You want your music energetic and embracing both the traditional with the modern, right? Crystal Fighters are a band with a global aesthetic, who learn from some of humanity’s ancient folk traditions, and combine that with modern technology to make music that sounds like the here and now, and that emits an obvious lust for life. They like to party, to give out the good vibes. But recent events dictate that there is sadness and introspection along the way, following the death of their close friend and drummer Andrea Marongiu.
The core trio of singer Sebastian ‘Bast’ Pringle, guitar and txalaparta player Graham Dickson and multi-instrumentalist Gilbert Vierich have spent the last couple of years exploring the planet, reconnecting with nature and learning to play more traditional instruments, and this, along with the sudden passing away of Marongiu, larger informs their third album, Everything Is My Family.
“We travelled a lot more, writing for it (the new album), took time off when we could to go on longer trips,” says Sebastian Pringle, on a break whilst rehearsing for the upcoming tour. “I went to research in the jungles of Central America, and Graham went to live up in a mountain up in Maine, and then Peru.
“We had spent a lot of time together on the road, and we felt we needed some time to experience life a bit, separate from the band, and then come back and record together. Last time (for 2013’s Cave Rave) was quite concentrated writing together. I lived in the Basque Country for six months, and then later that year went to Central America and Mexico for six months. We lived in a tent or little huts and sat around a campfire writing songs, learning traditional songs from many cultures, which was a new approach for me. Normally I would be making beats on computers and adding little riffs. This was more learning this body of work I had never heard before: Bolivian folk songs, Brazilian lambada, African songs. This was very influential in terms of the melodies and singing.
“I had been to Mexico for shows, but I’m a vegan and I’m interested in the fruits and vegetables that are grown out there. Initially that was one of the reasons to go. And I like Spanish the language, and wanted to learn the language. And I like tropical climates! It was definitely worth it, an amazing experience, living in a much simpler way. It feels very complete.”
“Yes, surrender to the experience. If troubled times come, let’s embrace it with a kiss, then let go. Very simple.” So says a tropical wise man from Costa Rica, as recorded by Pringle. ’Simplicito’ (‘simplicity’) is the introduction to Everything Is My Family, and their deep seated philosophy, one that they almost certainly adhered to previously, but was sparked into life by the sudden death of Marongiu in 2014. While before this attitude to life was prevalent within the good-time, party-on spirit of their music, this time they explicitly invite us to surrender to the experience, but to always remember past experiences in a positive light, including that of their former bandmate. “Open my mind, your spirit and soul,” continues the wise man. “Sometimes we get to be reborn. I’m so thankful to my father and mother, for millions of sperms… I was selected, and I was brought here. Nothing is impossible. Everything is possible.”
“There were two wise Peruvian men teaching meditation in Central America,” says Pringle. “They were abstaining, and they allowed me to record them. They talked for about 20 minutes, which I edited down to a bit less than two minutes for the record, trying to sum up their interesting outlook on life, these ancient practices that are being discovered. They preach stuff like detachment from sentiment, and to turn off the mind and allow yourself to experience the moment, and connect with this moment and the divine through that. And touching on elements such as destiny and fate.
“I brought it all back to the west, as it were, to London. It was more like the first album (Star of Love), but with a more worldly scope and more destinations than just Hackney Wick,” Pringle laughs, about the place where they formed and base the band. “Then we went to LA for a couple of months to write and record. Graham was in New York and London, recording (where he spends much of his time nurturing his small record label, Axis Mundi). So it was a much more spread out recording period. We had more time to mess with the songs, and make more dances drops, things like that. Last time we had to work to strict time constraints because of budgets and the fact that the producer was busy.
“The album is more dancefloor, more psychedelic, more tropical, more rave, more sunshine, more pretty much everything. We write songs that make us want to dance around the studio,” says Pringle. “We figure that if it makes us dance it will probably make other people want to dance too.”
