For years, bands like the Beach Boys defined the sunny sound of California surf. That's changing now, as a new, weird breed of coastal rockers staggers onto the beer-can-littered sand, shuffling musical feet within the aural equivalent of the murky, stingray-infested, pier-pocked waters of a gritty Cali port-town.
Like their noisy surf-pop peers—Best Coast, Wavves, and Surfer Blood—Crystal Antlers offer their own unique take on a reverb-drenched, Southern California mode of rock 'n' roll pioneered many years ago by artists like The Ventures and Dick Dale. Led by singer/bassist Jonny Bell, whose distinctive yowling sets the Long Beach band apart, the Antlers have become experts at pushing surf music deep into a heavy, psychedelic-rock vortex, where things like melody and verse-chorus-verse construction get chopped up, mutilated and re-invented.
Not so commercial, right?
"You can't just listen to our new record one time and get a whole lot out of it, or even understand it completely," admits Bell from a packed café in Gloucestershire, England, where background clamor and spotty cell-phone reception cause him to fade in and out in distorted waves, kind of like an Antlers song from the band's recently self-released Two-Way Mirror. "It rewards patience."
Patience is something we're in short supply of these days, in our era of instant movie streaming, iTuning and smart-phoning. But the Antlers don't seem at all interested in catering to the Gaga generation's no-attention span. Instead, the band focuses on catching the perfect sonic wave, and riding it to its foamy conclusion—only this ripple holds bits of garage-rock trash and patches of resin-scented bong water.
Take, for instance, a track like "Knee Deep," featuring trippy bubblegum-pop cacophony that suggests a lazy SoCal suburban afternoon marred by too many 'shrooms. Indeed, the song's video captures the strange existence of a hung-over pool cleaner who happens upon a school of hallucinatory, beautiful jellyfish in a customer's backyard.
The Antlers' three music videos for Two-Way Mirror—directed by friends, former bandmates and artists whose work they admire—look more polished and visually intriguing than videos by the band's peers, many signed to corporate behemoths. What makes it interesting is that the Antlers do everything themselves.
Shortly after the band unveiled an acclaimed 2009 full-length debut, Tentacles, for Chicago-based Touch and Go, the once-stalwart alt-label let its artists know that it was downsizing and no longer releasing new albums. As a result, Bell and co. were left adrift, rudderless in the rough waters of a dying industry.
But only for a moment. The Antlers quickly regrouped in a barn in Punta Banda, Mexico. A friend had tipped them to the cool Baja surf town, where the people are friendly, and the vibes are, according to Bell, "creative, productive, very cool." For a month in early 2010, the band worked on and refined the new material that would eventually constitute Two-Way Mirror. They played at a bar called Los Gordos once a week to get "a real meal" and a break from the monotony of beans and breakfast burritos. They'd already decided at that point to take the DIY path.
"A label can't really do that much for us anymore now," admits Bell. "We've learned to do just about everything they'd been doing for us, anyway, or everything that we need to do. Now we're learning even more, and we'll probably handle things better the next time. Our plan is to not lose money putting out our third album."
The Antlers are constructing their own recording studio back in Long Beach in preparation for another album, which Bell says is more than halfway written. Yes, creating, distributing and packaging their own work has been a challenge.
"But so worth it," insists Bell. "Like having Raymond Pettibon do the album cover art and not having to negotiate with labels on something like that makes a difference."
Tucson-born Pettibon—who resides in Venice, Calif.—is legendary in underground music for having illustrated many of the early-'80s concert fliers and record sleeves for punk-rock legends Black Flag. (Pettibon's brother is Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn. An exhibition of the artist's work, Raymond Pettibon: The Punk Years, 1978-'86, opens at Tucson's Museum of Contemporary Art on Saturday, Oct. 22, as part of the Tucson Rocks project.) But West Coast punk constitutes only half of Bell's musical confection.
"Zappa is huge," says Bell. "He's psychedelic peanut butter to our punk chocolate."
The band's core includes Bell, drummer Kevin Stuart and guitarist Andrew King. Lineup additions include percussionist Damian Edwards and keyboardist Cora Foxx. The latter didn't travel with the Antlers during a recent European jaunt, and the band is currently assisted in a live capacity by keyboardist Ikey Owens (Mars Volta).
"We had a great time overseas," says Bell. "Kids in one town helped themselves to some CDs we had set up at our merch table, but other than that, no problems. That said, we're looking forward to playing the States."