Endlessly layered hooks and grab-bag samples, heavy beats and triumphal bass drops seem today an inevitable part of pop music — they’re the trademark of the DJs dominating world music and they seep into songs across every genre.
But that inescapable texture of music in 2014 was new 20 years ago, when The Crystal Method and a handful of musicians took that sound out of the rave scene and brought it to the masses.
Celebrating two decades as The Crystal Method, Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland will release their ninth album, “The Crystal Method,” on Jan. 14. They’re coming to Belly Up Aspen on Saturday to preview the new album for a fervent local fan base that’s seen a lot of them in recent years.
“It’s one of those unique spots you can’t duplicate anywhere else,” Kirkland says of Aspen’s Belly Up, where the band has made regular stops since 2005.
When we spoke, Kirkland was in Los Angeles, preparing for the album launch, Crystal Method’s New Year’s Eve show at the Armory in San Francisco and the Aspen performance.
“It’s all happening right now,” he laughs. “It’s like Santa’s workshop.”
Unlike a lot of artists who have become Aspen regulars, Kirkland and Jordan — Las Vegas natives — aren’t skiers who use tour stops here as a way to get on the mountain. Rather, they’ve connected with the local crowd, the town, and the intimate confines of Belly Up. They’ve found they’re at their best playing here, he says.
He recalls their first performance here, in October 2005, months after the Galena Street club opened. Though the show was in the depths of off-season, Crystal Method packed the house. Kirkland remembers discussing the phenomenon with Jordan, and realizing that an unheard-of percentage of the town’s population had come to the show.
“We said, ‘Wow. There’s 300 people here and there’s only however many thousand in the surrounding area — if we had those kinds of numbers in L.A. we’d be playing the Staples Center every weekend,’” he recalls. “The crowd was so good to us and showed us so much love and support.”
They’ve since come back, by my count, 10 times, with shows in winter, summer and, yes, the off-seasons.
“It’s a beautiful place to play and Michael [Goldberg, Belly Up’s owner] has created a great club that’s flawless as far as production and hospitality,” Kirkland says. “All those things come together, and those great previous shows give us a lot of confidence for the next show.”
Along with that first gig, some high points from their years of Aspen stops, Kirkland says, include playing with a live band in 2009.
“It was fun to see the bus driver’s face when he has to haul us in and out of the mountains with all this snow and a semi behind him,” he laughs.
In 2012, Crystal Method screened the documentary “RE:GENERATION” here. It paired Crystal Method, Skrillex, DJ Premier, Pretty Lights and Mark Ronson with traditional musicians to remix their songs. It put Kirkland and Jordan with soul singer Martha Reeves to remake “I’m Not Leaving.”
They showed the film at Belly Up, did a Q&A with fans, then played a set.
“That’s just something we don’t do,” Kirkland says of the discussion with fans. “So that was a unique experience for us.”
At this weekend’s show, he says fans should expect to hear a preview of material from the new album along with remixes and familiar originals from their two-decade-long career.
The new self-titled disc was originally slated for a June 2013 release, but shortly before the planned release a serious health scare put it on hold. Doctors found a cyst in Kirkland’s brain, which was removed last summer. The medical set-back has Kirkland, 43, feeling reflective about his band and grateful to be performing.
The explosion of electronic music in the last few years — and the meteoric rise of DJs like Calvin Harris and Tiesto — is gratifying for Kirkland.
Crystal Method's 1997 breakthrough album, “Vegas,” used repetitive voice samples to create a new kind of grounding effect amid all the familiar synths and drum-machine beats of the day’s techno music. Lifting snippets from Erik B. and Rakim on “Busy Child,” or from Jim Henson’s “The Dark Crystal” on “Trip Like I Do,” or bits from a Jesse Jackson speech on “Keep Hope Alive” were original and inspired moves. They subtly pulled the electronic sound back from its abstract, robotic realm and shifted dance music away from the cheese of outfits like C+C Music Factory.
The remixes on their two “Community Service” albums, from 2002 and 2005, took the sample model a step further — and helped change the game again. They offered continuous album-length mixes, featuring scratched-up remixes of songs from the likes of Rage Against the Machine, The Doors and Smashing Pumpkins. This laid the groundwork for the “mash-up” phenomenon.
When they were starting out in Los Angeles in the early ‘90s, The Crystal Method sought to bring the communal experience and danceable sounds of the underground rave scene to the outside world. They’re seeing that come full circle today.
“We’ve been championing the scene for a long time because we felt like we wanted people to have a chance to get into the music and absorb a lot of the positive things, the spiritual community vibe that happens on dance floors around the world on a nightly basis,” Kirkland explains. “It’s a real empowering opportunity for people to release negative energy and live in the moment, and it’s unlike other art forms, it’s such an expressive collaborative event for everybody — whether they’re upper class, lower class, black, white.”
The mix of Aspen’s live music crowd — the billionaire and the busboy sweating cheek by jowl on the floor — often adds to the performance and the novelty of playing here, he says.
“I like that it’s a mix of heavy hitters and sycophants and the kids,” he says.
Kirkland is cognizant of criticism of today’s DJs — that they’re just button-pushers letting their laptops do the work on stage. When they started out, Crystal Method had to make all the sounds in their intricate-patchwork songs from analog tools. In the years since, technology has made it possible to compose with little such effort. For the new album, Kirkland and Jordan have taken a step back, using less computer-generated sounds and going back to old methods, like hooking up synthesizers to old distortion pedals.
“We’ve welcomed the opportunity to break things down and build things up and do things more organically,” he explains. “We committed early-on to approach production more organically, to plug things in and turn things on that maybe have collected a little dust, that can’t be created inside a computer.”
These days, they use a CDJ-2000 digital turntable, with a voluminous library of pieces of songs and samples to mix live on stage.
Coming to Aspen on the tail end of an event- and concert-packed holiday season, Kirkland advises local fans to prepare for a big night with The Crystal Method.
“Save a little bit of energy for us,” he laughs.
Saturday, Jan. 4
Belly Up Aspen