Force of Nature

by Amy Moore
I’ve known Paul Paxton for a long time. Over the years, I’ve seen him do the following on stage: break equipment, fall over, light himself on fire, light other things on fire, break strings and still nail a guitar solo, throw things, fall over, pitch-bend by pulling violently on the neck of his guitar, sweat…a lot, turn way up, knock into his band-mates, fall over, and awe everyone in an audience. He’s a passionate person, Paul is, and as the lead singer and songwriter for the venerable Jacksonville band, Crash the Satellites, he channels that passion into his music.
To be present at a Crash the Satellites show is to be reminded of what rock music can be. This isn’t one of those bands of pretty boys and girls manipulating toy keyboards and jangly guitars. CTS is a rock band in the grand tradition of rock bands: there’s a power to the whole endeavor that’s not present in so much of the trendy, cloying music that makes it its business to be inoffensive with flimsy lyrics and easy melody.
CTS is a band of heavy contrast, from Chris Gibson’s dark, melodic bass and Mark Hubbard’s driving but buoyant drums, which both have a pop sensibility that keeps the band from ever veering too far toward stadium rock, to the front and center guitars. Between Brian Blades’ Les Paul and Paul’s vintage Jazzmaster, there’s a blend of clean and sludgy, precision and sheer instinct, swirling together in a mass of effects that sometimes tends toward lovely, airy reverb and other times towards muddy distortion. Paul’s urgent vocals add a level of emotional potency that makes it seem as if he’s always moments away from losing control. Equally comfortable with soft melodic tones and elemental screaming, he is, on-stage, a force of nature.
Now, though, as Paul sits opposite me at the coffee shop where we’ve met to discuss CTS’ new self-titled album, he doesn’t so much look like a force of nature as an unassuming, quiet type, happy to sit in a corner and talk softly. Though we’ve been friends for probably ten years now, he’s unexpectedly formal and polite as we chat, perhaps because he’s conscious that this interaction is being recorded. I’m reminded again of contrast, of just how much contrast there always was between Paul on-stage and Paul off-stage. I always had the sense that Paul was only fully himself on a stage, guitar in hand, with all the layers of tentative social necessities peeled away. This single-minded passion for his music seems to me the key to the fervent fandom Crash the Satellites inspires, as well as the longevity of the band.
We begin to talk about CTS’ new album and the long process by which it came about. In discussing the band’s recording process, which started back in 2007, Paul notes, “we didn’t want too many cooks in the kitchen, but [Brian] did welcome my extra ear in the room, and we would go back and forth, like ‘What if we did this? What if we did that?’ and our thing was just to make it sound like us.” For Paul, this idea of the band sounding like themselves was very important. He describes one instance in which he and Brian were able to discover their own sound only after making a counterintuitive discovery: “on a lot of the songs, we thought the snare was louder than what we were used to hearing with the bands we liked, and we kept turning the snare down, and the song didn’t sound as good, so we had to turn it back up, louder than we thought was necessary, for the song to sound right.”
He attributes the quality of this new album to learning so much with the recording of the band’s first album, Learning to Land. He mentions that Terry Case (now LA-based, but formerly the bassist in local band New Berlin) taught them a lot when they recorded in his home studio, that Brian himself has improved in terms of recording and mixing, and that an investment in some new equipment allowed them to take their time doing a lot of their own recording, rather than hiring someone who didn’t know their sound to do it for them. Some of the tricks the band learned this time around included, as Paul notes, “recording all the vocals and guitars in our home studios…and cars.” I make reference to the fact that lots of bands will record vocals in bathrooms for the kind of reverb provided by the tile. He nods, but laughs “not us,” then going on to describe amps “placed in vehicles as kind of an isolation booth.” He laughs a little as he tells me, “I sang in my little Corolla, in the back seat. It wasn’t comfortable.”
