Photo: Graham John Bell

The Drive Inside: An Interview with the Crystal Method

Once a duo, the '90s dance kingpins the Crystal Method are now just one member: Scott Kirkland and his many guests. Kirkland talks to PopMatters about losing a member, the changing of the scene, and how they got their name in the first place.

The Trip Home
The Crystal Method
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Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland formed the Crystal Method in the early 1990s, and 1997’s Vegas was their first studio album. A pioneer of the big beat genre, they combined breakbeats with synth patterns to make atmospheric, sleek, rhythmic tracks. Cool enough for the late ’90s alt-crowd, dancey enough for the club kids, and catchy enough for everybody else, Vegas brought the Crystal Method immediate airplay and attention. Advertisement, film, and soundtrack placements helped spread the word.

Subsequent studio works include Tweekend (2001), Legion of Boom (2004), and Divided by Night (2009), which, along with one-off’s like their Filter collaboration on the Spawn soundtrack, helped establish their scene credentials. Interspersed are the mix albums Community Service (2002) and Community Service II (2005) featuring remixes of and by the Crystal Method as well as remixes of and by other artists.

Yet 2013 proved to be a pivotal year for the duo. As they worked to create the next studio album, Kirkland learned he needed brain surgery to remove a benign cyst. An infection resulting from the procedure placed him in ICU for ten days. He recovered. Delayed but not daunted, the Crystal Method persevered and released their eponymous fifth album in 2014.

Perhaps a bittersweet release for fans, The Crystal Method would be the final release from the duo. Jordan decided he was ready to get out of the business and relocate to Costa Rica leaving Kirkland to continue without him. Speaking to PopMatters, Kirkland opened up about Jordan’s retirement, Vegas, and the Crystal Method’s upcoming release The Trip Home.

The name the Crystal Method immediately sounds like a drug reference. Will you tell us about the true origins of the name?

It’s meant to be provocative. Really, the name is just about the three words. Many, many years ago Ken and I were working as sort of a production duo. Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were doing some remixes, producing, and things like that. We like the idea of following in that tradition of making music. When we first started putting things together and working together, there wasn’t really an electronic scene over in the states besides the underground rave scene.

This rapper we were working with all those years ago said the phrase in an offhand comment referring to the method of transportation that were using. This girl Crystal was going to come pick us up. He says, “The Crystal Method”. I remember hearing the way that sounded. When you hear “Def Leppard” you don’t think of a …

… feline with hearing impairment.

Right. The same with Led Zeppelin. There are these names that sound cool, and it’s more about that sometimes than the literal meaning. Of course, the drug reference was going to be there because it’s unavoidable, but there is no specific tie-in to drugs. It’s more about the layout of the three words. Also, there is all this crystal healing. There’s actually a scientific method called the Crystal Method.

Why does Vegas continue to resonate over 20 years later?

That’s a good question. I think it’s a good album. I don’t say that’s just because it’s ours. There’s something there. That time, 1997/1998, when people started to discover it, I think it resonated with people because it has a crossover factor. There’s a little bit of our rock influences and our funk and R&B influences. It hit at the right time. People found it and have held onto it. There’s a lot of memories from that time period for many people.

Think about now. People that grew up in the generation before us can turn on the radio and hear all of their favorite songs because of the classic rock format. Even with the grunge scene, you can’t even turn on a big radio station anywhere across the country without hearing Nirvana and those classic tracks from that time period. People still have a nostalgia for that time period, especially those albums. We came out right around the time of the Chemical Brothers’ Dig Your Own Hole, the Prodigy’s The Fat of the Land, and Daft Punk’s Homework. I’m just really grateful that people found it and saw something that resonates in them. I’m really proud of Vegas and how it’s held up.

Can you talk some about “Bad Stone”, the last track from Vegas?

I was thinking about the last track on the album, and I wanted something that had a good vibe. Jon Brion, an amazing and talented musician, is on that song. Nowadays you can run everything through the box. You can basically do a demo by hitting “bounce”, and the computer will do it all and run all the different algorithms and programs. We used a DAT machine to record demos back then. We couldn’t work on a track and then put that track aside and then come back to it later. The way we had our board set up, it was just impossible for us to do that. Thankfully, “Bad Stone” came together really quick and we ended up using the second of the two demos we had on the album. It’s a fun track. I love it.

The late ’90s and early ’00s seem to have been a kind of high-water mark for electronica/EDM culminating in Moby’s Play which has sold over 12 million copies and is the Thriller or Back in Black of the genre. Then the genre seems to have slowly receded, at least in America. Why is this?

