Through a weathered wooden gate at the base of Laurel Canyon, down a brick path lined with peonies, one finds the cozy oasis of Mush Records. The independent record label is home to a cache of richly electronic, underground hip-hop, indie rawk and “saturated folk” acts, and the vibe here is a combination of sun-dappled, idyllic innocence and nostalgic, rock & roll languor. Cofounder Robert Curcio lives full time at these homey headquarters, and reflecting the duality of his home/office, Curcio possesses a rare combination of warmth, professionalism and modesty. When complimented on his digs, he merely concedes, “Having a nice place to live/work has definitely made it easier to put in all of the hours to keep an independent label going.”
Curcio leads the first-time visitor to a bookcase displaying a full catalog of the label’s releases. Like a proud uncle, he recalls the various narratives of each of the Mush artists: L.A. electronica wizard Daedelus is renowned for, among other things, a sampling machine that he helped to engineer; another artist, Biblio, hails from central England, and hauls his recording equipment into the woods to simultaneously capture his dreamy guitar and the sounds of snapping twigs and gurgling creek water.
Curcio clutches yet another CD case, slapping it against his palm in excitement as he describes the meshing of deep hip-hop beats with soft folk psychedelia. I accept it, and take a listen later as I’m coasting down the canyon and back onto Fairfax. This CD with the trippy cover art takes up residency in my player for roughly a month before I even know the band’s name: Nobody & the Mystic Chords of Memory. Quite a mouthful.
Mush began in 1997 as an offshoot of Dirty Loop, a recording studio Curcio ran in Cincinnati. After engineering a smattering of worthy, mainly electronica-based bands that were struggling to find labels, he teamed up with the down-tempo experimental musician Lulu Mushi (a.k.a. Cindy Roche), and the two began pressing vinyl releases, including Roche’s. They were met with success far sooner than expected, and in the years following, Mush gained a roster of eclectic and critically praised acts like Aesop Rock, DJ Nobody, Her Space Holiday, Daedelus and Busdriver.
As the two business partners worked to establish the label, they relocated a number of times, finally settling in Los Angeles at Roche’s behest — only to have her pack her bags again after falling for a musician in Cincinnati’s the Greenhornes. She and her beau now live in Nashville, but Roche remains an equal partner in the label. When I ask Curcio if he’ll relocate the label again, he’s resolute: “No. Living in Los Angeles has enabled us to see so many great shows, and has really expanded the types of music we release on Mush . . . We feel like we’ve found a place to stay.” But, he adds cautiously, “at least for the near future.”
It seems to be working out for them. Not only are they nurturing a number of rare orchids (keep an eye on Aussie trio Clue to Kalo), but they’ve also abetted fruitful collaborations such as Tree Colored See: After hearing a song Nobody and the Mystic Chords had recorded together — a Monkees cover, no less — Curcio urged them to make a full-length.
The combination made sense: DJ Nobody (a.k.a. Elvin Estella) and the Mystic Chords kids — Jen Cohen (ex–Aisler’s Set) and Christopher Gunst (ex–Beachwood Sparks) are old chums. Estella and Gunst first met as student DJs at KXLU: “[Gunst’s] band Strictly Ballroom was the first band I ever saw at the Spanish Kitchen,” Estella recalls. “I was horrified at the volume and screaming, but I went and watched them every time they played. There isn’t another voice in music that sounds like his.” The two have been mutual admirers and friends for nearly a decade, despite Cohen and Gunst’s relocation to Santa Cruz.
The result of this union is Tree Colored See, an album that opens with deep tribal beats, infused with twangy folk guitar, dusty maracas, the flutter of chimes, and Gunst’s breathy vocals. The tracks feature vibraphone, Wurlitzer organ, flute, slide guitar and harmonica, and songs build on themselves with a mellow tension, and release like an exhalation. With nocturnal sonic touches suggesting frogs and crickets, the effect is earthy and organic, and deeply soothing. Nobody’s rhythmic contributions provide a spine for the soft melodies and vaporous lyrics, with tracks like the album opener, “The Seed,” and “Walk in the After Light” boasting truly catchy hooks. Listen closely and you might even detect the sound of surf woven through. It’s clear the woodsy/beachy environs of Santa Cruz affected the sound of this album: “Living [here] gave us the chance to be more in tune with what the natural surroundings can give,” says Gunst. Nobody echoes this sentiment, recalling his road trips to collaborate, “It was awesome to listen to our rough [recordings] all the way up there, checking out the coast and getting ideas.”
Nobody & the Mystic Chords of Memory (who wrangled their name from a fragment of Abe Lincoln’s inaugural address) have played a handful of shows in Southern California and Japan, but will revisit their L.A. stomping grounds later this month to play a five-day festival curated by Devendra Banhart. Warning: If you are in any way too lazy to commit long strings of words to memory, I suggest you carry a notepad or devise a nickname for the fest. Ready for the title? No, you’re not. Go get a pen. Okay, now you’re ready: It’s called “Hypnorituals and Mesmemusical Miracles Hanging in the Sky: 5 Nights of Soleros and Bandoleros at the El Cid!!!!!!!” Exclamation marks: 7.
Taking place nightly July 18 through 22 at Silver Lake’s El Cid, the festival with the breathtakingly lengthy and highly punctuated name features standouts from a folk-driven, neopyschedelic genre sometimes called the “New Weird America” movement. Legends like Michael Hurley, Ruthann Freidman and Sir Richard Bishop, plus the delicately voiced and much-lauded Jana Hunter, all make appearances, and it’s a rare opportunity to witness these artists, some of whom rarely play L.A. Mr. Banhart himself is not scheduled to perform, but whispers of possible onstage cameos have bounced between those gossiping in anticipation.
Gunst — speaking like a true transplant to Northern California — simply muses that he hopes for “good audience-performer energy reciprocation.” With seven exclamation points, the chances of that seem pretty solid.
For full festival lineup, see foldsilverlake.com or next week’s “Go” picks.