Bands on the brink

Times Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES has no “music scene.” It has a bazillion niches populated by musicians of every stripe who cultivate their small followings and clamor for more attention, all in the shadow of a music industry that magnifies the line between commerce and art.

Myriad sensibilities abound. What’s cool on the Sunset Strip might be crass in Silver Lake; what rocks Orange County might earn shrugs in Hollywood; what’s hip in Long Beach might be harlequin in the Valley.

Mine those nooks and crannies and you might find the next great L.A. band, or at least an artist appealing enough to get you off the couch and into any of the more than 150 Southland clubs where, on a given night, 300-plus acts take the stage.


Here we profile seven acts -- some new, some not-so-new, all just hitting their stride -- whose distinctive take on their respective styles figures to earn them wider notice. Plus, we offer a batch of up-and-comers soon to show up on the radar of music fans.

The harvest of 2005, in no particular order:


Silversun Pickups

File under: Indie heroes

This is what indie rock aspires to: originality where seemingly every chord has been played, familiarity where appropriation of the past is scorned and audacity where innate self-consciousness rules.

Five years after their jokey beginnings in Silver Lake, the Silversun Pickups (named for the liquor store on Sunset Boulevard) have arrived, making rock that exposes and tweaks nerves that have been anaesthetized by music television, corporate radio and hipster fashion.

The quartet, already a veteran of hundreds of club shows ranging from transcendent to train wreck, recently released its first proper recording, the 35-minute EP “Pikul,” on independent Dangerbird Records. With an album expected in 2006, the mounting attention is daunting for front man Brian Aubert, who acknowledges SSPU was “in a way, birthed from knowing what we don’t like.”

A demo tape sent on a lark to New York in 2000 earned the original SSPU lineup (Aubert, bassist Nikki Monninger and their respective love interests at the time) a spot in the CMJ New Music Festival, a national showcase. It was not pretty. But the band started getting gigs in the months after its return.

“Sometimes you need things to push you into things. We never had any goals for the band, none at all. Somehow, we got support, and not just from our friends in the [Silver Lake] scene,” says Aubert, 31, mentioning club bookers Mitchell Frank and Jennifer Tefft, of Spaceland, and Scott Sterling, of the multi-venue promotions firm the Fold. “They give bands chances. Everything has happened organically. Slowly we started to see it, to take it seriously.... And now, to us, we’ve hit it rich -- we sit there and giggle and high-five. There are all these people with all these career ideas, but you make the music the way it is.”

SSPU’s sprawling rock songs, which faintly echo the Smashing Pumpkins because of Aubert’s pinched vocals, swell and recede over Monninger’s fat, rolling bass-lines. Aubert keeps his lyrics abstract and his guitar tones painterly -- gentle, then fuzzy, then convulsive. Joe Lester’s loopy keyboards give the Pickups a spacey feel; Christopher Guanlao’s punk-rock drumming shows they mean business. The songs, to borrow an old title, explode and then make up.

“I love to build things on top of one another. I love things that sound geometrically broken and then beautiful,” says Aubert. “But it’s just music. I’m not a rocket scientist.”

Recommended: Stream “Kissing Families” at


The 88

File under: Stylish power pop

For all his chops as a songwriter, Keith Slettedahl is pretty rough on himself. “The hard part is knowing deep down that we’re really not improving on anything,” says the front man of the L.A. quintet the 88. “I mean, I sit in my room and write songs. I’m obsessed with it. It’s something I’ve always done.... But my life is changing. I’m getting married, and I worry, ‘Are we going to have this life?’ ”

He’s talking about life as a struggling musician, which, for now, includes such mundane duties as passing out fliers and sample CDs outside local clubs. It’s no way for a 32-year-old singer-guitarist to spend his evenings. But Slettedahl knows it is penance for being a late bloomer, a chunk of his 20s having been clouded by drug problems.

