Photos by Wild Don Lewis
Behind a large green house on Rampart, just below Beverly, a bunch of teens and 20-somethings are hanging out: laughing, talking, smoking and drinking beer from a keg. A boy rides in circles on a skateboard in the driveway.
Past the kitchen and a table of liquor and chips, a dining room is packed with sweaty kids pressed up against each other. Most are pogo-ing like a ’78 Weirdos flashback. Some stand on furniture, some sit on amps, one girl holds a cell phone in the air so that a friend on the other end can hear the set. Mika Miko, a five-piece, new wave dance band, is in the middle of a kinetic set that began with them in full swing behind a pair of sliding, 1930s room-divider doors, which they thoughtfully opened to reveal themselves.
Jenna, 18, one of the band’s two lead singers, is barefoot and wearing an ’80s red-sequined dress that falls off one shoulder. She crouches on the floor, folding herself into the microphone to scream. Jennifer, her 20-year-old cohort and part-time tech-head, has short blond hair and is wearing boys’ briefs, slip-on Vans, vintage sunglasses and a short, tight, wool ’70s jacket with punk buttons on the lapel. She sings into a phone receiver that she has wired to a microphone.
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A few miles away, the pop-punk, all-girl trio The Like is playing a show at Spaceland. The breathy combo that writes songs almost as catchy as the Go-Go’s’ are currently fielding offers from a couple of major labels. And as soon as two of the members graduate high school, they are planning to go on a tour.
Something is happening, something unexpected. Something you may be too jaded to hear. Out of nowhere L.A.’s music scene has been resurrected. This isn’t an American Idol music scene either. It’s a real deal, change-your-life-in-one-summer music scene. A true-blue, punk rock, do-it-’cause-you-love-it movement that has all sorts of sounds but one sort of spirit: as the ’80s Slash band the Blasters would say, “American music.”
When 20-year-old Max Bemis set out to record his first full-length album for Doghouse Records, he wanted to make an “awkwardly autobiographical” rock opera complete with dialogue. It was “going to be like Adaptation in that it was about a kid making an album for an independent label who develops a disorder in that every time he feels something strongly he breaks into song.”
Bemis set out to be the Charlie Kaufman of the rock world.
“Woody Allen is also an influence,” he says in an Indian restaurant, dressed in brown cords and an old T. “The self-depreciation, the neurosis. I have a huge issue with self-confidence, a huge self-loathing and a fear of death.”
In fact, the cinema has always influenced Bemis. His father designs movie posters and featured Bemis’ diapered bottom on the international 1987 Raising Arizona poster. He named his band after Cameron Crowe’s classic teen-love story starring John Cusack and Ione Skye, and he made shorts and wrote screenplays during high school.
When record producer Tim O’Hare heard Bemis wanted to make a rock opera, he brought in friend Stephen Trask, who wrote and produced all the songs for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, to co-produce. Six months later they had an album.
“It took a long-ass time,” says Bemis of the recording process, which went over budget. “In the middle I had a full psychotic breakdown. I was wandering the streets of Brooklyn, bloody ’cause I got punched in the face by a guy I thought was my friend in makeup. It was that classic case of thinking you’re being filmed. [The doctors said] exhaustion and stress were the main reasons, and paranoia. I don’t know, at the time there was so much pressure on me making the album. I wasn’t sure if I was good enough. I didn’t know how people thought of me personally. I was pushing myself all the time. And it got warped, I thought I was in my album basically, it was weird.”
“I was in the hospital for two to three weeks,” recalls Bemis, who played almost all of the instruments on his album except for drums. “I wasn’t crazy that whole time, just the first few days, but they kept me there anyway. I was dying not being able to finish my album.”
Since then, he has recovered completely from the breakdown that also had him believing that the people around him were cannibals hired to eat him. His band is presently touring with Dashboard Confessional. His album, Say Anything Is a Real Boy, recorded partially in Brooklyn, partially at Trask’s house in Connecticut and partially in L.A. after the breakdown, will be released this August.
Bemis includes Nirvana, Queen, Fugazi, the Beatles, Weezer, Oasis, Archers of Loaf, Radiohead, Green Day and Pavement as some of his favorites and explains that coming to terms with some of the less appealing aspects of the music business may have played a role in his breakdown.
“The concept behind the album was being in a band, like mine, on an independent label at this time when all the majors are buying up the smaller labels. The independents preach against capitalism and conformity but then go to these majors. Part of that hypocrisy is being an artist and trying to rebel and be away from the mainstream, and you’re really just a tool. There is so much bullshit involved. I just went crazy. I had to come to terms with it to become sane again. You have to just love it, like, ‘This is life.’”
