Photo by Larry Hirshowitz
Pop in the Playhouse:
Gwendolyn gives the whole weird world
Perhaps her hippie parentage explains it all. The genre in which singer-guitarist Gwendolyn has evolved can be called psychedelic folk, preceded by ’60s progenitors such as the Holy Modal Rounders and Pearls Before Swine, though she sounds similar to no one on Earth. Her earliest self-penned tunes reminded producer Ben Vaughn so much of Celtic folk music that he flew her to Scotland and recorded her with local musicians. (The result, Lower Mill Road, is scheduled for a 2004 release.) Yet her music stems from a limitless imagination that distills everything she’s experienced to create highly peculiar soundscapes whose closest comparison may be a musical Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Gwendolyn does indeed have a childlike quality: She often dresses in baby-doll shoes, short skirts and pigtails, and has recently released a kids’ album — but more about that later.
Gwendolyn had a last name but has dispensed with it professionally, further adding to her mystique. Born in Philly and raised in Sierra Madre, she attended the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, where she met two-thirds of her current band. She’s worked as an actor since age 13, beginning to play guitar and write songs at 19, and to play live at 22, a mere six years ago. Incessant gigging honed her chops, and an open mind allowed her to season. “When I sit down and write, it doesn’t come out that odd,” she muses. “There are a few chords where people say, ‘How’d you come up with that one?’ And I go, ‘I don’t know. I just let my fingers do the walking, open my mouth and out it comes.’”
What often emerges is steeped in kinky time signatures and bizarre harmonic modulations. “Haphazard” on her new album, Dew (www.gwendolyn.net), begins as a slow blues, shifts to an amphetamine shuffle and winds up in a rhythmic/melodic free-for-all. Her band consists of Robert Petersen on upright bass, Quazar (of Quazar & the Bamboozled and formerly Lutefisk) on percussion (pots, pans, bicycle wheel, candlestick holders, Tibetan bells, etc.), and Douglas Lee on glass harmonica, banjo, saw and water jug. The glass harmonica is actually 26 wine glasses bolted into a wooden box and tuned with various amounts of water; Lee rubs the rim of each glass with wetted fingers. Dew is bolstered with guests including guitarist Smokey Hormel and Ralph Carney on horns and lap guitar.
Gwendolyn’s songs deal with love and politics and sexuality and the human condition, but you wouldn’t necessarily know it. It’s in her obtuse lyrics where an analogy to Captain Beefheart is most pronounced. “Beetle of strife/You’re the scholar of life/The insect perspective is modest/And quite valuable,” she sings in “Insect Perspective.” She’s capable of being a lyrical conversationalist as well, then will lapse into a Philly street-chick rap. “Ben Vaughn thinks I have 18 different personalities and probably more that have yet to be discovered,” she says, laughing.
Gwendolyn’s “Freedom of the Heart (Ooodily Ooodily)” was featured in the film Chuck and Buck, and while the playful sing-along was used to accent a particularly strange adult theme in that movie, its popularity led Gwendolyn into performing and writing for children. So in addition to Dew, this year’s seen the release of Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang, one of the rare kiddie albums that’s endearing to tots but has enough weirdo musicality to make it appealing to adults. She and her gang do the occasional nursery-school gig.
The rare space she inhabits would imply that Gwendolyn has experimented with hallucinogenic drugs. She admits to it but says she hasn’t “overdone” them: “My view of psychedelics is that they’re there to open up the door, but they’re not the room itself. The greatest exploration comes after the psychedelics are done and you decide what to do with the knowledge you have.
“I think anyone can tap into their imagination,” adds our faerie princess. “Life is like a trip. You’re just gonna have to hold on and have some faith, and that’s it.”
Metric stand alone on the Los Angeles club scene, and they don’t care. Metric don’t want to be a “local band,” because it’ll make them hipsters, and that gets boring. Primarily it’s fun they’re after — not puke-yer-guts fun, but a smart, incendiary goof-off.
