Monday, 23 March 2009

USA-The Underground State of America

There was a time last summer when you couldn't throw a half-eaten pretzel in Brooklyn without hitting a check-shirted Indie-boy square in the smacker.
Likewise, in LA you couldn't lob a diamante collared Chihuahua without flattening a Z-listed heiress.
From the outside world the parallels between the two cities seemed vastly different if not non-existent.
Brooklyn was rife with individuality and soon, musically, it became a hub of creativity. Band after band emerged from an underground scene laced with talent and broke into the consciousness of not just the industry but fans alike.
In the space of a few months Vampire Weekend, Yeasayer and MGMT all released critically acclaimed albums, played festivals worldwide and took American alternative music by the scrotum and gave it a lease of life not seen since the emergence of The Strokes circa 2000.
It was an extraordinary time for music and in-particular Brooklyn. Not for decades has a city reveled in such a rich vein of form when creating a vast array of music and bands of startling quality.
If the same was being said of LA however, it was being done by those in the know. On the surface the Plastics, Arnie's Army and those still clinging on to the hope 'Chinese Democracy' was on the cusp of brilliance were still polluting the Hollywood air.
Scratch below the surface though and it was evident something special was simmering. A community was forming; a creative community that was light years apart from the celebrity culture that filled the gossip columns and stunk up uptown.
At the forefront of the movement was The Smell, a community orientated art and music centre. Open to all ages and devoid of all alcohol, The Smell conformed to only its own rules and in doing so became a venue as vital as any in America.
Its sole purpose, to create an environment of creativity and artistic innovation and freedom meant it became a hot bed for raw talent to grow as artists and a place to hang for those disillusioned with a town teetering on the edge of tedium.
Founded in 1998 by Jim Smith, a union organizer, and two partners, The Smell took the occupancy of an old Mexican grocery store and dedicated its principles to the ethics of D.I.Y. Those ethics are still as much alive today as they were 10 years ago. Completely non-profitable, the venue is run by volunteers who have a hand in everything from working on the vegan stall to doing sound for gigs. This freedom, one that allows anyone to try their hand at anything, is inevitably why there's such a wave of creativity and diversity that submerges The Smell. And this creativity and diversity is no more evident than in the musical output it creates.
When classing The Smell as a community centre, which it is, the one thing you do have to consider is it’s like no other on the planet. In no other city in the US and in no town in Britain will you find a band better than No Age emerge from a youth club/community centre.
No Age are The Smell's darlings. Formed six years ago as Wives, a hardcore punk band inspired by LA's 80s hardcore scene, Randy Randall (Guitar) and Dean Spunt (Drums) played their first proper gig at The Smell as No Age in April 2006 and from there they grew from strength to strength as did their relationship with The Smell. Randall told music journo, Drew Tewksbury "The Smell is where we got to experiment and find what kind of a band we wanted to be. It pushed the boundaries of whatever ideas we had about music and we had the community to try these new ideas".
And these new ideas were unashamedly linked to The Smell in every which way. On March 26th 2007, No Age recorded five different limited edition vinyl singles and EP's releasing them on five different record labels. As well as being a different colour, the back of each sleeve portrayed a different letter that, when you collected them all, spelt out No Age. Within three months of releasing the singles and EPs the band released their debut album Weirdo Rippers, a collections of songs taken from the EPs and freshly recorded tracks. Released on Fat Cat Records, the cover of the album featured the exterior of The Smell, re-painted and re-designed to spell out No Age and Weirdo Rippers. Although never officially done as a gesture of thanks to the band, the act showed how tight the community and No Age were and still are. The exterior to this day still bares their name and with more and more exposure coming the venue's way Randall recently helped mine trenches in the venues concrete floor so that a second bathroom could be built to accommodate an ever expanding crowd.
