2014 was always going to be a big year for The Crystal Method—just not this big.
The duo has had some big ones before. Like 1997, the year the Las Vegas natives—Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland—released their debut album, Vegas, on a Geffen Records imprint called Outpost Recordings. Five singles, including the now-classic “Busy Child,” sprang from that release, which eventually sold a million copies nationally, prompted two years of nonstop touring and earned the twosome the distinction of being the lone American breakout act of the 1997-1998 “electronica” craze.
In the minds of The Crystal Method, 2014 would be notable for one thing: a 20th anniversary, traced back to the October 1994 release of first single “Now Is the Time.” But they could not foresee Kirkland’s hospitalizations in June 2013 for a cyst removal and subsequent spinal infection, which nixed plans to release and tour for the act’s fifth full-length studio album, The Crystal Method, that summer. Nor had they been asked to create all the music for Fox’s Almost Human, a TV series tied to J.J. Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions—and a project so large it would delay touring for the new album until this spring/early summer.
“All the press we’ve done in the past two years, we bring up the date of our first release,” says Jordan, phoning in from his North Hollywood home. “We’ve always been conscious [of the date] so we definitely weren’t planning for a 20-year commemorative release. It just worked out that way. I can’t believe it will be 20 years, but it has been.”
The Crystal Method story actually goes back significantly further than 1994. In 1988, the two worked at a Smith’s in Henderson, Kirkland renting out videos, Jordan bagging groceries and replenishing the stock. One day, Jordan, who was also a musician, DJ and engineer/producer, walked into the break room and encountered Kirkland playing a drum machine. The former eventually asked the latter to come by his home studio to make music, and soon Kirkland joined Jordan during his Thursday night DJ gigs. Two years later, when Jordan had moved to LA to begin his music career in earnest, Kirkland followed him there.
The two would graduate from attending small punk-rock gigs in the Vegas desert to frequenting sprawling techno parties in the Southern California desert, which made up one of the country’s earliest and largest rave scenes. Soon, they would play those raves, but only with their synthesizers, not their turntables.
“We only did live, and that was a conscious decision,” Jordan says. “We wanted to be taken seriously as a band, as an act. We didn’t want to be perceived as DJs.” Their first live performance: opening for U.K. duo The Dust Brothers (now known as The Chemical Brothers) in 1995, a year after indie dance label City of Angels launched with “Now Is the Time” and a year before Outpost/Geffen signed The Crystal Method.
In 1997, Vegas would, along with The Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole and The Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, bring sounds of the rave underground to U.S. airwaves and concert venues. The Crystal Method, like its British peers, appealed to the American mainstream by combining acid lines and synth layers with elements of rock and hip-hop, traditional songwriting and modern pop vocals. Onstage, Kirkland attacked his keyboard like a guitar—even smashing it like one—lending this particular electronic music act rock ’n’ roll showmanship and attitude.
Subsequent albums followed, all less popular than Vegas, as retro indie rock would soon dominate the alt-rock airwaves. The duo remained busy, however, touring (as live performers and club/radio DJs) and staying loyal to the breakbeat-friendly sound that had been all but drowned out by trance and electro producers. Remember: Kirkland and Jordan essentially had six years to write and finesse the material that would comprise Vegas.
“It’s like, if you have success with the first, it’s hard to top,” Jordan says. “We’ll always have [that question]: Can we make another Vegas? I would never trade any of that for anything; if we were rejected for our second album and never got to put another out, that would be okay. You spend your whole life making your first record and then a year or two for the second! We’re proud of Vegas and happy and thankful it did as well as it did.”
With The Crystal Method—officially out January 14—the two musicians resuscitated the process, if not the sound of their biggest album (though “Sling the Decks” and “Jupiter Shift” recall classic TCM). They wrote the new songs in ways similar to the ones on Vegas. They also dusted off their old analog instruments, and played them with their newer digital wares.
And, speaking of Vegas, they employed two singers with local-resident credentials: Franky Perez (“Difference”) and Dia Frampton, formerly of Meg & Dia (“Over It”), though her 702 bona fides were news to Jordan. “I didn’t know that,” he says incredulously when the tidbit is mentioned. “That didn’t come up!”
Frampton’s voice isn’t the only familiar aspect of “Over It.” The single is one of a few album cuts that overlap with American dubstep. Kirkland and Jordan feel a kinship with the new generation of bass music artists, which shares the duo’s predilection toward breakbeats. “We DJ a lot and [have] the [Community Service Sirius] radio show, so we’re always following all the new sounds—definitely dubstep and drumstep is more up our alley than other [styles],” Jordan says. “We’re never trying to imitate or duplicate; we’re trying to make tracks that sound like The Crystal Method, but some of the new sounds are more fitting to ours than others.”
Which is to say the two would feel and sound largely out of place in Las Vegas’ new EDM palaces, despite their musical and geographical roots (to say nothing of their DJing pedigree at some of the city’s earliest nightclubs, like the Shark Club and Club Utopia). In fact, it’s surprising TCM doesn’t have a residency at, say, Marquee, where its largely genre-thwarting sound would befit the main room on locals-dominant Monday night, or even serve as a Boom Box Room or QDome alternative to the big-room trance on the weekend. For his part, Jordan says he doesn’t want to “overplay” home cities like Las Vegas or LA, though he jokes about making some calls after our own chat.
Jordan ultimately welcomes the invasion of modern dance music onto the Strip, even if the sentiment is tempered by what he sees as unsustainable payouts for the DJs, or his distaste for the banal tracks most of those DJs play. “It’s particularly interesting to me, because that’s our hometown and all of that stuff could be ruining it for everyone,” Jordan says. “Or, it’s like the best thing to ever happen!”
The irony that electronic music would become popular here 25 years after he left town doesn’t seem to be an albatross for Jordan, though. He’s too focused on the release of the new album—and with it, “reintroducing” The Crystal Method to a new BPM generation—making sure fans get their signed “perks” from said album’s Fund Anything online presale, finishing the music for Almost Human and playing the lone scheduled TCM concert date in LA, where he and Kirkland will perform with a full band.
This year was supposed to be big, yes, but easy. And yet, Twinkie-sized cysts and spinal meningitis will put things in perspective—and remind that the two-decade-plus partnership of Scott Kirkland and Ken Jordan is as fraternal as it is musical.
“He was in the ICU for a month,” Jordan says of last summer. “At that point, I said, let’s cancel everything; let’s not even think about anything until you’re completely well. I never had any regrets or anxiety about that. Some things are more important than music.”