By Lindsey Rhoades
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Crystal Stilts have four members, but seeing them live, you'd think they'd lost one. During a show at Brooklyn's Death by Audio, I spotted only drummer Frankie Rose, singer Brad Hargett, and bassist Andy Adler; JB Townsend stood hunched over his guitar, hidden behind a stack of amps. Still, it's an improvement: Hargett sat in a chair behind the drums for the band's first two shows. "We're not going to dance around and pretend," explains Rose. Townsend is more blunt: "A lot of people think it's boring."
They lack stage presence, but they're hard to ignore. Both live and on this year's self-titled EP and full-length Alight of Night, their reverb-heavy pop seems to come from all around you, a fog of sparkling guitar over Hargett's frictionless baritone. Songs like "The SinKing" sound like sunny '60s pop that's been left out in the heat; a haze hangs over most of these songs, obscuring the garage-rock exuberance at their core, imbuing these three- and four-chord nuggets with mystery.
Getting to that sound took time. Townsend and Hargett met in Florida, where the latter worked at a local head shop; Townsend would come in and make fun of the bongs, but he'd also bring old records. They each moved to New York in 2002, discussed starting a band around that New Year's Eve, and got a rehearsal space the following spring. Six months later, they actually started writing songs. "We had no idea how to go about being a band," Hargett admits. They played together over the next few years, but Crystal Stilts didn't get "serious" until Adler and Rose joined them. Rose's own band, the Vivian Girls, was newer and already getting attention, but she's since left the fold: "I was asked to choose between the two, and I chose Crystal Stilts," she says. "It was a matter of aesthetics."
She's made being a band easier, but they're still learning. The quartet's van disappeared just before South by Southwest, and after a few days, they discovered it had simply been towed away, an incident that Rose attributes to bad luck—and Hargett to a glove box full of parking tickets. (Thankfully, they got both the van and all their equipment back, some of which was integral to the band's sound—it would have been like losing a member.) More lessons on How to Be a Band are forthcoming: Crystal Stilts may learn to engage audiences, may learn to promote themselves a little more. Townsend and Rose even recently gave one of their cohorts a gift. "They bought me a prepaid cell phone," Hargett says. "It was a birthday present, but it was also a hint. Like, 'Come on, get your life together.' "