He has been navigating his way through the music business since Drive-Thru Records tried to sign him back when he was in eighth grade. His stay-at-home mom was adamant that he wait until he graduated high school. Bemis, who had always played with a band, was also put off when they asked to sign him solo.
After that, Say Anything continued to play as a band and record and sell self released CD-Rs. The labels kept making offers. The band started to build a grassroots following. The front rows were always made up of cute private-school girls, complete with pointy shoes, expensive bags and miniskirts.
Bemis, who went to Sarah Lawrence to study poetry for a semester while waiting for his drummer to graduate high school, says he’s not sure if he has been in love, but knows he had his heart broken. In fact, his first song, “Sappy,” which started all the buzz, was written for her.
His manager says he is a “ladies man.” He says he is “shy.” His mom calls him “a romantic.”
Since returning from the hospital in January, Bemis is back living at his parents’ house, a few blocks from the Grove, where he wakes up late and walks the family’s two dogs for money.
Their first show was in a soundproof room at Jorge’s mom’s house, where she runs a daycare center.
“It was just us,” says Jeff, who is a philosophy major at Long Beach Community College and describes himself as a big Dostoevsky fan. “Our friends came and it was awesome, really intense.”
What do you mean, intense?
“I don’t know . . . what happens when you play music live? I think in Rainbow Blanket there is not a balance of being conscious and unconscious. We are not too aware of what’s going on when we play, it’s just like, an unconscious experience. Rainbow Blanket shows are improvised for the most part.”
Brothers Jeffrey Donald Witscher and Gregory William Witscher are Rainbow Blanket, a “harsh noise” band that has been together for about a year and a half. Their sound is an orchestra of feedback loops through distortion pedals, “circuit bent” keyboards, drum machines and delay boxes, dronelike single tones, audiotape loops of ambient sounds, live drums, and distorted vocals that come through a contact mike rigged up to a kid’s radio/walkie-talkie. Their friend, My Little Red Toe’s drummer Susan Estrada, describes the brothers’ sound as “just a lot of energy.”
Crawling around the carpeted floor of a Lankershim Boulevard rehearsal space, maneuvering their pile of wires and custom-made “instruments,” the Japanese/ German brothers are more audio-science geeks than rock gods. Their live shows can go as long as five to 15 minutes. Jeff, who is 20, says he wouldn’t mind playing a “super-short set if it was really intense.” Greg, 18, adds that they would end a set “if wasn’t sounding great”— like the time they played in the back yard of “some rich kid’s house” and “the sound went out and dissolved because there was no walls for it to bounce off.”
They consider themselves part of a good-size noise community in L.A., which includes such bands as The Cherry Point, John Weise and Pedestrian Deposit, all of whom they have played with, as well as Moth Drakula, with whom they self-released a split audio cassette last year.
They admit that noise shows are few and far between. “Once a month,” says Greg. “If you’re lucky.”
Up until recently they were a three-piece, but Greg’s boisterous 18-year-old friend, Jorge Sanchez, who played a reworked guitar with bass strings, decided last January to focus his attention on boogie boarding and karate instead of the band. Along with Jorge, gone too are the comical stuffed animal Kabuki costumes they were once known for.
“Their transition from having costumes to not having costumes, from being a three-piece to a two-piece, [has] thrust them into exploring new spaces, literally and conceptually,” says Brian Miller, who runs Deathbomb Arc and included Rainbow Blanket on their recent L.A. Bands 2004 7-inch compilation.
Greg says without the costumes, it’s just “a lot more uncomfortable, a lot more raw.”
They both still live at home and were, until recently, rehearsing in the garage. “The walls are really thin and the houses are really close in the neighborhood we live in,” says Jeff, who wears Pumas and keeps his hair messy.
“At first it was okay and then neighbors on both sides moved out. New neighbors moved in and they’re not too excited about it, so we don’t play in the garage anymore and we don’t get to practice too much.”
Thanks to KXLU’s station manager seeing a show of theirs at the Smell, their three-song CD-R spent the month of February on the college radio station’s Top 20, though, for the most part, the brothers were oblivious since the station doesn’t come in clearly in their Long Beach neighborhood.
