On Double Naught Spy Car's Panorama City, Songs Were Made Up on the Spot

Stew (left) and members of Double Naught Spy CarEXPAND
Stew (left) and members of Double Naught Spy Car
John Curry

You might call veteran surf/roots/jazz/rock/psych/world/whatyougot crew Double Naught Spy Car a contemporary electric chamber ensemble, but that’d sound a touch too arty, and the L.A. quartet is anything but toffee-nosed about their super-eclectic musical melange. While this gang of good buds can boast some of the finest instrumentalists our town offers — Paul Lacques, guitar and lap steel; Marcus Watkins, guitar; Marc Doten, bass/keyboards; and Joe Berardi, drums — they don’t wear their considerable playing chops on their sleeves, preferring to make pop-like sounds that might push a few sonic boundaries but remain consistently fun to listen to.

DNSC recently collaborated with vocalist Stew of The Negro Problem on a new album, Panorama City, an American Composers Forum-funded project wherein the band had proposed to spontaneously compose and perform a batch of new songs with no rehearsal, no second takes and no clearly preconceived lyrical themes to guide them.

“Nothing was done without the tape rolling; that was the thing that we were true to,” says Doten. “There was no ‘Hey, I got a riff, roll the tape.’ It was like, “OK, tape is rolling, let’s go.”

“We said in the American Composers Forum grant application that we're going to go in the studio and make up songs on the spot, and that’s going to be the finished product,” says Lacques. “And we really stuck to the rules: If someone started playing something, we would all lock in, find a complimentary part, and when it sounded like something Stew could sing over, he’d start singing. And that’s literally what you hear.”

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Often triggered by Stew’s poetic and frequently hilarious skewerings of L.A.’s trash-pop-culture-smeared sprawl, Panorama City’s songs are driving, banging, clanging things, when they’re not beautifully ruminative and even sweet. The band’s self-imposed restrictions on the songs’ development helped keep the resulting music from becoming too abstract or irritatingly jam-band-like.

There’s a certain sound to this thing that’s going to ensure the listener that they’re hearing something a lot closer to pop music than, say, free-improv jazz or avant-garde chamber whatever. Form-wise, Panorama City is not improvisational music as such; nope, the band spontaneously constructed songs. And, musically speaking, there’s a big difference.

“The concept was to improvise songs, as opposed to just free improv that could meander,” says Berardi. “It could meander wherever it went, but we always had form in our minds when we were improvising, because we knew that was how the end result was gonna be.”

Which made the combo’s spontaneous compositions come frothing out in zesty-fresh, nu-pop shapes –– weirdly accessible ones, too.

Doten says that’s because the “pop song” forms the band had in their heads were deliberately standard. That was for ease of listener use, and to make things less complicated for the players. “Relying on less complex song forms made it easier for us to know where we’re going, when everyone can sort of predict a little more from what they’ve heard before.”

That the results of the band’s collective spontaneity hang together as a collection of great rock-type songs, and that Stew’s off-the-cuff poetic character studies make easily understandable sense, says a lot about the DNSC fellas’ having played together for so long, including various past collaborations with Stew.

“Stew would play at Spaceland and I’d come up and play lap steel, and do a 50-minute set not knowing a note of the music,” says Lacques. “Stew’s quite fearless in that regard, and he’s very decisive. I think something like that had a lot to do with our deciding to do something like Panorama City, because we had a history of a lot of live improv stuff that sounded cohesive. There’s a chemistry.”

Double Naught Spy Car’s forging of something new out of the wobbling waste pile of pop sounds past is admirable, to say the least. To say the most, it really is a blast to listen to.

“You just drive forward and try again,” says Doten.

Adds Watkins with a laugh, “Let’s just drive off the cliff and see what it’s like in the water.”

Double Naught Spy Car performs at Taix on Friday, April 24. More info.


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