Crystal Castles may have been a visceral force, live and on record, but Alice Glass and Ethan Kath gave good interview too. Following the news of their split this week, here’s a look at NME’s last feature with the Toronto duo from when they graced the cover in support of third album ‘(iii)’. Written by former NME writer Alex Miller, it was published on November 3, 2012
Crystal Castles. Back for round three
“Is that a real question?” Ethan Katz shrugs.
Yes. So Crystal Castles, how often do you brush your teeth?”
I’ve flown all the way to Texas to interview Crystal Castles for their first NME cover feature in four years. The main reason being: Crystal Castles are still here, more ebullient and successful than ever. For a band who were written off as a proto-hipster gag seven years ago, they not done too badly. New album ‘Crystal Castles III’ is out on Monday (November 5), everyone expects it to be their biggest record yet, a couple of months ago they slayed about 40,000 fans at Reading and Leeds. and they’ve just sold out the Brixton Academy in London – none of which is supposed to happen to an esoteric pair of delinquents. So everyone wants to know about all of that. And also how often they brush their teeth.
So, how often? “Often,” says Ethan from the back of his tourbus parked up at Austin City Limits festival. “Dental hygiene is important”. “Do you know how much that shit costs if you fuck it up?” agrees Alice Glass. She’s bleeding from her right hand, her left is bandaged, and she’s got a huge cigarette burn the shape of a heart on her wrist; but she’s not bullshitting about brushing her teeth. Her breath smells divine.
Why is this important to know? Well, when you’re homeless it can be hard to maintain dental hygiene. Crystal Castles are homeless. For the last three years, Alice and Ethan have been rolling across the planet on a sea of applause.
“We’re always in a vehicle whether it’s a bus or a plane, just going to the next show. Constantly,” says Ethan. He’s wearing a bandana and exactly the same T-shirt jacket and jeans he was wearing this time three years ago. Doesn’t it freak you guys out not living anywhere? How does it even work? Where does your post go? Ethan: “Are you joking? No-one writes us.”
“I haven’t lived anywhere for a really long time,” says Alice. She’s smoking cigarettes beneath her blue bob. It was her natural blonde yesterday, but no-one on Planet Earth wants their sadistic punk witches blonde, right? So it’s blue.
“Yeah, you’ve got to think of it as liberating. You just don’t have anything.”
What do you actually own? Alice tries to work it out: “I’ve got a bunch of records in storage, which I never get the chance to listen to. In Toronto.”
Ethan: “When we left our old apartments, Alice and I all shoved our stuff into one small storage unit. I don’t miss it.”
Alice: “No-one needs any of that fucking shit. I don’t have anything. If this bus was to catch on fire it wouldn’t make any difference to me.”
Well, where do you register your mobile?
Alice: “I don’t have one.”
You pay tax anywhere?
Ethan: “Yeah, in Canada. Let’s not get into that.”
OK. Well, exactly how often do you brush your teeth?
The previous night the band play the festival. God, Crystal Castles are so fucking amazing live. They’re as mad and intense as they were at Camden Crawl six years ago, a night when Alice climbed on top of a bouncer and wound the mic chord round his neck until he collapsed. Only they’re better now, because instead of a four-song set, they’re pulling from three brilliant albums, each as rich and bizarre as the last. The celestial Pokémon Debussy of ‘Wrath Of God’ is the only song from III that made the show so far, but in front of an intimate crowd of around 2,000 (that’s intimate these days for CC) every noise that rolls from the stage was as exciting as any show they’ve ever played.
For the weird Texan school kids who had been queuing outdoors all day for a ticket, CC aren’t just a contemporary oddity, they’re the band that define them. For these kids ‘Alice Practice’ is ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’, ‘Baptism’ is ‘Teenage Riot’, and ‘Celestica’ is ‘Jealous Guy’. OK, not that last one, but you get the point.
For an hour Alice tears the place apart. Backed by Ethan’s goliath bass and digital hailstorm, she charges through the room. She climbs onto the crowd, walking over them as hundreds of teenage arms support her and thousands of teenage eyes try to watch as she vanishes in and out of smoke, strobes, and, whenever her courtiers fuck up, back down into the moshpit.
Backstage after the show she walks into the dressing room. I tell them it was a great show. “Thanks,” she replies, “I don’t care about press though, so just write about HEALTH.”
