In their brief but busy lifespan, Crystal Eyes have enlisted a crack team of members from coast to coast. These include the Calgary power couple Samantha Savage Smith and Chris Dadge (Chad VanGaalen, Lab Coast, a endless list of free-improv guises), Nick Gajewski (Soupcans), Kerri Landry (Play Guitar, Traces), Jesse Powell (The Pine Tarts), and Andy Flegel (Faux Fur, Blanka). Erin Jenkins is the mastermind behind the swoon-worthy downer-pop group, hitting sweet and sour spots with their debut EP No Man Is An Island (released back in May by Victoria’s Shake! Records). The rotating line-ups of the Crystal Eyes live band have proved to be a necessity for Jenkins’ wanderlusting tours from Tofino, BC to the East Coast and back again. They’re on the road again this month with a stop at Pop Montreal. Read on for an interview with the no-brow band giving nods to J.D. Salinger, the Sex Pistols, and Bart Simpson.
AUX: What sorts of pros and cons do you find with a line-up in constant flux?
Erin Jenkins: The logic behind this constant flux is that it allows me to be able to tour and say yes to shows even if Chris and Sam aren’t able to join me. It’s an interesting band model, but the major pro is the flexibility it provides me. I’m also benefitted by the fact that all of the musicians I have played with are excellent, super generous with their time and all bring a fresh energy to the songs. The downside is that it can eat up a lot of time working on old songs when I want to be playing new ones! However, it’s been working really well, and allows me time to write and develop songs with my drummer Mathieu Blanchard, so that I can bring them to the rest of the band fully formed.
I hear this project began when you recorded a solo album called I’m Actually A Really Nice Person (which is a seriously great title) with the sole intention of giving copies to friends. What was that album like? Was it very different than what you’re doing now?
I’m Actually a Really Nice Person included six or seven songs I recorded on GarageBand, mostly because I was stoked that I had a Mac computer finally! I would say it follows the same trajectory as Crystal Eyes, but as an earlier, less-experienced songwriter. The songs were mostly sad, guitar pop, with titles like “Salinger’s Dead” and “Time to Sell the Farm.” They represent my slow transition from being a collaborator towards gaining the confidence to step out as more of a solo artist. I gave it away to friends partly because I think I needed to check with people I trusted if it was any good!
How did things take off from there?
Well, luckily one of those people I showed it to did think it was good, and encouraged me to start jamming with him (Mathieu Blanchard, who is now the drummer for Crystal Eyes). I decided early on to scrap all of the old material and start writing new songs. We would sort of guerrilla jam whenever we got the chance and wherever we were. I wrote quite a few songs that I threw away until the sound eventually began to ‘crystalize’ (haha) in the right direction to form the six songs that make up the No Man is an Island EP.
Crystal Eyes live at Edmonton’s Wunderbar.
How have you managed to pull The Dadge away from his million other projects? Can you tell people a bit about him for the uninitiated?
Great question, I still scratch my head at how both Chris and Sam can fit so much in! Basically, Chris Dadge is the ‘dad’ and a pillar of the Calgary music community, with a special love for all things twee and lo-fi. He heads up the much beloved Calgary band Lab Coast and also plays with Chad VanGaalen and with Samantha Savage Smith, puts on an incredible amount of free-improv and experimental music shows under his Bug Incision series and records albums for tons of Calgary bands on his trusty 8-track.
I had previously recorded with Chris with a band I was in called Seahorse, and had also worked with him at Theatre Junction in Calgary. Early on I knew I wanted to record with him for Crystal Eyes. I set up the sessions and asked if he would play the bass for the recording, never expecting that he would be the permanent bass player (although secretly daring to dream of course!) and much to my pleasant surprise, at the end of the recording, he asked me if I would like for him to join the band on bass and suggested that it would be great to add Sam on guitar as well. So of course, I jumped at the chance to bring them on board, and it’s been great working with them. They’re both such hard-working musicians and I have a ton of respect for them, plus they’re nice and very funny, and our jams are always a good time.
Crystal Eyes is a lot poppier and less hyperactive than your other band Catholic Girls or The Poly Shores before that. Do you feel like you’re mellowing out or will you continue to show your wild side in other guises?
I definitely feel that I couldn’t/wouldn’t have written these songs five or six years ago when I first started playing music. I think maybe the anger of my youth has turned more into sadness as I’ve gotten older, and that’s what comes out in the songs. I don’t necessarily try to muscle a certain sound though, I try to write from a more subconscious, judgment-free place. These songs are more personal for me, where as all my previous bands I played a collaborative role in the songwriting process. However, I still love collaborating and I still love punk music, and I don’t think that will ever change. It’s still inside of me and I expect it will still come out. As Bart Simpson would say, I do what I feel like.
There are some great little Dan Bejar-style references peppered into your songs, from the re-contextualizing of lyrics from “Anarchy in the UK” in your song “The Artist” and a nice little nod to the Velvet Underground in “Here She Comes”. Do you have a lot of fun coming up with those moments?
I do love the idea of re-contextualizing lyrics and themes and re-imagining the ideas of the past in a new way. I think it’s definitely a mark of the post-modern era that we’re living in – nothing is just one style or one genre, but a sort of patchwork of everything that’s come before, then filtered through the unique lens of the specific artist. It’s something I have often done in songs, almost without really thinking about it, but I really love it when I hear other people do it too. Faith Healer does it really well on her song “Acid.” She basically takes the riff from “Crimson and Clover” and takes it in a whole different direction. It’s a great song.
You’ve been touring pretty steadily this year and have gone coast to coast a few times. Do you have a day job in Calgary that allows you to take time off or are you currently untethered?
I actually have a degree in drama and a degree in philosophy and I originally thought I was going to be an actor/director, but then I got bitten by the music bug and totally changed course. However, my day job continued to be in the theatre, which gave me some flexibility to pursue music on the side. I recently left the cushiness of the full time job world to become more of a freelancer/odd-job hustler so that I would have time to make music, tour and travel (I recently went to Japan!). It’s been a bit scary because I’ve always had a steady job since I was 16, even during University, but the freedom I’ve had has been so worth it. I probably will eventually settle back into something more permanent, working with an arts organization. I would love to run a festival or a theatre company some day, when I’m too old to keep touring the country playing music!
What’s next after this tour and Pop Montreal? Are you planning to record a follow-up?
Yes, my focus after we finish the tour will be to finish writing and record a full-length. I have about seven songs already written, and plan to write more in the next few months, and will ideally once again record them with Chris on his 8-track. I’m hoping the full-length will be out by March or April 2016.