The L.A. Weekly Interview: Best Coast
"It's crazy. It is. It's bizarre to me. It's something that, ever since things started to take off with Best Coast, I've been baffled by on a daily basis," says Bethany Cosentino.
The previous week, NME, the U.K.'s arbiter of musical culture, had published its "Cool List" and Cosentino had come in at No. 4, right behind Kanye West and well ahead of her idol Rivers Cuomo from Weezer (75), Jack White (58), Lady Gaga (50) and even her boyfriend, Wavves' Nathan Williams (68).
A couple of months before, Cosentino's debut album with her band/project/collaboration/alter ego Best Coast, Crazy for You, had debuted at No. 43 on the Billboard 200 Chart and at No. 10 on the Digital Albums Chart. NME had declared Best Coast the Best New Band of 2010, and the blogosphere was suddenly abuzz with talk about her album, her tweets, her personal life, her daily habits and even one of her cats.
What makes all of this sudden attention so strange is that Crazy for You is really a little L.A. album with an uncomplicated, slightly retro sound and very simple lyrics, and Cosentino herself is just a girl who lives in a normal Eagle Rock 20-something pad, who until not that long ago was selling soap at Lush and figuring out if dropping out of college and moving back home had been such a good idea.
Fast-forward a few months and now her cat, appearance and relationship are scrutinized by strangers on the Internet, and some pop-culture savants across the Atlantic are calling her the fourth coolest person in the world.
"I like myself," Cosentino says, relaxing on her couch between legs of her ongoing tour and right after fielding a phone call from the Japanese press (Q: "What food inspires your music?" A: "I don't know — salad?"). "I think I'm pretty cool. I think I'm a good friend. I think I'm a good girlfriend. I think I'm a good daughter. I'm confident, I am. But I don't know why in the world NME would say I'm the fourth coolest person in the world and put me next to a person like Kanye West, who to me is like ... Jesus ... on some Jesus kind of level, and I'm just this 24-year-old girl that, you know, sits around my house and goes on tour and talks about Jersey Shore and does all those kinds of stuff.
"But it is immensely flattering," she adds, "when your peers are recognizing that you're doing something cool and that people think it's cool. If I would have been number, you know, 46 on that list [FYI: No. 46 was Dave Sitek, from TV on the Radio], I still would have been, 'Oh, it's awesome to be on that list,' but the fact that it's No. 4 ... the fact that I'm even doing this thing for L.A. Weekly is still weird. It's still something that it's sinking in. Why would people want to do an interview with me, you know? I went from being a college dropout to being NME's top-four cool list [laughs]. It's just bizarre the way life kind of turns and changes sometimes."
Once upon a time there was this mythical DIY venue in downtown L.A. called the Smell. OK, it wasn't "once upon a time" — it was about four years ago, halfway through the second Bush presidency.
Back in 2006, the sounds coming up from the Smell were messy, loud, with a vibrancy that reminded old-timers of the good old days of L.A. punk. Punk and noise were relevant points of reference, or post-punk or post-noise, or post-hardcore. Loud. Occasionally experimental.
Some of the bands were gaining renown beyond the small circle of habitual patrons — bands like the Mae Shi, HEALTH (just starting) and also Wives, who at the time were disbanding, allowing the core duo of Randy Randall and Dean Spunt to reform as the scene's soon-to-be standard-bearers, No Age.
There was also a girl group called Mika Miko: good, loud, stylish, reminiscent of the riot grrrls of the '90s. And hanging around Mika Miko there was a girl, 18 or 19 years old, who was dating Roy, the interim drummer for Randall and Spunt in the transition between Wives and No Age.
The girl hanging around the noisemakers at the Smell was cute, and was noticed right away by Amanda and Britt Brown, a married couple of Eagle Rock psychedelic explorers in their mid-20s, who were in the process of starting one of the scene's main record labels, Not Not Fun. Amanda Brown had seen the girl with Mika Miko. "I was 24 and she was 19, I think. She was just a baby. Kind of punky and way cool-looking," she remembers. "Crazy hair, crazy tights, short skirts. I thought she was cute. I didn't know her name, but I think she knew mine."