They will release another split audio-cassette with My Little Red Toe this summer. And Foot Village, an all-drum side project with Brian Miller and his girlfriend, Grace, which among other things has played in national parks, will do an “all outdoor guerilla tour” of the U.S. this August with the band Friends Forever (which plays exclusively out of its van), complete with lasers and fire.
The Mean Reds
Anthony Anzalone has never seen footage of Germs legend Darby Crash performing live. Yet, writhing on the floor of Spaceland, wrapped in cellophane and tape and naked but for a pair of vintage gym shorts and black eyeliner, the 19-year-old Mean Reds lead singer recalls the ’80s punk icon. The normally aloof 30-something music fans packing the Silver Lake club smile and press against each other to get closer.
Anzalone’s five-piece “Disney Metal” band is obsessed with the Disney Channel and as apt to be listening to Hilary Duff as the European speed metal band Children of Bodom.
They sleep on the floor of a one-bedroom Silver Lake basement apartment near the 101 Freeway and named themselves after a line from the Audrey Hepburn classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
“I am a huge Audrey Hepburn fan,” explains Anzalone, who also says he cries when watching The Lizzie McGuire Movie and admits his romantic cinematic interests “help when talking to girls.”
Michael “Cali” DeWitt discovered the Mean Reds while the band was playing in a field in Tucson, Arizona. When DeWitt first told the members he would like to release a Mean Reds EP, Anazole, who wears a string of fake pearls and an “If Lost Return to Tiffany’s” necklace, didn’t call him back for a month.
The band finally agreed to sign to DeWitt’s True Love label, but the members explained that he couldn’t “have their souls that easily,” says Anzalone. “There would be two very important clauses — individual yearlong passes to Disneyland for inspiration, and a dinner at the Sizzler,” complete with access to the chain’s ice-cream sundae bar, so they could “build sundaes endlessly.”
It’s hard to dislike the satirical and theatrical Mean Reds, but people do. Which might be exactly what they hope for. Their homoerotic escapades on stage — grinding each other and licking each other’s testicles — have left some of the female members of bands such as The Like and Mika Miko, both of whom they have played with, rolling their eyes and thinking them pretentious.
Anzalone, who has a girlfriend in Tucson, but who, like all of his bandmates, admits to getting drunk and making out with a boy at least once, says his band has been accused of being a “a gay parade.” And, he adds, “back in Tucson, there are rumors that I sleep with little girls and do lines of coke off giant cocks.”
Kyle Gutierrez, the 18-year-old bass player, who wears a 99-cent store Cat in the Hat watch and who broke up with his girlfriend last spring, is the only Mean Red who confesses to ever making out with a boy “on purpose.”
None of the Mean Reds have jobs, and they live off the $1,500 each their supportive families had once intended for college. They do have an eight-song EP and another on the way. They have toured the West Coast once and will do so again before they record their first full-length album this summer.
Nick Letson, the band’s 19-year-old keyboardist, says his parents have yet to meet DeWitt, who also manages the Beauty Bar in Hollywood three nights a week to make ends meet and who was once Francis Bean Cobain’s nanny. The only picture Letson’s parents have seen of DeWitt, besides those on Nirvana Web sites, was the one in which he was pouring wine cooler down their son’s throat.
DeWitt managed to scrounge up a $10,000 advance to help the band stay afloat. Anzalone’s parents bought them a van, which they use solely for touring and a once-a-month visit home to Tucson. Around town they all ride old bikes.
The band, with the exception of 19-year-old drummer Wilson Snyder, all met at Sahuro High, which he says was named after an indigenous Arizona cactus.
“There are two Sahuro Highs in Arizona,” explains Letson, adding theirs was in fact spelled wrong.
Nineteen-year-old guitarist Byron Humbacher played trombone in the school band. Letson taught himself piano one summer at his grandparents’, and Snyder has been playing drums since the sixth grade. Anzalone met Gutierrez after getting beat up during his first week at school.
“After that, I had no friends,” says Anzalone. “I was a wigger totally into hip-hop. Kyle was the only person who was nice to me, so I abandoned everything I believed in to become friends with Kyle.”
That meant dumping N.W.A for Green Day and hanging out at Scrappys, the local all-ages club. The Mean Reds started as a riff on the garage-band trend (the White Stripes, etc.). But, thanks in part to Letson’s “cool keyboard sounds,” they started having a whole lot of fun and taking themselves more seriously.
Anzalone wants you to know that he has “never written a love song.” In fact, he doesn’t write lyrics at all. Each song just has a theme, like the mythological origins of religion, politics or corporate America’s youth-oriented marketing techniques, on which he’ll improvise.