Weirdo Rippers received rave reviews and it wasn't long before a battle to sign the band materialised. Emerging from the scrap victorious was Sub Pop. Famous throughout the 90's for being home to Nirvana and the heavyweights of the grunge scene. From there No Ages popularity and abilities grew from strength to strength.
A 23-date tour with New York band Liars saw them play venues bigger than they've ever played and to crowds as far removed from LA underground scene as imaginable. And a return to their spiritual home saw the band showcase the scintillating shoegaze-punk sounds of Nouns, the bands eagerly awaited second album, with a gig at The Smell that will go down in LA music’s folklore.
In the crowd that night were The Smells new breed and a collection of bands that have grown with No Age amongst the confines of the venues graffiti strewn walls.
Mika Miko, Abe Vigoda, Health, BARR and The Mae Shi have all shared stages, record labels, tours and the success of being under the most prolific radar this side of the 21st century. While The Mae Shi have previously slipped under said radar, the growing success and emerging recognition of the venue means they could be on the verge of penetrating the underground, even though they're already 6 years and 4 albums into their career.
Abe Vigoda and Mika Miko on the other hand are, along with No Age, the scenes rawest talents.
Deeply ingrained in the fabric of what makes the LA music scene tick, Abe Vigoda and Mika Miko are the best punk bands coming out of the US let alone LA. And it's a brand of punk that could only ever be contrived from the reaches of the freedom and accessibility LA affords its young musicians and artists.
Abe Vigoda have been spreading their tropicalyptic punk nuggets to the deepest darkest parts of LA, taking in the un-traditional venues but always keeping the community allegiance with Mika Miko and No Age. A week rarely went by without all three bands sharing the same bill and even taking to the stage together. The sheer volume of videos on You Tube will pay testament to that.
Coming on like the demented alta-ego of Vampire Weekend, Abe Vigoda have ridden The Smell’s waft to Europe and beyond on the back of Skeleton, their third LP offering. Dense with atmospheric percussion, chilling ambience and a steel drum afro-pop layer, Skeleton has been Abe Vigoda’s golden ticket.
Opening for Vampire Weekend for their autumn tour, December now see’s them taking to the streets of London, Paris, Berlin and beyond for a much anticipated winter tour.
And following in their footsteps will be Mika Miko a bunch of girls as equally beautiful, brash and brutal as any you’re likely to see on the streets of LA. While No Age, Mika Miko’s self professed band of brothers, are the most accomplished band to come out of The Smell, Mika Miko are undeniably the most exhilarating live. Rarely comprehensible yet always mesmerizing. Their concoction of The Slits-cum-Germs scatter-punk leaves you on the verge of a panic attack but drags you back with its slick rhythm and driving raw power.
Formed in 2003, the band has gone through a number of line-up changes but has recently settled on group as tight as Beth Ditto in a sub-merged spandex g-string. Jessie Clavin, Jenna Thornhill, Jennifer Clavin, Kate Hall and Michelle Suar now make up the 5 piece band who, with Abe Vigoda, will be hitting up Europe this winter in the lead up to what looks to be an exhausting year of tour the world and releasing their third full-length LP.
So, move over Brooklyn. It seems there is life beyond Brooklyn Bridge after all.
When thinking of musical movements you’d be hard pressed not to reminisce. With alternative music now being so accessible thanks to the internet and the ever growing popularity of Indie music. It seemed impossible for another movement to ever capture the excitement and buzz the LA underground scene has today. In recent years we’ve had to contend with the bland schmindie of the Kaiser Chiefs, The Kooks and all those other dour lifeless bands that fill the supermarket shelves and blast out the Topman stereo. Now, thanks to the incredible spirit, work ethic and values of bands, promoters, venues and record labels we finally have a culture to be proud of and a movement we can relate to and submerge ourselves in.
If you ever thought anything cool could ever come out again? Or if you’ve prayed for a scene you can believe. The City of Angels have, in the most spectacular way possible, answered those prayers.

Daniel Wade

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