There is a romantic image, generated by autobiographies and music documentaries, of a time when legendary musicians would gather, Mick Jagger rubbing shoulders with Bob Dylan. These get-togethers seem to not have had any productive purpose, the main activity being drug taking, but that just adds to the romanticism of the image.
Building on that romantic notion of a music salon, but replacing the drugs with instruments, Keefus Ciancia and Jade Vincent started the Rotary Room at the Virgil, on the border of East Hollywood and Los Feliz, in 2013. It was a place composer-keyboardist Ciancia and songwriter-vocalist Vincent could gather their musician friends, let them play what they wanted, test out new material, perform cover songs and simply let loose for one another.
Around the same time, Ciancia — whose CV is so long it needs its own Dropbox, but includes composer credits on The Fall and True Detective — was brought into the famed Vox Recording Studios to perform keyboard overdubs on the score for Haywire for producer-composer David Holmes. “I fell in love with [Ciancia] before I even worked with him,” says Holmes, a DJ and producer of note since the late '80s, who first became known in the film world for his work on Ocean’s Eleven. “It’s a connection. The fact that we work so well together in the studio is a bonus.”
Ciancia invited Holmes to DJ at the Rotary Room, where his selections so inspired the night's hosts that they soon began working together. “I’ve never seen anyone that listens to music as much as that dude,” Ciancia says of Holmes. “I think that’s why he works so much, because he’s heard so much music that he needs more he hasn’t heard. He goes to Paris and buys an album from his ‘dealer’ for $1,000 and it’s sick.
“I realized in the late ‘90s that the best musicians were DJs,” Ciancia adds. “They love music more than musicians. They’re not beaten down. It’s about what sounds good, what goes well with what. That’s what makes new music.”
“My entire career has been built upon my record collection,” Holmes says. “I inherited records from when I was 8, started buying them when I was 11. I’ve always been collecting and getting into new styles and obsessing. I would sell one obsession to fuel the next. Having a knowledge of music is the catalyst to having ideas. There’s actually nothing original about me whatsoever. I just try to be collaborative, where I take my influence from the obscure rather than the obvious.”
Vincent, Ciancia and Holmes started making new music under the name Unloved, writing in the vein of ‘60s girl groups and film noir soundtracks. They took inspiration from some of the French sounds Holmes was spinning, like Françoise Hardy and Brigitte Fontaine, as well as The Shangri-Las, The Ronettes, The Crystals and Marianne Faithfull, and the productions of Phil Spector, Jack Nitzsche and George “Shadow” Morton. It helped that some of the recording occurred at Vox Studios, which has a history dating back to those classic recordings.
Unloved’s debut four-song EP, Guilty of Love, is spine-chilling. The inspiration is apparent as Vincent’s smoky, deep tones seduce, then destroy. The lo-fi hiss of the title track conjures up images of dark Paris jazz clubs, just as the trio intended. The murky atmospherics of “Cry Baby Cry” are wrenching and the harmonies on “Far From Here” emphasize the shudders on Vincent’s borderline masculine lead. The cinematic “No Friend of Mine” hearkens back to Portishead’s beat-centric heartbreak.
Samples are the jumping-off point for the threesome, who wrote Guilty of Love and a forthcoming Unloved album, slated for release in early 2016, over a period of three to four years. “It became an extension of the Rotary Room in the sense that we brought in friends we admire to play,” says Vincent, whose group of friends includes celebrated session players such as drummers Jim Keltner (John Lennon, Bob Dylan), Jay Bellerose (T Bone Burnett, Aimee Mann) and Deantoni Parks (The Mars Volta), bassist Gus Seyffert (Beck, The Black Keys), harmonica player extraordinaire Tommy Morgan, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer and Vox Studios owner Woody Jackson. “There was never a set plan. As each song came about, we thought, it would be wonderful if such-and-such musician were on it.”
“People used to get together, make a record, press 500 copies, never earn a penny and just disappear,” says Holmes, describing some of the forgotten treasures that became the basis for the Unloved sessions. “So many records were made that got squashed, but you can find gem after gem of things that never had a shelf life. They slipped through the cracks and, through whatever means, found a fan base 30 years later. I’m always looking for records like that because those are the great records that are full of ideas.”