The Sound Under L.A.

I was recently in Michigan with a friend and we stopped in Detroit on our way to see his family. Afterwards, we talked for a long time with his parents about how cheap rent was there, how many affordable vintage instruments were being sold by young people who moved there to open up music shops, and how surprised we were to find records in music stores of local noise artists, to see a booming scene beginning again in Motor City. My friend’s mother asked why we wouldn’t make a mass migration to Detroit, work in a more expensive place like Ann Arbor, and spend our money building a studio. We could be putting out records and saving up enough to be comfortable. We got sucked in. But pretty shortly after daydreaming about it, there was an exciting buzz in the room as we got nostalgic for Los Angeles. Even with our massive expenses, exploding rent, and rage-inducing traffic, L.A. has a music life right now that is hard to pass up. It’s worth more than being comfortable.

Talking over each other from opposite couches, we were excited to tell his mom about how frequently small shows happen in L.A. You collapse onto your bed after putting down almost all of your money just to pay rent and can, at any moment, receive a phone call from a friend or see an event on Facebook telling you about a five dollar — or even free — show happening down the street. It’s those moments that remind you why you put up with the stress. There’s music everywhere. You go to work miserable but there’s a chance that if you follow the rock scene in L.A., you will see members of bands you like coming into establishments you work in too. “It’s like your heroes are your friends’ or neighbors’ bands now,” my friend told his mom. Among these bands are acts that have played shows put on by Minty Boi Productions or have put out albums on Burger or Lollipop records. Bleached, Peach Kelli Pop, The Aquadolls, Sloppy Jane, Clit Kat, MoonFuzz, Beach Bums, and Ariel View are only a few of the groups you can find on lineups around L.A. It’s thrilling to be in a city where, while “rock” seems to be generally making a comeback, no band shares the same texture.

“This ‘scene’ isn’t specific to one style. There’s a lot of heavy stuff, there’s a lot of soft singer songwriter stuff. It’s bringing everybody together,” Miranda Viramontes of MoonFuzz and Ariel View said to me in a recent interview. Viramontes grew up playing in marching band, with the members of what is now MoonFuzz, at her high school in Southern California before becoming fixated on the blues and Jimi Hendrix and becoming a solo guitarist whose dexterity and emotion in her playing are transfixing. MoonFuzz put out their album Astronauts in Love on Lollipops Records after Viramontes interned there. “In high school I liked a few of the bands that were on [Lollipop Records] and I followed them on social media. When I saw online that [Lollipop] needed help, I thought ‘I better hop on this.’” For a city with a reputation for selfishness like L.A., there is a lot of volunteering being done for independent businesses and the underground music world.

Miranda Viramontes, guitarist of the band Moonfuzz. Credit: Hector Vergara
Miranda Viramontes, guitarist of the band Moonfuzz. Credit: Hector Vergara

The stress of living in a divided and pricey city has its motivations. Despite glorification, being on the edge of broke and running around like a maniac adds a rush, and simultaneous relief, to the moments when you get to stand on stage and do your thing for a little while. We can’t afford not to get paid for playing shows, and it’s important that many artists won’t stand for not getting paid (or especially paying to play) for gigs at renowned venues. On the other hand, the focus on community you find at smaller venues is invaluable and leaves a bigger mark on the city.

The Smell, a venue in Downtown Los Angeles, brings performers and audiences of all ages to a place where you can always find familiar faces and where there is no bar available to take attention away from the performance. Jim Smith, the owner of The Smell, said he thinks “because there’s more of a community spirit to it there is a totally different vibe. You don’t feel like you’re at odds with the venue itself […] From the beginning there has been a steady rotation of kids who want to help out and contribute to the scene. They’ll do it for a few years, then go off to college or do other stuff, and a new group of volunteers will come in. Kids that were coming to see bands then started their own bands […] and then they got big and kids started to get into them.” There is an evolutionary aspect to The Smell that keeps it familial and due to no age limit, you get a wide range of attendance. On any given night, an audience can include any member of a family. “There’s a range of ages — somewhere between high school up through late 20s — but you also see people who bring their little brothers and sisters or their kids, their parents or their grandparents.”