With last week’s release of the band’s sophomore album, “Over and Over,” however, the 88’s outlook figures to brighten. The album is a follow-up to 2003’s “Kind of Light,” a do-it-yourself affair produced by keyboardist Adam Merrin. It netted a flurry of TV and movie placements, including a song on “The O.C.,” and landed the fivesome on “The Jimmy Kimmel Show.” Between their cathartic pop and their penchant for getting all decked out in suits for shows, they became L.A. club favorites.

Besides, maybe they are improving on something. Blessed with a troubadour’s nice-guy tenor, Slettedahl packs all manner of hooks, changes-of-pace and irresistible subterfuge into his new songs. Merrin, guitarist Brandon Jay, bassist Carlos Torres and drummer Anthony Zimmitti keep up with almost mathematical precision, and Ethan Allen’s production helps it sound as crisp as a Santa Ana breeze. It’s not the Kinks, or Beatles, or Todd Rundgren, but droplets of all those, distilled into something distinctly 88.

But if they take anything from those influences, says Merrin, who met Slettedahl at Calabasas High, “it’s how they went about things -- they didn’t make any concessions to what was cool at the time.”

Artistically, that vision has paid off. Career-wise, well, the 88 are still waiting for that first dinner with major-label executives -- after all, pop musicians aren’t necessarily hot commodities once they’re out of their 20s. But perhaps “Over and Over” will prove irresistible. Says Slettedahl: “We’ve always had that little-band-that-could mentality.”

Recommended: Stream the video for “Hide Another Mistake” at


Richard Swift

File under: The storyteller

Richard Swift makes the kind of music Randy Newman might if Burt Bacharach was standing over his shoulder and imploring him not to sound so much like Randy Newman. His mini-albums “The Novelist” and “Walking Without Effort” -- just released as “The Richard Swift Collection, Vol. 1” on independent label Secretly Canadian -- are, to alliterate, haunting, heartbreaking and heady.

Some major-label scouts think so too, but Swift -- who describes his upbringing as “almost Quaker” and spent his teenage years working on a farm near International Falls, Minn. -- has opted for the slow track, fearing any corporate alliances would jeopardize the intensely personal nature of this music.

“I would have ended up on a treadmill,” he says, adding dryly: “I might have had to cut and straighten my hair.”

Instead, the 28-year-old father of three -- and owner of a foreboding helmet of curly hair Art Garfunkel would envy -- assembled a talented group of musicians, including keyboardist Byron Hagan, drummer Rich Young, guitarist Erick Cole and bassist Elijah Thomson, and took his show on the road. Onstage, in a dark suit and sneakers, the Fullerton resident cuts a stark figure, segueing from number to number with little more than a deadpanned “Thank you for applauding.”

The focus is clearly his earnest music, some of which sounds as if it should be spitting out of a Victrola. During the year he spent in Starflyer 59, bandmates joshed that Swift’s solo material was “monkey music” -- old-timey, organ-grinder fare more suited to vaudeville.

“Certainly with ‘The Novelist’ I almost wanted to make the music anti-pristine,” Swift says of his concept album, which he says “subconsciously ended up being about Jonathan Swift,” the 18th century writer to whom Richard can trace his lineage. “I wanted to tell a story, in a specific way. And I wanted it to sound like the internal machinery that’s going on inside me.”

That machinery will produce a new record, “Dressed Up for the Letdown,” next year.

Recommended: Stream “Losing Sleep” at


The Breakestra

File under: Fresh old funk

Funk never died. It merely spent years gathering cobwebs, or languishing in record bins, waiting for crate diggers to appropriate it for hip-hop. Now thanks to the L.A. collective the Breakestra, there’s something fresh: “Hit the Floor” (due Oct. 25 on Costa Mesa-based Ubiquity Records). Chances are the 8-year-old group’s first album of original material will appeal to more than the folks whom mastermind Miles Tackett calls “vinyl archeologists.”

