The Crystal Method

March 26, 2014

Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland aren’t just legends of electronic dance music—they were instrumental in pioneering and defining it. Having been producing records and performing live together for 20 years since they first joined forces in Las Vegas, they also have their fingers in over 50 film scores including Blade: Trinity, Spawn, Tropic Thunder, and Fast & Furious 6, not to mention TV soundtracks such as Third Watch, Bones, Real Steel, and the new J. J. Abrams android-cop drama Almost Human. Just a few of their video game scores include Need For Speed: Nitro, FIFA ’97 and ’98, and League of Legends. 

For our March 2014 issue's cover story, we got a chance to visit their Crystalwerks studio in North Hollywood for an extended conversation, in which they schooled us on the techniques and gear behind their fifth studio album, self-titled The Crystal Method. It features collaborations with such diverse artists as Dia Frampton, Afrobeta, Nick Thayer, and even country music icon LeAnn Rimes.

Let’s start with your approach to “Grace,” the tune you worked on with LeAnn Rimes.

Ken Jordan: Our tendency is to go “big maximum” on everything, but on that track we wanted her voice to really shine.

Scott Kirkland: We had a skeleton track that was much different from anything that we’d ever done. It had a sort of faux electric piano vibe and a very laid-back beat. Did you see the Re:Generation documentary? That movie is based on different producers working in different genres that they may not be comfortable with, like Skrillex working with members of the Doors, or Pretty Lights working with Ralph Stanley, a bluegrass artist. So there’s a moment where LeAnn is working with Derek from Pretty Lights. He’s trying to go for this very throwback, trip-hoppy vibe—very natural and organic but DJ Shadow-like, with lots of warmth, lots of reverb, lots of really great funk elements. But he was doing country, this sort of re-creation of a song that you would maybe find on an old 45 or even an old 78-speed record.

There was this moment on the documentary where they’re in the studio and he’s got LeAnn in the iso booth and he’s in the control room, and he goes, “Try this part,” and she does this whole part that’s only her singing a cappella, and it’s just spectacular. And he goes, “That’s great. Can you try it an octave up?” So she goes an octave up, and it’s even better and you’re just like, wow! If you take away the instrumentation around a great vocalist and you just hear their voice, you can imagine it in so many different things. You discover the beauty and flexibility of a gifted vocalist. 

If you didn’t know she was a country artist, you’d never guess from listening to that track. What motivated you to take this approach?

KJ: When we first met her, we were telling her about one of our favorite tracks from the beginning rave days that the KLF did with Tammy Wynette. They used her voice in this really cool way. It was a minor mainstream pop hit way back then. 

SK: It was in ’91. [Plays KLF music video, “Justified and Ancient.”] You hear that track, and you realize somebody had a guitar, somebody had a banjo, but when you break out the vocalists on their own you can really get some amazing stuff. 

Working with so many different singers, how did you take best advantage of each one’s voice while still maintaining your own coherent sound? 

KJ: Our formula has always been no formula [laughs]. 

SK: For example, we’d met Dia Frampton during the release of the Re:Generation documentary, and she’s talking about how people think they know what she listens to, but in fact that she likes hip-hop and a lot of different things. And that does happen. I mean, I can’t tell you how many times people are surprised by things like that. Overcoming it can be difficult because a lot of people only want to hear you do one particular thing. But on our first record, having just been schooled by KLF and Tammy Wynette and John Lydon and Left Field, the A-side had a track that was 127bpm and the B-side had a dubby, downtempo thing that was experimenting with a different side of us. Point being, experimenting can be a lot of fun. Sometimes it doesn’t work. On the last record it didn’t work because we didn’t get a chance to work with the people directly. Usually, somebody recorded the vocal separately. . . . 

So, you tracked all the vocal collaborations on the new record at Crystalwerks, then?

KJ: Exactly. For the new album, we stipulated that all tracks had to be recorded and sung in our studio.

SK: With Dia and LeAnn, it was that whole interaction of “we should try this or that” or “move this over here”—the whole thing that happens in the room organically.

KJ: This album was kind of going back to how we made the songs on our album Vegas—using the best of all the new technology but also writing the way we used to. Fifteen years or more ago, it wasn’t even a concept that somebody could record some parts at one facility and some at a different one. But even though you can do it now, that doesn’t necessarily make it any better. I think everything being done here makes it better.

So, was there any remote collaboration on the new record at all?

