Ken Jordan and Scott Kirkland aren’t just legends of
electronic dance music—they were instrumental in pioneering and defining
it. Having been producing records and performing live together for 20
years since they first joined forces in Las Vegas, they also have their
fingers in over 50 film scores including Blade: Trinity, Spawn, Tropic Thunder, and Fast & Furious 6, not to mention TV soundtracks such as Third Watch, Bones, Real Steel, and the new J. J. Abrams android-cop drama Almost Human. Just a few of their video game scores include Need For Speed: Nitro, FIFA ’97 and ’98, and League of Legends.
For our March 2014 issue's cover story, we got a chance to visit their Crystalwerks studio in
North Hollywood for an extended conversation, in which they schooled us
on the techniques and gear behind their fifth studio album, self-titled The Crystal Method.
It features collaborations with such diverse artists as Dia Frampton,
Afrobeta, Nick Thayer, and even country music icon LeAnn Rimes.
Let’s start with your approach to “Grace,” the tune you worked on with LeAnn Rimes.
Ken Jordan: Our tendency is to go “big maximum” on everything, but on that track we wanted her voice to really shine.
Scott Kirkland: We had a skeleton track that was
much different from anything that we’d ever done. It had a sort of faux
electric piano vibe and a very laid-back beat. Did you see the Re:Generation documentary?
That movie is based on different producers working in different genres
that they may not be comfortable with, like Skrillex working with
members of the Doors, or Pretty Lights working with Ralph Stanley, a
bluegrass artist. So there’s a moment where LeAnn is working with Derek
from Pretty Lights. He’s trying to go for this very throwback,
trip-hoppy vibe—very natural and organic but DJ Shadow-like, with lots
of warmth, lots of reverb, lots of really great funk elements. But he
was doing country, this sort of re-creation of a song that you would
maybe find on an old 45 or even an old 78-speed record.
There was this moment on the documentary where they’re in
the studio and he’s got LeAnn in the iso booth and he’s in the control
room, and he goes, “Try this part,” and she does this whole part that’s
only her singing a cappella, and it’s just spectacular. And he goes,
“That’s great. Can you try it an octave up?” So she goes an octave up,
and it’s even better and you’re just like, wow! If you take away the
instrumentation around a great vocalist and you just hear their voice,
you can imagine it in so many different things. You discover the beauty
and flexibility of a gifted vocalist.
If you didn’t know she was a country artist, you’d
never guess from listening to that track. What motivated you to take
KJ: When we first met her, we were telling her
about one of our favorite tracks from the beginning rave days that the
KLF did with Tammy Wynette. They used her voice in this really cool way.
It was a minor mainstream pop hit way back then.
SK: It was in ’91. [Plays KLF music video, “Justified and Ancient.”]
You hear that track, and you realize somebody had a guitar, somebody
had a banjo, but when you break out the vocalists on their own you can
really get some amazing stuff.
Working with so many different singers, how did you
take best advantage of each one’s voice while still maintaining your own
KJ: Our formula has always been no formula [laughs].
SK: For example, we’d met Dia Frampton during the release of the Re:Generation documentary, and she’s talking about how people think
they know what she listens to, but in fact that she likes hip-hop and a
lot of different things. And that does happen. I mean, I can’t tell you
how many times people are surprised by things like that. Overcoming it
can be difficult because a lot of people only want to hear you do one
particular thing. But on our first record, having just been schooled by
KLF and Tammy Wynette and John Lydon and Left Field, the A-side had a
track that was 127bpm and the B-side had a dubby, downtempo thing that
was experimenting with a different side of us. Point being,
experimenting can be a lot of fun. Sometimes it doesn’t work. On the
last record it didn’t work because we didn’t get a chance to work with
the people directly. Usually, somebody recorded the vocal separately. . .
So, you tracked all the vocal collaborations on the new record at Crystalwerks, then?
KJ: Exactly. For the new album, we stipulated that all tracks had to be recorded and sung in our studio.
SK: With Dia and LeAnn, it was that whole
interaction of “we should try this or that” or “move this over here”—the
whole thing that happens in the room organically.
KJ: This album was kind of going back to how we made the songs on our album Vegas—using
the best of all the new technology but also writing the way we used to.
Fifteen years or more ago, it wasn’t even a concept that somebody could
record some parts at one facility and some at a different one. But even
though you can do it now, that doesn’t necessarily make it any better. I think everything being done here makes it better.
So, was there any remote collaboration on the new record at all?