“I think fun can be political,” says singer–synth player Emily Haines. “If you have it, you’ve won.” But good times have never been so hard for a band to come by: The record deal that transplanted Metric to L.A. went belly-up, and the band’s been slagged for their easygoing ennui fused with jet-set moxie — a combo that might just make them überstars but has prompted mixed reviews locally.
In 2001, Haines and multi-instrumentalist James Shaw launched Metric in Toronto, playing as an art-pop outfit and grabbing comparisons to Blonde Redhead and Elastica. Characteristically for the pair, they got fidgety, moved to NYC, then to London and back to New York, where they signed with L.A.’s Restless Records and promptly moved out west to work. When Restless unraveled, Shaw, Haines and drummer Joules Scott-Key decided not to follow suit, opting instead to conquer the scene, play live constantly, make a name for themselves and, of course, get some kicks. In their first year out as independents, they’ve managed to strike a deal with Enjoy Records for a debut album, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?
Big fans of Steely Dan’s perfecto studio sound, for the album Haines and Shaw decided to put a lid on their walloping live shtick and fashion a slicker cocktail of glassy new-wave melodies and hummable walls of power-chord fuzz. Featuring Shaw’s warm piano playing, trumpet and orchestrations, Old World also homes quietly in on Haines’ fragile scenarios of love, languor and sex in clubland.
Metric have a veneer of coolness that’s mandatory for the indie-rock caste in any big music town. Haines, Shaw, Scott-Key and new-guy bassist Danny Denton seem innocent, too, almost geeky in their chummy quest for kicks. But whether this tight pack of buddies admits it or not, they do have a standout member — the girl. This has caused problems: An L.A. Weekly review described Haines as “a high-powered ingénue intent on landing a new record deal,” and the rest of the band as “an effective punch line for Haines’ swiveling hips.” Another rag said, “It’s Haines’ pure sex appeal that makes for such a captivating live show.” But Haines is less than eager for solo exposure.
“There’s no point in even talking about the gender thing, because I know it’s self-perpetuating,” she says. “The point is to have it not be the point. I don’t have Maybelline aspirations.”
If the gender thing is a buzz crasher for Metric’s party, it’s also the itch that keeps their shows interesting. Regardless of whether Haines can balance being the only female musician in the band, as well as the lyricist and the front woman, with being just another ensemble player is a push-and-pull that fans the band’s smoldering dynamic.
Onstage, Haines’ averting eyes, over-the-shoulder glares and seemingly self-conscious hip-shake don’t scream coziness in the spotlight; rather they communicate a vulnerability that matches the music — kinda melancholy, kinda spacy, a balance of overexcited and reserved postures. With Haines’ “freeing of her inner spazz,” as she describes it, in addition to her Devo-inspired riffs, Scott-Key and Denton’s bouncy fills and Shaw’s poppy keyboard grandstanding, Metric make out like a bigger band than they really are, and that they take very seriously.
“There’s a stereotype about musicians as just lazy, lie-around folk,” says Haines, “but I think being a musician can make you an honorable living, if you can give people some fun. It’s honorable to show people a good time and put a smile on their face — not a stupid smile, but a validating smile.”
Mount Sims:Electrosex is power
For electroclash artist Mount Sims, the boundary between music and the visual arts is a fluid one. “Electro is a genre that lends itself to the visual,” he says. His live performance bears witness to that. Flanked by undulating erotic dancers, Mount Sims puts on a show, often with unicorns, giant Greek-tragedy masks and corn dogs. Yeah, corn dogs. “We act out sexual fantasies with food, like with hot dogs and doughnuts. Or having somebody eat a jelly doughnut out of your crotch.”
Mount Sims is a stepchild of the fashion world. He moved to Los Angeles from his hometown of Milwaukee after the breakup of his band. For a period, he earned his rent as a male model, and was lured back into the studio — a computer inside his walk-in closet — by requests of designers who wanted him to create music to accompany their events. In order to pull off this synergy of music, modern dance and performance art, Sims frequently collaborates with the likes of choreographer Ryan Heffington (Psycho Dance Show) and Grey Ant’s Grant Krajecki.