HEALTH – LA’s legendary basement fusion punks – are supporting CC for roughly the billionth time tonight. Along with brilliant gay Suicide cover band Contravoid, HEALTH are sharing Crystals’ van for 21 dates across America. Crystals wouldn’t have anyone else, because HEALTH are great and HEALTH are their friends. So there you go.
Backstage at this first show, the pair drink whiskey and beer, reminiscing about friends in East London. We talk about new rave, that brief, naive and INCREDIBLE period that the UK was going through when CC were first flown over by future The Big Pink man Milo Cordell on the strength of a soundcheck he heard.
“I remember being really happy when NME first wrote about new rave that they didn’t lump us in,” remembers Ethan. “I mean Klaxons were great, but we couldn’t identify with the scene.”
“We always got made fun of in that scene,” says Alice. “I always got called a goth and a witch and shit, just because I wasn’t in a cat suit.”
“Everyone took the piss ’cos we wore black,” says Ethan. “A year later they were wearing black.”
A lot has come and gone since then. New rave was the big thing when you first broke through, then there was, to varying extents of success, blog house, witch house, chillwave, bro-step, and now bloody EDM. “Yeah, we saw these things come and go too. I really wasn’t interested in them. I hate all those sounds,” says Ethan.
“I’d rather take E and listen to Slowdive,” shrugs Alice. Who wouldn’t?
We’re in the van, CC have just played another killer set on the Sunday, headlining the electronic stage at Austin City Limits. It makes sense that this pair who survived a Toronto scene full of so many crack squats, smackheads and killers have made a home in the same touring van once used by Pete Doherty. It’s probably the only place dark enough to maintain them. Last time we spoke, a friend of theirs was in prison for murder; they were planning to do a benefit show.
“Yeah, I was trying to get hold of her to pay for her legal fees,” says Alice, “but it all got sorted out. She’s still dating cunts though, my friends have the worst taste in men.”
When people form bands like yours, they don’t tend to be whisked away from their scene for six years. Have you left your old gang behind?
Alice shrugs, “The abandoned brick factory I used to hang out in with all my friends got turned into a sort of greenhouse or something, so we can’t hang out there anymore, so there’s nowhere to go.”
“Yeah,” Ethan agrees, “we don’t see anyone too much. That crackhead still gets in touch, I saved him from getting stabbed last time I saw him.”
Sounds about right, but today we’re talking about their third album, ‘Crystal Castles III’. Who thought they’d get this far? Back when CC first broke through, a sizable portion of the internet contended that they were little more than a cool T-shirt. To be fair the T-shirt – a picture of Madonna with a black eye – is a good one (NME even published a whole feature about it once) but though it still appears on sale on this tour, no-one is talking about merch any more.
‘Crystal Castles’, their first album, was a surprise. The general reaction was disbelief: Shit, they actually made a whole fucking album AND IT’S GOOD?!? People had come to terms with them by ‘Crystal Castles II’. Or at least they thought they had before ‘Celestica’’s enormous melancholic rave-pop gracefully swept onto the Radio 1 A-list and before The Cure’s Robert Smith appeared with the band on a single version of ‘I’m Not In Love’ for a bit of a circle jerk between two gangs in black.
But now people are wise to CC. They know that transcending expectation is something they’ve made a habit of. But, more than that, the world is trying to catch up with them, and though EDM’s American rumble is nothing like Ethan’s dense compositions, the planet’s gone digital, how would Crystal Castles react to that?
“I didn’t know anything about it,” Ethan says. “It’s impossible to keep up to date with what’s going on. We’re just on this bus, playing shows, listening to The Stooges”.
Well it doesn’t really matter anyway, because surprise surprise, the most uncompromising band currently keeping punk-rock from a mausoleum didn’t roll over. They didn’t become Skrillex. ‘Crystal Castles III’ is a brilliant, subtle record inhabiting that same space between the recent past and the distant future that their best music has always done. Minimal moments of techno, blissful melodies, and R&B build a backdrop for Alice to scream and purr her way through it.
Ethan disagrees. “There’s no R&B song on the record.” The previous night he’d said that he’d written the slowest beat ever, booked a recording studio for five days, with an engineer, sat and waited for Alice. He said that Day One passed. Then four others. And on midnight on the last day she showed and screamed all over his beautiful, slow piece, then left the building and it didn’t matter ’cos it was amazing. It sounded very R&B.
