All That Glitters
It's safe to say that the Crystal Method's Scott Kirkland isn't losing a wink of sleep over electronica's soggy commercial performance in 1997. The same goes for its questionable chart prospects in '98, not to mention the genre's relative fall from favor of late with the same critics who, last year, were touting techno-beat geeks as the next David to topple the conglomerated Goliath that is modern rock radio.
"I think it's cool that a lot of the magazines and media types are backing away from the hype," says Kirkland via a remarkably clear overseas connection from the U.K. (Ah, the wonders of technology.) "I think that when people are force-fed things, more often than not they try and back away from it. Nobody wants to hear that crap."
Kirkland is pleased that all that "next big thing" nonsense has died down. Because now, he and his turntable-hacker pal Ken Jordan can get back to the business of sharpening electronica's cutting edge, without the mainstream trend-mongers looking over their shoulders to monitor their progress. Yes, the Los Angeles-based duo is indeed cutting edge -- maybe not in the street-level definition of the term (both are homely white boys with bad skin and bland suburban upbringings), but definitely where it counts: with their music.
The Crystal Method makes up for its lack of Goldie-esque freak appeal with a pointed rock and roll sensibility, a high experimental IQ and a fully formed hook sense. So it's no surprise that Vegas, the Method's major-label debut, was one of the few hits of last year's so-called electronica boom, even if it did eventually stall in the Billboard Top 200. Vegas has sold over 150,000 units internationally, and its new single, "Keep Hope Alive" -- a sonically potent dance-floor fusillade that dates back to 1995 and includes sound bites from Jesse Jackson's legendary speech at the '92 Democratic Convention -- ought to pad that figure substantially.
In the meantime, Kirkland and his creative associate are losing sleep for all the right reasons, currently touring Great Britain and Australia before making their way back to the United States for a club tour. Last year, the Crystal Method was one of the headliners on the infamous Electronic Highway Tour, which -- like a handful of other ill-assembled, underpromoted electronica package tours that carpeted America in '97 -- went over like an Ultravox reunion. Kirkland says that the failure of Electronic Highway and other tours of its techno-speckled ilk was due to breakdowns and bad reads on a number of levels.
"They just did a poor job of putting together the tour," he says. "They didn't do the right street promotion. A lot of the kids who go out on the weekends, they don't watch MTV and they don't look at papers that much. They get their information from the typical street promotion that has been popular in this scene for quite some time -- fliers, posters, word of mouth. They didn't reach the credible core of kids who go to these things."
Last summer, the Electronic Highway Tour made its Houston stop at the Westpark Entertainment Center. Attendance was unspectacular, but Kirkland says the vibe here was more positive than in most cities.
"It's difficult to create a cool, ravy, free environment in some of the places we played," he admits. "Still, [Houston] was cool because it was a nice summer night, and it was beautiful outside."
Vegas couldn't be a more fitting title for the Crystal Method's first full-length outing. Like the decadent desert DisneyWorld after which it was named, the disc's ten breathtaking cuts radiate sin, though in ways that are designed to seduce rather than to shock.
By and large, Vegas is as flashy and exhibitionistic as the Casino City itself, enthralling in its need not only to be heard but to be experienced. Littered with indecipherable sound bites, pounding break-beats, slashing chord progressions, random synth shards and ear-tweaking pedal effects, the Method's wrenching audible sweep is ugly, destructive and downright dissonant in spots. But it's also strangely reassuring and deceptively melodic. Vegas is that rare electronica release that has a rightful place in both the living room and the nightclub; its moody techno-craft is as emotionally stirring as it is dance-floor friendly.
The tie-in to Vegas is more than atmospheric, however: Kirkland and Jordan both grew up in the city, and they freely acknowledge it has made them what they are today.
"It has a lot to do with our habits; the way we think and feel," says Kirkland. "If you grew up in the countryside with a swing set, a cow and the family dog, you might grow up making music like John Mellencamp, you know? We like the dark, gloomy aspect of Vegas that most people don't see. We hung out in seedy bars and got away from that cheesy thing people relate to Vegas.
"Besides, [calling the CD Vegas] sounded a lot better than calling it Glendale, where we live now."
Kirkland and Jordan met while working part-time shifts at a local supermarket. By then, Kirkland had already tired of rock's more traditional moves and had progressed to the layered, synthetic confections of Depeche Mode. (To this day, departed Mode founder Martin Gore is one of his idols.) Trading his guitar for keyboards early on, Kirkland received his first sampler and sequencer as high school graduation presents from his parents. Little did they know the career they'd set in motion.
Jordan, meanwhile, had been honing his turntable skills as a DJ at KUNV, the heralded college radio station at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he was eventually promoted to program director. He also began dabbling in production, taking as many university courses on the subject as he could handle. Soon enough, Jordan invited his supermarket co-worker to listen to some work he had done, and a partnership was born.
After graduating from UNLV, Jordan landed a job as a studio engineer in Los Angeles, and Kirkland -- lacking the funds to skip town -- stayed behind in Vegas. Still, Kirkland would drive to the West Coast on weekends to work with his friend. At night, they'd take in the local rave scene, club-hopping until all hours of the morning. It was more business than pleasure, however, and the connections they made in the L.A. haunts would prove to be invaluable.
By 1991, Kirkland had raised enough cash to move west permanently. Two years later, the duo was sharing a house in the L.A. suburb of Glendale, where a converted garage on the property served as their home studio. They nicknamed it the Bomb Shelter after an old relic on their front lawn that was allegedly left over from the Cuban missile crisis. Slaving over their keyboards, sequencers and samplers -- producing and mixing everything themselves, in an atmosphere that Kirkland says resembles "some science-fiction control room from the '50s" -- the Method men finally caught the attention of some big players. Before long, they were remixing tracks for the likes of Moby, Black Grape and Zen Cowboys, while also completing their first 12-inch, "Now Is the Time."
In 1994, "Now Is the Time" was released on the nascent City of Angels label, which was formed by a pair of U.K. entrepreneurs determined to draw attention to America's burgeoning electronica scene. Three years and a dizzying blur of indie singles later, the Crystal Method had a deal with Universal/Outpost Recordings, signing on just as the music business's electro-lust was at its peak.
Of course, the best thing about all the back-slapping hyperbole that arose during the brief period of industry infatuation is the fact that it's over, says Kirkland.
"The more people who bitch and moan about things that don't matter, the more attention it's going to take away from the music," Kirkland says. "It's like, if the same fucking magazine that had Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones and the Spice Girls on the cover last month is now saying electronica is the next big thing, it sends people running in different directions. Now, hopefully, people will just listen."
The Crystal Method performs with BT and DJ Taylor on Thursday, February 12, at the Orbit Room, 2524 McKinney. Doors open at 9 p.m. Tickets are $15. For info, call 267-9834.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Houston, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.