Q&A: Super Subtle Genre-Bending Protest Singer Thomas Crystal
Quietly but steadily over the last year or two, Thomas Crystal has been pushing tracks out to Soundcloud and Spotify that genre-bend in the most gentle of ways. In Crystal’s breezy tunes, you’ll hear elements of sadcore, blue-eyed soul, and ‘80s sophisto-pop (not unfamiliar to fans of Nyhan’s main project, the Philly band Work Drugs). And increasingly, they’re moving towards a place where protest song and chillwave meet. It’s evident on Crystal’s new EP, The Empire Years, but it’s also been building for a while now, most compellingly on “The Great Wall of America,” where all of this wall talk we’ve been hearing almost gains a kind of romance, as Crystal sings of said wall, “Don’t be afraid to fall/and start over.”
For the casual listener, could you say a few words about all the different bands/projects you're in right now?
Well, for the past 6 years my main (and current) focus has been the Philly based band Work Drugs. Prior to that I had a project known as Clean Equations which had a minor Fishtown inspired hit called "Plenty of Fish in Fishtown." Clever, right?
What would any of those bands not do that Thomas Crystal is like, oh yeah, I'm going for that?
I think the difference between those projects and the Thomas Crystal project is the fact that I'm not collaborating with anyone on these. It's not about ego really, just convenience.
These are strictly home studio tracks that were never intended to be played live or written with a specific audience or vibe in mind. Right now, I'm working on some acoustic tracks, but last year I had written some smoother Sade inspired tunes. It's really up to what I'm feeling at the time and that's extremely liberating as an artist.
One of the things about your sound that really pulls the ear in is the way so much of your stuff has this placidity to it, almost like Arthur Russell. What's the feeling you're trying to convey?
I really appreciate the comparison. Feeling-wise, my solo musical style always falls back to my formidable musical years in the late 90s and 2000s where I was really drawn to the Red House Painters, American Football, Pedro the Lion and all of the other "sadcore" and emo-ish type of music of the time. Even though I'm coming from a very a different place 15 years later, for whatever reason, I still love listening to this music and writing in this style... and surprisingly, it seems to be making a little comeback.
But at the same time, increasingly, there's also this topical thing you're doing — which is cool, because this isn't the type of music that's associated with that, I don't think. Would you consider these protest songs?
In a way, they are protest songs, but in general I try to keep the message vague enough to leave it up to the listeners interpretation. I don't think they are in your face protest songs from the traditional punk stand point at least. Honestly, there is enough negative energy circulating from both sides of the fence that I think somber protest songs are going to be the space I live in for a while. They certainly aren't as overt as the Tim Heidecker protest songs.
What is the point at which something moves you to the point of building a tune around it? Is there a sort of personal tripwire?
As opposed to my other projects that focused on past loves and experience, I tend to write frequently but in the moment these days. After a few months I'll go back to these sketches and see if there is something worth developing and finishing. There is generally no time table. It's only afterwards that I will cobble them together into what I think should be an EP or a collection of likeminded songs.
Luckily, technology has made the recording process so insanely convenient that you can lay down a multi-track song in minutes from the convenience of your smart phone. I tend to write and record a lot on airplanes as there is no better time to contemplate life, death, and your relationship with your fellow man.