SK: Nick Thayer approached us. He’s a great
guy—we’d met him at Burning Man and are big fans of his work. We talked a
bit and decided we wanted to do something that was like the “bam bam bam”
songs, the “guttural” songs we’re known for. Based on that, he sculpted
this beautiful sound at his place, and we took it back and built
everything for the track we call “Dosimeter” around it. So that was one
part that was outside of our studio, but he understood what we were doing. We made a track that was really the best of both worlds.
Is there any one keyboard to which you typically turn to get the work process started?
SK: We have a few faves, to be sure, but it really
varies from tune to tune. I remember a period where we had a “keyboard
of the day” thing going on—we’d try to bring in a different analog synth
even if we hadn’t used it in awhile, plug things in, get our old pedals
out, and so on. When someone like Nick Thayer comes over to the studio,
he knows all the soft synths better than we do. He’s really great at
working in the confines of the box, within the computer. So we could get
a really nasty sound out of Massive or Absynth or whatever . . . but
this was usually about getting some unruly nonsense that we typically
don’t expect to get out of hardware synths.
KJ: With hardware, it’s also about the instrument
itself. For example, our ARP 2600 has filters that are set up [with
sliders] on the front—so your hands can do these things that you
wouldn’t do with a knobby synth like our Alesis Andromeda. Then, sending
it through the Sherman Filter Bank produces sounds that are unruly as
all hell. So, then, once we’d decided on what we were going use, it was
basically recording for ten minutes without judging anything. The goal
was to simply react to what we were hearing and the relationship that we
had with the instruments.
The new record doesn’t sound like a bunch of loops or
patterns put together in “DJ” style. It sounds like linear songwriting.
Is that the case?
SK: Yes, it is. That’s a result of how we first
started working, years ago. We didn’t even have computer-based
recording. We’d record to a DAT, with a drumbeat on one stereo side and a
synth on the other, and we’d record for ten minutes, and then cut
How many of your grooves are derived from programming
or synth patterns, as opposed to grabbing audio loops and building stuff
SK: Loops are obviously easier to work with. There
are sounds and loops from soul records. We’ve been digging through and
buying a lot of those to mine for samples—loops, breaks, whatever—that
we rely on a lot for inspiration and content. One thing that’s most
inspiring for me right now is the FXpansion [virtual instrument] called
Geist. It’s a drum machine that’s a REX loop player, and it’s an
interesting tool in that you can have edit points in your loop. If you
play a REX file, you’ll get the expected results, but if you jam out on
an analog synth for a few bars and find a really sexy spot that you like
and you tell Geist to figure out how this passage is broken down, it’ll
sometimes come up with strange and different things. Also, lots of
times, a drum loop is amazing feel-wise, but all the sounds are screwed
up with clicks and noises. So you start to dissect that and put in new
drum sounds, strip things down, get inspired by something that results
from that process, then reconstruct it.
So, you do sometimes start a project out with loops and samples?
Sometimes, yes. When you pull up a new session and there’s nothing
there, that’s so daunting. There’s nothing—not a tempo, not anything. So
we’ve collected all these things, we pull up old riffs, and we mess
around with different tempos or beats. You need a spot to jump from. Fortunately, there are very creative people out there making incredible products.
I remember when the Korg Wavestation came out, and I
couldn’t audition five sounds without wanting to record something. Is
that the type of thing you mean?
SK: Things like that, as well as unruly sounds that
don’t sit well with others. When we started making music, we had a lot
of distortion and things that were aggressive. I had no idea what I was
doing. The engineer would come in and tell me I couldn’t do what I was
doing. I think it’s been something that’s been through our music the
entire time. I always think of it as a great play, or a great show. You
need to have good and you need to have bad, you need to have
protagonists and antagonists. You need to have this relationship going
Would you say a large part of your process is creating order out of chaos?
SK: In a way. In thinking visually about the song,
let’s say there’s one up-tempo part and one down, and one takes over and
they’re “antagonizing” one another. But you don’t want it to be like The View where they’re talking over each other. You see those clips of The View and it’s just 30 seconds of them yelling at each other. I like the antagonism to be well orchestrated and well laid-out.
So, that sounds like you’re thinking visually about the music. Can you elaborate on that?
SK: Absolutely. My perspective comes from being a
kid, when the first relationship I had with music on a spiritual level
was the score of Star Wars. The only way you could connect to Star Wars
outside of the theater was through the score, because the movie wasn’t
on a videotape or a DVD. I would come home and play the score and see
the artwork and the ships coming in and all the film’s actions in my
mind. Music should have great actions. That’s my way of describing what
it is we try to do. Even music that isn’t a film soundtrack should do
what a soundtrack does, in terms of making you imagine or recall a
series of events or emotions.
