MUSIC

Crystal Fighters in the caves

Anglo-Spanish band ventures into Navarre village famous for its witch hunt

British band Crystal Fighters, during their concert in the Zugarramurdi caves.
British band Crystal Fighters, during their concert in the Zugarramurdi caves.Jesus Diges / EFE

The five members of Spanish-British electro-pop group Crystal Fighters file into the bar of a hotel in the Basque coastal resort of San Sebastián looking dreadful. But then that's how they usually look. It's Thursday morning, and Crystal Fighters are here to tell the media about their concert to be held later that evening in the caves of Zugarramurdi, close to the tiny village of the same name in Navarre, about 30 kilometers up into the foothills of the Pyrenees.

The village is infamous for the witch hunt that the Spanish Inquisition carried out there in the early 17th century, when residents were accused of taking part in an aquelarre - a witches' gathering - in the caves. More than 50 people from the village were arrested, most of whom would eventually perish in prison, and 11 were burned at the stake.

Although based in London, the group was formed in Navarre in 2007, and has released two albums, Star of Love, and Cave Rave. The song Plage, from their first album, is currently being used on a television advertisement by British chain store Marks & Spencer. The group likes to tell the story that their first recording stemmed from an unfinished opera written by the deranged grandfather of former member Laure Stockley, who lived in an unnamed remote village in the Basque Country.

Their first album stemmed from an unfinished opera by a mad grandfather

Captivated by the document's intriguing scrawls, the band took on the name and decided to celebrate the wild spirit of the old man's work, resulting in a combination of psychedelia, electro, and Basque folk.

"We started writing music around the book and learning about Basque culture and how the music and history has evolved. From there we decided we wanted to finish the opera and do a live show that would get across some of the amazing... crazy stuff that was in this book. So we crafted this live show around the book and wrote new music based on its directions and looking at Basque music as a whole," says guitarist Gilbert Vierich.

Last week's concert in Zugarramurdi was a private affair, with some 300 fans invited, as well as anybody from the village interested in attending, and was broadcast live over the internet.

Adopting a studied air of disinterest, the group went out of their way to avoid answering the assembled journalists' inquiries, responding monosyllabically: "Where does your interest in caves come from?" - "Well, I saw some pictures on the internet." "Is your record Cave Rave a reference to Zugarramurdi?" - "Cave rave is, above all, a nice rhyme, wouldn't you say?"

In a bid to give their music a more authentic Basque sound, the group has incorporated the txalaparta, a Basque percussion instrument consisting of wooden blocks. Purists have noted that guitarist Sebastian Pringle's style breaks just about every rule of how to play the instrument, but it has to be said that his knowledge of Basque rock is worryingly complete.

"It's hard to explain," he says of the group's cultural heritage while sipping a drink on the hotel's terrace after the press conference. "When we're in England, we talk about our Basque influences and how much we love this place. But when we're here, we have to be a bit more careful." The group arrived the day before the concert to do a sound check that went on until 5am.

Without events like this, it is hard to set yourself apart from the competition"

"This is why you form a group, so as to be able to do these kinds of things. Without events like this, it is hard to set yourself apart from the competition. There are a lot of people out there making good music, but only one band is playing in a cave," he says.

In Zugarramurdi, the group make a quick visit to the local church, where they display their pagan credentials by not taking their hats off and eating a chorizo roll as they wander round. The curtain raisers at the concert are local outfits Wilhelm & The Dancing Animals, and Belako.

There then follows a short display of how the txalaparta should really be played, by a local folk outfit, among whose numbers is the winner of the local male beauty pageant, Mr Gipuzkoa.

As the sun slowly fades, the walls take on the green and blue hues of the woods outside and a small stream that runs through the grotto. A couple of local children have found a hosepipe and are playfully spraying the assembled fans as they wait for the group to come on stage.

"The idea is for the local people to be involved in this," says Sergio Cruzado, the promoter of the event. Cruzado has also organized Kutxa Kultur, a festival that will take place in San Sebastián this coming weekend, and where Crystal Fighters will be performing, alongside Dinosaur Jr. and Damien Jurado.

"We have put the whole thing together in just two days, trying to make the minimum impact on the village. You have to deal with people properly if you want to organize an event like this," he adds.

It's past 11pm by the time the group comes out on stage. They run through their two albums, playing for 90 minutes. After the show, the band members stop for a quick drink in the village bar, where one of the staff says: "It's been great to have you - better than the usual French tourists; you can come back anytime."