The Allah-Las Put Their Retro Where Their Mouths Are
You can hear the Allah-Las on YouTube, and you can see them every Tuesday in August at the Echo, where they're headlining a free residency.
But in neither case, according to the band, will you be getting the actual Allah-Las experience: the thing itself, the work of art with the aura, the Mona Lisa–hanging-at-the-Louvre, as opposed to the Mona Lisa on a faded postcard or a computer monitor.
The Allah-Las are the 2011 version of the retro-rock tradition that goes back to a bunch of kids forming bands in garages across the country in the late '50s and the early to mid-'60s. Said youngsters were inspired by the original rock explosion broadcast to suburban homes by Ed Sullivan and the others, at the time when those kids were at their most impressionable.
Out of the garages and small labels came a bunch of iconic singles that were anthologized in the '70s in collections with rock-appropriate names like Nuggets and Pebbles. Nuggets — and '70s retro-cool bands like the Flaming Groovies and labels like Bomp! — in turn begat the more psychedelic Paisley Underground movement in Los Angeles in the '80s. The Beat went on and on in the '90s — yes, even during grunge — with "surf-gaze" cult groups like Further.
But what all those retro bands across the decades never had to contend with is the age of instant availability, the digital cornucopia that allows anyone to find pretty much everything that was ever recorded anywhere, and then to make infinite copies.
The Allah-Las' answer to the challenge has been to go back to the beginning, back to the carefully crafted 45 rpm single.
"The whole lo-fi, DIY has its own appeal, and there are lots of bands we like that can make that work for them," says Allah-Las bassist Spencer Dunham over lunch in Santa Monica. "But for us to make the sound that we really want, we work a lot better in a studio setting with $3,000 microphones from 1953."
The Distillery in Costa Mesa, run by Mike McHugh, boasts an "all-tube-and-transistor" setup, and it's where the Allah-Las and their equally anal(og)-retentive producer, Nick Waterhouse, recorded the band's jangly, percussive single "Catamaran." "Nowadays everybody can make a record, but it takes a lot more to make a great-sounding record, a uniquely sounding record," Dunham adds.
The Allah-Las recorded "Catamaran" a year ago. "It was supposed to come out in April , but it ended up coming out in June, because Nick wanted it to be ... perfect," Dunham says.
"He used a lot of old techniques," adds Pedrum Siadatian, the lead guitarist. "It's something we respect a lot. In the end, when you look at that record, and feel it, it's not like anything that's been produced today."
"It's a lost art," singer-guitarist Miles Michaud and singer-drummer Matt Correia declare, in unison.
Back in 1972, when writer and musician Lenny Kaye assembled the Nuggets compilation and set the standard for the archival/curatorial worship of the 45 rpm single, garage, surf and psych nuts relied on an elaborate precomputer network of fanzines, mailed letters and word of mouth to satisfy their addiction.
The Allah-Las also formed analogically: The project came together in the backrooms of the last remaining local cathedral of physically supported music: Amoeba Records on Sunset.
Dunham and Michaud grew up together, and they met Correia in high school in Manhattan Beach. Dunham and Correia got jobs at Amoeba, where they met Siadatian. Dunham still works at the music emporium, but the other two quit a while back.
All were at one point required to do the mundane task of case-switching, i.e., putting the used CDs the store buys into new cases. "What it does is facilitate a lot of listening to music, so you sit there for eight hours a day, five days a week, listening to records nonstop," Correia explains. "Basically you have to listen to whatever comes through ... from the cheapest, crappiest CD to maybe one of the rarest things that might come in." It's Zenlike, the band members insist.
The group started rehearsing in Dunham's basement shortly before Halloween 2008. The spot is jammed with his father's surfboards, and in fact Siadatian is the only nonsurfer of the group.
Which may be why the Allah-Las want you to think about what they do as "surf music." "I feel that the way a lot of music is defined is really off-base," Dunham says. "Especially these days, when you have a lot of music that sounds like other music. People tend to classify us as 'psychedelic,' and I don't think we're psychedelic in the least."
They shot for a kind of raw rock & roll, like The Gories. Legendary garage revivalists the Flaming Groovies also had a big part of it, as did more recent versions of that sound. "I was listening to a lot of Further. Paisley Underground stuff, Rain Parade," Correia explains.
Although most of them grew up surfing, the Dick Dale/early Beach Boys sound is definitely not what they're going for, Dunham clarifies.
Unlike some of their Paisley Underground forebears — or even surf-gazers Further in the delightful 1994 video for "California Bummer" — the group's emphasis is not in being an exact replica of the hallowed Golden Age groups but in capturing some of the aura and that ineffable vibe.
The foursome look like a more handsome, Gen-Y version of the Monkees, with Michaud rocking some Mickey Dolenz curls, Correia combining Davy Jones' gregariousness with Mike Nesmith's wool beanie, and Dunham a more dapper, modish Peter Tork. Siadatian, the one who didn't grow up with the rest and doesn't surf, breaks the mold with classic rock-frontman good looks, moody, lanky and tight-trousered, like a swarthier Richard Ashcroft or a less feral Keith Richards.
The Monkees analogy also is relevant to their sound: "Catamaran," their only released "proper" recording (they sell a CD of odds and ends and demos at their shows) sounds a bit like the Prefab Four's "Steppin' Stone," filtered through an entire collection of eBay garage singles. Imagine cult '60s expat act the Misunderstood playing a more hypnotic version of "Children of the Sun" at the Star Club in Hamburg circa 1962 and you might get the idea. Fans of the Beatles' Decca demos, the Libertines' ballads or Rain Parade also will find much to like if there's ever an Allah-Las LP — which would be on vinyl, of course.
It could be a while, however. The band recorded four tracks with Waterhouse a year ago, plus an extra five songs more recently for another potential 45. They are comfortable working with the like-minded producer at the Distillery, but they're also open to other predictable local options. (A collaboration with Dangerbird was recorded but scrapped, and they're currently working on a 45 for White Iris, of Best Coast and Fool's Gold fame.)
Still, don't they get anxious, having released only two tracks in the past year? "Yeah, it's frustrating sometimes," Dunham says. "But it's all good in the end, [because] people will be attracted to things that are different." He mentions their weekly radio DJ gig — Reverberation, Wednesdays 9 a.m. to noon on 88.9 KXLU — and says that when they play the record (as opposed to the digital copy) it sounds "fucking good.
"You can't get that any other way."
The Allah-Las, and many special guests, play a free residency at the Echo every Tuesday in August.
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