I think it has receded. That time period had the shelf life of a lot of genres or movements. If you think about the grunge period, that really kicked off in ’92 and was pretty much done by 1997 or 1998, right?

Yes. I think of the bookends of its peak time as a mainstream thing as the release of Ten and Nevermind, which took off very late 1991, and Soundgarden’s breakup in mid-1997.

I think that’s a cyclical thing. People grow up a little bit. They get past it. The bands either break up or they don’t continue to make the same type of music. In the late ’90s, right near the end of the grunge period, there was a Rolling Stone cover with Keith Flint from the Prodigy on the front of it that said something about them being the next big thing. Of course, that was the kiss of death right there, right?

I think so. That’s also why sometimes folks locate that time in ’91 as the end of the grunge era instead of the start because that’s right when it was blowing up. The beginning is the end.

It always is, right? When any major publication declares something the “It” thing, then it becomes quickly tired. That’s the way things work. I think a lot of those bands like Orbital, Daft Punk, the Prodigy, and the Chemical Brothers are still making quality music. As a scene, it’s still pretty vibrant and has held on through the years. A lot of the publicity and the attention was put on other music. Hip-hop is continuing to expand and grow. There are lots of different ways people consume music nowadays so that probably affects it as well.

I also think about those movements like futurepop that never got their day but still kept going. A lot of the people who love, for example, Depeche Mode might really enjoy groups like Iris, Assemblage 23, VNV Nation, and Covenant, but when Violator blew up, it didn’t seem to have that ripple effect. Maybe it’s timing. There really wasn’t a break between ’80s hard rock and ’90s grunge.

I’ve sort of thought that maybe pop music has absorbed and assimilated that EDM sound to a certain extent. Some of the Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga studio material almost sounds like it’s coming out already remixed. That electronic sound was there already, of course, but maybe it’s gotten worked more into pop music.

I think pop has definitely taken up a lot of that, though some of it is sort of in-the-box. People can access software to make that music much easier nowadays [rather] than back when we were first making music. A kid in their bedroom can do it. Many, many years ago deadmau5 was living in squalor in a Toronto apartment when I first talked to him. He went from being pretty much unknown, with no big record label and no big push from a publicity company to where he is now. He just did it all on his own. I think that the way technology has grown you can make music without having to go into a big studio. It’s really affected the way we hear music now. I think that’s a good thing.

Ken Jordan retired in 2016. Why?

He retired for the reason most people retire: they want to do something else. [laughs] He and his wife, Janine, had fallen in love with Costa Rica. They’ve been going down there a lot and wanted to start a new life. He’s a little older than I am. That’s a hell of a trip to the studio to make music. He is super happy, tan, healthy. I’m really, really happy that we were able to figure something out. I bought him out of the studio and we’ve come up with a great situation where I can continue making music as the Crystal Method with his support. It’s the best of both worlds. I know that he’s happy. There’s no animosity.

So you’ve managed to avoid one of those Oasis scenarios in which two people who were the force behind the band stopped working together, and now it’s just nothing but negativity when they talk about each other?

There’s no negative bullshit that sometimes goes with these situations. I’m benefiting from the positive energy that we’ve been able to bring forward from our 20-plus years in the band. I’m thriving under his long-distance guidance and his appreciation for me as a person and as a producer. I really, really love the guy. I’m striving every day to continue to make the Crystal Method something that we both can be proud of going forward.

What was Ken’s role in the Crystal Method and how have you compensated — can you completely compensate — for his absence?

He was one half of the Crystal Method. We collaborated on five-plus albums. He was more of the engineer, producer, that kind of role. Over the years I picked up a few skills from being in the studio. When you’re with someone day in day out like we were for so many years, you get to know someone to the point where you almost think the way they think because you know the way they think. I’ve been able to benefit from the knowledge and expertise, that sort of combined effort that we had going back to when we first built our studio in a two-car garage out in La Crescenta. I still hear what he hears. I still know what he knows, what he likes. I appreciate that.

You can’t really replace him. For me, it was about finding other people that I really like to work with and to collaborate with like-minded people with similar tastes. Ken and I had a lot of similar tastes, but they weren’t exactly the same. The things that we did appreciate I’ve been able to find with some people like Glen Nicholls, Le Castle Vania, Matt Lange, Tobias Enhus, and a few others, people that I get along with well and speak the same language as far as how we communicate musically in the studio. From that, I’ve been able to put together the collaborations that are part of The Trip Home. Some of those collaborations will continue in the next album which will be The Trip Out. I’m hoping to get that out next July. I’m just trying to continue making music and being a positive influence on the scene and the people I come in contact with.