“Like, you know how when they have a new Gatorade, they try and make it all extreme and crazy, and it’s really just a juice?”
All of the Mean Reds’ parents keep their rooms intact.
“The way we all grew up was with a good ’60s and ’70s sort of pop background — the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, Elvis Costello, the Velvet Underground . . . I think we have an idea of what good songwriting and playing should be without thinking about it,” says pretty, 17-year-old Z Berg, the lead guitarist and singer/songwriter for The Like.
“We aren’t just playing noise,” she continues. “We aren’t just playing shit. Our songs have the structure of songs.”
Comprised of the daughters of three music-business honchos — former Geffen A&R man/record producer Tony Berg (Z); Elvis Costello and the Attractions’ drummer Pete Thomas (Tennessee Thomas, who has never had a drum lesson, but who would sneak and play her dad’s when her parents were out); and famed producer Mitchell Froom (bass player Charlotte Froom) — The Like have yet to put out an album. The punky-pop, all-girl trio, though, has already been in Teen Vogue, The Face, Interview, the L.A. Times, W, and Nylon magazine.
They have a song on the soundtrack to the Academy Award–nominated film Thirteen, and another song was featured in a recent episode of the CBS show Joan of Arcadia.
The band is named after one of their most frequently used colloquialisms: “like” — as in, “We are like, a band.” The girls have lots of band friends, like The O.C. theme song band Phantom Planet, who invited them, two years ago, to play their first gig ever at a Phantom Planet fan club event.
With wrinkled noses and brows, The Like girls recall their two-song coming out as “horrible,” but are grateful for the break.
Phantom Planet is not The Like’s only pop-rock big brothers. No way. Other “deep bros” include Rooney, Rilo Kiley and Maroon 5.
They rehearse as much as they can, but it’s hard “since Z doesn’t drive,” explains 17-year-old Froom, dressed in a pink Izod and jeans.
Recently bumped from Z’s dad’s home recording studio, the girls now rehearse in a corner of Froom’s dad’s living room, which they share with her step-mom, singer Vonda Shepard.
“She was on Ally McBeal,” says a wide-eyed Froom, sardonically.
Fielding a number of offers for record deals, the girls are looking forward to getting on the road this summer, honing their sound and then recording a real album, a prospect they take, like their songwriting, very seriously. They just have to wait for Froom to graduate from Santa Monica High and Berg (“my real name is Elizabeth but I’ve been called Z since I was born”) to graduate from Crossroads — the same private school that Rooney and Evan from Wires on Fire attended. After that, Thomas, who cites Keith Moon, Charlie Watts and Caroline Corrs from the Corrs as some of her favorite drummers, says she can drop out of USC and save her parents that “30 thousand dollars they are spending each year.”
Berg’s breathy vocals and the band’s dreaminess have earned comparisons to Blondie. Though flattered, Berg, who is currently listening to My Bloody Valentine, Spaceman Three, Spiritualized and “medieval sounding folk music” like Linda Perhacs and Vashti Bunyan, wants to clarify that she can’t hit Debbie Harry’s high notes, but “wishes” she could.
Berg, who writes all the lyrics and currently dates the bass player of an unnamed platinum-selling band, explains that most of her songs are “hate songs” written about “being hurt by other people.” But recently she wrote her first “love song, or ode if you will,” for a girl whom she coyly describes as a “great, great, friend.”
The band began when Thomas family moved to L.A. from England and Froom’s moved here from Marin County and they found themselves essentially each other’s only allies amid L.A.’s daunting landscape of privileged teens. Together, the two transplants started doing what they had wanted to do for years: play music. Berg’s dad heard they were looking for a singer and suggested his daughter, who had been in her room writing songs since she was 12 or 13.
When Froom and Thomas heard the eerily mature Berg play and singher songs, they knew they wanted her in the band. That first night, they jammed (or, “attempted to jam,” Berg corrects, referring to their limited skills at the time) and “stayed up late listening to Nico.” Eventually the three new friends and soon-to-be bandmates crashed on Berg’s bed.
“That’s the good thing about being in a band with all girls,” says Berg. “You get to sleep in the same bed and cuddle. It’s nice.”
Part X-Ray Spex, Part B-52’s, part New York Dolls, the five members of Mika Miko pogo onstage in their friends’ underwear while the two lead singers, 18-year-old Jenna Thornhill and 20-year-old Jennifer “Victor” Clavin, sing into microphones that have been rigged into a phone receiver by tech-head Clavin, who also plays guitar and keyboards.
