Health is a band of four nice, normal dudes from Los Angeles who bring a highly beneficial sort of squawk to the system. Theirs is a tightly and pretty oddly structured noise too, and is not to be confused with just colossal walls of improvised fuzzy feedback or electronic distortion, etc., etc., though they might indulge in that sort of thing on occasion as well. They've got a self-titled disc out on the excellent Love Pump United label (vinyl version released on Cold Sweat), plus a collection of remixes by the newly estimable likes of Crystal Castles and Acid Girls. With regard to the remixes, Health states, “You can always make friends with the other kids in class, even if your favorite band is Slayer and theirs is Bell Biv Devoe.”
Is this L.A.'s best band?
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Health music can be harsh and grating, of course, but also sensually smooth and sexy and electronic and also metallic and all Fodderstompfy — the main points being that it can be anything it wants to be, and that it can be all of it at the same time if need be.
All of this is being eagerly embraced by hordes of fresh young weirdos nationwide and across the Atlantic. Health is a total MySpace band; on the site, check their references to Stockhausen, gamelan, Can, PiL, Kraftwerk and loads of other music-as-art type things. But note how at their earliest shows at local sweat holes like the Corral and the Smell, word got out about how their heftily rocking aural mayhemic maelstroms can cleverly convey strangely memorable “pop” tunes. They say they're basically very ambitious, yet their basic formula for success will always be to play music that they themselves would like to hear.
So now Health (comprising Jake, John, Jupiter and BJ) is a band, a real band, though initially they were just a bunch of guys who sat around talking about being in a band.
“After I finished school,”says John, “I wanted to start a band with Jupiter, and it was hard to find people to play music with, and I was working at Guitar Center and buying gear for cheap. I worked there for about two months and then freaked out and quit. But I met Jake there right before he quit. Surprisingly, you'd think that there'd be a lot of people at Guitar Center that would be into it, but there weren't people that shared similar music tastes at all, so we said, 'Okay, let's try to start a band.'”
Jake, Jupiter and John started playing to a metronome thingy in their tiny rehearsal space, and tried to find a drummer.
“We had a drummer when we started,” says John, “but it wasn't working at all.”
“He just wouldn't lose the ride cymbal,” says Jake. “Uh, but that's not superexciting. There's no rock glory in our story. We were just guys who were obsessed with music, and spent a lot of the first practices figuring out what we wanted to do as a band, or, like, how much we sucked at that point. And slowly we started writing songs.”
They eventually came across burly biker bear BJ on Craigslist. “It was a modern courtship,” says Jake.
“I don't think BJ knew any of the bands we listed,” says John, laughing.
“It could've been, like, Zeppelin, Floyd, they could've put anything,” says BJ.
The band's “influences” list is way up on the modernist, avant-garde types, including Steve Reich and Swans and the Locust and Black Dice and Animal Collective, but live and on record they sound admirably dissimilar to any of them. They developed their own sound quite early on, something that has turned out rather bizarre in most listeners' perceptions. Working up to a certain point in total isolation, however, they were unaware of exactly how peculiar it was.
“When we first started, we did really conventional songs,” says John, “and we weren't satisfied with it, and so we were just really actively trying to do something which I would have thought new or interesting. And we were getting really frustrated, going more and more off the deep end, just trying stuff.”
“If you just kind of put everything aside and make really weird music at first,” says Jake, “then you maybe find a way to figure out where you're gonna go.”
It took a while, but eventually, by gauging audiences at their live performances, the band zeroed in on a characteristically untypical sound.
John: “On our first tour, we had a hard time getting shows and didn't play that many, and when we did, we had some conventional songs and we had a bunch of our unconventional songs. Then we went on a really small, poorly booked tour with another band, and the reaction was really strong to all the different kinds of stuff. People were saying, 'Why are you guys playing these normal kinds of songs?'”
Jake: “Well, some people liked those songs too, but the strange thing is, we were very neurotic and sort of spending four or five nights in our practice space and really had no idea. If you're always just spending time with each other, there's no control, there's nothing to be objective about. And now some songs we think are more conventional when we write them, people think they're very, very strange.”
Hitting the road out in Middle America has brought Health a number of benefits, not least of which was the experience of being co-billed with several hardcore and metal bands, who showed them by example how to toughen up their sound and not come off like just another bunch of art geeks. And they've had the chance to sway a lot of kids who might have previously occupied an entirely different cultural planet.
“Some hardcore kids in a punk basement in Reno,” says John, “they love intense music but might not necessarily get the chance to hear a band that is maybe more…”
“That isn't hardcore,” says Jupiter.
“We played shows where half the people left the show because our merchandise wasn't black,” says Jake. “And then we'd play and there's some drunk heckler, he's just like, 'Hey… sorry… you guys are actually really good.'”
John: “It's like we were able to satisfy people who wanna get off on really heavy or intense music. That's exactly what we wanted to do, same with, like, how you listened to a Sabbath record when you were 12 and you'd be fuckin' stoked. We would do that but then try and make it new and maybe a little more artistically adventurous.”
Goes without saying that the Internet is making all this weirdness possible, 'cause bands can locate their specific niche “markets” and get the word out accordingly. But they do have to get out there. Fortunately, hard-working Health love to do just that, and even they seem a bit taken aback by all the approval they're getting.
“I mean, you go to noise shows, whatever, and people are screaming; that would have never happened before,” says John.
“Or you get, like, L.A. Weekly announcing, like, shows at the Corral, places where we cut our teeth playing,” says Jake. “And if you ever went to shows there, it's just like CalArts noise dudes just playing pure harsh noise. That's what's truly fun about the L.A. scene, is that you have no class concept. Whereas if you really think about it, this kind of music is very abstract and it asks a lot of you as a participant, but without sort of highbrow aesthetics — with people just getting drunk, goofing off and going crazy, but then doing actually very experimental music.
“The difference now is that you've got, like, 19-year-old kids doing that, which I don't think you saw before.”
Jake: “Noise is the new punk rock.”
John: “I don't think that's true, exactly.”
Jake: “But it's a good line.”
Health performs with Autolux at the El Rey on Fri., Feb. 1.