Coalescing out of Tackett’s weekly club nights called the Breaks, and then the Rootdown, his rotating cast of players gained notoriety for their covers and their jams. Says Tackett: “I was lucky to have a lot of musicians to draw from.” With the completion last year of his own studio behind his Highland Park home, Tackett, 36, finally had the creative space he needed.

“We tried to keep the same approach to recording -- raw,” says Tackett, the multi-instrumentalist son of Little Feat guitarist Fred Tackett.

And if creating original material was an acknowledged “leap” for a man who reveres back-in-the-day sounds such as Kool & the Gang, the Meters and Sly & the Family Stone, putting words to that music represented a steep growth curve for singer Mixmaster Wolf too. After all, his experience was as an MC.

“Singing, his voice has a different quality, a different character,” Tackett says.

“Something about my personality intensified,” says the man born Darryl Jackson, 32, almost amazed at his own soulful exuberance. “This is stuff I always wanted to do but never thought I’d be able to.”

In a perfect world, a track such as the horn-heavy “Don’t Need a Dance” might already be blaring over the airwaves, even with its veiled lyrical reference to radio programming: “Change the channel and clear the air / Time to get ... up off that chair.” Now that’d be something.

On the Web:


The Willowz

File under: Rock of all ages

How much is too much? Don’t ask Richie James Follin. The singer-guitarist and his bandmates in the Willowz crammed 20 songs onto “Talk in Circles,” the Orange County quartet’s album on the Sympathy for the Record Industry label.

“We took advantage of the fact we were on an independent,” says Follin, 22. “We could have narrowed it down to the songs that sounded the same, but we didn’t know what [kind of sound] we were going for.”

So echoes of ‘60s pop, ‘70s R&B;, vintage punk and classic rock can all be detected in the youthful clamor that emerged from Follin’s Anaheim garage, where producer Paul Kostabi, Follin’s stepfather, wisely ignored the rough edges. The Willowz’s workhorse bent --did we mention they’re making videos for all 20 songs? -- seems to be unanimous. “I like to work a lot,” says bassist Jessica Reynoza, 22. “That’s my mentality.”

The band, which includes guitarist-keyboardist Dan Lowe, 23, and drummer Alex Nowicki, 19, also hungers to learn. Follin has been mainlining the Sun box set, the Band and bootleg Bob Dylan, and on a recent tour he visited Stax Records. “It made me want to cry,” he says.

Label scouts should line up to sign such prospects. But perhaps the Willowz’s manager (Follin’s mother, Heidi, who was Dee Dee Ramone’s art dealer and once dated Henry Rollins), has infused her charges with a DIY attitude. “A&R; people are good for buying you dinner and B.S.-ing you,” Follin says. “We’re not worried about any of that crap -- it’s not like we’re inventing a new way of doing things.”

Right now, the Willowz brim with the bravado that their music might reach the public’s ears without a major label’s backing. “Young minds can be molded,” drummer Nowicki says, slowly, so that you connect the comment and the source. “And that’s what I look to do.”

Recommended: Stream “Unveil” and “Cons & Tricks” at


Giant Panda

File under: Under the rainbow

Like many of its brethren on the burgeoning indie hip-hop scene, Giant Panda is a throwback to when rap was more about poetic expression than bluster and the crass commercialism that crowds the gangsta scene.

With its b-boy beats and straightforward production, the L.A. trio’s debut full-length, “Fly School Reunion,” is at least offering the group -- a rainbow coalition of black, white and Japanese members all in their late 20s -- an education. It was released on Tres Records, the indie launched by a member of Giant Panda, a friend and Chris Portugal (aka Thes One) of the L.A. outfit People Under the Stairs.

If the track “90’s” gives you an idea of where they’re coming from, songs such as “Fly School” and “One Time” (with its raps segueing from English to Chikara Kurahashi’s native Japanese) attest that there are messages behind Giant Panda’s madness. “There’s always plenty to say -- how to make it swallowable, that’s the navigation,” says Jamaan McLaren.

