Long Beach's Crystal Antlers have been on stage at the Fonda for ten minutes and the audience is confused. Their first of three nights opening for Gogol Bordello, the band speed through their high-octane set. Yet the crowd is stiff; it almost seems as if they don't know how to classify the band.
Crystal Antlers have been perpetually mislabeled since the release of their 2008 debut EP, which garnered best new music on Pitchfork. They've been called everything from psych and garage rock to prog and punk rock. And indeed the speed of some songs is analogous to punk; the organ on others smacks of the psychedelic; and their use of distortion can cast shades of garage rock. Really, it's as if the band has spent their career trying to both ignore and break down genre lines they never thought existed.
“[When] we're playing with a bigger, established band that's been around for a long time and has diehard fans it's kind of rough,” says Crystal Antlers lead singer and bassist Jonny Bell, the next day at his Long Beach home. “We either try to play to the crowd a little bit or we try to play the most opposite thing we possibly can to just piss off the crowd. We sort of did both of those last night.”
When we arrive at Bell's home, a spacious two-bedroom he co-owns with his fashion designer girlfriend, he shuts his laptop, the tips of his stringy, salt-water washed, sun-bleached mane hanging over his loose flannel shirt. He then leads us outside, past the band's vegetable oil-fueled touring van, and a construction van — Bell works part-time as a masonry contractor — to his self-built studio in the garage.
Surrounded by instruments, amps, and framed pictures of Bill Cosby and Guns N' Roses (Bell likes the former and loathes the latter), he recounts the band's trying past: the dissolution of their first label, Touch and Go; stolen touring vans; stolen instruments and equipment; broken down tour vans; sleeping on fans' floors and couches; losing steady jobs to touring; an ever-changing band lineup; the laborious process of releasing their last album independently; and, of course, critics' and listeners' unrelenting need to articulate and categorize their sound.
Today, the worst seems to be over for Crystal Antlers. They've found a home at burgeoning L.A. independent label Innovative Leisure, their touring van is running, they have their gear, and they may even spring for a few hotels on their U.S. tour.
Their new LP Nothing Is Real — out today — is their most accessible record to date, and also their best. Just over 40 minutes of loud and frenetic songs tempered by softer, more melodic patches with splashes of pop, the work poignantly captures the restlessness of late twenty-something life, a kicking and screaming arrival at maturity.
As for what genre it might be classified? Bell's over it. “If we're a psych band to someone, that's okay with me now,” he says. “If they feel like we're a soul band, then we're a soul band… [It's] up to the listener to decide.”