I recently went to a show at a rehearsal space in Van Nuys to see Livingmore, Liv Slingerland, Alyeska, and Fiona Grey. My grandmother overheard me on the phone inviting a friend of mine and shyly asked if she could go. I was excited that my grandmother wanted to go and couldn’t wait to see what kind of shenanigans she would get into. She ended up dancing wildly, getting free vodka from younger people at the show, and talking to another adult fan, who goes under the name lamusicsene_ on Instagram, to post about local L.A. bands whose shows he attends regularly.

What’s happening in the Los Angeles music scene is refreshing and sincere. It’s young and simple, while inviting the older demographic to come have fun, and lacks a cynicism that has been habitual for a long time in rock music. Recently the L.A.-based band Winter put out a song called “Jaded” that touches on the pessimism that arises in music scenes, especially as working musicians get tired from touring and the never-ending hustle. The lyrics make shout-outs to L.A. neighborhoods like Echo Park that fall prey to being too cool and cliquey, and the song invites everyone to have fun and stop being desensitized, welcoming our younger selves back.

Sloppy Jane’s singer Haley Dahl summons our youth in a different way:  “Most of the visuals in our show and a lot of my lyrics are pulled directly from things that mattered to me as a little kid. If a kid wouldn’t be entertained by something, that means it’s not good. There are no exceptions. I’m always hanging onto and regurgitating things that inspired me when I was too little to be a snot in a real way,” said Dahl. Her music has a bold sound. With its vibrato-ridden dissonance and rich layers of vocal harmony, it sounds like a haphazard choir of prodigy toddlers who’ve been possessed by bums. Underneath that blanket of wobbly and exhilarating tones, the lyrics are simple and brazen, just as children’s stories have a clear outline and say what they need to say. Being a ‘snot’ is something we view as childish, but as we get older, we fall into it through vaguer means, turning to jadedness and passivity rather than the more direct tantrums we had as little kids. Music like Sloppy Jane’s forces us to confront our direct ‘snot’ over our passive-aggression.

Haley Dahl, singer of Sloppy Jane. Credit: Sarah Catherine.
Haley Dahl, singer of Sloppy Jane. Credit: Sarah Catherine.

I had a chance to talk to the L.A. comedian Ember Knight (The King of L.A.), who has also played bass for Sloppy Jane and has known Dahl for a long time. Some of Knight’s work includes leading human carousels, getting a crowd of 100 to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ on Reggie Watts’ voicemail, and parading around an audience naked because she thinks she’s dead. There’s a feeling of unguarded innocence in that act, naked on stage. “I feel like in order to make high-energy, optimistic work, you have to be this golden, sexless child kind of persona,” said Knight. Recently she spoke at Los Angeles City Hall, offering a trip back to childhood:  “A couple of weeks ago I read some Winnie-the-Pooh to City Hall. I try to go once a week and just give them whatever it is that I think they need. Art that I like is generally kind of an object. It’s framed and I can kind of hold it in my mind. I love Winnie-the-Pooh, the novel. It takes place in a concise world, in a concise location, it has its own logic, its own cadence and it has bookends. I like Peter Pan for the same reason. I guess I love that if you put a beautiful sincere frame on something, even if the thing in the middle is violent or jokey, by the end it’s held by a nice pair of hands.”

It’s been said again and again that it’s hard to believe anything in the arts can ever be new again, and nostalgia is still nearly inescapable. The music I’m seeing locally right now, however, seems to be personally nostalgic rather than sentimental about another era. Many artists are instead revisiting their own past and bringing honesty and simplicity to their work. Experimenting has always been about pushing boundaries toward complexity, but after going so far in one direction, it seems that having a lack of complication and overarching philosophy is stimulating and to the point. The inventive art being done in L.A. has a mixture of jarring sound and catchy riffs. “Catchy,” in this case, feels less like a dance at a nightclub and more like a cold you caught from your neighbor or an itch from a bug bite. Not having a philosophy can give you more opportunities for experimentation.

Ember Knight told me: “I’ll get an idea and [not] know why so I’ll text [Haley Dahl] and say ‘I’m gonna make a tomato sauce!’ and she replies ‘Good’ and I think Okay, well, Haley thinks it’s good, I’m just gonna do it.” Though nobody knew why Knight did this, nobody cared. The interesting part was that her jars of tomato sauce (with her face on them) were actually on the shelves of Ralph’s markets across L.A.  It was displayed on social media, but no one working at the Ralphs’ seemed to know it was happening. A large philosophy can make execution difficult or impossible. “You build the basement and then you have to build the house that everybody sees. I hear a lot of people talking about their philosophy — their and I’m like, ‘Where is the house? Can I see it?’ I’d rather look at the house and not know that there’s anything underneath and just think ‘Damn, that is a nice house.’”