Adds Alex Newman: “How do you say it in a way that’s not utterly cliche?

“Sometimes making a good song is not that complicated, once you realize you don’t have to solve the problems of the world in one verse.”

The trio, who met as students at Pitzer College, have hopes “Fly School Reunion” will make an impact when it is picked up by Koch Distribution for wider release in November.

Recommended: Stream “With It” at


The Aggrolites

File under: A punker shade of reggae

This is not your ganja’s reggae. No, the Aggrolites’ take on the genre is all funked up and all punked up, forming its blueprint from Lee “Scratch” Perry and the Upsetters and juicing it with soul and R&B; to make it mosh-pit-friendly. No wonder the L.A. five-piece calls its debut album “Dirty Reggae.”

Formed from the shards of other reggae acts, the Aggrolites were launched as a cover band. “But what started out as fun turned out to be serious,” singer-guitarist Jesse Wagner says. “We pretty much had an album ready about the time we started doing live shows.”

And what shows those are. Clad in jumpsuits -- the back of Wagner’s says “Roots Rock Rebel,” a nod to the Clash -- the group leads sweaty sing-alongs, whether it’s to the Aggrolites’ own ditty “Pop the Trunk” or their tight-as-a-fist cover of “Don’t Let Me Down.”

“My dream is to bring the punk-rock scene back to reggae,” bassist J Bonner says. “About every 10 years a band comes along and re-introduces Jamaican music to the masses. I want this band to be the shoehorn for people to get into that old stuff.”

The Aggrolites -- including organist Roger Rivas, guitarist Brian Dixon and drummer Jason Castillo -- might get the chance. They are finalizing a deal this week with Hellcat Records, the Epitaph-affiliated imprint of Rancid’s Tim Armstrong. A follow-up to “Dirty Reggae,” which Wagner says was written “in about 10 hours” during a wee-hours session at a Hollywood studio, is due in 2006.

Recommended: Stream the video for “Pop the Trunk” at



Bands to watch: ’06

Seven bands whose shows and/or early recordings make them artists to track next year:

Cold War Kids: In recent club shows and on a homemade EP, Jonnie Bo Russell’s stabbing riffs and Nathan Willett’s pained vocals augur greatness for this potent Orange County quartet.

Lavender Diamond: This L.A. quartet, built around the pristine vocals of Becky Stark, has self-released an EP, “The Cavalry of Light.” It’s pop to dream to.

American Eyes: Capable of mosh-worthy punk, searing metal and edgy dance-rock, the David Henry-fronted L.A. quintet is already a big draw in Hollywood.

Great Northern: Great promise from the project fronted by Solon Bixler and Rachel Stolte, and part of the Ship Collective, a fraternity of groups that record at the Eagle Rock studio the Ship.

Foreign Born: There’s a touch of ‘80s revivalism, and hints of more, on this Los Angeles quartet’s “In the Remote Woods” EP.

Agent Sparks: On its new EP, “Not So Merry,” the L.A. quartet featuring the vocals of Ben Einziger and Stephanie Eitel (with production by Ben’s brother, Incubus’ Mike Einziger) blends the sound of Pixies influences and punk referents.

Takota: The Orange County quintet fronted by vocalist Grant Arnow has some metal aspirations and some pop sensibilities.



10 More Homegrown Artists You Ought to Know

Giant Drag

Album: “Hearts and Unicorns” (Kickball/Interscope), released Sept. 13

At once waif-like and irascible, 24-year-old Annie Hardy packs a punch, from her gauzy guitar tones to her arresting stage presence to her potty mouth. On “Hearts,” Hardy and drummer Micah Calabrese (who sometimes plays keyboards left-handed) only modestly advance their 2004 EP, which made the L.A. duo underground favorites. But Hardy’s serrated worldview, perfect for an age when everything, and nothing, is ironic, figures to win legions of fans.

