Let It Rip
Punk rock flourishes in Los Angeles
by Sasha Frere-Jones November 19, 2007
Popular music in Los Angeles has passed through several golden ages, each unlike the others. Perhaps the sounds most closely associated with the region are the sunny harmonies of the Mamas & the Papas and the Beach Boys, from the nineteen-sixties, or the soft rock of the Eagles, from the seventies.
In the early eighties, a loose aggregation of punk-rock bands, including Black Flag and X, were responsible for an explosion of musical activity in the area, and by the end of the decade the hard-rock scene in Hollywood had yielded Guns N’ Roses—along with a fashion for teased hair and tight leather pants, which helped propel the careers of similar but lesser bands. Now the punk-rock phase—which was also a golden age of skateboarding, the primary recreation for L.A. punk rockers—has been reborn in an appealingly communal form, thanks in large part to a local club called The Smell, to a noisy and often brilliant duo called No Age, and to the group’s tight circle of friends.
The Smell, in a former Mexican grocery store on a desolate downtown block, was founded ten years ago by Jim Smith, a union organizer, and two partners. For two years, the club occupied a North Hollywood storefront (the name is an allusion to a nearby coffeehouse called Aroma Café); it moved to the grocery-store space in 2000.
In 2002, No Age’s members, Randy Randall, the guitarist, and Dean Spunt, the singer and drummer, began performing at the club as part of a group called Wives, as did, the following year, Mika Miko, a raucous all-woman band, which quickly attracted a large local following.
Since then, other performance spaces have opened in derelict buildings and commercial sites in downtown L.A., and now half a dozen local bands, many of which can be described as punk, are giving concerts, making T-shirts, and releasing one another’s records. But The Smell, which holds more than two hundred people, serves vegan snacks, and has a shelf of books and zines that clubgoers can borrow, remains the scene’s hub.
Randall and Spunt, who live in Hollywood, in a house with a half-pipe in the back yard, formed No Age in 2006, and frequently perform at the club. They have keys to the building, and Randall has been central to a four-year ongoing effort to install a second bathroom. (He helped dig the trench in the concrete floor to accommodate the new plumbing.)
No Age’s album “Weirdo Rippers,” which was released in August, is in some ways an homage to the club. The tray card under the CD is a photograph of thirty-three people standing in front of The Smell—local musicians and their supporters—and the album’s cover features a photograph of the club’s white façade, on which the words “No Age” and “Weirdo Rippers” have been painted (by Amanda Vietta, an artist and a friend of the band members’).
When I visited The Smell last month, the words were still there. The club’s interior walls are covered with murals—depicting bulbous birds, disembodied female heads with swooping bouffant hair, and a small forest of intertwining, hairy arms—painted by local artists and musicians, creating a colorful oasis inside a grim shell.
“Weirdo Rippers,” which collects songs from vinyl EPs that No Age had previously released on small labels, contains most of the band’s work to date. In the past year, bloggers on pop-music Web sites such as thefader.com and Brooklynvegan.com discovered and praised the group, and in October No Age played a joyous show to a full house at the Bowery Ballroom, in New York. At the end of the concert, several young audience members climbed onstage, one onto Randall’s shoulders.
This enthusiasm is impressive, given that No Age’s music is not instantly inviting. Listening to the album is a bit like entering a cave; it takes a few moments to acclimate your senses to No Age’s methods. The band has no bass player, and Randall’s guitar often sounds hazy and thick, with echoey effects. He tends to process his notes electronically, using pedals to inflate chords into sheets of glimmering noise that evoke the overwhelmingly distorted sound of bands like My Bloody Valentine and the Jesus and Mary Chain. Spunt’s drumming and delivery is blunt, reminiscent of L.A. punk rock from the eighties, which scorned pretension.
One of No Age’s most accessible songs, “Boy Void,” could be a seven-inch punk-rock single from the early eighties. “Saw a horse, he ran into the back of the room, where the children go to cry,” Spunt hollers, banging a relentless eighth-note beat on a floor tom. The words of the chorus are “It’s so obvious, so obvious”—though it’s not obvious what he means. Randall sticks to a basic four-chord march, backs off into a cloud of feedback, and then rejoins Spunt for the chorus. Like all No Age songs, this one is shorter than you expect it to be—the whole album is only thirty-two minutes long—and after a few listens the band’s charms have lodged in your head: Spunt’s spirited yells, the way the melodies are tucked into the racket, Randall’s rainbow of guitar loops and shifting textures. “Weirdo Rippers” buzzes with a warm verve and the promise of impending rumpus. The more of the album you hear, the more logical it seems that such a goofy and chaotic band would attract a loyal following.
“Dead Plane,” a gorgeous and sprawling song, was originally released by Teenage Teardrops, a label run by a man named Cali deWitt; he used to work at Jabberjaw, a defunct local club that in the early nineties frequently hosted Hole and Beck. The song begins with a gentle hum of processed guitar and swelling drums. After several minutes of formless noise, the song coheres, barrelling forward in the style of a classic punk-rock number. Spunt sings about a “sad, sick man” who seems to be harassing a woman “who needs the room.” He concludes the track, firmly but not angrily, by singing, “I don’t wanna fight you.” The music dwindles to a jet trail of noise, which Randall carefully raises in pitch with a foot pedal as the sound fades away.
On October 30th, some of the regulars from The Smell showed up at the Music Box at Fonda, a large proscenium theatre (formerly the Henry Fonda) in Hollywood, where No Age was opening for the New York rock band Battles. (The venue is a sign of No Age’s changing fortunes. The band recently signed to Sub Pop, the independent Seattle label that released Nirvana’s early records; its current groups include the Shins and the Postal Service, both of which sometimes outsell major-label acts.)
The Music Box was only a third full when No Age started to play. Spunt, who is twenty-five and slender, with shaggy brown hair and bright-blue eyes, sat in front of his drums on the right side of the stage. Randall, who is twenty-six and solid, with stringy blond hair, stood on the left side, facing the crowd, in front of an array of amplifiers. He spent much of the show looking at a series of pedals near his feet; when he stepped on them, his sound would triple in size or swirl or collapse. Both musicians played with ferocity, as if to a packed club. Spunt lifted his legs and arms high as he performed, and hit the drums harder when he sang.At one point, Randall called out, “Anyone here been to The Smell?” A yell went up. “O.K., cool, that’s good,” Randall responded, and the band launched into a song from “Weirdo Rippers” called “Everybody’s Down.” Spunt stepped from behind his drum kit, walked to the front of the stage, and sang in a strong, clear voice, into a microphone on a stand, “I’m not afraid of laughter, because it’s all feeling, too. Everybody’s down, in every soul, and every town.”
Randall crossed the stage and crouched behind him, playing a steady two-chord pattern on his guitar. Then he returned to his side of the stage, stood on an amplifier, and continued to play. Spunt retreated to his drum kit and quietly counted himself back into the song. As Spunt pounded his drums, Randall leaped down from his perch and, with his guitar, started making the noise of three people playing. Heads down, the musicians seemed oblivious of everything but the music—and maybe their friends.