No Age: Interview
Would I call bullshit on that if I heard that song on the radio?
If driving down the street in my mom's snazzy Hyundai listening to the new No Age record contrasts with their vibe and ethos, then how come it sounded so good? I mean, the self-aware vegan and political lifestyles of this Los Angeles duo are a long way from my own sheltered situation. There must be some sort of universal truth to this band. Okay, that sounds kind of whack; I don't want to play up the politics or circumstance of this band, but seriously, there's a certain special something about the punk music of Dean Spunts and Randy Randall. It's a simple sort at the core, but add in those washes of ambience, that sense of melody, and a super-short attention span, and you've got one of the most incessantly catchy and explosive bursts of noise you'll hear in a long time. And as their success on the internet and various medias has shown, you don't have to be a frequenter of their local vegan LA haunt The Smell to dig it. Anyway, I was driving down this one particular street when Randy Randall called me to talk about their new album Nouns (well, not Randy personally, but a nice chap setting up the interview via record label/phone company). Here's how our conversation went.
I listened to Weirdo Rippers at my office job quite a few times yesterday, and I was finding it really easy to get lost within it and hard to remember where certain bits were, my favorite bits, because of the way it travels along from ambience to rock song through to more ambience and so on. I was surprised to read that it's made up of a collection of songs from EPs, because I thought it had a strong sense of continuity, even if it's got this really loose, free-form style.
Yeah I think when we chose which songs to use, we chose the ones that really worked well together. We were kind of lucky in that way, that everything fell into place quite nicely. We didn't put as much of the ambient stuff on the new record; I think the new record is a little bit more of a pop or rock record, and I think that came out of us touring so much in the last year. A lot of the more ambient songs were difficult to translate live for us, so it kind of ended up getting less by the wayside; we couldn't tour with them, so we started writing songs we could play live.
Was that just more a technical thing? Or did it just make more sense to play more high energy stuff at the live shows?
I think it was just the general fun of it all; I mean, we have so much fun playing live, so it was more fun to write the more energetic songs. But on Nouns, there are songs like "Keechie" and "Impossible Bouquet" that kind of came from that more recording experiment side of things. Unfortunately, they're song that we won't be able to play live, but we didn't want that to stop us from making sounds and songs that we wanted to. We definitely are fans of playing live, and we really do enjoy touring, so we definitely focused more on songs that we could recreate in a live setting. It's just fun to be at a loud, fun rock show than an atmospheric soft show. Well, that's where I'm at right now anyway.
As an album, I do find Nouns to be a lot more direct in a pop sense. I guess when you were recording the Weirdo Rippers tracks, you wouldn't have been making them with an album in mind, so they came out quite differently.
Exactly, yeah. I think we were just kind of collecting experiments and songs, just playing for ourselves and not touring that much or necessarily knowing where they would end up. They were just songs that we would sit down at home with and layer and stack stuff upon until we felt like we had something we liked on record. But then after touring so much, it became more apparent to us that it might be something that we'll be doing more of in the future, so we wanted to accentuate, and, well, just enjoy more as well.
With actually having this album in mind this time around, did you notice that changed the way you were making songs, like how they might fit into a particular context?
We had this idea that we wanted a good balanced record, so there were some times where we would look at songs kind of like looking at a Bonzai tree, trimming bits away, so like, "Well, there's too much going on in that one, we'll get rid of some of that." There was a lot more material recorded than what was finally selected for the record. So we were able to find something that really worked well as a record together.
"Even playing music is an act of rebellion against a straight capitalistic system."
Did it take longer, then, working on Nouns? With more editing, and thinking about things more?
Not necessarily, I think we ran through it all fairly quickly. We're kind of a band that is perpetually writing songs and making sounds, and actually some of the songs on the new record were held over from the last one, so we found ourselves just continuing to record and write. As soon as we finished the new record, we kept at it and are still writing songs.
There must be lots that won't get released and that will just be played live?
A lot will just be played live, yeah, but lots will get released as B-sides on 7-inches and other avenues, tapes, other small releases.
I was reading an interview with you guys on Pitchfork and found one part especially interesting when you talked about being in an alternative rock band, not meaning that you were sidestepping mainstream culture.
It's that thing where we are just as much consumers as everyone else, in terms of what we're exposed to and mass media. I'm a not a big fan of TV, but yet I'm well aware of what the big shows are or what's going on, even if I'm not interested in it. Or, like, the next big action movie or Tom Cruise or whatever; it's very difficult to miss that it's coming out or that it's happening around you. So, I think in terms of being a punk or thinking of myself as an outsider or as someone with an alternative perspective on the world, I'm still well-aware of what goes on to a degree that anyone else is. I don't have to be a fan of it, but we are definitely still inundated with it. Instead of rejecting them of feigning ignorance about it, it's more about embracing it, because it's just there -- it's impossible to miss, whether your a fan or not. I mean, I am actually a fan of mainstream hip-hop, but it doesn't necessarily have to inform me as a musician with what I do; it's not an influence I wear on my sleeve. I feel like I've reached a level of maturity with myself that I'm responsible enough to myself that I can see a bad movie or hear some bad songs and still feel like I can make a good movie or a good song.
