An Interview with Craft Spells’ Justin Vallesteros
Craft Spells is primarily the solo project of California-born musician Justin Vallesteros. “Idle Labor”, his first release under the moniker in 2011, was widely acclaimed for its dreamy pop sensibilities and exuberant lead single “After the Moment”.
After touring behind their promising debut as well as releasing a follow-up EP entitled “Gallery”, Craft Spells seemed to suddenly disappear. Vallesteros moved back home to record a follow-up, but instead found himself stuck in a creative rut, finding it difficult to record with the constant distraction of social media and hype. After a few months shutting himself off from the world, last year he returned with “Nausea”, the band’s first release since 2012. “Nausea” is a stark contrast to Vallasteros’ previous output, the carefree pop of “Idle Labor” giving way to sprawling arrangements and complex instrumentation.
The band is now poised to begin a tour of the US next month after a short break, including a stop in Lincoln in March. Last week we chatted with Justin Vallesteros about what he’s been up to during the break and how his own vision of “Nausea” has been transformed through its contact with others.
Dailyer: The press release for “Nausea” mentioned how a lot of the songs are inspired by what’s described as “an unhealthy relationship with social media”. A similar sentiment was expressed by the Brooklyn punk outfit Parquet Courts in their release late last year “Content Nausea”. Can you talk about this a little bit? What aspects of social media make it difficult to be creative?
Justin: It’s kind of just the ground base of feeling out of reality. Working on music but also looking at your feed and seeing other accomplishments from bands and what’s new and everything. It just becomes a conglomeration of stuff that influences the way you live if you dive into it too much. In a way it is actual reality but, I don’t know, it’s sort of a dizzying effect when you’re in between both worlds and trying to learn things on your own but also be part of a circle of friends. It just leads to feeling really shitty.
Dailyer: It can be weirdly isolating, even though the things on social media are technically real events going on with your friends. It’s still going on outside of your life. Do you now try to strike a balance? Do you still struggle with that kind of thing?
Justin: Absolutely not. In the record there’s points of each song where it’s resolved, and I think I’ve learned that it’s important to embrace the people who are physically around you, or the hobbies that are actually around you. For me, reading, watching films, having friends that actually like to go out and do things. It’s nice to not just be stuck in the bedroom recording and stuck in your own head. There is a limit, obviously, you can’t just run away from a lot of internal feelings, you have to deal with them to enjoy the world around you. We just came from a month in Europe touring the record and it was nice to, you know, play the songs and stuff but also to feel like a part of the wider world that’s actually happening when I’m not there.
Dailyer: Connecting to a world that’s not just on a screen.
Justin: Yeah. It’s nice that people understand what the sentiment of “Nausea” was. It was good to share those feelings with people.
Dailyer: Feeling isolated by social media is something I’m sure a lot of people could relate to.
Justin: I guess a lot of people that enjoyed the record were the kind of people that like to reflect and be on their own a lot. It’s nice to have those people come up to me at shows and be a bit more social.
Dailyer: Your first record, “Idle Labor” exuded this feeling of longing to be with another person, while “Nausea” focuses mainly on a desire to be alone with one’s thoughts. Specifically, in the song “Komorebi”, you sing “How was I to show/ for all the time spent alone”. This suggests a longing for solitude, and yet almost resenting it once you’re there. Is the song meant to indicate some kind of frustration with introversion?
Justin: The thing is, when I want to write an album I kind of just don’t want outside opinions expressed or anything getting in the way of my personal creativity. So I have to shut myself off completely. But then you get kind of consumed with the work and totally forget about everything. There just becomes a point where you start thinking of your mortality. (laughs) But, yeah, by the middle of it I was just trying to get some air, and affirm that I actually do care about things other than myself.
Dailyer: Social media emphasizes this constant sharing of thoughts and feelings, it’s not particularly conducive to reflection or being alone.
Justin: Yeah, because then you can’t really respect your own opinion, you always have to mirror someone else or present yourself in a dishonest way. Or, if you’re weak, you just follow popular opinion and can’t curate your own tastes, your own hobbies, or your aesthetic of living, really. It’s not progressive at all, you’re just becoming another story of our point in time and that’s it, only reflecting the aesthetic of our time and not really touching on anything universal. It’s nice to be a part of a social circle that can share their genuine feelings and know that they weren’t influenced by the internet or something. It’s nice, like I said earlier about touring in Europe, just going to different countries and understanding their way of life. It’s not internet-based, you get to actually witness what they feel in their real lives.