Does Ken have any involvement informally? For example, do you tell him about an idea or send him a track just to get some feedback or suggestions?

No. I wanted to get in here, in the studio, and not be conflicted by thinking about what Ken would do. I don’t think he would want me to. Back in November, we did two shows together in Russia, one in Moscow and one in St. Petersburg because it was something we had booked far out. We had a great time, and I played him a couple of things. Being in the studio and producing is really something you need to be doing all the time to keep in touch with technology and how things keep advancing. I didn’t bother him daily, weekly, or even monthly with any files to listen to. I wanted to get everything together and play him a couple of things.

He gave me some feedback. The main thing he said was “Keep doing what you’re doing. It sounds awesome.” That felt good.

That’s about as positive a response as you can get from anybody about anything. Do you think you will share more material with him?

Maybe in the future, but, again, he’s farming and doing yoga and shit like that in Costa Rica. I don’t even know if he has good Internet. I think he has a connection, but sometimes it’s not there. I have respected his retirement. I’ve just gone on making the music.

How has the Crystal Method kept going for over 20 years, especially in a culture whose attention span is decreasing while our sense of disposability is increasing?

Ken and I never wanted to repeat ourselves. When Vegas was out, and we were starting to work on the next album, we had toured a lot and been out on the road for two or three years. The last thing I wanted to do was make another record that was like Vegas. It wouldn’t be possible. I almost rejected everything that was electronic music at the time. This is before we were DJing. We’d just go do live shows, so most of the stuff I was listening to was old funk. I’d found this really great store in Chicago called Dusty Grooves that stocked and reissued rare groove, the dirty, funky kind of stuff that had come out and been lost over the years.

Okay, this helps me understand some of the progression and changes in sound from Vegas to Tweekend and see what the plan was. There are shades of funk, R&B, and soul on the whole album, but on some of the tracks like “Wild, Sweet, and Cool” it really comes to the surface.

I’d really embraced my rock bands and everything like that I grew up with over the years. So the idea was don’t repeat ourselves. Don’t do the same things we did last time. Even if what we do for Tweekend isn’t right at least it won’t be the same as what we did before. We continued to take on every challenge. We did The Family Values Tour where we played on the same stage as Limp Bizkit, Korn, Filter, and other rock bands. We went on after Green Day and lit all their gear on fire at a radio show in Washington D.C. We’ve embraced every challenge, and we’ve never looked at ourselves as just a dance act or an electronic act.

We make music with electronics, and we make basically electronic music, but that doesn’t mean we have to subscribe to that particular style and let it dictate every decision that we make. Over the years many different bands and genres have come and gone. We just keep going through sheer determination, and I’m sure quite a bit of luck and a great team. We’ve had the same manager and the same lawyer since before Vegas. Richard Bishop and Gail Perry have been the two people that have really, really helped protect, guide, and nurture our career. It’s been a combination of many things.

But I understand your point about the attention span, and that’s really kind of why I wanted to specifically make the album feel like The Trip Home feels. I wanted to have all of those moments where things just wash over you. On “Ghost in the City”, there’s a kind of gnarly, atmospheric thing at the end that creates a feeling of slowly churning away and disappearing into the ether. I’ve always been able to find such great comfort in listening to music because it takes you away and allows you to separate yourself from your own anxieties. I really embrace that idea and hope that people find their way to The Trip Home and get some of that out of it.

You’ve said that “The Trip Home refers to my long journey: all the places where I’ve been able to go.” Tell us some more about the album.

The album has a lot of collaborators, and I couldn’t have done the record without these wonderful people. My vision was to create a stylized, cinematic album that really took in all of the influences that I’ve had over the years in a band, from scoring, and all of the different things I’ve been doing since Ken’s been gone. I just really, really wanted to do a record that was not specifically an EDM record as that phrase EDM is conventionally understood. I wanted to do a record that sounds great, and that didn’t rely on aggressive tricks and all these different things that are so prevalent in modern music where you’re vying for someone’s attention every moment, and you’re filling the space with lots of sounds that maybe don’t mean a whole lot. I wanted to make a record that lived and breathed and had moments like that moment when things are rough, and then all of a sudden things smooth out.

If you’ve ever been on a plane that’s been turbulent, you’re gripping the handle, and then next thing you know the seatbelt sign is off, and you feel that emotional relief. I wanted to create that in music, this sort of combustible, aggressive vibe and then pull back and have that release.

Back in the day, we used to talk about the drop, which was when everything disappeared and dropped out. Now, the drop is when everything comes back in. [laughs] It’s an interesting change of terminology.

