When Luke Atlas and Coleman Trapp of Coast Modern first met in the back of a San Fernando Valley recording studio, the former had just moved to Los Angeles from Seattle to pursue a songwriting career. The latter was a long-haired guy who made, according to Atlas, "some cool beats." Trapp had heard some of Atlas' previous work and liked it.
Soon after, they were working together on their first collaboration — science-centric rap songs for NASA.
Atlas got the assignment through his connections, but he needed someone who was adept at hip-hop to help get the job done. That was Trapp. The project was part of an outreach program to get youngsters interested in space and astronomy, and the songs that Atlas and Trapp made would be part of a program that toured middle schools. They received a book on physics, brushed up on concepts such as inertia and got to work.
"I like to think that we maybe inspired some kid who is going to be on Mars in the future," says Atlas when we meet at a coffee spot along the L.A. River. "That's my dream."
Since then, Atlas and Trapp's songwriting style has changed. As Coast Modern, they make stylistically eclectic pop with the languid stride of ’90s indie rock, à la Pavement. On the evening before our interview, Coast Modern opened for LeMaitre on the Santa Monica Pier as part of the Twilight Concerts series. Rounded out with a drummer and bassist for the live shows, Coast Modern performed as the sun set over the Pacific and a crowd of young fans crammed into the front row sang along to songs like "Animals" that have already hit the web. They ecstatically joined in wishing Atlas a happy birthday; the guitarist turned 29 on the day of the show.
Onstage Atlas and Trapp have good chemistry, like a 21st-century Hall and Oates. Trapp is the frontman, handling vocals and bouncing across the stage, but Atlas doesn't fade into the background. They're good live, but that was never quite their intention.
Trapp, who grew up in Burbank, got a laptop before heading off to college in Arkansas. School didn't work out for him — he left and headed home — but music stuck. He set up a studio in his parents' back house and posted ads on Craigslist looking for people to record with.
"I knew nothing," he says. "In fact, I had them singing into the wrong side of the microphone for a year. I just kept it up. I didn't know what I was doing."
Atlas went to an arts high school in Seattle where he studied film. Quickly though, he veered toward music. "I thought I wanted to be a director, but you need way too many people to make a film. But, with a drum machine and a keyboard, I could make whole songs," he says.
Together, Atlas and Trapp were looking to do any kind of songwriting. Sometimes they did it for fun. Sometimes they tried to get the music to pop artists. Eventually, they recorded music and released it, hoping to place their work in TV and film.
"The whole thing is that, in the world of sync-to-TV ... the music supervisors want to know that the songs they're putting into a movie or a TV show are from a real artist," Trapp explains. "Even though we weren't a band or an artist, we decided to make an EP as if we were, for the purpose of pitching to sync and TV."
When they put some of their songs online, one — "with less than 100 plays," Trapp notes — caught record label attention. He calls Coast Modern "an accidental band that was inevitable." He had no ambitions to be a singer or a performer. Meanwhile, Atlas had already gotten the band thing out of his system (he was in the Seattle-based band Brite Futures, known before that as Natalie Portman's Shaved Head) and was content to produce other people.
But with label interest, the two got to work. They work fast — they produced the songs "Guru" and "Animals" on the same day — and have written about 30 songs as Coast Modern. Eighteen of those are on the first album, released July 28, which they recorded at Atlas' home studio. "Which is a studio apartment," he adds, "so it's a studio in both senses of the word."
There was no recording booth. Trapp sang while standing in a room with a hardwood floor and open windows. They point out that you can hear a nail gun at the beginning of "Animals" because of neighboring construction.
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Trapp took to performing easily. He says there were some bad experiences early on, but the failures helped settle his nerves. Plus, it's a new challenge for him. "For people who grow up practicing that their whole lives, there's a sense of expectation; they expect to find notoriety or appreciation. But I think that because it's something that I never intended to do, it's remained kind of exciting. Probably the one thing about music that I'm not jaded about is performing. "
It's been a while since Atlas and Trapp made music that was specifically for educational purposes, but they're still inspiring people and have already amassed a solid fan base, thanks to savvy social networking and the advance release of a few key songs from the album. Fans send the group homemade memes and video clips; in fact, Atlas says that someone just sent him a video for his birthday.
"It's cool that it feels like we're kind of inspiring each other," Atlas says. "People send us art that they make that's inspired by our art. That's an excellent gift, to be able to do that. Spread more art."