Dailyer: “Nausea” seems like a great leap forward in terms of instrumentation and the complexity of arrangements. Are there specific aspects of your songwriting that you’re still hoping to improve, even in light of all the changes in the new album?
Justin: When I initially started working on the album, I was inspired by Kanye’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, where he just went super maximalist on the whole album. I’ve kind of been wanting to do something like that for a while, mostly because I’m a huge Beach Boys fan and I’ve always wanted to work with a lot of different instruments that I really like and record them well. What I have been doing is demoing a new record. It’s bit more jank as far as recording goes, but sophisticated at the same time. (laughs) As far as improvements in arrangements go, I think a bit more fun this time around. I was touching on that with “Komorebi”, which was one of my favorite songs to write. I just don’t know how to harmonize really well with myself so it would probably be a bit of a mess. It will be a pretty jank version, but it would be pretty cool. I’ve been looking up to a lot of my favorite producers jazz-hop and stuff like that. There’s a lot of boom-baps on the next record and the beats are very A Tribe Called Quest-sounding. Hopefully people will dig it. I want to have more fun, is essentially what I want to do. It’s a different time in my life and I’m glad the “Nausea” part is pretty much over and I was able to kind of confront it and put it out there. If people thought “Nausea” was too internal, or too much for myself, well, I’m allowed to have at least one of those, right? (laughs)
Dailyer: I noticed the vocals on the album are both mixed higher and recorded a little clearer. Was “Idle Labor”’s low-key vocal style more out of necessity or was it a stylistic choice you made?
Justin: Well, it was a few things. One, I borrowed all the equipment that I wrote “Idle Labor” on. Two, I just didn’t really sing well. I think I’m getting a bit more confident recently. I hope the albums show progression, I was lucky enough that my label found me because I’m from Stockton, California, a pretty small town that is really only known for Pavement. It’s cool that people see my progression from album to album.
Dailyer: Did you anticipate that this would be the direction you would go in when you first started work on your follow-up album?
Justin: Oh no, I wrote like two albums worth of stuff before I recorded “Nausea”. Those albums were kind of between “Nausea” and “Gallery” in terms of sound. It was going to be a really hyper record, but I don’t know, I ended up spending four years in San Francisco just feeling really alone, and had a breakup with one of my best friends. So I was going through some kind of feeling that I was going to make a different kind of record. It took me three years but last year I had a breakthrough in what I wanted. I didn’t expect it at all until last minute. I wrote most of the songs to heal myself, and I ended up feeling good about it and deciding that that was the direction I wanted to go.
Dailyer: You’re going on tour pretty soon again. Are you excited?
Justin: Yeah, definitely. This one’s a month long and we get to come back to Nebraska, which is pretty tight. We got to play in Omaha a few years back opening for The Drums.
Dailyer: Any impressions you remember of Nebraska?
Justin: I was a huge fan of Saddle Creek growing up when I was in high school. It was funny asking everyone if they knew Conor Oberst. (laughs) Other than that, I remember thrift store shopping was really good there, and the venue that we played at itself was really cool. Other than that, I don’t really remember too much.
Dailyer: What have you been listening to lately?
Justin: Lately I’ve been trying to get more proficient at guitar, so I’ve been listening to a lot of old bossa nova, a lot of liquid jazz. I’m doing this thing where I go through the local record stores around here and just pick up acid house and liquid jazz compilations from the CD section. It’s been really fun. I’m trying to think if I’ve been listening to anything new… if anything, just Rich Homie Quan and Young Thug.
Dailyer: Obviously “Nausea” is a very personal album to you, but is there anything that you want the listeners themselves to take away from the album?
Justin: What I wanted people to grab from it is that it’s okay to be alone, man. Sometimes people are so stressed to figure out what they want to do and stuff. Then they figure right away “I need to be in love!” or “I need a girlfriend!” or a group of friends or whatever. You don’t need that many friends, really, if you can accept experiencing life on your own. You can live your life however you want, but I think you need to learn how to live by yourself for a little bit. Using people as a crutch isn’t healthy at all. Reflection is key to understanding yourself.
Lincoln residents can catch Craft Spells at Vega on Saturday, March 21st.