Pringle, Vierich, and Dickson were playing music together and on their own in the mid-2000s but it wasn’t until singers Laure Stockley and Mimi Borelli joined that Crystal Fighters really took form, the band name coming from Stockley’s grandfather. From the Basque Country, he had written an unfinished opera, penned during his final months of insanity. Stockley came across the manuscript while clearing out the reclusive old man's remote home in the Basque countryside, becoming obsessed by the writing within it, and shared it with the others. Captivated by its seemingly prophetic contents, the band took on the name. "We started writing music around the book and learning about Basque culture and how the music and history has evolved. From there we decided we wanted to finish the opera and do a live show that would get across some of the amazing, crazy stuff that was in this book. So we crafted this live show around the book and wrote new music based on its directions and looking at Basque music as a whole,” Vierich has previously explained.
“Laure was one of the original singers,” explains Pringle. “Her grandfather was from the Basque Country, and she found some of his writings. She showed them to us, and we used that as the inspiration to start playing in this style based on Basque instruments.
“None of us are Spanish, although apparently I was named after San Sebastian. We learnt a lot through making music, and we went there (Basque Country) to do some shows, living there for six months, and we’ve been many different times since then, hung out with friends or went to studios there. It’s become a second home for the band. The Spanish people are very receptive to the music. They recognise the influences that we have had from them in the music. It’s a reciprocal situation.”
And the name itself, Crystal Fighters, what does that mean to you? “He (Laure’s Grandfather) was talking about some people, post-Franco (the Spanish dictator who ruled from 1939 to 1974), talking about these young liberated people from the Basque Country and he referred to them for some reason as the ‘crystal fighters’. There’s no real explanation for it. I love it (the name) now. It’s grown on me,” he laughs.
Crystal Fighters’ debut album Star of Love (whose acronym is SoL, Spanish for sun) explored ideas about the unfathomable mystery of the universe, the turbulent journey towards being at peace with death, the triumph of love, and the omnipotence of the sun, themes taken from Stockley’s grandfather’s writings, and which they continue to explore to this day.
“We consider ourselves to be a mixture of folk, electro, punk, techno, dubstep and Spanish pop. We are kind of like the sound that would be created if The Velvet Underground and Gipsy Kings were to travel back in time to the Pyrenees, 1980, and make a record with Skream, Madlib and Luciano on production."
Describing their style as "fast, mesmeric and passionate", the band’s melting pot of cultural, musical and stylistic influences saw them use both electric and acoustic guitars, synths, drums, and traditional Basque instruments within their music. Many of their songs, then and now, use a txalaparta, a wooden xylophone-like percussion instrument played by two people standing face-to-face. “It’s been a part of our sound since we started,” says Pringle. “An amazing instrument, its history is great. They would be beating and crushing the apples for cider, and they would use these cider barrels. It was a very tedious job, so they would create rhythms while they were bashing, to keep them entertained. And when the cider was ready they would play it loudly outside and people would come and drink cider. We sometimes have some guys on tour come and play with us. There’s no real percussion like it in the world. You have to rely on each other to make this rhythm work.”
They also use the danbolin (a rope-tuned snare drum), and the txistu (a Basque pipe whistle). While the sounds they create may not be obviously inspired by Basque music, it’s there. And combined with modern electronic dance music there’s an uplifting quality and global resonance that has been a big factor in their popularity. For instance the riff on ‘Champion of Sound’ (from Star of Love) is lifted from the Basque folk piece ‘Sagar Dantza.’
Once they had managed to put down some tracks, they sent one (‘Xtatic Truth’) to French dance record label Kitsuné. “(They) immediately came back to us and said they loved it and wanted to put it out. Then we suggested they listened to a couple of other songs like ‘I Love London’ and they thought that was great too.”