Clavin shares a Highland Park apartment with Thornhill, who sometimes plays saxophone or keyboards. The others, including Clavin’s 17-year-old bass-playing little sister, Jessie, and her 18-year-old drummer/boyfriend, Jerik Edrosa, still live at home. Guitarist Michelle Suarez, 19, has a job at a juice bar in the Northridge mall, helps build airplane parts for her dad’s business, and wants to go to “hair school in Alhambra” after she comes back from a family trip to Argentina this summer.
The girls first saw Edrosa on a Silver Lake bus. “He had a nice, clean-combed Mohawk,” they explain almost in unison. “He looked superpunk.”
Later that night, they approached him at Headline Records on Melrose, and soon he was in the band.
Their songs “are about the dumbest things,” explains Suarez. Like “Tighty Liberace,” which she wrote for her pet chinchilla of the same name.
They have played more than 30 shows, usually with their friends’ bands like Hello Astronaut, Goodbye Television or Wives.
Mika Miko credits its success in large part to Dean Spunt, the 22-year-old singer and bass player of the L.A. band Wives. Spunt, who, along with all of the members of Mika Miko, volunteers at the Smell, was the first person to introduce the band to the all-ages club and its owner, Jim Smith.
It’s also Spunt’s indie label, Post Present Medium — which he funds by working both as a bike messenger and at Vegan Express on Ventura Boulevard — that will release Mika Miko’s first 7-inch this summer.
Mika Miko once saw a band at the Smell eat its “own shit and piss.”
Well, they’re not sure if it was real, “but it looked real,” says Clavin.
Thornhill, who took her high school proficiencies and is studying sociology at community college, reads David Sedaris, Kafka and Dorothy Parker, and sees a shrink.
“My shrink’s husband directed Full House,” she says. “Oh yeah, Full House.”
They all love Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Cure, the Slits, Johnny Thunders, Television, MC5, the New York Dolls, Velvet Underground, Free Kitten, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass Band, Blondie and Richard Hell. And they all like riding bikes.
Thornhill says their target audience members are “anyone who dances,” but they love it if there are “a bunch of 12-year-olds and 16-year-old Goth chicks” at their shows.
Their best show was when they got kicked out of Spaceland because they asked for virgin piña coladas. Being underage, “We were not allowed to go anywhere but the stage and the back room,” explains Thornhill, who during the day says she “sleeps a lot” and “looks for jobs.”
“We were saying in the microphone what we wanted, and the [Spaceland] lady got really annoyed with us. She was like, ‘Those little fuckin’ pre-teen bitches.’ I’m sure she meant it in a really nice way . . .”
Their name means “storytelling in Japanese and a lot of other things in different languages,” explains Suarez, after playing an energetic set in a friend’s bedroom at an East L.A. house party. Like, “Vagina, Vagina in some South American language,” which they discovered on Google. Mostly, though, they “just like the words, a little poem,” says Thornhill, who, like her bandmates, is rather drunk.
“No one can ever say it correctly,” interjects Clavin. “They always go ‘Miko Miko’ or ‘Mika Mika.’”
“We don’t give a shit,” says Thornhill. “It’s cool if they wanna say Miko Miko.”
Wires on Fire
Wires on Fire’s lead singer and guitarist, 19-year-old Evan Weiss, and its 18-year-old bass player, Michael Shuman, used to play Little League together. Also, the band’s other guitarist, Jeff Lynn, 19, and its 19-year-old drummer, Dash Hutton (son of founding Three Dog Night member Danny Hutton), all went to Campbell Hall High School together. But they became real friends and bandmates ’cause, as Weiss explains, “If you’re a kid playing in a kinda-punk band in the Valley [which they all were separately], you all play the same shitty shows and you know each other.”
Weiss, who describes himself during junior high and high school as “a snotty, bratty, punk fucker” went to Crossroads in Santa Monica with Z Berg from The Like. He also knew some of the guys from Say Anything and was at their first show in “like ninth or 10th grade.”
“I think people always looked at bands like [Say Anything, The Like] and Rooney as the cool bands,” says Weiss, crouching by a dumpster behind Wet and Dry recording studio in Eagle Rock.
“And we were these weird kids throwing shit around.”
That may be so, but it didn’t stop Mary Kate Olsen — Lynn, Shuman and Hutton’s billionaire schoolmate — from rocking out at one of their shows, and even sorta hitting on a dumbfounded Weiss, who regrets that he failed to take her up on it.