Comedian Ember Knight. Photo taken by Haley Dahl.
Comedian Ember Knight. Photo by Haley Dahl.

While this shows the focal shift of L.A. artists taking an exciting turn, economic disparity is still too prevalent. L.A. has an immense homeless population and many working-class families cannot afford simple resources. The city is also unaffordable for many musicians and is widely known as a city for already-established, well-to-do people in the industry. But a city with a lot of money and mainstream advertising benefits from an underground that defies its reputation. The underground can highlight the unexpected attributes of that city as well as draw attention to the disparity.

Sloppy Jane has moved to the equally-expensive New York to continue an all-ages scene. “L.A. and New York are so different from each other. The shows in L.A. are much crazier [and] there is a popping all-ages scene that New York just doesn’t have. That being said, audiences in N.Y. listen a lot better, and the music that is being made [there] is so inspired and so disciplined. New York is so made up of what everyone brings to the party, so you get a really huge variety and there is just so much more to see, hear, and take notes on.” Meanwhile, back here on the West Coast, Knight says that “The music scene is the only underground [in L.A.]. [It’s] doing a lot better than other scenes in Los Angeles because the other scenes are more tied into money [but] this is a really hard time for art because people have been given so many tools that they forgot how to do a good job.”

The result of this shortage of support and lack of listening and participation is the closure of many venues like The Smell and the migration of many artists to other cities. Jim Smith talked to me about the threat people keep hearing: that The Smell will be shut down.

“[From the beginning] we faced the issue of a new landlord coming in and jacking up the rent. We couldn’t afford it and had to find another space and that’s when we moved [to Downtown L.A.]. And we’re kind of going through the same thing again, except it’s not a question of just them jacking up the rent, it’s that they own this entire block and want to bulldoze it. They haven’t given us a final date yet and it’s been dragged out for over a year now. A lot of spaces open and as soon as they hit any resistance or roadblock, they think ‘This isn’t what I got into this for’ and pack up. It’s a determination to make it survive and to make it last. […] It’s a real commitment on the community’s part.”

Jim Smith, sole owner and director of The Smell. Credit: Jim Smith and Facebook.
Jim Smith, sole owner and director of The Smell. Credit: Jim Smith and Facebook.

Ember Knight, too, talked to me about the unwanted closing of venues. “All these places are closing — The Steve Allen, The Smell, The Downtown Independent. Everything is closing so slowly and we’re all so tired […] too tired from paying off [our] parking tickets to be outraged.” Being outraged and tired is inevitable, which makes it even more laudable that so many young artists right now are including lightheartedness as well as heaviness in their work, often through a playful lens. It makes our problems more endurable while still paying attention to them, all the while eluding a mainstream market where adult-ness and sleekness are the qualities of advertising and popular art.

“I want to create identical playgrounds in a bunch of people’s minds so that everybody can share inside jokes that aren’t marketable, that are too weird to be shared with the market — so they cannot sell them. Inside jokes for us that help people feel included. If we can build playgrounds in our minds, they’ll just be confused because those playgrounds don’t have to include anything [about] getting laid, making money, or anything they know how to sell,” says Knight. Knight’s words remind us it’s important that while we pay attention to what’s going on we don’t become jaded and let our work fall by the wayside. Haley Dahl voiced to me her fear about what could happen to young artists if we don’t hold onto our fascinations: “Sometimes I meet people who are the same as me but a few years older and they aren’t brave anymore and that scares me.”

Community in a city is capable of achieving a lot with little resources, but it’s impossible to keep a space alive and keep the venues open without doing the legwork. Jim Smith says that The Smell has been able to stay open for almost 20 years because people continue to support it and volunteer despite the threats of closure. Through difficulties, people have stuck around and put together shows that restore intimate spaces in a big city.

In Los Angeles there is an overwhelming mainstream that is aesthetically limited and fails to include a large part of the city’s demographics. There is also something special happening underneath that is worth being noticed and appreciated.

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