Mazzy Star: Shining ‘Brightly’ : The personal visions of David Roback and Hope Sandoval have fueled a fast-moving album on the alternative-rock charts
Yes, Hope Sandoval, the slender, soft-spoken singer of the L.A. rock group Mazzy Star, has heard all the comparisons between the Cowboy Junkies, a critic’s choice in 1988, and her group, a critic’s favorite in 1990.
Mazzy Star’s “She Hangs Brightly” is one of the year’s strongest debuts--already in the Top 10 on the CMJ New Music Report survey of college and alternative-rock radio station play lists.
But Sandoval just doesn’t see much connection between the austere, country-accented blues of her band and the austere, country-accented blues of the Junkies.
“I feel what they are doing has been done. . . . That whole folk approach,” she said somewhat curtly during a recent interview in a modest, Fairfax area restaurant. “I think (we’re) a lot more rock ‘n’ roll.”
If influences must be found, the dark-haired singer said, look to the Rolling Stones--not to that group’s flashy, bad-boy side, but the more soulful, blues-minded strains of such songs as “Love in Vain,” which Sandoval heard on a live Stones album as a teen-ager and has prized ever since.
Across the patio table, David Roback, the other half of Mazzy Star, smiled as he listened to the talk about influences. He apparently found it amusing that he has spent the last decade trying to find his own musical voice and now people are trying to categorize it.
“I’ve never even heard the Cowboy Junkies record,” he said. “But then, I don’t listen to a lot of contemporary music. I kind of purposely try to avoid it because I don’t want to be influenced by it. I prefer the Rip Van Winkle approach to art.”
This deliberate distance from the contemporary pop scene contributed to Roback’s being a somewhat elusive figure on the L.A. rock scene since the early ‘80s.
Inspired by the poetry of Patti Smith and the independence of such ‘60s rock figures as John Lennon and Syd Barrett, Roback has followed his own musical instincts to a remarkable degree in an era when so many bands are little more than clones of last week’s hitmakers.
“I felt like a punk,” he said of his early interest in rock. “That’s the attitude I identified with. But when I picked up the guitar and started playing it, the music didn’t come out sounding punk. It was something else. . . ..”
Roback’s journey to find his own style has stretched from New York to Berkeley, through a series of bands--including one with former Bangle Susanna Hoffs.
He formed Rain Parade, one of the key band’s in L.A.'s much publicized “paisley underground” scene of the early ‘80s, but then left it after one album and “retired” to Berkeley to work on music away from the commercial pressures of the Southern California pop scene.
After a few years in another band, Opal, with former Dream Syndicate bassist Kendra Smith, guitarist Roback teamed up with Sandoval and formed Mazzy Star.
The clearest link between Mazzy Star and the Cowboy Junkies is the sparse, understated music of the Velvet Underground. But the more significant tie may be the way both groups are the result of a personal vision that has been nurtured for years.
Just as Roback went in and out of several bands while developing his sound, the Junkies’ Michael Timmins moved through a series of strikingly different styles, from the severe intensity of England’s Joy Division, improvisational jazz, some Delta blues and, finally, some softer, Waylon Jennings-style country.
Each step of the way, Timmins and Roback seemed to reach deeper into themselves, stripping away filters from their emotions to offer a musical sound that is disarmingly honest.
Each guitarist, too, was lucky to find a female singer who conveyed in both voice and lyrics the rich emotional strains to perfectly accompany the purity of his vision.
Timmins found his band’s voice in his sister, Margo, while Roback found Sandoval singing in a duo, Going Home, while she was still attending Mark Keppel High School in Alhambra.
There’s one difference, however, between Timmins and Roback. Where Timmins went to New York from his native Toronto to pursue music, L.A.-native Roback went to New York to become a painter.
“I went to New York mainly to be part of the art scene,” said Roback, outlining his own story. “But I gradually found myself getting more inspired by what was happening in music than in art. . . . People like Patti Smith and Television.”
