loose ends with Jordan, Kirkland went back into a reconfigured studio to craft the sprawling new album, The Trip Home. On the eve of this ambitious record’s release, BMI caught up with Kirkland to discuss the long, rhythmic road of the Crystal Method and what lies ahead.
2018 has been a pivotal year for you, as it marks both your 25th anniversary as a band and the 21st anniversary of the release of Vegas. By the same token, it also marks the dawn of a new chapter of the band as essentially a solo act. In the wake of all this, how are you feeling as you launch into this new phase with the new album?
Well, I’m feeling a little bit old, but also feeling excited. I don’t know where the time went. Ken and I having started this band 25 years ago is a pretty remarkable thing. At that moment, we had a $750 production deal from EMI, and we were somehow able to parlay that into getting ourselves a small record label deal with two guys that had never put out an album before, City of Angels. We sold 3,000 vinyl LPs in the middle of the grunge period. If someone had told me that we were still going to be making music 25 years later, I would have fallen off my chair. But, there is this next opportunity before me to extend what I am as a songwriter, what I am going forward as the Crystal Method and where I can take the sound and the band that Ken and I started. The thing that also makes it a lot easier is the fact that we still have a great relationship. He was just done. He wanted to move down to Costa Rica. I could see that this was something he’d thought long and hard about and he was happy to make this move, and so it made it really easy for us to figure out the logistics of breaking up. Since we were fifty-fifty with everything, I just pushed all my chips to the middle of the table and said “I’m going to buy the studio and buy you out of that stuff so you can move forward.”
A lot of these things kind of just came together. I reconfigured the studio the way I would like it, getting myself a little more out of the box, if you will. I got a Chandler Limiter [sound compressor], a little line-mixer and a couple of great outboard pieces – a Portico from Rupert Neve [microphone preamp], and then I brought all my synths close to me, and really started to experiment with what I wanted to sound like. I didn’t know what I wanted my music to sound like, but I knew how I wanted it to feel. I wanted it to feel warm, I wanted to feel nostalgic. I wanted it to feel classic. The sound of it, the warmth of it, the techniques of going and mixing through a Neve board and going to Sound City and I just wanted it to live up to those kind of crazy synth-rock records that my dad would listen to and hold up to my love of concept albums and the sort of albums that have narratives like Depeche Mode’s Black Celebration or Violator. I just thought about it for probably a little too much time, then just made the moves and started writing. As soon as I got that “Holy Arp” track going, and using some of the techniques going back to Vegas when you just sit with a synthesizer and just nerd-out for 30 minutes and then go and cut up stuff from that session, I just took it all and moved forward.
The Crystal Method has been cited as a primary influence on the EDM movement of today, but you were also one of the first bands to really infuse club music with a more rock-oriented sound and identity, essentially bringing everything that’s considered cool about rock to electronica. Was that an organic process or by design?
I was always sort of blending those worlds. Even when I first started to collect some gear when I got out of high school, I had a guitar, and I’d taken guitar lessons from Mark Slaughter when I was in Las Vegas. But I never had the patience for guitar. I mean, I loved the idea of it. I liked the look and sound of it, but I always wanted to play drums. I used to air-drum in my living room every night, because my mom wouldn’t let me get a real drum kit. My timing was kind of fine-tuned in those early years.
But, yeah, I always loved bands like New Order that had guitars and vocals and, of course, at the same time, all the techno, electronic and house music and those different things that came up around that time. All of it, in our minds, shared that aggressiveness and the forcefulness. I love the lushness and the beauty of some of the big piano lines in some of those early house, trancy-kind of crossover tracks. And then we just brought in all those things that my mom and dad used to listen to and I listened to together. We wanted it to be dirty and have that big-drum rock vibe, and we knew that when people put their guitars through Big Muff pedals, they got some great, crazy sounds, so we thought, “What if we put synthesizers through it?”
To my core, as soon as I got turned onto music, I couldn’t get turned off. I’ve always loved it, and I’ve always been fascinated with not only the different styles, but the timing. That’s one of the other things we were never a slave to – specific tempo. We weren’t always going for a dancefloor vibe. We were going for a vibe that you could listen to wherever you were…. If you were in your car, or on the dance floor or in a club or wherever. We were always conscious of making that song – in some sort of traditional format, even if we didn’t have a vocalist.
How did you approach this new album without Ken? How did it affect your songwriting and the creative process?
I’ve never been one to want it to be all about me. I guess the term for it is a “solo album,” but with the collaborators I’ve been working with on this record, when somebody brought in something special that I couldn’t create, it shifted me in a way that made me strive to go farther. That exchange is a natural one for me, having worked with a lot of different people over the years. It was really just getting my studio acclimated to what I wanted, and bringing things in closer and changing some stuff out, and then just getting in and grinding out those long hours to try to make something special. When I create a track in my folder, it doesn’t say “untitled,” it says “make magic,” and that’s really all I’m trying to do. I don’t know how to do that – it’s just a vibe thing. You go in and you seek and hopefully you’ll be led there by your own curiosity and the others around you that are working towards the same goal.
