Craft Spells: Sincerity from Seattle // a conversation with Justin Vallesteros


Craft Spells is touring the nation by popular demand. Whether or not you personally have heard of them is irrelevant.

And not without reason were their EPs and first album critically acclaimed — they’re a catchy bunch, putting together shimmeringly clean guitar lines with punchy bass and danceable drums. “Party Talk”, with its 180k views on YouTube, seems to be the song that’s garnered the most attention. You can link to it here. But Justin doesn’t seem to be all too concerned with that side of things — reviews are, in his words, “just another bro’s opinion”.

Nausea, Vallesteros’ second full album, represents both a creative break from the first and more of the same: it’s still got the catchy hooks, introspective lyrics, and tight sound, but it’s more complex — deeper, in a way, and representative of a writer who is older and wiser. I appreciate the maturity and depth of his sophomore release. As he says himself, four years will change you.

While Idol Labor, Craft Spells’ first full-length album, makes you jump and dance around, Nausea makes you nod your head and feel. In concert, you could tell which songs were from each album:  Idol Labor songs saw small pockets of snapbacks jumping around, while Nausea tunes got pensive swaying and cheers at instrumental breaks. In such a small venue, with the show so personal,  I saw no reason not to give in to the good vibes. You can link to one of their new songs, “Komorebi,” here.

Another thing to note: Craft Spells are excellent technical musicians. Well-rehearsed and generally on-point. I was impressed, not only by Vallesteros’ confidence and presence on stage, but by the way in which his whole band gravitates around him. They’re tight-knit, and you can tell it’s Justin’s vision that guides every note, every phrase. You can read it on his face: every note that comes from that stage resonates in his soul.

That’s enough about the music. If I’ve convinced you to go listen to it, check out their Myspace here.

I got the chance to talk to Justin before the show. If you want to get to know the man behind the music, keep reading.

"Is it so strange to be alone?"
“Is it so strange to be alone?” — Justin Vallesteros

What’s different between this album and your first one, both to you, and in your opinion, in terms of the sound?

Well, I mean, the first album I wasn’t ever actually prepared to write an album — it was just kind of a random occurrence that I got signed, and coming from a small town like Stockton, like, no one ever gets signed. Pavement was the only band that came out of that city, so no one ever had the agenda of getting big from that city.

I didn’t even own shit; I didn’t have a studio at all, I was borrowing everything, I was living with my parents for a bit. Now, what three, three and a half, four years later, I’ve acquired a lot of recording equipment — four years is a long time, a lot of changes in someone’s life. I’d kind of been oversaturated with a lot of stuff in the world and I just unplugged, wrote this album at my parents’ house again with better equipment, and I guess a better focus on what I want to do with atmosphere and all that.

You spend a lot of time alone, and it releases a lot of your senses, when you’re kind of just unplugged from everything. And I think that learning to be by yourself is a really major thing right now, especially with an over-saturated world. It’s good to know who you are and feel comfortable with what you do. So that’s what gave me the confidence to finish this record, which probably has a more heavier tone than the first.

Pick out a couple things that you feel like are unique to the music you make -- what’s your personal touch to it?

I grew up on heavy CD pop music. My dad was a disk jockey in the Philippines and I grow up with like New Order and Joy Division, the Cure — so hooks are a thing that I’m in to. I understand pop music in the sense that I listen a lot to popular music, top 40 even, to distinguish what really is the formula that makes a song good. So I think that hooks are something really important for me to put out there.

Lyrics, too are something that I spend a lot of time with. I do a lot of free-writing. I don’t know how that distinguishes my sound from a lot of other people, but [that’s] more a sense of me where it’s like I’m an individual; in that sense that I am different.

You can always pick out the “Four Chords” when you listen to pop music, and obviously that makes money. But what’s the formula to you?

The formula to me has to come out sincere, through my hands. That’s why I stopped playing guitar for a year, played piano, because I’m physically and emotionally more attached to the piano than the guitar. It just works better for me.

. Piano is new for me — I’ve only played for like two years — before that I just knew how to play basic chords, but then I started listening to a lot of jazz and stuff like that, watching a lot of jazz tutorials. That really helped me express myself in more of a wall of sound than chords. I guess you can play more emotionally on guitar if you’re comfortable with it. Creativity-wise, it’s kind of bleak.

What do you do outside of Craft Spells?

This is what I do for income — I mean, I don’t do it for income but this is how I live. I finished school for graphic design — I still do a lot of the artwork or any aesthetic stuff related to the band, the album covers and all that. I read often. Yeah, that’s all I do — I focus most of my time on music and friends and people that I love.

Township Chicago — the venue. Full bar, full restaurant, and solid performance space. Good vibes included.

For someone who listens to your music, doesn’t know you personally, has never met you, what’s something about you that they wouldn’t have guessed through the music?

A misconception is that when someone’s an artist or whatever, they think they’re confident as fuck, but I’m the most self-deprecating person. Other than that, I’m pretty good. You can hear all things I do, all the happiness, all that. Like I said, it’s all sincerity. All from the beginning, just sincere stuff.

Last one -- are you gonna stick with this? Where do you see this band, project, sound going from here?

I mean, I’m going to keep doing music, yeah. I’m going to compose an album, actually, under my own name, just of compositions, no vocals. I’ll be doing that early next year. I’m writing right now a couple of EP’s, two different EP’s, one that’s kind of more like yacht-rocky. It’s not quite yacht-rock, but it’s very smooth. the other one is kind of a night-cruising EP. I’ve got a vision for it, I just haven’t got it down perfectly yet. Maybe some drum and bass.

To me, it doesn’t matter what Vallesteros does next. I’m going to listen to it.

(photos by Jake Newell)


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