Sims prefers the input of designers and performance artists to that of other musicians. “I like to think of my music as a painting,” he says, smiling. “Andy Warhol and Basquiat made paintings together. That was a beautiful combination, because they bounced ideas off one another. I don’t believe that a musician has to bounce his ideas off another musician to write a song.”
Fittingly, Sims’ recent Emperor Norton release, Ultra Sex, is largely a product of a boy and his laptop. Out of 13 tracks, only one was a collaborative effort; the rest were written, produced and arranged by Sims himself. While artists from Prince to Peaches have laid down insinuating lyrics on top of computer-generated beats, Mount Sims has put a unique spin on things: soulful but sexually ambivalent, and decidedly Hollywood.
At first sight, the album cover appears to be your run-of-the-mill dominatrix with a strap-on. But on closer inspection, the strap becomes a joystick, a playful jab at gender/power relationships. “The album cover has a lot to do with the power behind taboo. Like when you prohibit the image of a dick, all of a sudden it has all this power. It becomes a sexual superhero, a dick with a cape, just because it’s prohibited.”
Sims’ fascination with things prohibited has landed him in police custody more than once. In Milwaukee it was for “simulating sex” with a loudspeaker. In France it was for indecent exposure. Who’d’ve thought the French cared? “I thought they’d be down. I guess not. I also got arrested for stage-diving a couple of times, for endangerment with a deadly weapon.” And what was the deadly weapon? “My body,” he says.
All in all, California is a good place for Sims. It’s relatively liberal: definitely better than the solidly Christian Midwest. But the electroclash scene in the U.S. is focused on the East Coast, and it has taken its sweet time migrating westward. In that light, it seems odd that Sims is shacked up just off Sunset. But there’s a difference from what is going on in New York, says Sims, who thinks this makes for a higher ceiling. “Like Prince, in Minneapolis, he was into stuff like new wave and all that was happening on the West Coast and the East Coast. But he was in Minnesota, so far removed that his music became its own kind of sound. It’s the same thing with L.A.”
So what is electroclash, here or in New York? Nobody seems to know. There are the techno nerds who would scoff even at the use of the term. For others it means only KangaROOS, ’80s haircuts, trashy fishnets and knee-highs. Is it just brain-dead regurgitation of ’80s crap?
“If using an 808 is ’80s,” Sims replies, “then yeah, I guess I’m ’80s, because I’ll use one forever. If you remorph their sounds, and re-sculpt their waves, you can make them sound way different. Whatever. Good art is always going to have some haters. To me, the more haters the better. It has to have some kind of polar acceptance. If it’s in the middle, who cares?”
Darren Rademaker knows what he likes. Given the choice between good songs or flashy musical trends, the leader of the Tyde will always take the tunes.
“It’s like, are you a style band or a substance band?” he muses over a cold bottle of Miller High Life. “Are you really into music, or do you just want to be famous and have sex with a lot of random girls? Being famous and having sex with a lot of random girls is totally fun, but after you’re 29 or 30, are you still gonna care about music?”
Rademaker’s 41st birthday is already receding in the rearview mirror, and he, for one, still cares about music. The audible proof is Twice, the Tyde’s new record for Rough Trade America; a veritable feast of crystalline guitars, rollicking keyboards, catchy melodies and wry lyrics, Twice more than fulfills the promise of Once, the L.A. band’s acclaimed 2001 debut.
As with Once, the 11 tracks on Twice — Rademaker categorically denies that the next Tyde album will be called Three Times a Lady — offer up a tart mixture of human frailty and California sunshine. But this time out the mid-’60s Dylanisms and “cosmic country” vibes of the first album have been jettisoned in favor of the ringing pop sounds of such ’80s cult faves as Felt, Galaxie 500 and Television Personalities.
