A sheet of paper is taped to the box office window at The Fillmore, a concert hall not far from Union Square in Manhattan. Written in black marker, the note reads, “The Crystal Castles show is completely, absolutely sold-out.”
Inside, hundreds of androgynous fans with stringy hair and beer-stained T-shirts stand shoulder-toemaciated-shoulder. The band, comprised of singer Alice Glass and producer Ethan Kath, takes the stage an hour late. Glass’ severe black bob and heavy eye makeup, mixed with the venue’s oppressive strobe lights, obscure much of her face. The whites of her eyes glow bright yellow as the 22-year-old punk screams and sings over Kath’s demonic synth arrangements. She extends her sinewy arms and dives into the throngs, her body so possessed by the melodic séance that it seems she’s convulsing.
Earlier that day, an entirely different Glass opens the door to her suite at Midtown’s Hudson Hotel. Quiet and aloof, she lacks the charisma that makes her so hypnotic in concert. In real life, her feral intensity is replaced by a pair of matching cat masks that she and Kath refuse to take off. Since the release of their eponymous debut album two years ago, the duo has created, nurtured and perhaps exaggerated these cantankerous and willfully enigmatic personae. From their silly disguises to their standoffish, above-it-all relationship to the media, Glass and Kath desperately want people to know they don’t give a fuck.
Take Kath’s thoughts on the evolution of his band: “We were not trying to evolve. Crystal Castles was born out of the environment,” he says. “It’s a natural evolution, not a concept. It’s about following your genetic code. It’s about things breaking down. It’s about maggots forming from rotting meat.” Perhaps, then, they might comment on how the success of their first album—and the subsequent media attention they received—has colored Glass’ eagerness to bare her soul lyrically? “Her lyrics have always been personal,” says Kath, answering for her. “Nothing has changed.” Okay, but surely being in a white-hot band, one whose debut clocked in at 39 on NME’s list of the “Top 50 Greatest Albums of the Decade,” changes things? “Ask the Cure,” Glass replies.
Away from the bright lights, Kath is the scabrous yin to Glass’ restrained yang. Allegedly, they met six years ago in their hometown of Toronto while reading to the blind, part of a high school community service requirement (although this may be a fabrication—Kath, 28, should have been well out of high school by the summer of 2004). Glass, then 15, was part of a noise-punk band called Fetus Fatale. After seeing her perform, Kath sent Glass a series of 60 instrumental songs, from which she added lyrics to five. A sixth track, originally a studio outtake never intended for release, became the band’s first single, “Alice Practice.” (Kath says that fans always botch the lyrics to this one: “In ‘Alice Practice,’ Madame sings, ‘the dregs in us spent the Earth down,’ but people seem to think it’s, ‘you shrug it off except that you don’t.’”) The album, like a roiling pot of bile, bubbled with an acidic, pungent collection of tracks that were sharply written, gloriously unprocessed and surprisingly sincere. Even if they sorely lacked social decorum, Crystal Castles were impossible to dismiss.
On their second offering, the recently released Crystal Castles—yes, it’s also self-titled—Glass and Kath embrace a softer pop sound, meandering pleasantly away from the sonic concrete found on “Doe Deer,” by far the album’s most jarring song. Journey to the End of the Night, a misanthropic, semi-autobiographical novel written in the 1930s by French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline, inspired Glass to write these new songs. But to drive home her lack of patience for questions about influences, she adds that she is also quite taken with “birds fucking.” Similarly, Kath found inspiration in “issues of Guns Magazine from the ’80s.” Adding to its amalgam of disparate sounds, the album was recorded in an Icelandic church, a cabin in Ontario and a garage in Detroit. “Both of us gave up our apartments; therefore, after tours, we had nowhere to go home to,” Kath says. “We would stay in the city of the last show of the tour. We recorded the album in the random places we ended up.”
At each stop along the way, from Rohstofflager in Zurich to Austin’s La Zona Rosa, Crystal Castles fans came in droves to watch their favorite experimental rockers. The band has been known to elicit anarchic behavior from its feverish crowds, proved last year at Los Angeles’ Hard music festival (where Glass suffered a concussion after being kicked in the head) and in 2008 at a festival in Brighton, England (where they narrowly avoided arrest for sparking a near-riot). But when asked about the manic zeal with which the band has been received, Kath says simply, “People have been very nice to us, but I don’t think we deserve it.” False modesty is just another way of lying.
Photography by Marley Kate.