Coming of No Age
It's 5:24 a.m. and Randy Randall is driving to North Hollywood. No, wait. It's 8:30 a.m. and Randall's car clock is wrong because his battery was replaced a week ago — a month ago? Maybe two? — and he never got around to updating the time. Symptom of the life of a touring musician.
In fact, the No Age guitarist and I are on our way to a little home on the Valley's fringe so he can purchase equipment that will accompany the duo when they open for Pavement and Sonic Youth at the Hollywood Bowl — a sturdy amp combo he scouted out on Craigslist.
"It's such a weird, uniquely L.A. thing," he says. "At one point in their lives, everyone here was in a band, and there's this huge collection of gear gathering dust in closets. I don't know if all cities in America are like that. Bands constantly retiring, getting back together, getting started."
Typically, the adage "The more things change, the more they stay the same" is spoken with a sigh, but No Age is testament to the other side of that sentiment. Their storied rise to the top of the local experimental-rock scene via downtown DIY venue the Smell — as L.A.'s deadly return salvo to NYC — has made them hometown royalty, and yet they still shop via the online classifieds.
They're on the road year-round, playing everything from international festivals to odd theater gigs — last year they scored The Bear at Cinefamily — and yet they refuse to take on a manager. (Randall's refreshingly spare explanation: "We don't have people. We're our own people.")
They're signed to one of the biggest indie labels in the game, Sub Pop, and yet their music still comprises two fundamental ingredients: noise pop and punk rock. Sonic Youth and Minutemen. My Bloody Valentine and the Urinals. Randall and drummer-singer Dean Spunt. And truth be told, all of this willful stagnation has everything to do with their progress.
"I make notes to my 14-year-old self sometimes," says Randall, 29. "Like, 'I know your room looks like Radio Shack and those kids at school keep making fun of you, but keep doing what you're doing.' I never thought I'd be able to pull one over, make people think we're a real band. That's how it feels sometimes — do people just believe us 'cause we say we can do it?"
He hooks a left onto a nondescript NoHo street and pulls up to the seller's one-story home. The yard's full of aquariums in various states of degradation and repair — further Craigslist fodder. The seller is the 30-something head of a humble little family. Times are lean. The band's not getting back together. The refrigerator-sized Ampeg SVT-610 bass cab and head have got to go.
The seller is kind, but not too polite to wait until we're out of his living room to hold each of the seven bills Randall hands him up to the window for inspection. This wouldn't happen to Slash, but it might happen to Thurston Moore. Randall doesn't bat an eye.
In 2007, he told MTV, "I already play music I like to kids I want to play to, so if somebody else wants to see the show, that's cool." I ask Randall if he still feels that way. "I think so," he says. "If you get the opportunity to hear us, and you like this kind of thing, then you'll be into it. Either you are or you aren't. I won't be a salesman: 'Hey, you'll love this music! It's got something for everyone! It's Black Eyed Peas!' I'd be happy to be onstage at the Smell any night."
But No Age's new album, Everything in Between, does display a few changes, signs that while the band remains pretty damn DIY — no big producers, no fancy studios, no guests and, as always, a heavy hand in the album art — they're also getting better at writing their skewed pop.
For the first time, Spunt's voice is up front and his sneered poetry is audible. The soupy ambience that colored 2007's Weirdo Rippers is now a spaciousness woven through the punky fabric. The crushing sonics of 2008's Nouns are parsed out, distributed where they're needed. "Common Heat" recalls the blown folk of early Beck. "Chem Trails" (not the recent Beck song) sports the quirky bounce of Moldy Peaches. Shoegazing single "Glitter" is perfect, a congealing of No Age's many aural shards.
Randall's car is filled with odd rock detritus. A Captain EO button pinned to his visor. A set of plastic vampire teeth on the dash. About 200 pounds of newly purchased used audio equipment in the back. But dangling from the ignition is a poignant piece of the past: a key to the Smell, where Randall and Spunt used to assist with everything from digging trenches to tearing tickets.
"I feel bad. I should give that back," Randall says. I try to convince him of the object's significance — like a key to the city, or some kind of medal — but he only insists that someone else could make better use of it. Even as he admits his band has too many fans to play the tiny club anymore, he won't accept the honor. It'd be proof that No Age has grown beyond its roots.
No Age, Sonic Youth and Pavement play the Hollywood Bowl on Thursday, Sept. 30.
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