SK: Nick Thayer approached us. He’s a great guy—we’d met him at Burning Man and are big fans of his work. We talked a bit and decided we wanted to do something that was like the “bam bam bam” songs, the “guttural” songs we’re known for. Based on that, he sculpted this beautiful sound at his place, and we took it back and built everything for the track we call “Dosimeter” around it. So that was one part that was outside of our studio, but he understood what we were doing. We made a track that was really the best of both worlds. 

Is there any one keyboard to which you typically turn to get the work process started?

SK: We have a few faves, to be sure, but it really varies from tune to tune. I remember a period where we had a “keyboard of the day” thing going on—we’d try to bring in a different analog synth even if we hadn’t used it in awhile, plug things in, get our old pedals out, and so on. When someone like Nick Thayer comes over to the studio, he knows all the soft synths better than we do. He’s really great at working in the confines of the box, within the computer. So we could get a really nasty sound out of Massive or Absynth or whatever . . . but this was usually about getting some unruly nonsense that we typically don’t expect to get out of hardware synths.

KJ: With hardware, it’s also about the instrument itself. For example, our ARP 2600 has filters that are set up [with sliders] on the front—so your hands can do these things that you wouldn’t do with a knobby synth like our Alesis Andromeda. Then, sending it through the Sherman Filter Bank produces sounds that are unruly as all hell. So, then, once we’d decided on what we were going use, it was basically recording for ten minutes without judging anything. The goal was to simply react to what we were hearing and the relationship that we had with the instruments. 

The new record doesn’t sound like a bunch of loops or patterns put together in “DJ” style. It sounds like linear songwriting. Is that the case?

SK: Yes, it is. That’s a result of how we first started working, years ago. We didn’t even have computer-based recording. We’d record to a DAT, with a drumbeat on one stereo side and a synth on the other, and we’d record for ten minutes, and then cut things up. 

How many of your grooves are derived from programming or synth patterns, as opposed to grabbing audio loops and building stuff around them?

SK: Loops are obviously easier to work with. There are sounds and loops from soul records. We’ve been digging through and buying a lot of those to mine for samples—loops, breaks, whatever—that we rely on a lot for inspiration and content. One thing that’s most inspiring for me right now is the FXpansion [virtual instrument] called Geist. It’s a drum machine that’s a REX loop player, and it’s an interesting tool in that you can have edit points in your loop. If you play a REX file, you’ll get the expected results, but if you jam out on an analog synth for a few bars and find a really sexy spot that you like and you tell Geist to figure out how this passage is broken down, it’ll sometimes come up with strange and different things. Also, lots of times, a drum loop is amazing feel-wise, but all the sounds are screwed up with clicks and noises. So you start to dissect that and put in new drum sounds, strip things down, get inspired by something that results from that process, then reconstruct it. 

So, you do sometimes start a project out with loops and samples?

 SK: Sometimes, yes. When you pull up a new session and there’s nothing there, that’s so daunting. There’s nothing—not a tempo, not anything. So we’ve collected all these things, we pull up old riffs, and we mess around with different tempos or beats. You need a spot to jump from. Fortunately, there are very creative people out there making incredible products. 

I remember when the Korg Wavestation came out, and I couldn’t audition five sounds without wanting to record something. Is that the type of thing you mean?

SK: Things like that, as well as unruly sounds that don’t sit well with others. When we started making music, we had a lot of distortion and things that were aggressive. I had no idea what I was doing. The engineer would come in and tell me I couldn’t do what I was doing. I think it’s been something that’s been through our music the entire time. I always think of it as a great play, or a great show. You need to have good and you need to have bad, you need to have protagonists and antagonists. You need to have this relationship going on. 

Would you say a large part of your process is creating order out of chaos?

SK: In a way. In thinking visually about the song, let’s say there’s one up-tempo part and one down, and one takes over and they’re “antagonizing” one another. But you don’t want it to be like The View where they’re talking over each other. You see those clips of The View and it’s just 30 seconds of them yelling at each other. I like the antagonism to be well orchestrated and well laid-out. 

So, that sounds like you’re thinking visually about the music. Can you elaborate on that? 

SK: Absolutely. My perspective comes from being a kid, when the first relationship I had with music on a spiritual level was the score of Star Wars. The only way you could connect to Star Wars outside of the theater was through the score, because the movie wasn’t on a videotape or a DVD. I would come home and play the score and see the artwork and the ships coming in and all the film’s actions in my mind. Music should have great actions. That’s my way of describing what it is we try to do. Even music that isn’t a film soundtrack should do what a soundtrack does, in terms of making you imagine or recall a series of events or emotions.