Back then the Smell's crowd was fairly specific. "Lots of punk aesthetics," says Amanda, who now fronts L.A. Vampires. "Post–riot grrrl, late-teens sort of throwing some sound together. People really believed in the community and it was totally uplifting."
Within this small community, it was easy to get acquainted. The Browns knew Roy, the Wives' drummer, and he officially introduced Amanda to his girlfriend, Bethany Cosentino.
Cosentino was fun. Her dad was a session drummer and she had been around the L.A. music scene from a very young age. She had done talent competitions, been in musicals, done audition tapes, even a few commercials. "She loved to talk about that," Amanda says. "She was hilarious when she told the story about singing the national anthem at Dodger Stadium, and she used to crack me up doing her line from the Little Caesars pizza commercial" (Cosentino was the blonde toddler in that famous early-'90s "conga line" ad for the pizza chain).
Eminently chill, but also clearly determined, Cosentino had recently put a few confessional songs up on the Internet under the name "Bethany Sharayah." And although she had listed "punk" as a genre on her MySpace page, she was clearly influenced by Rilo Kiley and noted as her main influences Billie Holiday, Fiona Apple and Leonard Cohen.
Amanda and Cosentino hit it off, and shortly after that, Roy mentioned that his girlfriend "was sort of depressed, missing music, feeling a bit weird about some of her friends." Roy suggested Amanda talk to her: "Be like a big sister." But Cosentino, says Amanda, "never needed advice. She takes care of herself, for sure. So I just said, 'I'll play music with you! I suck, but let's do it.' Then I started dreaming about it, and I told Bethany and, of course, she laughed in my face. But yeah, Pocahaunted was born."
Though it was a 50-50 project between Cosentino and Amanda, Pocahaunted followed pretty closely the experimental, psychedelic aesthetics of the Browns and Not Not Fun, a label that would go on to launch out-there jammers like Sun Araw. Pocahaunted's music had no traditional lyrics: The girls vocalized wordlessly, in sounds that Cosentino liked to call "vocables." "You'd call it chanting, I guess," Amanda says. "Bethany didn't want to make pop music then. She was exploring her weirder sensibilities, though I'm sure that if she'd wanted to, she could have written some classic Bethany lyrics."
This experimental collaboration worked between 2006 and 2008, with a large number of releases on Not Not Fun (several of them cassette-only) and other small labels. A lot of the Pocahaunted recordings were done by L.A. experimental-scene stalwart (and occasional solo performer) Bobb Bruno, a multi-instrumentalist with a well-known home studio and ties to the Largo venue and cult mainstream producer Jon Brion. Bruno also eventually played drums on many of Pocahaunted's live dates.
The highest-profile moment for the Bethany Cosentino–Amanda Brown lineup of Pocahaunted was the opportunity to open for Sonic Youth, because cassette freak Thurston Moore had become a fan. "Success highlight, perhaps," Amanda clarifies. "Because I think just the recording and hanging out was the highlight. Bethany and I were close."
But in 2008, Cosentino left Pocahaunted, moved to New York and abandoned music for a shot at a degree in creative writing at the artsy Eugene Lang College at the New School for Liberal Arts.
A year later, she was back in L.A., working with Bruno on something called Best Coast.
BETHANY COSENTINO: I moved to New York in the summer of 2008 and I left maybe end of March, beginning of April of 2009. The last year of my life is extremely hazy, so I apologize for not being able to give you such a great timeline [laughs], but it literally was something where I got home, I got back to California, and instantly I was inspired to start writing these songs. I had told Bobb ahead of time, "I really don't like New York, I really don't like college, I really wanna drop out, I really wanna go home."
And kind of on a whim I called my mom — my parents both and all of my friends in New York and all of my friends in California knew that I was not happy in New York and that I really wanted to come back to California, but I felt that I would be letting people down if I dropped out of college and moved home. And then I said sort of, "Fuck it, I can't do this anymore," and so I called my mom and said, "Can you get on a plane and come out here and help me?" and she literally got on a plane that night, it was a Friday, and I was back in L.A. by Sunday evening.
L.A. WEEKLY: In three words, what was so bad about New York?
