“I hope you brought your earplugs,” Justin Maranga says as we walk through a loading dock stranded in a section of North Hollywood industrial wasteland. Maranga leads me down the sparse corridor in a warehouse-turned–practice space, past a row of doors and into a high-ceilinged room. The wires jutting out of the ceiling look like the entrails of a dead building. We pass a Cold War–era soda machine and step up to a gunmetal-gray door marked “11.” Maranga pushes it open to reveal a room towering with amplifiers, cords snaking across the floor. The four other members of rock-&-roll band Night Horse stand poised at their instruments.
It’s 11 a.m. on a Saturday. Good morning.
Bassist Nick D’Itri leans on his amp near a broken-looking organ crouched in the corner. Guitarist Greg Buensuceso runs through a lick in front of his Orange amplifier. At the center of the room, Justin Pierce sits behind his drum set and trash-talks Maranga as we walk in. Maranga wastes no time getting started. He strokes his long, reddish beard once, straps on his guitar and rips into the strings. What comes out is the Southern rock–brushed “Come Down Halo,” from the band’s recently released split 7-inch single with Sea of Air. Singer Sam James Velde, former member of rock outfit Bluebird, shakes his hair and lifts one hand to the rafters while the other clutches the mic stand. Here, in the privacy of their practice space, they rip through the Allman Brothers–tinged dual guitar lines and growling bass of “Choose Your Side,” and the rowdy, roadhouse blues of “Good Bye Gone.” “We sped up too much on that one,” Maranga tells the other guys, most of whom were friends from their high school days in Thousand Oaks.
They’re halfway though this Saturday-morning practice session, and the guys have a lot of work ahead of them. Buensuceso also has to get to his grandmother’s birthday party soon, so in these few hours, they’ve got to get it right. Night Horse doesn’t sound rusty, but it’s been a while since the members have all rehearsed together, and one of their biggest shows quickly approaches: Sunset Junction. It’s a crucial moment offering serious exposure for the down-home rockers, a chance to spread their sound to an audience as yet untapped.
Night Horse’s style is familiar but indiscernible; their cocksure barroom vocals and guitar-solo tradeoffs would be at home at CBGB (R.I.P.). “We’re first and foremost a rock & roll band, but we try not to be too derivative,” says Velde. If Night Horse has any derivations, they come from their label, Tee Pee Records, the New York–based outfit that curates the finest in no-gimmick, back-to-basics rock bands.
Founded in 1995 by Tony Presedo, Tee Pee earned high marks for early, seminal releases from drone rockers Sleep and High on Fire, along with weirdos Brian Jonestown Massacre. Presedo parted ways with the label in August 2008 (he now heads up the culinary mash-up Territory BBQ + Records). Under the direction of Steve Dolcemaschio, the “almost-24-year-old” (as he tells me) general manager, the label has cultivated its lineup into an L.A.-centric list heavy on the psychedelic tip. “We are trying to make a label that puts out good music, for the sake of the music,” Dolcemaschio says. Last year he was an intern at Tee Pee, and now he runs the label. The boutique imprint has a staff of four in New York, but supports a roster of eight bands in L.A., six of which were signed or re-signed in 2009. From the Western flavor of Spindrift and the dark, postapocalyptic haunt of label newcomers Black Math Horseman to Maranga and Pierce’s other band, the epic wall of rock experimentalists, Ancestors, Tee Pee’s latest signings are collectively infused with layers and sonic textures usually absent from the endless noodling of some stoner effusium.
Last July, Tee Pee brought together many of its bands for the first annual New Weird America Fest at L.A.’s Nomad Gallery. The show, named after the “new weird America” freak folk-musical phylum that bubbled up around 2003, in many ways marked a new moment in Los Angeles music — or at least a reimagining of movements past. It had been years since Arthur Fest brought the finest experimental, psychedelic and folk musics to L.A.; FYF Fest, although presenting a phenomenal lineup, appealed more to Vice Magazine enthusiasts and American Apparel fans. New Weird America represented a realigning of the new psychedelic sounds with roots in Los Angeles’ far-out history.
“It reminded me of being in the desert, of going to see Kyuss out at a generator party, and that kind of community,” desert sage and songwriter Imaad Wasif told me while at indie radio station KXLU. The Coachella Valley native, with family roots in India, played the New Weird America Fest and looked the part of this burgeoning psych scene. His matchstick legs were shrink-wrapped into jeans, his long, wavy hair fell onto the shoulders of his gray military-looking jacket. At times, he speaks like a mystic. “It’s all about creating this cycle of birth, death and growth,” Wasif says about the spiritual nature of his upcoming album, The Voidist (out October 13), which melds melodic acoustic strumming with swirling psych breakdowns. “I didn’t realize it as a kid, but how my parents raised me, with our food and Indian lifestyle, was almost like a mystic in India,” Wasif says. “All of my songs have an embodiment of a character, which is me, and this oracle. I believe in this androgyny within myself.”
L.A. has long been home to psychedelic spirit; Sky Saxon and the Source family are testaments to this iconoclastic scene. Tee Pee Records reconnects with this heritage. “L.A.’s history with the fringe and psychedelic stretches from Topanga Canyon to the Sunset Strip; hair metal and other genres just derailed it,” Spindrift’s songwriter, Kirpatrick Thomas, once told me (while wrapped in a sleeping bag in their unruly, smelly tour van). It’s true: psych is hardly new, but it’s been a while since the scene has been this organized. As Night Horse and Tee Pee’s other L.A. bands gain momentum, though, it’s misleading to call it a comeback. It’s a creeping tsunami. A (not so) silent swell of tuned-in rockers all riding the same vibration. On any given night in L.A., someone from the Tee Pee label is onstage, in the crowd, or perhaps crashing on your couch — at least until it’s time to get up and practice.