A candid Q&A with Ken Jordan of The Crystal Method on new album and EDM scene
One half of veteran electronic duo talks scoring FOX's 'Almost Human'
Before electronic music had dozens of chart-topping producers and an entire genre to its name, which we today call EDM, in the mid-90s, a few U.S. acts such as Moby and the Crystal Method broke through with a sound called "electronica."
The Crystal Method's 1997 debut album "Vegas" is considered one of the best releases of this period for its trippy, funky, breakbeat heavy sound that yielded classics such as "Busy Child." Seventeen years later, the Los Angeles-based, Las Vegas-bred duo of Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland are still crafting big beats.
While electronic music has changed a lot since they started out, Jordan explained in a recent phone interview that he and Kirkland work the same way they always have — taking their time, using analog instruments and avoiding "the big formulaic single." Two years in the making, the Crystal Method will release its self-titled, fifth studio album on Jan. 14. Watch the video for the single "Over It" below and preview the entire album at Pandora.
Jordan opens up about the making of "The Crystal Method," which was delayed when Kirkland had complications after a brain surgery last year, the duo's latest project scoring the music for J.J. Abrams' new FOX series "Almost Human" and why they'd rather play to the Burning Man crowd than the bottle service set in Las Vegas. Here is our abridged Q&A.
What were you inspired by for the new album?
When we do our weekly show on Sirius[XM], we play new stuff, and, you know, when you DJ a lot, you stay on top of the latest sounds and genres. So there’s this influence from things we’ve been liking, but we always make sure we keep the identifiable Crystal Method sound. We made this album with a conscious effort to bring back some of the ways that we made our first album “Vegas.” We used a lot of those same techniques, a lot of the same gear, and at the same time, used all of the technology that’s so much better now. A lot of times making a new album is really painful, but this one was a lot of fun.
Why the five year break between this album and the last?
There was a lot of touring in between and doing other projects. We worked a solid two years plus on this album. It would have come out early last spring or summer, but Scott had his brain surgery and then got a subsequent infection, which really delayed everything.
At that time, was the album kinda hanging in the balance?
When it was just gonna be the surgery, we were kinda like going to sneak it in — or well he was going to sneak it it — and there would have been no gap. We were definitely following all the doctors orders and plans, but we didn’t delay anything until he got the infection and we knew it was going to be quite a long recovery, so that’s when we just cancelled everything. We decided we're not touring till we're ready and we’re not going to put the record out until Scott is healthy. It was about four months maybe. The original surgery was early in the year , probably March, and we were planning on a May or June release. If he hadn’t got the infection, no one would have known. He’s totally fine now though.
What was the process of making sure it sounded like a Crystal Method album verses a lot of other electronic music that’s out there?
I mean a lot of it happens naturally — we can’t help not sound like us — and a lot of it has to do with how we mix and the overall tones we get from kick drums and bass sounds. A big part of it is how we mix them.
In the early albums, you used some instruments, correct?
Yes, well, we still do. We have a huge collection of old analog synths and we still use them. They're a pain in the butt because they need to get serviced continually — they’re very finicky — but they make for a great sound.
Do you use live instrumentation when you play?
There’s a big difference between our DJ set and our live set. When we do the live set, it’s only our music and we’re playing keyboards, samplers, synthesizers, things like that. We’ve got a show coming up on the week of the release on Jan. 16, here in L.A. [at the El Rey Theatre], where we’ll be playing with a live drummer, bass player, guitarist, and a couple of vocalists from the new album, so that’s going to be fun. We’re going to do it the week of release and maybe during the summer as well.
What guests will be at the L.A. show?
It’s definitely going to be Dia Frampton — she sings on “Over It,” Franky Perez — he sings on a track called “Difference” and he’s also going to sing a few tracks from our past with male vocal leads, and Richard Fortus on guitar — he plays with Guns N’ Roses right now, and the drummer from Nine Inch Nails. We played with a couple of those guys before, so it’s going to be a really good show.
Are you planning on doing any big festivals in 2014?
We’ll get released from the TV world early in the year and then we’ll start touring. We’ve played Coachella and EDC [Electric Daisy Carnival] and we love those festivals, but I’d like to play Lightening in a Bottle and Shambhala, which is in Canada.
And maybe perform at Burning Man again?
Oh yeah, unless I am bound by the TV show, I’ll definitely be back to Burning Man.