COSENTINO: Let me think. I really want to make them good — they're not gonna be very good! [Laughs] Stressful, congested and cold. I mean, it's not cold all the time, but being someone who grew up in Los Angeles, I'm not used to cold weather, and call me spoiled if you want to, but even this weather [it was cloudy the day of the interview] bums me out. I really feed off of the sun and the warmth, and that's really what I love about California and Los Angeles and Southern California in general.
And in New York I also felt I could never decompress — it always just felt like, wake up, walk to the subway, get on the subway, take the subway to school, get off the subway. ...
Were you living in Brooklyn?
I lived in Brooklyn, yeah. Walk to my classes, did all my classes, got back on the train, went home, did homework. It just started to become so mundane — it was the same thing every day and I never felt like I could relax. Here I live in a neighborhood where I have to walk two or three blocks to get to a main street. I don't hear fire trucks and garbage trucks and all the shit that you hear in New York all the time. I mean, I do really love New York and it's a great place and I love visiting there, but it just wasn't the right place for me to live.
Did you do any music while you were in New York?
No, no. I had no inspiration to do music. I just came up with so many excuses at the time [not to play] music and I just wasn't inspired. I was there for writing , I was doing creative nonfiction, and everything that I was writing was about California. My professors were like, "Is this all you care about?" And I was like, "Yeah, that's really it."
You were a mini Joan Didion.
Yes! Exactly. Joan Didion is someone that I've always loved and I've been reading her for a long time, and she was sort of the same way, but she actually really liked New York and she really wrote a lot of great stuff about New York. But I think there's a big difference between a person from the West Coast and a person from the East Coast. I really, truly believe that. There's two different sorts of mind-sets: People from the West Coast are more sort of laid-back and we're definitely stressed out and neurotic, but it's a different sort of stress and neurosis than happens in New York. L.A. can be a rat race — there's traffic, there's tons of people, you have to drive, and there's lots of things about it that I dislike — but a lot of it has to do with the fact that I grew up here and I'm happy here, and when we tour I feel really homesick, and the moment we get back I feel instantly like I'm in my comfort zone. I see a palm tree and I get excited! [Laughs]
The decision to leave New York and come back to California, I think, was one of the best decisions I've ever made in my life, even though it means I have college loans to pay off for a long time. I'm back where I think I belong, I'm playing music, which was what I always intended to do, and I'm happy at the end of the day.
Back in December, ABC News did an online spot for a series about new bands called Amplified. The angle it took with Best Coast was, "Awesome career arc: Former child actor turns rising indie-rock sensation," cutting from an interview with Cosentino (eager to play along) to footage of her Little Caesars commercial.
COSENTINO: I've been playing music since I was 4 or 5 years old. My dad is a musician, I grew up in a musical home. I did talent competitions, I did recitals, I did musicals, I did everything and anything I could that was in any form connected with music or performance or anything like that.
I was mostly a singer as a kid. I took guitar lessons and I took piano lessons, but I never really followed through with trying to perfect my craft with that kind of stuff. I'm not a very good guitar player. I can play a couple of things on the piano, but singing is the one thing I've always felt really confident in myself about. And songwriting, too. I feel I'm always confident in my songwriting, too. I deal with a lot of criticism about it, but I try to not let it affect me, because at the end of the day I'm happy and that's all that really matters.
I started writing music when I was 15 — I was really into different things. I was really inspired by Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, more folkie, very heavily influenced by singer-songwriter stuff.
Did that make you a weirdo at school?
No, because I kept myself around a group of friends who were also into stuff like that. And I was also into really shitty pop-punk, and I was also into Blink-182, and Weezer was also a huge band that influenced me. When I was 15 or 16 and was influenced by those people, I still wasn't sitting down and trying to come up with these really [complex] lyrics, I was writing whatever came out of me because it just felt natural, and that's what I do to this day.
Because I do write very simple songs, but I'm confident with my sense of melody. I have an ear for coming up with melodies that are catchy and memorable to people. Most of the songs on our record are very similar and kind of repetitive, but I think they get stuck in people's heads. Even my friends tell me all the time, "Your stupid song is kind of stuck in my head," "I can't get 'Boyfriend' out of my head," "I can't get 'Goodbye' out of my head," and I'm like, "I'm sorry."
But between your high school "folkie" period and Best Coast you were in the very experimental Pocahaunted.