Weiss, who describes himself now as a “pessimistic, judgmental guy who can’t shut up,” writes most of his songs about events that happen around him, like the story he saw on the news a few years back about “a Palisades murder of two really rich girls.”
For him, that event was somehow indicative of the weirdness of his privileged surroundings.
“I mean, we live in L.A. and everyone has this dream of money and this and that. But people who have all these things are sometimes the most fucked-up people. I was pretty much disgusted by a lot of stuff I saw growing up. Especially going to private high school,” say Weiss, who now goes to Santa Monica College and had a job at a restaurant until it closed recently.
“I know if my grandmother read some of my lyrics, she might think, ‘Holy shit! Evan is really fucked up!’ But, I really just write about the world and what I see. In high school if I got mad, I never pictured myself going up to somebody and beating the shit out of them. I pictured myself going home and picking up my guitar and screaming.”
Weiss says his frenetic band has played close to 50 shows. And, thanks to their label, Buddyhead, they have opened for some pretty cool bands, like The Icarus Line, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Fall and The Dillinger Escape Plan.
They’re influenced by punk, says Weiss — Black Flag, Minor Threat — but they like all challenging music “with an edge,” including Black Sabbath, Velvet Underground, Ink & Dagger and Drive Like Jehu.
Last summer they put up their own money to record a six-song EP here at Wet and Dry. The experience was profound for the band. Halfway through the process, Buddyhead had signed them to a deal, something that Manny, who runs the studio, predicted the first time he heard them. Buddyhead plans to record a full-length album with them later this year and also distribute the aforementioned self-produced EP.
While mixing that EP, Lynn, who had been doing “crystal meth and cocaine” since he was 13, announced to his bandmates he wanted to go to rehab. Now sober, the guitar player says it was his bandmates’ focus and respect for their musical performances that made him want to stop.
“These guys help me be sober like crazy,” says Lynn, who has had a string of “serious” relationships, including his first one, which, like his drug habit, started at age 13.
All of them are cooling off a little bit from girlfriends since graduating high school.
“A lot of girls we were hanging out with didn’t understand what we were doing, wouldn’t you say?” Weiss asks of his bandmates, pushing his chin-length hair back from his face.
“Yeah, like trendy girls,” says the bespectacled Shuman, who goes to Loyola Marymount and has a show on KXLU. Shuman’s dad, who comes to almost every one of their shows, produces blockbuster comedies like The Wedding Singer and Cheaper by the Dozen.
“Even the girl I was with for like three years wasn’t that into it,” says Lynn, flicking a cigarette ash on the ground.
Weiss says his bandmates are his “best friends.”
“Absolutely,” agrees Hutton.
“’Cause we’re like a support team, like a family,” adds Shuman, with a slight nod.
“I think it’s different with the younger bands,” Weiss muses. “Older bands, some people might move to a city and not know that much about their bandmates, but for us it’s totally a friendship thing.”
Brian Miller, Deathbomb Arc Records
Brian Miller formed his first band in seventh grade, released his first 7-inch when he was 16, and for his senior-year project at Flintridge Prep in La Cañada, he put together a band with “an Asian gangster kid” he had known since kindergarten.
The young entrepreneur, whose T-shirt is inside out and whose glasses are held together by a piece of colored tape, is sitting in the kitchenette of the Burbank apartment that serves as headquarters for Deathbomb Arc, a label he has been running on and off since he was 19.
At a table strewn with Japanese hard candies, old fliers and a half-eaten orange, Miller, who studied religious studies at UC Berkeley and who used to manage video-game testing for Sega, is talking about why he continues to run his label despite the fact that it doesn’t make money.
“I tend to put out music from bands that all sound really different from one another. And the bands that are most likely to be original, honest and true to self are the young ones,” says Miller, who still plays music himself and volunteers at the Smell. “I guess what it comes down to is that there is no one else out there to put out this music. The first releases on Deathbomb Arc didn’t fit in anywhere.”
One of Deathbomb Arc first releases “was the band of someone I worked with [at Sega]. He was 19. It was kind of hip-hop meets the Pet Shop Boys. I was so astonished that someone, on his own, was making music at home that was that good. It was almost more punk rock to me that they were making music that sounded like that. I was like, ‘I can really get behind this.’”