How long have you been involved with Burning Man?
The first time I went was 2010 and it was such a great first burn for me. I went back with my wife the next year. And I had all plans of going back this year , but the TV series “Almost Human” started, so I had to cancel my burn, which was a real drag. I didn’t know exactly how it [the show] worked before, but this year, I’ll figure out a way to get away for at least a few days.
When you went out there for the first time, did it meet your expectations?
It felt like — it was so different — I felt like I was home. I really liked it. I feel like all the music that I hate, they don’t play it there.
Now I want to know what music you hate.
Aww, nobody likes a hater.
“Vegas” took ten years to go platinum. Were there any key momentous events or specific singles to get it there?
There was never any big moment or big week. I think it’s just that — you can say for better or for worse — we don't try to go for the big formulaic single. I guess that’s why we’re not big pop stars. I think “Vegas” just really sounded good from one year to the next. Not going for the flavor of the month sound, I think that helped that album.
I know you guys are from Vegas and then moved to L.A. early on in your career, but have you paid attention to the EDM boom in Vegas?
When I go back to Vegas now, it's such a new and completely different place. When we lived there, there were no raves, no EDM, there was nothing there. It was still in transition to marketing to young people. Vegas for the longest time was geared toward retired people who were ready to die. Then they thought, let’s go for some customers who will come back for a few years. So, they stated to change and now it’s a nightclub EDM playground. And, I mean, a lot of the clubs are bad and the DJs are all getting paid way too much money — with the people who get bottle service paying the bills. I don’t know, I guess it’s worth it to some people, so more power to them.
A lot of these Vegas DJs — who think they’re in the epicenter of the scene — seem unaware that electronic music has been thriving in Europe for a long time. I know you came up in the mid-90s, at the same time as a lot of European artists.
I mean, they greatly influenced us. When we first came out, there was hardly any American or North American artists doing the same music or touring or anything and that’s sort of what made the first go-round of electronic music — as the next big thing — hard because there weren’t enough artists. You know, this time, there’s Diplo, Skrillex, all these guys that are actually here and they’re touring. There’s so much more of an infrastructure and with the Internet changing the way everyone receives their music, it’s no longer reliant on radio stations to break music because they were always like, "What’s the safest thing to play?" Early on, it was all British [acts] for us. We were huge fans of New Order, Depeche Mode and electronic producers like William Orbit. That was where all of the music was coming from.
Did people often think you were from the UK?
They either think we're from the UK or they think we're the Chemical Brothers.
Did you ever get any flack for your name, Crystal Method, because of the drug reference?
I think we lost one car commercial, like, 10 years ago.
It’s a bold name.
Yeah, we thought it was funny at the time.
You guys have worked with Peter Hook (of New Order and Joy Division), right?
He played bass on two songs on our last album, “Divided by Night.” That was just like one of the greatest days of our lives, he played bass in our studio and told us stories the whole time. One of them was a story we were involved in, it was on the Big Day Out tour — which is like the greatest tour ever — it was one of the last nights and the tour would have a party after each event. Peter had a bodyguard assigned to him after he got too drunk and the bodyguard had to lock him in his hotel room. He said he had to look through his peephole the whole night...we were still in the bar having fun.
You’ve gotten to work with a lot of great artists over the year.
One of our favorites is definitely Tom Morello. He’s an amazing guitarist and he’s just such a joy to be around — he’s so smart, he went to Harvard, I really like his politics, I really like hanging out with Tom. But we work too slow for him. He can do a whole album in a day and it takes us like five years.
Tell me about how you started scoring music for “Almost Human.” And were you fans of J.J. Abrams before you got involved?
I liked that “Alias” show way back when and I love the new Star Trek movies. We knew Bad Robot [Productions] was making this and we wanted to check it out and we saw the pilot and loved it. We wanted to do more scoring for film and thought this would be a great crash course for us. We scored an indie film called “London” and a bunch of other music for TV and video games. But we hadn’t ever done this weekly, high pressure schedule, which — if you know anything about our rate of delivery — you’d think it would be the wrong choice for us. But we’ve been doing it every week and it’s been a lot of fun. We’re on our seventh episode right now. We get a rough edit and some ideas of what they want in it and we just start doing it. It’s all electronic and it definitely has our sound. We’re generally setting moods and vibes, so it’s like a whole bunch of really short Crystal Method songs.