Your use of tones as percussion—and vice-versa—is striking. How do you discover sounds that can evolve into actual musical parts?

SK: You know, we have a process that’s similar to comedy writers. You see the Daily Show or Late Show workspace, and all this stuff is up on the wall, for no other reason than to be some form of inspiration. On that song “Grace” with LeAnn Rimes, for example, we exported a bunch of things, put them on a disc, and sat here for about 30 minutes recording all kinds of things with her vocal. When I DJ, I do some silly things like turning off the tempo control and pitch-shifting the beat until it’s a different sound, so we also experimented with the CD deck. After about three ten-minute sessions of doing that, we found the right part, and LeAnn’s vocal kind of slides into that.

I often like to have a bunch of things to look through. It’s an attempt to get back to not judging what I’m doing at the time, but to finding the gems within whatever is happening. For example, I would record a bunch of things, separate them into pieces of 150 bars each, put them in my computer, and then go home and seek out the cool ideas. In 20 minutes of just utter nonsense, you might find this one thing that has the right rhythm and the right sound. It’s like, “Wow, I found the seed that I can build everything around.” 

As a rule of thumb, do you start out with a melody or a bass line as a foundation and then build upon that, or do you jam until you capture some cool sections?

KJ: It’s usually more about melodies and chord progressions. We still hear songs in the traditional way. But when there’s a vocal, generally the process is different. It just depends on when we get the vocal, because a lot of times we get it last. With Dia Frampton, the vocal was sort of first on that song. [Plays skeleton version of “Over it,” with only Dia singing and a strummed acoustic guitar.]

SK: So Dia had the one part—the “oh my” part—and when she came in, we brought it together with this whole other thing. I loved the way that innocent little voice is going along, and then she nails that “I f**ked up” line.

I would figure that the majority of your tunes don’t start like that?

KJ: Most don’t. Most people assume that we start with drums, but it always works out worse to do it that way because the drums need to support the song. Generally, it doesn’t work that well when we try to build a song around just the drums. 

SK: Here’s a first version of the track “Grace.” [Plays a version of “Grace” with no vocals.]

KJ: The one key synth line that’s in the finished product is only in for a four-bar section in the original version.

SK: It’s like that Stevie Nicks tune, “Stop Dragging My Heart Around.” There’s that really great, uncomplicated groove between the drummer and the bass player with beautiful, heart-wrenching things on top. So we don’t always need to throw around a bunch of angry sounds that sound like a garbage truck just took a sh*t on a robot. [Everyone laughs.]

A lot of your music has a definite rock groove. What’s the inspiration for that?

SK: Nick [Thayer] and I definitely have an appreciation for rock drummers. They have this undeniable thing where they’re just being animals. Coming home and playing and listening to the Star Wars score, I wanted to be a drummer so bad and my mom wouldn’t let me. I swear, after I’d get all my schoolwork done, I’d sit in the living room with my headphones on, take a stick from the back yard, and I’d just air drum

As a rule, do you hear a part before you reach for a synth, or do you reach for a synth and get the part out of it?

KJ: If we’re working on a track, and we hear a sound in our minds, we’ll gravitate toward a synth that we think can make that sound. But, a lot of times, tracks will start with us turning on an instrument we haven’t picked up in awhile. 

SK: Yeah. We’ll get this bad boy up, and make some noise. That’s basically it. Like, “Oh, look at that. Look at that unruly son of a bitch!” 

KJ: And that doesn’t necessarily make the song, but what we’re looking for is something really cool to develop.

Do you tend to gravitate more toward hardware than software?

SK: When we’re in the studio, yeah.

KJ: We do, but I tell you, plug-ins are getting better and better.

SK: We love the Arturia stuff. It’s really amazing. We love the ARP 2600 and the Moog emulations. I love the Oberheim SEM, too—that was one we never really had. I knew the sound, but I didn’t know at the time it was an Oberheim. But I really do like that sound—that thin, filtery stuff that the SEM can do. The choices are going up!

Maybe that’s why the album really evokes two kids having fun.

SK: If I could just be experimental every single day, that’d be what it’s all about! But there’s still this balance of creating a song that’s interesting and palatable, versus being aggressive and “anarchistic” with the sound—so as to create something that turns people on and stays with them. 

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