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White Fence's Tim Presley Moves Retro Rock Forward

[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]

See also: Top 5 L.A. Garage Rock Bands

Not everything needs to sound like the future. Not everyone wants to dwell in the present. In fact, some aim to absolve themselves of allegiance to any era at all.

See Tim Presley, the psychedelic and hermitic songwriter behind White Fence, who has holed up in his Echo Park apartment and recorded roughly 200 jams over the last two years, which strive to soak up the spirit of the late Arthur Lee, frontman for the iconic 1960s L.A. band Love.

According to some critics, this instinct is wrong. Across all genres, the cultural obsession with nostalgia has come under siege. Call it the Midnight in Paris paradox, the idea that our insatiable referencing of the recent and remote past has obstructed our ability to march forward. Yet we're permanently wired to worship the antique, whether it's Shakespeare "sampling" Scandinavian history books, Ezra Pound retelling the Odyssey or Kurt Cobain referencing the Pixies, punk and pop. The old adage remains the same: Good artists borrow, great artists steal.

The question is where you draw the line between imitation and influence. So I decided to ask Presley, whose White Fence was recently named West Coast Sound's Best Garage Rock group in L.A.

"Old rock & rollers sped up the blues; that's borrowed. Country music has sounded the same for decades. So has punk," the San Mateo-raised Presley says, wearing sunglasses and a Windbreaker while ingesting espresso and exhaling American Spirits at FIX coffee shop in Echo Park. The founder of Dangerbird-signed Darker My Love -- whose last album was released in 2010 -- Presley started White Fence three years ago as a more immediate and instinctive vehicle for his songwriting. "Take EPMD sampling Zapp's 'More Bounce to the Ounce.' When you hear that song, you recognize the sample, but it's the delivery of the vocal that changes it. You can put any rapper on top of that beat and it'll be cool. But it's who has the voice to separate it from the rest."

Maybe the problem with modern rock is the absence of vivid voices. Popular bands include toilet-water thrash like Nickelback and the chlamydia burn of Kings of Leon ("Sex on Fire"). The Foo Fighters, permanent hangovers from grunge, won five Grammys this year. For every innovator like Radiohead, we get Muse, Coldplay and thousands of mewling mimics. The Coachella headliner is the necrotic blooz bros, the Black Keys.

Every year, electronic dance music, pop and rap producers get more popular, while white guys fingering guitars get maligned by outré cool-kid critics. Or, as James Murphy taunted on "Losing My Edge," "I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables."

 

But don't believe any fool fighter's cries of a crisis. What's happened to rock is natural. Its once-total primacy has been reduced to just another major player in a multipolar musical world. When you consider the torrential downpour of new music released every year, progression is everywhere -- it's just scattered across a sprawling array of genres, instruments and languages. What's championed is often nothing more than a reflection of a critic's adolescent record collection.

While no one would call it a renaissance, L.A. has plenty of people tweaking the template of classic rock and punk, be it No Age, HEALTH, Bleached, Crystal Antlers, Sun Araw, Pocahaunted or Hanni El Khatib.

With two excellent records released in the last two years and three more arriving in the next six months, Presley may emerge as the best pure songwriter of the pack. Though he leans heavily on the blueprint scripted by Syd Barrett, John Lennon (circa Revolver) and Arthur Lee, Presley samples his drums for a dusty, hip-hop feel. It isn't a suspended-in-amber Summer of Love. Songs are named after old Too $hort records, and his voice is occasionally distorted like Madlib's helium-voiced Quasimoto character.

Progression doesn't always have to fall along a horizontal grid. It can arrive via minor refinements and odd angles. Everyone's high is different.

"Rock & roll doesn't always have to be modern or intellectual. It's about creating big, stupid magic, simple, total caveman emotion," Presley says, naming Laguna Beach-raised Ty Segall as his choice for the best of the latest generation. Presley and Segall are releasing a collaborative record later this spring. "White Fence gets backlash for being retro, but that's what I gravitate toward. It's not like, 'Oh, this is in season.' I'm not concerned with reinventing the wheel. I really only care about writing a good song."

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