That was before I moved to New York. Pocahaunted was a band that I started with my fellow bandmate Amanda. I'd just turned 19, and we started it together and we did it for a few years, and then I made the decision that I wanted to move to New York. It was something that I did for the period of time I lived here up until I moved to New York and then they kept going without me. They continued the band without me and they went in a completely different direction and I don't keep in touch with them, and not for any real specific reasons — it's just that people grow and they change.
But when you were with them, you didn't sound anything like Best Coast.
No. When we were together it was very droney and there were no lyrics and it was really experimental, and for me as a person who listens to music and plays music for almost all of my life, I've never experimented with music like that. It was so different and new to me, and to be honest, not something that I was really passionate about, but I did it because it was fun and it was fun to play music, it was fun to record and go out and do shows, and we were asked to open for Sonic Youth and that was a really big accomplishment that we got to experience.
When I moved to New York, Amanda really wanted us to continue doing some sort of long-distance thing, and then I really realized it wasn't something ... I felt like I had changed and that I wanted to do something else. I really wanted to focus on writing and wanting to be a writer, and then I realized that wasn't something I really wanted to do anymore, so I dropped out, came back to California, and just started Best Coast, and that's what I've been doing since April 2009. It hasn't stopped.
At first the appeal of Best Coast was the combination of '50s/'60s girl-group/surf/Wall of Sound melodies with a decidedly lo-fi sensibility, courtesy of Bobb Bruno's home studio. There were several 7-inches with that sound which got noticed by some indie tastemakers in L.A. and New York. "I'd heard a few of the early Best Coast singles — but mostly online," says Jeffrey Kaye, label manager for Mexican Summer records, which ended up releasing Crazy for You. "I really enjoyed their music and was psyched to see their evolution."
Adam Shore, owner of buzz-generating website The Daily Swarm and now also manager of Best Coast, remembers hearing them "not long after their first single on [San Diego label] Art Fag came out" and being struck by the fact that, unlike many obfuscating indie artists, Cosentino wrote "classically constructed songs with simple, direct lyrics that are universally relatable." The narrators in her songs, he adds, "are filled with longing and love, but they are fundamentally decent people expressing honest feelings. And I love so much of the same music that Bethany loves — her influences are my go-to bands."
But Best Coast soon moved away from Bruno's fuzzy DIY palette, toward the much more polished sound on the album. The test run for that sound was the single "When I'm With You."
COSENTINO: I wrote that song probably in the summer of last year. I wrote most of the songs in the summer because that was when I was dealing with a lot of the stuff I'm talking about on the record. It was all happening at that time. And then when we figured out that we were going to do a full record, I did sit there and write a couple of songs, like, two months before.
I really wanted the record to have a theme, and I wanted that theme to be longing and heartbreak and dealing with everyday emotions that I think a lot of people deal with but they don't talk about. Having somebody that you really care about not care about you back is something that most people understand, because I think all people have been there at some point. It's a little bit of both worlds: my own personal experience and trying to pay homage to the music that influenced me to start this band in the first place.
"When I'm With You" came out as a 7-inch single. The studio that we recorded at is called Black Iris and they're actually like an ad agency — they write and compose music for film and television. We had this manager at the time [Jake Hurn] who was friends with this guy who owns Black Iris. They wanted us to come in and do a song and what they do is record you for free and then put this 7-inch out and they make it available for digital download, and their main goal is to use your 7-inch kind of as a business card. They give it to industry people and they give it to ad agencies and they say, "This is what we're doing in our studio besides writing music for film and television — we're recording artists."
We went in and that was the first time we recorded with live drums, that was the first time we experimented with real production, and we walked out of there thinking, "This is really what we want to do." We wanna stray away from DIY, lo-fi, home studio, and we wanna do something different. That song came out and when it came out sort of everything started happening, because people heard that song and they realized, "This band can do more than just make two-minute, lo-fi, hazy kinda songs — they can go into a studio and record something different-sounding." And after that song came out was when I knew this is something that I want to focus all my time and energy and effort on.
When was the first 7-inch?
That was the Art Fag 7-inch and that had "Sun Was High" on it and it had "So Gone" and "That's the Way Boys Are," which is a Lesley Gore cover. That was the first one that came out, and so after that it was, "We're gonna do another 7-inch" and "another 7-inch" and "another 7-inch" and we kept doing these.
