By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
Christopher Crisci is a man of few words.
Well, that's only partially true. When he's not performing, the lead singer and guitarist for the Appleseed Cast is a relatively talkative guy. But when he's making music, Crisci's words are sparse—especially on the band's latest full-length, Sagarmatha.
"On this record, the vocals are really serving as an instrument—just another melody to be listened to," Crisci explains over the phone, just hours before taking the stage at the Triple Rock Social Club in Minneapolis. "There is some meaning to the lyrics, but the whole concept of the album started as an instrumental EP, and it kind of moved from there to a semi-lyrical full-length. We just really wanted to emphasize the instrumental aspect of it."
Spend a little time with the catalog of the band from Lawrence, Kansas, and you'll begin to understand. Over the course of six studio albums (or seven, depending on how you quantify the definitive two-part Low Level Owl series, which the band is performing in its entirety on its current tour), the Appleseed Cast has evolved from what many saw as a late-'90s Sunny Day Real Estate facsimile into a multilayered, multitalented outfit that has gained as much fan support as it has critical praise.
Not a lot of groups can survive such a major stylistic change, especially when those changes are spread across the better part of a decade. While Crisci and guitarist Aaron Pillar have been with the band since the beginning, lineup changes have plagued the group for years, most recently with the departure of bassist Marcus Young, who quit to pursue his degree, and drummer Aaron Coker, who left for personal reasons. Bassist Nate Whitman of Black Christmas and drummer John Momberg of The Dactyls have replaced them on the band's current tour. Despite the recent switch-up, Crisci says it hasn't soured the tour or the new album's reception.
"The fans are definitely getting into it," Crisci says. "Although, out of all our records, I'd be surprised if anyone knew the actual lyrics to this one."
To be fair, Sagarmatha (the Nepalese name for Mount Everest) does have a few lyrics, and they're even understandable on a few songs, most notably on "The Summer Before." But on most, Crisci's echoed utterances slip unintelligibly beneath the crashing waves of guitar and studio effects, due in large part to the return of the band's longtime producer, Ed Rose. On the Cast's previous album, 2007's Peregrine, the band worked with Dallas' own John Congleton, producer for Explosions in the Sky and Minus Story, among others.
"On the last album, we were just wanting a different sound," Crisci says. "We had done several albums with Ed, and we really wanted to go for a grittier, lower-fi type of thing. Ed's forte is crisp, clean and really high-fidelity, which is really why we went back to him on this one. We wanted more of that sound to it."
Crisci also spent some time behind the boards, engineering the album's live tracks before they were finalized by Rose.
"Going back to Low Level Owl, I've always done some sort of recording on the albums," he says. "This was the first time I actually listed it on the liner notes, because I did way more than on any of the other records. I love working with the expanded instrumentation. I love guitar, bass and drums too. But in the studio, I can experiment with bells or keyboards or horns or whatever."
Even the band's songwriting and recording processes revolve around the instrumentation and intense post-production. Crisci says when the band writes a song, rough vocal-free tracks are laid down before a single word is written.
"As we're rehearsing, I'll just sing gibberish and start coming up with vocal melodies," he says. "After that, we go into the studio and record the instruments, and then we take it home. At home, I'll start singing and recording different lyrics until I have a full song."
Experimentation in the studio is a must for groups as musically intense as the Appleseed Cast. But unlike a lot of similar post-rock acts, the band forgoes the effects in favor of a more traditional guitar, bass and drums setup when they play live. For Crisci, this means every song basically has two versions: one for the album and one for the live shows. But if you ask him if he'd prefer to scale back the studio time in favor of a simpler sound, both on and off the stage, it's clear that he loves putting in the extra effort.
"It's like asking which of your kids do you like more," he says. "I like that the live versions are kind of heavier and full of distortion, and I like how we're able to pull off a song from the record using the stripped-down band."
For a guy who doesn't say much behind the mic, it's nice to hear him speak his mind.