Breaking the city’s sick cycle, a record that gets back to nature

Craft Spells rewired
By Alex James Taylor | Music | 9 June 2014

Justin Vallesteros of Craft Spells. Image courtesy Captured Tracks

Mankind’s fascination with nature has often been a catalyst for prodigious work in the arts. Such is the case with Justin Vallesteros of Craft Spells who, upon moving to San Francisco to work on new material, suffered from a serious case of writer’s block induced by what he saw as the city’s stagnated, insular music scene. Looking for a change, Vallesteros relocated inland to the Californian countryside of the San Joaquin Valley to write sophomore album Nausea.

Nausea signals a distinct departure from the bedroom production that was the band’s debut album. It’s a slicker finish, cast across a multi-layering of diverse instruments – in true Krautrock fusion style. The group have honed their ‘craft’ and it’s orchestral, intimate, atmospheric and totally dreamlike.  In its depiction of nature the album is the sonic equivalent of American Beauty’s floating plastic bag, each track dancing and dropping in the wind.

Raindrops in the form of trip-hop drumbeats slouch around winding, birdsong piano, whilst spatial elements are brought to life through an intimate sparseness.  This record represents a total progressive extension on previous work. In three words? Vallesteros has nailed the old ‘less is more’ adage.

Alex Taylor: Since ‘The Gallery’ EP you moved to San Francisco but found a lack of inspiration there, what was it about the city which brought this on?
Justin Vallesteros: There was hardly a community for music, everyone was out there to get their own. You were either a DJ or part of the garage rock scene and I didn’t really fit in both. I didn’t find inspiration in my surroundings either and felt really congested when I went outside, all the beautiful places were usually packed with tourists. I was lucky to have a friend that I could share music with and riff ideas back n forth, and that was Michael from The Bilinda Butchers. Two loners who made music!

AT: How frustrating was it to suffer from writers block at the time?
JV: Nothing is more frustrating than having hundreds of unfinished or nearly done project files along with a book full of lyrics but nothing to show for it. I had to step away and clean the slate.

AT: You ended up escaping San Francisco and moving to your parents place in Lathrop, a more rural setting…
JV: Yeah, it’s this bleak suburbia in the San Joaquin valley, there’s nothing there but a little shopping centre. What I like about my parent’s house is having my car, I like to drive on Interstate 5 whilst listening to demos, I did that day. All my friends I had growing up are still around so it’s always great to step back from writing to relax with company. My friends know when to not hit me up, they just have to pass by my parent’s house and if my light is on upstairs it means I’m writing.

AT: For this album you trained yourself on piano, the instrument from which all the tracks for Nausea were written, was it hard to make the departure away from the guitar as a song writing tool?
JV: I found myself playing the same guitar riffs by muscle memory and couldn’t really express this soothing feeling I had in mind. I felt more control over the piano emotionally, and all these new ideas started flowing, things got more delicate and detailed.

AT: Did it make it a more challenging record for you?
JV: I would say that Nausea was a bit more challenging compositionally than Idle Labor. I always wanted to Brian Wilson out on an album, this was certainly the most maximalist attempt out of my works. It all paid off though, it’s the first release I’m completely happy with.

AT: How did the recording process change from your last album to this one?
JV: On Nausea I was lucky enough to take the demos to several Seattle studios and produce it alongside producer Dylan Wall. In the past I would finish something on my laptop with no care of peaking in the tracks and being okay with it being done, before sending it out to mastering. I didn’t really own any recording equipment, let alone a guitar during Idle Labor’s recording process; it was all borrowed equipment from Frankie Soto of Surf Club. I was able to acquire some equipment years later after the first album. I finally had my own little studio set up finally.

AT: In your press release it says that you felt you were semi-addicted to social media, do you see this as inevitable within today’s society and do you believe that this can block creativity?
JV: Most definitely, it’s easy to over saturate your day with information that you didn’t even need. Rather than spending time being influenced by a good film/book/album, I’m learning about how a dog saved its owner from a bus or something. I’m all for memes to an extent but sometimes I’m worried attempts at art are easily made into memes today or easily summed up to several words of bad opinions on a social network. It was nice to unplug and enjoy the real energy of the world around me.

AT: Production is obviously a vital part of your music, do you ever worry about how it will transfer to a live performance?
JV: I never think about the live performance when I record. I will always be a producer before a musician. I’m a huge fan of Kanye West, Brian Wilson, Arto Lindsay and Ryuichi Sakamoto who are all great musicians but their vision always come first. I worry about the live sound when we rehearse as a live band. I have a really talented bunch as a band; they are all about being true to the album while recreating it in a live atmosphere.

AT: There’s so many different instruments featured in ‘Nausea’, can you play all these instruments?
JV: I can pretty much play all the instruments except for the string sections I composed. I gave the midi notes to our close friend Andrew Joslyn from Seattle who took the arrangements and brought them to life with Violins and Viola.

AT: It feels like the track listing is very deliberate, is this the case?
JV: I’m going to be real here, I actually hit shuffle on the playlist and it became that way. Several songs were moved around, taken out and added, but it’s stayed the same since the demos.

AT: What is the concept behind the album artwork?
JV: The art piece was done by Vicki Ling after not finding the right album art during the whole recording process. When I saw her work it clicked instantly. It brought out the feeling of being in the limbo of reality and the alter reality I created recording at my parent’s house.

AT: You’re releasing a special edition of ‘Nausea’ which includes an album and demo cassette, what made you include this format?
JV: Two reasons: I’ve never really had a cassette release so it was cool to see a release in a J-card design. The other reason is that the demos are a little more hip hop influenced rhythmically. They are mostly made of drum breaks from soul albums or a drum ‘n’ bass tune. It’s very Boom Bap. tipping my hat to J Dilla and Nujabes.

Nausea by Craft Spells is out tomorrow, 10th June via Captured Tracks. 

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