Craft Spells: The Best of What's Next

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As the first generation of cyber-aged kids evolves hand-in-hand with the Internet, the two continue to intertwine themselves into every facet of each other’s existence. The constant connection can be a little overwhelming at times, nauseating even. That vomit-inducing dependency on our technological overlords finally got the better of Craft Spells mastermind Justin Vallesteros. Feeling both emotionally and physically drained by the electronic burden that engulfs our daily lives, Vallesteros needed to escape home to the suburbs of California to detach from the digital world and finish his sophomore LP, Nausea.

“I kind of unplugged from everything and everyone,” Vallesteros says over the phone from his parents’ house in Lathrop, Calif. “I’ve always gone on hiatus when it came to music. But you know, the only listeners at that time were my friends and I would just kind of disappear from them and the groups of people that I knew.”

Growing up in the suburbs of Stockton, Calif., Vallesteros has been writing and recording music on his own since he was a teenager. His work as Craft Spells put him on the musical map and garnered the attention of Captured Tracks co-founder Mike Sniper, who helped the band put out their first record Idle Labor in 2011.

“I’ve always been recording music since the age of 15,” he says. “I’ve been through a lot of different sounds, trying different stuff. Finally, someone actually cared enough to listen and that was Mike Sniper.” Vallesteros says he still can’t believe he was given the chance to pursue a career in music. “It’s insane. In Stockton, no one really gets a chance like that so it was kind of surreal. The only band that did something in this area was Pavement.”

That house in Stockton has become his own private getaway, and served as a creative hub for Vallesteros while he worked on his latest album. Vallesteros says he enjoys the solitude that Stockton provides, receiving inspiration through isolation. “I just really needed to find solid ground again and find myself. I visit my parents quite often and it’s in the suburbs. Super quiet. No one bothers me. I can take a walk to this shitty park around the corner and really think. I can actually see the stars here, unlike San Francisco. I can really feel in touch with everything. It’s like my blank slate here.”

Vallesteros briefly moved to San Francisco to write and record, but this ultimately failed him creatively and prompted his move back home. “I tried writing in San Francisco and to establish myself with San Francisco musicians, but it just didn’t work out. I’ve always been an at-home recording person. I’m not a DJ. I’m not in a garage band. So I guess my parents’ house is really good for loner shit. You know, loner music.”

“This time around, I felt like social networking had me at a chokehold. I started experiencing some disillusionment. All these articles that were in my ‘Timeline.’ I thought, ‘I’m supposed to read all this stuff and it’s supposed to shape me up into being a smarter, more contemporary person.’ And…I don’t know, it just fucked me up for a bit because I felt like didn’t have my own train of thought or my own general interests strong enough to keep me happy enough. So, I backed away.”

Instead of spending his time reading Buzzfeed lists or watching Jennifer Lawrence gifs, Vallesteros spent his time reading Mishima and listening to old Yellow Magic Orchestra records.

Once he had his head on straight, Vallesteros was able to sit down and carefully create a collection of material for a new album. The result was an 11-track collection of honest, sharply crafted songs. With a stack of new material ready to record, Vallesteros gathered the rest of Craft Spells to make a trip up to Seattle and begin the recording process.

“I demo’d everything out here in Cali, and then when it [Nausea] was done, I went out to Seattle for a month. I lived there in this weird apartment, with all these weird people. It was like a month by month paying process. I was just stuck in this weird limbo of people. During that time, we were in three different studios in Seattle grinding away. It was really cool, pretty grunge related too. The first studio was with the dude who recorded Nirvana’s Bleach album. And the third one was Mudhoney’s proper studio where they usually record and stuff. It was so funny.”

Nausea is Vallesteros in a state of complete self-awareness. The songs on Craft Spells’ second LP are a clear-minded, liberated breed of charismatic rock, mixed with an ataractic blend of calming composition and serene melodies.

Vallesteros says this was a natural evolution that took place during his time alone. “I’ve always been evolving and changing my sound. So this time around, I told myself that I should try something that I’m unfamiliar with and feel uncomfortable.” To achieve this, Vallesteros put down his guitar and opted to compose on the piano instead. “I stopped playing guitar for like a year and a half and taught myself piano. I was really influenced by a lot of Japanese pop from the 80s, which was like a lot of piano oriented melodies and chord progressions. That was such a life-turning thing for me and I really got sucked into it. I was really tired of the current indie-guitar rock. I really wanted to change shit up a bit for myself, and I really wanted to standout in that way…for myself, or else I wouldn’t be happy. The first record is cool and all, but how many times can I write an “After the Moment” or “Party Talk,” and feel good about it. Of course, I’m a huge fucking fan of music and I know that listeners would feel the same way. My companions knew I had something else going on and I really wanted to kind of fucking zone in on it and separate myself from my old work.”

An influence from arguably two of the most principal songwriters in pop-music history affected most of, if not all, the tracks on Nausea. “My two heroes for music are Brian Wilson and Brian Eno, who have evolved and became the greatest composers, to me at least, contemporary-wise,” Vallesteros said. “I really look up to them, so the decisions I make are really channeling them. You’ll find a lot of piano and a few instrumental tracks on that record that I spent a lot of time on.”

The finest example of this can be seen on the album’s first single “Breaking the Angle Against the Tide.” The track features an effortless, but powerful, string arrangement that swells up into an eruption of eloquence to close out the track.

“Those are real strings. When I demoed, I composed all the strings, the whole piece together; even the tail end of the song which is like a really dramatic ending. When I came to Seattle, I really wanted to do those strings live and luckily I had a friend at the management office that I’m tied with right now who is actually Macklemore’s violin player. I won’t say if I’m into it [Macklemore] or not, but he [violin player] is a really good friend and he’s done a lot for us in the Craft Spells realm.”

While Vallesteros has complete control over how the demos turn out when recording alone, it’s sometimes hard for him to relinquish control over his creations. Vallesteros said he experienced a new level of creative satisfaction being able to put his work in the hands of others. “It felt good. It was like that Brian Wilson thing, being able to compose something and then see it come to life through other people. It’s just unbelievable, it felt so good, like a whole new high for me. I actually produced the record in the studio, so it was cool to oversee shit like that.”

“I really hope that people give this record like a headphone listen as opposed to just playing it off their computers or MacBook speakers. Really sit down with headphones and just unplug. That was the whole Nausea point. To kind of escape reality.”