Nikhil Rao leads the psych-pop band Bottled Up, blending influences as abstract as suburban lawns, Andy Warhol, Television (the band) and television (the appliance). Along with his co-bandleader Colin Kelly, bandmates Michael Mastrangelo and Beth Cannon on guitar and Rao’s brother Rohit on drums, the band creates an off-kilter brand of experimental pop that is similar to likeminded artists in the Los Angeles scene yet carves out its own unique niche.
Today we’re premiering a new song from the band, a track with a split-personality called “Crystal,” which is the title track from the band’s upcoming album Crystal, which is out October 16. Along with the new song, the band has also shared a video for “Crystal.” Much like the title of the song would imply, the video features occult-ish mysticism.
“Crystal is a song about the multifaceted nature of intimacy, and how insecurity and fear can hold us back from embracing relationships with people,” said Rao. “I grew up watching MTV religiously, and I miss the vulnerability of those music videos, so I wanted to try to re-create that vibe in a modern psychedelic way. Watching those old music videos as a kid really helped me feel like I could relate to everyone, especially as an Indian-American who constantly felt alienated by the rampant racism in every part of this country I lived in. It gave me hope that music could help me escape that feeling of isolation, and I’m very grateful for it.”
The guitar lines and vocals line up together, accenting Rao’s unique delivery that sounds like he could almost be British, despite being from Oakland and currently residing in Los Angeles. It adds to the psychedelic nature of the song, recalling some of the most iconic artists in the genre, namely Syd Barret.
“The song itself is also an ode’ to when I first picked up the guitar, learning Syd Barrett and Velvet Underground songs to perpetuate the romantic connection between music and my emotions,” said Nikhil Rao. “I hope that Bottled Up can be an outlet for people to become more vulnerable, and help foster more meaningful connections between all of us in what’s slowly becoming a more artificial world. The song started out as a bass line Colin wrote, which was so strange and melodic that it ended up being the main vocal melody as well. After trying various ideas, it turned into this almost theatrical arrangement. I love musicals, and one of my favorite movies of all times is Jaques Brel is Alive and Well in Paris, which definitely had an influence on the vocal performance. I think this combination of a theatrical musical influence with 60’s/70’s stuff we grew up with a’la Syd Barrett, Bowie, and Eno created the uniqueness within a familiar psychedelic sound.
When asked of the influences for the song, Mastrangelo says “Ziggy Stardust for the first half of the song, Belle and Sebastian for the second half.” Rao responded, “I’ve never listened to Belle and Sebastian before, but Mikey is usually right about this stuff.”
In addition to writing traditional rock music, Rao also has a background in scoring video games. When asked about how that work influences Bottled Up, he said, “Scoring games and film is all about creating a cohesive world. Doing this in album form is much more difficult as there’s no visual medium to use as a reference point. But it’s also this challenge that motivates me to push each individual song to the limits arrangement-wise. Scoring is a great way to gain experience in creating interesting dynamics within a song, and an album even. Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VII soundtrack was what inspired me to pick up the violin when I was a kid, and I’ve always identified with world-building within music since. Stop Making Sense re-invigorated that childhood fire in me when I saw it for the first time as a teenager, so even when we perform I am usually thinking about how to improve our presentation visually and musically as I aim to immerse the listener so that we can build a relationship around the energy of the music.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major affect on the music industry, making it very difficult for many bands to create new work. That’s not been as much of an issue for Bottled Up, who are already used to working together from afar.
“That’s my fault entirely, but working distanced is actually better for songwriting and recording,” said Mastrangelo. “We don’t lose songs anymore like we used to. We’d write a great song in practice, maybe even record it live but then forget it. With distance recording you have to track everything on your own, so you get time with the song and time with your parts so they stick. Also your parts are just better because you can really orchestrate with the other elements. The one downside is it’s a rush to be the first to track because they get to steer the direction of the song.”
“When Mikey moved to Los Angeles, we also started adding more people to the group, turning the band into a weirdo collective of DC experimental musicians,” said Rao. “Mikey would fly into DC for some shows, and others we would experiment with filling the space with saxophone, synth, samplers, etc. Instead of asking someone to play his parts, we would ask people to join and write their own parts for the songs. This made the live show organic, and our audience would know that every Bottled Up show was going to be different. When COVID first threw us into quarantine, I felt like I finally had time to dissect what I wanted to achieve with our music. I started listening to a ton more music for the first month, analyzing mixes of everything from Blondie to Frank Ocean. After that, I started recording demos like crazy, laying out whole songs with full instrumentation, then sending to the band for them to re-write their parts on their own time. Like Mikey said, it’s actually better for the writing process. What I’m most grateful for is having the time to work on lyrics, I keep a whiteboard in my room and am often rushing over to it as different themes come to me. There are a lot of practices that I’ll be continuing to use as we approach normal life again.”
Crystal Track List
3. “Every Night”
6. “Mexico City”
8. “Full Yum”
10. “Thoughts Feel Strained”
12. “Astra Inclinant Sed Non Obligant”
13. “The Reverie”
14. “See You On The Other Side”
Press Photo Credit: Eman El Saeid