In response to the suggestion that his vocals sound stronger and more upfront in these new recordings, Paul responds “we spent a lot of time on the vocals. I rerecorded a lot of them. I spent a lot of time recording: 5, 6, 7, times – as many times as needed – and then I would pick my favorite.” He describes coming to the realization that he “couldn’t stand…seeing videos and hearing myself where my pitch was kinda off, so I started focusing on it more; I started warming up my voice, and I started taking it seriously.” He reflects, “when I was younger, for some reason, I didn’t get it. You know, when your favorite bands are Pavement and Dinosaur Jr., you assume that ‘Well, they’re great, and their vocals are kind of like, what the fuck’ so you figure you can get away with it.” Interestingly, he notes the way the band’s bad equipment actually drove the style of his vocals until very recently: “I insisted in the band room to have monitors and bigger speakers so I could hear myself because for so many years…the reason a lot of my songs, especially, my earlier songs, were a little screamier, and a little more high-pitched, was because our equipment was so crappy. I wouldn’t be audible if I didn’t scream into the microphone because we had junk. Now we have huge speakers on both sides of the room and I can hear myself, so that helps.”
Standouts on the new album include ‘Cakewalk,’ with its military-style marching snare contrasting a slow two-note bass alternation and featuring strident guitars that at times evoke tones of Steve Albini. ‘Trailer Park’ makes use of the classic “Julia beat,” that is, the distinctive style of former CTS drummer, Julia Gregory, who helped form the band’s identity in the ten-plus years she played with them. Paul notes that current drummer Mark “was already a fan of Julia’s style, and he kept her style in mind.” According to Paul, Mark often jokes he “would even play with his shoes off [as Julia always did], but he just can’t play that way.” Eleventh track, ‘Plastica’ features lots of ascending and plateau-ing guitar scales contrasted with a corresponding descending bass line. Once the guitars reach their peak, they split and one wiggles into a tremulous octave above. All this drama is held in check by a pop backbeat that prevents the song from getting unbearably heavy. ‘Talk Under Water’ is a striking song as well, bringing to mind the sound and pitch-bending guitar effects of seminal nineties group Swervedriver, with sludgy distortion and squealing riffs that add drama and weight the more they build.
Reflecting on the dark tone of the new album, Paul says that while “A lot of the songs on the album are dark,” he won’t regret writing them and releasing them. He concludes: “I don’t know if I’m going to write an album that dark again. I don’t know if it’s necessary. I got a lot off my chest, you know?” It would seem that this album has been emotionally cathartic while also being a valuable learning process in terms of recording.
Despite how happy the band is with their newest effort, CTS is already pushing ahead with new material. Paul notes, “we have a handful of songs, not very many yet. I’m having a little writing surge right now, and it’s perfect timing…we know the process now. We know exactly what to do, and now we just need to do it.” It would seem with this album, that CTS has managed to learn enough to begin to transcend the limitations of equipment, which frees them up to focus even more on crafting songs and lyrics that express who they are and will become as a band. As Paul says, “it’s time to make a new one.” He says that while the band is not feeling pressure to get another album done right away, he does admit, “we’re talking about recording techniques already – how we want to approach recording these songs.” He concludes with a smile, “we’re just focused on this release right now, and the shows after that, and then we’ll be back in the studio.”
Moving forward with their current release, the band has no plans to press CDs because, as Paul puts it, “we want the music to be accessible online, where people get their music now.” Likewise, he sees extensive touring at this point as an impractical effort, but would instead like to focus on building an appreciation for the music in the region and then carefully branching out further. Talking with Paul about the band’s future plans, there’s a sobriety and strategy to his approach that fits well with the progress the band has made with this album. He doesn’t seem particularly concerned with trying to make quick money, but instead that people actually get a chance to listen to and appreciate the music.
As I reflect on my talk with Paul, I’m struck with the maturity that’s sprung up in him and his band in recent years. After some rotation, they’ve found a stable line-up, discovered tried-and-true recording techniques, and developed a smart strategy for audience exposure. One thing I’m sure won’t change, though, is this: I’ve seen it over and over again through the years – no matter the venue, Crash the Satellites is able to draw in an audience. Whether it’s Riverside hipsters, preppy college kids, moms and dads, Southern dirt rockers, or random passers-by, the incredible energy CTS funnels into songwriting and performing takes an audience by surprise and holds them captive. Whatever your taste in music, if you want to be reminded of the real potency of rock music, you owe it to yourself to see Crash the Satellites play live. Their album release party will be held June 16th at the Phoenix Taproom. Just go.