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Community Values

Photo by Dan Monick

Here’s a story about community that begins in Fresno with a songwriter named Aaron Espinoza. There’s a point along the way that involves a great deal of personal loss for him, and we’ll get to that, but not just yet. Because there’s a later moment when he’s surrounded by four people he’s just finished recording an album with and they’re laughing. It doesn’t really matter what about — a moment ago it was the idea of a diner that sells coffee, sandwiches and guitar strings — it only matters that they’re doing a lot of it (laughing), and that he’s at ease and so are they.

“Yeah, we’re pretty excited,” says Espinoza through the grin he’s working to contain. His bandmates Ariana Murray and Davey Latter have their heads together — literally — and are feigning snores while fighting back giggles. Espinoza continues: “The record came out a couple of days ago and . . . well, it’s just kind of out there now. There’s no turning back; people are actually listening to it in their houses and on their computers and in their cars, so basically it’s everybody else’s record now.”

Murray opens her eyes, leans forward and squeaks: “No take-backs!”

Also in this issue
Heartbreakers: ALEC HANLEY BEMIS on Elliot Smith’s unhappy dream life; JOHN PAYNE on Smith’s From a Basement on the Hill — a great album by a great man

Within the city of Los Angeles, within the greater community of Silver Lake, there is a collective of bands and like-minded artists called “The Ship” — a community within a community. And within the Ship is a band called Earlimart that can be broken down into the five people who are currently sitting on the patio at local historic restaurant El Cid, crowding an orange-red table with a silver tape recorder for a centerpiece. Right now Espinoza, Murray (bass, keys, vocals), Latter (drums), Jim Fairchild and Joel Graves (guitars) are interview subjects, and two hours later they’ll be performers. But thanks to all of this crowding (into studios, into vans, onto stages, into restaurant booths), they’re friends and compatriots. And as such, they give each other that sense of plain old community, which happens to be the best kind.

“It’s funny. I always associated Los Angeles with scenesterism and, like, headshots plastered on a bathroom wall,” says Fairchild, a recent addition to the band and a longtime member of the Ship’s more established Central California siblings Grandaddy. With his denim-covered legs crammed under the table and his body protruding angularly, he looks a bit like an overgrown farm boy in indie garb. “But I started hanging out with the people in Earlimart about four or five years ago, and it’s like being in Modesto again — just a bunch of friends hanging around doing what they do. Fortunately they all happen to be focused on making something.”

Earlimart just released their fourth record, Treble & Tremble, and tonight is meant to celebrate that. It’s a beautiful album — textured, fragile, and overflowing with local significance (most notably a weighty dedication to the late, great Elliott Smith). From the opening orchestral whisper of “Hold On Slow Down,” to the build-and-crash last shudder of “It’s Okay To Think About Ending,” Treble & Tremble drifts through feelings of loss and clipped memories like a heavy-eyed child, hopeful and unwilling to let go. Pretty white noise and layer upon layer of piano and synth create a lushness that never sounds overwrought, and above it all Espinoza’s voice croons gentle and reassuring.

A lot of familiar faces will gather tonight to hear the new songs played live and channeled through whatever ghosts gather in the low-lit room, to hear this collection of huge sounds that Earlimart made, shrunk down into tiny plastic form, unpacked for the first time in public. There are six years of neighborhood history in this record, and it’s all going to spill out over El Cid’s century-old floors before the night is out.

Espinoza’s been creating out here for quite some time. A onetime carpenter, he built something rather large and arklike in 1998, though it started humbly enough. He and Murray had saved up until they had enough money to assemble a studio in nearby Eagle Rock, which they dubbed the Ship. For three years and two records (Filthy Doorways and Kingdom of Champions), Espinoza funneled his earliest, noisiest influences — the Pixies, X, the Breeders, Sparklehorse — into something equally experimental, though ultimately unstable. Earlimart imploded and in the midst of questioning the project’s viability, Espinoza found himself recording Everyone Down Here (2003) — a nuanced collection of guitar-heavy, piano-driven indie pop that initiated the band’s much-needed rebirth, and a growing swell of attention from press, fans and peers.

In the meantime, the Ship began to take on some unusual qualities. The studios weren’t just home away from home for Espinoza, they were the real thing (in more ways than one). When money was tight, he’d move in with sleeping bag in tow. And as word spread about the artist-owned recording space, and Espinoza’s skill as a producer, he could count more and more on having someone around to work with or bounce ideas off of. Bands like Irving, Pine Marten, Panty Lions, the Radar Bros., Silversun Pickups and Grandaddy — as well as Elliott Smith — found something familiar between those walls as well, and hence a kinship started to grow out of this construct of wood and nails and wires and knobs and sweat.

