“Fish on the Sand” is a prototypical George Harrison song. Each line radiates in that way that makes sense chiefly in the context of Harrison's voice (“I know you’re in the sun/I see your face in everyone") — buoyed by optimism, tempered with contemplation.
The song's chorus centers on one of Harrison's most offbeat, funniest lines: “I’m not so much of a man/More a fish in the sand."
"It’s kinda funny, isn’t it?” says Allah-Las guitarist Pedrum Siadatian, laughing. "He’s saying, without this girl, he’s a fish out of water — pretty much dead.”
Allah-Las' new EP, a covers record titled simply Covers #1, includes four tunes and leads off with “Fish on the Sand,” from Harrison's 1987 comeback record, Cloud Nine. For hardcore music dudes like Allah-Las — three of whom met while working at Amoeba in Hollywood — a collection of covers might provide more insight than it would for a typical band. Which is why the selection of an ’80s George Harrison tune (a certified non-hit) stands out.
“It’s like a ’60s jangle pop song that got caught up in slick ’80s production,” says Siadatian, who sits, one recent evening, on a dimly lit patio in Echo Park. "And I guess we heard it and thought we could do it more like The Gants, or a ’60s folk garage band. To take it back a bit."
There’s something more believable about Allah-Las’ take on “Fish on the Sand” than even Harrison's own maximal, Jeff Lynne–produced take. It’s a sharper, simpler recording. There’s an ache in singer Miles Michaud’s voice, and a bittersweet quality in the backup vocals. The strange pathos of the lyrics stands out.
The short collection of covers proves that Allah-Las, more than ever, know how to use mood in service of song. They're a band whose sound has changed in subtle but noticeable ways over the years, incorporating new inflections as they've gently widened the scope of emotion in their work.
Covers #1 was recorded by Siadatian, Michaud and the other two members of the band, bassist Spencer Dunham and drummer Matthew Correia, in Topanga Canyon, ahead of sessions for the band’s fourth record, for which they’ll begin laying down tracks soon. It’s the follow-up to Calico Review, the band’s warmly if quietly received third release, itself an earthier departure from their surfy, reverb-heavy early sound.
“We never really sat down and recorded a set of covers like that,” says guitarist and usual lead vocalist Michaud. “It’s nice to reinterpret songs and be able to play something you don’t feel is necessarily your baby, that you can just enjoy playing.”
But the couple of months leading up to the release of Covers #1 haven't been entirely stress-free. Just a few months ago, the band found themselves in the middle of an international news story — albeit briefly.
On Aug. 23, Dutch police, on a tip from authorities in Spain, canceled the band’s show in Rotterdam, suspecting it was the intended target of a terrorist plot. It turned out to be a false alarm, but the band was suddenly thrust into a microburst of unwanted attention.
"We didn't feel particularly in danger at any point,” says Michaud. But the incident ended with the band being taken out of the country into Belgium. Soon after, Allah-Las watched as sensationalized news stories popped up in the British tabloids — with a particular and awkward focus on the band’s name.
“It’s all pretty unfortunate in the end,” Michaud says. "We were put on blast for 24 hours. It’s not the kind of attention we ever wanted. A lot of people were trying to get us to talk about the name, and issues with it, and be polarizing about it. And we don’t want to draw attention to the name and polarizing issues."
Back in the United States, the focus for the band is now back on the music. In October, they played Desert Daze, the psych- and shoegaze-focused festival in Joshua Tree, and headlined their own sold-out show at the Regent in DTLA.
They're also hyping the covers EP, which they recorded at Pump House Studio in Topanga with producer Kyle Mullarky, who also recorded Calico Review.
Mullarky once played bass in L.A. band The Shore, veterans of the early-’00s Echo Park scene that was populated by bands such as Beachwood Sparks and The Warlocks — ’60s-indebted, sun-worshipping bands that formed the most identifiable strand of Allah-Las’ DNA.
"[Allah-Las] are heavy music collectors, and so were the guys in Echo Park and Silver Lake in the 2000s — a lot of the deep garage and folk and ’60s psychedelia and country,” Mullarky says. “[Influential L.A. DJ] Jimi Hey worked at Amoeba, and I’m sure he hipped those guys to the records. It was all connected, and [Allah-Las] were the bridge that brought it to the next [place].”
One important predecessor to those bands were Further, whom Allah-Las cover on the new EP. Before Further fizzled in the late ’90s, the band were trailblazers on the small stage, creating a visionary blend of baroque pop and proto-grunge fuzz. Allah-Las do the band's “J.O. Eleven,” which was originally buried on an Italian pressing of their 1994 masterpiece, Grimes Golden. The song was written by Josh Schwartz, who along with bandmate Brent Rademaker went on to play in Beachwood Sparks. (Schwartz tragically died earlier this year after a long battle with ALS.)
Allah-Las' version of "J.O. Eleven" sees the band enveloping themselves in disaffected vocals and gritty, overlapping guitars, a sound quite different from anything they've put out before. "I think it’s one of their best songs,” says Sadiatian, fiddling with an ashtray. "I’ve known that song for a while and I’ve always thought it was beautiful. We didn’t want to veer too far from the original, because the original is so good."
Of the four songs on the EP, Kathy Heideman’s private-press, lo-fi folk-rocker “The Earth Won’t Hold Me,” originally released in 1976 and reissued by the Numero Group in 2013, most recalls Allah-Las’ Calico Review sound. "We don’t listen to as much ’60s garage as we used to,” Siadatian says. "We kind of exhausted that. I feel like we’re more into weirdo ’70s stuff.” The tune — recorded in a studio in San Jose by a singer who has since vanished — fits the bill.
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The band also covers “Hard on Love,” a creeping track originally demoed but never properly recorded by Television. They sound more like Television on the track than they do like themselves, right down to the tape hiss. (All the tracks, and all of Allah-Las’ music, are recorded straight to tape.) Siadatian even unspools a delicate, succinct, almost George Harrison–like guitar solo. “Pedrum said he’d never even played a rock guitar solo before,” Mullarky says with a laugh.
At the band's Regent show leading up to the EP’s release, they played "Fish on the Sand," along with their own classics, like "Busman’s Holiday" and "Catamaran." Joined by an organist and an additional percussionist, they sounded fuller, the craft of their songs showing behind the reverb.
If any artist was a touchstone in that performance, it wasn't Harrison or Television but someone closer to Tom Petty — a mellowed, mature, song-centric sound. If anything, the performance was an indication that, like the artists they clearly admire, Allah-Las are continuing to expand their sound, even when they're following spiritually in someone else's footsteps.
Allah-Las' Covers #1 is out now on Mexican Summer.