Home Music Music Features

Psychedelic Indie-Rock Band Crumb Comes Back Down to Earth

The band discusses the metaphysical questions that informed its new record Ice Melt

Courtesy of Third Pupil

In conversation with the band Crumb, the word “fluidity” comes up often. First, when they talk about recording their second album, Ice Melt, in Los Angeles. “As a place, it looks one way, but it may actually be another way,” singer-guitarist Lila Ramani muses. “It looks so serene and peaceful, but to me, there’s an underlying darkness and hellscape energy to it.” There’s also the group’s more metaphysical preoccupation with liquid. “I feel like we were exploring a lot of water imagery,” multi-instrumentalist Bri Aronow says. “Just being more fluid in thought, challenging your beliefs, challenging yourself.” 

This concern with water quickly made its way into the recording process. Immediately after Bri finishes their answer, bassist Jesse Brotter eagerly recounts a technique the group employed in the studio: “We’d take a microphone, put a condom on it, put that in a bucket filled with water, and then play a sound source at the water, so you would get a slight underwater effect that you could merge with the original sound source.”

The effect is noticeable if you pay enough attention. Album opener “Up & Down” features drenched, muddy bass guitar that sounds like a nightclub thumping underwater. While the effect could have easily come from any number of digital tools, it came from a condom on a microphone. It’s an approach that fits with Crumb, a musical outfit that has prodigiously threaded the line between the abstract and the tangible since its inception at Tufts University in 2016.

The band is surprised to learn mid-interview that Ramani had visions of their collective future before any of them had actually met. “This is actually crazy, but right before we started the band, I remember that I had, like, visions of it, and me singing in front of a crowd,” she explains, between laughs. A majority of these visions occurred on a trip abroad to Spain, in which she grew bored of listening to the same music while walking through local towns. “It was the first time I pictured myself singing, because before then, I had never been a vocalist or anything. I just saw these images of myself singing with a band.”

Born out of a similar ethos, Ice Melt is a captivating trek to the metaphysical and back down to Earth, dancing along the gap between what exists on the surface and what lies beneath. 

One consistent element of your music is that it’s always open to more than one interpretation. But before Ice Melt goes out, what does it mean to each of you individually?

LR: I can tell you where the title came from. I was walking around my neighborhood, and I saw a sign that said “Caution: Ice Melt” — and at the time, I didn’t know what ice melt was. It’s, like, salt that you put on snow, if you don’t already know. I felt kind of dumb, and I added that to the lyrics of the title track. But I think that speaks to a larger intention of the album, which is just like, writing more about tangible things or objects in my life. 

BA: Just being more fluid in thought, fluid in challenging your beliefs, challenging yourself. I think it’s funny, because I kind of had my own interpretation of “ice melt.” It means these things to me, as well as it’s an object that I salted my steps with during the winter. It’s the collection of both of those things on the album that makes it feel very emotional, and big, and fluid. Just trying to express myself as fluidly as possible, but at the same time keeping it grounded in reality, and the mundane, and the day-to-day, and stuff like that.

JB: “Ice melt” kind of stuck with me — like the idea of something precious stuck beneath something else, kind of thawing out. Also, the album to me is about a sort of life cycle, in some way.

Jonathan Gilad: When I listen to music, it’s like the lyrics come last. So I feel like I still haven’t absorbed everything that’s actually said. But just thinking about how we approached the album playing-wise, and sonically, I think it’s a really cool next step into playing harder-hitting music. And I really like that for us, especially because we started as a bedroom band.

Bri mentioned something about challenging yourselves. Did that play any sort of role in the recording process?

BA: With this record, there were so many instruments to choose from since we were working in such a big studio. And I think one thing can happen, where it’s like, “Oh my God” — like, almost brain freeze, like, how do you begin? But what was fun was that personally, I would walk around, and it was like being a kid in a candy shop. It would always come down to A: do I hear an idea? And B: is it feasible?

What was the craziest idea you guys had — whether feasible or not — that you really wanted to go forward with?

JB: I think [the outro to “BNR”] was a really cool thing. Even though it wasn’t us being there, I still really like the story of it. We had a friend who recorded strings for the outro of that song alone, and made, like, an orchestra out of themselves. And then we sent that to a producer who had a warehouse-type space. There was this microphone — a binaural headset — that records sound in a 360 way, kind of how a human would experience it. So it was that, mixed with bird sounds that Bri had recorded in the backyard of where we were staying, and then those sounds got mixed with the orchestra and then got recorded from a person’s perspective. I really trip out at that.

BA: There’s one other funny thing. In “Tunnel,” I really wanted to hear a toy box, like one of those little things that you wind up. But I wanted to hear it in the melody. And somehow, in the studio, they actually had one where the way it works is that there’s this long piece of paper you could poke holes through, and you could write the melody by doing that. So I was just sitting there, like, “This note goes here,” and I eventually got it to play. We ended up sampling it, but that was definitely a challenge — trying to write by poking holes through a little toy box. One day I would love a “Tunnel” merch item, but I don’t know who makes custom toy boxes. 

