London-based Crystal Head was a band I knew literally nothing about before watching their set at Desertfest. That was half the fun, in fact, and it made it all the better when they kicked my ass with both the professionalism of their approach and the obvious strength of their hooks. They’d turn out to be a highlight of the weekend, and I was even more stoked after listening to their self-titled debut (review here) and finding that the album confirmed what the live set seemed to indicate: that the heavy rocking trio were more than just the sum of their influences.
As regards those influences, though, you really can’t go wrong blending Queens of the Stone Age‘s wooing pop anthems and the distorted crunch of Helmet with progressive structures and a nearly per-track variety of mood, and Crystal Head‘s Crystal Head did just that. Songs like “Perfect Weirdo” and “Mad Dog” nodded in the direction of heavy, but also had some underlying malevolence about them, a subtle darkness, that hinted well at a classically dangerous element the loss of which is often mourned in rock by those whose heads have long since drowned in the barrel of commercial cynicism. Crystal Head, the album, was crisp, and professional, and accessible, but somehow your lip still ended up bloody by the time it was done.
Being that guitarist/vocalist Tom Cameron and the cousinly rhythm section of bassist/vocalist Jon Deal and drummer Dean Deal made such a strong impression live and followed-up with another on the album, it only seemed right to hit them up for more info on their origins and subsequent doings. Their choice to record Crystal Head at Sawmills Studio in Cornwall — essentially a 17th Century water mill converted to a modern studio that’s only accessible by boat at high tide — made for even more curiosity on my end, and I’m glad to report that Cameron was forthcoming on that situation as well as Crystal Head‘s songwriting processes and what went into making the record the beast it is.
Please enjoy the following Six Dumb Questions:
1. Tell me about how the band got together. I know you went through a name or two before you arrived at Crystal Head. What did it take for you to get to the point where you felt like you were ready to put out the self-titled album?
Jon and Dean are cousins. Dean and I met at school and Jon literally just knocked on my door one day and I let him in. We had a mutual friend so I knew of him, but it was still a bit weird…
We all grew up in the same small area just north of London called Welwyn Garden City. It’s quite a dead town, built around a Shredded Wheat factory with very little to do. Jon and I moved down to London five years ago.
We basically started the group from scratch, out of boredom and a shared love of music and rock bands. Dean learned to play the drums. Jon moved from six-string (which we would jam on together) and started playing bass. I was classically trained piano when I was young and had been messing about with guitar for a couple of years before we began putting songs together.
Jon and I originally played some acoustic shows before Dean began drumming and we still perform like this from time to time.
The album for us was well overdue. We’d produced numerous demos and EPs in our previous guises but never a full-length effort. And with the change to Crystal Head it felt like a suitable time to draw a line in the sand and move forward.
2. When were the songs for the record written? The material sounds fresh, but it’s all really well structured as well. Did it take much time for those tracks to come together, and did you know when you were making the album how you wanted to order the songs?
Songwriting has never been a short process for us. Any songs that make it to a live performance would have been formed over many hours of meticulous rehearsal and change. One song that didn’t make it on the album had four different choruses before we ditched it from our live set.
“Mad Dog” is the oldest song on the album and has been in existence for a few years. “Truth Hurts,” on the other hand, we wrote during the first album session at the studio. Most of our songs, like other artists, evolve and mutate over time until they become the finished recorded article. Then in turn they tend to change again when played live. Areas loosen up and spaces are sometimes filled.
The running order of the album was something very important to us. Without trying to sound cliché, we wanted to make the album as much of a journey as possible without being conceptual. Once all the songs were recorded the tracklisting decisions were like brain surgery that we stewed over for a number of weeks.
3. What was it like recording in Cornwall? From what I’ve seen about Sawmills Studio, it looks gorgeous. How did you find that place and decide to do the album there?
The Mill is one of the most beautiful places we’ve all visited. It’s set within a small tidal creek, which is only accessible via boat at high tide. Basically other than between 7AM-10AM and 6PM-8PM, you are stricken on this remote island in this huge mansion surrounded by woodland.
There’s no mobile phone reception or connectivity so you are literally cut-off from the world. A great place to be (in our opinion) if you want to make a record. Add to that the amazing Tom Joyce who engineered and mixed it with us, you’ve really got something very special. We’d recorded a couple of EPs there prior so knew when we decided to record the album that it was the place for us.
4. The songs sound way more modern than a 17th Century water mill might initially indicate. Did you know what you wanted out of the production going into the recording process?
We benefited from having many of the songs in the bank for a long time so were aware of how they could sound from previous demos. Our main challenge was making the album sound “like an album.” So trying to achieve a comprehensive sound for the record in its entirety without each track losing too much of its individuality. Again a very intense process of working day and night listening to every sound over and over until we reached where we wanted to be.
We also were intent on making a “studio” record, which for me means utilizing anything available in the studio, be it other instruments, effects, layers to create a sound that sets the bar for our live performances. Obviously, being a three-piece, this can be difficult to achieve, but as much as we can we’ll play out the tracks as hard and incisively as the album recordings.
5. How was Desertfest for you guys? It seemed like a really strong gathering of bands and fans across the three venues, and being on the outside of London’s scene, I thought it was a cool opportunity to see bands I might otherwise never be able to catch. What was it like for you playing, and how did you feel overall about the fest itself?
DesertFest was just such a positive experience. I think anyone who was involved or came to watch the bands will say the same. It’s like we took over a little corner of London for the weekend and just had a big party. We had two sets, one acoustic and one plugged in and the response from the crowds was really overwhelming. Have to say a big thank you to everyone who came to our performances and shared those moments. We really appreciate it.
We’re good friends with Reece, Dan and the whole Steak crew and what they are doing is an absolute right. We’ll continue to assist them (as they do us) with anything they need to keep momentum going. We played the very first Desertscene show a couple of years ago now and it’s phenomenal to see the way it’s grown so rapidly and successfully. You can expect some big things in the future from the team there I’m sure.
6. Any other plans or closing words you want to mention?
We’ve just been added to BGA Management Groups, who are based out in Europe. Funnily enough they found us at our DesertFest show at The Underworld. They’ve promised us world domination so we’re going to hold them to that!
You’ll see a revamped online presence and tour dates very soon via crystalhead.co.uk and we’ll be looking to get back in the studio to start work on a second album this winter.
Tags: Crystal Head, London, UK, Unsigned bands