Is it easy working with Bobb?
Bobb is one of my closest friends. He's someone I spent so much time with now that we've toured so much. He's someone that I met through the L.A. music scene. My friends used to play in this band called Mika Miko and I really met Bobb through them and I heard about him and I heard, "Oh, he records bands" and "He plays every instrument," and I thought, "He seems really cool but I'm really intimidated by him because of the way he looks."
Because he dressed like a bunny?
[Laughs] Yes, for his solo project he wears a bunny suit! No, I was always intimidated by him, but once I got to know him I realized he's a really (he's probably gonna hate me for saying this), really sensitive guy, and he's really smart, and he knows so much about music, and he's so talented. I'm so lucky and fortunate to be able to work with somebody who really understands me and really understands what it is that I want to do with music.
When we collaborate together, we're never in the same room. Basically, I write a song, or three or four songs, and I e-mail them to him and I say, here's the song, here's sort of the vibe that I'm thinking, I would really like to hear these sorts of sounds for drumming, and this kind of sound for bass, and I kind of tell him and guide him a little bit for what I want the finished product to sound like. The cool thing about Bobb is that even if I don't tell him exactly what I want him to do, he ends up doing something that I listen back to and I say, "Yeah!" It's like he's in my brain sometimes.
He definitely is a huge part of this and I wouldn't be able to do this project without him. If he wasn't here with me, the melodies would be the same and the lyrics would be the same, but they would be lacking a lot, because Bobb really does add a lot to the music.
Bobb is great. I'm really lucky to have somehow tricked him into doing this with me and tricked him into quitting his day job and going on tour for the rest of his life, basically.
The first time I worked with him musically was on Pocahaunted. He recorded a lot of the Pocahaunted stuff and he played live with us, and it was funny because Bobb is into all sorts of music, and we play a lot of Best Coast shows where [live drummer] Ali [Koehler] is wearing some cute vintage dress and I'm wearing whatever my style is and Bobb is wearing a Burzum or another metal T-shirt, and it's an odd match of people, but we get along very well, and I don't really care if Bobb is at home listening to Sleep or Earth or whatever, because he really understands pop music.
What was cool about being in Pocahaunted with him is that we would sit in a room together and we would record and we would talk about the Beach Boys and the Beatles and our bandmates in Pocahaunted would say, "I hate the Beatles, I hate the Beach Boys, the Beach Boys suck," and Bobb and I would look at each other and say, "OK, whatever, at least we have this thing to bond about." So that's why I approached Bobb and asked him to be in this band with me.
Does he play all the instruments on the record?
He plays drums, he plays bass and he plays lead guitar. I play rhythm guitar and all the vocals. [Fool's Gold's] Lewis Pesacov, who produced it, played some piano, and he had a friend who did a couple of percussion things. It was a very small group of people, and we liked it that way. We didn't want to have a shitload of people. We wanted to keep it to this tight-knit group we were comfortable with, and we did.
Are you playing just the stuff from the first album live?
We play all the songs from the first album and all of the old songs. We're not a band that sits together in a room and jams out. We can't play new songs together because we don't write like that: I write, and then Bobb fills in gaps, and Ali just plays drums live. It's kind of difficult to add stuff to the show. But we'd probably throw in a weird cover, you know. We still do the Lesley Gore "That's the Way Boys Are" — people think I wrote that song! And we occasionally do the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." It's my favorite Ramones song.
Our live show is very different than the way our record sounds. It's a lot more punky and stripped-down live.
What's going on with Weezer?
I co-wrote a song with Rivers. I don't know exactly what it's gonna be used for. I did co-write a song with him for Weezer, but I don't know if it's gonna be on their record or ... It's really something that he asked me to do — we were on our last tour and my manager Adam called me and said, "Rivers wants you to come into a studio when you get back to L.A. and write a song with him." And I was like, "Oh, my god, OK — it's Rivers from Weezer, which is obviously a band I grew up listening to and a band that's influenced me." Honestly, I went in, recorded a song with him in one day and it was one of the most ... for something that I got so stressed out and anxious about, it ended up being so natural, and it happened, and the song is really great.
What is it called?
