From the Smell to Joshua Tree, It's Been a Long, Strange Trip for Bleached
Photo by Nicole Anne Robbins
It's a Monday afternoon and Bleached are stealing me away for a ride over the canyons and down memory lane in their big black truck.
When they were teenagers, sisters Jennifer and Jessie Clavin built a riotous reputation as part of a '00s downtown scene based around the Smell, a venue they describe as “a magical hole-in-the-wall.” Their band, Mika Miko, informed other local heroes including No Age and Abe Vigoda. “If the Smell hadn't existed, I would have become a completely different person,” Jen says.
In 2014, the pair launched their duo Bleached. Now adding bassist Micayla Grace, who plays in Only You and Leopold and His Fiction, they've beefed up their sound for their second album, Welcome the Worms, a record that mixes pop melodies with punk teeth and comes over like a soundtrack to a '90s slasher flick.
The title came to Jen as she was walking around Echo Park Lake high on psychedelics at 8 a.m., and was handed a self-made booklet by some religious fanatics. “One of the pages said 'Welcome the Worms' and I was like, 'This!'” The record is about searching for positivity through the dark sludge of life. It's about worming your way through the dirt and eventually poking your head above the ground.
As I'm bundled into the backseat, the saccharine punch of album opener "Keep on Keepin' on" hollers through the speakers, kicking off a drive that lasts the furious extent of the album's 37 minutes. We take in the seediness of Thai Town, speed down the 101, wind up along the mysterious curves of Mulholland Drive, then head back through the landmarks of Hollywood. Along the way, Jen reflects upon the paths that have defined her life journey thus far.
“This is where I would come to clear my head,” she says, looking out at a view of the San Fernando Valley, where she and Jessie grew up. “Up here, you realize you're just one person in this town where so many things are happening.” The sisters are Valley girls personified, from their mismatched dyed hair-dos to their love of vintage dresses and repeated conversational use of the word "totally."
“We have 818 tattoos on our mouths!” boasts Jen, pulling her lip down to reveal a stick-n-poke of the Valley's area code.
As we turn onto Mulholland Drive, the backdrop for Jen's recent lyrical splurge and site of the album's mastering, the trio recall some of their favorite L.A. legends, including a recent tale told to them by the band Kim & The Created. “One of their friends never knew who her dad was. She always thought it was a guy in prison. Anyway, she got a phone call a week ago saying, 'Your dad just died and left you some money … and your dad was Lemmy.'” She laughs. “Isn't that insane?!”
The ups-and-downs of the Clavin sisters' history means that they themselves know too well how L.A. operates as a town where dreams can be tinged with a twist of the bittersweet, and everything that goes up can — and often will — come down. Growing up, they were obsessed with the Manson murders, and whiled away weekends partying in the houses of rich kids they'd go to school with. “All their parents were divorced,” says Jen. “I remember our mom took us to the house where Nicole Simpson was murdered, the day after. The tape was still up; there was blood on the floor. Jess and I were raised with that dark side.”
The making of Welcome the Worms followed the trio's adult experience of L.A.'s underbelly. Jen was getting over an emotionally abusive relationship, and Jessie was recovering from being evicted from her house. It wasn't until they extracted themselves from their hometown that they really came to terms with its duplicitous nature. Seeking salvation, they went to Joshua Tree.
Bleached, from left: Jessie Clavin, Jennifer Clavin and Micayla Grace
Photo by Nicole Anne Robbins
“You get a natural high there. It's all that old-people energy! It was like having a punk cleanse,” says Jen. “I was realizing stuff — like Kylie Jenner.” Some of the cleanse was a little too literal, as Jen recalls the freak weather scenarios they were subjected to, including one storm so violent they could see trees swimming downstream. “A baby had been taken out of its crib by the water and somehow survived,” Jessie recalls.
We pass the legendary Sunset Sound studios where the album was recorded after their weird desert sessions; Jen insists the studios are haunted. They worked there with veteran producer Joe Chiccarelli (The Strokes, Elton John) who pushed them beyond their sonic limitations, marrying up the pop melodies that have been there since Mika Miko with the confidence of Jen's lyrical maturation.
While the Clavin sisters move toward adulthood, you get the impression they never truly want to grow up — hence spending their days steeped in nostalgia. Welcome the Worms is about rediscovering that spirited sense of fun that accompanies harmless childhood rebellion. The only difference is that now they get to own that playfulness without any of youth's crippling self-consciousness.
“When you're younger, you don't want to talk about being proud of yourself, but it's cool to own that feeling,” says Jen. “We rule!”
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