Returning to the West Coast in the late ‘70s, he joined a band in Berkeley with Hoffs--an old schoolmate from Palisades High School in Los Angeles--called the Unconscious. But he soon left it. “She was more into the pop side of things,” he said, “and I . . . Well, I don’t know what I was looking for. . . . Something more serious, I guess.”
The line could sound biting, but Roback said it in a way that didn’t declare value judgments on different pop intentions. There was even a touch of self-deprecating humor--as if he were merely a victim of the some all-powerful rock ‘n’ roll muse.
Roback moved back to Los Angeles, where such bands as X and the Blasters were building a punk/new wave scene that was even more active than what he had seen in New York.
“When I started playing music, it came out sounding very psychedelic for whatever reason,” he said, explaining the reason for Rain Parade’s “paisley” connections. “I guess it was just what I grew up liking. The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix were the best groups for me. . . . The late Beatles more than the early Beatles--their message, the whole political and spiritual involvement.”
Though Rain Parade generated considerable attention around town, Roback, who sang in the group, left it after the first album because, he said, he could see the limits of the group. He wanted something more challenging. He also felt uncomfortable being lumped into the L.A. neo-psychedelic scene and returned to Berkeley.
About the move to Berkeley, he recalled, “I was very idealistic. I thought I would retire and make music on my own, not be part of any scene. It didn’t seem all that radical because my heroes had done it--people like John Lennon and Syd Barrett--at certain points in their lives.
“I didn’t feel the acceptance or attention was important to me. I wanted to make music that I felt and if people liked it, fine, otherwise the music would be enough reward.”
He found in Kendra Smith someone with similar views, and they started recording together. “There was a sense of beauty about getting away,” he said of the time. “We were poor, very poor, but it didn’t really affect our ability to live the kind of life we were living because all we wanted was some empty rooms and some instruments and some paper. We owned our lives and it was a wonderful time. I’m glad we did it.”
Finally, Smith and Roback decided to play live, and that’s what led to Opal, a group whose restrained yet passionate sound was a link between the Velvet Underground and Mazzy Star.
While on tour in 1986 with the Jesus and Mary Chain, Smith left Opal and Roback asked Sandoval to take her place. Mazzy Star was born two years later.
If Roback does 90% of the talking in interviews, it’s not because he’s trying to take all the credit for Mazzy Star. It’s just that Sandoval, who writes most of the lyrics, is so reserved. She must have said a total of 20 words in response to a dozen questions.
Sandoval, who is in her early 20s, doesn’t like to explain her lyrics--which often revolve around desire and doubts in relationships--any more than she talks in detail about her background. She does say she was born in East Los Angeles, where her parents worked in a factory and she was the youngest of 10 children.
She also said she started listening to the Stones when she was about 13 and admired Keith Richards’ guitar playing so much that she began playing guitar herself. But her main interest was singing, appearing at small clubs around Los Angeles in the early ‘80s with the duo Going Home.
Her shyness during the interview eventually led Roback to begin sounding more like a manager or a publicist than a musical partner.
“I think Hope deserves a lot of attention,” he said. “I think she is a great singer and a great songwriter. When I first heard her, I though she could be someone like Bob Dylan, someone who could speak for a lot of people her age.”
If she felt uncomfortable talking about themes, Roback finally offered an interpretation of Mazzy Star’s music.
“I see a lot of hope in her songs,” he said. “It’s like that movie . . . ‘A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.’ Something nice can come out of a very caustic environment. . . . Something that tells you all isn’t lost.”
Roback paused, as if reflecting on his own, long musical journey.
“At times, I felt like the music world was on a dead-end street, that everyone was simply rehashing the same old ideas. . . . But rock is still a potentially great art form.
“No matter how down you are, there may be a light in a song that gives you strength . . . something spiritually regenerating. To me, that’s the goal of a musician--to find that light.”