Bradley Hanan Carter feared the worst about his future.
The New Zealander singer-songwriter had spent much of the 2000s with his rock band, Steriogram, that was on a major label and had a track in an Apple commercial. Since landing in L.A. though, his music career had fallen off. He wondered if he'd have to pack it all in soon.
FOR THE RECORD:
Echo Park's NO: In the March 8 Calendar section, a profile of the Echo Park band NO said that its record label, Arts & Crafts Records, is based in Montreal. It is based in Toronto. —
"I was really depressed," Carter said. "I'd spent my 20s not knowing who I was, and 30 was a turning point. There was so much that I'd given up to be here."
But one night in 2010, Carter walked into the bathroom of Echo Park's El Prado bar. He locked the door and took a long look in the mirror. For the first time in a long time, he liked what he saw. That night he decided to start his new band NO.
"There's a lyric in our song 'Last Chance,' where I'm asking 'Do you see me, standing in the mirror?'" said Carter, who's now 33. "I hadn't looked at myself in a long time, and that night I finally realized who I was," he said with a laugh. "I also thought 'Damn, you kind of cleaned up nicely."
"El Prado," the debut LP from the Echo Park sextet, is a moody but assured indie rock album about finding second chances to get it right in L.A.
But it's also an ode to a changing Echo Park. L.A.'s Ellis Island for rockers, Echo Park was where bands played each other's residencies until someone hit it big. Ten years ago, a new act with NO's local buzz would have an easy ticket to rock radio and perhaps actual stardom (as befell Silversun Pickups or the Airborne Toxic Event).
Now trends have changed, and the path is tougher for ambitious guitar bands. When a rising indie rock act stares into an Echo Park bar mirror, no one knows what future is looking back at them.
For a moment in November 2011, NO (who will headline the Troubadour on Saturday) was the hottest act in town. With just a six-song free online EP, Carter and his bandmates (which came to include co-founder and bassist Sean Stentz, guitarists Reese Richardson, Ryan Lallier and Simon Oscroft, and drummer Michael Walker) played their first show at Silver Lake's the Satellite. Lines sprawled out the door. A house party gig the next night was broken up for overcrowding, and they quickly landed a month-long residency at the Echo.
Much of this attention came from the EP's centerpiece single "Stay With Me," which showcased Carter's newfound baritone (he said he was listening to "a lot of Sinatra records" at the time) and a knack for bummed-out yet melodic songwriting. Comparisons to the National and Interpol came easily, but the rest of "El Prado" is more exploratory. "Leave the Door Wide Open" heaves with Cocteau Twins guitar lines and heavy drumming; "Last Chance" is a spacier, sadder take on Phoenix's airtight pop. One track finds the band dropping a giant piece of metal on the floor for percussion.
Stentz, a fixture behind the counter at the Echo Park record store and venue Origami Vinyl, had helped plenty of other bands get to that point. Now NO had it for themselves.
"Origami and Echo Park are such strong communities focused on young bands, a place where they can sell stuff and be inspired and vibe off each other," he said. A little professional jaundice about the hype cycle, however, was an early asset. "You get older and you kind of leave the fickle element behind," Stentz said.
The band toured with larger L.A. acts such as Best Coast and Father John Misty, but took its time writing and recording "El Prado" at home and in a rented Big Bear cabin. They fielded numerous offers from across the label spectrum, choosing the Toronto label Arts & Crafts, which had success in breaking major indie acts like Broken Social Scene and Stars. The label discovered them at NO's first sold-out Troubadour show.
"NO's music struck a chord with our entire team. They have great knack for melody and emotive lyrics," said Kieran Roy, Arts & Crafts' co-owner. "If Los Angeles had a real winter, this would make a great soundtrack. It's not the classic California sound that first comes to mind, but perhaps this is the sound of modern L.A. "
"El Prado" is indeed a record about a time and place in L.A. Yet the neighborhood it evokes is different now than it was at the time they wrote it. Echo Park rents are all but unaffordable for broke rockers. Young bands today are faster, drunker and scuzzier, or they aren't bands at all — they're laptop projects that emerge with fully-formed hit singles. Like the dance-punk coming from Manhattan's Lower East Side in the early 2000s, "El Prado" documents a slice of a neighborhood's musical life just as it's becoming something else.
"We've got friends all around the world now, but there would be nights where I'd sit at home and be like 'Man, I've got absolutely no friends tonight,'" Carter said. "Eh, it is what it is. We really live here and never aligned ourselves with Echo Park to be fashionable or anything. We have a photo of Taco Zone on our album cover, but I'm sure if we started the band now the record would be about us living in Boyle Heights or something."
They also admit that the landscape for new rock bands has changed dramatically, even since those heady 2011 shows. It's a risky time to tour as a six-piece indie rock act of thirtysomethings more interested in gloomy self-reflection than, say, the synthy kick of Foster the People. "We really should have written songs that two people could play on a keyboard," Carter joked. But the band takes the shifting terrain as a challenge.
"It's an exciting time. Some bands pop up and last, some do a residency and don't do anything afterward, and some bands are already beyond that point by the time they start playing out," Stentz said. "There's no prescribed way to do anything anymore."
The Troubadour show kicks off a long round of touring that will give NO an idea of what awaits an L.A. band with no pre-established path to indie success anymore. Carter's seen the highs and low of what that life can offer. NO knows it can always come home to El Prado, but for now, the drinks taste better on tour.
"We were playing this festival in Holland on the main stage where you could see the ocean, and I remember looking across this crazy stage and seeing all the guys there and thinking how nice this was," Carter said. "We used to just get a case of PBR. Now sometimes, we get one whole bottle of whiskey."
NO with the Darcys, Reuben and the Dark
Where: Troubadour, 9081 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood
When: 8 p.m. Sat.