Touring was a big part of what informed your previous work. Was it any different to have that element removed while you made some of this album?

BA: I think with touring, we just played a lot. It got to this point where we didn’t even have to think to play with each other, in a way that’s hard to put into words, which obviously then translates into the studio. We didn’t expect for it to be a year and a half since we’ve played a show, but it’s been nice to have a break, and if, knock on wood, we get to play again, it’ll be pretty mind-blowing. 

LR: I think what’s also cool about this album to me is that a lot of the songs, we have never played live. So I feel like we weren’t thinking about playing them live necessarily, or being limited by that. 

JB: Also in regard to how it’s been, like, transitioning to not touring, this project works so it’s always in phases. And that’s crazy sometimes for your nervous system to understand, and maybe people in your life too. Because you go from this high velocity lifestyle, to being on ice at home. But we’re never not doing something for the project. Whether visuals, or working on the music remotely, as we’ve been doing since leaving the studio. I think these months have been more dedicated to creating live videos, and more challenging music videos, and lots of visuals that we feel better about than ever. So it certainly has not been, like, sitting around all day twiddling our thumbs. But it’s a huge adjustment to not be connecting with people in the real world around your music. That’s actually the only way that I connected with people anyway, I realized.

That’s a depressing thing to realize.

JB: [Laughs.] It’s easy to just have that built into your life, and then when it gets ripped away, you finally see what it was doing. 

With a lot of your earlier work, a defining element was that you all were still acclimating yourselves with New York, and fielding this split lifestyle between Brooklyn and Boston. Now that you’ve had some time to settle in, has anything changed at all with the creative process?

LR: The process, I think, is kind of paused right now because of the pandemic and how we’re all sort of working on our own. So it will be interesting to see what the process looks like going forward. But we’re kind of split right now — still split, as we always have been.

JB: Yeah, it feels like we’ve done this before.

JG: I feel like at this point we’re more confident, with being able to be living different lives in different cities, and then when we come together it feels right. It’s similar to the past, when we were split up. But now, luckily, we have a great fanbase; we have touring schedules ahead of us — so it feels like when it’s time to do this, we can whip it together.

BA: I think also, when we started the project, it was like we were playing in a million different things, then we all hunkered down for a few years to do touring and writing and stuff. I think it’s nice to — and obviously the pandemic sort of dictated this — but I think it’s nice to have some time for us to pick up with ourselves a little bit. Whether in a musical way, or an artistic way, just exploring. So that when we get back together, it’ll feel more like when we were hanging out. If we’re all together all the time, there’s genuinely not much to share. But now there’s an element of newness that will be nice, and not forced, and just natural. 

How much of your work is strategically calculated, and how much of it is spontaneous?

LR: I feel like for me, with my own songwriting process, I’m always searching to have the most streamlined stuff, where I don’t even have to think about it yet and it’s kind of just, in the moment, pouring out of me. I feel like that was definitely true for this album. There was just this sort of clarity, and effortlessness of the songs, where they revealed themselves. So I feel like in that way, it’s just searching for that feeling, where you don’t have to think about it or strategize, like “I want to make a song like this.” You’re just expressing yourself in a really raw way. That’s what makes these songs really special, at least for me. Just how effortless they were.

BA: I feel like I more and more realize that when something viscerally feels right, that’s the answer. I find that especially with this album, as we were working for months and months with everything that was going on, I felt like my brain was slowing down. Like it was actually harder to strategize — and it was just becoming like, “Nope, this is what my body wants, and I can’t explain it but this is it,” and then trying to do something with it. And with improvising, too. That’s why I love to improvise, even in small ways on the album, even with a lot of the synth knob and key things — just, like, keeping the movement alive. Once my brain comes in, then the ship sinks. 

JG: There’s one song in particular, “BNR,” where I was playing it a certain way and then I think Lila suggested wanting to hear it more electronic. So I played the hi-hat on the electronic pad. And I was really surprised at the production stage when it just became, almost, this Tribe Called Quest drum beat. I did not visualize or hear that as I was playing it, and it just got transformed by [producer Jonathan Rado] into this larger-than-the-performance type thing. It wasn’t calculated, and every time I listen to it, I don’t hear myself — I hear the beat. 

You guys mentioned that this album was “a return back down to Earth.” Back down to Earth from where?

LR: Space. [Laughs.] No, it was more speaking to how this album is more grounded, and about more tangible things in my life — sonically too, with it also feeling grounded on Earth, real sounds, real instruments. And just getting back to the spirit of when we first started as a band. 

BA: I think also for me, it was like a landing pad of a few years of touring — not really having a home for some parts of it, basically being on the road for a couple of years, and feeling personally ungrounded — and then landing in a place that we’re at every day, and together. A lot of new experiences, a lot of stimulation, and then “Cool. We’re landing down.”

From Rolling Stone US