Since then Miller has gotten behind a lot of types of music that most people probably didn’t even know existed. Two years ago, he put out Deathbomb Arc Presents: Why Is Anything Forbidden? A Tribute to No Limit Records. The compilation included 19 non-hip-hop bands doing songs about the gangster-rap label No Limit. Tracks like Radio Vago’s “Radio P Books on Tape Remix” are unique and evocative.
The opportunity to do such “fearless” projects as this is another motivation for Miller.
“Zach [a friend] from Kill Me Tomorrow said something that really stuck with me. He thought the reason that people do music in this kind of underground setting is you can explore the ideas that seem like bad ideas. Not ideas that would make bad music but maybe scary ideas.”
Almost everything Miller does is about encouraging “scary ideas.” Besides working with the 19 active bands that are currently on Deathbomb Arc, including Rainbow Blanket, Miller also produces a regular concert series called Neon Hates You, and a smaller spinoff concert series called Neon Hates You Jr.
The idea came about when he was considering “all the great bands that have, like maybe, 10 or 20 people that come and see them.” He figured if you bring them together on the same bill, they’d get to play for a bigger audience. And he was right. The last Neon Hates You was two days long and “just under 400 people” showed up.
“Because of Neon Hates You, a lot of young and innovative bands in L.A. have brought themselves to my attention, and I’m just excited about them,” Miller explains, picking the pulp off a slice of orange. “They remind me of everything I ever wanted to do with music.”
Cali DeWitt, True Love Records
“When I started True Love, the first band I wanted to put out was the Mean Reds,” says Michael “Cali” DeWitt, the indie label’s 31-year-old president and sole employee. “They were like, ‘This is our third show and we can hardly play,’ and I was like, ‘It doesn’t matter. I felt so good watching you.’”
“I have always wanted to put out records. I am influenced by the great independent record labels like Discord and Touch and Go. When I was growing up, those were the small ones,” he continues. “It definitely starts as, and should stay, a labor of love.”
DeWitt, who is eating grilled cheese at The Brite Spot in Echo Park, currently has six bands on his label: The Fuse, The Rolling Blackouts, The Mean Reds, Hello Fever, Dutch Dub, and Future Pigeon. He is also releasing the final 7-inch, recorded in ’95, by ’90s Geffen band Jawbreaker, as well as an EP from L.A. buzz band Dios.
“We’ll make a 12-inch,” DeWitt says, explaining the indie label’s process. “We’ll make 250 copies and try to sell them on tour. As [the bands] get better and people like them more, you make more. I find myself now thinking I would like to do what for me is a larger-scale [release] and what for everyone else is still really small-scale.
“I would like to put out 4,000 CDs.”
For DeWitt, who doesn’t play music, being around music was the only thing that ever really made sense. He dropped out of Calabasas High — hence his nickname — in the 10th grade to work full time at Jabberjaw.
“It was a conscious thing,” he says of dropping out. “I was like, I never want to go back to school. I totally want to hang out here. I want to know these people. I feel like the education I got there was really important.”
Working at Jabberjaw led to roadie gigs for bands like L7, Ethel Meatplow and Hole during its first tour. That led to living in Seattle with Kurt and Courtney and taking care of their kid. That led to selecting the opening bands for Nirvana’s In Utero tour (not to mention appearing in drag on the In Utero disc’s cover art). And that, aided by the fact that he was the first person to turn Geffen Records on to the band Elastica, led to an A&R job at Geffen back in “94, 95.”
Just 21, and with a substantial heroin addiction at the time, DeWitt found his two-year stint in the corporate world daunting. “I would sit in my office all day and drink and make mix tapes,” he recalls. “After Nirvana, every label thought they had to have a young, cool kid at their label. But I never knew exactly what an A&R person does. To me, no one seemed to be doing anything . . . I would play whatever 7-inches I would buy that week, and they would look at me like I was crazy. I tried to sign Brainiac. They never let me sign anything.”
Eventually they sent him out on a radio concert tour with the band the Bloodhound Gang. One night in Philly, sick from running out of drugs and getting drunk to compensate, DeWitt says, “Supposedly, I punched the head programmer in the face. So, my tenure at Geffen ended unsuccessfully.”
Since then, most of his time has been spent “recovering from my 20s.”
After the Geffen gig, DeWitt spent his time in and out of rehabs, booking local shows, deejaying, working as a roadie, and briefly starting and running another indie label called Broadway Jungle.
Thanks to a recent partnership with friends who run a larger independent called Record Collection, things are starting to look a little brighter for DeWitt.
“They have great distribution and a lot more funding,” he says of Record Collection, which has an affiliation with Warner Bros. records.