Your use of tones as percussion—and vice-versa—is striking. How do you discover sounds that can evolve into actual musical parts?
SK: You know, we have a process that’s similar to comedy writers. You see the Daily Show or Late Show
workspace, and all this stuff is up on the wall, for no other reason
than to be some form of inspiration. On that song “Grace” with LeAnn
Rimes, for example, we exported a bunch of things, put them on a disc,
and sat here for about 30 minutes recording all kinds of things with her
vocal. When I DJ, I do some silly things like turning off the tempo
control and pitch-shifting the beat until it’s a different sound, so we
also experimented with the CD deck. After about three ten-minute
sessions of doing that, we found the right part, and LeAnn’s vocal kind
of slides into that.
I often like to have a bunch of things to look through.
It’s an attempt to get back to not judging what I’m doing at the time,
but to finding the gems within whatever is happening. For example, I
would record a bunch of things, separate them into pieces of 150 bars
each, put them in my computer, and then go home and seek out the cool
ideas. In 20 minutes of just utter nonsense, you might find this one
thing that has the right rhythm and the right sound. It’s like, “Wow, I
found the seed that I can build everything around.”
As a rule of thumb, do you start out with a melody or a
bass line as a foundation and then build upon that, or do you jam until
you capture some cool sections?
KJ: It’s usually more about melodies and chord
progressions. We still hear songs in the traditional way. But when
there’s a vocal, generally the process is different. It just depends on when we get the vocal, because a lot of times we get it last. With Dia Frampton, the vocal was sort of first on that song. [Plays skeleton version of “Over it,” with only Dia singing and a strummed acoustic guitar.]
SK: So Dia had the one part—the “oh my” part—and
when she came in, we brought it together with this whole other thing. I
loved the way that innocent little voice is going along, and then she
nails that “I f**ked up” line.
I would figure that the majority of your tunes don’t start like that?
KJ: Most don’t. Most people assume that we start with drums, but it always works out worse to do it that way because the drums need to support the song. Generally, it doesn’t work that well when we try to build a song around just the drums.
SK: Here’s a first version of the track “Grace.” [Plays a version of “Grace” with no vocals.]
KJ: The one key synth line that’s in the finished product is only in for a four-bar section in the original version.
SK: It’s like that Stevie Nicks tune, “Stop
Dragging My Heart Around.” There’s that really great, uncomplicated
groove between the drummer and the bass player with beautiful,
heart-wrenching things on top. So we don’t always need to throw around a
bunch of angry sounds that sound like a garbage truck just took a sh*t
on a robot. [Everyone laughs.]
A lot of your music has a definite rock groove. What’s the inspiration for that?
SK: Nick [Thayer] and I definitely have an appreciation for rock drummers. They have this undeniable thing where they’re just being animals. Coming home and playing and listening to the Star Wars
score, I wanted to be a drummer so bad and my mom wouldn’t let me. I
swear, after I’d get all my schoolwork done, I’d sit in the living room
with my headphones on, take a stick from the back yard, and I’d just air
As a rule, do you hear a part before you reach for a synth, or do you reach for a synth and get the part out of it?
KJ: If we’re working on a track, and we hear a
sound in our minds, we’ll gravitate toward a synth that we think can
make that sound. But, a lot of times, tracks will start with us turning
on an instrument we haven’t picked up in awhile.
SK: Yeah. We’ll get this bad boy up, and make some
noise. That’s basically it. Like, “Oh, look at that. Look at that unruly
son of a bitch!”
KJ: And that doesn’t necessarily make the song, but what we’re looking for is something really cool to develop.
Do you tend to gravitate more toward hardware than software?
SK: When we’re in the studio, yeah.
KJ: We do, but I tell you, plug-ins are getting better and better.
SK: We love the Arturia stuff. It’s really amazing.
We love the ARP 2600 and the Moog emulations. I love the Oberheim SEM,
too—that was one we never really had. I knew the sound, but I didn’t
know at the time it was an Oberheim. But I really do like that
sound—that thin, filtery stuff that the SEM can do. The choices are
Maybe that’s why the album really evokes two kids having fun.
SK: If I could just be experimental every single
day, that’d be what it’s all about! But there’s still this balance of
creating a song that’s interesting and palatable, versus being
aggressive and “anarchistic” with the sound—so as to create something
that turns people on and stays with them.