“Los Angeles itself is a hard thing; it can beat you up if you don’t have the right surroundings,” says Espinoza. He speaks with a slight drawl that belies that tuned whisper of a voice that sounds from the other side of the speakers. “Say you live in Fresno and decide you’re going to move to Los Angeles, and you don’t know how big the city is. You could end up someplace completely isolated. And if you don’t know anybody, and you ain’t got no job, this town will whup your ass.”

Of course, living in the middle of California surrounded by vacant lots, the state’s biggest crystal-meth rings, rampant alcoholism and other disparaging displays of gradual societal decay can be equally . . . stultifying. Although some of the most compelling art can come from the most colorless conditions, it’s difficult to sustain for reasons both financial and communal. Espinoza recently discovered that his childhood school district made the decision to cut all music education from the budget. He returned home a couple of days ago — with Grandaddy singer Jason Lytle in tow — to organize and play a benefit meant to put money into local independent music programs, to strengthen community where community was failing.

“You’re gonna need some sort of a chance in a place like that. You’ve got to throw somebody a bone out there,” says Espinoza. He’s emphatic, and not condescending in the least.

“You’re surrounded by circumstances,” adds Fairchild, “and circumstances falling the way that they do, they lead to boredom and boredom leads to abusing yourself or just settling down. I’m proud of having come from a rural area, but it gets to the point when you have to make a decision. You swim upstream so hard that eventually you just run out of breath. You have to give up or separate yourself from it.”

Or build a big enough boat to carry you and all of your friends onward. As Fairchild’s thoughts descend deeper into the Central Valley, Espinoza’s return to the orange-red table in front of him. “I don’t know what actually qualifies as a scene,” he says, “but if there’s a scene here and we are a part of it, I would be really proud to say that.”

The significance of his words isn’t lost on the other four, who offer their various marks of silent approval. Fairchild recently moved down from Modesto. Graves only just joined the band (and at the bar later admits that his sheepishness is a result of his still being a fan). Latter seems the type to make friends wherever he lands, but he gets a brotherly glow about him when they’re all together. And Murray, an original member of Earlimart, has been with Espinoza from the beginning. Beneath their modest pride and their strength in numbers, the subtext of their silence rings louder than anything. It’s the loss that still looms tangible over the band, their scene, music in a greater sense, and Aaron Espinoza — the untimely demise of their friend and hero Elliott Smith.

When asked about the death of Smith (whom he worked with over the years), Espinoza freezes momentarily, legs crossed, fingers clasped, eyes unfocused on the coaster that’s collecting balls of condensation from his beer. “I don’t think we’re going to talk about it,” he says without moving anything but the air beyond his lips. “It’s nothing personal against you or anybody else, but it seems that you get to the point where you risk negating the importance of what certain relationships are or were to you.”

 

It’s hard to know what more could be said than what’s already on Treble & Tremble. Rather than a final goodbye or a touching sendoff, the record plays like a lost satellite transmission that quietly asks Smith to take care of his heart until he’s reunited with the people who love him so. It’s also an open broadcast to anyone who’s listening — those who knew him personally, those who knew him through his music, and even those who may not have known him at all, but who understand what it is to love and lose. What happened on October 21, 2003, came as a sharp blow to Espinoza, but he’s found strength in the wake, and inspiration as well. Not to mention the fact that he’s just recorded his least solo record yet, and with a group of people that give him the security he’s been looking for.

“These guys are the best,” he says, his naturally mischievous grin starting to return. “We toured so much for the last record that all the little insecurities that we have, we’ve started to put away. And curtains are getting pushed aside, and the barriers that we have start to get broken down so that we can be in a room together and share ideas honestly. It’s the safest place in the world, and I think it’s really the first time that I’ve ever experienced that. Silver Lake is definitely in the band.”

Because if — in a most crudely simplified view — Fresno is methamphetamines and slow death, and Hollywood is cocaine and fast falls, then Silver Lake is, well, coffee, sandwiches and guitar strings. And drum heads and bass amps and keyboards and the rest. Of course, it’s not quite as quaint as all that (and neither Central California nor the Sunset Strip are so evil or oppressive), but that’s the idea at least. In this community of houses and shops and bars and cafés and clubs, in the community of like-minded artists who revolve around the Ship, Earlimart have found and helped create community — the best kind. And when tomorrow comes and they leave for their first headlining tour, they’re taking it, and you, along with them.


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