Long Beach natives Crystal Antlers are a long way from home, and unfortunately, the Chicago weather is not very accommodating. It’s pouring rain when I arrive at The Empty Bottle for my interview with the band, and I am soaking wet by the time I reach the doors.
Lead singer/bassist Johnny Bell shyly greets me at the bar, and we head downstairs, away from the soundcheck, in order to be heard. Sitting on a ratty couch littered with cigarette burns, I’m surrounded by the Antlers collective: guitarist Andrew King, organist Victor Rodriguez, drummer Kevin Stuart, percussionist Damian Edwards, and guitarist Errol Davis.
Half the guys are snoozing, and the others are waiting anxiously for food, which has been massively delayed. Water drips from the ceiling, and the couch is soaking wet in patches. Johnny plunks down next to me and wipes a hand over his face, his mane of brown hair a tangled mess.
I suddenly wonder how old these guys are, as everyone barely looks a day over 20. Thinking about the Antlers’ massive European tour, it occurs to me that I would make a lousy rock star. As the ceiling water drips on my notebook, smearing the ink of my questions, I realize that after only a few minutes of being in that basement, I want to go home. For the Crystal Antlers, there is no turning back.
“[If] you think this is bad, you should have seen the storm we caught in Madison last night,” Bell tells me in his soft-spoken cadence. “For some reason, I started thinking about when I did Sea Scouts a few years back. I was 15, and I worked on this old Coast Guard boat from the 1920s, and we did trips to all the different Channel Islands, delivering cargo.”
Bell pauses and someone lights up a cigarette. “Was it like Deadliest Catch?” I ask. Everyone in the room laughs when I bring up the fishing documentary series.
“There were a lot of moments that felt like that, and it could get pretty scary,” Bell says. “I remember driving the boat at 4 a.m., after being up all night, and all the captains and everybody were asleep. The only tape we had on deck was Van Morrison’s Moondance, and I remember being up there in the captain’s chair, just rocking back and forth to Van Morrison.
“It was pretty surreal. I think about that a lot because I haven’t done anything like that in a really long time and I kind of miss it, even though being on tour is our life now.”
Following its self-released, eponymous EP in 2008, produced by The Mars Volta’s keyboardist Ikey Owens, the Crystal Antlers made quite a buzz in a short amount of time. The band’s sound, a unique mix of psych fuzz and layered chaos, won it a spot on the Carson Daly Show.
“It was the first time in a long time that I almost just stopped playing because I got nervous,” guitarist King tells me with a laugh. “I took a minute and thought, ‘Wow, this is some pretty intense stage fright right now!’ I hadn’t felt that way since the junior-high-school talent show!”
The band quickly caught the attention of seminal indie label Touch and Go Records, making the Antlers the last band to be signed before the label announced an indefinite hiatus from distribution.
It’s hard to pin down the Antlers’ sound, a frantic hodgepodge of influences containing the idiosyncratic mania of The Mars Volta while not really sounding anything like it. The organ lends the sound a touch of bluesy psychedelia, yet the vibe is distinctively punk. When asked to describe the sound of the new record, Tentacles, Bell bristles. “I just don’t ever try and describe our sound,” Bell says. “I just ask people, ‘What do you think?’ Because I don’t really know what our sound is like.”
Tentacles was recorded at lightning speed. “We laid down the tracks and mixed the album in about a month,” Bell says. “We do work at a hectic pace. Originally, the idea was to go on tour a month before, and then go into the studio and hammer it out quickly but be really focused on it.
“It turned out to be a lot more intense than I thought it would be. Not all of the parts were finished beforehand, and it was just way more work than I expected. We hardly slept at all, especially in the last few days. I think Errol and I were only asleep for a few hours. We’d sleep on the floor, in the booth, with the engineer. We didn’t leave the studio for more than 15 minutes at a time for the entire week.”
For such a dense record, it’s amazing that the band was able to combine the challenging musical arrangements with aggravated intensity in such a limited time frame.