Do you have a favorite instrument to compose on? No, but recently, I’ve been really inspired by this Dave Smith Prophet Six [synthesizer] and then the OB Six [synthesizer] from Dave Smith and Tom Oberheim, just simply because they have this great combination of sound quality and creativity within reach. I really enjoy the opportunity to open up a dialogue with an instrument that can’t check my e-mail. I sometimes want to take my phone and put it in the other room, because I know it’s so distracting. For me, the magic hour is like 10 pm, maybe one or two days a week, especially when we’re in the middle of working on the album. 10 to, like, 2, 3, 4 am just because the family’s home safe, the city around us has settled, down, the phone’s not ringing, there’s none of that stuff to distract you and you just kind of get into the flow. That’s all part of the whole battle of creativity and trying to find the next note.
Your new record has a very vast, expansive sound with a sweeping, visual aesthetic to the music. Even the album art resembles a movie poster. Is that something that’s always played a role for you – the cinematic aspect? I kind of think about sounds, sometimes, as antagonizing and talking back to other sounds. The predatory sound, the sympathetic sound – however the instrumentation comes along to match those. Sometimes I kind of write in that way, and again growing up in those early days when I was an only child and had those John Williams scores to all those Star Wars movies and I had all the action figures, and I was “I’m doing this! I’m making a movie and playing a score, and I’m get involved in this real intense battle” and drifting off into my imagination while listening to the scores of those movies. I definitely feel that that’s always been a part of our sound, even going back to Vegas, that kind of epic, opening – it’s very cinematic.
As soon as we had a bunch of songs, we figured there were going to be two albums here. I came up with the title after coming home from a trip out doing a gig on the weekend, and I thought, “The Trip Home! That sounds like a really a great title!” Then knowing that we had the other eight or nine songs going to the next album, we thought we’d call it the Trip Out. We’ll call it the Trip series. In a way, it’s ambitious, but I just thought, why not? I’ve got kids, I’ve got family and I’ve got obligations, and I’ve got things going on, but I’m never going to get another opportunity to do this like where I’m at right now. So, I take some time with the family to decompress, but I’m challenging myself to come in and try to work and keep busy and get this next album out in July of next year, on the 18th anniversary of the release of Tweekend, and then set up a tour at the end of next year. And we’ll see what happens in 2020. I want to figure out a way, like the way The Trip Home together, and how I’m hoping The Trip Out will come together, to do something really special for that. There’s a narrative there, there’s a story being told, there’s something that you can follow. It’s cinematic. I’d like to match that with some sort of visuals, potentially, and then hopefully just get out and do something special – make magic, if you will.
What’s the biggest misconception about making electronic music?
Some people don’t care how anything is made. It’s like how they don’t care how the sausages are made. I guess that maybe the idea that everything’s in the box – because so much of what people have access to now, even those bedroom producers who have jobs and they got Abelton Live [software music sequencer and digital audio workstation] and maybe they pick up a couple of plug-ins and they get something like Massive or some other software to really deliver some demo that sounds pretty decent, but I think that most people go into studios. There are few that just pop’em out their laptops. I remember Skrillex used to talk about how he made those first couple of songs on his laptop. I’m absolutely sure that that’s what happened but as he’s gone forward, he’s gone into proper studios. Sure, you can start out and make music on your laptop, but sometimes you got to break out of the box. For me, my sound really came together once I went in and mixed through that Neve board over at Sound City. There’s something really wonderful and magical to what those old boards can do.
What’s your best advice for aspiring music creators?
Definitely to find your sound. It’s like a chef being raised on so many different things, but you’ve got to hone in on things that you like. You’ve really got to find what it is you love about music, I think, and what you want your sound to be. Unfortunately right now, so many artists – especially pop artists who don’t write their own songs or collaborate a lot with others – do sort of take on the personas of the producers they’re working with. But I think the most important thing is to find your sound. We’ve been fortunate to have that attachment. Some can point out “That’s the Crystal Method,” whether it’s something off of Vegas or Tweekend or Legion of Boom or Divided By Night. There’s something there – good or bad – that defines us through our techniques and our creative links to things we grew up with.
There are so many talented people out there, and it’s a lovely community of people who are always trying to take your job. So, you’ve got to keep working. Keep grinding.
Tell me about your relationship with BMI.
I just feel there’s this great community of people that are being nurtured and taken care of by a really great staff and group of really thoughtful and kind and caring people at BMI. So, I’m super happy to be part of the family.