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Interview with Crystal City

Marshalltown, Iowa folk throwback duo recently sent me their debut album, and I can’t stop reaching for it.

With retro harmonies and only an acoustic guitar for instrumentation, Crystal City’s debut album tempers ambitious nu-folk songwriting with their midwestern roots. Love it.

RIYL: The Swell Season, The Civil War, Damien Rice.

Here are a couple tracks off the album:

MP3: Crystal City – “Baby Says She Loves Me”

MP3: Crystal City – “I’ll Be Real Nice”

We had the opportunity to chat with Crystal City’s Sam Drella about the group, the album, and the Marshalltown speedway…

Who is Crystal City? How did the band come about?
crystal city is dave helmer and sam drella. i saw dave play a show in the spring of 2009, and got in touch with him after that to do some singing on his songs, and here we are now. we started playing shows together in the fall of 2009, singing some of dave’s older songs and some new ones that he had written in recent months. so in november of 2009, we recorded our ep over a weekend and released it in may on sleep on the floor.

What’s it like being a band based in Marshalltown, Iowa?
there’s a lot of driving involved, as most of the shows we play are out of town. but we have a good crowd that supports us in Marshalltown. our house bar, JD’s Pub, treats us really well and the crowd appreciates the music that we bring in to the bar.

Have you been to the speedway there? I used to work in the concession stand in high school. ha!
i went once in high school, but i don’t really remember it. maybe i bought some nachos from you.

You have a very distinctive style. What’s your songwriting process like?
(dave) i write and record at the same time. i’ll get the guitar progression together and demo lyrics with it until it fits right. i have a demo-ing studio in my basement so it’s easy to capture the song right away. As cliche as it sounds, the ideas just hit you when they hit you, and sometimes you’re up until 6 a.m. demo-ing a song, and sometimes that’s when it starts. it’s really rewarding to have a finished song by the end of the night when i started with nothing.

Is it liberating or prohibitive not to have a drums or a rhythm section?
both. it is nice to be in control of the tempo, volume, and overall vibe with just one guitar. plus, we can really lock in our vocals together, and it’s easier to hear ourselves. Not to mention the easy load-in at shows. but on the flip side, it’s always nice to have a drummer to accentuate the music, and a lot of people are used to processing music with a full-band.

The lyrics in your songs are often a tad deep. What’s the track “The Cleaner Me” about?
‘the cleaner me’ is a poem that sam wrote. i wrote it after being in a few failed relationships myself and watching all my friends fumble their way through dating, and at the time i had a really sour view of how to be in a relationship. it all seemed to become this very calculated formula where you knew exactly what was going to happen next, and eventually, three years down the road, you don’t even know who you are anymore. i gave the words to dave one night and the next morning, he already had the song down and recorded. the music that he wrote captures the idea of the poem perfectly, to me, and really accentuates how creepy dating can be.

Are you guys a couple? I have to ask, because I listen to your album and keep thinking if you’re anything like The Swell Season, you may need to break up to break out. Thoughts?
yes, we’re a couple. we’ve really gotten to know each other while playing shows and during recording of the ep, so it’s a pretty unique experience. it’s nice to perform together and share the stage. we have day jobs, so if only one of us was performing it might become an added stress to the relationship. since we’re doing it together, it’s a way for us to bond. but if we’re anything like The Swell Season, we’ll have to make a movie together before we break up. we’ll make the sequel, called ‘Twice’.

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