That's kind of the way I've been going lately, too, thinking that it's silly to be ignorant about it. Your whole aesthetic seems very realized as a band, from the name No Age with its connotations of no-wave or modern philosophies to the sound itself, and also to things like the T-shirts and bandanas you make.
We just want to make stuff that we're fans of or stuff that we would wear or that we would listen to. So we're sort of using our own taste as a guideline, like, "Would I wear that? Would I listen to that? Would I call bullshit on that if I heard that song on the radio?" We try to use that as much as we can, trying to see the forest for the trees. We really try and be our own worst critics about everything and make sure that only the good parts come through, because you know, we're not so precious to think that every idea we think of is genius. We're pretty well-aware that we're human and try to keep a tight leash on what gets out there, so that we can do the best job we can.
With the massive amount of stuff out there and mainstream and everyday life and everything, I think lately my attention span lately has been getting ridiculously small, and I was thinking maybe that's why I've been enjoying your music so much lately, with all the changes in form and structure and sound.
Yeah definitely, I think we are totally like that. I mean, not that we have ADD or anything, but we definitely find ourselves jumping around our iPods a lot, not letting a song finish because it's going on for too long, "Okay, let's get to this other part!." We're definitely channel changers ourselves, for sure.
That's a pretty good way to describe your guys sound actually, the channel-changing thing, or like, a shifting through radio frequencies kinda vibe.
It's funny actually -- we recorded in more different physical spaces for Nouns than we did with all the earlier EPs. We recorded more of those older tracks in the same room in our house and one particular friend's house/studio.
"It's just fun to be at a loud, fun rock show than an atmospheric soft show."
Oh okay, that's surprising because I thought the spaces on Weirdo Rippers were much more varied than on Nouns. Did getting a deal with Sub Pop change the logistics of all this for you?
Not so much, but to a certain degree though -- like we bought a Pro Tools set so we could record more than just four tracks at a time. That allowed us to do a little bit more of that stuff, but just because the resources were available to us didn't necessarily mean that they were the right fit for us; we just picked and chose which bits were best for us and that would let us sound dirty and blown out, yet still have some clarity and clear frequencies. Before, that wasn't really an option because our machines wouldn't let us record that clearly.
One thing that stood out much more on Nouns than on Weirdo Rippers to me was a big sense of optimism. I heard that especially on "Eraser," but then it shone through a lot in basically all of the other tracks -- this bright sense of optimism.
Yeah, we're definitely trying to put the good energy out there. It's hard to say actually, I dunno. I guess optimism is part of it, maybe we weren't looking so dark, but maybe the lyrical content that comes through is more morose.
I think it stood out in a context for me, like in terms of a no-wave sort of scheme of things that your sound seems to fit into, where brightness and optimism aren't focused on but rather a no-wave dissonant sort of aesthetic. I did an interview with High Places the other day and we talked about that in terms of them and Brooklyn, they're making this poppy and super-nice sounding music amidst this scene of largely that no-wave sort of stuff that can hide behind that dissonant aesthetic as almost even a barricade, whereas No Age seems to have a big sense of emotion or optimism that comes with all the noise.
Totally, yeah. High Places are good friends of ours, Rob and Mary, yeah. We're actually going to be playing some shows with them soon. I think the LA scene has a pretty eclectic mix right now. It's kind of a mix of punk, noise, and sort of experimental sounds, and it's all mixed up together. Like you'll have an artist like Lucky Dragons who has these dance tracks that are done in a certain blissed-out way. Then you've got the tropical punk of Abe Vigoda, or then someone like Mika Miko who's more straight-out punk. It's a really good mix right now, and we're really happy to be part of it.
Have you related to punk ethics a lot growing up in LA?
Definitely, I mean, I'm 27 and Dean is 26, so we sort of came age at a time prior to the internet where you had to collect fanzines and go to shows and collect flyers to find out about things, listen to college radio and have your ear to the ground and search through the record bins to really find the cool stuff. We can definitely relate to that sense of it. We both grew up in different suburbs, these kind of enclaves of nothingness, where we had this time with ourselves to be bored with guitars. So, we definitely identify more with the DIY aesthetic. We volunteer at a place called The Smell in downtown LA where we do sound some nights or help book shows or do the door and stuff like that. It's just really being fans of people making things for themselves and not really needing to be asked to do it.
Yeah, that whole thing of being personal to be political has always resonated with me.
Yeah, both Dean and I live our personal lives as political statements, like we both eat a vegan diet and choose to support alternative business and independent things. We're just aware of where our money goes on a daily basis and what our role is in the larger global economy and as an American citizen and what effect that has on the rest of the world. It's on a small daily basis, yeah, rather than getting out there and pounding politics into people, its more just putting small ideas into our everyday lives.
How does music come into that for you?
Making music is just another way to deliver that message and another way to show through example. Just even playing music is an act of rebellion against a straight capitalistic system. We definitely didn't start this band to make money, I mean, we have been fortunate enough to get a little bit of a financial reward from it, but we would continue doing it even if we weren't. It's just something we have to do. We have to play music.