One of the most influential acts of the noughties, Crystal Castles have a new line-up and a newfound philanthropy. Hamish MacBain meets a band who matter (and want to matter) more than ever
Not without good reason, when the new Crystal Castles album ‘Amnesty (I)’ arrives this week, it will be four years since their last. Four years in which they’ve been through a break-up that was perhaps more public and unpleasant than their remaining member (and new member) might have liked; but also four years in which their influence seems only to have grown. For those familiar with their sound – one that scrunches up the abrasive energy of hardcore punk into futuristic, electronic new shapes – it was hard not to detect an influence in ‘Yeezus’ from 2013, in Grimes’ ‘Art Angels’ in 2015, and plenty more records in between.
So it’s good news that they’re still here. Because for a moment, it looked like they might not be.
When we meet, late on a Monday night in Berlin, they’re jet lagged but excited to get stuck into more rehearsals of the new songs as soon as we’ve finished speaking. ‘They’ would be producer and founder Ethan Kath, plus Edith Frances, who stepped up after original singer Alice Glass issued a statement via Twitter in October 2014 – a year after her last show with Kath in Mexico – saying she’d left for “a multitude of reasons both professional and personal” and that it was “the end of the band”. Further statements from both sides followed: Crystal Castles’ manager intimated that they might well be continuing; Glass disputed claims made (and, soon after, amended) by Kath about her creative input; last year, Kath said he wanted her “to do well and be happy” and that he “would always love her”.
By then, Crystal Castles’ new line-up had put out a new single, ‘Frail’, and a few months later would begin playing really great live shows. It was clear that Kath wanted to move on.
But the furore has continued with Glass, in an interview earlier this year, describing her time in the band as being “deeply miserable”. Tonight, though, it’s even clearer that Kath is keen to draw a line under the whole thing. “We don’t even pay attention; we don’t care,” he says of the endless online reporting that continues to surround the fallout. “Because we’ve just been focused on writing, and because the shows were so fun, we didn’t even check up on it.”
Just as breakthrough tune ‘Alice Practice’ did back in 2006, the new line-up came together by happy accident. “We were both couch-surfing a couple of years ago,” says Frances. “We had a mutual friend who we didn’t know knew either of us and we both ended up on this couch.”
“This was in LA,” continues Kath. “She’d been warned that I was gonna be there – like, ‘Someone else is staying here, don’t be scared if you see someone.’ We started talking about [Detroit hardcore band] Negative Approach, ’cause I’d just seen [them] and it was the best show of my life. She was like, ‘What?! They’re one of my favourite bands’. And then we agreed on the next band I brought up, which was [’90s shoegazing titans] Slowdive: again, another of her favourite bands. So because we were in the same spot and I was making beats and needed some demo vocals, I asked her if she wanted to sing on something. And she started singing and I was like, ‘Her voice is perfect.’ I was just blown away. It was just a complete fluke that this person that was in the room with me had this perfect voice for what I wanted to do.”
Frances was ensconced in the local punk scene (Kath: “If you look through her old pictures, it’s just her at punk shows with her friends”) but had never been in a band. “I always wanted to be – I just never found the right people to work with,” she says. “It never vibed. But I’ve always been a singer. I started singing when I was three: like church choir, choral stuff. So it’s been a big part of my life, but in a personal way. I’d never really entertained the idea of anything other than singing in my room. I never went out of my way to be like, ‘Yeah, I want to sing’, but I’ve always loved it.”
Frances’ vocal style brings a completely fresh feel to the new songs. If ‘Frail’ in part trod a familiar path to previous Glass-sung releases, then the recently unveiled ‘Char’ is startlingly melodic by Crystal Castles’ standards. And it’s not alone on ‘Amnesty (I)’: the likes of ‘Sadist’, ‘Chloroform’ and the closing ‘Their Kindness Is Charade’ all inhabit similarly beautiful, ethereal territory. The aggression and energy is still there, but there’s often a kind of fragility and sensitivity to what Kath and Frances are doing. In fact, they’re keen to stress that, as the album title might suggest, they’ll be working closely with charities in conjunction with this album and that all proceeds from the record will go to this cause. “They came to me a few years ago and asked me to produce a track from which the proceeds would go to Amnesty International,” says Kath. “And I said I believe in what they’re doing so much that I’d make an album instead, and that’s what this is.”
“This album has themes of freedom and liberation from oppression,” continues Frances. “So it just seemed natural to support what we’d written about. I’ve been writing papers about things that are violating human rights and I think it’s really important to get the people who are listening talking about it, and talking about change.”
So Crystal Castles are talking about change, and have changed – musically, personnel-wise and perhaps life-outlook-wise – a lot. But in the important ways, they’re still the same. It’s still just two punk kids driving a small van to shows – Frances recalls a recent eight-hour drive from Texas to New Orleans “in torrential rain, with nothing but Guns N’ Roses on the radio” – not quite believing that people are as interested as they really are. “It needs to be the same mentality as at the beginning,” says Kath. “It’s like, whatever I wanted in the beginning is what this still has to be: totally underground. I hate when bands write for radio; you can hear it. I can hear a committee making decisions. But there’s no committee here – this is still just completely selfish.” Except, of course, that in the ways that really matter, Crystal Castles aren’t.