“Yeah, it’s not R&B to me,” he shrugs. Right.
“I got a new ring,” Alice smiles. On her tour-battered hand is a knuckleduster in the shape of a tiger’s head. “It’s for fucking up motherfuckers. It makes it hurt more.” Alice spends a lot of time in crowds across the planet, and unfortunately, some of them are pricks. Drunk, misogynistic pricks who think they can touch up an artist simply because she’s a woman and she’s crowd surfing. She’s beaten tosspots from Tyneside to Toronto.
“I’ve never fucking punched someone who didn’t deserve it,” she says from their bus. A couple of years ago a man in Spain threw Alice to the ground during a show, he broke her foot and stole the skirt from round her waist. It turned up on eBay a day later. “We let it be known that we would kill him, and it was taken down,” remembers Ethan.
“I understand that people can be victims of circumstance,” Alice reasons, “when somebody accidentally touches whatever, I understand that’s part of putting myself out there. But if someone tries to put their fist in your vagina or whatever, if you try to finger-fuck me, I’m going to follow your arm and punch you in the face. And if you do it in front of our younger female fans, I’m going to make a point that they see that this is what should happen. ’Cos the reality is that there’s no justice for most people that sexually assault women. Whether it’s unreported or a lot of police want to look the other way or blame the victim.”
NME: You’ve said before that you want to be a vigilante.
Alice: “Yeah, to protect the people I love. Can I say I want to kill certain people? That I would feel worth it to spend my life in a cell, to know that these people can’t breathe, or do the same things to others. There is no protection for the people who need it, and there is no justice for real criminals either.” How do you picture the vigilante thing in your head? “Lots of ways actually; sometimes I have a big cinder block and I drop it on their head and sometimes I get together an army of people who feel the way I do. We need an army because the mainstream hates women.”
Ethan: “Hopefully girls could learn from Alice. Hopefully she can wash away all the lessons from the mainstream media. I think she has the power to.”
What’s your problem with the mainstream?
Alice: “I think a lot of them sell sex to children. I think a lot of kids are more sexualised now than they were years ago and I’m not sure it’s a coincidence. Like fucking Katy Perry spraying people with her fucking dick, her fucking cum gun cumming on fucking children. And little girls, like six-year-old girls wearing a shirt with “I wanna see your cock” on it.
Ethan: “The merch for some song, ‘I wanna see your Peacock’ the ‘pea’ is in a different ink so you don’t see it. She sells it to fucking children.”
Alice: “It’s fucking evil. Don’t prey on vulnerable people like that. Don’t encourage little girls to get dressed up to have cupcakes on their tits to get people to lick them off, ’cos that’s what you’re insinuating with that.”
There’s some kind of shared assumption that right now we’re in an era of female, musical empowerment. Which is obviously bullshit. Do you think shit’s getting tougher for women right now?
Alice: “Of course. If Mitt Romney gets in it’ll take women back decades. Even now some of the abortion clinics have been shut down and it’s putting women in danger. They’ve got to cross the border into Mexico to get abortions. And that hasn’t happened since the ’60s.”
The cover of the new album has a woman swathed in robes hugging an ailing man. What’s the story?
Ethan: “It was taken at a protest in Yemen. A boy was pepper-sprayed and beaten by cops and his mother thought that he had been killed in the fight. In that moment she’s found him and she’s crying from happiness because he’s still alive. A war journalist snapped that picture at that moment. And she says that she’s really happy that the image is spreading round the world. The woman is the powerful one in this picture, the male needs her, and I like that.”
Ethan needs Alice. Alice needs Ethan. We need them, but you kind of get the feeling they don’t need us. There aren’t many bands who bluster on about “just doing it for themselves” with any kind of credibility, but Crystal Castles are one. They’re just bumming around the planet in their van, giving HEALTH a lift over 21 dates, before they head to Europe on the next leg of the endless, endless tour.
Somewhere along this journey with no destination you’ll go and see them, and be reminded why they’re the best live band about; then you’ll pick up ‘Crystal Castles III’ and remember how brilliant they are on record; in a year or so, they’ll probably record ‘Crystal Castles IV’, and the cycle will repeat itself. They’ll still just be locked up inside their bus, oblivious to our adulation.