Mark Greshowak, guitarist and keyboardist for L.A. band Dunes, was riding his bike to work one day when he was injured in a hit-and-run accident. "I don't remember anything from it," he says. Greshowak was wearing a helmet, but his injuries were still severe. His jaw and hip were broken, which led to a painful 2½-month recovery period.
Now, about two years after the accident, Greshowak and bandmates David Reichardt and Stephanie Chan are sitting in Chan's Glendale garage, discussing the impact of the ordeal. Greshowak's hands weren't injured — "I'm thankful for that" — which allowed him to continue making music. He wrote and fiddled with ideas that he describes as "pretty painkillered-out." Some of those sounds became the basis for Dunes' sophomore album, Bitter Charm.
Reichardt, who plays bass and synths in Dunes, recalls, "He would bring in all these ideas, but they would be so slow and loopy."
"Slow and loopy" isn't necessarily what Dunes do. Their drummer, Kate Hall, plays with an upbeat, straightforward style that keeps toes tapping even when the guitars convey sadness. The band had to find a way to maintain that and "keep it faithful to what Mark had come up with," Reichardt says.
Bitter Charm plays with the tones set by '80s alternative bands — guitarist-singer Chan name-drops The Cure when she describes Greshowak's guitar style — but juxtaposes it with a lightness of rhythm. Chan's guitar work complements Greshowak's, but her voice carries touches of the forlorn. She explains that the mood that had been set by her bandmate's accident did affect the lyrical content of the songs. "It has to kind of fit together," she says, adding, "I think it also subconsciously channels a different kind of feeling."
The bond between members of Dunes dates back to before the formation of the band. Chan was living in Austin and playing with her old band, Finally Punk; while on tour, she met Hall, then the drummer for L.A. garage-rock favorites Mika Miko. Around that same time, she also met Greshowak, who was living in Seattle and playing with a group called Talbot Tagora. Reichardt, who grew up in Chino and joined Dunes a couple years after their formation, made a name for himself playing with Abe Vigoda and knew Hall from playing in L.A.'s DIY scene of the mid-'00s, which centered around the Smell. After Chan and Greshowak both moved to Los Angeles, the new band came together and released a debut album, Noctiluca, in 2012.
Dunes started out rehearsing in an East Hollywood living room, but that didn't work out so well, particularly for the pad's ceiling. Now they hole up in Chan's garage in Glendale, which has been modified to provide some soundproofing. "We had the cops called a few times, more early on," Chan confesses.
Hall's drum kit sits in the middle of the room. Not far from it is Chan's guitar, which she describes as "an old '70s Japanese ripoff of an American guitar" that she found in a Texas pawn shop back when she was in high school. "It's the only guitar I've ever owned," she says. "It's not worth much, but it's just a nostalgia thing." In a corner is a secondhand sofa covered in a '70s floral pattern that Chan bought off a woman who had it covered in plastic. Now it's exposed to the people and gear that pile on top of it. "If she saw what I did to this couch, she would die," Chan says.
Their lives have changed, too. The band members range in age from 28 to 31; they are no longer the kids who can practice nearly every night, gig frequently and hit the road for weeks of touring. Hall recently finished studying at California Institute of the Arts. Reichardt went back to school, too, in a time-intensive audio engineering program. They're balancing day jobs and music now. Even though the group formed around 2009, their output has been fairly slim. Four years passed between the releases of Noctiluca and Bitter Charm.
When it was time to get back in writing-recording mode, the band was ambitious about it. They wanted to bring in subtle electronic elements. Reichardt was inspired by what he was doing with Abe Vigoda later in that band's run — "We really tried to incorporate a lot more electronic sounds into our music," he says of his previous band, "and I was still carrying a lot of that desire in my musical goals" — and Dunes was up for the challenge. They worked on making the electronic elements co-exist with their rock-based sound before heading into downtown's Seahorse Sound Studios with producer Alex DeGroot (Roses, Zola Jesus).
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The results have worked out well for the band, particularly Greshowak. "It was almost more positive to hear this idea that I made at kind of a dark time be transformed into something different," he says. "It helped me escape that a little bit."