Having gained considerable traction for their trans-continental, scene-crossing, carnivalesque juxtaposition of styles and sounds, their breakthrough second album, Cave Rave, expanded the sound palette further, adding traditional instruments such as the charango, and influences from Hispanic and African dance cultures, all topped off with party-friendly electronic beats and inventive and invigorating percussion. Tastemakers continued to be impressed, with Zane Lowe saying, "(It’s) classed as dance music but altogether more interesting than anything anyone in that field has done in years”.
Crystal Fighters’ unlikely fusion of Basque folk and upfront dance beats has again been notched up a gear or two for the new album, Everything Is My Family. ‘Yellow Sun’ typifies the incorrigible sunshine optimism of the band, a track that begins with arpeggioted charango, swiftly followed by urgent percussion and multi-rhythmic textures, before group vocals come in aided by their ubiquitous two female vocalists, as always an integral part of the bands sound and image. Elsewhere they get uber euro-dance with ‘In Your Arms’ and ‘Ways I Can’t Tell, get their best psychedelic prog out for ‘Fly East’, sound spiritual on ‘The Moondog’ (“I saw the future, and I see it all around, because the past is the present and the future is now,” sings Pringle, laying down the group’s philosophy), and explicitly fuse traditional folkisms with modern electronica on tracks such as ‘All Night’ and ‘Living The Dream’.
But it’s in the live arena that Crystal Fighters really shine; the energy of the performances appealing to youthful liberation, although in the early days the band's performances took the format of a musical opera (via the writings of Stockley’s Grandfather) to convey the story of each song. "It was chaotic and we've been trying to bring that sort of energy to every show since,” says Pringle. Their dramatic and artful performances have become somewhat legendary with Mixmag proclaiming them to have "the single most exciting show in dance music,” while Dazed & Confused stated that "there is nothing more alive or energetic than Crystal Fighters.”
"With dance music you can go and see a DJ who is in a booth.” says Pringle. “So you dance all night and just watch him there kind of doing nothing, which obviously can be amazing. But if you have a live performance where you are playing the same kind of music, the whole experience then changes into a rock show and so much more besides. We love the fact you can experience both extremes," Pringle alluding to the traditional music that can be heard on many streets in Spain, and the intense raves the Spanish are also famous for hosting.
It’s a busy time for the band as they gear up for a long haul of gigs to promote the new album, including a short UK tour. They did a couple of UK festivals this summer, including Bestival and Wilderness (which Brightonfinest considered one of the highlights of the event). “We haven’t played any songs from the new album at all yet,” says Pringle. “We’ve been rehearsing the last two weeks, we’re running a bit close to the deadline,” he nervously laughs. So, no warm up gigs, or a secret show, I ask. “No, times have changed! It probably would be a good idea,” he laughs again.
It’s this slightly ramshackle, in-the-moment approach that has also helped to endear them to an ever-growing global fanbase. None-too-slick and not-too-professional seems to be the order of the day, as well as a strong bohemian/hippy image that they wholeheartedly believe in and wear on their sleeves. At Glastonbury festival in 2014, the almost invariably shirtless Graham Dickson told the crowd after their rapturously received performance of signature song ‘You & I’; “I want to remind everyone that right now in this moment, this is reality. The past is the perception, the future is an illusion, but right here with you and I as one family we’re here to celebrate love and freedom.”
Crystal Fighters make unashamedly good time, in the-moment, liberating party music, but often with deeply thoughtful underlying messages. The final track off the album is ‘Lay Low’, and according to Pringle, “It’s a song dedicated to all of our family, friends, and supporters along the way, but specifically for Andrea. The song is a reminder of how momentary and magical this life is, and to appreciate the beauty in all things and relationships… and if possible, to use your power to spread love, rather than add to the rabid negativity on Earth.” As the song goes: “Friends I love you so / It’s a matter of time / Before we leave the ones we know / So don’t waste your time / Live life low and grow.”
Read our review of their most recent album, Everything Is My Family here: brightonsfinest.com/html/index.php/12-music/1914-crystal-fighters-everything-is-my-family