“I had the idea to go back and explore our indie roots, whatever they were,” Rademaker explains. “Kind of like, ‘Let’s move it out of the ’60s and ’70s and into the early ’80s.’ But not into the cheesy ’80s that everybody’s into; no punk-funk or electroclash!”
Though much of Twice’s music is quite chipper, Rademaker’s lyrics — which he delivers in a plain but pleasing voice somewhere between Lou Reed and Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCullough — are considerably darker than on the last album. “A Loner,” “Best Intentions” and the KCRW semi-hit “Blood Brothers” all reek of disappointment and abdicated responsibility, while “Crystal Canyons” and “Breaking Up the Band” deal with the less-than-glamorous results of sustained drug abuse.
“I know so many idiots who used to be so brilliant, and then they got involved with crystal meth,” Rademaker says. “People that were really good friends of mine that died. Or they’re writing good songs, but they’ll never be able to do anything with them because they’ll never be able to get it together from one thought to the next.”
Not that Rademaker’s own habits are exempt from scrutiny. “Henry VIII” examines his love-hate relationship with marijuana. “Yeah, it’s a song about trying to quit smoking pot,” he laughs. “When I go surfing in Dana Point, I drive down PCH and go, ‘There’s no way I’ll ever be able to afford any of these houses.’ But maybe if I wasn’t such a dope-smoker I’d have become just a regular guy.”
Regrets? Rademaker has a few. But when your music has earned you raves from your well-respected peers — Jason Pierce of Spiritualized and Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake among them — and your band is getting ready to mount a summer tour that will encompass the U.S., the U.K. and much of Europe, life as an irregular guy doesn’t seem so bad.
“My secret is that I’ve never given in to regular society, that ‘Why don’t you give up that stupid music?’ thing,” he says. “I love doing music, and I don’t care if I have to live in a shitty one-bedroom apartment for the rest of my life to do what I want. You have to look around and say, ‘Am I happy? Am I listening to some good tunes?’ You can always get by if you want to.”
The Soul of John Black
You might have checked out these guys’satisfying sets in their frequent appearances at places like the Temple Bar, but even that might not’ve prepared you for the low-key charms of their new self-titled record on NoMayo Records. John “JB” Bigham and Christopher “CT” Thomas’ very tight band brings the sweetly old-school funk-rock with that kinda rare relaxed feel — Rufus comes to mind — and they’ll spice the blend with fuzzy slide, honking sax and kick-back vocals atop their consistent grooves. There’s something countrified about it all, like they can’t be bothered to heed the trends. Pure pleasure.
Call it the lure of the “California sound,” but for the five-piece combo called Irving that means the freedom to go exploring in the wide-open, whimsical spaces. Irving’s an intriguing little band seemingly bursting with Cowsills-hyper tunes, always lyrically cheeky and offering mildly psychedelic surprises, as if everything glows oddly under that Kodak golden light. Partridge Family’s got nothing on these vocal harmonies, and the group’s schizoid instrumental attitude deftly reconciles the guitar-band/dirty-synth/kitchen-sink divide — often in the same song, always to classic simple-pop effect. Dig their new EP I Hope You’re Feeling Better Now on righteous Eenie Meenie Records.
Three guys, no bass, just voice/guitar/drums, and — hellfire! Funny, too. Viciously uncompromising and hardly user-friendly, 400 Blows have blossomed into a full-blown punk rock ragnarok where the “punk” finally imploded for good and rose phoenixlike from the muck. Here’s that death-crunch/Screamers hybrid you crave, here are your awesome, sputtering, rasping riffs, your classic punk textures blenderized and blasted. Singer Skot is as thoroughly non-charming as an L.A. punk front man circa ’77, his inbred mutant half-rant/half–hacksaw bark is crouched in the corner, trembling — you don’t want to get near, ’cause he might lash out! Required: 400 Blows’ beautifully recorded new release on Rehash Records. It’s called Black Rainbow.