Recommended: Stream or watch the video for “This Isn’t It” at


Go Betty Go

Album: “Nothing Is More” (SideOneDummy), Sept. 13

Latina quartet with roots in Glendale segues effortlessly from English to Spanish and infuses its barbed pop-punk with all the requisite ‘tude. It’s working-class rock, delivered with undeniable charm, from guitarist Betty Cisneros’ shredding to Nicolette Vilar’s vocals. And “I’m From L.A.” is a soundtrack to showing up late for a date.

On the Web:


Inara George

Album: “All Rise” (Everloving), Jan. 25

The 30-year-old Topanga native’s musings on life and love harbor some nifty surprises -- she opens with “Mistress” on her debut. So effortless is her storytelling and so understated the arrangements, it’s as if she’s already wrestled her demons, and won. That’s poise, folks.

Recommended: Stream “No Poem” using the pop-up radio at


The Vacation

Album: “Band From World War Zero” (Echo), April 26

Their visceral, extend-the-index-finger-and-pinkie rock is nothing L.A. hasn’t seen before, but the fact that the quartet tacitly acknowledges their forerunners -- and even thumbs their noses at their dangerous proximity to parody -- is part of the appeal. Rail-thin front man Ben Tegel is a dervish, prancing amid a shower of sweat and beer. C'mon, Axl, you wish you wrote “Destitute Prostitutes.”

Recommended: Stream “White Noise” at


400 Blows

Album: “Angel’s Trumpet and Devil’s Trombones” (Gold Standard Labs), May 10

Maybe the best punk band in Los Angeles, and -- considering how the term has been vitiated by commercialism -- perhaps one of the only ones. This trio makes concessions to nothing. Skot Alexander shrieks over atonal blasts from guitarist Christian Wabschall, and drummer Ferdinand Cudia assaults the senses and stiffens the spine.

On the Web:, or stream “The Beauty of Internal Darkness” at


Dios (Malos)

Album: “Dios (Malos)” (Startime/Vagrant), due Oct. 11

Hawthorne quartet, already veterans of Coachella, follows up their uneven but engaging 2004 debut with an album of smart, sensitive-guy pop, stirring Britpop and rootsier elements into a retro psychedelic stew.

Recommended: Stream “I Want It All,” at


Bleed the Dream

Album: “Built by Blood” (Warcon), April 26

This Orange County quartet soldiered through the year despite the April death (of leukemia) of drummer Scott Gottlieb, who provided tracks on the record between chemotherapy sessions. Behind the screams of Brandon Thomas, Dave Aguilera leads a relentless guitar-and-rhythm attack that never overwhelms its melodic sensibility.

Recommended: Stream “Legends Die” at



Album: “Let Me Come Home” (Doghouse), Aug. 9

With its second album since transmuting into alt-country rockers, the O.C. quartet has achieved a winsome twang that acknowledges both where it’s from and where its tour van has taken it. Imagine the Jayhawks being embraced by metal-minded suburban kids -- that’s the audience Robb MacLean’s heartfelt songwriting has won.

On the Web: or stream “Home Is Where the Van Is” at


The Like

Album: “Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking?” (Geffen), Sept. 13

The young trio, whose fathers have music-industry resumes, has followed up a batch of self-released EPs with an album of mostly bouncy and sometimes poignant pop bouquets, seemingly all ready for radio. Just wait till life calluses songwriter Z Berg a little bit.

Recommended: Watch the video for “What I Say and What I Mean” at


Chris Pierce

Album: “Static Trampoline” (Prana), Sept. 13

The native son appears just about ready to take his soul singing beyond the coffeehouses: He recently toured as Seal’s opening act, and his album was picked up by an indie label for wider release this month.

Recommended: Stream “Are You Beautiful” using the pop-up radio at

Kevin Bronson


Kevin Bronson, who writes the weekly Buzz Bands column for Weekend, can be reached at