When NOW featured Crystal Castles as their cover story two months ago, implicit in the whole article were three little words that get tossed around again and again when people talk about the band: next big thing.
The details of the buzz band’s rise are astonishing and fascinating—the mic check discovered by a label in 2005; the 7″ records released in the following two years selling out fast; the insane live shows filling up faster; the internet superstardom (for what it’s worth, they have 112,000 friends on MySpace); the commissioned remixes for big names like Bloc Party and Klaxons; and, finally, the full-length self-titled album, which arrived after much anticipation a month ago. That self-titled album has been both heavily-promoted and well-received, and for good reason: the music on it is infectious, dark, electronic, and, on tracks like the spectacular “Crimewave,” totally danceable, video game music to score the lives of nihilists. Just last week, the duo—Ethan Kath and Alice Glass—recorded a video for “Vanished” at downtown superclub CiRCA on a stopover during their hectic and massive worldwide tour. The Toronto band has risen to prominence as few others in recent memory have; as Kath told NOW, “everyone cares.” Kath might well be right—which is why now’s probably not the best time for Crystal Castles to get publicly accused of two years of blatant and knowing intellectual theft.
Fans of the band ought to recognize the image of Madonna with a black eye instantly: for two years, the band’s sold it in forms like the image at right on t-shirts at shows and through their MySpace page. It was the cover for a 7″ single, Alice Practice; and Last Gang Records, one of the band’s labels, released a limited edition “banned cover” version of the new album with the image on it. It has become iconic Crystal Castles, their own version of the Rolling Stones’ tongue.
Problem is, the image was created by artist Trevor Brown. (The version pictured above appears in A Temple of Blasphemy, a collection of Brown’s work that was published in 1999; please note, as well, that Brown’s site and work may not be safe for viewing at work.) In 2006, the band found the image on an old flyer, without credit, and began using it; according to Crystal Castles’ manager, Mikey Apples, “it was their hope that the artist might reveal themselves and make contact with the band.” Brown revealed himself, and neither side agrees much on what has happened since.
Brown told Torontoist that he spoke in 2006 via e-mail with Alice Glass, who was “always polite” but who provided “endless promises that were never kept.” According to Brown, he originally asked for $300 as payment for the 7″ cover, which he says the band agreed to pay. (Brown also asked for $300 for the t-shirts but, at Glass’s request, dropped the demand; more important to Brown, he says, was that the band stop making the shirts.) According to Brown, the band had his Paypal information but kept stringing him along for months and never paid; according to Apples, the band reached a happy agreement with Brown on a set amount, but Brown did not respond to repeated requests for his mailing address.
So the band kept selling the t-shirts, and kept not paying Brown. As Apples told Torontoist, “with no replies, no contact, and no apparent objection from the artist, the band continued to use the image with full artist info and credit on the good faith that the original agreement would be upheld unless notified otherwise and the opportunity to compensate the artist would happen eventually at his convenience.”
During the following two years, Brown says he “tried to forget it.” But when one of the band’s three record labels, Slum Records, asked Brown for permission to use the Madonna image for a release, Brown saw that Toronto-based Last Gang Records were advertising a “banned cover” release with his Madonna on it. According to the band (as quoted by Brown), Last Gang “printed promo copies of the CD and the distributor refused to share them, we were told we could not use your art on our CD cover and had to come up with a new cover.” So Last Gang turned around and sold those promo copies as collector’s items. (Neither Last Gang Records nor Slum wished to comment on any aspect of this story.)
“Seeing the Last Gang Records cover,” says Brown, “was the final straw and I decided to do something about it.” On February 17, Brown took his beef public, posting an entry on his blog recapping the story up to that point.
Photo of a Crystal Castles t-shirt with Brown’s design on it by HellionYell.
That decision coincided with the impending release of the band’s new album, a move that Apples saw as a publicity ploy; Brown, Apples insists, had ignored twelve separate requests from the band for his mailing address (Brown says there was only one message he didn’t reply to, “not wanting to waste more time in futile letter writing”), and Brown had “written back demanding $10,000 [and] claimed ‘you are with a bigshot record label, they can afford it.’” (Brown said that he began by asking for much less, than asked for more when he saw they “were still dicking [him] around.”) The band stopped selling the t-shirts on the web. According to Apples, “knowing that the artist was no longer content with their original agreement, the band felt it was only respectful to seize sales until the band and management attempted to come to a new agreement that would satisfy each party.”
But Brown posted again on March 5, when he had heard that the band was continuing to sell the t-shirts, then on March 19 posted a lengthy, heated conversation between himself and Apples, in which Brown demanded payment for the 7″, the t-shirts, and the banned CD cover. Apples claims that Brown thought he might get into trouble using Madonna’s image, and, Apples says, “began to conduct himself in an overtly unprofessional manner. Randomly breaking down discussions with fits of anger, the artist would litter his messages with expletives directed at the band, threatening to ruin the band’s career, turn fans against them, [and] ‘destroy’ them.” On his blog, Brown quotes Apples as saying: “If all you care to do is remain bitter, then so be it. Don’t want us to use the image again, so be it. You are a fool.”
In spite of the high tension, things seemed as though they might still get resolved—the two sides agreed on a sum less than the $10,000 Brown had requested. When Brown was offered a contract, however, he says that he was offered one that requested that he “hereby irrevocably assign all right, title and interest in and to the artwork that [he had] created” to the band, and that “Crystal Castles shall have the absolute right to deal with or use, or to refrain from using, the Artwork in any form, in any medium and for any purpose whatsoever which Crystal Castles in its sole discretion may choose, without notification or approval by [Brown], and without additional consideration to [Brown].” Apples, Brown says, refused to adjust the terms of the contract that Brown wanted changed, and when Brown wrote about the offer on March 26, he angrily called Crystal Castles “unscrupulous thieves, liars and assholes.” He closed the blog post with an apostrophe to the band: “you won—you stole my art—paid me nothing—I hope you are really happy now.”
Apples feels otherwise. The band, he says, has “been struggling to compensate [Brown] for the original agreed use of his artwork” since 2006. “It’s clear to us and anyone with half a brain that the artist never intended to settle the issue at any price. He has instead opted to prolong his moment in the spotlight and play for even more publicity.” But “despite all of this,” Apples told Torontoist, “we remain hopeful that eventually we can come to an agreement with the artist for retroactive compensation or otherwise and put this issue behind us.”
Brown isn’t optimistic. Since the last time he communicated with Apples, Brown says, “every opportunity to come clean and compensate me was disregarded—I’ve tired of being dicked about with—I’m finished with it.” Two months after Brown took his accusations public, and two years after the band first found his image on a flyer and used it without permission, some people have already made up their minds. Last week, John Darnielle, lead singer of the The Mountain Goats—a man about as well-respected and as well-loved as they come in the indie set—weighed in on the mess on his blog, Last Plane to Jakarta. His article opened simply: “Sure, they made one of my favorite albums of the year so far, but—not to put too fine a point on it—Crystal Castles can go to Hell and stay there.”