There's a magenta slash of ink on Dean Spunt's gray pants. His beard betrays the stubble of the self-employed. His long, brown hair is slightly wet and looped behind his ears. He looks more like a painter stumbling out of the art district than the drummer, singer and sometime bassist for No Age, L.A.'s best rock band of the last half-decade.
“Oh,” Spunt dips his head, noticing the teardrop-shaped stain for the first time. “I was silk-screening posters for our tour last night.”
This should be atypical for a band given adulatory spreads in the New Yorker and a 2009 Grammy nomination for Best Art Packaging. By your fourth album, you've usually acquired a phalanx of managers and flunkies. But from the time Spunt crushed his first snare, he and guitarist partner Randy Randall have warred against cliché.
There are no managerial tithes. No “team.” Just family. Spunt not only designed the No Age rainbow tees worn by Radiohead but he also prints them at his mom and brother's Kwik Ink shop in Canyon Country (Spunt was raised in Saugus). They've been so iconic that the Kings of Leon ripped off the lettering and color scheme for their own shirts.
Released on Sub Pop, this month's excellent An Object takes the band's DIY ethos to teleological ends. Spunt and Randall handled all aspects of production. This included personally manufacturing the covers and inserts, packing crates and hauling all 10,000 units to the pressing plant. They even made the moving boxes. “We wanted to go through that process, feel everything in our hands, and see if it changed listeners' perception if they understood that we actually made this,” says Spunt, 31, his glacial blue eyes conveying an exhausted glaze.
“I was trying to understand the point of making records when they're essentially useless. When we can download music so easily, they're really just to hold and look at. To me, that's the idea of an art object,” he continues, sipping a small house-blend coffee at Café de Leche — close to the Mount Washington house he shares with his girlfriend. “When the artist creates something on such a large scale, you can't really ignore it. You have to think about it in some way.”
This is where I admit that I'm family, too. Third cousins. Neither Spunt nor I knew it until four years ago, several months after I'd interviewed him for a Weekly feature about his Post Present Medium label. Our grandparents had been best friends during their postwar San Fernando Valley adolescence. I'd even once had a wrecked back successfully realigned at his father's chiropractic office. But as though we were starring in a zany '80s teen comedy, no one mentioned the family ties until well after No Age become sanctified as the Dalai Lamas of downtown art-punk co-op the Smell.
Reading breathless media accounts of the late 2000s, one might have thought that Spunt and Randall materialized on Main Street after an exhaustive search by the spirits of Joey Ramone, Darby Crash, D. Boon and GG Allin. Their rise transcended innate talent and depth of vision. No Age made people believe. When many thought punk had been buried in a Hot Topic coffin, No Age channeled a righteous fury, rawness and experimental streak that converted a new generation and convinced old cynics.
They were vegan, independent and principled but bore few strains of orthodoxy. Punk wasn't their sound; it was their North Star. Their name came from an all-instrumental 1987 compilation released on SST, the label of Black Flag guitarist Greg Ginn.
“I always thought of punk as an attitude or life philosophy that you adapted from people putting out records in the '80s,” Spunt says.
He soaks up the chaos outside the coffee shop: cops leering like gargoyles, teens skating past in streetwear, bearded aspirants clacking away on MacBooks. None would seem particularly out of place at a No Age show. They might be the only band that badge-wearing pigs and art-school prigs can agree on.
Credit their blend of blue collar and blue velvet. Raised in Walnut, Randall had a musical Damascus moment stripping tar from his parents' roof while listening to Sonic Youth's Goo. Spunt bangs the drums like a Visigoth, sings as if he's sniffed his share of glue but can think about music like a conservatory-trained minimalist. Both are proudly auto-didactic — not out of a sense of superiority but out of a belief that your errors are what allow you to evolve.
No Age rose following the divorce of Wives, a hardcore trio that lasted from 2001 through 2005 and harbored their first musical explorations. The release of An Object marks a decade of collaboration. They've gone from idealistic skate punks thrashing in free backyard shows to playing The Late Show With David Letterman.
“We went from two people creating a pidgin language to understand each other to meshing into subconscious physical language. It's not even spoken, it's all eye movement and hand signals,” Randall says, calling from the big island of Hawaii. He's visiting his mom, who moved there from the Inland Empire after her divorce.
The guitarist's role in No Age can't be understated. In an era when nostalgic guitar rock is ubiquitous, Randall's squalls float out of some psychic back alley, brutally noisy and beautiful. They're kin to My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth or Dinosaur Jr. but still fresh.
“Guitar was never about proficiency or virtuosity for me,” Randall says.
Outside his window, a man climbs a six-story tree to slash off coconuts with a machete. “It was about getting comfortable smashing my fingers on the strings. I see it as an open format.”
Even their personalities blend into an OutKast yin-yang duality. Spunt is quieter and often uses music as a way to answer ontological questions. He reconciled being a serious artist who plays rock & roll for a living by turning No Age into a constantly mutating experiment. Randall is more apt to be found reading sci-fi pulp or listening to Chuck Berry or The Delfonics. But the affability conceals the restless intellect of someone who excelled in neurolinguistics at USC. Neither plays to type. This is a source of strength.
The Aquemini-like synchronicity is visible on the new record. A loose creative manifesto is buried in lyrics like “chipping away … always change … always switching direction.”
The three-year gap between albums was partly a result of this direction waiting to reveal itself. They originally traveled to Austin to record An Object but scrapped the songs because they were too similar to previous efforts.
Returning home, they regrouped in their practice space with longtime collaborator and sometime touring member Cundo Bermúdez. They recorded on tape almost immediately after writing. Spunt played bass for the time since Wives. The goal was to capture the urgency and lawlessness of their earliest records. No trends chased, and honesty above all. If a vocal was slightly off-key or a note seemed particularly jagged — fuck it. It's blood-simple, but the melodies stick.
“I was really interested in the idea of making something really fragile but also not afraid to fail,” Spunt says, back at the coffee shop. “Sculptures and conceptual art are really interesting to dissect and have that translate into music. I like finding the miscalculations in my head that I imagine.”
Art doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to feel right. And if a little ink doesn't occasionally stain your clothes, you probably aren't going hard enough.