I just really wanted a record that felt like it was a score for a movie that you want to see, something cinematic that takes its time. I wanted to make an album that people could enjoy and listen to. I know that people don’t do that a lot, but I still do, and I still appreciate it. I’m hoping there are some others out there that still appreciate the format and the idea of sitting down and just listening to music, listening to an album. I’m super proud of what The Trip Home turned out to be.

A lot of the song titles such as “Turbulence”, “Carry-On”, “The Drive Inside”, and “Cabin Pressure” suggest travel in some way. Was that a theme when you started the album or is that something that developed along the way?

That’s a good question. Initially, I knew that I wanted it to have a narrative and to feel like a concept album. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I knew what I wanted it to feel like. There were at least ten names for possible album titles. Then, I went away from home doing DJ gigs. I’m doing that all on my own. I’m going out without a tour manager. I’m really making it an experience by just going in and seeing the town, going down and hanging out with the people at the club, and just being more representative of what my generation of artists had and how we made electronic music.

At some point, I was on this long trip and I came back and I was having this conversation with my wife and I said something about “the trip home”. It was like the moment when we heard the three words “the crystal method.” I was like, “Wow — ‘the trip home’ — that sounds really nice”. It flows. It evokes different things. “Turbulence” sounds like a jet engine taking off, a thousand angry hornets in the belly of a rocket blasting into space. “Carry On” has that sort of sense of movement. I close my eyes and feel like I’m on a train seeing the city go by or the lights go by through the windows. “The Drive Inside” is really about the drive, the motivation, that thing we all go through, the grind of getting up and doing the things we have to do and the rewards of that. That goes into chapter one, which is sort of that epic uplift. Chapter two will be on the next album. When we settled on that album title and started to focus on it, some of the song titles did come out of that. I travel a lot, too, and wrote some things in airports. That theme of travel is definitely there.

Let’s get more into some of the individual tracks. What can you tell us about “Moment of Truth” from The Trip Home?

“Moment of Truth” is a gnarly club track. The title was inspired by an article I recently found again that I saw years and years ago in The Los Angeles Times. The piece is about the club Truth. Back before Moonshine was a record label they used to throw underground clubs by taking over warehouses and setting three or four kegs of beer down in the middle of the room. You have to get a map to find the location and that sort of stuff.

The article talks about Truth in its heyday of 1991-1992 at a place called the Park Plaza Hotel, which is reminiscent of a much grander time. It was one of these grand venues with big ballrooms that were built in the 20s. When you went into the building, there was this giant open-air staircase that was well-lit with chandeliers. Then you turned the corner and went into this room, and it was a heaving room of great music, great vibes, and all those cool, old rave lights that created an atmosphere that was really memorable. It was a great club. I liked that title and the reference to the article.

What about “Turbulence”?

When you go on a vacation, you know that you will only have so much time, so you try to make the most of it. Everything ends. We’re all going to end. This is the way the world works. I thought it was a really great way of introducing a narrative that spoke about the times we’ve had and the times we’re having and making the most of that. Take advantage of the opportunities you have.

Whose voice do we hear on “Hold on to Something”, and what is that about?

Teflon Sega, the voice that starts out the track, is sort of an extension of someone that’s going through trouble and given up hope and that’s lost.

Delila Paz from The Last Internationale just came in, and when we were talking about the song I told her, “I just want you to sound like you’re pulling back someone that’s lost”. I wanted her to pull Teflon back from the edge like someone grasping at the hand of someone that’s about to slip into the blackness of space.

Delila says, “I’m taking you home” which leads us to the next track, “Let’s Go Home”, which closes the album and has a distinct ’80s sound. The intro reminds me of the Stranger Things theme, which is a great piece of music.

That’s very kind. My family and I got a great deal of joy from watching those two seasons. Obviously, that’s one of the coolest scores or soundtracks or themes that I’ve ever come across. I think that’s what so special about that sound is that it’s created with synthesizers and gear that was very popular in the ’80s. Again, I grew up in the ’80s, so no matter how much I try to think I’m a little bit more rock and a little bit more funk, I can easily fall back into the sounds of the ’80s, especially when you get into that synthy, pop crossover stuff. There’s definitely a lot of nostalgia there for me. I’m going for a positive, uplifting feel especially on that last one.

“Let’s Go Home” was a great, positive representation of what home is for me and many others — that kind of safe place, that place that you grew up. Everybody has that concept of home, of being safe, of being happy. I hope the song will bring that back a little bit to them. Again, part of the narrative of the album was this journey that took us through all of these different periods in my life and in Ken’s life and in the lives of all of us that grew up in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

Really, I just wanted to have that representation of a journey worth taking and that happy ending with the song.