"Go Away." It's cool. We wrote it together and he recently sent me a version he's been working on, and I'm really happy with it and to be able to hear it. It's a duet, it's him and I singing together, and to hear his voice and my voice on the same song makes my inner 13-year-old so excited [laughs].
What's your fascination with Courtney Love? Is that a new thing?
No, I've always liked Courtney Love. I grew up and I loved Nirvana, and I really liked Hole, I remember when the Celebrity Skin record came out, I was really, really into that record, but I also loved the early, very grungy Hole stuff. But I really hate it when people talk shit about Courtney Love and tell me, "That's not someone you should admit to liking." I really think that Courtney Love is an extreme individual and she's not afraid to be who she is, and I really appreciate that about her.
Do you see a parallel between yourself and Lady Gaga and even Katy Perry? You're all of the same generation and age, and you all started off very young as performers and went through all the industry motions, even if you're all being targeted to different audiences.
Yeah, I do think it's interesting. ... I do pay a lot of attention to pop music. I pay attention to all kinds of music because I'm a huge music fan. I think Lady Gaga's story is interesting that she was a songwriter and she was kind of behind the scenes, and I think she has a fucking hell of a voice really, she has an amazing voice. I think Katy Perry also has a very good voice, and her songs are catchy, but Katy Perry doesn't write a lot of her songs, and there's something about an artist that doesn't do the bulk of the work as a musician and then gets to that level, it seems kind of unfair that someone else is doing the work for you.
That's something that I love about being an indie artist and being on a record label that lets us do whatever we want. I would never want to be in a position where people tell me, "This is what your music has to sound like" or "This is what your image has to be." Nobody tells me what to do.
I'm known now as the girl on Twitter that says whatever the fuck I wanna say and I talk about really inane things that nobody really cares about, but I'm just about being myself, and I don't ever wanna be in the position where they say, "Oh, actually, we're gonna make you this kind of star," because that's not something that I'm ever interested in doing. Even if later on down the line I do become someone who, you know, signs to a major label or does something that's unexpected of me to do ... I never, ever, ever want to put myself in a position where somebody is trying to make me into a product, or make me into someone I don't wanna be.
People say, "She acts like a ditz" and "She's a Valley girl." Well, to be honest with you, I grew up in the Valley, and I am sort of like a Valley girl. I can be kind of ditzy. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's just sort of the person that I am. And the other thing is that I think that because I am so real and because I talk about dumb things like my cats all the time or what I'm watching on television, it's relatable to people. People are like, "Oh, I like cats and I watch TV too — I can relate to that." It's important to be able to allow your audience to feel like they can connect to you.
I talk about most things and show up to shows wearing just what I want to wear because I just want to be myself and people to know me for who I am. And if people don't like it, people are always gonna dislike things and have negative things to say, and something I'm starting to learn more and more being in this business is that you have to deal with a lot of criticisms and it's hard, but it's something that comes along with having this kind of job.
And also with writing so much personal material.
I'm sort of starting to feel that maybe next record or next song that I write, maybe don't write a song about "you wish he was your boyfriend," maybe write about something else.
My life in the last year is
completely flipped: It went from, you know, working at a soap store — I worked at Lush when I first moved back. I worked there part-time and then I quit because I realized I can't take it anymore, I can't do retail, I really wanna focus on music. I've worked every retail kind of job you can have. I've worked in food ... and I just realized I can't do it anymore. It makes me crazy to have to be so fake, "Hi, how are you? How is your day? Would you like to smell this soap?" and people don't wanna be bothered.
I don't wanna change who I am, and I'm not gonna change the fact that I really truly love to write simple pop songs. But I do think I wanna progress as an artist, and I wanna explore other topics, but I'm not gonna do it because people are criticizing me. If I'm sick of people talking about "the boy" or anything, I'm not gonna stop doing it because of what people say, I'm gonna do it because as an artist and a songwriter you're constantly growing, and I'm still so young, you know? I'm 23, I'll be 24 in a month, I'm still trying to figure out who I am really. And to be in the public eye and to be going through all of the things 20-year-old girls go through, it's difficult.
Maybe for the next record I won't write songs that are so personal. Because my life has changed so much in the last year, and I miss home, I'm actually starting to write about those feelings. I'm a typically really happy person, but I do tend to write darker lyrics. I don't know why.
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