“They asked if they could buy into The Rolling Blackouts and The Mean Reds as split releases with me. I’m not gonna turn help down. I want to do these records well, and I’m not gonna push [my bands] into situations where they have to record in a basement on a four-track.
“I love ghetto records. But not every band wants their record to sound like that, and I want the bands to be really happy,” explains DeWitt, who sold a couple of hundred records from his personal collection to pay for The Mean Reds’ first 12-inch. It was something he hated to do, but he loved the results.
DeWitt has since moved his offices from his two-bedroom Echo Park apartment to True Love Records’ Venice garage. Things may be looking up, but he’s kept his night job managing a bar.
The Mean Reds, whom he has now known since they were 16, have fueled his dream. “[They] reaffirm in me that there are always gonna be these great kids who want something different than what is handed to them. And they are going to invent their own little culture and blow everyone away.”
Located in an alley between Second and Third Street in downtown L.A., the Smell is like CBGB meets the Little Rascals. The 3,000-square-foot all-ages club is the most refreshing thing to happen to the L.A. club scene since, well . . . Jabberjaw.
You remember Jabberjaw, the cool all-ages club that folded back in 1997. Complete with video games and hot cocoa, the Pico Boulevard club was, in its time, one of the only places bands could play for underage fans. Hole played its first-ever gig there. And there were these oft-recalled performances by Nirvana, Ween, Weezer, Jawbreaker, Beck, John Spencer Blues Explosion, and L7 . . .
Filling the void left when Jabberjaw’s closed, the Smell has been around six and a half years. Originally located on Lankershim and Magnolia in North Hollywood, the club was started by three music fans: Ara Shirinyan, Jarrett Silberman and Jim Smith. Shirinyan and Silberman, who started the club in part to have a place for their bands to play, moved on. That left the club in the hands of the now 35-year-old Smith, a Cal State Northridge poli-sci grad, who seems almost too good to be true.
In the months it fails to turn a profit, Smith keeps the club going with income from his job as a union organizer. He wouldn’t know an A&R executive if one stood right in front of him.
He has 10 to 12 Converse-wearing kids who volunteer at the Smell, though Smith makes it a point to pay those who can run sound, including Jennifer Clavin from Mika Miko (Clavin’s dad is a sound engineer at Universal Studios). Most of the Smell’s volunteers have bands, and most of these bands — like Wives, Mika Miko, Child Pornography, the Sharp Ease, My Little Red Toe, and Rose of Bohdan — play the Smell regularly. Smith often attends the shows when his bands play at other venues. It’s hard to imagine any of the slick West Hollywood nightclub owners, who often make bands “pay to play,” doing that.
The three-room rectangular space is covered in stencil art, cheeky graffiti and handmade fliers. Discarded bikes and parts sit in a pile for the taking. There is an all-vegan snack bar that serves soda, water, tea, licorice, veggie burritos, sandwiches and, on a recent April night, “Hell Ya Hillel” sandwiches made with Jenna’s (of Mika Miko) grandmother’s Passover Sedar leftovers.
Bands are as prone to setting up on the floor among the thrift-shop couches as they are to setting up on the stage. Crowds can range between 30 to 250 people. There are art shows, fashions shows and recently an “under 21” night, during which all the bands were underage, and if you were over 21 you needed a fake “under-21” ID to get in.
Most kids ride their bikes there. The cover is usually 5 dollars, which seems like a small price to pay for a reason to leave the house and to restore your faith in the L.A. music scene.
The Smell is located at 247 S. Main St. (enter in the back), open “four or five times a week.” It’s best to check its Web site (www.thesmell.org) for a schedule, or call (213) 625-4325.
Where Kids Rock
The Smell (see above story), Knitting Factory, Fais-do-do, The Roxy, The Troubadour and The Whisky are open to all ages. The Glass House and 51 Buckingham in Pomona are cool, on the same block, and all-ages. Koos in Long Beach is all-ages, too, but has a curfew because of noise regulations. Sacred Grounds, a coffeehouse in San Pedro, has also been putting on some cool all-ages shows lately. Casa del Pueblo Cooperative in Echo Park is a community center that sometimes has underage bands — check the schedule before going. Sundays at Zen Sushi is all-ages. Brian Miller will have his next big Neon Hates You concert at USC this fall. But, if you want to see bands play at a house party or maybe in its garage, it’s always a good idea to check the band’s Web site; they generally post upcoming gigs.
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