The "West Coast Sound": Lauded Songwriters Grapple With Its Genesis
It is perhaps a stretch to place side-by-side two songwriters who share little in common besides performing in Los Angeles the same week. But this is a crazy world we live in, and sometimes shit just works out that way. L.A. Weekly recently spoke separately to songwriters Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields and Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear and we thought the conversations complementary. At least the part about the West Coast sound. Okay, you want to know the truth? It's an insanely great week for music in L.A., and we ran out of space to cover it all. The plan was to devote ample room to both the Magnetic Fields and Grizzly Bear, but we couldn't.
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Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields credits the climate.
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Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear thinks that's absurd.
East Coast-bred, recent L.A. transplant Stephin Merritt, who records as Magnetic Fields, the Sixths, the Gothic Archies and others, performs a two-night, sold-out stint at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theatre this week in support of the Magnetic Fields' new full-length disc, Distortion. Over the course of eight albums, the best being 1994's The Charm of the Highway Strip and 1999's 69 Love Songs, Merritt's Magnetic Fields has crafted perfect pop songs characterized by lyrical precision, his languid voice, and wall-of-sound production.
L.A. WEEKLY:I always figured you to be an eternal New Yorker. When did you move to Los Angeles?
STEPHIN MERRITT: A year and a half ago, and it seemed like good timing because it seemed like I had finished recording Distortion, so I wasn't going to be needing to record anything for a while. It was going to be a good time to move my studio. As it turned out, I kept mixing and mastering Distortion for another year. But I wanted to be closer to the film industry in order to realize my goal of writing 50 Hollywood musicals. And I guess a major precipitating event was that I seriously outgrew my studio. I own a tiny apartment in New York but am renting a house in L.A.
Has any of the so-called West Coast sound seeped into your head, or into your music? Do you think about that?
I've always thought about that. My mother moved to San Diego maybe 15 years ago, and I was visiting her in San Diego and listening to the radio and realized that. I guess my theory is that because of the dry climate, because of the low humidity, records like Fleetwood Mac's Tusk and Sagittarius — that Curt Boettcher record — both have to do with the high end being extremely crystalline and clear. And I think that's something you actually need the low humidity to do.
Really? I always considered it to be that, well, we're close to the ocean, close to the mountains, the weather's great. All that stuff gets into the music — that it's psychological.
I don't think so. I think that when people don't understand something, they assume it's psychological. I don't think it's psychological at all. I think it's very scientific. Soprano xylophones sound really good out here. And the beach, and surf music — I don't think of that as having much to do with the California sound. The early Beach Boys versus Pet Sounds — there's close harmony in both, but that's different. The Mamas and Papas weren't from California.
Have you done any recording out here yet? Have you proven your theory?
Well, I went to a music store in Pasadena — I want to say it's called the Old Town Music Center — and I bought my little soprano xylophone, and I used it two weeks ago in a television commercial. And it sounds amazing, of course, because it was recorded in Southern California.
Grizzly Bear started as a solo project of New Yorker Edward Droste, who drew raves for his 2004 debut, Horn of Plenty. By 2006's stunning Yellow House, he had added three full-time members, including fellow singer and songwriter Daniel Rossen, whose pitch-perfect falsetto is the harmonic companion to Droste's. On the gorgeous new Friend EP, Grizzly Bear couples outtakes and bedroom recordings with remixes/reworkings by Altas Sound, Band of Horses and CSS. At Walt Disney Concert Hall, the band will play on the same program as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, who will perform pieces by Luigi Boccherini, Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky — pieces chosen to complement the Brooklyn band's dynamic, ethereal folk-pop sound.
L.A. WEEKLY:I know you grew up in L.A. When did you move away?
DANIEL ROSSEN: I went to NYU for college, so I moved away when I was 18. I haven't lived [in Los Angeles] for a while, and I don't feel a great affinity for most parts of L.A. anymore, except for the parts that I associate with my childhood, which are very particular.
You don't feel like you were influenced by the L.A. sound? I spoke with Stephin Merritt yesterday, and he says that the West Coast sound isn't about vibe, it's about the low humidity.
That's absurd, but, sure.
He said xylophones sound different.
That might be true.
I saw you perform as part of the "Songs from the City" songwriters showcase at Walt Disney Concert Hall a few months ago (which featured, among others, Inara George and Van Dyke Parks, John Doe, Kyp Malone of TV on the Radio and Bob Mould). What was that experience like?
That was actually my first time ever performing by myself. I'd never done that before, so I was a little bit — I mean, I wasn't nervous at all beforehand, but when I got there I was a little taken aback, because when I walked into the theater, Van Dyke Parks was soundchecking, onstage playing "Vine Street." I had heard he might be there, but I had no idea that he'd be performing "Vine Street." That album, Song Cycle, was one of my favorite records growing up, and I completely idolized him as a kid. So that was a little scary, having to play directly after Van Dyke Parks doing "Vine Street."
Disney Hall is such a different atmosphere from the clubs Grizzly Bear normally plays. Will you adjust your set accordingly?
Well, we've played those kind of spaces before when we opened for Feist. And a long time ago we played with this band Efterklang from Denmark, and that was all churches and sit-down theaters. When we've played theaters before, we end up playing a lot of songs that we don't want to play in clubs because they're too somber, or too textural, or quiet. So generally, when we have this kind of set-up, it means that we can actually play more delicate stuff. I mean, our sets usually work the same way: Songs bleed into each other, they flow in and out of moods and dynamics. Really, the only difference with this is that we would be able to keep it a lot more mellow at times, because people are sitting in seats and [Rossen laughs] are forced to pay attention.
Grizzly Bear performs at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sat., March 1. The Magnetic Fields perform at the Music Box at the Henry Fonda Theatre on Sun., March 2 and Monday, March 3.
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