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Lost at Sea

Photo by Joe Pugliese

If you enter the word “Earlimart” into your favorite Internet search engine, you’ll catch a flood of results for an L.A. rock band whose recent releases — an EP called The Avenues and a full-length disc entitled Everyone Down Here — have won rave reviews and earned the group a guest spot hosting MTV2’s new alternative music video program, Subterranean. But if you examine the returns a little closer, you’ll notice a parting or two in the dot-com sea to a port ending in “.gov” or “.org.” Those are the listings for a Central Valley farming community of the same name that is so financially depressed that its residents have a page at the “Save the Children” Web site. That’s convenient, because it doesn’t seem possible to understand the band without first getting to know the town, a tiny point on the California map about midway between front man Aaron Espinoza’s hometown of Fresno and the glittering musical mecca of Los Angeles. Only then will you fully appreciate that Earlimart isn’t a place at all. It’s a journey. From the looks of it, it’s been a turbulent one, characterized by as many setbacks as accomplishments. After a shaky start in the late ’90s, performing “Pixies rip-offs” to often violently unappreciative audiences, the original lineup of Earlimart — Espinoza on guitar and vocals, longtime girlfriend Ariana Murray on bass, Ashod Simonian on guitar and Brian Thornell on drums — went on to release two respectable albums on indie label Devil in the Woods, but never had much impact outside their adopted neighborhood of Silver Lake. In fact, the most significant thing the first version of Earlimart seems to have done is to have disbanded at the end of 2001, inaugurating what Espinoza calls “the worst year of my entire life. The band broke up, and one of my best friends died in a plane crash, and then Ariana and I broke up. I decided to make a record and it seemed like, ‘Wow, what am I doing? Why am I making a record?’ At the same time, you know, why wouldn’t you?” So Espinoza — who was homeless at the time — moved aboard “The Ship,” a 16-track studio he built and operated in Echo Park, and spent the next 14 months writing and recording what was to become The Avenues and Everyone Down Here, watershed collections of elegant pop ballads, brooding slow-burn garage rock and psychedelic folk, all awash in a shower of aberrant technology gone right.

It’s a body of work that was impressive enough to spur Espinoza and Murray to put personal differences aside and re-form Earlimart with Stanford Prison Experiment drummer Davey Latter and 30 Seconds to Mars guitarist Solon Bixler. And though both the original and later versions of the band contributed to the recording — along with Jason Lytle and Jim Fairchild of Grandaddy and a crew of musician friends known as the “Ship Wreckards” — it was a project mostly tackled in solitude by Espinoza.

His alienation from the outside world is evident from the start. “Color Bars” — a gorgeous, string-laden piano ballad about spending the night in a Central Valley jail — cranks up The Avenues with a synthesized beat that has all the sonic humanity of an early Atari game. Yet Espinoza’s breathy vocal — compressed to the point of collapse and pushed so far forward in the mix that it seems to jump out of the speakers — gives the track an intensely personal face. Among the first of Espinoza’s Phase II output to be written, the song would serve as an aural template for much of the experimentation to follow. It was an attempt, he says, “to do something different . . . to be brutally honest.”

Espinoza’s bid for total lyrical candor reaches its peak on Everyone Down Here’s third track, “The Movies,” another poignant song that finds its grief-stricken captain not in jail but “lost at sea,” a theme that reappears in the following track and saturates the artwork on the album cover. While its solemn piano seems like a blatant attempt to conjure the ghost of John Lennon, the chords actually evoke the Major Tom–minor fall of “Space Oddity,” David Bowie’s tale of another traveler’s misadventure. Lost in space, lost at sea, Espinoza has been cast adrift.

 

“You can take the boy out of Fresno, but you cannot take Fresno out of the boy,” bassist Murray says. “It permeates everything he does.” Behind the isolation and the anguish evident on Earlimart’s recent works lies Espinoza’s frustrated upbringing in a claustrophobic town that could never fulfill his dreams, though it undoubtedly set them on fire. The alternating sympathy and antipathy for the place fuels tracks like “Burning the Cow” — a colloquialism for “talking shit about Fresno” — with lines like “It’s where we’re from and we’ll always be, but we won’t let ’em get to us.” Espinoza’s happy to call Fresno his hometown, but he’s only going back in song.

The Avenues’ “Parking Lots” does just that, borrowing Lennon’s Mellotron flutes this time for Earlimart’s trip down memory lane. In Espinoza’s world, however, the confused little boy’s hiding place isn’t a field of strawberries, but the parking lots behind the 7-Elevens of Fresno, where he and fellow teenage delinquents would hang out, waiting for some pliable adult to buy them beer and “talking about all the fucking great things we were going to do when we got out of that town … Filling up parking lots with dreams,” Espinoza recounts. “Unfortunately, most of my friends who used to do that with me are still back in Fresno. I feel like I’m one of the only people to get out alive. Fresno will kill you.”

Everyone Down Here’s current single, the Sonic Youth–flavored “We Drink on the Job” — about a period shortly after high school graduation when Espinoza worked at a local junkyard with a crew of “raging alcoholics and drug addicts” — shows that he isn’t joking. “I got sucked into a fucking crazy world where we were driving forklifts carrying huge amounts of sharp steel and working with heavy machinery,” he says. “Thing was, they would always send me across the street about 11 o’clock in the morning to go get tall cans for everyone. We’d start drinking at 11 and we’d end at 6, and we were just fucking hammered! And one day my boss was working on the bailer, this machine you dump all the steel and metal into. This door comes down, compacts it, and spits out a cube of metal. But the door was coming down too fast, so he was working on the hydraulics. He’d just hired this guy — this bum off the street — and it’s really loud in the factory, and he yells at this guy, ‘Do not press the red button,’ and ‘press the red button’ was all he heard . . . ‘Wham!’ The door came down and cut his hand right off. And at that point, I was like, ‘Aw, man, I have got to get the fuck out. I have got to clean my life up or I’m going to die here.’”

Considering the symbolic nature of the Earlimart moniker, you might think it holds mythic significance to Espinoza. But an inquiry proves that he hasn’t lost his sense of humor: “Band names are really dumb, and Earlimart is no exception. Usually it’s some guy’s idea at a party, and you’re drunk and it sounds like a good idea at the time, and you happen to tell one or two people, and then for some reason you’re stuck with it for the rest of your life . . . Can’t change it now!”

EARLIMART | The Avenues EP; Everyone Down Here | (Palm Pictures)

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